Friday, April 23, 2010

Rainy Sick Day - April 23 (Last day)

It’s my last full day in Milan and it really feels like it. I woke up feeling downright ill. It had started raining at one point in the middle of the night and it continued on through the early morning. The weather matched my mood and physical feeling perfectly. I was up by 8 or so and used the morning hours to finish up recounting much of the last week’s events. Feeling sick definitely helped provide me with an excuse to slow down and just be for a bit. My original plan had been to take a train up north to explore an area around the foothills of the Alps but with my right hip feeling sore and my achy head and runny nose, it seemed like staying close to home was definitely in order.

I’m not surprised that I’m starting to come down with something. In fact I’ve been thinking about it a lot today and seeing a lot of parallels to the ‘nutrient dense food’ concept. This idea holds that not all food is created equal - food grown in healthy, mineralized soil (whether organic, conventional, biodynamic, etc) will nourish its consumer differently than that which isn’t (seems obvious). And in the same way, organisms that eat nourishing, nutrient dense food will function optimally. And when it comes to plant disease and pest outbreaks, guess which plants are susceptible - the ones growing in poor, depleted soil. Those grown in rich soil are robust and resilient, able to fight off disease and pests. Well, I think I’ve been starting to immerse myself in nutrient not-dense living recently. Much of the food I’ve eaten in Italy has been composed of three primary ingredients - white flour, tomatoes and cheese. Not exactly the most nourishing of foods and given the legacy of land use (centuries worth) here on this ancient peninsula, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that much of the food is not what one would consider to be nutrient-dense.

On top of that, I’ve really been running myself ragged during this trip. Lots of late nights, fairly early mornings, heavy work and full on encounters with people. I’ve repeatedly said that I’m going to need a vacation when I get home and there’s truth to it. Which I think is one of the reasons I felt so demoralized when my return home was delayed. I really don’t have much more energy left to travel.

Well, today I tried to save it. My only real goal was to exchange the remaining Euros I had but that proved to be a fairly momentous task - probably partially my own fault. Many of the banks were either closed, wouldn’t change money for non-customers, didn’t change money, or well I didn’t go in. It was a frustrating search until I finally settled on one that didn’t really give me the best rate but at that point I was at my wit’s end and just needed to get it over with.

Since then I’ve basically just gradually made my way back to the hotel to relax. No big plans for tonight (my last night in Europe). I might go get some Indian take out. I did make a video montage of some of the photos from the cob workshop that I hope to upload to youTube and embed in the blog. I’ve got a pretty full on travel schedule back to the states starting in about 24 hours and I want to make sure I’ve got some energy to get home without getting too run down.

so that’s it!

Country Stomp - Thursday the 22nd

Waking up this morning, I started to notice an unwelcome soreness growing in my throat that I tried to put off to the smog and air pollution in the city. Today (Friday) I realize that it’s the full blown sickness that I was hoping to have avoided. I took my time getting started and had been planning to switch hotels to a place (Hotel Paradiso) that was much more convenient, comfortable, had internet access and cost the same price. The other part of my plan for the day was to catch a train that would take me to the outskirts of the city so that I could explore the surrounding countryside and see what I might find in the realm of coppice and pollarding.

I arrived at the new hotel fairly early - around 9:30 or so - but to my surprise they let me check right into my room which made life infinitely more convenient than I had anticipated. Once I was checked in, I headed over to the train station, picked a semi-random destination and caught a train bound in that direction (southwest).

But before setting off (the train left from another station in the southern reaches of Milan), I strolled around the streets of this new (to me) district that appeared to be much more working class and down to earth. It still featured similar architecture but without the same caliber of commercial development. I did a small loop and eventually discovered a series of canals spread throughout the area. It was truly enchanting and again reminded me of the charming character of Europe that I think I’ve been missing in the center of Milan. I only had a half hour or so to explore before my train was bound to believe but I definitely made the most of it.

One thing I hadn’t anticipated in my planning is that this country is far more developed than much of the states and trains generally don’t stop to drop people off in the middle of nowhere - they drop people off where people are. So what this meant is that my destination was actually a city that was likely twice the size of Burlington Vermont where I live. It proved to be an incredible destination - it was an ancient city with a central piazza that dated back to the 15th century, surrounded by a castle, mall and arcade (not the type of mall and arcade that we have in the states - an arcade being an outdoor covered walking space adjacent to building facades).

