Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of Italy

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Welcome to a new travel series, titled, "Memories of …". I'm starting with Italy, my first ever stop in Europe.

In each instalment, I'll borrow from my diaries. I'll also add other commentary. I've deliberately chosen to not include any photos, as you can see pictures (and plenty of other information) by following the on-line links.

Rome (Roma)

My first time there was in 1979, when I spent several days visiting the obligatory sites. I didn't return until 30 years later, when I wrote copious notes about my experience. It was April and, surprisingly, very hot and humid.

[Diary] … Through the trees, the Coliseum loomed into view. It was built at the bottom of a valley between several of Rome's hills, and I approached it from one of those. There were lots of tourists, mostly in groups with guides. Near the entrance, a number of men were in full centurion costume complete with swords, and, at regular intervals, they lured passers-by into photos. Off to the side, I saw one Roman soldier smoking a cigarette. Perhaps that was the real reason behind the decline and fall of the Roman Empire!

Now I'm sure you are up with your Roman history, but just to freshen your memory, here are some details. Construction of the Coliseum was started in AD 70 by Emperor Vespasian (known to his good friends as "Bruce"). He up and died in AD 79, leaving the completion to his son, Titus, who had the opening ceremony in AD 80 with a 100-day celebration that saw the slaughter of 5,000 animals. The completed structure had tiered seating and 80 exits (called vomitoria, I kid you not). 240 wooden masts were erected to hold up a vast set of sailcloths over much of the open top to protect the spectators from the elements. A fire in AD 217 devastated the upper levels and wooden arena. Of course, the operators had neglected to take out insurance. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) In the years following, there were other fires as well as earthquakes, all of which inflicted damage. At one time, the main arena could be flooded, so they could recreate famous sea battles. Seating was segregated by class, and gravediggers, actors, and retired gladiators were banned from attending. Really!

[Diary] … I walked the full length of the Circus Maximus, home track of the Rome Chariot Grand Prix. Much of it was grassed, and people were out lying in the sun or picnicking in the shade. In several places, I came across pieces of coconut husks, which I thought might have been dropped by African swallows on their way to England. (See Monty Python's "Holy Grail" for details.)

[Diary] ... It was a long walk from the Metro stop to the Vatican City, and, as you might expect, it was wall-to-wall vendors along the way, interspersed with guides trying to sell their services. I walked around St. Peter's Square taking pictures and shooting video. It wasn't too busy. Then, I went through security and joined the hour-long line to go up to the top of the dome of the Basilica. Fortunately, that line was in the shade. There were some 550 steps up to the top, and one had two choices to get there: pay €5 entrance and climb the whole 550 or, pay an extra €2 and ride an elevator and walk the last 320 steps. I took the elevator option.

[Diary] ... My first stop was the famous Fountain di Trevi where I watched Neptune rule over his domain. People were constantly throwing coins over their shoulders into the fountain. Tradition has it that doing so means that one will return to Rome. I took some photos and video and then rested in the shade watching the tourists and listening to the many different languages being spoken around me.

From there, it was on to the Pantheon, a temple that was built by Hadrian starting in AD 118. It was very well preserved, primarily because it had been covered in bronze and lead for many years, although, later, that cladding was taken away to be used in other building projects. The dome was as big as St. Peter's, but quite plain inside. At its top, there was a 28-foot hole, which was designed to allow one to commune with the Heavens from the inside. Being a sunny day, the sun streamed in and cast a tube of light down onto a large painting on one wall. Apparently, it is something to experience when it was raining and the water came through.

The Dolomites (Dolimiti)

I was on a driving trip with my family. From Bavaria, we drove south through Innsbruck, Austria, and then up through the famous Brenner Pass into Italy. We spent the better part of a day driving on steep mountain roads before going east and north into Switzerland. Along the way, we stopped off at a glacier where I was very surprised to see ice worms living in the ice!

Milan (Milano)

I've been to Milan twice. The first time, I was very adventurous and I stayed at a youth hostel, where I shared a dorm room with a group of guys from Peru. (Who'd have thought I'd get a Latin-American Spanish workout in Italy!) The cultural highlight of that visit was a look at Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting The Last Supper. I also remember the Linate airport being fogged-in such that I missed my connection in Frankfurt.

On my second trip, I was riding in a taxi from the airport to my hotel when the driver asked me if I was in town for the big fashion show. As I looked down at my hiking trousers and boots, I wondered what about my dress made him think I was in the fashion business.

[Diary] … In the bathroom of my hotel, I noticed a cord hanging down the wall by the bath, and thinking it activated the ceiling fan, I pulled it. As soon as I did, I noticed a small sign further up the wall, that said "alarme", and I knew I'd done something wrong. Sure enough, within seconds, the phone on the wall rang and the front desk was asking me (I suppose they were, as they spoke in Italian) if I'd had an accident in the bath. I politely informed them that everything was okay. [Considering how many accidents do occur in bathrooms, it seemed like a sensible idea; however, I'd never seen it before.] Afterwards, I had the sneaky suspicion I'd learned—and subsequently forgotten—that lesson during my previous trip.

Portovenere

[Diary] … At La Spezia, I learned that there was a train strike for the service around Cinque Terra, so it was on to Plan C. (Always have a Plan B, even for Plan B!) So, unexpectedly, I took a bus to Portovenere (which was not on my destination list) where I had two absolutely wonderful days!

… We pulled into the small town of Portovenere where the bus route terminated. It was the end of a number of major hiking trails that came south from Cinque Terre, and given the beautiful weather, it was no surprise that the hikers were out in force. I walked 100 meters into the town where I found a friendly young policewoman who spoke passable English. She gave me some directions for the tourist office (which didn't open until 16:00) and some accommodation tips. I soon found my Shangri La, the hotel Genio. It was built up a steep hillside with lots of steps and terraces that overlooked the main plaza. The friendly front-desk assistant, a Russian called Igor, was happy to give me a very good rate for two nights if I paid cash. Breakfast on the terrace between 08:00 and 10:00 was included as was high-speed Internet access at his desk—and all for only €65 a night. Igor took me to see Room 6, way up the back with its own little garden under fruit trees. It was a very nicely appointed double room with en-suite bathroom, all quite modern and spacious. I accepted his offer and went down to check in. By the time I unpacked and settled in it was 15:30. A church clock chimed at 15-minute intervals.

[Diary] … When I came out the alley, I was in (another) St. Peter's Square, at the end of which was St. Peter's church, built in 1277 on the site of earlier temple ruins. It was constructed from black and white marble. I went inside, out on several balconies hanging over the cliff, and up onto the roof from where I could see north up the coast to Cinque Terre. Nearby was Byron's Cove, which had a connection with the English poet, Lord Byron. It was flanked by some very interesting geology consisting of nearly horizontal thin layers of rock. At the entrance to the cove, a man played music on an electronic keyboard.

I walked back into the village on the high street, which was a little further up the hill. It was entirely residential, with people hanging their washing on lines across the alley from upper floors; all the clotheslines were on pulleys so the clothing could be pulled out and back in from a window. There was an old public drinking fountain in one small plaza, and several tourists were gathered there. I chatted with a Dutch family, the daughter of which was living in Australia. I also spent time with an Irish couple from Dublin.

I decided to stay another day and night, so made plans on how to spend that extra time. Late morning, I headed up the steep hill to see the castle. It was quite a climb, but I paced myself. Fortunately, there was plenty of shade and places to sit and rest along the way. The castle was an impressive structure built way up high, and it was in wonderful condition. I took some great photos and video of the town and surrounds. Nearby was the main church and cemetery, and I toured both. I was most interested to see a mailbox at the cemetery. I was pretty sure there wouldn't be in-coming mail, and wasn't sure who'd be sending any out either! I thought perhaps that it might be the "dead letter office".

Back at my hotel, I had a small picnic on the terrace and read for several hours before fading. I tried napping, but only managed to close my eyes, so I lay in the sun reading my novel.

At 15:00, I went down to the tour boat office to enquire about the 15:30 tour around the three islands nearby. They needed eight passengers minimum before they would go, and, so far, they had only seven. I checked back at 15:30, and they had about a dozen, so I paid my €10 and went on-board. It was a very large boat with three crewmembers, and I went upstairs out in the open. I shot photos and video and picked up a few things from the narration, which was in Italian. On one island, there was a large concrete bunker built by the Germans in WWII. There were also remains of Austrian fortifications from WWI. The islands were very rugged, and the largest had hiking paths that quite a few hikers were using. Forty five minutes later, we were back at the dock.

Cinque Terra

[Diary] … At the Portovenere waterfront, I bought a 1-way ticket on the ferry to Vernazza. The ferry departed promptly at 11:00 with cloudy skies and a light sprinkle of rain. Occasionally, the sun broke through and warmed things up. We headed up the coast with our first stop being the southern-most Cinque Terra town of Riomaggiore (which I referred to as rigor mortis whenever I couldn't remember it). The boat struggled to keep close enough to the rocks to let the people get off on the constantly moving gangway, but not so close that we'd be on the rocks. It was quite a feat to watch, and I took photos and video. All the while, the waves crashed on the rocks, occasionally splashing the passengers getting off or waiting to get on. Although the ferry serviced the second town, Manarola, we didn't stop there. And the ferry doesn't service the third town, Corniglia, at all. We arrived in Vernazza right around noon. It was easier getting off the ferry there.

Vernazza was crowded with day-trippers, many of whom had come from a cruise ship anchored in Livorno. My first order of business was to find a place to stay for at least two nights. There were no hotels, but there were quite a few rooms, mostly in private houses. Well, it was a bit like Goldilocks; beds too hard, too soft, none available, or only one night available, and so on. On the fifth try, I succeeded. I rang the bells of two places in the same building, but no one answered. And just as I turned to leave, an elderly lady arrived on the street, smiled and chattered away to me in Italian. She seemed to be the proprietor of some rooms, so I followed her up some steep stairs. She showed me a large room with double bed, en-suite bath, and plenty of storage and a table with chairs. Very quickly, I used up my Italian, but she understood I wanted a room for one person for two nights. The price was €65/night, cash, no breakfast included. We sealed the deal and she took my passport to go off and take down my particulars. Once I'd unpacked, I met her husband who spoke some English. They were both very friendly. The room was way back in a quiet corner.

Within 50 feet of my front door, I found a small supermarket, a cash machine, and an Internet café. I refreshed my emergency rations with milk, peanuts, cheese and peach/mango juice. Nearby was a very narrow alley, which I set out to explore. I soon found a coin-operated laundry, which had a book exchange with most books in English. As I spied several candidates, I raced back to my room to get two books and swapped them.

[Diary] … At 08:45 am, I packed my gear for the hike to Monterosso, the next and northern-most town in Cinque Terre. By 09:00, I was several hundred yards up the path waiting at the Park Ranger's hut for him to arrive. He wandered in at 09:10 and sold me a 2-day pass to hike the National Park trails; cost, €8.

The first 20 minutes it was very steep. I did get some nice photos and video of Vernazza, however. Everyone I'd talked to had told me that that was the toughest section of the trail, and I believe it. I climbed a lot and went up and down a few times along the way. I saw only four hikers going my way. For the first hour, I hardly met anyone coming from Monterosso; the hikers had either come through earlier or had a late start. However, passed the halfway point, things got a bit busy especially on some of the narrower parts of the trail. Almost all the people I met were Aussies, Canadians, or French with an occasional smattering of Americans.

I saw terraced vineyards in which bamboo poles were used as trellises. There were many wildflowers, and the occasional smell of their perfume was welcome. At one point, I could see all four towns to the south.

I ambled into Monterosso at 11:20, 2:10 hours after starting. My only thought was to get some ice-cold whole milk, and it took a bit of searching. Finally, I bought a carton and that, along with a nice ripe banana, replenished my body. I walked around the old town taking pictures and video, and then went through the tunnel to the new town. Both had beaches with requisite chairs and umbrellas for rent. I sat in the shade and read my novel with my boots off.

As they say, it's the journey not the destination, and that surely was the case with this town, so, by 12:20, I was at the train station waiting for a train to take me back to Vernazza. It arrived and I got on for the supposed 5-minute ride. I got talking to an Aussie couple, and when the train stopped five minutes later a large group of us thought that was our station (and it was), but we were in a tunnel and it was dark out all the windows. By the time we worked out that we should move to another carriage whose doors opened, the train was pulling out. Okay, no problem, we all said; we'll simply get off at the next town and go back. Of course, it wasn't a local train and didn't stop for three stations. So, unexpectedly, we were at the southern-most town, Riomaggiore. We had to wait there 40 minutes for a northbound train that stopped at Vernazza.

[Diary] … At 7:45 am, I was ready for some hiking, and I headed off on the steep steps out of town headed south. I took a little less than 90 minutes to get to Corniglia. Apart from a workman repairing the trail, I saw nobody until I met two young women near the end of that leg. It was cool and overcast, and there had been light rain during the night. I alternated from a sun hat to a woolen cap. The level of difficulty was similar to the day before, and I went from right around sea level to some 650 feet up. Corniglia was just waking up as I arrived. A few tourists were heading to the train station, which was 300 steps down from the town. (There was a bus for those happy to pay and save the effort.) I certainly was happy to be going down the steps rather than up.

After that, there was more traffic, especially as the path to Manarola was almost flat as well as wide. It was so easy I had to stop myself from breaking into a run. In Manarola, I stopped at a little coffee place and sat at a table under a large umbrella, where I sipped a milk coffee. It was so good, I had a second one. I chatted with three women from Salt Lake City, Utah, and we exchanged information and tips about travel. It was a great break.

The path from Manarola to Riomaggiore was even easier, and I was there in no time. As I approached the town, very light rain fell intermittently. The skies stayed grey and threatening, but it didn't result in any serious interruption. I toured the whole town including right down to the waterfront where a ferry was arriving. I spent several hours there sitting in the sun, reading my novel and chatting with a number of different lots of people, including some from my home state of South Australia.

Lucca

[Diary] … My host, Carmine, arrived at the station in his car to take me to his apartment. After we finished supper, we walked around the old city visiting a number of plazas and monuments including the relatively new bronze of well-known local-boy Giacomo Puccini.

[Diary] … At 09:30 am, armed with a tour map, I headed towards the northern gate of the city wall. It was quiet out with only a few tourists. Mostly it was people opening up shops and setting up stalls. At the Piazza Santa Maria gate, I visited the tourist office and got some more information, especially about Sunday hours. The young lady was ever so happy to also rent me a high-speed internet cable for €1/10 minutes, so I hooked up my netbook computer and checked my email and phoned the day host I planned to meet the next day.

As I was leaving the tourist bureau, I spied the bicycle rental place next door, and, suddenly, the 4 km-trip around the top of the city walls didn't seem so arduous, especially not at €2.50/hour. I had to leave my passport as security and in return I got a bike and lock. The proprietress took me out the back where she asked the repairman to fix me up with a bike of size suitable for my height, and he did.

I headed up the ramp to the top of the wall, and, pretty soon, it all came back to me, and I was on my way, in a counterclockwise direction. However, it occurred to me that made it harder to see inside the walls as I was riding on the far right side of the very wide road, so I reversed direction. And to make it a bit more challenging, I took out my video camera and shot while riding, keeping one eye on the road and the other through the camera's viewfinder. Large trees all along the route provided plenty of shade.

