Saturday, October 13, 2007

The European Dream Part Six - Wine, Cheese, and Monkeys

Just sat down here in the coffee bar after adjudicating the Star Seekers talent show, where the passengers perform for their piers and the shot at getting a contract with NCL. Tonight we had a lot of singers, a classical guitarist, and some stand up comics… Pretty standard fare considering some of the other things I have seen (guy playing a saw, girl clogging, guy dressed as Dorothy staggering drunk around the stage). Supposedly, if what Denny our cruise director says is true, a lawyer came on board a few years ago, did some stand up comedy, and is now performing under contract with NCL. Sounds good, especially since lawyers don’t make much money anyway… wait a second…

Its dark outside and there are some small swells in the sea tonight. Tomorrow morning we will arrive in Barcelona, disembark some passengers and pick up some more and make our way across the Atlantic. Still seems like I just got here, but I am coming down to my last couple of weeks. After hitting some ports around Spain we’ll chug across the Atlantic for six days, which is loads better than 11 hours and three in flight movies.

So, when we last spoke I had told you about the first half of my Mediterranean journey, where I explored the better halves of France, Portugal, and Spain. After Spain we hoped over to Gibraltar, where I had seen briefly the night I sailed through the straight on the Silver Cloud. Well, this time they didn’t see me coming, and they let me on the island.

You can see the rock from anywhere on the island (except I suppose when your standing at the top… unless you look down… but that would be making it too complicated). The general population is around 30,000 people, but it swells due to commuters and tourists. Spain is just a bridge away, but the island is under the umbrella of the United Kingdom. So, you need the British Pound, not the Euro… however you drive on the right, not the left, just to make things easier for the commuters. From the top of the rock you can catch a glimpse of Morocco as well. Basically it’s a very well traveled piece of land.

From the ship Tracey and I braved the rain down the usual cobblestone shopping district that I have seen in many, if not all, of the ports. At the risk of being redundant, here’s a picture…

Now, I really had no preconceived notions about the island… just what I told you above. So, when I found out that there is a huge population of monkeys on the rock, I was interested. A short taxi ride out of the heart of the city brings you to a gondola, and no surprise here, the gondola takes you up to the top of the mountain. There are signs everywhere at the base, in the gondola, and once you arrive warning you about feeding the monkeys, touching the monkeys, and most notably plastic bags. Monkeys see the plastic bags as potential for carrying food, and will spare no time in attempting to rip the bag out of your hand.

And I am not saying this because I heard so… Villam joined us for the rock and monkeys (Rock and Monkeys is my new band) and he happened to have just visited the grocery store. So he was carrying his bag at his side, walking up the steps outside the gondola… Unbeknownst to Villam a monkey was waiting around the corner. All I heard was the scream of the lady in front of me and the tussle of Villam struggling to tear the bag away from the hungry monkey. In the end we had one ripped bag, the mouthwash inside still intact and with its rightful owner, a dejected monkey, and one lady constantly checking over her shoulder.

Once at the top we were greeted by an observatory deck, with awesome views of the island, Spain, and Morocco…

Oh, and a whole bunch of monkeys… Here are some pictures of real live monkeys, not in cages, and just monkeying around…

So we watched the monkeys, took some pictures with the monkeys (Tracey has one of me and a monkey that I need to get), admired the ocean view, and came back down the rock. Then it was a race to get back to the ship for all aboard, making it just in time to see a line half an hour long stretching out of the embarkation building. Turns out that security in Gibraltar is no joke. We weren’t looking forward to waiting in line, so when one of the Shore Ex girls saw us, she marched us to the front of the line… “Official cruise ship business” I said to no one in particular as we dodged a wait that rivaled an airport during Christmas.

Then two sea days came and went. While I had great aspirations of writing the next great American novel, I have resigned to kicking back and enjoying the time to myself. Play a little guitar, go to the gym, watch some movies… Just a whole lotta nothing. And I needed the rest because Italy was just around the corner.

