Travels with Grandma

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Introduction to Amsterdam

For my 30th birthday, Peter gave me a fully-upright arcade video game (Operation Wolf, complete with gun), accompanied me to the DuPage county fair, and took me and my brother Patrick on a 4-hour fishing charter on Lake Michigan. For Peter’s 30th birthday, he got to pack up our house in Wheaton, all by himself. Clearly, some restitution was in order and I told Peter we would go wherever he wanted for his birthday. (His present, which I’ve picked out, will have to wait until we have our own house.)

He selected Amsterdam and absolutely forbade me from doing any planning (other than the basics) and also issued a blanket-ban on museum passes. He made it perfectly clear that he wanted to have a nice, easy, relaxing sort of holiday. Yeah, I knew it was going to be a struggle to slow my pace down to his, but if that’s what was required, that’s what I would do.

I figured it would help that I’ve already been to Amsterdam. In 1994, I was doing a work experience/study program in London and took a weekend trip there by myself. Since I’d already seen what I absolutely had to see (the Van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank house), Peter could dictate our agenda without interference from me. Peter had also been to Amsterdam, but he was 11 or 12 and so not able to fully enjoy all of the city’s charms.

Day One: Beer and Movies, Pot and Coffee

I arranged for a late morning flight to Amsterdam, figuring it would give us most of the day to enjoy the city without necessitating our getting up with the sun. Peter’s sister kindly dropped us off at Dublin airport, where the queues and mob-scene atmosphere of the place exceeded anything we’ve ever seen during the Christmas rush. Seems like everyone wanted to get out of Dublin that morning.

Our flight was just the way I like my flights – quick and uneventful. Thanks to a strong tail wind, we were there in just under an hour. Schiphol airport is huge but easy to navigate. I believe you can tell a lot about a country’s character by their passport control, which in this case was polite and efficient. We collected my rucksack and then headed out for the train station.

Buying train tickets was a bit of a struggle, since it was difficult to find a machine that would take cash and when we did find one, it only accepted coins. For some reason, the credit card machines didn’t like any of our cards. After a bit of scrambling and the purchase of a couple of diet Cokes to get change, we had our tickets and headed over to the track, where a train to Amsterdam was just arriving. Talk about good timing.

The train ride from Schiphol to Central Station, only takes about 15 minutes. The train station was as big and grand as I remembered and we followed the crowd outside where we had a decision to make. Would we walk to the hotel or take the tram? Since it looked like it was probably at least a kilometer to the hotel, we opted for the tram, so our next task was purchase a strippenkaart.

The strippenkaart is a pretty good system. It costs € 6.75 and is, as the name suggests, is a card with strips on it. When you get on the tram, you find the yellow validation box and you stamp your card so that you use a strip for each zone you’re traveling through plus one additional strip, which the handy guide to Amsterdam public transport calls the base zone. Multiple people can travel on the same strippenkaart and a stamp is good on any tram or bus for 1 hour.

We stopped into a newsagent right next to the train station to buy our strippenkaart. Peter insisted that I ask for it, as he felt (probably rightly so) that I enjoyed saying strippenkaart much more than he would. Plus, I suspect that sometimes Peter doubts my research on places and if one of us is going to look like an idiot, it may as well be the researcher who unearthed the faulty information.

I asked for and received our strippenkaart and we crossed the street and hopped on the number 1 tram. Peter struggled with the validation machine while I wrestled my rucksack over to an available seat and checked the map for our stop. Because of one-track sections and streetlights, the tram ride to Prinsengracht took longer than the train ride from Schiphol. I’d forgotten how the trams were right at street level and how, with the narrow streets and large crowds of pedestrians, it sometimes seems like the tram is driving on the sidewalks.

We got off the tram at our stop and walked the three long blocks to our hotel, Hotel Amsterdam Wiechmann. The neighbourhood was very residential and quiet, which was what I was looking for. The area is considered part of the Western Canal Belt, bit it's also rather close to the Jordaan.

The hotel itself was cheap, cheerful, and clean, which is really all you need when you're traveling. That and an en suite bathroom, of course, which is now practically a non-negotiable requirement for me.

When we checked in, we noticed a large, beautiful dog behind the counter. He was stretched out on the floor, panting, and was one of the fluffiest dogs I've ever seen. We reckon he's part-German shepherd and part-Chow. (I didn't see his tongue so I can't confirm the Chow part, we're basing it on his fluffiness.) Peter remarked to the desk clerk about the dog and the guy responded, "He's a very grumpy dog," which is really a shame, since he's so fluffy, his fur practically screams to be pet.

After unpacking and relaxing for a bit, we decided to set off for some exploring. I wanted to revisit the neighbourhood where I'd stayed the first time I went to Amsterdam, which was over near Rembrandtplein. The weather was just on the right side of pleasant, despite the misty rain and a bit of chill in the air. I found my old stomping grounds easily and I pointed out to Peter the hotel I'd stayed in. I was unable to find my favourite coffee shop though.

Yes, coffee shops. Seems you can't talk about Amsterdam without taking about coffees shops, a delightful euphemism used to navigate the tricky waters of acceptability in the international arena. Renowned for their tolerance and practicality, the Dutch decided that pot and hash weren't that bad in the grand scheme of things, so you might as well let people decide whether or not they want to do it, the same way people can decide with alcohol and tobacco.

Because of international law, the Dutch went the route of decriminalisation rather than legalisation of soft drugs. It's an interesting grey area, where coffees hops are technically illegal, but the laws against them are not enforced. You are permitted to carry a small amount of pot for your own personal use. Coffee shops are taxed and regulated just like every other business, although the tax is based on number of seats since the shops can't show receipts for their technically illegal products. They also can't advertise or sell to minors.

After walking around Rembrandtplein, we found a movie theatre and bought tickets for "X:Men 3." We had more than an hour to kill, so we went back to wandering around. Two streets over from the movie theatre, we found an Irish pub and I popped inside to verify that I'd be able to watch the Cork v. Clare Munster semi-final hurling match, which was scheduled for the next day. I was delighted to know that they would be showing it, since we were at the All-Ireland Cork-Clare semi-final last year and the rematch held the promise of a good fight from Clare.

Half a block down from the pub, we found an empty coffee shop blaring reggae music, so we went in. Back in his previously life (before he met me) Peter's was no stranger to pot smoking, so he was looking forward to the pot-smoking part of the trip. For a variety of boring personal reasons, I'd already decided to forego the pot smoking. I'd enjoyed it on my last trip though – legal, decriminalized, whatever you want to call it, it removes some of the risk and fear from pot smoking and makes the whole activity a lot more enjoyable.

Peter ordered a pre-rolled joint that had super-skunk and tobacco in it. One of the things that the guidebooks warn you about is that the THC content of pot in the Netherlands is extraordinarily high, up to twice that of pot from Columbia or Nigeria. Going slowly on the smoking is advisable, since the stuff is likely to be potent.

We passed an enjoyable bit of time in the coffee shop and had a good time people-watching. When we went into the place, it was empty. Shortly after we arrived, two different groups of trendy-ish college student types arrived. Then came a middle-aged American couple, achingly straight-laced and completely out of place. The man went up to the counter and Peter and I watched, curious as to whether or not he was going to buy pot. The woman waited at the table, her handbag clutched in her lap.

No pot for them, just a couple of coffees. I had to wonder about that. Why would you go to a coffee shop and only order coffee? Why not just go to one of the cafes? Peter clued me in that they were there for the atmosphere, the novelty, to observe pot smokers in their natural Dutch habitats. So they could go back to Kansas or Iowa and say that they'd been in one of those wild and crazy pot-smoking dens in Amsterdam. That intrigued me and I couldn't help watching them – it was sort of like monkeys in the zoo although I have to wonder who was the monkey in that analogy.

We left the coffee shop and headed over to the movie theatre to hit the concession stand before the film. Here's where I first noticed the effects of pot on Peter's brain. He doesn't really have a sweet tooth. When I bake, he prefers ginger snaps to chocolate chips. He's able to make a candy bar last several days. He typically goes for salty over sweet.

Me: What would you like?

Peter: Um, I don’t know. Chocolate-covered popcorn looks good. Or choco-crossies. What are choco-crossies? Do I want popcorn or chocolate popcorn? What do you think the chocolate popcorn will be like?

Me: What's up, Pothead? You never go for the sweets.

Peter: *giggle**giggle*

It was great – very funny. I much prefer a stoned person to a drunk person. In the end, Peter got sweet popcorn, I got salty popcorn and we each got a water. We stood by the side of the concession stand, waiting to be let into the cinema.

Ever since I saw "Pulp Fiction," which was after my trip to Amsterdam, I've wanted to have a beer at the movies. But the only beer the concession stand had was Heineken, which I just cannot drink. It doesn't bear thinking about. I prefer my beer thick and strong enough to practically require a fork. If I can easily see through it, I'm not drinking it.

I went back around the concession stand to see if I was missing anything, if there was any other beer on offer. No beer, but they did have a choice between Bacardi Breezers and Smirnoff Ice. I went for the Smirnoff and returned to Peter, where he shook my hand as I confessed my long-held beer-at-the-movies fascination.

The film was a great honking disappointment. I absolutely loved the first two films and had been looking forward to the third installment. It was one of those movies that was enjoyable enough to watch, although a little voice in the back of my head kept saying it was crap. Then, away from the inexplicable attraction I have to Wolverine, I had to accept that I was more disappointed in the film the more I thought about it.

After the movies, we had dinner at a cheap but tasty Italian place and then walked back to the hotel. The hotel dog was out in the middle of the reception area, stretched out on a rug. Peter approached him slowly and offered his hand for the dog to sniff. I watched the dog curl his lip before giving a little growl and Peter pulled his hand away pretty quickly. The guy was not joking about the dog being grumpy. It was such a disappointment and a tease, to have this lovely fluffy dog that you couldn't touch. That was the only thing I would have changed about the hotel.

Day Two: The White Widow Incident

As part of our agreed upon go-slowly holiday plan, I let Peter sleep in on Sunday morning. I was up at 5 and read a book until 7. Then I went out for a 45-minute run, heading out toward Rembrandtplein, then into the Dam. I made a mistake and ended up near the train station instead of near our hotel, but I corrected the mistake easily enough. It just meant a longer run. The weather was a good bit better than Saturday, with some patches of blue sky and glimpses of the sun. It was humid but still a shade chilly.

