Friday, May 27, 2011

Mallorca

I’ve heard about Mallorca since I’ve been in Spain. Almost as famous as Ibeza, it is one of the nearby Spanish islands in the Mediterranean and a popular vacation spot for Germans, British and Spaniards. Pictures of Mallorca show the sandy beaches, the resort towns and the towering cliffs. One guidebook I read described tourism as so popular that agriculture was becoming a nuisance. I did a lot of research on this place and got the mental picture of it being much like Lanzarote turned out to be. Sure, there is a long Coney Island like strip with bad tourist food, but good, possibly crowded beaches that stretch forever into the distance. I pictured bike paths, a long sidewalk for walking above but next to the beach and then the hidden gems, the little known coves, the special old style restaurants that don’t cater to the hordes of tourists but serve authentic island food.

From the descriptions I’ve read, lots of towns fit this description on the island, the most prominent one being Palma. We didn’t want to stay in Palma because from the research we had done, it seemed like a good place to have a frat or bachelor party and sleep was nearly impossible since the partying went on all night long.

We stayed a half an hour away in a little town called Ses Salines (or six saltines as I like to refer to it.)

Rather than do my normal entry, I’m just going to throw out some bullet points and anecdotes about what we experienced and how the island was- away from Palma, since I can’t speak for what Palma is like and that’s where most people go. Let’s start with a charming encounter of the weird.

*Thanks to Trip Advisor and guide books we have found a wonderful seafood restaurant in the next town over, situated right as the port meets a small stretch of beach. Great people watching. We open the menu to see they have a full page, full color picture of their mariscada. A mariscada is essentially a big platter sampling of the restaurant’s seafood usually for two people minimum. In this case: mussels, two small pieces of sea bass, a grilled bogavante split down the middle, calamari and grilled cuttlefish. We browse the menu but know that this is what we are going to have immediately. The price is nice, will give us a nice feel for the place since we’ll be sampling multiple wares, and it has all the stuff we love. (Click for a larger view.)

A German woman sits down at the table in front of us and orders a coffee. A couple with a blessedly quiet baby sits down at the table to her left. We order and I excuse myself to the restroom. When I come back Wendy is talking to the lone woman who ordered the coffee. She is charming and effusive, late sixties, stout, short and smiley. We enjoy talking with her as she tells us about her love of the island, how she had to move here after visiting once, finding her long lost love after twenty years and now has been married to him for another twenty.

All of this is charming, but you can tell she is lonely and really needs someone to talk to and today – we’re it. The conversation is getting a little long.

Our food arrives and she goes back to her coffee saying she’ll let us eat in peace. Thank God. In a minute she is talking to the couple next to her, leaning over the baby, telling them her story as well. Wow, glad we escaped that.

Until their food arrives and she turns back to her coffee - for a full minute, then swivels around and starts talking with us again. We pleasantly chat with her all through the meal. She regales us with tales of her genius son who she struggled to get into the PRISM program.

“You wanted your son in a prison program?”

“No, PRISM,” she explains.

“He missed the cutoff but I was determined to get him into it. I camped on the principal’s lawn until he agreed to bend the rules a little bit and let him in.”

“How come he needed to bend the rules to let your genius son in?”

“You need an IQ of 120 and he only got a 117 on the test.”

“Ah, well, your dedication as a mother is to be admired, working so hard for your son’s education. What’s he do now?” Wendy asks.

“He manages a supermarket.”

“Ah.”

This continues to go on and Wendy is her usual charming self but I’m getting tired of this. Not to the point of breaking because it’s clear that she is just lonely and she’s not that annoying. But when she goes on about her son for the next ten minutes, now having moved her coffee over to our table as well as herself, it starts to get on your nerves a little bit. Hoping to distract her I ask if she eats here often? Oh yes. Since you have been here so long, what do you consider the best place to eat on the island?

“There is this wonderful Chinese buffet in Palma where the food is excellent, all you can eat, and only eight Euros!”

Really? That’s the best restaurant on the island?”

“It’s fantastic! Let me give you directions.”

We’re now done and she comments on what a lovely meal we just had. There is a lot left.

