Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Best Movies I saw in 2012

It's been some time since I've written anything, but 2012 was such an incredible year for movies, I just couldn't resist making a list.  This is going to have to go a lot longer than just 10, but I'll separate those first since they warrant the most attention.

The Top Ten

Silver Linings Playbook
Misery loves company and one good way to help deal with your problems is to find someone else with similar ones.  Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence both give the best performances of their careers in this one, as a pair who are both recovering from some serious mental health problems and find help in working with one another.

The greatest flight crash sequence ever put to film.  Not to be underestimated, it also had another great performance by Denzel Washington as an alcoholic who finds redemption at a moment which is simultaneously his greatest triumph and biggest disgrace.

Richard Gere gives an incredible performance that should've garnered him an oscar, playing a total Wall Street sleaze ball who we strangely enough can't help but sympathize with and wonder whether or not he will get away with it all when everything in his life begins collapsing around him.

A flawless piece of work about the battle for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Tightly directed, concise, and peerlessly made.

Life of Pi
An unbelievable journey that was considered un-filmable.  Was the tiger just an aspect of Pi's personality?  And if so, what does it say that the beast left him once they finally reached shore?  If the savage instincts of our psyche are what is needed in survival situations, perhaps it is true they are not needed when we re-enter the "civilized world".

The most well made movie about time travel to come around in years and an excellent sci-fi noir to boot.  With time travel movies invariably come paradoxes and this one is no exception, but this one does arguably play by the rules it establishes, and the concepts it suggests will keep you thinking long after it's over.

The first two Alien films (Alien and Aliens) are sci-fi classics whose progeny have been a succession of mediocre sequels.  It's great to see Ridley Scott setting things to rights once more, and doing so in a way that expands the universe beyond just the aliens themselves, with interesting questions about humanity and its desire to know its creators, even if they might ultimately lead to disappointment or danger.

Ben Affleck has come a long way.  This movie is just so well made it's ridiculous.  Putting aside the complaints some had about embellishing upon the facts to make things more interesting, this movie is one of the most skillful I have ever seen at winding up the tension and keeping us there.  It doesn't seem to matter that we already know the ending walking in.  That really takes something.

Ookami no kodomo Ame to Yuki (The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki)
Japanese animated film that is easily up to par with what Ghibli often produces though it was done by a different studio.  The concept is simple and so is the story.  We have a single mother with two children and a secret which must be kept from the outside world.  This premise had the potential to go overboard and become completely insipid, but while the design might make it look cutesy and childish, the makers  of this film had enough sense and patience to follow the ideas brought up to their natural conclusions.  There's real terror and fear when the characters stand to be discovered, and real drama and sadness when their paths take different turns.  Explores the conflicts of nature's call against the desire for inclusion in human society and the need to hide our secrets with the need to share them.  (Note I don't know if this has had its international release yet or not, I saw it in the theater in Japan without subtitles.)

Cloud Atlas
A lot of people are going to disagree with me on this one.  An absolute masterpiece whose brilliance I am hard pressed to describe.  Flowing across multiple centuries with multiple stories and characters.  It is simultaneously a historical period drama, 70's murder-mystery-suspense, and futuristic actioner.  Who would've thought that watching a bunch of old folks escape from a cruel lock-in community could be just as tense as a bloody battle between post-apocalyptic tribes?  And it all comes together as the campfire story of an old warrior beneath the stars.  While it does demand some patience and attention on the part of the audience to follow the multi-pronged story, I didn't try to make too much of the links between the stories, (some are easy to spot, others aren't) and concentrated more on the feelings and emotions of the characters.  To achieve its effect of souls being reborn throughout the ages in different bodies, this film used actors in multiple roles, a concept I first heard of when Tarrantino described it in making Kill Bill (Gordon Liu and Michael Parks both had multiple roles in that film).  It reminded me a little of the excellent short story "The Egg" (available: here)

Runners up

And there's going a lot of them.  2012 had enough great movies for two ordinary years.

A Nameless Gangster
Korean crime flick about a man with contacts and audacity and a lot of luck... and possibly a unexpressed death wish too.  Like "Arbitrage", we're on the edge of our seats wondering whether this slimeball of a main character is going to get away with it or not when the walls start closing in on him.

Django Unchained
Another great Tarrantino flick, though not his best.  Flawed, and probably more deserving of the director's original idea to split it into two parts, I'm hoping for a director's cut that does just that or at least expands on what he cut out.  Still the end result is a great and memorable trip nonetheless.

Zero Dark Thirty
Katheryn Bigelow is back, and while the result isn't as great as "The Hurt Locker", this is still a pretty well made movie.  Like Argo, the final scenes really ratchet up the tension even though we already know the outcome.

Kiseki (I wish)
The most recent film by the great Japanese director Koreeda about two young boys living in different cities after their parents split.  Still holding out childish hopes of their parents reconciling, they hear an urban legend, which resembles a modern day folk-tale regarding a phenomenon that grants wishes to those present to see it.  Along with their young friends, the two secretly set off without their parents' knowledge to meet each other half-way between their cities to witness it in some scenes that reminded me some of the kids sneaking away in "Stand By Me".  A good coming of age film about the acceptance of harsher realities and the release of childish dreams (Note: this was actually released a couple years ago in Japan but I didn't see it until 2012, which I believe is the year of its international release).

The Secret World of Arrietty
What wonders the human world would hold if it could be viewed from someone the size of a mouse, and what terrors too...  Bringing both those aspects to life in an effective way, this film told a simple story but told it well.  One of the better Ghibli offerings in recent years.  (Note: like "Kiseki", this one had its Japanese release a couple years ago.  Unlike that film, however, I did watch this one in the theaters, unsubbed when it came out, but had a chance to revisit it in 2012, the year of its international release).

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad-man hired to try and prevent Chilean dictator Pinochet from clinging to power in the 1988 referendum election with a campaign to sway public opinion against him.  Shot partly with older cameras in use for that era to help give it a more authentic look.  (I'm not sure if this had its official release in 2012 or not, I saw at the Tokyo International Film Festival)


Les Miserables

The Avengers

The Hobbit

The Dark Knight Rises

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Not so much a great film as an overlooked one, but I really am a sucker for well made period pieces and this one takes us to a time and place few if any others have (The Prohibition-Era Appalachian countryside) and recreates it well.

The "Better Late than Never" Category

So what was the best film I actually "saw for the first time" in 2012?  While for the most part, I would still stand by the list I've made, the first few films on this list would easily rival any of those in the Top Ten.  Perhaps I'm making this list a little too personal (and exhaustive), but what else are lists like this for other than to share the things we love that would make good recommendations?

The Secret in their Eyes
A murder mystery revenge story that is also a poignant melodrama and has a story which spans several decades.  Argentina won the oscar for best foreign language film a few years back with this title, and it's as fine a movie as I've ever seen.

Another Year
This really should've been nominated for best film last year instead of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close".  Mike Leigh has got a certain style with his films that is truly unique, and this is one of his best.

The Hurricane
Another great Denzel Washington performance.  This one about a wrongfully imprisoned boxer who fights years to regain his freedom.

The Emperor's Club
This year I finally saw "Dead Poet's Society" for the first time (which wasn't terrible, but I was not much impressed with).  I watched it back to back with this movie (which are similar) and thought that not only was DPS over-rated but that "Emperor's Club" was the superior movie.  It deals with tougher themes, and asks difficult questions about the future roles of cheaters and bad students after their formal education ceases, and what responsibility teachers have in it.

The Princess of Montpensier
A well-done period piece that is part swashbuckling adventure, part sultry romance, and part court intrigue about a young princess in revolutionary France who is shuffled from one kingdom to another in the tumult of wars and alliances.

The Hunter
Willem Dafoe as a black market hunter, searching the wilds of Tazmania for the last rumored Tazmanian Tiger (a creature that was brought to extinction by humans nearly a century ago).

Pascali's Island
Featuring a young Ben Kingsley, Helen Mirren, and Charles Dance (from recent Game of Thrones fame), this movie had western characters thrown in to exotic locales with dangerous subterfuge (think "The English Patient"), yet another thing I am an absolute sucker for in certain movies.

The Man from Nowhere
Plays out like a darker, grittier, more violent version of "Taken" in the underworld of Seoul's black market organ trade.

This Boy's Life
Starring a very young Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro as a boy and his abusive stepfather.


