Thursday, July 25, 2013

Oblivion--Gifts to the Stone Age

I'm having fun building the world for my fourth book in the Jezebel series, Oblivion. The heroes have to study an alien stone age race and give them exactly 27 ideas that can help them achieve the next level. Before the heroes can decide the perfect gifts, they have to study the aliens for years. The first step is observation and recording. The linguist uses this data to form an alphabet and a dictionary. Eventually, we want the little green men (LGMs) to learn this alphabet so earthlings can write down the ideas. The first idea is expressed as a verbal/pictorial concept. We show them all the letters in the alphabet by using all of them in a sentence like the old typewriter test "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog," with illustration above each word.

The world generates action. From this concept, I ask myself what the first meeting would be like? Given Murphy's Law, the contact would be before we're entirely ready, say at the 5000 word daily vocabulary level. A scout sent out to get more speech samples breaks her leg and needs help getting back to the shuttle. How does she communicate? With today's speech recognition and Google translation technology, we could rig a headset that listens to the English and broadcasts in LGM (Lou's voice). The microphone picks up LGM and translates it back to English (Mercy's voice). Even as the human speaks, the translator mangles it twice. For example "civilization," becomes "all who bury their own butt output."

The heroine picks a trader to help her because he's one of the few who travels, and he will barter. Because they're not allowed to be seen by the aliens, we'll have a visual obscuring device I'll call a shimmer field that can temporarily blind the natives if they look directly into it. Between her complaints about the person who did the shoddy translations and explanation about why the native can't look at her, she inadvertently creates a mythology for all future contact.

The word for writing on wood or stone is "tictic" because that's the sound the chalk makes when you mark something. It's used almost exclusively for hash-mark counts of agricultural items in a delivery. The example gets mangled, and the sentence begins "lazy fox". The word for the new alphabet invention is therefore equivalent to "tictic-lah-zay".

It turns out that the "trader" is swapping narcotic chew to farmers and slaves--because they don't want to actually work for a living. The drug traffickers take on the collective title "the lazy foxes" to accentuate their cleverness and freedom. So we accidentally give literacy to rebel drug lords who feel compelled to mark buildings with graffiti to spread language like a virus. Any graffiti artists discovered are publicly executed by the slave lords. Thus, even one idea causes a near collapse of the society they were sent to uplift.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Chapter 1 of Behind the Walls of Sleep, Revised

I did post a while back From Inspiration to Perspiration on building a book from a scene idea. This is a follow up.

Once all the brainstorming has reached critical mass, I throw out the sketch first chapter, which reads like Raymond Chandler, not a YA fantasy novel. For that, I need to pull kids in with things they care about. The camera has to follow the main character from the start, not an old, ex-cop. I decided to use an event from my own adolescence to open. Furthermore, Daniel needs to hear the initial explanations from a friend near his own age, so I bring the thief, Astrofeld, in a few chapters early. Here we have the revised version.

