Monday, June 20, 2011

Seeing the Adriatic, Learning the World

My Adriatic Cruise June 2011: June 11-18, a 7 day Royal Carribean cruise out of Venice which included port stops : Koper, Ravenna, Bari, Dubrovnik, Venice (weather mostly in the 80s with a cool wind in the evenings)

What I love about Slovania: (Koper, Piran)

1. The tower at Koper: walked up the steps of a 13th century Roman fortress. Massive wooden beams crisscrossed near the top holding a series of 4-5 massive bronze bells of differing shapes and sizes. Took me back to Disney & images of the hunchback of Notre Dame in his Fransiscan brown monk robe hobbling up & down the stairs. Got to the roof and looked out over the panoramic vista views of the town with it's orange Mediterranean styled roofs stacked one upon the other and the pale light blue waters of the Slovenian Adriatic. Our ship the Voyager of the Seas looked like a modern white sky scraper amidst this town tower backdrop. It's huge daunting presence contrasting the modern world against the ancient. Looking down upon the town square I imagine a loud, bustling crowd of produce and fish merchants selling their wares centuries ago and women scurrying about with twine baskets gathering the necessities for the meal of the day to cook over iron cast skillets dangling over fires on the slate and dirt floors of their homes in medieval times : images and thoughts an American could never conjure on our native soils. 2. Piran: We have a Mediterranean seafood meal fresh to order along the coast of Piran as we sit outside in 80 degree weather watching the Slovenian locals and their happy spirited wet dogs trot along in their bathing suits. I see the joy of life on the faces of 70 year old men as if placards for a declaration of lives spent living simply and blissfully. I point to the picture of a pasta dish filled with clams to the waiter as he & I both ponder how successful a meal we shall enjoy with little communication. I try to say havala (thank you) and we laugh at my butchered attempt. Neil & I chuckle at how impossible our American accents are in even just pronouncing the waiter's name. The closest we come is an attempt at something like sunell but sunilla like Manilla proved much easier (although we never used this version on him). He brings out an appetizer of seafood pate and a dessert liquor on the house. I never knew that being on the Adriatic coast was like a North American South Beach in Miami, just far more serious ancient history and a cultural experience that makes Epcot ar Disneyworld look childish. 3. Neil discovers that a vodka tonic in Slovania is sweet and served with a lemon not a lime. He was convinced local tradition put sugar in it. My word to describe it was (albeit good) bizarre.

Travel Tips:

1. Book Delta straight to Venice. I got tickets though Alitalia thinking I would get the Italian experience flying over (& maybe better treatment & appreciation since it's cross continental) and it turns out it was all Delta . Tickets cost 4k too (booked 6 weeks in advance !) Even at those prices it was coach round trip and the very last row each way ! Neil & I tried to laugh it off to lessen the displeasure as we realized on the return trip our only view was the lavatory directly across me. I joked to Neil that we would be getting constant whiffs of peoples' not so finer moments and he reminded me that was not quite funny as Wipf & whiff are pronounced the same and he had to bare such jokes dating back to elementary ;) 2. Bring coins (dollar euros) to Bari so you can tip the Italian singers on the streets. Classic .. 3. When going to Italy invest in a professional camera (got my Nikon at Costco for $1k). That way you can truly capture the landscapes and night shots without losing resolution quality. Invest in a travel tripod that's sturdy (test it beforehand the one I brought turned out to have a broken leg). 4. Take the romantic couples gondola tour with the accordion player & professional singer. You get your own gondola, a bottle of champagne & they take your couple picture (unless you are traveling with friends or family it's damn near impossible to get shots of you together, a tripod not practical on a gondola). It's an experience of a lifetime. Count me a fan of Italian romance classics from now on. Hell, I'd like to even learn the Italian lyrics. You can't listen to them without wanting to clap your hands and break out in song. Happy music. 5. Make sure after the gondola ride you eat at a sidewalk cafe overlooking the canal (Rialto canal is your best shot). 6. Don't forget to save your receipts on purchases of items so that you can get a tax refund before you leave the country. 7. Tipping is rather different in foreign countries. In Slovenia & Coatia an expected tip is 10%. In Italy the 10% tip is added to the bill & it is customary to give the waiter 5% on top.

