Friday, November 21, 2008

New Xbox

A few weeks ago I jumped on one of the decent deals Dell has been having on Xbox 360 holiday packages and picked up a new Xbox 360 Elite along with Lego Indiana Jones and Kung Fu Panda. I've been totally satisfied with the purchase so far; the social aspects, media extender, and achievements of the Xbox ecosystem are really pleasing features. I wish the Zune PC software video sharing would work better for me, it never shows me all my video podcasts (and it's very inconsistent about the ones it does show) but there are workarounds.

I'm also enjoying the "New Xbox Experience" that was released this week. There is still way too much stuff to navigate through in the dashboard, but I can't really complain that the console can do too much. I'm pretty sure that would be a turn off to more casual users, though. I can't see my mom navigating around the menus to find what she wanted to do, for example.

My gamercard is now posted on the side of this blog for anyone out there who wants to help me fill my barren Xbox Live friends list. So far my avatar is such a loner.

Long time no see

Well so much for finishing off the rest of the Europe trip in detailed blog posts. After London we spend a week in Norway seeing the sights and visiting with Jan, my Mom's cousin, and his family. We saw my grandmother's childhood home and her sister who looks and sounds just like her. We saw the viking ship museum, the Kon-Tiki museum, and the Norsk Folkemuseum. We also took a train and boat tour into the Norwegian Fjords courtesy of Jan. Overall it was a fantastic trip!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Arrival in London

When we arrived at Stansted Airport in London it was about 11:30 PM. We had a long walk from the terminal where our plane landed to the central terminal. I mean really, it was quite a hike. When we did get to the main terminal we had to wait in the customs line for all non-UK citizens which was, of course, much longer than the UK line.

After getting through customs and picking up our checked luggage we started working out what to do from there. We didn't really know where we were going, but we did know that we needed a bus to get there. Kevin went to get us bus tickets while I headed off to find a place to exchange money. After I'd found a machine to give me some pounds and he'd bought the rather expensive bus tickets, we headed out of the terminal and down to where the bus would pick us up. That expensive part is to become a trend; London aint cheap folks.

As we walked to the area where all the busses came Kevin told me about how unhelpful the ticket lady was in telling (or rather not telling) him what stop we wanted to get off. Apparently he told her what we knew about where we were going and she wouldn't or couldn't tell him which stop we wanted, so he just had to pick one based on what he could tell from the map she had. He said she was pretty rude about it, too.

When the bus arrived to pick us up around 12:30, the guy loading luggage asked us what stop we were getting off at so he could know where to put our stuff on the bus. Kevin couldn't remember the stop name that he had picked, so he told the guy the hostel we were looking for or the underground stop near it. The driver named some other stop that wasn't the one Kevin had picked, but we had no clue where we were going so we took his word for it and got on the bus.

After an hour or so we came to a stop called Finchley Road. Kevin thought that was the one he had chosen when buying the tickets. He wasn't positive if it was the right one though, and he didn't seem at all convinced of it to me. I didn't know if we wanted to risk getting off there if it might put us far away from where we wanted to be. In the time we took discussing it the bus started going again. We stayed on until we came to Marble Arch, the stop that the bus driver had told us we wanted.

Turns out Finchley Road would not have been that great, and Marble Arch was even worse. The bigger issue facing us, however, was the fact that we had hoped to take the London Tube from this point on but it was not running that late at night. Our backup plan was to take one of the city busses. We knew those busses were overpriced, but at least they could get us where we needed to go. When we tried to board a bus, however, we found that they required exact change. Right. The only British money we had was the £50 that I'd gotten from the machine at the airport. There was no way we could make exact bus change out of that, and the driver didn't seem too keen on cutting us a break. And there were no stores open anywhere to get change. So we were left with walking across London.

