Sunday, August 31, 2008

To the beach beach beach

Tatouine was indeed a fascinating place. I especially loved the genuine friendliness of the people there, vs. the contrived "tourist lines" you get in some places. It almost seemed that the further south you got (i.e. the further from Tunis), the better it got. Guys would come up and ask if you needed help, or just to talk, and it took me awile to realize that they really didn't want anything, except to help or speak English. I had a nice chat with this kid about his college choices in Canada (I knew a little since I went to Carleton in Ottawa about 100 years ago...) But they never expected a tip; in fact, I think they would've been insulted if I had offered.
But the heat down there DID start to feel a bit too much like Las Vegas for me... super hot and very dry. So I moved north.
I took a louage (sometimes spelled lowage) from Tatouine to Gabes (2.5 hours), then another to Sfax (2 hours), then a third to El Jem. One kid sitting next to me was listening to music and I asked what it was -- and he said 50 Cent! (American rapper, for those who don't know, like I didn't...) Also, along the way they were selling gasoline from Libya, in plastic jugs. They say it's "good gas" and cheaper than what they pay (currently a little over a dollar per liter). Many food stalls along the way had slaughtered a sheep, and they were all hanging upside down draining the blood, probably getting ready to grill today (Sunday, the family day).
El Jem is a classic Roman amphitheatre, built in the years around 200 BC. They say that the builders had already built the Roman Colosseum and learned their mistakes, so this one was nearly perfect. It's oval, and held around 30,000 people, and was also where a famous battle between the Berbers and the invaders happened (the Berbers lost...) Some has been restored, but mostly it's in amawing shape for its age. They were setting up for a concert that night, but it didn't start until after dark, which means I would miss any trqnsport to Mahdia, which is where I wanted to end up.
So I get to Mahdia around 7 pm, and for the first time I couldn't find a hotel room. It's the last big summer weekend and most everything (at least in my budget) was sold out. But then I got talking with this kid -- Ahmed, aged 23 and a devout Muslim) who worked at the reception desk of one hotel, and he told me I could sleep on the roof! He took me up there, and it was nicely finished like a patio deck with padded benches, and clothes lines. But it was a bed, and only about $8 USD, including breakfast. I was glad to have it!
Ahmed also told me where to eat dinner, at a seafood restaurant on the corniche, and he was spot on about that as well: excellent grilled fish! (I was a tad peckish, since it's not allowed to eat inside the louages, and we never stopped long enough to grab a sandwich -- sometimes spelled sandwitch, btw.) Afterward, Ahmed and I stayed up talking in the lobby until after midnight, and then I went up to sleep under the stars. (Oh how some people would laugh if they saw me sleeping on a roof of a small hotel in Tunisia!)
I love Mahdia. It's not a huge mega resort like Sousse, Hammamat or Monastir. It has a far more laid back, lost in time quality to it, and yet a beach town right on the coast. People are very chill, no big pressure to buy or do anything. I read somewhere that one Roman general had a hard time getting his troops to get back on the ship when they layed anchor in Mahdia, and I can see why.
I have two ideas tho: Someone should do a version of "Pimp My Ride" here in Tunisia. The basic rides are so classic, and worn, and it would be amazing to see what those guys would come up with... Oh, and I think I already said that George Lucas should sponsor a Star Wars convention here. But I spoke with an interesting guy from Italy (who works in textiles here and speaks 6 languages!), and he said you would have to prove the benefit to the government (increased tourism) and you'd need to find a majority Tunisian partner. OK, sounds like it's getting complicated now...
Most of the hotels down here do not offer towels to guests. You can sometimes rent one for one dinar (75 cents), but sometimes not. And me, with just a daypack... and no towel.
Lots of women have henna on their hands, but many also have it on their feet! I haven't been able to get a photo of that yet, but I will try! And I see more men smoking on water pipes here -- the real thing not those tourist things like in Vegas. Supposedly, there are hidden-away places where women-only can drink coffee, smoke water pipes and talk to each other, but so far I haven't spotted one!
It's also just funny to rememeber where I am... by having nothing be exactly the way it is. By that, I mean people will tell you that something is "close" and it's miles away; or that it's new, but that means 300 years "new"; or that a bus leaves at 2 pm, but that could mean anything from 2:30 til 4 or even 5. Things all happen, but just in their own sweet time.
Ah, the joy and the mysteries of travel!
I think I will hang in Mahdia for another day, maybe even blow off Sousse. But then back to Tunis so that I can catch my flight to Cairo on Thursday, Sept 4.
Love you, and thanks for checking in!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Reporting from Southern Tunisia