There was no need to change gears, as it was quite flat. I stopped at a number of places to take photos and to look around. In no time at all, I had completed the loop. Only once did I come close to an accident; an unsteady young Frenchwoman was pulling out from the side and failed to look in both directions, and blocked me off completely.

Back at the start, I went down the ramp to street level, and put my video camera away, ready for "Toad's Wild Ride" (the "Wind in the Willows" ride at Disneyland) around the streets, scaring children, pets, and little old ladies. By that time, the tourists were out in force. Although the streets were paved with small cobblestones, they were still a bit rough. I went back around the city in a counterclockwise direction poking around in many back streets and narrow alleys. By the time I got back to the rental place the novelty had worn off and different parts of my body were aching. However, it was a good workout.

I started my walking tour by heading for the Contrini Pfanner Palace and gardens. I toured the rooms that were open for display and then walked around the garden. Two rows of statues lead to a fountain surrounded by lots of flowers in full bloom. I sat in the shade and contemplated life in a palace with a walled garden. From there, I went to the central square and church, Piazza San Michelle, and then on to the elliptical Piazza Anfiteatro. On the way home, I rescued a bottle of iced-cold Coke to have with my lunch—a tuna and sun-dried tomato roll—which I ate back in the apartment with a breeze blowing in one window and out the other. Life was good.

Pisa

[Diary] … I stopped on a bridge over the Arno River to take some photos and video. Eventually, the crowded streets gave way to the "Field of Miracles", which opened out before me. At the left end was the round baptistery. In the center was the large cathedral. And to the right was the famous Leaning Tower, and it surely was leaning. The more I looked at it, the more I thought it was going to fall, right then! The buildings were set in a long rectangular park that was mostly covered in long green grass.

I walked around the buildings and up to the old city walls and one gate; however, I declined to go inside. I thought about going up the tower, but there was a 2-hour wait and it cost €15, so I decided not to. In any event, those who did go up the very steep steps could only go outside on the smaller top level.

Siena

[Diary] … After a train ride to town, I rode a bus to the city center and started to look for accommodation. Not seeing any and not finding anyone who knew where the tourist information office was, I asked a couple of tourists if they could recommend a cheap hotel nearby. An American guy did, and, in five minutes, I was standing at the registration desk of the Albergo Tre Danzella, barely 50 yards off the edge of the main plaza. Yes, the man would be pleased to give me a very large double room for two nights at the incredibly low price of €49/night, cash or credit. Breakfast was not included and there was a share bathroom for each five rooms. I checked it out and it was just fine, so I signed up.

I unpacked, splashed some cold water on my face, and sat and rested for a while. It had taken quite a while to get there from Lucca. After I was restored, I walked to the main plaza, where the bright sunshine fell on the tower and half the square. It truly was a magnificent sight. People sat all around the plaza in the sun eating ice cream, talking, and sleeping. Around half of the plaza there were outdoor restaurants doing a roaring trade.

Each July and August, riders race horses bareback around the edge on dirt that is trucked in. The whole event takes only several minutes, but people start getting into position 12 hours ahead. I took some photos and video and then sat by the fountain. I met a young Aussie couple that had been traveling 6 months and had more than a year to go. We exchanged some travel tips and sat talking for a good long while.

San Gimignano

At 09:20 am, I was on the bus headed for the well-known hilltop town of San Gimignano. Very soon after we left Siena, we were in the countryside among rolling hills covered in forest with cereal farms and vineyards all around. It was a pleasant drive that lasted 1:10 hours.

The town had many very tall towers and was built on a hill. I walked around looking in a variety of shops. I stopped to shoot video and photos especially of the surrounding countryside. I hiked up to the top of the highest hill where I found an olive grove and some old town defenses. I sat in the shade for some time listening to a man play a variety of flutes. In a courtyard nearby, I sat again, to hear a young Florentine woman in traditional dress perform on a large harp. We chatted a while between tunes, and I bought one of her CDs. On the way back down the hill I stopped to watch a woman painting; she had a large collection of watercolors for sale. She was a grandmother originally from New Zealand, but now living in San Gimignano, enjoying sitting in the sun painting, talking to the tourists, and selling the occasional painting.

I sat in the shade and had leftover pizza for a late lunch, and then I walked some of the quiet back streets taking photos of doorknockers, signs, and such things. Back outside the walls, I found the bus stop, but people waiting there told me I had to buy my ticket back in the town. Well, when the bus came, the driver said I could ride to the next town and pay there, so I did. On arrival, I paid and after a few minutes wait, transferred to an express bus headed for Siena. It was a very comfortable air-conditioned double-decker bus. I sat upstairs at the front where I had a bird's-eye view of the countryside.

Conclusion

Certainly, there are other places in Italy I'd be happy to visit; however, only one area has any priority. That is Venice, in conjunction with Trieste, and the neighboring country of Slovenia, along with northern Croatia. Arrivederci!

A Little Bit of Kulcha – Part 4

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In Part 1, we covered Ancient Civilizations and Old Sites and Religious Places and Artifacts. In Part 2, we covered Royal Hangouts and Military-Related Places and Things. In Part 3, we covered Museums and Art Galleries, Libraries, and Aquariums.

Gardens

When I think of an impressive garden, I immediately think of Het Loo Palace, in The Netherlands. During Napoleon's occupation, the gardens were buried under rubble and used as a horse parade ground. Fortunately, when restoration work was started, the original plans were discovered and the beds and their ingenious irrigation system were rebuilt.

For many people with green thumbs, Britain's Kew Gardens (or, more formally, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) is the Holy Grail. In 2012, while visiting the southwest English counties Cornwall and Devon for the first time, one of my main stopovers was the Eden Project (see left), a huge reclaimed clay pit with extensive outdoor gardens and two enormous controlled-climate, geodesic dome structures. Amusingly, the brochure claims they have "the largest rainforest in captivity".

With 140 acres, the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona is worth a visit. I happened to do it late on a Sunday morning where brunch was served to the sounds of a string quartet. That certainly aided the digestion.

While not built as a garden, per se, nonetheless, Tucson, Arizona's Biosphere 2 is impressive. This self-contained living system was an experiment in building colonies on the moon or on some other planet.

I've seen many cultivated gardens, but when it comes right down to it, it's hard to beat nature. For that, I'll take the rain forest in Central or South America, or a big patch of desert with saguaro cactus such as that around the Wild-West movie studio Old Tucson in Arizona.

Theme Parks

In the US, we have Disneyland (in Los Angeles, California), and Disneyworld and EPCOT Center (in Orlando, Florida). These definitely are for kids of all ages. Universal Studios has a number of parks as does the Busch beer group with its Busch Gardens. Just north of San Diego, California, in Escondido, there is a fantastic wild-animal park in a several thousand-acre setting that approximates each animal's native environment. On the backside of the main island of Oahu, Hawaii, is the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Copenhagen, Denmark, boasts its Tivoli Gardens, and on the Jutland Peninsular, there is the original LEGOLAND, with its very own airport just across the road, really! The 1:25 scale model of Dutch life at Madurodam is near The Hague, and is definitely worth a visit, even if you don't have kids with you.

Parliament Houses and Capitals

In 2000, my son and I sat in on interesting debates at the House of Commons and the House of Lords in London. More recently, I toured Canada's Houses of Parliament in Ottawa. I've also toured the Senate and House chambers of the US Capitol, and listened to a debate in the House of Representatives.

On my travels around the US, I've visited many of the state capitols. While in Carson City, Nevada, I got to sit behind a bulletproof glass wall to watch one of the chambers in full debate. That state's legislature sits for no more than 120 days every two years, but members only get paid for the first 60 of those days. [Wags suggest it might be better if they met for two days every 120 years!] Apparently, during several sessions, business ran right up until midnight on the 120th day, at which time the members voted to stop the clock or to adopt more than 24 hours in that day. Sacramento, California's Capitol (see left) certainly is impressive. While Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, I dropped by his office and got one of his business cards. [A visit to the old Governor's Mansion nearby is worth the effort. It was last occupied by Governor and Mrs. Ronald Reagan.]

During one visit back to my own state capital, Adelaide, South Australia, I dropped in to the lower house to hear a debate in which everyone was in agreement, and it wasn't about pay raises for members either!

To me, one of the most impressive parliamentary buildings is Germany's Reichstag in Berlin. Although its dome was destroyed, the building has been beautifully restored to its former glory with a clear-glass dome. The tour to the rooftop is worth the effort. And the large vertical sculpture-like sail inside the dome is actually an enormous set of mirrors that tracks the sun and channels its light down into the main chamber.

National Parks and Historic Places

While hiking the Thames Path, I rested for a few days in/near Oxford where I visited the Duke of Marlborough's home, Blenheim Palace. Winston Churchill was born there, and he and his darling Clementine are buried with numerous relatives at the Bladen cemetery nearby. Oxford is indescribably beautiful; just go visit it! Twice I've visited Runnymede, to see where the Barons forced King John to sing the Magna Carta. While touring Scotland, by sheer accident, my family and I got off the train to find that we were in a village near the famed Loch Lomond. So we spent several great days there.

Odense, Denmark, on the large island of Fyn, is home to Hans Christian Andersen's House. On a 3-day layover in Iceland, I got to see an enormous geyser erupt, right next to me. It sure is a pristine country. While crossing the Patagonia in Chile and Argentina I got to see several glaciers up close, as well as a large iceberg that had broken off and run aground way downstream in the desert. If you'd like to tour a very comfortable 100-room castle, Toronto, Canada's, Casa Loma, is a good place to start.

In a word, the national, state, and local parks systems in the US are fantastic! To name a few, I've been to Yellowstone, Yosemite, The Badlands, The Black Hills, Luray Caverns, Wind Cave, Western Grand Canyon, and Mt. Rushmore. The bison herds in Custer State Park, South Dakota, and on Ted Turner's ranch in Montana are worth a look. Niagara Falls is pretty impressive as well.

A visit to Hearst Castle in Southern California will show you how to build a nice "little" country place, which, at one time, had the world's largest private zoo. Not to be outdone, the Vanderbilts constructed their country estate, Biltmore, in North Carolina. Much smaller, but nonetheless impressive, homes include Mount Vernon (George Washington) and Monticello (Thomas Jefferson).

To see the OK Corral where that famous wild-west gunfight took place, and Boot Hill cemetery, go to Tombstone, Arizona. The oldest European settlement in North America can be seen at St. Augustine in Florida.

And last, but by no means least, Texas has The Alamo, near San Antonio; Judge Roy Bean's famous bar and sometime courthouse in Langtree; and the Texas School Book Depository, from where Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly assassinated President Kennedy.

Odds and Ends

If you like heights, checkout out the Tokyo Tower (see left), Paris's Eiffel Tower, and Toronto's CN Tower. [You can also walk out in the open across the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge while tethered to a safety rail, something I have yet to do.]

Yes, the Amazon River is impressive, and yes, it has piranhas, Cayman alligators, and leaky dugout canoes. (I know, because I was the one bailing out the water!) Some butterflies I saw were the size of a dinner plate! I also encountered a friendly, and quite large, tapir.

At 1,000 meters, Angel Falls near Canaima, Venezuela, is the world's tallest waterfall. It definitely is impressive especially when viewed from the window of the 727 aircraft that took me up the valley. [For some interesting information about that area, read Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World, and watch the movies Arachnophobia and Up.]

Two instantly recognizable mountains are Japan's Mt. Fuji (Fujiyama or Fuji-san) and Seattle's, Mt. Rainier. In the former case, there is a mailbox at the top for climbers to post letters! [So let me get this right. Someone climbs up there to post a letter, and then someone else climbs up there and retrieves it to take it down to the post office. Hmm.]

If you are in the mood to visit a prison as a tourist, Alcatraz and Folsom are worth the effort. While the former is no longer in operation, the latter is, and you can take photos or video, so long as you don't include any guards or prisoners in your shots. Really! And, yes, Johnny Cash did perform there.

If one was very wealthy, fed up with English society, heard voices in one's head telling one to get away from it all, one could do like Edward James, and go to a remote jungle in Mexico and build huge, surreal sculptures and a gothic-style mansion. [I spent a couple nights in his mansion, which was being converted into a hotel.]

Olympic Stadia/Villages are worth a visit. I've seen those in Montreal, Canada; Helsinki, Finland; and Beijing, China's, famous "Birds Nest" (see left). The Beijing Water Cube swimming center certainly is impressive.

The Cape Canaveral space base in Florida is something to see. [I always wanted to go watch a shuttle launch, but never made it. I did, however, get to see up close a shuttle atop its Boeing 747 Mother Ship.]

Conclusion

There is an old saying that goes something like, "Those who can, do, while those who can't, teach!" While I have great respect for most schoolteachers, I certainly would apply a modified version of this adage to art (and book and music) critics. Frankly, I never have been interested in hearing what the critic thought the artist "must have been thinking", when they executed some particular work, or whether they were "on or off their medications".

I started Part 1 with a mildly disrespectful attitude toward Kulcha from an Aussie's perspective. Such attitudes were hardly discouraged when in 1973 the Australian Government paid a princely sum for Jackson Pollock's painting Blue Poles. "Trust us; it's a national investment", they said of the abstract painting, despite that the average person in the street thought their kindergartner had done something better. Soon after its purchase, paint started to peel and it needed substantial restoration work. C'est la vie!

So, what's still on my bucket list? The Pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt; Canberra, the capital city of my native country, Australia; actually going inside the White House; Vancouver Island, Canada; the island of Bornholm in Denmark; hiking hut-to-hut in the Swiss Alps; certain parts of Greece and Turkey; Andalusia, Spain; Morocco; New Zealand; Slovenia; Yorkshire, England; going the full length of the Danube River on a working barge; and some driving trips in the US to visit various Presidential Libraries.

So, after visiting all these places and seeing all these things, am I more sophisticated? Probably, but I still get confused when there is more than one knife and fork at my table setting!

I hope this series has helped improve your Kulcha Quotient.

A Little Bit of Kulcha – Part 3

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In Part 1, we covered Ancient Civilizations and Old Sites and Religious Places and Artifacts. In Part 2, we covered Royal Hangouts and Military-Related Places and Things.

Museums and Art Galleries

I've long had a saying, "If you don't understand it, it must be art!" And that certainly has proven true when I've looked at many paintings and sculptures. Without a doubt, there are times when I'm sure that my taste is entirely within my mouth! In any event, I've seen so many museums and art galleries that it's hard to know where to begin, so I'll charge right in going by country in no particular order.

After seven or eight trips to Denmark, I finally got to visit the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. It stays open one night each week when the restaurant serves a fine dinner. I enjoyed the exhibits and the food, as well as looking at the Danish-made "practical/wearable art" on sale. On a separate trip, I dropped by the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, and as it was a slow day, a curator invited me for a behind-the-scenes tour where staff were restoring a ship. It's hard to imagine one taking such a small craft across an ocean.

Mainz, Germany, is a state capital, and was home to Guttenberg and his printing press. In fact, in 2000, he was named Man of the Millennium. The museum dedicated to him is worth a visit. [By the way, Mainz is just a short train ride from Frankfurt airport, if you should ever have a long layover there. However, should you ride there by train, be sure to keep in the half of the train that goes to Mainz rather than Wiesbaden, another state capital just across the river (he says from experience).]

