About putting your money where your mouth is...
I've been agonized the last months since that. Not fulfilling my promise would have - believe it or not - caused considerable damage to my conscience. Paying the sum, equal to 5000 SEK, is - well, once one starts earning money, it becomes harder and harder to spend it on other things but yourself. In the end, seeing as my conscience is already too dented by professional compromises, white, grey and outright lies, and other moral concessions accumulated over the years, I saw fit to sell the stocks and, indeed, give proceeds to charity as a way to balance things up. The chosen organisation: World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF). Donation: As above, through a one-time donation and a monthly sponsorship of some endangered tigers in Asia. For that I get a sticker and stuffed tiger. Yes, I thought it a bit funny too at first, since the whole purpose with the sponsorship is to protect the cats, but hey - it comes for free with the deal. [Of course not the real thing, but - what's the name for it - a soft one, for kids, with cotton...cuddly, ett mjukdjur.]
Now, why am I saying this, here? Well, for those who do not know me, I am a pretentious fuck. It is in large part due to the fact that I want your appreciation as a do-gooder and friend of the earth, its people and other animals. But I think I could have done that in a different manner, with more subtlety [or maybe not, come to think of it. maybe this text, with its slight ironic touch, will give me that appreciation...nice. high-five!]. No, the main reason is that I want others to take heed of this noble gesture, and join me. I want you to donate money as well! Not necessarily to WWF, but to something. Something that will easen your burdened conscience, and do so easily. Pay the money and you will sleep better at night. God knows most of you can afford it. Hein, so what do you say? Have you reached this far in the text? Are you up for it? Or are you afraid? Chicken? [mocking chicken sound]. C'mon!
CG European Trip '07 - "Les Girls" (the first week)
"Les Girls" is the title of a movie from 1957 which has little to do with this narrative. I will tell you about the people I met, some of whom, naturally, were girls. Granted, in Italy - especially the first week, with four men in a Bismarck, spurring each other on - girls become a natural point of thought, reference and discussion during most of the day, and night. However, all encounters recorded here, with boys and girls alike, are of purely platonic, social character. For information about other encounters....well, let's put it this way: You're on a need to know basis, and you don't need to know.
This is going to be long. Don't read all of it at once. Read it a day at a time. Savour.
Day 1: Varese and surroundings
Four Swedes travelling together, all with their individual characters and traits, are bound to attract the attention of others for whatever reason. We were in luck. Somehow, people seemed to like us. Our first meal, at a restaurant on a hill, shortly after I had driven Bismarck into a wall going up the hill, we met Alex - a Brasilian Pilates instructor living in Varese since 7 years - who immediately took us to heart. He gave us advice on what to see, where to go. Without him, we would not have gone to lago di Maggiore (and had the swim by the tree with the yellow shirt in it), or to Via Reggio (where we lent the lighter from the Italians) or to Swiss Lugano (where some of us had another swim). He gave us lots of other advice, most of which we did not follow. Regrettably in some cases, perhaps, but let's be happy about what we got. Alex - thank you!
Day 2: Lago di Maggiore, Lugano, Lago di Como (Torno)
Tuesday, the day we shun the company of others. But we did almost meet George Clooney, Silvio Berlusconi, the guy who owns Ryan Air, and yes - and this was a close one - the Prince of Saudi Arabia. All inhabitants of the lake Como area, and the latter our neighbour when we stayed at the Villa Flora in Torno. I felt a strange, let's call it supernatural sensation once, while walking down a narrow passage towards the lake, with a cemetary on the one side and a private property on the other, of being close to something very famous. In fact, we did not meet any people of much significance to us. Am I telling the truth here? I think so. Maybe if we had explored some situations further, it would have been different. Take for example that cemetary I walked by. Just at the start of it, by the church, I heard music playing from the second floor of an adjoining building. Windows were open, the sill lined with red flowers, and behind them in the room, which I gathered from the sign on the door, lived someone, I guess the caretaker. Now, wouldn't that have been a lovely person to meet?
