Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Shenandoah Mõmmi


Shenandoah Mõmmi
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Taken on the Skyline Drive, in north Virginia. Didn't dare get out of the car.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Uptown, Downtown...


IMG_9257
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
The next morning I head out into NYC, armed with a Lonely Planet guide. I gawk at Grand Central and take pictures of the United Nations building before walking through a street fair on Lexington Avenue. I go up to the Apple store, and purposefully sit there for half an hour, browsing on their free WiFi with my Nokia. I meet up with a friend and we go into Central Park, managing to walk straight into a giant public party sponsored by the Israeli tourism board (complete with Palestinian protesters and, curiously, Israeli counter-protesters). We have a look at the big lake, spotting the occasional turtle and the biggest fucking goldfish you have ever seen - the length of my arm, and I am not kidding. We double back and head down to the Village, for a meal at Yaffa Cafe, where I get my full, proper dose of hipsterdom and irony (and more free WiFi) over a surprisingly reasonably-priced couscous. Jetlag and a carbohydrate coma lead me to suggest an espresso, and we walk through Chinatown into Little Italy. It's inevitably excellent.

Monday comes around, and I make a point out of doing the tourist thing. I take the subway in a vaguely downtownish direction, walking down Broadway from 6th street all the way to City Hall. The World Trade Center is a big fence, but eight years on it's still palpably creepy; perhaps because you know that an empty space this large is really not supposed to be there. I find Wall Street and have a rest in Federal Hall, now a museum, just across the street from the NYSE (no public access). I buy an organic drink at Pret-a-Manger and chat with the girl at the counter; maybe it's just that I'm not used to people being randomly friendly, or maybe she's bored, or maybe she's happy to see a real person without a suit and tie for once. I don't imagine much of her business is made up of people who say "thank you", not in this neighborhood.

Wall Street itself, by the way, is short and narrow, and feels really opressive.

I find the bull statue and have my picture taken. The line for the ferries to the Statue of Liberty is ridiculous, so I consider taking the Staten Island ferry instead - it's free, a commuter route, and doesn't lead anywhere interesting, but the view of the Manhattan skyline is supposed to be wonderful. It's too rainy though, so I walk over to the TKTS booth. This is the place that sells last-minute Broadway tickets for cheap; my Lonely Planet book really paid off, as most people only know of the booth in Times Square, which is naturally always packed. This other one is completely empty, and I get a pair of tickets for that night. The show is Rock of Ages. That is also the point where my phones stop working properly. I had two handsets, my N85 and an old Ericsson T39 that I got off eBay for thirty bucks. The N85 was roaming on AT&T, while the Ericsson was running a local T-Mobile prepaid SIM; now the Tele2 card stopped working completely, the Ericsson would not find a network on either, and I could only use the T-Mobile in the Nokia - but I was also using it to navigate, and the license for the GPS software was coded for the Tele2 SIM. Unpleasant.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

UStrip: Arrival


Broadway
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
The Jumbo lands, and I walk onto the gangway of Newark Liberty International Airport to see the Manhattan skyline in the distance. I watch the CNN coverage of Iran riots in the line to border control, where an impressively muscular gentleman with an accent straight out of a bad stereotype grills me on the finer points of my last visit to the States. Reluctantly, he admits me.

I make my way to Penn Station and onto the subway, trundling all the way out to Brooklyn to the hostel I'd booked; when I finally find it, there is nobody home. I call the number on the reservation to hear that the booking had supposedly been cancelled, and that HostelWorld fucked up by not telling me (to the extent that I got a confirmation SMS earlier in the day, reminding me of the hostel's address). With some dismay, I return to Manhattan to find my friends at a cafe; fortunately it has free WiFi and I use my laptop to find a hotel at ultra-short notice. It's three times as expensive, but still semi-reasonably priced for an excellent location, and I cease to care. I drop off my bags and we go out, to see the throngs in Times Square and ride the elevator to Top of the Rock. While the Empire State building is taller, the observation platform on the last floors of the Rockefeller Center is supposed to provide a better view; unfortunately I happen to arrive in New York in the midst of wildly unseasonal rain, and the city is fogged up.

We take the subway to Chinatown and go into Joe's Shanghai, a very NYC sort of place in that it is highly rated and delicious, but not outwardly ostentatious. Our party of four is seated at a large table with a couple of other gangs. On recommendation, I order the soup dumplings, the restaurant's specialty. These are large dumplings, similar to Georgian hinkali, that contain not just a piece of meat but also a very thick broth, and they are excellent. Dana and Dave confer to decide they want something that doesn't come with a face, and immediately order the sea bass. I think they expected it to come in steak form, but in the event it was prepared and served whole, including an outstandingly creepy face. We get back to the East Village for a standup comedy show at the Comedy Cellar, after which I return to my hotel. The room is windowless, but large and quiet, and I immediately crash.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Times Square


Times Square
Originally uploaded by Flasher T

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

No Sleep At All

35,000 feet, somewhere over the Denmark Straight...

I wake up on Saturday morning, at an uncharacteristically early 7am. It's travel time. I pack a rucksack and grab my nightgame gear, then hop in the lolcar and set out for Tallinn. First time on the freeway of death in the new car, and I have to say, it's surprisingly comfortable at higher speeds. I was worried about the short-wheelbase Puma's stability, but the sportscar suspension is doing the trick: it feels great.

I go see a movie. It's the new Russel Crowe one, State of Play; reminds me of that old Michael Keaton/Glenn Close/Robert Duval journalist film. Ben Affleck is as useless as ever, but the movie is still good, and it makes two good points: a) journalists are still very much necessary, you can't just do opinion and commentary all the time, and b)being a jouralist has nothing to do with whether you write for the New York Times or a blog. I'm happy to see outside verification of what I've been saying for bloody years: technology does not fundamentally change human nature.

I meet up with an old friend, back briefly from Germany, then go into nightgame mode. Tallinn is drowning. The lolcar makes it from Lasnamäe to the Harku beach, becoming partially amphibian in the process. Since the two-door car isn't a good nightgame vehicle, I'm not driving this time; I get to spend more time looking for codes. I really enjoy the game; the team works together effectively, we never get bogged down on clues too much, our errors are not grave. We finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, and I just barely have time to change into cleaner clothes before catching the early flight to Amsterdam. I try sleeping on the plane, on the train to Rotterdam, and in the hotel itself, but I'm at that stage of sleep deprivation where I can't force myself to rest normally; the only option is to keep going until I crash. The weather clears up in the evening, and I go out into central Rotterdam.

Haven't been here in years. Rotterdam is patently not a toursit town, but it can still be fascinating. Most of it was levelled in WWII (probably has something to do with it being the world's biggest port back then, only recently overtaken by Shanghai), and ever since then the locals have been putting a huge amount of thought and effort into architectural design. I've only ever seen one other city with genuinely interesting skyscrapers - San Diego.

I'm in Rotterdam for the conclusion of the Th!nk About It project. It's a lot of fun, seeing the awesome people again, and the venue is fantastic. We're staying in the ART Hotel, an 80s-looking tower with outstanding views of the rain-soaked skyline; the party itself is just across the street, at the Maassilo, a giant warehouse converted into a "creative workshop". I can definitely imagine some really great gigs happening at the venue on the 10th floor. It's sunless, but highly impressive, in an authentically industrial way. Reminds me of Tallinn's Rock Cafe a bit.

Everyone is reluctant to discuss the upcoming award ceremony. Julien Frisch mentions that he doesn't think the project should have been a competition for prizes to begin with, but I disagree. The EJC have done a good job setting up the contest: out of 80 bloggers, 25 will get iPhones, and the overall winner - an iMac. Regular AnTyx readers (and those following my facebook) will be familiar with my views on Apple products, but I won't for a second deny that the iPhone is eminently desirable. The prize structure is such that you're not demotivated by the other bloggers posting great articles, and I know for a fact that I would not have put as much effort into some of my entries if I didn't see a realistic chance of getting the prize.

I knew I wouldn't get near first place, I just wouldn't put in the necessary research effort, but I do expect to be in the top quarter. They announce the Quality category first, the 20 authors whose writing was best, using proper blogging technologies and finding relevant aspects of the European Parliament elections to cover. My name doesn't come up. I'm surprised at how much I care; I'm not normally this competitive and I haven't been drooling over the iPhone either. The host, Raymond Frenken from EUX.TV, announces the remaining Impact category, and I'm one of the five winners. I'm having trouble believing how delirious I am at that. The Impact blogs are the ones which were not only interesting, but meaningful. Because fewer people were in this category, I choose to view it as a higher achievement, and become a bit of an asshole. Nevermind; Mingus is angry at me for flaunting my achievement (he also owns a black MacBook Pro, so is not pleased with my incredulous twitters of frustration while setting up the iPhone back at home), but I think that's wrong. There is so much useless bullshit in this world that people are unjustly proud of. Boasting is in our nature. My placement in the EJC competition is the result of doing the best job I could, and I have every right to be proud of that. By the same token, I encourage others to flaunt personal achievement. You deserve it.

I stop over in Utrecht for lunch with another friend, and travel home via Schiphol and Copenhagen. There's a fair amount of Estonians on the AMS-CPH flight, and the connecting Estonian Air flight gets a thorough check in Tallinn by sniffer dogs. I giggle.

It's nearly midnight, but I pick up the lolcar and head for Tartu. I've got a busy couple of days, with a bunch of work to complete before my vacation starts. I hand the car over to Info-Auto for a thorough service, including a cambelt change. It's an odd sensation, knowing more about your car than the dealer; they insist that the Puma's 1.7VCT engine only needs a cambelt change once every ten years, but I know that Ford retroactively changed it to 5, and have confirmed it via the Ford online service guide. They eventually find the change I'm talking about; nevertheless, they still didn't get all the parts delivered in time for the job (two weeks' notice!). The clerk asks about the mileage. The Puma has a five-digit trip counter, so it's probably 113 thousand kilometers, but could be 213 thousand. The clerk says they should do a 210 thousand service, but the new oil sticker says the next oil change is at 145000 km, so the mechanics obviously didn't agree. They put in fully synthetic oil; this engine is originally rated for semi-synth, and some reports from Puma owners suggest that full-synth will wear down the special Yamaha bits in the 1.7 (which is a Puma exclusive and not the same as other Ford engines). I get angry at the dealer, go home and look it up on the Puma owners' club website; it's probably fine, but overall I'm still not happy with the service I got from the dealer. The independents, like the Säästuteenindus thing where I got the lolcar's suspension serviced, try harder and charge less.

Finally it's Friday. I check my luggage (inevitably forgetting one thing, though thankfully it's inconsequential), get on the bus and go to Tallinn. Can't wait for the Tartu airport to get direct air service to Stockholm.

The 1pm flight is on Estonian Air Regional. I just saw that EA has a twitter, and it claims that the airline is actually among the best in Europe for punctuality and regularity; though that's defined as the percentage of flights that departed within 15 minutes of the scheduled time, and is of little solace when you spend 6 hours in Stockholm-Arlanda, or seven in Keflavik. The little Saab turboprop is late on this occasion, due to a crew change; the flight attendant hands out free drinks and sandwiches, which I haven't seen EA Proper do for... well, ever. I flew EA to Brussels and Amsterdam as well, and those flights were right on time, and even though the Saab was noisy and vibrated like a bastard, I enjoyed the flight. Maybe EA is getting better after all.