It's been SO weird to be reading about Obama and the DNC while traversing the south of Tunisia.... But I think I've gotten the jist of it, and now all that he has to do is win in November!
But where was I?
I think I was heading to Matmata, to live in the caves. I did just that.

There are only 1,000 people in Matmata, so we aren't talking a huge metropolis. Its claim to fame is that the bar scene from the original Star Wars (Le Guerre des Etoiles) was filmed there. It's sort of tacky, in that the hotel has put up Star Wars sheets on the walls, and there are some books around with paper clippings. Of course, my US-marketing mind gets going, thinking about how it could become like Roswell, NM there, with regular conventions and exhibitions. As it is, I never spoke to one person there who had even SEEN the movie, so they must sort of wonder what the fuss is all about.
For centuries, the native peoples of Southern Tunisia have lived in caves. They stay cooler during the brutal summer heat, and warmer in the cold desert winters. I stayed in one that tried to retain some of the original "charm," and they succeeded somewhat. Originally, a deep crater was dug down approximately 40 feet, and then rooms were dug into the ground at the lower level. Make sense? Does this picture help?
There's a sweet "museum" in town, run by an enterprising woman who saw the need and turned her home into a venue that shows how people used to actually use the cave/troglodyte homes. Each home had a salon/living room, a bedroom or two, a store room for food and grains, and even an indoor bathroom. Mind you, all of the signs are in French, and the woman who owns it was there to answer questions but none of that helped me much -- altho I do have to admit that I'm doing a BIT better with my French...
The highlight of my stay there, other than sleeping in a cave for two whole nights, was meeting a guy named Ali who teaches physics at the local school. He's 29 and lives with his mom, which isn't unusual here. He also tends to their goat flock, and one night I walked up the hill with him as he watched his "kids." It so so peaceful and quiet up there, not that Matmata has much noise about it anyway. In his broken English and my bad French, we managed to talk for two hours about everything: Bush, of course (they really dislike him...), religion, matrimony, the future and on and on. The wisdom of a goat herder can never be discounted -- he sees life in such simple yet logical terms. He also showed me the plants that camels prefer, and told me that cats are kept because they kill the scorpions.
Later that night there was a wedding in town (on a Wednesday, but they have to get them in before Ramadan begins next week). Trucks of young people drove up and down the one main street of Matmata, yelling and singing like it was Nebraska.
There aren't too many other "backpackers" around, but I did meet up with a few. Some from Japan, others from the UK. But it was nice to speak "plain ol'" English, which I haven't done really since I got here. It really does amaze me how quickly people bring up George Bush, and never in a good way. I do think the rest of the world will really wonder what's up with America if Obama doesn't win.
Masses of tour buses come to Matmata for the day, but then leave by sunset and the town returns to normal. I had a great dinner the last night of chicken tagine, with a typical Tunisian salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and........ canned tuna fish! They find more things to put tuna into, including omelettes, sandwiches (often spelt sandwitches here) and pizzas.
I found a good internet place, but they still won't let me hook up my camera so I can't upload pix... but asap, I promise!
Today (Friday Aug 29) we took the bus back to Gabes, and then found a louges (a minivan that goes to a certain city after all the seats are filled -- faster and as cheap as the bus and a better way to meet the locals) to Tatouine.
Tatouine could really be a Star Wars mecca as well, if it wasn't so hot and so far from anything. It's next to the Sahara, about eight hours south of Tunis BUT George Lucas did use the name as the place where Luke Skywalker lived, so it's famous for that.

