Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Turtles in Tuxedos

I would like you all to sit right back and prepare yourselves.  If you have a delicate constitution you may wish to procure a snifter of brandy, strictly for medicinal purposes.  For this is going to be an epic tale of sex and drugs, bad decisions and worse actions, car chases and shady deals.  We're talking serious criminal acti......oh wait, that was a different trip.  Right, back on track then!  THIS is going to be a tale in about my latest exercise in decadence and all-around snobbery, i.e. a vacation.  And as per the usual I have A LOT to say.  Because I've been the very soul of brevity up to this point.  Ahem.  No snarky comments, please.  Moving on....
It had been about three weeks since I had been in The Europe, which is simply unacceptable and entirely too long a period for me to be comfortable with, so I’m sure you all understand why I simply had to spontaneously jet back over to get my fix for a few weeks.  
Actually, that’s a bold-faced lie.  This particular trip had been planned for just under a year and I was practically vibrating with excitement by the time the day to leave finally arrived.  I was packed and ready a solid week out and that never happens.  Ever.  My partner-in-crime this time around was the indefatigable Lady K – more than my equal in all things snobberiffic.  We both greatly enjoy enjoying the finer things in life and so it was only fitting that we were taking a luxury cruise on Cunard’s Queen Victoria to the Med(iterranean).  And I know what you’re thinking, but Cunard has totally solved that whole Titanic issue and everything is hunky-dory now.  Although we were somewhat comforted by the sight of all the very large and totally spacious lifeboats tacked to every available exterior surface of the ship.  
One item of note:  Lady K had never been to Europe, this would be her very first time.  However, since I have practically lived there for the last few years, we figured it evened out in the end if we were to apply the law of averages. 
After waiting for what seemed like a hundred years, the day to leave finally showed up!  We got our bags checked and trudged through the insanely long security line and headed to our gate which was naturally the very last one down.  Which I swear is always the way with me.  I'm never at Gate 1.  I'm always at Gate 347 in Concourse Triple Omega.  Whether I'm arriving or departing, I always feel like I have to walk the distance from my previous destination in airport miles.  Why is that??  Okay, that's a rant for another day or possibly later on in the blog depending on how offended I'm feeling at that point in time.  Again, moving on.....  
All in all, we had a fairly uneventful time at the airport and once we got settled on the plane immediately got down to one of our favorite activities -- judging our fellow passengers.  Trying to figure out who might be coming along on the cruise with us, leering at the hot Europeans going back home, figuring out which kids we were going to chuck peanuts at, etc.  We spent a pleasurable few minutes doing this until I called a cease and desist on talking about the hot guys after karma gave us a little spank early on in the boarding process.  This amazingly hot Spaniard, probably mid-40s, salt and pepper hair, very sexily rugged looking, was coming up the corridor and we were having a grand old time of ogling him when traffic slowed in the aisle and he ended up pausing and turning sideways and leaning in right next to me.  So at this point, I’m wearing his crotch as an earring and I had to turn to the side, my face the same lovely shade as an overripe plum while we snorted and choked and attempted to control ourselves.  Hey!  Don't judge!  Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we have to act like them.  After that little incident, we turned our attentions to the bionic woman two rows in front of us.  As she was in her seat and fairly stationary at this point, we figured she was a safer target than anyone coming up the aisle.  Let me just start by saying that this woman has had a LOT of work done.  A LOT.  Especially on her lips.  I’ve seen aircraft flotation devices that were smaller.  Her lips should have had to pay for an extra seat.  I’ll bet anything that the poor guy in front of her wasn’t able to fully recline without hitting an impenetrable wall of collagen.  The rest of her face was stretched and smooth and shiny like it had saran wrap over it.  But apparently she ran out of money shortly thereafter since her neck had more lines than a back-country road map.  She was extremely loud and obnoxious and opinionated and we were delighted to hear her say she would be on a different cruise line.  We were certainly in no danger of boredom while she was loudly spouting off on one topic or another and we watched her with the same fascinated attention as a child at their first trip to the zoo.  She was amazing.
Sadly, our plane was not equipped with those wonderful little personal video monitors so for most of the flight we chatted, read, listened to music and the like but eventually drifted off to sleep.  I learned later that I was extremely close to death at this point as Lady K was most displeased at my ability to achieve REM sleep on a plane.  But she let me live and soon enough we were landing in Barcelona.  Mercifully, our luggage had decided to join us and not stay in Orlando or Philadelphia (where, incidentally, we spent our 4-hour layover at a wine and tapas bar and I got into a spat with the waiter over where the best gelato in Italy is.  He was wrong, I was right, it’s Grom’s Gelateria in Florence and don't you forget it!).
Anyhoo, we hopped into a cab, pretended to understand what the driver was saying since he seemed intent on having a conversation with us, got to our cute little hotel and were delighted that our room was ready.  We hauled our cookies upstairs, each taking up an entire elevator with our bags.  God bless European hotels and their minuscule ‘vators.  I guess they don’t think that people will be checking in with any actual luggage?  I don’t know.  We got to the room, got out our graph paper, sketched out which geometric arrangement would enable us to be in the room with the luggage and still have freedom of movement, stowed our bags in the designated spots and exhaled slowly.  “Let’s just rest for a minute” we said “and then we’ll freshen up and go exploring!” we continued.  Riiiiight.  Clearly we are idiots.  
So, around 3+ hours later when we woke up, we were certainly refreshed but I was cursing under my breath, knowing that this meant certain doom later on when it was already going to be difficult to get a full night’s sleep because of the 'lag.  Being too late to do anything about it at that point, we grabbed our purses and ventured out.  We were in an absolutely fabulous location, just a short block back from Placa Catalunya and Las Ramblas.  Lady K was very excited to see a Starbucks on the corner since we’re both coffee fiends but I quickly disabused her of that notion and informed her that we do not drink the Starbucks here.  We drink café con leche when in the Spain because it is amazing.  We marched over to a nearby tapas joint and ordered our coffees and a huge pile of food including the amazing patates braves that I can never get enough of.  After stuffing our faces and having our hands kissed multiple times and told that he was in love with us from our server for the entire duration of the meal, we wandered over to El Corte Ingles, a store that has to be seen to be believed.  It’s like the Spanish Harrod’s.  It’s so big it has been split into two massive buildings, one on each corner of one end of the square.  We went into the first one and I promptly lost all control when faced with an entire floor of brightly-colored Desigual.  A new dress and shirt later, we surfaced and swarmed over to the other store and proceeded to check out all 820 floors.  After hovering in the perfume section for a while, we decided to swing back by the hotel to drop off our purchases (okay, my purchases) and freshen up for dinner.  
We emerged a bit later, sufficiently fortified and refreshed and launched off to find some dinner.  We ended up in this charming little spot above a pizzeria, nestled in a table by a window overlooking the street.  We watched the last few street performers close up shop and the evening salesmen come out with wares that could all be grouped under the heading ‘things that glow’.  We tore into a warm gorgonzola dip that we slathered over tiny pieces of garlic bread and made short work of a porcini and bacon risotto and tri-sirloin stack with goat cheese.  I’m still pretty sure that one part of the tri-stack was pork and not beef so I think we were bamboozled there, but it was delicious so whatever.  We washed it all down with a glorious bottle of spicy Sangiovese and then wandered over to the gelateria up the street where we crowned off the evening with a massive bowl of dark chocolate gelato each.  As we sat on a deserted bench on Las Ramblas, savoring our treat in the cool night air I asked Lady K how she like Europe so far.  She paused briefly over her dessert and flicked her eyes incredulously up at me.  “Right”, I said.  “I love it, too”.  And we set back to devouring our chocolate in contented silence before meandering back to our hotel. 
We got ready for bed and I got my Simply Sleep out, asking Lady K if she would like some to help her sleep through the night.  She said she was feeling pretty tired and thought she’d be okay without it and like an IDIOT I agreed.  Even though I TOTALLY KNOW BETTER.  Le sigh.  Cut to just after 2am when I’m lying in the dark, wide-awake, staring at the ceiling and mentally kicking myself.  I flopped around for a bit like a fish out of water before resigning myself to my fate.  I opened my ears and listened to Lady K’s breathing for a minute, snickered to myself then said “Awake?” in full-volume voice.  “Yup” came the clear response.  “Great”  “Yup”  We both sighed, gave it up as a bad job, flipped on the TV and commenced with the surfing.  The only English-language show on was this bizarre Australian kids show on the Spanish Disney Channel.  We stared at it, mouths agape and wondered if anyone (in Oz or otherwise) had ever actually been entertained by this dreck.  The only thing I really remember was that a singing donkey was involved and no, it was not a cartoon. 