“Yes, it’s too bad we don’t have a refrigerator in our room or we would take it with us. Since it’s just going to go bad, would you like it?”

“Oh, I couldn’t.”

“Why not? They’re going to throw it away and it will go bad long before we have a chance to eat it. You’re welcome to it.”

“Really?”

We ask them to box it up for her and they bring the bill and as is typical of Spain, three shots of liquor for the table, compliments of the house. Wendy and I decline ours but our new friend sips hers down. Finally we depart company, her with her boxes of food, us with our peace and quiet.

“Holy cow.”

“I know, right?”

*Mallorca landscape impression: Imagine if someone took a volcano and filled in the caldera with fertile soil and planted trees there. Then they dropped it into the Mediterranean and built roads and windmills. Almost the entire northern half of the island can be described this way. You drive along narrow winding paths and over the edge of a three hundred foot drop is the sea. And it looks beautiful! For miles and miles you drive like this. Just don’t expect to find a road down to it, or a beach anywhere.

*Bike tours are huge. They are everywhere and unlike anywhere else we have ever been, they seem to think they can ride four abreast and chat and make long lines of traffic just line up behind them.

*The roads are about ten feet wide. On each side of the road (everywhere) is a five foot high light orange rock wall with fields and sheep and goats and orchards. Cars are about five feet wide. Passing by each other is an exercise in precision. Now add in pedestrians who are, say, about a food wide, but luckily they are soft and squishy and won’t damage the rental car. Now add in frequent bike groups.

The most harrowing experience involving all of this was driving almost straight up a winding mountain road, with a bike group climbing it at the same time, while tour buses suddenly appear in front of us coming down the curve as we are going up. “Jesus!” Wendy screams. (Luckily, I am awesome possum on a stick at driving.)

It was a 13 mile stretch that I am sure was 6.5 miles up, 6.5 miles down and no straightaway longer than fifty yards. Well, thirteen miles isn’t that long… Yeah, unless you’re going thirteen miles an hour!

*The Germans have invaded. None of this was mentioned by any of our friends or in the guidebooks. Literally, and I am using that word correctly, ninety-nine percent of the tourists we encountered were German. It turns out that Mallorca is also known as “little Germany” because so many Germans visit it and because they have bought up so much property on the island. We don’t have any problem with Germans or the German language. It’s just weird so see, hear and experience it so much when you’re not in Germany!

*Our hotel was both a mix of wonderful and slightly disturbing. Wendy found this lovely place out in the country, less expensive since it wasn’t on the beach, that had a nice pool, a restaurant and mostly wonderful staff. We had a big room, a sitting room, a terrace and a large bathroom. The pool had daybeds, a pool boy or girl who came over and took drink orders and a wonderful view of the next town over. It was filled with guests like us (except, you know, German) who were just looking for a quiet time, a base of operations and not a nightclub. Most of the food was good and the calamari was the best I have ever had. The disturbing part was they constantly played low background music and as near as I can tell they had three CD’s and one of them didn’t work most of the time. So, on day one, we listened to Frank Sinatra for dinner, then for breakfast, then for dinner when we returned at night.

I hate Frank Sinatra.

When he wasn’t playing… well, as Wendy said “They sure do love their Kool and the Gang.”

The bathroom was nice and spacious but the shower had no door and no curtain. Nothing. Taking a shower meant drenching most of the bathroom and the floors got slippery when wet. Wendy slipped once so hard she has a purple bruise the size of my fist on her right buttock.

The beds were comfortable and sleep came easily. Until four-thirty in the morning when a very proud rooster, quite close by, would announce that the sun would be coming up, well, sometime. Eventually. It might be soon. He didn’t care. He would announce this loudly every couple minutes. Sometimes he would take a fifteen minute break but then he would resume. He did this every day we were there. On the third morning I called the front desk and asked if they had a gun or even a club, I needed to go commit roostercide.

