Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hostels: A Love/Hate Relationship

For young travelers backpacking throughout the world, often the cheapest place to stay is in a Youth Hostel. A hostel is kind of like a hotel, except it's filled with other young backpackers, you share rooms and sleep in uncomfortable bunk beds, and they can offer you a range of activities to choose from and stay active. Typically, the age range to stay in a hostel is between 18-25, though some have exceptions. Though I've done a lot of traveling, my main area of expertise comes in the hostels of Europe, so that's what I'll focus on here.

There are a lot of things to take into account when trying to find a good hostel. Two of the best Web sites you can use to book them in advance are Hostelbookers and Hostelworld. Both sites are great because you can search from almost any country in the world and get user reviews on the hostels. Of these two, I would say that Hostelbookers is the best and easiest to use. This site also narrows down the most popular destination and hostels so you can find places easier. There are tons of user reviews with pictures and feedback. The best thing about this site--no fees for using it.

You can also look into guide books for hostels if you don't want to book before you go. Sometimes it's good to check out a couple places before settling. If you think the first place you see is nice, check out another, because the second place might be awesome. Good guide books to check are Let's Go, Frommer's, and Lonely Planet. Before you go, you should know about some of the Pro's and Con's of staying in a hostel.

-A hostel will save you a lot of money, especially in the larger cities of Europe where the euro is very strong. Staying in a hotel in Paris for a few nights could empty your wallet, and though it might be romantic to stay in a posh location in the City of Lights, you should save that for when you're older and can afford it.
-It will give you a chance to meet some really cool people. This is especially great if you're traveling alone. It's a real refresher to make some friends when you're all by yourself, and though they are "single-serving" friends, you are the same thing to them, and your relationship is built off of that need to mingle with someone. It also gives you a chance to network with people. If you meet someone in a hostel in Dublin who's from Los Angeles, maybe the next time you go to LA you can stay with them. Here's a true story. I met a guy in a bar in Dublin in February who was staying at a hostel down the street from mine. He was studying in Berlin and I was in Sevilla. I saw him in a dance club in Prague in March. In late May he was staying in my hostel in Madrid. It just goes to show you can meet people all over Europe.
-Many hostels have activities and let you know about special deals in the city. At The Flying Pig Downtown Hostel in Amsterdam you can find tons of fliers for free walking tours and bike rental shops. The hostel also has an awesome bar/lounge scene where you can just chill and relax. The music plays all night and it's livelier than some of the bars outside. Only hostel guests can get in. At Balmer's Herberge in Interlaken, Switzerland, you can get deals on canyoning and skydiving for staying there. Balmer's also has the only bar in the town. Other places will also organize games, karaoke, or pub crawls with someone who knows the city.
-The location of the hostel is key. This is a tough one, though. Some hostels can be smack dab in the middle of the action, or at the very least next to a metro stop. This is because they can often be smaller than hotels and take up less space where rent will be higher. However, you could also arrive to your hostel and find that it's in the middle of no where, leaving you few options and long distances to cover. I stayed at the Three Ducks Hostel in Paris. It was one of the cheapest hostels and had a bar, but it was in the 15th arrondisement, a neighborhood that isn't known for much of anything. The metro ride to get anywhere good was at least 15 minutes.

-The place could very well be a dump. They might entice you will a low price and free internet, but you could be stuck in a 32-bed room with lousy roommates who keep you up all night, and no lockers. You could be in the middle of no where and have no one to hang out with. I stayed at one of the only hostels in Lucern, Switzerland, and I had to walk 25 minutes just to get to the center of town. It was actually located in a neighborhood, and almost no one else stayed in the hostel. I was traveling alone and had nothing to do for two days.
-You could have that sketchy guy in your room. If you've traveled in hostels before, you know it's bound to happen at some point. I've got my share of horror stories which I won't get into now, but you need to be ready to accept that a weird old naked man could be staying in your room or that your top bunk buddy scratches his balls all night. These things happen.
-You could find that the showers have no pressure, the toilets aren't fit for a farm animal, and your bed has bugs. It's best to just push through it and keep saying mind over matter, but sometimes it's downright awful.
-Some hostels will have curfews and if you're not back in time it's too bad, because you'll be spending the night on a park bench. You can yell all you want about paying for a bed, but they won't care. If they have rules, you have to follow them.