To make matters worse, we also had no real map of London with us. All we had was the Tube map included in Rick Steves' London guide and the few hand-drawn lines that he squiggled on one page of his book which somewhat resembled a very high-level map. Rick certainly could have included a better map in his few-hundred-page book, but that probably wouldn't help out the sales of his line of maps of European cities, now would it? One should note, at this point in the story, that the map of the London Underground is basically useless for navigation above ground. It tells you which line to take to get to which station, but the lines do not actually indicate at all what the streets above them do, or even what direction the subterranean tunnels actually take. Just try to match up the official tube map to an actual map of the city and you'll see what I mean. Kevin and I both much prefer the NYC subway maps for this reason.

The two of us have done our best to reconstruct the journey that we went on that night. It might not be absolutely accurate, but we feel it's at least pretty darn close. You've seen the route we should have taken, which Google tells us is almost 4 miles. I can assure you that this is not the route we actually took. Bear in mind also that we were lugging 2 weeks' worth of luggage with us this whole time. That amounted to 1 huge suitcase, 2 small suitcases, my backpack, and Kevin's messenger bag.

The actual route we took was more like what you see on the right (click it for a larger version.) Measuring it out with the Google Earth ruler Kevin estimates that our route was 6.47 miles. I'd say we did pretty good considering the fact that we were working with a Tube map, a few bus route maps in bus stops along the way, and the compass I'd brought with me. Along the way we were yelled at by some drugged up guy at a bus station. We didn't even say anything to him. I think he wanted us to give him more drugs or something. As we passed by him he yelled that something was going to get us around the next corner. He kept yelling at us until we were more than a block away.

Later on our walk, a cab pulled up to me and the driver yelled for me to come over to him. Kevin was too far ahead at this point to have been a part of the conversation. Remember when you were a little kid and adults always told you not to go over to men who called you over to their cars? That's the instinct that came to my mind at this moment.

I figured worst case scenario he had a gun or a knife or something and that would be bad. More likely, I assumed he wanted to charge us to get in his cab or take advantage of us in some other way. I mean, I didn't ask him for any help. I was just walking along in a manner which to outside viewers might seem like I knew where I was going and had every intention of getting there quickly. I didn't really want to risk getting into whatever scam this guy might be trying to pull, so I kept walking. After that he pulled up again and yelled something like "You're an ignorant fella, aren't ya?" Well maybe I was a bit too paranoid and maybe he just wanted to give us some directions or advice or a winning lottery ticket for all I know, but gimme a break I was tired.

After some more walking we passed by a bar where some women were standing outside laughing and making fun of me as we carried all our stuff by them. At this point my love of London and its lovely citizens was truely blossoming.

By this time it was getting quite late and the heavy luggage seemed heavier than ever. After walking a few miles across London, all the while being lost and arguing about where we should be going, we were getting quite cranky too. Specifically this was the corner where we got the most cranky. We'll just leave it at that.

Later, we came across a gas station that was actually open in the middle of the night. We went up to it and tried to buy a map so we could figure out where the hell we were going. The convenience store part of it wasn't really open to go in that late, so we had to talk to the guy there through some glass. You know, how gas stations are at night when they just have the window open so you can pay for the gas. He didn't have any maps of London. That's right, a gas station in London which did not have any maps of London. All he had was a really expensive book of maps. We couldn't really look at that through the glass very well. We kinda got some directions from him, but he didn't seem too sure about it to me. I'm not really sure what he said entirely though, he was hard to hear and Kevin was the one talking to him.

We did finally run in to a cab driver who was helpful in giving us directions to get us heading back in the right direction. That was around the top of that map where our little red line does a hard left turn. Kevin thinks we were already kinda back on track from the gas station guy's directions, but I'm not so sure.

By the time we dragged ourselves into the hostel it was something like 5 AM. We checked in and the guy knew who we were without even looking at his computer or anything. The guys working there were kinda odd like that the whole time we were there. They always seemed to know just a little too much about us. The guy working at this hour knew that we were two guys who were checking in and staying two nights.