I spend the rest of the day in Stockholm. I've been here so many times before that it's not really exciting any more, but I still like the city. It's like an old friend, you've heard all his best drinking stories and shared your own, but you can still just show up and hang out. In a way, Stockholm is a pressure chamber, letting me adjust to NYC. I've been reading the latest Iain M. Banks novel, and it occurs to me that this city is in some ways like the Culture: wealthy but tolerant, taking in people of various other civilizations and instilling them with its own value set. And in the heart of a subcontinent where ostentation is unethical, Stockholm is a city that challenges you to express yourself.

I spend the night in the Jumbo Hostel, which is cheap, cool, and has free WiFi. I swap the stationary 747 for a functional one. Someone in my blogroll once mentioned that Malaysian Airlines is the best way to get from Europe to North America, because their planes are kitted out for ultra-long-haul habitation; neither Mingus nor Rikken will admit to saying it, but there is truth to the assertion. The in-flight entertainment system is extensive, the legroom is generous, and the staff are extremely nice. My seat is a non-window window seat, but since I only paid 5000 EEK for the return flight - including all the taxes - I'm not going to complain too loudly.

The East Coast awaits.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Th!nk About It Grand Finale in Rotterdam

Yours truly in some background shots. :)

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Th!nk Again


Eurobloggers
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Brussels itself is boring. Belgium has a fully lit motorway network, so the night-time scenery as you're landing is fantastic, but the city just feels uninspired. The hotel (with traces of grandeur, but a bit of a shithole these days) was in the vicinity of the train station, which is never good, but I stayed in the Termini region in Rome and that was far more interesting. The European Parliament building is, apparently, copyright under Belgian law - one is not allowed to reprint its likeness without paying the architect a licensee fee (and Tony Robinson, the spokesman for the Socialist group, claimed to have paid 400 Euro for the right to post on his blog a picture of the EP compound that he'd taken himself in 1983). I'd say the impression I got from the city was that the Belgians are sufficiently organized and orderly to keep it all running, but don't care enough to make it sparkle.

That sort of criticism cannot be levied on the conference itself, however. As sceptical as I am about the supposed power of the blogosphere - and even more so about the storyworthiness of the European Parliament - the gathered crowd made it an awesome experience. The organizers from the European Journalism Center were genuinely enthusiastic, and did a stupefying amount of work to bring together nearly 90 people from every member state in the EU. I now understand why people go to events such as PAX or SXSW: not necessarily for the cause and impact, but for the sheer buzz of being around so many interesting people. Some of these were bloggers, a lot were journalism students and various other activists who made an effort to get into the competition. It's difficult to describe the joy of being in a room full of individuals, where absolutely every person is guaranteed to be worth your time and attention; the ones I spent a bit more time talking to were downright fascinating.



The project will go public on Sunday, when the Th!nk About It website will begin to publish contributions. In the meantime you can check out the EJC's BloggingPortal, an aggregator of stuff on European politics with a far wider catchment area. Or you can click on the new badge in the sidebar.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Cross Countries

Ejecting ourselves from the hotel, we quickly reach the border and leave Spain. After a few hours, we arrive in Arles, the regional capital of Provence. It is an eminently pleasant little town, exhibiting all the kinds of charm that Calella lacked; the contrast is remarkable, but perhaps unsurprising, as people actually live in Arles and have spent centuries making it into an environment to suit their tastes. Interestingly enough, the French fierce cultural self-sufficiency actually enhances the experience: swapping the few French words I can muster with the cashier at a small grocery store, you get the further feeling that if this is not a town dedicated to tourist service, then you are not a tourist, simply a traveller passing through on his way to further adventures. Arles features an excellent river (the Rhone, as in Cotes Du), a smattering of Roman ruins restored just enough to be useful without losing authenticity, and a wonderful old town with battered streetsigns leading to notable churches through back alleys: again, the churches are there for the locals, and nobody here cares enough to build wide boulevards leading up to them. Arles’s greatest claim to fame is that Theo van Gogh recovered here after cutting off his ear. I catch a brief glimpse of a local troupe performing a street version of what looks like Cyrano around the old hospital building and its highly agreeable flowery courtyard, dragging the audience around with them to a new location for each scene. I understand not a word, but still enjoy the performance.

Arles inadvertently and poignantly underscores the ridiculousness of the Estonian real estate market, as I spot a sign in the window of a house for sale. In the old town, in a sidestreet between the Roman arena and one of the more significant churches, sufficiently away from the touristy bits but still well within strolling distance of everything, it carries an asking price of 113 000 Euros – or some 1.7 million kroons. Sure, it looks like it’s no more than a relatively solid box at this point, for three floors and a 60m2 terrace in a seemingly great location in the bloody South of bloody France, they are asking about the same money as a semi-decent two-bedroom apartment in Tartu (or a broom closet in Tallinn). Suddenly and inexplicably, my thoughts turn to my pension fund.

Another blast down the autoroute and a night in what is by far the seediest F1 hostel yet, and we set off for Grasse, a town just uphill from Cannes and home to the French perfume industry. We are given a tour around a perfume factory and an extended sales pitch; I’m sure this is good product at a great discount, but I have no use for it.

We proceed to Nice, and I am forced to admit, it rather is. I have a cafe au lait on the Promenade des Anglais, just so I can later nonchalantly mention having done so to strangers, and stroll around for a couple of hours. Yes, the water really is beautifully, inexcusably blue.

The coach climbs into the hills and circumvents Monaco, which we glimpse from a high vantage point (I give my camera’s zoom function a workout). The rest of the day is spent in a hard blast right across northern Italy, including a gas station stopover, where I chat to the pilot of an old BMW 5-series with English plates and a lot of sponsor stickers on it; they were in a charity race from England to Rome and the beamer had broken down irrevocably.

We stop for the night at a campsite outside Venice (and when I say outside, I mean on the nearest bit of continent). The dug-in old caravan is, curiously enough, a marked improvement on the F1 motels, although not enough to make me understand why people insist on hauling these things about the countryside, when the not inconsiderable purchase price of one will likely cover the cost of charming little hotels for many a year’s worth of vacation. I briefly consider growing a Jason Lee moustache.

I am extremely impressed by the history of Venice, which was an independent state – and a pretty significant one at that – from the early 5th century and until the unification of Italy in 1870. That’s a span of more than fourteen hundred years, and the fact that Venice’s statehood usefully exceeds that of the Roman empire is an excellent example of the very pertinent idea that it is better to expand one’s influence through trade than through conquest – a point that cannot be made well enough these days.

The city of Venice itself is an interesting place to have visited, once, but no more than that. I was especially interested in it after I read an excellent book set there – Joseph Kanon’s Alibi – but these days it seems to have no purpose other than a tourist trap. Maybe I’m jaded, but once you’ve seen St. Petersburg and Amsterdam, the canal infrastructure is not in itself awe-inspiring, and that part of the world is not short of old palazzos anywhere. Unless the San Marco cathedral and the relics contained therein carry a special significance to you, Venice does not seem to contain anything spectacular. Still, I stretch the limits of the Italian I acquired in Rome and grab a gelato just off the Ponte Rialto. It’s excellent.

We blast north, across a significant chunk of Italy and into Austria. I’ve not had much regard for Austria before, suspecting that it was the result of God’s early experiment at giving Germans a sense of humor; the result was so gruesome that it had to be encased in mountains, for the sake of the rest of humanity. I had an Austrian for a boss, back when I sold inflatable dildos on eBay, and the most interesting fact I learned from him was that in Austria, your academic degree is literally part of your legal name. He had „Magister“ in his passport, and said that while he wouldn’t need to immediately change his documents when he got his doctorate, it would indeed be changed to „Doktor“ when they expired and got replaced.

My adjusted assessment of Austria is based almost entirely on a view from the autobahns, but I have to say, it wasn’t half bad; somehow I got the impression that unlike Germany, Austria does not take itself too seriously.

We stop overnight just over the border in Czech, in an old pile still carrying the pride of 80s Eastern Bloc interior design. The next day sees us cover all of Czech and most of Poland, including a ridiculous amount of time spent in Warsaw traffic. We stop twice, both times in a Tesco; the first is still in Czech and I take the opportunity to grab a bottle of beer, because you really have to. It helps the time go by, but when we pull into another Tesco in Poland, I am groggy and not entirely sure what I’m doing there. The rapid change from Czech koruns to Polish zlotys gives me an appreciation for Euros: travelling around the continent and having to adjust to new currency at every rest stop would drive you insane.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

I travel for the experience, the memories and the change of scenery. Although I spend a considerable amount of money on travel, I rarely enjoy it at the time – it’s more about the satisfaction of having been somewhere. So when I found myself genuinely impressed by Montserrat and Barcelona, I knew it couldn’t last.

Andorra was scheduled as a day trip, because it is actually quite a long way from Barcelona – about four hours by coach each way. It is far more impressive in the journey than in the arrival, as the climb up through the Pyrenees takes you through the sort of scenic, rustic villages that you would think of, but hardly actually expect to find. The state itself uses the Euro and is jointly governed by the French head of state and the bishop of the nearest big congregation (on the Spanish side), but is resolutely outside the EU. This means borders, but also an independent tax policy, and that is very significant for goods normally subject to heavy, centrally mandated excise fees. People come to Andorra for booze and tobacco, but also other kinds of shopping.

The coach drops us off at a mall next to a highway, and we are told we have two hours for our retail needs. The mall may be impressive for a community of 70,000, but it is completely devoid of individuality or charm; think Võru Maksimarket. I buy a bottle of Crema de Catalunya and ponder the electronics selection, apparently a year or two behind the rest of Europe. Most of the others in the group take advantage of the lack of excise, returning with cartloads of cheap(er) booze. While it’s true that storing a crate of vodka in the cargo hold of a coach is probably the least troublesome way of shopping for ethanol on a holiday, I suspect that this is mostly due to a single specific factor: it makes Tallinners feel like all those reviled Finnish vodka-tourists.

Mercifully the trip does not conclude there, and the coach rumbles into downtown Andorra la Vella (as if it has any other sort of town). In a fit of glaring, stupefying incompetence of the tour guide that has been dragging along since Estonia, regaling us with occasional stunted passages of Wikipedia wisdom read out over the stereo, we are given less than an hour to wander through the streets of the tiny capital, during the specific period that half the shopping district shuts down for an extended lunch. I spend the time running around frantically, trying to find an open electronics store that has a Canon 450D in stock – since getting a 50D from the States is proving tricky, I was willing to settle for a good deal on a lesser body. I find a shop that is willing to sell it to me for 550 Euro, in kit form, which is some three thousand kroons cheaper than it retails for in Estonia; but the camera is physically in a branch that doesn’t open until half an hour after the coach leaves. As we depart, I am angry, and don’t bother to hide it. Still, Andorra is to be appreciated for its architecture, which is endearingly local. On return to the hotel, I go down to the seaside and fulfill my Catalan quota by consuming a paella and a sangria (or two).

