Graffiti and bullfighting in Zaragoza

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Spain - Zaragoza | Posted on 26-09-2010


After the passport adventures I had getting out of Milan, it was a short week once I finally made it to Zaragoza, but man was it ever great to be back in Spain.

Spain takes everything the Italians pride themselves on (food, wine, fashion, etc) and deliver it up without the attitude or ego… It’s like the italians want to keep it to themselves, but the Spanish believe that everyone should be living the best life possible.

Zaragoza was a cute little city with a beautiful town centre with some great bars and an amazing tapas culture. The little alleyways and winding old streets revealed some amazing street art as well.

Saturday I went out with G and M from the crew and we headed out to catch a bullfight. Now, I’ve got a huge trigger issue with animal cruelty, but it’s been weird how much I’ve had to justify my decision to attend the bullfight after the fact. I remember thinking when we were touring the Coleseum in Rome about how they used to battle animals in a spectacle and that for some reason, I was ok with it. I mean, really – think about it… on one side, you’ve got a bull that’s had a good life, been fed well to strengthen it up, been allowed to roam and screw, and then rather than just offing it in a slaughterhouse like everyone else he’ll ever meet, we’re actually giving him a chance to fight back. To me, that’s a lot more fair and noble than the horrifying conditions you find in feed lots and slaughterhouses. It’s also hard to take someone seriously about animal cruelty when they’re eating a hamburger and wearing leather shoes. In fact, G who I went with was a vegetarian, and I respect her greatly for going for the sake of the experience.

The bullfight itself was actually a lot more interesting than I expected. There’s a crazy history and ceremony about it, and the posing and staring down the bull by the bullfighters is cocky and beautiful. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but from what I gathered it’s pretty much the guy who gets the crowd the most worked up wins (and the guy who doesn’t do a clean kill which comes across as cruel to the bull is booed).

An interesting tidbit: when one of the bulls refused to die (as in would just keep getting up and staring down the bullfighter and putting up a serious fight with glorious attitude), the crowd actually stood and applauded the bull. It’s not killing for killing’s sake – it’s a ritual and celebration and skill juxtaposed with the violence and high liklihood of injury or death of the bullfighter.

Yes, I enjoyed it, and no, I won’t apologize for that.

Other than that, spent every afternoon working, every night out tapas hopping with friendly folk, and the hotel we were in was the nicest we’ve stayed at on this tour so far (amazing beds and the ‘best. shower. evar.’) which was a nice treat.

Not sure if I’d go out of my way to return to Zaragoza, but I’d never be upset at finding myself there again.

Lessons learned…

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Italy - Milano, Spain - Zaragoza | Posted on 22-09-2010


So late Saturday night, after a fantastic italian dinner that keep going until almost 4am, I came home and stumbled about as I packed things up for our transfer the next day… (I can’t transfer with Chris’ tour, but I always send a few things along in Chris’ tour baggage so my carry-on isn’t too stuffed) I didn’t have to get up until noon, so I went to bed and mumbled a ‘loveyouhaveasafetrip’ to Chris when he rolled off to work around 5:30am.

It was about 11am when I woke up and realized that I’d packed my passport in that checked baggage.

Travel Lesson 1 for the day: Pack before a few bottles of wine, not after.

In a panicked frenzy, I called Chris to find out if the luggage was already on the plane, and unforuntately it was and they were just about to take off.

At noon, I went and met up with the other people I was going to fly to Spain with, and figured I’d tag along to the airport and see if I could try and board with some supporting ID and 10 people confirming my story was real and I really was just a guy stuck in a bind.

Unfortunately we were flying RyanAir — aka: fuck you airlines.
Their business model is based more around screwing people who don’t read the fine print than on good service, and as I’d just flagged myself as someone who’s ticket they could resell and make more money, there was no hope of talking myself onto the plane, so I waved goodbye to my fellow travellers and walked out of the airport into the sun as the revelation set in: I was in Italy, my passport was in Spain, and I had no idea how I was going to get there as every travel option (car, plane, border crossings, etc) would require a passport.