Disney's Christmas Carol


You Can Count On Me

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Released in 1993, but destined to be remembered as a classic for much much longer, The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of those films that I find myself invariably returning to again and again. Although ostensibly a movie for all ages, it is at turns both cute but also a little shocking; the kind of experience whose humor brings out guilty sort of chuckles to older viewers who will get the subtleties that the little ones won't. Recently I've been wondering just what is the message it wants to convey and why is it that it appeals to us.

The story to this film is quite simple, and at only 75 minutes a very fast watch. The focus of the tale is Jack Skellington, a leader and icon of a mysterious place known as Halloween Town where all the inhabitants are obsessed with, what else? Halloween. Though he is idolized by the people of his village, Jack is feeling depressed and uninspired. Taking a walk one day he finds a portal to another magical town, Christmas Town.

Jack is immediately taken with how different it is from what he knows. Entranced by the idea of being a part of it, he recruits the citizens of Halloween Town to help him make Christmas this year. Disaster of course ensues as the denizens of Halloween Town are unable to be anything but creepy and weird. One somewhat risque moment has some parents asking their child what Santa brought him, only to be horrified when they see him pull a small severed head from the box (this scene was shown repeatedly on tv commercials during the original theatrical release, probably as a fore-warning to parents of just what levels the film goes to so they wouldn't be alarmed when they brought junior to see it).

As for Jack himself, he ends up having Santa Claus kidnapped so that he can replace him on his midnight ride and deliver the presents, that is until the police get word of a "Santa Imposter" and shoot him down. This all leaves Jack in a position where he knows he must fix things by getting back the real Santa who unfortunately has been taken to the "no good" Oogie Boogie and won't release him without a fight.

The movie uses stop-motion animation, which is a very long, painstaking process but has also become very endured by aficienados of animation and film. Such fans seem to understand the level and amount of work involved and I believe tend to view such projects as labors of love by the artists who make them. Nightmare makes an excellent example of this as the movie features dozens of inventive creatures living in Halloween Town (in particular Sally, the Mayor, and especially Oogie Boogie show a lot of ingenuity).

The music is a lot of fun as well. Danny Elfman, long known for his haunting and mischeivous melodies (he's scored many of Burton's other films and created the Simpson's main theme as well), here provides the singing voice of Jack and very much steals the show this time round. With Nightmare we have songs that are memorable and fetching and catchy enough that hearing them once is all it takes to instantly recall them if heard again.

As mentioned before, the story to this film is quite simple, but it is however also laced with a very clever extended metaphor. It acts as a sort of parable for a certain type of people, not necessarily Goths but kind of like the kids many of us went to school with who were dark loners and outsiders. It's a trait that's been often said resembles Tim Burton himself and a thread common to most of his works is characters like this.

When the residents of Halloween Town try to make Christmas they get it all wrong and their attempts are so pathetic to us in the audience that it's actually laughable at those times when it's not mortifying. It all reflects an inability of those who are strange and socially awkward to even fit in, let alone be warm or tender. All this depite how much they want to, or try as they might.

I suppose when it comes down to it, some people out there are just Halloween people. Often times they're the ones you see carrying Nightmare Before Christmas bags around cause in the end this really just is a movie that speaks to and understands them.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ghost in the Shell

Recently I finished reading Wired for War with its meditations on technologic advance and the influence this is having on society at large and conflict specifically. Inspired by it, I felt the need to revisit an older movie my appreciation of whose seems only to grow deeper with each viewing: Mamoru Oshii's film adaption of Ghost in the Shell. Only recently have I been exposed to the idea of "The Singularity": a technologic revolution that will supposedly "change nearly everything in our daily lives" and is believed to be looming on the very near horizon by many scientists. It is at once a concept which both intrigues me yet I am still skeptic of, being by its nature something which is supposed to be nearly impossible to imagine. Yet it is also a subject which many a sci-fi film has explored in the imaginary worlds they create. Ghost in the Shell is such a film, a post-singularity world if ever I've seen one, and the advanced technology portrayed in it does indeed turn many of our accepted paradigms upon their head, including one the upmost importance: just what does it mean to be human?

Please note: This article seeks to examine the work in question to a deeper extent than most reviews. Plot points and the ending will be discussed.

Taking place over the course of just a few short acts, the story of this film is actually fairly simple, a skeleton upon which the meatier concepts grow out of. All of which stem from technology's effects humanity, ethics, and constructed intelligence.

The film opens with a cacophony of voices and broadcasts from a city, which eventually give way to a conversation between diplomats in a highrise building. A close up of our main character, Kusanagi shows us whose mind we're listening in on. One of her teammates, Batou complains of all the noise in her head and we realize as we hear their voices communicating with one another that they don't even always move their lips. These are times of such high tech advancement that our main characters all have computerized brains, and not only have the equivilent ever-connected internet within, but also what amounts to telepathy to those within their network.

The situation in the building, one which pertains to international dealings, a rogue software developer, and political assylum is quickly diffused by Kusanagi who assinates the foreign diplomat and then eludes capture using "therm-optic camouflage" a devise which more or less renders her invisible. Then as the opening credits roll, we see the creation of a cyborg body, which in the end turns out to be Kusanagi herself. Just how progressive a machine it is is hard to describe. The muscles, skin, eyes, and hair all finish to give the creation a look indistinguishable from a regular human being. A potential hot-button issue for the future which has been explored in many works of sci-fi but has yet to be introduced to the real world is one of regulating robots that can pass for human. Are they to be treated as human even when they're not?

As human minds within a cybernetic bodies, the cyborgs of this film are for all intents and purposes seen and treated as human. The real psychological questions seem to be the effects on the cyborgs themselves. "Sometimes I feel like my body died long ago and now I'm just someone else wandering through this world" says Kusanagi at one point in the film.

Although the film follows the exploits of Kusanagi and her team (an extremely well equipped group of operatives who resemble both SWAT and FBI but are simply referred to as "Section 9"), the real juice of the story involves the pursuit of a "ghost hacker" called The Puppet Master, an entity literally so skilled at their craft that they can hack the computerized brains of humans and build delusions that will manipulate them far better than any hypnotist is currently able to.

A brief word about some of the vocabulary in this film: a person's "Ghost" roughly equivocates to their mind, character, or consciousness. It is possible they chose not to use those words because of how abstract or cumbersome they are. The word soul also isn't uttered, and it is perhaps because of the connotations this word has they avoided it. So why the word "Ghost"? I suppose partly because it is easy to say and specific enough that it won't confuse people (unless they were having a conversation about the supernatural) but also I suspect it's due to the cold and distant nuance it has to it, since this is indeed a chilly and dark vision of the future we're looking at. I can't remember if the word "Shell" is actually ever uttered in the film, but this of course refers to the body being used at any given time by our main characters, and like the word "Ghost", it too has a frigid, impersonal feel to it.

We see an example of the new types of contests occurring between opposing forces in an early scene. A moving hack operation (one the Puppet Master is believed to be behind) taking place at multiple terminals is being investigated by Kusanagi and her team. A game of cat and mouse involving a garbage truck (the mobile mode chosen by the hackers), and a herm-optic wearing gunman turns into a chase and then a gunfight, and after that hand to hand combat with one of the opponents invisible.

In the aftermath of all this action, the garbage men who did the hacking are interogated and we learn that one of them has indeed been "ghost hacked" himself. He believes he has a wife he is seperated from and even a daughter he loves enough to put up with filthy work to help, all of which is just an illusion. As the police explain to him that he's been tricked and taken advantage of, we begin to see the walls closing down on him and just how devastating such a situation would be. With tears in his eyes, he asks what will happen to him and if he'll ever get his old memories back, only to be told that his they'll never be fully restored, and that there may even be residual shocks from the implanted memories.

It's difficult to imagine losing everything in an instant with regards to what one accumulated in memory over a lifetime, but that possibilty apparently is very real in this version of the future. Many people in our modern world who have been the victims of identity theft express feelings of outrage, helplessness, disbelief, and a sense of violation at the experience, but this hypothetical of ghost hacking takes the situation to an entirely different level. Another question which isn't answered by the film but certainly would have to be asked should it actually occur, is just what to do with a ghost hacked human after the fact. Could they be charged for crimes they technically committed but were manipulated into? Could they be set free without being a danger to themselves or others? Would they have to spend time in counseling or a medical facility? These questions and many others are ones the film asks only passingly on its quicksilver pace.