Flying Practice

At sixteen, Daniel relied on dreams to escape. In this dream, he relived a summer visit to his grandmother in Pennsylvania. Though it wasn’t family he remembered—she had died soon after. With joy, Daniel recalled the brick-paved hills of the fading railroad town. The weather was breezy, and the upturned silver of the leaf bottoms said a storm was on its way. His gray windbreaker rippled like a living thing. It was a perfect time for flying practice.
Starting at the top of the roller-coaster-shaped hill, he ran downward as fast as possible, arms behind him, stretching the windbreaker like wings. His sneakers slapped the bricks in a pit-pat rhythm. Soon, all he could hear was the wind whooshing past his ears and the sound of his heartbeat. If he could reduce the resistance, he might be able to leave the ground. Folding his arms back like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, he accelerated more. Now his steps bounced, and his momentum was barely under control. He only needed to go a little faster.
Unfortunately, he ran out of hill. To brake before he hit the cross street, his sneakers had to slap the bricks so hard his feet stung. He was panting heavily and sweating from the failed effort. The sky darkened, and the wind whistled louder; however, Daniel didn’t give up. This time, he knew the stronger wind could lift him up. He turned around, stepped over the curb onto the sidewalk, and trudged up the endless series of cement steps.
By the time he reached the top, the sky was completely dark. He would have to walk down the back alley to Grandma’s before rain drenched him. He pulled up the hood on his windbreaker, and nearby thunder threatened to deafen him.
As the last echo rolled away, Daniel noticed something odd—his windbreaker was now an army-green serape held shut by some sort of Celtic-knotwork clasp. Next, he determined that the houses on the left of the stair were gone. Instead, he was on flat ground, at the edge of a cliff. There may have been some crude farm outbuildings ahead, but it was too dark to tell without streetlights. The only things that had remained the same were the stairs and the storm.
Dreams changed that way sometimes. I lost control. As long as there aren’t any cars, I’m safe. When he tried to take a step, however, someone grabbed him from behind, pulling him up short. “Whoa! You don’t want to go through that again.”
“Huh?” Daniel asked, turning to see who had joined him. The short boy in the black Jedi cloak sounded like a leprechaun. “What are you, ten?”
“Seventeen,” said the leprechaun, offended. The kid was pale and even his nose was thin, just the right size to get stuffed in a locker. “Hey, you’re not Charlie anymore.”
“My name’s Daniel.”
“You must be Charlie’s replacement,” the older but wiser boy noted. “Call me Astrofeld.” The other boy stuck out his right hand to shake, but his other hand went along for the ride.
Squinting at the shackles on the leprechaun’s wrists, Daniel asked, “Why are you handcuffed?”
“A misunderstanding,” the short teen insisted. “But we’re friends, right? I mean, I saved your life.”
“From what?” Daniel glanced at the other side of the step towards a shimmering puddle that reflected the purple-tinged lightning overhead. “And who’s Charlie?”
Astrofeld snorted. “Observe.” He dipped the chain connecting his shackles into the puddle. The metal link in the center turned transparent, swelled like an iridescent soap bubble, and popped. “That is what happened to Charlie. He knew his defensive spells. His cloak protected him from just about everything, except from below. He vanished. A few seconds later, after a huge thunderclap, you show up.”
A dozen questions clamoured in Daniel’s head, but he couldn’t decide which to ask first.
Astrofeld jerked as a drop of rain seared his cloak like acid. “Ack! Run for it.”
The short teen bolted for shelter, and Daniel followed, dodging the puddles. It was like a game of ‘don’t step of the crack’ in a minefield. Out of breath, the he pressed against a set of swinging double doors he’d seen in old western movies. The sign above the doors read ‘Goodforwhat Ales.’ Since the doors were barred, the saloon appeared to be closed for the night.
Astrofeld said, “Be right back.” Then the tiny boy wiggled under the doors that extended lower than a bathroom stall.
Moments later, the doors unlatched and swung open. Daniel stared at the interior as Astrofeld lit an oil lamp. The ten round tables in the tavern were all made from thick, rough-hewn oak and the d├ęcor was an odd mixture of late medieval and early Amish. The walls were decorated with shields, dartboards, and what might have been bowling trophies.
“We should be safe in here for a while,” said Astrofeld, grabbing a mug from behind the bar. “In weather like this, nobody in Shambly Town is going to set foot outside their hovels to investigate.” Without the hood, his pointed ears were visible—more like a cat’s than an elf’s.
As his bizarre, new friend poured something from the tap, Daniel had a seat at the closest table and decided on his first question. “Am I dead?”
Astrofeld pointed his thumb to a bucket in the corner. “Do you think they mop the floors in purgatory?”
Daniel shrugged. “People pay in different ways. Folks do what they know, and some people may feel the need to scrub a few stains.”
“No. You’re in what you might call a different state of being.”
“Not Kansas,” said Daniel, and both young men laughed.
After he tipped the excess foam off his brew, Astrofeld said, “You’re in Astra, a place where our kind gathers.”
Daniel only echoed the last words. “Our kind?”
The short boy took a deep drag on the mug and coughed. “Hold the clasp on your cloak and tell me what you see.”
Daniel did as he asked. The clasp wove together at least four brass snake. As he stared, the serpent bodies loosen and started to slide against each other like a puzzle. In his head, he almost completed the solution to open the clasp, when Astrofeld interrupted. “Good, it accepts you as its new owner, and the cloak will protect you. Until you learn the rules, your unconscious will also protect you in indirect ways. When this happens, it will usually look like freak luck. Regardless, you need to hire a magic teacher as soon as possible.”
With the cloak opened, Daniel could see his plaid flannel pajama pants and night shirt underneath. He could also see the fabric of the cloak ripple and reweave like the snakes to fit the dimensions of his body. “This is some dream.”
“Even dogs dream. Astra isn’t simple rapid-eye movement—it’s an energy level, a shared experience that only one person in ten million can achieve.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes. “So you’re real?”
“Define real. If you mean from the same waking world, then yes.”
“Why is this stuff so old fashioned?”
“It takes the dreamlands a little while to catch up because everyone has to agree to it or something. I’m not good with theory.” Astrofeld swallowed more brew and stomped his foot till the burning subsided. “Smooth.”
“That stuff is going to stunt your growth.”
The kid made a rude gesture back as he wandered into the main room of the tavern. “I have a defective pituitary gland. My parents stunted my growth...for religious reasons.” His voice was beginning to slur.
“Because the growth hormones are made from dead people?”
“Nah, they fixed that years ago. They want my faith to make me taller. Hell, I shouldn’t tell you that. Please don’t tell anyone, and I won’t squawk about where you arrived.”
“Sure. Why would that matter?”
Astrofeld set down the half-empty mug at Daniel’s table. “Because if someone could track me down in the waking realm, I’d be dead. I’ve robbed a lot of powerful people. To be safe, you should never tell anyone else personal details. That’s why I use my favorite D&D character’s name. In the other world, never let your picture appear in the newspaper or on the news, or someone might recognize you.”
“I meant the stairs. Why would anyone care?”
“That’s your rebirth spot.” The thief peeked through a crack in the swinging doors. “The next dream you have, reappearing at your last exit point is easiest. But if anyone ever locks you in a jail cell, for instance, then you can head back to your step. When you return there, you’ll give up whatever you were carrying, plus some accumulated energy, but it’ll be worth it.”
“Like a Nintendo game.”
“If someone knows your rebirth spot, they can own you. Astra’s not a game, so don’t tell anyone about it...or me.”
“Yeah. If I did that, my social worker would make me attend therapy sessions twice a week.”
“So you’ve been to Juvenile Hall, too? Cool—” Suddenly, the thief’s eyes darted to a door beside the bar. A click sounded, and the oak door creaked open. Daniel saw a burly man in a smock creep through holding a crossbow.
When Daniel turned his head to ask his friend what to do, the thief was long gone.
All he could do was smile at the tip of the crossbow that pointed at his nose. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Charlie’s replacement.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Maps for Sanctuary Spaceship

