Thursday, July 31, 2008

Greece Is The Word ...



Admittedly, the destination on our 8-day cruise which excited me most was Mykonos, Greece. Why? Can't really say. Just seemed exotic and enchanted. When I was a grade school boy, MSJ and I lived for the movie "Clash Of The Titans" which we saw not only in the theater with my BFF Chad and his father, but at least 300 additional times on HBO. That was back in the day when HBO would run the same movie over and over, and we were glued to it. ("But Zeus visited her. Visited her, and loved her.")

My fondness for mythology was established early on, leading me to take a class in college, though admittedly it's another of those things that requires regular attention and study. It's becoming painfully apparent to me that 14 years post-college, I need some remediation!

Our ship was scheduled to stay in Mykonos until 2 a.m. There is a very popular beach there, and the island itself is quite popular as a tourist destination, with several bars right in the downtown area. We ventured over early as I had one very important goal: find good place for real Greek salad and eat up!

I should share that Greece was hot. In the literal sense. Very dry, arid feel with a brutal sun and even wearing a 50 spf, I got quite a bit of color. According to lore (and Mark, who told me this) Mykonos was built in such a way as to confuse raiding pirates and prevent them from finding key buildings in the city. Translation? It's like little streets/alleys that just go here and there with no specific rhyme or reason.

And sometimesoften these little bitty 3-wheel pickup trucks come driving through, and you're forced to either climb up onto a ledge or turn sideways and get really skinny. In pilates class I teach an exercise wherein I give a visual (thanks to my instructor Tammy who used it once and do we see a trend here? I'm just conduit for messages, people, that's what I do!) of "becoming a piece of toast in a toaster slot." That's sort of what you have to do on the streets of Mykonos.

Because I'm Robby and you know what that means - calorie-burning - I got really hungry really fast. Yes I'd had breakfast. But if I don't eat every two hours I will starve to death. It's the way of my people. (And a key contributor to my muffin top.) So we broke up the random wandering band and found a portside cafe, where I had a kick-ass Greek salad (yay!) and tzatziki. Ahh, content.

As the queue for the taxi/transport to go out to the beach was riconckulous when we arrived in Mykonos, I opted to venture back to the ship for a few hours of heliotherapy. Later that day we reconvened and went back to a waterside setting to watch the sunset, which is a very popular thing to do there.

As I sipped on two kir, dangling my legs over a ledge, sharing the experience with my homeboys, I couldn't help but think, "If I died right now, I'd be so happy!"

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Passing Through The Straits

There comes a time in every boy's life when he has to leave the party and cocoon. This is often called a party foul, though I call it good ol' self-preservation. After Tuesday's mythical day with Sabina and the Empire-themed party on the cruise ship (in which we all wore awesome togas coordinated by yours truly), I hit the sheets around 2 a.m.

A few hours later, daylight, to be exact, J-Dawg brought his hysterically buzzed butt into our stateroom to announce we were passing through the straits. Now, I was asleep, and sometimes when I'm asleep I say or do things that don't make good sense. And as it was just maybe 3 hours after I'd hit my slumber and I was possibly REM'ing, I could only stare at J-Dawg and say, "Gibraltar? Dardenelle?" Those were the only straits I'd ever referenced and for brief moment I wondered why we might be passing into either the Atlantic or the Black Sea when the Aegean was our destination.

"No, between Sicily and Italy, dumbass," was the reply.

I had to keep sleeping but fortunately Jon grabbed his camera and captured the moment digitally. So it wasn't surprising when I was fresh as a daisy at 9 a.m. and kicking it poolside and he slept until 2, but that's all good. It's what we do when we're on vacation.

Wednesday's Day-At-Sea was good stuff. Quite honestly, I love a day at sea. My idea of vacation is moving slow and enjoying the moment, so a break from hitting the bricks was, indeed, just what I needed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sabina



(Note: To read captions, click the little caption icon in the lower left-hand corner of the slideshow screen.)

