Friday, September 25, 2009

The Best of my Worst Hotel Horrors

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some hotel horror stories (as well as a few silver linings). As an adorably obsessed traveller, I’ve stayed in just about every form of accommodation, from pup tent to penthouse; and it has been my experience that the bed in a simple pensione can be as comfortable as the bed in a four-star hotel. I don’t need luxury—just a quiet place to rest my weary head.

Paraty is a Portuguese colonial town 236 kilometers south of Rio de Janeiro. It’s known for being, well, colonial. We were getting bored in Rio, so “colonial” seemed exciting—and so we were off.

We’d been in Brazil for a couple of weeks, so my Portuguese was stellar. I’d haggled with vendors on the Copacabana, I’d rented bikes, and I’d managed to order my caipirinhas even after I couldn’t feel my lips anymore to know if I was articulating my perfect Portuguese correctly. Essentially, I was ready for anything . . . and a little drunk.

Just outside the old town of Paraty, we found a perfectly acceptable hotel and I asked the nice lady at the desk if she had a room available. She seemed oddly reluctant but showed us a room anyway.

“We’ll take it,” I said.

“Blah blah blah blah blah,” she said. Translation: But sir, there is going to be a Brazilian country music party outside your bedroom tonight.

I looked at my partner; he looked at me, expecting me to understand. My ego wanted so badly to understand, so I looked back at the smiling woman: “We’ll take it.”

“Blah blah blah blah blah—” she continued. Translation: Please try to understand, Mr. Ego: The party will last well into the night, and—

“But the room is fine,” I said. “It looks perfectly clean to me.”

“Blah blah blah blah blah,” she pleaded. Translation: Sir, obviously you’ve never heard Brazilian country music. Every song sounds the same, and the woman who’s going to sing tonight is pitchy to say the least.

“What the hell is she saying?” my partner asked.

“She’s saying that they haven’t had time to clean the room, and she’s so embarrassed to offer us this one,” I said.

“We’ll take the room,” my partner said with Germanic authority.

“Blah blah blah BLAH blah blah blah BLAH!” she shouted, handing us the key to the room. Translation: OK, I warned you. You want to try to sleep with this torture blasting through your room like a hurricane until five in the morning, be my guest. Here!

At five o’clock in the morning when the thunderous “music” finally stopped, I rolled over to my partner and said, “I guess the problem wasn’t cleanliness after all.”

“No,” he said, “I suppose it wasn’t. The problem was that you don’t speak Portuguese.”

“Right,” I said. “Right. But my Spanish is pretty good.”

“Shut up.”

Come back for more hotel horror humor. Next time I’ll tell you about my romantic evening with a bed bug named desire.

I must be off,

Another Infomercial! Yay!

Some stories choke me up every time I read them. I'm so happy for Pretty, the little girl in this story; and I'm glad that "Pretty," the story, has found a home at


Stop by and leave a comment. Tweet it, if you have time. I'll send you lots of virtual love (which is much less messy than the other kind).

I must be off,

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oans, zwoa, gsuffa! Wiesn Tips!

Taking a break from my lover’s spat with London, I turn now to the real love of my life—Munich.

It’s Oktoberfest in “the biggest village in the world,” so naturally there’s a bit more vomit on the sidewalks; but there are also considerably more Japanese men in Lederhos'n with impressively embarrassing Gamsbart sprouting from their hats—so it all evens out in the end to the nauseating absurdity we’ve all come to love as Oktoberfest.

A bit of history. The first celebration of what would later become known as Oktoberfest was the bash (and horse race) after the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese on October 12, 1810. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the festival was moved up a couple of weeks to take advantage of the warmer weather in September. Today, Oktoberfest—the largest gathering of drunk people in the world—begins on the second to the last Saturday in September and ends on the first Sunday in October. (You'll know global warming has hit Bavaria when the mayor or Munich moves Oktoberfest back to October.)

In Munich, we don’t usually refer to Oktoberfest as Oktoberfest. We call it “Die Wiesn” (pronounced D’Veesun). The grounds where the 16-day long binge is held is called Theresienwiesen and hosts around six million visitors annually.

