2017 Total Solar Eclipse

My friend Bob and I are both science geeks, Bob perhaps a little more than me. We started planning for the 2017 total solar eclipse months ago. We thought it would be cool to watch from the beach, so we booked a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, for the weekend, ordered our eclipse glasses and waited.

In hindsight we didn’t really plan for the weather. We should have booked two hotels, one at the beach and one in the mountains, and then canceled the other booking based upon the weather (the viewing conditions for the mountains were supposed to be excellent). As we left for Charleston the weather forecast was not promising. However, we had picked Charleston because we knew we could simply head inland if needed, and as long as we stayed in the path of totality we would be fine.

This was to be my first total solar eclipse. The closest I’d come before was in 1984. I was just getting ready to graduate from the NC School of Science and Math and we all went out to witness an annular eclipse on May 30th.

1984 Annular Eclipse

It was cool. The picture above was taken by Joe Liles, the school’s art director, but it really didn’t get all that dark. It is surprising how bright even a sliver of the Sun can be, and since we didn’t have totality it was less impressive than I was expecting.

Flash forward 33 years.

Isle of Palms

The four of us: Bob, his wife Kathy, Andrea and I drove down to Charleston late Saturday night, and we explored the city a bit on Sunday. Of course, all of the tours were booked due to the influx of people, so we just wandered around the market and ate some seafood. Later in the afternoon we drove over to the Isle of Palms. This was where we were planning on watching the show, but as the forecast just kept worsening we decided to head inland. We made it an early night so we could get up early Monday and beat the traffic.

Bob decided we should try to go to Lake Murray in Irmo, South Carolina, just outside of Columbia (and once home to Donna Rice). A few miles away was the Columbiana mall, so we made that our destination as a place to get lunch and sit in some air conditioning. We figured if worst came to worst, we could simply watch it from the parking lot.

Traffic wasn’t bad until we actually headed for the lake, and even then it was only congested near the two parks on either side of the dam. All the public parking lots were full, so we paid a guy $20 to park in a business lot and then walked the rest of the way. Luckily there was a nice place to sit on a hill overlooking the water, and so that’s where we made camp.

The place was crowded but not packed, and there was a general festive atmosphere. We were still worried about the clouds, and soon after the eclipse started this is what the sky was like:

2017 Eclipse - clouds

We had heard that an eclipse will actually cause cumulus clouds to dissipate. In the summer most of them are caused by afternoon heating, and while I couldn’t tell that the light level had decreased at all, the clouds did thin and eventually go away completely, and we had excellent viewing for totality.

2017 Eclipse - Kathy and Tarus looking up

Since we ended up at a lake, Andrea decided to watch from the comfort of the water. She found that she could float on her back and hold on to one of the float wires marking the edge of the “beach” area, and since her ears were submerged she said it was a very cool and quiet experience.

2017 Eclipse - Andrea floating

I hate the water so I stayed on land. With our glasses we could see totality inching closer and closer.

2017 Eclipse - nearly total

I had decided not to take any pictures during totality, and almost all of these in this post were taken by Bob. We only had about two and a half minutes for the main event, and there is a lot to take in. You get to look at the sun with the naked eye:

2017 Eclipse - totality

and there is a sunset in every direction you look:

2017 Eclipse - sunset

In a word, it was amazing. It got considerably darker than it did during the annular, and it was just so totally awe inspiring I really don’t have words to express it. While I consider myself spiritual if not religious, there is something about seeing the moon fit over the sun just so perfectly that implies the divine.

When it was over I wanted to do it again, immediately. I also felt kind of gypped, as it is possible to have a much longer eclipse than the two and a half minutes we observed. In fact, it can go up to seven and a half minutes (when the Moon is close to the Earth and the Sun is farthest from the Earth), but since that won’t happen until 2186 I’m going to have to be satisfied with what we got, for now.

Once totality was over, there were still some cool effects to discover. The leaves of trees act kind of like pinhole cameras, so you get little crescent shaped shadows everywhere:

2017 Eclipse - crescent shadows

Still buzzing from the experience, we walked back to the car and joined the throngs heading home.

Google wanted us to take I-26 to I-95, but I-26 had become a parking lot:

2017 Eclipse - cars on I-26

Looking at Google Maps it kept telling us traffic would get lighter, but when we got to that point it was “red” again. It dawned on us that folks leaving the area after the eclipse probably formed a sort of “clot” that would continue to move, slowly, along the interstate. It was funny that I don’t think Google Map’s algorithms really planned for something like this, so we decided to take back roads.

That was slightly better, until you would hit a small town. For example, in Bethune, South Carolina, there is a four-way stop on the highway.

2017 Eclipse - Bethune four-way stop sign

Based on the amount of time we sat in traffic, my guess is that they didn’t think to put a cop there to direct traffic until just before we made it to the sign.

So, it took us about seven hours to travel what should have taken four. I don’t care, I would still do it again even if I had to wait longer.

I might have caught the “eclipse” bug. According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, a total eclipse happens on average about once every two years.

