Thursday, December 11, 2008

Barcelona Bites

In Barcelona we stayed at the Apsis Atrium Palace Hotel, very conveniently located on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, about two blocks east of Passeig de Gracia. We arrived about 10 a.m. and fortunately our room (a very nice one overlooking Gran Via) was already ready. I'd had about 2 hours worth of sleep on the plane (Naoyuki, I think, managed perhaps 3-4) and it was really good to get in a powernap before heading out to see the city.

We walked down to la Placa de Catalunya, where the Tourism Office is located, and where we picked up our tickets for the Bus Turistic, which is a very handy way to get around town, since it has a map, two routes, narrated descriptions in six different languages, and it's just a matter of getting on or off at the designated stops. I'm sure the local subway system would have worked just as well (and would have been quite a bit cheaper) but I wasn't up to figuring it out.

From Placa Catalunya we walked to the Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter, and then by the Gothic cathedral (which is being renovated) before finding our way (down a series of tiny alleyways) to the Museu Picasso, which is located in a former palace dating to the 15th century. One thing we noted was that Barcelonans don't appear to be particularly interested in explanatory signage. Go here to buy a ticket, go there to check your bag, have this ticket to go into this part, that ticket to go into another part. Quite confusing, especially in our sleep-deprived state, but we just kept saying "gracias, gracias" and "si vou plau" and it all seemed to work.

Most of Picasso's major works are elsewhere, of course, not in the Museu Picasso, which focuses on his time in Barcelona (teens through early 20s) before he moved on to Paris. Of course, Picasso being Picasso, he still managed to churn out an amazing amount of stuff, dabbling in all the major movements of the day (impressionism, nightlife a la Toulouse-Lautrec) before setting off in his own direction. In direct reaction to our experience in New Zealand and Australia,
I bought oodles and oodles of postcards, there and just about everywhere else along the way.

After the Picasso museum, we headed to La Barceloneta, the former fishing village on a peninsula between Port Vell, Barcelona's old harbor, and the Mediterranean. It was a brisk day, sunny but no more than upper 50s and a bit breezy, and yet we found half a dozen people in the water. Naoyuki was intent in finding a restaurant, Can Majo, on the beach side, that had been well-reviewed. It was quite charming and the food was very tasty (we had a seafood paella)
but by that time the sun was over on the marina side of the peninsula and we were a bit shivery. (And if you look at the pix of us there you can see just how exhausted we looked!)

We headed from there back to Placa Catalunya and then, well, I can't quite recall the order. I think we took the Bus Turistic up to Casa Mila, Gaudi's famous apartment building (known to Barcelonans as La Pedrera, "the rockpile") but we may have gone to the hotel and taken another short nap first (or perhaps we did afterwards.)

Regardless, Casa Mila is a marvel, the sort of place that gives you goose pimples a la "I've never seen anything like this before." Wandering the rooftop at sunset was a delight, even though, again, we were dead tired and whenever we stopped moving I thought I was going to fall over.

In any event, we walked back to the Hotel, took a nap, and then got ready for dinner around the corner at Casa Calvet, Gaudi's last commissioned work, a private residence that has been turned into a restaurant. We had the chef's menu, which, along with the service, was outstanding. (Naoyuki's experience was slightly marred by the presence of yet-another-group! of noisy tourists from very rural Japan.) At Casa Calvet we determined that what we thought we had observed at Can Majo was correct, namely, they will NOT bring you the check unless / until you ask for it. Fortunately, most people in Barcelona we encountered spoke English fluently or enough so that my 20 words of Spanish were all we needed to get by.

The next morning we had breakfast in the Hotel's cafe, then ventured back up Passeig de Gracia, this time to visit another Gaudi house, the otherworldly Casa Battlo. Think "Hobbit" crossed with "Smurfs" and you might come close to the effect it has -- not a straight line in the whole place! Lots of turistas, of course, although it was very clear that November is very much offseason. I can't imagine being there in the high season; I'm sure my latent claustrophobia would be an issue. The best part was on the terrace when a cute young woman came and
asked me in Spanish if I'd take a picture of her and her friends, then turned to the group and started speaking English. "Thanks!" I told them and we had a good laugh.