Here are the schematics for the interior of the biosphere in book 3 of Jezebel's Ladder--Sanctuary. The book is in the final stages of polishing, and the beta-readers voted that pictures would help their enjoyment. The square box in the lower left is a hectare, the base unit of metric land area, 100 meters x 100 meters.

My pencil sketches were far to detailed to show up well on an ereader screen, and the fonts had to be pretty big. So I compromised--I tried to label everything mentioned in the story but just give the flavor of everything else. That way, the reader is free to imagine other details.

I drew the precision work-- the sphere and sunlight windows-- in a CAD program my wife uses for quilting. Unfortunately, the quality degraded when I had to write it as a JPG to import it into Profantasy CC3. With the mapping software, I added terrain, rivers, labels, and lakes. On my first attempt, I printed the result from Profantasy and saved it as a JPG...of the same name as the background. Everything came out like double vision. I had to scrap it and draw the maps over again. The shading for the water was added in MS Paint.

Because Kindle Paperwhite has problems with maps, I reduced the resolution to 50K for the ebook version. The paperback should still be at maximum quality.

I have a third diagram for the entry/dock area but I'm not sure it will add anything other than more delivery fees.

Monday, July 8, 2013

vacation 14: London

Buckingham Palace was closed for tours until July, but as we walked through the park, we heard the royal guards playing music--New York, New York. It was surreal.
After taking all the usual tourist photos, Ben Ben, phone booths, etc, we took them again from the air via London Eye. The line was over an hour long and they sent us all away due to a malfunction. You can pay another $75 to jump the line, or you can just come back the next day 15 minutes before they open. Ferris wheel ride lasts about 25 minutes. Honestly, it was exciting until the apex, and then I was depressed the whole way down, knowing the ride was almost over. (no Freudian comments) The giant penguin sits in front of the aquarium by the Eye.


The kids let me pick an adventure meal place, and I chose the Japanese restaurant Wagamama, which I'm told translates "naughty child." It was tasty, and every extra menu risk we took worked out. The licorice mint tea hit the spot, and the plum wine with sparkling water was a steal at 3Pounds . The kids liked the frothy milk with cocoa so much we ate there again on day 3.

The next big event was watching "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Globe Theater. Because we bought the last four seats, the kids and Tammy sat on the top floor while I sat on the first...behind a pillar. I was eventually able to join them after the intermission when the ladies who prevent people from changing seats during the show (England's version of a professional shoosher) went home to bed. Oberon and Puck were hugely entertaining, performing acrobatics, tumbling, and sleight of hand. They performed a wordless song at the end that was eerie.


We went to the British Museum to hit the highlights: Easter Island statue, jade dragons, Assyrian sphinxes, Rosetta Stone, etc. The kids took a lot of photos, but the big hit was an art exhibit with two panels:one containing every medication the average man in England took over his lifespan, and the other for a woman. It was a long strip, and a little scary. On the way there, we hit a used bookstore and added further weight to our suitcases.

Of course, no tour of London is complete without the crown jewel, the Tower of London. The yeoman warder this time was just okay and the crowds were larger than normal due to being a weekend. However, everyone drooled over the gems and jewelry. We went through that area twice. It drizzled that day, and when we went to Trafalgar again, it pours buckets so hard our pants were soaked through despite the ponchos. District line was closed near Earl's Court that weekend, and the bums living in the tunnels told people which routes to take.