Canada is home to some interesting collections. If you are in the Hull/Ottawa area, go see the (quite new and beautiful) Canadian Museum of Civilization. The greater Vancouver area has plenty of things to see, including: Vancouver Maritime Museum and its St. Roch, the first ship to completely circumnavigate North America; Queen Elizabeth Park with its geodesic dome; and the extensive collection at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, which covers all the Pacific Island nations as well as New Zealand's Maoris and Australia's Aborigines.

In the US, the greater Detroit, Michigan, area hosts the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, the Holy Grail for transportation enthusiasts. The village contains the original buildings or homes of some famous Americans. The Rodin Collection at Stanford University is worth a look as are the campus grounds. During my first year in the US I lived in Chicago, so I just had to make a pilgrimage to the Chicago Art Institute to see Andy Warhol's famous soup cans. Dale Chihuly is an American glass sculptor. I first became aware of his work during a visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where his sculptures were placed throughout the garden (see the photo to the left with the blue and orange sculpture). Fairbanks, Alaska, has the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Seattle's Museum of Flight is definitely worth a visit as is Boeing's tour of the B747, 767, 777, and 787 assembly lines. On a visit to Santa Fe, the state capital of New Mexico, I dropped by the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. This often-misunderstood artist was well ahead of her time. New York City boasts many cultural centers: Ones that immediately come to mind are The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); American Museum of Natural History (which includes the Hayden Planetarium); the Ellis Island Museum, which shows how the millions of immigrants arriving there were processed and often given Anglicized names; The Guggenheim; and Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum. The National Gallery of Art is on the Mall in downtown Washington DC. During the summer, the fountain water runs down the outside walls of the underground cafeteria. I especially love the outdoor sculpture garden next door, whose very large fountain becomes an ice-skating rink in winter. On a motorhome trip through South Dakota, I stumbled on the Mammoth Site museum near Hot Springs, build over a dig with partially exposed, complete skeletons of numerous mammoths. One of the best known, most visited, and free museum and gallery complexes is Washington DC's Smithsonian Institution. [The donation of the original funding is most interesting.] Opened in 1976 for the Bicentennial, the Air and Space Museum is the most-visited museum in the world, complete with touchable piece of moon rock and magnificent movie theater. The nicely renovated Museum of Natural History is also impressive.

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, is world-famous. (My Russian guide asked me to keep quiet as we bought tickets, as foreigners were charged ten times the price of Russians!) I have never been a fan of gold or gilded anything, and this place was "over-the-top" in this regard.

During various trips to beautiful Oslo, Norway, I visited Norsk Folkemuseum, the Viking Ship Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Nobel Peace Center, and Holmenkollbakken, an impressive ski jump (pictured at the left).

Dublin, Ireland has plenty of culture, which includes museums with peat-bog mummies, and the Book of Kells ("an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin") and harp (the symbol of Ireland) in Trinity College. The bridges over the River Liffey are especially worth a look. The new Samuel Beckett Bridge is built to look like a harp, complete with numerous cables as strings.

The UK has loads of places for art and old stuff. For me, the Number 1 place has to be the British Museum where I always visit the Rosetta Stone, which allowed scholars to first understand Egyptian hieroglyphics. Outdoors, along the Embankment (an area on the north side of the Thames River), I like to visit the Cleopatra's Needle obelisk and its adjacent sphinxes. There is a shrapnel hole in one sphinx that resulted from a bomb dropped during WWI. Prior to last year, I'd never visited any of the Tate galleries. However, during a vacation in the county of Cornwall, I stopped off at the Tate St. Ives. (It's not often that pieces in galleries grab me, but two did there: a piece of paper covered in tea stains around the image of a tea cup base, with colored ribbons stitched around the stain's edge; and a long cloak covered in used tea bags. You probably have to see them to understand.) A companion gallery is The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. (I can safely say that nothing of that acclaimed artist's work interested me, but I was very impressed with all the large and complex spider webs in shrubs in the garden, most with working spiders!)

If you are ever in Tokyo, Japan, the place for museums is Ueno Park. Standing there in front of the National Museum of Western Art is one of Rodin's Thinker sculptures.

To visit all the biggies in Vienna, Austria, would take much more time than most visitors can spare. Highlights for me included Schloss Schönbrunn, the former summer residence of the Habsburgs (the Palm House indoor garden was especially impressive); Hofburg Palace, a sprawling complex of buildings and grounds where the Vienna Boys' Choir performs, the President and Chancellor have their offices, and there are numerous museums and the national library; Hundertwasserhaus, "a fairytale-like house with onion spires, green roof [as in trees and gardens growing on it], and a multicolored façade is one of the city's most frequently visited landmarks (It was designed by flamboyant Austrian artist Fruedensreich Hundertwasser as a playful take on usually dull council housing)"; the Upper Belvedere Palace built in Baroque style with extensive gardens (there are three floors of paintings with many works by Gustav Klimt including his famous The Kiss, along with masterpieces by other notable painters); and the world-famous Spanish Riding School. [The horses were originally brought from Spain, hence the name. Later, many came from a stud in Lipica (spelled Lipizza in Italian), in modern-day Slovenia, hence the name Lipizzaner.

Like many European capitals, Paris, France, is "right up to here" with art and museums, far too numerous to enumerate here. To me, for its small size, the Musée d'Orsay is hard to beat. Built in a former railway station, the building is as interesting as its contents. (See photo at left). Then there's the Musée du Louvre. I freely admit that before I first saw the Mona Lisa, I was expecting it to take up a whole wall it was so "big" in story. But, in reality, it's really quite small and when there is a crowd around it, it can be hard to see! One exhibit there that interested me greatly was Hammurabi's Code, a "well-preserved Babylonian law code, dating back to about 1772 BC" carved in stone. [Americans are often portrayed as "being in a hurry", and a very funny cartoon along those lines shows an American tourist telling his taxi driver, who has just dropped him at the entrance to the Louvre, to "Keep the engine running, I won't be long".]

During one trip to Milano, Italia, (he pronounces with appropriate hand gestures) I dropped in to see DaVinci's Last Supper. [I recall a very funny sketch on US TV's Saturday Night Live in which Father Guido Sarducci, a comedian dressed as a Catholic priest, shows the host a copy of the bill for said supper, which he'd bought at a flea market in New York City.]

Libraries

Okay, I admit it; I'm a non-recovering bookaholic, so let's start with the Grand Daddy of them all, the Library of Congress in Washington DC. It was started when the US Congress bought Thomas Jefferson's entire personal collection, in 1815. According to Wikipedia, "The collections … include more than 32 million cataloged books and other print materials in 470 languages; more than 61 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America, including the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, a Gutenberg Bible (one of only four perfect vellum copies known to exist); over 1 million US government publications; 1 million issues of world newspapers spanning the past three centuries; 33,000 bound newspaper volumes; 500,000 microfilm reels; over 6,000 comic book titles; films; 5.3 million maps; 6 million works of sheet music; 3 million sound recordings; more than 14.7 million prints and photographic images including fine and popular art pieces and architectural drawings; the Betts Stradivarius; and the Cassavetti Stradivarius." And unlike most libraries, one can't ordinarily borrow books, as they are there for research purposes. In my numerous visits there, I have never actually looked at any of the regular collection. What impresses me are the extensive murals and tile work, and the view of the main reading room and statuary from the overlook halfway up the dome.

The British Library "is the national library of the United Kingdom. It's a major research library, holding over 150 million items from many countries, in many languages and in many formats, both print and digital: books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings. The Library's collections include around 14 million books, along with substantial holdings of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC." Originally part of the British Museum, it moved to its own, new home in 1973, right next door to the beautifully restored St. Pancras railway station. The huge bronze sculpture, NEWTON, in the courtyard is worth some study. For me, the highlight was a sort of National Treasures room that housed manuscripts from Beowulf, various Gospels, a Gutenberg Bible, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, copies of pages from the Magna Carta, some very beautiful Korans, and the lyrics of a Beatle's song hand-written on an airline napkin. In one room, I paged through a digital version of some of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. [He wrote left-handed, and back-to-front, so a reader needed a mirror! I ask you, is that normal?] During one visit, I got to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the restoration area where I watched someone restoring a 1,500-year-old Japanese scroll. The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford is a most striking building; it houses the Radcliffe Science Library. (See photo above.)

Dublin, Ireland boasts the Trinity College Library, which I mentioned in Part 1 with respect to the Book of Kells. Not far from there is the Chester Beatty Library, which holds the Islamic and Asian works collected by the American mining magnate.

Weimar, Germany, is home to Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek (Duchess Anna Amalia Library). The original building is something to see although quite a bit of it and its collection was destroyed by fire just weeks before the contents were to be moved to the new building across the plaza.

I have a particular interest in US Presidential history, and have visited two presidential libraries: Richard Nixon's in California and LBJ's in Texas.

Aquariums

Once you've seen some really spectacular ones, all others pale by comparison. Monterey, California, is home to Monterey Bay Aquarium; Orlando, Florida, has the EPCOT Center's The Seas; Chicago, Illinois, has the Shedd Aquarium; and Bergen, Norway, has an impressive aquarium.

Conclusion

In Part 4, we'll look at Gardens, Theme Parks, Parliament Houses and Capitals, National Parks and Historic Places, and a few Odds and Ends.

A Little Bit of Kulcha – Part 2

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved. In Part 1, we covered Ancient Civilizations and Old Sites and Religious Places and Artifacts. Royal Hangouts Let's begin with England. Yes, it has Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and many other fine royal residences, but, for my money, the place to spend your time is Hampton Court Palace. [In the summer season, ride at least one way on the Thames River.] Famous residents included Henry VIII and William and Mary. Don't miss the astronomical clock. I also highly recommend a visit to Dover Castle. Some 20 years ago, lots of more modern history has become public with the declassification of former secrets. [Think evacuation of Dunkirk in WWII.] Of course, the Tower of London is worth a stop as well. Scotland has its Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. In Denmark, it was my great pleasure, several times, to tour Frederiksborg Castle, in Hillerød. Built on a small island in a lake, it gave me some great ideas for my next country home. In recent years, extensive restoration of gardens nearby was carried out. Hamlet's Castle in Helsingør is also worth a look. In the Netherlands, I spent a great half-day at the palace of Het Loo. What really impressed me there were the gardens and extensive fountain and irrigation system. On various trips to Asia, I spent time in a variety of royal places in Japan (Tokyo, Nara, and Kyoto, especially) and China (Beijing, the Imperial City). The long-reigning royal family of Thailand is very popular; every cab and every shop had a picture of the King and Queen. Supposedly, when Walt Disney toured Bavaria, Germany, the sight of Neuschwanstein gave him the idea for Cinderella's Castle at Disneyland. If you read up a bit on the man who had this castle built, King Ludwig II, you'll find him rather interesting, not to mention eccentric! Another stunning residence of his is Linderhof. In the old Prussian Capital, Potsdam, the summer palace of Frederick II (The Great), Sanssoucci—without care—is definitely worth of a visit. The first time I visited the castle in Heidelberg I couldn't help but think how it has been crumbling longer than the Europeans had been in North America. (The length of history is relative, I guess.) This baroque town is well known as the setting for the operetta, The Student Prince. In 2000, when one of Europe's Culture Capitals was Weimar, I had the pleasure of visiting the palace of Duchess Anna Amalia. She introduced the guitar to Germany, and, as a result, her palace is now an internationally acclaimed guitar school, complete with concerts. The old library in town, named for her, is world famous. The palace of her son, Duke Carl August, is right in town. If you are in the Czech Republic, do visit Prague Castle and also take the 30-minute train ride out to see Karlštejn Castle; however, don't go on the one day each week that it's closed (he says from experience). In France, I stayed in Caen, Normandy, where William the Conqueror was based (and is buried). He built some fine churches there. [I must say that when I saw his tombstone, I was quite surprised to see that his name really wasn't William at all, but, Guillaume. In fact, I've seen it stated that the English name William didn't even exist back then. Anyway, while I stood by his graveside, I filled him in on how things had gone downhill in England since 1066. "Bill, you just wouldn't recognize the place!"] Although I've walked around the Palace of Versailles and toured the extensive gardens, I've yet to go inside. During a 2-week stay in St. Petersburg, Russia, I dropped by the Winter Palace, to see how the Tsar used to live before his unfortunate "accident". (You might know his humble abode as The Hermitage Museum.) The Hungarian capital, Budapest, really is a combination of the two cities, Buda and Pest, one each side of the River Danube (called Duna in Hungarian). Pretty tricky, hey! The impressive Buda Castle complex was home to the Hungarian kings. Vienna, Austria, has too many beautiful royal buildings to name. I looked around a number of them as well as visiting the Lipizzaner Stallions' home, the Spanish Riding School, at Hofburg Palace. The royal highlight along Croatia's Dalmatian Coast is the retirement palace complex of Roman Emperor Diocletian in Split. Military-Related Places and Things The fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II is depicted on Sentosa Island, the site of a British fortress, reachable from the mainland by cable car. [While the harbor was well defended, the Japanese had the audacity to attack overland!] My first military museum was in Geneva, Switzerland, and had an impressive collection of crossbows, pikes, and such. When I visited England's Windsor Castle with my 4-year-old son, he was stunned to not only find the moat without water, but it had a garden growing in it! As a result, he felt compelled to inform one of the uniformed attendants of the dangers of this oversight. The gentleman thanked him, but said that he was fairly sure an invasion was not imminent. In a basement of Edinburgh Castle stands the formidable cannon, Mons Meg. And outside, there is a guard-dog cemetery. If you have a half day to kill in London, drop by the Cabinet War Rooms to see where Churchill managed his end of WWII and where he sometimes slept. I was visiting Brussels, Belgium, for the first time when I discovered that the famous battlefield, Waterloo, was just outside the city, so I went to have a look and climbed the Lion's Mound. On a trip through England's County Kent, I decided to visit the location of the Battle of Hastings, where William the Conqueror hopped on over from Normandy in 1066 with a few of his close friends for some fun and games. I discovered that the battle did not actually take place in Hastings (which is on the coast), but some distance inland near the present-day town of Battle (hence Battle Abbey). The battlefield has remained undeveloped since 1066, and I toured it while listening to an audio guide, which reported on the battle from the perspectives of three different people: a Saxon soldier, a Norman Knight, and King Harold's wife who was supporting the medical people of her husband's army. On a separate trip, to Normandy, I saw the Bayonne Tapestry, which depicts the events leading up to the battle. The Canadian War Museum in that country's capital, Ottawa, is rather new, tastefully done, and very informative. On a motorhome trip around South Dakota, I dropped in at Ellsworth Air Force Base. At the time, it was an active Strategic Air Command (SAC) base for B52s and B1Bs. On a separate trip, to Arizona, I toured a (deactivated) Titan II missile silo near Tucson. Once the operators fired their missile, they had food, water, and air for 30 days in the underground bunker. While in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I toured a naval ship next to one of Claire Chennault's Flying Tiger fighter planes. A tour of Honolulu, Hawaii's Pearl Harbor is sobering especially when one looks down at the USS Arizona from which oil is still bubbling up some 70 years after the attack. Aircraft carrier floating museums are berthed in San Diego and New York City, a US submarine is at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, and a German U-Boat is in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Fredericksburg, Texas, was the home of Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz, and it houses an extensive collection of WWII Pacific War museums. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is the location of the infamous American Civil War battle by the same name. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was the staging ground for John Brown's failed raid. And finally, the Little Big Horn battlefield was where the Native Americans gave General Custer and his troops a lesson. One of the most moving experiences I've ever had was a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park where the first atomic bomb was detonated several hundred feet off the ground, for maximum effect. The blast occurred directly above Hiroshima Peace Memorial (commonly called the A-Bomb Dome). The ironic thing is that not only was this dome one of only a few buildings in the area that was not completely destroyed, much money and effort has been spent since trying to keep it in its "half-destroyed" state for the tourists to look at. At the main museum ticket booth, as well as giving discounts to children, students, and pensioners, survivors of the blast were admitted free! Some compensation, huh? My first visit to Berlin, Germany, was in 1999, and ever since then I have found it impossible to imagine what the city was like when it was divided. I've seen pieces of the Berlin Wall and walked or driven around stretches of where the wall ran. Checkpoint Charlie especially lacks the "real feel" as it's just a tourist attraction now. A few years ago, I toured a series of underground bunkers used by locals during WWII. After WWI, the French decided to build a barrier to stop the Germans from invading in the future. The result was the very impressive, not to mention too expensive, Maginot Line, which, unfortunately, was never completed. In any event, The Germans made an end-run around it during WWII. C'est la vie! I stopped by to look at one of the tunnel sections on my way from Alsace to Mainz. The harbor of Helsinki, Finland, is an impressive area. Until the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, Finland did not exist as a country. Prior to that, control of it alternated between Sweden and Russia. The islands just offshore were the home of a large, former military complex, Suomenlinna, complete with dry dock. A small military museum covers, among other things, the little-known Winter War with the Soviet Union in 1939–1940. A German submarine (part of German aid to Finland at that time) is open for tours. Speak of naval disasters and you can probably think of any number of sea battles. The one to which I refer here is the (peacetime) sinking of the Vasa. According to Wikipedia, this exotic "Swedish warship [was] built 1626–1628. The ship foundered and sank after sailing less than a nautical mile into its maiden voyage on 10 August 1628." It has since been recovered and is preserved in its own museum in Stockholm. To be sure, it's an impressive ship. Too bad it had major design flaws. While visiting a friend in northeast Germany, she took me on a daytrip to Usedom, the Baltic Sea island shared with Poland. This is the site of Peenemünde, where in WWII the V-2 rocket was developed and tested. The factory was mothballed by the Soviets when they invaded, so when it was opened as a museum many years later, it was pretty much as it had existed when it was active. Drive around various parts of Western Europe and, eventually, you'll come across an American tank parked in a town square or roundabout, as a memorial to the Allied invasion of WWII. Two such places come to mind: Wiltz, Luxembourg, from the Battle of the Bulge, and Avranches, France, where Gen. George S. Patton rolled through. Last, and certainly not least, are some war cemeteries. I've made frequent visits to Arlington National Cemetery here in Washington DC. It started as a place to bury Union soldiers during the Civil War, on land confiscated from Gen. Robert E. Lee, who just happened to be commander of the Southern Armies. Two Presidents are buried there, John F. Kennedy (along with his wife, Jacquie, and two infant children, and his brothers, Bobby and Teddy) and William Howard Taft, as is one of America's most decorated war heroes, Audie Murphy. The American Battle Monuments Commission is responsible for operating and maintaining permanent American military burial grounds in foreign countries. The first of these I visited was Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial where Gen. George S. Patton is buried. The second was the Netherlands American Cemetery, east of Maastricht. My third was Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which overlooks Omaha Beach, site of one of the American landing beaches in the D-Day invasion of WWII.