When it ended, we were no closer to resuming REM so we flipped around until we found the only thing on that wasn’t news or football – a movie.  And oh, what a movie we found.  It had been dubbed en Espanol but what the original language was remains a mystery.  It wasn’t English, I can tell you that, but beyond that I have no earthly clue.  It appeared to have been filmed on a shoestring budget using what I can only assume were the director’s family, friends and neighbors circa 1968. 
Now, I speak a little Spanish and Lady K can tell you to please stand clear of the doors (thanks, Disney monorails!) but fluent is not a word that either of us would use to describe our language skills while in Spain.  So since we couldn’t understand what in the hell was happening on the screen…..we made it up.  Our plot involved unexploded ordinance, garlic necklaces (don't ask), Jordan almonds (still don’t ask), style tips (the male lead was always wearing either a holey red shirt or a bizarrely feminine green sweater vest, both liberally smeared with dirt yet the female lead was always looking fresh as a daisy in a random assortment of floral dresses, despite them both being from the same tiny village and both working in the fields there--doing what, we were never sure), pebble throwing (apparently a small handful is all that is needed/necessary to frighten away an enraged mob), and being severely sexually frustrated for the leads as the guy kept trying and the girl clearly was into it but was just a bit more invested in trying to see if she could make him explode by shutting him down at the last possible moment each time.  Here’s a brief sample of our dialogue during these moments:
Me “She needs to stop being such a tease”
Lady K “Yeah, she needs to give it up.  I’M frustrated now”
Me “They fall into a pile of hay, kiss, the camera pans away and we all understand what is implied.  Why is this so difficult?  They’re in a FIELD for Pete’s sake.  There’s hay everywhere.  They were just playing hide-and-seek in it!”
Lady K “I’m going to smack her myself in a minute”
And so on.  You get the idea.  We also included a non-lethal Romeo and Juliet-type twist at the end, just because we felt the situation called for it.  So for a little over two hours, so strung out from lack of sleep that we had turned the corner and were wide awake, we heckled and commented on this horrible movie, literally howling laughing, tears pouring from our eyes, until I’m sure the people next door thought we were performing some sort of invasive surgery on each other.  Finally, the movie ended and we saw that the next feature was something called Spider Forest.  “I am NOT watching that” I declared.  Lady K agreed and we flipped the lights back out, hoping that we could get another hour or two of sleep in before going to get breakfast.  The current time?  Nearly 6am. 
Cut to 10am when we were rudely awakened by the sounds of breakfast being taken away from down the hall.  We rubbed our sleepy eyes blearily, checked the time, swore, and sprang into action.  A short while later we were downstairs checking out and getting into a cab for the port terminal.  Our bags were whisked away as soon as we arrived and we strolled unhindered into the gorgeous glass building, the bright Spanish sun sparkling brightly off the polished surfaces.  We were given a check-in number and told to wait for it to be called before we could receive our keys and hand over our documentation.  Figuring we had a while, we grabbed two café con leches and the world’s biggest croissant.  We were about two sips into our coffees when our number was called.  We gave each other a wide-eyed, panicked look (like they're going to suddenly not let us on if we didn't check in right then), crammed the pastry into our mouths and knocked back the scalding coffees before bounding up, breathlessly flinging our documentation across the desk, getting our keys and after about a thirty-second wait, being allowed onto the ship where we were told our room was already ready!  
We scrambled over to our room, flung open the door and immediately started squealing and jumping up and down at how COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY FABULOUS IT ALL WAS!  Gorgeous big room, with a full bottle of bubbly chilling in the sitting area (was only supposed to be a half bottle based on how we booked!  Guess we got a half bottle each!  Wheeeeee!) and a huge plate of cheese and grapes accompanied by a bottle of Cunard port!  We hugged each other and giggled and flung ourselves around the room before remembering that we had a veranda room!  So let’s check that out, shall we?!?!  Yes!!!!  We shall!!!!!  Our balcony was massive!  Two lounge chairs, two deck chairs AND a table with enough room for more --- MASSIVE.  Lady K delicately described it as a “full-frontal balcony” and not only am I still not sure what that means, I just don’t think there’s anything more I can add to that. 
We introduced ourselves to our fabulous little Ukrainian housekeeper then ran off to explore the ship and grab some lunch.  While we were rambling around, we confirmed our earlier suspicions that we were #1 younger than everyone else on board by an average of 30 years and #2 were some of the only Americans.  Awesome.  Seriously.  We also instantly made friends with nearly the entire crew since we were acting #1 fun #2 young #3 outgoing in talking with them, asking them about themselves, where they’re from, etc.  They luuuurrrrrrrrved us.  All was going swimmingly onboard until dinner.  Well, c'mon.  You had to know that sooner or later we were going to get into some sort of trouble.  We had asked to be put at a larger table, hoping that we’d be seated with a bunch of older British couples, but soon realized that we had been put with what were probably the only two other couples on the entire ship who were American and in our age bracket.  Bollocks.  The conversations were extremely awkward and after they found out what I did for a living, mostly consisted of them pumping me for info about the ports.  My favorite?  “Have you been to Olympus before?”  “No, that’s where Zeus lives.  I don’t believe it’s a stop on this particular trip.  I also haven’t been to Olympia, where we are actually going.”  
Okay, no, I didn’t really say that.  But I wanted to.  I sooooo wanted to.  And I should totally get bonus points for keeping my filter in place and maintaining an internal-only monologue about it until Lady K and I were back in our room.  I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that we lasted through a grand total of two nights of awkwardness before switching to an earlier seating time, which had the added benefit of freeing us up to see the early show instead of having to wait for the 10:45 one.  Ouch.  Too late. 
The one thing we would really miss about our original dinner time slot was a British gentleman who was one table over.  He reminded me looks-wise of Victor Garber and personality-wise of an ass.  He was that delightful person who not only knows everything, but has very strong opinions on every topic and is going to tell you about them at length.  We heard him sermonize on quite the broad range of topics during those two nights.  The only time we heard any of his companions' voices was when they murmured a “yes, yes, quite” before focusing once again on their meals, no doubt in a vain effort to finish up and get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.  It was hilarious.
Now obviously we got off the ship at each of the ports and had an amazing time at each of them but let's just stick with the ship for now.  Plenty of time to cover all of our misadventures on land and sea.
First, the balls.  There were three balls on board.  Oddly enough, one was semi-formal while the other two were formal.  Who ever heard of a semi-formal ball?  Oh Cunard.  You and your fancy curveballs.  There was also one randomly formal yet ball-less night (which sounds incredibly dirty but I don't know how else to say it) and two additional semis.  The first was the Black and White ball, then the Masquerade Ball then the semi-formal Victoriana ball.  After 6pm you had to be dressed for the occasion or (it was implied) you’d be chucked overboard.  They were not messing around about this.  Not even a little bit.  In addition to the multiple times it was mentioned before we ever got onboard, when we got to your stateroom there was a full sheet explaining about the dress code each night and kindly asking us to adhere to the policy or remain in our room.  It was also mentioned on the info sheet we received nightly with the next day’s events.    They're very serious about this sort of thing on Cunard.  Until the last day we didn't even wear jeans during the day, we were so afraid of being reprimanded.
For the balls there was a full orchestra set up in the Queen’s Room so you could go there to dance after dinner.  And if you had no partner with you, or your partner was not into dancing, they had male escorts there to spin you ‘round the floor.  Allow me to pause for a moment while we discuss fantasy and reality in regards to these escorts. 
