British Interest in American Election

I was walking along a small suburban London street yesterday when I heard a woman tell her male friend “I just wasted most of the day watching election coverage”.

I thought hard but couldn’t recall any British election going on right now. Could she possibly mean our election?

Sure enough, she went on to talk about watching all the speeches from the “Republican Conference”, as well as Michelle Obama’s speech from last week’s convention, all on the BBC website.

I didn’t identify myself as an American (or elsewise for that matter) so I could eavesdrop research without affecting the results.

She went on to say that she found Sarah Palin to be “absolutely abhorrent” and that she couldn’t “wrap her mind around how anyone could possibly vote for these people.” I couldn’t agree more.

After I found my way back to my hostel, I noticed that BBC television was breaking into programming (mostly American sitcoms) to play any RNC speeches they considered interesting.

And the headline on one of London’s free daily newspapers today was
McCAIN: STAND UP AND FIGHT WITH ME

This level of interest surprised me, I guess because British politics receives barely a mention on American newscasts and in the public sphere (diehard C-SPAN watchers notwithstanding). But then the Brits don’t go around bullying others and starting wars. Anymore.

Traditional Culture Experiencing Zone

I couldn’t help but wonder if these two locations were in fact one and the same…

The same place?

The same place?

OK, to be fair, there was a lot less smoking in Korea than in Japan. For example, smoking is prohibited in most restaurants in Korea, a situation unimaginable in my homeland.

Accidental Film Festival

Regular readers of this space know that I have trouble resisting a film festival. So I was excited when I was in Busan, Korea looking for my next destination and discovered that the Jeonju International Film Festival was under way and ending in a few days.

Soon I was on a bus to Jeonju, and upon arriving I went straight to the Tourist Information Office outside the bus station (little English spoken, but the representative was quite fluent in Japanese) and picked up the program guide for the festival.

Jeonju Film Festival area

Jeonju Film Festival area

After getting a room for a few days at a local love hotel, I headed into town and started watching movies. I didn’t get to see any from Korea, but my favorite was “Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame” (Iran, 2007) about the situation in Afghanistan told through a 6-year-old girl, who is “kidnapped” by boys playing Taliban & Americans (like we might play Cowboys & Indians).

They try to show all films with both Korean and English subtitles, and since few film prints have both, they have extra small screens at the bottom (for English) and side (for Korean) of the main screen, upon which they project extra subtitles by way of a projector attached to a computer. What an interesting idea!

After the films are done for the day, many gather at a nearby plaza. It was here that I saw an American singer (and English teacher), Seth Martin, playing for a small crowd.

Seth Martin in Jeonju

Seth Martin in Jeonju

I hung out listening to his music (it was pretty good) and talking with some of the locals until late in the evening before heading back to my love hotel (alone) to rest up for another full day of movie viewing.

I’m now trying to figure out how I can come up with a good reason to go back next year for the whole festival. They even offer cheap dorm accommodations for visitors. I’m seriously tempted…

Korean Food – cheap and tasty!

My three weeks in Korea were great. Perfect weather the whole time didn’t hurt, and neither did the meals. I thought I might get tired of eating Korean food two or three times a day but I never did. There was always plenty of food (although the banchan (side dishes) are all-you-can-eat, I never needed to ask for more), and the prices were always more than reasonable.

Pictured below was one of my favorite meals.

Albap lunch in Busan

Albap lunch in Busan

It’s called albap and consists of fish eggs (とびこ) and other ingredients on rice.
The soup was some kind of fish soup. One of the banchan was more little fishies. This whole meal, in a casual sit-down restaurant in Busan, was only $3. No tax or tip in Korea.

Central Europe wrap-up

Yes, it’s been about two and a half years since I returned from this trip, but you know what they say about better late than even later.

Some highlights:
Visiting with my old friend Ellie after so many years
Dinner with Evi in Munich
Witnessing the rebirth of the Dresden Frauenkirche
My 9-hour guided walking tour of Berlin
Spending a day in a Hungarian high school
Klezmer dancing in Budapest

Although this trip summary is long, it just barely skims the surface of what I did. While this piece runs about 4500 words, my full trip journal comes to over 13,000 words. If anyone wants all the fine details, I can post that too, as I’ve done for other trips I’ve taken.

In October of 2005 I took off on Air India from Los Angeles to Frankfurt. Why Air India? It didn’t hurt that they were cheaper than everyone else, but the idea of flying Air India sounded more exciting than flying some boring American carrier. And the meals! I ate such delicious vegetarian food on those flights.

I had no planned itinerary. All I knew was that I would be flying out of Budapest seven weeks later, and would have to slowly wend my way there.

I arrived at the Frankfurt airport, hopped a train for the main station, and then boarded a bus that would take me to the hostel I was staying at. I noticed that before it was time for the bus to take off, the driver was reading the Holy Qur’an. A sign of changing Europe.

It’s funny how we travel to experience new things, but sometimes we gravitate back to doing the same things we do at home. I happened to notice that a Korean film series was being held, so I went to see “To A Starry Island” at the film museum. And a Japanese guy I met at the hostel told me he had just gone to a German soapland!

A Gay Bar in Frankfurt

A Gay Bar in Frankfurt

After a few days of wandering the city while recovering from jet lag, including an interesting exhibit at the Modern Art museum made entirely of items bought on eBay, I began my U-shaped journey around the country.

I took a fast ICE train (I realized later that unlike the Shinkansen, not all ICE trains are all that rapid) to Bonn, where the suburbs looked to me very much like 住宅地 in Japan), and then on to Köln, where a roommate of mine at the hostel, a guy from Taiwan who has lived in France since 1987 and would like to stay there, explained to me that his wife wants to move back to Taiwan but that’s because women’s brains are smaller and they therefore have only sixty percent of the intelligence of men. He offered up as proof that women have never made it past Level 6 in the game of Go. I have not independently verified any of this information, especially the size of his wife’s (or his!) brain.

I find that most of my travel highlights involve interaction with locals, but making those connections can be difficult. We are often staying in tourist areas (this makes sense; would a tourist really want to stay in El Cajon (in San Diego) or Reseda (in Los Angeles)?), don’t speak the local language, and our brief talks with the hotel desk clerk are likely to be the only time we speak with a native. Several months ago, I was on a trolley in San Diego, sitting next to two tourists from another state when one mentioned to the other that they had been in California for weeks and still hadn’t spoken to a local, so I did them a favor and started speaking to them, answering their questions and offering up some advice.

And so it was in Germany. My first local experience was with an old friend who, while not a native German, has lived there married to a German for many years. She lives in Bernkastel-Kues, a 700 year old town in the beautiful Moselle Valley, surrounded by vineyards.