2017 Eclipse - Tyson tweet on eclipse frequency

This is backed up by Wikipedia. The next one is in July of 2019, and the path of totality is just south of Buenos Aires in Argentina. That could be doable with frequent flyer miles and hotel points, and it will occur near sunset which should be hella-cool.

The next one in the US is in 2024 and should last more than four minutes. Bob and Kathy may have an RV by then, and if so … road trip. If you get the chance to see a total eclipse, don’t miss it. I’m still thinking about it two days later.

Travel: Barcelona – Part One

Well I never been to Spain
But I kinda like the music
Say the ladies are insane there
And they sure know how to use it

Hoyt Axton

In the weeks leading up to my first trip to Spain, I would joke about the fact that “I never been to Spain”. Guess I can’t use that line anymore.

Spain is the 37th country I’ve been lucky enough to visit. Although I spent the entire time in Barcelona, I loved the city so much I don’t know if I’d ever want to leave it.

And there is a lot to love. That I was there on business meant that I didn’t get to see as much of the city as I would have liked, but what I did see was amazing. Beautiful architecture, wonderful weather and some of the nicest people I’ve met outside of the United States.

Oh, and good food and drink, of course.

I landed on a Saturday, and as luck would have it my hotel room was ready. When I travel east it is usually an overnight flight where I arrive mid-morning. If I can, I like to sleep for a few hours, wake up before dusk, and then stay up to a normal bedtime. If I can do that, I tend to adapt to the local time quickly, but sometimes my room isn’t ready and I have to make other plans. Luck was with me, so I took a nap and got up around 16:00 to wander around the city. I ended up wandering the Barrio Gotico (Gothic Quarter), a warren of old streets which was kind of fun yet spooky, since it was dark and there were few people about due to some rain showers.

It was also that night I learned something cool about Spain. Where I live it is not unusual for restaurants to close about 20:00 (8pm). Around 19:40 I walked into a restaurant and asked for a seat (in my broken Spanish). The person I talked to tried to explain something to me, and after a minute or so I realized that the restaurant didn’t even open until 20:00.

I knew I would love this town.

I had the next day to myself, so I decided to play Ingress. This took me all over the main parts of the city. In fact, I walked about 25km that day alone.

This took me past the famous Sagrada Familia.

I didn’t plan ahead and the line was long, so I missed seeing the inside of Gaudí’s masterpiece, but it is on the list for next time.

After the weekend I spent most of the time working. We would start around 9:00 to 9:30 and go until 20:00. We would eat lunch sometime around 15:00-16:00, and unlike the US where lunch is usually a trip to a fast food restaurant, every place we went to had a “set” lunch, often referred to as “el menú del día”. For a set price, between 9 and 11 euros, you get two plates, a drink (including a beer or wine) and a dessert. So civilized, and good for you.

As I was in a major city, I wanted to indulge my passion for vintage cocktails. Number 42 on the list of the World’s Top 50 bars is Dry Martini, and when I mentioned to friends that I wanted to go there, they also suggested a place called Boadas.

Since Boadas was closer, I decided to try it first.

Boadas is a triangular-shaped room off of the touristy Las Ramblas. I immediately fell in love with the atmosphere: intimate, with dark paneled walls. Crowded, but with a few open seats. Older bartenders dressed in tuxedos.

Now in preparation for my trip I spent a lot of time practicing my Spanish on Duolingo. If you haven’t heard of it, it is a website where you can learn languages for free. They “gamify” the whole process so it’s fun, and I actually got compliments on my Spanish skills. They will remind you to visit every day, and I felt guilty when my string of 21 days broke. I wanted to tell Duolingo “but, I’m actually practicing my Spanish in Spain!”

I should mention that most people here speak Catalan, a language derived from Roman Latin, along with Spanish. It can get confusing, such as the time I was given a menu and it took me a full minute to realize it was in Italian.

Anyway, back to Boadas. I went up to the bar and asked, in Spanish, if they had a drink menu. They did not – they just made classic cocktails. Cool, I thought, and I asked for a Golden Dawn. The bartender looked at me with a confused expression and said he didn’t know that one. No worries, it’s pretty obscure, how about a Scofflaw? No, he replied, we only make “classic” cocktails.

Okay, if that’s the game you want to play, how about a Brandy Crusta?

At this point the guy next to me at the bar, who I later learned was from Zurich, was like “good one!”. Of course, the bartender didn’t know of the Brandy Crusta. I explained that it was the origin of such drinks as the Margarita and Sidecar.

Sidecar! He knew that one, so for 9€ I got a very good sidecar, but the whole experience was a little disappointing. They were offering a cocktail special called the “Leap Craddock”. I, of course, was familiar with Harry Craddock, but I had never heard of this drink. I think it might have been their interpretation of the Leap Year Cocktail, but I didn’t stick around to find out. Perhaps my accent and elementary Spanish skills had something to do with it, so I won’t put the whole blame on the bartender.

Later in the week I did make it to Dry Martini.

This was slightly larger than Boadas but with just as much atmosphere. The bartenders here wore ties and white jackets. I went up to the bar and introduced myself to Paco. When I asked if he had a drink menu he produced two: one for Martinis and one for other cocktails.