She spoke of the sirens from Homer's "The Iliad," as the bus departed the cruise ship port, and looking back, it was foreshadowing. Odysseus tied himself to the mast of the ship to prevent being lured to the shores by their call, and they were so distraught they couldn't enchant him they killed themselves. The head siren, Parthenope, lent her name to the city that would become Naples.

Sabina was our Parthenope but we did not possess the will and strength of Odysseus. In fact, we willingly swam to the shore as she cast her spell, telling the stories in such a way that they weren't a script, but part of a song - the kind of song you sing when you're alone, or with close friends and family, with smokey lyrics and whispered inflection.

From Naples we ventured south to Sabina's hometown of Sorrento, her stories weaving together as the landscape shifted from port city to suburb to agricultural areas, all in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Sabina had recommended we visit Sorrento first, to avoid the heat and lines that would surely occupy a morning at Pompeii.

As we made our way into Sorrento, Sabina revealed she was a 9th generation member of her family's house. The Italian culture wasn't just described, it was modeled by her as she pointed out a few uncles along the way and warmly uttered a "Salve ciao" to an elderly gentleman leaving a shop. While my perception of a traditional Italian had been a more robust, caricature sort, Sabina depicted a very graceful, soft, yet passionate version which I found to be the norm here.

She recommended restaurants and places to see as we walked around the city, agreeing to meet us at the bus at 3:55 - a very specific time - and left us to explore. We took her recommendation of a cafe known for its pizza where I ate the most delectable mozzarella cheese I've ever consumed by way of a caprese salad. (Sidebar: I probably had at least 8 caprese salads during my stay in the Mediterranean. They are like manna!)

We visited a specialty shop that produced limoncello, the Italian digestive native to this region, before venturing up to Pompeii.

Because we had booked via a private travel agent, our group was only 19 strong, which lent itself to closeness and familiarity early-on. Large tours typically booked by a cruise ship can contain upward of 100 people, and when we passed some of them in town wearing their orange numbers, I couldn't help but feel decadent and privileged.

We arrived at Pompeii around 5 p.m. and it was still quite hot, but nothing compared to what it would've been at noon. There was a softness in the breeze - the promise of evening and a decreasing temperature I find so familiar living, day-to-day, in a hot and humid environment - and almost a whisper of voices atop the umbrella pines.

Sabina's knowledge of all things Italian is a requirement of her job as an official tour guide. Her ability to tell a story is a gift, and as we toured Pompeii and marveled at the brilliance of its engineering and design, I kept envisioning how it must've been and seeing the faces of people I'd never seen, speaking a language I don't comprehend, but realizing they were just people living within their reality. It's an odd experience, to look through a window of time, or to get outside your own reality and immerse yourself in a different culture.

As we rode the bus back to the cruise ship I felt small and unimportant, but at the same time very content. It was the best tour I've ever had the pleasure to experience and I'm thankful to share Jon's pictures with you, hoping some of it will translate.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Choke

I had lunch with my friend Dan yesterday, mostly because he just returned from Colorado where he was officially awarded his Ph.D., and because we'd not had a chance to visit in nearly a month. It was hard to tear myself away, but it was a great opportunity to practice a behavior I've decided I need to work on: relaxation.

My European experience really affected me in ways it affects lots of Americans. In fact, I wrote for about two hours on the plane returning from Rome about my life and what it is, and what I want it to be. Without going into the gory details, I've realized that just being aware of my inability to relax isn't enough ... I need to take action on it. And with that, I've recognized that I need to take action on lots of other things too. There's a high degree of torture, I can tell you, when you live a life in your head but don't model it in your practices.

When I moved to Tuscaloosa two years ago, I swept a lot of unattended content under a rug (OK, really, into the spare closet of the media room). It's nothing wildly exotic - just a bunch of old paperwork and some other important documentation. My challenge has been twofold: reclaim much-needed space, and develop a better organizational system for maintenance of this information. Sifting through need and don't need was my objective for the weekend, and while I was keenly focused on accomplishing it yesterday, I stepped away for two hours and, as a result, had a fantastic lunch, then went to the bookstore where I purchased two books, at Dan's recommendation, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I have decided to save my money and vacation time for my 40th birthday, when I hope to travel to India to work on an AIDS-related volunteer project. That hasn't been identified yet, of course, but through my network I've been given some great leads, and I'm really excited about it. I returned home and got my disheveled room to a better place, and was comfortable with the fact that while it wasn't finished, I'd made progress. Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day, was it? Sharing that plan with Dan over lunch opened a door for his recommendation of the Pulitzer-prize winning author and her collection of short stories. Score one for relaxation!

