The God of Mission Street

San Francisco’s brightest and most vital blocks may be on Mission Street.  I include nearly every blood-throbbing centimeter between 25th and 22nd, then some of the homely and magnificent acres north and south.

These blocks are only occasionally and accidentally pretty, and not a safe bet for some tourists.  Attractive or not: San Francisco is at its most alive on them.  The felon freshly disgorged to freedom after decades behind bars, with gate money and ill-fitting clothes; the last-will-and-testament writing terminal cancer patient, told that it’s not melanoma after all; the grim, waters-of-the-Golden-Gate-contemplating would-be suicide, who decides to give the world one more try: to these blocks of Mission Street they can come to drink in raw, skin-blistering life through their pores, to count themselves among the living.

Mural at Mission and 19th Streets

Mural at Mission and 19th Streets

Walk in the sun on the east side, by Imperial Travel, Lucky Pork Market, Sun Fat Seafood, among odors of sweat, exhaust, empanadas, marijuana; sidestep workers, loungers, drifters, giggling kindergartners leaping sidewalk cracks, a leathery-cheeked Guatemalteco with crisp-molded tejano over brilliantined black widow’s peak, hawking sugary raspados from an ice cream cart.  Feel your eardrums pulse with the mad dissonant ostinato of horns, whistles, catcalls, burbling exhausts, conversation snatches (I got HER name tatted here, ‘n’ she tatted MY name; I heard those very words on Mission, just last week), smooth-droning trolleys, the newsrack-rattling subterranean roar of a passing BART metro.  Many, many San Francisco blocks are wealthier, prettier, safer, cleaner; only Market serves up life as intensely.

Who made it so?

I walked Mission shortly after my return to the Bay Area in 2011, still remember the uncomfortable wonder I felt, the disturbing sense that the whole of what surrounded me was larger than the sum of its parts.  Too much larger; who had conspired, say, to paste up this protest poster (with grim, apocalyptic, fist-upthrusting Siqueiros marchers, in last stand yellow and black) next to the meek window display of a beauty supply house, plumping dainty chrome shears and curling irons on crushed red velvet?

Clarion Alley Mural Project at Mission and Clarion

Clarion Alley Mural Project at Mission and Clarion

Too many elements worked too well together; too many details had been primped, fussed over, tucked in.  Any level-eyed rationalist would have attributed the pleasing aesthetics to happy accident, but I was skeptical.  The furniture pieces of a perfect set don’t fly on a stage by themselves. I sensed a larger hand at work, a scenographer, a silent mastermind.

Perhaps Mission Street had a god.

Yes!  That explained it!  This was the fantasy that emerged during my Mission walks in 2011.  Mission had a puppeteer, a demigod, foreman to some city acres, uninvolved with others, likely senior to deities that oversaw less demanding turf.  (How much imagination would a god really need to run mostly-all-the-same Billionaire’s Row or Sunnydale?)

I contemplated a deified, beneficent Carlos Santana type — a natural, given the Mission’s Latino heritage — but was surprised that my imaginings wouldn’t be steered that way.  Too predictable; the afterlife wouldn’t go in for such typecasting; no, the god of the Mission would be other-than-expected, a celestial Oscar Diggs, like a tweedy and apologetic Bennington MFA who offers a too gentle handshake to horrified fans of his ghostwritten Grunts on Guadal series at a book signing.

2500 block of Mission Street

2500 block of Mission Street

The character and Identi-Kit facial composite of this deity then matured so quickly and effortlessly in my mind’s eye that I took my imaginings half-seriously, admit to taking them half-seriously now.  After all, we don’t really know about these things, do we?  Didn’t Einstein meditate upon the weakness of human understanding of nature?

Maybe I just think this God-of-the-Mission bit is imaginary.

Maybe he’s a real He.

* * * * *

The God of Mission Street was a tall, slender, gay caucasian male in his last terrestrial incarnation, neither native son nor recent gentrifier.  He aspired seriously to a design career before falling to AIDS in the worst U.S. years of the epidemic.  Something Larger (about which I dare not speculate) took simple pity on him in the afterlife, requisitioned a minor divinity’s toolkit, promoted him to a Him.  He wore his hair short in his mortal years, cut a preppy-flavored variant of the then-ubiquitous Castro Clone.  The online B.A.R. obituaries include his mortal photo and bio, but He won’t reveal details of His past identity or year of death, despite our other confidences.  Click through the obits, if you wish; your guess is as good as mine.

His taste is excellent.  I picture Him in the other-worldly ether with a thoughtful fingertip poised on cheek, brooding over His dominion as an architect might study an N scale model, contemplating enhancement or replication of one scene element, elimination of another.  The surly, beer bottle-brandishing drunk in the tank top — an obvious gym rat, dressed to flaunt weight room biceps and delts, eyes watery, lips stuporous under Fu Manchu moustache — would go well near the Mega Trading Company marquee, wouldn’t he?  Let’s shoo him over there, encourage him to slouch on a parking meter.  How about those polyester-suited Filipino oldsters handing out Bible tracts: too predictable in front of Bonita Footwear, aren’t they?  Let’s move them in front of Anna’s Linens (or would that be too jarring?  Hmmm.)

3400 block of Mission Street

3400 block of Mission Street

I’m afraid He isn’t a particularly nice god.  How could He be?  Life on Mission is often cruel.  I wouldn’t waste breath entreating Him if struck down by a car; He’d only urge me to a curb where my blood and screams might juxtapose well with the newspaper racks.  Vibe and aesthetics are His thing; thank Him for Mission’s character, nothing else.  He shows no special allegiance to gay culture, and is not all-powerful; if He were, Mission Street would include only a few, specific chain stores.  He occasionally asks me for feedback, as I am one of the few mortals aware of His existence, but only about aesthetics.

His era may be ending.  I have kept quiet about the luscious vitality of these Mission blocks since 2011, for fear that even my scribbles in this modest blog might attract unproductive attention, but see no point in embargoing the news any longer.  The Mission is changing, won’t be what it was.  San Francisco is such a tech hub now; industry workers have moved into the district, transformed Valencia Street, are spilling onto Mission, too.  The God of the Mission can work an occasional stray Python programmer into His aesthetic mix (plump, blinking, twenty-five, with unsuccessful hipster beard curling over a SourceForge t-shirt, frowning at his Tinder profile on his smartphone next to La Taqueria), but so many of the pearly-toothed Mountain View shuttle bus rider types are wandering onto Mission now.  They change the mix of the cultural topsoil, as talented, hard-working and admirable as they might be; they encourage a different and less variegated flora than the Mission of old.  The God of the Mission tries to coax them back to Bi-Rite and Dandelion and the Dolores Park hill near the J-Line, where they fit in splendidly, but that’s not in His territory and they won’t all go, and He can’t integrate all that remain.  His time is ending.  He doesn’t have the same material to work with, will have to move on.

RIP Mike Grochowiak memorial mural on Mission Street

RIP Mike Grochowiak memorial mural on Mission Street

But not today, not in the summer of 2015.  Visit soon!  Mission Street still feels mostly as it did when I marveled at it in 2011.  Pretend that you just got out, or learned that it’s not malignant, or have chosen to risk one more day of life.  Walk the brilliant, teeming blocks I’ve named, and try to glimpse the mastermind that made them so exquisite: contemplating His turf from a misty hereafter, brooding over His chess pieces.

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Home Coffee Roasting: A New Hobby

No, the contraption shown below is not a toaster oven. You can even watch the inventor shudder online when told that his pride and joy resembles one. It’s a Behmor home coffee roaster, and is photographed atop my kitchen table ’cause it belongs to me. I have stunk up the garage with fumes from about fifteen roasts now, am fascinated enough by my new hobby to want to drone about it here.

Tim's Behmor 1600+ coffee roaster

Behmor 1600+ coffee roaster

This is a personal blog. I don’t have advertisers, don’t want any, write about whatever weirdsville subject catches my fancy.

Today, it’s home coffee roasting.

* * * * *

Question #1: What is it?

The occasionally smoky and always odoriferous cooking up of raw green coffee beans.

At left, below: some Ethiopia Agaro beans, fetched from a one pound bag sold by Sweet Maria’s coffee warehouse in West Oakland. Green little buggers, aren’t they? You wouldn’t try to put these guys in a coffee grinder, would you? No! They’re green. Raw. Unready.

Few markets sell green coffee beans. Home roasters buy from Sweet Maria’s or other specialty suppliers.

At right: a roast of Guatemala Finca Candeleria Bourboncito after a cruise in the Behmor.

Green and roasted coffee beans

Green and roasted coffee beans

Brown. Cooked. (If only you could smell them a day after the roast, you unlucky instant drinker, you!) Ready for the burr grinder.

Question #2: Why bother?

In coffee, freshness counts. A lot. The unroasted green beans can slumber contentedly for eons, but the browned, cooked bean retains full flavor for a matter of days.

DAYS, folks. Cognoscenti differ on how many. I have tasted a difference after only three.

The majors can angle for first dibs on crops, hire PhDs to craft roast curves, cook up beans on gazillion dollar hardware. They still can’t economically supply consumers with genuinely fresh roasted coffee beans. I don’t care how much they pay TruthStretchers Inc. to lean on a Fresh! Fresh! Fresh! theme in an ad campaign. The roast date won’t be on the package, or will be printed in an eeny-weeny-teeny coded cipher that Betty BeanBuyer won’t see or understand. That bag of whole beans that Betty sticks in her cart might be months old.

The home roaster bets that his genuinely fresh roasted beans will mop the floor with hopelessly stale commercial beans, PhDs and gazillion dollar hardware notwithstanding.

Question #3: Is there a catch?

There are several.

  • The biggest: Smoke and smell. The Behmor advertises ‘smoke suppression technology,’ but still stinks plenty, and sometimes emits smoke. I expect my garage to reek for twelve hours after a roast, and would never use a home roaster in an apartment or condo.
Green coffee beans from Sweet Maria's

Bags of green coffee beans

  • Time and trouble. I need a half hour to roast eight ounces, counting set-up, cool down, clean-up. That’s a serious investment of tickety-tock for a wage earner hankering after a drinkable shot of morning caffeine. It’s no accident that I took up this hobby in retirement.
  • Potential danger. Over-roasted beans can catch fire.

Question #4: How’s it done?

  • Acquire raw coffee beans.
  • Apply heat. A drum roaster applies heat evenly, but beans can be roasted in frying pans, in popcorn poppers, with heat guns in dog bowls, in jerry-rigged backyard barbecue add ons. (And fires can be started while doing so. I am providing an overview, not instructions.)
  • Wait. The beans shall brown, warm, remain unready for some minutes, depending on batch size.
  • Listen. Eventually the beans will emit a sharp cracking sound, a bit like popping popcorn. First there will be one, two or three cracks; soon there will be many. “First crack” is underway. The roaster is paying excruciatingly close attention now, and is ready to end the roast at any time, depending on taste.
  • Listen II: The beans may be quiet for awhile after first crack ends.
Digital scale

Digital scale

  • Listen III: Eventually the lighter, faster, quieter poppety-pop of ‘second crack’ may be heard. Most end a home roast at this point, unless after a dark Vienna or darker-still French roast.