The Martini menu included 100 drinks, many of them classics that I wouldn’t exactly call Martinis, but I was willing to overlook that. For my first drink I decided to follow the adage “when in Rome” so I ordered a classic Martini. They do theirs with equal parts gin and vermouth, which is practically unheard of, but the final product was delicious. Part of the secret is that they stir it in a huge pitcher completely full of ice, so when it is finally served it is oh so ice cold.

It was one of the best Martinis I’ve ever had.

I mentioned to Paco, in Spanish, that I had a cocktail blog. He asked if I spoke English, and when I said “yes” he introduced me to Lorenzo. Lorenzo was originally from Italy and he is also a fan of Ted Haigh’s book. One of the first things he said to me was “I think my favorite cocktail of his is the Golden Dawn”.

¡Hermano!

We had a really nice discussion about cocktails, starting with how the Golden Dawn should always be made in equal proportions (which goes against my friend and cocktail chef Justin, but he does just have that one flaw. Well, maybe two as he doesn’t like Tiki drinks). It was nice how a love of real cocktails can bring people together.

As I was sitting at the bar, contented, I decided I would like some food. Since lunch was pretty filling, I was wondering if I could just get something small, then I realized I was in the country that invented small dishes. I asked for a tapas menu and ordered the “Dry Martini Potatoes” and a tuna dish. Both were very tasty and just the right portions.

For my final cocktail I went with an old favorite, The Last Word. Equal parts gin, maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse and lime juice. I thought the dried lime slice was a nice touch.

As much as I would have liked to go there every night, it didn’t happen. I was able to take two of my customers back on Friday, the last night I was in town. Both Paco and Lorenzo were working, and I think I made an impression since they seemed to remember me.

Although we weren’t in Lorenzo’s section, he came by to chat and I asked if he would make, off the menu, three Golden Dawns. He was more than happy to do so:

I actually was a little unhappy, since his were better than mine. I think he has access to superior Calvados.

Anyway, I plan to return in September with Andrea and so I should have more to say on the culture of Barcelona than just a synopsis of the cocktail culture, not that focusing on the cocktail culture is a bad thing.

Travel: 2015 Ireland – Dublin and Doolin

My first trip to Ireland was in 2014 and I welcomed the opportunity to return this year. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate very well.

I did manage to snap a picture of the Irish countryside from the plane.

It is quite beautiful, but I did find it strange that there was almost no “forest”. One of the things you get when flying over the United States is that you can always see large stands of trees. Apparently the British cut those all down to make boats.

Still, it is very pretty and I can see why it is called “The Emerald Isle”.

I got into Dublin on a Sunday morning and made my way to the hotel. I’ve been traveling a lot and I have little spare time, so I didn’t have as much time to plan for this trip as I wanted. During the entire journey I had the feeling that I’d forgotten something. I realized what it was when I got to my room and discovered I had left all my electrical power adapters at home. As I was leaving Ireland for Germany I needed both UK and European adapters, but luckily Dublin is a tourist town and I was able to find them with little problem.

That evening I was eager to try something I had read in the book Boozehound. The author referred to ordering a “Guinness and Powers” and I wasn’t quite sure what that was. Turns out that Powers whiskey is the most popular whiskey sold in Ireland.

I can see why – it is quite tasty. It’s smooth, even in the “normal” version (there are lots of grades of Irish whiskey, even within the same brand).

The weather was cold, windy and raining, but the company was wonderful. On Wednesday evening my friend Patrick took me to a local pub that specialized in craft beer and was known for good food. He brought along his childhood friend Liam, who was a lot of fun, and an Englishman named Malcolm who was in town doing some construction work. Malcolm is from north of Newcastle, which means he probably has more in common with Scottish culture than British, and he was also fun to hang around.

During the wonderful meal I mentioned I was interested in learning about Irish whiskey, and Liam suggested a place in Temple Bar called Mary’s Hardware. The only problem was that we were considerably north of there. It was suggested that instead of taking a taxi that we should get on the ubiquitous public bikes and ride down there. A few minutes later I found myself barreling down O’Connell street, dodging buses, construction and irritable taxi drivers.

Mary’s Hardware turned out to be a blast. It’s a little hole in the wall, and speaking of walls, along one side of the bar is a wall full of hardware supplies. While mainly a bar, apparently you can actually buy hardware there.

There we had some whiskey, including the excellent Green Spot, and delightful conversation that I am both unable to and refuse to post here (grin). It had the makings of a long night but Patrick and I had meetings the next morning, so I announced I was going to walk back to the hotel and play Ingress. Since it was now around 1am, I was informed that a fat geek like me walking along looking at a gigantic phone would probably get mugged, so we all got into a cab. The stereo was playing Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry” and we all started singing, including the driver. It was a perfect end to a wonderful evening.

One part of the conversation I can repeat involved me getting out of Dublin. I really like that city but I was told I needed to see the rest of Ireland. One location that kept coming up was the Cliffs of Moher, which is on the west coast near the town of Doolin. So I decided to head out there over the weekend.