A Few Wiesn Dos and Don’ts:

1. If you happen to be a Japanese man and you’ve rented or bought a Lederhos'n for the party, practice undoing those big, wooden buttons a few times before you go to the bathroom the first time. The buttons only get bigger and harder after three liters of beer.

2. Roller coasters first, then five liters of beer, a whole roasted chicken, two enormous pretzels and three shots of tequila. Reversing this isn’t pleasant for anyone.

3. Crucifix! Learn the Wiesn songs. Nothing is more boring than 4000 people yodelling songs you don’t know. Even if you’re not the type of person who must fit in, learn them. You’ll have more fun. If you don’t know D.J. Ötzi’s idiotic “Hey Baby,” you’ll be the only one. Here’s a list of the songs you should commit to your Lebkuchen heart HERE

4. Don’t start taking off your clothes at the bumper cars just because they’re playing your favorite song. Don’t ask. You don’t have to. I’ll tell. When Chris (that’s me) has disappeared for longer than it usually takes him to undo those big, wooden buttons in his Lederhos'n, head for the bumper cars. The show has probably begun.

Some Wiesn Terminology:

1. “Oans, zwoa, gsuffa!” means “one, two, drink!” and is yelled as a toast after “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit”—a very easy song to learn since these are the only words to it.

2. “Uh hwalbee hayndell, bitch-shu!” Don’t worry. You’re not calling the waiter a bitch. You’ve just ordered a half of a roasted chicken in Bavarian, which I’ve transcribed for you in an adorably incorrect way.

3. “Uh Mass, bitch-shu!” The exclamation marks are necessary. It gets loud in the beer tents. Here again, you haven’t shouted anything rude, but you have ordered your beer.

4. Now put the two together: “Uh Mass und Uh hwalbee hayndell, bitch-shu!”

I must be off,

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Madding Crowd

If I were Muslim, I’d definitely lie to Allah and tell Him I was too poor and frail to go on the hajj. It would be a tricky lie since I’ve been to Egypt, Isreal, the United Arab Emirates and have Starbucks mugs—which, in my defense, I bought in Dubai—from Bahrain, Kuwait and, oops, Saudi Arabia. Or maybe I’d just come clean and tell Him I was afraid of people. He’d understand, wouldn’t He? But I’m not Muslim. The closest thing Christians in the South ever had to the hajj was the Billy Graham crusades. Luckily I went to one of those as a child before I developed my adorable fear of crowds—and to me, even two’s a crowd.

Keeping my fear of you in mind, follow me back to New Year’s Eve 1999/2000. I’m in London in a limousine, drinking cheap champagne with a dear friend, her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, six people I’ve never met before, and my partner. We’re all dressed up like we’re on our way to the prom and tooling toward The City. We’re playing Ricky Martin very loudly—in case you need a mental soundtrack.

The limousine costs us each twenty quid. The driver shows us off to most of London and then drops us off on the bank of the Thames to watch the fireworks, hyped to be the best fireworks display EVER. EVER.

From the tinted windows of a limousine, London sparkles with jolly old history, but in a matter of two hours after being dropped off, my elegant group of twenty-somethings are squatting to take a pee et al. in any structure that resembles a concave corner. Groups of penis-proud men are Manneken Pissing over bridges and into fountains. Suffice it to say, access to official public toilets is insufficient for the crowd.

London does only one thing right—Indian food; everything else is a massive cock up. On New Year’s Eve, the London Eye(sore) is supposed to open, but it doesn’t. The party at the Millennium Dome is marred by controversy with the ticket sales. The Thames is supposed to be a “River of Fire.” As far as I can tell it continues to be a “River of Water” the entire time all one million of us glue our gullible eyes to it. The fireworks display is OK; but the next day, when I see the Eiffel Tower spraying sparks like a gargantuan purple fountain, I have to fight back tears. EVER? Really?

Back to the Thames. The most exciting part of the London fireworks is the paper raining from the sky. As the sky becomes still and black again, all one million of us, covered in nuclear-fallout-esque ash, start to move toward the Tube. See, in London, there’s nowhere to park. Almost everyone comes into the city on the Tube. The traffic in London moves so slowly that you can walk home more quickly than the bus can take you. If you’ve ever tried to get a taxi late at night in London, you’ll know the burning reality of the phrase “not a snowball’s chance in Hell.”