In a contrast to the action which preceeds and follows, the mid point of the film is marked two scenes of quiet contemplation: a conversation between Kusanagi and Batou on a boat, and an existential sort of interlude which is comprised only of images and music and lacks any dialogue.

The talk between Kusanagi and Batou occurs after she goes diving in the bay, an activity confounding to Batou considering her cybernetic body could sink like rock if anything were to go wrong. We begin to see that Kusanagi has indeed been puzzling out her identity and the kind of existence she's gone into by shedding her natural body for one artificial. "Man sees a chance at new technology and simply achieves it" (seemingly without any thought for what complications it brings on) she explains. It's almost as if she's asking the questions for us in audience. She also quotes a passage to Batou in a strange voice that doesn't seem to be her own, in a foreshadowing of things to come.

The musical passage that follows is both poetic and peaceful but at the same time ominous and foreboding, perhaps in order to encapsulate the conflicting feelings we all have on the future bright but uncertain as it is. We see Kusanagi staring out the window of a restaurant at a boat passing by in a canal, only to see another person with the same face as herself standing on the deck staring back at her.

The activity resumes with Kusanagi coming to headquarters as a cybernetic body has been brought in which appears to have a ghost or something resembling one within it though there are no human memories. As members of a rival section appear to inspect the body, The Puppet Master makes a sudden and startling appearance. Speaking through the body they are analyzing under its own power, it claims to be a consciousness born in the sea of information and a living being even though it lacks a physical body it can actually call its own. It also demands assylum as it has now been confined in a shell and thus is in a situation of danger of perishing. A whole can of worms could be spent here disecting just what it would mean if such a thing happened and whether such a creature would be entitled to any rights in the physical world that man occupies or even the electronic one he's created. All of this, however, is bypassed by a surprise attack on the base and the Puppet Master is stolen by camouflaged soldiers. There are people apparently, who'd rather not deal with the thorny issues he has just opened by announcing his existence to the world. Fortunately Togusa, a member of Kusanagi's team, has noticed something amiss and Kusanagi and her team are able to follow and then chase down those who have stolen the Puppet Master.

There is a sort of third and final musical interlude here (after the opening and mid-section mentioned previously) while they track and pursue their quarry though it is shorter than the others. What is kind of interesting to note about these interludes is that the first contains a very traditional sounding Japanese music, the second a combination of that and more modern sounds, and this final one almost entirely is comprised of contemporary music. A symbol of the transition from lingering past into the future perhaps?

What ensues next is a spectacular shootout in an abandoned museum between Kusanagi, armed with explosives, automatic weapons, and therm-optic camouflage and her opponents, who unbeknownst to her have hidden a tank in that location. One point in this scene I'd like to mention involves the tank shooting at Kusanagi which ends up firings upon an old model of species' family tree engraved into a wall. The bullets stop just short of the top, the short of "hominis" (humankind), a symbol as rich with meaning as you'll ever see. What does it mean exactly? That we have a habit of killing all other life but somehow always manage to stop just short of killing ourselves off? That our machines are the ones now pushing for our extinction?

Kusanagi fails to neutralize the enemy, but is saved at the last moment by Batou showing up in the nick of time with antitank weaponry. Though both of them are aware that unknown (and presumably hostile) helicopters are heading in their direction, Kusanagi decides she must "dive into" the ghost of the Puppet Master to see what's really inside since it might be her last chance to ever do so without supervision or tampering. It's very telling to me that the true climax of this film is not another chase, shootout, or fight, but rather a scene with no action whatsoever. The climax to this film is instead a conversation between two minds; one human and natural, the other artificial and unlike any other; and the stunning revelations of the Puppet Master on the future of humanity and machines.

The Puppet Master speaks with the frigid, calculating confidence of a being who never doubts their actions for a second because in the end he has only the cold, hard logic of a computer. There appears to be no sense remorse or sympathy or any other human emotions within him and yet he does still have ambitions and desires. "I am a living creature, yet I lack two things that any other living creature on this planet has: dying and reproducing" he states to Kusanagi. Her response is to question why he simply does not copy himself, since in the end, doesn't his existence amount to computerized data which can simply be duplicated. His reply, that aside from not being the same as natural reproduction, is that copying is inferior to natural replication of genes since "clones do not give rise to originality" and "an effective virus could destroy an entire crop" of clones. Many people with experience playing computer games can probably attest to the truth of this statement, as oftentimes with computer opponents the first time you fight one it may give you some difficulty, but usually learning an efficient way of winning when it comes to dealing with one means you can defeat any number of others since the same strategy usually applies (e.g. they all fall for the same tricks because they are programmed to respond to things in the same way). In the film itself, Kusanagi actually mentions something very similar to Togusa at an earlier point in the film when he asks her why she requested someone like him be transfered to the team. Her response is that his differences are what make him valuable; that since his body is almost entirely human he thinks and reacts differently, providing the group with much needed variety it would otherwise not possess. We see the wisdom of this in action earlier in the course of the film as Togusa does indeed provide an interestingly old-fashioned idea when the time comes to track those who steal the Puppet Master's body from Section 9. "Overspecialize and you breed in weakness. It's slow death" Kusanagi says. And while it might seem strange that she would say something so similar to what the Puppet Master believes, this does actually lead into the next point I'd like to make.

The Puppet Master tells Kusanagi his plan to "reproduce": by merging his intelligence with her own to create an entirely new and different entity. "A complete co-mingling of our beings... both of us will undergo change, but there is nothing ofr either of us to lose" he claims. The idea of an artifical creature envying us and wanting to be like us is as old as stories like Frankenstein and Pinnochio, but Ghost in the Shell has now just provided us with a very new concept of where and how humanity might converge with machines. In the act of computerizing our own brains, becoming more machine-like ourselves, it is quite possible the lines are blurring indistinguishably between what we are and what we've created. When asked why he chose her, the Puppet Master responds by saying he has long been "aware" of her and that they are more alike than she knows.

We realize here that the Puppet Master has indeed been following Kusanagi for some time, watching her, and many smaller details in fabric of the film's plot hint at this. We realize it was most likely his voice that spoke through Kusanagi wen she spoke so cryptically to Batou on the boat earlier, and that an off-hand remark by one of the men with Section 6 regarding the way the Puppet Master keeps "hanging around" Section 9 because he "has the hots for someone" is actually quite accurate. Also, a second glance Kusanagi takes at the shell of the minister's interpreter much earlier in the film suggests that she can actually feel his presence as well.

The idea of a machine transfixed on a human is intriguing, but the point I really want to make relates to the Puppet Master's rationale for choosing Kusanagi. That they are similar makes us wonder if he has indeed chosen her in the way many of us would chose our own mates. He claims to have been watching her for some time and it's hard not to wonder if it was her way of thinking that drew him to her. Is he attracted to her similarities or her differences or both? Whatever the reasons, given Kusanagi's somewhat eratic behavior to try and reach him, it's difficult not to feel the sentiment was in the end a mutual one, as is generally the case whenever a coupling between any two organisms takes place within our world.

The Puppet Master speaks of new beginnings and crossing frontiers and then, just as we see angels descending upon him and Kusanagi from their points of view symbolizing the merge, bullets from high-powered guns destroy their bodies. The hostile helicopters have arrived. Batou is able to block on of the shots at the last second, however, and save Kusanagi.

The epilogue of the film shows us Kusanagi, repaired but now mounted in a child's body (the only thing available on the black market, Batou will explain later). Batou comes in and explains the end situation to her. The political dealings for the most part "ended in a draw" with most of the evidence being destroyed and certain key figures resigning to avoid the messy legal battles that would otherwise ensue. "Is he still with you?" he then asks Kusanagi to which she answers in the affirmative. "I am no longer the woman who was called Kusanagi or the program called the Puppet Master" she tells him. The full impact of this line is difficult to assess.

The first time I heard it, it was difficult for me to discern whether something horrible had happened or not. On the one hand, the Puppet Master is a criminal when it comes down to it. He manipulated people and destroyed lives. On the other hand, he was just a program, doing what he was designed to do, and those were the designs of people who were selfish or (if you really want to call them that) evil. The Puppet Master himself, however, is perhaps more ambiguous than this. He could've lived forever within the net, omnipresent and untold times more powerful without being confined to a body. Yet he chose a desperate gamble to "reproduce" that in the end isn't all that difficult from trout swimming upstream or newly hatched turtles scurrying for the ocean absolutely vulnerable to predators. Looking at his actions, the Puppet Master does indeed come out looking much like an organism as he claims to be earlier. It's a profound thought too, a near immortal wishing for and contemplating their own death, but the Puppet Master is such a character who has no delusions of grandeur despite the power he wields, and it's attributes such as these that make him so much more interesting than the one dimensional villains of other, similar stories.