Friday is a free day, and I’m feeling a bit too lazy to go back to Barcelona on my own, so instead I take in the area’s last great attraction, Marineland. Filled not with American soldiers (yes, I realize how awful a pun that is) but with dolphins, sea lions, and an assortment of the less trivial birds. The free shuttles from Calella and back leave some five hours at the destination, which is way too much since I’m not particularly interested in the attached water park. Still, dolphins are intrinsically awesome, as I’ve known since San Diego, and my patience is rewarded as I catch the later tropical bird show, and am called as one of the volunteers; an improbably large and polychromatic parrot-type creature is placed on my outstretched arm and I am told to give it a kiss on the beak. I go along with the act, and for my troubles the bird is made to perch on my head; before you ask, no, there are no photos, and if there were, I would not share them. Still, as something to have done at some point in your life, it’s fun.

Tomorrow afternoon we pile into the coach and begin the long five-day trek back home, via southern France and then Venice, the latter of which I am certainly looking forward to. Expect wifi to be sketchy.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

.CAT

On the morning of the next day, we pile back into the coach and set off for Montserrat. I know of it simply as the first name of a famous opera singer, but am told by the guide that it is a monastery high up in the mountains. The destination fails to disappoint: in a region of the world famous for its outstanding architecture, the Montserrat sanctuary is exceptional. The long, windy track up to the 1200m elevation is one of those roads I would like to drive in a small, rear-engined roadster, with a steward at each end making sure there is no oncoming traffic. But it is still pretty exciting from the top of a double-decker.

Montserrat itself is a proper small town, albeit centered on a church. It has a couple of hotels, a supermarket, and lay accommodation for the various personnel that keep the tourist trap running. The church itself houses something called the black Madonna – literally, an icon of the Madonna as a Maur. Apparently it is faintly scandalous, but Montserrat is far enough out of everybody’s way that the practice was allowed to continue until it became tradition. I go into the church, but there is a mass in progress so I do not disturb the faithful by shuffling around.

I go into the handful of buildings making up the rest of the compound, and take an easy trek up to a vantage point, then come down to the railcar station. Montserrat proper is accessible from civilization-level by both road and rack-rail, and there is a little rail/cable arrangement leading from it up to the summit of this particular Pyrenean peak. I buy a return ticket.

At the top there is a small museum and three separate hiking paths. I go about half way up the simplest of them, on the other side of the mountain from the Barcelona freeway, and return, feeling vaguely disappointed that I do not have enough time for the 50-minute walk back down the mountain to the main compound. I will definitely need to come back here.

With half an hour before departure, I look through the gift shop for an appropriately hip black T-shirt, but instead settle on a tin of black tea and a bottle of monk-sourced booze, plus a sampler of various kinds of honey. I don’t even mind the price-gouging: whoever lives here and keeps this amazing place in good condition despite the throngs of tourists deserves my money.

We return to the hotel, and I make another attempt at Calella’s supposed major bookshop. It’s not Sunday, and it’s not siesta, yet the stubborn reality of steel shutters contradicts the promise of the opening hours listed on the door. Fuck ‘em. I go to a newspaper stand, search for a British car magazine without success, and pick up a Grisham paperback. That night there is a fireworks show on the beach, the culmination of a week-long festival, most of which we have missed. The show is quite cool, actually. After 11pm, the town is appreciably younger, as the retiree set is replaced by school trips.
Wednesday is our big day-trip into Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia is very cool, but located in what looks like a mildly disreputable residential area, not to mention covered in construction works; the church is being built completed on donations alone, although apparently the Spanish government promised it would make up the shortfall necessary to finally have it done by 2026.

Barcelona is big and feels healthy; the city buses carry red-and-yellow striped flags, in the same sort of way that Tallinn’s trams are adorned by two little flags whenever a particularly important foreign dignitary is visiting. With all the local pride, Barcelona definitely feels like the capital of Catalunya rather than a metropolis in Spain. I wonder about the region’s self-identification. They already have their own Internet domain; I suspect that the only thing stopping them from seceding is the sheer uselessness of aggravating the rest of Iberia. Between EU policies that would be binding anyway, and the heavy autonomy that Catalunya seems to enjoy, it seems to have as much independence in practice as it cares to claim.

For a closer look at Gaudi’s legacy, we go up to the Guell park, something very akin in concept to the Villa Borghese in Rome – a vast green space on what was the edge of the city when the industrialist for whom it’s named envisaged it as a community for Barcelona’s affluent. Only about five of a planned fifty stately homes has so far been completed, so the park remains a pleasant public recreation spot, with bits of impressive Gaudi sprinkled about. I find that I have taken quite a liking to pleasant hikes through moderately angled bits of nature.

The coach takes us down to Barcelona’s sprawling port complex and the statue of Columbus, on what is thought to be the spot where he first set foot on Spanish soil. We are given some time to stroll down the city’s main tourist street, the retroactively inevitable La Rambla. I make it up to Plaza Catalunya and back down again via sidestreets, eventually emerging with a copy of CAR Magazine; between that and a couple of the less suspect paperbacks from the hotel’s used book exchange, I feel confident I have enough reading material to see me through to the end of the trip. We have a quick look at the Olympic stadium, a place of some significance for Estonia because this is where Erika Salumäe received her gold medal in cycling, a significant affirmation for what was in 1992 a country with little outside recognition and even less faith. They hoisted the Estonian tricolor upside down, too.

Returning to Calella, I spend a couple of hours online, working on my stockpile of podcasts for the return trip. As the evening rolls in, I briefly consider attempting the gastronomic rape of the hotel’s dinner service, but decide against it. Food prices here can vary greatly: I paid over 15 Euro at a tourist trap in downtown Barcelona for a tapas-sized portion of fried shrimp in batter and a coke. (Tapas, the new thing that latte-sipping Guardian readers in Islington have been obsessing over, is indistinguishable from what Tartu pubs call an õlletaldrik – an assortment of unassuming, but functional snacks. The shrimp were fine.) Back in the hotel town I walk down to the nearest steak house. This being Catalunya, bull country, I feel obliged to go for the beef, but my ongoing quest for protein without lard steers me toward the mushroom sauce that comes with a very decent (and impressively huge) piece of pork. With chips and salad, plus a beer, the entire meal costs me less than 13 Euro. If the restaurant can make a profit on that, I feel even more appalled at the pile of inedible dung that my hotel has the gall to charge 9.50 for, without providing so much as tap water to wash down the crud. Still, the town of Calella feels a lot more agreeable after a pint of the local lager.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Viva la Wifi

If all goes right, you will be reading these three articles tonight; the F1 joint outside Valence purports to have WiFi, and while it’s the overpriced Orange variety and does not actually reach to my room, my information withdrawal is bad enough that I am willing to pay. They’re still twats for not having any English-speaking channels on the TV.

Germany was a merciful blur, and France is a massive improvement – at least in the evening, when we get off the autoroute and make our way through Lyon and beyond. The mountains are beautiful. Even the gas station food is miles better. (Incidentally, best thing I’ve bought at a gas station on this trip was a bottle of vanilla milk at a Polish Statoil.) It’s sunny and warm and the trip is beginning to justify itself.

Coach travel can be wearing, but after three days on the road I am surprisingly unphased. The key seems to be content: music, podcasts, books, and movies on the laptop, which now seems to have mercifully regained its proper 4,5-hour runtime on a single charge. Air travel is perhaps too quick, as you skip the sensation of actually going somewhere, unless you are crossing an ocean. Chalk it up to youthful optimism (if there is such a thing), but watching Europe roll by outside my coach’s panoramic window, I feel like I’m seeing my country. In much the same way that I need to grasp a city to be comfortable in it – to have a mental plan of it – overland travel allows one to grasp the EU, make it more than a heady concept. Everyone should do this at least once, but if you have any choice at all, avoid Poland. While Germany has ridiculously good roads and Lithuania and beyond just doesn’t have that much traffic volume – unless you’re enough of a fool to try getting through downtown Riga – Poland is the bottleneck. It would be far less frustrating to take the party boat to Stockholm, then blast down to Malmö and take the Öresund tunnel to Copenhagen.

Continued...

Since you are reading this only now, obviously the Orange wifi did not work. Was not present in any discernible form. Still, the gas station food really is quite good: two Agip runs have yielded a passable ham & cheese sandwich, a box of really quite fair salad, and a slice of genuinely spectacular strawberry & coconut cake. That is well beyond the best that I could scrounge up in an enormous German supermarket. I’m sorry if I don’t have any better insights on France, but I only ever saw it from the tarmac.

On the fourth day, we cross the Pyrenees and finally enter Spain, where gas prices instantly drop 40 Eurocents per liter. For my American readers, that translates to about three hundred bucks per gallon, and I cannot describe the joy I feel in being able to make that gag, after suffering a decade of poor currency-exchange humor.

Our first stop is the Dali museum in Figueres. You would need to have either read a lot of the Antyx archive or spent time with me in person to properly appreciate my loathing for what grew out of modernist and particularly surrealist art, and the rest of you will simply have to believe when I say that Salvador Dali was the dude. His museum, an old theater building that he bought and converted, is layed out to subtly block suspicions of postmodernist twattery by starting with Dali’s more conservative pieces. He could, and did, paint both photorealistic images and ones that stun the viewer with their sheer technical prowess; stand there and smell the accomplishment. With an unassailable background like that, he was perfectly justified in dismantling the conventional wisdom. Besides which, he was the compleat rockstar, and still deeply and passionately loved his wife for the entirety of his life. As a sign of respect, I buy a T-shirt.

Our coach winds its way down the Costa Brava until it reaches our staging point: Calella, one of a series of tiny tourist towns on the Catalan coast. The hotel has wifi, mercifully, although only in the lobby – which is unfortunate, as I would have loved to make good use of my room’s balcony, blogging in the breeze. The hotel, like much of the town itself, leaves an odd impression of vague inauthenticity. While there are some ancient bits here and there, Calella mostly seems to be an amalgamation of hotels constructed some time in the last two decades. The age of a hotel can be roughly judged by the availability of power sockets, increasing as people started to carry more electronic gadgets; the Regency Hyatt in Jerusalem, an impressive pyramidal pile from the Seventies, scandalously offers pretty much none, despite claiming a five-star rating. This one is three stars, and doesn’t blow my mind. It is as if its crew had a guidebook to comfort that they studiously implemented, without ever truly understanding its essence. Some aspects, such as the painted concrete walls and naked flagstone floors, may just be a southern peculiarity, a way to keep the inside cool; but I do wonder how come this place, a resort hotel in a resort town, expecting its patrons to stay for a week or more, manages to feel less cozy than the Best Western Grand Hotel in the village of Bollnäs, where I can’t really imagine people staying for more than a day (there is nothing to do in Bollnäs for more than a day, even if a few thousand Swedes somehow manage to spend most of their lives there). My expectation of what a three-star hotel should be like is based on the Baron Hotel in Reykjavik; no three-star hotel in a Western European country should be worse. Hell, my B&B in Rome had in-room wifi.