We had an uninspired Continental breakfast in the hotel and then set off for more wandering. Amsterdam was my first introduction to a proper European city and my impressions have held up. I love the canals and the narrow houses. I like the public squares, particularly the Dam.

The only thing that really freaks me out in Amsterdam is the traffic. Not the cars, since aren't many cars on the road. I'm talking about the trams and the bikes. The trams are right at street level and you can easily wander onto the tracks if you're not paying attention. I took special care at corners and curves in the road, since you wouldn't want to be surprised by a tram. The bikes are even scarier.

Amsterdam is loaded with bikes. The guidebooks delight in telling you the facts – 750,000 residents, 600,000 bicycles. Near the train station, they have a multi-storey bike parking garage. The bikes are nearly uniformly big and old-fashioned looking. Bikes are THE way to get around and the cyclists are crazy. They consider themselves to be pedestrians, not cars, which means you're not guaranteed that they will stop at traffic lights. They don't really stop for anything and you wander onto the burgundy-coloured bike paths at your own peril.

Our plan for Sunday was very laid back. After our morning stroll, we were going to find a coffee shop that friends of ours recommended, hang out there for a bit, and then go to the Irish pub for the hurling match. We found the coffee shop, called the Greenhouse Effect, ] on one of the main streets-of-vice-and-corruption that are just a little to the east of the train station.

I sat down at a table to peruse the drinks menu while Peter went to the counter to order his pot. He came back with a large joint in an attractive little plastic carrying case that reminded me of a test tube. I asked him what it was and he said it was a pure pot joint, which is pure in that it contains no tobacco. It cost € 8, which was about right since the half-and-half joints at this place were € 4.

I made the decision that I wanted a chocolate milkshake and Peter asked for a vanilla shake. So I went up to the counter and placed our order. The woman behind the counter was young, hip, and had a nearly impenetrable accent. I'd guess Dutch although she looked exotic, like Moroccan or something. She repeated the order back to me and then said something, which I deciphered as "regular or special." I asked what the difference was and again, it took me a bit of deciphering to realise she was asking if I wanted hashish in it. I said "no" a bit too quickly and sharply, like I wouldn't have hashish in my drink if it were the last source of nutrition in the world. I don't really feel that way, but I wasn't interested in getting high and Peter had a pure joint in his hand, so hashish in the shakes was the last thing we needed.

The milkshakes were regular but were different than I expected. Instead of being ice-cream based, they were milk, ice, and flavouring, mixed well in a blender. I brought the shakes back to the table where Peter was starting to feel some mild effects of the joint. He commented that it was very smooth and easy to smoke. Despite the absence of ice cream, the shakes were pretty tasty. Peter seemed a bit drifty so I took out one of the Amsterdam guidebooks and started to look for a place for dinner.

Peter remarked that he was really starting the feel the effects. He said it was the first time that he felt unsafe to stand up, that he couldn't trust himself to walk. I told him to be careful, that I didn't want any reefer madness going on. He laughed and said he'd be fine. I told him he had a bit over 3 hours before the match started and that I hoped he'd be back to normalish by then. He laughed and nodded, then went back to staring into space. I read for a bit and the next time I looked up, Peter gave me a tight, almost grimace-y smile. But I knew it was meant to reassure so I tried to relax a little and went back to my reading.

I'm not sure how much longer I read for, but the next time I looked up, Peter seemed not right at all. He leaned forward and put his hand on my arm. He spoke slowly and carefully, like he was imparting a message of utmost urgency. "Can you please go up and ask them what is in this joint? I'm kind of starting to hallucinate and I don't know if that's normal." I looked down at the ashtray and could see that he'd only smoked about half of the joint.

I leapt up with what Peter later described as an "oh shit" look at my face. I had to wait a minute at the counter before the guy could answer my question, so I looked over the menu. Although the half-and-half joint was listed as containing super-skunk, the pure joint didn't have any designated pot breed next to it. If you remember, we'd already been warned about the wallop some of this Dutch pot could pack.

I asked the guy what was in the pure joint. He shrugged and said he thought it was White Widow. Upon hearing the name, all I could think was "damn, that doesn't sound so good." It was like finding out the slavering dog with big teeth that is blocking your path is called Satan or Killer. I asked the guy if the stuff was meant to make you hallucinate. The guy shook his head and said, "I've been smoking pot for 15 years and I've never hallucinated." He asked me if I wanted a glass of water and suggested putting sugar in it. I accepted the water and thanked him. He asked me if I was hallucinating. I told him no, that Peter was and then I went back to report my findings.

Peter seemed relieved to know that there was only pot in the joint although he remarked that any pot with "white" in the name is extra-super-strong. (We later found out online that White Widow has an average THC content in the neighbourhood of 20%.) I had to go to the bathroom, so I verified that he would be okay and then left for a few minutes. When I got back, the guy was talking to Peter. I missed part of the conversation, but the gist was that sometimes, if you smoke when you have low blood sugar (a possibility since it had been several hours since breakfast), it might hit you pretty hard and in a weird way. Or if you've been drinking alcohol, which Peter most definitely had not.

The guy brought Peter a Coke and suggested he eat chocolate or anything with sugar in it. He assured Peter that he'd be fine, that in 30 or 45 minutes, it would be over. Peter and I talked about how he was feeling, what he'd hallucinated. Colours, apparently. This relieved me – at least he hadn't been seeing killer rabbits or dancing bumblebees or something really freaking weird or unnerving. We had about 5 minutes of peacefulness, such as it was. The music was this hyper-fast dance music that sounded like a remix of Stevie Nicks, played at 78 RPM. Peter's eyes looked strange and it wasn't long before he asked me to get a bucket.

I dashed up to the counter and got a bucket. The guy followed me back to the table and suggested to Peter that we should go sit on the bench outside in front of the shop. That sitting in the smoky atmosphere probably wasn't great and that fresh air would help. The guy was completely nice and patient, but there was also a sense that he was being pragmatic. Better out than in has always been my motto when it comes to puking.

We made it outside without incident and settled onto the bench. For over an hour, I felt like a girl trapped in an After-School Special. The worst bit came shortly after we sat down outside. Peter vomited loudly and repeatedly into the bucket and then insisted that I get a fresh one because the bucket was making him sick. My response was, "you want another bucket?" as though he was requesting something extraordinary. I just didn't feel like I could abuse the hospitality of the coffee shop and I debated my options – dumping it in the sewer or in the ladies' room. The ladies' room seemed like the less rude option. When I entered the coffeeshop with the bucket, just about everyone in the place covered their noses. One guy even pulled his shirt up over his nose. I felt like a leper. After emptying the bucket in the toilet, I returned outside to find Peter rocking on the bench.

Peter: What just happened?

Me: I went inside to empty the bucket for you.

Peter: My eyes!

Me: (Thinking that he was possibly freaking out) What about your eyes?

Peter: They're full of vomit.

Me: (Thinking he was definitely freaking out. Gave him a napkin to wipe his face) I think I should take you to the hospital.

Peter: No, I'm fine, I just don't understand why my eyes are full of puke.

Me: Um, because you puked.

Peter: Oh, I did. I thought I imagined that.

Not only did he not imagine it, it happened again several times. I don't know if his body was trying to get rid of the intoxicating substance or what, but smoking pot is not like drinking alcohol. If you drink too much alcohol, you can puke and then feel moderately better within a short period of time. If you've smoked pot, the smoking provides a handy and direct route right into the blood stream. All you can do is wait it out, which is what we did, sitting on that wooden bench on a crowded crooked street in a raucous part of Amsterdam.

My job was pretty easy. I supplied water, Coke, napkins, and the bucket. I also silently encouraged his liver to process faster and gave unblinkingly mean looks to anyone who looked at us. Peter's job was a lot harder (and louder – I swear, I have never heard such loud up-chucking in all my life). The coffee shop staff was solicitous and helpful. I'm sure they didn't really want us hanging out in front of their shop, but they never made us feel that way.

About 75 minutes after Peter started to feel funny, he felt well enough to try out his legs. He wanted to go back to the hotel, which I agreed to on the condition that he not lie down. (I was terrified that he would aspirate on vomit like a 60s rock star.) The plan was to walk over to the main road and look for a cab, but once he got walking, he felt capable of walking all the way back to the hotel. He walked carefully, gingerly, as though he didn't really expect the ground to meet his feet.

I held his hand and it really felt like he could just drift away, like if I didn't hang on to him and mind him carefully, he'd disappear. I knew he was going to be fine, that the worst was over, but it was still not the most pleasant of experiences. It took us about a half-hour to get back to the hotel. Safely in our room, Peter agreed to sit in one of the chairs in the room and he dozed off and on. I sat on the bed, trying to read my book, but really watching him. I checked on him every 15 minutes.

The time for the hurling match came and went. It was clear that Peter was in no shape to go anywhere. He felt bad that we missed it, but there was no way I was going to leave him alone. I did turn on the television and flip through the channels, hoping for some sort of miraculous airing on one of the basic cable channels. I had a joyous moment when I saw men with sticks, but my joy turned to bitter disappointment when I realised it was just a field hockey match.

At about 3:45, a full 4 hours after he started smoking that infernal joint, Peter surfaced and declared that he was starting to feel more like himself. To say that we were both relieved would be a major understatement. He spent a few more hours in a daze and said, even around 11 pm, that he still felt not quite right. It wasn't a hangover exactly, just lingering effects. I guess if you're going for bang for the buck or excitement for the euro, White Widow will more than fit the bill. But if you just want to have a mellow chill-out in a coffee shop, a hit or two should do the job admirably for a good while.

Peter felt like he'd learned a lesson about pot in Amsterdam. He also felt like he didn't want to try it again for a good long while, if ever. I asked him what he was thinking, ordering the pure joint. He said that he wanted to see what it was like without tobacco and that he figured the pure joint would have whatever breed of pot that the mixed joint had, only the pure joint would be, you know, purely and only marijuana. I asked him if he'd known what was in the pure joint, if he still would have ordered it and he said absolutely not. We both think he was foolish for not asking, so let this be a lesson to you as well.