What I love about Italy list:

(Ravenna, Bari, Venice) 1. Much in the same vein that men appreciate the beauty of a Texas woman , I appreciate the efforts Italian men take at being presentable. They are svelte, extremely fashionably (their suits truly earn their high marks), they are naturally blessed with heads of thick dark hair they wear long and slicked back. I could not believe that from the ticket guy on the water taxi to the policeman and businessman walking the streets, it seemed like they all belonged in a GQ magazine. Single, unattached women : I advise you of your vacation spot ! 2. Although I'm not much for ice cream, Italian gelatto is the Cadillac of cold desserts. You can't call it ice-cream because gelatto is not cold milk. It is heavy cream with real dessert consistency (the tiramisu having lady finger cakes mixed in). Yes, it's cold but that is where the similarities end. Just looking at the whipped up tubs as you make your selection adds 5 pounds to the scale. Rich ........The Italians are supreme when it comes to the pleasures of life: food, shoes, fashion, romance , etc. 3. "Grazi" ,"Prego" - my god just saying these two simple words makes me feel Italian, even with my thick Texan accent. Their language is one full of energy (to match their talking with their hands.) It seems they add an "a" to the end of all their words. 4. Fashion no doubt ...Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Versace just to name a few. Even the senior citizens here flaunt fashion. Older women sport fashionable scarves around their necks, men don their sharp, perfectly cut suits (even tour operators of which you would never see in the US). Looking in shop windows, I never got the feeling that I could buy more fashionable in the US. A big NOPE. 5. Espresso, need I say more ? It's an art here. So serious, often accompanied by a shot of water. The rich brown froth alone looks like art. 6. The architecture: the baroque churches, St. Mark's Square need I say more ? I literally felt my eyes well up with tears as I stood in the middle of St. Mark's Square speechless and moving my feet without realizing I was walking for 15 minutes. Sometimes art & architecture can powerfully move the soul (guess that's why so much of it js jn these ancient churches); however it is rare to find such an overwhelming collection of it in one spot. Even taking art appreciation at Baylor did not prepare me for this. This will go down as one of the most visually enriching experiences I know I will ever have. 7. The pizza, the pasta, ...what can I say? Not a disappointment . Proud of the chain Joe's Pasta Pizza in the US however. Refreshing to know when it comes to their tortellini and pasta dishes they do it right: old school. Cici's pizza ? Pizza Hut? Sorry, not so much. It's not Italian unless you see the actual tomato on the pizza.

What I love about Croatia: (Dubrovnik):

1. City walls: a whole city (old town) within a fortress. Marble among some of the ancient cobble stone floors, narrow alleys lined with shops & restaurants, the ability to walk up and down miles of stone city steps leading to panoramic views of the jade colored Croatian Adriatic Sea and white stone Mediterrranean houses steepling the mountainsides. I truly expected to see a war torn Yugoslavian country full of destroyed rubble and saw just the opposite. 2. The streets are neat. The Croatians are very tidy with their landscaping and gardening. I can't recall, seeing one house or yard not fully maintained. It was akin to driving through my reknown and respected Turtle Creek uptown neighborhood of Dallas. 3. You could see in the eyes of the locals their patience with the tourists and true appreciation of our presence. A very good hearted people despite centuries of wars that even spanned my lifetime. 4. Eating within the 5th century ancient city walls so charming and mystical is a necessity. Neil & I ate at the oldest local cuisine Croatian restaurant. We had a most delightful young 20 year old waitress from Bosnia-Herzogovenia. She prided herself in explaining how it was local cuisine ( I had mussels; Neil had some chewy fish with vegetables. Interestingly enough we had 2 chewy Adriatic fish experiences.) When Neil asked for a vodka tonic she could not understand his pronunciation of vodka (Really ? I thought this was a universal term) and she brought out a saucer of ice, a low ball glass with a shot of vodka and a bottle of tonic. Result ? Neil said it tasted "clean." 5. Found a perch alongside the famous city fortress walls overlooking the sea to smoke a cigar. Perfect thing to do after walking the walls( 3.5 hours and it was only half the walls). A darling Croatian calico cat popped out of nowhere to share the experience alongside me. Neil named it "Croatia the cat". 6. Apparently lavender & locally made candies are the treasures they pride themselves in marketing. Loved seeing the old people of the town selling in the town square market and playing native music dressed up in traditional costume on the streets. This is not a society that tries to shove their old people in a rest home. Here the value of old is sacred whether it's in history, architecture, tradition or their people.