I strolled around the city, trying to intuitively find the quickest route out but it took some time for me to find it. Eventually I was getting closer and stopped at a pizzeria along the way for a late lunch. I’ve come to learn that my schedule does not mesh well with that of the Italians. They seem to close things for a couple of hours midday either during lunchtime (for banks and other official business) or between the lunch and dinner hours which is when I’m often just finally getting around to eating. So what it means is that I had to settle for pizza for the 10th or so time in the 4 days I’ve been here. Life could certainly be worse. I ordered a half liter of the house red wine as well and it seemed a little off (vinegary) but I did what I could to enjoy it.

With a full stomach, I set back off heading southwest - at least I assumed. I wasn’t sure if I would walk for a few hours and then double back or try to walk to the next train stop. I didn’t have a good map with me so I really wasn’t sure. I did notice that the train tracks started running parallel to the road I was on after a half hour or so so I knew that I’d catch up with a stop at some point though I wasn’t sure how much time/distance that might take.

I wish I could say the walk was productive but for all the energy I invested, it really wasn’t. I probably walked at least 5 miles - the second half of it along a much busier road than I would’ve liked to have been on - and really only got a few distant glimpses of any pollards along the way. As has come to be the norm, I saw numerous black locust stands and also passed by several fairly mature poplar plantations (8-10” diameter dbh) but nothing worth writing about.

I knew I had reached a point where I should decide whether to turn around or not and I was hoping to come onto some sort of sign that might let me know what to do. Seeing as how the countryside was fairly non-desrcript along the road I’d just walked, the thought of turning back and walking it again was pretty unappealing. Just then I came to a hotel along the roadside and asked the friendly proprietor how far it was to the next train stop. He said 3 kilometers so I eagerly pushed on.

I almost missed the train stop - in fact I would’ve had I not been paying pretty close attention. It was not in a town center but tucked away off the main road, only visible from the overpass I had nearly crossed. I knew the train was on an hourly schedule and figured that I was pretty close to catching the service for that particular. It was hot and I was pretty dehydrated and I definitely was not into the thought of passing another hour at this isolated stop so I high tailed it over to the station and within 2 minutes the train arrived.

I felt pretty exhausted on the trip back and more or less headed straight home. After unwinding for a bit and trying to rehydrate, I got on-line and made a bunch of phone calls to try to make plans for this Sunday’s fruit tree giveaway. It was wonderful to hear from friends that I haven’t seen for a month and left me feeling eager to return home. Around 10 or so I set out in search of dinner and ended up choosing a place just up the street. They had a beautiful wood fired over that was cylindrical in shape and tiled on the exterior. I ordered a salad (the first raw green stuff I’ve eaten in what feels like weeks) and gnocchi which was excellent. The rest of the night I unwound in my room and caught up on writing.

Wednesday April 21

I’d chosen to stay in my hotel one more day just to try to make life easy. Today I ended up heading into the old town in Milan and this foray helped me realize at least partially why I was likely feeling so drained by this city. It’s because I had been spending time in what felt like the newer section of town - while it still had some lovely architecture and scattered parks to behold, it had none of the character of old town Europe that I truly love. Where I had been, the car was dominant but in the Brera district, the narrow, windey, cobbled streets lent a completely different feel to the experience and I felt transported to another place where cities were built around people.

I was enjoying this walk immensely until it started to grow a bit more upscale and suddenly I found myself in the ‘Brera Design District’ and was surrounded by every top name in fashion you’ve ever heard of and a whole lot of names that I’m probably way too uncool to have heard of. I was the only person wearing shorts that was under 20 years old that I’d seen in days - and I’ve seen a lot of people. As I made my way closer to the Duomo (the cathedral), the capitalist temples grew in scale and despicableness, at least in my mind, and I was surrounded by a haven of overpriced commercialism. It’s now reminding me of the Biblical tale of Jesus throwing the merchants out of the temple. I guess that one’s been forgotten in Milan for as I approached the astoundingly overdone and magnificent Duomo, I saw it adorned with a giant advertisement for Converse! Can you believe it? Well I guess someone’s gotta fund the upkeep of the building.

