Saturday, October 25, 2008

Creepy, Scary

Today, we head down the road to Lost River, West Virginia for a pumpkin carving contest. I have some novel ideas. I've been thinking about how to architect successfully the facial structure of a Republican Presidential Candidate on the pumpkin, but that may be too daunting. Well, the beady eyes shouldn't be that difficult.

Of course, I'm listening to WAMU this morning, happily pledge free. I am so tired of hearing John McCain talk about Joe the Plumber. I guess, that John McCain in making Joe the heart of his campaign discloses his true colors: Joe's not a plumber, and Joe never had enough money to buy the business he talked about owning, and Joe doesn't have the intellectual capacity to understand that Barack Obama's economic plan would actually help Joe, and that John McCain's plan might actually harm Joe. But many Republicans don't seem capable of that kind of nuanced analysis.

Pardon the aside, I just get a little hot under the collar when I hear the lies and half-truths being spouted on the campaign trail. And I'm enough of a partisan to know that my primate belief system is just as selective and idiosyncratic as Joe the Plumber, and those Republicans out there. It's not anything personal. Some of my best friends are Republicans....

Well, back on topic. So I've been working on pumpkin designs. I think I have the floating iris inside the floating eyeball problem licked. I downloaded some pumpkin carving stencils, though, just in case I need a fallback. I also noticed that jack-o-lanterns generally don't have ears, which is a good thing, because ears aren't a real strong point, of mine. Neither are noses or mouths, but I'll fake it.

So, accomplishments this week: ManHunt failed me miserably. Three appointments, and no guys showed up. I blame it on my deodorant. I unloaded book shelves in the basement for the painters. They came, they painted. I reloaded the book shelves. The basement had a minor flood, but I managed to clean it up, and in the process discovered some old diaries from thirty-five years ago. I wonder if I have enough courage to read them. Now that's a very scary thought.

Perhaps, the most life-changing accomplishment of the week was buying a jar of Thai fish sauce (Golden Boy). I had some on my poached egg this morning. Mmmmm. I'm getting ready for my Thai shopping trip, and my first attempt at Pad Thai. I'm really excited about it. Of course, when you read the recipes, you begin to realize how many calories Thai food has. But that's why I go to the gym.

Stay tuned. I plan to take pictures of my artistic pumpkin sculpting.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Last Day

Today is the last day of the WAMU Fall "Membership" Campaign. Tomorrow will be a happy day! More accurately, tomorrow will be a rainy, gray, wet day.

I'm not completely back in the groove. Of course, most of my dearest friends haven't even noticed that. But deep inside the recesses of my darkest self, I know. I REALLY know. I can tell that something is, somehow, different. Maybe it's the persistent post-nasal drip. Perhaps it's the odor emanating from my underarms whenever I raise my arms over my head to strike my just-do-me pose. Whatever, it has a dank, musty resonance that vibrates in my cranium, and anchors in my duodenum, then belches from orifices, unbidden eructations that scare the men in my life.

Actually, I think it's just the result of a mild sinus infection mixed with lots of well-intentioned fiber. I can't adequately express HOW HAPPY I am that the WAMU Fall "Membership" Campaign is in its very last day. These pledge weeks are always the most depressing, demoralizing weeks on radio, and as I pointed out in an earlier post, even if I did contribute this campaign, I'd still have to listen to the awful drivel about the needy nature of public radio for the rest of the campaign, anyway. It could drive the more unstable of us over the mental threshhold: I'm being cajoled to act, but nothing results from the action. That sounds like a recipe for mental illness, if I ever heard one. Public radio drives listeners insane!

What's even more irritating for me (and my bowels), is that I'm a habitual "user" of public radio. I'm hooked. I couldn't turn off WAMU if my life depended on it. Without that background noise, my life seems empty, without purpose. Unless I'm sleeping, of course. In fact, when I was on vacation in Europe, it was iffy the first several days whether I was going to make it or not, because I was in the mental doldrums from not having Rene Montaine and Steve Inskeep greet me every morning. And no Kojo was no mojo. I just couldn't get a grip on Madrid. Now, you might think it was the six-hour time difference, and the thirty-three hours without sleep, but the reality was, I couldn't get WAMU, and man, I really suffered for it. "Hello. My name is Happy Doodle, and I am a WAMUholic."