After resting up for a bit more, we went out for dinner and a movie. The dinner, at a place called Szmulewicz near the Rembrandtplein, was delicious. We shared warm bread with olive spread for our started. I had a goat cheese salad and Peter had skewers of chicken served with rice. For dessert, opted to have waffles from a nearby bakery.

For the movie, we bought tickets to "The DaVinci Code," which was showing in the Tuschinski Theatre, an amazing Art Deco theatre. Opened in 1921, the theatre is a masterpiece. I would have gladly handed over € 10 to tour the theatre. We sat in a side box, which was exciting but less novel than I'd expected because other people were also sitting in it. Still, we had a great vantage point for appreciating the art and architecture. The movie, on the other hand, was horrible. We felt that way even having gone in with low expectations. Imagine the most boring film you've ever seen. Multiple that by 100. You're in the neighbourhood of "The DaVinci Code."

Even after the film, a full 12 hours after the White Widow experience, Peter reported still feeling mildly out-of sorts. He was a bit sheepish about the whole thing. He explained to me that he had "severely underestimated" the strength of the pot, which was why it hit him so hard. Plus there was the unfortunately coincidental low blood sugar, which was an issue we didn't even know about until it was too late. All in all though, he was not too worse for the wear.

Day Three: Recovering a Harshed Mellow

We agreed that Peter would sleep as long as he needed to in order to rid himself of his pot-hangover. I slept until 8, which is really late for me, and then spent the morning reading a book and studying Irish flashcards. (Consecutively, not concurrently, I hasten to point out.) I hung out in our room and also in the lobby.

The lobby had this cool rotating rack with little information cards on it. The cards were for local restaurants, museums, and tour places. I found one that was entitled "Hash and Marihuana Facts and Tips." The winking joint on the front of the card is a little freaky, but he has some important wisdom to report: "Using HASH or WEED can make you happy and relaxed, but there are also risks. Keep this card with you and read the tips on the reverse before use."

The reverse was, as promised, a virtual treasure trove of facts and tips. The first tip would have been most useful the day before: "Hash and weed come in different strengths. Always have a short puff and wait a few minutes before having the next." Then there is a little bit about possible side effects (heart palpitations and dizziness). The next tip also would have been handy to have in writing the day before: "Once is a while, cannabis may have an ill effect. If this happens you will feel sick and scared. This is annoying but not dangerous. Go to a quiet place and eat something sweet. After an hour the worst will be over."

Ed. Note: The above tips are direct quotes from the fact card, reported exactly as printed. Apparently, you have to pay extra for commas.

My favourite part of the card is at that bottom, where they list bad combinations. "Hash + magic mushrooms can lead to very nasty trips and may cause a trip to last longer." If you know me at all, you know that I will have nothing to do with mushrooms in any shape, form, or incarnation. I don't care if they are magic or made out of 24 carat gold. I asked Peter before our trip if he planned to try magic mushrooms (he didn't – he had no interest in hallucinogens), because there was no way I could be any part of that.

At 11, I had to wake Peter up because even sleeping-in has limits. He was in fair shape, not 100% though since the violent puking had given him muscle strain. For the rest of our trip, he couldn't breathe too deeply or suddenly because of his sore muscles. Mentally though, he was fine – no ill or lasting effects.

The plan for the rest of the day was simple – get some brunch somewhere, have a boat tour, do a bit of exploring and a bit more relaxing. We picked a pancake bakery that was rather close to our hotel and walked there along the Prinzengracht canal. It was sunny but chilly and we were just about near the Westerkerk when Peter's mobile rang. It was one of this IT-consulting clients, with, of course, an urgent computer problem. Peter settled onto a rather comfy wooden chair in the plaza next to the church while I wandered around. The sights included a shop selling postcards, a shop selling fragile ceramic things, a gay and lesbian information kiosk, a hot dog cart with two little sausage-shaped terriers tied up to it (makes you wonder, doesn't it?), a tram stop, and a bum peeing into the canal. Yeah, Peter was on the phone for a while.

Eventually, we started to walk while he did his consulting thing. To make a long story short, although we found the pancake place, we never went in. Peter was trying to clear up the problem, so I had a stroll along the canal. I found a street market and checked it out. It was the most claustrophobia-inducing street market I've ever seen. The tents were set up with virtually no space between them, resulting in narrow alleys that were completely choked with people. One person with a pram could cause a shopping traffic jam. Plus, most of the tents were full of absolute crap. It looked like 50 people had emptied the contents of their grannies' attics. There were a couple of tents selling what looked like nice bolts of fabric, but they were the exception. I had to fight my way out of the market and back to the road because the place was making me feel majorly trapped.

On my way back to Peter, he rang me and said he had to find an Internet café, right away. We met up, but somehow, the plan changed and instead he had to walk someone with minimal computer experience through a series of complex steps, all over the phone. I loitered by the canal and watched a family of weird moorhen-looking-things paddle around and eat their lunch.

An hour and a half after we'd set off for brunch, Peter was finished with his consulting. His mellow had been nearly irrevocably harshed and we were both starving. Plus, when we got back to the pancake place, we found a line out the door. Regular readers of my trip reports will know that low blood sugar, when combined with traveling, usually causes Peter and I to turn on each other like a pack of rabid dogs. Not this time, though. We enjoyed a walk in towards the city centre and went into a spacious and airy café bar type of place.

It was overpriced and too trendy by half, but we were starving so we didn't care too much. (I lie a little – I always care about value for money and I have a huge problem with paying € 7 for a brie sandwich that consists of only a partially stale roll and 2 slices of brie.) We sat by a window and watched the traffic go by, seeing the Heiniken horse wagon.

Fortified by lunch, we set out for a boat tour. For our trip, we used two guidebooks – Lonely Planet 's "Amsterdam City Guide" and "Amsterdam on a Budget" from Let's Go. Peter is a big fan of the two guidebook system, since it means that we can both look at a book at the same time without fighting over it. The two guidebook system was first pioneered on our honeymoon tour of the Scottish Highlands in 2004 and, like most great inventions, it was purely accidental. I couldn't decide which book I liked best, so I bought both. (One was a Lonely Planet – I can't remember what the other one was. Maybe a Frommer's. I can handle Frommer's in a pinch but I absolutely despise Fodor's.)

Although I have previously asserted that I am marching comfortably towards middle-age and am thus too old to use Let's Go travel guides, I do appreciate their budget-mindedness. I would not use them to find a place to stay (because, as was established in Slovenia, I am too f***ing old to stay in a hostel). But they do tend to have good advice on cheap eats and exploring off the beaten path. And Lonely Planet, well, they are my favourite manufacturer of guidebooks although I do not like their tendency to focus on the décor and clientele of restaurants at the expense of the food and service. But I know now – if the review of the place uses the words "trendy," "hip," "glitterati," "fashion models," or "contempo-cool," we are better off finding another restaurant.

We had pretty good luck with the guidebooks on this trip, but they did have one fatal failing – they had bugger-all useful information on the canal boat tours. It's my belief that at least 85% of tourists in Amsterdam have a checklist of 3 things they want to do. In no particular order, these are:
1. Smoke pot.
2. Visit the Van Gogh museum.
3. Take a canal boat tour.

The books are fantastic in giving minute detail on #1, they have a fair bit of information on #2, but they are so sleeping on the job when it comes to the canal boat tours. Maybe it's just the tours are all pretty much the same, but we could have used a decent recommendation. Our approach to selecting a tour left something to be desired. We walked down to Centraal Station to the tourist office in the hopes of finding some pamphlets or someone to offer advice. All we found was a queue 20-deep and some posters about train travel.

Our next strategy was to walk out along the canal, ostensibly looking for the launch spot for the boat line I used the last time I was in Amsterdam. (The memorably named Lovers company.) We didn't see them, so when a man dressed like a captain told us his boat was leaving in 2 minutes, we bought our tickets and hopped on board.

It was a passably fine way to spend an hour, but I had the nagging feeling that the tour could have been better. The 4-language audio track provided hints on where to look and a little context for what we were seeing, but I still had the nagging feeling that we weren't learning or seeing enough. The boat was comfortable enough although the glass ceiling and the beaming sun made me feel like I was in a greenhouse and it also made me more than a bit sleepy.

We were well into late afternoon when the boat tour was finished. We selected a bruin café from Lonely Planet and enjoyed our walk there. Bruin cafes are sort of like pubs. They are relaxed places where you can have a drink and hang out. The name comes from the way the walls inside are stained brown from centuries of cigarette smoke.

De Sluyswacht is right on a canal, in a ridiculously slanted small building that used to be a lock-keeper's house. It looks like it's been huffed at and puffed at but luckily, it was only put a little off-kilter. Peter had a beer and I had a Kuala with coffee, which we carried up a steep flight of wooden stairs to an open room that felt a lot like a club house. After a bit, we even managed to get a seat at the window, which has a tremendous view up the canal. (This link is just to some random guy's picture – Peter did not bring his camera on this trip.)

We passed an enjoyable bit of time alternating between staring out the window and perusing the guidebooks to locate a place to have dinner. Peter had decided he wanted sushi. I don't eat cooked fish, so you can be damn sure I don't eat raw fish. Getting sushi is a huge treat for Peter, especially now that we live in Dublin, so I am willing to suck it up and take one for the team, which usually means either having teriyaki-something or fashioning a dinner out of carefully selected appetizers.

Peter picked a place out near the museum campus, so we took the tram out there. This was only our second tram ride, which is a testament to how walk-able of a city Amsterdam is. The sushi establishment turned out to be not so much a restaurant as a sushi deli where a Dutch woman packaged of pre-made sushi pieces from a cold display case. There was no way I could eat anything from the place, so Peter got his sushi to go and we hopped on a different tram to get back near our hotel, where I'd remembered seeing an upscale cafeteria-like place.

The cafeteria place turned out to be a bit too upscale for my pedestrian tastes. I told Peter it was okay, that he should just have his sushi and then we could get my dinner later. So Peter had passable sushi, sitting on a park bench overlooking a canal, which I imagine is not exactly what he pictured when he said he wanted sushi for dinner. After his dinner, we hung out in our hotel room for a few hours until my hunger level made foraging necessary.