First step was getting back into Milan, so I hopped a bus back into town which gave me an hour to think, and I knew the fastest way to Zaragoza where my passport would be was via Barcelona. I’d never had my passport checked on a train before, so it was decreed – I was taking a train to Barcelona.

When the bus dropped me off at Milano Centrale, I went to the ticketing to find a lineup of at least 200 people out the door, and across the station. Like all things Italian, the booking agent’s computer terminals had decided they didn’t feel like working on a Sunday and had shut down… No problem, I thought, I’ll just go and use the auto-kiosks… I walked up, punched in Barcelona, and found a train that was leaving that evening for 150 euros, and all was well.

Chris had landed in Spain and sorted out his work by then and was back in phone contact. I told him what was going on, and that I was taking a train that evening, and would come fetch my passport. As he books travel for a living, it should have been a red flag when he said he couldn’t find that train available online, but he was busy and I was thankful to have a direction in mind as I killed a few hours around the train station. 20 minutes before my train was set to depart, Chris phoned me back and said “Do not get on that train”…

Travel Lesson 2 for the day: Not only is there a Barcelona, Spain, but there is also a Barcelona on the far southern tip of Italy.

Now, remember how I’d said that the computers had gone down for the day and there was a massive angry lineup waiting? Well, that was now about 300 people long, and was of course where I had to go in search of a refund for my ticket.

2 hours later, I got to the front of the line.
Luckily I ended up with a very nice helpful woman who spoke a little bit of english, and though they don’t usually give refunds for tickets you purchase yourself via the self service kiosks, argued with her boss on my behalf for a good 20 minutes and got permission to give a refund.

Of course, that’d be simple if the computers were working but there was about a half hour more of paperwork and back and forth looking for manual printouts from a backroom and quibbling with bosses before the refund was completed.

Travel Lesson 3 for the day: Refunds on train tickets in Italy are subject to a 20% you’re-making-us-work fee.

Finally, with most of my money back in hand I asked her “So how do I get to Barcelona, Spain?” and was informed that there was no train on Sundays to there – but there was an overnight on Monday that I could catch.

It was now going on about 8pm and I walked out of the train station and looked around trying to figure out what to do next… If I was going to stay overnight in Milan, I was going to need somewhere to sleep, so I popped into a couple hotels near the train station to ask about rooms.

Travel Lesson 4 for the day: It is illegal to check into a hotel room in Italy without italian id, or a valid passport.

After being turned away from a couple hotels that looked more like crackdowns than hotels, I went to an internet cafe and went in search of other accommodations in the area. I found a hotel that looked decent a short walk away, and booked myself a room (and entered my passport number online). I walked over to the hotel and presented my booking information, and of course was asked for my passport. I explained the situation, that I did not have my passport on me, but that I was going to get it tomorrow and just needed a place to stay for the night and I had other information to confirm my identity that the reservation was made under.

Being Italy, the guy had to make a big dramatic show of the difficulty with the situation. It took just under an hour, with me promising not to leave the hotel except to grab some dinner, and that if i ended up in the hospital I wouldn’t tell the police where I was staying, and a lot of unnecessary back and forth for him to finally hand over the keys. (Honestly, I think it really just came down to the fact that since I’d already paid for the room online that it’d be a pain in the ass for him to refund the ticket that got me in).

Having found a place to stay, i went out for some great dinner at a local little pizzeria, picked up a bottle of wine and some snacks and bunkered down for some rest after what’d been a stressful and draining day.

The next day I woke up, enjoyed the complimentary breakfast in the hotel, went and bought my train ticket to Barcelona (double checking that it was to Spain) and wandered out to kill 10 hours in Milan.

Things were flowing a lot better today, and even though I’d spent a week in Milan, it was on this day that I really figured Milan out. The day was sunny and clear and beautiful. It was the start of fashion week so the 4 hour stroll along the fashion streets was incredible and amazing as all the designers had their window displays ready to wow. I climbed to the top of the Duomo, a giant intricate marble cathedral in the centre of town and laid on the cold marble roof in the shade of a spire for a while. I wandered through parks and watched families meet up for long lazy picnic lunches. I had a great meal and some wine off the main square watching the people and their impeccable fashion senses stroll by.