(click any picture for a larger version)

Bernkastel-Kues

Bernkastel-Kues

And sure enough, she and her husband are in the wine business. I got to try federweisser, new unfiltered wine, for the first time, and got a personal tour of all the neighboring small towns, complete with a rundown on each town’s current issues and gossip.

On my way back up the valley, I stopped for one night at another river town, Cochem, before rejoining my main route and spending a night in Mainz. This was a Saturday night, and I got up early Sunday morning to attend services at the beautiful old Mainz Cathedral to experience it the way it was meant to be.

Mainz Cathedral

Mainz Cathedral

Moving from Episcopalian to Jewish, I stopped briefly in Worms to check out an old synagogue and mikvah, dating back to 1330. The temple was heavily damaged in the war, but in 1961 the city restored it in an attempt to attract Jews back to the area. But aside from a few Russian Jews, who stayed for a few years before emigrating to Israel, the plan didn’t work. I was surprised to find a small shopping mall that was open on a Sunday, but when I walked in, all the shops were closed except for a gelato shop run by Italians.

Then it was on to Heidelberg. When I walked into my room at the hostel, there were two French guys smoking pot. They asked if I minded and I told them just to keep the window open. When I later invited them to share the dinner I had bought in the hostel cafe, they told me they were surprised to meet a nice American. Our room overlooked the zoo and we could hear (and smell) the animals next door at all hours.

It was next, in München (Munich) that I had the privilege of spending time with another local. I had just been eating some dried fruit and wanted something to counter that overly sweet feeling in my mouth. I wandered into the brand new Schrannenhalle shopping hall and ordered a green tea at a little tea & dessert counter. The woman next to me was eating a piece of cheesecake and I asked her if that was her dinner. Speaking of dinner, she started giving me suggestions on where to eat dinner before offering to take me to one of her favorite restaurants. In fact, it’s where she had her wedding reception. Her husband is a professional photographer and owns the studio roland schmid.

She had ridden her bike to town, so she rode back to her neighborhood while I took the train, and we arrived about the same time and then walked over to Cafe-Bistro Stemmerhof, where we shared a fish with spaghetti and veggies (Zanderfillet), and a goat cheese on apple appetiser (Ziegenkäse Appel). Both were excellent. She also introduced me to a “radler”, half beer and half lemon-lime soda, and I ended up drinking these for the rest of my trip. (The British have this too and call it a “shandy”.) She grew up near the Czech border, but said that it was as if that other country didn’t exist. Now, she says the border area is full of Vietnamese selling various things. I seem to be good at meeting technophobes – perhaps it’s one of those “opposites attract” kind of things. This woman teaches yoga, doesn’t own a mobile phone, and hates computers, telling her friends that if they want to communicate with her they should call (but only when she’s at home, I guess :-) ).

It was in Munich that I ate my first Chinese meal, and this became a staple of my trip, especially when I was in places where no one spoke English. I found I could always go to a Chinese restaurant and communicate well enough in 中国語 to get what I wanted.

After five nights in Munich, it was time to move on, and I stopped for several hours in Bamberg, to wander the town and see the sights. On my walk back to the train station, I stopped at a doner kebab place and ordered an eggplant mousakaa. He started speaking English to me. He came here from Syria 43 years ago to study, but dropped out: “big mistake” he said. We talked about the word “doner”: he said it’s Turkish for sandwich but he needs to use that and other key words on his sign. He said no one here knows “schwarma”, the Arabic word for the vertical grill. He asked me how I know mousakaa, but said I know the Greek version with meat. His is Syrian and has only eggplant and tomatoes and such, plus cheese is added (I don’t think they use cheese in Syria).

I asked him if he ever gets a vacation. He said when you have your own business, no. If he closed down for a few weeks he would lose too many customers. He said his was the first such shop in Bamberg, but now there are so many, mostly run by Turks. He said the government encourages them to come over because they need the labor. I asked about the meat he uses and he said his vertical grill meat is chicken, and that’s what most shops use. They used to use beef until the BSE scare. I said now people are scared of Avian Flu so he may have to switch again. He served me some arabic tea for free. I mentioned that there are so many of these shops around, and he said he thought it was like that in L.A. with this food too, but I told him that doner shops are not nearly as common in the U.S.

Again, one talk with a local is worth a thousand visits to old historical buildings.

Finally, it was time to enter the former East Germany.

My first taste was during a 45-minute layover in Leipzig. I threw my pack in a locker and walked around the market area, then over to the opera house where some fancy premiere was going on, then back to the station, through the mall in the station, and just barely caught my ICE.

I arrived in Dresden, and the differences were immediately apparent. In contrast to the cities in the west that I had visited, Dresden was very quiet, especially considering that this was a Saturday night, and you still saw many old East German cars. I wandered deserted streets and found a restaurant specializing in goose, where I had some pretty good German roast pork with potatoes and cabbage (sorry, no goose).

The next day was quite a treat. By sheer coincidence I had arrived just in time for the reconsecration of the Dresden Frauenkirche. This church (the city’s largest and most important) was destroyed (needlessly, many say) by the Allies at the end of World War II, and its bombed-out shell had sat there for over fifty years, until reconstruction began in 1993. Twelve years and €180 million later, it was finally finished, and the whole city was full of joy over this occasion, with many people weeping openly.

the dark-colored stones are those from the original building

the dark-colored stones are those from the original building

Unfortunately, this great event also meant that I was unable to visit the inside of the structure, as the line to get in was three hours long, and once inside you were limited to ten minutes. Instead of spending half my day in line, I wandered the city and had yet another “local” encounter.

I stopped in at a café for a Heisse Shokolade. The guys at the next table asked where I was from and when I said “California” they said “Let’s talk about George W. Bush.” I happily obliged, and found we were mostly on common ground. They said Americans don’t care about people in any other country and are barely aware of them. I had to agree, and we had a nice talk. This wouldn’t be the last time that strangers wanted to engage me in a discussion of American politics.

Before leaving Dresden, I walked out to the far end of the train platform. A friend back in San Diego often monitors a web cam directed at this location, so I called him and told him to go to that web page and he’d be able to see me. Perhaps the precursor to justin.tv.

Then it was on to Berlin, where I spent my first full day on a nine-hour walking tour by Brewer’s Tours, conducted by Preston, an American German History major who had lived there for six years. This was a great introduction to the city, and after my mother arrived to join me a few days later, I spent several days retracing our steps and repeating to Mom the stories I had been told.