We ended up about a block from the hotel, at a place called Goodies, which turned out to be not just a clever name. I had the best fried-brie salad that I have ever had. The lettuce was crisp and deep green and most assuredly not of the wretched iceberg variety. The brie cubes were fried to perfection and when I cut them open, they became little cups of melted cheese. I was a happy girl and I think I got the much better end of our dinner bargain.

Goodies, like a lot of Amsterdam establishments, had a resident cat, a medium-sized black and white male whom we later learned was named Mickey When we came in, Mickey was sitting on the bar with his back to the restaurant, having a bit of a bath. It's apparently exhausting work, licking your fur, because when he was done, he curled up on the bar for a nap Sometime later, a guy came into the bar, scooped Mickey up and deposited him on a nearby table. Mickey remained in his curled-up position and kept napping on the table, eventually rolling onto his back with his paws delightfully curled over his chests. He reminded me so much of our old cat, Jeeves, that I wanted to scoop him up and bring him home with us.

Shortly after my dinner arrived, Mickey came over to check it out. He's quality control, you know. I wasn't going to feed someone else's cat, so he soon tired of me and went over to hang out with Peter, who had great fun trying to find that spot on the back of a cat that, when scratched vigorously, causes the cat to go into a frenzy of uncontrollable licking. But then, of course, another table got their dinners and Mickey had to fulfill his inspection duties.

We had another early night as we had big plans for the next day, Peter's birthday.

Day Four: Happy Birthday to Peter

Extravagant birthday trip aside, I am still a big believer in the sanctity and enjoyability of birthdays. I know that some people tend to get a bit maudlin and hung up on the whole aging thing, but as far as I'm concerned, that's what the other 364 days of the year are for. Your birthday should be the one day that is all about you, the one day that you let yourself experience life with the unabashed joy and excitement of a child.

We went to the bakery near Rembrandtplein for breakfast waffles and then wandered our way up to Nieumarkt, where we were scheduled to meet up for a unique tour of Amsterdam – a tour by Segway. According to the official web site, the Segway is "a self-balancing personal transportation designed to go anywhere you go." It looks a bit like a skinny podium on wheels. We'd seen them before and always thought it would be a cool thing to try out, so we were happy to have an excuse.

I'd wondered how we were going to find the tour, but it turned out to be a stupid question. A couple of minutes before 10, we saw a young woman motoring around on a Segway. Pretty effective advertising. We met with Michael, the owner and tour guide, and Edith, the safety assistant. Michael gives the talks and leads the way while Edith handles the mop-up duties, including instructing errant Segway-ers and shouting warnings about approaching cars and cyclists.

Michael brought us back to the garage, where we had to sign the obligatory "I won't sue and I will be responsible for anything I break" documents. We were also outfitted with helmets. Well, we would have been but they didn't have a helmet big enough to fit Peter's head. (If we ever have children, I am going to be in so much trouble, between the Scanlan big-head and Peter's giant cranium. I will probably have to birth a baby with a beach ball-sized head.) I thought this might be a sticking point but both Michael and Peter were comfortable with a sans-helmet ride.

We were each assigned a Segway and told how to operate it in "power-assist mode," which basically entails using the motor to help with dragging the Segway behind you like a suitcase. Michael adjusted my Segway so I wouldn't have to drive it like a little old lady in a humungous Cadillac. We dragged our machines over to a basketball court to get our crash-course in learning how to use them. Happily, no crashing was involved.

Since we were the only two people on the tour, we had individualized tutoring. Peter worked with Edith and seemed to learn much more quickly than I did. Michael explained to me how to turn the machine on and make sure it was ready for me. (You get a happy smiley face in a small indicator window on the handlebars.) Stepping onto the Segway for the first time is a step into the unknown. It just doesn't seem possible that this platform will support you weight and remain stable. You expect to fall over, that the cosmic football will be yanked out from in front of you. But somehow, the Segway defies your expectations, even if it is a little wobbly for the couple of minutes that it takes you to work out what it's all about.

I can only imagine the technical and engineering wonders that are working under the platform because using the Segway is remarkably easy and intuitive. The move forward, you lean forward. To move backward, you lead back. Simple. Until you get the hang of how to stand neutrally though, there's a lot of going backwards, which resulted in me bailing out of the Segway a few times.

Turning is also easy although a little less intuitive. You have to twist a ring on one of the handlebars. One direction turns you right and the other direction turns you left. You can probably see the problem here – remembering which twist takes you in which direction. Yeah, I had that problem big-time. I would hope that future generations of the Segway let you lean in the direction you want to go.

Learning to ride a Segway takes about 2 minutes if you're Peter, with his fine motor skills and exquisite understanding of physics and machinery. Or, if you're me – a clumsy, physics-phobic dolt, it takes more like 15 minutes. But it is easily learnable, even for said physics-challenged dolt.

After Michael was satisfied that we were not a danger to ourselves or others, he led us out of the playground and onto the tour. Amsterdam, with its ample cycling lanes, is uniquely suited to this sort of tour. We made our way on the streets and cycle lanes, although I was finding it hard to enjoy the scenery since almost all of my concentration was focused on safely operating the Segway. I rode slowly and mincingly, not actually all that different than an ancient woman in a large Cadillac, except that I could see over the handlebars.

Before we'd even reached our first point of interest, I had an Incident. We had just made a turn onto a narrow-ish street when Edith announced an approaching car, which turned out to be a big blue van. I felt like I was too close to the van and attempted to steer closer to the curb, but I operated the steering ring wrong and started to veer into the van, which made me panic and over-correct so instead I bumped into the curb, which sent me back into the side of the van. I managed to jump off and pull the Segway back with one arm while hold the other out to stop our crashing into the van. I actually made contact with the van, enough that when the driver was clear, he stopped to make sure he hadn't hit me. All I could think of in that moment was how close I came to owing Michael $10,000 to replace the Segway.

Edith pulled up next to me and told me that I had plenty of room and that the street wasn't as narrow as I thought it was. She suggested that if I was worried about a passing car, that I should just stop and let the car pass. She said "That was pretty scary, wasn't it?" which was the exact perfect thing to say and I felt a lot better after that.

For the next two and a bit hours, we glided through Amsterdam, stopping periodically to learn more about a particular sight. At just about every stop, someone would come up and ask questions about the Segway. Edith would field these and hand out business cards while Michael did the tour-guide thing. Tourists took photographs of us, which is sort of weird to think that you're in some stranger's vacation slides.

We hit just about every major sight within 10 kilometers of the city centre – the Rembrandt house, the Rijksmuseum, the Leidseplein, the Anne Frank Huis, the Dam, the Neiuwe Kerk, the Oude Kerk, and the Red Light District. The weather ranged from pleasant but brisk to raining and freezing. Luckily, we are no strangers to quickly changeable weather and we both adhere to the "if you let a little rain stop you, you'd never do anything" philosophy.

We had a great time and I'd certainly recommend a Segway tour. The only downside is that it sort of ruins you for walking for a while after you do it. We were both starving when the tour was over so we walked over to a beer café, which happened to be closed. We poked around a bit and found two nearby alternatives – an Argentinean steakhouse or a bruin café. The steakhouse was a bit too meat-heavy for me, so we went with the café. It was suitably rustic yet cozy inside and was staffed by a single waiter who was much less hassled than you might expect, largely because he seemed to operate on his own timetable, regardless of how many people he had waiting for him. Let's just say that it was a long lunch.

Even though we'd both been there before, I was hoping we'd get a chance to go to the Van Gogh museum. He's my favourite painter and I remember really enjoying the museum. But the Birthday Boy is a photographer and had a professional interest in going to FOAM (Fotografie Museum Amsterdam). In retrospect, I should have pushed Van Gogh, as light plays such a large part of his paintings, Peter have seen lots of thought-provoking images. But, you know, birthdays are sacred and all of that.

FOAM turned out to be a miserable waste of time. We spent more time in the café slaking my ravaged thirst with 2 bottles of diet Coke than we did in the exhibits. To me, it seems like photography is sort of like the fringe theatre of the visual arts world – a very small percentage of it is great, technically-competent, cutting-edge, mind-expanding stuff and the rest is horribly pretentious crap masquerading as Art. FOAM was loaded with the second category. One exhibit, by Philip-Lorca diCorcia was good if a little unsettling. He had two series of large photographs, each in separate rooms. In the first room we went into, it was a series of portraits of rent boys, with each one's name, hometown, and price listed as part of the title information. They were well-composed and well-lit. The other series was of pole dancers, mid-dance, taken in a dark club with a sort of amorphous dark background. Again, very well-composed and showing interesting feats of acrobatics and flexibility. Both series had an element of desperation and sadness but also of getting on with things, which made the pictures resonate.

The other two exhibits we saw were crap. One was a sort of photo-journalist reportage of Palestinians and Israelis. Not great composition and nothing earth-shatteringly new about them. They were almost visual clichés, in some respects. The other was some minimalist exploration of lines in disused classrooms. Very senior-art-school-assignment.

We left FOAM and headed out to another nearby photography museum, whose name is escaping me. Probably because we weren't able to go into the museum because it was closed while they put up the next exhibition. Our final stop on our photographic tour was a gallery about a mile from our hotel. We hiked out there, our legs aching after 3 hours of standing on Segways and another few hours of walking around, only to find the place was closed. Argh.

So, it was a long walk back to the hotel, with me saying things like "Carry me!" We hung out in the hotel until it was time for dinner. Are you seeing a trend here, with our evenings? We had dinner at a , a great place located in a historic building that's been many things in its life. It was a weighing station where tax was assessed on goods going into the city. One of its towers was an operating theatre/lecture hall where Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. It was also the location of Rembrandt's artist guild.

Although the interior wasn't quite what I was expecting (I was picturing the atmospheric and slightly creepy interiors of The Witchery in Edinburgh), the food was quite delicious. Peter had the lobster started while I had the Waag salad with the vegetarian option in full effect. (It came with quail eggs, but minus the calf tongue of the regular Waag salad.) Peter's main was fillet mignon and mine was a big bucket of melted cheese. OK, I exaggerate a little. It was a ceramic pot of melted cheese, with vegetables and bread. Practically a fondue but without the open flame. When we left the restaurant, I announced to Peter, "I have a belly full of cheese!" which made him laugh.