Since I didn’t have a car I decided to take a bus. The main bus line in Ireland is Bus Éireann, but Google told me the best way would be to take a GoBus to Galway and then a Bus Éireann bus to Doolin. The GoBus is nice, with WiFi and a bathroom, and it goes direct from downtown Dublin to Galway. I then had to rush to make my connection for the rest of the trip, and although it was only a fraction of the distance, the journey is on back roads and takes almost half of the total trip time.

The western countryside is beautiful – what I could see of it. It was a miserable day weather-wise, with rain and wind and about 100m of visibility. That said I enjoyed the trip. There is a lot of stone in this area so everywhere you look are stone walls and stone buildings. There is the occasional “castle” although they tend to be in such disrepair that only a wall or two remain. I got left off in Doolin near my Bed and Breakfast, and I felt like I was in a movie from the 1960s when I was the only person to get off the bus. I watched it pull away through the drizzle, leaving me alone by the side of the road.

But it was a quick walk to the Bed and Breakfast, which was warm, comfortable and inviting. It is right across the road from Fisher Street, which is both picturesque and the home of Gus O’Connors Pub, renown for Irish music.

This is Fisher Street, with the ocean off to the left and what is left of the 500 year old Doonmacfelim Castle can be seen on the right (it’s that little back square toward the top of the frame).

While it was time for lunch, I was told I needed to visit McGann’s, which was another pub a short walk away. The owner asked me to sit at the bar since he was expecting a bus load of tourists.

Now, I’m an avid tourist who hates tourists. I know that sounds hypocritical, but when I travel I try to blend in and both meet and become part of the local culture. Not like the group that arrived in Doolin by bus, stormed into the pub and then proceeded to demand things. Now, I’m sure that this is good for business and the owner took care of them all (including the guy who asked for a Miller beer – hey, I guess in Ireland it is an import) but I really disliked the noise and jostling.

Food was good, though.

As I walked back to the B&B the weather got worse so I decided it was time for a nap. First, I had to change my plans to go to Paris later in that week, but after that I had a wonderful siesta falling asleep to the sound of the roaring wind.

For dinner I had to walk down to O’Connors. The place was full but not packed, and I found a spot in a corner. The food here was excellent, and I had the best sea bass I’ve ever eaten.

O’Connors in known for music, but I was still tired and decided to leave before they started. Apparently this was a good thing, because at breakfast the next morning I learned that they didn’t go on until late, around 22:30, and I doubt I would have liked sitting there alone for 90 minutes or so.

Speaking of breakfast, I was staying at a B&B so I went for the full Irish:

It was yummy.

Sunday morning found me starting my journey back to Dublin, this time to an airport hotel and a flight to Germany the next day. I was on the left side of the bus which meant for the first part of the journey I was often looking straight down at the sea, with only a small stone wall between me and it. Beautiful. I really look forward to visiting this part of Ireland again, just not during winter.

Travel: 2015 Munich Oktoberfest

I’ve had a visit to the Munich Oktoberfest on my bucket list for some time, and when it was announced that the OpenNMS Users Conference was going to be held in September, I decided this would be the year I went. There are quite a few German beer festivals held in the fall, but Oktoberfest is the largest and most well known. Yes, despite the name, it occurs mainly in September as it is scheduled to end the first weekend in October.

I arrived on a Thursday morning, as most flights from the US are overnight, and checked in to my hotel. My room wasn’t ready so I dropped off my bags and decided to head for the “Wiesn” – the main Oktoberfest grounds named after its location (Theresienwiese).

This sucker is huge.

Even on a Thursday morning there were lots of people about, and by Saturday there would be over one hundred thousand packed shoulder to shoulder on the grounds.

The best analogy for people in the US would probably be a State Fair. There are rides, including a huge ferris wheel, roller coasters and at least one haunted house:

There are food stalls stalls everywhere, including the famous “half meter bratwurst”:

as well as stalls selling souvenirs and booths to play games. But the area is dominated by ten huge beer “tents” from a variety of area brewers, along with several smaller tents as well.

Some friends of mine host a tech podcast called “Bad Voltage” and they were coming to do a show at the Users Conference, but they all wanted to come to Munich as I did. While Jono, Stuart and Ilan were showing up on Friday, Jeremy did what I did and came a day early, so through the wonders of modern mobile technology we were able to meet up on the Wiesn (near a huge ride called “Konga”).

Of course the first order of business was to obtain a beer. A serving of beer at Oktoberfest is called a maẞ (“mass”) and is served in a liter-sized glass mug. We picked a beer tent and entered to find it filled with thousands of like-minded people.

Since there were only two of us, we managed to find a seat at one of the large communal tables and within minutes we had a huge pretzel as well as huge beer each.

This was the first time I’d seen Jeremy since the SCaLE conference, so we spent the time catching up and taking in the crowd before getting up and seeking out our next beer in another tent.