The plaza surrounding the Duomo was immense and impressive. Full of people, I soaked it in for a bit. There must’ve been a soccer game going on because above all the hustle and bustle was the continuous drones of drunken fans dressed in their teams red and blue vertical striped jerseys.

I stopped into the Duomo for a few minutes and was touched by the scale and craftsmanship. It baffles me to think that humans have created these edifices - and with little more than some basic tools and their hands. With a ceiling that must’ve been 100 feet high, massive stone columns and domed arches supporting the roof, nearly floor to ceiling exquisite stained glass and just about any other craft related embellishment you could imagine, the Duomo represented the height of architectural expression and religious fervor. I sat in a pew and soaked it in for five or ten minutes, enjoying the cool air that the immense slab of thermal mass provided. The experience really extends beyond words.

Returning to the outdoors really felt like re-emerging from a cave - a whole new world. I kept on meandering for a bit and gradually made my way back to my hotel on foot. I covered nearly 20 miles total. That’s a lot of walking.

Well, I can’t believe that I forgot, but somehow he managed to slip my mind. Probably one of the most interesting encounters of the day was a chance meeting with Emidio the barber. I’d been considering a haircut ever since I started staying in hotels and seeing myself in the mirror on a frequent basis. Then, after spending several days walking the mean streets of Milan, I started to think that perhaps it was a good excuse to see what a Milano barber might be able to do for me. With some time in the afternoon on my way home, I figured why not give it a try?

I’d passed this barbershop a few times on my way home previously and decided to stop in. I asked the man if he spoke any English and he said no but I figured we’d still figure it out. The place was basically empty except for one other man who was hanging around. Emidio got me set up in the chair and soon enough we realized that Spanish was to be our common means of communication.

He was a talkative guy and we had a great conversation - a really good connection. He told me about the years he’d spent living in Costa Rica - he’d actually purchased a hotel there at one point even. A native Milano (not sure if that’s what they call themselves but…) he’s been cutting hair for 13 years. We talked about work, the economy, life in our respective countries, his current relationship woes and at one point I was almost convinced that he was taking extra time to cut my hair cut to keep the conversation going. And I forgot to mention that I had him give me a shave as well. It had been over a month since my last shave so my beard was pretty full. He gave me the straight razor treatment and didn’t even nick me once (though he did have to tell me to shut up a few times so he didn’t cut me - but he shouldn’t have been prodding me with questions.)

His helper was a young woman from Russia that he repeatedly gave a hard time calling her a communist and I shared the small amount of Russian that I remembered from college. Well, it was a really great experience altogether. He gave me a hairwash ‘gratis - para ti’ - free for you and really seemed to appreciate me. But then I saw the finished product. It didn’t look anything like the people on the streets of Milan - in fact it’s probably one of the poorest haircuts I’ve ever gotten. Not that he messed up significantly, just that his vision and mine seem to clash completely. When he was finished he said, ‘you look like a …’ I couldn’t figure out what he’d said. Eventually I realized he said that I looked like a Marine - now if there is one thing that I don’t want from a haircut I pay someone else to do, it’s to end up looking like a friggin Marine. Not really sure what to do except to try my hardest not to look in the mirror until it grows out, I left on good terms and didn’t have the heart to tell him what I really thought. I’m really glad we had the exchange and I’ll certainly remember it for a long long time. If I’m ever in Milan again, I’ll definitely drop in to say hi but I’ll never stop in for a haircut!

Miele-On Tuesday April 20

I woke up recognizing a significant need to formulate a plan. One of the nice things about my hotel room is that it had a lovely little walk out terrace attached which I used to enjoy the view of the streets below for a bit. It made me wish I smoked cigarettes so I had an excuse to linger a bit longer.

It turned out they had wireless internet at the hotel though you had to pay 10 Euros extra! I negotiated 5 and proceeded to make good use of it. First I called my airlines to see what they could do to reroute me (I’d learned that my flight out of Heathrow for the morning had been cancelled - big surprise). I spent a long time on hold and then finally got through to Joe who was very pleasant and did all he could to help me out - at least that’s what I believed.

