Wander the Rainbow World Map

Downs and Ups in London and Paris

May 6th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

MathewQuintaDoFrancesWineryExtPart of our plan on this long-haul, work-play adventure was to use our beach spot in Portugal as home base and take shorter journeys elsewhere. Having done our mega-train journey the weekend of our arrival, we opted to stick closer to home the next weekend and checked out the Algarve’s lesser known offerings: while the region has been growing grapes for eons, its focus on tourism has meant it’s only recently returned to winemaking. Perfect for we Californians accustomed to fending off the hordes at Napa and Sonoma; a half-hour drive from Albufeira and we were rewarded with a lovely, uncrowded winery in the hills overlooking a river valley. I can only assume that as more visitors discover this region’s vineyards, this activity will grow in popularity as it has in so many spots worldwide.

The next week saw us get back in the travel saddle once more: a van ride to Faro Airport for a morning flight to London Gatwick. Given the time and timing of the flight, it felt a bit like those weekly early-morning trips from Chicago to Boston I used to take in my past life as an out-of-town contractor. Mathew settled in at his company’s office in the West End, and I hoofed it to our nearby hotel to get a day’s work done.

RegentStreetNite2As one of the world’s most expensive cities, London always poses an issue to flashpacker types looking to travel with a bit of comfort while still on a budget. We opted to pay a little extra for a branch of one of the big chain hotels, figuring that would ensure us reliable wi-fi and a few other amenities.

Well, that was a mistake: the place had some of the worst Internet I’ve ever encountered. Coupled with a tiny, uncomfortable bed that could charitably be called a “double” led to poor sleep and stresses for us both. We ground away at our respective jobs wondering, was this side trip a mistake?

Fortunately, our second evening offered a bright spot: as big movie buffs (and with Mathew now working in a field that sees a need to keep abreast of trends) we learned that the new Avengers film was showing in the UK even before its release in North America — and on the biggest IMAX screen in the country to boot. Although our last-minute seats were less than optimal, both the film (written and directed by one of my faves, Joss Whedon) and the venue richly delivered, and made for a nice cap-off to our short stay in the city.

MathewEurostarNext morning, a familiar pattern for me leaving the UK: a Tube ride to St. Pancras and a high-speed Eurostar to the Continent. Only this time, the destination was a bit different: instead of heading into one of the train line’s destination cities, this conveyance swung east, dropping us off at Marne-la-Vallée, a suburb outside Paris and the home of Europe’s only Disneyland park.

I know, I know. I’ve taken pains to avoid this place in favor of the indigenous cultural treasures to be found in the region. But having been to the French capital some four times in seven years, and with a partner who’s an even bigger Disney nut then I, we figured it was time to give the place its due. Plus, with the weather improving in London since our rainy arrival, I was anticipating some of that magical Paris sunshine I’d come to expect when it’s almost nice in Britain. As we emerged out of the Channel tunnel, rounded Lille and began the race toward Paris, shafts of sunlight pouring through lazy clouds boded well for the weekend.

MathewDisneyParisCastle2So much for that, I mused an hour or so later, as clouds thickened and we arrived under cover of misty drizzle. Not only that, it was cold. Coldest it had ever been for me in the Paris region in my four visits here earlier in the spring and later in the fall. When Disneyland Paris (then called Euro Disney) opened in 1992, this was a central issue the company’s Imagineers had to contend with: unlike Mediterranean Anaheim and subtropical Orlando, the climate here can be frigid and damp even in the months straddling summer. We were curious, if a bit annoyed, to see how Disney In The Rain was going to play out.

Fortunately, the drizzle was mostly light as we began to familiarize ourselves with this new-yet-familiar park: the marquee section of each of these Disney creations models itself on the original Disneyland in California: a turn-of-the-twentieth-century-styled “Main Street” culminating in a mythic castle that serves as hub for multiple themed “lands.” Here the Imagineering was on point as always, and the artistry, attention to detail, and methodical landscaping captivated me as it always does.

DisneyParisSwissWineMenuAs for the charges of “cultural imperialism,” leveled at the park when it opened in the 1990s? Well, consider that many of the stories and places depicted in Disney lore emanate from European source material. Heck, as I’d noted in my round-the-world journeys, the man himself was inspired by French hill towns like Èze, in the south, and by amusement parks such as Tivoli up in the Scandinavian north. Given that, and with a healthy blend of français mingled into the Disney mix, I found this park works just fine in the European heartland. Nice plus: wine with dinner at the Blue Lagoon Restaurant overlooking the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Less captivating were some other details of an American outpost thousands of miles from home: although Disney parks pride themselves on their efficiency, order, and enthusiasm of their staff, here we found all three a bit flagging. Park employees – ehrm, “cast members” – seemed less than cheery or efficient. Lines for rides were sometimes chaotic. More than a few attractions seemed closed. Heck, we even saw a woman letting her kid urinate off the side of a particularly lengthy outdoor line – I mean, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go, but such conduct would be unimaginable at one of the parks back home.

WaltDisneyStudiosUrsulaConceptsStill, the place enchanted, as we’d hoped, as we enjoyed a break in the rain the next morning and hopped over to the neighboring Walt Disney Studios park and enjoyed seeing Hollywood refracted through French eyes. I even learned a bit more about Disney animation concepts for some favorite movies in the place’s Animagique pavilion.

Our flight back to Portugal wasn’t set to leave until Sunday afternoon, so with a couple hours to kill we headed into central Paris to return to a different themed attraction near and dear to my Crazy Cat Lady heart: the city’s feline-oriented café. I’d been to this one with my nephew Jackson a year ago, and to its London counterpart with niece Lola last month… but all these weeks away from our furry companions back home left us jonesing for more felines with our brunch a la Parisienne. Happily, the place eminently delivered on both counts, with stellar food and a passel of cats curling around curious humans or existentially staring out into the Paris streetscape.

MeCafeDesChats2The voyage south, meanwhile, was a bit of a down to the previous up: our flight northward was on efficient easyJet, but our journey home was on another discount European carrier, Transavia. While I’ve noted Europe’s embrace of the low-fare model in the past, this experience was a reminder that, well, not all budget airlines are created equal. Some have gone the route of offering more comforts for a fee (airberlin, or the aforementioned easyJet)… while others stick with the “cattle car” model (Ryanair, of course, and, it seems, Transavia as well). Check-in took forever; the plane was packed to the gills with loud, loutish tourists; seating was cramped and offered little escape. We were happy to see our both luggage and our ride back to Albufeira arrive swiftly, and to return to our home-away-from-home after this fun yet occasionally up-and-down vacation from our vacation.

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Trans Europe Express

April 21st, 2015 by David Jedeikin

Tulips2Spring Break presents an interesting conundrum for one trying to time travels around school holidays: what if the weeks off overlap? Such was the case with my niece Lola and Mathew’s friend Jasmin, who’s teaching school in Cairo (we also met her last April in Malta). This year, both Jasmin’s and Lola’s school vacas were on adjacent weeks — and I was determined to both conclude my Lola travels and meet up with my beau and his pal at their destination of choice this year: Amsterdam.

But… that wasn’t it: Mathew and I had also pledged to take a grand rail journey across Europe to our longer-stay destination in the Algarve, in southern Portugal. I’d scoured rail websites for months before this, and plans were set in motion.

Suffice it to say it was going to be an interesting week.

BAFlightMapIt all began last Tuesday: two Paris Metro rides, one Eurostar trip back to London, a Tube to the Heathrow Express, then a flight to Montreal on a jam-packed plane to return Lola safely to her family. All in all, her trip seemed as much a hit for her as it was for cousin Jackson a year ago; next day in school, a gaggle of classmates surrounded her and pumped her for details of her voyage. For me, the joy of actually seeing a kid’s horizons broaden before my very eyes proved priceless indeed; guess there was something to those MasterCard ads from a few years back.

Now I know how flight attendants feel, I mused, as I savored a layover of some 24 hours in my hometown, Montreal. To say my circadian clock was a mess would be an understatement as I ignored jetlag as I labored to stay on Europe time. The pleasant sunny weather in Montreal — finally warming up after a long winter — felt more surreal and bright than welcomed. As evening approached, I returned to the airport and re-boarded that same British Airways flight for a hop back across the pond.

SchipolJetwayArriving at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport aroused a well of memories: while I lived in the Middle East as a boy my family flew KLM a lot, connecting through this major Western European gateway. My earliest memory of running to catch a connecting flight was here. Those large, modern walls of glass and round jetway windows brought it all back to me.

Amsterdam, meanwhile, retains that distinct mix of prim, flat-fronted canal buildings and carefree laissez-faire fun I remember from seven years back in my big world journey. I slept like a log the following two nights, the faint racket from bars downstairs from our accommodations — an attic apartment in a canal townhome — hardly fazing me. After getting back into the swing of remote work, I joined Mathew and Jasmin for a spin through the Red Light District. It remains an odd juxtaposition, historic churches and scantily-clad prostitutes and gawking tourists on narrow streets. But heck, it’s fun.

Smartshop3In spite of a Dutch shift toward conservatism a few years back and the banning of Magic Mushrooms not long after my visit in 2008, little has changed in the “soft drug” scene in Amsterdam from my memories. Efforts to restrict cannabis sales to locals fell flat, particularly in Amsterdam. And the Mushrooms ban extended only to a number of strains of the plant – a variant, magic truffles, remains legal. While there are said to be fewer Smartshops selling psilocybin products as there used to be in years past, we had no trouble spotting quite a number.

The coffeeshops, meanwhile, remain evergreen (pun intended) in the city, offering all manner of cannabis products for sale. Actually, judging how far things in the States have come, with five states legalizing the stuff and numerous others (including California) offering it medicinally with little fuss or muss, the Netherlands’ experiment feels at once trend-setting and prosaic.

MathewJasminAmsterdamBenchAlthough the Rijksmuseum has finally reopened after years of remodeling, Mathew and Jasmin were looking for a less daunting art appreciation experience on their last day in the city. So we went next door (wisely buying our tickets at the line-free kiosk a block away) to the Van Gogh Museum, where I got to once more appreciate the once-unappreciated tormented genius of this master painter.

We made our way back to the train station, bade Jasmin farewell, and looked for the NS International Lounge whose access came with our train tickets. Alas, we picked the wrong week: it was closed for remodeling, though the Starbucks next door offered similar high-vaulted ceilings and grand Victorian architecture. We boarded our high-speed Thalys train (successor to the old Trans Europ Express) and rolled out of Amsterdam in the late afternoon light.

MeMathewThalysUssieWhy do this overland? Well, a long time ago on a continent rather far away, my budget-minded and sun-starved Canadian family went on the mother of all road trips: we packed up our station wagon and drove from our home in Montreal all the way to my grandmother’s apartment in North Miami Beach. Although the allure of surface travel persists from those halcyon days, my one complaint with road trips is the need to drive oneself.

