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#2 Getting Under Way:  February 13 - 23, 2008


Goodbye Portland

Flying to Frankfurt on Lufthansa's 10+ hour, non-stop flight from Portland is becoming a familiar routine. Having left the bikes in Sicily last fall made the journey easier, as did not having our luggage torn open for inspection after check-in.

Though familiar, every year's trans-Atlantic journey has a different wrinkle, with the recent tension around carry-on gels and liquids seemingly having been washed away. This year's surprise was having our passports scrutinized by a cheery older man wielding a magnifying glass and a special light. I'm always relieved to find people that have made boring jobs entertaining and monocle-man was spewing forth playful barbs rather than being grim and hostile as happens to so many.

The laughter we shared during our passport inspection transitioned to an unexpected reconnecting conversation just past the scanning machines where we spotted an old friend. Some of you Portlander's know Michael Sylvester, with whom we overlapped in both the cycling and yoga communities. Having plenty of time to spare after being seen off at security by our friend Mulvey and Bill's sister Pat, we indulged in our last, long Portland-based conversation. The sobering side of the visit was learning that one of Michael's traveling-companion/colleagues was added to the list of grieving women I know. Another sign of being in the graying years is following "Hi, how are you?" with "How is your grief process going?"


Hello Germany

Freezing in Frankfurt

The freezing fog that delayed our landing in Frankfurt didn't clear all day, despite our pilot's reassurance to the contrary. We pulled in our necks like annoyed turtles as we trundled our 100 lbs of luggage from Frankfurt's city center train station to a nearby Ibis Hotel--our most reliable lodging chain in Europe. The familiar tiny room was toasty warm and the Main River view kept us in hours longer than it usually does--the view left no doubt that the cold fog hadn't cleared.

Rhine River barge at Bonn on a icy cold but clear day.

Typically we drop off our luggage at this same hotel in mid-morning and then go for a bracing walk along the river, but it was just too cold this year. Despite the need for exercise and a mindless distraction to deceive our biologic clocks longing for sleep, we could hardly bare to go out. Even layering on everything we had couldn't keep the the afternoon trek to the grocery store from being a grim outing. The temperature hung around freezing all day and somehow the brisk wind wasn't able to push out the damp, sun-obscuring fog.

On to Bonn

The chilling fog cleared by the next morning and we reminisced from a comfy train seat on the 2 hour journey from Frankfurt to Bonn. The train hugs the shore along the most scenic part of the Rhine River between Mainz and Koblenz and we once again longed to be viewing it from a bike instead of the train. Neither the chill in the air or the hillside vineyards showing nothing but gray-browns deterred us, though Bill's observation that the tourist facilities were all buttoned-up did. The miles of bike path, some in the process of being repaved, triggered a flood of fond memories that were refreshed by being here last summer. Knowing that it will be several years before we bike this stretch again made it even harder to keep our pedaling muscles still.

A 3-wheeled Messerschmidt at Bonn's free, post-WWII museum.

One of the joys of our traveling life has been collecting our own little gems and checking online for Bonn's special exhibits is one of them. We scan the museum's schedule once or twice a year and 2008 is especially good for us. Our slight detour to Bonn upon arrival in Germany would be to visit the special exhibit on Sicily and at the end of our season in the late fall, we'd swing by again for a new exhibit on Rome and the Barbarians. The museum often has stunning shows, though we aren't usually drawn back for a 'two-fer'.

Where were you when....

Not that anyone will ever ask, but we will long remember where we were when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17--we were in Bonn, Germany. We had left the museum of post-WWII German history and heard but didn't see the stream of honking cars a few blocks away. We didn't think too much of it as it is a common post-marriage-ceremony event in Europe. The second time we heard them go by, which may have been an hour later, caught our attention: we were in Germany and they don't usually do that for weddings in Germany. And regardless of country, an hour later was too long a honking interval for it to be a wedding.

Then we spotted the noisy cars crossing a nearby bridge over the Rhine. Young men were hanging out the windows and holding huge red flags. I was satisfied to believe that it was the regional flag for the Bonn area and their boys had just won an important soccer match. Bill however noted that the solid red flag with a black eagle looked a lot like the Albanian flag, which we had snapped for the webpage a few years back during our brief visit there. It did look like the Albanian flag, but a soccer victory made more sense to me. It wasn't until hours later on the evening news that we learned that indeed Kosovo had announced its long-awaited break from Serbia. Kosovo is largely Albanian and we guessed that the new Kosovo flag wasn't yet available in Bonn so the Albanian flag was a satisfactory substitute for the celebration.