When Lady K and I heard that there would be male escorts available for us on the ship our minds ran wild.  We wondered if there would be a catalogue to select from, perhaps?  Maybe you could choose a smoldering Italian one night, a proper Brit with a twinkle in his eye the next, round out the trifecta of balls (so to speak) with an easygoing German or strapping Swede with clear remnants of Viking in his blood?  Young gorgeous guys to flirt with and spin us ‘round the dance floor, oh boy, oh boy!  Or so we thought.  Imagine our surprise when we bore witness to the reality.  When we crunched the numbers, I believe we discovered that the median age of the escorts was a spry 67.  They did look quite precious in their matching tuxedos, I will admit.  But since we were more interested in the ogling than in the dancing, this brought that potential activity to a screeching halt. 
They did come over to us quite a bit to see if we wanted to dance and I have to say we were quite amused when asked if either of us “fancied a rumba” because all we could think of was how dirty that sounded.  One by one they would saunter over with a ‘mind if I join you?’ and we would do our level best to politely let them know that we did indeed mind, on many levels and with great intensity.  There was one guy in particular (his name was Murray but Lady K nicknamed him Old Spice) who simply could not understand why we wouldn’t dance with him.  At one point when he had sidled over to harass us he looked me up and down and said he knew I was a dancer which I reluctantly agreed I used to be (and later on wondered what kind of dancer he was referring to as my gown that evening was fairly boobalicious) as I did not want to discuss dancing with him and just wanted him to go away, please.  I tried to drag Lady K along with me but she set him straight very quickly on the dancer bit.  Then he just kept going.  Where are your husbands?  Well, neither of us were wearing appropriate-looking rings (although Lady K could have gotten by in a pinch) so I figured we couldn’t bluff our way through without getting into the weeds fairly quickly on the details and as any of you who have known me for more than thirty seconds can attest, I’m a miserable liar.  So we said we weren’t married but did have boyfriends, hoping that would be the end of it.
No such luck.
Where were these “boyfriends”, exactly?  Ummmm…..back home?  Why aren’t they here with you?  Well, this is a girl’s trip so they're not here, they're…..they’re……they’re on their own vacation!  I blurted in what I felt sure was a moment of improvisational brilliance.  Oh?  Where?  Came the response.  Well, crap.  This is why I shouldn’t ever try to lie – I’m just not at all good at it.  Lady K smoothly said that her boyfriend was back home visiting his family in Germany and then turned to me with an innocent expression that was anything but as I was left to try to come up with something.  And mine is in Tennessee!  I randomed, my eyes wide as saucers, hoping like hell I was conveying sincerity and not abject panic.  Visiting some friends and family!  Yup!  Tennessee!  Really?  Murray/Old Spice said.  Um....yes? I hazarded, not sure what else to say at this point and more than a little wary of digging the hole I was standing in any deeper.  He nodded and said "Well, they’re missing out.  It was a pleasure, ladies".  And he sauntered off to go find someone who actually wanted to dance with him.  I noisily exhaled the breath I had been holding and turned to Lady K who was watching me with a cat-like smirk on her face.  “Tennessee, huh?”  “Shut up” I griped, “Okay, now I definitely need something stronger than this prosecco”.  She snorted and rolled her eyes at me as I tossed back my drink and flagged down the server for a whiskey while checking to make sure my heart rate was returning to normal.  What?  I get very stressed when I feel the need to fabricate!!!!  The server, incidentally, looked exactly like an Eastern European version of the Puppet Master.  We had to start steering clear of him because #1 we kept staring and #2 our overwhelming instinct was to abuse him.
We did have a lot of fun looking at all the outfits that swept by.  There were even two gents who had donned kilts and one gentleman who clearly wanted to but lost his nerve at the last minute (translation – plaid pants).  We watched all the Q-tips getting their dance on at pretty much every opportunity.  Mostly because we think traditional dancing is a dying art.  I mean, who in my generation or the next knows how to waltz?  Or tango?  Or salsa?  Or even….gulp…rumba?  Not bloody many.   So you won’t be able to see balls like this forever, in our opinion.  But we also watch because we want to hug a fairly high percentage of the dancers.  The cute factor is just way way up there.  As I mentioned just above, I call ladies and gentlemen of a certain age “Q-Tips” because of the white (often fluffy) hair on top.  Lady K calls them turtles. 
Lemme 'splain.
You know, after a certain point in your life, your shoulders acquire a sort of hunch and you’re shoving your head slightly forward because you can’t see as well as you used to and well, you sort of start to look like a turtle.  The fabulous thing about this is that Lady K refers to the dancing by this particular demographic as “turtling around the floor” which is hilarious and guaranteed to set me right off into paroxysms of giggles.  The first time she said it I laughed until I cried and had to sit there with my head in my hands, shoulders shaking, trying to regain control and not cause a scene while she dimpled at me and drily remarked “Liked that one, didja?”  So each formal evening we were treated to the amazing spectacle of turtles in tuxedos turtling around the dance floor and it was just so so great.  We decided mid-cruise that we had totally missed the boat (ha!) on this one and should have been surreptitiously taking photos so we could put together a coffee table book of all our international turtles.  Turtle Tour 2010!  It would have been a bestseller.  I consider it a missed opportunity.  And if you think it’s odd that we would want to take stealth photos of people, just you wait.  We’ll get to that particular Chekhov's gun long before the third act.
But one of the reasons we love the turtles so much can be summed up in this quote from one of the adorable little gentlemen who passed us as we were gliding down the corridor in all our glory, ready for the Masquerade Ball:  “You ladies look quite lovely, if I may be so bold” he said in his delightful little British accent.  We giggled and simpered and levitated a few inches off the ground in our delight.  This is all it takes to make us deliriously happy, folks.  Make a note of it. 
Now since we were at these balls of course we were appropriately attired in the most amazing evening gowns we could lay our hot little hands on.  And I must say, we looked fabulous.  But the one gown that I had been dying to break out was this slinky blue number that made me feel like a mermaid.  Great dress, accentuates all my curves, shows off the girls, makes me feel like a million bucks.  And since I feel like such a princess in this dress, I decided that I needed appropriate headgear whilst wearing it, i.e. a crown.  Okay, okay, I didn’t go full out with a circlet but I did bring along a very pretty sparkly tiara.  I was so shiny with it on that Lady K felt compelled to point out anyone who was in any way glittery all night (and for the rest of the cruise), letting me know they were infringing on my sparkly turf.  Thanks, friend. 
So we were a big hit, swanning about the ship in our fabulous dresses, the girls on full display and my princess crown and Lady K's feathers (if you don't know what a fascinator is, you need to get with the program) topping it all off.  We even had some professional photos taken one night, as we had promised one of the photographers that we would since we hadn’t the night before.  He had seemed to be near-on heartbroken that he didn’t get to take photos of the “beautiful girls” and far be it from us to break any heartsq so off we went.  The next day we went up to the photo area to check them out and were just stuffing them back in the rack – with Lady K attempting to wedge hers behind mine to hide them – when a mob of elderly Brits descended on us. One gent snatched the photos from my hand, threw an arm around my neck and proceeded to critique the photos.  I cast wildly around, looking for my travel companion, only to see that she had scampered off and was grinning madly at me over their shoulders.  I narrowed my eyes in implied threat and got a saucy little waggle of her fingers in reply.  My captor was going on and on about how great the photos were and asked if I was a real princess.  “Uh, yeah” was my reply and he chortled and agreed that I was and that I should buy all the pics and put them up in my room so I could always see how posh I am.  Then he kissed my forehead, patted me on top of my head and released me.  As we jetted away, he shouted after us that he was thinking of buying a few of them himself but that he wasn’t a pervert or anything.  We were truly afraid to go back and check to see if any of the pics were missing after that.
We did enjoy combing through everyone else’s photos, though!  Primarily to play our version of Where’s Waldo which is Where’s the Gold Digger?  It’s barely a game because it’s so dreadfully easy but still fun to play.  We also enjoyed playing Spot the Plastic Surgery and we scored double points if the two games overlapped.
Now of course we had plenty of time at the spa.  I mean, c’mon!  Have you met us?  We got a spa pass that let us use the hydro-tub, sauna, steam rooms and these lovely heated tile chairs that we would stretch out on and watch the ocean from.  They were amazing.  I felt like a happy little lizard on my heated rock in a terrarium.  I almost flicked my tongue a few times, I was so content.  The only disconcerting thing about the spa was the colored mirror panels in the ceiling in most of the areas that we were frequenting.  It felt just a teensy bit like dirty Vegas.  They also enabled us to see a girl having a bit of an intimate moment while we were laying iguana-like on the Heated Tiled Chaises of Wonder.  After that charming little event, we kept our eyes strictly ocean-facing.

