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Dragon, Slain

Well friends… I finally got on a plane and returned to Europe.  The first time since Jared and I went to Ireland all those years ago.  Fitting then that he’s the reason I returned: he got hitched!  I spent a couple weeks across the pond, first to visit him in London and see his life out there, and then to Italy for the wedding and festivities.  Verizon kinda fucked me with some bad information that led to me finding out just before leaving that my phone actually would not work in Europe.  That stressed me out at first, and I considered a loaner or a pay-as-you-go, but in the end I lived without it perfectly fine.  Grabbed some free WiFi when I could, and lived without phone the rest of the time.  Two weeks was a long time to be gone, and I missed home and people here.  But of course it was amazing too.

Part I – Smoke Lingers ‘Round Your Fingers
After a difficult airport goodbye, needless to say I was not looking forward to a 10-hour plane trip.  British Airways was great though.  Individual screens and on-demand movies made the flight a lot better than it could have been.  I finally got to see “The Boat That Rocked,” which seemed appropriate for a trip to London.  I was able to sleep, but only a little.  I didn’t leave my chair once in the 10 hours.  It was 11am local time when I landed, and Jared was kind enough to meet me at the airport.  We went to take the train into downtown, but just as we boarded, they announced that there was a fatality on the tracks… which I understand is a common occurrence there (suicides).  Jared is experienced enough in travel now to know that this means trains can be stopped for hours, and cabs are about to be in high demand.  We caught a cab right away and left.  Along the long ride, I learned about cabs in London.  It’s nothing like it is in the States.  For one, you have a city of 12 million people to memorize if you’re a driver.  And they do memorize it.  It takes three years of training, and they call it “The Knowledge.”  These guys are serious experts.  And it’s not a profession popular with immigrants.  Literally every taxi driver I saw during my stay in London — and there were many — was an older U.K. native.  They apparently have the reputation for being nationalistic and way into football (read: soccer).  For instance, when Jared gets in a cab, they ask what hotel he’s going to, and when he explains that he lives in London, they immediately ask “when you going home?”  All part of the charm I guess.  Also, all the cabs are the same model of car, specifically designed to be cabs.  And as such, they are very well laid out for their purpose.  I was thoroughly impressed with the efficiency of the whole system.  Not to mention that these guys are masters at maneuvering through insanely tight holes in insane traffic.  We’re talking regularly operating with a couple inches of room to spare, and at high speed.  At least the pedestrians don’t have an automatic right of way… which was amazing to see.  Pedestrians didn’t get angry or indignant when a cab sped around a corner in front of them, because they knew it was their bad.  So unlike California!

It turns out there was someone holed up in a flat not far from Jared’s place, threatening to set off a bomb or something.  The streets were blocked off and the traffic horrendous.  We got out of the cab and decided to walk the last half mile or so.  Of course it started to rain, and so that walk carrying luggage was not ideal.  Logistics were proving to be hit or miss, but eventually we got to his flat right downtown, where he graciously let me stay to save on hotels.  After freshening up there (I felt and smelled not so great after the long and humid flight), we set out to sightsee.  We were able to go on foot due to his proximity to central London.  We had some Indian food at what is apparently the oldest such restaurant in the city.  As luck would have it, next to us was a table of retired cabbies, all having lunch and sounding like Michael Caine.  At one point a wife called and was greeted with “I told you not to call me now, I’m with my mates!”  That’s how you do it, son.