A Little Bit of Kulcha – Part 1

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[With this series, I've added some photos. There are many hyperlinks through which you can find more information on people, places, events, and things, and many of those lead to photos as well.]

Having been born and raised in Australia where the masses are rumored to have all the sophistication of Crocodile Dundee, I've given this essay a tongue-in-cheek title. In Australia, Kulcha is slang for culture , and I use this term rather loosely. As I've often joked, "The biggest cultural attraction Down Under is the National Beer Can Museum." Now, Aussies more sophisticated than moi might take offence at that statement, to which I concede, "Okay, the National Beer Bottle Museum is pretty impressive too!"

I was raised in a working-class family in rural Australia where dry-land farming and irrigated fruit growing dominated the area. I was the youngest of five children, and, for most of my formative years, I lived outside any town. Much of my early education took place in schools having seven grades taught in the same room by the same teacher, simultaneously. The libraries were very small, and half the books were rotated out every few months. At home, I had a few books of fiction, some comics, an atlas, and a set of encyclopedias. There was a radio; a record player; a weekly, local newspaper; and much later, a black-and-white television with two or three rather snowy channels. Entertainment was limited to monthly dances after regional sporting events, card evenings, school plays, and an occasional traveling concert. I doubt I knew an adult who had a library card, and people who listened to classical music or opera, or had any understanding of art, were way outside the norm, as were adults over 40 who had attended high school. [In 1969, I was the first in my family to complete 12 years of formal education.]

In my home state of South Australia, apart from the capital, Adelaide, almost all towns had fewer than 5,000 residents, so the main centers of higher learning and associated museums and galleries were located in that city. Up until the end of high school, my guess is I'd visited the capital—which was 160 miles away—only five or six times and then mostly on day trips. The only cultural event I recall from that era was a visit to the state Museum of Natural History and the zoo. Once I moved to Adelaide, I had access to all sorts of "cultured" places and events. However, while that often required having the price of admission, it also required the desire to not only participate in such activities, but also an investment in learning to appreciate them. And I had no background to do that. As such, I grew up a Philistine, at least in terms of fine art appreciation. [The photo at left is my Aussie version of the classic painting, American Gothic.]

This multipart essay is not about culture, per se, but rather about the places and events of a cultural nature that I have visited or experienced in my 34 years of (mostly international) travel. And even though I lived in Australia for 25 years prior to that, most of my travel experiences there are from later on as a tourist traveling from my adopted country, the United States. Hopefully, you'll be inspired to click on some of the hyperlinks to learn more, as well as to think about, and hopefully visit, some of these places in person.

Ancient Civilizations and Old Sites

One of my first experiences in this category was a biggie, the "lost" Incan city of Machu Picchu, near Cuzco, in the Andes of Peru. Constructing a place like this without modern machinery must have been a huge task, especially given that the quarries where the stones appear to have come from are nowhere near the building site. The stones were cut so precisely that no mortar was needed in the joints. I had the privilege of staying at the site overnight, which meant that after the day trippers left on the afternoon train and before they returned the next morning, we few overnight guests had the place to ourselves. [I went there after a week in a base jungle camp and then a primitive camp on the Amazon River downstream from Iquitos, Peru.]

Next up were the earthen, step-pyramids in Puebla, Mexico, from the Aztec era.

On my first visit to Costa Rica, I shared a hostel room with a Norwegian who'd just arrived from the old city of Antigua in Guatemala. Up to that time, I had no knowledge of nor interest in Guatemala, but a year later, there was I. After two weeks of private Spanish lessons and some touring to Lago de Atitlán and Chichicastenango, I spent time at the Mayan pyramids at Tikal. Some are half exposed with large trees growing up and over them. Without a vantage point, there was no way to see these seemingly man-made points reaching above the surrounding jungle, so they remained unknown to the modern world for many years.

One northern winter, I spent two great weeks in the northeast part of the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico that was formerly occupied by the Maya. I started at Tulum, a well-preserved seaside town. From there I visited the pyramid and sprawling city at Coba before going on to stay at Valladolid, the location of several impressive cenotes (sinkholes). I saved the best, the Chichen Itza complex, till last. The Mayan's knowledge of astronomy and mathematics truly is impressive as is the internationally recognizable pyramid (which, fortunately, tourists can no longer climb).

The first time I went to Stonehenge, visitors could walk right among the stones and touch them. It truly was a great experience to be there and to think about the purpose of the place and the impressive feat of dragging those stones from a far-away place. It really was incomprehensible that only 100 years earlier, a visitor there could rent a hammer from the local blacksmith to break off a piece of stone as a souvenir, and that farmers were crushing some of the lintels for use as gravel.

Although the English went through a more modern period of not taking baths, the Roman site of Bath is impressive as is the city now surrounding it.

A few years ago, I made my first trip to the Middle East, where I spent all my free time in Jordan. I was based in the capital, Amman, and made day trips in and around that city. Highlights included the well-preserved Roman city of Jerash (complete with arena for chariot racing, and a beautifully restored semicircular theater with uniformed musicians playing bagpipes), the ancient amphitheater downtown, and a walking tour with two young Palestinian women who were graduate students. While there, I learned that Amman was formerly known as Philadelphia. To be sure, the highlight of the trip was three days and two nights in Petra, the capital city of the Nabataeans built around 300 BC. [The Treasury building carved in the rock face was made world-famous by the first Indiana Jones movie.]

My visit to mainland China involved two weeks in Beijing, one of which was spent playing tourist. The highlights included Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, and the much more recent 2008 Summer Olympics' Bird's Nest stadium. Unfortunately, I was there in December when the wind howled and the temperature did not get above freezing! I highly recommend going at a warmer time.

My first visit to Rome was for three days in 1979, and it was my first stop in Europe. To say that the city is an outdoor museum would be an understatement. I went back for four days in 2005. The highlights were the Coliseum and the Pantheon.

The Neolithic monument of New Grange is in the Boyne Valley of Ireland. Like a number of other sites, it is built so that the sun's light enters at noon on the midwinter's solstice. It was built 1,000 years before Egypt's pyramids.

Religious Places and Artifacts

The UK is full of religious sites, many of which are ruins from the time when Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic monasteries. The joke among people who visit such sites on one of the numerous bus tours is that "We're going on an ABC Tour, Another Bloody Cathedral!" In England, if a town has a cathedral, it's a city, which makes Ely one of the smallest English cities. Other places of note in England are Westminster Abbey (especially for all you royal wedding buffs and Da Vinci Code fans) and St. Paul's Cathedral.

Rome boasts the Vatican City; France has Notre Dame and Mont Saint-Michelle; Leipzig, Germany, has St. Thomas Church, the final resting place of Bach; and Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany, has the church on whose door Martin Luther posted his theses.

After traveling for 2½ weeks in South East Asia, I was pretty much overdosed with Buddhas; they were sitting, standing, reclining, made of gold, and so on. However, after a suitable break, I've since been to see a lot more Buddhist temples (and Shinto shrines) on Jeju Island of South Korea; Beijing and Hong Kong, China; and Nara, Kyoto, Tokyo, Sapporo, Miyajima (perhaps my all-time favorite, especially when the tide is in), and Kamakura, all in Japan.

On Todos Santos (All Saints Day and Halloween), I've let off firecrackers and cleared around graves in Mexico, and watched the annual parade in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

On numerous trips throughout Europe, I've attended lunchtime and/or evening organ and choir concerts in a variety of churches and cathedrals. One particular event—a woman soloist singing Ave Maria in a large church in Budapest, Hungary—sticks in my mind.

During several trips to Norway, I saw some wonderful Stave Churches, medieval wooden buildings with slate roofs. And during my two weeks in Saint Petersburg, Russia, I saw quite a few impressive Orthodox churches.

In Helsinki, Finland, the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral and the underground Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church are worth a visit.

For an interesting and rather scathing take on religious relics, see Mark Twain's book Innocents Abroad, the first ever travel guide.

Shooting and Editing Home Video

© 2012, Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I bought my first video camera in January 1988. It used full-size analog VHS videotapes, was quite large, and used a large and heavy battery, which required an even larger and heavier charger. Over the next 15½ years, I shot 76 hours of home movies. In September 2003, I bought my second video camera, which was digital (but not HD). It records to 1-hour tape. In the 8 years since, I have recorded about 65 hours of home movies, which I have edited down to 61 1-hour DVDs.

In December 2011 and January 2012, I converted my 38 2-hour analog tapes to digital, and edited them down to 35 1-hour DVDs. [It took me quite a few tries to do this over a multi-year period before I found an approach that ended up with video that was at least as good a quality as the original analog tape.]

In this essay, I'll share with you some of the things I've learned along the way to creating 100 hours of edited video.

Being Realistic

A big promise of shooting one's own video is the ability to edit out the silly or boring bits as well as those minutes of film of the ground as you walk along thinking you had switched off the camera, but hadn't. Plus, you can add from those thousands of transitions and special effects that came with the editing software. [For example, mine allows me to transition from one scene to the next by folding the final image into a paper airplane and then having it fly off into the next scene!] However, editing video requires some idea of how to make a movie, and no training comes with the camera. Be prepared to spend time figuring out what you'll need to do to be successful.

If you thought you could get by with only a few blank video tapes/discs because you can reuse them, you'd better be ready to edit your video and burn it to DVD within 30 days of returning from your trip. In any event, you can't reuse your media until you've at least copied its contents off to some other place, even if you don't do any editing. (See later below.)

Some terminology

First, let's define some terms:

frame — Each separate image recorded. Most frames are the video content contained within scenes. A few are titles that introduce each chapter, and one set on each disc will be the menu for the set of chapters on that disc.

scene — That continuous piece of footage taken from the time you press Record until you press Stop Record. For example, you shoot a 30-second scene of little Mary showing you her new bicycle. Then you shoot several 60-second scenes of her riding it around in front of the house. Later, you shoot a 90-second scene of her riding it up a ramp and through a flaming hoop, blindfolded, while steering with her knees. [With an analog recording, nothing special is recorded with each frame. However, with a digital recording, a time stamp is written for each single video frame of the scene. And if the time between two consecutive frames differs by an amount greater than the length of time it takes for one frame to record or play, any device reading that video can tell that there must have been a scene break between those two frames. That is, with digital video, a reading device can detect the start and end of each scene automatically, which is useful when it comes to dealing with transitions.]

chapter — All of the scenes that together make up a single event. For example, all the scenes of Mary riding her new bike make up one chapter, possibly titled, "Mary Knievel Gets a New Bike". When we say, "I made a home movie", we're talking about a single chapter.

transition — The space between the end of one scene and the next within a chapter; the space between the end of a chapter and the next chapter's title frame or between a chapter's title frame and the first scene. Either way, if you do nothing, one scene simply gives way abruptly to the next without any smooth transition, such as fading out and fading back. To understand transitions, watch any movie or TV show and see how they handle the changeover from one scene to the next. If done well, the casual observer won't notice the change.

title — A special frame that introduces a chapter. It is often a digital photo representative of that chapter or a frame extracted from that chapter. [In the case of my analog conversions, I had almost no digital or digitized photos of the entire video subject, so I adopted one of my editing software's title templates, and used that for all titles.]

menu — The top-level title of a disc that shows you all the chapters available on that disc, with the chapter list possibly spread over a number of frames. [The way I've designed them, my menu frames hold six chapters each. Each menu frame then has arrows allowing me to move to the next/previous menu frame.]

It is important to note that except for content frames, none of these things exists until you edit your video. What comes directly out of your video camera has no scenes, chapters, transitions, titles, or menus, only a set of content frames (each possibly with a time stamp).

What's in My Camera Bag?