(Roasters use the terms City, City+, Full City and Full City+ to describe roast levels before Vienna. No idea why.)

Question #5: Does it matter?

I wonder. Aficionados rate Ethiopia, Kenya, and Guatemala among the world’s best coffee growing regions. These countries are dirt poor. As a veteran of a 501(c)3, I am much smitten by the idea of voluntary wealth transfers from consumers with discretionary dollars to spend to poor providers with something desirable to sell.  Maybe I’m out to lunch. I don’t know the industry, might be barking up the wrong coffee shrub.

Gene Cafe and Hottop compete with Behmor in the home roaster market. To my knowledge, all home roasters emit smell and smoke, require careful monitoring. What if someone invents a home roasting Model T, a set-and-forget that doesn’t stink? Those superb cups of java I now take for granted would be within reach of apartment-dwelling 9-to-5ers.

* * * * *

Update, 6/16:  ‘Garages’ are what most little San Francisco row houses have.  Not basements.  I fixed the mistake in the first paragraph.

And while I’m at it: this post is intended for those interested in the taste of straight black coffee.  I reach immediately for sugar and lightener when consuming stale pre-ground hotel coffee on the road, but wouldn’t dream of using either with a home roast.  If your tastes run to sweet, flavored coffees, I’d feel safe in writing off home roasting as a waste of time.

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Transit vs Car: a Few Conclusions

“You were mostly a stay-put teacher, Tim, and now (you lucky, worthless bum, Tim) you’ve chased trams and metros in cities around the world. How has this affected your transit views?”

De-lighted you ask!

* * * * *

In Zurich, Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Stockholm and Amsterdam I traveled on transit networks that struck me as far superior to anything available in the states. Even New York City compares badly. Further, these cities are linked to other European metropolises by gleaming, clean, comfy, frequent running trains.

S-Bahn at Stadelhofen station in Zurich, Switzerland

S-Bahn at Stadelhofen station in Zurich, Switzerland

I believe many Americans would be shocked by the light-footed carfree mobility available in these cities. (Although their transit networks coexist with auto traffic.) Hop on a train downtown; hop on a tram or bus for shopping; hop on another train for a weekend in Paris, Rome, Vienna; go wherever you wish, no car needed. The USA doesn’t just fail to match up; it looks backward, pathetic.

In Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and Shanghai, I rode huge, modern, clean, jam-packed metros that advertise poorly for the carfree life, and would make many tourists thankful for cars in sprawling suburbs. I couldn’t and can’t picture Asian VIPs getting around in these swamped-with-humanity subways. The brawny rail transit networks are for separate-and-unequal masses, and underscored the hated car’s potential role as an equalizer, a liberator.

Hong Kong subway

Hong Kong subway

In Rome and Buenos Aires, I rode wretched, graffiti’d metros that I interpreted as failures of government, that reminded me of municipal dysfunction sometimes seen in the U.S.

* * * * *

I suspect that most cities are kludges, as the human brain is an evolutionary kludge, and grew in messy, helter-skelter ways. Visiting dozens of ’em helped hammer that point home. New York City got a subway to transport dense-dwelling masses when cars were finicky, pricey and rare. Greater Los Angeles, in turn, mostly happened in the age of the automobile, and had plenty of real estate to spread upon.

Subte C line Metro at Constitucion station in Buenos Aires

Subte C line Metro at Constitucion station in Buenos Aires

I may adore planned, transit-oriented developments like those surrounding Stockholm and Copenhagen, but can’t cite all that many of them. Human agglomerations may be unpredictable, tough to accommodate in long-range plans. What if Henry Ford hadn’t grown up in Michigan?

What gets built generally stays put, for better or worse, becomes part of city infrastructure until the next catastrophe or war. Los Angeles and Houston freeways are the homely fruit of billions of investment dollars. These cities are as likely to reinvent themselves as transit Shangri-las as Mount Everest is to reinvent itself as a cow pasture.

* * * * *

I’m more convinced than ever that big, thriving cities as a whole — and please heed that qualifier, gentle reader — can fare better by emphasizing alternatives to the car. They can be greener, better looking, safer, friendlier, less congested, more walkable, superior in almost every respect. The personal automobile deserves its rep as one of history’s most destructive consumer products.

Alas, if the city can’t or won’t make car alternatives work, the individual member of that vast municipal organism may be better off if she owns one. Cars are speedier, more comfortable, tote cargo, don’t go on strike, insulate riders from vomiting drunks and other unappealing fellow citizens. Most importantly, the personal car encourages the kind of spread-out, quarter-acre-of-your-own, every-man-a-king living that urban planners decry as sprawl, but that can look mighty appealing to someone trapped in a transit-friendly cubbyhole next door to a Death Metal buff.

I can’t prove it, but would make book that virtually all American politicians and VIPs choose the personal car for their own travel. (Some credible exceptions: Michael Bloomberg of New York, VP Joe Biden, Berkeley mayor Tom Bates.) I can’t see Miley or the Biebs closing the concert early to catch the last Wilshire 720; can you? I think Jane Q. Public should assume that the U.S.A.’s rich and celebrated are going to get around in cars, and that a call for her to rely on a transit pass is an implied call for her to live without a luxury they’ll retain for themselves.

Jane can contemplate the deal she is getting — not the deal described in a perhaps compromised local press, but the deal she sees and experiences with her own eyes. If she’s in Zurich, Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Stockholm or Amsterdam, she’s getting an extraordinarily good deal, and may actually be joined on those S-Bahn trains by city leaders on their everyday commutes. The transit dream works in these places. I know it does; I’ve seen it.

Central train station in Copenhagen, Denmark

Central train station in Copenhagen, Denmark

In other cities, Jane gets a good-enough deal; in still others, a so-so deal. In many habitually dysfunctional cities, the deal is rotten, and sincere, committed individual leaders in that city may be powerless to make it any better.

If a disease like ebola ever goes airborne, commuters will cling to their cars like starving refugees clinging to loaves of bread, and will despise the earth trod by anyone who ever tried to talk them out of their car keys.

And finally:

If I am still so gung-ho on transit — and I am, more than ever, which amazes me a bit; my fingers practically shook with eagerness to vote against San Francisco’s Proposition L, even though I’ve never seen a San Francisco pol aboard Muni — I may hurt my own cause by describing choices so plainly. The city that hopes to coax its masses into buses and trains may never succeed if many talk up the superior comfort of that environmentally profligate urban cancer known as the private auto. The city may need to ‘fake it until it makes it.’

Perhaps Mother Earth needs writers who will carry Her divine water.

Posted in Europe, Los Angeles MTA mass public transit environmentalism Red Line Purple Line Blue Line Green Line, Travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tips for New or Rusty Travelers

I didn’t travel much in my teaching years.  I flew home to visit family on holidays, sent two summers parsing Spanish verbs in Cuernavaca.  That was about all.

I decided to make up for lost time after I retired, and commenced the world wanderings chronicled in photo albums and blog posts past.  I wanted to travel solo, have done all my getting around in thirty cities and five continents on my own.

Norwegian Air flight over Northern Canada

Norwegian Air flight over Northern Canada

The getting around has been much easier than I’d expected.  English is a near global lingua franca now, rightfully or not, and the internet and smartphones have smoothed many of the rough edges of trip planning.  That said, I also learned plenty, and realized during a recent dinner with friends that (a) not everyone knows about smartphone currency apps and compression sacs and international debit cards, and (b) many would like to know, so they can go gallivanting about the globe, too.

The flow chart below summarizes what I’ve learned.  It’s incomplete, and far from expert; FlyerTalk forums are regularly frequented by folks who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about international travel.  I humbly hope that it’s better than no post at all.

Off we go:

Caveat emptor

You’re probably better off with a packaged tour or cruise if disorganized, inappropriately trusting of strangers, or eager to visit a potentially dangerous or primitive place.  I have stuck mostly to low-hanging tourist fruit, and left frolics in the IS caliphate to CNN reporters.

Do you have a passport?

You’ll need one:  http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english.html/

Figure six weeks processing time and $135.  A passport book will suffice; you don’t need a passport card.

Travel gear, excluding smartphone

These products have worked for me.  You may find better elsewhere.  Full disclosure:  I own shares in VFC, parent company of Eagle Creek, and in Verizon.

()  Travel vest.  Indispensable for carrying stuff.  I have traveled with a netbook-sized computer in a travel vest pocket when concerned about the weight of my carry-on.  The zippered inside pockets aren’t pickpocket-proof, but come close.   I check forecasts before I leave, and board with either a standard Scottevest vest or one of their cold weather jackets; I own both.   If it’s just barely cold enough for the latter, I can unzip the sleeves and morph it into a cold weather vest.

REI also sells travel vests.  I liked the first Scottevest well enough to buy a second.

()  Luggage.  Airlines may rarely lose bags, but I don’t want to give them the chance to lose mine, and am a card-carrying member of the “carry on at all costs” party.

All airlines publish size and weight limits for carry-on luggage.  Sometimes they enforce these limits, sometimes they don’t … but they always can, and the bag deemed too heavy or too large will get an unasked-for ride on the baggage carousel.  I want my carry-on to be within their published limits, for size and especially for weight.

Weight issues retired my 22 x 14 x 9, within-domestic-airline-limits carry-on earlier this year.  I had heaved this rollaboard into the overhead bins of flights to South America, Canada, Asia and Europe without a single check-in.  In early 2015, the same bag was flagged and checked-in twice for weight, and a nice sit on the bathroom scale showed why.  It weighs ten pounds empty.  I could stay inside the fifteen pound limit imposed by some international airlines by packing three pairs of jeans, and absolutely nothing else.

I bought a 1½ pound, 22 x 16 x 8 Cabin Max Metz for my last international trip and was pleased with it, although it feels more like a kid’s knapsack than luggage for grown-ups.  It is not a rollaboard, possesses no wheels, can’t be tugged behind me.  I have to tote it on my back, contentedly or not, but the bag’s 1½ pound weight allows room for 13½ pounds of luggage.

I also considered an eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior, but was unhappy with the base weight of 3 pounds plus.

22” x 14” x 9” and fifteen pounds is safe for most airlines, but some budget airlines are more restrictive.  Remember: they write their own regs, can enforce them as they see fit.

Airlines generally allow a second, smaller “personal item.”  This is always my camera bag, and I have no counsel to offer on alternatives.