“What’s the problem?” I say to the people in front of us. They’ve stopped moving toward the entrance to the Tube, which I can see about 200 metres away.


Suddenly the people in front of us have turned around and are moving toward us instead of the Tube, but the people behind us are still trying to go forward.

“Wait,” I yell. “Don’t touch me!” This imperative goes unheeded, and a man brushes against me . . . against my bare hand! You can imagine the electric shock wave pulsing from my left ring finger to my temples. But then things get even worse.

Women scream, our mental soundtrack takes a dark turn with lots of oboes, and then someone yells, "The Tube's closed due to overcapacity."

“What? And so they just closed it?” I say to one of my friends who’s now got her face squashed against my chest by the man’s arm that so inconsiderately touched my hand. “Didn’t they prepare for large crowds?”

“Wuh-buh, suh-suh-buh,” she says, slobbering on a perfectly new shirt. “Buh.”

The weight of a thousand people is a phenomenon I hope you never experience. A strong arm—I lift weights—can keep a dozen people from crushing a small woman next to you for a while, but if the pressure builds—which, thanks to my hysterical screaming, it doesn’t—it can be as unstoppable and deadly as a pyroclastic flow.

“Stay calm!” I scream at the twenty people around me, all pressing various parts of themselves into various parts of me. We sway together as if tossed by a raging sea. Someone starts humming “My Heart Will Go On.” OK, I can’t be sure of the exact tune, but the mood is dire. Long story short, push comes to shove, and I muscle our way out of the crowd.

Heavily petted but unharmed, we begin looking for alternative transportation to our home in Tooting, about thirty minutes from The City. There isn’t a taxi to be seen anywhere. Every bus in town is Jamaica full. People are hanging out of the windows and sitting on top. Safe to assume, they are all touching one another. We, along with thousands of other Londoners, walk home. It’s relaxing to walk in the cool, early morning air, far from the madding crowds.

In 2012, London will be hosting the Summer Olympics. I hope she’s learned something about crowd control in the last decade. I would like to attend, so I’m considering buying one of those enormous transparent balls to roll around the city in. I’ll be prepared this time. Hey, maybe I could lend the ball to my Muslim friends when they go on the hajj.

I must be off,

Thursday, September 17, 2009

London--A Love/Hate Affair

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with London for, what, twelve years now? It’s high time I buried the hatchet, right? I don’t know. I think London has to make the first move. She should apologize for her animosity towards Americans. She should make amends for her ornery public transport system.

London brings out the worst in me. I’m talking knock-out-drag-out worst. So when my partner said to me, “We’re moving to London again in January,” I said, “Grand, but half of us is staying in Munich” where the world is still in Ordnung.

Don’t get me wrong. London is a nice place to visit. Go to the Globe and Madame Tussauds if you must. Stand in a queue in Leicester Square for half-price tickets for nose-bleed seats to West End shows. Shop till you drop (dead) in the Oxford Street. Fall asleep in the theater. Pray to Diana at the shrine in Harrods. Stumble drunk through the streets of Soho in the early morning hours. It’s all so much fun.

But London is not all that much fun when you live there. The Tube never runs on time. The bus is late, and then three come at the same time. Everywhere you look, someone is accepting the miserable state of things. And London is miserable.

But I love her. I love Indian food. I love British TV. I love my friends in England and Scotland. And Wales of course. Sorry, Wales.

OK, so much for love.

I hate the superficiality of London. You can’t go out at night dressed like a normal human and expect to be “allowed” into a club. In Germany, there is no dress code, and I like that. I am a normal human who dresses thusly: jeans and a T-shirt.

We were the first humans to arrive at the Ministry of Sound. We took our place at the front of the line and gabbed with the hostess and the bouncer for about twenty minutes. When it came time to let people in, the bouncer looked at me and said, “No jeans. You can’t come in.”

Pissed? Yes. I was more than pissed. He was twice my size, but I was ready to fight. He let me stand there for twenty minutes without telling me I was dressed inappropriately? The hostess looked like she should be walking the street looking for Johns. What does London have against denim?

On another evening, someone shoved a free pass into my hand. I asked for a second one for my friend, but she said the pass was good for two people. When we got to the club, the bouncer told us the pass was good for only one person. When I tried to explain what his employee had promised us, he said, “We don’t need you. Go away.”