I don’t have to tell you that Berlin has become (again?) one of the world’s hippest cities, and is full of places to see and things to do. All through Germany I’d been impressed at the modern architecture I saw. Some places even looked to me like Japan. I liked the fact that Germans were willing to look forward, structurally speaking, unlike Americans, who tend to want to live in the past.

For example, when Germany rebuilt their parliament building, the Reichstag, they did it in a very modern style:

Reichstag, Berlin

Reichstag, Berlin

If the 9/11 hijackers had succeeded in destroying the Capitol, do you really think it would have been rebuilt in steel and glass?

On my all-day tour, I also met a species of Americans that I would run into over and over on this trip. The one-country-per-day tourists. These people come to Europe for a week and do a day each in places like London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest, often catching their sleep on overnight trains. This seemed odd to me. I guess it lets you say you’ve been there, but you don’t have time to see much more than the superficial.

After showing Mom around Berlin, visiting Potsdam, and getting together with an old family friend, we took a train to Praha (Prague) in the Czech Republic. My mother and I did the typical tourist activities, and she was especially interested in trying some of Praha’s finer restaurants, especially after eating the slop that passes for daily fare. We also attended some of those too-short, overpriced, mediocre classical music concerts.

I had thought I could survive this trip on the light sweater I brought along, but as we got closer to Winter and the temperature dropped, I found I needed more. We spotted a sign for a Carrefour, so we headed to a small shop near there and I picked up a winter jacket for USD$24. That, and the thermal longjohns I also found in Praha, kept me comfy for the rest of my journey.

After five days, Mom went home and I took my backpack and went to find a hostel to stay in. The first one I went to was Travelers Hostel, located near the old town square. While I was waiting to check in, I started reading the guest book on the counter, which was full of complaints about dirt and cold showers, so I quickly snuck away and called Sir Toby’s hostel, which, while a little out of the way, ended up being a great place to stay.

Free from my mother’s reins, I began my usual urban exploration, including participation in events geared to locals rather than tourists. In that vane, I attended a jazz festival, Žižkov Meets Jazz, that cost only $4 and lasted for hours, and I had a lot more fun than when I sat for one of those 30-minute tourist rip-off shows.

Žižkov Meets Jazz

Žižkov Meets Jazz

Aside from a day trip to Kutna Hora, which once rivaled Praha economically, culturally and politically, and now famously is home to the Sedlec Ossuary with its sculptures made from the bones of graves dug up to make room for new (dead) arrivals

sculpture made from human bones

sculpture made from human bones

the only other city I visited in CZ was Olomouc.

Olomouc is a university town in northeatern Czech Republic, and like most uni towns, had a good variety of fun and culture. I stayed at the Poets’ Corner Hostel, run by an Aussie couple who came several years ago and just never wanted to leave. While there I took in a modern folk music concert, with classical guitar, electric bass, and violin stick, which I enjoyed although I couldn’t understand any of the patter or lyrics.

watching an opera rehearsal in Olomouc

watching an opera rehearsal in Olomouc

I also enjoyed a relaxing three hours in a Dobra Cajovna teahouse, where I used the opportunity to catch up on some reading, followed by an evening in a bar with a bunch of foreign students (mostly Japanese) studying Czech at the local university.

I didn’t think I would visit Poland on this trip. Poland is quite a large country and it seemed best put off for another time. But I kept running in to other travelers who spoke highly of Krakow, and it wasn’t too far out of my way, so that’s where I headed next. As I learned to do on this trip, I checked hostelworld.com and booked a bed at the top-rated Mama’s Hostel, just a few steps from the main square, and a very friendly place. While there, I took a walking tour, and joined some fellow hostelers on a day trip to the salt mine.

I also spent a day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. It was a very cold day, and the ground was covered in snow, adding to the eeriness of the place. Although I was a bit cold, I felt I had no right to complain, even to myself, when the prisoners (the ones who were not executed upon arrival) had to survive the cold with very little clothing.

Birkenau concentration camp

Birkenau concentration camp

I enjoyed exploring the old Jewish neighborhood and reading up on the history of what happened here during the Nazi occupation. At one synagogue, I started talking with an Israeli from London. He asked if I’m traveling alone. I said yes and he said “You come here for happiness, but the sadness continues.” I tried explaining that I like being alone and not having to listen to what someone else wants to do, but he didn’t seem to comprehend this concept, and was convinced that I must be sad if I’m on the road alone.

It was here that I ate my favorite perogie. I was hungry so I went looking for a cafe and came across a perogie restaurant where a little girl was picking up an order to take home to her family. This was a good sign, so I went in and ordered the smoked fish perogie and a tea. They had a choice of sauces including “Mexican” but I chose the traditional bacon and onion, and they were excellent.

It was time to leave Poland, but my stay in the country was a little longer than I had planned. I had a tight train connection to make in Katowice (in retrospect, I should have taken the train the previous hour), which wasn’t a problem until we were sitting there on the tracks just outside the city for 15 minutes. That was just enough to cause me to miss my connection. I went to one of the ticket windows, where the woman informed me that the next train to Zilini in the Slovak Republic doesn’t leave until 22:56, in about seven hours. Seven hours??? She was apologetic, but what could she do.

When life serves you milk, make a milk shake, right? So I took advantage of my situation and wandered the city until it got dark, at which time I found a large bookstore/café (Empik) and sat in there reading and drinking hot chocolate, followed by dinner at a bar, until it was time to collect my luggage and wait for my train. Not a bad seven hours at all.

The train was late and, after most people got off at the following few stops, a bit scary. I was all alone in my compartment, now in the middle of the night, so I locked the door, opening it only to let in the immigration folks at the border. This run started in St. Petersburg and terminates in Budapest; I guess people on for the long haul (the trip is scheduled at 28 hours) must have been in a sleeping car somewhere (or maybe they flew).

The St. Petersburg-Budapest Express

Waiting for the St. Petersburg-Budapest Express

I finally arrived in Zilini, Slovakia at 03:45, and tried to find a place to stay. There was a hotel across from the station, but it appeared to be shut down. I finally relented and just hopped in a taxi and asked to be taken to the Hotel Slovakia, which was listed in my guidebook as the nicest place in town. As it was, I didn’t need to worry about spending much, because all they had left were old unrenovated rooms, which was fine by me.

It was at this point that I decided to switch from trains to buses. I found that the trains in this part of the world tended to be old and rundown, and usually operated on the periphery of towns, so you never got to see the places you were passing through. Buses, on the other hand, were much more modern, ran more frequently, and actually drove through the center of the cities along the way.