The only stressful part about London was getting the heck out. When I was bargain hunting for tickets months ago, I mistakenly thought that London Gatwick was actually IN the London area, not an hour car ride away. Because of the train closure, getting to Gatwick meant riding Circle line to Picadilly line two stops, humping all 7 bags up steps, riding Picadilly 5 stops to Victoria Station by 8. My jaw hurt from grinding my teeth so much at night from the worry. I decided to pay 20 Pounds for the short cab ride instead. Then we were to ride the Gatwick Express train (39 pounds). I had the clerk at the hotel call the cab for us--he called an 8 seater Mercedes with a flat rate of 28 pounds, which he didn't tell me until we were on the road. I didn't want to risk being late, so I ate the loss. I'm glad I did because we had only 25 minutes of buffer, but I'm pretty sure the clerk got a kickback. Realistically, the bank would've screwed me for about the same markup for the unused currency. They don't even accept coins, only paper.

Vacation 13: Paris

We took a pleasant subway ride to the Eiffel tower. The wait was long at every phase: tickets, security, elevator to deck 1, elevator to upper deck, and elevator down. Fortunately, we had our raincoats. Again, people were packed hip to hip and both signs and the PA warned people that there are pickpockets behind you as you enjoy the view. To help pass the time, we packed our own picnic lunch and found a nice bench by the down elevators to eat it on.

That afternoon, we went to the Louvre a day early because there was a train strike on and I worried about making it on time to the station for the trip to London tomorrow at 2:45. I didn't know whether the kids would want to stay for 1 hour or 8, so this gave us flexibility.

The entrance under the pyramid is overwhelming. We wanted to start with the Mona Lisa and had to visit information several times over the course of our stay. To get to the portraits in that wing, you have to maze through ancient sculptures, past Winged Victory, down endless halls with ceilings painted nicer than the modern art on the walls.

The Mona Lisa shared her cyclopean room with the Wedding Feast of Cana. Again, pick pockets and tour groups were everywhere. Pierce and I stood back and examined the Wedding Feast while Tammy and Emily moved to take photos of the smiling lady. There painting wasn't historically or ethnically accurate in any way. I'm not an art historian, but its sole virtue in my mind was its enormous size.

Back in the sculpture area, I was disappointed how many of the 40 foot rooms had nothing of merit. One had chipped blocks of broken statues with no recognizable features. The stolen art of several continents from one of the world's greatest empires, and this is what you bring to the table? We did find an AC vent, though, a must have after walking several miles in these crowds.

 After the statues in the Vatican, most of these were dull repeats. I did, however, love the Caryatid columns, and the beautiful sculpture of Psyche and Eros (steamy).

Pierce and I were done and sat on window seat whenever possible, but Emily and Tammy really enjoyed Napolean's apartments. Lavish room after room of beds, salons, and fine dining. I got to hear what the alarms sound like when one of the women near us leaned on the table to get a better photo. No one came to investigate.

Lastly, we walked up the Champs Elysses and ate at a pastry shop called Angelinas, each picking our own $10 dessert--caramel almond, berry cream, chocolate, ... ahh. Everyone shared. That's what I want to remember about Paris.

After viewing the Arch again from the safety of the sidewalk, we took the subway back to the hotel and ate at Quick Burger, next to McDonalds.

The next morning, we popped in to Notre Dame to catch its 850th anniversary--during which they added a grand stand and gift shops but closed all public toilets. Blessedly, this was my only flareup of IBS during the trip. I took lots of pills, didn't eat vegetables or drink much pop, and took very small meals more often. TRY not eating onions in French or Italian restaurants. Lines for toilets at gift shops went out the door and they charged 50 cents at the till for the wait. I gave my change to the kids to get a souvenir coin while I ran into a restaurant. They also wanted to charge 50 cents at the stall, but refused to give change to tourists. Eventually, a kind woman customer saw my obvious discomfort and asked for a free token for herself. I still had to wait for a woman who commandeered (commodeered?) the men's toilet, because the women's room had a line.

The last stop of the city was the church of Sacre Coeur at the top of Montmarche. It was a relatively long ride, walk, and climb up over a hundred steps. I worried about check out time of noon and the train the whole time. The clerk told us to relax and take our time. We waltzed
through customs at the train station with relative ease after filling out several unexpected forms. They actually ask you if you're a terrorist or carrying contraband. I had to explain how I could possibly be retired at my age to the officer and hand out some cards.