Getting back to the hydro-tub, that was fun for several reasons.  The first being that there were these massive water jets you could turn on that would pound water on your shoulders and give you a sort of liquid massage.  But they had all the delicacy of a fire hose and I would have to stand on one leg, the other braced against the edge of the stair banister to keep from being knocked off-balance.  I also couldn’t stay under them for too long without fear of bruising.  I’m extremely delicate, you know!  The other reason we loved it is that the main entrance was from inside the spa but there was an emergency exit that led out to the pool area.  People were constantly walking by, peering in and trying the door which was of course locked as you had to enter from inside the spa.  We started laying bets as people walked by as to who would be the one to try the door.  It was AWESOME.  We were thisclose to writing a song entitled "Not That Door" because we got to singsong it to the poor wretches outside so often.
After one particularly relaxing spa venture, we were in the locker area changing out of our robes and back into our clothes I heard a loud “PSSSSST!” and turned to see Lady K wildly gesturing to me about a locker on the other side of the changing room.  “Check this out!” she hissed and slowly opened the door with all the grandeur of one revealing a secret horde of gold or similar.  I peered in and immediately realized that we had hit the freebie jackpot.  It was chock-o-block full of toiletries!  We squealed, stuffed my cargo pockets full of lotions, shampoos and conditioners, giggling madly all the while, and slunk out, trying (and no doubt failing) to appear natural.  I couldn’t walk very well with all that swag in my pants so I was sort of shuffling along, Igor-like when bottles of product started making a break for it around the time we hit the fourth floor.  The faster they fell out, the harder we laughed as I madly shuffled down the hall, leaving a Gilchrist and Soames trail of breadcrumbs behind me as I lurched toward our room, leaving Lady K to pick up the fragrant droppings.  When we finally made it back, our arms were loaded down with tubes of product and we dumped it all out onto the beds and collapsed in hysterical laughter before hiding it all in the back of a drawer, unsure why we felt the need to liberate products we could have had for free if we’d only asked but I s’pose the thrill of the hunt was just simply too much too resist. 
One thing that seemed to be a recipe for disaster was the constant time changes.  We had to switch our clocks FOUR TIMES.  This was most definitely no bueno.  Every time we have been together and in a time-change situation, we are all but guaranteed to be hopelessly lost, sometimes for days.  The fact that we seemed to be traveling on the fringes of a Dr. Who episode for two whole weeks and still managed to get everywhere on time is miraculous.  We felt the need to continually congratulate ourselves on our amazing progress.  The only one that nearly undid me was on the last day when Daylight Savings hit (it’s on a different day than the US, in case you were interested) and I didn’t realize that that was why we were changing our clocks back an extra hour when I simply knew that was wrong, based on which country we were in.  Which I would normally have been correct about…….if not for the DST.  Oh, well.  At least I saved the time meltdown for the last day.  And was able to clear up the confusion with a minimum of difficulty so all was well and right with the world again.  Although neither of us thought it would be a huge tragedy if we ended up stranded in Venice.  Certainly worse places to be!
And now, just a brief word about the food onboard.  Which you know I had to get to eventually since absolutely nothing has changed about my love affair with the food of the world.  It was fan-flippin-tastic!  From the high tea to the pub to the buffet to the room service to the dining room everything was incredible.  Huge variety, quick service, and nothing tasted like it had been mass-produced.  And while there were frequent incidents that left one or both of us laughing so hard tears were pouring down our faces, we tried really hard not to cause too much of a general ruckus in any of the dining areas.  However.  There is one specific incident that I feel needs to be relayed.  
So one fine afternoon we were having a splendid little lunch in the Brittania dining room.  After poring over the elaborate menu, Lady K had decided to order chicken terrine for her starter course.  And I remember thinking how very interesting and hard-core of her!  I think terrines are vile, personally.  I am just not even slightly interested in eating any form of meat jell-o.  But whatever, to each his own.  I was having duck confit and have dined on raw horse and truffled quail eggs, so what the hell do I know?  Anyways, out comes the slice of disgusting jell-o mold and I can tell as soon as it’s put in front of her that this was most certainly not what she had thought she was ordering.  I smothered a grin and started shoveling food into my mouth as quickly as I could so I wouldn’t crack up and waited to see what she would do.  To her credit, she made a valiant go at it.  I observed in silence for a few minutes as she used a single tine of her fork to extricate tiny floating chunks of chicken from the vaguely taupe-colored gelatin before I couldn’t take it anymore.  “So….” I began, after taking a leisurely sip from my ice water, “….terrine, huh?  I personally prefer my jell-o to be fruit-flavored and free of obstacles.”  “I wonder how many horses had to die to make this?” she said mournfully as she pushed little blobs of goo around on her plate.  I nearly drowned when she said that as I had just taken a huge gulp of water and it was a close thing to having it sprayed halfway across the restaurant in my ensuing hysteria.  Then we both went into full-blown hysterics as Lady K explained that she thought it was supposed to be a sort of tart but that the chicken niblets she had managed to extricate weren’t half bad.  After about a quarter of an hour we finally managed to get ourselves under control and mercifully the rest of lunch passed without further incident.  But now whenever I’m feeling a bit too somber, all I have to do is envision that shredded pile of brown jello and the look on Lady K’s face when it was initially placed in front of her and I immediately start to giggle.  See?  Everything is better with jell-o! 
Enough about the food for now.  I'll be waxing rhapsodic about it when I get around to ranting on the ports, don't you worry.  Let's talk about language.  Because we were surrounded by Brits, we decided to up our adjectives for the duration of the voyage.  We decided to have a new Word of the Day each day.  This started around Day 3 or so.  In rapid succession we went from splendid to lovely to grand to darling.  We kind of lost steam on it for a while, but then tacked “delightful” onto the list after several days.  About every hour or so one of us would use one of the words, the other would then feel compelled to throw another verbal log on the fire and we’d run through the list in rapid succession.  Here is some sample dialogue, just so you get the feel of how things went with this: 
Lady K:  Well, that empty field over there is just lovely.
Me:  Darling, isn’t it?
Lady K:  Grand, even.
Me:  Splendid.
Lady K:  Delightful.
And then we’d giggle, further confirming any lingering doubts as to the relative status of our sanity for our fellow passengers, and resume normal conversation until it was time to go through the list again.
And if you think that's strange, just you wait.  As I mentioned earlier, Lady K and I love to people watch.  Call it an odd little habit if you will, but it keeps us amused.  And there always seems to be a person or people that kind of stands out and gets our attention.  Someone that clearly has a story just swirling around their bizarre little heads.  Someone that instantly inspires a nickname.  Someone who we keep running into.  Someone who amuses us to such an extent that we may, at times, seek them out and semi-stalk them, just to see what’s about to go down around them.  It’s odd, I know, but you would join right in if you were with us I guarantee it.  On this particular trip, we had Snooki.  If you’ve never seen the graveyard of taste and travesty of entertainment that is Jersey Shore, bless you.  Don’t start.  Just know that Snooki is this bottom feeder from New Jersey who is pioneering fun new ways to be crass and tasteless and seems to have the amazing combination of being both charm- and personality-free as well as the bonus of being entirely devoid of morals.  Why people want to watch this person is beyond me.  
Now, the crazy lady we were keeping tabs on onboard is probably absolutely delightful (one might even say lovely, darling, grand and/or splendid, in fact) but as we are like wildlife photographers in these cases, we seek only to observe, not interact with our prey.  From the first moment we saw her, we knew she was going to provide non-stop entertainment for us for the entire trip.  And we were not wrong.  Allow me to describe the woman we nicknamed Snooki to you.  In a nutshell, she looked like the grim reaper during a manic phase.  We never got close enough to tell, but she looked as though she probably smelled like a mix of Tanqueray, Monistat-7, and bad decisions.  Somewhere in her 60s, probably around 5’4”, not counting the spiked hooker heels she was so fond of tottering around on (hello?!?  We’re on cobblestones!  Not smart!).  Now throw in the patterned black hose (usually polka-dots), all black waaaaaay too ultra-short ruffled dress (mind you, every single outfit she had was only a slight variation on this theme as long as you don't count the skin-tight half pleather half velour pants she had painted on in Venice) sometimes spiced up with a lurid orange bow or ginormous apple red flower pinned to her chest.  Your stunned gaze travels to her face and you see the dark, kohl-lines eyes (entirely too much makeup smeared on in general) and now, NOW we have come to the hair, ohmidearlord.  I don’t even know how to accurately describe this monstrosity.  Words fail me and I feel the urge to curl up in the fetal position and start rocking. 
I can do this.
The Hair.
Wiry black.
Both the natural part as well as the extra bits she tacked on top.  Yes, the extra bits is what I said.
Shiny, silvery banana clips at the back that we’re pretty sure was what was keeping the faux top bit in place, creating two hair pom-pom-looking things.  The front was often decorated with a gigantic fake flower in a nausea-inducing color and/or a massive glittery spider that had to measure a foot across and that is not even remotely an exaggeration and may even be a touch on the conservative side.  A large velour-looking rose the size of my head often topped off the whole creation.  Oh, and one extremely important bit I forgot to mention.  The Hair had to rise over a foot (minimum!) off the top of her head.  This woman was giving Marge Simpson a run for her money.  We figured she had to have a room to herself because how could there be any room left when something of this relative land area is involved?  I wonder if she has a hatbox or something that she carried it around in.  I can’t imagine TSA letting that sort of thing slide.  She could be keeping anything up there!  Armaments, parakeets, the lost city of Atlantis….there was certainly room.  So now you see why she caught our eye.  We would see her coming and oh so coolly and casually freak out and scramble for our cameras.  We would try to pull off the whole “I’m-pretending-to-take-a-picture-of-one-thing-but-am-really-focused-on-another-image” trick.  Which perhaps some can pull off with at least a small measure of savoir faire but I’m fairly certain we were spotted since the camera would be pointed six feet to the left of the person or object we were supposed to be snapping a photo of.  That and the snorting and giggling and looking over our shoulders may just have been an indication to the rest of the conscious world that something was up.  We eventually abandoned this tack and relied instead on the zoom feature.  Oh, and Lady K has video.  It’s awesome.  Especially since it captures some of the other sea bound residents of our little vessel, most of whom have apparently decided that the key to fancy evening wear is looking like someone has smashed a geode on your chest.  So Snooki and her fellow cronies provided us with hours of enjoyment throughout the voyage, god love ‘em.
The picture below is one of the zoom-ins we managed to capture of our prey.  This was near the end of a shore excursion so she was a little wilted.  But still, you can see what I mean.  And shame on you for thinking I was exaggerating!  Sometimes there's simply no need.
That's about all for the ship, although not even close to the end of our adventures.  Of course I will regale all and sundry with tales of our land-bound trials and tribulations soon.  Until then, I’ll be working on my stealth photo skills…..I think they may come in handy on a future vacation…..