These are just a few of the things to keep in mind when you are thinking about staying in a hostel. It's important to remember that it could all depend on who you're traveling with and your participation in the city, which can sometimes change how you look at an event. You can have a great experience or come back with a cautionary tale. It's all up in the air, but that's also part of the fun.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Hunting Down the Elusive Marzipan

This is an old vignette I wrote for my travel writing class two years ago. You can't go wrong with the classics...

Taormina in the morning—beautiful. Dogs walked obediently with their owners, stores prepared for another busy day, and possible mobsters strutted around with their gorgeous girlfriends. It was the last day of our trip in Sicily, and I had only eaten a few marzipans during the entire trip. The sugary soft dessert had somehow eluded me during the eight or so days we traveled around. How could this have happened? It’s Italy, the alleged birthplace of the marzipan. I had been busy with other things all week, but I had still kept my eye out for a shop selling marzipan and hadn’t seen too much. And to think I was told it was flowing through the streets like gelato. Though I scoured the countryside, in the end all I found were three small shops to get my marzipan fix.

I’d had the dessert in the past, usually from Mike’s Pastry in the North End or some cheap supermarket attempt if my mom had brought it home. Going from American marzipan to Italian marzipan is like going from Tee-ball in your backyard to the majors. It’s just a whole different game. The bakers need to make sure they have an almond oil content of 14%, otherwise they’d be breaking European Union Laws. Apparently marzipan is big business in Europe. These bakers are more like artists than anything else. Each marzipan looks good enough to be on a fruit stand, and with as many options as there are fruits, that’s a whole lot of almond paste to be ingesting. Unfortunately, as I soon discovered, they look a lot better than they taste, especially when you continually eat them. As Chaz noted, they’re good to have once every two years, not two a day for a week.

I started the hunt in Èrice, where legend had it that the “Marzipan Lady” had the best marzipan in the island. Following Karen and Rick, I stepped into a little shop which would otherwise go unnoticed, were it not for the enormous sign outside shouting, “Pasticceria Maria.” With three small tables in the back and a seemingly friendly staff, I thought this might be a good place to ask a few questions. Rosa was going to translate for me, but at the last minute I was informed that the clerk spoke English, so Rosa went off to do Rosa things. Seconds later I realized the shopkeeper’s knowledge of English consisted of orders and commands that a clerk would need to deal with tourists. With the help of Taormina—the girl, not the town—I found out that the marzipans take three months to make. Amazing, but I guess it’s a testament to the fact that nothing worthwhile comes easy. How much would you charge for three months’ worth of work? The Marzipan Lady only charged one euro for her sweat and tears.
There are a couple of ways to make the sweets. Commonly, they are used as filling in chocolates, but even more so as the small imitations of fruits and vegetables that most people have come to associate it with. I decided to try a pear. For some reason, when I can’t speak the language and the clerk is waiting for me I get nervous and ask for the first thing I see. It didn’t disappoint though. The pear marzipan was to be the best one I ate the entire trip, but at that point I was still ignorant to that fact.

Cut to Cefalu and the courtyard by some really old and beautiful church. Rosa is talking about this particular church’s history, and that’s great and all, but I’ve seen 200 churches already, it’s day five, and I’ve only had one marzipan. There’s Café Pasticceria Ca Martorana on my right, and a corner store on my left. Having eaten some horrible pizza at Ca Martorana the night before, I went to check out the store. €6.50 for packaged almond dough. Nuts to that. Back to Ca Martorana and the €1.50 marzipan. I was hoping the watermelon and strawberry would be better than the pizza. I was hoping they would be better than the Marzipan Lady. I thought you couldn’t get bad food in Italy. I was wrong. They were hard, far too sugary and sweet. I almost fell into diabetic shock. I was really getting frustrated now. Not only was marzipan far and few, but it wasn’t even that good. On top of all that I felt like my arteries were ready to explode. Also, I was keeping myself from trying other treats like cannoli or gelato. If I’d had any more sugar I’m sure they would have had to rush me to the hospital. I’m willing to bet one marzipan could plug a hole in a ship, and back to back dough balls surely were going to make me suffer down the line. I was beginning to think this was the worst assignment I’d ever had.

