I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Friday, November 20, 2009

Adios, Barcelona

And one last building not designed by anyone famous (that I know of) with some very Gaudiesque reflections next door.

La Pedrera

This is considered Gaudi's masterpiece since, unlike the huge messy Sagrada Familia, he actually finished it. And I love the curves and the wrought iron on the facade.


But the terrace! It's weird and wonderful, with the scales probably tipping more towards weird. You can't help thinking, What made Gaudi think the world was ready for this -- or needed this -- in 1905. 1905! I grew up in an apartment building in San Francisco that was built in 1906 and it was square and squat and post-Victorian and doesn't appear to be part of the same universe as this, much less the same decade. Not that there is much, anywhere, ever, that looks anything like this.

On the other hand, that little tower is so perfect it takes my breath away.

Field trip

Schoolkids lined up outside La Pedrera, where they are going to learn about...Gaudi? Modernist architecture? Nationalist and religious symbolism?
Or not very much while they are mostly grateful to be out of the classroom on a beautiful morning?

More balconies in Barcelona

Balconies in Barcelona

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Laundry day

These are two of the streets in La Ribera, a medieval labyrinth of alleys where it's almost impossible not to get lost (and let's just say I speak from experience.) I loved that almost every balcony had laundry hanging from it. In Paris, where there are balconies on almost every building it's illegal to hang laundry from them, but they're apparently more practical in Barcelona. Every street seemed to be celebrating some exuberant holiday with dozens of multi-colored flags waving in the breeze.

Even if you live in Eixample, in a spacious building with a view of Gaudi's La Pedrera, apparently you never want to let a good balcony go to waste.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Vicky Kathleena Barcelona

It's not exactly new to say that Barcelona has amazing architecture (hello, Gaudi!). It's a very walkable city, so you can go from the Modernist-bestrewned octagonal blocks of Eixample to medieval mazes to Port Vell long before your brain has time to create any kind of context. Two favorite photos: some of the plethora of gargoyles, all of which look as seriously irritated as a gargoyle should, and boats in the port.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In the wake of a month of rain

I've been trying to avoid the easy coastline pictures here, although I took many, but this picture from Erice, in Sicily, was irresistible, because it's so unSicilian.

Everywhere we've been, we've heard about the month of rain that all but ruined the two previous cruises on the ship, and preceded our arrival in every port. We've had perfect weather, and unusually clear skies everywhere as a result. Our guide said Sicily hasn't been this green in forty years.

Cathedral Church, Erice

This is the bell tower of the 14th century cathedral, which, from the outside at least, looks more like a fortress than a church.

The inside is lovely, though, with a wonderful vaulted ceiling, and a face above the columns that reminds me of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland.

Yeah, I could live there (Sicilian version)

Except for the commute.  Several people on our tour bus had been nervous about the cable car we were taking to Erice, a medieval town at the top of a mountain, and were relieved when they told us it was too windy and the bus was going to drive up there instead. 

Until the bus actually started up the narrow road, tilting ominously as it navigated the thousand or so switchbacks, gears grinding on the steeper portions as we seemed to hang in space for a minute and then suddenly leap forward. Erice was worth it. 

But I wasn't the only one who had a few extra glasses of wine at lunch, thinking about the trip back down.

Life at sea

After five days in various ports, it was wonderful to have a day at sea while we sailed from Athens to Palermo. I did the Sunday crossword in the Herald Tribune I bought in Athens, read a paperback mystery cover to cover, walked two miles on the track on the top deck, and drank coffee on the balcony.

Last night, we sailed through the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from the Italian mainland, so slowly we hardly seemed to be moving. Everything was suspended: the lights of Calabria, Orion hanging in the sky above, the ship barely rolling. I fell asleep long before we were through.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lunch at the Acropolis

I don't think it was the Parthenon that had them so engrossed, but they didn't even notice me taking their picture.

Acropolis Museum, Athens

This is the Parthenon reflected in the windows of the new Acropolis museum.

Since this museum was what I most wanted to see in Athens and it wasn't on any of the planned excursions, I went solo for the first time on this cruise. Successfully, despite the best efforts of the Athenian cab drivers, who seem to number a larger than usual number of thieves in their ranks, and the inescapable fact that the ship was going to sail at a certain time whether I was on board or not.

A large sign in the terminal advised tourists what fares they should expect to pay for taxis to various locations. A cab to the Acropolis should be 12 euros, but this was news to all the drivers who offered their services for a mere 30 euros, and who walked away when I said I wouldn't pay it. I finally walked out into Piraeus and hailed a cab on the street, which took me to the museum for 13 euros. 

Hours later, after the museum and Hadrian's arch and the Zeus temple and the old Olympic stadium and the Parliament building, I attempted to get a cab back to the ship from Syntagma Square. Every driver refused to take me. One told me that Piraeus was a fixed fare -- 35 euros. I said, "It is not!" and he sneered, "Just see if you can get a taxi here."