*The beaches were hard to find in a way you cannot fathom. “The coast is that way… but none of the roads seem to lead there…” We once got directions to a secluded beach that took us about an hour to find down back roads so narrow (with stone walls on each side) that cars had to stop at one end or back up to wait for another to pass because two cars wouldn’t fit on the roads. This wasn’t one road, this was all the roads to this beach. After multiple left’s, right’s, backtracking, swearing, consulting the GPS, etc, we finally found it. I felt like I had escaped the Minotaur’s maze. There were beautiful breathtaking views from the cliffs and one small beach that held thirty people. Thirty people who were already there. (Click for a larger view.)


*On our final day there, we drove to Palma to see the cathedral on our way to the airport. After seeing the very weird Gaudi art inside this cathedral that took five hundred years to build, we went out exploring. On our way to a place to eat recommended in a guidebook we found this cute little restaurant with three tables on the street. It was a quiet street away from the crowd and no one seated there. When we found our intended destination closed, we made our way back to it to sample some tapas. The owner “hippie John” as I like to refer to him, was smiling and gracious but totally bizarre. We almost left when he lectured Wendy on speaking too fast. "Relax. It’s Mallorca, take your time," his hands gesturing widely like a pastor to his flock. Then he talked extra slow describing a particular tapa to illustrate his point, smiling beatifically the entire time.

We wanted to beat him with sticks.

We ordered a few things and a very annoying and loud man and his two French companions took the seat behind us. As annoying as this was, it was worth it. They ordered some salads and they looked too cool for school. One of them we had to try. It just looked amazing. It turned out to be a Cambodian Khmer salad. It was phenomenal. One of the best things we have ever shared. As the meal goes on we learn that John used to captain a boat, but now just helps his wife run their restaurant. His wife (Cambodian/French I think) is a master chef who has cooked for the king of Spain. The food is actually priced way too low, the portions enormous and heavenly. John is still weird though.

“With food this good, how come Mallorcans don’t pack this place every day?” I ask him.

He thinks for a minute. “Well, food is like evolution you know?”

No, actually, I’m not following you, I think to myself.

“Sometimes, people just need time to adapt. Food is like that, you know?" He trails off… "I remember the first McDonald’s that came here.”

Fascinating. No, really, go on.

“So, you’re Irish, how did you come to Mallorca?”

“Well, you know.." pause "...rain falls, and it goes into a stream, and then it sort of just takes its own course, you know?”

I don’t know but I want some of what you’re smoking. I bet it makes the food taste even better.

“Hey, look John, Tripadvisor users have rated you the number three restaurant on the entire island. Look, you have fourteen five star reviews and one four star review.”

“I hate Tripadvisor.”

“Allrightythen. I’m going to stop talking to you now.”

In closing, it was great and relaxing and frustrating and weird. Agriculture is certainly not dead since everywhere we drove had beautiful crops as well as large farms, hay bales in the fields, goats and sheep grazing – totally beautiful countryside that was reminiscent of Vermont or Provence. It was weird driving so much and yet, none of the roads were next to the ocean unless you were far above it. After we got done visiting the lovely couple we met in Venice, and got done site seeing, and found a nice beach we liked, we spent the last three days returning to that wonderful seafood restaurant, lounging by the pool and taking it easy. The hotel during the day was spectacular, lying on a daybed with my wife, reading a good book, an occasional swim and the fantastic view. The staff was friendly and nice, and all the Germans spoke English. It was a great trip, but nothing like what you might expect when you go to an island.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Like Big Brains

I LIKE BIG BRAINS AND I CAN NOT LIE!

YOU OTHER BROTHERS CAN’T DENY!

You wish you had one too. I know I do.

I only have a little brain. It’s a good brain in the sense that it is sensitive, compassionate, patient, and expressive in writing (after only a million words fine-tuning that particular skill) and usually courageous when I need it most, which is a family trait.

I love movies and TV shows about big brains and I always have. I find them fascinating. The plot can even be crap so long as the main character is brilliant beyond normal human norms and I will still love the story. Stories like Little Man Tate, Good Will Hunting, Sherlock Holmes, The Social Network, Nerds, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Lie to Me, etc., I love them all.