I liked this tent the best, as we had nice people at our table (at this time of day on a Thursday most of the people were older – this would change on the weekend), a nice waitress named Julia and good food. Jeremy had a traditional dish called Schweinshaxe, or roasted pork knuckle, whereas I had Weißwurst (“white sausage”). I apparently was eating mine wrong so the friendly couple next to me demonstrated the proper way (you are supposed to remove the outer casing with a knife). By the time we were done with our beers I was in a good mood and was very happy I had come. The hotel called to let me know my room was ready but I didn’t want to leave, so it was off to the third tent.

This is when things started to go south.

Okay, I am nearly fifty years old, so I’ve been drinking for, what, almost thirty eight years or so. I know how alcohol affects me. I rarely drink to excess and at this point I figured I had about two more maß before I needed to quit. I was wrong.

We found a place at a table in the third tent and ordered another beer. I don’t remember much more than that. I know I bought a pin with the word “Boss” on it in the shape of the heart-shaped gingerbread cookies (Lebkuchenherz) popular at Oktoberfest. I can vaguely remember buying a hat and arguing it was too small (the lady went away and came back again, but the hat was still a “medium”). The best theory I have is that Jeremy slipped me a roofie, but to hear him tell it at some point in time I just got up and announced it was time for me to go.

This part was a bit frightening. I got lost and ended up wandering around Munich. At one time I remember looking at my phone and it told me I was an hour away from the hotel. Google showed me wandering around quite a bit.

But somehow I managed to make it back, and the next thing I remember is waking up, face down on the bed and fully clothed, in my hotel room. All of my bags were there, including a huge Pelican case with our telepresence robot, as was my passport, wallet and about as much money as I expected to have.

So, all in all not bad.

Needless to say, I slept in on Friday. I did manage to get out of the hotel around noon and meet up with Jeremy at the large, open air Viktualienmarkt. Munich is a beautiful city, so it was fun to wander around while slowly returning to being human.

The rest of our friends, including Stuart, Jono and Ilan, showed up late afternoon. We all met at their hotel, but as my friend Fanny was coming in too I left them to meet up with her at her hostel. She had lived in Munich for several months and wanted to get some traditional Bavarian food, so while the rest of the guys headed off to the Wiesn we went searching for a quieter place to eat.

We found a little restaurant that fit the bill and wasn’t too crowded. They had a band, which was actually pretty good, and I thought it was funny that in addition to traditional German songs they played some old American Pop.

This included a rendition of “Achy Breaky Heart”, but the crowd really got into a cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Combined with my continuing recovery from Thursday, I did feel a bit of cognitive dissonance.

But the food was good. I got Nürnburger sausages with sauerkraut while Fanny really wanted Obazta cheese. Both were good, but I thought it was funny than when I used the Google Translate mobile app to look at “Obazta” it translated that to “Obama”. I wasn’t fully recovered from the previous day so I drank Apfelschorle (apple juice and water) while Fanny had a beer. The waiter joked as he brought them to us that it was usually the other way around.

We then wandered over to the Wiesn to try to find the other guys, sampling a number of rides and attractions along the way. We never were able to find them – as I mentioned this place is huge and it was considerably more crowded than Thursday.

Fanny was very eager to find the Teufelsrad, or “Devil’s Wheel”, and after asking a number of people for directions we found it and were finally able to squeeze our way in. This is an old traditional attraction consisting of a large spinning wheel mounted in the floor. The “master of ceremonies” will call out certain requirements, such as “men in short lederhosen” and if you meet the requirements, you rush out and try to secure a good position near the center of the wheel. It then begins to spin, ultimately throwing off the riders until there is one left, who is the winner. You don’t win anything but pride, but man is it fun to watch.

The categories are funny, too. In addition to short lederhosen, long lederhosen and no lederhosen, there were a couple for only people over 50 and even one for men with a “penis less than 10cm long” – which both drew laughs from the crowd and a surprisingly large number of participants (with one man offering to prove himself before the crowd indicated that wouldn’t be necessary).

Woman participate as well, include those in the traditional Bavarian Dirndl dress. In fact, the best competitor of the evening was a young woman in just such a dress. See, even when you are the last rider of the wheel, they still have to get you off of it. They do this a number of ways. There is a large, pumpkin-shaped ball that they can drop down but mainly they use ropes. This woman avoided the ropes and ball like a ninja. She got a huge ovation when, after five or so minutes, they managed to slide her off.

I posted a little video so you can see the wheel in action, but it doesn’t do it justice.

By this time it is early morning on Saturday so we called it a night, promising to meet up in front of the Daemonium haunted house later in the morning. I walked Fanny back to her hostel and successfully took the S-bahn back to my hotel.

By late Saturday morning the Wiesn was packed. It was incredible just how many people were there, with more than half in traditional dress. It was nice having a German guide in Fanny to show me around, or I would have missed many things. She took me to the Old Wiesn, which is a part of the grounds set up like the Oktoberfests of a hundred years ago. The rides are mostly mechanical and it was more of an agricultural faire (we saw a lot of old tractors, etc). We stopped at a shooting arcade and Fanny managed nine out of ten shots, which netted her a small stuffed devil.