I caused the world financial crisis. Are you surpised about that fact? I'd been following the financial markets for weeks before I left for Europe. Four days after I leave, the markets tank. I felt bad about that, and because I couldn't listen to WAMU, I couldn't do anything to ameliorate the resulting ruinous free-fall spiral into doom. I tried, and if I'd been on my game in Wheaton, instead of being a playboy in Lisbon, well, world history would be different. Of that, I am supremely confident. You know, it's odd, too, that WAMU hasn't called me up for an interview about this. After all, Alan Greenspan gets coverage for making a mistake, but nobody from WAMU is knocking on my door! It's the last day. It really is the last day.

The financial markets will recover. This recession will end. Sarah Palin's speeches are mean, vicious, and ugly. She removed her lipstick.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I Hate Pledge Week at WAMU

The radio station is at it again: attempting to separate green stuff and my wallet. So for a week, millions of other listeners and I are subject to the very worst of public radio broadcasting, the pledge drive. I'm sorry, but there's got to be a better way. The kind of marketing crap and sales ploys WAMU broadcasts during the "Fall Membership Campaign" really irritates me, and if I do give in and call in a pledge, absolutely nothing happens! I'm still subjected to the station's awful broadcasting for the rest of the week.

Of course, I could tune in to WETA, and listen to its fall campaign.... Is there some collusion going on in the Washington radio market? I could turn the radio off, too. And by tomorrow afternoon, that's probably what I'll be doing. These campaigns are irritating, intrusive, inane, and idiotic.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Really Happened in Portugal

One of the most satisfying accomplishments of the Portuguese vacation was having the confidence to talk with the people we met. My sister, Grace, and I gained that confidence because we had taken an intensive language course the first week we were in Portugal. It didn't get us even close to conversing in Portuguese, but it provided enough language for us to survive, figure out, and listen. The class was also valuable for us because it provided lots of information about Portugal's culture and history.

We also used an exceptional phrasebook, Lonely Planet's Portuguese Phrasebook. The book was extremely useful, especially for its Portuguese/English, English/Portuguese glossary. The book was well-thumbed by the end of the trip. Here are the basics: 1) learn Hello, good day, good afternoon, good evening, excuse me, and thank-you. 2) Learn the present tenses of to be, to have, to go, to see. 3) Study the menus, and order off the Portuguese part of the menu. 4) Learn directions, (right and left) prepositions (in front of, behind, next to, in, on, under, etc.). 5) Learn some help phrases: where is..., how much..., how many.... 6) Figure out bus schedules, subway maps, etc. If you can understand or hear this range of vocabulary, you'll do very well, even though you can't speak the language.

We found out very quickly that if we started conversations with "Excuse me" everyone we talked to wanted to help. The Portuguese are a very friendly people. After a "Bom dia!" it was easy to say, "Fala ingles?" (Do you speak English?) If the person didn't speak English, it didn't matter, because he or she was bound and determined to help you anyway, and if the new found friend did speak English, well, these American tourists were an excellent opportunity for language practice!

For much less than the price of the language class (it was expensive), I could have hired a tourguide, and probably gained much the same information, but this approach requires some discipline. I would have needed to have studied the phrasebook in some depth before going to Portugal. The language course was very intense, but its biggest problem was that we were in class from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. so our sightseeing on class days was limited to the evening. Some days we were so exhausted (from class and jet lag), that we simply went back to the hotel and crashed. I think next time, though, I'll hire the tourguide, and study the phrasebook before travelling.

My sister and I were touched by the friendliness, and graciousness of everyone we met. We loved the food, although after having many bacalhau dishes, I decided that my taste buds needed a break from salted cod. Another travel tip: we soon discovered that sharing an entree and a salad was more than enough for both of us to eat, and we rounded out the meals with soup and dessert. Don't skip dessert!

I am already thinking about where I want to go when I go back to Portugal. We spent six days in Lisbon (at school), sightseeing in the evenings. We rented a car, and headed onto Óbidos for a few days, via Sintra. Sintra was the summer home of Portuguese royalty. The palace is quite a nice pile of bricks. High above the town is the old Moorish castle. Don't miss going to the castle. It's a romantic ruin, and be sure to hike up from the town to get the full effect.

Óbidos is a walled town set on a hill. It used to be on an estuary that opened into the Atlantic Ocean, but has silted up over the centuries. A major battle of the Peninsular War was fought on the plains outside the town. We stayed here for two full days, taking in the life of a very touristy town. Óbidos is beautiful. We wandered through most of its streets and walkways. Several kilometers from Óbidos, is the sea town of Peniche. During Salazar's regime, the town had a notorious political prison, which today is a museum. The area has some beautiful beaches, and we spent a quiet morning, walking the beach picking up pebbles.