He also wanted us to pay for our entire stay up front and in cash. The hostel cost us more than £50 for the 2 nights that we stayed there, and you'll remember that all we had was the £50 that I grabbed at the airport. Of course, they wouldn't let us pay with a credit card. Thankfully, he did let us pay what we had for the night and we told them we'd pay the rest the next day.

We went up to our room and crashed.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Venice - Day 2

The next morning when we got up it was kinda raining. We packed up our stuff and got ready to go, getting a little damp in the process. After we checked out we hopped back on the bus to take us back to town (the place we stayed was a distance away from the center of Venice.)

Back in town we grabbed some breakfast at a little bakery and did some more walking around the city. We saw some more glass shops and planned to stop to get some on our way out of the city. I snapped a couple pictures of the local UPS guys delivering some packages.

As we walked along we again came across the Rialto Bridge, although we were actually on the bridge by the time I realized what was under us. It actually looks just like any other street (complete with shops lining the sides) as you walk over it. The only difference is that there are a bunch of steps going up and then down as you cross it. I'll throw a picture on the left of the view looking back down the steps to give you an idea of what it looks like. Like I said, those are shops lining both sides of the steps. You actually have to go behind that row of shops on either side to look out and see the water. When we got back down and over in front of the bridge we had a lady take a picture of us in front of it. Unfortunately, like many picture-takers, she got a picture with us literally in front of it. Well, at least you can see half of it.

Our real destination on this little trek, however, was the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark's Basilica.) You can get an idea of the lay of that area here. Actually, you can see more of the area in one of the video previews of Microsoft Photosynth (just don't confuse it with the images they show of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.) We enjoyed watching the people buy birdseed in the square and get mobbed by flocks of pigeons. Interestingly enough, they were setting up for some sort of show in the square here as we were arriving. You may recall what happened when we found a show being set up in front of the Colosseum, but this time the stage was not for Billy Joel. You're probably going to want to click on that picture to the left, it's way more effective bigger.

Now this basilica is a pretty popular tourist stop in Venice and it's free to go in. Consequently, there is a pretty hefty line to get in. There is a trick to getting in quickly though. You see, they don't allow you to take big bags, backpacks, suitcases, or other types of luggage in with you. They also don't tell you that until after you've waited in the whole line. At that point, they motion to the signs saying you can't bring that stuff in and give you directions to a building half a block away where you can go and check your luggage for free. After you do that, you get a ticket and come back and they let you go right in without standing in line again. The trick is, if you know this ahead of time you just bring your luggage with you and go check it without waiting in the line. You get the check ticket and walk back over and they let you right in. Thanks again, Rick!

The insides of the domes on the church are all gold-plated. You can walk around the main area for free, but you have to pay a fee to go certain special areas within the structure. We paid to go upstairs and get a look at the collection of artifacts they had in a small museum, along with the views of both the inside and the outside of the building from the second floor.

After we were done checking out the basilica, we headed back into the labyrinth of Venice to check out the shops and buy some glass souviniers. We picked up a few different things; I bought a clock, Kevin got some gifts for friends, and we got a frame in which we put a printed version of the picture above for Mom. Awww.

When we were done buying our goodies and Kevin had picked up the big suitcase we'd checked at the train station, we headed over to the area where all the busses stopped. I'd call it a bus station or something, but there really wasn't much of a station there. We spent the last of our Euros there on one last round of gellato and a huge bottle of water and jumped on a bus headed for the smallest airport I've ever seen. From there we were on our way to London.

[I know this post says it was put up in the middle of September, but I'm actually finally posting it on 9/28. Yeah, it took me that long to finish this.]

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


It's been a while without an update. Kevin says he was hoping we'd finish this trip by Christmas. I'll blame part of the delay on the fact that my mom was here visiting last weekend and I wasn't going to sit here and write blog posts while she was here. Anyway, the next stop on our trip was Venice. Now, the first thing to do when you're hearing about Venice is to check out this picture. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Crazy, huh? There is basically no order at all to the way the buildings are arranged. Some of the streets you see there are actual streets and some are canals. You can see the rail line we took to get there starting at the top left of that satellite picture. Hm, looks like google has some halfway decent imagery of Venice too.