Not too many hours later, I woke up and hopped a series of buses to Levoca, via Poprad. We had a lunch break at a train station and I thought the driver said to me (by pointing to his watch) that we’ll leave in 20 minutes at 13:25. So I left my luggage on bus and went to the cafeteria there for some bad food. I was in the station lobby when I heard the sound of a bus engine, so I ran outside to see my bus about to turn out onto the highway. I ran fast and just barely made it back on the bus. The driver yelled at me. I can’t imagine what a hassle it would have been for him to leave with my luggage. Since that day, I’ve always been ultra careful at intermediate stops, especially when everything I own is on the bus or train.

Levoca is a small mountain town and I spent a relaxing evening there reading in restaurants and cafes.

Levoca, Slovakia

Levoca, Slovakia

That was pretty much it for my time in Slovakia. The next day I hopped to Kosice (where I considered stopping for a night, but it was raining), and then into Hungary to Miskolc. I had about an hour to wait there, so I went across the street to the modern shopping mall and grabbed some dinner. I also tried to procure a Hungarian SIM for my mobile phone, and approached both providers in the mall. One said “Our network is no good” and the other just said “no no no no no”. I still don’t know what the problem was. I ended up getting one from a third company, T-Mobile Hungary, the next day.

I arrived in Eger that evening and spent a full day there, exploring both the town and the surrounding wine country, all on foot.

An interesting structure in Eger, Hungary

An interesting structure in Eger, Hungary

At the time, a friend of my father’s had a son who was spending the year teaching English at a high school in the middle of nowhere in Hungary, in a town called Sarkad. That seemed like a good excuse to go visit, but he had to round up some bedding for me, as the town doesn’t even have a single hotel or pension. On the way there, I had a several hour layover in Debrecen, and walked into town for lunch, before heading back to the bus station. However, because it was Sunday, the only place open was our good friend Mickey D’s so that’s where I ate (hangs head in shame).

Debrecen, Hungary

Debrecen, Hungary

Sarkad, in addition to not having a single place of lodging, has only one restaurant (but two Chinese goods shops), so that’s where we went for dinner. The next day, I talked to each of his classes and did my best to lead a discussion about my travels and California, and I even gave a primer on Chinese characters.

Students of English in Sarkad, Hungary

Students of English in Sarkad, Hungary

I was impressed that he was working there for only USD$500 a month plus housing (nothing luxurious I assure you) and cable TV (but no Internet) and yet he gave free private lessons to any student who asked. He obviously wasn’t there for the money.

The students really wanted him to stay and teach them for a second year, and made up a poster to this effect:

Brent, please stay with us!

Brent, please stay with us!

But I was free to leave, and so I did, taking my first train in a while to the county seat of Bekesava, where I spent my layover walking into town, eating a snack, and walking back to the train station, all while consulting with one of our programmers on the phone from San Diego.

Then it was on to Szeged, complete with a casino flying an Israeli flag that promises an Israeli meal if you play roulette or buy a beer. I didn’t take them up on the offer, though the idea of an Israeli meal sounded good.

Szeged’s main attraction for me was a huge and ornate synagogue (the “New Synagogue”, built in 1903), with seating for 1300. Before the Holocaust, the city had about 8000 Jews. In order to get in to see the place, I had to track down the caretaker, who works at a nearby Jewish old age home. He said there were 300 to 400 Jews left. There are probably even fewer now.

New Synagogue exterior in Szeged, Hungary

New Synagogue exterior in Szeged, Hungary

New Synagogue interior in Szeged, Hungary

New Synagogue interior in Szeged, Hungary

On November 25th, after wending my way through five countries over six weeks, I arrived at my final destination. It had been a while since I had been in a real city, and I was excited to take advantage of everything the big city had to offer. So what’s the first thing I see upon detraining? A Korean couple singing Christmas songs:

메리 크리스마스

메리 크리스마스

Budapest was probably my favorite city of the trip, despite the thermometer hovering around freezing. I spent a full week there, stayed in a great hostel, and attended lots of activities geared to locals. One night I went to a jazz concert, and the next night I went to a Klezmer concert. But it was more than a concert. After the first set, it turned into a dance, and everyone was encouraged to participate.

Klezmer dancing in Budapest

Klezmer dancing in Budapest

Despite the fact that I’m Jewish, I had never been to such a show, and it felt like family to be hanging out with other Jews in a place one doesn’t think of as having a large Jewish community. In addition, if “White Men Can’t Dance”, then Jewish White Men can barely stand. Therefore, Klezmer dancing is made to be so easy that even a total klutz like myself can do it. For an evening, I didn’t feel so incompetent on the dance floor.

Another highlight of my time on the Danube was going to a public bathhouse. With the outside air so cold, it sure felt good to be sitting in ultra warm water.

Budapest Thermal Baths

Budapest Thermal Baths

Inside, there were many different pools with water of varying temperatures and I tried most of these too.

Being a fone phreak, there was no way I could walk by the “Telephone Museum” and not go in for a look. It was housed in Budapest’s first central office, and the Strowger (step) switches were still there, along with the test board:

testboard at the Budapest Telephone Museum

testboard at the Budapest Telephone Museum

On my final night, I attended “The Bardroom”, a get-together for those speaking or studying English (mostly the latter). There were various readings of poetry and prose, and they held a contest where you are given a subject and you have ten minutes to write a short poem. The subject was “Hating Christmas”, which I should have been pretty good at, but my entry got just a few chuckles and little applause and so I ended up near the bottom of the pack, far below most of the non-native speakers. I guess it’s back to my day job for me.

And speaking of going back to work, the next day I flew home, bringing to an end this great adventure.

2008 Latino Film Festival Faves

Again this year, I attended the 11-day San Diego Latino Film Festival, watched about 35 films, and these are my top-tier picks, meaning I would spend money to buy the DVD so that I can show it to friends and family:

El Brindis (To Life) (Chile, 2007):
A wonderful family story about an 83-year-old who wants to be Bar-Mitzvahed before he dies, and the family reunion that results from this momentous event, including tensions with the half-goy daughter he fathered out of wedlock after his wife died. A real heart-warmer!
Filmmaker’s blog
Trailer

Carandiru (Brasil, 2003, Director: Héctor Babenco):
A prison drama, based on a true story, that takes place in a detention center in São Paulo. Unlike most films of this genre, much time is taken to let us get to know the characters, so they are more than just simple caricatures. Amusingly, this earned it many poor reviews on Amazon.com from those who would have preferred two and a half hours of fighting and shooting. Although clocking in at 147 minutes, I never once felt that the film was dragging.
Trailer

And my runners-up, in no particular order:

Ciudad en Celo (City in Heat) (Argentina, 2006):
A bunch of friends sit around and talk about their lives, with the theme of tango not far in the background. Of course, the various relationships between them and others can get a little complicated.
Trailer