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Deadly Frogger and Comfort Food

I think anticipation makes me a little crazy.  For example, whenever I land in a new place for the first time, I tend to be amazed that it doesn't look exactly like what I had pictured in my mind.  But of course what I picture is often insane.  When I first landed in Germany I was a trifle disappointed to not be immediately in the midst of gingerbread houses, not in the middle of rainbows and leprechauns in Ireland, not a Von Trapp in sight in Austria and was astounded to find that Cape Town was actually a city and that we weren't plunking down right in the middle of the savannah.  So I guess I shouldn't have been all that shocked by my introduction to Beijing.

My first thought upon landing was "I am going to be sick.  Violently and explosively sick" but that was mostly due to the turbulent landing.  Which ended up being a constant as far as landings went whenever entering that city's airspace.  Later, after clearing customs and baggage claim and all that other assorted airport nonsense I finally took my first steps outside and took a deep breath of the muggy air.  A few minutes later, the coughing had subsided and I wiped my streaming eyes on the back of my hand as I peered suspiciously at the heavens.  I don't know what I expected to see, a long thin dragon undulating by perhaps? but what I assuredly did not see was the sky itself.  What I saw instead was a thick milky cloud cover.  The sun was a wan disc hung low in the sky and particulate floated through the air like Phase I of a stealth alien invasion.  I smothered another cough, hailed a taxi, and after pulling out my printed sheet with the name and location of my hotel in Mandarin and getting a terse nod from the driver, we were underway.

I quickly learned that the traffic rules in China were slightly different than in the States.  For example, as far as  I can tell, you get a point every time you change lanes.  Bonus points are awarded based on how long you are able to drive in the shoulder before whipping across multiple lanes to rejoin the traffic flow.  It was during this first ride that I also learned that I was able to stuff my entire fist in my mouth.  I figured this out in an attempt to stop myself from screaming as we careened along the highway like a rogue pinball.  I managed to keep it down to a small terrified squeaking in between bouts of hyperventilation.  Finally, mercifully, we arrived at the hotel and I stumbled out of the cab.  As I tottered into the lobby I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the highly polished surface of the entry doors and prayed that the pale, waxy cast of my skin was a trick of the light.

The lovely, kind people at the front desk brought me a tiny porcelain cup filled with a chilled spiced tea and it did wonders for my mental state.  After getting up to my room I did my usual routine of taking out my small framed photo of Honey and putting it on my bedside table, punting my nasty traveling clothes across the room and using the requisite half bottle of shower gel to turn myself into a soap monster as I scrubbed the airplane funk away.  After wrapping myself in a fluffy towel and dragging a comb through the tangles in my hair, I sat down by the window and stared out at the Beijing cityscape.

There were a few buildings that had the sloped roof style that I associated with Asian cultures but most of the buildings were regular skyscrapers.  Later on, I would see that there really was a lot of amazing architecture in the city.  From a building shaped like a dragon, to a pair of pants, to a massive hard drive to one that looked like it was being squished by a giant robot hand, there was some cool stuff out there. But still, I couldn't see much of that right at that particular moment, it was only my first afternoon in town and I knew I was going to have to get out and walk around if I was going to stay awake.  The 12-hour time difference wasn't hitting me too badly just then, but all that travel was still tiring.  I stared out at the grey city for a while longer and watched the little bits of whatever float past the window.  And began to realize that during my time in China, I was going to be the absolute cleanest I have ever been in my entire life.  Because if I was constantly going to be out in the humidity and pollution I was going to be taking a minimum of three showers a day and lo, so it came to pass.