Day 3: San Giovanni, Bellagio, Les Cinque Terres
The third day. Godness. We met with greatness. It started doucement: A lovely waitress serving us a beautifully composed meal at the restaurant Mella; a mixed family of Belgians at the beach just next to it; the Italian bikini team on the road...well, no, let's not go that far. I promised exaggeration, not outright lie. But I fool you not, when I say we met, in Bellagio, lo and behold, I guy who had Bruce Springsteen in his contacts (!) on his Iphone (!!). Of course we were - especially Magnus the Sony-Ericsson-guy - amazed and impressed by the phone. Imagine the heart and soul of scores of engineers and designers that have gone into making that phone. The beauty of it! The capacity!! The completeness!!! Hmmm. Oh, yes, and then the matter of Bruce. Well, apparently, Mr Ely (that was his name, Ely, Joe Ely) had played with Bruce on a few occasions, and Clash, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, to name a few others (we found this out afterwards, though, honour where honour's due, Stef at the time seemed to recollect his name from some musical context). He happened to scroll by Bruce when showing us the phone, while I was asking his wife what line of their business they were in: "Oh, your husband is a musician on tour. And what kind of music does he play?" So close, yet so far away...
Come nightfall, we had sped our Bismarck 200 miles south, to les Cinque Terre. Oh, what a wonderful sight. Hundreds and hundreds of backpacking, adventurous girls from around the world. The village we were in - Riomaggiore - was nice too. While overlooking it, munching away on real Italian pizzas, Hans and me heard the unmistakeble nasal sound of Montreal french behind us. There they were - four girls with a denominator (the lingo; our background in Montreal) we could profit on. Well, it took us some time to approach - we are after all shy and reserved Swedes - but eventually we made contact. We had a lovely chat, they recommended us a camping site in Firenze, we agreed to try and meet them there, and said our farewells. Halfway up the slope to the car we realized that we had forgot to ask them their number, or better yet, ask them to have some wine with us. They, their hostel to be precise, were lost to us in the maze of streets of Riomaggiore. Again, so close, yet so far away. We took comfort in that, as the saying goes - "though lovers be lost, love shall not"(?).
Day 4: Via Reggio, Pisa, Firenze
It just kept getting better and better. After having endured each other and the night in the small confinement of our car, we started out the day on the beach close to Via Reggio. We came, and we saw. Beauty. Beauty in the shape of two Italian girls just two metres east of our location. (Please forgive me, all friends and foes reading this, I promise you that this is the height of my girl frenzy.) We went to ask for a light (we smoked, though it still was only 10 am in the morning, just awful). We went into the sea, and threw ourselves onto the waves in a manly manner, flexing our muscles as inconspiciously as we knew how, fearing we looked as bloated as the Italian guys next to us (presumably, we shared the same objective). We went back, asked for a cigarette, as ours had run and succeded in starting up a conversation. Their names, which I will not mention here, were very beautiful. Especially the name of the girl with the bikini with the Italian flag on it. Upon our third visit, this time to say goodbye, e-mails and telephone numbers were exchanged (not foolish enough to make the same mistake again) as well as promises to, if plausible (which I of course intended to make it), to meet up in Bologna, where they worked/studied. I went back, alone, a fourth time to fetch the sandals I had forgotten. The image of the Italian-flag-girl with a smile on her face saying "Wow, hello, I thought I had seen you for the last time" is my last vivid memory of the encounter. We never did meet up in Bologna.
We saw the leaning tower of Pisa. Good sightseeing. Lots of people, but we met with no-one. There was this woman with her daughter who seemed to be carrying their luggage around the whole town (tourists, we saw them on various occasions), who we thought a bit funny and almost pitied, especially since the daughter seemed to carry most of the load, but no - we never talked. It was hot as hell though. I feel asleep on a bench.
Ahh, but then the camping in Firenze. I managed to - temporarily - put the morning rendez-vous out of my mind as we enjoyed a concert next to the site. The music, the crowd, the ambience! It was quite marvellous. Before, and after, we chatted with people, backpackers mostly, at the camping. One of us became very enchanted with two norwegian girls. Another of us joined in the conversation but drifted intermittenly off to harass some people (they were Irish, he kept calling them British) next to us. Myself, I developed paternal feelings for the girls, young as they were, and tried to steer our social gathering into a kosher direction. I was aided by one of the camp guardsmen who eventually hushed us off to bed, separately. The fourth of us had gone to bed earlier.
Day 5: Firenze, Tuscany, Milano Marittima
New day, new spots to visit. Firenze is grand! Our tour guide of the Dome had a flair for the job, and made our visit animated and educational. Kudos.