From Óbidos, we headed up to Porto for a couple of nights. On our way, we toured the Roman ruins at Conimbriga. The site has been extensively excavated, and it has a good museum that explains the site.

We arrived in Porto at rush hour. We had no clue where our hotel was. We ended up stopping at a gas station to ask for directions, and also purchased a comprehensive city map. It was a little bizarre, we knew we were in the right neighborhood, but finding the street was difficult. Also, even though I didn't know where I was going, all the drivers behind me knew exactly where they were going. A lot of honking, gesticulating, and a couple of evil eyes ensued. It took us about two hours to find the hotel and park the car. This was after racing down narrow one way streets, and not being able to pull over to read the map, or read the street signs. I was pretty much of a wreck by the time I got the car parked.

A word about driving: nobody obeys the speed limit. Tailgating is a national activity, but you get used to it, and that's just the way it is. After a couple of days, it didn't bother me, but the first day, it raised my blood pressure considerably.

The Lonely Planet folks also have a pretty comprehensive Portuguese Guide. In the description of Porto, it had a walking tour of the city. We followed the guide, and took a wonderful walk in an old historic city, appreciating its place in Portuguese culture and history. Porto is a real working-class town. It's proud of its heritage. We had a port tasting (of course!), visited several over-the-top barouque churches, and saw the birthplace of Henry the Navigator.

I handed the guide book to Grace and told her to tell me where she wanted to go. So from Porto we headed to Vila Nova de Foz Côa. This village is near a valley that is full of paleolithic etchings - the largest collection in the world, about 17,000. The etchings are in a national park that is protected. You can only go into the park with a guide, and that is what we did. It's mind-boggling to know that this area had been inhabited 20,000 years ago. There's a lot of anthropological mystery surrounding the etchings, a lot of unanswered questions.

It was also in Vila Nova de Foz Côa that our credit cards didn't work. For some reason, our MasterCards weren't being accepted in the ATM machine at the town's bank. I was a little unnerved (maybe the financial crisis was getting personal), thinking we might be stranded in a small town in the middle of Portugal, but a couple of hours later, I was able to use the ATM. As it turned out, Grace was never able to get her MasterCard to work, and mine was not accepted everywhere, but I had no problem with my Visa card.

The next day, we drove north to Bragança. It is the seat of the dukedom from which the fourth dynasty of the royal family took its name. The town has a citadel sitting on a high hill that contains the old town, a church, a keep, and the oldest municipal building in Portugal. Climb to the top of the keep. You'll get an impressive view of Bragança and the surrounding country. Also, take a drive into the national park north of the city. You'll have the opportunity to see some ancient villages pretty much the way they've always been.

Bragança was the place of our flat tire incident. For your information, traffic circles are about the only flat places in the city, so that's where I changed the flat tire. And you don't have to speak Portuguese to negotiate the purchase of a new tire. Finally, if you stop at a patisserie while you are getting your tire changed, it puts you in a much better mood.

Our final destination was Guimarães. I wanted to go there because it is the birthplace of the Portuguese state, and it had a castle and a palace. The palace is one of the official residences of the President of Portugal. Salazar used it as one of his residences when he was Prime Minister. We took the tour of the palace, and like all the palaces we visited, made me appreciate the creature comforts of 2101 Bucknell Terrace. The palace (built in the style of a French chateau) contains some beautiful tapestries and life-size angel candleholders among other treasures. Above the palace is the local castle. Originally built to protect a monastery from Moorish depradations, it was later fortified by one of the Dukes of Bragança, so that he could prevent the King of Leon from reasserting control of the duke's fiefdom. That act of independence was the beginning of Portugal. You can also climb to the top of the keep in this castle and get quite of view of the city.

Guimarães is a city of about 50,000, but the old town is much smaller, and very walkable. It has exceedingly narrow streets, and a one-way grid that makes a compelling case for parking the car and walking. We stayed at a cozy residencia overlooking two streets, and were greeted by the recycling truck at 2 a.m., the garbage truck at 3 a.m., and a little barky dog in between.

This summary only hits a few of the highlights. We had a swell vacation!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Back in the US of A

Go Barack!

While in Portugal, we saw pictures of our president looking like he was a deer caught in the headlights, and headlines streaming across the TV "America in Crisis." We couldn't understand the Portuguese, but we figured out from looking at W. that something was not quite right. I promise never again to leave America when it's in crisis. It's the least I can do for it.