That evening, we get back on the coach for a brief run down to Barcelona, to watch the fountain. The spectacle involves music (something classical that I recognize and really ought to know the name of) and color-filtered spotlights placed under the surface of an exceedingly elaborate system of pipes; the water dance is something truly to behold, and I say that as a skeptic who is rarely impressed with anything. If you want a more impressive experience of staring at some water, you will need to go to Iceland and look at waterfalls. There should be a picture or two on my Flickr.

The next day, it is overcast and (relatively) cold with a strong suggestion of rain. I grab a coat and go explore the town, walking down to the beach and then taking a progression of stairs and trails to hike the full 118 meter elevation of something called Los Torretes – the remainder of a couple of signaling towers used by some military or other in the mid 19th century. The towers are not intrinsically impressive, but the views are quite nice, although spoiled by the overcast weather. I may not be as extreme as Kristopher when it comes to walking, but I descend with a mild sense of achievement and amble around the town’s shopping district, desperately looking for reading material in English. (I have underestimated my reading speed and am almost done with the books I brought from home – and there is still the way back to Estonia to deal with.) I return to the hotel and kill time until dinner sitting in the lobby with my Mininote.

The hotel package comes with breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is acceptable, although that is too simple to get wrong, but dinner is an ugly smorgasbord of greasy fried meat, unimaginative salad components, and suspect desserts. Since my surgery, I do not eat very much, and therefore prefer to make each meal an experience; the hotel’s policy of emphasizing quantity over quality is directly at odds with that, so in the future I think I’ll skip the hotel dinner altogether and wonder out into town for something more interesting. Maybe a nice seafood paella.

(Incidentally: there is an email in one of my various inboxen dating from July 1st, from undoubtedly one of my most treasured readers, asking for a status report on the surgery and weightloss. The short answer is, it’s fine. An elaboration is in the works.)

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Nach Berlin and Beyond

It is 5am, and I have just finished figuring out the charging system on my Mininote (apparently if you completely discharge a Li-Ion battery, it will take ages for it to get back the first 20%; after that it will charge rapidly, as normal). The bus’s electrical system is 24V, and my car charger isn’t rated for that.

Poland is bits of brilliant interstate bookended by stretches of dual carriageway in a very odd fashion; the autobahns appear to start from nowhere and lead nowhere. Germany, as seen from the road, is essentially featureless, and I look longingly at the posh bahnstormers in the left lane; I want to come back here with my own car. We stop for a late lunch at a massive strip mall on the Berlin bypass, basically a bigger Lõunakeskus – think of the Rocca-al-Mare mall in Tallinn and you’ll be about there. I trawl the shops and remark again upon the lack of visible counterculture in Western Europe. I have lost some 30kg since my surgery, and can now expect to find appropriate sizes in most big clothes stores, but as I walk around C&A – chosen because it doesn’t have stores in Estonia – I am disappointed: same drab stuff, nothing worth buying even at a bargain price. The electronics are marginally cheaper, but we’ll be doing a run to Andorra, Europe’s VAT-less shopping paradise, so I hold off. Besides, fucking Germans probably wouldn’t accept my Visa card anyway.

The F1 hotel outside Leipzig is conceptually impressive – just short of being entirely self-service. For 26 Euro per night per room, whether it fits one person or three, it is certainly good money. But I’m suffering from information withdrawal. Only the threat of horrifyingly expensive mobile roaming charges stops me from hooking up my mobile to the laptop. If Tele2 offered an m-pilet type deal on pan-European roaming – a fixed fee for 24 hours of unlimited data – you would have been reading this article a lot sooner.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Up & Down the Via Baltica

Day one, and an early start to Eurotrip 08/2. It’s a package tour, and the coach leaves Tartu at 5am sharp, heading up to Tallinn and then down to Pärnu, picking up sojourners along the way. It is now a quarter past ten; we’ve been on the road for over five hours, and have yet to leave Estonia. Mind you, had the bus gone from Tartu to Pärnu direct, we would not have saved more than an hour, since there is no decent direct freeway. Then again, had we headed south from Tartu, we would probably be in Lithuania by now.

One last stopover at a truck station, and the last chance to buy stuff for Estonian money. I eye the cans of Jim Beam & coke; not yet, but I don’t kid myself – I’ll be drinking before the day is over. There is a flask in my rucksack filled with Maxime Trijol VS.

I’ve surprised people with this trip, but then that’s kind of the point. It’s something that I would not have normally done, and it’s a new experience, which is the thing I’m really after right now.

Blew right through Latvia without slowing down; driving below the banks of the artificial lake east of Riga is unsettling, although not a big deal – I’ve seen the naughty side of 170km/h from the passenger seat of a Kia Pride in the Netherlands. Somewhere on the Internet is a picture of me rubbing the asscheeks of a bronze kid with his finger in the dike, as it were.

Got pulled over by border guards crossing into Lithuania, but fortunately nobody had forgotten their ID cards. Stopped for a late lunch at a combination roadside diner, museum and mini-zoo (ostriches and ponies, but might have been more). I’m tempted to remark that a lot of these roadside attractions in Latvia and Lithuania are log cabins, but then I remember that so is the Kükita Grill, my favourite eatery on the Tallinn-Tartu freeway – a dedicated truck stop that proves a universal truth: the best food and the best coffee will be found not where they are a matter of poshness, but where they are a matter of necessity. Three cheers for trucker fuel.

This is officially as far south as I have ever travelled overland, and it’s only 2pm. I’m very impressed by the coach’s progress, and keep thinking about driving down here on my own. The One Lap of the Baltic idea is still alive and kicking, but needs a relief driver, and to be honest, a better car. I’m working on it. Just hope the stock market bounces back.

It might be all in my head, but somehow I always notice a difference in the weather between Estonia and Latvia; Lithuania in the late afternoon is appreciably warmer than Tartu, or Tallinn, or Pärnu were this morning. Looks largely the same in terms of scenery though. We’re basically sticking to the Via Baltica, the main artery from Tallinn down to central Europe, renovated for EU cash. We are also getting further and further from civilization: WiFi is desperately thin on the ground. I’m hoping the hotel on the outskirts of Warsaw has it. Coach travel leaves a lot of free time to blog.

Just saw my first speed camera. They keep threatening to introduce them in Estonia, but haven’t so far, to my knowledge.

Closer to Poland, the landscape flattens out, far more field than forest. The Baltics have an established identity as small countries, but look at a map of Europe, and with a slight trick of distortion their total area will be roughly on par with that of Germany or other large European nations. Consumer goods manufacturers tend to lump us together as well – this is not entirely justified, as there are significant differences between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but together we are a market of some 7 million people – as much as Sweden.

This point is driven home as we cross into Poland, through by far the most elaborate border post yet. Maybe Germany’s will be bigger still, but this used to be the border of the Soviet Union proper, and while Poland was part of the Eastern bloc, it was a significantly different animal. The greatest difference is population density: Poland is a very large country, but with some 30 million residents, it also seems quite full. While it is conceivable to get from the Polish border all the way up to Paldiski or Sillamäe (for the cargo ferries to Sweden and Finland respectively) without driving through the heart of any population center, the road to Warsaw is a succession of towns and villages. I half-remember a story on the radio about some Polish townsfolk who were up in arms about delays in the construction of a bypass that would take transit traffic out of their community, but it’s a drop in an ocean. For all the transit business Poland does (2 euro per day for every heavy vehicle, that’s without a penny spent by crews in local shops and gas stations), its section of the Via Baltica seems curiously organic.

It is oddly, perhaps disturbingly comforting to spend fifteen hours on the road and end up in Poland just to stop off at a combination Statoil and McDonalds – exactly the same sort of place that we started from in Tartu. Wherever you go, you always know where to find a kabanoss. Makes you feel like a proper European.

Our Statoils have WiFi though.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Things I've accomplished in three days of vacation

1) Meet a new blogger - specifically Colm and his charming fiancee Eeva. Met up for lunch at the Place, where he regailed Justin and me with tales of Irishness, such as the experience of crossing the UK national border while having red hair, and the ultimate purpose of the Irish army (to guard all the weapons from being stolen by the IRA). While he objected forcefully that no Irish person has ever been known to actually utter the phrase "top o' the mornin' to ya", he does write "ye" in his emails.

2) Got excellent customer service at the New Yorker store I blogged about previously. I bought a jacket from them and the zipper broke. I was actually considering just getting a clothes repair place to put it a new zipper, but that would not have been blogworthy, so I went back to the store to complain. To my complete amazement, not only did they take the garment back (despite it being past the 14-day no-questions-asked return period - of course this was not a question of wrong size or style, but of an actual fault in its manufacture), but they gave me my money back. That's right: no dicking around with months of expert assessments and repairs, no store credit - cold, hard cash. I'm sure Mingus's worldview has just shattered.

3) Saw a couple interesting crawlspaces while prepping my team's nightgame. I might do an article about some of these prime locations after the game.

4) Shaved. I'm told I look completely different without facial hair.

Early tomorrow morning, I'm getting on a coach and buggering off on a two-week Eurotrip. Tartu to Barcelona and back again, with stops in exciting locations along the way. Stay tuned for trippin' bloggery.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Would You Like to Try a Different Globe?

First off, customer service tip of the day: Air Baltic's website sucks. Not because it's a pile of attention-deficit AJAX shit (although it is), but because ten minutes after they send out an email advertising their fall discount on tickets, the website crashes under the load. Also, they don't include taxes and airport fees in the advertised flight prices, which I'm fairly sure is illegal according to some EU directive or other.

I've got a problem, and I need your help. I've got three weeks' vacation coming up, from mid-September. Hey, I didn't ask for it; I've got way too much vacation time accumulated and my boss bullied me into muttering some random date. Late September seemed as good as any other time, on the assumption that it would still be decent weather, but off-season, so travel should be cheaper.

The point is that I almost never know what I want to do with my vacations. I went to Rome purely because Estonian Air was having a sale on tickets back in the early spring. I've got the time, and I've got some kind of budget, but I am absolutely out of ideas.

I know what I do not want to do: spend a week or two lying on the beach. That automatically discards the vast majority of offerings from Estonian travel agencies, which come down to Turkey, Egypt, or the Canary Islands. Nor will my budget stretch to anything very remarkable - I'd love to go to Japan, but the only tour I've seen so far was 30k, and that's decidedly outside my price range. It would also pretty much have to be a package tour, since I like to use people I know when travelling independently; I'm out of friends in places I haven't been, at least in Europe. I've already been to Iceland and Israel, so that's two exotic locations out.

One good idea has been Georgia, but a) it looks like it's about to get really fucking messy (though not all that disconcerting to me, I was in Israel during the Lebanon war), and b) the package tours seem ridiculously expensive. 18k for a week's holiday in Georgia? No way.

Could do Prague, which I've been avoiding so far because it's just so fucking default. There are approximately 1.3 million people in Estonia, and of them, I am the last one that has not been to Prague. Gotta admit though, there are a lot of good connection opportunities via CSA.

Maybe I should go and get a US tourist visa? I understand they're issued for a year or so, not for a particular date. I already had a B1/B2 class visa issued years ago, too, so they ought to let me in. I've actually been talking about going to visit some friends in NYC and around, once Michael Chertoff muscled Estonia's visa waiver through Congress. But visa aside, travelling to the US seems like such a fucking hastle - what with the ETA, laptop searches, etc.