We continued through Tuscany and found a wineyard after a chance turn. Stef went ahead and came back, walking side by side with an elderly gentlemen. The man, in perfect english: "Well, the winery is closed, and my sons [who were in charge] are not here, but maybe my wife would like to come down and open it up for you". And then, the contessa herself, graciously interrupting her leisure time to show us the winery. Of course, awed and respectful as we were in her company, we did purchase quite a lot of wine. Good wine. Wonderful house. I wonder if she has any single grand-children?
We did not see much of Milano Marittima as we came in late at night. We did not meet any people. That day.
Day 6: Milano Marittima
Most of day was spent on the beach, eye-balling...people. Magnus took charge of the meeting girls part. We were particularly impressed of how, when night came and we all took to the fashionista-filled streets, he managed to meet and keep 6 girls entertained at the same time. The rest of us stood another table trying to look debonair, failing miserably. Magnus introduced us, and I think we were supposed to kiss their hands, like gentlemen (they were very posh). We shook their hands, awkvardly, and the show was all Magnus's again.
Day 7: Bologna
The final day. As the others dropped me off in Bologna, I felt a bit alone and kind of blue. Giorgia, the receptionist at the hotel I was staying at, turned out to very nice and took effort to show me the best sights on the city map. Stefan, the night receptionist, provided me with apple juice as I was planning the rest of the trip by the computer. He was a strange cat. "You're so thin, you look like Brad Pitt, hein". No pun intended, I think he was actually just trying to be nice. Everyone knows I look like a young Paul Newman.
CG European Tour '07 - "Where we lay ourselves to sleep"
It seems so long ago, now, after the wedding. The wedding side-tracked my ambitions and attention for a few days. Such a grand event; two such dear friends. But there it is, the connection: the newlyweds, Lago di Como, my trip, their imminent honeymoon. Andreas and Maria, and everyone else, please pay close attention.
It has been called the "vacation of lifetime". It is something so filled with experiences that it can never, at least not by my hand, be summed up adequately. I will give you a taste of it though, through themes that were important to me during the trip. It starts with where, and how we slept.
We came to Varese in the afternoon. Our ambitions of crusing along in the Alfa Romeo had been thwarted by the Avis clerk. He had, we suspected, given our dream car away to someone with more cash and, or better looks. We were stuck with a Volkswagen Passat which we, due to its great size, diesel engine and its maker's origin, eventually came to refer to as "Bismarck". Affection for that powerful, but clumsy and unmanoeuvrable German was however far from my mind as we climbed the slopes of our first lodging; frustration added on as I accidentally sped into the railing of the parking with the front of the car, and gave it the first of many wounds to come.
I linger on these early misfortunes, as they are among the few ones, if not only ones, that befell us on our trip, and as they stand in stark contrast to the "hotel of our dreams" that appeared as we left the parking area. The "Palace Grand Hotel" of Varese - a noble relic of the past, with all the elegance and grandeur of a hotel for the rich and undeserving, and a location which keeps it secluded and - surprisingly - affordable for the odd tourist that happens to pass by. The century-old architecture, its dwindling stairs, the rooms with the view and the engraved slippers, the bar and its hospitable tender providing perfectly bittered Camparis, the beaten-down tennis courts, the patio on a starry night with a beer in the hand and a cigarette in the corner of the mouth, planning for the trip next day, the next day's early awakening and swim in the pool, followed by a luxurious breakfast buffé in a spacious, ornamented dining room with wall-to-wall carpet and somber mood, and a drink - on the house - before leaving on new adventures. It was indeed a grand experience.
The next day - Tuesday - we made our way towards Lago di Como, via Lugano. We marvelled at the sights of clear blue, sweet-watered lakes, surrounded by forest-clad mountains, its coasts dotted, in perfect concord with the rest of the landscape by small, thriving villages, where we found ample opportunites to refresh ourselfs in cool waters. Nevertheless, the trip was long and exhausting, and as we reached Como we were eager to find room and board for the night. I knew that my friends had reserved a hotel in Como for their forthcoming honeymoon that was supposed to be up to standards, but we were not keen on fighting traffic and hunger, map-less as we were, to try and find it. Our way was that of chance, and chance made us turn left into a small road in a village 10 kilometers up the eastern side of the lake, where we found "Villa Flora", beautifully lit up to pinkish hue by a descending sun. That hotel was the second-best lodging experience of the trip.