Ship tips:

1. Book early, get a balcony room. It's the only way to go. Nothing like an early morning on the balcony drinking coffee taking in the sites of a new town as the ship pulls in. Nothing like returning to your room at the end of every evening to see the shimmering waves glisten in the moonlight as you soak in the rich cultural experiences of the day and puff on a cigar. 2. As soon as you board the ship go straight to the florist to get a bouquet of flowers to liven up your stateroom for the week. I got a gorgeous one for $35. 3. Try to eat the formal dinners as much as possible at your assigned table. We met the most delightful British couples in their 70s (avid cruisers always sharing tips with us). By our last night we were sharing table shots. Our waiters said we were the best table in the dining room and Neil & I truly grew to utterly adore these folks. Billy had me drinking Hobbs Manhattans one night and they were truly impressed with how this Texan girl could drink like the best of them (Billy being a former sailor. I'm a DWI lawyer, what can you expect?) We are truly going to miss them : Billy, Barbara, David & Lorene. They promised to fly from Liverpool if there was ever a wedding ;) 4. Skip the shore excursions. Most of them you can't stop to eat and drink the local cuisine and simply enjoy and interact with the people. Who wants to travel half way across the world to have your head glued to a headset of inferior quality of which you can't hear the tour guide anyway ? It's best to just get shuttle passes and explore the town on your own (We should have listened to our British friends before we booked the Bari tour). 5. Be a regular at the sports bar & cigar club. They always have the coolest people and it's nice to be able to know and wave at people as you go about the ship. 6. Bring a copy of your passport, the ship has to collect them one night and you need them to go into a foreign country. 7. The days of all inclusive are over. Bring plenty of money for alcohol drinks (sodas if you like), shuttle passes, tips (for the end of the trip to your staff as is customary) ship photos, money for specialty items (lattes, filet mignon dinners, specialty restaurants like Johnny Rockets & Portofino's). 8. On "at sea" days wake up at the crack of dawn to get 2 beach chairs or you will be out of luck practically all day. 9. Take your own self walking tour of the whole boat as soon as you embark so you don't miss out on some of the amenities. Neil & I never made it to the miniature golf the whole trip.

Favorite moments of the trip :

1. Venice: truly a magical town & everything it's cracked up to be. 2. Listening to Neil's fake Italian accent all week. I think he would be an easy walk on for a Saturday Night Live skit of Jersey Shore. 3. Winning roulette within 5 minutes of sitting down and playing 18 (my son Spencer's birthday, not that I'm a big gambler outside the courtroom. Gambling with people's lives is enough for me.) 4. Watching the Dallas Mavericks win the NBA championship a day late and with spotty satellite coverage in the sports bar as our bartender Rodrigo from Brazil made sure no one talked of the results (we purposely stayed away from the internet and our fellow travelers the Europeans could care less about the NBA). 5. Neil's "Mavs" bicep tattoo after (man were we celebrating) buying shots for the bar. 6. The towel creations our stateroom attendant Adriana would leave in our room. Adriana herself, a beautiful blonde, blue eyed 40+ year old Bulgarian woman who cleaned our room day and night. I never saw her without a beaming smile from ear to ear. From the moment we got to our room she knocked on the door, introduced herself and went out of her way to send us off with a smile on most mornings. On the last night, on a happenstance meeting out in the corridor, she asked me if I had kids. I explained I had four and a great mom that helps me. I then found out she has 2: ages 18 & 12. She sails 7 months of the year to make money as a single parent to send home to her kids because the Bulgarian economy has very few good jobs (our dinner waiter Antonio from Bulgaria has a master's degree and speaks 8 languages) I could see the pain in her eyes and I am reminded of the great depths a parent will go to provide for their kids. Suddenly all my long work weeks in the pursuit of justice seemed small sacrifices compared to Adriana. Adriana is a true hero in my book. 7. Our British dinner mates: Barbara & Billy, Lorene & David (Barbara & David being siblings from Liverpool in their 70s). 8. Moments when the saucy girl from the Caribbean would give Neil & her coworker a difficult time as Neil would routinely get his morning coffee (she even had whipped cream on his coffee after he protested 3 times, hilarious for anyone who knows how diplomatic Neil is). One morning she accused her small Columbian coworker of not being a man because he had difficulty with a lid.