I have two golden rules regarding what to put in my camera bag besides, of course, the camera:

  • Always carry a spare, fully charged battery apart from the one in the camera. The one time you forget to do that will be the one time your primary battery runs down 10 minutes into your 2-hour round-the-island boat tour. (Ordinarily, I do not recharge a battery until it's completely discharged.)
  • Always carry at least one spare blank tape/disc/memory card (I usually carry at least two). That way, you'll have plenty of recording time regardless of what's left on the tape/disc/memory card currently in the camera.

Occasionally, you can get caught in the rain, so it's worth putting a strong zippered plastic bag in your camera bag in which you can seal your camera. It can also be used in places with high humidity.

Despite being in the high-tech business, I also carry a pencil and some paper to make the occasional note about certain scenes to be read during editing. I also pack some business cards. And I almost always have a few emergency rations (like a chocolate bar).

Once you have filled a disc/tape/memory card and you get back to your hotel, take that media out of your camera bag, and leave it in the hotel (maybe even locked in your room safe). Leaving it in your camera bag increases the risk that you might lose it or have it stolen when you take your bag outside again.

Although I pack my battery charger in my camera bag when I'm traveling, I never take it with me when I'm out shooting locally.

The other essential thing I carry is a basic digital still camera. For the most part, I use that to take pictures from which I chose the title of each chapter. Occasionally, I have a bunch more nice shots and if there is space at the end of a DVD, I add a chapter made up entirely of still photos, each separated with a 4-second transition, making a nice slide show.

One habit I follow religiously is to close the catch on my bag each time I take the camera out or put it back in. The reason for this is that if you lose your balance (on a slippery hiking path or on the deck of a boat, for example), the stuff in your bag won't all fall out and down a steep ravine or overboard.

Shooting Video

Know your equipment. If you plan to go out and buy a video camera to use on some big trip, take the time to learn how to use it properly. Shoot some video with a variety of settings and in different lightings. And if you can watch it on your home TV too, that will help you learn what to do, and, just as importantly, what not to do.

Each time before you record, clean the camera lens with a soft cloth. It's too late when you are editing that scene once you are back home to find distracting dirt, dust, water droplets, or some such impurity right there in the middle of the action. [Regarding cleaning the lens, my good friend John recommends a hand air blower, which is a rubber bulb that when squeezed directs a jet of air at the lens. This is especially good for removing particles too small for the naked eye. Besides, even a soft cloth risks scratching the lens if there are tiny pieces of grit or sand there.]

Don't forget that cameras record sound too! This might be obvious, but watch most people shooting video and you'll see that they say little if anything. However, don't say the obvious: "Now I'm zooming in on Johnny"; "As you can see, the train has stopped"; "Now we're lighting the birthday candles". Also, as you stretch that extra distance to take a better shot, and you bump your head hard on some object, that Mother-of-all-swear-words you say will also get recorded right there along with darling Johnny's school play.

Think about what you are going to say before you start filming. (After all, you are playing movie director; seriously.) Provide information that will augment what the viewer will see.

Don't pan (that is, move the camera sideways or up/down) too fast. This is definitely one thing to practice at home. Watching some people's video is like riding a rollercoaster; everything just flashes by. If you think that you are going slow, you'll likely find that you are still going at least twice as fast as you should. S-l-o-w i-t w-a-y d-o-w-n!

Don't zoom too quickly or too much. The zoom control on my first camera required a heavy touch while that on my second didn't, so it took some practice to zoom slowly. Two much zooming will make viewers lose interest. And when you are at maximum zoom, the slightest movement of the camera is greatly magnified, so if you can't hold it really still, use a stand or lean it against something.

Don't shoot too much of the same subject; it gets boring. And shooting too little means that the scene is almost over before it starts.

Don't shoot into the sun, a bright light, or a fire, or with a bright background behind someone (such as someone sitting at a window).

If you have an on-screen date/time marker, remember to put it on at the start of the first scene of each chapter, but don't leave it on for more than 10 seconds.

All of the digital cameras I've seen allow you to view through an eyepiece or on a small screen. I usually use the eyepiece, as that significantly reduces the battery use. And while you can only see a small window via the eyepiece, with a bit of practice, you can open your other eye, so you can see the window from the eyepiece superimposed on the actual view allowing you to move the camera smoothly to action happening outside that window.

Make sure you have a strong safety strap on the camera and always put your shooting hand through it, so the camera can't fall far if you drop it.

When shooting each scene, start the camera a few seconds before the event you are filming and/or before you start talking, and let it run late. You can always delete any extra time during editing, but you can't add missing audio or video.

The more experience you get from editing, the better will be your future filming, hopefully, to the point that your chapters need little or no editing.

Uploading Video to a Computer

A digital camera should come with a cable that connects it directly to a computer via a USB or a FireWire port. If a CD-ROM also came with the camera, install the software it contains. What you eventually want is for the video on the camera's media to be uploaded/acquired/copied to the hard drive as either an MPEG or a DV file. (The former is much smaller than the latter, but doesn't have the latter's high quality.) In the case of my old analog camera, I connected that to an adaptor that converted from analog to digital and then sent that to the computer via a USB or a FireWire port. As my analog film sound was in mono, I used a splitter cable to record the same sound on both the left and right channels.

As I mentioned earlier, the timestamps on digital media allow scene starts and ends to be detected automatically, which is a great help when it comes to editing. That way, it's easy to find the place to insert a transition. With analog video, my software (Pinnacle) allows me to define artificially a scene as a given number of seconds. Whatever duration you chose, it will almost always be wrong, but that's not the point. The longer the scene the harder it is to edit it. After some trial and error, I settled on 20 seconds, so when digitized, each of my 2-hour VHS tapes became 360 20-second artificial scenes, and that proved to be a good choice. Of course, most actual scenes ran much longer than 20 seconds, in which case, I did not put any transition (that is, delay) between artificial scenes that really went together to make up a real scene. I did not combine artificial scenes into real scenes, although I could have done so. There was no advantage to doing so.

My software allows me to trim the start and/or end from a scene, and to split any scene into two at the point I specify. And the two parts of a split scene can themselves be split again.

With a digital camera, the acquisition software uploading the video controls the camera through a serious of mouse clicks. In the case of an analog camera, you have to use one hand to operate the camera controls while the other is clicking the mouse on the software. As such, you can "lose" a second or two of video when your software doesn't start recording until after a few frames of video have played. Given the time stamp on digital recordings, the software knows then the video ends; however, for analog input, you need to tell the software to stop acquiring. The speed of the acquisition is the normal playing speed of the camera, so it takes an hour to upload an hour of video.

One of the problems I had initially when acquiring analog video was that the result was of lower quality than the physical tape from which it was taken, and that didn't seem right. What I was doing was playing the tapes on my old analog camera, which appeared to be working just fine. However, I had a new VHS/DVD deck and I tested that against the old camera. And the result was just as good as the original tape. Apparently, the read heads on my old camera were dirty making the video acquired via it of lesser quality. So, clean your player headers thoroughly before acquiring video especially from old VHS tapes.

[When I first started uploading digital video more than 8 years ago, I made sure I had plenty of disc space available. However, when I first tried an upload, the software tested the speed of my disc and told me it was too slow, and wouldn't be able to keep up with the camera. I was using a high-speed FireWire connection, which was quite a bit faster than the then-current USB 1.1. With today's faster connections and cheap/fast discs, that probably won't be a problem unless you are using some old equipment.]

Editing Video

With my software, it's quite easy. In one window you select the digitized input file, which is opened to reveal all the scenes as pages of thumbnails (using the first frame from each scene), presented in chronological order. In a second window, there is a blank storyboard to which you drag scenes from the input window. You can't edit a scene until it's been dragged to the storyboard. Scenes can be trimmed, split, removed, or rearranged, as you like. I never mess with the audio, as it is fine the way it comes, but your software probably will let you dub over video.

In my case, I record to 1-hour DVDs. So, I drag all the scenes from the input window and make a pass over them, getting rid of "obvious" stuff I don't want, identifying chapters, and inserting chapter titles. There are two main scenarios for recording video. In the first, you shoot a few minutes now and then on different and probably unrelated subjects. As a result, you might produce a disc of "miscellaneous" stuff. In the second case, you cruised the Caribbean and shot 100 minutes of video. In this case, you might try and condense that down to one disc, so that is the only thing on the disc. That makes it much easier to make copies of the whole disc to give to the friends who accompanied you on the trip.

Over a 25-year period, a number of close friends and relatives have featured prominently in my videos, so I plan to put together one or more composite discs containing all the chapters pertaining to them. This is straightforward. I create a new, empty storyboard, and cut and paste whole, already edited chapters from other storyboards I edited earlier.

Once I figured out the editing process and I started shooting video with editing in mind, I found that my video needed less and less editing to the point where I could edit and produce a 1-hour DVD in about an hour once it had been uploaded.

Video Disc and Content Indexes

Once you have created final, edited discs, how do you track what is on them such that you can find the disc(s) and chapter(s) of interest later on? There is a limit to how much you can write on a label or on the disc itself, and that limit is small. At best, you can write a disc ID/number, an overall title, and the dates spanned by the disc's contents.

In my case, I have two sets of DVD's: those produced from digital video have IDs of the form DVD-nnn, where nnn is a 3-digit number 001, 002, 003, and so on; those produced from analog video have IDs of the form AVD-nnn. This allows for 999 discs in each series, which I fully expect will be sufficient for my lifetime.

I maintain two separate index documents:

  • A formatted text document that for each disc, contains the disc ID, an overall title, date span information, and a list of the chapters on that disc with chapter numbers and titles. This is printed and a hard copy is stored with the discs, which are themselves stored in a zippered DVD binder.
  • A spreadsheet that contains one row per chapter. That row contains the following columns: the raw source filename, date taken, the DVD ID, chapter number on the disc, the chapter name/title, and keywords I wish to associate with the chapter (primarily the names of all the main people, events, and places depicted in the chapter). I search this in electronic form to find any or all chapters involving a particular person, place, or event.

Preserving Without Editing

Consider the case in which you have a bunch of old analog tapes whose contents you'd like to preserve before the tapes deteriorate. Even if you don't have the time or skills to edit them now, at least consider uploading them to a hard disc. [Truly big discs—as much as 3TB—are quite cheap and compact these days.] The same is true for digital recording media. If you want to reuse it (and why not?), you'll have to upload the contents first. Of course, once you record back over the media you can never go back to the original. That is, the copy you have on the hard disc is your only copy, so you should consider having a backup as well. [I have 3 2TB discs, each containing the same contents, but which are stored in different locations.] Oh, and by the way, if you think that would cost too much to have spare, big discs "lying around", ask yourself what you'd be willing to pay to get back your video if you lost the only copy. (See the subject of backup in my essay, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 2", from December 2010.)

Some VHS/DVD decks have the ability to digitize an input tape onto a DVD, allowing some minimal editing and addition of titles such that the resulting DVD can be playable directly. I didn't play much with that option, as I knew I wanted to do some serious editing along the way. [In fact, more than 50% of my original analog video fell on the cutting floor during editing.] That said this option might be attractive as the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way to go initially. And, later on, you should be able to upload the resulting DVDs to your computer for editing.

Which DVD Format Should I Use?

Computer-friendly DVDs comes in various flavors: +R, +RW, -R, -RW, and -RAM, among others. A format ending in R is read-only, so you can only write to it once. A format ending in RW is rewritable, typically up to 1,000 times. [There are also Dual-Layer discs, whose designations end in DL; however, despite their increased capacity, not all of my DVD players can handle them, so I don't use them.] Ideally, I wanted to record my videos on the same kind of media on which store-bought/rental videos are recorded; however, I've never been able to find out what that format is. In the meantime, DVD+R and DVD+RW work fine for me, as discs of this kind play in every video and computer-based DVD player I've ever tested them in.

When I have completed a 1-hour storyboard and have proofed it as much as possible using the editing software, I burn a copy to a DVD+RW disc. I then play that disc on several DVD video players connected to TVs as well as one on a computer to make sure it works okay. Assuming it does, I then fire up my DVD-copying software and make a copy, writing to a DVD+R disc, which becomes my master copy. [I actually have two DVD burners on my network, so copying from one to the other is easy. If you have only one, copying will be done via a temporary disc file. When copying a disc, always be sure to choose the copy-with-verify option, if that is available.] I then erase the DVD+RW disc ready for the next editing session. I never write my proofing copy directly to a DVD+R disc. If I did and there were problems in the chapters/titles, which I wanted to correct, I'd have to throw away the disc instead of reusing it. So while you'll need a supply of write-once discs on which to make your permanent recordings, also keep a handful of rewritable ones for temporary use.

Even though DVD formats are universal, that does not mean that everyone can read/play everyone else's DVDs. For example, the world is broken into a number of regions each having a different region code. And DVDs recorded for one region can only be played on machines for that region. [If you put a "foreign" DVD into a Windows-based player, it will allow you to play it several times after which time Windows will switch permanently to that region code only!] The good news is that there is a truly international region code, and my editing software uses that (as do all editing products, I suspect). Such discs can be read on any player worldwide.

Conclusion

There are always newer, bigger, and better options available for shooting and editing video, so if you use that as an excuse to wait "until the sales next Christmas", my guess is that you really aren't serious about making videos. In my case, although cameras with mini-discs instead of tape were just becoming available, they were more expensive and were not as proven as the old tape technology, so I went with tape. Since then, personal HD cameras have become available. C'est la vie!

Until about 15 months ago, my TVs were all analog, each having the classic US 4:3 aspect ratio, so my videos looked okay, as that matched my video cameras. However, once I went to a wide-screen set, I found it better to set it to the "narrow screen" mode, so people and pictures didn't get stretched out of proportion.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Don't underestimate the discipline and effort needed to be successful. And like most things in life, the more you do, the better you get, so the sooner you get started editing, the better will be your shooting, and vice versa. Best wishes on that "short feature" Oscar Nomination!

Travel – Packing and Preparing

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

With more than 1,500,000 air miles (2.5 million kms) under my belt (see "Travel - Fly Me to the Moon", from May 2010), and quite a few driving trips as well, I have a lot of experience at preparing for travel, and in this essay I'm going to share some of my tips with you. However, remember that I am far from normal!

Many years ago, I remember reading some advice about packing. It went something like this: Put on your bed all the stuff you are thinking of taking on your trip and divide it into three piles. Pile 1 contains the "absolutely essential" things; Pile 2 contains the "nice to have stuff"; and Pile 3 has those things that maybe, just maybe, you might have occasion to use. Now, when you have done that, take Piles 2 and 3 and put those things back in your cupboards! Personally, I find that to be good advice. With my packing, I try to be a minimalist, and I've gotten pretty good at it to the point that I rarely get back home from a trip and find that I didn't actually use something I packed, except hopefully the first aid kit.