More important, I recognized that I'm very prone to begin reading a book and if it doesn't sting me like a hornet, not finishing it. God knows I've been struggling with Anne Rice's "The Feast of All Saints" for 14 years. With that said, I'd begun "Choke" by Chuck Palahniuk in the airport waiting to fly to Barcelona. I read about 2/3 of it on my vacation, and while I was struggling to complete it, I decided last night at 7:15 I would lie on the sofa and finish the last 100 pages. I'm glad I did. It read quickly, it was a good book, and I completed something! Yay ADHD me!

Rest assured I'm working on completing my European chronicles. I am enjoying the process and relishing in the realization that it doesn't have to be finished right here, right now, but that it does have to be finished.

Who knew one could learn so much by aging another year?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Crash



Sorry for going dormant on the Mediterranean diaries. I'm finishing them this weekend (I have some pics to share too). In the meantime, this popped up on Perez Hilton and I had to share it.

The first time I recall hearing Stevie Nicks sing I was in the 4th grade and the song was "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." I was enchanted and saved my allowance and begged my mother to let me buy the "Belladonna" album. It was the first album I ever purchased! (I think that's pretty telling for a 9 year-old).

This was mesmerizing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Break From Regularly Scheduled Programming ...

I have awakened a bit late today because, well, went to bed late - that seems to be what happens when I exercise too close to bedtime and I did, indeed, do my hour of cardio on the treadmill at the gym last night from 8-9 - and I want to really work creatively on my next vacation entry. It will capture what has emerged as my most favorite day of the trip: our tour of Naples/Sorrento/Pompeii in Italy. Just thinking about it gives me the warm fuzzies, and I want to make sure I share it as best as I can.

What I am going to tell you is that I'm divesting of some of my exercise equipment. And by some I mean most. I have loved my elliptical machine - the one that me and my friend assembled in the barn apartment in Arkansas - but I belong to a gym now and would rather acquire a twin size bed for my "home gym" room so that I don't have to sleep on the sofa when my parents visit.

The only thing constant in life is change. Maybe it's a good idea, maybe not. Time will tell.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Livorno, darling ...

SometimesMany times things are presented as something they're not. We can agree with this statement, right? It's why we "get ready" to go out in public, why we rehearse talking points, and why we spend a lot of time back-pedaling and clarifying.

Livorno, Italy, is no different. Billed as Florence for cruise ship passengers, can I just say that Livorno is NOT Florence? Good, I feel better. A 1.5 hour train ride to the high-art city, we found ourselves in this port on Monday morning (which coincidentally was my birthday but that's neither here nor there) amidst a mass transit strike. Our plan had been to ride the train up to Florence to see the sights but when we learned the only way up was a $200 Euro taxi ride, we bagged our aspirations of seeing the David (replica because museums in Italy are closed on Monday). Actually, Schwyn went because they were all organized-like and had booked an excursion. J-Dawg and I put on our happy faces and disembarked because it was Italy and we had to put our feet on the terra firma, right?

I can only describe Livorno as Italian Ghetto Fabulous, but more ghetto, less fabulous. We attempted to tag along with some really fun British guys who were also making the most of it and seeing the medieval waterfront forts, but J-Dawg had rocked his party the night prior and was feeling a little small. During this quick tour I saw the most decrepit, arthritic little terrier walking down the street behind a woman whose physical qualities mirrored his somewhat. That was my impression of Livorno.

Did that stop us from getting gelato? Hell no. Nothing stands in the way of gelato where I'm concerned. Did it prevent me from scurrying back to the ship to lounge poolside by noon? Negative. When life hands you lemons you make limoncello (in Italy, anyway) so I slid on my trunks and read my book for the rest of the day. I had to call it a wash and, you know, that's just how the cookie crumbles sometimes.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Keep On Moving, Don't Stop ...