We then decided to try and find a place to sit and drink. We went into Käfer Wiesenschänke which was an amazing tent, but it was totally full and we were not able to get a seat. We did find a place at the Schottenhamel which seats nearly 10,000 people, but I think it was mainly because Fanny is pretty and the bouncer let me in with her out of pity (grin).

We were outdoors, which was fine, since it wasn’t raining and they had outdoor heaters near the tables. We started off with our first maß of the day, and I ordered a large pretzel.

I asked for some süßer Senf, or sweet mustard, to eat with the pretzel and both our waiter, Stuart, and Fanny looked at me like I was crazy. I was satisfied to see that Fanny ate nearly half of the mustard with her part of the pretzel. Note that in the picture she is wearing the hat I bought on Thursday.

We were seated at a large table with a bunch of other people. There were two women from Switzerland next to us as well as two men, one from Columbia and one from the US. The US guy sat next to me and it turns out he is from Greensboro, NC, which is less than an hour away from where I live. Small world.

I looked down the table to see what looked like a bunch of young people snorting cocaine. I was told that it was powdered caffeine, although it did cause us to tease the guy from Columbia a bit.

When I was planning on coming to Oktoberfest, I wondered that with all the excessive drinking, how did they handle people throwing up? Well, I didn’t have to wait long to discover that as a young man decided to empty his stomach right next to our table. It was promptly and efficiently covered up with sawdust, and I figured the floor would be getting thicker and thicker with it as the day went on.

We stayed there for several hours but then decided to head out and wander around. The rest of the guys were sleeping in, so we grabbed lunch from a food stall and just enjoyed people watching. There were people of all ages, and while most appeared to be sober there were a few who definitely were not, including people passed out in random places. By mid-afternoon we did finally meet up with the rest of the team.

I wanted to get everyone in bumper cars, so that was the first thing we did. It was a blast, although the green hat (which was sporting Fanny’s little devil in the hat band) disappeared at some point. The guys really wanted to buy lederhosen, so we eventually left the Wiesn and walked into town.

With Fanny’s help we found a place that specialized in traditional clothing that was of a decent quality but not too expensive. Lederhosen means “leather pants” and all of the men’s clothes were along the front of the store. For men there were no changing rooms, so you basically just “dropped trou” in the open. So, yes, I know the answer to the burning question of “briefs or boxers” for Bad Voltage, but I’ll leave that up to your imagination.

Rather you think that I was just a voyeur in this process, I spent most of my time in the back of the store as Fanny wanted to try on a Dirndl (the women could use the changing rooms). While she rocked it, it just wasn’t her style. She’s usually dressed in black, so after trying on a more traditional colored dress we got a black one, but it still wasn’t her.

The guys, however, left in full hosen gear, and we headed back to the hotel so they could change. At this time, two more of my friends, Jeff and Ken, had arrived and so as a group we headed out to find dinner, which was a bit of a challenge as by this time we were nine people and it was Oktoberfest. We ended up at an Italian place with bad service that could seat us, but the food, when it finally came, was very good. A nice time was had by all.

Fanny and I decided to call it fairly early, say a little after ten, but the rest of the group went back to the Wiesn. I hit the S-bahn, found my hotel, and managed a good night’s sleep.

Our last day in Munich started off with me meeting up with Fanny for breakfast at a café near the Marienplatz. We had a leisurely meal and then decided to wander around Munich. As I mentioned before it is a beautiful city, and I ended up going in a number of the churches:

It reminded me of a NOVA episode about how all these old cathedrals were built, and before I go back I’ll need to watch it again.

Fanny needed to get to the airport, so after saying goodbye I met up with most of the rest of the gang. Ken had driven, so Jeff and Ken were going to pick up my bags and drive them to our next stop, Fulda. This left me with just a small backpack. Our train wasn’t until late afternoon, so we wandered over to the Viktualienmarkt for light lunch.

Then it was time to grab a cab to the Hauptbahnhof for the train. The ride on an ICE train took less than three hours and was amazingly comfortable – I kind of wish we had a better train system in the US as I could get used to it.

Overall, I had a great time in Munich. While I am not sure if I’ll ever go back for Oktoberfest, I do hope to return to the city real soon.

Vanuatu

I was very unhappy to learn about the destruction that hit the island nation of Vanuatu due to Typhoon Pam this week. We had the opportunity to visit this beautiful and friendly nation back in 2012.

It is kind of hard to get to the country. We came from Fiji, but most of the tourists arrive from Australia (which, trust me, is a lot closer than we are here in North Carolina). Most people arrive in the capital of Port Vila, and we were no different.

Vanautu was recently described as a “Hawaii without the hotels” and I can vouch for that. It’s rural, in many places unspoiled, and is filled with some of the friendliest people you could ever meet.

I also love the language, a pidgin called Bislama. “Me no tok tok Bislama quicktime, tok tok slowtime?” is a valid sentence that I used a lot while there.

While we flew into Port Vila, we spent most of our time on the large northern island of Espiritu Santo. The trip there was interesting. We got into a small plane with about ten other people. There was no metal detector and no safety lecture, and we stayed under 10,000 feet the whole time. The only thing that seemed to be important to the airport staff was that we had paid our US$2 travel tax.