Anyway, Venice is different. I think it first hits you when you step out of the train station and see the view above. On a related note, I recently discovered that Photoshop has a built in photomerge function. Pretty cool.

We walked across the bridge you see on the left there and over to the dock for one of the water busses they have that run down the main canal. That allowed us to get a good look at a lot of the city without paying for an expensive tour. We saw a number of churches, buildings with doors that led right into the water, and what is probably one of the world's largest balloon animals.

Of course, I can't forget to mention that we also went under the most famous bridge in Venice, the Ponte di Rialto. You can see a couple of gondolas in the shot below too.

And because it seems like otherwise this post about Venice couldn't be complete, let's throw in some pictures of guys in striped shirts driving gondolas. This is the part where my mom would bring up a certain insurance commercial.

Hey, how'd that guy in the white shirt get in there? Someone call security!

Anyway, after we got off our "bus" we headed in to the city to look around a bit on more solid ground. We walked by a number of different shops selling Venetian glass. I thought that stuff was cool, so I will now show you a bunch of examples. They make all kinds of stuff out of glass.

Eventually we got pretty hungry and we grabbed some dinner at a little place in an alley. Kevin and I both got a pasta dish with seafood in it. That dinner was fantastic, and even though it cost plenty of money it was still cheaper than what we spent on that crappy meal in Florence. I was too busy enjoying this one to take pictures of it.

After dinner we walked back to near the place where we caught the "bus" and grabbed a real bus (the kind with wheels) to take us to our hostel campsite place.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


The next morning we got up and headed out to check out the sights in Florence. Our first destination was the Galleria dell'Accademia, a museum housing a number of different works of art (most notably including Michelangelo's David.) While we waited in line there were a number of vendors walking around or standing on the side of the road selling various things. Many of them had identical sets of poster prints of artwork. One guy was walking around selling rainbow flags that had the word "PACE" (peace) on them. He was asking 20 euros for them. With some haggling and a little help from the guy in line behind us, Kevin bought one for 7.

Inside there were a number of works of art, mostly consisting of different pieces of sculpture. The hall leading up to the David held a number of partially completed works done by Michelangelo. This museum, like many places we went, had the idea that flying halfway around the world and then paying a good-sized admission fee to get in to see this stuff did not give us the right to take pictures of it. As you can see I thought those rules made total sense. It did make getting good shots in lower-light conditions rather difficult though (since there were picture nazis patrolling each room to prevent such horrible offenses.)
Another room was full of sculptures by one particular artist. It included a few different sculptures of people after they had died.

After we left the museum we headed over to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, more commonly known as the Duomo. Basically, it's a massive church with a huge dome on top that makes it one of the most defining landmarks in Florence.

The interior of the dome was painted with an elaborate mural as seen below.

Outside the Duomo, we stopped at the stand of a local artist and I bought the picture you see at the left. We snapped a few more pictures of the Duomo, grabbed some tasty pasta for lunch (no scallopini this time) and headed back to the hostel to pick up our stuff and move on.

On the way to the train station, we made sure to hit up a gellato place one last time. After all, Florence is the best place to get gellato you know. Rick Steves said so.

Evening in Florence

<obligatory note about how this is my first post using Windows Live Writer>

Following our late afternoon departure from Cinque Terre, we arrived in Florence. We trekked from the train station over to our hostel, which was our nicest one up to that point. We actually had our own private room and there was free Internet access available (little did we know that was the first and last time we'd see that at a hostel.) On top of that, it was in fairly easy walking distance from the train station; a welcome difference from the other places we stayed.