Mariposa Negra (Black Butterfly) (Peru, 2007):
A schoolteacher whose husband, a judge, is ordered assassinated on order of Peru’s security chief, decides to get even. Although a bit unrealistic, it’s still an enjoyable film.
Trailer

El Violin (The Violin) (México, 2006):
Sure, the basic theme (government troops vs. rebels hiding in the bush) is well-worn, but the focus on an old man and his violin gives this one a unique aspect that makes it worth watching.
Trailer 1
Trailer 2

La Zona (México, 2007):
The residents of a fancy gated community take the law into their own hands. Interesting to me mainly for the portrayals of the interactions of the rich with general society, which probably aren’t that far from the truth.
Trailer

Dos Abrazos (Two Embraces) (México, 2007):
Two basically unrelated stories, the first one being a teenage boy with a crush on a supermarket cashier, and the second a taxi driver whose passenger has a stroke in his cab and the hospital makes him take on the responsibilities of a family member. Quite haunting and excellent!
Trailer

Madrigal (Cuba, 2006):
A theater actor goes after a fat girl mainly for her apartment, but also to try and cure his erectile dysfunction. Sometimes you’re not sure what is real and what is imagined.
Trailer

El Pasado (2007, Director: Héctor Babenco)
A man splits with his wife and goes through a series of women, while his ex-wife continues to hound him.
Trailer 1
Trailer 2

Cars No Longer Cool in Japan

According to the AP, young people in Japan have found better things than cars to spend their money on..

younger Japanese … prefer to spend their money on mobile phone bills and other gadgets than on cars.
[...]
some people in their 20s said they didn’t want a car, even if they got it for free. Others said they didn’t find the idea of going for a drive with a date or zipping around in a sports car as particularly appealing.

I eagerly await the day when this attitude makes it to North America. I may, however, get very old waiting for this day to come.

As the article notes, Japan has an excellent public transportation system and very high parking prices (often about $1 per 15 minutes with no maximum), making car ownership in urban areas not just superfluous, but also a huge burden.

Typically, Japanese use their car maybe once a week to go for a drive (on streets and highways choked with others doing the same thing), so why not save that money and spend it on something you use every day, like your 携帯 (mobile phone) or home appliances.

San Diego Asian Film Festival 2007年

As a serious film festival geek, I buy my pass and commit myself to sitting in dark rooms for many days in a row, all in the hope that I’ll come out of the whole experience with one or two films that I consider to be worthy of highly recommending to my friends and the public.

By this measure, the recently completed 2007 edition of the San Diego Asian Film Festival was an amazing success. There were five dramatic features that I thought were great, along with several runners-up and some good documentaries.

Before giving my recommendations, I should point out that I tend to like Indie-type films with good human stories, and I am totally unmoved by car crashes, shootings, and explosions.

So here were my faves:

5 Centimeters Per Second (秒速5センチメートル) (Japan):
Yes, it’s anime. But don’t think of it that way. This feature could just as well have been done live action. It just happens to use animation instead of actors. It follows a young man from middle school to high school to his post-college life, concentrating on his friendship with one girl/woman. The scenes are all completely life-like, and all details (for example, the pipes on the walls or the train stations) are perfectly reproduced.
Trailer 1
Trailer 2

What The Snow Brings (雪に願うこと) (Japan):
This winner of four awards at the Tokyo International Film Festival was shot in Hokkaido in the winter, with both beautiful scenery and the feeling of what it must be like to work outside in such conditions. Add to that a story of two estranged brothers seeing each other for the first time in almost 15 years, and you have a winner. Oh, yes there’s some horse racing going on too, but unlike Seabiscuit, it doesn’t really matter which horse wins.
Trailer

Owl and the Sparrow (Cú và chim se sẻ) (Vietnam):
An orphan who toils away in her uncle’s factory runs away to the big city and is befriended by a flight attendant and a zookeeper and ends up affecting their lives for the better at least as much as they help her.
Trailer

Rainbow Song (虹の女神) (Japan):
No Japanese movie worth its salt lacks a good tragic death of a young woman, and like my favorite of the 2005 festival “Crying Out Love in the Center of the World (世界の中心で、愛をさけぶ)”, the story is told in flashbacks. Japanese movies have a tendency towards melodrama, but in Rainbow Song (as in Crying Out Love…), this is avoided and we are treated to realistic human emotion in such a situation. Bring your tissues.
Trailer 1
Trailer 2

Tie A Yellow Ribbon (USA):
Very indie. Not much dialog. But there doesn’t need to be. A girl who was adopted from Korea as an infant by an American family has issues from her past to deal with.
Trailer

And here are my runners-up. I can recommend all of these too:
Shanghai Kiss:
A Chinese-American goes to China and suddenly feels he belongs for the first time in his life. But is he really more Chinese than American?
Trailer

Great Happiness Space – Tale of an Osaka Love Thief:
We all know about Japan’s hostess bars, but what about bars for women that want to be paid attention to. I’d heard of such places when living in Japan, but I could never find much out about them. This documentary will answer all your questions. Fascinating!
Trailer

Cats of Mirikitani:
I am always moved when one person can really make a difference in someone else’s life. The filmmaker came across this homeless Japanese-American man living on the streets of New York City and selling hand-drawn pictures of cats. By the end of the film, he is truly much better off, and she got a documentary out of it.

Summer of Music Festivals

Since 1995, I have taken time off during most summers to attend at least one music festival in North America. I tend to avoid overseas travel during the busy months of July and August when just showing up in a town and expecting to find a hostel bed is far from assured.

This summer was no different, and my festival-going started with the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, preceded by a night in Bennington, Vermont and an afternoon checking out the college there. This is, in fact, my longest running festival habit. I have attended Falcon Ridge every year since 1997 except for 2002 when I was traveling in Asia for five months. After camping at the Big Orange Tarp last year, I was back to my traditional home at Camp Dar and was happy to hear that they’d taken me into account when figuring how much space they needed.

A big attraction of these kinds of events is the opportunity to discover new artists, or even to give others a second or third chance. That’s what happened with me and the solo musician Ellis. I saw her first at Folk Alliance 2004 and wasn’t so impressed. I then checked out a set of hers at the 2005 Folk Alliance and thought a little more of her songs, but it was only after last year’s Falcon Ridge that I liked her enough to buy a CD. And now I’m completely hooked and can’t get enough of her.

Other people whose CDs I picked up at Falcon Ridge include Ryan Fitzsimmons, Randall Williams, Chris O”Brien, and Anthony da Costa, who would be amazing even if he weren’t only 16 years old.