Andrea went for the amazing scuba diving (the wreck of the SS President Coolidge is a popular dive site that she loved) while I snorkeled and read. I also believe I was the first person to ever wear an MC Frontalot shirt in country, and probably the region.

The beaches, such as Champagne Beach, reminded me a lot of places in Hawaii like Bali Hai, but without the crowds.

We stayed at a place called Moyyan House and I wrote to them to see how they weathered the storm. While Espiritu Santo was outside of the main path of the storm (and their website says that everything is okay there), the communication infrastructure for the whole country is having issues, so I have not heard back.

We did spend a little more time in Port Vila on the way home. I liked watching people play pétanque:

and we also had dinner with the newly elected Prime Minister.

Well, when I say “had dinner” I mean that we were in the same restaurant as a large party that was seated outside on a big deck, and when I asked who they were I was told that it was the Prime Minister and his guests, but, hey, he was eating and we were eating, so there.

Vanuatu still has a large part of the population that lives like they did hundreds of years ago. You may have seen the tradition of “land diving” that is done as a coming of age ritual on the island of Pentecost. With the distance between the islands and the numerous languages and dialects, it is no wonder that Bislama became the official language. Cannibalism has been outlawed (motto: “We haven’t eaten anyone since 1969“) and they make a seriously strong kava. They also have mutant, huge, poisonous centipedes but other than that most of the flora and fauna are well behaved (although, I am told, sharks can be a problem).

While I doubt any of my three readers are in Vanuatu, my thoughts are with the people there. If you ever get a chance to go, you should take it.

2014 Dublin, Ireland

A few weeks ago I got to go to Dublin, Ireland, for ten days. It was my 35th country visited.

Traveling to Europe can always be a little bit of a challenge as far as managing the jet lag. You usually leave the US in the evening and arrive in the early morning. If possible, I like to sleep for several hours, say from 10am until 2pm, and then stay up until a normal bedtime. If I can manage this I rarely have jet lag issues.

But, a lot of hotels don’t have rooms ready first thing in the morning. In that case you have to power through and just try and stay up, but on this trip my friend Craig was kind enough to reserve a room for the night before so I was able to check in at around 8am (unlike the ladies in front of me who were told to come back in the afternoon).

The room they gave me was an “accessible room” meaning it was designed for someone in a wheelchair. I don’t like accessible rooms. Although they tend to be a bit larger than normal, I just can’t get used to the shower. Since you can’t build in ledges or doors (easily) I just seem to flood the bathroom, no matter how hard I try not to.

For my first shower in this room I was determined to try and keep the overflow to a minimum. Like most European showers, the shower head was on a hose attached to a sprayer. Also, like most showers in Europe, there were two knobs: one to control temperature and one to control water flow. Normally, there is a little button on the temperature knob that you have to push if you want extra-hot (greater than 38C) water, but this one had a similar button on the flow knob to really get the stream going. Holding the handle so the water pointed away from me, I turned both up to high and waited for the water to warm up.

When it was perfect, I went to place the handle back in its bracket when it came off in my hand. The hose was still in the bracket, pointed straight up and this caused it to fountain off the top of the shower, which was also the ceiling of the bathroom, which was now flooded.

I just had to laugh.

I turned the shower off and was able to reassemble everything and finish bathing. I was lucky that nothing that couldn’t stand being wet was in the bathroom, so it was really no big deal except for the irony that this happened in an accessible shower.

As we went out for dinner I told the hotel staff and by the time I returned they been in and restored everything to normality.

Craig and I were meeting up with Patrick for dinner, but we had a little time before we were to meet so we decided to wander a bit. We walked down to Temple Bar, passing the Spire of Dublin on the way.

The spire is a large, steel monument that looks a little like one of those spindles restaurants used to have for collecting receipts. It’s kind of impressive but hard to get a decent picture of it. At 121 meters you’d think it would be visible from most of Dublin, but it really isn’t. It is very prominent on O’Connell Street though.

The pattern around the base, according to Wikipedia, is based on a core sample of earth and rock formation taken from the ground where the spire stands. Here’s a picture with Craig so you can see it in more detail. My guess is the stickers were not part of the original design.

Even with my nap I could use a little caffeine, so Craig took me to Bewley’s. It was cool having a drink in the same place once frequented by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

Afterward we meet up with Patrick and found a place for dinner. I can’t remember the name, but I knew I was going to have corned beef and cabbage (‘natch) with at least one pint of Guinness.

I am a huge fan of Guinness so coming to Dublin was a bit of a pilgrimage for me (more on that later). I was very excited to partake of my first real Dubliner pint.

I didn’t like it.

I mean, it was okay, it’s Guinness, but it seemed a little off, a little too bitter. I was thinking to myself that “oh no, I only like American Guinness” when Patrick mentioned that his pint seemed a bit off as well. Determined to get to the bottom of this, and solely for research purposes, I can say that the other 25-30 pints of Guinness I had during the trip were much, much better.