So I'm trying really hard to add photos taken from my new digital camera but Blogger isn't cooperating. I will try to figure it out later. The good news is that I have a new camera and while it's not my old camera/camera set-up, it's still quite nice. (Update: Here's me and MSJ and her air conditioning unit.)

Last Sunday? Rome, Italy.
This Sunday? Shubuta, Mississippi.

It's amazing what can happen in the span of a week. I jaunted down to the coast on Saturday to collect Maddie and, in the process, had a rockin' family pool party/dinner thanks to the awesome that is MSJ. She wasn't skeered to whip together some gumbo and tomato-basil pies and also gave me a kickin' little birthday gift. So fabulous and what a blessing to have such an amazing sister.

I decided to return a different way yesterday. It's actually the way Mapquest recommends but I've listened to locals in the two years it's been since I've lived here and they all swear that going through the country (relative term here) is fastest. Not only does it bring about a rage in me that I find difficult to express - other than stringing expletives in a way that even I find creative, natch - but it just gets on my damn nerves. I abhor being behind a slow poke for 10 miles of 2-lane highway so the route down the interstate into Meridian, MS, and the 4-lane Highway 45 all the way down to Fruitdale, AL, seemed easier, even though it took the exact same amount of time. Long story, I know. But I got to use the word "Shubuta," which is pronounced, "Sh-Bootah," and I giggled for an hour.

Continuing with my story ...

Sunday morning I opened my eyes to find us docked in Marseilles, France. It was very utilitarian with these white-ish cliffs surrounding the port, and not exactly what I think when I think "Mediterranean." I decided to run on the treadmill for an hour and was able to look at the city/port quite a bit from my vantage point in the gym.

We disembarked and took the shuttle into the city, and it quickly began to grow on me. The outskirts of Provence were decidedly French, and I began to appreciate the diversity - the range - of culture along our plotted course. All of the European history I'd studied in college began to make more sense and it was nice to have that "Ahhh, I get it" moment.

We fell victim to some of the waterfront vendors, buying some really fantastic soap, then ventured off the beaten path where we found the most fantastic crepes bistro and ordered lunch, despite a significant language barrier. My goat cheese and tomato crepe combined with a decadent kir made me a super happy camper. If I could post a picture I would. J-Dawg and I were so pleased with ourselves that we did, indeed, take photographs.

The fabulous architecture of Marseilles and styling of the buildings reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans. I felt a little bit at "home," but also recognized how old and classic the city was. It also possesses a modern layer of shopping and commerce, and while I felt a bit American for hitting up H&M when I should've been touring a church, I was nonetheless proud of myself for insisting on the sale price of a pair of shorts, post-sale, with, again, little English-French translation. Once a power shopper, always a power shopper, I say.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bar-the-lona

Like this photograph of the Columbus statue in Barcelona? It was beautiful in real life. I have one similar on my camera. Bitch.

Anyhoo, where was I? OK, landing ...

My introduction to Europe was very, very European. Thankfully I've been exposed to lots of international people in my life so my expectation wasn't that it would be America in Europe. In fact, when we'd waited over an hour for our luggage at a carousel clearly flashing "Atlanta," and finally someone came out and said, "Oh, we make mistake ... luggage went somewhere else, will be here soon," I just said "whatevz."

Thrilled though I was when my luggage arrived, and impressed at how uninvolved Spain's customs check was, I was concerned that my traveling buddy J-dawg had been waiting for me for nearly 3 hours. We finally found each other and, in a haze, got a cab and departed for the Hotel Del Mar.

So, when they say European hotel rooms are tiny, let's all acknowledge just how tiny they are. Our twin beds were literally 3 inches apart. And we both were like, "You know you my boy but this close, mmmkay?" The room was really swanky though, with a fabulous bathroom. Another note to file, if you're using a bidet for the first time in your life, you should know the water temperature is also adjustable, and that warm is better than scalding hot. Just sayin'. I nearly got intimate with the ceiling of our bathroom.