The Albanian flag we photographed in Albania.

Dusseldorf, Germany to Trąpani, Italy

The traveling segment of life is just like the rest of life: a mix of good news and bad news. The Bonn exhibits targeting our tastes both this winter and next were the good news; the bad news was that the overnight ferry we'd planned to take from Trąpani, Sicily to Tunisia was cancelled. The online information said the 2 month closure was for maintenance but we had to wonder if it wasn't cost-cutting in low season. Regardless, our budget air tickets to Trąpani looked like a lost bet as Bill struggled through the haze of jet lag to search out a Plan B for getting to Tunisia or somewhere else that was warm.

Keeping our Dusseldorf to Trąpani tickets was ultimately the most cost effective way to implement his new plan, which was to take a ferry from nearby Palermo. Even with taking the train from Trąpani to Palermo and staying a few extra days in more expensive Palermo, it was a better value than any other option. (Our pair of  air tickets for $50 to Trąpani looked  fantastic compared to $2000 for 2 to Palermo). So, out went the plans hatched and carefully researched 3 months ago and in came the new "make do" plan of extra sight seeing days in Palermo. I know, I know: "Oh to have such problems....."


"It's Too Hard"

Too Much Cold, Too Little Sleep

On our sixth night in Europe, our first night in Italy, I found myself saying: "This is too hard." "This is why one of my friends won't travel in Italy again." "This is why people defer to group travel." The thought of being in Tunisia at the end of the week no longer sounded tantalizing; instead the thought of being in the stranger and more unknown land provoked anxiety and agitation.

The temperatures in Germany rarely broke the freezing mark while we were there and the constantly biting wind had us hugging the buildings during our daily fitness walks. An unseasonably cold morning just above freezing greeted us in Sicily, though the day warmed enough to at last be comfortable while wearing all of our possible layers of clothes. But it was evening now and the lack of heat in our 3-star Palermo room was doing nothing to sooth my jangled nerves and my weariness with being cold. Our 4 am wake-up time to catch the 6:30 am flight from Germany to Italy was taking its toll on our minds and bodies not yet adjusted to the time zone change.

Too many hours of being cold and too few hours of sleep had depleted my sense for adventure.  I had lost my resiliency for contending with the unexpected. I couldn't even muster the energy to want to go home. Instead, I longed to be a contented critter warming itself in the sun--that simple pleasure would have been enough in that moment.

Dashed Hopes

We countered the sense of depletion that first evening with reminders of what was going well as the major phases of our journey had been flawless: we'd had an uneventful flight from Portland to Frankfurt; we'd completed our chores and  made it to our sightseeing destinations while in Germany; and Bill's careful planning made the fancy footwork to a village pension near the suburban airport of Dusseldorf and on to our early budget flight play out perfectly. But now it was the little pieces of the next stage of our travels that were tripping us up.

Our guide book to Italy was in deep storage with our bikes in Trąpani and we were now unexpectedly in Palermo for the better part of 5 days without it. When online, Bill had recognized the Palermo hotel we'd hoped use the next time we were in town, but it was only available for 3 of the 4 nights we needed. We took the 3 nights and hoped they'd get a cancellation for the last night by the time we arrived. We'd also hoped to swing a deal with the hotel--wanting them to both hold a small suitcase of bike gear for 3 weeks while we were in Tunisia and to receive and hold an additional package of new bike accessories mailed from Germany. Once at the hotel, we had our doubts as to whether any of our 'hopes' would be realized.

Later we'd be looking for suitcases in Palermo's street market.

In addition to our hotel issues, on the way to the Dusseldorf airport Bill had heard the first familiar "snap" in our budget suitcase's plastic hardware and knew its disintegration process was underway. We had hoped it would make it through Tunisia but were rapidly losing confidence. Be prepared to jury-rig while in Tunisia when it got worse or bite the bullet and replace it with another cheap suitcase while in Palermo was a baffling decision for our fuzzy brains.

Hotel Hassles

I was also still reeling from being far more confrontive with our hotel host after our arrival in Palermo than was comfortable for me.  We had purportedly gotten the last room when we checked in at noon and as he said, it was a beautiful room. It was a nicely remodeled 'tree house' of a room but it triggered my mild claustrophobia, threatened to kill Bill on his nightly trip to the toilet, and would be a certain deathtrap in too many ways should there be a fire. The barely navigable, tightly wound metal spiral staircase from the sleeping area to the bathroom and only door was bad enough but the only window in the sleeping room was barred, opened onto a small enclosed courtyard, and was only about 3' high, starting at floor level.