What a ride: camels sitting by the side of the road, men sleeping by the side of the road during the hot part of the day, horse-drawn carts pulling anything and everything...
We (two Japanese tourists and myself) rented a taxi and driver for the late afternoon and went to see more of the Star Wars sites... the four story mud homes that were used in the movie. Not a bit of cheese to the place, and if you didn't know you would never have noticed. The buildings were built centuries ago to hold grain, and later people moved into them. Believe me, a picture will tell a thousand words...
I love just hanging out, sipping my "the a la menthe" (mint tea with sugar) and people watching... as the Arabic mucis wafts through every speaker. (OMG, is that the first time I've used waft this year??) Even in small cafes in small towns the cafe waiters (always male) will wear a black or striped waiters jacket, like the type you used to see in the 50s.
The guys in Tatouine have a very "hip" factor about them, as tho they don't want to appear backward in any way. They wear Nikes and t-shirts with English words on them, and wear their hair all slicked back. The older guys will all sit and play dominos or backgammon, but they ALL drink espresso coffee. It's also cool to see such comraderie, as they walk arm in arm or rub each others shoulders (in a very non-sexual way of course; it's just that women are out of bounds until married!)
Typing on the French keyboards takes me twice as long; this has taken me an hour to write, so I will sign off and go crash.
I think tomorrow I will head north, toward the coast, and start making my way back to Tunis. I then have a flight to Cairo on Sept 4.
THANK YOU for reading this, whoever you may be!! Email with any questions!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Tunis continued......