MathewThalysParisEurope offers a tantalizing way out of that conundrum: although the Continent is a lot smaller than North America, traveling from end to end is actually comparable in distance to that long-ago journey from Montreal to Miami – in our case, on this trip, from Amsterdam to Albufeira, Portugal. Thanks to high-speed rail, a journey like this can be accomplished in half the time as conventional driving – and all without the need to get behind the wheel.

We rocketed through the Netherlands and Belgium — last time I took this train these portions of the line hadn’t yet been upgraded to true high-speed — arriving some three hours later at Paris Gare du Nord. It was my third time transiting through this station in just over a week. Since it was late, we skipped urban rail and hopped in a cab to our cute little hotel right near Gare de Lyon. It was a mild Parisian evening, and the city bustled as we called it an early one in preparation for our big next day.

BarcelonaSantsSignTGVNext morning, a five minute walk toward the great clock of Gare de Lyon, then a climb onto the double-decker TGV Duplex for a lengthy yet speedy train ride across France. We left the plains of central France behind and slid through tunnels under the mountains of northern Spain to arrive at Barcelona Sants station in the early afternoon.

A bite of lunch, then back on another train – this one a Spanish high-speed AVE – to cross most of the Iberian peninsula toward our next stopover for the night. I have yet to visit Spain, but the views out the window of the Spanish countryside have only further whetted my appetite: verdant fields and glorious mountain vistas glowing in the late-afternoon sun.

Mathew, meanwhile, found the experience a bit more jarring: at Zaragoza a rather loud group of schoolkids filled up our mostly empty carriage; at our destination point for the night, Seville, our taxi driver sat lazily in his cab while we hauled out our baggage; at check-in at our hotel, front-desk staff chatted with their cohorts for a spell before getting us situated. All that efficiency we’d become accustomed to in Europe’s more northerly big cities was less apparent here.

DAMASBusNonetheless, things moved expediently: our hotel in Seville lay just across the street from our next transport terminal. Although we’d aimed at doing trains the whole way, realities made that challenging: Europe’s Iberian neighbors both have pretty sophisticated rail networks, but interconnections are still in progress: to date there’s no high-speed link between the two capitals, Lisbon and Madrid; nor are there any links between high-speed lines in Andalusia in southern Spain, and Algarve rail in southern Portugal. So we opted to make up the distance in a more prosaic fashion: a bus making the run out of Seville. As with the previous morning in Paris, we rose at the crack of dawn and boarded the conveyance. Morning light filtered into Seville’s historic center as we crossed the river and headed west toward our final destination.

Amsterdam_to_AlbufeiraI always have this fear, when taking buses in foreign countries, of what I call “chicken bus” syndrome: it’s based on that scene in Romancing the Stone, where Kathleen Turner gets on the wrong bus from the airport in Colombia and ends up on a rattletrap with luggage on the roof and peasants within, chickens in arm. Interestingly, none of my bus experiences in South America came close to this cliché. Here in Spain, however, our DAMAS bus (their version of Greyhound) was a bit less fab: so-so on cleanliness, and milk-run-level stop and go – including one unusual pull-over as we crossed into Portugal, where uniformed inspectors examined everyone’s passports.

“Ah. Now we will be delayed,” fumed an older gentleman seated in front of us as Portuguese officials grilled a couple of passengers. The EU has mostly made these border checks obsolete, but a few nations still keep them alive. The fellow chatting with us was a tour operator who hailed from Madrid, catching a train out of Faro. Happily, we were released soon after, and made up time as we rolled through the orchards and green hillscapes of the Algarve. A couple more stops, and we were at our destination for the next three weeks.

AlbufeiraBeachWe had traveled some 1,800 miles (about 1,300 as the passenger jet flies) from near Europe’s top to its bottom in about thirty hours (including two overnights)… all without leaving the ground.

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A Canadian Girl In Paris

April 15th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

LolaPlaceDuCanadaAs with my trip last year, Lola’s twelfth birthday present included a visit across the Channel. Lola and I began the journey between Western Europe’s two largest cities with the fastest, most comfortable way there is: by Eurostar. The speedy train rocketed us from London’s St. Pancras to Paris’s Gare du Nord smoothly and punctually. Emerging at street level from the Metro near our accommodations, Lola had the same reaction I did all those years ago on my big world trip:

“It’s so beautiful!

I firmly believe that, for maximum effect, one must not only travel by rail to Paris but also immediately submerge into the Metro and only emerge on some gorgeous Paris thoroughfare (read: most of them) and be appropriately wowed.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, perfect for an easing in to the city the best way a girl (and her gay uncle) know how: a bit of shopping.

We ambled over to the Champs Élysées, where Lola did her thing, finding trinkets and apparel enough to whet her appetites. I needed nothing as I came prepared for the weather: it was nice enough in London, to be sure, but it was absolutely magnificent on the Friday afternoon we arrived in Paris. We crossed the Seine as the sun was going down and geared up for fun times in this incredible city.

LouvreExtDetailNext morning dawned cloudy and cooler – a reminder it’s still early spring here in northern France. Nonetheless, we crossed the Jardins des Tuileries and stood in the moderate but not impossible line for security at the Louvre. To pass the time under the ominous skies, Lola recounted to me a couple of ghost stories she’d heard at summer camp; I myself have memories of hearing such tales as a lad, and remember them scaring me more than I let on.

The treasures inside blew the gloom away for a spell, however, as we took in the usual big stuff: the Mona Lisa (“it’s so small!” Lola remarked, a familiar refrain for first-time visitors to the art world’s supercelebrity); the Winged Victory of Samothrace (beautifully restored since my last visit); and the ever-armless Venus de Milo. Lola also took an interest in the archeological excavations of the original medieval Louvre castle that had bewitched her cousin (and me) on initial viewing.

It was chilly outside still, and a bit of a walk to our next attraction, so Lola pointed to a conveyance waiting on the street and asked, “can we take that?”

She was pointing at a bicycle rickshaw, one of many that can be found in tourist centers the world over. I normally shun such vehicles as they feel somewhat exploitative, but our driver seemed amiable and the price wasn’t too terrible, so why not? We headed across the Pont Neuf (Paris’s oldest standing bridge), then up to Île de la Cité for the Gothic monster at its center: Notre Dame cathedral.

LolaNotreDameThe line here was long as well, but it moved quickly and we were soon inside the cavernous structure. Lola found the stained glass windows remarkable (“I made one at camp!”, she remarked, though no doubt not quite as ornate), and did some more gift shop browsing. Afterward, we hopped over to the next island in the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, for its modern-day Parisian treasure: Berthillon ice cream at a café next to the fabled scoop shop.

It had begun to rain and, sadly, the weather change was playing havoc with my head. Call it the by-product of aging (and heredity), as over the past couple of years my occasional headaches have mutated into full-on migraine attacks. One was poking at the sidelines on this moody Saturday, but as we headed back through the rainy streets it got worse and worse. We went for a brief dinner nearby, but by that point my head was pounding like a jackhammer. We returned back to our hotel… to discover we’d left Lola’s bag back at the restaurant. We scurried back, amid her earnest apologies (no bother, really: it was minutes away, and heck, if I had a dime for every time I’d done that before).

LolaVersaillesHallMirrorsOn our return I switched off the lights and cradled my pounding head. After a short while I emerged… to find Lola herself quite perturbed. It was nothing more than a brief pang of homesickness (and her own fears from those ghost stories she recounted earlier); we talked through it all, and it actually turned out to be bit of a bonding moment for us both. We soon hit our respective pillows, slept soundly, and emerged rested (and migraine- and homesickness-free) the next morning.

Meanwhile, the sun and warmth had returned, so off we went to a suitably summery place: the warm-weather abode of King Louis XIV, just outside town, the Palace of Versailles.

The throngs had descended on the Grand Apartments, but that didn’t stop us from marveling at the over-the-top elegance of it all: King’s Bedchamber, Queen’s Bedchamber, Hall of Mirrors… Lola drank it all in.

VersaillesGardensFountains6But what really blew us both away were the gardens. Last time I was here was on my big world trip, on a moody October afternoon, and the gardens were lovely but muted, subdued. Now, in the April sunshine, with trees in bloom, the place came to life. Best part: musical accompaniment, featuring period-appropriate Baroque melodies, piped in throughout the gardens. Better yet: these melodies synchronized with the fountains that I’ve so longed to see switched on. Once more, Lola put it best, what with music, fountains and all, “it really sets the mood!”

BateauxMouchesSignDepartWe headed back on the RER commuter train, then continued our outdoor explorations: we boarded one of the Bateaux-Mouches for an hourlong tour of the city along the River Seine. The near-perfect weather, magical architecture, and clusters of people sitting along the city’s perfectly-sculpted riverbanks made for a most epic early-evening ride.

Next morning we rose early for a reprise of a military-style operation: a vertical assault on the hulking steel structure nearby, the Eiffel Tower.

EiffelTowerDetailSunWe arrived at the base about an hour before opening. Fortified with some take-away coffee and pastries, we encountered a line of barely a couple dozen people ahead of us — though not long after we showed up, the line quadrupled in length. Chatting amiably with a couple from Connecticut (and their baby boy) who were on assignment in Brussels, we watched the Tower staff open the place up for the day. At 9:30, the gates opened up, and we were in the first-level elevator minutes afterward.

We transferred to the smaller elevator at the core of the structure and rose smoothly to the top through the steel latticework. The view was even clearer than last year, and Lola gasped in awe as we beheld the broad blanket of Parisian avenues and mansard roofs stretching to the horizon. As I’d found with so many hugely popular attractions the world over, this one – if you time it right and minimize your wait – makes your effort eminently worthwhile.

LolaEiffelTowerTopLast year the first level of the Tower was being remodeled, and this go-round we were able to savor the fruits of this initiative: glass walls and floors offer a view of the serpentine lines below; a small theatre shows film of the tower through history, including those amazing fireworks they shot off for the Year 2000 celebrations. Realizing that these took place three years before my travel companion’s birth made me feel decidedly, uhm, chronologically enhanced.

From old landmark to new: we hopped on the Metro westward, just out of the city to the close-in suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, to visit a stunning new modern art museum designed by star architect Frank Gehry: the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

LouisVuittonMuseumDetail3Predictably, the building was Gehry’s usual eye-popping mix of glass, steel, and wood in curvilinear shapes. Somewhat less predictably, for us at least, was that the rest of the city’s museum-hungry visitors seem to have had the same idea: a long line wended its way through the park into the museum, many with white parasols to guard against the bright sun.