The next day Craig and I took the tram out to meet with the customer. Now this trip was awesome on a number of levels. First, cool customer. Second, new country for me. Third, my friend Fanny from Germany was having a birthday and when she found out I was here she decided to spend it with me. And finally, I was going to get to see my friend MC Frontalot on his new tour.

His tour brought him to North Carolina, but that week I was in England. He was in England the week after that, but I was in Paris. I had made plans to see him in Chicago, but they got canceled because I had to be in Austin for a meeting. So it was serendipitous that he was touring with Wheatus and they were coming to Dublin when I was there.

As Craig and I rode into work that first day, I was reading over his shoulder when I saw a notice about Wheatus in the paper.

Yeah, they are huge over there.

The band was to perform at Café en Seine on Thursday night, which was also the night that Fanny arrived. The four of us (Craig, Patrick, Fanny and myself) got put on the guest list for the show (which was cool). The venue was pretty interesting as well, lavishly decorated in an art nouveau style which included trees and statues. We found a comfortable place to sit upstairs (with a table for the pints of course) that didn’t give us a great view of the stage but we could hear just fine. For Front’s set I stood by the rail.

As an opener his set was rather short, about 30 minutes. While I’ve seen him perform a number of times, I was happy to finally hear “Stoop Sale” live, and he also did “Two Dreamers” which is my favorite track off the new album. He was joined on stage by Miss Eaves who did backup vocal duty as well as one of her own songs that I thought was pretty good.

Then Wheatus came on. While still somewhat unknown in the US, their song “Teenage Dirtbag” hit No. 2 in the UK and a cover of “A Little Respect” hit No. 3. While this was back in 2000 they are still well regarded in the region and now that One Direction is covering “Teenage Dirtbag” on tour they are seeing a resurgence of interest. And while I rarely look at Youtube comments, this one on the cover made me chuckle.

I enjoyed the show, but didn’t get to see much of Damian until the end when I saw him and Miss Eaves over in the roped-off area of the balcony. I went over and said “hi” and he told me we had a few minutes to chat before they were to rap on “Dirtbag” and that we could hang out a bit after the show by the merch booth.

By this time is was pretty late (Patrick and Craig had taken off earlier so it was just me and Fanny) but it was fun talking to Damian about the tour. The schedule was pretty tight, a show a night for six nights in a row in Ireland alone. They had come over from Wales on a ferry over extremely rough waters, but now that they were back on dry land things were going smoothly. He told me that having someone else to drive made things nice, and even though it was a busy tour it was a nice gig.

While some venues have showers, this one didn’t, so they all had to share one in a hotel room after the show. Then they would get into the bus and head for the next town, usually chatting or watching movies. Then they sleep and get up for an afternoon sound check, and then they are pretty much free until showtime. Rinse and repeat.

He gave Fanny a copy of his CD as a birthday present (it was now Friday), and I did get a picture with him and an awesome photobomb from Miss Eaves.

The next day was my last work day and I met up with Fanny afterward to take her out for her birthday. She chose a restaurant called Rustic Stone. The meal was good, their “thing” is that a lot of the dishes are served partially cooked and you finish them on a hot stone tableside, but the evening was made awesome by Florian our waiter. He was great and I started referring to him as “Emperor Florian”. He didn’t know there was a historical Emperor Florian and I wasn’t sure why I remembered, but it could have been that he only lived for 88 days as emperor before being assassinated by his own troops. Not so good.

For the weekend we spent a lot of time walking around Dublin. While it is not a large city, it seemed pretty crowded. It’s not particularly dirty or remarkably clean, although on the weekends there can be a lot of evidence of overconsumption on the pavement (no further details warranted). I did like the area around the River Liffey.

Saturday morning we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I have my first real camera (i.e. not a point and shoot or the one on my phone) and I am still climbing the learning curve on how to use it. I did think this shot of a stone staircase in the cathedral turned out well.

That afternoon I got to visit the Guinness St. James’s Gate Brewery also known as the Guinness Storehouse.

The line was a little long but moved quickly. The tour walked you through a series of exhibits on how they make their iconic beer. It’s starts with the water, which does not come from the Liffey but instead is sourced in the Wicklow mountains (where we would be going on Sunday).

You work your way up through the building, ending in a round glass room called the Gravity Bar, which offers a 360 degree view of the city.

It was packed, so after making a circuit and taking some pictures, we took our “complimentary” pints down a floor to find a place to sit. On the wall behind our table was a picture of some of the workers from years ago, and I couldn’t help but notice that one of the women looked just like Mr. Bean. When I pointed that out, a guy next to us said, “Great. Now I can’t un-see it.”

On Sunday we took a train south to the Wicklow mountains. It was a beautiful day and we wanted to visit the Powerscourt Gardens. Powerscourt is a large country estate that has several acres of landscaped gardens (voted No. 3 in the world by National Geographic). I had come down with a cold by this time and so wasn’t the best company, but the day was wonderful and the view spectacular.

All in all it was a very nice trip. I saw some old friends and made some new ones, and my cold didn’t last all that long. I’d welcome the chance to go back.