From there we headed next door to Casa Amatller, a Puig-designed residence that is very different from Gaudi's yet thoroughly distinctive in its own right. Unlike Casa Battlo, you can only visit the grand foyer and the gift / chocolate shop (the Amatller family were noted chocolatiers in 19th Century Barcelona) adjacent to it. Then it was back to Placa Catalunya to hop the Bus Turistic for the trip up to Montjuic, the big hill overlooking Barcelona to the west, site of the 1929 Barcelona Expo (think Mies van der Rohe), the 1992 Olympics, and a museum dedicated to another of Barcelona's famous artists, Joan Miro.


After Joan Miro, we hopped off the bus at Port Vell (the old port, near Placa de Colomb) and walked up Las Ramblas to Placa Catalunya and back to our hotel. From the Atrium Palace we took another taxi, this time to the cruise terminal and our ship, Celebrity Century. Compared to some previous years, getting aboard was a piece of cake and we were in our stateroom and sipping champagne on the veranda overlooking Montjuic by 4 p.m.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Western Mediterranean Trip: Overview


We did an amazing amount of stuff in less than two weeks!
Here’s a quick run down of the places we visited:

• Barcelona (11/20-21 and then again 12/1-2)
• Arles and Les Baux (via Marseille), 11/22
• Nice and Monaco (via Villefranche), 11/23
• Pisa and Florence (via Livorno), 11/24
• Rome (via Civitavecchia), 11/25
• Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, and Pompeii (via) Naples, 11/26
• Tunis, Tunisia, 11/29

We were scheduled to visit Malta on the 28th of November but the weather was so rough the
Maltese weren’t letting ships into or out of the port of Valletta! Maybe next time!

Our neighbors took us to the Buffalo airport Wednesday a.m., 11/19, and our flight
to Atlanta left about 12:30 p.m. The flight to Barcelona departed Atlanta about 5:45 p.m.,
arrived Barcelona the next morning about 9 a.m. (3 a.m. Buffalo time.)

Coming back on Tuesday, 12/2, we departed Barcelona about 10 a.m. and made it back
home about 8 o’clock that evening (2 a.m. the next day in Barcelona.)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Wow!

I can't believe it's been nearly 2 months since I last posted anything, although that's not really surprising given the big change that's occurred since then, namely:

As of May 19, 2008, I have joined the University Libraries, State University of New York at Buffalo, as Head of the Continuing Resources Division within Central Technical Services. Check out my entry in the Staff Directory!

I am thoroughly pleased to be here, loving the work, and delighted with my boss (John Edens, a fellow Emory alum and expatriate Southerner), my colleagues, and my staff! After three years as a house husband and 18 months as a part-time reference / instruction librarian, I'm really happy to be working full-time again in the environment for which I'm best suited, both temperamentally and by training and experience!

(And, yes, I do miss my colleagues at GCC -- they're the best -- but I don't miss the 80 mile round trip commute!)

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Monday, May 05, 2008

The Big Trip: Dunedin

We had a pleasant day in Dunedin, the largest city in New Zealand’s Otago Province in the southeastern corner of South Island. It was our last landfall before Australia.

Dunedin is at the far end of Otago Harbour but cruise ships dock further up at the bay, at Port Chalmers. From Port Chalmers (Chahmuz, in the Kiwi dialect) we took another coach tour, this time to Dunedin’s CBD, also known as the Octagon, and from there to:

(1) Olveston House. Impressive enough, a big Edwardian pile, but the ladies who run it have the Museum Nazi quality in spades, so much so that there was a particular, prescribed way for carrying your book bag and if it wasn’t just so they gave you grief about it. After the third admonition (as if having it clutched tightly to my chest was a problem) I said “screw it” and walked out, against traffic through the narrow corridors, to get some fresh air. They wanted to know where I was going and I told them “anywhere but here.” They were shocked, just shocked, I’m sure!

(2) The Otago Museum was really, really great. All kinds of natural science stuff (scale models of Moas, for example) plus an attic showing how the original museum was set up (butterflies for days) and a small but cool exhibit on the development of Down Under swimwear.