Travel Lesson 5 for the day: Milan’d be a great place if you have a spare hundred grand or so to blow on some shopping, or alternatively, have one afternoon to whittle away and people watch.

Finally around 9pm it was time to catch my train, so I went back to the station and hopped on board and settled into my seat to enjoy the ride.

Remember how I said that on a train I’d never had my passport checked? Putting that back in perspective, I realize now that was because I’d only ever taken them within a country, never across borders…

Travel Lesson 6 for the day: Crossing borders by train requires a passport.

An hour or so into the train ride, the porter came around to check tickets, and asked for my passport. Seems that being an overnight train, rather than wake everyone, he takes the passports and presents them at the customs crossings.

I asked to speak to him privately and explained to him my situation: how I was on tour, and my passport had accidentally gone ahead of me, and that I was on my way to go get it. (I may have also added a little bit of cute and flirty which seemed to be received well by the gentleman). He said he believed me and understood my situation, but that it was really up to the customs agents, but he would see what he could do. He took my driver’s license as id and attached it to my ticket and wandered off…

Rolling forward was the most stressful train ride of my life – I knew we had to cross at least two borders before our destination, but I didn’t know at what time, when or where to expect the customs crossings. Every stop I’d be pumping adrenaline waiting with baited breath, clenched muscles and crossed fingers until the train would start rolling again. I had no idea what would happen if I got pulled off the train without a passport: I wouldn’t be able to go back from where I came so which country would I be stuck in? Would I just get kicked back to Canada? Visions of being stuck in limbo in a Spanish jail cell washed over me…

It was about midnight when we finally hit the French customs.

The train stopped, and they came on board and after about 15 minutes 3 agents entered our car. They walked the train and randomly requested people to step out to answer some questions, or to open their luggage for a search. They didn’t ask me to do so, and left the car while I sat with ever muscle tensed, sweating and anxious, waiting to be pulled from the train.

30 minutes later, the train started rolling again…
And I exhaled with joy so hard I almost cried.

The next few hours were waves of restless sleep broken by bursts of anxious tension ever time we’d pull into another station, but then the sun came up and there was but a brief pause as the station signs switched from french to spanish.

An hour outside of Barcelona, the porter came by to return our passports and pulled my driver’s license from the inside of another passport and gave it back to me with a bit of a wink.

Travel Lesson 7 for the day: Flirting helps.

From Barcelona, it was only a high speed train to Zaragoza, and the three security checkpoints to get onto the train were all ok with my story and flashings of different IDs and credit cards to back it up, and I was rolling towards Zaragoza where a few hours later I was reunited with my passport and a very much appreciated hug.

[Note: of course there’s a lot of frantic phone calls, emails and moral support that were left out of this relaying of the tale, but I’d like to add that I couldn’t have done it without the help and support of Chris… he’s rather good at that helping-get-me-there thing as well as the keeping-me-from-losing-my-shit thing… I’m a fan.]

Nearly Milan.

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Italy - Milano | Posted on 18-09-2010


A week in Milan…
Well, kind of…

We were a 130euro cab ride from the airport and a 50 euro cab ride from downtown. We were staying at a big box mall community way out of town that was supposed to be joined to the metro line by summer 2009. It’s Italy though, so they’d just kind of stopped working on that and left the area to deal with the lack of foot traffic a metro line would bring.

I took the bus/train fiasco into town one day, and it started torrentially raining as soon as I got downtown. There’s only so many times you can be poked in the eye by umbrellas and then glared at like it’s your fault before you just want to go home and dry off.

There were 2 highlights of the week though:

On wednesday night there was a crew party at a dance studio that I helped decorate that was a lot of fun both to set up and enjoy later in the evening (definitely a reminder that I’m missing a creative outlet on the road). Great band, lots of drinks, good food, and a very nice fire in the back yard made for a very nice night.

On Saturday night before transfer, the restaurant that catered the party on Weds invited us for a late night meal that was really fantastic. A small, hidden little place that pushed the tables together so the 20+ of us could all drink great wine and eat many courses of great food, repeatedly cycling with more bottles of wine and more courses of food… a really nice night of socializing in a memorable environment with some friendly faces…

A very nice way to wind up a week in Milan that wasn’t really a week in Milan; It was more of a week in a nice hotel on the outskirts of Milan where I got a ton of work done.