Yep, I'm back home. I'm glad to be here, too. I was eating way too much food on the cruise ship, although I did not gain any weight when I was gone. However, the flab redistributed itself in an obnoxious way, and I look vaguely like Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair. Oh well.

Life at Bucknell Terrace is getting back up to speed. I'm going to a square dance tonight in costume, because, after all, it is the season. It shows off my stomach well. Even if you can't see my abs, you can see my abdomen. I look so sexy!

Happy's New Square Dancing Outfit
Happy's New Square Dancing Outfit

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Meanwhile, Back in Guimarães....

Grace and I finally left Bragança. We had a wonderful time there, fairy castle and all that stuff, and a marvelous time in the national park. And those wonderful windy roads on top of the hills where every turn displayed a new remarkable vista of the mountain valleys. Oh, I think we both will remember it a long time. And probably tell you about it for the next decade, at least!

From Bragança, we headed off to Guimarães, which is the birthplace of the Portuguese nation. It was here that one of those dukes of Bragança told the King of Leon to take a hike. The duke was no longer going to be a vassal, but instead was going to be his own man. So he fortified the castle in Guimarães, and set about his own way. We arrived there on Sunday. Nothing is open on Sundays on the Iberian Peninsula, until late in the day. We immediately got lost BUT found a parking place, parked the car, and decided to go exploring. Within a block of where we parked, we found a Residencia, and booked a room for the night. In order to park in front of the Residencia, though, we had to drive about 2 km because of the narrow one-way streets that only lead one deeper into the maze of the old city. The woman at the desk gave us a map and some elaborate instructions, and Grace navigated while I drove. We executed the drive flawlessly.

We had a beautiful room overlooking the street, complete with a balcony. Oh, it was very dramatic! And we do have pictures to prove it, too. We went into the neighborhood, had some ice cream and coffee, then set off for our daily adventure. We first found the ducal palace. It's built in the style of a French Chateau around a central courtyard. The palace was restored by the dictator Salazar, and he used it as one of his residences. It is now a residence of the President of Portugal when he is in the city. The palace is furnished with some beautiful tapestries, and period Portuguese furniture. All of the Portuguese were out to see their castle, too, and we saw lots of happy families enjoying their national treasures. It is a big heap of stone, and has fewer creature comforts than 2101 Bucknell Ter. On the other hand, it is definitely a palace.

Behind the palace is an imposing castle (of course) that was built by a countess in the 12th century to protect a monastery that she had founded from the Moors. The duke, when he declared independence from Leon, re-fortified the castle and the reconquest of Portugal from the Moors started in Guimaraes. Of course, we clambered all over the castle walls, after all, we are tourists. Then we went into the keep, and climbed all the way to the roof of the tower for some dramatic views of the old city and the new city beyond. These castles really are remarkable fortresses complete with multiple walls and fall back defenses to make them impregnable from anything except a very prolonged siege. The keeps and the inner walls all have storerooms, and all the keeps had cisterns or springs. The walls were designed with slots in them so that arrows could be fired from the walls such that they completely covered any advancing enemy line.

After the castle we walked down the oldest street in town, and Grace discovered an artists shop. It had tiles, icons, and other kinds of art from local artists - some really beautiful stuff. We looked through all of it, I think. You know, visiting shops like this is almost as good as visiting a museum. The shopkeeper was a young woman who was very friendly, and told us about the items in the shop, and about the town. Again, this was one of those remarkable conversations where a person befriended us and revealed something of the character of the Portuguese people. We found a genuineness and a friendliness that really captured our hearts. And we're grateful the the many kindnesses that people extended to us.

We went to a wonderful restaurant, the Vira Bar, in the old town, up many stairs to a delightful dining room that was romantic - very fitting for our final dinner in Portugal. We had a grilled black pork, Minho style with a bean and greens side, a mixed salad, and bola dos bolaches (literally cake of cookies) for dessert. Ummmm. I know I sound preoccupied with food, but it's an easy thing to do in Portugal.

The next day, we got on the road pretty early, and headed out to Porto. We hit the beach for an hour or so at Vila de Conde, then we went to the airport. With that, we said goodbye to Portugal. I don't think it will be the last time we visit. I'm already planning to return.

With love,


Three Coins in a Fountain...

Well, I'm not Audrey Hepburn, but I did see the Trevi Fountain today. Ron and I took a sightseeing bus around Rome today, and managed to walk a few kilometers as well. I left you all in Braganca. A lot has happened since then, and I thought I'd try to recount some adventures since then.