The story concludes with Batou offering to let Kusanagi stay at his safe house for as long as she'd like, with her deciding not to more or less immediately. The final shot of the film has her staring out upon the city, musing to herself "Where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite."

* * *

Unlike similar movies with futuristic settings, Ghost in the Shell is more cerebral. It contemplates not only how technology has transformed warfare but also the identity of individuals, groups, and nations. Beyond all of this it imagines for us a very unique idea of how an artificial mind might think and feel, embodied in the character of the Puppet master. The ending is left open and somewhat inconclusive reflecting the uncertainty of our own future. The child-like body of rebuilt Kusanagi provides us with a very appropriate metaphor for this concept. It couldn't be more symbolic of the new creature she's become and just what possibilities lie in the future are as open as a lifetime spread blank and unwritten in front of an infant.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PW Singer's Wired for War

Considering how long we've been in the Industrial Revolution and just how long the concepts of robots have existed, it almost is an amazing thing we haven't taken things farther than we have. How many people out there think robots are cool? And yet the ones we make are still relatively simple when you stop to think about it. With the computer and information revolutions we are seeing now however, robotics at last appears ready to make leaps and bounds by taking advantage of recent developments in automation and computerized intelligence. In chosing this as a subject, PW Singer's newest book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century gives us a broad look at where the future might be taking us. It's a long and meaty discussion on not only how machines themselves are changing now, but also how they might be changing us. While mainly a discourse on machinery, its other major topic is war, and like many technologies developed in the past, this one also seems to be receiving a major push from military interest on how it can help win future struggles.

Effects of new technologies on war

The book starts out with an explanation of where we currently are with regards to robots and intelligent machines. Several of the most common and advanced ones are introduced and described. There are small and domestic ones like the Roomba which saves you time by automatically scanning the room to determine if the floor is dirty enough to warrant a cleaning, and then vacuums it for you. There are others that are more like advanced remote control toys but have been specialized to do difficult or dangerous jobs e.g. bomb diffusal robots like the Packbot, which is currently being used in Iraq (this robot made an appearance at the beginning of the recent movie "The Hurt Locker"). Then there are ones that more resemble automated or unmanned vehicles than anything else (self driving cars, planes and tanks). Still others can be more malevolent and aggressive. These machines are able to analyse a potential threat and its direction, and are often armed, carrying bombs and guns. One frightening aspect is that sometimes they are also given enough autonomy to fire at will, though generally this final command must be confirmed first by a human making the decision.

That a need is created in warfare for a new type of device or resource has often spurred invention to fill such needs. Ancient examples include catapults and seige engines which came about with the advent of castles. More recent ones are rubber boots for walking through mud, and canned food that would keep longer without spoiling for providing armies with nutrition on long campaigns and marches. Wired for War includes a description of some of these advancements while going on to detail how the current conflicts against terrorism and insurgency in places like Iraq and Afganistan have led to new needs that robots have begun to fill. Specifically hidden dangers like bombs and traps, as well as an anxious public back home that wants the military to accomplish its goals with minimal troops and loss of life. It is for this reason that automated or intelligent machines now increasingly do the dangerous jobs such as bomb diffusal and patrolling the neighborhoods and skies in the foreign countries we've come to occupy.

It's fascinating some of the information presented early in the book on the difference between human and robotic combatants. We learn that not only is using a robot safer, but in many cases more precise or deadly. Humans holding guns, for example, are prone to many negative factors such as tension, shock, and emotion affecting heartbeat and consequently the stability of grip and aim. A robot with a mounted gun, by contrast, doesn't have to deal with shakiness of aim, or even the stress and fear caused by having someone shoot at you, its aim is much more steady. On the example of unmanned aircraft, we learn that they are not only cheaper than those requiring pilots (think of all the costs cut by not building a cockpit with levers, buttons and other user interface and instead having it all internalized) but also are capable of maneuvers impossible to humans. This last point is a result of increased aerodynamics by removing the cockpit and also the machine not being subject to the human limitations of a pilot who might lose consciousness doing certain extreme types of rolls and drops.

In putting together a history of war and its significance, a few other important concepts are introduced and disected. A "Revolution in Military Affairs" (or RMA) is an advent that occasionally comes along which completely changes warfare and causes a lot of the older tactics to become obsolete. Guns and cannons destroying the relevency and practicality of old armor and large castle walls are example of this. A more recent one is the development and proper deployment of tanks ending the trench warfare of World War I.

Another major concept given the rundown in this book is Military Doctrine. This is probably best described as the protocal of how a military acts and reacts to given situations, a combination of strategy and guidelines of conduct. Major literary works of the past (both fiction and non-fiction) are mentioned as having had an immense ammount influence on military doctrine and one can't help but wonder if someday this book (and possibly Singer's others as well) will be included on such a list of required reading for soldiers and military leaders with aspirations. The book makes clear that RMA's aren't everything, and that without an according change in doctrine, may not necessarily mean success. To use the book's example, France and England both had tanks before Germany, but it was the Germans who developed the doctrine to use it most effectively with their "blitzkreig" style of warfare, and thus they were the ones most successful during WWII (at least until the US entered the war).

Among the interesting ways war has changed with technologic advancement are that more space was continually required per soldier on the field. Knights in armor fought hand to hand and thus the battles were close combat in smaller areas. The development of longbows enlarged the space of the battlefield and guns and canon enlargend it even further. Recent developments have now moved the fighting into cities, yet another major change which throws out the window much of what we once knew. A more recentl observation the book makes is that while modern communication devices are making the exchange of information more efficient for militaries, they're creating new problems at the same time. This occurs by creating a flood of too much information and giving people far removed by the chain of command the ability to simply "jump in" and take control via computer rather than allowing others closer (and perhaps better able to make important judgements) to the situation to handle things.

Other factors mentioned deal with the effects of increased robot use on opponents. One positive might be that suicidal insurgents who are willing to risk or even give up their lives to take down a US soldier, might not be so willing to do so merely to destroy a robot used by the US military. Also, while the safety of the soldiers might be increasing through robotics, the psychological effect on opponents may or may not be the desired one. While some designers and generals drool over the concept of creating "shock and awe" by using robots in war, the end result might simply be an increased hatred and a perception of cowardice by hiding behind machines. The idea of a foreign power coming to your country to occupy it, and then sending machines to patrol your neighborhoods does sound like something that would incense ordinary people and not just insurgents. On top of that, "shock and awe" might not be the best way to win the hearts and minds of the those you'll need to leave in control when you leave, and in the end, tanks and airplanes were also once viewed as monsterous and frightning but now are taken for granted, which leads one to believe the same might be just as true of robots.

The Effect of Robots on Us

Warfare isn't the only thing that looks to be affected by the increased use of robotics. The book makes it a very emphasized point that this is something which stands to change the everyday lives of people as well.

The concept of "The Singularity" is discussed briefly. Being a hypothetical that will supposedly change things in ways we can't understand (and thus has a lot of skeptic attitudes towards it), however, there isn't much to be done here than to give an overview of the idea and examine the various opinions of experts in this area.

With remote systems now engaging in the fighting another unique occurence is looked at. What of the "fighters" who control these machines from US soil? They wake up and go to work like the rest of us, but then their work consists of controlling a machine thousands of miles away in another country and at times fighting and killing real people with it. At the end of the day they get right back in their cars and do mundane things like go home or head to PTA meetings. Much has been made in the past about advancements removing soldiers further and further from the actual fighting and the potentially negative effects of feeling detached from carnage and the repurcussions of one's actions. But these people are literally beaming death halfway across the world. What kind of psychological effect does this have on people? For that matter, can we qualify them as "combatants", and if so is an enemy within the ethics of war to attack one of these men on their home soil viewing them as a threat? And if one of them commits a war crime using a machine, what then? We've all seen people get furious and throw tantrums over losing at video games, sometimes reacting by crashing their or killing their in-game avatars on purpose. Is the day coming when someone operating from US soil simply flips out and uses a machine to kill civilians in another country?