(3) A look up Baldwin Street, allegedly the world’s steepest street. Long and steep, yes, but without the dizzying change in perspective you get on Lombard Street in San Francisco, for example. Probably didn’t help that we were at the bottom instead of the top.

(4) The Dunedin Botanic Garden. A pleasant enough little place, although the canal that separated it from the upper part of the park was not terribly well-kept. On the other hand, it was right across from one of the Univesity of Otago playing fields and I enjoyed watching the young men practicing at the cricket pitch.

Back in Port Chalmers, we did a walkabout on our own, up to the Lady Thorn Dell, a rhododendron garden and viewing platform overlooking the harbor, and then back through the little town for a coffee before heading back to the ship. We didn't leave the ship again until three days later, when we reached Melbourne.


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Weekend Festivities

Naoyuki turned 39 on Sunday (May 4) and to celebrate Saturday night we went to see the traveling production of Broadway’s Avenue Q at Shea’s Performing Arts Center in downtown Buffalo’s theatre district.

We already knew a bit about it so we weren’t surprised by the colorful language (and equally colorful puppet activities!), which may not have been the case with many of our fellow audience members. From what I can tell Shea’s core demographic is retirement and/or upper-middle aged. A lot of people in that group were pointedly not laughing but just about as many were.

It was our first visit to Shea’s. Quite a grand old movie palace (which, naturally, has certain built in limitations as a performance space.) Very similar in layout / design with its many contemporaries, including those in Ann Arbor (Michigan Theatre), Atlanta (the Fox), and Pensacola (the Saenger.)

Sunday evening we joined our across the street neighbors, the Weppners (Matt, Anita, Hannah, Erin, and Brennan, plus a cat, three dogs, and two bunnies) for “pasketti” (courtesy Anita), garlic bread (courtesy me), and birthday cake (courtesy Wegman’s.) A good way to end a pleasant birthday weekend!

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Friday, May 02, 2008

The Big Trip: Christchurch and Arthur's Pass

From the port of Lyttelton we took a coach ride through the Port Hills tunnel and to Cashmere, a scenic neighborhood with a killer view over the broad Canterbury Plains, the South Island farming region dominated by Christchurch. We made a quick stop at the historic Takahe house and the lookout at Victoria Park before heading down for a drive around the CBD, then out into the country.

Christchurch is linked to the Southern Alps, a couple of hours to the west, by the TranzAlpine Railway, reputed to be one of the best train rides anywhere. The drive up on the coach was scenic, passing through half a dozen small farming towns (and innumerable giant hedges), including Springfield, where the world premiere of The Simpsons Movie occurred, to Arthur’s Pass.

Arthur’s Pass is the jumping off point for weekend campers and hikers exploring the surrounding national park, as well as a TranzAlpine railway station. We were there about an hour early so we checked out the tiny collection of shops and stores, milling about with our fellow tour groupies as well as the day trippers and the occasional, nearly tame NZ pigeon (or was it a parrot?)

The train ride back was pleasant, too. The railways in NZ are narrow gauge so the cars themselves are petite in an entertaining sort of way. With a box lunch and a great view, all was right in the world – except that the people directly across the aisle were rabid Republicans (to the extent of having named their eldest son, born in 1981, Reagan) and the unending tales (Nixon’s cufflinks, for example) were hard to tune out. On the other hand, we saw a zillion sheep and, in a shed that you couldn’t see from the road we’d driven up, the giant donut that served as a prop for Springfield’s Simpsons premiere. (According to the Wikipedia entry for Springfield, that's a statue, not a prop, and it's not in a shed, but it certainly looked that way from the train.)

On balance, the coach ride was more entertaining, mostly because we had a chance to get out and about at one point; also, with a coach you are sitting forward and can sort of kind of see in front of you. With the train, it’s out the side and (in my case) looking back. Plus that part of the Southern Alps, while plenty attractive, isn’t exactly eye-popping to anyone who has spent any time in the Rockies or the Desert Southwest.

My guess is that the overnight trip from Dunedin to Milford Sound is much more scenic (more about both in a subsequent posting.)

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The New Job

On May 19 I will start my new job as Head of the Continuing Resources Division, Central Technical Services, University Libraries, University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

Whoosh! What a mouthful!