He almost had me on flight out of Rome on Thursday that would’ve gotten me home on Friday which sounded perfect but for some reason was unable to do it so I sat on hold for another half hour or so until he had me on a Saturday evening flight out of Milan - to Amsterdam, where I spend the night and then leave for Detroit at 8am, arriving in Burlington at 3:30 pm on Sunday. Not ideal but I just took it. At this point I figured it wasn’t worth being too picky.

At least the knowledge of a scheduled flight helped me gage how much time I would have before returning home and feel a bit more settled into my surroundings so that I might actually try to start enjoying them rather than just lament the fact that I had absolutely no control over the situation.

I searched for a new hotel on-line and found some good options. I tried to book one that sounded great (and only cost like 35 Euros) and then headed out into the sunny Milano streets to explore until check out time arrived. I stopped by the hotel on the way to see if they’d gotten my reservation but they had yet to receive anything and the concierge seemed like he wasn’t all that eager to take me on as a customer there.

I checked out of my hotel at noon and headed for my new hotel. I had still yet to receive e-mail confirmation from the booking agency on-line and the guy behind the desk told me he had no availability so I was out of luck. It was pretty demoralizing to be back at square one, with my luggage on my back and a whole new search process ahead of me. To keep a long story short, I extended my range considerably and did what I could to enjoy the search though it got very very old. After another hour and a half or more, I finally found a place and it only cost 40 Euros though I have a feeling that was an inflated rate. It smelled a bit funky and was not partiularly nice but it was functional and at least relatively affordable so I hopped on it.

Feeling landed at least temporarily, I set out to explore the city a bit. Not really all that much to say except that I seem to have an incredible tendency to completely turn myself around here - the streets, while well labeled, are very circuitous and I’ve gotten more lost here than I have any other place for quite some time.

One drawback to the hotel was there was no internet and I was really needing to check in with friends back home about projects slated for Sunday - a lawn to garden conversion workshop I was going to have to cancel and the Burlington Permculture grant funded fruit tree giveaway that I didn’t want to have to reschedule. I spent my meander, perusing the city, looking for an internet cafe with wireless and I couldn’t find one anywhere. It was absolutely astounding. I was in the eastern European nation of Macedonia just a few days before and there seemed to be one every few blocks. The only explanation I can think of is that the high brow Mianese cafes really don’t want to encourage web surfing at their establishements. If you’re not drinking espresso, smoking a cigarette and looking like the newest trend in fashion, they’d rather not have you there browsing youTube. I can appreciate the desire to keep their spaces free of web surfing ‘culture’ and the isolated walls it creates, but I found it hard to believe that in a city of millions, I could not find a single internet cafe.

Until I made my way back home. On the way, I passed a computer accessories store stopped in and asked if there was an internet cafe nearby. The man told me just up the street and low and behold, the cafe nearly next door broadcast wi-fi. Later that evening I headed back there to try to make some phone calls and plans regarding my change in travel. Walking there from the metro stop, I was asked by a few young travelers for some help. They were looking for an internet cafe. I told them they’d found the right (and possibly the only right) person in the whole city.

This young couple had just been dumped off in Milan - same story of botched travel - and needed to make plans for their return to London. We stopped in at Bianco Latte - our cafe - and were suddenly treated with a sensual delight. Very nice staff with whom I spoke in Spanish after they gave me a hard time when I asked if they spoke English (it was the best I could do). I got coffee and ice cream (gelato - one thing I can say about the folks here is they sure do appreciate damn good ice cream. It’s amazing and there are gelateria’s on what seem to be every block. That’s one thing about this city that I think could help me fit in quick).

So everything seemed perfect - I’d met some nice new people, we had a bright space to work in and good snacks, - but we couldn’t get on-line. It was murphy’s law set in motion. I won’t get into the details but they were reluctant to ‘cycle’ - turn off and on - the modem, which is all they needed to do, so it meant that we were unsuccessful after all. Well, it was a good experience nonetheless.

They still needed a hotel and anticipating the search I’d experienced, I brought them back with me on the train and fortunately the proprietor had a spare for them. I didn’t see them again in the morning but I’m guessing they made it off safely.