“If you go into the park and pay the admission for it, there’s no waiting!” explained a guard to us in French. Right he was: for three Euros a pop, we gained access into the Jardin d’Acclimatation, the gardens next to the museum that date back to Napoleon III, and discovered a couple of automated ticket machines for the museum with only a few people in line.

LouisVuittonMuseumArt2As one of the world’s top tourist destinations, Paris and its better-known attractions are no strangers to crowd control. Well, the same couldn’t be said of this fetching new museum, whose staffers seemed overwhelmed by the throngs. First they allowed small napsacks into the place; then they did not; then they prohibited smaller items from their cloackroom as it had gotten overfilled with bigger items. Stern guards stood surly watch over some rather testy patrons. I can only hope that, as the years go by and this facility becomes more ingrained into the Paris scene, it learns how to handle the mobs as well as its counterparts across town.

Fortunately, the exhibits themselves were beguiling: though we didn’t make the Orsay on this go-round, the Fondation offered up respectable surrogates: some Picasso, some Léger, some Matisse, some Monet, a bit of Giacometti… even one of Edvard Munch’s The Scream… about which Lola remarked:

LolaArcDeTriompheTelescope“Did you see the version of this one where it’s Batman and Robin behind the screaming man, and there’s a Bat symbol in the sky?”

As a child of a post-modern, high-culture/low culture generation myself, I can appreciate.

A nice bite of lunch at a nearby café, then off for a different perspective on the city: alighting back at the Champs-Elysées, we did a bit more shopping then strode to the Étoile for a spiral-staircase romp up the Arc de Triomphe. Here again, glorious views – and though not quite as high as its towering cousin nearby, the Arc offers one advantage: you can see the Eiffel Tower from it.

LesDeuxMagotsViewFor our final dinner in the city, we took a recommendation from Lola’s Mom and headed over to nearby Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the Deux Magots. It was the nicest evening of the trip so far as we took in the vista of St-Germain Square, with its shops, galleries, and medieval abbey. We chatted about life and family and cities and such, as people often do during that contemplative final evening of a big trip. Afterward, we strolled past the boutiques of St-Germain back toward our accommodations. As we reached the park of the Champ de Mars, we beheld the lit-up Eiffel Tower just as its twinkling light show was starting. I’d never seen the sparkle-fest up-close before; it bewitched and beguiled us both as we strode slowly away, back to our hotel, on our final night in this wondrous, magical City of Light.

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A New Generation In London, Redux

April 10th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

787WindowView1Following the success of my trip last spring with my nephew Jackson, I’d plotted a reprise for the next of the next generation: my niece Lola, oldest of another of my three sisters. A part of me, the ever-superstitious part, worried: would it work? Could I take two different children, offspring of different siblings, and expect similar results?

We arrived at Montreal’s airport on a surprisingly quiet Sunday night; though it was still Spring Break time it was also Easter Sunday. Having suffered through the misery of a sleepless airplane ride in a middle seat last go-round, this time I opted to pay a nominal fee for an upgrade to British Airways’ premium economy service, World Traveller Plus.

Well, that was worth it: Not only were seats more spacious in this cabin, but we were also flying on one of the airline’s brand-spanking new 787 aircraft that have become quite popular on “long thin” routes such as Montreal, Philadelphia, or Austin to the U.K. Big, widescreen in-seat TVs, an upgraded meal, and extra-tall windows added to the experience. We both managed a few hours of sleep on the flight over.

MadameTussaudsLolaUsainBoltOur hotel – same as the one last year, the Lancaster Gate – had a room ready for us on arrival, so we took a quick nap then headed out in the afternoon for a preliminary reconnoiter. A bit of a stroll down Oxford Street to indulge Lola some of her shopping passion, then a trip to one of London’s more kid-friendly touristy spots that I’d missed last year: the iconic Madame Tussauds.

Malign it though people sometimes do, the legendary wax museum holds a special place in my heart: it was the first stop on my first trip to London as a lad some (gasp!) thirty years ago. Well, the place has changed a lot, incorporating no shortage of Hollywood razzle-dazzle: a London history ride a la Disney; an Avengers 4-D CGI flick in the old planetarium, and (of course) a hefty dose of waxworks of the rich and famous. The place was packed, but, as with so many spots worldwide that see large crowds, it handled the throngs efficiently. A perfect place to take a young ‘un on that brain-fogged, jetlagged first day in this great city.

NatlHistLolaBellaDrawingsNext morning was sunny and glorious as we crossed Hyde Park into South Kensington. We enjoyed a splendid meal of crêpes (one of Lola’s and my favorite foods) before meeting two members of our family-friend Lightman clan, Joy and Bella. With Joy a few years older than me, and Bella a few younger than Lola, everyone had lots in common. Skipping the ever-present queues at the Natural History Museum, we flashed our timed ticket for a special coral reef exhibit. Bella and Lola, accomplished artists both, drew some remarkably proficient renditions of what we’d seen; after, we enjoyed the nice weather with a stroll through the museum’s butterfly exhibit and the wildlife garden just outside.

As I discovered in past travels, London’s culinary diversity has long banished tired clichés of flavorless British fare. However, even I find myself surprised by the city’s offerings. Like, who knew this city had a Chinatown? Well, Joy did, and took us to one of its old-school dim sum joints. Amid red-painted walls and paper chandeliers we feasted on a variety of bite-sized dishes. Food-adventurous Lola found everything to her liking, right down to the Chinese tea. Heck, she even outdid her klutzy uncle in her use of chopsticks.

LolaTowerBridgeNext morning was a struggle for us both getting out of bed – jetlag persisted, and Lola’s more a typical human than her cousin Jackson, who seemed to thrive on something like five hours of sleep a night. We hauled ourselves by Tube across the city to the Tower of London, reprising the Beefeater tour I’d done last year. Only difference? It felt like half of Europe (and North America) has descended on the city and its eponymous Tower. Our tour group filled the place up, and the line for the Crown Jewels seemed to stretch halfway across the Thames. So we did what flexible world travelers do and gave it a miss, instead checking out the suits of armor in the iconic White Tower and browsing in the gift shop for charm bracelets and other goodies.

Passing the Monument to the city’s Great Fire, we hopped back on the Tube and headed north, to Golders Green, for yet a bit of personal family London history: a visit to the elder Lightmans, who are looking well and proceeded to ply us with goodies and old family photos from get-togethers of years past.

MeLolaLightmans2A quick bit of shopping on chock-ablock Oxford Street, then a quick-change act at the hotel for our evening activity: a bit of West End theatre.

First things first, though: a bite of pre-show dinner. Given that our musical was playing right around Covent Garden, I figured there’d be oodles of spots for dinner nearby. Oh, there were, but seemed the rest of the city had the same idea: place after place sported long lines, and we were barely an hour from showtime. Ugh. I was having visions of us sitting through a 2 1/2-hour spectacle with rumbling stomachs. Happily, a nearby “Italian-style tapas” place, all done up with arty lighting and walls made of wine corks, had availability, great food, and speedy service to boot. Heck, we even had time to squeeze in a pre-show gelato (chocolate, of course).

LolaTheatre2Cacoa was the theme of the evening, in fact, as the musical in question was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This rendition’s been put together by Hollywood heavyweights, director Sam Mendes and composer Marc Shaiman. Lighter in tone than the book or the more recent movie, it proved a perfect fit for Lola and me (chocaholics both, natch).

Our final day in the city was a predictably full one: we headed across the park once more to the museums to meet a second set of our family-friend clan – this time, the museum was the Victoria & Albert.

Lola and Susan (older sister of Joy, whom we’d hung out with two days before) got on famously, as the two inspected the sizable collection of historic jewels, fashions and glassworks in the museum’s massive collection. We were there for a couple of hours and I think barely scratched the surface of the place. One highlight, a motif in so many of my travels across the globe: the museum rotunda’s entry chandelier by renowned Seattle artist Dale Chihuly.

LolaCatCafe5After that, a Tube ride across town to Bethnal Green for what for me has become the highlight of these travels: a rendezvous with feline-kind at London’s first (and, so far, only) cat café.

The two-story establishment in a storefront on Bethnal Green Road more closely resembles its cousin across the Channel in Paris that I’d visited last spring: a sit-down eatery where cats and humans commingle in a shared space. In North America regulations mandate separation between food and animals… but are also more permissive on the cat-rescue front, allowing cafés to double as adoption centers. Best part: hot chocolate with cocoa cat faces sprinkled on top. Second-best part: a cat treadmill used extensively by one of the felines to get some afternoon cardio. Hey, girl’s gotta stay in shape.

Heading south again, we arrived at the Thames to catch one of the numerous river buses that ply the waterway, serving as both commuter transit and tourist attraction. We alighted just south of Westminster for our afternoon activity and (we hoped) perfect finale for our time in this city: the London Eye.

We’d already snagged tickets to this event the other day, and were hoping to breeze past the queues and get right on. We were even more hopeful when the lady at the counter said the magic words:

“You’ve gotten the last two tickets for the four-thirty entry.”

A glance at Lola’s watch revealed that was just fifteen minutes away. Perfect, I thought… until I glanced at the ticket and saw that the time was in fact… five thirty. A halfhearted apology from the counter clerk and a mammoth queue for the attraction left us both feeling rather disheartened. Now what?

LondonAquariumTurtleWhile both blue about it all, Lola, fast acquiring the improvisational skills so vital in world travel, pointed to a nearby spot attraction and said, “how about we go there?”

The London Sea Life Aquarium didn’t seem like much on first glance: clustered amid a row of other tourist traps, I had visions of some dumpy little spot that, like so many zoological establishments, cared less about its creatures than about its hefty entry fees. Well, never say never: the place was one of the better aquariums I’d seen, featuring huge, elaborate tanks with truly impressive specimens. Best part: oodles of information about conservation of endangered species, including the Aquarium’s own efforts at rescue and rehabilitation. To commemorate the spontaneous visit, Lola got herself a glitter tattoo (temporary, of course) of her favorite sea creature, the seahorse.

LolaLondonEye2The line had subsided some as we returned to the Eye, and we boarded rather speedily as the sun sank lower on the horizon. The orange, late-afternoon light gorgeously lit up the cityscape as our Eye capsule rose slowly over the river and the Houses of Parliament. As with so many popular tourist spots worldwide, this place remains massively popular for good reason. Lola professed a fright that was shortly eclipsed by wonderment as the view transfixed us all.

The day ended with a final, lovely surprise: my old pal Michelangelo, a.k.a. “Renaissance Man,” who proved so instrumental in my big world trip, was in town and met us for a tasty Middle Eastern meal on London’s center for such spots, Edgware Road. We caught up on our travels and relocations of the past years (which for him included a stint in India); Lola even managed to give him a life coaching lesson or two.