The rest of the day is something of a blur, just because of the sleep deprivation. We were able to meet up with our other friends and had a late tapas lunch, which was somewhat intimidating because while I've been to tapas many times in the US, it's a very assumptive, ingrained cultural practice in Spain: the bar concept was overwhelming to me and also, as a vegetarian, I didn't want all of that salt-cured meat. A table was prepared for us in the rear where we drank what wouldn't be our last glass of sangria. Life got much better at that point.

I love to people watch. When I travel I like to observe, and I love to tell myself a story. Spain was spectacular fodder for this obsession. I was reminded of my Spanish lessons from high school and college and really "got" those sentences that I used to think were so simple and silly. You might remember the ones that go something like, "A girl is buying milk." Once I was there, and observed the culture, it became much more relevant.

An afternoon of dodging Smart cars and Vespas was met with a fantastic shower and preparation for dinner. That was when I lost the camera but let's gloss over that bitter fact and move directly into the most FABULOUS bottle of sparkling rose that I did, indeed, consume by myself. From dinner we went out to a bar for a drink and if you think J-Dawg and I didn't wind up in a cab at 3:30 a.m. downloading "The Metro" from Berlin on his iPhone and serenading our taxi driver, you're wrong.

7 hours of sleep and we bounced out of bed, eager to depart on the cruise. In the lobby we met up with some friends from Atlanta and went out for another amazing lunch, then were whisked off to cruise terminal and at 5:00 p.m. we said goodbye to Barcelona and steamed ahead into the Mediterranean. The bon voyage party was fantastic (more drinks!) and after dinner we had the distinct pleasure of being entertained by Nikki Blonsky in the theater.

I hit the sack and slept like a brick, sad to've left Spain because while we were just there for 24 hours, it felt like 2 weeks, and because already I knew the hourglass was flipped and that as the ship kept sailing, our days were diminishing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Embarkation

My body is still adjusting to being back in America. I taught pilates last night until 8 and promptly hit the sack at 9:20, only to awaken at 4 all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with one goal in mind ... get a new camera! It sometimes amazes me how much we rely on technology to conduct our lives, and the void I felt by not having a camera was rather alarming/amusing to me. Dependent much? I think so! Life is too short ... it must be photo documented.

So I promised written journals of my trip, since I don't have photographs to tell the story, and I intend to deliver.

I left the US on July 3. It was with sad news and a bit of a heavy heart, as I received a call from Arkansas from one of my best friends letting me know that a friend had passed away suddenly the night before. Kari Barber Arnold was my former riding coach and it's difficult to put into words how shocking her death was to me. I spent an hour or so calling a few people that I knew would want to know of the news, then organized myself to leave.

I was happy to put the bags in the car and lock the door, probably to escape the reality. Europe's beckon was stronger and brighter and after getting my oil changed and grabbing some cash from the ATM, I was on the road to Atlanta. My flight was scheduled to depart at 8:10 p.m. from Hartsfield, and I was parking for the first time at a park-n-fly lot, so when I arrived in Atlanta at 3:30 p.m. it was, admittedly, very early. I have learned, however, that giving myself plenty of time helps me avoid the crazy.

Things went off without a hitch and I found myself converting cash to Euro (eek!) then through security, then a few margaritas at On The Border, followed by some drunk dialing/texting, beginning "Choke" by Chuck Palahniuk, then finally boarded and ready to depart. It was exciting and thrilling and totally appealed to the strong sense of adventure that I apparently possess. I was overcome with anticipation and zest for what would await me on the other side of the Atlantic. There are times when I sometimes catch myself questioning whether or not I should be more cautious or concerned, but they're fleeting and I'm usually thankful that it's not my nature to question what could happen. It is my nature to question what could not happen, and while a bit reckless, that's opened many doors for me. (Life challenge: finding a way to mesh the two but that's a perpetual journey and not something for which there is a finite solution.)