After-hours were mostly spent mostly at the Budgie Dome, which provided live sets by the likes of Jack Hardy, Red Molly, Iain Campbell Smith, and one of my faves, We’re About 9.I did a lot of live recording with my new Roland Edirol R-09, but recording is the easy part. I still need to go back and split each recording into tracks, label them correctly, and do any necessary little cleanup. It will probably be sometime in 2008 before I have finished this.

My Falcon Ridge 2007 photos are now available.I had such a good time at Falcon Ridge that immediately afterward I started contemplating a return to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. I say “return” because after attending annually from 1997 to 2001, I hadn’t been back since. A big incentive for me was that Ellis would be performing a mainstage set, as would Gandalf Murphy and The Slambovian Circus of Dreams. This group defies description, but I found myself missing their high-energy performance just days after Falcon Ridge ended.

A major reason why I hadn’t returned to Lyons, Colorado is the fact that on-site camping tickets tend to sell out in February or March and I usually don’t plan my life more than a week or two in advance. But when I checked at the end of July, a few such passes had become available due to returns and I quickly grabbed one. I figured that by not renting a car, I could do the whole weekend for less than $600. I discovered that I could get to Lyons from the airport for only $10 on the public bus.

And it was so nice to be back. The site is really beautiful, with a river running through it, and with quite nice facilities including real toilets and permanent stages (one of them now with covered seating).

I spent my first evening listening to the final night of the Song School open mike (the festival itself didn’t begin until the next day). My most memorable moment from that night is after Darrell Scott performed. He was so obviously superior to everyone else we’d heard that the MC said “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this, but Holy Shit!”

During the course of the festival I got to see Judy Collins for the first time, see a great set by Catie Curtis, my reprise of Ellis and Gandalf Murphy (Josiah, the lead singer of Gandalf Murphy, said that listening to Ellis’s set is like sitting down for a chat with your older sister), discover The Guggenheim Grotto, Serena Ryder, Brett Dennen, and Darrell Scott, and catch up with old festival friends. Even Chris Isaak was a lot of fun to watch!

That wrapped up my summer camping, but there was still a hole in my schedule: I hadn’t yet been to Boston this summer. Unbeknownst to many, Boston is the center of the singer/songwriter universe, and I think it even bests Austin in the category of Live Music Capital of the USA.I flew out for Club Passim‘s Cutting Edge of the Campfire Festival, which runs from Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend until Monday night, as I have done a few times before.

This time, though, I showed up three days earlier so I could partake in the fun of Greg Klyma‘s Tuesday night residency at Toad in Porter Square. Also taking part in the fun were Dana Price, Danielle Miraglia, and the Ryan Fitzsimmons Band. Before the show, I stopped off at Porter Exchange for the worst Japanese meal of my life. See my review on Yelp.

During the weekend festivities, I barely missed a minute, there were so many good performers. I ended up returning with 19 new CDs in tow, including Susan Levine‘s latest masterpiece, seven years in the making. I first discovered Susan back in 1999, playing the open mike at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, not far from where I was living.

Impressive first-time (for me) performers included Moe Provencher, Todd Martin, Carsie Blanton, Christina Schell, Nicole Reynolds, Chad Perrone, Liz Longley, and Lindsay Mac (who plays her cello like a guitar).

Campfire Festival CD Table

 

No I didn’t buy a copy of each and every one of these.

I wasn’t back in San Diego long before my mind started thinking of “What If”s. What if I headed up to Oregon for the Sisters Folk Festival? What if I head out to Joshua Tree for their festival? Or maybe I’ll stay put for a bit.

Me and 103.7 Free FM

Speaking of (the late) 103.7 Free FM, although I was not, in general, a fan of the station, I must confess: I was addicted to The Dangerous Dick and Skibba Show, which was on the air from 19:00 to 22:00 weeknights from March of 2006 until their “Valentine’s Day Massacre” on February 14th, 2007.

The show was, at the beginning at least, primarily hosts Dick and Skibba talking about their love lives, especially Dick’s romantic failures. After all, let’s admit it, it’s a lot more interesting to follow the story of a serial dater than that of someone in a comfortable long-term relationship. (Later, Dick said that baring all to the world each night had taken too much of a toll on him and he stopped speaking so much about his own life, to the show’s detriment I must add). In fact it was rare that a caller would be as interesting as the hosts themselves.

Listening to the show was akin to getting hooked on a soap opera. I started skipping evening activities so that I wouldn’t miss the latest installment of the show and find out what had happened in Dick and Skibba’s lives in the previous 21 hours. (Kind of like how a friend once tapped into a female neighbor’s phone line and got so wrapped up in her life that he couldn’t leave the house for fear of missing something…but that’s another story for another posting.)

I even attended a late-night Dick and Skibba listener party on Ocean Beach, and ended up with my picture in the Reader (that’s me on the left),Me with Anana and Skibba

Skibba (right) with fans

the most popular local weekly. I was also mentioned in the accompanying article, where the reporter wrote:

There was one guy standing by himself, and I talked to him for a little bit. He said he used to listen to NPR, but when he tuned into Dick and Skibba, he thought they were funny. He didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the crowd. We laughed about the people walking by in a drunken stupor.

Ahh, the story of my life; not fitting in with the rest of the crowd. And I surely didn’t feel completely at home with a bunch of stoners in OB late at night, but I still had a fun time and I’m glad I went.

Fast forward 8 months…

I head up to Carlsbad to see a magic show put on by my buddy Smoothini The Ghetto Houdini. I run into him as I enter and he has me sit at a table with a few of his friends. As soon as I sit down, one of the women at the table says with surprise, “You’re the guy from the magazine!”

I assure her she must have mistaken me for someone else. She then says
“Didn’t you go to the Free FM bonfire party in OB?” Yes I had. She said there was a picture of her, me, and Skibba in The Reader. You see, I remembered reading the article but somehow I didn’t recognize myself in the picture, nor did I catch the reference to me in the article. Smoothini said he had seen it too.

I remembered talking to her (her name is Anana) that night. She was in the neighborhood looking at an apartment and figured she might as well stop by the beach party. We talked for a while, actually, but I’m so bad at recognizing people (I didn’t even recognize myself in the Reader!), I would have never recognized anyone I met that night, even if they were sitting across the table from me at a restaurant.

That was quite a coincidence! The woman I met and was photographed with at a random public beach party in OB eight months earlier happened to be friends with a friend of mine who lives way up in Oceanside.

I only called into (and was put on the air) the Dick and Skibba show once. Lindsey, the ditzy phone screener and news reader for the show, was about to go off to Malaysia on vacation and she was wondering what clothes to bring, and I called to remind her that Malaysia is a Muslim nation and that she should take that into consideration when selecting a wardrobe.