We don’t need you. Go away.

I’m really tired of this. And this is what I hate about London. And Venice. And Florence. And Paris. And Barcelona. They don’t need you. At least they think they don’t need you.

Starting in January, I will be in London two or three times a month. I will work on my relationship. I promise. I will try to love her, but she will have to do the work also. At some point, London will have to start loving me.

I must be off,

Friday, September 11, 2009

Venetian Jade and Ligurian Diamonds

Exactly one year ago, I vowed to myself and those around me that I would never ever ever return to the world’s largest, sinking tourist trap—Venice. Like the other Italian tourist meccas, Venice must have been beautiful once. Now, it’s a watery maze of trinket shops, bad restaurants and over-priced hotels.

Who can we blame for this? Let’s find at least a few people to pillory. Let’s start by pointing the finger at me (but remember: when I point a finger at myself, I’ve got four pointing at you, buster). Do you remember my vow up there in the first sentence? If you don’t, you have an awful short-term memory problem. Well, I’ve been back to Venice twice since making that promise.

“But why?”

An obvious question. I took my niece there and then a close friend because they’d never been to Venice before—and one should see Venice once. Once. Both of these wonderful people said, as the sun set on their Venetian day, that they’d had enough.

Following the train of tired tourists through Venice, you can’t help feeling the jadedness in the air. It’s palpable—from the apathetic service in trattorias to the lazy gondoliers, who’ve lost all interest in singing “O Sole Mio.” Venice is sinking in more ways than one.

If you must see Venice once, avoid weekends, stay on the Lido, visit the other islands (Murano is famous for glass), eat in the ristoranti in the areas of the city where the Italians are eating, and try to be there when the Biennale is going on. And one last thing: don’t pay to enter churches. That’s just wrong.

Now get back in your car and drive to Cinque Terre on the western coast of Northern Italy—where Italy is still molto italiano.

Cinque Terre is a group of fishing villages north of La Spezia, where you can stay in a moderately priced hotel and take the train to the villages. This is the most convenient way—even if the trains are unreliable—to visit the villages since most of them offer limited access to automobiles. Also, if you get carsick on windy roads, you won’t want to drive into the villages.

Monterosso, which you can drive into, has larger hotels and, for the region, a fair sized beach. If you buy a train ticket to Monterosso from La Spezia, you can stop at the other villages along the way as long as your entire trip in one direction is not longer than six hours. Make sure you cancel your ticket before boarding the train, and make sure you’re in Monterosso in time for dinner. Eat fresh seafood or risotto at “Ciak” in the old part of town. More Information and Reservations

In Vernazza, you can sip Lemoncello in one of the cafés that dot the cliffs, or you can climb the rocks and rough it with a thermos of white wine and some focaccia from one of the local bakeries. From the cliffs overlooking the Ligurian sea, the water sparkles like a million diamonds.

You’ll see more smiles on people’s faces in Cinque Terre because these folks are having a great time. Liguria is where to go if you want to see Italy still shining.

I must be off,

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Minerals that Drive Us (For Hikers)

The days of cramming twenty granola bars in your backpack and heading for the mountain are over. I think these products are called “PowerBarz” or “ProteinBoost” or “SugarSugarSugar” these days. If you’re heading for that mountain to get in shape, leave the granola candy where it belongs (on the shelf at the supermarket until we all stop buying it) and give your body the minerals it needs to conquer the mountain—the natural way.

If you’ve had a protein- and vitamin-rich breakfast before setting off, you won’t need to take a pork roast in your backpack or candy bars masquerading as health food. A 100-gram granola bar contains between 400 and 600 calories (31g fat, 54 g carbohydrates mostly in the form of sugar), a list of vitamins (most followed by 0% values), and unimpressive amounts of the minerals your body needs during sports. [Carbohydrates, by the way, are “not essential nutrients in humans. The body can obtain all its energy from protein and fat” (“Is Dietary Carbohydrate essential for human nutrition?” Westman 75 (5): 951 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.] So why eat these products if they’re full of things your body doesn’t really need?