Since it was our last night, we decided there was one more thing we had to check off our Amsterdam to-do list, a walk through the Red Light District. I'd been there before, although since I was traveling by myself, I just made a quick scamper through at about 7am on a Sunday morning. My overriding memory was being shocked when the "mannequins" in the window moved, revealing themselves to be real women. That kind of freaked me out. Peter had never been through there, since on his first trip to Amsterdam he was about 12 and traveling with his parents.

You could pretty much go to Amsterdam and never go through the Red Light District and not really miss out on anything. It's an undeniably weird place. You have these women, wearing pretty much just bikinis (I swear that 12 years ago they were wearing lingerie that was less revealing), advertising their services by sitting in windows. It seems wrong to look at them, but you can't help it. The softie liberal side of me says that this sort of thing happens anyway, so you might as well provide a mechanism for the women to work safely. If you do the math - € 50 for 15 minutes of work, conservatively estimate 3 customers an hour, 7 hour day, that's € 1050 a day, minus the € 100 to rent the window for a net of € 950. Conservatively say 4 days in a week, for 42 weeks a year, that's just a shade under € 160,000.

So, that's the pragmatic side of it, but I can't help getting sucked into the emotional side of it. There's a tawdry depressing side of it that makes me want to take a shower and have a nap so I don't have to think about it anymore. So, that was my impression of the place – logically, it makes perfect sense, but emotionally, it does my head in and makes me very glad that I'm on the street side of the glass.

Day Five: Back to Life, Back to Reality

I was up early so I could have a run to work off all that cheese and the nervous energy I always seem to accumulate on days that I have to fly. I am not the world's best flyer. I'm not the worst, either, but it's sure not my favourite part of traveling. After my run, I packed my rucksack while Peter got ready and then we set off for Centraal Station. I had already scouted the place out and knew that we could use the lockers to stow our stuff until it was time for the train. Mission accomplished, we spent the last few hours in Amsterdam wandering around and doing a little shopping. Hey, there was a Waterstone's right there and you can ALWAYS use another airplane book.

I actually have a very strict rule for my airplane reading – it has to be a mystery or a suspense novel. My theory is that I am then able to channel all my flying anxieties and fears into the book. Instead of being afraid of flying, I can transfer all that energy and invest it into the book. It makes the book more suspenseful because I am fully engaged in the reading and it also keeps my mind off the idea that we're 25,000 feet off the ground in a giant mailing tube.

Part of our wandering took us window shopping up Amsterdam's answer to Henry Street. We passed a shoe store that had the most kick-ass ass-kicking boots I'd ever seen. No, that's not a redundancy. They were big and black, with extraneous tough-looking buckles and studs. The best bit though were the flames painted on the sides. They were great boots. Peter encouraged me to take a look at them and think about getting them, but I told him there was no way, I don't have the street cred to wear boots like this.

Peter: So, if you'd seen these boots the first time you were in Amsterdam and you'd had the scratch, would you have bought them?

Me: Without a doubt. Although, those boots would have changed my entire life.

Peter: What do you mean?

Me: Well, if I'd had those boots, I probably wouldn't have canceled my trip to Berlin. I wouldn't have made 2 trips to Dublin. I would never have met you. I would have gone to Berlin, met some punk artist guy and ended up falling in love, dropping out of law school, staying in Berlin, and living in a squat with artist man.

Peter: But you're still living in a squat with an artist man.

Me: (After recovering from laughter) Good point, but at least we're not living in abject squalor.

When it was time to leave, we collected our baggage from the locker and then went back out to one of the canals so I could leave a little bit of Grandma. The train ride back to Schiphol was no trouble at all and we found our way around the immense airport with little difficulty.

The only weird thing about flying out of Schiphol is how they operate their security checks. There isn't one set point for security. Each gate has its own metal detector and x-ray machine. But the gates are only operational when a flight is scheduled to use it. So you congregate in the gate area until you get kicked out by the security crew.

They chase everyone out and then perform a thorough security check. They look under seats, move stuff around, carefully examine every potential hide-y hold in the gate area. Only then to they begin the security checks of people. It's sort of a pain, if you need to use the bathroom, to go through security again. But unlike the folks at Charles de Gaulle, they are efficient and are only checking the passengers for a single flight.

We had an uneventful flight back to Dublin, where Peter's sister picked us up to return us to our real lives. Peter was happy to get home. I could have traveled a bit more though. It was a good trip and notable for the absence of marital discord. Slowing myself down to Peter's pace eliminated the tension we usually experience on these trips. I don't know if I'd want to have every trip like that, but it's not a bad thing to slow down every now then.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Introduction to Patrick and Ann’s Excellent Adventure

My grandmother’s parents were from Slovenia but my grandmother never got a chance to visit there. She told stories that her mother had told her about living on a farm and about having to hide in a hay wagon to avoid detection by a Turkish tax inspector. If I remember correctly, Nana used to talk about how the family’s spread was taken over by the Communists after World War II and turned into a day care centre.

For the anniversary of her 92nd birthday (19 January), our second birthday without her, I wanted to bring Nana to Slovenia and leave some of her ashes in her ancestral homeland. I was about 2 months late on my plan, but Nana would definitely say “better late than never.”

Unlike most of my travels so far, this trip was special in that it was with my youngest brother Patrick. Peter stayed home, perhaps wisely fearing too much Scanlan family togetherness. For Patrick and me, the trip was bittersweet since our other brother, Shane, wasn’t able to attend. But we made the best of it and had quite a full time traveling together for nearly two weeks.

Since I am the older, bossy sibling, I took up the mantle of Trip Planner (TM). Looking at the map, flying into Venice was the obvious choice since it was close to Slovenia and a fantastic destination in its own right. I’ve always wanted to see Venice and, given its sinking location, it seemed like I should do it sooner rather than later.

This is a story in five parts:


Part One - Venice: Days 1-3

Because of Aer Lingus’ every-other-day flight schedule to Venice, I arrived the day before Patrick. I was very nervous about arriving alone, after dark, in a place where I don’t know the language. (Yes, I know, everyone speaks English but bitter experience has taught me that the signage mightn’t be in English.)

I emailed the hotel and received detailed instructions on how to get to the Alloggi Agli Artisti. In the departures lounge of Dublin Airport, I studied these directions and the map with all the intensity of a general planning a battle. I compared the directions to the travel information in my Lonely Planet guide book and was starting to feel a little more confident and a little less anxious about my ability to get from Point A to Point B.

After an uneventful flight of just over two hours, we arrived at Marco Polo airport. As I’d expected, it was dark and chilly. We were herded off of the plane and onto a little articulated bus that zipped us over to the terminal. The immigration check was quick and by the time I set foot in the baggage area, the flight’s baggage was just starting to arrive. I’d purchased a special bag just for the trip, one of those enormous rucksacks that are the favoured luggage of college students and hard-core campers everywhere.

My bag arrived in no time, but my hurley was nowhere to be seen. Yeah, I’d insisted on bringing my hurley so I could practice roll-lifts, which my trainer showed me how to do the day before my holiday started. Besides, you never know when a big stick is going to come in handy. In Dublin airport, the baggage check-in person asked me to remove my hurley from my rucksack and checked it as a separate item.

So, there I was, standing at the luggage counter window, trying to explain to a puzzled woman who spoke great English but was understandably not au fait with GAA, that my hurley was missing. “It’s sort of like a hockey stick, but flatter at the end, like a giant wooden spoon.” I was saved when about a couple of luggage handlers brought it over to me.

Rucksack on my bag and hurley in my hand, I walked through a gauntlet of customs police and a too-friendly German sheperd police dog to the outer arrivals area of Marco Polo airport. I have nothing but good things to say about MP. It’s big, sleek, modern, clean, and spacious. The signage is fantastic, particularly for getting you to the section where they sell transportation tickets. The whole airport is very well designed and it’s obvious that they thought carefully about how best to get people out of the airport and into Venice or Padua or wherever the next destination is.

My directions from the wonderful Giacomo at the hotel told me to take the bus to Pizzalle Roma, the last place in Venice where cars are allowed. Then I was instructed to take the N-1 vaporetti (boat-bus) to the Ferrovia stop, which is at the Saint Lucia train station. My guide book, however, told me that it was possible to take a special water bus to the Saint Lucia train station.

I knew I should take the bus, but damn it, I was in Venice and I wanted to take a boat. The ticket window was for both bus tickets and boat tickets, so I figured if I told the woman I needed to get to Ferrovia, she would tell me the best way to do that. (By the way, I love that word, Ferrovia. Say it – it really is a lovely word. Fer-O-Vee-aaaah.) The woman charged me 2 euro for a bus ticket and sent me out the door to bus stand #1.

I felt something was odd, as I’d expected the ticket to cost 3 euro. Outside, I could see from the electronic board that bus stand #2 was for Pizzalle Roma. A nagging voice in my head reminded me that there was another train station in Venice, on the mainland. Mestre. Sure enough, that’s what my ticket was for. If I got on that bus, I’d end up miles and miles away from where I needed to be.

I waited for the Pizzalle Roma bus and when it arrived, I told the driver I’d been sold the wrong ticket. He made sure I wanted to go to Pizzalle Roma and I assured him that was my intended destination. He looked at my Mestre ticket and then waved me onto the bus with a shrug. I was heartily relieved that I’d avoided making such a stupid traveling mistake.

The bus set off for Venice, traveling past industrial waste grounds and car dealerships. Airports around the world seem to be located in similar areas. We drove down a long bridge, about 6 km, that reminded me of driving to Key West. The bus pulled into Pizzalle Roma and before I knew it, I was standing alone in a scrubby square trying to figure out where to go. Well, I wasn’t literally alone. There were other people around but I didn’t know anyone and wasn’t quite sure where I was going.

I took a deep breath, hoisted my pack and blundered off in the direction of the canal. I decided taking the vaporetti was the best way to go, so I bought a 24-hour pass, figuring I could use the ticket the next day in my explorations. When I shoved the ticket into the yellow validation machine, nothing happened. I tried it a couple of times, but the machine appeared to be broken. I pocketed the ticket, figuring that if stopped I’d be able to explain what had happened.