MeMichelangeloIt all made for a fitting end to a return to one of my favorite cities: new spots, old favorites, reunions with old friends… and, of course, the reason for it all: another of the next generation of world travelers.

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Europe’s Bad Boy

March 24th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

AcropolisWideLike Istanbul, Rome and Jerusalem, the word “Athens” brings up a host of legendary associations: ruins of ancient civilizations; Mediterranean weather; and dirty, modern-day hustle and bustle. Having hit the previous three cities in previous and current travels, I wanted to see how things compared in the ancient and modern capital of Greece.

I was equally curious given recent events: while the global economic crisis had its Ground Zero in America, its shock waves took a while to ripple across the globe. They hadn’t yet quite reached Europe’s shores on my big 2008-2009 trip, but now, almost seven years on, they’ve been the focus of a fight between Europe’s big-dog nation, Germany, and its hapless debt-plagued counterpart, Greece. I’m not enough of an economics expert to know just what is going on, exactly, but the narrative is that years of Greek profligacy have led to the nation’s near insolvency – threatening their exit from the Eurozone and a crisis in the EU overall.

So on top of all that culture and archeology, I was curious to check out what times were like in the capital city of Europe’s economic bad boy.

BlueStarFerrySideAlthough I wasn’t able to take a ferry from Turkey to Santorini, taking one back to Athens proved eminently doable. Ferries in the Med have gotten a bad rap lately, what with the Norman Atlantic last year and the Costa Concordia in 2012 (though the latter was a cruise ship, not a ferry). So I did my homework: the ship that now plies the route between Santorini and Pireaus (the port of Athens) happens to be a recently launched, Korean-built vessel that had gotten stellar reviews.

I arrived at the ferry port in Santorini to find a much busier place than the off-season island would suggest. As the Blue Star Delos piloted itself into port, I waited with gaggles of foreign tourists and Greek locals before clambering aboard. As with the mammoth ships in Ireland and New Zealand that I’d taken in my past travels, this one had multiple garage decks for cars and trucks as well as space for passengers.

BlueStarFerryCabin2As I rode the escalators to the main deck, any worries about this being a sketchy conveyance evaporated: the ship was at least as nicely fitted out as the cruise ship I’d been on last spring. I even spluged an extra €50 for a private cabin – not strictly necessary as this wasn’t an overnight journey, but for an eight-hour sunset trip it made for a stellar sanctuary.

As the ship approached Piraeus, we were ushered into the cavernous garage decks to disembark; as we began to dock, ramps descended in a blaze of warning sirens like something like an invasion force or a sci-fi craft on an alien planet.

I had one final work day left in this trip, but beforehand again managed to engage in a morning recon of the city. Unlike sprawling Rome or Istanbul, Athens’ modern center is compactly organized around the hills of the Acropolis. I strode through Plaka, the tourist district nearest the historical monuments, and found a charming collection of narrow neoclassical streetscapes; the place looks recently fixed up, with the odd splash of quite creative graffiti here and there. Spotless, new trams rolled down larger thoroughfares.

PlakaStreet2As I headed northwest, toward Syntagma Square and the shopping district of Omonia, I saw a bit more grit – and the odd cluster of protestors. But it definitely felt safe, energetic, decidedly southern European in all the best ways. For a place in the grip of a massive economic depression, things seemed shockingly, refreshingly mundane.

Next morning at breakfast, my goal for the day presented itself from the top-floor terrace of my hotel: the city’s star attraction, the Acropolis.

AcropolisSelfieAnother similarity with Rome, Istanbul, and Jerusalem (and my current hometown, San Francisco): Athens is ringed by mountains. The Acropolis’s 500-foot outcrop has been a citadel for millenia, though it only took its current form in the Classical Greek era. As with many ancient monuments, it’s seen its share of damage and looting through the ages – from a gunpowder explosion in 1687 from when the Ottoman Turks used the place as a weapons depot, to British Lord Elgin making off with its frieze in 1811 – to this day the “Elgin Marbles” still reside in the British Museum in London.

AcropolisOdeon3I’ve mentioned before how ruins often leave me uninspired: a pile of rubble seems like so sorry a way to commemorate the architectural and engineering achievements of past civilizations. Likewise, the Acropolis is notorious for its huge crowds; at times I’m actually okay with that – as I wrote when I visited the Colosseum in Rome, places that were designed as gathering spots feel right with even today with large herds of visitors.

AcropolisParthenon2Well, I’d say the effect here was about halfway between the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel – where, when I visited, loud packs of tourists had to be repeatedly shushed by guards; the temples of the Acropolis were places of religious activity, and while I’m no big practitioner of such, I can appreciate the aura of serenity and contemplation they offer. Plus, for me, Greek deities have a double significance: I totally dug Greek mythology in my youth; also, for sci-fi nuts, their appropriation in the Battlestar Galactica franchise left me wondering if the Cylons were going to show up during my visit (thankfully, no).

AcropolisViewSeaClimbing the hill, past the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes, I followed the crowds into the grand hilltop entrance – and beheld it in its partly ruined glory: the Parthenon.

Maybe it’s just fame and aura talking, but the place blew me away. The chattering tourists faded and I was able to focus on the grandeur of the temple. I was heartened to see that it and surrounding structures are the subject of significant restoration works; heck, if it was up to me I’d build the place back to the way it was in the time of Pericles, statue of Athena and all.

Afterward I strode down the opposite side, toward the neighborhood of Monastiraki: more fetching 19th Century narrow streets lined with eateries and souvenir shops offering some rather creative T-shirts for sale.

MonastirakiGreekCrisisShirtAlthough older than Tel Aviv, Athens bears some similarity to its Israeli neighbor across the Med: it too is a revived city of relatively recent lineage. The place was under the thumb of the Ottomans for centuries, and relations with Turkey, though improving, remain prickly (item of note: there are no mosques to be seen anywhere in the surrounding cityscape). Only in the last couple of centuries has Athens regained some of its ancient-era stature, though even today it’s a significantly smaller place than Paris, London, or post-Ottoman Istanbul.

MonastirakiFleaMarket2Still, it offers its own charms: the flea market, where I strolled before having lunch at a rather good café near the Temple of Hephaestus (how many eateries can make that boast?) echoed the back streets of Kadıköy in Istanbul; the graffiti here is at least as creative… even finding its way to the odd railcar on the city’s tidy Metro system. It too is a relatively new expansion of an old rail line from Piraeus, and is now roughly equivalent in size and ridership to the system in my native hometown, Montreal.

AthensMetroGraffitiAfter dark, I opted to head off the tourist path a bit and walk around Makrigianni, the residential neighborhood southeast of the Acropolis. Here the Tel Aviv analogy was especially apt, with mid-rise apartment blocks fronting narrow streets… again presided over by the occasional cat. Plus, for €5 I managed to snag a tasty take-away meal that would have been triple the price in neighboring Plaka.

Having seen the city’s marquee attraction, I figured I should learn more about it: next morning I headed over to the new Acropolis Museum, a modern, somewhat severe-looking edifice lying just yards away from the base of the great outcropping. Underneath its glass and steel walls lie ruins of ancient Athens; in this regard, this city differs slightly from Jerusalem, Rome, or Delhi, all of which had been repeatedly sacked and rebuilt throughout history, always in a slightly different spot. Ancient Athens was always right here – surrounding the Acropolis itself.

AcropolisMuseumInt1But why? I wondered. Well, the answer lies with water: as with ancient settlements throughout the Mediterranean basin, Athens began in a secure spot with access to fresh water – which just so happens to be the Acropolis itself. Only later did the hilltop become a place of worship and communion with the Greek deities – and stayed that way right through the Roman period; unlike so many places of conquest and destruction, the later empire across the Aegean doggedly retained, and even enhanced, the Greek capital as a center of learning and culture. I guess that’s why they call it “Greco/Roman.”

I’ve never been one to spend days upon days in art and antiquities museums inspecting every detail of this or that artwork or artifact. So, evading the legions of bored schoolchildren being lectured by myriad docents, I sleuthed out one modestly-marked attraction on the map: the virtual reality theaterCool. I was having visions of 3-D movie re-enactments of temples in ancient days. I strode across the building, past what looked like some kids’ play area, into the theatre, where a show was already in progress. No prob, I figured; I’d just wait for the next showing.

AcropolisMuseumFace“What do you want!?” snarled a young, scruffy museum official who’d followed me out of the theatre. Whoa, dude. I asked him when the next show was taking place.

“There are no more showings today! Only at 11 and 12!” he barked. Glancing at the crowd, I noticed more schoolchildren – looks like this was designed as a kiddie attraction, probably to retain the attention of those inattentive youths I’d seen upstairs.

It was a minor incident at best, but something about it rattled me. The hostility, the rudeness… I can appreciate and accept that not all cultures interact identically; that Yankee-style friendliness isn’t the norm in other places; and that likewise, English is not the mother tongue in these parts. But still, I can’t help but wonder if this museum’s ambassadors to the world couldn’t have gotten at least a little briefing on globally-accepted manners.

I continued my wander of the city back past the Greek Parliament – and here, too, it was all business: a marching-band military processional of some kind. On side streets, I spotted the odd police paddy wagon and rifle-toting officers; didn’t seem like any protests were happening but looks like they weren’t taking any chances.

KolonakiGermanPosterA stroll through the leafy National Gardens and up the hilly streets of the upscale Kolonaki neighborhood proved something of a tonic… until I came upon it: a poster on an apartment building across from the German Embassy. On it, a Swastika and a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel dolled up in military garb.


Obviously, it’s ludicrious to make a connection between one random rude museum docent and the political ramifications of what I was seeing… but then I thought back to Israel and its oft-surly customer-service scenarios, and wondered if I’d been sensing the tip of a rather turbulent socio-political iceberg. This place looks and feels like a dynamic, lively southern European capital, to be sure… but there’s something unhappy lurking beneath the charming narrow streets and historic relics.

I continued my meander uphill, reaching the underground funicular that climbs the slope of Mount Lycabettus. A mixed crowd of locals and some visitors made it clear that this spot is on the radar, to be sure, but not to the degree as other attractions a short distance away.

MtLycabettusViewCactiStepping out of the funicular clinched it: the hordes don’t know what they’re missing. The Acropolis gets the glory for its historic and archeological past… but Lycabettus, the highest point in the city, is a wonder, unfurling a glorious, mystical panorama of the city like nowhere else. Like Mount Carmel in Haifa, Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, or Twin Peaks back home in San Francisco (which is almost exactly the same height), this spot floats above the masses of the city’s apartment blocks. In the hazy distance I saw the sea and ships of Pireaus, where I’d made landfall just a few days ago.