Anyhow, we walked through Covent Garden and out to Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, and The Houses Of Parliament.  Then along Whitehall to Scotland Yard, and on to Westminster Abbey, St. James’s Park, and Green Park.  The parks impressed me with the bravery of their squirrels and pigeons, who will happily take food right from your hand, as well as the beauty of some of the exotic birds there.  My favorite was the “coot,” which is unlike any other waterfowl I’ve seen… almost dinosaur-like!  By the way, did you know it’s a big deal if you touch one of the Queen’s geese (which apparently live there)?  Hearing this reminded me of my continuing confusion over the royal family’s role in England.  They’re not really in control, but they’re not normal citizens either.  For instance, you can touch Jared’s geese all you want and no one cares.  (For some clarification, check out this excellent video on the U.K. vs. England vs. Great Britain, which seems to summarize a very complex system pretty well.)  In any event, we finished up at Buckingham Palace, mused about if the guards would shoot us if we stormed the gates, stopped for iced tea, and headed home through Piccadilly Circus.  By the time all this walking was done, it was becoming increasingly clear that I might die here.  Not only do the cars have the right of way (as I mentioned), but I was constantly looking the wrong way when stepping into the street (damn left side driving countries)!  But I’m here, so I guess I survived.  So that was Day 1.

Day 2 – In their infinite mercy, Jared and his wife let me sleep late.  We headed to Primrose Hill where they had an appointment to see a few flats for sale.  Still rainy.  The neighborhood seemed like the Noe Valley of London.  We walked through a canal there, which would be sketchy in the States but seemed safe enough here.  Saw a busker playing Bob Marley.  Saw the Pirate Castle, which looked cool from the outside, but we didn’t go in.  Jared’s wife split to run errands, and he and I went on to Camden, which I guess is like their Haight.  Music and tattoo shops everywhere.  Edgier people.  Went to The Elephant’s Head pub on Christina’s recommendation, expecting it to be a rockabilly bar of sorts.  There was a great jukebox that included a Link Wray album, but the afternoon crowd was decidedly “normal.”  After a valiant effort at some London Pride and a bag of U.K.-specific flavored Kettle Brand “crisps,” we moved on.  We checked out the Stables Market, which is like Hellboy II‘s “troll market” in almost every way.  A crowded, open air food market of all sorts, along with shops selling all manner of art and bootleg t-shirts.  On the way home, we’d intended to hit the Natural History Museum, but it was just closing.  That evening, we went to an 80’s themed American diner called “The Breakfast Club” and had great food.  There’s a refrigerator door there that’s actually the portal to a scenester speakeasy called “The Mayor Of Scaredy Cat Town,” but they would not let us in.  Clearly, I’m not American or hip enough.  Instead, we had a drink down the street at Ten Bells, owned by a friend of a friend.  Turns out, this is the place where Jack The Ripper used to select and stalk his victims.  Creepy!

Day 3 – Still sleeping till 1pm, which works out to about 12 hours a night.  The three of us went to high tea at The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason.  It was my first-ever English tea, served with milk and sugar (a.k.a. “white tea”) and it was delicious.  I was hooked and ordered it many other places before leaving London.  If I recall, the meal included a cheese pie, along with a course of scones, and then two towers of amazing tea cakes.  By the time we were done, none of us could indulge in the final course from their “cake carriage.”  It was the most enjoyable meal of the trip!  Fortnum’s was neat in general.  Like a very upscale department store with shades of Brookestone.  Their beautiful blue color (which is essentially Tiffany Blue, though I don’t know how the copyright works there) is everywhere there, and it’s lovely.  Afterwards, Jared and I met up with a friendly MBA classmate of his from Spain, and we all saw The Avengers 3D, released a week earlier than in the U.S. for some reason.  Also renamed “Avengers: Assemble” there I guess to avoid confusion with their old television show.  More white tea afterwards, saw Jared’s office building, traded the Spaniard for the wife, and headed to Soho to find a late dinner.  The only thing open was Moroccan, which suited me just fine.  A long walk home saw us pass perhaps England’s only Baskin Robbins, which was sadly closed at that late hour.  Then another night of trying to make my body fall asleep.