I was running out of time but figured I'd try the side streets away from the square before I gave in to highway robbery, and managed to hail a cab, with a very nice driver who used the meter and took me back to the ship -- for 8 euros.

Plus a very big tip.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Greek pottery

A potter in Archangelos, Rhodes. It's a family owned business, where he makes the vases and his daughters paint them, copying classical Greek designs and selling them to the tourists who are herded through the shop by the local tour guides.

And although his wheel runs on foot power, I have to say it seemed like an enviable existence: throwing pots under the pomegranate tree, firing them in the kiln in the olive grove. I'd switch places with him in a heartbeat.

At least until my legs got tired, which would probably be about ten minutes into the experiment. I guess I could always do the painting.

Doors into summer

Two doorways in Lindos, which is as perfect a Greek village on as perfect a Greek island as you could wish for.

I want to live in both of these houses.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


This mosaic is in the house of Eustolios in Kourion. It's Roman, probably from the 4th Century, which suddenly doesn't seem very old. (But at least you can view it without worrying about getting dusty or being abducted by wayward camels. Sorry. Still in a snit about the whiny tourists.)

Depending on which source you believe, Ktisis is either the spirit of creation, or of donation, giving a generous gift. I love her face but she doesn't look particularly generous to me. She's a little stern, a little strict. She might inspire you, but you still have to do the work. Kind of like a Muse with a bullwhip.

More Kourion

There were other people there, but after the hordes in Egypt these ruins did seem almost lonely.


Here I am in Kourion, for some reason looking delighted to be sitting in the midst of these beautiful ruins above an azure sea on yet another perfect Mediterranean day.

And I was delighted, despite irritation at my fellow travelers, who were still complaining about Egypt -- the dirt and the dust and the poverty, and how it had the nerve not to be a prosperous European country when people like them wanted to go there.

Cyprus is beautiful. The archaeological sites are models of clarity and good maintenance, with restrooms and wooden walkways and clear multilingual signs. Egypt is poor and crowded and messy, and they clearly didn't take our modern sensitivities about dirt on our shoes into account 4500 years ago when they put those pyramids out in the middle of the damn desert.

It's probably too late to move the pyramids, since we still can't figure out how they built them in the first place, but I hereby demand that they start shampooing those camels! And teach them not to run down hills when tourists are riding them! And not be such a poor country!

That'll teach them.

Lacemaker, lacemaker

This is a woman making and selling lace on the street in Omodos. She had some crocheted pieces, but also made lace with just a needle, which I'd never seen before.

I bought a small piece of lace and now I can't find it. I suspect that it dissolved.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

To see or not to see

These two women in Cairo are wearing the niqab, which is the source of a lot of controversy at the moment, with one of Egypt's religious leaders threatening to issue a fatwa to ban wearing it, saying that it's a tribal custom and not required by Islam.

I did not see many women in the niqab, though almost everyone wore headscarves. And it was unsettling because I found the headscarves charming -- I loved how bright the colors were, pink and purple and lime green, and how each girl tied it differently -- and I, viscerally, passionately, see the niqab as so wrong. But isn't not showing your hair just a few degrees away on the same scale from not showing your face at all (or your hands -- most of the veiled women I saw were also wearing gloves, unlike these women.) Or since we cover our boobs and butts and genitals, is it all relative, and cultural, and not for outsiders to criticize?

Still. I saw one girl, in the Alexandria library, running up the stairs between two of her friends. They wore headscarves; she was in full niqab, including gloves. She was maybe fifteen, judging by the age of her friends, thin, coltish, and full of energy, and weighing her down with all those heavy black garments just seemed cruel. What harm could she suffer if we saw her? What harm could seeing her do to us?

Both of our tour guides in Egypt were women and both discussed headscarves and niqabs. They admitted to hating the scarves in summer when it's hot, but prefer to wear them. "I feel safe when I wear it. No one looks at me."

Not being looked at. I understand the freedom of that; being looked at, and judged, and generally found wanting, caused me much grief in my youth.

But it has to be optional. Sometimes you want to be seen.

He sells seashells by the sea shore

Highly cropped, and the light was terrible, but I like these two shots of Alexandria street vendors.

Alexandria the Great

It would have been very easy to skip the tour of Alexandria. After fourteen hours going to Cairo and back and seeing more sights than one feeble brain could absorb in a day, who needed Alexandria?

But it's a beautiful city, exotic, Egyptian and Mediterranean at the same time. And my camera battery died midway through the morning, and the spare that I knew I had put in my bag was nowhere to be found (it turned out to be hiding under the bed back in my stateroom) so instead of photographing I looked.