Canada? Visa-free, and I know people in the Greater Toronto area, but nobody I could expect to accompany me on some serious travels. Besides, too much of the budget would be spent on tickets just to get there, and after Rome I definitely don't want to stay in one place.

If all fails, I suppose I could just jump in the Mazda and do something I've been thinking about for a long time now... One Lap of the Baltic.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Also,


Rome 319.jpg
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Rome pics are up.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

No Sleep Till Tallinn

First, to answer some comment queries:

1) The building behind me in the Forum video is the Rome city hall - still active and the residence of the mayor and city government. It's on Campidoglio, the original Capitoline hill where Rome allegedly began. The building does seem to be a Medieval structure built on top of ancient ruins, but then that's quite common in Rome. You'll see bits of millenia-old masonry sticking out of walls at random.

2) It's not a Hugh Laurie American accent, that's what I sound like at the moment. Since English was not always a primary language for me, I don't have an established accent; if I'm immersed in a culture long enough, I tend to pick up local speech patterns. Disturbingly, this happens not just with native-English regions; stay too long in Scandinavia and I start talking in the Swenglish pidgin. Mind you, I spend much more time writing English than speaking it, so I do have an accent beyond the American that I default to.

3) Hmph. I am against cover charges on philosophical grounds; the assumption is that I have to pay for the privilege of giving the establishment my business, which is a pretty fucking bold statement to be making, and let's face it, even in Rome few restaurants live up to it. I don't have anything against, say, a drinks minimum - if you take up space in a busy spot at rush hour, you shouldn't just be nursing a tap water, that falls under my general "don't be an asshole" policy, but Italian restaurants are a bit too eager to fleece you with auxiliary charges for my liking. Apparently the prices for the same foodstuffs are different not just for in-house or takeaway (which could be justified by the difference in waiters' salaries and cutlery washing costs), but for standing at the counter, sitting at a table, and sitting at a table outside. I have the same motivation for intensely disliking the American sales tax practice: it means that the price I see is not the price I pay, and that goes against my fundamental understanding of what is right and proper. It's not the expense that annoys me (although five Euro for a tin of iced tea is highway robbery); it's the mindfuck.

I've still got most of a day tomorrow, which I will probably spend ambling about and maybe looking at some of the shops - might as well; but I am happy to be heading home. Rome is an intriguing place, but it I haven't felt the same affinity with it as I have with, say, Stockholm. It's not an uncomfortable place for me, like Cologne or Berlin were, and it's a lot more comprehensible than London. My aversion is not just down to the heat either: I felt more at home in Jerusalem than I did here, and that was by far the most culturally alien place I've been yet. But it's not as stifling as Reykjavik either. Even as I am underwhelmed by Rome, it seems to have made every effort to accomodate me. (The quintessential Roman experience: watching an old silent movie being shown on an outdoor screen on the Isola Tiberina, standing on the Ponte Fabricio, while nursing a limone gelato.)

I saw a quote somewhere - I think it was by Verdi - "You can have the universe, if I can have Italy". Well, I understand the sentiment mate, but then again - you're welcome to it.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ostia Antica

What Rome doesn’t have is visible minorities. There are some, mainly South-East Asian, but I have seen very few people of African descent who could not legitimately have been tourists. My Roman friends confirm this: while Italy is actually a major entry point and transit hub for immigrants from the Mediterranean’s more exciting regions – what with a vast coastline and a thriving pleasure boating scene that probably makes immigration policing futile – very few immigrants, legal or otherwise, settle here. There seems to still be a lot of everyday-level racism here; not enormously evil (trivia from visiting the Jewish Ghetto: almost all of Rome’s Jewish community survived under Mussolini) but uncomfortable enough that people prefer to take their chances elsewhere. The upshot is that for a European city of this size, Rome is shockingly white.

In more ways than one, actually. Another thing that Rome does not appear to have is a counter-culture. There are no emo kids, no goths, not so much as a Metallica T-shirt in sight. Everybody seems to be dressed as if from Kaubamaja; the height of youthful rebellion is a football team’s shirt, or for the really preposterous macho types, a sleeveless maika. I tried doing the preppie thing at first, as you can see from the Forum video, but it’s just not me: I know I look good in business-casual, and I know how to tie a double Windsor, but I rarely do that. So Rome is a bit of a cognitive dissonance: the frame of reference for my dress style is Stockholm, and there my cargo fatigues and motorcycle club support tee barely register. In Rome, I’m the heaviest person around. Even the dudes on Harleys are wearing polo shirts.

Here’s a prevalent Roman mindfuck: bread in restaurants. While La Dolce Vita (Tartu’s culinary poster child, authentic enough to have a brick wood-fired oven and an Italian head chef) serves delicious freshly-baked rolls with your meal, these fuckers drop a basket with three dry, stale slices on the table whether you asked for them or not, and have the audacity to charge you a euro fifty for it. Well, that was your tip right there, buddy.

Roman nightlife is fun. The capital is the victim of much snobbery from Northern cultural outposts, but Romans really do not spend much time in nightclubs, preferring to go out at night, once it’s cooled down, and just sit there nursing a drink, talking about nothing. Less Atlantis, more Zavood, if you will. All the more strange that all the bars close at 2 am sharp. They’re doing it because it’s the law, and certainly not because they’re running out of customers by that point.

Assessment of Italian girls following several nights’ worth of pubcrawl in Trastevere: nice legs, shame about the face. I’m sure the temperament is exciting, but on the face of it (boo hiss), Northern Europe wins.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Don't Mention Dan Brown

I've got a few days of vacation after I get back on Monday - any Tallinn bloggers/readers fancy a pint?

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pantheon

From a pedestrian’s perspective, Rome’s legendary traffic is sorely overrated. The city was designed before cars, but not before carriages; while the grid is confusing, it does have nice, wide thoroughfares connecting most areas. Then again the streets do get remarkably narrow; this is by far the biggest market for Smart cars – because you can park them nose-in in an EU standard parking space. The Italian and French automakers have never developed a passenger car larger than the E-class-equivalent; there is simply no point, not in these cities.

From inside a vehicle, it is very different. I’d thought that it wasn’t that bad; I’ve driven in Riga, so presumably I could handle this. A ride in the passenger seat cured my misconception: the problem with Italian drivers is that they have no concept of lanes whatsoever. This is not the lawlessness of post-Soviet or Third World countries, where the right of way belongs to the more expensive or larger car; Italians seem to observe streetlights and no-entry signs well enough (certainly better than a lot of Estonian drivers). The problem is that they move without structure. Roads are shared by scooters, Smart cars, Golf-class cars (what the European nomenclature dubs a “small family car”), and posh Lancias, as well as the odd SUV or German luxobarge; maneuvering is done entirely by improvisation and consensus. You see an opening, you dash for it. Where Riga is congested because there are too many cars and too few bridges, and London is just an amalgamation of village roads entirely unsuitable for metropolis traffic, Romans seem to drive badly consciously. Mind you, somehow it all does work; for all the jostling and banging about, the average speed of traffic in central Rome is far beyond any comparable city.

The town I most compare Rome with is Jerusalem; this is obviously because of the bounds of my own experience, but the two great cities are very much contemporaries. Jerusalem is more distinctive, with its uniform facades, and feels just that little bit more exotic, but it has the same ethereal vibration of history about it; the sort of subdued confidence that comes from having been there for millennia. Rome has almost no modernity about it, certainly not in the center; the thing that stands out as recent is the “wedding cake”, the Vittoriano monument (my guidebook says that Vittorio Emmanuele II himself would have most likely disapproved of the exuberance, but it certainly is impressive). This was constructed in the early 20th century. There’s an area of Fascist architecture on the outskirts that I’ll probably go out and visit at some point; as I’ve mentioned before, totalitarian architecture is semiotically fascinating.

Rome has visible pollution; a faint layer of smog hanging over the city under absolutely clear skies, and I only notice it because my sunglasses (169eek at Prisma) have turned out to be really good; they eliminate the glare from the smog, so it’s apparent when I take them off. The glasses are too good, actually – I intentionally got the narrowest model I could find, but after two days walking around Rome, I now look like a raccoon.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Forum

The Coliseum isn’t actually all that big. 55 thousand people, they say; maybe, but its footprint is less than that of the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn, and the central arena (apparently named that because it was the Latin word for sand, which they covered the action area with) is significantly smaller than a football pitch. They say that before the catacombs below were built, the arena would sometimes be flooded, with naval battles staged there. Either they used scale models, or these were pretty shit battles.

Rumours of killer queues have been greatly exaggerated. Maybe people are outsmarting themselves, maybe far fewer folks are travelling because of the global economic clusterfuck, but I’ve not had any queue problems at all. 3-4 minutes waiting at the Forum to get my combined ticket to it, the Palatine hill and museum, and the Coliseum – 6.50 Euro total (I’m 24, this is the last year I get yoof discounts). Maybe 10 minutes waiting at the security control in the Coliseum, then walk right on through. Honestly, I spent more time queueing for the Eiffel Tower last year, and I wasn’t bothered then.

The heat does get to you, though. It’s sunny, just under 30 C, with gracious gusts of wind, but after some three or four hours on my feet, I am done. Sitting in the Gran Caffe Rossi Martini, typing this on my Mininote, about to spend a Euro and take the metro back to my hotel. Will go out with a local mate this evening, but a siesta is feeling mighty good right now.

The Gran Caffe Rossi Martini does not have WiFi. Maybe I’ve been too lenient on Rome.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Southtrip: Arrival

The new Tallinn Airport is a massive improvement. Naked concrete, exposed steelwork and lots of glass partitions make it feel genuinely Nordic-modern. I notice that they used rust panels on the outside – it’s a popular gimmick now: untreated metal that gets quickly covered in a thick, uniform layer of surface rust. The intention is to have a warm brown cover that is pretty much impervious to the elements, in that it has already rusted. Looking from afar, the pattern could be mistaken for massive wooden veneers.

There was a Japan Cargo 747 parked at Tallinn Airport for three days. It left as I was waiting for my flight. When a Jumbo takes off from an airfield as small as ours, you feel it in your dental fillings.

Estonian Air is also improving rapidly: only slightly more than an hour’s delay this time. Hey, last time it was five hours. They also persist with the delusion that is Estonian Air’s business class; the chairs are absolutely the same, the only difference is that you might get off the plane first, and you get free booze. Hardly seems worth triple the price of coach.

My first sensation of Rome was the pervasive whiff of urine, but then I suppose that is what I get for arriving at the central train station. My hotel room is basic, but clean, and at ~800 EEK per night in high season in East Central Rome, reasonably priced. Oh, and there is free WiFi in the hotel. Verdict: Italy is a civilized country.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Prologue

More ego-tripping. Does anyone want to see this stuff?

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Victim of Advertising

Around this time last year I blogged about summer vacations, and how I bought tickets to London and from Berlin, two weeks apart. Here's what came of it.

Today, I was browsing the Postimees website and clicked on a banner for Estonian Air. Long story short - got tickets to Rome and back, for a week in July. Suggestions for sightseeing and cheap accomodation? I'm tempted to take the train out to Florence and Venice...