My admitted paranoia made us wait in the lounge for an hour before boarding, but I prefer this to missing the train and having to buy the tickets again. This wait gave Emily a chance to charge her DS by the courtesy desk and me an opportunity to buy some British pounds. Strange that as a member of the EU, England still seems to still do everything its own way.

vacation 12: Versailles

We arrived in Versailles late on purpose to get the after 4 price. I think the two of us got in for 12 Euros. A man who was leaving as we came in liked our family shirts and gave us a priority pass--it skipped us to the head of the long line, for which we were grateful. You can't appreciate the sheer monumental scale of this palace unless you've been inside. Napoleon had nothing on Louis for overcompensating. Wow. Everything had to be colossal. The hall of mirrors is 41 feet tall and 239 feet long. "Normal" rooms might be half that height. It was thoroughly impractical and designed to awe.
Having said this, the glitz on every surface and masterpieces on every ceiling wore thin fast. My wife and daughter loved photographing the fancy beds. Everybody seemed photograph everything--no one would believe it existed unless it was on the memory card. Frequently, we would offer to take a couple's photo posing together, and they would reciprocate by taking a shot of our whole family. One gentleman, however, held out his iphone, struck a Benetton model pose, and snapped his own picture in front of the chapel. Thanks to technology, we could all do that now. We don't need anyone else for this form of gratification.

The crowds were truly insane. The 40 foot wide room was roped off so that the tourists could only stand in the first 13 feet. When a tour group leader strode by with umbrella raised high, it was like a flash flood. You couldn't move. When three groups hit at once, I had to shove my way over to little Emily lest she be carried away. A few times, her arm got stretched or I had to pick her up.

We didn't get to see Marie's cute peasant village. At 20 till 6, the guards blocking the garden told us we wouldn't make it there in time and to please leave. No problem, we'll get to the hotel early and relax. We could spend our 19th wedding anniversary having a meal in romantic Paris.

Hah! Never drive in Paris. I'm not kidding. This is a photo of the 5 layer traffic circle around Arch du Triumph in rush hour (courtesy of our TomTom GPS). Following that is a photo of my wife and the sweet rental car it took us 4 harrowing hours to return: one hour to get to the north train station, one hour to fill up with gas...We had to ask for instructions to a gas station from the locals because the GPS was wrong and they hide them. There isn't necessarily a station, just a pump at the curb that you pull into that spot to use. God bless the honesty and English of the Indian community in Paris, because I left my wallet on the counter at Elan gas while getting instructions to Hertz. Then we spent over an hour trying unsuccessfully to find the right secret parking garage under the Japanese restaurant--the one under the Louvre only has key drop off and Hertz is the only car company not in the other two. When I check my wallet to pay for the unwanted garage I find in terror that my wallet is missing. We race back to the gas station, which is now closed. Worried, we drive back to the train station, and a female Hertz clerk FORCED me to spend fifteen minutes waiting in line for them to give us a map while Tammy is parking illegally in in the taxi lane. Every other car agency offered me (incorrect) maps of their locations with no wait. When I arrive at the taxi stand with the nice clerk from Hertz, I have to wait another thirty minutes for my wife to make it back to the hotel to find me after the taxis/hotel gave her an incorrect map and demanded she move. Then we wait another half hour for paperwork. The punchline--the poor owner of the gas station has been to Hertz twice to return my wallet, but had to go home because it was so late. I think we ate leftover peanut butter sandwiches at 10:30 or so for supper.

The next day was stress free by comparison--no car. I walked to the gas station before 8 to get my wallet, and they were already open and hard at work. They wouldn't take money as thanks, so I gave Cecile the copy of "Foundation for the Lost" from my suitcase.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Vacation 11: Loire Valley Chateaus

Few words this post--mostly pictures.
Chambord is an architectural masterpiece, and not a bad hunting shack. The double helix stair case was pure genius. Even the firedrake family crests were a hit with the kids. My only two complaints about this day were: a) the toll was 50 Euros and the machines won't take 50 Euro bills, which meant we had no change or small bills left. b) the parking lot wouldn't take our credit card, only coins at a booth 10 minutes away.


Dinner by the pool was risotto and roast duck. The next day, we went to a lot of little summer cottages. Yawn. The GPS took us through every little town instead of the freeway. Often the 30 km/hr towns hate the traffic so much, they put planters in the road so only one car can pass at a time. At one point we went through a one-lane forest road before the GPS gave up! The other winner was Chenonceau. Ooo. Not only passed from mistress to queen, but it was a hospital and underground railroad during the wars. Plenty of photo ops inside, too.

vacation 10: Bavaria

We had a 1:55 tour scheduled for Neuschwanstein, Ludwig's castle in Bavaria. They wanted us there by one to pick up the tickets. Despite congestion at the toll plaza, construction, and slow moving vehicles on narrow Alpine roads, Tammy got us there just after one. We parked at one of the well-advertised parking areas I followed the signs at a run to pick up the tickets. Then we found out why they wanted us there an hour in advance: the buses run late and it's about a 30 minute fitness hike to the top of the hill where the castle is. We jogged in, panting, with almost 5 minutes to spare. Tammy wanted to take photos of the exterior beforehand, but I didn't want to miss our slot.