Day 4 – Jared and I set out for the Thames, passing St. Paul’s Cathedral and crossing the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern.  We didn’t go in though, instead taking the opportunity to walk along the south bank.  We headed towards The Shard (still under construction), crossing again towards the Gherkin, then on to the Tower Of London.  We considered going in (and I’d love to next time), but there was so much to see and not enough time.  We continued on to cross Tower Bridge (which I was sure was “London Bridge,” but I was mistaken) , viewing more of the south bank, the HMS Belfast, and the distant skyline of Canary Wharf, where apparently there are a lot of American companies, and I must admit it looks a lot like Chicago.  That night, I read in a Starbucks and drank white tea while the happy couple completed their final pre-wedding dance lesson.  Afterwards, I had vegetarian bangers and mash with them at The Troubadour.

Day 5 – It was a travel day, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t up at a decent hour!  We had breakfast at a Greek cafe, packed up, and took a very long and stressful cab to London Gatwick, due to traffic which nearly made us late for our flight.  But lucky for us, our boy’s extensive business travel and airline status meant that we were rushed through security, and when I say rushed, I mean we were shown to a private screening room, empty but for the standard X-ray and staff to operate it.  No one else in there.  No line.  It was a whole security line (in its own large room) just to the three of us.  Needless to say, we no longer had to worry about delays.  His status helped both of them get automatic upgrades to first class, and they would have upgraded me too just for being with him (not even on the same reservation), but first class was too full.  It was pretty neat to see how he rolls.  When it comes to travel, he is fucking elite.  It was off to Naples…

Part II – Americano
After a short and pleasant flight, we landed in Naples.  I was immediately faced with the stereotype of disorganized and somewhat rude Italy (at least by American standards).  From the moment the plane landed, the people all seemed boorish, pushing ahead, not waiting what I would consider their turn.  We deboarded the plane to get on a bus, which drove us all of about 100 feet to the other side of the building, where we were let out to go to border control.  It was comical.  Then people were climbing over each other to be first to get their bag.  For example, picture the conveyor belt that disperses checked luggage.  Imagine it is 50 feet long.  The first 25 feet of it was ridiculously crowded, and the last 25 feet empty.  We were near the back of the crowd, and rather than wait just 10 feet down the line to have open and sole access to get their bag, people would climb over us and push people out of the way to get their bag immediately.  I don’t know if I’ve described that clearly, but I was too shocked to even laugh.  It was so needless.

We had a driver to take us to our destination of Positano, and he was predictably crazy and aggressive when driving, as was everyone else.  The hour-long journey included a winding, white knuckle drive that makes Highway 1 look like I-5.  I was just about to reach my limit of car sickness when we finally arrived at the hotel.  I was so pleased with my room though.  Charming and plenty big enough for what I needed, it had tile floors and a drinking fountain next to the toilet.  It had a curtain-less shower that let me look out the window to the ocean while bathing.  That window view was incredible in ways I can hope to describe.  It looked directly out onto the beach and town.  I tried to take pictures and video, but there’s just no way to capture it in words… waking up each morning and coming home each night, and throwing open that big double window, breathing in that ocean air, and looking out over the peaceful Mediterranean Sea.  It was a postcard come to life.

Day 6 – The next morning, I joined the two of them at the breakfast the hotel offered.  I went on to do this a few more times over the next week… lots of good pastries, fruits, etc.  Jared showed me around town (what little of it there is).  Positano really is beautiful.  It seems there are a million passageways and staircases winding through the shops and restaurants.  So many ways to get where you’re going… or to get lost.  I had delicious granita (and later in the trip, mixed with iced tea).  I was tricked into sipping Jared’s disgusting Campari,  and again he suckered me into trying limoncello on an empty stomach.  It tastes something like kerosene and lemon, and without any food in your system, you can feel it searing its way down through your guts.  I tried a lot of limoncello over the course of the trip but never really got used to it.  Later in the evening, I explored the town and beach a bit more on my own.  I saw many of the town’s infamous stray cats, along with a lone pair of ducks, and an occasional dog.  I saw some of the little grocery stores selling produce like huge heirloom tomatoes and and the area’s famous gargantuan lemons — they were the size of cantaloupes.  That’s not an exaggeration.  It may not surprise you to learn that in addition to the art galleries and women’s clothing and jewelry stores, Positano’s other big export is all manner of lemon-related souvenirs.  Anyway, I finished out the night with dinner alone: a plate of gnocchi at Buca Di Bacco.