Ethics are becoming murkier and murkier with the development and spread of this new technology. And on the domestic side of the story another issue mentioned only very briefly is that of using robots for pleasure. Porno, like the military, has strangely enough actually been responsible for many advancements in technology, particularly when it comes to making things more for private use. What's at issue in a nutshell is this: human-looking robots are going to keep becoming more and more life-like, and sooner or later someone's going to make one that looks like a child. Do we allow pleasurebots that look like children to be bought and sold and used? Proponents will likely argue that it's therapeutic and allows them a release by indulging in what isn't permitted by law with real children. Opponents most likely will protest that it encourages an already unhealthy mental state. My own thoughts: if it's made illegal a black market will almost certainly emerge, but if it's made legal expect protesters to surround stores and business and harass those who try to buy or sell one. By making a product which caters to such a despised desire, it might become easier for people to find those they hate.

Cultures react differently to robots too. Because I currently live in Japan, one area that I personally was quite interested in is how the Japanese use and design and feel differently about robots than us in the western world. There isn't any one section that focuses completely on this, the examples instead are usually littered throughout the book. I'll try and keep this brief because I think I'd like to explore this one further in a future "Notes on Japan" entry, but the bottom line here is that the Japanese in general do seem much more comfortable with the idea of robots multiplying and playing a larger role in daily life. Americans, by contrast, have something of a fear of them: that they will steal more jobs on the mild end and that they'll take us over completely on the more extreme side of things.

This of course leads into one question I'm sure everyone has on their mind when the future of robots is considered seriously. Could they take us over? Will they? Is it inevitable? Or is it all just paranoia? Alas, the book does not have an exact answer although it does certainly recognize and address the question. The discussion unfortunately is rather a brief one being that there are simply too many unknowns to say anything for certain. Several important "prerequisites" for a robot apocalypse are brought up which definitely enlighten the topic though. I don't think there's anyway for me to say it better or sum it up any shorter so I'm just going to go ahead and quote them here:

"Essentially, four conditions would have to be met. First, the machines would have to be independent, able to fuel, repair, and reproduce themselves without human help. Second, the machines would have to be more intelligent than humans, but have no positive human qualities (such as empathy or ethics). Third, they would have to have a survival instinct, as well as some sort of interest and will to control their environment. And, fourth, humans would have to have no useful control interface into the machines' decision-making. They would have to have lost any ability to override, intervene, or even shape the machines' decisions and actions."

While things are advancing quickly, it's "a pretty high bar to cross, at least in the short term" he goes on to add, before chronicling several other important things to consider on this topic.

"With so many people spun up about fears of a robot takeover, the idea that no one would remember to build in any fail-safes is a bit of a stretch... Of course eventually a super-intelligent machine would figure out a way around each of these barriers... However, if ever it does happen, humanity will likely not be caught off guard, as in the movies. You don't get machines beyond control until you first go through the step of having machines with little control. So we should have some pretty good warning signs to look out for... But for all the fears of a world where robots rule with an iron fist, we already do live in a would where machines rule humanity in another way... We are dependent on technology that most of us don't even understand. Why would machines ever need to plot a takeover when we can't do anything without them anyway?"

That such an interesting and important question is brought to an inconclusive end might be a little disappointing, but it's one we just will have to accept. It really is too soon to tell on a lot of things but the future is coming faster than we think. Robots and AI are limited and at the moment not up to our level of intelligence. But things are changing.

One example Singer gives is that robots are only better than us at things like chess and math because math is their language. When it comes to other things, however, it's a different story. Ask a robot if what you're holding is an apple or tomato and it might: compare pictures from a database, examine repeatedly from multiple angles, or even do a DNA test whose data would take a long time to analyze, and still in the end the thing wouldn't be able to say for certain and might give you instead a probability of one or the ohter. On the other hand, a human child could tell you in an instant if something were an apple or tomato with little hesitation or doubt. The machines are getting smarter though. The day is coming when a robot intelligent enough to be able to call someone on the phone and use its voice and wits alone to trick them into thinking it's another human, and it's going to upset a lot of people when it does.

The book's final chapters contain an appeal to the readers that more thought and especially discussion on the issues raised take place. The future is always uncertain to some degree but it only really becomes a problem when it takes us unaware.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

It's been a bit of a slow restart to writing since I got back from vacation and since today I have a little free time I thought I'd try something I hadn't before: reviewing a piece of music. Arcade Fire is a group I hadn't heard of until just this last summer when my sister came to visit me here in Tokyo. The Suburbs is apparently their newest album.

I've been listening to this for the last couple of months since I returned from my trip, it's been an album I've basically been living life to for that time. Like nearly all of the best music out there, the songs feature lyrics that are fairly ambiguous, not specific, though as a whole the album does most certainly seem to have a common theme which links it all together even though different moods are explored throughout the songs. Coming from the artists, you can feel a definite sense of nostalgia listening to it, one for whom a childhood growing up in the suburbs I figure many others will have in common.

The music is rich and lush thanks to the variety of instruments used, and always uncannily captures the mood of domestic american life, even while seeming strangely evocative of multiple eras of america's recent past. Even without paying attention to the words, the rhythms catch the ear and linger long after the audio has faded like the residual mood after an event or memory (this is especially true on songs like Deep Blue, Sprawl II, and the title track The Suburbs) That's not to say that the lyrics have been neglected, they most certainly haven't, and simultaneously contain cleverly revealed opinions and veiled and conflicting emotions on life in the 'burbs.

In the portrayal of its subject the album is by turns longingly reminiscent of the innocence while at other times a quiet condemnation of the hypocrisy which such a way of life seems to breed within it. The tone ranges from quaint, playful, and youthful (again Sprawl II and the Suburbs) to conflicting and challenging (Modern Man, City with No Children). I was alternately reminded of Leave it to Beaver and other sitcoms from that era, bland, naive, and conventional, and the Sam Mendes films, American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, two of the most castigating. Perhaps more than any other, however, what jumps to my mind is the satire Pleasantville which was both fond and critical at the same time.

The album ends on a mournful sort of a note, a slower more sorrowful version of the its opening and feeling almost like a swan song of sorts for its subject matter as if it were a eulogy for a dying way of life. Which I suppose one could say is true actually. For iconic as the suburbs are, life certainly has been and still is changing there. "If I could have it all back, I'd love to waste all over again..."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Euro Trip Summer 2010

It's been several weeks since I got back from my trip to Europe, and even longer still since I've written anything, more than long enough to call what I've been doing procrastinating. When I visited Egypt in spring earlier this year, a combination of lack of internet, and similar laziness kept me from writing anything about it, which is something I've since regretted quite a bit. This recent trip too, has left me with a lot of littler details that I'm quite sure I'll want to recall later, as well as an impression that there is so much more to Europe than what I've seen. Guess that just leaves me with things to look forward to on a return visit.

My sister visited me in early August along with her boyfriend, Eric, and and so for a week before my trip it was like I had another vacation, one where I was showing her and him around Japan and doing things with them. I had only one day in between when they left and when I would start my own trip to get myself ready, but wanting to have as much time as possible in Europe was important.

Carrying only a backpack that would serve me the entire trip, I left from Tokyo Narita Airport about midday to Kuala Lumpur flying on Malaysia Airlines since they were the cheapest. I arrived in that airport with about 4 hours of wait time till my next flight, just enough time to not want to chance going out to see a new city in a new country and then have to rush back for the next plane, but still become tired and hungry and pay for overpriced airport food. Yet another airport that is nicer than LAX was one of the things I discovered there, that and some laksa doesn't taste anything like the kinds I've had in the past was another (this would be what I tried in the airport food court).


Amsterdam was the cheapest port of entry into Europe and having had a great time there in the past, I was looking forward to seeing it again. It'd been nine years since the last time I went (that time with Phil), and remembered seeing the Van Gogh Museum and smoking the weed they had out there. That time I had definitely been more about the partying; we smoked until we could barely navigate the streets and, wanting to see what the hip hop scene was like in another country, I remember going to a pretty mediocre club there as well. I also all but passed out in a cafe that time, a result of mixing way too many drugs at once (that night we'd both bought and tried out some mushrooms as well as drinking alcohol and smoking weed and later some really powerful hash with some English cats we met at a bar. This time around, however, I was on my own, and in no such mood to go so far overboard although it was a given that I was gonna smoke.