I am going to be writing quickly, because I'm at an internet place that isn't always reliable and I hate writing for 20 minutes and then find out I've lost everything... but let's try!
Also, this is a French keyboard so the letter are in different places, so excuse any obvious typos.
Now, where were we? Ahhh, the hammam. That's a Turkish bath house, with zero sexual connotations. In fact, the men are SO modest that they (literally) shower with their underear on! I was turned away at first because I forgot to bring a towel, that's a no-no. (You should also bring soap, shampoo and a scrubbing mitt, but they will sell you those....) The scenario is that you look for the red and green stripes outside; some are men only, some are women only and some share days or times. There are lounging areas with TVs in front, but then you go back to the steam room to start the process. After awhile, one of the masseurs comes to get you. I never figured out that process or decision exactly, but I didn't wait too long.
The guy lays you down on a marble slab, and starts to scrub you with this glove that feels like wire bristles. Front and back, and then some massage and work-over, like bending your legs above your head and stuff like that... Then you shower, again WITH your underwear still on. Everyone took VERY long showers, and I wonder what will happen if the clean water supplies ever dry up in Arabia. Then you comb out, and pay up. Entrance was 4 dinar; around $3. I didn't know what to pay the masseur, but I gave him the equivalent of $4 and he seemed very happy. In other words, I over-paid. Chalk on up for experience.
The hamman was right in the medina, which is the oldest part of Tunis, going back to the 8th century!! It was originally the only thing here; a walled city with commerce and soldiers to try and keep the Romans at bay. There are perhaps a dowen mosques, and various "souks," which are the specific markets for shoes, brass, leather, clothes, etc. Of course, I have pix of it but I can't find a way to post 'em. (If anyone wants to come over and be my tech guru, I'll pay your way!!)
The entire time you walk in the medina, you are asked to "come in, my friend" and "only for looking." Since I'm not buying, I wasn't of much interest to them. But what a wonderland of STUFF from books to fez hats, to birds and art works. (By the way, they all sell sunglasses; but I would ay MAYBE 10 percent of the locals wear them...)
Hints: Buy something as soon as you can, because they hate seeing anyone empty-handed. Be persistant and don't fear just walking away. And go into the shops with the old guys, because they apply the least pressure, to the point of not caring. And I felt good when I got hit up on the oldest scam in the medina; "come see a special Berber show...." and then they drag you to another shop afterward. They say even Paul Theroux fell for THAT one!
And then the Bardo. In many ways, it's the reason I came to Tunisia, and it didn't disappoint. The world-renowned museum has some of the best preserved and most extensive mosaics to be found anywhere outside of Rome. It shows the extent of their wealth and power, as well as their artistry and thoroughness. Not much wasn't put into a mosaic, from what they ate, to sex, to the games they played. Most of it is pre-Christian, going back to the 3rd century BC. I spent the whole afternoon there, and yet felt satisfied...
There were hoards of tour buses, I'd easily guess 40 in the parking lot (yes, on a Saturday...). They all paid handsomely for the tour, but I was a good traveler and took public transportation (for about 30 cents) and paid $6 to get in, and then just horned in on the tour guides (many in Spanish, but none in English). I got my fill of Poseiden, Bacchus and Eros, all of whom were natural favorite subjects.
Sunday was a great chill day. Not that it was chilly, but rather it was so relaxed. It's the day they clean the streets, and restock the bottled waters. I just walked, and found this great kid named Oussama who wanted to practice his English, and we chatted for hours. That night there was a free concert on the main street, where they closed what amounts to Fifth Avenue off. It was nice; cuz there are very few drunks (since most Muslims don't drink, which means no yelling and fighting...)
BTZ, the men all have great haircuts, cuz there are haircut shops everywhere and they take obvious pride in it.
Finally, today (Monday) I took the local train (for $2 round trip) to Carthage, with another new friend, Rami. He didn' know where he was going, and he mostly only speaks French, but we still had a great day. The ruins of Carthage are ancient, very dilapidated and spread out over two+ kilometers. There's the "topher," where they think children were once offered as sacrifice to the gods; and the museum, which pales to the Bardo. But we also got to see the President's home and nearby mosque (HUGE), and then finished the afternoon at a seaside restaurant having fresh grilled fish that was excellent.
A few quickies:
Eggs are never refrigerated, always just out.
Someone told me that many of the women in Tunisia who wear full face scarves and robes are often doing it as a silent protest against the government, because they think the government is too liberal here.
It's funny to hear "Jingle Bells" as the ring tone on peoples' cellphones... And I did see my first Santa Claus -- a paper cut-out used as decoration in a story window, in August.
That's pretty much brought us up to date. I leave in the morning for Gabes, and then down to Matmata, where the troglodyte cave/hotels are, near where they filmed the original "Star Wars." Somehow it seems fun to be staying in a cave during the Democratic National Convention, taking place in my hometown of Denver, Colorado. Go Obama!!!
Still, it's good to be here...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Little Tunis, anyone?

I just wanted to post a quick update........
I'm fine, thanks for asking. The ferry finally arrived at around 9 pm and it took at least an hour to get thru customs and get a taxi into town. It wasn't lost in translation that everyone found it fairly amusing that we had our "fire drill" about 2 hours before ze docked... There was laughter in about six languages.
So...... Tunis, my Tunis.
The first thing I alwqys do is find my internet place, which turns out to be just down the street from my hotel -- the Hotel Salaambo.
Sadly, the first emails I got were telling me that my dear friend Kathryn Skatula passed away on Aug. 20 from her battle with ALS (Lou Gerhig's diseqse). She and I have been great friends for 35+ years... I lived with her the whole time I lived in LA in the 1980s and we have many, many friends in common. I went to see her in March before I left, and we both knew that would likely be the last time. Still, it's never easy and there's a big part of me that wishes I could be there with everyone. Her favorite color was blue, and luckily there is plenty of Tunisian blue for me to look at...... I will remember her always.