At the new library, where teenage girls in headscarves giggle over computer terminals. At the birds sitting in a dusty date palm. At the vendors selling Egyptian kitsch and seashells by the water. At the bored men smoking on the terrace by the royal gardens. At the tomb of the unknown soldier commemorating the Six-Day war. At the people strolling the Corniche.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Under African skies

Horses overlooking the ruins at Saqqara at dusk.

The Pyramid Which is Pure of Places

One pyramid picture after all: the pyramid of Userkaf at Saqqara. This is from the 5th dynasty so it's later than the pyramids at Giza, a mere 4400 years old or so.

And it may not have held up as well, but I live in a building from the 1890's and work in a building from the 1960's and they both show their age already. It's remarkable that this pyramid is still here, even if it's just a pyramid-shaped pile of rubble at this point.

The official Pharaonic name for it was "The Pyramid which is Pure of Places." The local nickname is "the ruined pyramid." But I suspect that's been the name for a couple of thousand years now.

The desert begins

I saw many many pyramids -- Great, not quite as great, step, bent and red -- and I took pictures of them all, but everyone knows what the pyramids look like.

This is something you don't usually see, the way the fertile land around the Nile gives way abruptly to the Sahara, though you no doubt learned something about the flooding making agriculture possible back in fourth grade geography class.

But it is as dramatic as it looks in this picture (taken at Saqqara): on one side, lush date palms and mango trees, thick as a jungle, and on the other side, sandy brown moonscape without so much as a blade of grass. Click to see better.

I came, I saw, I rode a camel

This picture was taken shortly before the camel, who looks so deceptively sweet in this picture, took off running down a hill, and I was convinced that Egypt was going to be the end of Travels with Kathleen. In every sense.

But I survived -- obviously -- though ten hours and many pyramids later when we finally got back to the ship in Alexandria, I still reeked of camel. Not an entirely unpleasant odor, like dusty, musky hay. But strong.

And persistent.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Rock my soul

Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham....I keep humming that song as the unnerving motion of the ship keeps shifting my center of balance when I lie on my side and I...rock.

Which may be why I sleep so well. Rocking like a baby in a cradle, while the strangely phosphorescent Mediterranean churns below, and far in the distance, the faint lights of some city in Africa slide slowly slowly by.


Sailing out of Valletta, and from this side of the walls, it looks every bit the fortress that it was for so many centuries. Not especially hospitable, unless maybe you were a crusader with some Saracens on your tail.

The architecture within the city is much friendlier, Baroque mostly, not at all medieval.

And then there is the waterfront, below. I thought these were expensive seaside villas, but apparently they are actually warehouses. I am pretty confident that they are the most charming warehouses anywhere.


The unpronounceable names of Malta are part of its Arab heritage. The "marsa" in Marsaxlokk (which is easy enough to say -- marsa-schlock -- as long as you're not trying to look at it and say it at the same time) is from the Arabic word for port that also gave us Marseilles and Marsala. And that's what I learned on tour today, Mommy.

Our tour guide had such a charming accent, randomly adding an "uh" to the ends of English words, so that "local fish" became "low-kill fish-uh", that I spent less time listening to what she was saying than how she was saying it. I did manage to retain that the fishing boats that Marsaxlokk is famous for are painted blue for the sea, yellow for the sun, and brown for the earth, and the eyes on every prow are those of Osiris.

No Blue Grotto for you

My first shore excursion started badly, with the announcement that our boat trip to the (allegedly) famous Blue Grotto would not be taking place because the waves were too rough. Instead we were escorted to a cliff above and a beach below for photo opportunities, and once we saw how the surf was smashing into the rocks, there was a definite consensus that the Blue Grotto was perhaps best appreciated from a distance.

Click and you'll get as close as you ever need to.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I get it, part 2

Most of my previous European travel has involved a lot of hoisting luggage on and off trains. I still love traveling by train, but hoisting has lost whatever dubious charm it may once have had, and I am no longer as good at it as I once was. Or rather, I'm just fine -- it's my knees, and my back, and my elbows that have the problem.

Most of my previous European travel has involved a lot of hoisting luggage on and off trains. I still love traveling by train, but hoisting has lost whatever dubious charm it may once have had, and I am no longer as good at it as I once was. Or rather, I'm just fine -- it's my knees, and my back, and my elbows that have the problem.

On a cruise ship, there is no hoisting involved. Your hotel room travels with you, so you go to bed one night at sea....

And open your eyes to this.

Welcome to Malta.

I get it

When this is the view from your bed, there is no need to do anything except sit (or lie down, if you're so inclined) and gaze. The ship sails on whether you go to lunch or play bingo or walk the decks or not; you are accomplishing destinations without the slightest bit of effort on your part.

Although sipping a latte while sitting on the balcony is also highly recommended.

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