As I told a friend, in library land we have very big titles for very small jobs.

Actually, it’s not all that small a job. The Continuing Resources Division is that part of the UB Libraries tasked with acquiring and maintaining all newspapers, magazines, journals, and other periodicals (in print or online) and any other electronic resource. The staff I’ll be joining includes four librarians, each of whom has a national reputation, and a number of support staff, most of whom are actively involved in staff organizations at UB and in Western NY. A very impressive group of people!

So, nearly three years after moving to Buffalo (June 2005), I will finally have a full-time job with benefits, a decent salary, and a five-mile commute from our house. It’s been a long time coming!

I wish I could say the past three years of unemployment / underemployment have been wildly productive, empowering, mind-altering, or whatever. The reality, of course, is that I’m a lousy housekeeper and absent any larger structure or purpose I tend to sit around and dither. Besides keeping Naoyuki fed and clothed, doing a bit of yard work and a lot of travel, my most significant accomplishment has been getting back to the gym on a regular basis. (And there’s no downplaying the significance of that; it was way overdue and the psychological and physical benefits have been extremely positive.)

Likewise, I’m extremely thankful to have had my job as a part-time reference / instruction librarian at Genesee Community College for the past year and a half. The earnings were low but they helped with the overall domestic economy and, more than that, the work gave me some structure (and sanity.) Helped that the GCC folks are totally topnotch and fun to work with!

My last day at GCC will be Friday, May 16.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

The Big Trip: Wellington

I always say, “Serendipity follows me around like a little dog – I just never know when it’s going to bite!”

Wellington is a perfect case in point.

Even though it is the capital of New Zealand, Wellington seemed like it would be a good place to check out NZ flora and fauna since it is home to the world’s first urban wildlife refuge, the Karori Sanctuary.

Our coach tour took us through Wellington’s CBD, past the Beehive (where the Prime Minister and her members of the government have their offices), and up the steep hills into the suburbs. On the way into the sanctuary, I noticed a little green car in the visitors’ parking lot that was plastered with rainbow stickers, including one for Palm Springs, which I took as a good omen.

Before exiting the bus our tour guide pointed out that the Karori folks would be splitting our group into three sections, each to be led through the sanctuary by a trained volunteer. Considering we were sitting with a bunch of yakkity old ladies (and it was the yakking, not that they were old ladies) I thought to myself “so long as we’re in a different group we’ll be fine.”

Then I set eyes on one of the tour guides. He looked sort of like Frodo’s grandfather. Short, slender, balding pate, white fringe, in his 60s, vivid blue eyes, big silver earring, a cute little jade necklace, and a gorgeous pewter bracelet.

“We want to go with HIM,” I whispered to Naoyuki and promptly steered him in that direction.

It took us all of 15 seconds to look each other up and down and have him say, “Are you a couple?” in that marvelous Kiwi lilt. We allowed that we were indeed and he extended his hand saying, “Well, then, welcome to the club!”

His name was Des and he was the perfect tour guide, extremely knowledgeable with respect to both the flora and the fauna, especially the birds. And Naoyuki, of course, is pretty much the perfect eco-tourist, given his botanophilia.

Eventually, after Des had run us and the other members of the group up and down and all around (in other words, completely ragged, considering the steepness of the terrain), he asked if Naoyuki and I would like to go home with him to meet his partner and another couple who were coming down for lunch.

We were delighted by the invitation, of course, and perfectly happy to accept it (and how many places in the world would that be true?) We stopped by another nature preserve on our way to Des and John’s home in the suburb of Ngaio, way up the hill overlooking Wellington.

John, Des’ partner of 20 something years, is 78 to Des’ 68 years old. Widowed, John has two grown daughters who live nearby with their young children live nearby. They're perfectly accepting of Des as their father’s partner and fellow co-grandparent. Des built their house and the steeply sloping lot represents nearly 30 years worth of gardening work on his part.

Over lunch we learned that Des and John were key players in helping secure passage of New Zealand’s Civil Union legislation a few years ago, so much so they were granted Civil Union License 001 and were the first couple in Wellington to have a Civil Union ceremony (in the mayor’s chambers, no less, with a brass band a parade following them to their reception.)