After putting on some fresh clothes I swung by the front desk on my way out the door where the following exchange took place:

           Me: So what's all that stuff floating around in the air?
           Front Desk:  Madam?  What stuff?
           Me: You know, the bits of things that look like fluff or snow or something.
           Front Desk: Ah, yes, that is just from the trees.
           Me:  ......the trees?
           Front Desk:  Yes, the wind blows the flowers off the trees.
           Me:  ........what trees?
           Front Desk:  ..........
           Me:  ...........

After the guy just stared at me in silence for a minute I finally just said "um, okay" and headed out.  Flowers, my ass.

There didn't seem to be much in my immediate area other than a Starbucks (of course) and a place called Sunshine Kitchen, which turned out to be a hot pot restaurant.  I ended up trying that a few days later and it was delicious.  But for today I wanted to wander a bit more and see what else was around.  I moseyed around the buildings and stopped cold on the sidewalk, struck by what I saw across the street. Molly Malone's stared back at me like a beacon of heavenly joy, a ray of sunshine through the smog.  An Irish restaurant?  Here, in the middle of Beijing?  Done and done.  Now all that stood between me and my lovely Irish food was about six lanes of traffic.  Sigh.

Here are a few things everyone should know about being a pedestrian in China.  First and foremost, you do not under any circumstances have the right of way.  And I'm not trying to be cute or funny about that, I mean you literally do not have the right of way.  There are so many cars and so many tourists that if cars were stopping for pedestrians the already insane traffic would essentially come to a grinding, cursing halt.  There are so many cars that you have to enter a lottery to even be allowed to get a car and that's AFTER you jump through all the flaming hoops to qualify for a license.  Even after you get your car depending on what number your license plate is you can only drive on certain days of the week.  And if someone turns you in for driving on an off day they get a reward so there's no trying to cheat because you will get caught.  

I also quickly discovered that the crosswalks were about the worst place you could try to cross the street.  Just because there's a green light doesn't mean boo if a car comes careening around the corner so it doesn't do to get lulled into a false sense of security there.  The best thing to do is just make a run for it.  And while I was fairly certain that I greatly resembled a frightened gazelle when darting across the street for the first few weeks, I soon got the hang of it.  That first day however, I decidedly did not have the hang of it.  After waiting quite a while for a break in traffic that seemed destined to never arrive, I darted out and frogger'd my way to the center line where I stood, panting and trying not to stroke out while cars whizzed by on both sides of me, missing me by inches and blowing my hair around in their wake.  I finally saw an opportunity approaching and broke my fear-driven paralysis long enough to dart across to safety.  I stumbled into Molly Malone's and collapsed into a booth, trying to keep my newly-found PTSD at bay.

After a few moments a server slid a menu in front of me and gave me an odd look before backing slowly away.  I gulped and raked my hands through my wild, car-tangled hair and looked at what they had.  In their defense, they DID have a few Irish dishes, fish and chips and cottage pie-type stuff.  They also had a number of Italian dishes as well as an astonishing selection of Japanese, Thai, Chinese (naturally), and Indian dishes.  Again, to their credit, they did have Guinness on tap, HOWEVER it was ten bucks a glass.  Now I value my Guinness quite highly and know that beer is more expensive in a bar than just buying a six-pack at your local market but STILL.  And so it was that when the waiter came back by that I ordered a German wheat beer along with what is probably my favorite dish in the whole world.  A dish that can be found seemingly anywhere you go and that is astonishingly hard to mess up.  Spaghetti Bolognese.  I love it so.  And that is how I ended up on my first night in China in an Irish restaurant, drinking a German beer and eating an Italian dish.  Hey, I'm nothing if not well-rounded.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Swimming to the Opera

I had finally arrived at the first of several glorious days off in my beloved Germany when I made a startling realization.  That being that there was something mysterious going on with breakfast in my hellhole of a hotel.  First off I had a challenge with what I believe I've already voiced my displeasure previously in regards to, that being the lack of hot water and/or milk with which to make my morning tea in this country.  This was a particular issue in this hotel.  After far too long they seemed to have gotten that under control but of course this allowed the rest of breakfast to spiral into chaos. First, the sausages were attacked.  Instead of nice thin sausage links, these odd little niblet things appeared.  They were tiny fat disclets of what I imagine was someone's idea of sausage.  Someone with an extremely poor sense of humor, that is.  Whatever, they weren't too terribly bad.  I've certainly had worse.  Then they finally took the toaster down from the seven-foot platform it was balanced on which was awesome since that meant that I could actually reach the damn thing.  Of course, this was too good to last.  This morning it had apparently dropped so low that it had disappeared entirely.  The bread was set out, presumably to be toasted, but the toaster itself?  Nowhere in sight.  And of course, they couldn't leave well enough alone with my tea.  They ran out of Assam two days ago and it has yet to be refilled.  This leaves me with Chamomile which is just not what I need to start my day.  Chamomile is soothing and makes me want to go curl up into a ball and take a nap.  Not good.  I've got places to go, people to see, things to accomplish!  I need some good strong black tea to get me up and going not some wimpy herbal that's going to lift me to a higher plane of existence.  At least, not first thing in the morning.  In the evenings, we'll talk.  Seriously, the things I have to put up with over here.  It's criminal.

Speaking of places to go and things to be accomplished, my List has grown exponentially since arriving here in Germany.   What is my List, you say?  Well, I'm ever so glad that you asked.  To borrow a recently popularized turn of phrase, it's my Bucket List of sorts. There are X amount of things that I want to do/experience/accomplish in Y amount of time.  Y being the unknown amount of orbits around the sun I have remaining (hopefully quite a few—it's a fairly long List) and X being a variable number as my List fluctuates pretty much all the time.   Some things have been on the List for a while while others get added on and checked off fairly rapidly.  Some things that I haven't gotten around to just yet but will are sky-diving, a shark cage dive (preferably off the coast of Africa), swimming in the Devil's Swimming Pool atop Victoria Falls, hiking to Everest's Base Camp (that's already being planned—can't wait!), going to Bethlehem for Christmas and there's some crazy free restaurant in China up on the side of a mountain that I'd like to hike to some day.  There's more, but you get the idea.  Some are just to say that I did it, others have a cultural or spiritual significance, but most are a combination of the two. 

Some things have been added to my List since coming over here to Deutschland, as I mentioned above.  And I hope to have them all crossed off within the span of my time here.  I see no reason why not.  First and foremost, I shall be paragliding over Neuschwanstein Castle.  Because hang-gliding has been on my list for a while and while it may take me a while to get to Kitty HawkNC to do it (yes, it has to be there.  Birthplace of flight and all that.  There is a method to my madness sometimes), I see no reason not to seize the opportunity to soar like a bird above my favorite fairytale castle.  I think Ludwig II would have wanted it that way.  Other things added are experiencing a German rock opera (I have my tickets—front row of the balcony, too!!), taking in Carmina Burana (Karl Orff!! Awesome!) with the Munich Symphony (tickets sold out immediately but as they will be blaring the music from the former Royal Residenz, I plan on planting myself outside and taking it all in) and making two climbs in the Olympic Stadium—like rock climbing but instead it's to the top of the Olympic Hall, straight up into the sky and they are kind enough to provide the hook and rope.  Cool!  Tragically, I mistimed things a bit the other day and missed the climbs.  But all was not lost!  I still managed to cross one more thing off my List.  Allow me to set the stage, if you will.