I followed the signs for the N1 vaporetti and got onto what I thought was the boat. I stood in a corner waiting for the boat to undock. When the actual boat arrived, I realised that I’d confused what was essentially a bus shelter with the boat. I stood in the middle part of the boat, feeling the chill winds and looking out at the dark water and shapes of buildings. I could hear maritime noises and it felt like I was in a spy movie. I kept expecting a bum to shamble up to me, whisper something nonsensical in Italian and drop a packet of classified documents into my purse.

My boat trip only lasted 2 minutes, since Ferrovia was the next stop. I followed Giacomo’s excellent directions and arrived at the hotel in no time, ready for dinner and a good long sleep to fortify me for my next day of exploring.


The next morning, I was out early for a pre-breakfast walk. It is exactly like the pictures. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a place that compared so closely with my expectations. Canals, bridges, cobbled streets – it’s all the way it is on the postcards and in the travel books.

What struck me most thought was that Venice is a place with domestic needs and duties. It’s not just a holiday palace or a movie set. It’s a real working city with the demands of any city anywhere. It’s not Disneyland, where I imagine they go to great lengths to hude the garbage collections and the goods deliveries.

Within a few minutes, I saw a recycling boat, a boat carrying crates of Moet, a police boat, an ambulance boat, and a boat carrying construction materials. My perception of boats, with the exception of fishing boats, is that they are the playthings of the rich. Oh sure, I know that right now there are thousands of enormous cargo ships traversing the oceans. But when I think of small boats, I tend to think of sail boats and yachts, hobby boats for well-off sailors. In Venice, small boats are beasts of burden, carrying everything from fresh fruit and kegs of beer to toilet paper and two-by-fours.

Everyone talks about how expensive Venice is and I can’t disagree. You can find reasonably priced meals, but the minimum going rate for a 500 ml bottle of diet Coke is 2 euro, a good 70 cent more expensive than Ireland. The difference is that in Ireland, it’s hard sometimes to understand why things are so much more expensive. In Venice, after five minutes of looking around, you understand the price of things.

A supply boat pulls up to a dock. The supplies are unloaded and if your shop or restaurant is right on the canal, then getting the supplies into your business is relatively easy. If, on the other hand, your shop is in a picturesque little square tucked away in a quiet corner of Venice, your supplies are loaded onto a handcart. Someone has to then take that handcart and wheel it to your establishment. If there are several canals between your business and the boat dock, then the poor delivery person has to get that cart up and down the steps of the bridges, one bumping step at a time. So, you can see how the labour/delivery costs gets added into the price of goods.

(This is not to say that there isn’t tourist pricing in effect in some areas. For example, there is no reason why that bottle of diet coke should cost 2.50 or 3 euro in the San Marco area except that thirsty tourists, bedazzled by the splendor of the Basilica, will pay more for things because they either don’t know any better, aren’t thinking clearly, or can’t be arsed to shop around.)

On my first day in Venice, I steered clear of San Marco, figuring I should save that for when Patrick was there. Since our plan was to spend the next night in Venice, go to Slovenia for 10 days, and then return to Venice for 2 days, I didn’t feel like I had to cram in Venice. I knew that I would be returning so I could just relax and enjoy walking around and soaking in the sights.

One of the most important tenets, I think, of being a tourist is to recognise and seize opportunities. During one of my ambles, I needed to find a toilet, so I ducked into a hotel near Rialto. I blew past the front desk, acting like I knew where I was going and belonged there. (That’s another key skill, by the way.) On the way to the bathroom, I saw signs for a panoramic terrace. I decided to check it out and was rewarded some quiet time on a lovely little terrace overlooking the canal and Rialto.

I did take care of a couple pieces of business. Between my parents and my father-in-law, we’d been given 300 euro to use in our trip. Patrick and I decided we’d use it in Slovenia, mostly to rent a car for a day trip/adventure from Ljubljana. I wanted to get the euro converted into Slovenian tolars (SIT) in Venice because I hate arriving into a country without at least a little of the official cash on hand. I found a currency exchange near Rialto, handed over my euro and walked out with 60,000 SIT. As Patrick later remarked, it was like our very own Slovenian rap video.

The other thing I did was purchase our tickets for the train to Ljubljana. The EC Casanova goes direct, takes about four hours and is meant to cost around 30 euro. The ticket seller informed me that I could have a special rate of 15 euro, but I wouldn’t be able to change the tickets. Fair enough – it’s not like our plans were going to change.

I met a very jet-lagged Patrick at Marco Polo airport in the afternoon. He’d flown from Atlanta to Detroit, then from Detroit to Amsterdam. I think he had about a four hour layover in Amsterdam before flying to Venice. It was 4 pm in Venice, but it was 10 am in Patrick’s head and he’d been mostly awake for about 30 hours. He’d hoped to be able to sleep on the transatlantic flight, but the guy behind Patrick somehow kept poking him in the ribs with his feet. I’m not sure of the logistics of this, only that Patrick was not very amused.

We went back to the hotel, where Patrick was able to have a shower and feel a bit more human. I wouldn’t let him nap though. We watched a little Italian television and then headed out to get dinner. We got quite lost, wandering the twisty alleyways in search of a pizza place recommended in Lonely Planet. In the dark, it’s very difficult to see where the narrow walkways lead. As a result, it sometimes looks like people are bursting out of nowhere or walking into brick walls.

In the end, we did find the pizza place and then quite easily found our way back to the hotel. Patrick toughed it out until 9 pm and slept through the night, which is best (albeit hardest) way to tackle jetlag.

Goodbye Venice, Hello Ljubljana

After breakfast, we packed our rucksacks and checked out of the room. Since our trip was broken into discrete chunks, Patrick and I devised a scheme for who would pay for which lodging instead of splitting everything in half at each place. The end result was the same, but the mechanics were a bit easier. It was my job to pay for the first hotel in Venice, which I did with cash when we were checking out.

Patrick: Why didn’t you just pay with a credit card?

Me: Well, I used Peter’s credit card for the booking, but I’d rather just pay cash unless I have no choice but to pay online.

When I mentioned Peter’s credit card, the hotel desk clerk looked up sharply and gave me this sly, knowing smile. I was puzzled about this until later when Patrick said that she probably thought I was having an affair. This was such an alien concept to me. I mean, Patrick and I have been siblings for twenty-eight years. I barely think of him as a man – he’s my little brother.

We had a low-key day in Venice, just killing time until our train left in the afternoon. Patrick wanted a travel journal, so we made that our morning’s goal. My trusty Lonely Planet guide recommended an art store as having everything you could ever want, so we made that our first stop. When we went into the small shop, which also doubled as a photocopying and Internet place, it was hard to believe it was the same shop the guidebook boasted about.

The shop had art supplies, but it didn’t have sketchbooks. Or at least it had nothing visible. We tried to explain to the guy what we were looking for, but he didn’t speak English. We finally shrugged, thanked him, and left. The guidebook also recommended a couple of places that sold marbled paper (which sounds really difficult to write on, if you ask me), so we went to one of those – Legatoria Polliero. (One of the great games when you don’t speak the language is to make up the meaning of names. I decided that Legatoria Polliero meant “the Legal Chicken.”)

It was a great place – stacked haphazardly with journals, notebooks, picture frames, photograph albums and other hand-made paper-based goods. The owner was a grumpy-ish old man who didn’t speak English. Patrick selected a journal and a pencil, which the man very carefully and precisely wrapped. Patrick was so taken with the place that he said he wanted to beg the man to take him on as an apprentice.

In the afternoon, we caught our train to Ljubljana. It was a nice, modern train. No antiquated carriages with those horribly awkward little rooms although the seating was in groups of four around a table. I’m not sure I understand the rationale behind this decision, unless the bias is for social groups and sociable traveling. I much prefer bus-style, straight-ahead-in-pairs seating.

Patrick and I had facing window seats, so we kept crunching each other’s toes, which I guess is better than fighting over the arm rest. After the second or third stop, a guy got on and sat next to me. I did my best to politely ignore him, which is how I tend to treat strangers on these sorts of forced-close-quarters situations.

I read my book and tried not to listen to the obnoxious music of the guy behind me. I’ll need to rant about this on my other blog sometime, but it mystifies me that even with headphones, you often have to listen to other people’s music when you’re traveling via public transportation.

We had an uneventful trip, arriving into Ljubljana around 7.30 at night. It was dark and starting to rain. We found a cash machine so we could get some tolar. I was able to take out money from my Irish account without difficulty, but Patrick first didn’t know how much money he wanted to take out and then was having trouble getting his US-issued bank card to work properly.

This is where we had our first sibling spat. I got edgy, standing in front of a cash station in a potentially questionable part of town, with 35-pound rucksacks on our backs. In my paranoid mind, we might as well just issue written invitations to all the muggers in town. In Patrick’s head, he didn’t want to be cashless. I was annoyed with Patrick because I felt like he should have figured out how much he needed BEFORE we got to the cash machine and that his disorganization and technical difficulties were putting us in unnecessary potential danger.

I stepped over the line when I canceled his ATM transaction and told him we’d worry about it tomorrow and that I had plenty of cash to cover dinner. (It was my job to pay for lodging in Ljubljana, so he didn’t have to worry about that either.) This seizing of Patrick’s autonomy and reenactment of childhood roles (Bossy Old Sister vs. Incapable Baby Brother) understandably upset Patrick although I think he was a bit too sharp in expressing his feelings about the situation, which happened as we tromped the five blocks to the hostel I’d booked for us.

By the time we got to the hostel, I was ready to give up the trip as a bad job. I think I was also in the blood-sugar red zone, which certainly wasn’t helping matters. We got to the hostel and tried to check in only to find out that we didn’t have reservations.

Desk Attendant: I have no record of your reservation.
Me: I booked online. Room 107. Then I called in with the credit card. This was about a month ago.
DA: No, I don’t see any record of that here.
Me (temper barely in check): Here’s my e-mail confirmation.
DA (compares print-out to the computer): This is for 4 March through 7 March. Today is 3 March. Your reservation doesn’t start until tomorrow.
Me (wiping egg off my face): Right. Do you have any beds for tonight? Doesn’t have to be a double.
DA: Sorry, I don’t even have half a bed for tonight. The whole place is booked solid.