Back to the morning activities of Taormina—the town, not the girl. Do or die time, no more procrastination. I didn’t have time to think about the fact that it was ten in the morning and I was eating dessert. Marzipan is traditionally eaten at Christmas or Carnivale, but all I had to celebrate was spring break. Chaz, Justin, and Frank were my partners in crime as I strolled down the street looking for the pastry shop. Then I see him. He’s smiling down at me like some golden god saying “Yes, my son, this is the place.” The picture of Michael Douglas is pinned up next to other celebrities who’d eaten at Bar Pasticceria La Casa Del Cannolo Siciliano. Well, if it’s good enough for Michael Douglas, it’s good enough for me. If the name on the outside wasn’t enough of a mouthful, the food on the inside certainly was. Rows of treats stretched as far back as possible, in every color and every variety. In the worst possible Italian I could muster I said something along the lines of, “Vorrei…uhh, that one.” Frank just smiled and asked the clerk for a couple of marzipan. What a guy.

We left the shop quickly and went to a quiet spot to eat. Sitting by a bubbling fountain I opened the bag and took a look. Chaz pointed out that the sugar was so thick you could see it glistening in the sun. One was a tomato, and the other was a long green thing. I thought celery, but Frank thought radish. I gave some to all the guys to share, and we dug in. All the hype for nothing. Just another thick, tart dessert. The mission was over.
I was very disappointed as I sat there next to the fountain thinking. The whole week I had gone around trying to find the perfect marzipan, but in the end I found that they all tasted the same. It was just a bland, dry mixture that didn’t do much to win me over. While they looked perfect and could beat any in America any day of the week, they still weren’t friendly to the taste buds. Though I felt incomplete, I knew I had walked away with some knowledge. It is far better to have tried Sicilian marzipan and been disappointed than to not have tried any at all. At least this way I won’t waste any more money on it at home.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Lede: Breaking Up in Five Ryhming Lines

In this latest post from The Lede, Patrick J. Lyons talks about how the third largest city in Ireland, Limerick, is now leading the country in divorces. I think it's an interesting thing to think about. When I was in Ireland I stayed in Dublin and only took one day out into the country, so it wouldn't be fair to make a judgment on the city of Limerick, but it's hard to understand why one city has more divorces over another.

The impression that I got from the Irish is that they're hilarious and lovable people. Even when they're insulting you to your face in that quick wit, it's still funny and with good intentions. You might walk away and five minutes later realize they were messing with you.

America has its own issue with divorces. I was surprised to hear that there are now speedy divorces in Limerick as well. That sort of "quick response" thing is more of a western trend, and I was surprised it's made its way over to Europe.

In the end, the problem could be coming from rushing into a relationship without giving much thought to the commitment, and once the couple realizes they can't stand each other, they immediately want out, rather than working through it.

Alcohol to Blame for Violent Attacks at UMass Amherst, Officials Say

A string of violent acts has taken the attention of the community of the University of Massachusetts Amherst over the last three weeks, calling into question the safety and integrity of the flagship state university.

First, an off-campus house party resulted in a vicious beating with lacrosse sticks, baseball bats, and bottles. As a result, three UMass lacrosse players have been charged and several others have been suspended from the team.

Shortly after that incident, two students are facing murder charges in unrelated altercations. The first involved a racial incident, and the other from an attempted rape case.

This is not the first time the safety at UMass Amherst has been called into question. Just two years ago, ABC’s 20/20 reported that UMass was the most dangerous campus in the nation. With 25,000 students, 19,000 of which are undergrads, some students say that violence is bound to happen, but it doesn’t mean the school is dangerous.

"It's a huge school and kind of like its own city," said freshman Nicholas Leoutsakos. "I'm not surprised if there are jackasses who want to hurt other people."

However, university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said administrators are taking this issue seriously and looking at what could be causing the violent acts. He also pointed out that the university is generally safe and that alcohol-related fights occur at every large university.

Amherst Police have been beefing up efforts to reduce off campus rowdiness since 2006, when UMass began working with the town to combat the problem. UMass has been working to change its image from a party school with riots to a leading research university.