Out next port of call was Civitavecchia, Italy. I had been here before on the Silver Cloud, and just walked around the city. This time I hopped on a crew shuttle and headed towards the Eternal City… Rome. After a hour and a half we arrived, and the bus dropped us off in the middle of the Vatican City.
It was 10:45, and we had to be back on the bus at 2:30. First things first… went to one of the dozens of stands there and got some lemon gelato. The pope would have wanted me to do so, had he been there. While there I hooked up with some of my buddies, and after snapping some pictures of the Vatican we headed over to the Metro and rode it to the Coliseum. I had been to Italy about ten years ago, and spent a few days in Rome, and I gotta say, everything looks the same. All the ruins and still pretty much ruined. Here’s the Coliseum…

Did some walking around, taking some pictures… My buddy Michael told me that upon closer inspection of some of the graffiti on the walls he saw “Hook em’ Horns” etched into the rock, which was later scratched out and “Gig ‘em Aggies” written next to it. Unfortunately due to time constraints we were unable to go inside, but it’s still very impressive to see something like that up close. When it was built some thirty years ago, it had all kinds of statues on it, and gold inlays… throughout the years it has all been stolen. Plus, at one point when Rome was a city on the move (I’m sure along some of the more well traveled chariot-ways they had billboards that read “If you lived in Rome, you’d be home by now.”) they used the brick from the Coliseum to build other structures throughout the city.

And did you know that besides the usual “feed the slaves to the lion” and “lets watch the gladiators fight the slaves” games they would actually flood the center and make the slaves have full scale naval battles. Now, I’m not saying having slaves is a good thing, but I’d pay to see that… Okay okay… only if they used Nerf swords and cannonballs… but no helmets or knee pads… those are for sissies and momma’s boys… and the first thousand people through the voms get a free toga with famous gladiator sports figures on them… And people would walk up and down selling olives and wine and stuff… Man, that would be great… yeah, naval battles at the Coliseum.

From there we headed into the Circus Maximus, looking at a stretch of columns and the remains of building where a bunch of decisions were made.

Then it was some nose following through the city, taking pictures of buildings, statues, and columns… Yeah, looking at my pictures, they all start to look the same… but at that moment in time it’s all pretty astounding. After another stop for gelato, we made it to Trevy fountain. Its pretty much famous because it’s been in a few movies, and there were lots of people there throwing one or two coins in (one to come back, and two to come back married… I just threw in four or five, just to see what would happen… The next day I had five Belizean orphans sharing my cabin with me… Now that’s Unbelizeable.) and snapping pictures. Since I like to conform…

Then it was off to eat some anchovy pizza and drink some Chianti. With bellies full and cameras out of juice, we hoofed it back to the bus, and back to the ship. Oh, and unlike Paris, Rome gave us beautiful weather… See Paris? You should take example from your older brother… Now go outside and the two of you play nice.

The following day we landed in Livorno, Italy, which by itself is nothing to write home about. But from the train station you can get to Pisa in about twenty minutes, an Florence in another hour. After much deliberation, I decided to go to Florence, as I had heard that Piza isn’t as scenic aside from the Leaning Tower. The Dream had boat drill that day, and since I had no reason to stay on board (good ol’ passenger status) I headed out on my own. Caught the 9 AM train, and arrived in Florence around 10:30. Map in hand and not a drop of rain to be seen, I started exploring.

Huh, whaddaya know… street with buildings. First stop was the Duomo de something or other. Basically it’s a huge cathedral that’s white and green.

Walked around it for a bit. The entrance was closed for some reason, although later I found out that shorts are not allowed inside. I considered honoring their rules and taking them off, but I didn’t want to carry them around, and you know all the stuff’s gonna fall out of the pockets, so I didn’t go in. Then I pointed myself to the Galleria Dell Accademia, where they got that big ol’ statue of David.

Once I got there I found a striking similarity between the Statue of David and the line to get inside… neither of them move… I made that up myself… So, unfortunately I did not get to go inside, so here are some alternatives… First off…
Here’s a poster of David.

Here’s the actual statue of David as seen through the glass doors in which people exit the museum from.

Here’s a replica outside a church in a square that I wandered too. Not sure of it’s age or sculptor, but it is the same size… which by the way is much bigger than I expected. Tooled around the square for a bit, then made my way to the canal.

Later I found out that the building on that particular bridge is famous for something. I don’t know what… but in order to lead you to believe that I actually did learn something, let me make something up… That building is where the world record for consecutive hiccups occurred. Over four months and 300,000 hiccups later, Giovanni Bucello set the record, won the respect of Firenze, and the hearts of a nation.

From there I had about an hour before my train, so I wandered back to the station, stopping at a pizzeria for a slice and some wine, then over to a bakery for a cannoli and some espresso.

My friends, it doesn’t get any better than this… Unless I was eating it at the Coliseum during a rousing Naval Nerf match. I do have to say that in comparison, Florence is a much prettier city than Rome. While Rome has the antiquities, Florence has the Italian charm… lots of squares, parks, restaurants, bakeries… you could spend several days there just exploring and relaxing. You don’t feel compelled to rush from spot to spot to take it all in… and unlike Rome, all the buildings are still put together.