It was a beautiful if slightly hot day.  I emerged from the subterranean maze of the subway, blinking at the dazzling sun reflecting off the steaming white concrete.  Ahead of me, rising like a silver fault line up out of the ground was the BMW building (home of the car-making robots that my co-guides Goliath and The Leprechaun love so much) and to my right was the Olympic Park.  I strolled to my right, taking in the scenery as I went.  In my mind, I saw the ghosts of Olympians past striding by, banners proudly colored from a hundred different countries snapping in the wind, the roar of the crowd, the buzz of announcers' microphones, the tangle of media cable, the electric feeling of suspenseful excitement and unlimited potential outcomes filling the air.  Wrapped in my fantasy of the past, I wandered the nearly deserted avenues until I spied a grassy knoll up ahead.  Conveniently enough, it was located right next to a biergarten.  I flirted briefly with the bartender then took my beer up to the top of the knoll, enjoying the smells of the trees and the bright green grass. The turf was springy and comfortable and I folded up into a pretzel, drank my beer, breathed in the sweet air and gazed around with fascination at the layout of the Park. After a while, I pulled out a book and flipped through a few chapters.  But by then I realized that I was just dawdling.  

For I had come here for a very specific reason; to cross something off my List.  And it mattered not that I had missed the climbs, there was still one more thing to do here.  Just to say that I did it.  I gathered my things, returned my glass to the bartender and meandered over to the building just up ahead.  I grinned nervously at the lady inside, asked a brief question and was pointed to a set of stairs leading down.  I nodded my thanks, gulped hard and slowly made my way downstairs, taking my time to look at the picture of each Olympian that graced the walls and thinking again of what it must have been like to be here, competing for the honor of your country. I changed quickly, stowed my pack in a locker, wrapped the locker key around my wrist and went out through the huge glass doors.  Instantly, my nose was filled with that familiar smell and my ears were filled with the echoes of the voices of those inside bouncing like a rubber ball off the interior walls.  I realized that I had stopped, shook myself, and pressed on to the center of the room.  I climbed up on my little platform, bent down and gripped the edge.  I leaned back in a half-crouch and took several slow, deep breaths to calm myself and open my lungs.  I was vaguely aware that some eyes were on me but tried to ignore that, instead attempting to turn my focus into a laser beam of precision on the task ahead.  Okay, you're here.  It's now or never.  I took another slow deep breath, chanting to myself I can I can I can over and over in my head - my mantra for whenever I think that I, in fact, can't.  Mind over matter.

If I may break my narration for a moment, I think it's fair to mention that I don't hit this point too often.  I'm remarkably fearless about a wide variety of things (as many, I raise tigers and leopards in my spare time) but there is one thing that I am near phobia levels on and that is water.  It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline to keep me from panicking when I am in the water.  And it doesn't matter if it's a pool or a lake or a river or the ocean.  I don't like it.  I'm not comfortable in it.  And so I push myself.  Knowing that my fear is not rational, I push.  And pull.  For example, the shark cage dive I want to do will freak me out not because of the giant man-eating fish giving me the hairy eyeball when it glides by, but because I will be submerged in the water.  But I'm still going to do it. Because I am stronger than my fears and I refuse to let my life be dictated in any way, no matter how small, by them.

And so it was that I found myself the other day with a death-grip on a starting platform, staring out at a large expanse of water in front of me and chanting to myself, hearing nothing but the bass drum of my heart pounding a war beat in my ears and the shaky adagio of my own shallow breath.  Because I was in the Olympic Swimhall and I wanted to be able to say that I had swum 100 meters in an Olympic Swimming Pool.  Because that's just cool.  I mentally shook myself, filled my lungs to bursting with chlorine-laced air, rocked back another centimeter and launched myself into the air.  I hit the water a little more awkwardly than I would have liked but threw my hands up anyway and began to butterfly towards the other end, 25 meters away. 

The butterfly didn't last very long. 

It's been a while, give me a break.  I remembered how to do it but this apparently doesn't count for a whole lot if you can't get your body to duplicate what your mind thinks it knows how to do.  Which sucks because that was my best stroke.  Ah, well.  So I settled into a lazy breaststroke until I hit the wall at the other end, turned and freestyled back.  I attempted the flip turn when I got to the other side but my brain wasn't communicating to my body again and I ended up with my head down, legs sticking straight up out of the water.  Lovely.  I righted myself and used this opportunity to catch my breath.  Okay, it's been a really long time.  Really really long.  To be honest, I think the last time I swam laps competitively or otherwise was when I was on the swim team in the 9th grade.  So it's been a while.  And I am not even close to being in the same shape now that I was then.  But I was only 50 meters in and I wanted to complete the full 100.  And the dark spots that had been dancing in front of my eyes had mostly faded so I felt ready to press on.  

I grabbed the wall and pushed off hard with my legs.  This went much smoother than my previous attempts.  I backstroked the last two laps, grateful for a stroke that let me breathe this much.  By the time I was done, I really was done.  My arms, my back, my legs and oddly enough, my neck were cursing at me in fifteen different languages and I wearily agreed with them.  I ducked under the lane ropes and floated over to the shallow end to catch my breath again and attempt to recover.  I looked around at the others sharing my space while I did so.  Over by the diving boards, there was a class learning a few complicated maneuvers with varying degrees of success.  At the very end of the far left lane, there were children learning how to jump into the deep end.  There was a little boy in a bright green bathing suit that kept staring into the water, then running to the back of the line.  I totally knew what he felt like, having experienced that "nuh-uh" train of thought many times myself while staring into the deep end.  When there was no one left, he stood there clasping and unclasping his hands, nervously shifting from foot to foot.  He backed up a step, then two, then took a deep breath and rocketed forward, splashing into the water quite spectacularly.  I was proud of him and knew 100% how accomplished he must have felt having conquered his fears.  I swam around for a little while longer then finally dragged myself out of the pool and toddled back to the locker room. 

By the way, a word of advice to anyone who goes to the Olympic Park to swim—bring a towel.  Because they don't provide them.  And it's really quite difficult to pull jeans on over a wet body.  I somehow managed to get dressed again, squeezed my suit out and stashed it in the bottom of my backpack then took a minute to weave my wet hair into a loose braid.  I glanced in the mirror and was moderately excited to see that I didn't look like I had been run over with anything made by John Deere.  I dragged my tired legs back up the stairs, waved at the woman behind the desk and headed back out into the delicious sunshine.  I treated myself to a strawberry cone and made it last all the way to the subway.  As I shuffled back to the hotel, I stopped by to see my friends at the döner shop and bought two döners, some baklava and a Coke Light.  Have to balance out all that exercise somehow, you know?  I washed the first döner down with the Coke Light and decided that there was no way in hell I could eat two of those things in a row and had obviously still been short on oxygen when I had made that purchasing decision.  I did however manage to consume two small squares of honey-soaked baklava and licked my fingers clean afterwards.  Something that good should not be wiped off on a mere napkin. And so I was able to cross something else off my List and make a nice day out of the activity. 

Next up on the List is the opera, which should be fun.  I was pissed that I was going to miss every single showing of Doktor Faust and arrived twenty minutes too late to seeTristan und Isolde.  Why on earth would I think that the main show on a Monday would be at four in the afternoon?!?!?!  Ridiculous.  I really wanted to see that, too.  Sucks.  But this rock opera should be interesting.  It's called Christ O which makes you think that it's about one thing, but the pictures for it look like Ann Rice may have had a hand in the character creation so that's clearly something completely different.  When I asked the ticket lady what it was about she would only say that it was very intense and disturbing. O-kay.  That tells me that I'm going to like it, but still nothing about the plot.  Ah, well.  I suppose I'll find out soon enough.  Plus, it's opera.  I don't think you're really supposed to understand it.