But it was during what happened next that I accidentally gained a better appreciation and understanding of the city…

“Will there be beer in Munich the week before Oktoberfest?”

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Germany - Munich | Posted on 12-09-2010


More than the previous couple of weeks in Germany, Munich is more what you imagine: Beer houses, cobblestone streets and unironic laderhosen.

The week was a little askew – we were there the week before Oktoberfest was to begin, so the city felt a little quiet. Our hotel was really nice, and the internet was reliable, so it was a pretty heavy work week for both of us.

We did have Monday afternoon off, and went out in the town to find the legendary Hofbrauhaus. We got caught in a rainstorm, and when we asked a cabbie to take us there, he said “but it is only up left then right!” so we got out of the cab, back into the pouring rain, and spent the next 30 minutes getting soaked to the bone and wandering many different lefts and rights and still not being anywhere near. We did eventually find it, and had a great night drinking litre beers, and Chris getting told he was drinking “girlybeer” by a german girl and her grandmother.

On Friday we booked a tour to the Duchau concentration camp. This is the nasty one that had the SS training grounds attached and was the proving ground for torture and techniques used throughout the camp network across Germany.

I don’t really want to write much, because it can never do justice to the experience, or the horrors that become relevant with the confrontation of experience…

In 10 years, more than 40000 people died in this camp alone, and it wasn’t even an extermination camp – it was a work camp where they were killed by the disease, suffering, conditions and cruelty of the Nazis.

I do remember clearly the moment in the secondary prison-within-the-prison reserved for “special treatment” when I realized that “receiving a beating” meant more than a brief punchup. In this case there was no end to the suffering that was possible and that the echos of cracking bones and bloody wet gasps of suffering hung heavy all around.

Standing in a gas chamber that was built for a horribly specific evil purpose, or staring into the body sized ovens in the creamatorium suddenly makes Hitler jokes a little less funny.

Some accuse Germany of glorifying their role in the war by leaving the camp intact, but I think it’s actually something bigger than that. They could just pull it down, cover it up, and make history fade to dust and reduce the shitstorm of hate that comes at them. Instead, they take the shit that comes along with reminding people of the atrocities of WW2 when they say confidently ‘this needs to be here, and people need to see it, and be reminded of why it never can happen again’… I respect that.

It was a horrible thing to see and think about, but incredibly important to have seen and a highly, highly recommended tour.

Since I hadn’t really seen much of Munich itself aside from a rainy afternoon sprint from the metro to a beerhall on Monday, I decided to try and get a bit more out of Munich and offset the friday grimness with a bike tour around town… The tour guide was a little “aussie-backpacker centric”, but he did a great job of keeping it light and reading what the group was looking for in the end – lots of side tangents and good stories about a city that has some amazing history. We had a great lunch in the giant beer garden in the park, and the second half of the tour was a whole lot of fun getting back on the bikes after a couple litres of beer… Careening past the naked sunbathers in the park, checking out the people surfing on the standing wave, and ringing our bells a lot to make people jump out of our way. I’d met a few guys over lunch who were travelling from Tulsa, and after the bike tour we tumbled over to the Hofbrauhaus to continue drinking. Things were going smoothly until one of the americans decided we needed shots and bought a round of schnapps. I’ll mention here that the beer hall has an old roman vomitorium in the men’s room – not that it’s applicable or at all relevant to this tale…

Anyways – Munich was a nice way to wrap up our weeks in Germany… I’d like to come back to experience the craziness of Oktoberfest one day, but that’s probably the only draw at this point: I’m pretty schnitzel’ed and bratwurst’ed out, and after 3 weeks, I’m really missing a culture that shows it’s emotion…

Strife and techno in Berlin

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Germany - Berlin | Posted on 09-09-2010


Last time I was in Berlin was back in 1999… It was my first European trip, and I’d popped over for a weekend with my friend R who was working for an airline at the time… I believe the conversation we had on Wednesday went something like this:

R: “I’m bored and want to go do something this weekend…”
Me: “Well, there’s Love Parade in Germany.”
R: “Want to go? I can get us cheap tickets.”
Me: “Uhh – ok.”
R: “Ok, lets leave tomorrow”

It was definately not the most prepared, in depth exploration of Berlin one could have had (ie: getting off the plane and realizing that the signs weren’t in english, and not having a hotel room booked when 1.2 million people were coming into town to party) but it was a fantastic memory.