MtLycabettusSelfieThis urban Mount Olympus is crowned by a small quintessentially Greek Orthodox chapel, and a modern-day amphitheatre to do its ancient counterparts on the Acropolis proud; the place has hosted numerous latter-day pop performances. An ethereal blend of succulents and flowering plants cover the slopes. I wandered down the meandering path back to Kolonaki, played the Imagine Dragons song “On Top of the World” on repeat, and felt the jarring scenes from earlier in the day simply melt away in my brain.

LastDinnerLimoncelloAfter dark I wandered the streets of Plaka one last time. The Acropolis was lit up, jewel-like, on the hilltop above. Although I often obey the “five block rule” about restaurants near tourist spots, I broke it this time… and was richly rewarded. I had a fabulous final meal in Athens, accompanied by warm, receptive service and a complimentary Limoncello as a digestif. And all within view of the Acropolis Museum where I’d encountered that surly docent… proving again that, in travel, as in life, there really are no absolutes.

MtLycabettusCats2My morning departure from Athens held one final treat: having ridden the speedy, reliable Metro in from the city, I stood in line at security behind a young Russian fellow traveling with his family – and their cat. He hauled kitty out of her crate and walked her through the X-ray – just as I’d done a number of times with my Khaleesi (though, alas, not this time).

Seems the cats of southern Europe and the Middle East, who’d been ever-present throughout this trip, were gently guiding me back home.

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The Winds of Atlantis

March 19th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

SantoriniChurchBellSantorini is one of those ludicrously photogenic places featured in innumerable travel magazines, feature films, and (I’m told) Greek fashion shoots and music videos. I therefore have been determined to include it on a jaunt around the Med, and this trip proved the opportune time.

I’d hoped to hop a ferry to get there, either from Istanbul itself (nope, too far – would have required a cruise) or from one of Turkey’s southern cities. Alas, a scour of travel websites yielded practically nothing until later in the season. So a plane ride it was, with a change in Athens, just as I’d done to get to Ko Phangan in Thailand from Cambodia back on my world trip.


ATHAegeanAirBoardComparison with the Thai islands is apt: both they and the scatter-pattern of craggy dots in the Aegean Sea are big destinations for sun-seeking Brits and northern Europeans. Indeed, the brief flight to the island was packed… though the crowd onboard featured a surprising number of Americans as well as tourists from outside Europe. Interesting, I mused, though I didn’t think much of it at the time.

I arrived at my accommodations, one of those gorgeous cliffside cavelike structures hugging the top of the mountainside in Fira, Santorini’s main town. It was a cool, quiet evening, with shuttered shops lining back alleyways; in the distance, lights of other islands towns twinkled in the distance. As the sun rose the next morning, I saw it from my windows: a small peak jutting out of the Aegean waters, surrounded by the semicircular island. Santorini is in fact the caldera of a collapsed volcano that erupted some 3,500 years ago; it apparently led to the downfall of the Minoan civilization – and some say it’s the legend that inspired tales of the lost city of Atlantis.

SantoriniFiraStreetRocksWell, on a windy, cool March morning, Atlantis remained as quiet as the night before: most shops remained shut during the day, and only small scatterings of visitors were to be seen. Most of the folks out and about were locals – laborers busily repainting and remodeling in preparation for the summer season.

Then it hit me: Santorini’s off-season is really an off-season – more like, say, the Hamptons near New York than the beaches near San Diego. Points to consider: Europe’s freakishly high latitude, made possible by the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, means its climate is milder than it would otherwise be (to wit: Montreal and Marseille are almost at the same latitude). This at times misleads me to think of the Continent – at least its Mediterranean bits – as mirroring California’s coast. However… not all Mediterranean climes are created equal: whereas, say, Santa Monica can count on daytime highs between 65°F and 75°F practically year-round, that’s not as true of locales in the actual Med, a much smaller body of water than the mammoth Pacific. Here, seasonal swings are greater, even right by the sea.

So that explained the missing Brits, and general emptiness of the place overall. Santorini in mid-March is chilly. Its famed winds made it feel even colder than Istanbul. I’m told the converse is true here in summer, where it can reach 40 °C (over 100 °F) – almost unheard of along the American West Coast but no doubt a godsend to sun-starved north Europeans.

SantoriniScooterNonetheless, I opted to brave the elements, renting a motor scooter to do some exploring. Riding south, I took curving mountain roads down to the island’s ferry port. Aside from a small freight vessel, the place was likewise deserted… and that’s when my scooter chose to die.

Crap, I thought. Fumbling around in my pockets, I located the receipt from the rental place and gave them a ring; a few tries with the manual kickstarter thankfully did the trick, and I was on my way. Another reminder this was the off-season: the thing looked like they’d just hauled it out of storage (though it behaved quite nicely the rest of the day, thank heavens).

SantoriniOiaWideBraving blasts of wind that would do Chicago proud, I headed north to the island’s tip. While the inner rim of the island hugging the caldera is mountainous, the outer parts are verdant plains: I looked over beautifully terraced farms leading out to blue seas. In the distance, some of the other islands of the Cyclades chain were visible; it was easy to see how humans of early history settled these islands one by one, forming one of humankind’s first civilizations.

SantoriniOia9Meanwhile, my destination lay perched in the distance: the town of Oia (pronounced “EE-ya”), another clifftop settlement, this one blanketing the island’s northwesternmost point. Fira is pretty, to be sure, but Oia is the place dreams are made of: a dense thicket of whitewashed buildings tumbling down the cliffs toward the azure sea. Here and there, blue-domed churches added vivid splashes of color. Here the peace and quiet of the off-season was a blessing: the town was magical, bewitching, everything those travel brochures advertised and then some. Like a number of other spots on this journey, Oia has catapulted to what is now an increasingly crowded roster of my Most Beautiful Spots On Earth.

SantoriniSunset2But surely, I wondered, a place like this didn’t just spring, fully-formed, as a photogenic tourist destination. Actually, its history has a thing or two in common with Valparaíso, Chile, a city I’d visited almost exactly six years ago which also sports a Mediterranean climate and structures climbing steep hillsides. Both were good-sized 19th century port towns – in Oia’s case, as a stopover point on the trade route between Russia and Egypt. Most of the fine structures – now repurposed as hotels, shops, and restaurants – were once the homes of mariners. Alas, as with Valparaíso and the opening of the Panama Canal, the arrival of steam and the growth of Athens’ port of Pireaus hastened Oia’s decline; it was only in the last few decades that the place rebirthed itself as a holiday destination.

SantoriniMulesCUOver the next couple of days, I joined my local counterparts, and rolled up my sleeves to do more remote work; ironically, being in a vacation spot during a quieter time made for a perfect productivity enhancer – to say nothing of having a killer view of the blue Aegean. The weather improved some on my last day on the island, so I opted to hit a couple more spots before I was set to head off.

Although the new ferry port is some ways away from Fira town, the old port, where some boats still alight for caldera tours, lay just down the hill from where I was staying. I walked down the winding paths, dodging the odd pile of manure and paying my greetings to the beasts responsible for them. Yes, mules, donkeys, and horses are still used on the island to haul sacks of goods up from the old harbor. Meanwhile, anchored in the harbor, a filmic reminder: one boat named “Melina,” same as the Bond girl in the set-partly-in-Greece film For Your Eyes Only.

SantoriniCableCar3Reaching the bottom, I opted for a higher-tech conveyance to climb back up: the Santorini Cable Car – really more a chain of ski-lift-type gondolas – was said to run only a few times a day in the off-season… but luckily one of those times was mere minutes from when I stopped in. The elderly lift operator ushered me and a family from Vancouver into a cabin, and up we went for the brief journey up the mountain.

From there I hoofed it over to the town’s Prehistory Museum. Well, sort-of prehistory, as it mostly featured artifacts from the island’s Minoan-era past… but the effect was nonetheless spectacular: astonishingly vivid, beautiful ceramics and frescoes from Akrotiri, the island’s onetime center circa, oh, four thousand years ago. Archeological work here in past decades has corroborated that the island’s volcanic eruption was indeed what toppled the Minoan civilization… though no confirmation on whether this was in fact Atlantis. A part of me chooses to believe it was: a place this stunning would have made a perfect spot for a lost civilization to set up shop… only to ultimately, mysteriously disappear beneath the waves and winds.

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Birthday in Byzantium

March 15th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

BlueMosqueWideI used to hate it that my birthday fell in the middle of March: it’s not really winter, it’s not really spring, and everybody’s in the middle of everything. Heck, I was even born midweek, on a Thursday (same day it fell this year). Perhaps that’s why, beginning with my big world trip, I’ve been away on this date more often than I’ve been at home.

Appropriately enough, this year I spent it in the middle of the largest city in Europe, a place that bridges Europe and the West with Asia and the East.

If you think about it, the notion of “Europe” and “Asia” are in a sense imaginary: unlike, say, Australia or the Americas – landmasses physically separated by leagues of open ocean from their neighbors – the Eurasian landmass is one solid, relatively navigable chunk of terrain (just ask Marco Polo). Europe is really just Asia’s west coast. It is we humans who have given the regions their distinctiveness – and it’s inescapable, when traveling from, say, Vienna to Amman, as I did in my past travels, to notice that you’re crossing over from one place to another very different place – even though the physical distance is about the same as from San Francisco to Chicago.

KadikoyFerryView6So where does the transition happen? Well, Istanbul is one of a few spots where you can kind of feel the shift take place right under your feet.

Start with climate and geography: sprawling across the narrow Bosphorus strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (an inlet of the Aegean, itself an inlet of the Med), the city sports microclimates that rival California’s. Continue with history and politics: once it was Byzantium, an ancient Greek settlement; then it became Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire; then, as of the 1400s, it became Istanbul, an Ottoman Muslim imperial center and, ultimately, capital of a modern nation-state.

Given this mishmash of cultures and locales, I wasn’t sure what to expect: I’d heard rave reviews about the place from numerous visitors and expats… but was also aware of some growing hostility in Islamic Turkey toward the West. Having traveled a fair bit on both sides of the two worlds this city bridges, I wondered: would it be another Cairo or another London?

BlueMosqueNiteArrival, fortunately, was as smooth and efficient as in the latter: for only the second time in all my years of travel, my luggage arrived first off the conveyor. Following the signs to the Metro, I handily purchased a fare card and boarded the train bound for the city. Transferring to the light-rail was equally a cinch. The trains were crowded, as I’d been warned, but nothing out of the ordinary for an urbanite such as myself. Alighting at historic Sultanahmet, I saw the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque gloriously lit up in the chilly night. I wandered down tidy, narrow streets to my accommodations, an adorable boutique inn with congenial staff, a large room… and a price tag easily a third less than anything I’d paid back in Israel.