The Desk Attendant was fantastically helpful though. She gave us a map and marked the location of the nearest hostel, which looked like it was about a half mile away. I asked about a closer hotel and there was one just at the end of the street. So, off we trudged, with one of us trying desperately to salvage the tattered shreds of her Organizing Queen title. How could I possibly have let that happen? I had visions of us trekking for ages to get to the other hostel only to find that either they didn’t have any beds or they only had beds in a 32-bed dormitory room. Ugh. The best I could hope for was that the hotel would have available and affordable rooms.

Patrick and I also had a bit of patching up to do. This proved to be relatively straightforward and easy. Patrick, you see, is a much better person than I am. He graciously accepted my apology and proffered apologies of his own. We arrived at the Park Hotel with the ignominious incident well behind us.

The Park Hotel saved the day, coming through with a double room for a reasonable 72 euro total (and they accepted euro notes, so we didn’t have to dip into our tolar fund). The room was a bit odd, with the two single beds long-wise against one wall. Patrick said he felt like he was back in his college dorm room. We had everything we needed at the Park – beds, ensuite bathroom, and cable television. The only thing we were missing was dinner, which we got for carryout from a nearby kebab restaurant.

It took me about an hour of mulling it over to realise what had happened. In my original itinerary, I had us getting off the train in Postjona, spending the night there, and then touring the cave before catching a bus or train into Ljubljana. But then the lodging options in Postjona seemed a bit thin on the ground and it looked like a better option was to go there as a day trip. So I changed the logistics of our itinerary, but it never occurred to me to then extend the hostel stay in Ljubljana. I guess I thought the hostel would just magically know that I’d changed our plans. Duh.

After dinner, Patrick went to check out the local nightlife and I went to sleep. In the morning, I learned that he’d met a guy who was desperate to meet an American woman, preferably one in her 40s or 50s. It seems like Patrick had talked to this guy for about 5 minutes before the guy was handing over his email address and asking Pat to find him a girlfriend.

Part Two: Ljubljana – Days 4 – 6

Searching for Ancestors

We had a few errands to take care of before we could set out on the centerpiece adventure of our trip. After breakfast, we set out to find Patrick a suitable cash machine and also to pick up a good map of the country. Our Aunt Lois had done a bit of detective work (i.e. she called a Great Aunt in California, which I think is sort of like an Aunt-escalation plan) to locate the name of Nana’s family’s village. My dad sent it in an email and it looked like this: Hrovaca.

I’d been unable to find it on a map but had found a short reference to it on the Slovenian Tourism web site. While Patrick handled his cash machine business, I went into the Tourist Information Centre where the most delightful young man helped me figure out where we wanted to go.

The first problem was that I was pronouncing the name all wrong, so wrong that poor David the kindly TIC worker had no clue what I was saying or how to spell it. The second problem was that I was remembering the spelling wrong: Hrovoca. And the third problem is that I didn’t have the email with me. I told David that I’d found reference to the place on tourism web site, that some famous writer guy was from there, and that I was pretty sure it was near Ribnica.

Patrick joined me in the TIC after his successful cash machine mission. I’d hoped he’d have the email, but he didn’t have it wit him. David tried searching the web site for my butchered spelling of the town but was coming up blank. He let me come around behind the counter and look up my email. Of course, I’d deleted the email but my dad’s blog saved the day. David was quite personable and chatted with me about a cycling trip he took in Ireland. He particularly enjoyed County Cork.

After I’d unearthed the name of the place we wanted to visit, David immediately realized what the problem was. The town isn’t Hrovaca at all. It’s Hrovača. The č makes all the difference. It also turns out that the town isn’t really on a map because it’s considered like a suburb of Ribnica. We bought a nice wire-bound driving atlas and a Slovenian phrase book, then said our good-byes and thanks to David.

As we were walking out the door, he told us that he’d learned a tiny bit of Irish on his travels. Grinning like an imp, he said “I know it’s not very nice, but it’s póg mahone. That’s it. That’s the Irish I know.” I had to laugh because it was clear he had been saving it up, not sure whether or not to use it since it is a bit rude. He was a fun guy and I know Nana would have loved him.

Patrick and I then walked nearly 3 miles in the rain to the hotel where we had to collect our rental car. I’d booked it online because it was cheap and hadn’t realized what a trek we would have. Under different circumstances, it probably wouldn’t have been a bad walk, but the weather was pretty bad.

When we got to the hotel, the rental car guy explained all of the rental details to us. He actually said things like "The deductible is 250 euro. That means if you get drunk and crash the car, you only have to pay 250 euro." He also told us that either of us could drive the car. I told him that we weren’t married and he said that didn’t matter. (In the States, it’s typical that either spouse can drive a rental car without having to pay the extra driver fee. But even then, they usually want to at least see said spouse’s license.) After going through the contract, he took us outside, introduced us to our little Fiat Punto, and gave Patrick a thorough tutorial on the car’s controls and the laws in Slovenia. (The big ones were no right turns on red and you have to drive with your lights on all the time.)

We drove to the hotel, checked out, and got on the road for Hrovača. I was navigating and Patrick was driving and we weren’t doing too badly although we did have a couple of dicey moments. The problem was that the road signs weren’t really labeled (like M-50 or N-11 or I-77). They just listed destination cities. So, when you don’t know where Maribor is or how to quickly find it on a map, it’s difficult to make a quick decision on whether or not the road to Maribor is for you or if you should hold out for the road to Zagreb.

We made a stop at a petrol station to get some snacks and also picked up a couple of coffees. The station had a café-bar attached to it. Yep, in Slovenia, you can stop on the side of the road, fill up on petrol, and have a couple of beers before heading off onto the twisty mountain roads. Speaking of which, the 1.2 liter Fiat Punto is not the car you want to have on those twisty mountain roads. (Especially the one we were on, which allowed passing even though it was only one lane in each direction and it was, you know, twisty and mountainous.)

It took us about 2 hours to get down to Ribnica. We drove through the town centre, but didn’t see any signs for Hrovača. So we went a few miles outside town then drove back into the centre to ask for directions. We went into a supermarket and I asked the butcher (who was a big roly-poly man who completely looked like a butcher) in Slovenian if he spoke English. He looked puzzled for a moment and then grabbed another supermarket worker and shoved her at us, saying something in Slovenian.

I showed her the map and pointed to a sticky note on which David, our TIC hero, had written Hrovača. She nodded and took us outside, where she proceeded to give us directions in German. (This sort of linguistic bait-and-switch happened a couple of times during our travels, which wasn’t too bad because I have just enough German to understand basic commands and directions. At least enough to head in the right direction or complete simple transactions.)

We were less than half a mile away from Hrovača, so we got there in about 2 minutes. It was a nice little collection of houses and other buildings, all grouped very close to each other. I looked for a day care centre, but didn’t see one. I have no idea which might have belonged to my grandmother’s grandparents.

We drove through the town, then turned around and drove back through it. We parked the car near the church and had a wander through the graveyard.

It was very cold and blustery and I despaired of how we would ever locate any of the people on my grandmother’s family tree. There was no caretaker or directory and I’d guess the cemetery had at least 500 graves. We wandered through the first few rows and then Patrick noticed a headstone with my grandmother’s maiden name: Prelesnik. We spent the next 30 or 45 minutes searching for names and taking pictures.

We walked back to the main road and left a bit of Nana in a field. It didn’t seem right to leave her in the cemetery (weird, I know, her being dead and all) so we left her in a spot with a view of the distant hills.

Having completed our chief mission, we got back in the car and decided, since we were more than half-way there anyway, to go check out Croatia. At the border, we had to go through 4 separate checks – 2 by Slovenian officials and 2 by Croatian officials. The last guy came out of the little guard hut and told Patrick to open the boot. Patrick popped the release button and sat there, waiting for the guy to look in the trunk. Then the guy bellowed “OPEN!” and you could see Patrick flinch, no doubt envisioning the hardships of months in a Croatian work-prison for defying a customs official.

The guy poked our bags, felt up my hurley, and then declared us free to go. We drove across the border with vague plans to maybe drive to the next large town on the map, Delnica, and then head straight back. The Croatian countryside was gorgeous if a bit desolate. The road, narrow to the point of one lane in some places, wound along the path of a river, so we had river on one side and mountains on the other. It reminded me a little of driving in Scotland, only the roads in Scotland were in much better shape.

When we’d driven for 30 minutes and hadn’t found Delnica nor seen any signs for Delnica, we decided to turn around and give up Delnica for a bad job. It was starting to get late and our goal was to be back in Ljubljana safe and sound before nightfall. We did stop the car and walk around in little in the border town, Brod na Kupi, but it was a complete ghost town. Both the restaurant and the hotel were closed. I went into the shop but I didn’t have the right money. The shop keeper said I could change money in the police station around the corner, but there really wasn’t any reason to do that.

Our return trip into Slovenia was nothing – 4 sets of officials waving us along and our drive back to Ljubljana was uneventful. We arrived at Hostel Celica just before it got really dark, so our entire mission was a big success.

I’m Too F***ing Old To Stay In a Hostel

I selected Hostel Celica based on a recommendation in Lonely Planet. For an EU-accession state, Ljubljana’s hotel rooms aren’t all that cheap. Maybe it’s a capital-city thing. In any case, it seemed like the price for a double room in a hostel in Ljubljana was about the price for a double room in a B&B anywhere else in Slovenia. So I resigned myself to having to live like a backpacking 20-something.

Hostel Celica wasn’t a bad choice. Architecturally and historically, it’s a fascinating place. In its past life as part of an Austro-Hungarian military complex, it was a prison. Then it was taken over by squatters after the Yugoslav Army abandoned it and now it’s a hip and happening hostel. Almost too hip and happening.

On the ground floor, there’s an airy café and darker and more atmospheric Turkish hookah/water pipe bar. The water pipe bar is all cushions on a raised wooden floor and low-slung tables. Anyone can visit the café and bar, but you need a key to get up to the first floor where there are 20 renovated prison cells.

Teams of artists and architects designed each cell, so they are all completely different although I am pretty sure the dimensions are exactly the same. Each cell has two doors – an outer solid door and an inner prison bars door. (The doors are right up against each other, like a screen door and a regular door. It’s not like you have to go through an airlock to get into your room.) One of the house rules is that during the day, you can only lock your barred door. This is because they give tours of the hostel. There is a lot of peeking into other people’s cells as they are locking and unlocking the barred door.