I do love that family seems to be so big in Tunisia. Dad's play with their kids and take care of them. It's also more common to see men working at places like the markets and many stores. Even though Tunisia is one of the most liberal countries inthe Arab world, it's still male-centric. That said, you can find women dressed in everything from full Muslim robes down to strapless dresses and jeans... and no one seems to care.
Also, I miscalculated how much French I would need here. Yes, I can get by, but it would're really helped if I had watched more Truffaut films........ Everyone speaks French and Arabic, but not as many speak English as I (naively) thought. Cèst bonne.
I had a haircut here, which wasn't a big deal except the guy didn't want to cut it as short as I wanted and I had to keep asking for more off. He cut my hair "dry" and then washed it after. It was also sort of sensual how he took his time cleaning my ears... Eek, do I have an ear fetish??
The "stylist" unspooled a length of black thread and then pressed it down onto some other guys' cheeks. Of course, I wanted to try that but my guy wouldn't do it! No matter how hard I tried. He scrunched his nose and said alot in French, but clearly that wasn't pour moi. They ALL smoked in there so I felt as tho I had smoked an entire pack by the time I left.
One dinar is worth around 80 cents US, and everything seems to cost one dinar. For a coffee, a bottle of water, the entrance to a museum...... My hotel is 26 dinars, or around $éé USD, and that includes a/c, a TV and shower with a toilet down the hall. Perfect for me!
Not many Americans or even English speakers, at least not that I've heard. Again, I sort of like that. But they love to play the guessing game of "where you from?" It usually starts with German, and then goes to Italian (I wish) or maybe Holland, and then American. Already I've gotten the rude thing where guys come up to you and want to "be your friend" which then means you go to a cafe and buy them coffee or food. Two guys were SO friendly until I said no and walked away, and then said some not nice things at me.... Goes with the territory.
This is a "look dozn" city, meaning that the streets are so uneven and/or broken that you always trip. Not the locals, of course... how do they do it? I think it also comes down to three categories: those where all the lights work; those where half the lights work; and those where they don't even have lights! That's the world in a nutshell.
I will try and post pix but so far this internet place said it was "not possible" for me to bring in my laptop and connect up. But I'll keep trying.
Next up: my first hamman (a Turkish men's bath house), the medina and The Bardo!!!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean

I’m sorry, forgive my indulgence, but I think this is so cool….. (If you’re under 30, you’ll probably not be too impressed by this……) I’m on the ferry to Tunisia, and it has wifi. I guess it’s not THAT amazing, but it’s still pretty cool. It costs a bit, about $15 for two hours, but worth every penny. (Mind you, these pix were taken around noon on Wed. Aug. 20, so they’re “fresh!”)