HagiaSophiaSelfieI was set to work remotely for the following two days, but that didn’t stop me from engaging in a little bit of reconnoitering: I walked through the old city to Istanbul’s star attraction, the Hagia Sophia. This massive religious structure dates back to the 6th century, a time when most of the West was in the maw of the Dark Ages following the collapse of the old Roman Empire. Its long, multifaceted heritage has seen it serve as cathedral (the largest in Europe for a thousand years), then mosque (after the Ottomans took it over), and now a museum. Predictably crowded with tourists, it was nonetheless a mammoth, bewitching old place perfect for a moody morning in the city.




Meanwhile, I felt like I was being followed in my travels: Like Israel, Istanbul is also thick with street cats. I’m told they’re more respected here than back in the Holy Land. They’re all over city gardens and monuments; one even elected to preside over the crowds inside the Hagia Sophia itself, no doubt assuming that it was the subject of worship and adulation.


İstiklal AvenueTramNext morning, I hopped the light rail across the bridge over the Golden Horn to the “new” city – Beyoğlu district. Truth be told, the “old” city area of Sultanahmet took me a bit by (pleasant) surprise: instead of a filthy warren of narrow street as in Islamic Cairo or Old Delhi, the ancient part of this town is tidy, upscale, and (of course) rather touristy – periodically overfriendly touts reminded me that this place is as much Asia as it is Europe. Crossing the bridge intoBeyoğlu, however, was more the Istanbul I expected: narrow, hilly streets crowded with shops and apartments. A mix of tourists and locals were out and about as I strolled down pedestrianized İstiklal Avenue, past the clanging historic tram to the broad plaza of Taksim Square. I passed Galata Tower on the way – a bona fide medieval edifice literally towering over the city’s 19th century downtown – but didn’t make it to the top due to a crowd of noisy schoolchildren. Istanbul, in this regard more like a developing world city than a European one, has grown immensely in recent decades; it’s likewise become one of the world’s top tourist destinations, and in spite of European-style infrastructure improvements, the place nonethless groans with capacity.

HotelDessertWhile the rest of my day was spent working, my hotel decided on a birthday surprise: they knocked on my door that evening, and presented me with a darling present of chocolate fondue with bananas – how, in a land of desserts I’m not terribly fond of they managed to figure out my absolute favorite treat in the whole wide world I’ll never know… but my already positive impression of the place went up a couple dozen notches.

BasilicaCisternSelfieWith work complete,the next morning, a bit of Bond: that scene in From Russia With Love, where 007 and his local fixer take a boat under the city to get to the Russian Consulate is in fact the Basilica Cistern (and nowhere near the real-life Consulate, but heck, it made for a great scene). Largest of many scattered through this ancient city (this one claims a pedigree going back to the 6th century and Emperor Justinian I), nowadays it’s all touristed up, replete with fish swimming in its waters and a café at the edge of its murky depths. Still, the setting is sufficiently spooky and Bond-ish… if you can forget about the (real-life) Russians hungrily snapping photos of those Medusa columns.

From there, I strolled through pedestrian shopping streets, to the granddaddy mercantile palace of them all: the Grand Bazaar.

GrandBazaarLampsI may not be big on shopping, but this attraction – ranked among the city’s, and indeed the world’s, biggest draws – has been a must-see for me for some time. It’s a sublime place indeed, an early Ottoman take on the mega-mall dating back more than five centuries. Happily, unlike some such places in the Middle East, shopkeepers are content to leave you alone while browsing their wares. I guess Istanbul tilts more European on that score – though I did see some haggling between the odd hijab-clad lady and proprietors of the shops.

I wanted to hop on a tram to see more sights… but emerged from the bazaar to find the tram’s passage blocked by protest marchers. It all looked peaceful, though I did spot clusters of police officers in riot gear on some side streets; apparently it was all commemorating some police brutality a year back. Nothing serious came of it… but it was a reminder that Ferguson, Missouri isn’t alone on the world stage.

DolmabahçePalaceEntryGateFinally reaching Kabataş on the other side of the Golden Horn, I headed to another of the city’s star attractions. Apparently, by the 19th century the Ottoman Sultans had grown tired of their old digs in Sultanahmet, and commissioned another, grander place to be built to compete with the ornate insanities of Europe. Dolmabahçe Palace was the result, a compound on the banks of the Bosphorus so grand and ornate it apparently contributed to the Empire’s insolvency and its reputation as the “sick man of Europe.”

DolmabahçePalaceSide3Well, I could see why: a short guided tour walked us up staircases with crystal-hewn balustrades; gold-leafed imperial reception chambers; and – just as I was wondering what they blew the Imperial treasury on – a mind-blowing, enormous Grand Ceremonial Hall to rival anything I’d seen in Paris or Saint Petersburg. Perhaps, though, the fate of the reigning monarchs of those last two fiefdoms should have given the Ottomans pause.

Strolling the gardens of Dolmabahçe and communing with its cats, I couldn’t help but gaze upon the famed waterway on which it sits and think: I need to cross it. It’s not every day one can cross from one continent to another in mere minutes. Fortunately, the Kabataş ferry terminal was just a short walk away, and ships to the Asian side’s popular Kadıköy district departed every half hour. Together with a mix of locals and other visitors, I boarded the tidy ferryboat and traversed the legendary waters. It was a splendid, cool, sunny springtime day as we passed some industrial bits of harbor and arrived on the other side.

KadikoyMarketNite1Kadıköy was fantastic – every bit as busy and bustling as shopping districts on the other side, but significantly less touristy. Yet another warren of pedestrian streets revealed a busy fish market, some garment shops lining a narrow alleyway, and gaggles of pubs and eateries. The waterfront offered mystical, hazy views of the mosques and minarets of Sultanahmet, just across the water. Consider this another air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame, in Emma Lazarus parlance.

It was after dark by the time I finished my reconnoiter (and a bite of dinner), so I opted for a speedier way to cross the Bosphorus: Istanbul is in the midst of expanding its modern but hopelessly overcrowded subway system, which includes a new tunnel under the water that’s part of the Marmaray rail line. The gleaming conveyance took me back to Europe in less time than it takes BART to traverse San Francisco Bay.

TopkapiPalaceArchedWalkwayMy last full day in Istanbul saw moodier weather than the rest, so I stuck closer to home and visited some spots I’d missed in previous days. Having seen the majesty of Dolmabahçe I figured I owed its predecessor a nod: I hoofed it over to Topkapi Palace, the older Ottoman-era residence commanding the tip of the Sultanahmet peninsula at Seraglio Point. Predictably, this place is a more eastern-styled affair, with arched courtyards and intricate tilework – and bigger crowds, given its proximity to other Istanbul landmarks.

IslamScienceMuseumGlobeA walk through the palace’s former gardens led me to an utterly appropriate spot to spend Pi Day: the Museum of the History of Science & Technology in Islam. A short film at the start of the exhibits explains – a bit defensively, I noted – how the oft-overlooked work of Islamic scholars preserved and expanded upon scientific knowledge through the Middle Ages. In addition to carrying forward the work of the ancient Greeks, Islamic scientists expanded on areas of mathematics, as witnessed in the Arabic terms algebra and algorithm. Models and recreations of everything from water clocks to oversized astronomical instruments (the originals of which I saw in Jaipur, India) proved that cultures the world over can readily adopt the language of science if so inclined.


SultanahmetNite1Wandering back from dinner through the streets of Sultanahmet on my last night in the city confirmed it: yes, this metropolis straddling two continents and cultures makes for an excellent place for a global nomad, born between two seasons of the year, to spend a birthday at work and at play… to say nothing of the enjoyment garnered by those glorious Turkish cats.

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Wanderlust’s Birthplace

March 10th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

GalileeHighway1Pint-sized Israel – a country about the size of New Jersey – packs in a lot of geographic punch. I was determined this go-round to see more of what had eluded me on previous travels. With my rental car at last secured, I headed northward on Israel’s spotless, gleaming Highway 6. As the country’s easternmost north-south thoroughfare, it bore reminders of the nation’s agonies: hillside towns with minareted mosques popped up here and again… only to be foregrounded by the nation’s security barrier; signage at off-ramps indicated routes to Israeli settlements.

As I drove, the landscape grew hilly yet more verdant than the rocky mountainscapes down south. Passing slopes covered in white-stone apartment blocks, I followed my GPS’s directions and arrived at my accommodations on the slopes of Haifa’s Mount Carmel just as the sun was setting over Haifa Bay.

HaifaBahaiGardensNiteI’ve long been captivated by Haifa, in the abstract at least, for a topographic feature it shares with Hong Kong: both urban centers sit astride the slopes of mountains. Alas, it became clear when I arrived that both cities share something else: aside from their stellar geography, neither offers much to write home about aesthetically. In Haifa’s case, curvy mountain roads are fronted by dirty, forgettable apartment blocks. Oh, sure, there’s the odd gem – my hotel, located in an elegant former mansion, was one; the road at the foot of the mountain bearing old stone edifices of the city’s German Colony (where I had a nice dinner of schnitzel, natch) is another. And, of course, the sea and sky and – on the night I was there – a glorious full moon overlooking twinkling Haifa Bay. Echoes of Valparaíso, Chile, or my current hometown of San Francisco, came to mind as I wandered up and down gritty streets amid pleasant breezes.

HaifaBahaiShrineCUHaifa’s main attraction was my first destination the next morning: the Bahá’í World Centre, a sprawling campus of gorgeous, immaculately-manicured gardens and buildings climbing Mount Carmel above the German Colony. The Bahá’í are an interesting lot, a blend of proto-hippie pacifism and traditional theism that originated in Persia in the 19th century. Their holy sites are positively magnificent the world over, from Wilmette, Illinois; to New Delhi, India; to here, in the land where so many religions claim as their home. I may not be one for spirituality or faith, but I sure can appreciate tranquility and great architecture.

RoshHaNikraCableCars3From there, I piloted my little Chevy Spark northward, to coastal Israel’s topmost point, and the site of one of my earliest travel memories: the grottoes of Rosh HaNikra.

This spot stands out in my mind for two reasons: one, the astounding, glorious interplay of sea and rock, as the waters of the Mediterranean pound against the grottoes of the chalk cliffs; two, for the cable car – I had a bit of a childhood fixation on them – that’s apparently the steepest in the world. Together with gaggles of mostly Israeli tourists and their families (the place remains an attraction for all ages), I descended to the base of the cliffs. Both the cableway and the grottoes were smaller than I remembered, but the effect was no less enchanting.