I am not the only traveler concerned about carry-ons.  Please see:

http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/travel-products/895927-lightest-carry-bag.html

for six years and thirty pages of online discussion.

You’ll discover at the airport that many who do check in bags pay to have these bags swaddled in plastic wrap:

http://www.cnbc.com/id/101545775

()  Compression sacs.  Stuff in some bulky clothes, roll the sacs up tight, squeegee out all the excess air.  I forked over twenty bucks for the Eagle Creek Travel Gear Pack-It Medium/Large Compression Sac Set, and was surprised by how well it worked.

Compression sacs t’ain’t the same as “packing cubes,” of which I know little.

()  RFID blocking wallet, so nogoodniks can’t slurp up your credit card information with an RFID reader.   The Travelon RFID Blocking Billfold bought in 2011 still looks nearly new in 2015.

()  International electric adapters.  That outlet next to you in the U.S. is 120V, 60 Hz, and accepts a Type B or Type A outlet.  Different countries do the electrical thing differently.  I rely on the list at: http://electricaloutlet.org/ , but know I can google <country name> electrical outlets if that site goes dark.

The five adapters in the Ceptics GP-5PK International Travel Worldwide Plug Adapter Set got my smartphone charged in every country except Italy, which required the separate purchase of a Type L adapter.  There’s probably a more elegant solution.

Please note: read the little labels on your electrical doo-dads to see if they can hack the frequency and 220 – 230V power they’ll often get overseas.  Sticking a plug adapter on the end isn’t the same as giving that doo-dad the juice it wants.

My modern smartphone and tablet computer are comfortable with 50 – 60 Hz and 100 – 240 volt power.  Yours might not be.

()  Travel security product.  Maybe you’ll take to a waist stash, or a neck stash, or a leg safe, or a bra pocket (not me!), or security socks, or a money belt, but you’ll likely want something to securely carry that which musn’t be stolen.

()  Casio DW5600E wristwatch, to easily add or subtract hours as I move across time zones.

()  If you qualify and are determined to do a lot of traveling, Global Entry may be a good investment.  First trip abroad?  Don’t bother.

Trains at Fiumicino Airport in Rome

Trains at Fiumicino Airport in Rome

Travel gear, smartphone

Jacob Appelbaum has described smartphones as “tracking devices that make phone calls.”  I think he makes an excellent point, but can’t imagine traveling without one.

I use the Android apps below, presume that iPhone equivalents are available for most.  The last is easily the most important, but is geeky, no longer available through Google Play, functions only on Android phones, and merits a separate discussion:

()  Easy Currency Converter, converts USD into 180+ other currencies.

()  1Weather, but be forewarned: I’ve been misled by out-of-country weather reports far more often than I expect to be in the states.  I don’t know why.

()  3D World Time, graphically displays local times worldwide.

()  Google Translate.  It’s free, and permits me to download complete, offline language packs for the countries I plan to visit.  I’ve never used it in any significant way, but always have the appropriate language packs ready before I travel, just in case.

()  OnTheFly, the smartphone app for ITA Software’s hunt-for-flights-and-airfares search engine, described below.

()  Hipmunk, the app for my second favorite hunt-for-flights-and-airfares search engine.

()  Moovit, the closest thing I’ve found to an international public transit app.  Moovit supports seventy U.S. cities and more than five hundred worldwide.  I use it in San Francisco, too.

And finally, the indispensable:

()  RMaps.  RMaps is an offline, Android-only map, that requires no internet connectivity to function on a smartphone.  Yes, you can use the free, ubiquitous, probably-already-loaded-on-your-smartphone Google Maps instead, but I find RMaps to be far less cumbersome.

Please skip to the next item if the following step-by-step reads like Greek, or consult a techie friend:

  • I log into Google Maps, decorate a personalized city map with ‘pins’ (aka, POIs) for attractions and transit stops I think important, and export the ‘pins’ to a .kmz file. (e.g., paris.kmz, barcelona.kmz)
  • I change the .kmz extension to .zip, and extract the .kml file therein.
  • I copy both the offline map and the .kml file to my RMaps-equipped Android smartphone.
  • When I reach the city in question, my cell phone’s GPS will indicate my location on the RMaps offline map with a little blue circle. When I move from block to unfamiliar block, the circle moves with me.  All my POIs show up, too, so I can see just how far I am from a transit stop or museum or restaurant, without the sluggishness of an online map rendering over a lousy connection.

RMaps is no longer in the Google Play store for Android apps, for reasons unknown.  You will have to learn about it yourself from the developer’s page.  This is plenty geeky stuff, for many, and I can’t and won’t provide advice.

Locus is an untried-by-me alternative to RMaps.  Google offers offline maps, too; I haven’t tried them.

Using a smartphone abroad

I signed up for Verizon global services, and query their online trip planner to see if I’ll need anything special to connect overseas.  So far, the trip planner has told me that I’ll need only my wallet.  I am generally charged about $25 per 100 megabytes of data used overseas, which adds up in a hurry, and strongly discourages idle web browsing without a wi-fi connection.  I usually expect to see an extra $100 or so on my cell phone bill for several weeks of data usage overseas.

In traffic enroute to Ezeiza airport near Buenos Aires

In shuttle bus enroute to Ezeiza Airport near Buenos Aires

I was stung once, badly, when I visited the United Arab Emirates, a country not then covered by Verizon’s $25-for-a-100-megabytes bundle.  I paid a thumping $500 in data charges for a couple of days in Dubai.  Ouch.  The Verizon trip planner had informed me that the UAE was pay as you go, but without a big font-ed warning about potentially high charges.  The moral: pay attention, and ask questions if in doubt.

Phone calls are more expensive still, but I rarely place voice calls abroad.

Verizon global services usually have worked well.  My cell phone takes a few minutes to hunt for service at the destination, then informs me that it’s connected with Vodafone or Telstra or some other local provider, and thereafter functions about as it does in the U.S.  Connections are slower, but usable.  I remember sporadic connectivity problems in some cities; I couldn’t check email in my hotel room, say, but could elsewhere.

I’m sure other carriers provide overseas packages, which may be cheaper and better than Verizon’s.  I don’t know, haven’t investigated.

Some travelers rely on wifi on the road.  I never use any service requiring a log-in with wifi, for security reasons, but may have missed out on a secure strategy for wi-fi use.  (VPN, perhaps.)  You’re not reading this post in Ars Technica.  I’m just a user.

Finally:  if your cell phone is unlocked  and you plan to be in one overseas place for awhile, you may want to swap in a local SIM card.  I haven’t yet lingered long enough in any one place overseas to make a local SIM cost effective.

Money issues abroad

I use a debit card to withdraw cash in the local currency at the airport ATM, then stop at a currency exchange counter on my way out of town to change any remaining funds to U.S. dollars, or the currency of my choice.  If I’m flying from Seoul to Shanghai, for instance, I might change remaining won to yuan.

International ATMs bear the Plus or Cirrus symbol.  I haven’t had any trouble finding or using them, but often google “[airport name] ATMs” before leaving home.

Some debit cards allow no or low cost withdrawals overseas:

Please interrogate your financial institution about the fitness of your current suite of cards for international travel.  You don’t want to discover their inadequacies halfway around the globe.

If you doubt that you can withdraw funds from an overseas ATM, you could bring U.S. dollars in a travel security product (see above) as a back-up.

I swapped my debit and credit cards for cards with pins, for reasons explained at:

Card issuers vary, but most will want to be informed in advance of international travel.

Cabbies in some cities try to curry favor with prospective clients by lingering near airport ATMs to offer unsolicited advice to arriving passengers on use of the machines.  I don’t like chatting with strangers while fetching money, but can’t recommend a method to shoo them away.  In Santiago, I had to pretend to get angry.

In Changi Airport in Singapore

In Changi Airport in Singapore

I naively visited one Shanghai bank in the hope of changing a single twenty dollar bill to yuan.  I got it changed, all right … after forty minutes with a stoney-faced bank manager hovering over the teller’s shoulder.  Such a transaction was an unfamiliar big deal to them.  I learned my lesson, and have stuck with ATMs and currency exchange counters ever since.

Considering a destination

You’ve got a destination in mind, and want to know when to visit, and if you should visit at all.  Check out:

()  travel.state.gov.  Enter the country’s name in the ‘learn about your destination box’ on the home page, then investigate:

•  Entry, Exit & Visa Requirements, to see if you’ll need a visa.  If the answer is ‘yes,’ you’ll probably have to study tedious ‘how to get a visa’ information on the country’s embassy web site, mail in your passport with an application and fat fee to the embassy office, and wait to get the passport back.  Alternatively, you could allow time for a couple of tedious visits to a local consular office.

(Some countries make it easier.  Visitors to Argentina must fill out an online form and pay a $160 ‘reciprocity fee,’ but nothing more.)

I wanted to ride the Moscow subway badly enough to get a visa, but have otherwise avoided destinations that require one.

•  Safety and Security, to see if crime is a concern

•  Health, for information on recommended vaccinations.  I haven’t had to get one yet.

()  wikitravel.org, this wikipedia page or some other site for a notion of how many locals speak English.

()  numbeo.com/cost-of-living/ , for an idea of how much you’ll pay for stuff while there

And finally:

()  travel.usnews.com, or another web site, for the best time to visit.  This matters plenty.  You might enjoy Dubai in January, wouldn’t enjoy it at all in August.

Look for a flight

Prices can vary dramatically.  For example: as of early May, 2015, I can book a one way economy non-stop from San Francisco to Zurich in mid June for around $2,900 through Swiss or United.  I can check Hipmunk and book essentially the same ticket through a consolidator — an independent company that buys tickets in bulk, then resells them — for about $1,200.  Or, I can research my own $740 itinerary by combining an Oakland-to-Stockholm nonstop on Norwegian with a Stockholm-to-Zurich flight on SAS.

Price differentials like that are the norm.  I don’t always find a cheap way to get there, but rarely regret the search.

ITA Matrix has been much complained about in Flyer Talk forums since it became part of the Google fold, but is still my first choice search engine.   Hipmunk is my second choice.  Hipmunk — and momondo, skyscanner, mobissimo, kayak, others — will show prices available from consolidators.  Matrix won’t.

 

In Athens International Airport

In Athens International Airport

 

Results from Southwest and a few other carriers won’t show in these search engines, and can be hunted for on the carriers’ individual web sites.

Norwegian and WOW both offer low fares to Europe.  I haven’t used WOW yet, but have flown Norwegian often, with good results and one qualification: they’ve struggled to get reliable performance from their 787s.

I experienced only one significant delay on Norwegian, but still try not to count on an on-time Norwegian arrival when drafting travel plans.

Skytrax ranks airlines from one to five stars for quality.   I noticed the difference when flying 5 star Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, but will happily fly on any airline rated 3 stars or above.  I have successfully avoided Ryanair, Spirit and other 2 star airlines.