Blaguszewski said a lot of the problems stem from binge drinking at off-campus parties. Binge drinking is defined as having at least four drinks in one sitting three times over two weeks.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Skydiving in Switzerland

One of the coolest and craziest things I've ever done was skydiving in Interlaken, Switzerland last May. This decision to jump out of an airplane didn't come overnight. It was the result of a gradual increase, through baby steps, in becoming more adventurous and daring. The truth is, I don't even like roller coasters. I haven't been on one since I was in the 6th grade, but of course now I'm starting to think I should just try it again.

During my time in Spain I'd decided that I was going to travel through Switzerland, and having heard great things and seen some awesome pictures from Interlaken from my buddy Justin, I decided that it was time for me to test out my air legs and see if I could fly. I thought to myself, what the hell, if there's one place in the world to do it, it's Switzerland. Sure, it's going to be twice the cost of back home, but I get to jump in one of the most beautiful sceneries in the world. And as an added bonus, you gotta trust the Swiss. They're so efficient and safe. If I would up dying, at least I had a good run living in Europe.

Once I started telling my friends I was going to do it, there was no turning back. I couldn't just back down, it would hurt my pride too much. Even months before going, however, I'd suddenly realize that I truly meant to do it, and my heart would start racing. As the time came closer I thought about it less and less. I was supposed to be traveling with my friend, but because he ran out of money, I was all alone. I wasn't too happy with that, but I think it gave me some thicker skin in the days before the jump. The day before I jumped I signed up for it at the hostel, Balmer's Herberge, I thought to myself that I just signed my life away.

Balmer's was one of two hostels in the town, and had the only bar in the town. That night was the Soccer championship game and the bar had a buy 1, get 1 free deal on beer. I only meant to have a couple of drinks, but of course things progressed and I wound up getting drunk. When I woke up with a hangover and realized I'd soon be jumping out of a plane, I wasn't too thrilled, to say the least. I went downstairs and started to watch "Team America: World Police," with some other guys in the common room. As the movie went on we all realized that we'd be jumping together, and joked about it together. The movie relaxed us and got us loose. We forgot that we were skydiving in just a few minutes. At noon a woman entered the room and called for the skydivers. We all stood up eagerly, now awake, and said, "Let's go jump out of plane."

On the way to the air strip we signed waivers and listened to Green Day, maybe to pump us up. But as we pulled into the hangar, "Good Riddance" played. Now with the eerily cynical music in our heads we suited up and tried to stay loose. Surprisingly, we only had a 2 minute tutorial on what to do and what not to do. The bulk of the work would be done by the tandem jumpers, who had at least 4000 jumps each. I was assigned to go in the third and last jump, so I had to wait around anxiously while the other guys and girls went up and came down.

Waiting was probably the longest hour of my life. By the time it was my turn to go I just wanted to get it over with already. I figured if 6 people just survived, I'll be fine. I even volunteered to jump out first. Paired up with Hans, I felt like I was in good hands. We sat next to the door and crammed into the smallest plane I've ever been in. Flying up we saw the mountains, some still snow capped, the lakes, a beautiful emerald green color that I'd never seen before and haven't since, and the farms and fields down below. It was too nice to be worried. It was a perfect sunny day, a really great day to fall from the sky. On the way up my mouth was going completely dry and I was fighting my anxiety. Still, the sights were so nice that I was just relaxed and at ease. Then Hans opened the door.

Doors are supposed to stay shut on planes, and when the cold air suddenly rushes in and you realize and you're 2 inches from falling 11,000 feet, you start to get nervous, no matter what. My heart started pounding and as I leaned over the door I thought I must be nuts. No backing out now though--no guts, no glory. But then we had to close the door and circle around because some paragliders were in our path. Now I had another minute to think about what was down there, and yeah, I was getting nervous again. So back on track now with the door open again, Hans dangled my feet over the edge and rocked my head back on his shoulder like a friend consoling me, and then he pushed me off the plane.

To say what happened next is to say what happens when you're born, because it happens so fast and it's all new that you can't process it, you can't even understand it. It's a blur, but a lucid blur. Up was down and the plane was falling away as we went up, then the plane was floating up and we sped towards the Earth. The effects of gravity were pushing on my chest and making it hard to breath, but I did what most people do and opened my mouth as wide as possible, gasping for air, trying to scream but not even able to. Instant dry mouth followed. All I could think, if I could think of anything, was "Oh shit, shit shit, just fell out of a plane, shit. AHHHHH." All of the veins in my throat and face pulsated and tried to explode. And yeah, there was that falling feeling in the stomach. My face flapped in the wind, and then suddenly we hit free fall and it cleared up.