I think this is because I have always had a little brain and as a child had never understood the kids with big brains. When I was in fourth grade I vividly remember paying rapt attention to the teacher and still didn’t know what was going on. She randomly asked a hard question to the kid sitting next to me who had been doodling and daydreaming. Without even looking up from his paper he answered her, correctly, and continued doodling.

What the…? How do you do that?

In high school it continued. I had friends that never reviewed notes yet they got straight A’s. My father taught chemistry and I took it. He tutored me at home and I still couldn’t grasp it. I finished the year with a solid C- average.

In college, I had the same pathetic grades until I switched to a curriculum focused on writing. I enjoyed that and worked hard on the reading and writing assignments. I overcame my little brain with lots of hard work.

The people who have big brains rarely understand or appreciate the gift they have been given. They remember people’s names. They remember geography, history, directions and trivia on a scale I can never hope to match. All of it comes easily to them. And they seem to think everyone is like this, and are surprised and sometimes irritated when we’re not. Those of you with small brains like mine know exactly what I’m talking about.

I wish that there was some way I could “work out” my brain in much the same way as I work out my body. Sure, I could memorize a bunch of history or state capitals or anything along those lines. And a week after I had learned it, and didn’t use it, it would disappear. You have to use that knowledge constantly or it fades away to be replaced by other things. On top of that, none of that actually helps my memory, like remembering a place or directions or a person’s name. Like a computer with limited RAM, anything that isn’t needed is discarded to make room for more important things like which metro line to take to the doctor, or which day a TV show is on, or remembering to clean the terrace or “buy milk and bread when you walk home from the gym.”

“I need to remember that I have a doctor’s appointment on July 15th.” And the state capital of Arizona vanishes from my memory.

Like my body, my brain is limited to what it can learn and achieve. I have an ectomorphic body type (Thank God for the internet; I had to look up the names of the three different body types) so the amount of muscle I can pack on is limited by that without the use of heavy steroids. It is physically impossible for me to look like a bodybuilder without the use of illegal substances. My brain is the same way. I found Algebra I easy. I grasped it long before others in the class did. Algebra II I struggled with. Geometry was a nightmare. My math classes stopped there. Leigh Guptil and I made a very nice computer game that I am proud of to this day. We wanted to continue doing such work but my math skills weren’t up to the challenge of doing anything more complex. That was my brain’s limit.

This isn’t to say that those of us with little brains can’t become programmers or doctors or lawyers or nearly anything else we want to be. It just means we have to work a lot harder at it. Med school might take ten years and passing the bar might take three years of preparation and ten attempts before finally succeeding.

My wife, on the other hand, bestowed with the biggest brain I have ever known, passed the bar for the two most difficult states in the union in three days. On her first try. (She will humbly tell you that “It is not that hard. All you need to do is study and not be nervous. Most people fail because they are too stressed about failing.” While it is admirable to be so humble, those of us with little brains know better.)

I’ve known a few people blessed with a big brain in my time. My friend Rob breezed through high school and college without studying a lick. He conversed with me on an adult level when he was 13 and I was 19. He found his peers boring and was even impatient with me when I couldn’t grasp something he was trying to explain. He went into hospitality when he got out of college, got bored with that and worked as a manager at Blockbuster for a while. He quit that after a while and looked for another job. Six months later he got a strange phone call from a guy who asked him obtuse intelligence questions like “There is an all white cylinder spinning in a room. You can paint two dots anywhere on the cylinder. Using this, how would you figure out where Bin Laden is hiding?”

I would have painted two dots on a random wall and answered “the moon?” and received the response of “no, I’m sorry, the correct answer is yellow.” Because I have a little brain.

Rob answered nine out of ten of these questions correctly and was then given directions to his new job.

At Microsoft.

Two years later he was the head of his division.

Even he is not smarter than the person with the biggest brain I have ever had the pleasure of encountering; my wife, Wendy.