I check the on-time track record of specific flights on FlightAware.

How much time should you allow between flights?  Read these articles, for a start:

The longer the flight, the more I appreciate the freedom of movement offered by an aisle seat.  Others prefer the window.

If flying far, understand the international date line, to be sure of booking rooms on desired dates.

Americans and Europeans travel backward in time as far west as Hawaii, and forward in time most everywhere else.  For a demonstration, compare the googled results of “current time” Honolulu to “current time” Auckland.  Please note the dates.

Look for a place to stay

airBNB doesn’t pass my Golden Rule test:  I don’t want the home next door to me turned into a de facto hotel, and so don’t book de facto hotel rooms for myself when I travel.

That leaves hotels, and the web sites that review them, especially the 800 pound category gorilla: tripadvisor.  I believe, but can’t prove, that tripadvisor.com is frequented by both honest reviewers — travelers like me , willing to share personal experiences — and by scammers, out to plump up star ratings and, perhaps less frequently, to slander competitors.

Please see these articles:

To distinguish between reviews that are real and unreal, I usually: ignore a hotel’s overall star rating; confine my search to hotels that have collected a representative sampling of reviews; pay more attention to 2, 3 and 4 star reviews than to 1 and 5 star reviews (although I have awarded 5 stars); presume that complaints about conduct of hotel staff usually tell me more about the reviewer than about the hotel, unless the reviewer rarely complains of such matters; look for yawning disparities between descriptions offered in positive and negative reviews, and check the reviewer’s contribution history, sometimes carefully, while understanding that a determined effort at sockpuppetry can deceive me.

Tripadvisor’s strong suit — its moat, in investor terms — is its user base of honest reviewers.  Scammers can work harder, craft elaborate sockpuppet profiles and posting histories, but can’t keep honest reviewers quiet.

I am nervous about providing credit card information to the sometimes primitive websites of overseas hotels, and thus often book rooms through priceline.com.  There may be better alternatives.

I may be a bad person to give advice about hotels.  I want a good night’s sleep and a trouble-free stay, and often have overpaid to get it.

Moscow hotel room

Moscow hotel room

I don’t want a room next to the elevator or with a connecting door to another room, and say so when I arrive.

I unload my clothes and travel gear only to a few areas in the hotel room, and do not scatter them on every free shelf or drawer.  This discipline has made it much easier to pack on check-out day without leaving that all-important adapter, charger or toiletry item behind.

I usually prefer American hotel chains to international competitors.  Usually, not always.

Bedbug concerns

You don’t want bedbugs to hitch a ride home on your suitcase.  Two rigorous checks are described at:

I check the bed, at least, and keep my luggage on the bathroom floor while doing so.  I store my luggage on the room’s shelves or on a rack, rather than on a sofa, which may be likelier to harbor bed bugs in its seams.

The first thing I do when I return is to launder all clothes worn during the trip.  I also store my luggage in an out-of-the-way place, far from my bedroom.

Look for transit information

I haven’t yet visited a city without frequent, moderately priced express rail or bus service between the airport and city center.  Assume such service exists, unless your destination is pretty obscure; you just need to find it.

I expect to do all my getting around by transit once in town.  I rode a few cabs in Dubai, and one in Singapore.  Those were the only exceptions.

If you’ve gotten around with a transit pass in a big U.S. city, you shouldn’t be too surprised by what you encounter abroad.  Think of your straphanging skills as another lingua franca.  Metro systems are generally similar; the relation of metros to streetcar and bus lines is similar, too, as are fare and ticketing schemes.

Airport SkyBus in Melbourne, Australia

Airport SkyBus in Melbourne, Australia

I look online for:

()  The agency in charge of local transit services.  Googling ‘transit [city name]’ usually turns it up.  Sometimes I find both a regional agency and a city-specific agency, as in Berlin’s VBB and BVG.

()  Fare information.  Can I buy a one, three or seven day transit pass, or a ‘tourist pass,’ for visitors like me?  Do I have to worry about zones?  Can I store a pass or cash-for-rides on a credit card-sized ‘smart card,’ like the Clipper in San Francisco or TAP in Los Angeles?  Can I buy the pass and/or smart card at the airport, or do I need to wait until I’m in town?

()  Service information.  Where can I download .pdfs of the metro, tram and bus network?  Does the transit agency offer a smartphone app, and/or an online trip planner?  Is the city covered by moovit, my international transit app of choice?

Some city transit services are easily researched; others are a chore.  So far, I’ve always been able to learn the essentials before I leave.

Those who don’t want to do this research in advance can take a chance I’m unwilling to take, and save questions for the information kiosk at the destination city airport.  You’ll almost certainly get answers there.

Trip Prep odds and ends

Can I drink the water there?  What kind of electric adapters will I need to bring?  What are the tipping practices?  Should I know any country-specific customs and courtesies?

The internet will tell me; I do the research before I leave.  I also jot down emergency contact numbers for local U.S. embassies and consulates, but haven’t had to call one yet.

You’ll probably want to know if your destination country is on the Schengen Visa Country list.

Consider the State Department’s STEPS program, which allows you to apprise the State Department of your overseas whereabouts in case of emergency.  I’d rather they know than not know, and signed up.

Language issues

English is widely accepted as a second language.  Young urbanites are likelier to understand English than older folk from the sticks.

For etiquette’s sake, I learn enough of the native tongue to say:

    • Excuse me.
    • Do you speak English?
    • Please.
    • Thank you.
    • I am sorry

… and approach strangers with the most gracious Excuse me, do you speak English? I can muster.  I speak Spanish, but would think it presumptuous of a Madrid tourist to approach me on a California street with a query in español.  I’d like her to ask me first if I understand her tongue.

English is so widely understood in Copenhagen, Singapore and Dubai that I started English conversations in these cities without fear of giving offense.

I like the free Codegent ‘Learn [language] phrases’ apps, but have irritably deleted all the other language apps tried to date.

A travel list

I heartily recommend that you draft, refine, burnish and hone a travel list.  An edited version of my personal list is online.  Feel free to regard it as ludicrous overkill; it has repeatedly saved me from forgetting something essential.  I don’t regret a single detail on it, eagerly add every new persnickety reminder-to-self that occurs to me, and always print out and carefully read and re-read every item before I leave.

I’ll offer a deal: I’ll smile while you laugh at my obsessive, overdone travel list, so long as it’s you, and not me, who gets to realize halfway across the Atlantic that the indispensable something-or-other is still in the desk drawer at home.

While on the road

I understand that I am at my most vulnerable when arriving in an unfamiliar environment after an overnight flight, and prepare with extra care for this segment of the trip.  I’ll be exhausted after I get off the overnighter that takes me home, but will be weary on familiar turf.

Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires

Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires

As I approach the airport security check line, I transfer wristwatch, cell phone, spare change, keys and other metal-bearing trinkets to a zippered pocket of my travel vest, and then put the vest on the conveyor belt to be x-rayed.  Security personnel get to see what they want to see, and I don’t feel harried while scooping up all those little trinkets on the other side.

Hotels either provide an iron and ironing board in each room, or — with a few exceptions — will provide one if asked.  I travel with clothes encased in the compression sacs described above, and iron out the many wrinkles after I check in.

Most hotels charge a king’s ransom to wash, press and return travel duds.  Some hotels provide coin laundry machines; unfortunately, many don’t.

Think ill of me if you will, but I often wear outer garments a couple of days, while washing undergarments in the hotel room sink.  If you check the room’s shower, you may find a little pull-out cord for the drip drying of such garments.

Google ‘[city name] free walking tour,’ and you’ll likely find something in a destination city.  Guides are tip-supported, so participants are expected to give something, but can decide for themselves how much is appropriate.

These tours are usually two to three hours long, and cover the basics.  They’re also a great way to meet fellow travelers on the road.  Those walking with you likely hail from spots all over the world, and are happy to share travelers’ lore.

Tripadvisor offers “things to do” suggestions and reviews for major cities, as well as city-specific travel guides.  I don’t suspect staff at the Louvre or the Met of creating fake user accounts to massage star ratings, and thus trust these attractions reviews far more than I trust reviews of hotels.  (Unless the attraction is small and commercial.  The Vatican Museums aren’t going to juice reviews, but Estafador Cocktail Beach Spree will, eagerly.)  Travel books still have an important niche, too; you can try first, with a library check-out, then buy.

For more information: travel web sites with Q&A forums:

http://www.tripadvisor.com/ForumHome – TripAdvisor, all travel, hotel emphasis

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree – Lonely Planet, all travel

http://www.fodors.com/community/ — Fodor’s Travel Talk Community, all travel

http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/ — Flyertalk, flying emphasis

http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-forum — Rick Steves

http://discussions.flightaware.com/ — Flight Aware, all flying

http://www.frommers.com/community/ — Frommer’s

Flyer Talk seems to attract the most sophisticated travelers.  Please practice good forum etiquette by hunting for answers first on Google.

* * * * *

And, as long as I’m posting: shots from my last trip are online, in my Flickr albums.  Enjoy!

 

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Athens, Rome, Barcelona

()  Greeks may sometimes bellow, fight and hurl things at one another in bitter protests, but not while hunting for a seat on the morning tram, or telling tourists how to get to the Acropolis, or sipping espressos in Kolonaki cafés. The country’s grave debt woes haven’t yet altered conventions of daily living, at least not as perceived by a tourist in mid-January. I spent a much mellower several days in Athens than expected, and feared for my safety about as ardently as I do at the Century City mall.

Church of the Holy Apostles in Ancient Agora

Church of the Holy Apostles in Ancient Agora

()  I found the people of Greece to be unusually congenial, perhaps because I never said what I really think of their coffee.

()  The ritzy-in-places suburb of Glyfada sports some nice beaches, and can be reached from the airport via the dull, functional X96 or X97 express buses. The tram ride into downtown Athens takes forty minutes, but you still might be content with a Glyfada rental. I was.

* * * * *

()  Rome is filthy, stinking rich in history. In Los Angeles, I once despaired because I couldn’t convey to small children the wonder of strolling rooms at the Avila Adobe that had sheltered Jedediah Smith in the nineteenth century. “Your city’s soul and heritage are locked in these acres,” I would think, and mourn while watching them fuss over Britney belt buckles and other kitsch in the Olvera Street alley.

Santa Maria di Loreto and SS Nome di Maria

Santa Maria di Loreto and SS Nome di Maria

In Rome I wonder if a proposed demolition of the cherished Avila would rate even a sleepy rebuttal in a planning commission meeting. You want us to care about an adobe hut that’s a measly two centuries old in Rome, Italy, that has the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Piazza del Popolo?! You might as well give us a sob story for an expiring lease for a Krispy Kreme! Come bother us when you’re worried about something older than Columbus, at least.