A quick update: I only had about half a day in Genoa, which gave me just about enough time to cruise through the old part of the city, which dates back to the 11th century mind you. It’s that typical mix of styles, with Baroque on top of Medieval. It’s also the usual mix of ancient shops next door to H&M and Zara, with the odd McDonald’s thrown in as well. Gulp.
What do we love most about Genoa? The fact that it was once the home to both Marco Polo AND Christopher Columbus. It’s the home of great departures…
I was a putz and bagged on the Aquarium. Even though it’s one of the biggest in the world, the lines were also some of the longest in the world….. and I didn’t really want to spend 1.5 hours waiting, when I only had 5 hours total. I did, however, grab some fresh calamari and shrimp from a little shop near the waterfront, in honor of the sea!
Normally I don’t push it this hard, but I had a ferry to catch! They told us to arrive by 5 pm, and our departure on the GNV Splendid was supposed to be 8 pm. That’s about when the return ferry pulled in from Tunis, and then it took literally 2.5 hours to unload the 1,000 or so cars and trucks. We finally pulled away from the docks at around 11:20 pm. Oh well.
I paid about $265, which was the cheapest ticket available. For a 20 hour trip, that works out to be, what, $13 per hour?? (Oh, and the waiting lounges had squat toilets! A bit unexpected, since I haven’t seen them in a few years… since Brasil?)
For $265, you get a fairly comfortable Pullman seat in a room on the 9th level (the Sky deck…) that holds about 50 people. We were maybe half full, which means that many people took four seats and stretched out to sleep immediately. I didn’t want to appear American-hoggish, so I only took two seats, for that curled up slumber.
The Splendid is a mini-cruise ship. It has a pool (which isn’t open), a casino (ditto), a piano bar (without a pianist) and a restaurant, which is open for meals supposedly.(Addendum: It does open, and serves mostly pasta and fish.) I sound like I’m bitching, and I’m not because I really didn’t expect a thing. There’s a comfortable lounge that shows nonstop Olympic coverage, so I’m happy, although no one much seems to take notice. (Wait! There was a bit of an uptick with the male passengers once the women’s synchronized swimming started…)
OK, a bit more about the night last night. Evidently, Muslims CAN drink, and there were a good number of fairly drunk gents last night. They sang, talked and argued for hours. Culturally, I didn’t want to be the complaining American, so I just tried to ignore it. But what I found interesting was that NO ONE said anything to them! (Wouldn’t you think that at least someone would yell “shut up” or something? Nope. But a few did just get up and leave, to go sleep who-knows-where.) And, as you can imagine, a room full of 25 guys was quite “ripe,” as they say. (No women, of course, except for one German hippie lady…) Oh, and one guy brought his cat in a cage, which howled all night as well.
OK, it was a bit hellish. I wonder why no one wants to travel with me! LOL.
I do believe that I’m the only gringo on board. I didn’t detect any other English-speakers in the waiting rooms, nor have I heard a bit of English since I got onboard. It’s sorta nice, actually. I do love not knowing what anyone is saying – sort of takes the edge off of worrying about gossip and things like current events or who has won the most Olympic gold.
Now it’s settling into the humdrum of an ocean voyage. By my reckoning, I think we only have about six more hours until we arrive in Tunis.
Signing off, from the deck of “Splendid.” (Sorry there aren't most pix, but each one took 4-5 minutes to upload. No joke! At these prices, I couldn't wait any longer!)

Monday, August 18, 2008


Not that this is going to come as a surprise, but when I think back on my ever so short time in France, all I can think of is the food….. the food.

On Aug. 12, I took the Eurostar from London to Paris, and then jumped in a taxi over to Gare du Lyon to get the train south to Dijon, where my friend Cliff Young picked me up. He and his wife, Sherry, bought a home 10 years ago in the hamlet of Poil, about 5 km outside of Beaune, the heart of Burgundy. I helped write and edit the website for the house, and have kept a keen interest in all things in the “Domaine Montagny” world, as its called.

They’ve really increased the gardens, and there’s a bit of everything, including berries, apples, peaches, tomatoes, potatoes, radishes, etc. etc. Cliff also loves to play in the kitchen, making red currant reductions or raspberry jam. We’d often go to into Beaune to have coffee in the morning, as well as check out the market on Wednesday and Saturday (the bigger, by far, is on Saturday). Taking my lead from Cliff, it’s easy to fall under the spell of Burgundy, the home of Romanee Conti, Meursault, Pommard, Le Montrachet, Nuits St. George and on and on. Plus, it’s all so steeped in history, with many homes and towers dating to the 13th century.

One day I had a nice escargot pizza… Another night we went to their favorite local spot and had roast duck breast… and another day we tucked into a major pot of fondue, for lunch! But the highlight had to be our amazing 3.5 hour lunch at Le Charlemagne, a newish one-star Michelin restaurant overlooking the vineyards Pommard, and surprisingly it’s e a fusion of French and Japanese. Think escargot ravioli, cod with caviar, filet with edamame, amazing cheeses and three (count ‘em) dessert courses. We washed it all down with 2.5 bottles of wine as well including a premier cru Vose Romanee. Cliff and I do love to tuck into those kind of meals, where we analyze the entire experience from décor to service to food. I didn’t realize that you must get 20 points to become a Michelin three-star, and to get a two-star you must get 19 points. In other words, getting that final 20th point is the hardest thing a restaurant can do. (Le Charlemagne is probably in the 13-14 point range at the moment. Great, but still needing work. But don’t kid yourself, ANY one-star Michelin is still worth the experience!)