Day 7 – These first few days were pretty tame.  Relaxing and eating, you know.  Read a lot.  Took naps in the middle of the day, which I generally never do.  I took showers just for the ambiance and relaxation.  Sat in my window ledge and admired the view.  This particular day, I had a giant plate of caprese for lunch down at Covo Dei Saraceni which was so massive that I couldn’t even look at caprese the rest of the trip.  Picked up some Euros from the ATM, though virtually all of my valuables and important documents stayed locked in the room safe for the trip.  Picked up some Italian cookies and water for the room.  In the evening, we had our first massive dinner, this time on the lower level of Buca Di Bacco.  I experienced my first quattro formaggi pizza of the trip.  Got to meet up with Jared’s just-arrived parents as well as get to know some of his many brilliant and interesting international friends.  People from every corner of the globe doing big things with their lives.  Mostly I talked to a South African newlywed living in Singapore.  Oh, and Jared casually dropped a request that I be his best man… at the wedding happening in about 36 hours.

Day 8 – The next day basically consisted of two big meals.  First was the rehearsal brunch, of which I was now a part given my best man status.  It was a gut-busting several-course meal outdoors at the Michelin-starred Hotel Palazzo Murat.  Then for dinner that night, anyone in town for the wedding descended on Chez Black (noted for celebrity clientele like Denzel Washington).  It was another plate of gnocchi sorrentino, which is the only way they seem to prepare it in Positano.  It’s basically a sauce of tomato and mozzarella.  Now, I’m not complaining, because gnocchi in Italy is still gnocchi in Italy.  I’m just saying by the end of the trip, it started to taste like Chef Boyardee.  Of course throughout this time, there was more cookie buying and no small amount of hastily scribbling an emergency best man speech on hotel stationery.  By the way, that’s my room pictured below in white…

Day 9 – Wedding day.  Jared and his bride had spent the night apart, and so in the morning we were just killing time together.  In the early afternoon, I got dressed up in my suit and headed down to the cathedral with him.  The ceremony was beautiful.  Hard to go wrong in a place like that.  Got to pelt them with rice and flower petals.  Some confused tourists sat in the church to watch the ceremony and stood outside taking pictures of us taking pictures.  I don’t know how they thought that was appropriate, but such are the perils of wedding in Positano I guess.  We retired to Covo for pre-reception cocktails.  I got a chance to talk with a few more of Jared’s friends from Brussels and Genoa.  Super cool guys who may join Jared and the Spaniard for a tip to SF for a triathlon.  I had a sip of 20 year old cognac that the bride’s family had brought.  The reception included many delicious courses of dinner and dessert, as well as some entertaining Armenian customs and folk dancing, also courtesy of the bride’s family.  I delivered my speech, which was well-received (in that about two dozen folks who had ignored me thus far made a point to come and introduce themselves).  I danced my ass off, demonstrating that I have the moves like Jagger.  After the reception, the heartiest among us continued on to the town’s only nightclub, which was steadily filling up with crazy vacationing Eurotrash.  I chatted with a few more of Jared’s friends including one with great music taste, another telling me about real life in Moscow, and another from Australia who’d sailed part of the way to Italy… essentially solo.  Thanks to the DJ, I again demonstrated how I still have the moves like Jagger, and about the time I heard a dance remix of The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’,” I realized my one White Russian had done me in!  I started to feel dizzy and decided it was time to get back up the hill to my hotel.  Luckily, I ran into some buzzed wedding friends staying at the same place, and we all jovially walked together.