Rome can mistreat out-of-towners (keep reading), and they’ll still come by the plane load. Hordes of young tourists explored the city with me.

Ruins of Claudia aqueduct on Palatine Hill

Ruins of Claudia aqueduct on Palatine Hill

()  Speaking of the young, a quick digression: I learned in Rome that not everyone who says ‘hella’ is a raised-in-San-Francisco young person. On Palatine Hill I overheard a conversation that included this two syllable expression — as in, The Pantheon is hella amazing., or, That old guy next to us with the camera is hella ugly. — and turned to ask the speaker if he hailed from my home town.

“No, I’m from Minneapolis,” said he, pleasantly. I guess some jóvenes say ‘hella’ there, too. I’d thought of the term as a near litmus test for S.F. natives younger than twenty-five.

Graffiti on Rome Metro

Graffiti on Rome Metro

()  Rome’s metro is an apparition, a scandal, a disaster on the Mediterranean, a prop from a third-rate Italian horror film slapped onto tracks and commanded obscenely into service. If the hated Mussolini ever returns to life, he will ride into Rome at the helm of a B train, green-skinned, trailing slime, slobbering and clanking chains.

The wording of this paragraph may suggest that I didn’t think much of the subway here.

We-ell, perhaps I do overstate, ever so slightly. The trains came on time, I’ll admit, often had seats, felt safe enough. But look at these eyesores. I could have camped out on any downtown platform with my dSLR and loaded the memory card with hundreds of shots of these gruesome zombie rides. I’ll bet some visiting transit managers could suffer thrash-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares that their spic-and-span fleets might one day look like this.

Graffiti on Rome Metro

Graffiti on Rome Metro

Rome’s trams and buses looked perfectly presentable, as did the Leonardo Express train to the airport. I don’t know why Rome can maintain one and not the other. Perhaps some important folk don’t care. Where else can travelers go to visit the Musei Capitolini, Palatine Hill, the Vittoriano? Tourists will keep flooding into the city in droves, and many will ride the ugly metro, as I did.

()  Hair-splitters and readers-of-rule books know that the Vatican isn’t actually part of Rome. Years ago the Vatican cut a deal with Mussolini, and became a mini nation state of its own, with its own euro and postal code. That said: Rome entirely contains the Vatican, and no one will ask for your passport while passing between one and the other, and I saw no signs suggestive of border crossings.

Gift shops in the Vatican Museums

Gift shop in the Vatican Museums

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Vatican Museums, but think this is because I bought my ticket online in advance, and arrived at the 9:00 a.m. opening time en punto.

* * * * *

()  “You’ll get to see Gaudí!” said my friend Arnold, when I told him of my Barcelona plans.

“That cathedral,” exclaimed college chum Charlie, about Gaudí’s Sagrada Família.

Parc Güell in Barcelona

Parc Güell in Barcelona

I swallowed hard, admitted to both that I’d only just learned of this Gaudí character while researching my trip. Keeping up with celeb spats on TMZ chews up most of my time in retirement; I’m not willing to miss the latest on Kim and Miley to learn about famous Spanish architects. Sorry.

Better online bios than any I’m willing to write are available here, here, here. Palau Güell was closed when I swung by, but I got to cluck appreciatively at Gaudí’s works at Casa Batlló, Parc Güell and at Sagrada Família. The last is Barcelona’s real potential world wonder, not due for final completion until 2026, but plenty spectacular in half-finished present form.

()  Barcelona’s metro is at least as good as the excellent metro in Madrid, and may be slightly less crowded.

Barcelona Metro

Barcelona Metro

()  An express train runs to the city from the airport, but probably not from your BCN terminal. I explain the gory details in this photo caption.

()  Barcelona and Madrid both struck me as efficient, businesslike places. Some Spaniards reading that last sentence may have just coughed up coffee on their shirt fronts, but that was my impression, and I’ll stick to it.

* * * * *

In Athens I tramped around the Parthenon and looked for a photo angle that wouldn’t show the construction scaffolding, but there was nothing to block the wind that high up and I was cold, so eventually I quit. I looked down past the great stone amphitheater on the southern slope, and picked out the path to the Acropolis Museum. It would be warm in the museum, and I wanted to go there next anyway. I walked down the hill, rounding behind the amphitheater — the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, nearly nineteen centuries old, wrecked by the Goths and Heruli in 267 A.D. — among the other tourists marching along with cameras and selfie sticks and kitschy souvenir clothes, all of us perhaps a little pathetic with our predictable sightseeing goals and puppy-footed unfamiliarity with things, like San Francisco tourists who hunt for Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, the cable car turnaround.

I came around behind the amphitheater and thought I saw a good shot with the stone work, but the light was bad, and then I felt a little angry with myself. Just put the camera down and try to get this. The Parthenon is almost twenty-five hundred years old. I’m not understanding what I’m seeing.

So I slid the camera in the bag and found a place to sit, and for the next twenty minutes stared up at the Parthenon, like a kid in a log cabin school house made to stare at an unlearned page in a McGuffey reader. Other tourists walked past, some pausing to take selfies with the amphitheater stone work in the light I hadn’t liked, a few stealing glances at the old guy sitting by himself and staring up at the sky.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon

Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-three years old. The corner columns are six centimeters wider than the other columns, and the space around them is twenty-five centimeters narrower, and the floor of the Parthenon curves slightly upward. All intentionally, by design, to achieve the architects’ sought-after visual effect. Maybe it was humbling and even frightening to think that an ancient people were capable of constructing a one hundred thousand ton building so precisely. ‘It probably just settled with age,’ some might think, but see, that just wasn’t true, they’d checked the numbers. It hadn’t been an accident. The builders of the Parthenon could have talked hardcore shop with any modern architect. Maybe given lessons.

I stared and stared and tried to understand, as tourists walked by and clouds rolled past and birds drifted in the cold gusts high above the silent Parthenon. Finally I gave up. This had been my trip for appreciating my own inadequacies, that was all. In Dubai I’d realized that I don’t know a thing about the religion and culture of a fifth of my fellow earthlings. Now I saw that I couldn’t appreciate the past very well, either. I’d spent my whole life in the states. 1776 and the Declaration of Independence were my idea of ancient history. I couldn’t picture anything much farther back than that.

I stood, and avoided looking at the Parthenon again as I continued to the Acropolis Museum. I could get something to eat there and figure out the cost with my smartphone’s currency app, and check my email, and the forecast on Accuweather, and look up my next transit route with Moovit. I knew how to do those things, wouldn’t feel so stupid.

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Dubai: First Impressions

()  Any Dubaian met by a run-of-the-mill tourist is likely to speak passable English. I started conversations in my native tongue, never felt presumptuous for doing so.

If you aren’t run-of-the-mill and like to do odd things, you might wander far enough afield to meet locals who can’t savor great American artistes like Moe and Larry and Curly without subtitles. That happened to me when I tried to ride the F30 bus from the metro to the Miracle Garden. Most would have taken a cab. The F30 was full of Indian construction workers. The bus driver managed to tell me where to get off, but just barely and not easily. Your follicly challenged world wanderer just might have been stranded in the desert for awhile.

Dubai Miracle Garden

Dubai Miracle Garden

()  If you’re a holder-of-grudges and still haven’t forgiven that rotten casanova who made off with your ex, consider comping him to a gala August vacation in a Dubai hotel without air conditioning. The needle can hit 115 degrees Fahrenheit in Dubai in August, linger at a zesty 95 at midnight. He’ll wish he’d never seen her.

Dubai is not a summer destination. I suspect that the big tourist draws are the winter heat and sun, particularly for seasonally affected Europeans. I could have walked around in my shirt sleeves when I visited in January.

()  Dubai is many miles of practically-brand-spanking-new glitter and polish around old town acres on Dubai Creek. In the old town, you can stroll among spice and gold souks beneath boxy wind towers, among locals in robes and skullcaps, and feel you’ve arrived in the Middle East.

In ‘new’ Dubai you’ll see robes, gowns and skullcaps, too, but perhaps while sipping a frappe at the Dubai Mall. European tourists stroll comfortably among Emirati in these modern blocks, but don’t seem to mingle with them much.

At the Dubai Mall

At the Dubai Mall

“New city,” said my amiable cab driver Abdul, while pointing to skyscrapers. He gestured to one: the skyline had held only that building when he arrived in Dubai in the early nineties.

()  If taking medications, read at least these two articles before booking your Dubai trip, unless eager to blog about Dubai’s jails.

()  My most valuable conversation in Dubai was one of my first, and I’m still ticked off that I was too tired to get much from it.

Red-eyed and dazed after sixteen hours aboard Emirates 226 from SFO, I lurched onto a metro at Terminal 3 and soon found myself chatting with two immigrants from India. (After boarding and disembarking a women-and-children-only car by mistake.) The Indians work at separate sites for a glitzy American hotel chain, one as a chef, the other as an electrician and handyman.

They told me:

  • A huge chunk of Dubai’s population is made up of folk like them, building the buildings, preparing the foods, fixing what needs fixing and so on.  Wikipedia puts the figure at 53%.
  • Indian workers regularly delude themselves about prospects for a return home. “I’ll be back in a year.” “Well, maybe I can’t go back next year. Maybe in two years!” “Three years! In three years I’ll go back! That’s the limit!” Like that.
Construction workers near the Dubai Mall

Construction workers near the Dubai Mall

They sounded not-too-unpleasantly resigned to their lives as solitary breadwinners abroad. Days later, I met another cab driver who offered a much bleaker view of his Dubai life: no health benefits, no vacation, long hours, misery in the summer.

(In City of Gold, former AP reporter Jim Krane describes sewage smells in the Sonapur district, which houses many Dubai workers. Krane also writes of Dubai’s environmental profligacy, lawless roads and plenty more. Recommended, although written before the financial crisis.)

()  Jewish? Welcome to Dubai, homie! Your kinfolk are in the Koran! That’s Dubai’s red carpet you see, rolled out for you.

Israeli? Different story. Dubai supports the Arab League boycott, won’t admit Israelis without successfully pulled strings by someone with plenty wasta. Israel is even omitted from atlases used in some Middle Eastern schools.

(An Israeli stamp in your passport won’t keep you out, though.)

A Jewish dad and gentile mom doth not a Jew make, but I look plenty Jewish, and have occasionally dealt with trivial¹ incidents of anti-Semitism in years past.  I experienced nothing of that kind in Dubai: not a wayward look, nothing.

¹True story, cross my heart: Up comes a homeless guy to my pal Arnold and me at an outdoor L.A. cafe, clutching a blanket around his shoulders. He points at me:  “Hey! You’re Jewish, you’ve got money, you’ve got a BIG NOSE, how about” … and then proffered his hand for spare change, amidst Arnold’s merry laughter.