As I mentioned before, she passed the bar, twice, in three days. When we watch movies she instantly knows from the scenery where the movie was filmed. Three seconds into The Hulk she said “That’s Brazil.” (She’s never been to Brazil.) Wendy lived in NY for five years so any movie based there she can instantly tell if the movie was before or after 9/11. How? Because she can look at the opening street shot and tell you “The twin towers should be in the distance from that street.” Or “Hey look, that’s fifty-seventh street, I had a dirty water hot dog there one day, eight years ago.”

“How do you know that’s fifty-seventh street?”

“I remember that red townhouse on the right.”

Without owning a car she has the entire map of Madrid in her head and can direct tourists to the street they need, no matter how obscure, and tells cabbies the best route to our destination depending on the time of day. She came to Madrid with no training for her new job and in three years had contacts and contracts with the highest level employees at the largest companies in Spain that asked her to vet hundred million dollar contracts. And when she did, they weren’t just pleased – they gushed like infatuated school boys.

I feel I should add... none of this is writer's license. There is no embellishment here. Wendy made contacts/friends with the highest level businesspeople in Spain. They came to trust her, and it is no lie she actually verified that a hundred million dollar project was valid and worth pursuing for a particular company. Not only that, she saved this extremely important and expensive project from the verge of being terminated by one of the parties involved.

In closing:

I could have gotten straight A’s all through college. All I had to do was give up dating, socializing, drinking, eating and sleeping. (I worked very hard in college and graduated with a 3.14 average which I think is equivalent to a B+)

I like my little brain for the patience, determination, insight, and kindness that it has.

But boy, I really wish I had a big brain.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Manta Diving

I detailed my experience with the wonderful Manta Diving in Lanzarote here, and people asked for a picture. I finally found one of my instructor and her boyfriend, Wendy's refresher course instructor. Really nice people and I recommend learning scuba from them to anyone going on holiday to this island.

And, if you haven't read the entry I talk about here, you should. I think it's one of my more interesting pieces.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Happy Monday!

Here's a little video that will make laugh on the worst day of the week. It's making the rounds on Facebook, but if you're not on Facebook or haven't seen it yet, this is hilarious. Especially for those of us who love dogs.

Friday, May 6, 2011

THOR!

Venice Part II will be coming soon. No, really.

Saw Thor with Wendy, Lena and Stefan last night. Somehow, the fact that this movie was in 3D had eluded me. GLEEE!!!!

I don’t really have a whole lot to say on this movie. It was adequate but its high rating on Rotten Tomatoes led me to expect more. Sure, the actors did an amazing job; every single one of them. Odin was great, Thor was great, Natalie Portman was, well, Natalie Portman so shut up. I enjoyed the depiction of the warriors three, Heimdall and Loki. While Lena thought Sif was hot, I thought she should have been a bit hotter. Thor with his shirt off made Lena and Wendy make primitive, guttural noises all men want to hear, only directed at them instead of someone else.

The frost giants were giants in the sense that NBA players are giants. They were like seven feet tall. Seriously? Those are giants?

The dialogue was clever, funny and well done, I believe thanks to the story being done by J. Michael Straczynski.

As Wendy said and I have to agree, it was just a bit thin. There was too much character background, a few things that didn’t make sense, a blossoming love that had no back-story, and character actions that didn’t follow logical previous actions.

The CGI was great, the 3D was amazing at times and we all enjoyed it. Lena and Stefan left us to retrieve their car and on the walk home Wendy and I agreed that X-Men, X-Men II, Spider Man, Spider Man II, and Iron Man were all better movies. Also, Wendy was disappointed we never saw our little dog (Thor, Dog of Thunder.)

"He was in the pet shop."

"Pet Shop?"

"I need a horse!"

"Oh yeah, I didn't see him."

"There was a dachshund puppy in one of the cages."

This was a good movie and well worth seeing in 3D but it wasn’t exceptional.

B-

Three stars (out of five)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Venice Part I

Wendy has shown me some truly magical places. She did not nurture a love of new places in me, all she had to do was 1) make me fall in love with her, 2) have me visit and 3) show me the wonder known as Madrid. That was all it took for me to realize “you know nothing Jon Snow.” It awakened in me a longing to see and do more. To finally quit avoiding sunlight, playing video games and believing everything I needed to see was on my TV, and everything I needed to eat was at Hannafords. As I have mentioned so many times before, I did not know I needed these new things, but I did. And in the wonderful five years that we have been together she has shown me places that, when I see them, feel like a ray of bright sunshine on my soul.