Luggage

  • Unless you are seriously physically impaired or a small child, don't take more pieces of luggage than you can manage yourself at one time without any assistance for at least 400 yards.
  • Buy only cases with wheels. There are two main kinds: those with two wheels that have a (sometimes adjustable-length) rigid handle you use to pull, and those with four wheels that have a flexible strap you use to pull. Whichever you get, make sure that the wheel assembly is well made and preferably recessed to protect it from damage. (That said, note that wheels don't work at all well on cobblestones, which are prevalent in many European streets, so be ready to carry your luggage at least some of the time.)
  • Lots of luggage is cheap and nasty, and after only one bout of typical airline baggage handling, can show serious signs of wear. Don't buy a $20 case for a $2,000 vacation!
  • Luggage will get cut, scratched, and marked, so don't get hung up about its appearance. And don't spend more than is necessary. Besides, having expensive/designer luggage marks you as a potential target for thieves and scam artists.
  • In these days of security checks, your luggage may be opened by security without your being present, even if it is locked. Besides, locks only keep honest people out, so don't get hung up on locking your luggage. I never lock mine.
  • Invest in some decent labels that cannot be removed easily. Print the information clearly. Most ID tags that come with luggage are pretty crappy.
  • Put your home address and contact information inside the luggage as well, preferably written in felt pen, so it can't be erased easily.
  • Many bags and cases look alike. By using a secure strap with a distinctive color or design, you can more easily identify your bag on a baggage carousel.
  • Don't put anything really valuable or critical to your trip in your checked luggage.
  • Limit your carry-on luggage to a computer bag or attaché case, a purse, a garment bag, and a fanny pack/bum bag. Yes, waiting for your luggage on arrival can take time, but trying to carry everything onboard a plane might mean you have to use the space under the seat in front of you for storage, and for those of us with long legs and/or on long flights, that's a definite no-no.
  • Once at my destination, for personal activities I find a small daypack to be useful, to carry around a water bottle, some snack food, maps, guidebooks, and a first aid kit. If you don't take it aboard as carry-on luggage, fold it flat and put it inside your checked luggage.
  • I'm a big fan of hands-free travel, so whenever possible, I take a backpack and I wear a fanny pack; that's it. That way, I can keep both hands free to push and shove my way onto public transport along with the locals, and to hold on to the bus/train straps if I'm forced to stand.

Clothing

  • Let's start with the most important item, shoes! My guess is that by far the weakest part of any traveler's wardrobe is his or her footwear. Specifically, people plan on doing a lot of walking in shoes that were not designed for that purpose. While I'm no spendthrift, I spend at least $120 for a pair of good walking shoes, which I buy at a high-end store that supplies hikers. [In fact, I practically live in those kinds of shoes any time I'm out of the house and not attending formal meetings.]
  • Get practical! This means that while you might not go down your local street in your gardening clothes or without your hair done just right, almost everyone you will meet while traveling will be strangers who you will never see again. You certainly do not need a different outfit every day! In any event, dress to please yourself. But above all, be comfortable. It never ceases to amaze me how many people dress in business suits and such for an international flight during which they will sleep in their clothes! As for me, I like things loose, and I always undo my shoelaces while in flight, as my feet swell with the pressure difference.
  • My favorite all-purposes clothing item is lightweight khaki trousers that dry quickly when wet, have zippered pockets, and whose legs can be removed by unzipping them and without taking my shoes off. For short trips I take only one pair; for longer trips I take two.
  • My next favorite piece is a lightweight Gore-Tex coat with lots of pockets, some zippered some not. Buy one that supports a zip-in/zip-out liner jacket.
  • Wear clothes in layers, so you can add or remove a layer at a time.
  • Socks are important, and I often wear special polypropylene wicking socks underneath other socks, that wick the perspiration from my feet.
  • I always carry a baseball cap in one coat pocket and a woolen cap and gloves in another.

Personal Stuff

  • A sheet of aluminum foil: It's light and takes up next-to-no space, yet you can use it for a 100 purposes from wrapping up leftover food, making a drinking cup, to storing pills/tablets. But you have to remember to take it with you everywhere; otherwise, you won't have it when you need it!
  • Some of those clear plastic zip-up bags, in various sizes
  • An alarm: you can't always rely on a hotel's wake-up call system and, besides, who will wake you if you fall asleep with jetlag on a long bus or train ride?
  • A small flashlight. [My friend John tells me that Mag lights are great. They are fairly small, built tough, waterproof, take only two AA batteries, and last a very long time. They also have an extra light bulb hidden inside the unit.]
  • Some compact travel games and/or a deck of playing cards
  • A pair of sunglasses (or clip-ons) and a spare pair of eyeglasses. And maybe even your prescription
  • Insect repellent
  • Sun screen and lip balm
  • A hand towel
  • Medication, headache tablets, a basic first-aid kit, blister pads and stuff to deal with foot problems when doing a lot of walking
  • A strong, plastic knife, fork, and spoon (or spork): I sometimes take a plastic bowl and cup as well, although leftover containers from take-away food places work just as well.
  • Swiss Army knife
  • A compact pillow for the plane flight and/or the hotel. I can sleep on gravel if I have a good pillow!
  • Some simple groceries: I often take some packets of ketchup, pepper, salt, sugar, instant coffee, and tea bags, which are things that are difficult to buy in small amounts while traveling.
  • Reading materials
  • A small roll of toilet paper or a pack of tissues. Not all public toilets will have paper, and €10 bills are not meant for that purpose!
  • For longer trips, some washing powder: many hotels have clothes lines in their rooms; hotel laundry services are usually quite expensive, so find a coin-operated laundry instead
  • Writing materials to send letters and postcards

Documentation

  • Passport and visa(s)
  • Health/vaccination card
  • Travel tickets and itinerary, accommodation and car rental vouchers, reservation confirmation slips
  • A domestic/international driver's license, as appropriate
  • Business cards: It's handy to give them to interesting people you meet, and you can write your personal contact information on the back. If you don't have a business card, consider making some on your home computer and printing them on card stock.
  • My airline Frequent Flyer Club gives me "reward coupons" that I can hand out to gate agents, flight attendants, and such who give me extra good service
  • Contact names, addresses, and telephone numbers
  • Travel/guide books
  • Foreign language guides
  • Maps
  • Membership card for automobile club service
  • Membership card for hosting organizations and host lists
  • A map of your own country to show people who ask where you are from

Money and Valuables

  • Some cash in your home currency sufficient for when you get back from an international trip and need a taxi or a cup of coffee, for example
  • A primary and a backup credit card (along with their PINs): Some PINs contain letters, yet many cash machines around the world have only digits on their keypads, so if yours have letters, make sure you know the corresponding digits. Twice in the past two years, I've had my primary card cancelled for suspected fraudulent use while I was traveling, hence the recommendation to have a backup card.
  • Check with your credit card company to see if they put a surcharge on purchases made outside your home country (mine charge an extra 3%)
  • Cash machines are readily available in the developed world, so best to get local currency once there as you need it. However, some machines insist on giving you very large-valued bills, which can be hard to change.
  • Buying foreign currency in your home country is very likely to be more expensive than buying it at your destination.
  • Travelers checks are pretty much a thing of the past
  • Consider having a money/passport pouch to wear under your clothing
  • If traveling with companions, don't have one person carry all the cash; spread it around, so it doesn't all get lost or stolen at the same time
  • I usually take a set of my country's coins (including some special-issue ones) to show people or to give as souvenirs
  • Leave all but your "essential" jewelry at home

Electronics and Electrics

  • Laptop or netbook computer: these are useful for handling email; browsing the internet; playing music; using an internet phone system (such as Skype); viewing, sorting/renaming, and backing up digital photos; and even viewing video.
  • A headset for computer/internet phone use (my netbook has built-in speakers, a microphone and a webcam, but my laptop has only speakers)
  • Spare high-capacity memory sticks to hold backups of computer files and digital photos
  • Digital camera, spare memory card, and charger
  • Digital video camera, spare tapes or disks, and charger
  • International power adaptor: I have several that take "anything in" and have "anything out", which includes support for plugs and sockets for US, Australia/NZ, Continental Europe, and the British Isles, all in one unit. Sometimes, it is convenient to be charging more than one device at a time; however, an international adaptor has only one socket. As such, I take a 3-way plug and I put that into the adaptor, allowing me to charge up to three things at once.
  • I use a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) for my calendar, contacts, notes, and diaries. I could also use it for email and web browsing. It has a charger. A mobile phone might suffice for most of these activities, but international phone roaming charges may bankrupt you!
  • If you can avoid it, don't take any appliances that draw a lot of current, such as hair dryers or curling tongs
  • Men, for the most part, you can probably find support for an electric shaver, but you might want to take a hand razor and small soap stick instead, if not as well

Camping

  • Tent with poles, pegs and waterproofing sealant if not waterproofed ahead of time (rarely works once you are there and it rains and leaks; a patch of duct tape works best then)
  • A small roll of duct tape or some wrapped around the outside of your thermos or water bottle
  • Bedding: pillow, sleeping bag, mattress, air pump
  • Stove
  • Lantern and spare mantles
  • Gas bottles
  • Waterproof matches
  • Cooking pots, pans, utensils, sharp knives, and cutting board
  • Crockery and cutlery
  • Axe and shovel
  • Bucket and quart/gallon plastic jug
  • Ice chest and ice
  • Folding chairs and possibly a table
  • Garbage bags
  • Ropes and octopus straps
  • Tarpaulin
  • Thermos for hot/cold drinks and/or food
  • Basic set of tools
  • A whistle
  • Groceries, including cooking support such as oil and spices

Traveling with Kids

  • Take along activities to keep them happy especially when they have to wait 8 hours at an airport for a delayed flight. The two best things I found was a deck of UNO cards and some sort of music player on which you can record their favorite books
  • Some airlines and train services still give out play kits to young travelers, so ask. And with the more sophisticated airline video systems available now even in Economy Class, kids have a much wider range of things to watch
  • Don't expect your kids (or many adults, for that matter) to want to spend 4 hours in an art museum! Plan some kid-friendly activities and keep an eye out for playgrounds
  • Take a spiral-bound book and work with your child/children to make a diary of the trip. Not only can you write in it each day, you can have the people you meet write in it, in their native language. You can glue in post cards, stickers, and stamps, receipts, brochures, and tickets, for example.

Things to do Before You Leave Home

  • For not-necessarily-exotic destinations, at least 8 weeks in advance check if any vaccinations or (anti-malaria or other) tablets are required
  • Arrange for garden and/or indoor plant support
  • Arrange for pet support
  • Arrange transportation to/from your home airport/train station
  • Suspend postal deliveries or arrange for someone to collect your mail
  • Suspend newspaper deliveries and have someone collect any free community newspapers that get thrown in your yard
  • Consider leaving one or more lights on inside, or have them be triggered by a timer
  • Consider recording a new answer phone message (see below)
  • Switch off appliances, computers, and such
  • Switch off the water supply to the washing machine or perhaps the whole house
  • Adjust the heating/air conditioning levels
  • Tell your immediate neighbors, so they can "keep an eye" on your place
  • If appropriate, disable automatic downloading of email to your home computer, so you can get it on a different computer while traveling (this is necessary if you use something like MS Outlook, but not if you get your mail via a web browser)
  • If you have a mobile phone and want to be able to make and/or receive calls while abroad, you'll need to see if you need SIM cards, and what the call charges will be. Alternatively, you might want to look at renting a mobile in the destination country
  • On most personal trips, I keep an electronic diary. Before the start of each trip, I clone the general outline from the previous diary and get that setup with headings for each day of the new trip, so it's "ready to go".
  • Check with your credit card company to see if they would like to know where and when you will be going, so charges made in those countries at those times will not be considered suspicious and cause them to suspend or cancel your card while you are away
  • If you have just bought a new still or video camera before your trip, spend serious time getting to know how to use it properly before you go. If you don't you run a high risk of capturing all those wonderful moments abroad, yet find they are pretty crappy once you get back home and look carefully at them. This is especially so with video where people move the camera way too fast, and with stills when they pay no attention to where the sun and other glare is while they take pictures.

Make sure you leave your house in a "safe" state, but without advertising to the casual passerby that you are actually away. For example, this suggests that you might not want to change your answer phone message to say that you are away, or at least not say just how long you will be gone.

Conclusion

Now, who has the most to gain by having a good trip? You do. And who has the most to lose by having a bad trip? You do. So who should make the most effort to plan for a successful trip? Obviously, it's you, not your partner and not your travel agent or friend who recommended the trip.

Above all, have a Plan B, even for Plan B. When things don't go right or as planned, be ready to move to a backup plan before you let yourself get upset. And if you find there was something you should have brought along but didn't, write it down and update your travel-planning list when you get home.

Bon voyage!

A Little Foreign Language Goes a Long Way

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

 

[Readers of this essay may wish to read my essay from July 2010, "What is Normal - Part 2. Writing Systems".]

In the past 30-odd years, I've flown more than 1.5 million miles (2.5 million kms), and that, along with my hosting activities back home, has provided me with a lot of occasions to be with people whose first language is not my own. Those of you who've met me know that I am a gregarious person. However, in order to socialize, one must be able to communicate, and that can be challenging, even intimidating.

I remember well the first time I really felt inadequate in the foreign-language department. [Most notably, it was not during the 7-week trip I took through Asia and Europe to get to the US initially. Everything then was so new and novel that I didn't notice that my foreign language skills were non-existent.] It was in 1985, and I was returning to the US from a vacation in Australia, when I stopped over in Tahiti, French Polynesia. Each morning, I shared breakfast with a number of other tourists, none of whom spoke English. Now when one makes eye contact with someone at close quarters, if one cannot speak to the other person in a common language, one's only option is a smile (and possibly a nod, assuming a nod has no negative implications in that person's culture). But what to do for Act 2? As it happened, I not only made eye contact, I shared a table with these people, which made for a quiet meal after I'd used up my 10 words of French and they their 10 words of English. Right there and then I decided that I really needed to do something about it. Despite the pervasive use of English around the world, I had no good reason to assume that other people could or should speak that language. At the very least, I should try to meet them on their home turf whenever practicable even if that meant learning just a handful of words and phrases. A little effort can get a lot of respect.

A second situation involved a trip to Germany where I stayed with a friend who spoke English. However, one afternoon, I spent time with her mother who had no English at all. I quickly used up my minimal German, but we pressed on and she helped me prepare food for a Chinese meal I cooked that evening. We had a task to do and we managed to communicate non-verbally. We also spoke in our own languages, not because the other would understand, but the tone one uses and where one puts the stress can communicate meaning.

In 1992, I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to give a series of lectures. My wife and 8-year-old son, Scott, came with me. Scott is also gregarious, so when people made eye contact with him, he always said, "Hello". On this occasion, our translator and guide had prepared a small card for him to carry that said in Russian, "Hello, my name is Scott and I am an American". Then when someone smiled at him or greeted him in Russian, he'd take out his card, smile, and show it to them. One day, the other person responded in English, but my son was expecting to hear Russian, so he didn't really listen, and was quite surprised when I explained what had happened. [During that same trip, several weeks later in Finland, he learned to communicate with others via music.]

As I stated in "Travel: Home Stays" in January 2010, I am a traveler, not a tourist, so I like to get off the beaten path. But even if one is a tourist, to take full advantage of one's travel experience one really needs to interact with the locals even if it's just to ask the price of something, to buy a coffee, or to find a public toilet. I urge you to take the plunge. Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Do You Speak English?

On many occasions while traveling, I've asked someone, "Do you speak English?", and often they've replied, "A little!" More often than not, their "little" really is quite a lot.

Although English is my first language, I really didn't get to study it formally until I was in my late 20's, when I started learning Spanish. It occurred to me very quickly that if I was to get a handle on Spanish grammar, I should probably understand the grammar of my first language. As a result, my formal English training took place in the US, whereas I'd first learned the language in Australia.

Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Growing up with parents and relatives who occasionally spoke an older variant of German, I got to learn a handful of words and phrases. However, the speaking of German was not promoted in my house even though it was the first language of my parents. [Although they were born in Australia, they spoke German at home and learned English in school at age 5.] A few of my oldest cousins had a decent grasp of the spoken language.

My first foray into learning German was the purchase of a Berlitz cassette course in 1980. It was rather dry and monotonous to work at on my own, and although I learned quite a bit, I never did finish the first 90-minute introductory tape. [Recently, when having a major purge of my stuff, I came across this course, still in its nice carry bag. I was delighted to find a good home for it with a friend. As he still owns a cassette player, I'd have to say that he's an old friend.]

Some 10 years later, I signed up for a 10-week course at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Each Saturday, I sat in class for 3 hours listening, learning, and speaking. The first week, the instructor arrived and spoke for 90 minutes, in German only! It was a shock to all of us attending, as we had not known it was to be a complete immersion class. The books we got were also in German only. I soon went out and bought an introductory German book in English, which saved me from complete failure. Each week for the first few weeks, fewer and fewer students showed up. I'm sure it wasn't nearly as romantic as they had imagined.

After that, I worked a great deal on my own with books learning more grammar and vocabulary. And as I traveled, I tried it all. However, my main problem was that I had no comprehension skills.

More than a few languages are Germanic, so some knowledge of that language has helped me read information as I've traveled.

After a month in Europe recently, with two weeks of that in Germany, I had four weeks of private German tutoring. It certainly was intimidating. I am told with great authority that, "It gets better/easier as you go along". In any event, I'm certain that I don't work that hard for money!

¿Habla Usted inglés?

Years ago, I had been considering taking a formal German class, but as it happened, I got sidetracked into Spanish instead. In any event, some proficiency of Spanish seemed more useful here in the US, and as far as I could tell, Spanish was a lot easier to learn than was German. [While German has three genders, Spanish has only two, which is still one too many! And whereas there mostly is no pattern to the gender of nouns in German, there is in Spanish. Thank Heaven for small mercies!]

My formal Spanish training was also done at Georgetown University. The first course involved 30 hours over 10 weeks. Thankfully, it was not an immersion course. I did well and I liked it; however, I put in a lot of work. Afterwards, I set out with my backpack and my present-tense-only Spanish to Latin America where I probably insulted or confused a lot of people with my efforts to communicate. A year or so later, I followed up with a second course although that was far less enjoyable partly due to the need to spend time recording and listening to one's own voice.

The Romance languages (of which Spanish is one) have many common words and constructs, which gives me a boost when dealing with Italian-, French-, and Portuguese-speaking people.

Anata wa eigo o hanashimasu ka

After my first trip to Japan, I learned that I had been completely unprepared for the communications barrier. So, before my next trip, I set about learning some basic Japanese (as well as buying a bilingual map of Tokyo).

My goals were simple: I didn't need to be able to read or write (which would take a lifetime commitment, especially as there are three writing systems to learn) just to be able to speak and understand simple statements and questions. I did not attend any formal class; I simply studied using a small 120-page phrasebook. The good news came with the revelation that Japanese has the same five vowels as English with sounds approximating those in Spanish. Ok, no problemo!

One of the first things I learned how to say was, "I do not speak Japanese", in Japanese. This, of course, confused many listeners; after all, I had just spoken to them correctly in Japanese! Now no matter how little I can speak in any language, I do try to speak correctly and therein is a real problem. If one sounds like one knows what one is doing, listeners assume that one really does!

Although I ignored reading and writing, I did learn to read the kanji digits 1–10. Prices in local markets and street food stalls are often in an interesting combination of kanji and Arabic digits. For example, a price of 400 yen is often written as 四00, with a kanji 4 followed by two Arabic zeros. So while I could figure out how much I was paying, I had no idea what I was buying!

In general, I found that once people believed me when I said I really didn't speak Japanese, they actually did understand the little I had. And my being able to remember the little prayer one says before a meal (i·ta·da·ki·masu) won me a lot of points. [There's also one to say after a meal, go·chi·so·sa·ma, but I rarely remember to say that one.]

During one trip, I was riding on a train and I wanted some information about my stop. Opposite me sat several Japanese teenage schoolgirls. When I asked them in what I considered was correct Japanese, they looked at each other and giggled out loud. Now as most Japanese since WWII have learned some level of English in school I switched to English in the hopes of a better result. Unfortunately, they giggled even more. Frankly, I suspect they would have giggled if I'd just held up my finger.

Now if you can get passed the reading and writing (as in, ignoring it), you might be pleasantly surprised as how simple the grammar is compared to Western European languages. Verbs are always used in the infinite form; there is no conjugation. YEAH! There are no articles (I think perhaps because German used up the whole world's supply) or plurals. To turn a statement into a question, one simple adds a suffix. In fact, speaking Japanese is as easy as using chopsticks; well, maybe not quite.

By the way, the title of this section is written in Romaji, the method of writing Japanese using Latin (Roman) letters.

Speaking in Numerous Tongues

I know quite a few people who are fluent in at least three languages, and a few who can get by in four, five, and even six. And I met one woman who managed seven, including Latin. Whereas in the US knowing a second language can command premium pay, someone selling international ferry tickets in Tallinn, Estonia, for example, might need to speak English, Russian, Finnish, and Swedish, just to apply for the job, and that's without much if any extra pay.

One Language at a Time, Please!

While some people can casually switch from one language to another when talking in a group, as for me, I can only handle one foreign language at a time. Any attempt to speak in a third language while I'm immersed in a second usually results in my talking in that second language instead.

I'm reminded of an incident during my first time in Costa Rica. There I was, immersed in Spanish when I came across two young women waiting at what looked like a bus stop in a small village near the Caribbean coast. I started speaking to one in Spanish and she replied in Spanish. It was immediately clear to both of us that neither of us were native Spanish speakers. It turned out she was German, and she spoke a bit of Spanish and quite a bit of English. So, English would have been the best language in which to communicate; however, her friend spoke only German. In order to allow the friend to join the conversation, I said, in Spanish, that I spoke some German. Then there was a big pause while I tried to think of some, but I couldn't even remember how to introduce myself and say my name. Basically, I told the first woman in Spanish that I really could speak some German, but right now, I couldn't really think of any as I was "in Spanish mode".

Literacy and Fluency

It is important to mention that it has never been my intention to be either literate or fluent in any language other than English. Yes, I can read various bits of other languages, and that is useful, but I really don't care to nor need to read much other than signs, notices, and menus. And I rarely need to write in another language.

Variations on a Theme

Of course, not all flavors of any given language are created equal. An American might travel to Australia and find she doesn't understand many local terms and has trouble with lazy word endings and run-on speech. A group of Germans, Austrians, and Swiss might all speak German, yet each brings to the conversation a whole other vocabulary and set of pronunciations. Likewise for French speakers from Canada, Belgium, France, and Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast).

Basic Words and Phrases to Know in any language

So just how many words and phrases must one know to "get by" in another language? Of course, the more the better, but one should start with the obvious ones, as follows: hello, my name is …, yes, no, please, thank you, thanks very much, how much does this cost?, and the numbers zero to 20. Add to that the verbs to eat, to drink, to go, to be, and to pay, and a few adjectives like much and very, and one has a good start.

Faux Pas and Misunderstandings

I can hardly end without admitting to some of my mistakes. Here are a few.

I was in Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, where I had two weeks of private Spanish tutoring. Each night, I ate at the same restaurant where I was served by the same waitress. She tolerated my poor Spanish and I tipped her well. Ordinarily, I don't eat big meals, but one night, I had room for dessert, so I asked her if she had any cake. She looked blankly at me, but didn't try to figure out what I was saying. After a number of attempts, I got annoyed. I was thinking to myself, "Darn it woman, don't you understand Spanish?" Several days later, I was clear across the country riding a bus when it occurred to me what I'd been asking for. I had the right word but the wrong language. Cake in French is gateaux, which is what I had asked for, but it came across as gato, which in Spanish means cat. So, it was no surprise I didn't get my dessert!

It was Todo Santo (All Saints Day), a big event on the Catholic calendar, and there I was as a lunch guest at a family in rural Mexico. From time to time, different people tried to get me involved in their conversation by asking me questions. I started talking about what I thought was His Holiness the Pope, but it soon became obvious that no one was following. As it turned out, I was using the feminine la papa, which means potato, when I should have been using the masculine el papa, the Pope. Potato, Pope; hey what's the big deal, right? [It occurred to me later that perhaps The Devil made me do it!]

When traveling with a 2-year-old, one tends to choose restaurants where one can get seated and served quickly. As such, on our swing through Belgium, my family and I ate at a number of Pizza Huts. Not only was their menu standard and much like their restaurants back home, but it had pictures. After I'd struggled to order from the menu in French, I handed the menu to the waiter only to notice that on the back page there was an abbreviated version in English. C'est la vie!

Conclusion

Back in the 1800's, the American writer, Mark Twain, went to Heidelberg, Germany, to study German. Afterwards, he wrote an essay called, "Die Schreckliche Deutsche Sprache" ("The Awful German Language"), in which he put the worst possible spin on that language, but in an entertaining way. Some years ago, I bought a copy of that book with alternate pages in English and German. I highly recommend it to anyone who has worked at learning a European language.

By far my most fascinating language moment occurred many years ago, during my first trip to Japan. There I was standing in Tokyo Central Station having just arrived from Narita Airport. I was looking at the black-line subway map (which, like most such maps was neither to scale nor with correct direction) thinking to myself, "How the heck am I going to figure out which line to get on, how to buy a ticket, and to know when to get off?" [This was in the days before multi-lingual computer information screens that are (fortunately) now prevalent around the world.] As I was pondering my predicament, a voice from behind me asked in German, "Kann ich Sie helfen? (Can I help you?)" I turned, smiled, and answered, "Ja (Yes)". As I looked to be a Western European, he used the only mainstream language he knew from that region, and it worked. So, there was an Albanian talking German to an Australian in Japan!

When you are in your own normal world, don't forget how intimidating it was when you were trying to communicate in someone else's language. Specifically, when you meet beginning speakers of your language, speak more slowly and use a simpler vocabulary without being condescending. And when you are in their normal world, be polite, by trying to use their words, pronunciations, and customs.

And watch out, those darn foreigners appear to have words for everything!

A Walk along the River

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

When I turned 50, I decided to take on a challenge that was neither too easy nor too difficult, yet would give me some significant sense of accomplishment. Based on a documentary I saw on public TV, the first candidate was to hike the Hadrian's Wall Path, along the border of Scotland and England. And while that path isn't so long (84 miles/134 km), the weather that far north is unpredictable, the terrain is quite hilly, and there appears to be little support for getting into towns to stay overnight. [I didn't want to carry sleeping and cooking gear.] While visiting that path's website (http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrianswall/), I followed a link to the website for the Thames Path (http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ThamesPath/), a path I had discovered in 1999 when my son and I walked the five miles from Runnymede to Windsor. That path had also been turned into a National Trail, and as it ran alongside a river—and rivers tend to run downhill—I thought, "How hard can that be?"

An Overview

In May and June of 2005, I hiked the Thames Path (184 miles/294 km) along the Thames River in England, end-to-end in 21 days (15 days walking and 6 days resting). I started at the "official" source in a farmer's field, and ended at the Thames Barrier, downstream of Greenwich. I followed the official guidebook, which broke up the walk into 15 segments with each one covering about 12 miles. Here's my day-by-day itinerary:

  • Walking Day 1: The Source to Cricklade (12.25 miles/19.7 km)
  • Walking Day 2: Cricklade to Lechlade (10.75 miles/17 km)
  • Walking Day 3: Lechlade to Newbridge (16.25 miles/26 km)
  • Walking Day 4: Newbridge to Oxford (14 miles/22.5 km) 
  • Rest Day 1: Tour Oxford and stay with host family 1
  • Rest Day 2: Tour Oxford and stay with host family 1 and 2
  • Rest Day 3: Tour Blenheim Palace in Woodstock and stay with host family 2 
  • Walking Day 5: Oxford to Culham (12 miles/ 19.3 km)
  • Walking Day 6: Culham to Wallingford (13 miles/22.3 km)
  • Walking Day 7: Wallingford to Tilehurst (13.25 miles/21.6 km) 
  • Rest Day 4: Rest day and stay with host family 3 
  • Walking Day 8: Tilehurst to Henley (11.5 miles/18.8 km)
  • Walking Day 9: Henley to Marlow (9.5 miles/15 km) 
  • Rest Day 5: Rest day and stay with host family 4 
  • Walking Day 10: Marlow to Windsor (14.25 miles/23 km)
  • Walking Day 11: Windsor to Chertsey (12.25 miles/19.4 km)
  • Walking Day 12: Chertsey to Kingston (11 miles/17.7 km) 
  • Rest Day 6: Rest day at a hotel in London 
  • Walking Day 13: Kingston to Putney Bridge (13 miles/21.2 km)
  • Walking Day 14: Putney Bridge to Tower Bridge (10 miles/16.9 km)
  • Walking Day 15: Tower Bridge to Thames Barrier (10 miles/16.1 km)

At the end of Walking Day 12, I was on the outskirts of London, at which time, I took a train into the city and checked into a budget hotel for four nights. For each of the final three days of walking, I rode the Underground to where I'd finished the day before and walked from there carrying only a small daypack instead of that and my backpack (which I refer to below as my full pack), which I carries on all other days.

Getting Prepared Physically

I had never hiked with a full pack before and I am not a fan of exercise, so I thought, perhaps, I should have a trial run before I committed to the whole walk. Some years ago, the Washington and Old Dominion train line ran 45 miles from the northern Virginia countryside towards Washington DC. Although that line had been removed, a sealed path had been put in its place for hiking, biking, rollerblading, and horse riding. My plan was to hike it in three consecutive days, each of 15 miles, carrying a daypack.

After a restless night and a rain shower the next morning that delayed our start, my son and I set out on the first leg. Although we completed the planned section, we were too fatigued to enjoy it. It was pretty much "one foot in front of the other!" Although the rain stayed away all day, the Heavens opened when we were a few hundred yards from our pickup point, and we got seriously wet. The next day, we hardly got out of bed. The third day, I hiked 10 more miles on my own. Several weeks later, we hiked five more miles, and months later, we covered another seven and a half. To this day, I still have seven and a half miles to go. But, you know what; you can have too much practice. Sometimes you just have to do it for real!

Getting Prepared Mentally

I can honestly say that I did nothing special in this regard. While I had no doubt the task would be challenging, I had no reason to believe that I couldn't meet it. After all, the whole point was to push myself within reasonable limits.

What to Take?