The tour was fascinating, but again--no photos allowed. Really? They let Wim Venders film the place for a 3D tour in the Gabriel Knight video game, which featured Ludwig as a werewolf.
One of the guys from Iowa kept asking if Ludwig was really crazy. I explained that the king was gay, not intending to produce an heir, and starting on his fourth(?) flamboyant castle after burning through 500 years worth of royal savings. The tour took less time than the round trip walk. We spent longer in the two gift shops: postcards, swan knick knacks, knights, and princess figurines.
Then we hiked to Mary's bridge over the chasm above the castle. Breath-taking views but so windy I thought we were going to lose a kid over the side. The cataract below us literally made a corkscrew shape. We took a tons of photos of these incredible vistas, and then set about documenting the exterior of the castle itself.
Because of it would take us an extra hour on twisty Austrian roads, and we hadn't allotted time for bridge and gift shop, we skipped Linderhoff, as it only  imitated Versailles and we were going to the real thing in a few days. Plus, the castles tend to be expensive. We ate German fare at a local restaurant. Because Tammy had a caterpillar still moving in her salad, the waiter treated us to a yummy Austrian apple dessert. I don't think I've heard the kids laugh that much in years.
Most Germans seemed to speak English as a second language, and the autobahn was free! Tammy reached 170 km/hr while I napped. We used the "spare" time that night to wash clothes in Munich. One of my favorite moments in the trip was when I struggled to ask the janitor at the laundromat how to pay for the machines in my pitiful German. When I berated myself in frustration, the Ugandan perked up. "Thank goodness you speak English," he said. "My German is not too good."

The next morning, we drove to Dachau. I include no photos because so many people died there, it's really a big grave. We unintentionally took the two mile Remembrance walk because it was the only labelled thing near the information building. We should've taken a map first. Our feet were tired when we actually returned for the bunk houses. The new, super-sized gas chambers were the most dramatic exhibit.
From there, we drove to Bingem-am-Rhine so we could visit the river where our family took its name. A cabinet maker came over to Philadelphia about 8 generations ago, and my Grandparents still spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. I touched the water and so did the kids. There were swans, grapes, and castles everywhere. The local bike path was under a meter of water as many German towns flooded this summer. We chatted with some natives in English and got directions to a local food place they recommended. Even though we had planned to drive to Koblenz and through the Luxemborg mountains, I had my doubts about how much scenery we'd see from the road or how well we could navigate in the dark. Since this was my tourist site request, we skipped the second town and went to our hotel just over the border in France.

The Formula 1 chain is clean, small, and dirt cheap--30 Euros a night per room. We had to get two rooms, because in France, anyone over the age of 4 counts as an adult. The toilets and showers are down the hall, and the beds are queen on bottom with a bunk over top. But I've lived in worse dorms. When you just want to crash for the night, it's fine.

vacation 9: Venice

Venice was beautiful and just a little sad, like visiting with a very old entertainer who used to be famous. I kept hearing about how often the city floods and how many pickpockets there are in San Marco--another church plagued by tourists and their predators. We parked in Mestre on the other side of the water and rode the train in for 1.4 euros each. It's dirty cheap and comfortable because every train bound to Venice stops there first. We chatted gratefully with other English speakers each direction.

The water buses are packed, but we were always first on to the second boat. We bought two one-way tickets for much less than a 4 hour pass. However, I picked the wrong direction (not the Grand Canal way) and we got the long tour of the cruise ship terminals, etc.

Emily posed by the Bridge of Sighs, used to transport prisoners to be judged. The Doge's palace, though pricey, had a lot of cool decor. Though we weren't supposed to take photos there either, people used their iphones and ipads with impunity. Pierce liked the medieval arms and armor displays near the end of the tour. My one regret was that they wouldn't let you sit down anywhere, and it was a long tour.

Weirdest was the mix of modern flavor. The courtyard had a definite Renaissance feel, whereas the clocks and council chambers could have been from the senate building today. The clocks with Roman numerals used IIII instead of IV. Also ironic, they seemed most often used the Arabic numbering system of their military opponents. Their rulership seemed enlightened and tolerant, but they had secret branches of the government. Some of the daggers in the armory were specifically designed for assassins. I wonder if people will see the same contradictions in our culture when they tour our ruins.
We stayed in Florence instead of Rome last night specifically to give us more leisure to explore Venice. However, by the time we finished the Doge palace, the church was closed, and we could only pose by the lion statues. A crowd of girls from a US school loved our matching shirts (several times people took photos of us), and ahhed when we told them our shirts matched the day we met. The walk to Rialto Bridge through the narrow maze of streets was pleasant, cool, and well-labelled. Emily enjoyed shopping for pretty fans. Tammy liked the carnival masks and bought several small ones as souvenirs. Despite the numerous shops and crowds that clog the bridge, we were able to take photos and find the boat bus docks easily. The ride back to Mestre that evening was relaxing, and we left to reach our hotel on the border by Austria before dark.