When I first arrived, it was early morning and the hostel wouldn't let me check in until 2PM. Their internet was also not yet hooked up in the lobby, so I went out and wandered the city which was only starting to wake up and get moving. Most of the cafes and restuaraunts were closed as well and, since I wanted to get my more serious business and sightseeing out the way before I got high, I headed first for the Anne Frank House. There was a line for the place before it even was open which was actually how I found the place since the map I'd taken was actually quite crappy. It took about 30 minutes to get in, so I mostly chatted with other people in line while waiting. The House itself had been turned into a museum a while back, but being that all the furniture had been removed, there wasn't really too much to see even though there was a good deal of information. Still, like many people I had read the diary when I was younger, and it was somewhat moving to be actually standing in the place where it had all happened.

I had up till that point been considering going to Germany, but deciding that it would be too far, too expensive and too much trouble to get there given what I already wanted to do, I in the end made train and hostel arrangements for Bruges (which was where I'd originally planned to go right after Amsterdam). I met some cool people at the hostel where I was staying: two girls, one from Ireland, the other from Australia, and a guy from Austria. Unfortunately, they were all leaving the following day, making the city little more than a stopover for them, though they did all say they'd be up for drinks at a bar that night. The Australian girl said she was good to go with me to a cafe and chat while I had a smoke, which was nice of her, considering at first I'd actually been concerned I might get too stoned and actually felt like I was asking her to babysit.

The first time I'd smoked in Amsterdam with Phil, he'd talked me in to doing something that probably wasn't the best way to start things off: he immediately asked the clerk what the strongest stuff they had was, bought it, rolled it into a joint and smoked it, which promptly knocked the both of us completely on our asses (he literally fell down going to the bathroom in that cafe) and gave me a quite an eskewed impression of how strong the stuff they had there was. This time around I'd been a little worried, being that I don't get high in Japan and would therefore not be used to it when I smoked, but in the end it all turned out to be nothing, as I had no trouble at all keeping my head this time round.

I chatted with the Australian girl a while and she even ended up smoking a bit too, even though she hadn't really intended to originally. After that she ended up going back to the hostel while I wandered the city a bit more, but really couldn't find too much interesting there that I hadn't already seen before. Friends had advised me to try and get out of Amsterdam and see more of the Netherlands outside the city, but being that I was staying in a hostel there I ended up just playing it safe and taking it easy there. Truth be told though, Amsterdam only had so much going for it, and since I'd been there once before, I really was ready to go after only a day.

I had drinks with the cats I'd met at the hostel earlier plus one newer arrival, a guy from Columbia, in a bar not too far from the hostel. He ended up being the only one not leaving the next day and also the only one who was also smoking and so he and I did so for a while longer after the others left and then walked from bar to bar afterwards too. I lost him somewhere along the way, but kept hopping from place to place smoking different types of weed they had. Finally got to try Blueberry, which some friends of mine back in Cali had smoked before since some had flowed through there once, but I'd never had a chance to try before. Also had Purple Haze and White Widow again the next day and they were both still great. I was smoking the Blueberry in a cafe and ran into a Japanese dude in there and talked with him a while. He was smoking Jack Herrer, which I'd heard had won the Cannibis Cup earlier and he let me try it too. Have to say it was better than the Blueberry I had, not sure quite how to describe it, but definitely a nicer high. My Japanese was a little better than his English so we mostly spoke that, but the higher the both of us got, the harder it became to communicate and eventually I had to leave anyways. f(^.^;)/

The next day I spent in Amsterdam was more or less uneventful. I went to a park and read a bit, considered going to a museum but didn't because I thought they were a bit over priced, and for the most part did the same as before which was just to hop from place to place trying out different stuff. I ate a brownie which strangely enough, I'd never had before. Definitely the same drug, but quite a different high having it that way. I left early morning the following day for Bruges in Belgium.


I guess the first place I'd heard of Bruges was the movie "In Bruges" which was shot on location. As medieval towns go, I've heard it is extremely well preserved and would have to agree it certainly has kept the look and feel alive of how things once were all over Europe. That being said, I did also feel the place was a little small, and that it had also become slightly touristy too. It wasn't super crowded, but there were quite a lot of people there. I arrived in the early afternoon, and was able to see a little bit before things began closing at about 5:00. I should probably mention that both there and Amsterdam (and for that matter even Paris to a degree) the sun sets very late in the evening during the summer time (maybe 9:00 or 10:00). Even still, most of the attractions would shut down at about five which kind of sucked since it stayed light out until almost 11:00 and even if you wanted to do more, you couldn't.

The churches in the town were just amazing, though it would turn out I was in for much more when I went to France and Italy later. The cathedrals' art and architecture and their size and scale really got to me, especially when considering how much smaller and more modest the other buildings were by comparison. Guess you could tell who had all the money coming to them when things were built there.

The food there was quite nice as well. I ate dinner at the restaurant in the hostel which was good, traditional Belgium food with a beer from Belgium as well. I also had some sweets from a local bakery which were great. The country is known for its chocolate and I considered buying some as a souvenir for my friends and coworkers, but with over 2 weeks still to go on my travels I figured also that they might melt if I had to carry them around that long. I spent 2 nights in Bruges and found that more than enough time to see everything I really wanted to, which together with how slow paced Amsterdam had been gave me something of a strange starting impression of Europe and left me wondering how much there'd be to see in the other places I had planned. Would I have a lot of down time or be bored at them? If anything the opposite was true.


I'd given myself a full two days in Paris plus part of the night I arrived and the one I'd leave and had hoped it would be enough time. Turned out it wasn't. Part of the problem might've been that it rained both of the full days I had there which slowed me down a lot and left me a little reluctant to keep pushing onward to new places.

Coming in from Bruges by train, I stopped in the northern France city Lille which I would later learn was the hometown of my friend Roman who I'd visit later on the trip in Marseille and Aix en Provence. One of the girls from my hostel in Amsterdam had told us that traveling by train out of the Netherlands we'd never get searched or stopped in Belgium where laws and feeling toward marijuana are lax, but that once you entered France, it was a problem. Just that happened when I got off the train in Lille to transfer to another train to Paris. Three guards surrounded and stopped me and began questioning me.

"Parlez vous Francais? Do you speak French?" one of them asked.

"Uhh, no." I replied.

"English then? Yes?"


"Where are you coming from?" he asked.

"Bruges" I said.

"You went through Amsterdam then?"

"Uhh yeah I went through there"

"You smoke marijuana there?"

"Umm... yeah I did" I replied after a pause.

"You bring any with you?" he asked.

"No, I smoked it all there."

"You sure?"

"... Yeah, I'm sure"

"That's good", he said "Because we're gonna search your bag now, and if I find anything then I won't be so mad and you can say it was a mistake or maybe that you forgot about it or something, but if you hadn't said that, I'd be really mad and you'd end up in a lot of trouble."

They took my passport (which I'm guessing they probably do to prevent people from running) and then went through my things and even unrolled some of my clothing and felt it to see if anything was hidden in there, but didn't find anything. The only thing close to a scare was when one of them found the empty little plastic joint container I had in there. He held it up and said, "You forget about this?"

"Oh yeah, actually I did" I said, "But I already finished that and just wanted to hold on to the container since maybe I could use it for something else." - which was the truth. At any rate they finished going through my things and finding nothing let me on my way. I had a quick look around at the area around the station but aside from a small cathedral there wasn't too much to see and with only an hour before my train to Paris left I didn't stray too far.

The sun was about set when I arrived and made my way by subway to my hostel. There was just enough time to climb the nearby hill and see the Sacre Coeur a very impressive basilica that was walking distance from the hostel. I met a couple of cool Australians at the hostel here as well, though neither was able to hang out for a day while I was there and Paris ended up being one of a few cities I spent most of my time alone in.

The following day it rained and without consulting a weather report or the clerk at the front desk, I decided to head straight to the Louvre hoping it would stop and that I could wait it out. Turned out it would rain the whole of that day and much of the next as well and so I didn't end up leaving the Louvre for quite a while, but then again I can spend a long time in a museum just reading things so it wasn't a waste or anything. I made my way to the Eiffel Tower as well and saw that too although the rain was really beginning to slow me down by that point.