Dubai Metro

Dubai Metro

()  Dubai isn’t a democracy. It has grown rapidly because the late Sheikh Rashid won some big investment bets in decades past, and because his son and current Dubai leader Sheikh Mohammed wants his city to be a worldwide numero uno. It’s “Dubai, Inc.,” as far as Sheikh Mohammed is concerned; he sees himself as CEO.

In our Q&A session at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, Dahlia said that the leadership mantle isn’t automatically passed down to the next relative in the family tree. Rather, prospective heirs are each given a budget, and judged by how well they perform with it.

Dubai’s heir apparent is Sheikh Hamdan, aka ‘fazza3′ online. I am delighted (stunned, really) to see that the young sheikh has lent his imprimatur to a ‘car free’ day, but remain skeptical of the long-term prospects for a no-checks-and-balances autocracy. Nifty while they work, perhaps, but long ago Romans could tell plenty about what happens when they don’t.

()  That skepticism notwithstanding: stuff gets done here. Thirty years ago Dubai decided that it needed an airline, and launched it with $10 million in seed funding; today Emirates is profitable, and one of the largest airlines in the world. As for the metro: Dubai approved the contracts in 2005, and was carrying passengers by 2009. Bing, bang, boom. That fast.

Dubai Metro station

Dubai Metro station

The metro practically gleams, from the entrance doors to the platforms. I found spotless station restrooms wherever I looked for them, and thought them the equal of anything you’d pay francs or kroner to use in Zuerich or Copenhagen. Riders get the exec-at-a-fancy-convention-center treatment, more so than in any other system I’ve used.

Most of the cars on an arriving train are economy class. At one end of the platform, however, you’ll also find:

  • a car for women and children only, and next to it
  • a ‘Gold Class’ car, for riders paying a price premium. Gold Class cars are more swankily appointed than economy class cars, but an econ-o ride is plenty nice.

The main argument for a Gold Class ticket is to escape the metro’s current Achilles heel: crowding. Economy class cars are often jammed, even with six minute headways. (Although this .pdf’d report holds that headways could be reduced to a mere ninety seconds.)

A transit lobbyist might leave Dubai with a wider smile than an auto lobbyist. It’s an oil-centric country, but the auto infrastructure isn’t appealing; driving in Dubai can be downright dangerous, and a cabbie told me that afternoon congestion can last from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m.. In contrast, the metro may be too popular for its own good, and could become a major tourist attraction in its own right, given the fantasyland views it offers of the futuristic Dubai skyline.

Dubai Metro, Energy station

Dubai Metro, Energy station

()  Off notes:

  • Dubai struck me as more concerned with issues of social class than the U.S., perhaps because so many Indian guest workers serve a privileged Emirati minority. I much prefer the U.S. in this regard, even if it’s less egalitarian than it imagines itself to be.
  • I winced while watching a woman lift a full face veil to sip a drink at the mall. I don’t understand her culture and faith, as I’m about to admit, but still wish the poor thing could enjoy a chai in public without having to hoist a piece of cloth. Me thinks that would get old plenty fast.

()  I’m old enough to be more impressed by the vastness of my own ignorance than by the little I think I understand of life. On my second morning in Dubai, I had an epiphany that showed me that this ignorance is even larger than I’d guessed.

I’d misunderstood the signs for the Dubai Creek water taxis, and wound up farther east on the northern shore than I’d intended. Muttering a few unteacherly curses under my breath, I fired up RMaps on my smartphone and began wandering west. Soon I found myself in a maze of narrow commercial side streets, amidst trading company storefronts with bilingual English and Arabic-lettered marquees, among men in ankle-length robes and embroidered skullcaps, as well as western wear.

‘So this is Deira,’ I thought, and had my epiphany while regarding the fellows in the Middle Eastern wear, and realizing how little I knew of their culture.

Dubai bus at Al Jafiliya station

Dubai bus at Al Jafiliya station

I am a product of the California suburbs, and have reached a ripe (overripe, some would say) age with virtually no contact with the Muslim world. I’d never seen anyone wearing a thobe or a kufi while pedaling my childhood paper route, or waiting at the market to squander allowance quarters on Big Hunks and Batmans. I didn’t think I was unsympathetic in my ignorance. “I’ll bet TSA must put that poor guy through the meat grinder,” I’d thought a number of times, when I spotted men in Arab dress at American airports. But it was still too easy to regard anyone wearing such clothes as two dimensional, other-worldly, a subject for stereotypes.

Well, here I was among hundreds, no, thousands and thousands of these supposed candidates for the TSA meat grinder, and the nearest TSA agent was half a world away. Around and past me they strolled in their caps and robes, with no more than a glance for the tourist shuffling along with his camera. I knew nothing about them. Roughly one in five of my fellow earthlings is Muslim, and I knew diddley squat about the Koran, their heritage, their culture.

That humbling moment stuck, went down on tape, lingers with me now.

()  For more and bigger photos, please see my Flickr albums.  Lucky ol’ Tim got to visit Athens, Rome and Barcelona while abroad this time, too, as you’ll see.

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Made the Law, Made a Loophole

I expected to be cheated in Argentina. Transparency International ranks the land of Menem and Maradona even lower on its 2014 Corruptions Perceptions Index than such exemplars of civic virtue as Mexico and Bolivia. Travel guides warned me that porteños applaud successful tricksters, celebrate a cynical, every-man-for-himself philosophy of viveza criolla. (“Made the law, made a loophole” is in Wikipedia’s entry for viveza criolla.) I resolved to study receipts, count pesos proffered in change.

That’s how I felt going in.

But I was tired and bewildered after I cleared customs at Ezeiza Airport, and didn’t understand the desk agent’s explanation of fares for the airport express bus. ‘Quinientos pesos; was that what he’d just said?  Seems like a lot; well, it’s an express bus; just pay him, get it over with.’

I counted off five 100 peso notes, slid them to his side of the counter.

Freeway in Buenos Aires

Freeway in Buenos Aires

Everything in my manner indicated that I thought this was the price of a ticket, and expected nothing in return.

He shook his head.

“This is too much,” he said, firmly and politely, and returned three of the notes. The fare was 130 pesos. He only needed the first two notes to make change.

That exchange served as a promising — and accurate, at least for me; maybe I was lucky — harbinger of this tourist’s dealings with retail in BA. I was a victim of the squirt crime described here, but found no more reason to distrust proprietors and cashiers than I find in the states.

And yet Buenos Aires is utterly corrupt. Porteños assured me that it is. I left no less opposed to such corruption, but aware that I had to revise my impressions of life in a corrupt society. The corruption may be specific, exist in some transactions, and not in others.

* * * * *

The first easily digested example was provided by an Argentine attorney. I’ll paraphrase:

“Let’s say I need a permit from a government agency to do something,” she said. “I visit the agency. ‘Oh, you need to fill out this form, and that form, and this other form, and this stack of forms, too, and wait a year. Then you might get your permit, if you’ve done everything right. Or you might not.’

“Well, maybe I don’t want to fill out all those forms and wait a year. So I find someone else who knows a faster way. He’ll charge me. It’ll cost more money, but at least I get the permit, and can get on with my work. That’s how things are done here.”

She said she didn’t think it was fair to single out the infamous military dictators of the Argentine dirty war as corrupt. They certainly were corrupt, she said, but all other Argentine administrations have been corrupt, too.

Havanna Building at Caminito

Havanna building in La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires

A Northern European businessman who has lived in Buenos Aires for a decade sounded weary and contemptuous while providing another example. I’ll paraphrase again:

“You go to the office of so-and-so because you need an approval for something. He tells you it will take six months.

“’Oh, that seems like such a long time,’ you say. ‘Isn’t there some way of getting the paperwork done a bit faster? Might you happen — just happen — to know a consultant who can help speed things up a bit? Perhaps an associate of yours, someone you trust. It would be worth my while to cover consultant costs. I’ll ring him up right away if you can provide a number.’”

* * * * *

I thought this interesting enough to warrant a post, but know I’m not a worldly guy, despite my recent travels, and don’t feel qualified to draw hard-and-fast conclusions. I suspect, as an international newbie, that pandemic corruption draws a dense canopy over the doings of a place, makes them opaque to outsiders. Argentina defaults on its debt, doesn’t have any money, not one peso … but, whatdoyouknow, some pesos are there after all, if you know how to shake the mattress, and where to grab it. In Greece, said to associate taxation with centuries in thrall to the Ottoman Empire, Google’s Satellite View turned up 16,974 swimming pools in Athenian back yards … or, 16,650 more pools than the 324 declared by Athenians on their tax returns. Business people and diplomats must exchange a vast, hand-me-down lore of people to see and strings to pull to get anything accomplished.

Of course, the United States is no stranger to such antics. Transparency International gives us a middling 74, tied for the seventeenth spot among 174 surveyed nations. That’s light years ahead of worst-in-the-Americas Venezuela but six points behind Canada, the Western Hemisphere leader.

Clean government is, on one hand, an immensely important issue to me — I am strongly attracted to the aboveboard places, marvel that Denmark hasn’t plastered their #1-on-the-planet TI score all over their home page — but also an issue that reminds me of my naiveté. Do I really expect investors not to try to influence the fate of billion dollar projects, or politicians to take no heed of who can help or harm their careers? Really?

Tomb of Rufina Cambaceres at Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires

Tomb of Rufina Cambaceres at Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires

Perhaps this is true: that the pressure to make a shady arrangement is strong, constant, and inevitable, but that the society that most successfully resists that daily pressure earns a lasting advantage. Look at TI’s top ten, in order: Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Singapore, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada. I believe that the world envies these countries. The world might understand why strings get pulled and skids greased in Venezuela, but I doubt many want to set up shop in Caracas and try their hand at skid greasing, too. I left feeling much more optimistic about Chile than about Argentina, largely because Chilean government is so much cleaner.

* * * * *

Photos from my trip to the Southern Cone are online in albums for Buenos Aires, Valparaiso and Santiago. If you visit BA, I heartily recommend a half day at the Cementerio de la Recoleta. The dead interred therein aren’t corrupt, or are corrupt no longer.

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Better Marks for Muni

I log my Muni rides. Or have. In June I launched ‘muni log’ in a humble subdirectory of its own, and resolved that this imaginatively-titled file would collect my experiences aboard the city fleet in the months that followed. No longer would I gripe ignorantly about hordes of fare cheats slipping onto jammed buses. I would be an enlightened griper. I would keep a record!

This I have done. The strange and terrible saga of 140 Muni trips has been gathered in muni log — summarized in this spreadsheet, for you data fiends — and I’ve grown thoroughly sick of typing in new entries. A new year has arrived; I want to wrap it up.