We have been on a staggering number of trips together. Almost all of them have been amazing, enriching experiences. But we still had never been to the one place that I actually have always wanted to visit, ever since I was a child.

Venice.

As a child, I thought a city built on top of the water must be a magical thing. Like an Elven city built high in the trees, it had to be so different than everything else I had seen.

In preparation for this journey I read a few things on the web like “The twenty things you can’t miss while in Venice,” and TripAdvisor forums and the Wikipedia entry and a few others. I also read some of Rick Steve’s guide to Venice and a book simply titled “Venice” by Jan Morris.

The sad thing was, all of these things discouraged me rather than the opposite effect that I expected to have. Of the twenty things I wasn’t supposed to miss fourteen of them were museums, palaces or churches. I’ve never been a museum person (luckily neither is Wendy) and palaces can sometimes be nice but they suffer from the same thing as churches. While I found them fascinating the first dozen times it takes one really special for me to be impressed anymore. Rick Steve’s advice was along the same lines with the added caveat that “While I usually try to save money and I don’t like tourist traps, Venice is expensive. Just roll with it. Spend the money and have a good time.” (Not an exact quote.) Anthony Bourdain did a show on Venice and started with the quote “Venice is known for bad food at expensive prices.” (Also not an exact quote.) Jan Morris’s book started out with not a lot of nice things to say about Venetians as well, claiming they thought they were superior to everyone else, never wrong, had the best opera house, the best food, the best art, the best church and the most wisdom of anyone on the planet. I think it was also her that mentioned that people are frequently underwhelmed when visiting Venice. You’ve seen it in movies, on TV, calendars, etc. You get there and, you want to be overwhelmed, but, you already know what you are going to see and it’s exactly like that.

Well, doesn't this trip sounds promising so far.

I didn’t let this discourage me for a number of reasons. Wendy and I like to stroll, see the fish markets, look at the outside of beautiful buildings, find the dark alleys and restaurants that serve the locals and people watch in the sun with a fine glass of wine in front of us. We’ll do those things, we’ll get lost among the alleys, have a nice gondola ride, and eat Italian pizza which is something I can never get enough of. (I used to be a deep dish pizza guy. Thanks to Italy, I have changed my mine entirely and wish to only eat thin crust for the rest of my life. Something with a little char on the bottom please.)

We arrive in Venice and the first problem that a city built on water rears its peculiar head. How are we going to get to our hotel? It’s across the bay over there! I am glad my wife has 1) been here before and 2) has always done the research. Now, to be honest, we did discuss this at home and she presented me with three possible options and asked my opinion, so I know what to expect. But once again, experiencing it is a completely different reality. Having traveled a lot, I know how to do things. You get off the plane, you find a taxi stand and you give them an address. Voila. You do the same thing if you wander around a new city looking to get lost and then you actually do. “Taxi!” Problem solved.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t work at all in Venice. If you get lost, you are lost. Taxi stands are on the Grand Canal. If you know which direction that is, you’re set. If you don’t, you’re wandering down dark alleys that end in even darker water.

Wendy buys us a ticket to a bus that takes us to a Vaporetto stop. A Vaporetto is essentially a city bus but it’s a boat. We haul our luggage onto the front when it arrives, meet a nice American mom and her twenty-something daughter sitting next to us as we make our way to Plaza San Marco. The buildings are beautiful, the water quiet and the realization that I am finally here thrills me like an electric charge. You know what, it’s exactly like what I expected, and yet, not at all. The ramifications of what it means to be in a city in the middle of a lagoon continually surprise me as I realize certain things each day.

We arrive at our stop and make our way through the plaza (more on that later) down a side street, over a bridge, take a left, down a path filled with shops, through an iron gate, into a small plaza, into the hotel door.

“Wendy! We’ve been waiting for you! And you must be Jamie. How was your trip?”

Ladies and gentleman, meet Alex.