The day after that I first headed to the Notre Dame Cathedral and ended up waiting over an hour in some really nasty rain just to get into the tower on the roof. The view was totally worth the wait, but the rain stopped just about the time I got up there which in the end left me unsure as to which I felt more, that it was a good thing I got a decent view without the damper of the rain or that I was being absolutely mocked by mother nature having to wait in the rain only for it to stop right before I went indoors. The inside of the cathedral was very impressive too. I wanted to see the catacombs next but when I got there found out they were closed that day. With what was left of the time I had, I went the the war museum and waited about 15 minutes to get in only for the final hour and save myself some money on the admission fee. Not being able to see more of that place was a shame too as I really like seeing the war museums of other countries, and European history in particular is very interesting to me. The last thing I checked out that day was Napoleon's tomb which was right next to the museum. On the way back I headed one more time to the Eiffel Tower which happened to be walking distance from there and got myself a better look at it.

My final day in Paris I had just a few hours to wander around before having to catch a bus to the airport and make my way to Marseille, and so I carried around my bag with me in order to make my way directly to the bus station and then the airport. I tried one final time to see the catacombs only to find the line so long it might just've been impossible even if I'd been willing to wait through it. I instead headed back to Notre Dame to check out the archeological dig and exhibition under the the square in front of it, which had been closed the day before when I went. It turned out to be really interesting as well, and worth the trip back. After that I headed to the airport and on to Marseille.

Marseille and Aix en Provence

It had been over two years since I'd seen my friend Roman, who used to live at Parkside House with me though we did still keep in touch to some degree via Facebook. He met me at the airport and we took a bus to nearby Aix en Provence where he was living, but very much in the process of moving back to Lille (as I mentioned earlier his hometown), making me really thankful that he was willing to take the time to show me around considering how busy he must've been about then.

Most of what I'd looked into doing was at Marseille since it was the area that had the airport though I'd soon learn that he didn't actually like going to that city very much and considered it to be dirty crowded, and its people rude. Pretty much all of Roman's other friends in Provence seemed to agree this too and really enjoyed lambasting it.

"You obviously have never been to Manhattan, LA, Shanghai, or Mumbai", I remember remarking. Honestly, Marseille wasn't that bad, but I supppose in the end they either really felt that way or perhaps they just sort of had a rivalry with the place since it was so close, kind of like the people in my hometown of San Diego who have similar feelings about LA.

For what is what worth though, Provence was cleaner, less crowded, and in its own way quieter than Marseille (Provence is more in the countryside, but has a lot more young people and therefore a lot of partying). Since it's a college town, the girls there were also much prettier, which was nice too. I ate dinner Roman and we caught up on old times over some beers and then drank with a few of his friends who were all getting out of work and school who drank with us and laughed and joked and trash-talked Marseille some more despite knowing I was going to go see it the next day and told them that by lowering my expectations all their dissing of Marseille was probably gonna make my experience there even better. It was a good night. And the next day was even better.

Roman's girlfriend said she'd like to come along and so her mother let Roman borrow their car and we were able to cruise around Marseille and Provence with much more freedom than would otherwise have been possible. In Marseille we checked out the basilica and the bay and castle overlooking it. And then we went to a restaurant and had lunch on the beach after looking at a monument they had to Africans who'd died in French wars. I remember being amazed by that monument and what it represented (a welcome to the people of African counties to immigrate) considering how narrow the perception of most americans is as to what being French means, when in reality they have been multicultural as we have for really just as long if not longer.

We checked out the Notre-Dame de la Garde, a really large basilica on a hill with great view of the city that was in the past used for prayers by the loved ones of the fishermen to pray for their safe passage on the seas.

After that we headed to a small but very beautiful inlet where people could lounge around on the rocks, swim in the water, and even jump in from cliffs, which was a lot fun. We also went for a quick hike around the area taking in the scenery as the sun slowly settled in the horizon.

My best experience with French dining also was that night as we went to a pretty nice place Roman knew about (fish stew with garlic mayonaise and cheese, roast duck in balsamic sauce, and frozen nougat with fruit bits). It was definitely the best thing I ate the entire trip, although admittedly also the most expensive. All things considered, I'd have to say that France had the priciest food of all the places I went to, but probably the best food as well, trumping even Italy, Belgium and England.

My final day there I had only a few short hours before having to catch my flight and so I went with Roman to the market and then caught a bus to the airport. Regretably, it would wind up being the only chance I got to meet up with an old friend on the trip and was without a doubt one of the best times I've while traveling.

My next destination would be Venice, and this point of the trip I also had made somewhat dodgy choices as to how I'd go about it all. Seeing as the flights from Paris to Venice had been really cheap, I'd booked it quickly, and actually out of order chronologically considering when I'd wanted to go where in planning things. Flights from Paris to Marseille were also very cheap and so I'd figured that the best way was simply to just return to Paris and then go on to Venice again by flight since trying to research trains on the internet had been something of a hassle, and didn't look to be too much cheaper or faster either. Unfortunately I soon discovered, the flights back in to Paris were actually much more expensive than those leaving it (I guess a lot more people want to fly in than out), and being that I'd already booked a flight from Paris to Venice first, I pretty much had no choice but to just eat it when it came to going back to Paris.

Fortunately, the flights were fast and on time and without an excessive amount of waiting and, better still the view out the window of the flight into Italy was just amazing and completely worth it. The flight took me over the Alps, beautiful and enveloped in clouds just as the sunset over the whole thing. It was great.


I arrived at the airport and didn't have to wait long for a shuttle bus that drove people over the bridge and into the floating city. Or sinking city I guess one could say since I've heard the water level has been steadily rising year after year. It amazes me that people could build such a thing as Venice, an entire city reclaimed from the ocean itself (I've heard the same words uttered about Amsterdam though the methods are completely different). I'd heard widely differing opinions about the place before coming. One was that it had a very romantic atmosphere and was great for couples (I'd always thought it'd nice to ride a gondola with a girl, but didn't bother to do so this trip since I was alone). The other opinions were that it was dirty, smelly, humid, and full of mosquitos due to all the water. The reality of it all, was somewhere in between.

I got to my hostel a bit late and decided to quickly head back out and have dinner before too many of the restaurants closed. I had some pizza at somewhat cheap place (cheap, at least compared to the rest of Venice, though after France the prices seemed reasonably lower) and got slapped with a seating charge that apparently a lot of places there use to try and get more customers in the door. Though I know it's kind of hard to go wrong with pizza, I've also got to be honest when I say that what I had out there in Italy wasn't exactly impressive. Again I didn't go anywhere upscale, but considering pizza is Italian food, I'd sort of been hoping that even the cheap places would make it pretty good, but... no such luck. I'm also aware that pizza varies a lot depending on what country you're in, that each place adjusts its food to the tastes of its locals, and that american pizza has become its own seperate kind of beast with Giant NY and Chicago Deepdish famous in their own rites, but even still Italian pizza was a bit of a let down and I honestly had much better luck with pastas and lasagnes.

I should mention that the youth hostel I stayed at was a very, very Youth hostel. It seemed that the people the owners had hired to run it were travelers themselves who liked to party and drink with the guests and kind of ran things haphazardly. There were three really long rooms with maybe ten beds in each, and very little privacy going on. When I got back, there was someone asleep in the bed they'd told me was mine when I arrived. Apparently they'd told the guy sleeping there that he could have that bed earlier that day. And two other guests had the same problem as me where their beds had been taken by someone else and they had to move to a different room. It was very loud as well, with a large main room and people almost always in it, talking, drinking, even till late at night. Hot in that place too, no air con and only one fan per room full sleepers. I stopped wearing a shirt to sleep while I was in Italy and ended up collecting a few mosquito bites on my back and shoulders and other places the little buggers don't normally get to. They did feed us though (a cheap, homemade pasta at 7:00 each evening) and it was cheap too, which was what had attracted me to it in the first place, gotta give em that much. That being said, the place was actually a lot of fun, and I had a blast drinking and chatting with the other travelers there the second night after I returned, but I'll get to that later.

The cathedrals in Bruges had really impressed me, the ones in France, even more, but when I got to Italy, man did those ever blow me away. We were talking about the place where the Renaisance started rather than one it spread too, and probably the last place where truly stunning architecture was made before industrialization and modernization began to make all our buildings look just about the same. I remember running into a lot of travelers on my trip before going to Italy who, same as me, were traveling Europe but had just come from the place and were heading northward, in essence going the opposite direction I was. Many had seemed underwhelmed by the cathedrals they were encountering in France and elsewhere and it was at this point I could really see why: seeing Italy first had sort of "ruined it" for them. Made me really glad I'd chosen to go through northern Europe first.