The note I sent you from Braganca was from my Blackberry. Blackberry service in the northeastern reaches of Portugal is pretty iffy, so that message did not actually get you to guys until early this morning, after Grace had flown home to Chicago, and I'd arrived in Rome. So sit back, and here's some news....

Before we visited Braganca, we stayed the night n a small high desert town of Vila Nova Foz de Coa, which is the gateway to a national historic park. Originally the area of the park was going to be underwater in a hydroelectric project, but in the process of doing environmental assessments, paleolithic etchings were discovered in the valley, in fact, over 17,000 have been catalogued ranging from 20,000 to 5,000 years ago.

When Grace read about the site in our guidebook, she really wanted to go, so we reserved our tickets, then aimed our car in that direction, drove 150 miles through some beautifully mountainous country, and ended up in a remote Portuguese village. We went into the park in a guided tour. The guide not only told us about the etchings, but told us a lot about the theories about the earliest inhabitants of the valley, their way of life, and talked with us about why they would create these drawings, and the mysteries and questions that the drawings raise. For example, etchings are often done on top of each other, and a single rock canvas may contain sets of drawings that span thousands of years, and next to this jumble of etchings will be a clear, flast rock surface with nothing on it. Why didn't the later artists etch on the unused surfaces? It is a pretty incredible place, and you should add it to your list of places to visit.

So the next day, we finally got to Braganca. I wanted to go there, because Braganca is where the third Portuguese royal dynasty came from. It in the far northeastern part of the country. The area is very mountainous, and the climate is probably a lot like Moscow's. Almost immediately after getting to town, I hit a curb, and gashed the sidewall of one of the rear tires. Oops.

We went to a tourist office to find where we could get the tire repaired, and after that, I drove the car to a traffic circle, because it was about the only flat place in Braganca, and I changed the tire amidst the whizzing traffic of the circle. My life was never once in danger, but it really looked dramatic. Just ask Grace.

At that point, we headed off for the garage, which was closed for lunch, so we had some ourselves at a pastry shop. The owner's daughter came out to take our order, and we proceeded to have this wonderful conversation. The Portuguese are exceedingly friendly, and she was so happy that we were visiting her country. She also gave us a free dessert and coffee, so We were very happy to visit her country, too.

We were first in line when the garage opened. When the attendant saw our car, he immediately knew the problem. He put us on the lift immediatley, removed the temporary tire, and haulted the injured tire out of the trunk. He then stuck his finger through the hole in the sidewall, and gestured that we would need a new tire. He didn't speak English, but we quickly found ways to communicate that left no doubt about what needed to be done. He was a very nice fellow, and went out of his way to help Grace and I get through the whole ordeal, even granting us a lot of dignity in the process. It was almost as if everyone we ran into wanted us to think the very vest of Portugal. I was touched by the generous nature of the people we met.

Well, we got our wheels back, we went back to our hotel, and then set out for the town's museum and castle. The museum featured masks that are used in the winter festivals in this region of Portugal and Spain. Grace and I enjoyed the museum and the gift shop next door. The masks incorporate many different materials and style. I'd like to see some of the festivals in which the masks are worn. Next, we walked over to look at the castle. By this time, it was late in the day, but I told Grace that I wanted to come back the next day to go inside the castle.

And that's what we did. This was a true fairy tale castle. Prince Valiant could live here. And it comes complete with armor swords and a couple of howitzer guns downstairs, because the castle is a military museum, too. The museum is housed in the keep, which rises at least a hundred feet over the other battlements. We climbed up to the roof, and had a majestic and commanding view of Braganca. We also walked along the battlements, and pretended it was 500 years ago. This castle was was built in the 1200s to protect Portugal's northeast corner from the kingdom of Leon.

On Saturday afternoon, after the castle, Grace and I drove into the national park, north of the city, and drove through a half-dozen ancient villages. It is like nothing I've done before. We are in such a different place here. This is not Kansas anymore. The beauty, the differene of place deeply moved us both. It is difficult for me to express how special this trip was for Grace and me. I think we will remember it for many years, and you all will probably get tired of us talking about it.

So the next day, it was time for us to say goodbye to Braganca, and get on the road to Guimaraes, which is the birthplace of the Portuguese state, and believe me, the town wants you to know that! I'm going to save that description for another day, because I know you all want to get to the end of this email.

Ron and I send our love. Tomorrow, we're headed off to see the Sistine Chapel. We saw the Pope today at St. Peter's Square. So did several thousand other people. We also saw the Coloseum, but no gladiators, although lots of guys dress up as Romjan soldiers, and want to have their picture taken with you. Cheesy. Very.