Jared has some great friends out there.  In another life, I could see myself in that circle.  All these guys I mentioned, these successful and handsome international playboys with charming accents… if we get them out to SF for that triathlon or Bay To Breakers next year… ladies, watch out.  That reminds me, outside of our wedding party, that night at the club was the only time on the whole trip where there was anything close to a concentration of good-looking people.  True, most of it was the European equivalent of the Jersey Shore, but I get the appeal of being young and converging on the only nightclub in town while on a remote vacation, trying to hook up.  Good for them.  Did I mention it was lonely on this trip?  Positano is for lovers.  Just ask the giant neon Durex vending machine in the middle of town.  I’m not kidding.

My last word on the wedding: damn, I look good in a suit.  Sometimes I forget, and cameras don’t ever do it justice.  I ought to wear them more often.

Day 10 – The next day was a huge catered goodbye brunch at Murat.  So much good food, and they just kept bringing it and bringing it!  People started to say their goodbyes, while others planned to stay an extra few days.  A big group of us took a day trip to Pompeii by bus, which was brutal and tested the limits of my car sickness.  But Pompeii itself was incredible.  The amazing craftsmanship and technology there, not to mention the good shape it’s still in.  My favorite was the polished white stones they put in their streets to reflect moonlight!  Beautiful marble everywhere.  They repaired after earthquakes.  Used concrete.  Had structures in the streets to control and divert traffic.  Saw a few of the dogs that live on the grounds and sleep all day.  I loved the bath house with a tiny mosaic floor and marble basins so preserved as to look almost new.  The size of the neighborhoods too… it really is a whole preserved city which used to hold thousands of people.  Alleyways, storefronts.  The old barracks and the odeon.  And then of course there was the famous brothel, with its preserved “menu” paintings inside, showing the services available there.  Among them was a man with two peckers (which Jared and I later referred to constantly as “due pini”).  And then there was the brothel street sign in the form of a phallus fresco on right on the side of the building.  (It may not surprise you that I purchased a bronze statuette of a disembodied phallus with wings at the souvenir stand.)  Pompeii was my kinda town.  I wonder what their rents are like.  To think that after 260 years of constant excavation, they’re still only 75% of the way done.  The mind reels.  That night was a challenger for best meal of the trip.  Il Capitano served me a bowl of mini zucchini medallions with basil and stir-fried in so much vinegar, they almost tasted like salt and vinegar chips.  Yum!  And also… weird!  It also didn’t hurt that their quattro formaggi pizza included a very strong smoked cheese.  Again, we were eating outdoors, admiring the nearly full moon reflecting from a clear sky onto the calm Mediterranean.  That huge reflection of the moon makes you feel like you’re in a painting.  It’s every night out there, but here in SF, it’s almost unheardof.  When is it ever clear out on Ocean Beach?  The serenity was only broken up by a fireworks from a private party down the coast.  Jared’s brother-in-law suggested it might have been a neighboring town’s annual “Bite This, Positano!” fireworks display.

Day 11 – Somewhere around this time, I had seen enough blue suede loafers that I felt confident in making the call that it is some kind of fashion phenomenon in Europe.  Mark my words, it’s a trend, and I’ll bet it comes to the States before long.  Anyway, it was time for us to take a day trip to Capri.  I survived the boat ride and the white knuckle driving along shear cliffs.  In addition to the fancy designer stores and coral jewelers, there were small shops selling homemade limoncello (read: moonshine).  We visited the breathtaking Villa San Michele, built by Axel Munthe on the ruins of Tiberius’ own villa.  Munthe was an interesting guy, building priceless archealogical artifacts into the walls and furniture of his house.  We saw a perfume factory, but ran out of time before we could see the Blue Grotto or do more than snap a few distant photos of the Faraglioni.  An average meal back at Caffe Positano finished off the night.