Muni 9 bus on Market Street

Muni 9 bus on Market Street

I claim no statistical significance for my record. I’m an unusually dapper old geezer who rides Muni a lot, and took notes for six months. That’s all. The log is heavily slanted toward the city’s south side, where I live. Fully forty percent of the trips are aboard one transit route, the 29 (admittedly the longest daytime route in the city, at 17.4 miles). I’m retired, don’t have to hang from many straps in rush hour, when transit services are busiest.

That said: I’m intimately acquainted with the record keeper, and trust him (until I pull a Sybil, and announce that I’m channeling Henry Ford in a second personality). I know what I saw.

Muni did better than I’d expected. I saw graffiti’d buses, but didn’t see many, and the graffiti wasn’t horrific. I fought for air on crowded buses, too, but less often than I’d thought I would.

Fare evasion at some stops was comically bad. Epidemic. Read on.

The details:

Vehicle Appearance

The shot below shows graffiti in the back of a 14 bus in 2013. I’m delighted to write that I might not be able to take this photo today: I noted tags in only eight of the one hundred forty vehicles, and the graffiti was much, much less substantial than that shown.

Two caveats:

  • I didn’t note vehicle appearance on twenty-two of the rides, either because I forgot or because the vehicle was too crowded to let me see into the back.
Graffiti in 14 bus in 2013

Graffiti in 14 bus in 2013

  • I clocked only seven trips on the 14 and 14L, and three on the 8X. None looked remotely as gruesome as the bus shown, but I did spot a few tags on three of the 14/14Ls and two of the 8Xs. I’d likely be writing a less cheery report if I did most of my shlepping on those lines, and both are transit arteries here. I can’t imagine the Mission district without the 14, might rank the 14 ahead of the 38 as the quintessential San Francisco bus line.

Crowding

Nearly seventy-one percent of my rides were in vehicles with room for all riders. Some of these rides transported what I regarded as ‘standees of choice;’ I still categorized the ride in the ‘room for all’ group if these standees-of-choice could have sat, but chose not to. (E.g., the guy in the three piece who’d rather hang onto the pole than crinkle his seersucker on the Muni bucket).

Sixteen percent of my rides were on all-seats-taken buses with what I regarded as a ‘moderate’ number of standees. I didn’t use a hard and fast head count to call the split between ‘moderate’ and ‘jammed.’ Me thinks fifteen standees can make for an overcrowded bus, but not if the fifteen are only on board for a few blocks, and fewer standees are transported before and afterward. Most — emphasize, most — of the ‘moderate’ rides carted ten standees, or fewer.

And now, for you Muni haters: eleven percent of the rides were on buses I’d describe as jammed. Packed. Cattle cars. These usually toted more than twenty standees. I think some staggered along with more than thirty, although my own smushed spot in these rolling sardine cans made it tough to count heads. I had to ride one of these wheezers enroute to SFO with a suitcase, and would have offered scant praise for SFMTA while doing so, but, just the same: that 11% mark was better than I’d expected.

More caveats:

  • I’ll say it again: I’m retired. No weekday gig to get to and from during rush hour.
  • I decided not to count loads on eastbound buses on Geneva between the Balboa Park station bus pad and Mission Street. Patrons of this stop will understand why: hordes of riders transferring from BART want to get to Mission Street by any means necessary, and will pile onto whatever eastbound bus rolls up first. If a bus hasn’t come for awhile, then the 8X or 29 or 54 or 43 that does finally pull up is going to be swamped for the half mile to Popeyes.

Service delays

On four dates, wait times promised by Nextbus were bad enough to persuade me to walk. I also sometimes had to board a less attractive Route B because Route A wasn’t coming.

K line at West Portal station

K line at West Portal station

Most of the time, though, delays were negligible. I remember Los Angeles’ MTA as better run than SFMTA, but doomed to serve a sprawling, car-centric service area. Some LACMTA lines run only once an hour. SFMTA runs a few lines with infrequent service — the 17, which I’ve yet to board, the 36 Teresita, the 52 — but most headways are much shorter.

Browsing my six month record reminded me of how good I’ve got it. San Francisco is a far cry from transit valhallas like Zuerich, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, but I could still assume that I’d rarely have to wait more than ten minutes for a bus.

Fare Evasion

I think I can write frankly about this problem in little attended-to transitophile. I might hesitate elsewhere.

San Francisco permits “all door boarding.” Riders are asked to board in the front only to pay a cash fare. Riders who can “tap in” with Clipper IC cards — or who have fare media that doesn’t require tapping, like paper transfers or Muni passports — can board in the back.

Rear door boarding is a boon and a half for distributing passenger loads. I now board through the back door at least half the time, and can’t believe it doesn’t cut bus dawdle times at stops.

Rear door boarding is also a boon and a half for fare cheats.

Now, I can’t prove that. When an outbound 29 pulls up at the Balboa Park bus pad and I watch five of seven new riders slip in the back without brandishing Clipper cards, I may slander my fellow San Franciscans by so cynically assuming that most of them are ducking the fare. (Although I’ll admit that the quick, furtive glance that so many of these folks take at the driver encourages me in my cynicism.) Maybe they just look like locals. Maybe they’re all tourists with Muni passports!

(In fact, there’s even an online report that claims that fare evasion has dropped since all door boarding was inaugurated. I struggle to recognize the city this report is about, and wonder if the authors might have confused San Francisco with Lisbon, which has a bridge that looks like ours … but, still, it’s online, and you can read it yourself, draw your own conclusions.)

I notice the Clipper Card-less rider phenomenon more on the south side than elsewhere in the city, and especially at the eastbound Balboa Park bus pad and at various stops on Mission Street. On the last day chronicled by my log, December 30, I was delighted to be joined on a northbound 14L by two fare inspectors, and to proffer my Clipper card to one.

That was the third time in nearly three and a half years that my Clipper card has been checked while riding SFMTA. Three fare checks, in three and a half years of regular rides.

Why do I care? Partly because it grates to be joined on a jammed bus by freeloaders, but mostly because it’s so absurd, dysfunctional, indicative of either helpless or incompetent leadership. A transit agency may be a public sector enterprise dependent on public support, but it’s still a business, like a laundromat or a hardware store, and is supposed to justify its balance sheet to taxpayers. Letting potential clients steal heaps and heaps of what you sell makes for an unusual business model.

Overall

I saw examples of the downside of transit riding. Passengers on one outbound 29 were serenaded with bellowed obscenities for several miles by a mentally unstable passenger. On July 17, a teenager lost a cell phone at knife point to two crooks on the 54. I didn’t see the robbery, but did see how bravely the youth fought for composure while reporting the crime to the driver. (Who quietly assured him that she has a teenage son of her own at home, and cares; she called SFPD.)

The boom box seems to have come back in style, unfortunately. I had to listen to a few on Muni buses. I didn’t deal with many transit delays, but wouldn’t have wanted to explain them to an employer. And I’ll note once more that I’d sing a different tune in this post if I rode a rush hour 14 or 8X every day.

With all that said: I will stop sneering at SFMTA so lustily, and will use a new word in describing transit services here:

They’re okay.

Not good. Certainly not excellent. But not horrible, either. They’re okay. Ridiculous fare evasion on the south side, but still: okay.

There may be hope. I shall edit my Flickr posts of the graffiti’d 14s.

For the superstitious among you: I understand that I have likely outraged some primordial force in the city’s psychic substratum by writing anything nice about Muni, and will likely pay for it by boarding a ride from hell in the days ahead. I am still done with my record keeping, and won’t re-open my log unless I notice a significant change for the worse. I hope I don’t have to.

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Still More European Odds and Ends

… but ends and odds about different cities. This time the frequent-flying Bald One got to flash his now thoroughly broken in passport in London, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam and Oslo.  In order:

London

()  I regarded London as about the least hospitable city for cycling I’ve ever seen, but still saw some martyrs-on-wheels there anyway.

If you know a London cyclist and think you might be a beneficiary of his estate, make sure he sends you a signed copy of the will before his next bike ride. That bad.

()  I didn’t plan it this way, but have now wandered aboard four of the world’s better known driverless metros: the Skytrain in Vancouver, the Yurikamome Line in Tokyo, the Metro in Copenhagen, and now the Docklands Light Railway in London. One of the London DLRs even posed for a picture:

Docklands Light Railway car in London

Docklands Light Railway in London

The DLR worked as faultlessly as the other systems. Bay Area fliers get carted around on AirTrain at SFO, and soon on the Oakland Connector at OAK, but all-auto systems still don’t seem to get much press attention in the U.S..

()  The ‘board a less crowded car on the subway’ strategy I described last September didn’t work on the Underground. My fellow riders fanned purposefully to all ends of the platform at every station. I guess a visiting Yankee isn’t going to teach Londoners how to get a seat on the Tube.

()  A tour guide caught my ear with the offhand observation that Londoners may regard their subway with greater endearment than do straphangers elsewhere. Why? Brits knew they could retreat to that Underground for a fitful night’s sleep while Nazi bombs rained overhead in World War II.  Here’s a story.

()  If it’s sunny and clear, please remember my opinion that the Emirates cable car is an underrated tourist attraction.

Emirates Air Line cable cars

Emirates Air Line cable cars

If it’s foggy, forget you read this.

()  We have American accents. We can’t hear them and don’t think we have them, but we do.

Paris

()  Some accuse Parisians of rudeness. I thought they were plenty nice, but should add that I remembered my own Emily Post Ps and Qs, and didn’t start conversations with strangers in English. Even a faltering Excusez-moi de vous déranger goes a long way.

()  Paris boasts an excellent transit system. Wikipedia hails the Paris Metro as one of the most densely built in the world, with 245 stations within Paris’ 34 square miles — or 7 per square mile, according to my calculator. There’s also a tram and bus grid, and a RER rail network serving both airports.

Paris Metro

Paris Metro

()  The excellent transit system is grungier than London’s. Graffiti, ripped seat cushions, and the like.

()  Another Wikipedia entry details some of the public works efforts expended in ages past that make the city as spectacularly beautiful as it is today, spots of grunginess notwithstanding.

Consider the sculpture below, in Place de la Nation square. Jules Dalou finished it in 1899. I think it’s safe to assume that Paris has paid the artist’s tab, unless a scheming bureaucrat suckered Monsieur Dalou into accepting a century-long IOU.

Few modern sculptors are capable of anything remotely as good. (Frankly.) For that century-old investment, Paris gets a municipal heirloom, for now and evermore; all they have to do is keep jealous visitors from carting off the umpteen ton statue to, say, the Barstow Skate Park. It just has to be allowed to stand still, look beautiful, and add to Paris’ reputation.

The Triumph of the Republic by Aimé-Jules Dalou

The Triumph of the Republic, by Aimé-Jules Dalou

Works like that are all over the city.