The plane took off and very quickly I struck up a conversation with the young man who'd taken the seat next to me. As I'd learn, his name was Lucas and he was traveling to Spain from Louisiana to study for 4 weeks. It was his first time leaving the country, and his trip was entirely self-motivated and directed. He is studying for a degree in public relations and, as such, we had much to discuss. I believe there are always connections to be made in life, and they can happen very quickly - you just have to realize a window is opening. It made me feel very good that a.) he was super skinny so, you know, no risk of fat armrest competition and b.) the conversations we had flowed in such a way that his understandable reluctance and questioning of his decision was replaced with affirmation and purpose. At this stage in my life it's very rewarding to me to find myself in mentoring roles.

Of course, with the carb contingent offered by Delta, excitement, chatter, etc., sleeping wasn't going to be much of an option for me, even though I'd brought Travel Diva (my u-shaped pillow and eye mask) along. At about 1:30 a.m. Atlanta time, the sun began to emerge, thus commencing the shortest night of my life. I am very sensitive to light, so I was wide awake essentially the entire time.

The flight was super smooth and as the day progressed and land appeared below - in the form of the Pyrenees - I couldn't wait to shed the confines of the fuselage and plant my feet on Iberian soil.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Revuelve

Hey everyone! I'm back from my super fabulous Mediterranean vacation. I'd hoped to be able to share it with photographs but I lost my camera the first night we were in Barcelona - either left it in a cab or got pick-pocketed. This was so disappointing to me that I nearly cried (real tears, not fake ones) but thankfully the boys are going to share theirs and, thusly, I shall share too.

I'm really exhausted though was able to seek refuge with my boy Doc Martin in Atlanta last night. 9 hours of sleep was good. That I made it to Tuscaloosa and into my office at 8:00 this morning is nothing short of miraculous ... thank God for a time zone shift heading west!

I met some really amazing people from all over the world while I was away. I hope they'll be able to find me and will want to stay in touch. Globalization, pets, that's the name of the game!

I'll give a more thorough diary-like update this week. Look for more tomorrow morning!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hateth The Browneth

There are days when I wake up and just think, "God, why? Lord I needz some strenth to get through this day." Then I proceed out to the 1,000 acres of planted crops and commence to work the fields, all the while singing spirituals, having visions, and wondering if I am a modern day biblical parable, halfway expecting a bush to ignite and a voice to boom down upon me.

And today is one of those days.

1994 UPS guy with his side mullet aside, I must express extreme displeasure with a recent UPS delivery. The guy who purchased my scooter never received the title that I sent him. It tracked right to his front door, where it was left. No signature. And, oh yeah, did I mention this was in New Orleans, in the French Quarter? God forbid anyone be honest down there. Why wouldn't you steal someone's UPS envelope off their front door?

So now I have to go through layers of bureaucracy to help the guy out EVEN THOUGH I HAVE DONE MY PART and I ponder, a'la Dolly, "Do you know what really chaps my ass? Oh a flame about 3 feet high!" For serious, things I don't have time for are this. Also, I feel violated. Someone has stolen from me, indirectly. I have lost faith in the brown. And I also must determine why no signature was involved.

OK, one more blog tomorrow before I hop on a plane for Espana. Last night I dreamed that I was on one of those turbo prop planes with no luggage heading to Europe. There were a bunch of babies in all of the seats and there was no seat for me, so I had to sit in the floor. Prediction?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Big Wiffle

In case I've posted this image of West Farthing and me, please forgive. Or, better, love it again. Because I do. I sho' do.

West Farthing is doing fantastic. I recently pulled his rear shoes as the summer heat/humidity is rather oppressive and, quite honestly, I'm not riding him enough to warrant steel all the way around. When the weather gets better (or I suck it up, or his feet tell me) we'll add them back.

WF loves his steel fan hanging in the corner of his stall. He seriously stands right in front of it all day long and dreams of his youth in England where, I'm sure, it was seldom 97 degrees and 100% humidity. The past few days here in West Alabama have been pleasant, though, with the humidity temporarily absent and the temps a wee bit cooler, so I have tacked up the beast and tooled about the arena and front field.

It's fun, and WF feels muy importante with someone on his back. He's a superstar.