I asked the clerk for a different room even before seeing the upstairs sleeping area but we were told it wasn't possible, they were fully booked. My agitation with the space skyrocketed after only minutes in the sleeping area as my claustrophobia was augmented by the itemization of the serious fire-trap issues. Groggy and now agitated, I went back to negotiate for a "normal" room for our second and third nights. The very huffy man finally relented and gave us a tiny alternate room for all 3 nights. The new room did have a double bed though it was clearly set up for only 1 person. We would make do with its deficiencies and the housekeeping woman was very quick to provide us with the additional linens--she no doubt was familiar with this ploy.

Jockeying with the hotel clerk had further diminished my dwindling sense of wellbeing. It took me hours to settle down after the stream of emotions bubbled up from the thought of staying in that "beautiful room" for 3 days and from needing to be so pushy to get a room that at least felt safe. It didn't like the way the whole experience made me feel and the sleep deprivation made it difficult to shed the residue from all of the many emotions that had been triggered.

Italian Shell Games

After the tug-of-war with the hotel clerk, we then spent a couple of hours of our first afternoon in Italy wandering around Palermo's massive seaport looking for the ferry office and hoped learn more about the luggage storage service, but it was stereotypically Italy at its worst. The ferry company's office at the port was closed with no indication of office hours. We finally were told that their tickets could also be purchased at the office of the competing ferry company--which was plausible in Italy.

 After standing in line with the impatient truckers waiting for their boarding papers, we were told "Yes, we also represent Grimaldi." But of course, the only sailing times mentioned were for their company, not Grimaldi. I pressed and yup, he had lied to us--they didn't represent our company at all. After another half hour of wandering the streets and of inquiring, we finally found a staffed Grimaldi office and got our questions answered 10 minutes before closing.

Interspersed with searching for the ferry company, we tried inquiring about leaving our suitcase of bike gear at the port while in Tunisia. Again, it was stereotypically Italy--this time a southern specialty. One pair of double doors to the Luggage Deposit Office was unlocked and open, the other pair of doors was locked. The little TV stowed on the empty luggage racks was on, the light was on, but no one was there. We checked several times over the course of a half hour and no one was to be seen in the office posted as open 7 days a week for almost 12 hours a day. Shrugged shoulders greeted us when we inquired at the nearest port office. Then a bit later, we were told "Two minutes--the man is on his way." But predictably, no one ever showed up.

We'd learned about this "the office is open but nobody is there" trick in southern Italy last fall and didn't waste too much time after immediately spotting the earmarks of it. The odds were that the staff person would only be seen on the grounds at the opening and closing times. Our hunch seemed validated by the slight tilt of the head and little smile from the older man at the Grimaldi ferry office when we shared our experience. The complete absence of any luggage in the storage area also suggested that the staff had simplified the inconveniences of their job by never being in.

Another Unwelcome Surprise

So there we sat in our Palermo hotel room: cold, exhausted, and discouraged after an exasperating first day. We still had no where to stay in 3 nights, we had no place to store our suitcase while in Tunisia, and we had no one to receive and hold $600 of bike parts we'd just purchased in Germany that would be mailed to us in March. A trip to the hotel clerk's desk for help with another matter threw us one more curve: 2008 was again an early-Easter year and we'd missed it.

Our first week back in Italy after touring Tunisia would be Holy Week, which in very Catholic countries usually translates as "Wholly impossible to find lodging week." Huddling and brainstorming over the course of another hour had us deciding to park ourselves in Trąpani for that week in mid-March.

Trąpani was one of the few places in Sicily for which we had a hotel email address so we could easily make reservations before leaving for Tunisia. In Trąpani we would be freshly reunited with our bikes and Bill would welcome the extra time for working on them and installing more software on our new laptop and handheld computers. Trąpani was far from an ideal place for planting ourselves for a week but we needed to make reservations for that competitive time period promptly and we lacked the support of our guide book's information. Sending off a request for reservations that night would keep our list of problems from lengthening.

A Fresh Start

The next morning got off to a very slow start as we barely made it on to the city streets by 11 am. We'd slept in quite late, awoke groggy, and lacked ready courage to confront the challenges of the day: mopping up the failures from the day before.

The call to the cell phone number for the luggage storage staff at the port had been laughable, though mostly in English. I had called in the middle of the posted 6 hour calling period for the office supposedly staffed 12 hours a day and was told to call back in 2 days to get a price on storing our suitcase--a day before our departure to Tunisia. "Only in Italy" we laughed after I hung up. Where else could an office get-by with seemingly never being staffed and the staffer being unable to answer the most basic question about their services: "How much does your service cost?" Having this Plan B for storing our suitcase looking increasingly remote didn't make us laugh however.