I still miss the show, and if they land a gig at another station, I’ll be sure to tune in, via the Internet if necessary.

As for the rest of our Free FM, the only other shows I ever listened to more than once were Tom Leykis and The Third Shift. I used to listen to Tom regularly on KFI (640 AM) in the late ’80s when his show was more politically oriented (I would describe him as socially liberal and a libertarian) and he talked more about himself and his father, but even then I could only take so much and would have to turn him off after an hour or two.

Jack, meet Sophie

On June 22nd, CBS Radio closed the book on their “Free FM” hot talk format, including a format change at San Diego’s KSCF, 103.7 FM.

My guess is that what they really would have liked to do is use the Jack FM format that they have had much success with in other markets, including Los Angeles.

Alas, Midwest Television Inc. had already licensed that format for this market and is running it on their KFMB-FM (100.3).

So they came up with the anti-Jack. Jack, meet Sophie. While Jack stations proudly proclaim that they don’t pay heed to their listeners and play “what we want”, Radio Sophie actively solicits its listeners’ feedback. Maybe it’s a female (Sophie) vs. male (Jack) kind of thing.

I have to say that Radio Sophie plays the best mix of music I’ve heard on San Diego radio in a long time. I like stations that play an eclectic mix, and I would listen to Jack with its 1000-song playlist if not for the fact that it consists mostly of oldies.

Those songs may have been fine back then, but I’m just not interested. I’m always looking for the next great song, and I love the fact that Sophie, almost the antithesis of Jack, plays all contemporary music, including some unsigned bands, with styles ranging from rock to blues to folk.

I just hope they keep it this way. I have seen way too many radio stations start out with an adventurous playlist, only to become more corporate and conservative after the major labels notice them and send in their promoters, flush with “incentives.”

Bulgaria vs. Greece – Part 2

OK, so maybe I should have listened a little more closely to what the Greeks told me about Bulgaria, and been a little more careful.

I always tend to trust people, and in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, this resulted in having my camera, along with most of my trip photos, stolen.

I was wandering around the town lost when a guy who looked like Jeff Spicoli of Fast Times at Ridgemont HighJeff Spicoli pic came up, introduced himself, and offered to help me find my way. He pointed me in the right direction, then helpfully offered to take a picture of me with his buddies.

I was a bit suspicious, and even briefly considered yanking the memory card from my camera just in case, but I handed it over, and after he took a few shots, he ran off with my Casio EX-Z40.

His two friends didn’t run, but since technically they hadn’t done anything, there wasn’t much I could do. I urged them to help me find their friend, but they claimed to not know him and eventually they gave me the slip and ran off too.

I went back to my hotel and asked the owner if I should call the police or if that would be just a waste of time. Her response: “It’s a waste of time. I’m sorry.”

I’m not sure there are really any lessons to be learned here. One might be tempted to just not trust strangers met on the road, but if I traveled with that attitude, I would miss out on too many experiences. 例えば、I never would have had dinner with a bunch of Egyptian students who approached me in Cairo, and I would not have allowed myself to be invited into two homes in Morocco for meals and coffee.

So I will try not to be cynical, and if the price for these adventures is the loss of an occasional camera, so be it. I still maintain that most countries in the world are way safer than the U.S. After all, they didn’t shoot me. And I even had an excuse to buy a new camera.

Live Music in Greece & Bulgaria

Being a live music fan, when I travel I naturally like to seek out some live music venues. I haven’t been very successful in Greece or Bulgaria.

Greece is full of “music bars”, but that just means that the bar plays music over their sound system, or maybe they have a DJ (sometimes brought over from the U.S.) spinning tunes.

In Thessaloniki, I went to Face Bar for their “Girls Play Guitars” night, but I messed up and went on Thursday instead of Wednesday.  I’m not sure how I did that, but I still had a great time, and my one experience hanging out and talking with locals (other than people I was renting rooms from).

The one concert I found was entirely by chance. I was on my way back to my hostel in Athens and I was peering in an open door when an old man on the street told me that a concert was about to start and he thought it was free. He checked with the staff and it was indeed free so I went in for a while.

It was a guy playing instrumental tunes on an acoustic guitar, and I quickly fell asleep, owing both to the lack of vocals and the late hour.

Ahh, the late hour. This is a beef of mine and I must admit that it applies to much of Europe and many other places too. That concert didn’t start until 23:00, and that seems to be early.

Now, I must point out that I’m a late-night person and you’ll often find me hanging at Lestat’s until two in the morning, but that doesn’t mean I want my concerts to start after midnight.

Here in Sofia, Bulgaria there are a bunch of places called “Pop Folk” clubs, and that got my hope up as a chance to see some local pop or folk artists. But when I inquired I was told that most just have a DJ.

However, there’s a place near the hostel I’m staying at that does have live music. I was told they open at 22:30, so I went over there about 23:00 to see about getting in.

The first bad sign was the large number of security dudes standing by the door, along with two metal detectors and an icon indicating that knives and guns are not permitted inside. Oh, and the name of the place is “Sin City.” It doesn’t quite have the ring of “Java Joe’s.” Basically it’s a dance club.

However, it’s a big place with two floors with different music plus a smaller room called “Folk Club Help” and they said it would have live traditional Bulgarian music (not quite what I wanted, but better than the thump thump thump I heard coming from the rest of the building). I paid my 8 leva (4 euro) and went inside. Of course it was so early that I was the only one there besides the staff. They said the music wouldn’t start until midnight. Oh, alright. But then I was hit with the really bad news. The room was fully booked. “No room at tables. No room at the bar” they told me. And I noticed an unopened whiskey bottle on each table, and a small rectangular stage in the middle of the room. I tried to talk my way into being allowed to stay, but it didn’t work. I was able to get my admission fee back from the cashier even though the Folk Club staff told me they don’t issue refunds but I’m free to roam the rest of the (thump thump thump) club.

It probably would have been an interesting experience. I noticed that some of the other Folk Pop clubs I visited promised a striptease, but it looks like I’ll never know.

The problem with visiting a country for just a few days, apart from not being able to grasp big things like the language, is that it can often be the little things that are truly frustrating. Sometimes you have to live somewhere for months (or years) before you learn your favorite places. In a few days, you just don’t have the opportunity to find the places you might love. But sometimes you luck out and find a great place. And maybe a word like “Folk Pop” doesn’t mean quite what you think it means.