So 11 years (and many good times) later, I returned to Berlin for a week… Like London or NY, it’s one of those cities that is too big to pretend you’ve even gained a minute grasp of it in just a week, but the time here was heavily enjoyed, and a few things were readily apparent:

1) Berlin is huge, and every time you go out you end up in a new neighborhood with a new vibe. Everything’s doubled up, as they had east+west versions of everything, and now everything in between has been rebuilt.

2) Berlin is a dress-down city (Even by Vancouver standards, which is saying something). Tshirts, jeans and sneakers are good everywhere.

3) Berliners are serious and there isn’t much in the way of middle of the road, but extreme versions of everything are part of life.

Sunday night was a late transfer for Chris, but I’d rolled into town early afternoon with a couple ladies from the tour, and one of them had a friend who was doing a performance that we wandered off to see. It was a reasonably interesting modern dance piece, but it was held in this stunning old theatre that’d been stripped to the bones – concrete, cold and illuminated with bulletholes and ancient sighs… After the show we went out for a dinner at the pub with a group of artists who were all pregnant or recently had kids and it was interesting to hear their stories of integrating family life with life on the road. Not sure if it applies to all of Germany, but the Berliners for certain really made the kids part of their lives, rather than putting their lives on hold for the children – was inspiring to see.

It was a late transfer for the tour and we didn’t get to bed until shortly before sunrise, but on Monday, Chris had the day off so we went out for a good wander of the city and then hopped on board one of the walking tours. I’d assumed it’d be lame, but we ended up with a really excellent tour guide who made the 4hr tour fly by. It was nice as well to not just walk past all the buildings and just look, but get a glimpse into the history behind it all, especially in a city like Berlin that has so much heavy recent history and stories to tell.

A lot of time was spent bouncing back and forth over what was previously the 160km stretch of The Berlin Wall… I’d never actually understood what the wall was there for, so here’s a quick (likely not entirely correct) summary:

After WW2, Berlin was split up so the allies got West Berlin, and the communist regime got to hold the East. There was an emigration loophole where East Germans could pop into East Berlin, and pass out through West Berlin and out of communism. The communists didn’t think it’d be a big deal, that everyone would want to stay in the East. Unfortunately, the group who most wanted to leave tended to be those who could do better outside of Communism: the free thinkers, the intellectuals and the scientists. This resulted in a brain drain where the best and brightest slid out of the East through Berlin.

To stop this flow, in 1961, the communists set up a barbed wire guarded blockade around East Berlin, which later evolved into The Wall. It was actually mostly 2 walls, with a 20 or so foot death strip down the middle where the guards patrolling the wall had shoot to kill orders for anyone inside.

(wikipedia entry for Berlin Wall)

So that’s where it came from, and as you walk around the city now, in a lot of places, you see the path of the old wall, and when you picture that where you’re freely roaming, once you would have to stop, it’s a dreadful thought – to every day be confronted with a limit to your freedom of movement that was symbolic of a lot of additional limits would weigh heavy on the soul.

Of course, intermixed with all the wall history was the history at the root origin of the wall – the whole WW2 “Hitler thing“…

There is a massive jewish holocost memorial of a serene field of concrete blocks right in the centre of town. Across the street from it is the Homo memorial in honor of the 100,000+ people charged for being gay under the Nazi regime – many of whom were sent to and died in concentration camps. As it gets most of the mention, I knew full well of the persecution of the jews, but was unaware of the extent of the persecution of homos under the Nazi’s as well.

On a lighter note, we had a nice dinner with M before heading back to the hotel and crashing out heavily…

Tuesday I worked in the morning and then went out and had a big long headphones-on wander… Started in Hackscher Markt and wandered all the way to the far end of the Tiergarden, which is a massive park in the middle of the city. The Love Parade I attended back in 99 was held in park, so it was interesting to pause and reflect on the time that’s passed; the experiences, adventures, relationships, growth and learning that’s occurred. I’ve been very blessed.