The next day I decided to shop around and basically just enjoy wandering through Munich's busy streets.  I jumped on the subway and came up right by a fruit stand, praise the lord.  Thirty seconds and one euro later I had a thin plastic container filled to the brim with darkly ripe blackberries and was contentedly popping them in my mouth in rapid succession while window shopping up the street.  I bought a few things I needed and several that I truly didn't but wanted to buy anyway (including a rather expensive perfume that I purchased solely because of the packaging.  It was pink and had skulls on it!  What more could a girl want?  Thankfully, it smells really nice) before finding a courtyard with an outdoor café.  I settled into a shady seat with a good view of the street for people watching and was delighted to find that I had finally hit the point where I could read the entire menu and understand it.  I may not be able to hold a full conversation in German but at least I can eat and shop and really, what is more important than that?  I sat back, enjoying the warmth of the day and the quiet sounds of conversation floating around me. When my plate came, I dug hungrily into the thick slices of buffalo mozzarella and bright wedges of tomato all drenched in an oily pesto that had been placed before me.  The waiter brought by a few slices of crusty bread, perfect for sopping up the remains on the plate.  I had asked for the biggest glass they had and indeed it was massive, filled to the brim with frosty sparkling apfelschörle.  I drained my glass and decided that this had been the perfect lunch.  So of course, I had to go and ruin it.  Across the way I had spied a bakery and was curious to see what fabulous chocolatey delights were hiding inside.  I walked in, drinking deeply of the sugar-scented air and spotted what I had been looking for for simply weeks!  The Prince Regente Torte.  Kind of the national cake of Bavaria. Seven layers of chocolate, biscuit and cream and absolutely massive.  It was like a brick.  I gaped at it then weakly pointed at a much smaller chocolate and nut confection that looked like it wouldn't cause quite the same amount of internal damage as the torte. I'll have to come back and get a slice when I haven't eaten for a few days and might actually be able to finish it.  At least now I know where they sell it, so that's something. 

Random observation – I wonder why it is that all German dogs look like Muppets?  They all have that kind of generalized scruffiness going on.  Odd.

Another random thought – why is it that I am thisclose to Italy yet it is patently impossible to get a decent gnocchi over here?  Luckily, the gelato is lovely but I would commit several minor crimes to get a half-decent plate of gnocchi that didn't taste like little potato bullets.

One more comment about food and then I'm done for the time being.  They've got this thing called Red Bull Cola over here.  Which pretty much explains what it is.  The tagline is "Strong and Natural" and I figure that one out of two isn't that bad on the accuracy scale. It tastes pretty much like standard cola until you get to the aftertaste which made me want to reach inside my mouth and yank my esophagus out.  It's the kind of aftertaste that makes me seriously want to read the ingredients but I have enough common sense to know that ignorance is bliss in situations like this.  Red Bull has a decidedly different taste all by itself but when combined with generic cola it gets this flavor that makes me think for some strange unknown reason of licking a moose's behind.  Not that I've ever done that, although there were seemingly endless opportunities while I was in Wyoming, but this is what I would imagine that tastes like.  Complete with hairy tongue feeling.  And I fell asleep shortly thereafter so so much for waking me up.  On the flip side, nearly a month of four hours sleep a night on average will most likely overcome a single Red Bull Cola.  But still. I have certain expectations of my energy drinks that need to be maintained.  And really, if I can't feel my heart fluttering like a caged bird inside my chest within thirty seconds of consuming one I'm thinking it's just not all that terribly effective.

But onto other things!  I mentioned earlier about going to a rock opera – Christ O.  And as I mentioned before, I was ve-e-e-ery interested to see what this was all about.  Supposedly it has nothing to do with Christ so there goes that theory.  And the white powdered head of the scary person in black on the posters was apparently not a vampire so Theory 2 was shot down.  I asked our local guide The Bavarian and he would only tell me that people have been so offended that they have walked out.  This just made me want to see it even more, which is also why The Bavarian gives me strange looks sometimes.  So when I got there, I was delighted to see that there was a small merchandise shop staffed with someone who hopefully spoke a little English.  And he did speak exactly that - a little English - but enough so that as I stumbled through some German and pantomimed a whole lot (you try pantomiming "What the hell is this thing about?" and see how far you get) he got what I was asking.  He picked up a thick book and pointed at the cover.  The title was in German but I could read the author's name loud and clear.  Alexander Dumas.  Christ O = The Count of Monte Cristo!  A-HA!  I thanked him profusely for his assistance and weaved back into the main lobby, slightly stunned from the eight thousand lightbulbs that just simultaneously lit and then exploded above my head.  I love Alexander Dumas and now felt like I knew what the heck I was going to be watching. 

I trundled up a half dozen short staircases before arriving at the first balcony where I plopped myself down in my excellent seat in the first row, nearly dead center.  Perfect. After a few moments the lights dimmed and the show began.  It started out well enough, showing in a dreamlike fashion how the soon-to-be Count was wronged by his friends and taken away from his true love, Mercedes.  So far, I'm keeping up.  But then, suddenly, inexplicably, I'm in Oz.  Or more accurately, the Masquerade sequence from Phantom of the Opera has gone to Oz.  By way of Wednesday Addams.  I really can't think of how else to describe what was on stage at this point.  It was clearly the inside of an opulent mansion, complete with curving staircase to the balcony above.  The cast was all dressed in masquerade costumes but all with a decidedly gothic twist.  I, personally, have never seen a nun showing quite as much leg or bosom.  And they were all in poisonous green.  ALL of them.  Including all the interior decorations.  It actually made me feel a bit nauseous.  And then of course, they started singing.  And I had thought something was amiss when I had heard the first song, prior to being dropped into Oz.  But as I couldn't hear the words very clearly, I wasn't 100% sure that I was hearing what I thought I was hearing.  But now, with the second song rattling the chandelier above and the voices piling over each other like a rich sundae of sound, I realized that I was correct in my earlier suspicion.  They were all singing in English!!!  I would like to pause for a moment to remind you that I am in Germany at the moment.  So this was strange stuff indeed.  And it was even subtitled in German!  High above on the proscenium arch the German words were flashed in time with each line of song.  Well.  This was certainly an unexpected development.  I get to practice my German AND understand what the heck is going on with a German opera!  Huzzah!  Tragically, the song ended and the cast started speaking.  In German now.  Oh, well.  I had figured it was probably too good to last.  I started looking forward to the next song as it was becoming rapidly apparent that this opera was only loosely based on Dumas' story.  For example, I don't remember the Count submerging a man in a bathtub, slitting his throat and then setting him on fire.  Of course, it's been a while since I've read it but I would think that sort of thing would make an impression on a young mind.  They sure did have that happen on stage, though!  God, I love the theatre!  I also don't remember Dumas writing anything about any of the antagonists strutting around in a metal-studded leather thong and strangling a prostitute with a pair of handcuffs while going at it with her.  Or shooting the other one on the roof after she (understandably) ran away.  Again, it's been awhile. 

So the opera goes on, with me thinking that I'm getting most of it thanks to my love of the original story as well as the English words in the songs.  And I really liked their take on it. It's such a dark story to begin with, going the gothic route with it is a natural fit.  It only seems natural to see the characters in leather, dragging themselves around all depressed and looking for all the world as though they are crying clove and absinthe-scented tears on stage.  And the leading man was incredible.  All of their voices were really amazing but he was absolutely captivating.  Naturally, I have a gigantic crush on him now.  Even though I'm watching him murder his way through the cast and he's all eyelinered and demonic and scary, he has a beautiful voice and really great hair.  And if I'm to be a gothic princess I need a similarly attired prince and he fits the bill.  Naturally, he's the lead singer of a German progressive metal band so I'm sure I have to stand in line for him.  But in the meantime I shall be snapping up all their albums as soon as I am able.  After the show, the cast came out to sign autographs and take pictures and after much pushing and shoving I was able to get my picture with him so that was awesome. He looks like he's going to bite my face off in the photo, but whatever.  I had a great time and wish that I was able to see it again.