At one point I said, “Oh my gosh! I remember reading about the two of you! I thought ‘Joliff’ (John’s surname) sounded familiar!”

After lunch, the straight neighbor couple (whose names completely elude me) headed home and John and Des took us for a quick tour of town, including a quick visit to the Lady Norwood Rose Garden (sneaky John found us a couple of adorable little NZ bird pins while Naoyuki was drooling over the gigantic begonias in the conservatory) and then a drive through the entertainment district (Courtenay Place) before taking us back to the port and the ship.

Quite the loveliest day of our (totally splendid) cruise!



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The Big Trip: Napier

[Check the January and February archives for previous posts on The Big Trip]

Oh my!

I knew I was slacking on writing up our cruise but here it is almost May and I haven’t gotten beyond our first port of call, Tauranga!

Here’s the scoop on Napier:

The town was flattened by an earthquake in 1931, one so intense it actually elevated the surrounding swampland and thereby tripled or quadrupled the town’s growing room. The ambitious locals decide to rebuild in the “modern style,” namely Art Deco, and now Napier boasts the largest collection of Art Deco buildings of any city in the world.

We did the Art Deco tour, which included (1) a visit to the Art Deco museum, with a gift shop and a film about the earthquake and the rebuilding afterwards, (2) a coach ride to a close-in residential neighborhood with a perfectly restored Late Deco house and a visit to the really exquisite National Tobacco Company building over by the port, (3) a walking tour of the Central Business District (CBD), which boasts more than 100 Art Deco buildings from the 1930s, and (4) tea and scones at the beautifully maintained Hawke’s Bay Club, a former gentleman's club dating back to the 1800s.

After the tour we had lunch at a downtown café and then strolled down the lovely Marine Parade, with beautiful views up and down the coast, to the National Aquarium of New Zealand. The aquarium was nice but not very impressive compared to those we have seen in the States.

Glorious weather, too, as I recall. Sunny but windy and a bit brisk. “But we’re going South,” Naoyuki said. To which I replied, “Yes, towards Antarctica, silly!”

As with Tauranga (and all the other cities we visited in New Zealand) Naoyuki and I were incredibly impressed with the city and its people. Ultra clean, very efficient, very helpful, friendly, and glad to see us. There are definitely some advantages to traveling in a developed country (even if it is pricey!)


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Monday, April 21, 2008

Turning 50

As I told Emily, every time I have another ZERO birthday I feel that much bolder than I did before. Her reaction, "Oh, dear!" is probably appropriate but that's the way it works. At this point in my life I'm over being upset (much) about what other people think.

It was a fun birthday, all in all. As usual with us, it transpired over several days:

(1) The day before, Thursday, April 10, I had my birthday work out with Bally Boy Josh; that evening, Naoyuki and I went by Wegman's for their famous chocolate cake with the fudge frosting.

(2) On the day itself, Friday, April 11, I taught two classes at GCC and staffed the reference desk. I took Dunkin Donuts in to work and my colleagues treated me to pizza for lunch! That afternoon Naoyuki headed to San Diego for his conference. I came home to find my lawn littered with plastic black and white cows and a big sign that said, "Holy Cow, Richard's 50!", courtesy of our across the street neighbor Anita. That evening my friend Jim and I went out to dinner at Cucina Aroma, a nice Italian place off of Elmwood on Bryant in downtown Buffalo.

(3) Saturday I joined Naoyuki in San Diego (see previous post) for 4-5 days of eating out, gadding about, soaking up sunshine, and enjoying that sunny SoCal ambience. Naoyuki greeted me with a bottle of wine and some big ol' Hawaiian beads, courtesy of the Hilo Hattie's in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.

But the best of all:

On my birthday itself I received e-mail from the University at Buffalo making a tentative offer of the position of Head of the Continuing Resources Division in the University Libraries. If everything works out OK (and we expect that to occur), I will start work (full-time, benefits, decent salary, 5 miles from our house) on Monday, May 19.

After nearly three years of looking, I am finally going to have a real job in Buffalo! It's a great way to turn 50!

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