We went out Tues night for a few drinks at some seedy bars (yay 2-4-1s) and saw some more of the city.

The internet in the hotel wasn’t very useful (128k/s dialup speeds don’t quite cut it), so Weds and Thurs I hung out at the venue on their 100mb/s connection and rocked a solid couple of 12 hour days coding and launched a new project I’d been wrapping up.

Friday I went to the venue again, but after lunch I went for a walk, and spent more than 6 hours wandering south of the river wandering aimlessly through endless neighborhoods that each had their own feel and vibe. Of note was the brilliant street art that covers the city… of course there’s crappy tags everywhere, but there’s more high-end graffiti and murals here than I’ve seen in any other place.

That evening, I trained back to the venue to pick Chris up afterwork, and we went out armed with a list of bars and clubs we could go to, but got quickly sidetracked by wandering streets full of people hanging out. We’d just pop into a kiosk/convienience store and grab a couple beers, which they’d open for us, and just walk around drinking our beers and talking and absorbing, until it was time to pop into the next shop for more beers – fantastically civilized.

Saturday, I’d heard about the european version of San Fran’s Folsom Street Fair. I was curious what a culture that showed hardcore porn on evening television would consider shocking, so figuring it’d be a unique experience I went and checked out Europe’s biggest gathering of leather costumed fetishists.

My first thought was “I don’t think those guys in the leather police and swat uniforms are really officers of the law”, but then I started thinking about what exactly drives the Berliners (and Germans) to such an extreme when it comes to sex. I’m not sure if it’s tied into the fact that their culture is much more logic based than emotional which makes them simply jump to the far ends of experience to get anything from it, or if it’s maybe tied into a deep cultural remorse or regret from the dark history of the place bubbling up through their psyche’s. Either way, I realized that leather really isn’t my thing, and that I haven’t numbed myself to vanilla sex enough to have to dress up in a rubber horse suit, getting fisted while someone shits on my chest to have a good time…

But hey… whatever works for you.

I had a few beers at the parade, and went back to the hotel for a liedown until 11ish. Chris came home, and had to work at 5am the next morning, and though I was rather wiped, he pointed out that I’d regret it if I didn’t make the most of a city that was just starting to come alive on a Saturday night… and man was he right.

I rolled downstairs just after midnight and met up with a few people who happened to be heading to Berghain, the club I wanted to check out. We all cabbed over and managed to get in (not always an easy task from what I gather), and were some of the first to arrive around 1am…

I’ve been to a lot of clubs and partied in some really magical spots, but this was one of the most interesting I’d ever seen — it’s an old power plant in an industrial wasteland where they play straight up techno. Not house, not trance, but straight up, 100% german soul techno. When we got there at 1am, it was a 75-90bpm drone that filled the cavernous powerplant with an eerie hum and slowly picked up so that by 4am, with the dancefloor packed, the totempole’esque speakers were assaulting the crowd with 140-150bpm gutrenching bass hits that pulsed through your bones and cellular core.

The club was huge, and had a labrynth of rooms and hidden nooks and other bars, and suddenly around 5ish, a staircase appeared that i hadn’t seen before with an ice cream parlor at the top. It was brilliant.

I had to leave at 6am to go back to the hotel to pack, but it was hard to pull myself away from the still building energy. There was a big line still waiting to get in as the sun rose, and DJs were scheduled to play through to 8pm Sunday night… I could only imagine what the place would look like on a Sunday afternoon about 4pm, but that’ll have to wait until next time… I’ll definately be back – there’s no where better on the planet for a solid night out of pulse altering techno.

Back to the hotel, a quick pack, shower and 45 minute powernap and then it was off to catch a train…

Berlin is one of those cities that I’m pretty sure we’ll be back to — it’s massive, and we barely touched on what it has to offer, and although we always felt like outsiders, we felt comfortable… It’s casual, but with a seriousness that only generations of strife can whittle into it’s hearts.