Once we started floating, seemingly hovering in the air, it was the most thrilling and awesome experience I've ever had. Imagine if you were a satellite looking down at Earth, only you had the best graphics any satellite could ever have, plus all the reality of it. We were blowing by the wind so fast that all I could hear was a deafening roar, and it was at this point that I wondered if I tied my shoes on tightly enough. It wasn't even cold anymore, there were just so many things going on and there was such a sensory overload that I could only scream in pure joy and excitement. My heart was pounding furiously and angrily, apparently upset that it wasn't given proper notice of such an adrenaline rush.

Before I knew it we were deploying the parachute and gently strolling back to the ground. As we were getting settled, Hans yelled that he was going to loosen up the straps. I slipped a little before being caught, and I think if I hadn't just experienced the free fall I would have freaked out, but I was still alive, and that was the most thrilling part. To outsmart death and still be enjoying the ride. I could see cows, which looks anorexic from way up, and all the fields, the lakes, the mountains, everything. My head was on a swivel, constantly looking at everything, totally aware of the limited time. My adrenaline was pumping hard, and I told Hans that it was the best high or buzz I'd ever had, and it was true. They should ween drug addicts off by having them skydive.

On the land we came in fast, dropping hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, cruising in for an ass-slide landing right back where we started. Absolutely thrilled and amazed that I'd done it, I spent the next few hours riding an adrenaline rush and enjoying an irremovable smile, one of the side effects of adventure. It just goes to show, you might not think you have it in you, but once you start traveling and opening up new doors, you'll try things you never thought were possible. And you might even live to tell about it.

The Lede: But Keep This in Mind About Egypt

Following the blog on The New York Times website, The Lede, I just read the post about the words of the Egyptian writer Alaa El Aswany. In it, a portion of a phone interview with Aswany about some clarifications on Islam are discussed. The writer talk about some interpretations of the Quran and how some people take things into literal context, when you really have to think about it differently. Some of those examples are looking at the Quran when you can't read, walking too far to go to a Mosque, and the interpretation of religion itself.

Aswany then goes on to talk about the difference between Egyptians and other cultures. He says that Egyptians are very religious, including Egyptian Jews and Christians. He talks about the difference between the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia and the Egyptians. Because many Egyptians went to work in Saudi Arabia for the last couple of decades, there have been some changes going on back in Egypt now from what they learned in Saudi Arabia.

Research Assignment: One Search Engine, One Blog, One Website

The search engine I researched was www.ask.com. Ask.com, formerly Ask Jeeves, used to be a tough competitor with Yahoo! And Alta Vista, but once Google came out it sort of lost its steam. Still, there’s no indication that the website has diminished in value or credibility. To start, the opening page looks similar to Google and allows you to do many things, from searching the web, looking for pictures, a detailed map of the country, news, and blogs are available. I typed in my name and was surprised to find an article that I wrote as the second thing to pop up. Usually on Google one or two of my articles will pop up, but only a few options down. Never that high up. I’m not sure why it would come up sooner on ask.com. I then typed in a band and was able to find their official website, options for tickets to their shows, and tons of other websites related to the band. This site definitely has reliable information and can be trusted.

The blog I checked on was Travel Reader from www.gonomad.com. I used to write this blog when I interned for GoNOMAD, so I’m pretty certain that it’s a reliable source. Now a new intern is writing it, but she’s still following the same pattern. The writer finds a cool sample of travel writing somewhere on the web, usually from a newspaper like The Boston Globe or The New York Times, and will share a clip from the article. A little analysis of the article might even be given. Because this blog isn’t attempting to make any claims or do any investigative reporting, it can be trusted to be reliable. There is also a link to the original article built into the post.