RoshHaNikraGrottoes3Equally haunting, and a bit sad, are the old railway tunnels dug by the British during Palestine’s Mandatory Period. Given the strategic vulnerability of tunnels from the north, toward Lebanon just on the other side of the rock, portions of these were blown up during Israel’s War of Independence in 1947-48. A quick swipe up from Google Maps revealed it: I was mere yards from Lebanon, and barely eighty or so miles from Beirut. Perhaps one day, in a different geopolitical climate, these tunnels will be reopened, and we travelers will again be able to ride the rails north up this glorious coast.

After lunch and a seaside stroll in nearby Nahariya – a town whose proximity to Lebanon has rendered it susceptible to periodic shelling – I drove east, into the hills of the Galilee. The landscape was at once familiar – blink and it could be California’s Central Coast – and different – periodic Israeli and Palestinian towns offered up more minarets and red-tile roofs. As I crested one hill and began my descent, I saw a surprising road sign: “Sea Level.” I was almost to the Kinnereth, the Sea of Galilee, and my destination for that evening.

GalileeHighway2The Dead Sea gets all the glory for being the lowest spot on Earth, but it’s not the only place around here to bear the below-sea-level distinction. Starting around the Kinnereth and continuing south, this terrestrial depression is known as the Jordan Rift Valley. Depending on how you measure it, this geographic formation continues for thousands of miles into Africa toward the birthplace of humankind.

For me, however, the attachment held more recent origins: I checked in at the Galei Kinnereth Hotel, an old warhorse of a resort going back to the 1940s. Humbler and more faded than some newer resorts nearby, the place nonetheless holds a rich history: a small gallery on its second floor revealed images of Danny Kaye, Golda Meir, and David Ben-Gurion as past visitors.

TiberiasDinnerCat2While dining at a lakefront eatery on some St. Peter’s Fish (a local variety of tilapia caught from the lake), a visitor to my table brought back memories of the present: a cat, one of Israel’s many that I’ve seen in my time here, watched me eat with those big, mournful eyes. Oh, I probably shouldn’t have, but I tossed the creature a bit of my meal, which she promptly scampered off to scarf down before returning to seek out another gullible tourist.

SavyonOldHouse2I headed back southward the next day, but before returning my rental car I made one final stop: driving through Savyon, a leafy neighborhood of low-slung homes, I reached it: a rambling ranch-style place where we lived during the three years in this land when I was a boy. A memory burbled up of loading up our Volvo station wagon for yet another adventure… and it was then that I realized what this weekend of driving was all about. It was here, in this diverse, Mediterranean land, that my passion for travel was ignited. These mountains, these lakes and beaches and cliffs and seas, all fired up my boyhood imagination, led me to inhabit a continent, and eventually explore the world. All great journeys have their beginnings, and for me, this was the place where wanderlust was born.

JaffaMomArthurMy finale in this land mirrored its opener on my previous trip: a sojourn in the country’s biggest city, Tel Aviv. I reunited with my Mom and Arthur for a dinner with my aunt and uncle, the parents of the newlywed groom who all live in the farming community down south. They’ve had a rough few years since my big world travels, including a traumatic falling-out with a religious community and nonprofit foundation they were involved in. But all that’s behind them now, and they seem happier than I’ve ever known them. Part of it might be their response to the interminable political turmoil of this little nation. As my aunt Ella put it:

“We don’t watch the news anymore. It’s too depressing!”

Probably for the best.

JaffaStairs2I didn’t quite make it to Old Jaffa, the ancient port city adjacent to modern Tel Aviv, on my last outing, so this trip gave me an opportunity to fill that in, too. But this time, I got to see it through the eyes of a former native: my Mom.

“It was a total slum until they fixed it up in the sixties,” she said as we strolled through spotless medieval stone alleyways that echoed my visit to Mdina in Malta last year. Unlike flat Tel Aviv, Jaffa sits on a small promontory that made it a prime location for a harbor. It was a warm, hazy spring day, and a set of rocks just offshore foamed up the blue seas: they’re said to be the legendary spot where Andromeda was rescued by Perseus in Greek myths (I was a bit obsessed with the original Clash of the Titans when I was a boy).

A lunch and a dinner and a few meetups with more relatives rounded out our time in Tel Aviv. Between both sides of my family it’s truly dazzling how many relations I have in this country – more than almost anywhere else on Earth. Strolling southward down the waterfront from the Port of Tel Aviv with two of my cousins the night before I left, I concluded that, yes, if I ever were to make this country my home, bustling, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv would be the place. For me, though, the country holds a sacredness that goes beyond cities or lifestyles or work or religion itself.

It’s the place where I learned to love travel.

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Zion: Unions and Reunions

March 7th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

IMG_1450Travel, I always say, has many mothers. My big world voyage was planned in the wake of a failed relationship; my sojourns to London & Paris last spring kicked off my nephews’ and nieces’ intro to world travel; another trip last spring, to Malta, originated in my boyfriend Mathew’s desire to meet up with his friend teaching English in Cairo somewhere in the Mediterranean.

I’d long plotted a return to Israel, one of my past homelands, and where much of my (actual) mother’s extended family still resides. Opportunity came knocking this year, when the last of my cousins over there announced wedding plans, and some work transition afforded a window. And so it began again, with a smooth liftoff from San Francisco and an overnighter across North America and the North Atlantic.

LondonPushkin2As in my big world journey, I opted to stay over in London with a member of my multi-generational family friend clan who once aided and abetted my parents’ first meetup. Good choice: on arrival, the true master – er, mistress – of the abode presented herself to me: Pushkin, the family’s black cat, a near doppelganger for my furball back home. This elegant creature just may have snatched the Cat For Dog People award from my “Khaleesi”: sweet, loving, eager to have her belly rubbed (a rarity among cats).

IMG_1397Next morning, back in the saddle: a remarkably speedy commuter train whisked me to Luton Airport, now my fourth London-area airfield. A surprisingly intimate place, basically a big airplane (ahem, “aeroplane”) barn well north of London proper. Together with oodles of Orthodox Jews, I boarded an easyJet Airbus A320 for the hop across Europe and the Mediterranean to the Levant. It still amazes me how the Southwest Airlines model has so thoroughly taken root across the globe: EasyJet’s no-frills service offered up decent for-pay food and drink, and slim yet comfortable Recaro seats.

As in so many spots around the world, Israel has its own form of SuperShuttle-esque shared taxis, known locally as the sherut. Since my first destination in this little country was in Jerusalem, some 40 miles away, I parked myself in one, and soon after we were off. Signs of a nation on the move were once more apparent, as they had been for me back in 2008: new highways being built together with a high-speed rail link between the country’s two biggest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; a soaring Santiago Calatrava viaduct carrying Jerusalem’s new light-rail network. And some other, less desirable artifacts of a nation founded by tough-minded immigrants: from the rude driver of the sherut to an angry fat man at the airport who demanded directions from me. I was reminded how much I appreciate American-style congeniality, even when it’s a bit fake.

IMG_6198Meanwhile, congeniality galore was on tap at my Uncle Sammy’s place, where I gobbled up the last bits of a stellar Israeli meal (tomato/cucumber salad; tahini; pita bread), caught up with him and the rest of the family, and beheld a highlight of this particular Promised Land outing: the simultaneous visit by my mother, the first time we’ve both been in this place since I was seven. After a night’s sleep, we spent a pleasant few hours strolling around the central part of Jerusalem, shopping, enjoying stellar fruit drinks and iced coffee, and hearing my mother’s reminiscences of the place from decades ago. Afterward, I ambled back to our accommodations, passing the Montefiore windmill — part of the first settlement outside Jerusalem’s walls in the 19th century — and the old railway station, an Ottoman-era stone structure now repurposed as a shopping/dining hub. The old train tracks have likewise been made into a rail trail, not unlike Missouri’s Katy Trail or New York’s High Line.

Annd… that was it with sightseeing for me: since I’d found a new job so soon after I’d made plans for this trip, we agreed that I would work part of the time remotely. In the years since my big world travels this has become an increasingly common trend. Over the next two days I was able to get a lot done – all the while corresponding with co-workers via e-mail, online, chat and videoconference. It remains to be seen whether this will further solidify a trend that’ll make world travel ever more accessible for busy working professionals… but I, for one, am all for it.

IMG_1404The following evening, a taste of old Jerusalem: my uncle drove us across town to Mahane Yehuda, the old market, for a traditional (and delicious) meal of skewers, hummus, highly-addictive pita bread, and a range of marinated vegetables. Here, too, old and new collide: this traditional market has “gone hipster,” as my uncle and cousin Adar indicated: when the produce shops close, a range of eateries, bars and cafés stay open late into the night.

We wandered back through Beit Ya’akov, one of West Jerusalem’s oldest neighborhoods outside the the walls of the Old City. Men in religious garb strolled through narrow alleyways flanked by stone houses. A stealthy yet surprisingly social army of stray cats eyed us curiously; the African wildcat, from which most modern strains of domestic cat originate, is indigenous to this region. While Israelis profess to be indifferent to them (“we are a dog country,” said my uncle), they’re often fed by locals, and generally seem content to live as their forebears have for eons in these parts.

The next morning I met my cousin Adar, a newly-minted occupational therapist with a gift for languages and an interesting, broad perspective on this country. Sitting over a couple of iced coffees – a misnomer; the drink is rich and creamy like a Frappuccino, though even comparing it to that doesn’t do it justice – I learned more about the region’s troubles, from the never-ending geopolitical conflict to the high cost of living and income inequality – yes, that’s a problem in high-tech Israel just as it is back home.

And yet… people still manage to find time to celebrate. This was the week of Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrating the Hebrews’ salvation (yet again) in ancient Persia. The holiday was always something of a Jewish Halloween, with costumes, merriment, and substantial boozing for a normally not-too-terribly-tipply people. In recent years, it’s become bigger still: even in buttoned-down Jerusalem, gaily-decorated youths roamed the streets while festive music blared out from street fairs and shops. Fittingly, my cousin Binyamin, whose wedding I’d come to attend, scheduled the event with his bride Zohar at an elegant hilltop wedding hall about an hour southwest of Jerusalem – and added a “wear a costume” theme.

IMG_6224A marriage of two farming-community thirtysomethings probably sounds like a snoozefest – but here too, this nation surprises: for one thing, Israeli weddings are gargantuan; this one was considered smaller… at merely three hundred or so people. The ceremony itself – brief, as Jewish weddings typically are – was punctuated by whoops and hollers from the colorfully-attired crowd. Afterward, we piled into the cavernous, glass-walled hall for a delectable Mediterranean dinner and dancing to a blend of contemporary dance tunes of both local and American provenance.