A tale of two hotels

Last night, we slept just outside Florence in a "three star" hotel from Excellent called the Albatross. This might have been a 3 star in 1960, but no one has done repair work on it since. The still use old metal keys that twist three times. It was hard to find as large trees obscure the building and the sign. Vans from a local business take all the best parking. The soccer field behind it keeps you awake till 11:30. Mosquitoes are everywhere, and the water-stained walls are still smeared with red and black streaks. The windows that keep the heat in don't keep the bloodsuckers or noise out. There is no TV or air conditioning to drone out the crowds. The mattresses are 2 inch foam from a dorm room. An octopus with everything but the locked fridge dangles from the socket hanging limply from the wall. The towels were as thin as sack cloth. You have two minutes to use the poorly shower before it floods the bathroom. Unfortunately, the free shampoo you just used is burning your eyes like napalm and you don't notice this until it's too late. I will say that the women working the breakfast area were very nice and gave us extra pastries for the children to eat later on the road.
 By contrast, the Mercure in Rovereto was a modern dream: WIFI, AC, working everything, clearly visible just off the highway, and only few euros more because we requested a family room. There was also no add-on city tax like elsewhere (usually a couple euros per star of the hotel per person). This room was double the normal size and had a divider that could be pulled to separate us from the sleeping kids, who had their own light switch. These were the best accommodations of the trip so far! When I told the kids that I had pre-paid another one like this in Tours, but with a pool, Dad was a hero. Given a choice between booking discounted from the Accor website or from and aggregator again, I would go out of my way to choose Accor when roughly the same price. In London, they were about twice the price of the little hotel we picked for that three days, but on the road, they offered the most bang for the buck.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

vacation 8: Vatican City

Do you remember that Bugs Bunny cartoon where they kick Yosemite Sam in the pants and slap a pie in his face repeatedly to teach him to control his anger? And by the time he learns not to react, he's out of money? That's Rome.

Vatican City was planned as the cornerstone of our European tour, and seeing the pope was the pinnacle. We got up 3.5 hours early to get their with plenty to spare for the 10:30 event. One small problem remained, we didn't have the remaining 50 Euros in cash for the tour guide that afternoon because the bank took a two hour siesta yesterday. So, we waited in line for a bank that opened at 8:35, had a line already, and a mantrap/metal detector better than the airport. Even the key to the locker where you put your watch, phone, and change was plastic. How much robbery happens here on a daily basis to necessitate this? The line moved like molasses--10 minutes a customer. With five workers in the bank, only one dealt with customers, and he stopped to talk on his cell phone.

After all that, they wouldn't take the Citibank Visa card we ordered just for this trip, and neither would the ATMs because Citi wouldn't issue us a pin. We had to stop at a money changer for a 16 percent fee. We still made it through the pope's security checks to St Peter's Square, grabbed our tickets, and were passing through the third line to our seats at 9:30am. Alas, too good to be true.

Secret Service slammed a sawhorse down between me and my family with no explanation. My family got in, but I couldn't. The angry crowd of tourists who also had tickets pushed against me so hard that they ruined the metro pass in my pocket. I was trapped in limbo, I was later told, because the pope decided to travel around the perimeter of the seats, and they needed the aisles clear. Sitting in the heat for an hour, I began to wonder if this was a metaphor for heaven.
When they lifted the gates, people surged forward, leaving me to wait for my family. In that enormous crowd, there was no way for me to find them. Talking to our priest, I found that this mismanagement is pretty common for crowd control, and happened to his group, too.

Next, the camera battery died, and I had to get the other one from the hotel so we could have a camera for the tour. I actually cursed during the pope's speech.

Guess when I found out my Metro card didn't work anymore? I ran back to the hotel, dripping sweat, and return 80 minutes later, 10 minutes before the Roman Odyssey tour is scheduled to start. No one at the restaurant had the faintest clue who this Rick Steves-recommended company was, and there was no sign like the other 3 companies who met here. We were terrified that someone had just stiffed us for 100 Euros plus the currency conversion fees we just paid. Though he gave us a 5 hour tour instead of the usual 3, and the Vatican Museums were the highlight of our vacation, this is not an experience I ever want to sit through again.

The first thing the guide did was take us past the lines to pay at the entrance with the money we just gave him. He told the kids to lie about their age to save him 20 euro and he'd buy them each an ice cream cone when we were through. He was very knowledgeable and interesting, and geared the tour so the kids could understand. Emily liked the tapestries designed by Raphael, but when the Vatican used them to secure a loan, someone pulled all the gold thread out of them. The restored Sistine Chapel was amazing, but there are no photos allowed. Our guide had to ask one guy to put out his cigarette before going in. As you stand cheek-to-cheek with hundred of others staring up, professional shooshers stand on the podium, tell people to be quiet, and point out tourists who snap photos to the police. I kid you not, they make each person delete the photos. Meanwhile, there are signs every three feet and stories in the paper warning you "there are pickpockets active here." The same was true of the Pieta and every item of exquisite beauty in Rome. Hmm...a metaphor?