Once on the 2:30 train I figured that I would head straight back to Livorno in order to not miss the ship. I would get there at 4:00 and board the ship around 4:20, and since all aboard was 5:30 I figured that would be cutting it close enough. Once onboard the train, I started into conversation with some pax from the ship, also returning from Florence. They said that they were going to Pisa, and that I ought to join them. By doing the math, we would have an hour to get out of the train station, catch a cab, take in the tower, get back in the cab, and make it to our platform to catch the next train to Livorno. This would put us in Livorno at 5:00, giving me half an hour to get onboard. After much consideration, I decided that my job was just a sliver less important than seeing a tower with lasting effects from a childhood ear infection.

Well, what can I say… caught a cab, went to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, took some pictures, got back in the cab, and made it back to the train station. We somehow got the only cab in Livorno to make it back to the ship with twenty minutes to spare. All in all, we spent a whopping ten minutes at the tower. Still, better than not making it there at all. And now the bounty of my trip.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you, I did not take a picture of me holding up the Leaning Tower. No, that would be trite. Instead… well… let me start at the beginning. Some time last Spring, when I was enjoying all the things that Mexico had to offer, I realized that I was getting a striking tan line, making the phrase “where the sun don’t shine” become all the more real. So, every now and then you would find my ebony and ivory in random pictures. Maybe one here on the beach, one there backstage… Just as a gag. Before long, my buddies were getting in on the action, displaying white cheeks en masse. One such famous photo contains six of us on a bridge in Belize, all pointing towards the sky, while the center of attention is not up, butt rather down.

Jump to Paris, France, where I was inspired. Maybe as a stark opposition to France’s grand phallic statement to the rest of the world, maybe because my dramatic muse decided to amuse itself… nah… I just wanted a picture of my butt with the Eiffel tower. So, with pants down and hands on my hips, I snap a picture… or rather someone else does. Don’t worry, we had known each other for a few days or so. This continues at the Coliseum, where I once again immortalize a national monument. So, why would I take a picture of me holding up the Leaning Tower? Everyone’s does that…

I only bring this up because I was not with my usual group in Pisa… just with some pax that I had met on the train. I had mentioned it to one of them… as he was busting my chops about being concerned for my job (you sissy). So I told him I would come, but that he would have to do something for me… heh heh heh. So, I explain to him what I want… tell him to frame the shot, and when he was ready I would count to three… And the rest is history… Until he decided he wanted the same portrait. So, I framed him up, he counted to three, and click! He had his own picture of his butt and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Of course, I cannot rightfully post any of these pictures here, but for a small fee I can mail you an autographed eight by ten. Still, I think it was very STYLEish of me to have brought such unforeseen mirth to this newlywed couple’s honeymoon, don’t you?

Our final port in our magical Mediterranean tour was Marseille, France. After all the running around I did catching trains and buses, and madly trying to take in everything I could over the past few days, I was very happy just to hang out. So, that’s what I did. Federico, Ian, and I went out, did some walking around, bought some cookies, and finally sat down at a small cafĂ©. And I finally had my wine and cheese.

As Federico would say, “I was as happy as a puppy with two tails.” He also has a saying about being at war and jumping into trenches, but it doesn’t apply here. And so we sat, chewing the fat (and drinking the wine) and watching all the pretty French girls go by. I tried to woo them with my French… but try as I may, all of my “Ooh la la’s” followed by “Oh huh ho’s!” a la Maurice Chevalier did nothing to win their attention. So, with my wine glass empty, and my head full of rejection, we trotted back to the ship.

Tomorrow we will hit Barcelona, Spain, where we’ll disembark some passengers, and pick some up to take them on a trip across the pond to Miami, Florida. There will be many stops in Spain, including one Spanish city in Africa (no kiddin’), and after nearly a week at sea, St. Thomas… Not a bad way to end things. My Spanish, incidentally, is picking up, thanks to some friends I hang with in the crew bar. Once Ana, a youth counselor, discovered that I knew a little Spanish, she speaks nothing but to me, forcing me to learn by immersion. Since she is from Mexico, I have also learned that much of the book Spanish I was taught in high school will get you beat up South of the border. So, I am learning some mighty fine Spanish slang. For example, Spanish girls like being called “marshmallow” and “little muffin.” That’s “Bon bon” and “Biscocheta” respectfully. Unfortunately, I discovered that they will laugh at you if you demand to be called “Pantalones Fuegas.” Oh well.

Keep on Livin’ The Dream.

Your Pal,

Pantalones Fuegas

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