Also, two and a half years on - I'm going back to Bollnäs! Also an Estonian Air thing this time, the Tallink ferry is both slow and really fucking expensive. It's cheaper to get a hotel package - one night in Stockholm - than a cruise, never mind individual tickets. So it's a whirlwind round trip this time, a day and a half away from Estonia in total.

Got a big article, but I'm letting Baltlantis get a crack at it first, so stay tuned...

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Eurotrip: No Sleep Till Schoenefeld

Cologne is a city of roughly one million, a significant industrial center (Ford's main European operations are based there) that enjoys a big trade fair scene; its zoo is the proud host of a baby elephant.

It also gets about 4,5 million tourists a year. And it's hard to see why.

Yes, there's always the cathedral, and it's a very impressive one indeed (though I still like Sacre Coeur better). There are old churches dotted around the city center, as well as bits of old Roman walls and towers, and a gold-plated Ford Fiesta with wings. However, 92% of the old town was destroyed in WWII; downtown Cologne is almost entirely new, and almost entirely a shopping district. Four point five million people a year, who take an hour to walk up the cathedral spire if they're quite dedicated (I couldn't be bothered), and then spend the rest of their time shopping.

It's also not a very Ordnung sort of town. I'd mentioned this before about Berlin, but Berlin is in East Germany at least; Cologne does not have this excuse. My host said he admired Holland for being so effortlessly clean, and having actually compared the two I can see his point: the Netherlands is where you go in Europe if you want to see stereotypical Germany. Cologne is an industrial town, it feels very similar to Rotterdam in this. However, my host and his friends said that Cologne is a very good place to live, even if it's not overtly pretty. As a Tallinn boy who moved to Tartu, I can appreciate the sentiment.

Total time on the road was just under two weeks - starting on a Tuesday morning and coming home the next Sunday afternoon. I've been to some interesting places, met a lot of wonderful people, and took over six hundred pictures, some of which are available here. I also accomplished my ultimate goals:

1. Get a feel for North Europe. There are things you start to understand only when you've seen a place for yourself, even if it's only a day or two; subtle things about the streets, the buildings, the attitudes of the people. It takes an outside perspective, but the trip has reassured me in the ideal of a single Europe: a lot of people I met had no faith in the EU lasting, but they had no idea of the extent to which the territories I traveled through are in fact one big community.

2. Get a sense of accomplishment. It was an implausible, complicated trek, put together at the last minute in parts, but in the end it went off without a hitch. It was important for me to know that I could pull it off. And now when people ask me what I did this summer, I can tell them that I went to London; Paris; Amsterdam; north Holland; Cologne; and Berlin. And they're impressed.

Next step? Something more exotic. I feel like I've done everything that the germanic North could offer me, and Paris was the most unusual stop on the trip, so I'm now interested in what Latin Europe can offer me. So my next big trip will probably be the Mediterranean Rim - including, quite possibly, North Africa.

Stay tuned.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Eurotrip: Not Holland

From a distance the Netherlands look like, you know, a country - but actually they're separated into two fairly distinct parts. Not quite like the Dutch vs French bits of Belgium, but then comparatively few tourists make it out of Holland proper - the western part generally comprising the rough square of Amsterdam, The "Only City With Its Own Article" Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht. On the leg of my trip following Amsterdam, I was fortunate to be in the company of an outstanding host, who pointed out interesting things and explained the essense of the place as we drove across the dyke into Friesland* and Northern Netherlands - the area dominated by Groeningen, an important medieval city-state.

You'd be forgiven for not getting it, as my host pointed sideways out of the window of a Kia Pride travelling improbably quickly on admittedly very good Dutch highways, and urged me to look down the hill. Now, Estonia is a country comically famous for its flatness, but we do have hills, both in Tallinn where most of the Soviet-era housing developments have "mountain" in their name, and in South Estonia, where the national pastime of uphill skiing reigns. But northeastern Netherlands are predominantly reclaimed lands, and back when dykes were unreliable, a meter's elevation made the difference between a home and a houseboat.

While the architecture of the Netherlands is mostly generic-Germanic, the most remarkable thing is the widespread use of brick even in very old buildings. Whereas in Estonia you'd see wood, or local limestone, out there it was always convenient to use the very good local clay. Forests are conspicuous not by their absense, as in Iceland, but by their suspicious order: the landscape developers had to consciously restrain themselves from planting trees in nice, even rows. In that part of the world, whenever you find yourself driving down a shady, bucolic country lane, you can tell there's a castle nearby: the castlefolk spent generations beautifying the land. Unquestionably admirable.

While the best coffee I've ever had** was in that same little cafe in Paris on my first night, the best spare ribs, by far, were to be found in a restaurant in the main square of Nijmegen, a town at the foot of what I sarcastically referred to as the Dutch Alps (but a very pleasant place, no doubt).

And yes, I did make use of the local tolerance of light recreational substances.

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* The Friese are by far the biggest nationalists in Europe. They have a myth of Friesland ruling all of Northern Europe, and they still figure that was the normal state of things; what's happening now is just a temporary setback.

** You'd think Caffe Latte, Cafe au Lait and Milchkaffe are all the same thing, but apparently not. The Italian version does actually heat the milk enough for the taste of it to change, while the authentic French version doesn't. Both are quite good, though. The Germans have not impressed me with their coffee, though.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Eurotrip: Extratemporal

Eurotrip diary will continue with impressions from rural Netherlands, but I'm writing this in Schoenefeld airport, on my way home, and I am astounded by the level of customer service in Germany.

In two words, it Sucks Ass.

Over three days in Cologne and Berlin, I have encountered more assholes per square kilometer than anywhere else I've ever been - and I've been to Paris, South California, and Russia. Maybe I need to go to Bavaria for the stereotypical experience, but up to now I've seen all the twisted, illogical downsides of Ordnung without any of the benefits.

I can comprehend, logically, that there is a reason why shops would prefer one type of card over another, and not take credit cards. I think it's stupid, because I live in a country where anything carrying a Visa logo or the Mastercard double globes is accepted everywhere except the cinema. I've had it explained, by a specialist in the field, why everyone in Germany uses Maestro.

What I don't understand is why, when I find out from a shop floor girl at a gadget supermarket who was standing around chatting to the other assistants that I cannot buy the item with my embossed Visa, and put down the box at the nearest shelf, she demands in an insulted voice that I put it back in the proper location. You get paid to put the box back, you stupid cow.

I don't understand why I can't buy a bottle of mineral water with a bank card at Frankfurt Airport, a major international hub with massive numbers of passengers travelling from one country that doesn't use the Euro to another one. There is no reason to expect me to have cash. Seriously.

I don't understand why the girl at the Deutsche Bahn information desk at Berlin Hauptbahnhof cannot explain to me how to force the ticket machine to actually issue a ticket to Schoenefeld, and not just an itinerary. I'm fairly fucking sure that I'm not the first person to be asking the question.

I don't understand why I have to pay three Euro to leave my bag at the left luggage at ten minutes before midnight, then have to pay another three Euro to retrieve it at 5am because it's two separate days. Even though Every Single Fucking train station in the civilized world charges per 24 hours, including the rather cool auto-stackers in Cologne.

I don't understand why I can't check in to an easyJet flight at the Berlin hub earlier than two hours before the flight, whereas I can do the same thing online 24 hours prior, and can check in way earlier at tiny little Tallinn airport, where airside is quite a cramped affair.

But I swear, if one more German fucks with me today using a completely arbitrary and moronic rule designed to make my life more difficult, I am going to respond by doing the Sieg Heil salute and shouting 'Muskatnuss!!!'.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Eurotrip: Blondies & Aussies

The trick I tried to pull failed miserably: I could not escape the rain that had engulfed Paris. Amsterdam was wet that night.

Fortunately, I had help in the form of a person from the Internet, who came equipped with tickets. Having manhandled my bags up and down some quite ridiculous Amsterdam stairs, I was well on my way with three pints and a curry. Our banter attracted the attention of Monique, an Aussie girl with a Dutch dad who was in town for her gap year. Unfortunately she had a previous engagement for the evening, and so declined our invitation to join us at the gig.

Entertainment for the evening was Blondie. Like a lot of old-school bands, these folks have far too much skill and experience to be perturbed by a shitty sound setup - and before long (in fact only one pint later), we were having a lot of fun. Like I said, I'll mosh to anything with a power chord.)

This wasn't my first time in Amsterdam, but I didn't have time to do too much siteseeing. Best impression that I can pass on is that Amsterdam, more than any large European city I've visited, is a Casablanca. The place accomodates foreigners randomly deciding to stick around. And being the party town, it means that anything can happen in Amsterdam.

Yes, I'm still kicking myself for not getting Monique's number. :P

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Eurotrip: Notes on Paris


Axis of Paris
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Line 14 of the Paris metro is fully automated. The trains do not have driver cabins, but are instead similar to those you would find changing terminals at Frankfurt or Stansted airports (except longer). That is to say: you can look out of the bay window at the front of the train, as it speeds down the tunnel.

This makes it officially the Coolest Public Transport Ever.

I'd started out communicating in restaurants and places of business using only hand gestures and the miserly shreds of French that I can muster. By the third day, I really couldn't be bothered any more, and reverted to English. And yes, the waiters got a lot more rude. Once again, it is a Parisian thing. I got by on hopes that my accent is more European than American or English, and reverting to being Estonian - which means conducting transactions with no eye contact and vague grunts of acknowledgement.

Paris isn't so much smaller than London as easier to navigate - more logical - and easier to grasp. Two full days of hardcore tourism is about sufficient to cover all the major landmarks. Paris also feels foreign in a way that London did not on this trip at least; that neither Rotterdam nor Amsterdam ever did; and that Stockholm hasn't for a long time now. I suppose subconsciously I feel Europe is Germanic.

For some strange reason, I ended up with a first class ticket for the Thalys train to Amsterdam. (Some sort of special offer - it was cheaper for me to buy a discounted 1st class seat than pay full price for 2nd class.) The Eurostar, Thalys and TGV all use the same type of fast electric train, and it really underscores how much sense rail travel makes in Europe. For the price of a cattle-carrier flight bought at short notice, I have a nice, soft seat with my own power outlet, free meal with booze, and a bitchin' view of the French countryside zipping by at 300km/h. Unlike airlines that charge you disproportionately more for business class (this is especially funny on the likes of Estonian Air, where business class gets exactly the same seats, and their advantage is a snack and being the first to get off a plane), the price difference between 1st and 2nd class on railways is quite minor. The final kicker is that while I can arrive at Gare du Nord at noon and step out of Amsterdam Centraal* at five, it would not take me much less time to do the same trip by air, including travel to something like Orly and check-in times. And hey, for a train journey between Schengen countries you don't even need to bring your passport.

As we approach the Belgian capital, the PA comes alive with notice in French that we are about to make a stop at Bruxelles-Midi; then in Dutch and German that Brussel-Zuid is coming up; and finally in English, welcoming us to simply Brussels. Reminds me of the joke about the stubborn blonde in an airplane: "I told her First Class isn't going to Las Vegas."