The website I checked was www.greenplastic.com, a website devoted to the band Radiohead. This website has information on tours and album releases, as well as a biography on the band and lyrics to the songs. You can access pretty much anything you would want about the band here, and you can even buy merchandise. One of the biggest questions that would come up here is how can you be sure that the biographical information and lyrics are correct. The only way would be cross referencing it with information from another website like www.vh1.com or www.mtv.com. However, because this website has a high Google ranking and is considered the official unofficial website for the band, it’s safe to say that the information is correct. Also, the lyrics can be cross referenced with a number of other websites, as well as the inside jackets from CD cases. Other information like album releases and tour dates can be confirmed from various other sources, so it’s safe to assume that this website has gotten their information from a good source. This website also receives press releases from the band, so that information comes directly from the source. Because this is a site designed by fans for fans, people can also send in comments and corrections if they notice something is wrong. The information will obviously be checked, but if it is proven to be correct, the website will be updated.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

And the Winner of the Potomac Primary: The New York Times

Throughout the day the coverage on the first ever "Potomac Primary" was spotty at best until later in the night, around 7 pm. Monitoring boston.com, nytimes.com, and washingtonpost.com, the best coverage came from nytimes.com. Boston.com didn't even have coverage, or a link to any sort of coverage, until the polls were almost closed. 

Washingtonpost.com had coverage all day, but that was to be expected because all three locations are in their range of interest. The Post had all of the polls in on time, along with graphs and other visuals to aid in understanding the progress of the Primary.

NYtimes.com, on the other hand, had coverage starting around 3 pm and continued all night, well after the primary was over. Updates via email from nytimes.com, were sent several times throughout the day, but non were sent from boston.com nor washingtonpost.com.

At the end of the night, nytimes.com had a nice story on the primary, whereas the others hadn't yet filed complete editions, only having the information laid out.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain swept all three primaries in Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland tonight. Earlier in the day the Associated Press had predicted that Obama would win in Virginia, but some other sources didn't want to announce it too early. At first the AP was also saying that Mike Huckabee had won in Virginia, but later corrected to say that McCain won. 

As the polls in Maryland were opened later, the information continued to come in on Washington D.C., and eventually all three results came in, showing that a swept had been accomplished for both Obama and McCain.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Tourist

One of my favorite bands, Radiohead, has an old song that really speaks volumes to those of us who love to travel. I'm talking about "The Tourist," off of OK Computer. The song, which comes off as a slow melodic tune, has a much deeper meaning than the lyrics might offer. Thom Yorke sings about tourists rushing through sights just so they can get through to the next one, without even taking the time to appreciate where they are.

"Idiot, slow down," is said over and again in this song. From what I've read, guitarist Jonny Greenwood wrote this song when he was sitting in a square in France watching all of the American tourists running from spot to spot. Because they were in such a rush to see it all, they really didn't see any of it. They just had the right to say they were there.

Now, I'm not trying to pass any judgment off on anyone, because like so many travelers, I too have been that tourist that gets off the bus, takes some pictures, walks around aimlessly, and gets back on the bus. It's hard to know how to enjoy the place you're in sometimes when you're a green tourist. But you have to understand that you're not getting the full picture. Living abroad in a city visited by tourists every day gave me some new perspective on that. Everyday that I would see the big double-decker red bus driving through I'd feel sad for those suckers. The best things to see in Sevilla aren't even accessible by car.

I guess the point of this post wouldn't be to act like a travel snob--I'm far from it. I just wanted to impart on those who don't already know or haven't realized it, that when you travel in a large group or with a pre-determined itinerary, you can really miss out on the best stuff. Some Saturday mornings when I wasn't too hungover before lunch, I would walk over to the cathedral in el centro and just watch the tourists. I'd write too, and I'd think about all the stuff they were missing. One time I tried to watch a single group for the entire time they were there. I wound up watching five different groups come in, listen to a little speech for five minutes, take a few pictures, look at some gifts, and leave.

It would be stupid to assume a tourist is going to get intimate with a city in the short time they have, but you should at least try to just sit and enjoy your surroundings for longer than five minutes. On my last day in Paris I went to Notre Dame to check out what the big deal was. I'd already seen dozens of famous cathedrals in Europe, and frankly just didn't care anymore. But I sat by that cathedral just to take in the atmosphere. Hundreds of people were rushing by, snapping the same photos, and leaving as quickly as they arrived. It seemed so pointless. In a place like that, you need to at least sit and think about why it's become popular. With a nice spot by the river, there's a reason it was a nice place to build a church. But no one seems to notice that anymore.