That evening we went out and looked around the city a bit. We decided we'd stop at a restaurant for some dinner and had really the only lousy dining experience we had in Italy. It started with the guy at the front of the outdoor patio area where we chose to eat. Apparently it was only like his second or third day on the job. Of course, we didn't know that as he told us about the place and tried to get us to stop there. The deal that got us in the door was the 14 euro 3 course meal, for which we were told we could pick any one item from each of three sections on the menu. What followed was a series of misunderstandings on our part, mistakes on the newbie's part, and what we have to believe were deliberate misrepresentations on the owner's part.

As it turns out, we couldn't pick the 13 euro fish entree that we had both seen on the menu which made us like the deal so much. We couldn't pick the 12 euro fish dish below it either. This bait and switch stuff ticked us off. We saw a "scallopini" dish on the menu that we were allowed to order and Kevin asked if that meant scallops. We both decided on that one and ordered some white wine to go with it since that's what you get with seafood. We also both ordered gnocchi for our first course. Italians eat salad as the third course in a meal. For the third course, Kevin ordered one kind of salad and I picked the other kind we were allowed to order (that part of the menu was limited for the "deal" as well) mostly just to prevent us from ordering the exact same thing. We also both ordered some water.

The wine came and he gave us a whole bottle even though Kevin told him we didn't need it. We had asked for a carafe which he said would be 6 euros. He left the bottle saying he would only charge us for what we drank. The cost for the bottle "for us" would be 10 euros. The water came and he gave us the wrong ones (Kevin ordered the carbonated version, I like my water without bubbles.) Ok, no big deal, we switched. The gnocchi came and it was actually quite good. Now at this place they have these little things that hold salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar or some such stuff. Throughout the meal the guy kept bringing it to us and then taking it away to give to another table. I think they only had like 2 or 3 of them to service the whole patio of roughly 20 tables. Same deal for the grated cheese in a bowl that we were given (which is served by hand.) That's really sanitary. Everyone's hands in the same cheese bowl. Yum.

The salad came out next. This was out of order, since it was supposed to be third. Whatever. As it turns out, the salad I ordered was something a lot closer to what I would call greasy home fries. Admittedly, this one was my bad. Kevin said he knew and thought I was aware of what I was ordering. That didn't make my "salad" any more appetizing. Oh, I forgot to mention that he reversed our salads when he brought them out and we had to switch again.

Last came the main course. It appeared to be chicken. Wait... chicken? We thought we ordered scallops? I asked if what was on the plate was scallops. The guy said "yes, scallopini" and left despite our confused and skeptical looks. We sat there for a little while, trying to confirm that what we had was chicken and we were not crazy. I went over to the guy who talked us in to this place and asked him to identify my dinner. He said it was chicken, but he wasn't sure which dish (that's when he told us how new he was.) Apparently he was fresh from Australia and just got this job. I asked him what "scallopini" was and he said it was scallops.

Kevin and I sat there looking unhappy and not eating for a while while our server walked right past us multiple times. That guy was either blind and oblivious or he was hoping he wouldn't have to address the issue if he ignored it long enough. I believe the second theory. He was wrong. He eventually stopped at our table and asked if everything was ok. I told him it wasn't.

We explained that we had ordered the scallopini looking for scallops. His response was something along the lines of "scallopini... is meat, and today it's chicken." We told him that the other guy said scallopini was scallops. He was not convinced. Kevin told him how he is a vegetarian who doesn't eat meat that isn't seafood. After some arguing, he took the plate of chicken back and left. He had wanted to bring something else (for which he would charge the full price without the "deal" no doubt) but Kevin ended up getting him to just take back the dish. At this point we were skeptical and unsure of what to do. The guy had made no attempt to apologize or make amends for the situation. Even if it was entirely our fault, he could have at least said he was sorry for the misunderstanding.