Superfast Ferry Travel - Monday April 19

I spent the end of (and actually all of) my night on Sunday in the ship’s lounge - very casino-like and decorated to the point that you couldn’t actually tell you were out at sea. When I first arrived down there, the plush, couch-like seating was absolutely packed. I found an empty space to nestle into though, next to a middle aged, long-haired blond man drinking a beer.

We struck up a conversation about disrupted travel plans and I learned that while Dutch, he’s been living on the Greek island of Corfu for 25 years and runs a construction company there. He was headed back up to Holland to work on a building project he has underway there. I told him about cob and the work I’d been doing and we had a lot in common. While he’s pretty conventional - he was sharing his ‘natural building’ experiences as having been building kit log cabins made from old Siberian timber - he seemed to have very similar politics and perspective as to the state of affairs on a global level.

We had a couple of beers and he went off to retire to the cabin he’d rented for the night. I continue to kick myself for not having asked him if I could share a ride up to Holland (he’d rented a car). I’d find out later that it would’ve made a huge difference in my travel experience.

As it grew later, the lounge began to thin a bit but it was probably the most ‘comfortable’ sleeping space on the ship for many of the travelers with deck seating. It took a while but I was able to find a relatively comfortable way to sprawl out on the couch, with my head resting on a nearby chair. I managed to get some uncomfortable sleep and woke up with several body parts feeling a bit sore and numb.

The cabin started bustling fairly early and we still had another 3-4 hours until we reached port (we ended up being over an hour late). I spent some time lodged in front of a television set, blaring English-language news that repeatedly alternated between the same two primary stories - the volcano and Goldman Sachs. Both ironically tales of incredible amounts of hot air release into our environment. When I’d had my fill of the addictive nonsense, I headed up to the deck to check out the surroundings.

It was a beautiful sunny day but it was pretty gusty up top which made it hard to enjoy it. I ate some of the bread and feta-like cheese I’d bought in the Skopje supermarket a day or two before and then retired to a more sheltered location. I eventually ended up in what had become the smoker’s lounge, despite the fact that it was littered with no smoking signs. It was something of a ballroom, with a bar in the center and the remainder of the space full of overstuffed easy chairs surrounding small tables. I joined a group of three British businessmen and enjoyed a nice view out the large hind window of the ship.

After a bit we struck up a conversation and shared our travel intentions. They were on their way to London too and had been stuck since the whole travel debacle began. They had tried to rent a car but apparently the Italian car rental agencies weren’t allowing any of their vehicles to be taken outside the country. We had similar iteniraries though they were going to head for Milano and then Paris while I had intended to go there via Bologna based on the travel site recommendations I’d encountered.

We arrived at the port in Ancona - quite a beautiful, sweeping view of the old city - and headed off to the train station to the west. It was probably four times as long as the 500 meters that my British friend had estimated based on the internet map he’d studied but it wasn’t all that bad. As I’d imagined, the station was overrun with travelers and I opted to buy a ticked for Bologna via the self serve machine rather than wait in the immense line to try to get some advice from an overwhelmed agent.

I purchased my ticket and had about 20 minutes to spare before my train. I hopped across the street and got a slice of some horrible pizza (not to worry, I’ve now had more than my share of quality stuff at this point). I waited by the train platform and was headed off to the north in no time. It was a beautiful day for travel and we hugged the coast line for much of our trip with the sea to the east and the gently sloping Italian countryside to the west.

The landscape was very subtle with a long, even grade from the horizon - perhaps a kilometer or two to the west down to the coast. For the most part, it consisted of arable crop land, bordered by sparse hedgerows. We frequently passed through small cities - most of the small cities here would probably dwarf Burlington (VT). After a couple of hours, we arrived in Bologna.

The train station was again about as chaotic as I would’ve anticipated. I rushed to get in line and only then did I notice the sign that said ‘All trains to northern Europe full’. As I reached the ticket booths, they’d actually attached a date to this - April 23 - Friday. It was Monday. This was not good. When it was my turn, they more or less confirmed it. I might be able to travel to Milano then to Geneva and then onto Paris but it would like mean that I’d end up stuck in Switzerland for a few days instead of Bologna or Milan. I decided to check to see what the buses were like.