Plan C for leaving our suitcase for 3 weeks at the train station immediately collapsed at the office door as they had a posted 5 hour time limit on left bags.

Our hotel still was booked for Friday night and amazingly, was fully booked for our return in 3 weeks, so there went Plan A for the suitcase. Not having the leverage of return reservations made it highly unlikely that they'd hold our bag. That also ruled them out for receiving our box from Germany. The accommodating young clerk would ask the manager about a room becoming available and storage of the suitcase, but it didn't look good.

After inquiring and being turned-down at 3 more hotels for our last night's stay in Palermo, we finally had success: the less polished but endearing hostess at the 4th hotel spoke no English but was eager for our business. She had a room for Friday night but we had to pay cash, in full, on the spot, to reserve the room. But hey, she was careful to give us a receipt. She also had openings for our return stay in March and she would hold our suitcase while we were in Tunisia for a small fee. Only 2 doors down from our current hotel, it was a more rustic place but it seemed like our only option for dispatching our persistent problems. We were a little nervous as to whether she'd really write down our March reservation and that our bag would be there when we returned but it was Italy, we often have these doubts in Italy and things work out anyway.

It had taken less than 2 hours on this noticeably warmer day for 3 of our 4 problems to melt away. All that was left was to find a recipient for our shipment from Germany. We decided to abandon our efforts to solve that problem in Palermo and to shift the burden to our next stopover, in Trąpani. The hosts at the Trąpani hotel were far from congenial, but we would contend with that social barrier when we arrived in 3 weeks.

 We made daily shopping trips to the busy open-air market.

 Regardless of having solutions for all of our problems, it again took me hours to unwind from the stress of all the negotiations. Bill had spent many, many hours online while on the road earlier in the week in planning our journey and today had been pay-back time; today I had had to rally my courageous self, my dragon-slayer persona, to press for solutions to our problems. It was my turn to move out of my comfort zone, to ask for help that people weren't accustomed to giving, and to do much of it in my fledgling and rusty Italian. Falling back on my small but versatile Italian vocabulary had worked, as had being meticulous in keeping my priorities straight as an array of options arose and collapsed in my still-foggy mind.


Chilling-Out in Palermo

Shifting Gears

Our usual MO is as very earnest travelers. We normally travel by bike or visit historical sites by day and retire to our room at dinner time each night to prepare our meal, bathe, dutifully hand wash our clothes, and study. The always-necessary self-care evening chores didn't go away, but as the chaos around the suitcases and lodging problems dissipated, we kicked-back to relax instead of stepping-up our sightseeing while in Palermo. We didn't have our guide books to Italy or Sicily to help us organize our sightseeing, so why fight it.

Instead of revolving around sightseeing, our Palermo stay became focused on finding a new city park each day for lunch.  Jet lag was clearing, the pressures from having been back in the States had dropped away, and the stress of doing serious trip planning on the fly for the last 10 days had eased--we were content to sit. We walked for miles and then sat for hours--until the mid-afternoon clouds rolled in and dropped the temperature and sometimes rain.

It was nice getting acquainted with each other again after so many stresses. We covered a range of topics, from world economics to the misery of so many as reflected on the faces in the Palermo street markets. We revisited stories from our similar college curriculums and parallel experiences on the same campuses.  I again explored the question of what my first career should have been, rather than being a medical technologist, and again came away with no answer.

Taking a Cue from the Kids

This is only part of a single tree in Palermo's Botanical Garden.

Surprisingly, for a couple that's been together for over 30 years, we also spent hours talking about sex. It's a topic that readily comes to mind when in Italy as the sensuality on the streets is so startlingly different than what is fostered on American streets by our puritanical roots.

The four 14-16 year old girls playing a little kick-ball near us in the English Garden that then drew the attention of a group of slightly older boys created the springboard for our discussions. Bill was positioned to see the dynamics that unfolded over the next hour though I only occasionally got a glimpse of the action going on behind me and had to settle for his reports. He filled in the boy's side of the story; I narrated the girl's version.

Seeing their pre-sexual dance play-out had us revisiting our own sexual histories in a new light. We compared notes on what we learned from whom and when. We again explored how the acknowledgment of sexuality was different in the men's and women's dorms on the same campus over the same years;. We delved deeper than ever before into the different messages that boys and girls and men and women get about sex and what they think the other gender is thinking. We used our interpretations of the teenager's behaviors to guess at what had changed in the last 40 years and what hadn't. It was intriguing to see how fertile the ground was that the kids had tilled before us and the conversations continued into the next day as we sat at the Botanical Garden.