I'm half disappointed that the Thalys train doesn't have WiFi, but then I'm being Estonian again. Taking connectivity for granted. I'll tell you something though - if one of the Estonian parties runs on a platform (no pun intended) of renovating the Tallinn-Tartu-Riga link to accomodate the European Fast Rail service, they'll have my vote.

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*Dutch pronunciation is very entertaining, but in writing it usually just comes down to English with extra vowels.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Eurotrip: Vive la vie!


Sacred Heart
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Both London and Paris are big cities, orders of magnitude bigger than my home town - and yet the centers of both of these are all contained in an area within reasonable walking distance. Every city that grew out of a medieval hub maintains the core that was designed before motorized transportation was invented, even the comprehensively rearranged Paris.

Last night, I climbed up Monmartre - on foot; exhausting. Some nice pictures though. On my way down, looking for dinner, I got ushered into a tiny restaurant by a hyperactive landlady, taking my order without speaking a word of English. I'm sure I got wrangled, but what the hell - it was a very Parisian thing.

Big city navigation is aided immensely by the subway. It is an urban hyperspace, where seemingly impassable rules of traffic density, walking speed and map-reading ability are irrelevant. Since nearly all of Paris's landmarks are helpfully arranged in a single line, I started out in the morning with the Arc de Triomphe, then walked down Champs Elysee to the Louvre. Didn't go in - cues far too horrible, and I don't fancy looking at paintings all day; besides, it's a bit too Da Vinchi Code now.

Notre Dame next, then a subway ride to the Eiffel Tower. Got stopped by a street artist who wanted to paint me, then sell me the picture for 50 Euro. The picture wasn't very good, so I eventually just gave him a fiver - I'll consider it a tourist tax on the whole Parisian scene.

Crowd management at the tower is excellent, but it's still a lot of standing around, queueing. Got to go up to the top floor though. Didn't spit across the railing - too cliche.

I'd wanted to go to Harrods back in London - from what I understand it's a perfectly serviceable museum - but didn't have time, so I visited the Galleries Lafayette here. Wanted to look at the Archos gadgets in person. Ended up buying some cheese as the obvious souvenier - the hard, vacuum-packed kind that doesn't need to be refridgerated (apparently); I have to carry this stuff half way around Northern Europe, and I'm afraid that by the time I get home, anything more exotic would have achieved sentience.

I can't believe I still have a week of this left.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Eurotrip: Albion

When the Eurostar reaches full speed, going into a tunnel - not just the one under the sea, but any little overpass - generates a sort of blast wave that makes your ears pop.

First leg of the Eurotrip is now done, and I am on my way to Paris, typing this up in the absense of a network connection. (In Estonia, there'd be free WiFi.) I've been drinking since last Friday, and somehow all three nights in London ended in the same row of bars under the railway arches behind Southwark tube station. Saw the Tower and the Science Museum, as well as a small museum dedicated to the Blitz. Refused to pay money for the Tower Bridge museum, HMS Belfast, the Golden Hind... The tourist meme is that London's museums are free, but actually that only applies to a few, and most of those involve a lot of paintings. I don't have the patience for art galleries.

London is covered by CCTV. The British are famously scared by the prospect of national ID cards, or any form of mandatory identification in fact. For me, as for most Europeans, this is a non-issue. Where Britain has a surveillance culture, Estonia has a visibility culture; you don't worry about being watched, but you do know that you are being seen. The highly advanced and integrated systems of the Estonian civil service mean that things are a lot less obtrusive. Like the howlingly inferior plumbing, this is only one more aspect of Britain's love of tradition getting the better of it - and of Estonia doing a Germany/Japan-like trick of prospering through starting from a blank sheet.

I've yet to meet a Brit who actually likes the double taps. Or one who could explain to me their proper intended usage.

Gorged myself on Waterstone's last night. I've mentioned before that it's very hard for me to find appealing reading material. I don't read translations on general principle - professional hazard, the artefacts are too distracting - and I'm not interested in anything Russian writers have to say. (I've read just enough of Viktor Pelevin to have the moral justification to say I don't like him.) I've got about five new books now, which should hold me over for a bit. There's another Waterstone's in Amsterdam, though I'm not exactly sure if I'll have the time to give it the attention it deserves. I arrive in Amsterdam on Monday afternoon, and will go to a Blondie concert with a person from the Internet.

Was walking around central London last night, and got an iced white chocolate mocha* at a Cafe Nero right next to Tiger Tiger - the posh club that failed to be blown up by terrorists recently, though my Londoner friends say it should've been.

Alcohol and coffee. I'm trying to stick to healthy eating - restaurants rather than fast food, proper meat & vegetable meals - but my stimulant intake density is far beyond normal levels. And I've still got Amsterdam to do, remember. This isn't actually too bad, as it does promote the sort of consciousness shift I'm chasing in putting together the Eurotrip - constructing a travel personality that's different from your everyday one.

Who knew that ordering a large latte in a pub in Waterloo station entails a pint of coffee? I'm not even kidding here. It was "large" in the same way that a drink in a multiplex cinema is "large".

Wheee!

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* Yes, yes, I know that every time you drink a cold coffee, God kills a little Colombian kitten. At least this one was quite good.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Eurotrip: Prelude

Vacation starts with a party. On Friday night, I set out from Tartu for a three-odd hour drive across Estonian back roads. My goal: a campground where my employer was holding an annual corporate piss-up.

There are places in Estonia which are not simple to reach - pairs of points on the map that are not connected by any satisfactory freeway. Hundreds of kilometers through small towns and villages, with nothing but a Google Maps printout and twenty gigabytes of music to keep you company is actually a pretty good way to start a vacation.

The corporate party has been the subject of many a rant, and certainly I've lived through some crap ones; however, this one was actually pretty decent - mostly due to the choice of campground. Small separate houses, with proper toilets & showers, sufficiently spread out to give people a chance to get some peace & quiet when they're done partying, really is of paramount importance.

The tequila didn't hurt either.

A big part of corporate outings is the entertainment. At Christmastime and during the Summer Days season, content-starved society rags snoop for information on the parties each act is doing and how much they're charging. For the bands though, this can be miserable. There are plenty of companies in Estonia that can afford a big name, but it's largely an issue of bragging rights, and presuming a minimal level of competence at performing live. You won't make everyone happy. The upshot is that a band that's used to playing in front of a crowd of fans, people who paid their own money to see the show, can find itself in a room with fifteen drunk IT nerds standing around & scowling.

Still, I'll mosh to anything with a power chord.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day

In a cute sort of coincidence, July 4th is also the day on which I - finally, after two months plus of wrangling with the telecoms company that was supposed to have its shit together by the time the building was handed over - have Internet access at my new apartment.

Feels very liberating indeed.

Two weeks from now, I'll be in London, the first stage in my Eurotrip. The plan, such as it is, is to go from London to Paris to Amsterdam (most likely Gröningen too), to Cologne, to Berlin. London and Paris are definite, and I have to end up at Berlin Schoenefeld airport on the morning of July 29th, other than that I'm mostly winging it.

I'll also be in Tallinn for the first time since early April on July 16th. If anybody's actually reading this blog* and fancies a pint - in any of the listed locations - email's in the sidebar.

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* Just kidding. I monitor my visitor logs religiously.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

In Desperate Need of REM Sleep

In my quest to evade stupid yuppie depression by filling up my time with important events, I have succeeded in transcending normal tiredness and passing into that elusive area of sleep deprivation that is sometimes described (by people with authority to speak of such things) as a marginally safer way to experience a drug trip. I spent Monday night in Akureyri, catching a bit of sleep in the relative comfort of a 737 over Scandinavia; that was followed by a two-odd hour drive to Tartu and the remains of a working day. Tuesday and Wednesday nights somehow turned out to be fairly late, and by Thursday I was back on the road, or rather on a ferry. Friday night was, of course, spent in Club Patricia. I'm on my way back now; and whereas on the way here I shared the four-bunk room with one other guy who had been drinking for 30 hours previously and passed out at first opportunity, this time I have been relegated to the least favourable bed. The room is hot, smells of dirty socks and is full of snorring people who haven't showered recently. And that is the reason why it is 3.45 am Estonian time, and I am posting this over the M/S Romantika's free WiFi connection, from the middle of the Baltic Sea.

Stockholm was, in a word, glorious. Two days of sunshine and cloudless skies were just what I needed to round off a week in easter-time Iceland. The contrast is staggering. I know that Reykjavik's nightlife doesn't come into its own until after midnight, but Stockholm's center evokes a special feeling even in the early afternoon; a feeling of a proper big city. It feels like things are happening there, like it's a significant hub of global activity; and it is. Swedes are, in my experience at least, uncharacteristically outgoing for this region, and when you combine that with the inevitable sheen of Scandinavian lawfulness and a quiet confidence that everything is right in this part of the world, you get a marvellously friendly night scene. Where else would the bouncer politely ask me to button up my jacket over my Independent MC Support T-shirt, explaining apologetically that they have a policy of no obvious affiliation in the dresscode; even Hell's Angels are required to check their colors. Could you see this happening in NYC, really?

Iceland has a peculiar attitude to its significant tourist industry. Where Tallinn is slightly pissed off at cross-gulf vodka tourists and Easyjet stag parties, and Stockholm embraces its visitors, the Icelanders seem to pay them the minimal possible attention. In a crowded tourist location like the Gullfoss waterfall, the only safety measure on a treacherous, slippery hillside path in early April is a rope at ankle height. It demarkates where you're not supposed to go; if a tourist ignores it and falls off, well, it's the tourist's own fault for being an idiot. In the same way, only a few years ago Easter time apparently meant that the whole of Reykjavik completely shut down; these days some restaurants and shops do stya open for the tourists' sake, but it still feels deserted. I asked our guide whether there were any tourist traps related to Brunhilde's castle, out of the Songs of the Niebelungs; she didn't know what I was talking about. It feels like the Icelanders know that their nature attracts plenty of tourists anyway, so they don't feel obligated to make too much of an effort: there's enough bodyflow to keep the industry healthy, and they're not hoping for too much return business, as you can see all of Iceland you'll need in one visit. Iceland's tourist trade came out of the first cheap transatlantic flights, which stopped in Reykjavik along the way, often with a significant hole in the schedule. Indeed, Iceland is good as a tourist's stopover, like Hong Kong and/or Singapore are supposed to be for Australia, but it's not really up to scratch as a destination.

Stockholm, on the other hand, is wonderful. I was last here roughly a year ago, and on that occasion it was cold and wet; but in good weather it is a visceral pleasure to be in. The city comprises all you'd want, from the medieval core to the authentic bohemia of Södermalm, the inevitable 60s-functional and now somewhat derelict blocks in the shopping area (if you bother to actually look up at the Ahlens City building, you won't be impressed, and whoever planned the escalators in PUB needs to be slapped in the face with a wet trout), the lovely homes of Norrmalm and the noble town houses of Kungsholmen... And it has an extremely cool subway, too.