I walked across town and found the small bus terminal and there was only a single agent serving the line of 15 people. After a solid 20-30 minute wait, he informed me that all buses to Paris were booked through the 28th! Ok, well that decision was an easy one.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed, disappointed, confused and dejected, I returned to the train station after trying to kick start the rehydration process, and waited once again in the extensive line. I spoke with the man in front of me who I’d heard speaking on the phone in English. He was headed back to NYC where he lives and said that flights out of Milan had just resumed. This at least seemed somewhat promising. I was thinking that perhaps that might be a good back if necessary.

When I finally reached the front, the new agent told me that not only are the trains full, but the Paris rail company has actually started to strike so there is no travel at all at this point. I had a hard time believing him as only an hour ago, I’d heard of nothing of the sort. Could things really keep going from bad to worse like this? I was well aware of the fact that with so many people out of luck and in need, the agents wield incredible power in their ability to connect people with a functional route. I was not feeling much love from this man and realized that I probably needed to give up on my intention to make it to the UK anytime soon. It was a feeling I’ve not experienced much in my life - the realization of the fact that I had absolutely no control and no ability to modify my situation towards the goal I had originally set. It’s probably a good thing to have experienced.

I figured I’d give it one last try though being the stubborn person I am and bought a ticket for Milan, another two or three hours north by train. I was feeling pretty worn at this point and did a lot of sleeping on the way. I found it difficult to control my racing mind while I was awake which was quite frustrating and kept trying to run through different travel options, without ever reaching a real conclusion. I felt trapped and wasn’t willing to accept the reality of the situation.

Well after dark, we arrived in the city and it was far larger than I’d anticipated. I got off at the 3rd train station in the city - Milano Centrale - and began to navigate the immense ranks of the impressive structure. It is a true marvel of engineering - massive arches of both steel and stone and incredible craftsmanship. They sure do know how to make an architectural statement here in Europe!

I headed for the ticket counter, foolishly hoping to find a different scenario here, but once I arrived there and saw the size of the line, I realized it was really really time to give up and stay put. I left the station and headed towards the first hotel I could find. I knew there was no chance I’d want to afford it but figured they could help answer some questions for me. 140 Euros a night. He did point me in the direction of other more affordable hotels.

Well, to make a long story short, I ended up walking the city streets for over two hours, covering close to 8 miles, searching for a hotel and there was virtually nothing. Everything was booked! Not a single room to be found. I bet I visited well over 30 hotels. Things seemed like they kept going from bad to worse. The only places I did find with vacancies were either far too expensive or only had doubles or triples (or they were pretty dingy looking). I finally settled on a place that had an open triple and paid 70 Euros (ouch!) for the less than stellar space. At that point, I was just happy to have a place to put down my bag and lay for the night. I went out to find some food, had my first true Milan pizza and beer experience and was off to sleep.

Straight through Hellas (Greece) - Sunday April 18

It’s been quite an unconventional day. As this point it’s hard to believe this is how it’s going to end ( in fact, even more so than usual, it feels like there’s going to be no clear transition between today and tomorrow). I write this reflection amidst the chaos of a recently departed ‘Superfast Ferry’ bound of Ancona, Italy from Igoumenitsa, Greece. At the moment, a voice is telling us what to do in the wake of an emergency - I actually hadn’t even considered that when I boarded this thing. Air travel is starting to seem a whole lot more appealing - sulfur ash cloud or not.

The boat feels pretty full, not packed full but loaded with people - all types, some real characters. It’s a lot harder to avoid them on a big floating raft - it’s much different than the bus or train. Well, in just 14.5 hours we'll be there - super fast! And then my international scramble can continue back on dry land.

As the voice blares in the background with emergency response recommendations, I can’t help but place myself on the Titanic (or how about some other, less fateful cruise ship?) and imagine what ocean liner travel would’ve been like 100 years ago. Probably a whole lot different. I think many of us here are in the same, boat - f’d up by a volcano. I just spoke with my friend Nicos from Athens on the phone who told me the news folk were saying it could be weeks or even months before the volcano calms. I guess I’ve been aware of that all along, but I didn’t really want to accept that reality - or at least think about it.

Well, here I am on a massive, floating nuclear-reactor of a seagoing vessel with countless thoughts flooding through my head. I think I’ll just use it to reflect on the day for the moment.