Update on 2007-07-01: I don’t know how I forgot to mention my favorite live music experience in Greece, at Lyrakia (AKA Liraki AKA Cafe Crete AKA Kafe Kriti)musicians playing at Kafe Kriti in the town of Chania (AKA Hania or Χανιά). The Lonely Plant guide describes this place as “rough and ready”, and indeed a fight broke out one night between two of the regular patrons and spilled out into the street. But the music was authentic, traditional Cretin, and the place was patronized both by locals and by tourists, many of whom said they return here year after year.

Bulgaria vs. Greece

After two and a half weeks in Greece, I have finally crossed a national boundary and I am now in Bulgaria.

All the Greeks I met warned me about Bulgaria. “Be careful” they would say. One told me, “It’s not like here.”

You can judge how safe a place is by how the residents act with regard to security. In Greece I was constantly amazed at the number of doors I would walk by with the key in the lock.

Likewise, drivers making a quick stop would often get out of their car and leave the engine running. Scooters parked on the sidewalk would also often have the key left in the ignition. One Greek I met said he always leaves his helmet just sitting on his scooter seat, and he’s never had a problem.

After the warnings I received, I expected to find Sofia, Bulgaria to have a completely different feel. But it hadn’t, really. OK, I haven’t seen any keys left in doors or engines left running, but women leave their purses on the next chair in restaurants (they don’t do this in places like Peru where you have to hold your purse in your lap even in fancy restaurants), and the parks are full of playing children unsupervised, along with families walking together.

Tonight, however, I went out after dark for the first time and found myself in a very different atmosphere. One thing I loved about Greece was the streets were hopping late into the evening. At eleven o’clock on a weeknight, the cafes were packed with people, and the sidewalks were a traffic jam, complete with women pushing baby carriages.

Sofia, Bulgaria at night, however, feels like an American suburb. Any restaurants open may have a few customers, but the streets are otherwise deserted. Where did all those people go who were out earlier? I felt a bit apprehensive walking around, and doubly so when I was approached by a guy who offered to accompany me in to a strip club.

Lindows?

Lindows at Barnes & Noble


I had read that bookstores have drastically cut down on the number of computer titles stocked, and this was definitely in evidence on a recent visit to Barnes & Noble.

In fact, there was more shelf space devoted to Linux than to the operating system emanating from Redmond.

¿What To Pack?

It’s almost time to grab my backpack and hit the road again, so I pulled out my trusty and tattered to-bring list.

I tend to pack rather light on these overseas trips, so you may think I forgot a lot, but trust me, I didn’t :-) .

Because others have asked me to share this list, and because it’s time to commit it to bytes, here it is (in no particular order):

  • plane tickets (if not e-ticket)
  • printed flight itinerary (I never remember my flight times)
  • passport
  • extra passport photos (needed for visas along the way)
  • hat
  • sunglasses
  • towel, small (many hostels don’t provide one)
  • two pairs of long pants
  • short pants (weather permitting)
  • bathing suit
  • three t-shirts
  • two button-up shirts
  • windbreaker / light jacket
  • sweater (very light but warm)
  • jacket (only if Winter)
  • pyjamas
  • seven pair of underwear and socks
  • laundry bag
  • money belt
  • belt (if pants require it)
  • travellers checks (rarely used but good to have a few when the ATM network is down)
  • list of travellers checks numbers
  • hostel card
  • cash/credit cards/ATM card
  • list of CC numbers (in case they need to be cancelled/resissued)
  • international drivers license certificate (need varies by country)
  • sunscreen
  • shampoo
  • toiletries
  • ankle strap (only if biking)
  • earplugs (for loud concerts and snoring roommates)
  • small notebook / memo pad
  • guidebook(s)
  • flashlight (single AAA LED)
  • tiny push-to-light LED
  • copy of passport main page and any visas
  • GSM phone and charger
  • small padlock (for hostel lockers)
  • compass
  • umbrella, ultra compact
  • wristwatch (also used as alarm clock)
  • camera & card reader
  • camera battery travel charger
  • AC plug adapter (varies by country but the one for continental Europe works most everywhere except NZ & Oz).
  • apartment entrance key (so I can get back in when I return)
  • And a few things I always need to do before I leave:

  • pay bills
  • put snail-mail on Vacation Hold
  • set up vacation(1) response for e-mail
  • suspend newspaper delivery
  • clear out and turn off refrigerator (for extended trips)
  • turn off water heater/cable modem/router (on the morning I leave)
  • New Zealand / Australia trip diary

    I have finally (!!!) finished transcribing my trip diary from my 1997 trip to New Zealand and Australia (mostly New Zealand — it was just a few days in Sydney to visit a friend) and have posted it online. It’s long and boring for anyone but me, but it has proven helpful in answering questions from friends about exactly what I did down there (often asked when preparing their own trips).

    Fun Taiwanese Restaurant: Class 302 (Grade 3, Class 2) (三年2班)

    The other night I was coming back from installing new phones at KSPC in Claremont, so on my way home I stopped in Rowland Heights, a very Chinese neighborhood, and ended up eating at this cute Taiwanese place set up like a primary school classroom.

    And the food was quite good too!

    Check out the Class 302 Yelp page for more info and pictures of the cute interior.

    Home from Central Europe

    Well, I made it back home just in time to attend the Usenix LISA Conference taking place in San Diego. I’ll have a trip summary and some observations later, but since many people have been asking me how much my 50-day European trip cost, I decided to publish that information here.

    The total amount spent for my trip, including airfare, rail pass, and all expenses incurred along the way is $4193, or about $80 per day. Gee, that sounds like a lot. And I usually stayed in hostels. Of course my three weeks in Germany were more expensive on a per-day basis than my time in lower-cost countries like Slovakia and Hungary. Deducting the airfare, it’s closer to $68 per day.

    Lodging costs ran from about $10 per night in hostels in Hungary to $50 per night for some places in Germany where I chose to get a hotel room rather than stay in a hostel too far from the center of town.

    We won’t even start to talk about the opportunity costs, since much of my income comes from hourly work that I could not (or didn’t have time to) perform while on the road.

    Central Europe trip

    I am grabbing my small backpack and hitting the road again. All I know for sure is that I fly into Frankfurt and return from Budapest seven weeks later. What routes I take between those two points is currently unknown. Possible intermediary destinations include Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria, but I doubt I’ll hit them all. I tend to prefer a less-rushed approach, lingering for longer in fewer locales.

    I’ll be riding trains and staying in hostels, so as to keep myself firmly planted in reality. Fancy hotels tend to isolate you from the local culture (and drain your wallet).

    I have, however, made a few concessions to modern technology. I’m not bringing my laptop, but I have a small GSM phone and plan to buy a SIM in each country so that I can be reached more easily than in the past. I’ll also be logging on from Internet kiosks every few days.

    I should be back in San Diego by December 6th.

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