The pope was performing mass in the basilica while we were leaving the tour. The corona of light in this place was awe inspiring. I'm told that instead of glass, the windows are thin slices of alabaster to achieve this affect.

By the time we were done, the Holy Stairs, the ones from Pilate's palace that Jesus walked on, were closed. The next day we made the long trip again--to find they were closed for siesta. When we arrived the third time, (does this sound like Monty Python to anyone else) a tour group clogged the stairs. You can only climb these stairs on your knees, but Tammy and Emily waited for the crowd and did it. They had professional shooshers here, too. Did you know that churches won't let you sit on the floor?

That night, we had our best and least expensive meal in Italy. At a local pizzaria, we ordered off the local menu instead of out of the glass case and for 8 euros, they gave us enough great food for two meals! We had enough left over for a picnic in the park the next day, where Tammy found a man with a tan poodle and showed him photos of our tan poodle.

The last modern site was the Borghese Gallery, which we had to get ticket for in advance or you don't get in. They give you a two hour slot, but open the doors late and kick you out 15 minutes early. We took a taxi to avoid losing our slot, and the driver had a GPS with Mario as the symbol! It was hilarious. We had to change our symbol on the TomTom the next day. There are no photos allowed at the gallery, no backpacks, or cameras. However, all the guards had their iPhones for texting. After the Vatican, these exhibits were dull. Five minutes in, I couldn't stand another sculpture (aside from Apollo chasing Daphne as she turned into a tree) or woman in blue with a boy child flaunting his penis. Pierce felt the same, and we made a game to count how many boys were peeing on us in each room.

The best irony of the trip: The gallery told lots of stories about how the cardinal who owned the place threatened people into giving him the art in the gallery. His uncle was the pope, and he could (and did) have people excommunicated or assassinated. In the last room, the galley people bemoaned the fact that Napoleon looted their collection and sold the pieces to others. Because there was a bill of sale, they couldn't get "their" art back. Tammy and I looked at each other. Hello, you STOLE it, too!

vacation 7: Rome

The hotel in Rome has no parking, not even to unload. They direct us to a former repair garage 70 meters down the street (they meant 700 meters) where we can park for 15 Euros a day. However, we will have no access to the car, as they pack them so tight that they put cardboard between the bumpers to avoid dings. I have to tell the attendant the hour I'll be by to claim the car in 3 days.

A word about Rome--wear good walking shoes and carry several bottles of water. The city will sweat a two week cruise off you in two days.

After carrying all our luggage back to the hotel  we walked the 30 minutes+ to the main train station Termini to pick up our Roma passes--our ticket to the subways and all the attractions we planned. The pick up spot hidden in the basement on the far side of the station required us to show passports to pick up our uniquely numbered cards--sounds valuable. The only English sign around was one that warned "if your card gets stolen we won't replace it." This must happen fairly often. So now we're worried someone is going to mug us for the cards. How hard up are the Italians?

We still reached the Coliseum by three. Rome is very easy to navigate--the metro is a big X and Termini is the center. At 9am, you can't shoehorn another human into rail cars and often have to wait for the next car.

The Roma pass enabled us to skip a ridiculous line and walk right in! The ipod audio tour was about two hours long, repeating a lot of info. When we finally walked across to the Forum ruins, no entrance was labeled and several alleys, sidewalks, and staircases were wire-fenced off by the authorities for no apparent reason. Once we finally reached an entrance (by following a guard back from a smoking break), it was after 5:30 and the ruins were closed. We could see people on the other side, enjoying a closeup view, but we couldn't go in. Fortunately, almost everything was visible from the street or Coliseum balcony.

Disappointed, we walked the rest of the ancient Rome plan for that day. Everything was closed except the Pantheon (domed temple of Minerva with the occulus co-opted by the church) and Trevi fountain. The walk through this area was quite pleasant, even though the fountain was packed. Since the nearest Metro stop was another 15 minutes+ away, we stopped to eat, rest, and potty at a burger and gelato place. They made an ice cream dish with crepes and Nutella that tasted sinfully good.

I'll skip ahead to the last ancient site on day three--the Diocletian Baths. We skipped the ones at Bath, England, figuring the ones in Rome would be better. (buzzer) Wrong. We had to walk 30 minutes from the Borghese Gallery park to the site, and when we arrived no one could tell us where it was. The road it sits on is named for this site, for goodness sake. We had the right mega-city-block, but had to walk 3/4 the way around and past an unmanned guard shack to get into the museum. Once inside the museum, we wandered for another 10 minutes. The docent thought we wanted the toilets. The actual baths have not been preserved or made into exhibits. There is one video in the corner in Italian about rebuilding the roof, and the rest is a MODERN ART GALLERY. We felt robbed and went back to the Vatican post office to send postcards instead.