Breakfast at the hotel kinda sucked. A few mini-pastries that seemed like they may have come out of a box frozen, some coffee and yogurt and I was basically done. I got the details on buses to Igoumenitsa and set off to get my ticket. Took the #8 across town and was there in 15 minutes flat. Got my ticket for 2:30pm, hopped back on the bus and was at the hotel. The whole trip brought me back to my birthday six and a half months ago under very similar circumstances (minus the volcano).

Thankfully, another cup of coffee awaited, and I took that while doing some more net travel research. I wrapped things up at noon (check out time). - trying to make sure I had my bases covered if I were to not make it back in time for Sunday workshops in Vermont and checked out.

With a couple of hours before my flight, I headed to a nice corner cafe up the street for some coffee, souvlaki (not at all the best I’ve had) and a chance to revisit some of the journaling I’d abandoned so long ago. The waitress was incredibly nice and I felt as if I’d picked the right place. I sat under an awning and just passed away time recording thoughts nearly lost from the past week. It turned out there was a marathon (or at least an extended run) going on in the city that day, so the runners steadily pushed past with traffic reduced to only half the primary urban artery.

After an hour or more passed, I made my way to the bus stop and got a call back from Stamatina just as I arrived. It was great to hear her voice - the first time since we said goodbye last week. She kindly told me I was welcome to stay in Athens as long as I needed. If only my flight left from there. I feel a pressing need to get back to the London area so I’m close to the airport if the flights do resume.

I was at the bus terminal with a half hour to spare and passed the time doing more writing. We soon boarded a very modern, comfortable bus and set off on our way. The first part of the route was very familiar - I had passed through it on my last visit to Lefkas. This time it was spring though and everything (especially the valleys) was a whole lot greener. I took a bunch of photos though I’m not sure how they turned out. One particular thing that stood out was the nuclear power plant (or plants) at the high-elevation plain. I’d clearly recalled passing one during the last trip, but not two at separate ends of the plain. It was quite an ominous and unwanted surprise.

After a couple of hours, we began heading more directly southwest, and we proceeded to pass through one of the most incredible engineering marvels I’ve ever experienced - probably well over thirty tunnels totally well over ten miles I would guess. The terrain was amazing - steep mountains on all sides, at one point snow peaked - and our route took us through the thick of it. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must’ve cost. I spent much of the time writing, to the point where my hand started to cramp.

By about 7, we arrived in Igoumenitsa and I made my way to the ferry terminal. I had planned to travel via Bari, but as I searched train times on the internet, it became pretty clear that Ancona was a much better option. It would be cheaper and save time so I set off on the 8[m ferry for Ancona - bound to arrive tomorrow morning at 10:30.

The massive ship’s arrival was quite a sight. Just as I was boarding I got a call from my Athenian friend Nicos. It was great to catch up with him though I feel like I missed out on some important ship orientation that might’ve left me a little less confused.

It just started to pour rain. I’m sitting at a plastic table at one end of the ship’s deck but feel like I’m going to need to seek a greater comfort level soon. It’s a big day tomorrow and I’d like to be conscious for at least a part of it.

Cruising the Countryside Saturday April 17

Up by 8 Saturday morning. I came up with a travel route (and found an e-mail in my junk mail box from a professor at the Skopje University who had offered to show me coppice in the country - unfortunately too late!). Got some breakfast and then went to pick up the car. I checked out the hotel and was on the road. It was fairly easy to leave town and after nearly filing the tank with forty Euros of petrol ($55) I was off. The new and modern highway provided very smooth travel though I was looking for a slow, intimate passage. I got a lot of chances to practice my 100 Km/h photography skills and managed to get some good ones.

In retrospect, this areas surrounding Skopje to the west seemed to contain the pastoral, mixed-use landscape I was mostly searching for. Hedgerows and tree lines full of pollarded and shredded trees were abundant, something I saw less and less of to the south and east. I guess it’s just a scouting trip anyways though right?