A sample of Monreale Cathedral's elaborate mosaic work.

As we reflected on our lack of sightseeing while in Palermo this time, we felt slightly guilty but entirely satisfied. We'd had a delightful time resting our beings outdoors for hours in just tolerable temperatures. We'd greeted our brains awakening from the trauma of having their clocks jangled with probing conversations. And we'd walked for hours and hours doing our chores and as we did so had taken in the noise, the smells, and the sometimes slippery surfaces of the ancient city with its modern overlay. We hadn't seen much of monumental Palermo but we had gotten to know its rhythms as well as getting to know ourselves and each other a little better.


Monreale Cathedral

We did break-out of our daily sitting-in-the-park/shopping-in-the-open-market routine for one day of deliberate sightseeing. Monreale was the one item on Bill's mental "must see" list for Palermo and the hotel clerk provided us with (most) of the needed information to see it. He was quite specific about the transportation concerns, but he failed to mention that the cathedral closed for a very long lunch hour, which took-hold about 20 minutes after we arrived. We aren't great connoisseurs of cathedrals however and upon learning of the time crunch, we planned our interior visit accordingly. Unexpectedly, this day too largely became a "sit in the park and talk day" while we waited for the next irregularly appearing bus back to Palermo.

Looking up at a  Monreale capital.

We did learn that the construction of the Monreale cathedral and attached Benedictine abbey was initiated by William II around 1172--grandson of the Norman Roger II for those of you who can keep your kings and queens straight. It was built to rival the greatest cathedrals in Europe, so no expense was spared. Stories of the Bible are realistically portrayed in several rows of stunning gold mosaics installed in the 12th and 13th centuries along the length of both sides of the church. And like the much larger cathedral in Palermo, part of the exterior reveals the Moorish influence on the region.

The Moorish side of Monreale's exterior.

Heading To Tunisia

We finally settled on abandoning our larger budget suitcase that had 1 break in its plastic hardware and replacing it with 2 smaller suitcases for our 3 weeks in Tunisia. Especially with the weak dollar, we hated to invest another $30 in suitcases we'd discard when we returned to Trąpani, but it was a wise decision.

Splitting the weight between 2 bags would take the strain off of us and the luggage as we carted it around Tunisia. But even with 2 new suitcases, we had to shop for a nut and bolt in a small Tunisian town to replace a rivet that sheared off the handle fittings of 1 case. (A quickly made drawing with the suitcase in hand made for an easy transaction.)  We bought an extra nut and bolt just incase another fitting disintegrated en route. We've slowly come to accept that 'disposable' luggage is one of those extra expenses that is a necessary part of our lifestyle. Like all those maps and guide books we buy, we can't haul it all with us, so we have to use what we need and then leave it behind and hope it gives someone else pleasure.

Left to right: 2 new ones to Tunisia, 1 stays in Palermo, 1 given away.

So, after a last leisurely afternoon in a Palermo park, we'd head for the evening ferry with 2 new small suitcases in tow, 1 suitcase left behind in our Palermo hotel with a $1000 in new bike parts and accessories for use upon our return, and 1slightly damaged suitcase left as a gift to an unknown stranger.


Where We Are Now:   April 6, 2008

Another Little Village Somewhere in Central Sicily
    We had an interesting 3 week tour of northern Tunisia and saw a bit of Holy Week in Trąpani without lodging hassles as planned.
    Since leaving Trąpani on March 24th, we've admired fresh snow on the nearby hills and felt it on our faces; laid-over because of fierce rain and wind events; and ridden with the sun on our backs. We've chattered down 20% grade cobblestone streets; pushed our bikes up and down through tenacious mud; and meandered through charming villages.
    We've been charged by dogs; relentlessly pestered by stray cats; and stared at by alarmed cows and sheep and more than a few people. We toured through Phoenician, Greek, and Roman ruins; nervously rode through what has been the Sicilian mob's heartland for the last quarter of a century; repeatedly read about the feudal system continuing to shape Sicilian culture; and admired 2 Albanian-Byzantine communities tucked away in the hills.
   We'd be doing more elevation gain per week than in the Dolomites if we could sustain our usual mileage and have discovered new biking-related maladies. We hope for heat in our room each night, rooms which have ranged from a truck-stop motel to an institutionally decorated B&B to just finished, nicely appointed 'agri-turismo' compounds. All of that, and we are only halfway through our roughly west to east tour of Sicily's interior.
    Ah, it's good to be back on the bikes.





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