You couldn't imagine Laugarvegur organically cordonned off by a crowd assembled to watch a breakdance crew performing on a Saturday afternoon, far more for their own pleasure than for any money passersby throw into the hat (it wouldn't even pay for sneakers); but on Drottninggatan, it feels proper. I mean, you really would, wouldn't you? Makes perfect sense.
I'm not alone - I'm on my way home
I am here, I'm standing on my own
Just a little bit tired...
I'm on my way - home

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Departure

I'm always on the run
Restless, searching the sun
I'm always on my way
It's all a timeless, neverending story

My life's a civil war
Between all open doors
So little time, so many goals left to achieve...


I apologise for maybe not giving the blog as much attention in the last few days as I should have. At this very moment, I am in the departure lounge of Tallinn's D terminal, about to get on a ferry to Stockholm for an E-type gig tomorrow.

What I can tell you so far is that I'm glad to be back in Estonia - especially after a four-hour delay in fucking Akureyri Intercontinental Airport, as the Estonian Air charter waited for a hole in the weather to land at this tiny airstrip at the bottom of a fjord hemmed in between two mountains, with a single approach vector that is impassable for anything so enormous as a Boeing 737-500 whenever there is any wind at all. I can also tell you that Tallink's booking department 0wns, getting me return ferry tickets and a night in a four-star hotel in Stockholm for 2600 EEK, whereas a single ticket for a Friday departure is 2800 EEK.

Full set of Iceland pics is here if you want it, and I'll be back with a full Stockholm report, as well as final notes on Reykjavik, in a few days. Wish me well.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Beauty of the Beast


Burp!
Originally uploaded by Flasher T.
Whenever I start feeling like I've got the hang of a new place, I ask myself if I'd enjoy living here. Answers are mixed: it was yes for Stockholm, which is a city I click with on an emotional level, and for London, which I want to spend time in at some point in the future. It was no for California and Israel, for roughly similar reasons - wrong climate and wrong mentality.

For all of Iceland's fundamental similarities to Estonia, I would not want to live in Reykjavik. It feels - and you must remember that this is in comparison to a campus town in an insignificant little country stuck between North and Eastern Europe - extremely provincial. It is a Scandinavian town, but it is viscerally a small Scandinavian town. Most of all it feels like Gjövik - the Norwegian community I visited back in high school. Gjövik's claim to fame is that it was involved in the Lillehammer Olympics, and it has an impressive hockey stadium hewn from a cliffside. Other than that it is a tiny, industrial town with a Main Street, a lot of ugly 60s-utilitarian buildings, and the obligatory Russian drug dealer.

Reykjavik doesn't have any old buildings. It rose to significance in the late 19th century, and before that it was nothing more than just another fishing village. For all of Iceland's proud history stretching back over a millenium, there is no medieval culture to be found; this is another aspect it shares with America. The island was isolated politically as well as geographically, with outside trade handled exclusively by Danes. We were shown today, as a special tourist landmark, a prominent merchant's home, preserved from 1765. As I have commented on an entirely different occasion, I have shat in toilets older than that.

Neither is Iceland a prominent source of Nordic design. Where Norway gathers its inspiration in the breathtakingly gorgeous scenery of its territory, Iceland's nature is only stunning - not pretty. The local specialty is wool, arctic gear, and jewelry styled on runes. The architecture, both in the capital and beyond, is a mix of traditional Scandinavian red-roofed cottages - nearly exclusively out of wood, which is a bit curious as there is decidedly no timber in Iceland to build homes out of - and post-war experiments with form-follows-function and quick-setting concrete. A wave of new construction in recent years has managed to produce no buildings of architectural significance or inspiration. Even the dreary Rotterdam was more exciting than this.

In the countryside, the impression is even more dire. As I mentioned, there are no naturally suitable places for habitats, so villages consist of a grid of bungalos dropped randomly into a bit of landscape. There are no fences, and in early April, no gardens. Our guide tells us it is a lot prettier in the summer, but I feel like I'm seeing the true Iceland right now. And the true Iceland, for a person born in a Hanseatic hub and raised among the lush forests of the Baltic, is an outstandingly depressing place to be.

It's a very impressive country to visit, but I absolutely wouldn't want to live here.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Intercontinental

I've decided that I don't really mind the lack of a safe in my hotel room. This entire nation is smaller than Tallinn, and the island is surrounded by thousands of miles of freezing ocean on all sides. Nowhere to escape to, not even inland, as the nature can hardly a support a single frontiersman, no matter how well-motivated.

This country doesn't merit a police force. It should just have a constabulary.

Joke of the day, in co-authorship with the kid from the Domino's down the street: "The rest of the world thinks that everybody in Iceland lives in igloos. Whereas in reality, everybody in Iceland lives in Reykjavik." The town itself is about equal to Tartu in population, although spread over a far larger territory. The Greater Reykjavik Area houses over 60% of all the people on the island.

Driving down from Keflavik, you pass by the abandoned NATO base. Not even a year ago, the Americans simply packed up and fucked off, leaving behind a couple dozen decent-looking apartment buildings and a bewildered nation suddenly devoid of any sort of armed forces at all. I thought Estonia's military was a joke, what with splitting an air patrol subcontract three ways with the other Baltic nations, but Iceland - a small nation, but not Europe's smallest - does not have an army.

There are no more American soldiers to protect the country, but then there are no more reasons why anybody would bother attacking it.

Iceland is half way between Europe and America, and it shows. In this way it is an extremely curious object for observation, and wondering if this is what Estonia would have been like if the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact hadn't happened. The westward shift is reminiscent of Finland's American fetish, or Sweden's ala raggarbil scene, but to a much greater degree. Cars are everywhere. The very low population density - or rather the fact that all of the landscape is equally difficult to terraform, so you might as well not stick to just the bayside valley - means a sort of urban sprawl without the underlying overpopulation. Consequently the residential areas are largely self-confined: every community has the necessary set of church, musical school and swimming pool, and you can go a long time without needing to leave the immediate surroundings of your home. But if you do, you will need a car, as public transport is thin on the ground.

The Icelandic private fleet is a mix of small Euro-spec hatchbacks and American SUVs. Roads are smooth and sweeping; at their best, these are highways that any Estonian driver would kill for. At their worst, they are chip-sealed, twisty back roads, raised over a landscape devoid of any vegetation reaching higher than the ankle of a very short man. The fact that there is no Icelandic rally champion or even any noticeable drivers boggles the mind. Our tour guide said that icelanders are very keen drivers and love to go fast; but she looked up the numbers and was surprised to see that Estonia has three times the traffic-related fatalities per capita. No wonder: put your average badass icelandic street racer on the Tartu-Tallinn road on Friday night and see how far he gets.

I know that some of my friends reading this blog will never let me live this down, but: the Blue Lagoon mud has really made the skin on my face silky-smooth!

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Approach

The best thing one can say of Copenhagen Airport is that it really has a sufficient quantity and frequency of toilets. You can see that they have made a real effort to make sure you are never more than twenty meters away from a urinal. Very commendable indeed. The second best thing one can say of Copenhagen Airport is that it is strung out along a single main passageway, so you're not too likely to get lost. But an hour between flights is still really not enough time if you have to find the bloody transfer desk to check in.

Iceland feels very Scandinavian indeed - narrow but well-paved roads, lots of street lighting, and the requisite yob in a bodykitted Astra GSI burning rubber in a KFC parking lot. The three-star hotel I'm staying in doesn't have a minibar or a safe, but has free WiFi in all rooms; on the whole, I rather prefer it to the pompous Sheraton City Tower in Tel Aviv, ostensibly a five-star business hotel, but I still had to open a bottle of Coke against the TV stand.

The myth of Icelandic alcohol prices is overblown - I just bought a pint of the local Viking beer in an all-night convenience store for about $2, which is expensive, but not oh-my-fucking-god expensive. The downside is that like elsewhere in Scandinavia, the best you can get outside a government monopoly store is 2.25% semi-lager. It tastes good enough, but it somewhat offends my sensibilities.

Tomorrow, Reykjavik sightseeing and the Blue Lagoon; and I leave you with a question. Why is it that I had to go through passport control airside at Copenhagen, but arriving in Keflavik Airport - having exited the EU! - I got all the way outside without a single person so much as glancing at any form of identification?

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Chasing Sunset

…writing this airside at Tallinn Airport, on my way to Iceland. The airport is improbably busy for an early Wednesday afternoon, and the view out onto the runway is partially obstructed by that most Estonian of sceneries – a construction site. They’re building a new terminal in a T-shape to the old one, designed to accommodate low-cost airlines. Easyjet doesn’t use a second-rate airfield in Estonia, because if you get far enough from Tallinn for there to be any point, you’re closer to Riga anyway.

This is my first time flying after the new rules on liquids in hand baggage, but the imposition is minimal – I can still buy a drink airside and carry it onto the plane. The prospect of a long trip with short layovers and an arrival time of half past ten at night has convinced me that a meal is unlikely until tomorrow morning, so I have gone for that ever-beloved standby of drunks and stoners everywhere: the Statoil hot dog. It’s served by a rather more presentable establishment around here, but form does not change function.

What was supposed to be a direct charter has now turned into a layover at Copenhagen, where I will need to do an airside check-in, but they’re shipping my checked baggage direct, so again it’s not such a massive inconvenience. I’m writing this into a Word file, as Tallinn Airport’s WiFi is restricted; I’m not entirely certain what the connectivity will be like in Reykjavik (the experienced Estonian traveler knows not to take the Internet for granted while abroad; our infrastructure really is preposterously advanced in comparison to most even fairly developed locations), and I probably won’t have time to send this off at Copenhagen. So at the absolute worst, you’re going to get all my travel notes in a big batch next Tuesday.

There’s an increasingly likely chance that I will be going to Stockholm next Thursday night, for an E-Type gig on Friday. If I can pull that off – if I can go from Iceland to E-Type to new apartment to Brainstorm gig to birthday, and all that before the beginning of summer – I’ll have gone a long way to my New Year’s resolution of making more of an effort to be sociable and do fun stuff. Here’s hoping.

UPDATE: No faith. Serves me right. Figured out how to get the airport WiFi working. Enjoy.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Eurotrip!

In the spirit of not having nothing to do on vacation, I just did something relatively reckless.

I've used the fact that my employer kicks everyone out for the last two full weeks in July, and booked me some easyjet. On Tuesday the 17th, I will be flying from Tallinn to London. On Sunday the 29th, I will be flying back to Tallinn... from Berlin.

I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do in the meanwhile, except for the fact that I have friends in various places in Europe (actually several distinct sets in London alone), and this sort of aimless wandering is a really cool and European thing to do, and for once in my life I have the disposable income for it. Might as well do this before I stop qualifying for youth discounts.

It's also something I would not normally do; the lack of organization and figuring-it-all-out-beforehand puts me way out of my comfort zone. I don't mind hostels, and I actually enjoy staying over at friends' places a lot more than even posh hotels; and to a very large degree, I am inspired by Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There - a book about arriving in Europe and going with the flow. But I'm still a bit of a control freak when it comes to itineraries. I am doing this on purpose, to hopefully change something about myself in the same way that people throw puppies into the water to teach them to swim.

So, if you're somewhere in Western Europe, and either know me or would like to meet me, leave a comment or send an email, and I'll see if I can stop by. :)

P.S. And hell, booking this early means that if I completely chicken out, I can just eat the cost. That is the magic of easyjet.

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