Patrick and I were staying in Cell 107, which I’d selected because I was taken with the mural and I wanted to sleep on the top bunk. You can sort of see the top bunk in this picture here. What you can also see in that picture, or rather can't see, is a ladder. The ladder was a freestanding deal that wasn't the most stable ladder on the planet. It also didn't go up as high as the bunk. The pole that you see, went through the bunk, but it did not go up as high as the ceiling. It was also broken and unstable, since previous guests probably used it for leverage and balance when trying to get into the top bunk. Like most of the hostel, the room was designed for looks, not for practicality and usability.

I thought long and hard about the top bunk and decided that it would most likely be the cause of a broken limb in my near future. So I claimed the top bunk, dragged its mattress onto the floor and slept there for the duration of our stay. It actually wasn’t bad although I missed the up-high-thrill of the top bunk.

Besides my inability to get into the top bunk, there is the whole bathroom situation. I'm too old and weaned on comfort to find sharing a bathroom was 20+ other people a tenable situation. The hostel bathrooms were mostly clean, at least during the day. At night, they became a lot less clean and that's all I'm going to say about it. There was also the issue of getting to the bathroom – unlocking two sets of doors, relocking at least one door, walking the long, narrow prison hallway… It was all undeniably creepy.

Patrick is a nightlife kind of guy and we fell into an easy routine in our three nights at Hostel Celica. After our joint adventures were done for the day (usually after dinner), Patrick would go out for a beer or two or to spend some time and money at the casino. I'd retire to our cell and read until my eyeballs gave up. Then I'd fall asleep and Patrick would come in sometime after midnight saying "Hello, it's me. It's Patrick. It's me" because he knows about my propensity for waking in a panic and trying to hit perceived intruders with my hurley.

Caves, Castles, and Careening Through the Snow

On Sunday, we took the Fiat out to Postojna, which is about 40 kilometers from Ljubljana. It's the site of one of the most fantastic caves in Slovenia. Postojna Cave is immense and the entire system covers 21 kilometers although only the dry parts are accessible to the average visitor. Peter's father once derisively referred to a cave in Ireland (I think it might have been Ailwee) as being "too housebroken." Postojna Cave takes housebroken too a whole new level. It is, in fact, the Disneyland of caves.

The visit starts in an indoor waiting area where you can rent a heavy wool cape to wear while you're braving the wilds of the cold, dark cave. When it was time for the tour to start, we were ushered through the doorways and down the stairs to the waiting tram. The tram travels through about several kilometers of cave. It's a twisting route through breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites, each formation more beautiful than the last. The tram moves at a fair clip, which adds an extra chill to the subterranean air. The tram also goes through formations that seem like they have a bit of a low ceiling. Poor Patrick spent most of the ride ducking.

After about 15 minutes, the tram let us off in a staging area where we were directed to language-based waiting areas. We set off for the English area and then waited for our guide. The tour of the cave took about an hour and we moved through various areas of the cave with names like the Concert Hall, the Red Room, and the White Room. We also went over a narrow bridge that Russian prisoners built during WWI. After the tour, we got to see the human fish, a weird little white salamander that only lives in these caves. Then it was back on the tram to the exit area, where you can see the river that carved out the cave. The exit for the cave is the natural opening to the cave. I think the impact would be greater if they'd used it as the start of the tour.

As it had been for the whole of our trip in Ljubljana, it was raining as we drove to the 9 km to Predjama castle, whose location alone is worth the trip to see it. The castle is perched high on a rocky outcropping over a river. If that's not enough of a cool factor, the castle is built into the mouth of a cave into the mountain. The mountain is apparently full of caves and secret passage ways.

Lonely Planet had a great little story about Erazem Lueger, who lived in the castle during the 1500s. Erazem apparently sided with one royal over another and his attacks on the other side were taken quite seriously. The bad royal lay siege to Predjama Castle in an attempt to put a stop to Erazem's marauding. Only Erazem was a tricky, resourceful chap and he was able to use the caves and secret passages to come and go as he pleased, sometimes raining cherry blossoms down on the attackers just to taunt them with proof that he could leave the castle at will.

Erazem met a bad end though when one of his workers accepted a bribe from the bad royal. The worker explained where the toilet area was (back in the day, you pretty much just hung your bottom out the window and let fly) and sent out a prearranged signal when Erazem went to do his business. One well-aimed cannonball later and Erazem was history.

This is about all I know about Predjama Castle. Unfortunately, in the off-season, they don't really do tours of the castle although you can pay a couple of euro to have a look-see. The thing about castles is that they all look more or less the same and it’s the extra information about history, architecture and the personality of past inhabitants that you can get from a knowledgeable guide that can add to the touring experience.

We tromped around the castle until we'd seen it all. On our short walk from the castle to the car, the relentless rain changed to sleet. We didn't think much of it, figuring that the sleet wouldn't last for long. Sleet usually doesn't, after all. Patrick did a good job of keeping calm and driving appropriately for the weather, along some pretty twisty roads. When we got onto the highway in Postojna, there was at least an inch of white stuff on the ground. We were a bit unsure about whether or not it was snow or sleet. At a certain point, I guess it doesn't matter.

The ride back to Ljubljana was a bit treacherous. We saw cars spun out and saw people using their hands to try to clear tracks so they could merge onto the highway. In an hour, we got about 4 inches of snow. Patrick managed to get us back to the hostel without any major incidents, although we did nearly get stuck pulling into the hostel driveway.

When we collected our keys from the front desk, I asked the girl if the snow had been forecast on the radio. She told me yes, that they were expecting up to half a meter. (Which is about a foot and a half.) She said it had been forecast for a couple of days and that more snow was expected on Thursday or Friday. To Patrick and me, this was shocking news. We'd been quite happily operating along in our little news-and-weahter-insulated cocoon. We'd listened to the radio in the car, but since we don't speak Slovenian, we'd had no clue what was coming.

Alone Day

After a good few days of family-togetherness, Patrick and I decided to spend our last day in Ljubljana alone. I got up early and shoveled out the car so that Patrick would be able to return it. Then I decided that I would spend a good chunk of my alone day at Klub Zlati, a sauna spa in Tivoli Park. I love a good sauna and it seemed like it would be a nice way to relax. The Lonely Planet listed opening hours as being Women only: 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Tuesdays, 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. Fridays and then various open hours other days of the week, usually from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. during weekdays and 10 a.m. to midnight during the weekend. It was a Monday, so off I went, arriving a little bit after 10.

The woman who was working the front desk told me that she spoke a little English and was able to sell me an entry ticket and a towel. She gave me a locker key and pointed me in the direction of the locker room. I went into the vast locker room, where only a single elderly lady was getting change. I changed into my tankini swimming suit and went in search of the sauna.

All of the signs were in Slovenian and I really had no idea where I was going. I ended up opening a door and walking into a waiting area, where a receptionist stood at a desk. I asked her where I was supposed to go. She explained to me that this was the massage place and that she really didn't work for the sauna club, but that she would help me find where I needed to go.

She led me back through the changing room and out a different door into a place that looked like a café. We were now directly in front of the place where I'd entered and my new guide had a long conversation in Slovenian. I can only imagine what they talked about because the first thing my guide said to me when she led me back into the sauna club was "No clothing is allowed in the sauna. Nothing. Not even bathing suits." She showed me around the club – a hot bath, a cold bath, a whirlpool, an outdoor pool, two Finnish saunas, and an infrared sauna whose lights were so bright the man inside looked like he was baking in an oven. The steam rooms were being repaired. The place was a bit odd – the equipment was old and had a bit of a Soviet-era feel to it.

The place was also full of men. Mostly big, mostly old, and uniformly completely naked men. I saw two older ladies in one of the Finnish saunas but that was it. I was easily, by at least 20 years, the youngest person in the place.

My guide finished the tour back in the locker room where I now had to make a very difficult choice. I'd already paid my tolar. Would I get nekkid and give it a go Continental-style or would I put my clothes back on and make a hasty retreat? The temptation to run away was nearly overwhelming. But I do so enjoy a good sauna. So I sucked it up, stripped down, and tried not to be too embarrassed about it.

I nearly forgot –the creepiest guy wasn't naked at all. He was an artist working on a mosaic on the wall over the whirlpool. The whirlpool was still in operation but his close proximity and innate creepiness guaranteed that I wouldn't be using it. So, instead, I got into the hot pool.

I didn't quite know where to go in the pool, so I just went into one of the corners where I could look out the window at the outdoor swimming pool. I watched as, at various intervals, a guy would leave the Finnish sauna, go outside and jump in the pool. One guy was outside for ages, trudging through the snow while the steam rose on his body.

I knew my corner had a big downside for me because it contained a big black dial. I had no idea what the dial did, but I knew it was only a matter of time before someone joined me in the pool and needed to do something with the dial. Sure enough, a guy got into the pool and after 10 minutes of standing in his own area, going through the a routine of stretching exercises, the guy came over and said something to me in Slovenian. I stepped aside, expecting him to do whatever to the dial and then move off, but apparently you have to be right on top of the dial to get any benefit from it.

I found another corner to stand in for a few minutes more and then I got out of the pool. My next stop was the Finnish sauna. I picked the one that clearly had two women in it, thinking that there was a woman's sauna and a men's sauna. I was wrong, but that was okay. The guys were so not interested in me. They were there to take care of themselves and to do their little health routines. I was probably the biggest pervert in the place (save the creepy artist man) as I just couldn't help but peek at packages.

After 15 minutes in the sauna, I decided my only course of action was to go outside and jump in the pool. It was FREEZING in the water, but it was also weird because when I got out of the water, it didn't feel cold at all in the air. I stood outside for while, admiring the snow on the trees and clear blue sky. When I went back into the sauna, it took me a few minutes to register the heat. I also had a strange drug-like experience of being able to see the heat and feel an absolute stillness and relaxation in my head.

I repeated my sauna routine two more times then had a nice shower and decided to call it a day. I was proud that I'd managed to get over my reluctance and self-consciousness. I also felt incredibly well-rested and calm.

I spent the balance of my alone day walking around Ljubljana. I had a trip up to the castle and a wander through the old town. It was a good way to spend my time and when I retired to my cell, I was very tired.