()  I will refer you to this source for counsel on obtaining a Navigo Decouverte IC card for your transit travels, with two additional suggestions:

  • Consider presenting a visual at the ticket window that says what you want in French, along the lines of: Je voudrais Navigo Découverte, semaine expiration DD/MM/YY, 34,40€ – 5 zone. Merci!
  • Consider bringing along your own photo, sized to the 3 cm x 2.5 cm desired for the Navigo Decouverte, rather than paying for an improperly sized photo at a photo booth. The Metro ticket agent ignored my fresh photo booth shot and seized on the properly-sized shot I’d toted abroad, even though the Tim shown in this vintage shot had yet to sprout a gray hair.

Madrid

()  Madrid is also very attractive. Not as stunning as Paris, I don’t think, but up there.

()  Madrid is a lousy place for vegetarians. Meat in the tapas, meat in the entrees, meat dangling from hooks at the Museo del Jamon. This is Spain you’re in: they fight bulls here.

Madrid Metro at Principe de Vergara station

Madrid Metro at Principe de Vergara station

(Bullfighting is not legal in Catalonia, however, which I may visit another time, if only to ride the Barcelona subway and score a veggie burger without a long hike.  Or so I hope.)

()  The Madrid subway is clean, efficient, on the sterile side — the seats are molded plastic — and can be as jam-packed with commuters at rush hour as anything I rode in Asia.

()  Madrid will sell you an IC card, but only if you make an appointment and load the card with a one month pass, minimum. I bought a five day Abono Transporte Turístico instead.

()  You’ll find many charming car-free pedestrian streets in the city center, and many of the street performers thereon — like the golden guy below, on Calle Arenal — prepare more thoroughly and are more imaginative than counterparts seen in California.

Performer on Calle Arenal in Madrid

Performer on Calle Arenal in Madrid

()  I’m not a fine art buff and maybe oughta keep my know-nothing trap shut, but here goes: I was simply awestruck by the caliber of the masterpieces at the Prado Museum. Ribera, Tiziano, Murillo, Velazquez, Zurbaran: I staggered around the museum with parted lips and wide, wondering eyes.

Amsterdam

()  I wrote about all the bikes a few weeks ago. That was the real takeaway-of-note on this trip abroad, at least for me.

()  On paper, the infrastructure of trams, buses, Metro and nationwide NS rail services looks as impressive as Zurich’s or Copenhagen’s. In practice, I thought it a notch below. Expect graffiti, scarred-up seats, other little point deducters. An L.A. bus rider might imagine she’d wandered into paradise, but a Dane or a Swiss might sniff.

()  If you type ‘Amsterdam’ into Google, autocomplete will offer ‘Amsterdam red light district’ right after ‘Amsterdam weather.’ Amsterdam does indeed have this district, called De Wallen, centered in the blocks around the hapless Oude Church. I can’t imagine how many puppies some long ago Oude Church minister must have kicked to rate having his place of worship banished here.

Amsterdam's De Oude Kerk

Amsterdam’s De Oude Kerk and an abandoned couch

De Wallen passers-through will find the narrow streets, canals, and stately architecture seen elsewhere in Amsterdam, as well as brightly-lit storefronts full of tasteful dildos, butt plugs, plastic vaginas, cock rings and other highbrow fare. I mean it. These dumps would be déclassé for a Bakersfield strip mall, and there they are, right in the middle of beautiful Amsterdam.

There are also tall window displays in which prostitutes in bikinis display themselves. I only saw a few; I strolled through De Wallen in the late afternoon, and presume that more emerge at night. I can’t shake the memory of one: about thirty, black, with a mother’s abdomen, gamely presenting an entirely mortal physique, perhaps reduced to window prostitution to support a child.

()  Amsterdam can offer up a tasty espresso in a koffiehuis, but is better known among some travelers for its ‘coffee shops,’ which sell marijuana. A green and white license sticker in the window distinguishes the two. Coffee shops also often have drawn shades, and display businesslike ‘No photography’ signs. I spotted more in Central Amsterdam, but believe the ‘coffee shops’ are all over town.

De Wallen window display in Amsterdam

De Wallen window display

Your scribe is unenthusiastic about marijuana. I understand that the unprivileged kids I worked with in L.A. have been volunteered by birth into an often brutal struggle to get a toehold in life, without trust funds or Ivy League family connections to fall back on, that they have no choice about participating in this struggle and are likely to fare a whole lot better if they can face it sober.   I also detect an hypocrisy among some marijuana champions, who want freedom to smoke blunts and bump into things, but don’t want to be attended to by cannabis-medicated surgeons, paramedics, cops, and electricians, or cruise alongside cannabis-medicated truckers in eighteen wheelers on the 101. There’s also a lot of low brow, low tech money in the weed trade, and those monied interests won’t go away gracefully if the public has second thoughts about the door it opened to them.

(I suggest a look at this affidavit related to the prosecution of State Senator Leland Yee. The reported $50,000 a week marijuana trade engaged in by the son of former Board of Education president Keith Jackson is described on page 52. That kind of jack can buy pols and publicity.)

With all that said, I will admit that I noted no unsobriety among the Amsterdam public, and few signs away from the ‘coffee shops’ or De Wallen that such places exist. The phrase “like working in Vegas” occurred to me often, although no Amsterdammer used it. That stuff is there, you see it, but it’s also easy to avoid.

()  Amsterdam is a beautiful, beautiful place, with the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House and much more to offer the clean-living tourist. I’m a little surprised that they tarnish the city’s brand by permitting a stick-it-out-in-the-swamp-by-the-airport sector like De Wallen, ethical considerations aside.

Oslo

()  Oslo is in Norway, and Norway is rich. That should be borne in mind in any contemplation of the city.

Norway has become the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter since Phillips Petroleum struck paydirt in the North Sea in 1969. The nation’s sovereign wealth fund controls one percent of the world’s stocks and bonds, and beats out the Abu Dhabi fund as the world’s largest. On paper, every Norwegian is a Krone millionaire. (Former about.com investment guru Joshua Kennon writes wistfully of the sovereign wealth fund the United States might have established if it hadn’t put two wars on the credit card.)

Interior of Oslo Flytoget airport express train

Interior of Oslo Flytoget airport express train

()  I found nothing online to confirm my suspicion, but suspect that the plump columns of black ink on the national ledger have influenced area transit services. The spotless ‘Flytoget’ I rode in from Oslo S looked like it had just cleared QA at the factory. I never had to sit next to anyone on the metro; I never even had to sit facing anyone. (Please bear in mind, though, that I rode the metro only on the weekend.) Trams were busier, but I always had a seat.

()  As for fare enforcement, I can describe the city’s apparent philosophy in three words: Oslo trusts you. I bought a Ruter IC card at the airport, loaded it with a one week pass, was asked to validate the card before I boarded my first car, and never had to produce it again.

Do you tap the card on a card reader on your way in or out? No. Do you show it to a fare inspector? No. You, inherently upright and truthful dweller in Norway that you are, simply know that a valid electronic one week pass exists on the IC card that you’re never asked or expected to take out of your wallet or purse: that’s good enough for Oslo!

Norway ranks fifth in the world in Transparency International’s corruptions perceptions index, which suggests that Ruter has grounds for trusting riders as it does, but with that said: I’ll bet they’d pull in the leash quickly if the coffers weren’t so full.

Johan's Gate pedestrian street in Oslo

Johans Gate pedestrian street in Oslo

()  The architecture is centuries older and the weather is a lot more challenging, but Oslo still reminded me of what Northern California’s Marin County might be like with a real transit system. It’s clean, pretty, and feels wholesome (or at least did in contrast with Amsterdam). I loved the car free pedestrian street Johans Gate, and wish I’d stayed in the city longer.

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Biking in Amsterdam

Amsterdammers are likelier to ride bikes to work than they are to drive, walk or take public transport. The city possesses more than three bikes for every car. More than half of traffic movement in the central city is by bicycle.

I was vaguely aware of these impressive stats when I touched down at Schiphol airport last month, but still unprepared for what I beheld in Central Amsterdam in the afternoon rush hour. Cars rolled past, true enough, but what impressed were the Critical Mass-ready throngs streaming past on bicycles: rumpled collegiate types; up and comers in suits; parents with infants in tow; cyclists with groceries, books, briefcases in handlebar racks; kids old enough to travel on their own and plenty of elders like me (although none quite as handsome). They traveled alone, traveled in packs, pedaled in protected bike lanes when they had them and in traffic when they didn’t. Sometimes, they skipped onto sidewalks.

Amsterdam cycle track

Cycle track in Amsterdam

I nagged myself to unlimber my dSLR, but can offer only this meek photo of cyclists’ anonymous backs on a protected bike track near the Heemstedestraat Metro station, relatively far from the city center. Fortunately, other photographers have done the job for me. Plug ‘Amsterdam bicycles‘ in Google Images or Flickr; see what comes up.

I left Amsterdam persuaded that some cities can do much more of their getting around by bicycle than I had supposed beforehand. In sprawling Los Angeles, probably not; in compact San Francisco, certainly, despite the city’s hills. I know Americans who still regard cyclists as a kind of hangnail on the transit grid: nuisances, pursuers of a fad, well-intentioned things-in-the-way-of-the-car, and so forth. I doubt they could or would feel that way after visiting Amsterdam.

* * * * *

Now, with that said: how eager would I be to leap onto the seat and join the pedaling Dutch?

Not very eager. I don’t think Amsterdam accommodates cyclists as well as Copenhagen. For several reasons:

  • Someone had the bad, bad idea of letting motorized scooters share protected bike lanes with cyclists. Scooters account for three percent of traffic, and sixteen percent of accidents.
  • Amsterdam cyclists often pedal in their own lanes, but get to risk their necks with cars when they don’t. I saw one impatient driver tailgating inches from an unsuspecting cyclist’s rear wheel.

The combination of serious bike traffic and car traffic also offers up a real zoo for the pedestrian. I am used to checking for cars before I cross a street, and regarding myself as safe if I see none. In Amsterdam, the pedestrian must check as zealously for approaching bicycles, and trams, too. I am loathe to risk my Grecian good looks in a collision, and that loathing kept my noggin moving like a bobblehead doll as I checked left, right, up, down and sideways during any foray off the sidewalk. And I wasn’t entirely safe on the sidewalk, either, as some outlaw pedal pushers steer their bikes onto them.

For an inkling of what a pedestrian is in for, try pasting ‘Muntplein, Amsterdam, the Netherlands‘ into Google Maps, firing up Streetview, and imagining the scene shown with a commute hour crowd.

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Other observations:

  • Amsterdammers pedal beaters, perhaps because they don’t expect to keep them.
  • I’m afraid I saw no bicycle helmets.
  • It’s odd to see adults and kids together in a commute stream. I spotted many of late elementary school or middle school age pedaling solo.

For more photos, please click on the Amsterdam album on my Flickr page.

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