Based on the way he was treating us, we didn't think he was even telling the truth about the scallopini being chicken. We remembered at this point how we had specifically asked about that dish being scallops and talked about how we were getting white wine to go with it since it was seafood. We weren't positive, but we were pretty sure he had agreed when we asked about it being scallops before ordering. We debated getting up and leaving right then. Unfortunately we didn't have any kind of unbiased reference to check the translation and we needed to know if the guy was lying to us. At that point I decided to go ask at another restaurant. They all had people and servers out on their patios, so I got up and walked over to a nearby one.

I asked the woman there what scallopini meant. She said "veal." Not the response I was expecting, but also not chicken. I asked if she was sure. She said yes. I asked, "so it's always veal, it can never be anything else?" That's when she revealed that at other restaurants it could be pork or beef, but here it was always veal. I confirmed that it could be chicken too and walked back to my table.

I finished up my scallopini and we asked for the check. Our friend asked how much of the wine we'd had and we told him just the one glass each. He wrote down the charges for all the items on the paper tablecloth for us. He charged us 3 euros each for the glasses of wine (recall that the carafe was going to be 6 and the whole bottle was 10.) He also charged us 3 each for the water. He charged Kevin the full price for each of the 2 dishes he got which would have been in the 3 course deal. We paid the bill, added no tip and left. As we were walking away I noted to Kevin that despite all that (and to add to the crappiness of it) there wasn't even a single event that really made it a good story. If the guy had actually outright lied, it probably would have been better. I vowed to make a story out of it anyway.

On the way back to the hostel, we grabbed some gellato. We wanted something to redeem the lousy vibe that had been given to the evening. That's about as good of a something as I can think of.

[EDIT: this post got deleted and I recovered it from a backup. Man I am not having good luck with this blog.]

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Back in the USA

Whew, we made it. No thanks to those stupid terrorists in London. Forget nail clippers and pocket knives, a tube of toothpaste is now public enemy number one on airplanes.

Anyway, even though I'm back now I will continue to catch up on the backlog of daily updates I didn't do while on the trip. That way you all can see the stuff we did and I'll have a record of it later when I forget it all. So check back here in the next few days for more updates on that.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Cinque Terre

After living on a backpack's worth of stuff for the night, Kevin and I checked out of our hostel tent and jumped on the train with that backpack to the northernmost town of Cinque Terre, Monterosso. It was a gorgeous day.

As mentioned before, Cinque Terre is a mountainous area made up of five little villages. Each of these villages is right on the West coast of Italy, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They are all very similar in appearance, full of little shops, public squares, and swimming areas. They are connected by a series of trails and visitors will commonly start at one and hike to the others in a day. They are also connected by a train that runs along the coast and stops at each of them. We took the hike.

Like I said, the weather that day was extremely beautiful. The sun was out, the sky was clear, and the water looked amazing. Of course, with the hot climate we had been experiencing in Italy and the fact that we were hiking for hours right in the middle of the day meant that we ended up totally dripping with sweat and worn out by the end of the day. We drank a lot of water that day. Now you know why the pictures you'll see here (with the exception of that one at the top that we took before the hike) are all of the fantastic views we saw and not of us; we looked gross.

Along the way we saw lots of people going both directions. Cinque Terre is clearly a popular destination for all kinds of people, especially on days like the one we had I'm sure. The greetings, excusings, and thankings given throughout the day were done in all kinds of languages. It was really quite amusing as we walked along to say and hear "Ciao. Hi! Bonjour! Excuse me. Gratze. Bye! Hallo. Thank you. Tschuss! Hello."

At the end of the hike, in the village of Riomaggiore, we were really tempted to go for a swim. We decided against it though, because we didn't really have the means to dry off and we didn't want to be wet on the train. We had to settle for some Gellato. I got one scoop of strawberry and one bannana. Kevin asked what would go well with the flavor he wanted (literally "what marries well" in Italian) and then when he got his cone the guy serving it said "just married" in English.

After a tiring afternoon of hiking we took a train back to the place where our stuff was stored, retrieved the bags, and got on another train to Florence.