Since the last time I was here, in 2003, there’s been an invasion of “big box” grocery stores, and there are now four of them in Beaune where there were zero just a few years ago. The locals, naturally, like the cheap prices on staples like toilet paper and bottled water, but going to the markets and having them slice off one perfect fresh ham steak is still the only way to go when in Burgundy..

I also gained some rudimentary knowledge of “terroir,” ” (pronounced tehr-wah) the impossible-to-define concept of growing grapes naturally, not adding anything to the soil and letting nature take her course. Each parcel of grape-growing land can produce something completely different, even from a plot directly across the street – and it all has to do with “terroir.” There are entire books written about it.

Cliff, bless his heart, drove me down to the train station this morning (Mon. Aug. 18), and I took a 12-hour ride to Genoa, Italy. And what an amazing train ride throughout France!! I hadn’t really thought about it, but we passed through most of French history: Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Marseilles, Monte Carlo, Cannes and Antibes…… I could’ve stopped at any one point along the way and spent a week! In the south, it was so awesome how the train hugged the coast the whole way, so we could watch the yachts and even check out the swim suits! But I wanted to get to Genoa so that I can catch the ferry to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. (I did love the little girl, about 4 years old, who kept asking her mommy “porquoi?” which is “why?” in French. Why should that stage in growing up be any different here? And what about all those Japanese girl travelers who wear skin tight silk dresses with high heels, but drag around these enormous bags that they can’t even lift?

The ferry leaves tomorrow evening, and takes 20 hours, which means I’ll arrive in Tunis on Wed. Aug. 20. Should be nice and HOT, and I’m very much looking forward to it. I’ve already booked my hotel: called Hotel Salaambo. (Any of my friends from the old college days might remember that I once in a play called “Ondine” where I played the part of a swishy director who was doing a show called (you guessed it) Salaambo! I thought it might be good luck to stay there.

I’m thinking that I’ll be in Tunisia for about two weeks, then probably 3-4 weeks in Egypt, a week or so in Jordan and then another few weeks in Israel. So the real “juice” of the trip is happening…… and I couldn’t be happier! But will they be watching the closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Tunis?? Let’s hope!

Monday, August 11, 2008

And he's off!

I know, it seems ridiculous that I’ve stayed in England for so long…. My gawd, it’s been over two months, but who’s counting?
Mostly, just to set the record straight, I have no been performing at the Fringe, nor have I merely been eating Marmite on toast and sipping tea. Rather, I’ve been trying to help my friend Sally sort out her affairs as she is starting to make a move back to the States after living in England for over 20 years. (That’s a lot of sorting!)
What’s so funny about England is that once the weather almost starts to get nice, and they have a proper summer with fairly decent blue skies and warm weather – they all head out to foreign countries on vacations and miss the best part of the year! Indeed, because of the current economics, many are staying closer to home and taking “beach holidays,” but it still strikes me as “uniquely British.”
The other thing you start to notice are the skin colors: The Brits at this time of the year tend to be one of two skin tones…. Orange or pink. Orange from having a fake tan put on, or pink from having a bit of the sun finally.