What this trip reminded me of that I love about the United States of America:

1. Americans don't cut in line. They say excuse me if they accidentally bump into you. 2. American men are the most gallant in the world. They open doors for women. They help women with their luggage, bags, etc. They even help surrounding women on & off buses,trains, boats , cars & automobiles. 3. Hard work pays off. We tip 20% and the waiters are not ashamed to get it. I can't believe the gondola professional singer tried to reject my tip for a great experience. In Slovenia the waiters whip out your change only accepting 10% due to what they call "service with a snarl." The lingering Communist history has raised these people to disavow the enterprising spirit to make a profit. Sad. It explains why Greece has gone belly up twice since the European Union started. It is amazing to me how Socialism & Communism promote low self esteem and laziness. What's so noble about societies that opt for handouts versus hard work ? It's the same reason why the American people said no to bailing out the banks. Too bad Washington is run by lobbyists. 4. Ice !!!! After a week of chilled but not cold water and virtually no ice, I'll think twice before ever thinking a drink has too much ice. 5. Free community bathrooms. Neil spent 15 minutes searching for Venice's public toilets then had to pay $3 to use it with no air conditioning, where he had to squat with no lid. 6. American airports. Can't believe I had to show my passport 3 times to get on the plane from Venice to Atlanta. I'm thinking, the Italians are serious about creating government jobs for its citizens. 7. Glad Americans (fish to water) insist on bathing at least once a day, even if the Europeans are more fit, smell discriminates not on size. 8. American sports: NBA, real football. There is only so much cycling, Formula 1, tennis, and soccer I can take (which were the sports showing at the sports bar). One Irishman remarked to Neil he was the only man in Ireland who knew American basketball. Neil later remarked he actually knew nothing about it all. This same Irishman talked about darts being a sport on tv in Britain. It was a sparse handful of Americans who gathered around the bar when they replayed game 6 of the NBA final. Surreal for me being the Mavs fan & former 6 season ticket holder that I am. 9. Of more particularity to Texas, although I love the holy crap {everything is blessed & Catholic in Italy ;)} out of all things pasta in Italy (of which they have over 300 types) I can not truly imagine subsisting without true blue Tex Mex. (Neil actually mentioned this one before me.) It's the first meal we are having when we return.

In conclusion, one beautiful sunny afternoon as I smoked my cigar on the balcony overlooking the indescribably gorgeous Adriatic Sea listening to my iTunes these words from an 80s Toto song struck a chord : "Some people live their dreams, some people close their eyes, some people's destiny passes by ....There are no guarantees, there are no alibis...." To use Toto's words "I live my dreams, I don't close my eyes, I make my own destiny & therefore it does not pass me by." To all my friends and family go cruise and live your wildest dreams while you can. Experience the world. Tomorrow is never a guarantee ;)

Why blog travel ? "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful we must carry it with us or we find it not." Emerson For me, I carry it with my in my mind and soul.

Mimi Coffey, Sr. (as recollected on June 18, 2011on a transatlantic flight back to Atlanta then Dallas)

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