The Villa Flora is an 18th century villa, with a foundation partly supported by pillars erected in the water, thus creating a space, call it catacomb, cave or garage, where the hotel keeps the kind of small, swift motor boats which are popular to local residents. It also boasted a swimming pool, for anyone who did not want to make the perilous 10-feet walk to the lake itself. The rooms were a pale comparison to what we had enjoyed the previous night, but it mattered little. We stayed long on the restaurant terrace, first indignant of the slow service, then lazily repleat by the excellent risotto dish made from fresh fish of the lake. The sun set, the pool lights shone on, and we placed ourselves by the pool, some of us in it, smoked, drank, and I feel asleep on the cool stone, as the others talked into the late hours of the night.
On our third day, we eventually made our way south, towards Pisa. We came as far as Via Reggio, after a prolonged stop in Riomaggiore, one of the five villages of "Les Cinque Terre", where we got into argument about where to stop and where to sleep. Approaching mid-night, tired as we were, but also economically hard-up after two expensive hotel nights, we ended up at a parking lot, sleeping in the car. Uncomfortable, hot, mosquito-infested and confined as it was, none of us complained. It seemed appropriate that a trip like this,of such diversity, should include all kinds of lodging. The morning after, as my aging body creaked itself out of the car and I went to find food and drink, I came upon a small bakery where I supplied myself with croissants, pastries and ice tea; spoils which I took back to the car and showed my friends, who made the same journey. We sat in a derelict park and ate, in no way beaten down by the night, though - I think - all of us secretely wishing that our fourth night be a more comfortable one.
It was. The "People Like Us", or "PLUS" camping is far from what its name would suggest open to everyone, from camper to backpacker, to a very affordable price. It provides its guests with a view over Firenze in all its splendour, set with all the facilities needed for a weary traveller. We had beds! There were showers for us to rinse off the filth of two days and 600 miles and 40 degree heat. Jackets to load our cameras and phones. Internet. Fresh, free water. And a combined bar and restaurant, where we spent most of the night, drinking, eating, smoking, chatting away with people from all corners of the world. Well, at least other scandinavian people, and one or two Brits. I woke the next day with a headache, but still very much enchanted by our trip.
Friday, my mood changed frequently along with the different contexts we found ourselves in. We went from museums in Firenze, to wine yards in Tuscany, and through rolling hills to the dreary salt fields of Milano Marittima on the Italian east coast. I had wanted to stay on in Tuscany at a B&B, picturing I would wake up the next day, rise and open up the shutters to a sun-filled, crisp morning to see countless rows of grapevines and paradise on earth. The four of us ended up in a small room with bunk beds and no air conditioning. But we did the best of it, sipping wine and eating paninis from the kiosk around the corner. Around us, music was playing, restaurants and bars filled with Italy's bold and beautiful. The place was happening. We stayed two nights, avoiding the room as much as possible, spending the day on the beach and the night trying, but failing, to get into the posh night club. Sunday came, and with that the break-up of our party. The others dropped me off in Bologna, and I started making my way back to Sweden, slowly.
The Second Week
The second week was fundamentally different from my first. I was alone, I travelled by train, and found comfort in books, preferring solitude to socializing with other travellers. I compensated the social bit through visiting friends of old, in places like Val d'Isere and Geneva. The nights spent there, were nights spent as if at home, albeit on a mattres on the floor. Paris was the best. My friend in Geneva had friends there, in Belleville, who happened to be out of town. He had the key to their house so we decided to go there for the weekend. It was a semi-detached, three-storey haven in the centre of town, with a wine cellar and a small garden where we drank the contents of the cellar. We reposed in that house after sight-seeing tours with other friends of my friend; we prepared for late night dinners, and we made ourselves coffee and croissants the morning after. That house was a fitting end to two weeks of lodging splendour. I would like to have remembered it as the last on my trip, but that was spent in a couchette on the night train to Copenhagen with two danish people, who chattered away half the night, while I lay sleepless, thinking about what I had done.
CG European Tour ´07 - Preface
First week: Car. Four friends. Milan. Varese. Bellagio. Cinque Terre. Via Reggio. Pisa. Firenze. Toscana. Milano Marittima. Bologna.
Second week: Train. Alone, on the road, but not Kerouac, rather Waugh (Brideshead Revisited). Bologna. Torino. Chambery. Bourg St Maurice. Val d'Isere. Annecy. Geneva. Paris. Malmööööö.