I bought a new backpack with internal frame and was happy that the salesperson fussed a long while over getting me strapped into it "just right". Here's the gear I carried or wore on any given day:

  • 2 pairs of hiking trousers with zip-off legs and lots of pockets
  • 3 light-weight hiking shirts
  • 3 sets of underwear
  • Lots of hiking socks and wicking socks to wear under them
  • A pair of hiking boots
  • A pair of superlight-weight slippers for indoors
  • A zip-up inner jacket with long sleeves and lots of pockets
  • A GORE-TEX® weather-proof outer jacket with hood and lots of pockets
  • A woolen cap and a baseball cap, each of which I could wear under my jacket hood
  • A pair of thick gloves
  • A basic first-aid kit
  • A light-weight digital video camera, charger, power adaptor, spare battery, and spare tapes
  • A compact digital still camera, charger, spare battery, and spare memory card
  • A microcassette tape recorder and spare tapes
  • A PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) pocket computer and charger
  • Emergency rations of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and candy
  • 2 half-liters of energy drink (I never was a plain water drinker)

I'd bought a pair of aluminum walking poles, but after several test runs, I decided not to take them.

The video and camera gear I used throughout the day was contained in a small shoulder bag. The charging equipment and used and spare media were in the backpack. A large fanny pack (bum bag for those of you Down-Under) around my waist held my passport, wallet, pocket computer, and change.

The Official Record

For most of my trips, I keep written diaries, but for this one, I decided on audio and video records instead. I bought a microcassette recorder that fit into an easily accessible outside jacket pocket. Any time I felt euphoric, depressed, crazy, or frustrated, I whipped out the recorder and spoke my mind, unedited. I finished up with five and a half hours of tape. The video was more staged; I rested a bit until my heart stopped thumping, then I thought about what I was going to say, and then I shot the film with narrative. [Have you ever noticed how few people speak while they are shooting video? Hmm, silent home movies; now there's an idea!] After editing, I had five 1-hour DVDs.

The Thames Source

There is considerable disagreement as to where the Thames River really starts. As I was using the official path guidebook, I decided to follow its interpretation. I arrived at the Kemble train station and walked to the river, which at that stage was a few inches deep and about 6 feet wide. I walked a mile upstream to an old Roman well that appeared to be the current source of the water. I then walked another mile along a dry bed to the spot where a small marker declared the site of the "original" spring. For some years, a statue of Old Father Thames used to stand there, but due to the isolation of the place and the danger of vandalism it was moved to a manned lock downriver.

The Weather

Although the first four days were clear, there was often not a lot of cover and a strong wind blew. I had one very wet and miserable day and another mildly so. The weather was mostly cool, but one day it got up to 86 degrees F (30 C), so I unzipped the legs from my pants, took off both jackets, and even put on sunburn cream. [That day, Big Ben's clock in London slowed and then stopped for only the 4th time in its history, apparently due to the "extreme" heat!]

More rain fell during the nights than the days, which was just fine with me. However, that meant that some sections of path were quite muddy.

Incidents and Accidents

After the first (and very) wet day, I developed some serious foot sores and blisters. This was directly due to my ignorance of not taping my toes and feet in advance of starting out. The resulting limping caused some hip problems. A case of painful shin "splints" in my left shin was still with me after 12 days. On the very last day, as I approached the Millennium Dome, I had a nasty fall when I failed to see a lot of small, near-spherical pebbles on a section of concrete path. I went from vertical to horizontal very quickly. As I lay there looking at the sky, I was sure I'd broken my neck or back. As it happened, the only injury was to both hands, which I had instinctively put down behind me as I fell, and which had been driven into the gravel. Fortunately, they were only bruised; the skin was not broken. Some teenagers nearby came to my "rescue" with a hand up and a bottle of water. Fortunately, this was before the days of YouTube; otherwise, they'd have had the whole thing on the internet in minutes.

Having had two major knee surgeries over the years, I was constantly trying to watch where and how I stepped to avoid twisting a knee.

Accommodation and Meals

The first five rest days were spent with four different Servas hosts each of whom I stayed with for two nights. The final rest day and nights were spent at a hotel in London. All other nights were spent in hotels or B&Bs en-route, the existence, and location of most, of which were adequately documented in the guidebook.

At the end of two different days, there were no places to stay near the path. In the first case, I walked some distance off the path to a quite small village. The first and second pubs I found didn't open until the evening. The third was open and the barman was happy to serve me a drink and snack, but that pub did not provide accommodation. However, I met a young woman waiting at a bus stop, and she lived right next door to that pub and her family ran a B&B. No one was home, but the barman kept calling there until someone answered, and I stayed there that night. In the second case, there were some hotels nearby, but they were outrageously expensive, and I finished up walking two miles off the path before finding a cheaper place.

Breakfast was included with each place I stayed, and when it was a typical "English" breakfast (as in two eggs, two sausages, two strips of bacon, four slices of toast, baked beans, etc.), I wrapped half in foil [the best thing to carry with you anywhere!] and ate it for lunch or supper. A few times, I stopped in pubs for a hot lunch, and pub fare usually sufficed for the evening meal as well.

Unexpected Difficulties

You would think that walking next to a river that runs downhill would be quite easy. However, in places, steep hills run right down to the water's edge and there is no place for a path near the river. As such, the path goes up, around, and about. In other places, sections of the path were undergoing maintenance, so there were detours. And in some places, private landowners refused to give right-of-way across their riverfront property. As a result, I walked more than a few miles uphill.

There are many, and such a wide variety of, gates to pass through and stiles to climb over. In a few places, some so-called kissing gates were too narrow for me to get though with a backpack on. In those cases, I had to take it off, drop it over the fence, go through the gate, and then put the pack back on. [I swear that the pack got heavier each time I lifted it!] In one instance, I wasn't able to put the pack over a high fence, and I had to backtrack and find a way around that section of the path.

Is there a Follow-Up Act?

Before I'd even started the Thames Path hike, I was already thinking about future walks. However, I quickly forgot all about those on my first really wet and sore-feet day. Then, not too long after completing the walk, I started to think about other possibilities. Hadrian's Wall has come back into consideration, as have some of the cliff top walks in Devon/Cornwall, England. And when in Normandy, France, a few years ago, I discovered the customs inspector paths along the coast. Every now and then, I think about the Appalachian Trial here in the US, but after a few milliseconds, I come to my senses about walking that (although I have walked short sections of it). The Heysen Trail in my native South Australia has also gotten onto my radar. Although it's 750 miles/1,200 kms long, my interest is in the southern-most 156 miles/250 kms that end at the sea.

Goals and Lessons

There are a lot of interesting and/or historic places along the Thames, and my initial plan was to stop off and visit and video them all. It was a noble goal indeed and it worked fine up to Oxford and its surrounds. However, once I get wet feet and I started limping, I became totally focused on completing the walk. So much so, for example, that I distinctly remember coming to the town of Windsor and its dominating castle and saying to myself, "Yep, that's Windsor Castle!", but walking right on through the town without stopping to go look at it any closer.

Of course, the main goal was the personal endurance as well as doing it solo. [My friend Astrid did accompany me for the first two days.] I had built-in flexibility in that I didn't have a fixed schedule. And not once during the walk did I think about quitting.

Regarding lessons, I guess the main one was to have better foot preparation.

Conclusion

I must say that the completion of the walk was quite anticlimactic, really! When I got to the Thames Barrier, the town band was not there to meet me, the mayor was not there to give me a key to the city, no-one gave me a certificate of completion, and the local shop didn't even have a T-shirt saying, "I Survived the Thames Path". I even found it hard to figure out how to get back to London.

In hindsight, would I do anything differently, such as perhaps preparing more? Nothing comes to mind. It really was one of those cases of having a basic defensible plan and then, "Just go do it".

Numerous people have asked me, "Whatever possessed you to do this walk?" In fact, I've asked myself that same question. Of course, the answer is, "Because it's there!" or perhaps, "Why not?" In any event, as Nietzsche said, "Was mich nich umbringt, macht mich stärker." That is, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Just Me and MiniMe: Traveling with Technology

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Back in the good old days, business people used to travel with a briefcase, which contained some stationary, their business papers, and some sort of paper-based calendar and contact list. [In my case, when teaching seminars, I also hauled along several heavy boxes of overhead transparencies.]

When records were kept manually, one had all one's eggs in the same basket; there simply was no concept of having a backup copy. One day, I was riding a car-rental bus to a west-coast US airport terminal and my briefcase—complete with paper-based calendar and contact list—was standing up front with all the other passengers' hand luggage. At the stop prior to mine, a passenger got off and pulled his bag out of the pile causing mine to tip out the bus into the gutter. Either no one up front noticed or bothered; in any event, the bus drove off. Of course, when it came to my stop, my bag was nowhere to be found. I thought for sure that my all-important diary and contact list were lost forever. However, that same evening soon after I got home on the east coast, I got a phone call from an airline ticket agent. When getting off her employee bus that morning, she'd found my bag, thought that it looked lost, and phoned me using the number on the business card luggage label. She then arranged to put it in cargo on the next available flight at no charge, and her airline wasn't even the one I'd used. I thanked her profusely and once the bag arrived, I mailed her a substantial reward. [Had this happened after 9/11, I expect the bag would have been destroyed!]

In this essay, I'll look at how business (and personal) travel has evolved since then, at least for me. I should mention that I always travel dressed way down in loose hiking clothes and walking shoes, and I wear a large fanny pack (which, because of the offensive connotations that name has in certain cultures, is called a bum bag) tied around my waist.

The Debut of Portable Computers

I say portable because I'm referring to the time before laptops. So what does portable mean? After all, given sufficient manpower, I guess that my full-size refrigerator is portable!

In my case, it was the first commercially successful portable IBM PC-compatible computer, from Compaq. In truth, it was about the size and weight of a portable sewing machine. It had two small-capacity floppy-disk drives (one of which I replaced later with a 20MB hard drive). For several years, I hauled it on flights up and down the east coast on a regular basis. On larger planes, it just fit into the overhead compartment. On the smaller "puddle jumpers" I got to carry it out to the plane where it was checked, and from where I retrieved it on landing. And not only did I carry that, I still had to carry my oversize briefcase.

Laptop Computers

As with most new technologies, I was a late buyer of a laptop, waiting until the initial bugs had been ironed out, and the prices reduced before making the plunge.

Once I found a good program to manage my calendar and contacts list, I stopped using a paper version, which freed up a lot of space in my briefcase. Eventually, I was able to stop taking my briefcase altogether as I had on my laptop electronic versions of most things and could put papers and stationary in the laptop bag.

I am on my third laptop, all from Dell. The first was small and could actually fit on my lap. The second was big and clunky, and, technically, was called a portable desktop. The heat it generated actually came through most tabletops on which I placed it! My current one truly is large and heavy. No matter how many times I upgrade my eyeglass prescription I still don't seem to be able to read screens all that well, so I prefer them to be as large as possible. (My desktop screen is 27".) And with a 17" screen, my current laptop is heavy. In fact, the power adaptor alone weighs more than some really light machines! Often, progress simply is change!

The great news is that laptops are no longer significantly slower than are their desktop counterparts, nor do they have less storage. In fact, when I travel, I take a complete copy of all the data files from my desktop system with me, and can run my business very effectively while on the road.

Netbook Computers

For years, the emphasis was on making portable computers more and more powerful. And then a few companies decided to go in the opposite direction, towards a smaller, slower, and cheaper machine, now known as a netbook computer. In my case, it was from Asus and had a 10" screen, a 75%-of-full-size keyboard, plenty of memory and disk, and a built-in web camera and stereo microphone, all for under US$400. (Prices for capable netbooks start at $200.) I called it MiniMe, named for Austin Powers' miniature clone in his second and third movies.

I love my netbook; I can run my whole business on it (albeit more slowly than on my other computers), I can use it to play music, watch movies, and to phone via the internet. And it weighs next to nothing and fits into a very small carry bag. In fact, it's so small, that whenever I carry it during travel I fear I'm going to accidentally put it down and leave it behind.

As MiniMe's carry bag is just a bit bigger than MiniMe, there is little room for anything else; however, I manage to squeeze in the power adaptor, some cables, and a mouse (as I don't care for touch pads).

I pretty much restrict my use of MiniMe to vacation trips where I can use it for email, phone calls, and light editing. For my big fingers and poor typing skills, the keyboard is too small for lengthy editing tasks. And the screen is small.

Pocket Computers

As I wrote in, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 2", in December 2010, I take my Compaq Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) with me at all times.

While my PDA fits easily into my fanny pack, it does require a charger/cable, and if I want to synchronize it with my laptop or netbook, I need to take a data cable as well.

So, What's in my Laptop Bag?

When my laptop bag is fully loaded, it weighs a lot! Apart from my large laptop, here's what it contains:

  • Power convertor brick and cable
  • At least one international power adaptor plug set that handles sockets in the US, UK, Europe, and Australasia
  • A 3-way US power plug, so I can charge multiple devices at the same time
  • Smaller-than-full-size wireless mouse (being wireless, I can't use it in-flight, however)
  • Mouse pad (light-based mice don't work at all well on glass conference tables)
  • Several Ethernet and USB cables
  • An RJ11 phone cable (a hold-over from the old days; now that broad-band internet access is available pretty much everywhere I go, I no longer need to take international phone adaptors)
  • Spare batteries for the mouse and laser pointer
  • At least three memory sticks of varying capacities
  • A very strong security cable with which to lock the computer to a desk or some other fixture (like many meeting/conference attendees, very often, I leave my laptop unattended in a semi-public place during lunch breaks)
  • A folding headset for internet-based phone use (I had an expensive Bluetooth earpiece, but that died, so I'm back to cheap headsets)
  • Basic office supplies: business cards, ruler, business stationary, pads of paper, pens, pencil, pencil sharpener, laser pointer, US postage stamps
  • Earplugs (for those nights in hotels with noisy/inconsiderate neighbors)
  • Paper maps of the US and the world
  • Some headache tablets
  • Some emergency rations
  • US$20-worth of bills in each of four or five foreign currencies
  • A printed copy of my flight itinerary, hotel, and car rental details, and some reading material (all in an easily accessible side pocket)

Camera Gear

There is no room in my laptop or netbook bags for any camera gear. Occasionally, I travel with a small still digital camera, and that goes in my fanny pack. If I take my digital video camera, I also take my still camera, and they have their own small shoulder bag, which can also accommodate a paperback novel and some emergency rations, some business cards, and pencil and paper.

Music

For the occasional musical interlude, I have ripped a number of favorite CDs to disk on my laptop and netbook. [Recently, I won an iPod shuffle music player; however, I have yet to configure it.]

Telephone

I use Skype with Skype-Out via an internet connection. If I owned a mobile phone, it would need its own charger and data cable to sync with the laptop or netbook, but hopefully, it would replace my PDA.

Conclusion

In the early days of my teaching seminars and lugging my old Compaq around, I also hauled a projection system. Now that had to be checked in my luggage, packed properly so none of the glass parts would break. These days, all my clients have standard projection systems in their conference and training rooms.

As you might expect from my "lost briefcase" story earlier on, now that all my records are electronic, I am very conscientious about backup. As I've often said, "If it's worth doing, it's worth preserving!" So, apart from a copy of new/changed files on my laptop or netbook's hard disk, I put copies on at least two USB memory sticks and another stick that goes in my PDA and/or digital still camera. One backup stick goes in my fanny pack, and another goes in my checked luggage. Call it a case of "suspenders and belt", but it works for me.

On a few occasions, I've traveled without a computer or camera bag, and boy does it feel strange. I keep getting the horrible feeling that I've left something behind. However, it does make security checking much easier.

If the next time you go through an airport, you see a very tall guy with one arm longer than the other, it may well be me. Say G'day!