IMG_6230“Where’s the hora?” asked Arthur, my Mom’s new beau and lifelong Canadian. Alas, traditional Jewish folk dances are about as commonplace in Israel nowadays as the Charleston is at North American weddings. Avicii and Katy Perry are preferred. I ended up chatting with my various cousins, some of whom are still completing the country’s mandatory military service. It’s always a bit eerie, coming here and seeing this doppelgänger existence of my kin that could very well have been my own: my family lived here for three years when I was a lad, and I always wonder how I would have turned out in this land of great joys colliding with such tremendous sorrows.

As I’d discovered on arrival, if there’s one place where those two forces oddly, maddeningly connect, it’s this country’s periodic lapses in customer service. The “Israelis are rude” cliché seemed to me in my last voyage to have been largely vanquished – but the one area where it stubbornly held on was in my car rental experience. In fairness, Israel’s not alone: I find the entire affair of short-term car hire to be maddeningly inefficient, annoying, and slow the world over. It’s become my least favorite part of travel, trouncing even flight delays and lost luggage.

I’d booked a car in Jerusalem for the early afternoon for a journey to Israel’s north. Most of the major international agencies are well represented here; the plan was to take my Mom and Arthur (who was celebrating a milestone birthday) to lunch next door, then pick up the vehicle and head off.

CarRentalEmailAlas, the best-laid plans. I received an e-mail at 12:06pm: “We’re open until 12:30. Please don’t come after that.” A confirmation call from one of my Hebrew-speaking cousins confirmed it: my reservation would not be honored for the (later) hour it had been booked. We raced over there – I in the process stupidly forgetting my passport. A surly, bored-looking young woman greeted us and echoed what she’d said in her communiques; another agency next door was open for an additional half hour – but even though we retrieved my passport and made it back with a minute to spare, no dice:

“The garage closes at one. We have no control over it!” barked the young man behind the counter.

And so we hatched alternate plans: I grabbed a rather pricey taxi back to the airport and rented a vehicle from there. One bright spot: the airport rental counter, where I’d just booked the reservation online, was speedy and efficient. Plus, when the car rolled out at the pick-up spot in the airport garage, it was a brand-new, cute little Chevy Spark with manual transmission. Perfect. Others may scoff at such pint-sized little crates, but I love them. Heck, my vehicle back home is a scooter.

The ride down to Jerusalem to Ben-Gurion Airport proved worthwhile on an another level: to avoid the crazy traffic on Highway 1, the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem thoroughfare, my driver took us down Route 443. Passing West Bank Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements, I saw it up-close and personal: the separation barrier, Israel’s Berlin Wall. Miles of concrete and barbed wire, dotted by guard towers. Periodic signs on roads leading away from the highway warned “Palestinian Village not safe for Israeli Citizens.” Suffice it to say, consternation about car-rental hassles dissipated. Living on a hair-trigger like this, I suppose, partly accounts for why some niceties go out the window. Meanwhile, finally equipped with a vehicle of my own, I headed off for the next phase of my Levantine adventure.

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Speedboat to Polynesia

January 20th, 2015 by David Jedeikin

WaikikiBeach1Sitting on a Hawaiian Airlines jet looking out at the azure Pacific. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”– which first caught my attention further across the Pacific, in Sydney, Australia on my big world trip –plays on my headphones. My at-long-last first-ever journey to the Hawaiian islands, a holiday gift from my partner Mathew, is winding to a close.

Hawaiian tropes run redolent through modern American culture, finding their fullest expression in the Hawaiian Renaissance of my youth, and continuing to today: consider Wikipedia, Akamai, luau, lanai, and countless other bits of Hawaiian terminology that have made their way into the vernacular. I’ve long been curious to check out these islands plopped in the middle of the Pacific… though also held that bit of trepidation as to what mass tourism might have done to these otherwise-isolated locales.

LeisOnLanding1Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Hawaii not being part of America holds one immediately-apparent benefit: with the island chain almost as distant from California as is the East Coast, flights to Hawaii are a serious affair: our Hawaiian Airlines widebody service had the feel of an international flight. Mathew further bumped it up, springing for a lei greeting on landing. I’d always thought of these floral necklaces as tacky plastic affairs, but ours were gorgeously done-up strands of fragrant flowers that stayed fresh throughout our visit.

Since this was my “starter” trip to the islands, Mathew opted to bring me to O’ahu and stay in Waikiki. Once a verdant marshland and longboard surf spot of Hawaiian royalty, Waikiki is now a bit of a Miami Beach on the Pacific – dense, crowded, filled with high-rise hotels. One interesting wrinkle: with the influx of Asian tourists, Waikiki is positively crawling with noodle joints, sushi shops, and Korean barbecue spots reminiscent of my Asian travels of years past. One of these little spots made for a tasty lunch while we waited for our hotel room to be ready.

HotelRoomViewAs this was a holiday gift, Mathew sought out upgraded experiences throughout. He’d booked us into a luxurious condo-hotel, Aqua Skyline at Island Colony, that claimed to be the tallest accommodations in the area. Not advertised was its 1970s-era structure that had been only minimally upgraded, accompanied by indifferent, apartment-house levels of service. The forty-plus story building is serviced by four elevators that were crammed, crowded, and frequently out of service during our stay; while the room did indeed offer a stellar view of town, it also featured spottily-cleaned facilities, rundown corridors, and other artifacts of mediocre accommodations. Heck, we’d both been in better-run youth hostels and budget chain motels. After much frustration with intransigent staffers, Mathew finally was able to voice his complaints to a manager who tried to make good… but overall I was reminded that, even in spots with robust tourist infrastructure, patches of weakness can and do exist.

Fortunately, the next day’s excursion more than made up for it: part of Mathew’s motivation for taking me to O’ahu was for its highly popular – if less high-profile than, say, Pearl Harbor – attraction on its northeast coast: the Polynesian Cultural Center.

An unlikely-seeming initiative of the Mormon Church, the PCC’s been around for more than half a century, showcasing the history and culture of a number of Polynesian nations scattered across some 12 million miles of ocean. Part theme park, part educational foundation – its employees are local college students, hailing from the various islands, who earn their tuition by working at the center. Say what you want about missionaries and their effects on nonwhite cultures throughout history; this spot at least seeks to redress some of that past by honoring and celebrating indigenous practices and rituals.

We were picked up in a cushy minibus by a friendly, older, part-Hawaiian driver. He offered up bits of Hawaiian history and trivia as he drove the forty-some miles north through the Koʻolau Mountain Range and up along O’ahu’s eastern coast.

Mountains2PCCDriveI’ve long ruminated about the missing piece in mainland America’s warm-weather geographical puzzle: my adopted homeland’s incredibly diverse landscapes offer up both dry, California-Mediterranean mountainscapes and Floridian pancake-flat tropics – but never do the twain meet on the mainland. The drive north from Waikiki to Laie, however, revealed for me at last that puzzle piece: glorious, rain-drenched, craggy volcanic peaks touch the clouds as they tumble verdantly toward palm-lined coasts. O’ahu is often associated with the tourist tangle of Waikiki and the military presence of Pearl Harbor… but little is mentioned about its stunning geographic beauty.

“What percentage of Hawaii is ethnically native?” I asked Fred, our driver. While the fully-indigenous number only about five percent, he said – still a substantially larger proportion than, say, Native Americans on the mainland – those of mixed heritage (Fred himself is part Portuguese) number many more. With so many locales, towns, streets, and geographic formations retaining their native names, the indigenous presence on these islands gives the place a feel unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the U.S. mainland.

PCCMeMathewIslanderWeddingAs part of our “Super Ambassador” package, we were met by our private guide for the day. Stop – “like stop sign!” he exclaimed – was a chatty, enthusiastic Thai native who walked us through the various island villages. Unlike, say, a Disney theme park, the PCC adds an up-close and interactive dimension to the mix of island-culture spectacles and exhibits: we practiced spear throwing (Mathew kicked ass at that) hula dancing (arguably one of my more ridiculous attempts to look graceful) palm-leaf weaving (I was better at that) and making a fire with only two pieces of wood (I got the thing to smoke!) All is presided over by the Center’s charismatic, friendly, comely students. Heck, I even got to practice my French with the Tahitians.

What captivated me most, however, was a nondescript wooden hull resting amid the huts: an early Polynesian outrigger canoe. It was these vessels, the original speedboats to Polynesia, that carried the ancestors of these youngsters thousands of miles across open ocean to these far-flung islands at the edge of creation.

The Center’s marquee attraction, however, comes after dark: going beyond the ceremonies one finds at traditional Hawaiian luaus, the PCC’s nightly show, “Ha: Breath of Life,” is a Vegas-level tour-de-force held in a capacious, outdoor semicircular theatre. Chronicling the rhythms of life of a traditional Polynesian boy who grows to manhood, the show features masterfully-choreographed performances, capped by a dazzling fire-twirling number at the show’s finale that blew away what I’d seen in years past on beaches in Southeast Asia. Between that and the experiential IMAX film we’d seen showcasing the Hawaiian islands’ geography, I left moved and astounded by this glorious part of the world and its peoples’ mastery of its riches.

WaimeaBayWavesWideI’d gone for a dunk in Waikiki Beach on our first day, but that only whetted my appetite for more Hawaiian surf. While O’ahu’s south- and east-facing beaches feature modest waves, the bodysurfer in me – egged on by a reco from Stop the day before – opted to go for the gold: we snagged a rental car, traversed the island and its pineapple plantations en route to its famed North Shore. Arriving at beautiful Waimea Bay, we beheld them: fat barrel rolls at the shorebreak. Families splashed and played amid stern admonishments from surly lifeguards that “this is a beach for professionals with many years of experience!” I (mostly) played it safe, catching swims during lulls between the big waves, but also did a bit of bodysurfing on some of the bigger swells. The lifeguards weren’t kidding: this spot (in winter at least, when the big waves come) took most of my skill as a Bronze Medallion holder (Canada’s first-level lifeguarding course that I completed in high school) to avoid getting crushed by massive wave energy.

ThaMatchingRings1t evening, our last in Waikiki, saw us do an impromptu bit of shopping while waiting for a table for dinner. Mathew and I stopped in at a jewelry store, where a friendly older Asian lady showed us an array of tungsten rings. The price was right and the look was good, so we did it: having made our domestic partnership official earlier this year, we now have some (tasteful) bling to mark the occasion.

TakeoffEasternOahuAs our aerial speedboat from Polynesia lifted off from Honolulu Airport next afternoon, I beheld the dense thicket of Waikiki skyscrapers abutting the jagged, volcanic Diamond Head crater. As the elegant neighborhood of Kahala and the beach towns of eastern O’ahu faded from view, I felt an odd kinship with the people of these islands; after all, they descend from the truest of world travelers, intrepid outrigger explorers who braved Earth’s largest ocean to settle in their beautiful little corner of the known world.

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