What I need on a hike: raw vegetables that contain lots of water and minerals. Wait! Before you start tossing a salad in my backpack, do this: First, obtain three airtight, plastic containers each large enough to hold a sandwich; and second, forget the sandwich.

The three minerals—potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg)—I feature below are essential for proper muscle function as well as electrolyte balance in the body. For a male between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for these essential minerals is K 3500 mgs, Ca 800-1000 mgs, and Mg 350-420 mgs. Whether you’re planning a day of extreme sports or just going on a four-hour hike, you should make sure you have enough—but not too much—of these nutrients in the bag. Overdose is rare but does have serious consequences: anywhere from muscle cramps to death.

Let’s start with the water-rich vegetables containing the most potassium, calcium and magnesium. Tell all your friends you heard it here first. You should be carrying plastic containers of french beans, celery and broccoli in your backpack. Here are the reasons (all measures below in cups):

French Beans: K 1310 mg, Ca 224 mg, Mg 110 mg. That’s a third of your potassium!
Celery (I love celery): K 852 mg, Ca 126 mg, Mg 36 mg
Broccoli: K 458 mg, Ca 104 mg, Mg 32 mg

If you don’t want to eat these vegetables raw (sissy), lightly steam them (cooking destroys potassium), wait for them to cool and pitch them into that plastic container. No salt! Sodium counteracts the benefits of the potassium. You’ll get enough sodium in these foods without adding extra salt.

Other water-rich vegetables you might cut up and throw into that container: red bell peppers, cucumbers, and fennel (who doesn’t love fennel?). Avoid carrots unless you’re fit enough to handle all that sugar. Sugar . . . blech.

The fruit. If you can’t resist the temptation, here are a few you at least don’t have to cut up before you put them into the second plastic container:

Strawberries: K 220 mg, Ca 23 mg, Mg 19 mg
Tomatoes: K 292 mg, Ca 12 mg, Mg 14 mg
Grapefruit: K 310 mg, Ca 51 mg, Mg 21 mg

If these lovelies are already packaged in sturdy containers (a grapefruit travels just fine in its peel), wash them in their wrappers, let them dry and put them in your backpack in a place where they won’t get squished. Grapes also make a good snack, but they’re really nothing more than little balls of sugar. It would be better to ball some honeydew melon (According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, a quarter melon has an exciting 875 mgs of potassium!) Remember: If you’re mission is to get fit, burn calories, and lose weight, sugar is not your sweetheart.

That said, reward yourself with a handful of dates (K 964 mg, Ca 57 mg, Mg 63 mg) mixed with the following nuts and seeds in the third container:

Pumpkin seeds: K 229 mg, Ca 12 mg, Mg 151 mg—That’s whopping!
Brazil nuts (my favorite): K 187 mg, Ca 75, Mg 107 mg
Almonds: K 200 mg, Ca 75 mg, Mg 76 mg

Obviously you’ll be getting quite a lot of your magnesium from nuts and seeds. Go easy on these, though: they will also provide most of your calories in the form of fat and protein. While I’ve made an exception for dates, the problem with dried fruit on a hike is that it doesn’t contain water. It’s dried. Most of your food should help you replace the water you are losing through perspiration. But you can feel great about treating yourself to a handful of these nutritious goodies because all of these foods are packing pistols when it comes to potassium, calcium and magnesium.

If you have a balanced combination of these natural snacks in your backpack (with a couple of pieces of turkey and a hardboiled egg), you’ll be free of wrappers and white sugar. You’ll also have your mineral bases covered for a four-hour hike.

One last very important point: Your body needs vitamin D to absorb potassium, so don’t be afraid to walk in the sun for fifteen minutes in the late morning hours. Wait to put on sunscreen until afterward: sunscreen blocks UVB rays, which trigger the chemical process of vitamin D production in the skin.

“But hold on!” you say. “How can you end this mineral-rich article without mentioning seaweed, Chris?”

Well, I don’t like seaweed, but here’s the astounding news: Seaweed is bursting with all three of the minerals in this article (K 1527 mg, Ca 134 mg, Mg 218 mg). If you like it (which I don’t), you should take it along. Your backpack’s going to stink, but OK. Hey, how does seaweed-wrapped brazil nuts sound? Not good.

I know. I must be off,