All I can really say is that when you travel, you only scratch the surface. You need to live it to really understand, but sometimes that's not possible. So how to make up for it? Do as the locals would do. Stop rushing around, enjoy your surroundings, and think about where you are. Don't just look at the sight, look at what's around it. There's more than you think.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Epic 2014

One of our class assignments for last week was to watch a video online called "Epic 2014," which poses idea that by the year 2014, Google will be attempting to take over all major media and The New York Times will have to shut down their website in protest. Google will create a massive "Big Brother" sort of system that will monitor every single news outlet that is online in the world and then reconstruct the stories to make their own, all done by a computer.

It's an interesting idea, but seems pretty unlikely. In the video, The New York Times sues Google for poaching their stories, but the Supreme Court upholds Google's right to have their own system of stories. I can't really see the Supreme Court upholding a software that exists only in the web. If it's a computer that is making the stories than it has no rights, because there is no one on the other end making the stories.

This video is also interesting because it analyzes the downfall of print journalism and insists that by the year 2014, the only way people will really be getting their news is from Google's search engine. While Google makes things a lot simpler and you can narrow down the news you want to hear, I think most people would remain loyal to the outlets they have always gone to. The video also says that The New York Times would become a small paper for the elite and stubborn who refuse to change. The Times is probably the most reputable news source in the world, and I can't see people just forgetting that because a computer takes stories from all over the world. There is no fact checking and Google would just be printing stories as it sees them. That's not journalism, that's gossip. That sort of "reporting" might be good for entertainment news, but it wouldn't fly for real, important news.

Travel Without Leaving Home

The nice thing about music is that sometimes it can bring up memories you didn't even know you had. Things you'd either long ago forgotten or just haven't had time in your busy life to think about can suddenly spring into your head, fresh as day, the second you turn on your iPod. Maybe those eggheads over at Apple have found a way to time travel. Whereas in the past you would have to search through dozens or hundreds of CDs, then find the right songs, you can now simply open up your iTunes library and have all of your thousands of songs easily available for the plucking.

Just a few hours ago I was sitting in my room here in Amherst, starting my homework and still thinking about the Patriots, which I won't talk about, not now, not ever. Anyway, I always work with music, and I pretty much can't work without it. Well, that's not necessarily true. I can obviously work without it, but it really ruins the creativity. Think of having a plain piece of bread, not even toasted. Now think of a piece of toast with jam or butter or whatever else you like on it. Writing without some music is just bland.

Now I'd decided to put on some Built to Spill, one of my favorite bands. I got into them in Spain when my friends Dorothy and Elyse got me hooked, and since then life has been a bit nicer with that music in the background. Things were going smoothly, listening to their album "Keep It Like A Secret," which I'd picked up just a couple of months ago. But then something crazy happened. The CD ended, and the next one came on. "You In Reverse" was the first album of theirs that I got while in Spain.

The first time I'd given the CD a listen through was on an overnight bus from Sevilla to Lisbon. I listened to it probably three times on that bus ride, coming in and out of consciousness as the bumps in the road rudely awakened me over and over. I was traveling alone, pretty much for the first time since I'd gotten to Spain, and was a bit tense. This album eased me. I would go on to listen to it over and over during those two days in Lisbon.

Anyway, this is all relevant because as I was sitting there writing in my room in Amherst and this album came on, I was suddenly back in Portugal, almost scarily real in my memory. First I was on the midnight bus, then I was in the hostel, then I was wandering around aimlessly through Lisbon, and on, and on. I'm not quite sure how it works, but music just has that power to open up all of these memories in you, and the things and places you'd thought you left a long time ago come out and you realize they never left you, that they've been there the whole time.

The walls might as well have melted and time stood still. I know that sounds cheesy, but for all I was concerned I was back there in Portugal. That country and that album will always be entwined for me now. I'm sure of it. Whenever I hear that music for some reason I'll think and associate it with Portugal, traveling alone for the first time, and changing quick enough to notice it.

It's an amazing thing to do. You should try it some time. Wherever you go, take some music with you. On a long bus ride, on a day in the country, whenever you get a chance, listen to some music. And if you don't think you'll ever get a chance to get back there, or you think you're forgetting it, just pop on that music, and you too can be back there. Memories will fade, pictures won't recall it all, but the music will never change. It might not sound the same after a while, but if it meant enough to you, it will always bring up that time in that place.