Day 12 – Our last full day in Positano.  I joined the happy couple’s respective families at their shared villa for brunch.  By this time, my knees were destroyed from all the walking up and down hills and stairs all over this vertical town.  We took a last minute boat ride to Amalfi, and there we saw the massive cathedral,  full of tombs and relics.  Had some great gelato.  Had a look at a nice and lewd public drinking fountain.  Discovered the shoe art of Inna Panasenko, and finished off with a quiet dinner at Covo with just the families.

Day 13 – Going home.  We shared a couple of vans to Naples, said rushed goodbyes, and took our separate flights.  I was fortunate enough to share a flight with Jared’s family though.  A layover in Frankfurt gave me the chance to compare Germans to Italians, if only for an hour or so.  In that time, I got the impression that the Germans are way more organized and polite.  That airport was humming along like a machine, and everyone I dealt with at the airport was super nice.  I stocked up on a couple of pretzels and a danish, and hit the last leg home.  Nearly 12 hours for that last leg, and so I invested $120 in moving to an exit row, which I ended up having to myself.  So worth it for a flight that long.  I will definitely do that in the future.  Had room to stretch out, was right near the bathrooms, and had a screen to watch movies on demand.  Which I did.  Like four of them, including Chronicle, The Immortals, Anchorman (tip o’ the hat to my previous Ireland trip, and the rest of Sherlock Holmes 2.  I didn’t sleep much, but I survived it just fine.  And nothing like getting home after a trip like that, and getting back to the loved ones you missed.

Well fuckity duckity (or fuckity doo dah, as Jared would say)… I feel like I should have some big philosophical wrap-up here, but I really don’t.  I have effectively gained back all the ground I lost to anxiety years ago in that I have proven to myself that I can handle those logistics.  It was my last dragon to slay, the last thing I was telling myself I was too scared to do, and now it’s done.  It was amazing to get to spend so much time with Jared again of course.  It was lots of fun, and I’ll remember it always, but there were no big revelations for myself or my life plans the way I had hoped.  I learned that Jaffa Cakes are delicious, and that London is expensive.  Ridiculously and wastefully so.  I’m serious.  For real.  I learned that t-shirts and jeans are not all-purpose wear in Europe the way they are in California — and that I need to pack some nicer clothes next time.  I learned that the high school game where you make a circle with your hand below your waist and trick someone into looking at it so you can punch them in the shoulder twice… it’s still fun.  I learned that Nicole loves lamb.  And thanks to the bride’s family, I learned more Russian than Italian.

  • previet = hello
  • paca = goodbye
  • pajalsta = please
  • spasibo = thank you
  • da = yes
  • nyet = no
  • fsyo = it’s done
  • golka = kiss (at least in context?)
  • zot kinees = shut up = susminna (in Armenian)

I can’t thank enough Jared’s family for treating me like one of their own.  It really kept me together on the trip.  And of course I can never thank Jared and his wife enough for their extreme generosity and thoughtfulness in making this trip possible for me… and honestly as easy as it could possibly be.  They watched out for me and had everything to do with making this vacation as amazing and memorable as it was.  I couldn’t have hoped for a better first foray back into international travel after a long hiatus.  I love you guys!  Come out to California again so I can at least begin to return the favor!  And hopefully I won’t let so much time go by before I’m out there again.

“The wild, cruel beast is not behind the bars of the cage.  He is in front of it.”
— Axel Munthe

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One Comments to “Dragon, Slain”

  1. One thing I forgot to add… t-shirts.

    First, on the Millennium Bridge, I saw a guy walk by with an actual Harvey Keitel shirt from the Morrissey “Kill Uncle” tour. I wanted to mug him for it.

    Then the other thing is Europeans have strange ideas about what is cool on a t-shirt. Specifically, I saw many young folks with t-shirts that just said phrases… like big block letters on a shirt that just says “TEXT ME BACK!” I can’t remember the other examples, but it was almost like they just took random idioms from American English and slapped them on a shirt. So corny. Cringe-worthy. I don’t get it.

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