As I proceeded, some high elevation majestic mountains emerged, still snow capped in the distance. After about forty five minutes I started to climb higher with some gorgeous views of the agricultural valleys below. To this point, almost all of the forests had appeared exceedingly young and immature. This was where I first saw a transition. I had been beginning to wonder what was going on. Largely deciduous, I didn’t get a good read on species, but it seemed that they too were managed with the roads lined with coppice and the steeper slopes above and below left to standard trees.

This pattern progressed for some time along the west mountain rods towards Ohrid. An hour or so later, I came to a junction and chose instead to aim southeast towards Bitola. I knew that the type of management I was looking for would be found in the agricultural areas, not high-elevation forest, so I directed myself towards functionality over majesty.

This stretch of road provided a bit of both. Occupying a narrow valley at mid-elevation, small villages hugged the hillside with farms relegated to narrow flats with deeper soils on either side of the valley. The only coppice management I saw here so to speak was frequent pollarding of trees along the river’s edge. Many of the villages I passed featured a mix of exquisite stone work, timber frame with wattle infill, mud brick, and both old and modern masonry. All were usually tight clusters surrounded by more open agricultural land.

One of the most common tree species I saw was the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). It lined roadsides all along the drive - especially the vegetated banks along the highways. It appears to have been planted but generally looked to be only 3-5 years old - too early to see how it’s being managed and for what. The predominance of this overwhelmingly multifunctional tree though in areas around the world pays testament to its value and to the foolish shortsightedness of so-called conservationists in Massachusetts who label it ‘invasive’ and have made its transport and planting illegal. To them, I ask, ‘What are you going to build and heat your homes with in the wake of the dying petroleum culture?’

As I reached Bitola, the landscape opened into a broad valley characterized by industrial field crop agriculture. Most of the hedgerows and tree lines were gone, likely due to the scale of machinery and agricultural production. The only crop I clearly recognized was mustard, but I’m sure other grains were prominent as well.

The further north I progressed, the landscape seemed to grow more and more dry. I passed through another high-elevation mountain pass and some amazing scenery and finally emerged in a land of rolling hills that extended all the way back to the city of Skopje. My return to the city proved fairly easily navigable. After a slight challenge entering the parking lot of the rental agency, I was again free and on foot. With 1.5 hours before my train to Thessaloniki, I meandered through the pedestrian streets to find an afternoon meal.

My first choice, with lovely covered open-air dining, proved a bit too highbrow, so I thankfully found a new location. While the waiter didn’t speak any English, it didn’t matter because they only served one thing - kebabs. A half dozen sausage-like links with some delicious pita-esque bread, two chile peppers and a scallion rounded out the meal. Unsure of how to eat it, I used intuition - I later saw people just load up the pita. I enjoyed a Skopsko (beer) and then headed to the station to blow some of my last Dinari on ice cream and hop aboard the train.

The journey was slow and again involved me fading in and out of consciousness. The landscape I did catch was spectacular as usual - one steep gorge between sheer cliffs next to a cresting river at dusk was particularly memorable.

The overhead lights were out in our car and we were asked to move to another at customs. Though long, the process was fairly painless. I sat in a coachette with two Finlandians and we chatted about travel plans. We arrived in Thessaloniki at 10:30. I walked to my hotel and climbed in. It was compact but comfortable. When I logged in on-line I learned I’d need to ‘make do’ once again. My flight was cancelled (for London). I tried to come up with a back up plan and do what I could to prepare to get home up to a week later than planned (all due to the Icelandic volcano).

Fortunately, I didn’t have many commitments upon arrival and can think of a lot worse things that could happen to me than getting stuck in Europe. I decided to head to Igoumenitsa the next day (Grecian port) and catch an overnight ferry to Bari, Italy. From there, I’d either reply on trains to get me to London - Bari to Bologna, Bologna to Paris, Paris to London - or try the bus.

I had almost taken the same route on my way to Greece, but it is way longer and more expensive. It should make for an adventure and some good scenery. My only hope is that I can make it to London in time to catch my flight in case the volcano has calmed down and air travel resumed.

This has been a very enlightening reality check for me. Realizing how seriously I take for granted my ability to instantly cross as ocean is actually quite alarming. While I know I’ll make it home at some point, it’s very illuminating to see how much I expect from and rely on the very culture I’m working to transform. Time will tell…. One thing I do know - the volcano is definitely in charge!