It's not just Portugal or Built to Spill that gets brought back to me from time to time. Sometimes it's R.E.M. in Utah and Nevada. Other times it's The Beatles or Louis Prima in Sicily. Or Minus the Bear in any city in Europe. Or any other band or place, depending on many different circumstances. Whatever it is, the power of it isn't something I can even begin to comprehend, just recognize and appreciate. But you know what? I'm OK with that.

Friday, February 1, 2008

A Wet Day in Normandy

Being a history major and huge World War II buff, when I visited France, the first thing I had to do was go to Normandy for the day. I was going to spend 7 days in Paris, and it was the end of my experience of living in Europe. I was saving the best for last. I met up with a guy named Brooks from Montreal in my hostel, who also was a WWII buff, and we agreed to head to the coast together the next day.

Now, this was Paris in late May. From what I'd heard, it was supposed to be warm, flowers would be in full bloom, and it would just be an amazing atmosphere. As I rolled into the train station the day before, however, the rain had started to fall and a cold front moved in. For most of my time in Paris, it was rainy, cold, and grey. Yippee!

We woke up to find that it was freezing and raining. The wind was blowing the rain in sideways, stinging our eyes. Neither of us had the appropriate clothing. We went to the station early, which was a good idea because as we found out it was some random holiday and the schedules changed. Then there was a bomb threat, followed by the train losing its engine, which caused us to wait around for a while. Brooks, who spoke French, heard from the locals that this was typical.

By the time we got to Normandy, it was so windy that you had to use force to walk towards the beaches. We found a tour guide and buddied up with some other Canadian girls staying at our hostel, ironically, and we headed out to see the bigger sites. At Omaha Beach, the wind was so ferocious and powerful that we could only make it halfway to the water. Then we got to the American Cemetery.

This cemetery is unlike any other I've ever been to. There is only one large monument and another display, but otherwise all of the crosses and stars are exactly the same. No one has more importance than anyone else. As far as the eye can see in some places, rows and rows of white crosses cover the perfectly kept grass. It's humbling, and a place where you have to show the utmost respect. Brooks and I separated for a while, just looking at different tombstones. I found a couple of guys from Massachusetts and wondered where they were from. I looked for the day they died, the unit they were with, and wondered how it happened.

The wind died down for a little bit and then rain fell slowly and sadly on the graves. Call it dramatic, but rainfall in a cemetery just seems appropriate. It's as if the heavens are crying for the lost. Eventually Brooks and I both met at a star, marking the grave of a Jewish soldier. We didn't say anything for a minute, just read it and thought. His name was David Ginsburg, he was a Private in the 101st Airborne, and he was killed on June 6, 1944. The wind and rain had caused dirt and leaves to get blown onto the star. The grounds were perfectly kept and tended to, but this mess had obviously just recently happened after the last cleaning.

I found myself hiding the fact that I was Jewish the entire time while living in Europe. Times aren't exactly great for Jews, and antisemitism is rising once again. I just didn't advertise the fact to stay out of trouble. But now, towards the end of my time there, I just didn't care anymore. "I wish I had a stone to put on the tombstone," I said. "In the Jewish faith, when you visit a grave, you leave a rock or something small to show that someone visited"

"I know, I'm Jewish," Brooks said. I was shocked. I had no idea that he too was Jewish, and I found it amazing that thousands of miles away from home, we'd randomly found ourselves at the grave of another Jew. But unlike us, David Ginsburg would never be going home.

We both searched around for a minute but found no rocks, the place was just too well groomed. Without saying, we both started to clean up the tombstone, clearing away the dirt and the leaves, or at least trying to make it clean again. We stood by it for a few more minutes, finally deciding it was time to leave. As I left I touched the star, and for whatever it's worth, the sacrifices of David Ginsburg and the thousands of others buried in the cemeteries overseas will not be forgotten. Not by me anyway.

My First Blog

This is the first blog of many blogs. This is a new blog I've created for my journalism class. This isn't my first experience with blogging though. I used to do a daily one for my internship with www.GoNOMAD.com. Blog is kind of a funny word. It sounds like it's the stuff that Family Dare contestants would get slimed with if they got a question wrong.

I'm going to post some travel stories of mine, and any other things that may pop in my head from time to time. I have to assume that no one in the world is going to read this, so it's kind of like talking to an imaginary friend or going crazy. But stay tuned!