I spent a great day with my (one and only true) nephew, Grady. He was over here with a group doing a grand tour of Europe, and we were able to spend a day in London together. He’s a high school English teacher near Philadelphia, and a very cool kid at that. We did a mad dash through three, count ‘em, British museums, all in one afternoon: the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. He loved that the Rosetta stone was just “there,” and seeing Van Gogh’s up close for the first time is also exhilarating. Then we chilled in Russell Square over some beers before having an excellent Italian dinner – the best meal he’d had in England, which isn’t saying much considering it was only his second day here. (I did assure him that it probably would be the best, however.)
I did, of course, see “Dark Knight,” and thought it was fascinating if not a bit long. I don’t know how the movie is being marketed in the States, but it’s distressing what they’re doing over here. There’s a Burger King commercial that seems to play constantly where this kid on a bus refuses to give up his seat to an old lady with shopping bags. He laments his bad manners, but the tag line is something like “give in to your dark side,” and they’re trying to sell some horrible hamburger with hot sauce and spicy cheese. What is the purpose, in this day and age, with telling our youth that it’s good or fun to be an asshole. No wonder…… oh whoops, I’m sounding like an old man.
Comedians here love to take sucker punches at Obama and McCain. Partly, it surprises me that they know (and care) so much about US politics. (Quick, tell me a Gordon Brown or David Cameron joke!) They often refer to Obama as “the black man” and they find it hilarious that McCain can’t raise his arms up past his shoulders, due to military injuries. (Let’s just agree that British and American humor tends to be somewhat different. Brits think they’re quite witty and they see American humor as inane and immature.)
Two “big” shows coming up on BBC are “Convert Me” where some guy is going to try and convert people to Christianity in three weeks – no joke. The other is “Maestro,” which is a reality talent show where people compete to be the best orchestra conductor.
There was also a disgusting show that exposed the sandwich-making industry in the UK. They’re mad for their sammies and you can purchase them almost anywhere. The worst, perhaps not surprisingly, were the ones from Subway. (The meatball marinara had the same amount of sodium as something like 18 bags of potato chips.) They also had an undercover photographer taking movies of the deplorable sanitary conditions at one sandwich kitchen. Let’s just say I haven’t been eating a lot of sandwiches lately.
It does seem that, between the UK and the EU, there are lots more rules here… They both loves their safety and health ordinances, sometimes to the point of ridiculous. An ambulance driver was ticketed for leaving his ambulance in a no parking zone, while he was inside a store saving some guys life. The kicker was that they wouldn’t back off and tear up the ticket. I could go on and on…..

My friend Michael Aisner was in London, after having gone to Russia to follow his passion: eclipse chasing. He’s seen eight full eclipses already, and has his ninth planned. It’s quite an art, knowing where to be for maximum darkness, plus all the planning that goes into it, etc. We had a quick breakfast with his friend Tom Milsom, a soon-to-be famous musician and artist from Surrey.
I'm really going to miss hanging out in London with my pal Bill Stafford. He and I have known each other for years (he and I both worked at the Rocky Mountain News at one point), and he's now living in London working for Visa credit cards -- a great gig where he travels to Russia, Dubai and South Africa! We've gone on day trips and explored some of London, and it's sad to have to say goodbye to him.... but that's the way of the vagabond.

Again, I don’t know if it’s the same in the States, but McDonald’s has gone “Olympic mad” over here with (gulp) an Oriental Burger and even egg rolls on the menu. (Isn’t Oriental non-pc these days??)
Alas, it seems as though the Olympics become nothing more than “metal counting,” and the papers here give daily reports on who’s got the most gold, silver and bronze.
I’ll have to keep up with the Olympics and everything else online, however, because yes I’m finally leaving England! I’m taking the Eurostar tomorrow (Tuesday Aug 12) to Paris, and then taking the train down to Dijon where my friend Cliff Young will pick me up. I’ll spend a few days with he and his wife Sherry at their beautiful home in the heart of Burgundy, and then I’m looking to make my way to (probably) Genoa, Italy to grab a ferry to Tunisia. I’ve gone up and down, and had many thoughts about where I was headed next, but I basically came back to the original plan, and I’m focusing on going to places I’ve never been. To wit, I’m hoping to get to Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, all in the next six to eight weeks…….. Wish me luck.
I have some ideas about what I’ll do after that, but I need to light a few more candles and dream a little more before I say anything.
Thanks for listening, and keep those cards and emails coming in!