It might seem kind of ironic to say this, but Venice actually involves a lot of walking. With no buses or trains save the ones that arrive and leave the city, and only water taxis that were actually a bit pricey considering how small the place is, the foot is pretty much the way you get around.

The largest, most impressive building there is Saint Mark's Basilica which was free to get into, but had a line a mile long. In the end I decided to skip it since by that point, I'd decided to leave the next day for Trieste. The main square just outside it was also very impressive, and there was an old tower providing a view of the city from on high. I was surprised they'd also installed an elevator in it to take people up, but then again with how many people must roll through Venice it probably would've taken forever to wqait for everyone to climb that thing too. The view itself was good, although I'd also have to say that because the streets and canals were so narrow, you really couldn't see much other than the roofs of buildings from up there, and in that sense it pretty much did look like just a lot of other cities.

I met two other travelers at the tower, a younger guy and his dad, who were seeing the sights as well as visiting family they had in Italy, and so I hung out with them for a little while, heading to the military museum only to find it closed as well, before they had to head back to catch a train out and I ccontinued on to see the Basilica of Saint Peter of Castello. Finally, I doubled back the opposite way through town checking out places I saw along the way to Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, a very impressive piece architecture that I really wish I'd headed towards earlier as it was already closed for the day by the time I made it there.

I made it back to the hostel in time for their free dinner, and had a chance to talk to some of the other travelers there. Met a pretty cool guy from Australia, a girl from Argentina, and two others from England who were friends. Knew I had to get up early the next day to catch a train to Trieste, but played a drinking game with everybody anyways (although it wasn't as if I could've slept through the noise of it all even if I'd wanted too). The guys running the hostel also joined in on the game, in fact, they pretty much were the ones who organized the thing when it came down to it. People just drunker and drunker and some time after 11:30 the better part of the procession took to the streets to head for a bar. I went along with them, but ducked out a bit early to get some rest. People were still drinking and partying back at the hostel, but by then I was so plastered and tired from all the walking I had no trouble crashing out.

The next morning my alarm went off about a quarter till seven and I stumbled out of bed shirtless into the living room to observe the wreckage last night's revelry: people passed out on the couches, who never made it back to the beds we had had so much confusion over, half-consumed food and drinks all over the tables, empty alcohol bottles and cans collecting in the corners, monuments universal to partiers the world over, man, it was like being back in college.

I showered and packed up and left before most anyone was even stirring and was off and asleep on a train to northern Italy in no time at all.

Trieste, Italy and Skocjan Caves in Slovenia

A while back when I was traveling through India, I'd met a very well-traveled family from Colorado who was doing the same and had really been around Europe as well as many other places. I'd asked them what the most impressive thing they'd seen was and their answer had surprised me a bit. They'd said that there was a cave complex in Slovenia not too far from Venice that had absolutely knocked them off their feet. Knowing I would head to Venice myself on this trip, I decided to put aside an extra couple days to try and make my way out there and see it for myself. Trieste was right on the border of Slovenia and I knew the caves themselves were a bit further out of the way, but getting to them would turn out to be a good deal more difficult than I orignially had thought.

I arrived at the hostel, checked in and was ready to go at about 12:30, and pleased with myself for getting up early that morning, giving myself plenty of time to do what I'd set out for. I was therefore very surprised when asking the guy at the hostel told me it might not be possible to see the caves that day. "It's kind of late already", he said. When I asked why just past noon could possibly be late considering the place closed at 5:00, he simply replied "Not many trains or buses go out that way." He was right about that. It turned out there were only two buses going from the main bus station, one pretty early in the morning, another I think in the afternoon that would've got me there too late to make it in before closing time. Turned out that you could take a free shuttle from Divaca, a little hamlet nearby the caves, and that some of the big major trains rolled through it to and from bigger cities in Slovenia and Trieste (but again those trains only stopped there a few times a day once every few hours). A place called Sezana on the Slovenia side was about the only convenient one on my way and I couldn't make the remaining train that day either.

Undaunted, I searched the web and found one travel forum where a guy said you could take a local bus to a small town called Brazovizza and then hike 7km to the caves. Since I like hikes, I thought to myself "That's nothing!" and headed out to take a bus to that town and then walk across the border.

Whether or not there actually is a 7km hiking trail from that town to the caves I'll never know, because there weren't any signs pointing the way near the bus stop, and no one in the town seemed to know either, and instead they all pointed me in the direction of Divaca saying only that it was far. I at first figured that this must've been what the website I'd seen was talking about. I walked and walked and walked until my feet began to really feel sore from long extertion. It wasn't a bad walk, the landscape was very beautiful, very scenic, but it was long. I'd long since walked across the border and could see the signs pointing me where I needed to go but realized soon that this was actually going to be a good deal longer than 7km. In fact, I'd say it was probably somewhere more in the neighborhood of 10-12km. It took a lot of time too, the place was very rural and without a car you really didn't get around a place like that.

By the time I finally made it to Divaca it was nearly 4:30 and the last shuttle, I found had left at 3:30. I considered walking the rest of the way but was very tired and though the signs pointed the way, they didn't say how far, and I could've been walking for another 7km for all I knew just to not make it in time anyways. It was pretty discouraging. And being as tired as I was, I thought about taking a taxi back, but apparently Divaca was so small it didn't have any cabs, the nearest were a 25 minute drive away, and if you called em to ask for a ride they'd charge you for that 25 minutes too. So with sore feet and bruised pride I began walking back the way I came.

Having nearly no pretext hide my sense of shame at this point I basically started hitchhiking back, I just wanted to get back as soon as possible. Fortunately, I was picked up almost immediately by two guys in a pick up truck who when they heard where I was headed said they could take me half way. Though neither spoke much English we could communicate at least a little, and I think they worked on one of the nearby ranches or something like that. When the road turned and split they dropped me off to go their own direction, and I continued back down the road and started hitchhiking again, this time being picked up by a guy driving a towncar heading all the way back to Brazovizza himself. He spoke even less English and between what little French I could remember, we had a lot more trouble getting across any kind of message to each other. Still it was nice to have people pick me up so quickly, and I was amazed at just how kind they were out there. Kind of makes me wonder if they get that sort of thing a lot. It took me over an hour and 15 minutes to walk to Divaca, the elapsed time hitchhiking back, just over 15 minutes. >.<; Why oh why didn't I just do that in the first place, or even when I just realized how long it was taking me? Oh well, hindsight's 20/20 I guess.

As if all that didn't sting enough, I found out when I got back to the bus station that evening that the following day even the morning bus wouldn't be going out because it was a special day. Hearing my plight, however, a guy and his wife who were also in the station told me that there was a sort of trolley like local cable car that could take me up the hill and then it was (only) a few kilometers walk to Sezana where I could catch a train (again which only came every couple hours) to Divaca. This really saved my ass since otherwise I might've had to either pay for an expensive taxi, extend my stay in Trieste by one more night, or leave emptyhanded. Great, I thought to myself, another long walk. This time round I'd start hitchhiking from the beginning if I had to. Turned out I didn't though. I walked into a hotel to ask if they had a shuttle or if cabs around there were cheap, and deciding instead to walk it, a hotel employee who overheard what I was planning to do offered me a ride across the border as far as Sezana where I could catch the train.

The wait in Sezana was a little long (I'd gotten there faster than I'd thought I might because of the ride). I met some guys from France, who like me, were backpacking around Europe and themselves headed to a beach in Slovenia. They were pretty cool. I suppose if I had to sum up the difficulties of getting to Skocjan from Trieste it'd be that while it isn't all that far, it's very rural and while there are a lot of little towns nearby, transportation between each is a bit of a pain if you lack your own vehicle.

I made it to Skocjan around midday and since I had about a half hour till the next tour, took the time to hike almost halfway around the gorge, which had some really nice views of a manse on top of a cliff. When the tour began we walked about 5-10 minutes from the visitors' center till we got to the entrance of the caves. It was cold inside; a damp sort of coldness that pretty much made a jacket of some kind available. Fortunately I'd brought one. I have to say that for all the trouble it was to get there, the caves were quite impressive. The ceilings over 100 meters high in some places. And there were really cool formations of stalagmites and stalagtites, occassionally in a sort of "curtain" form which gave parts of the caverns an ancient almost cathedral like look to them. There was a huge underground waterfall and river (which was what had carved the tunnels out of the stone in the first place). We also saw bats in some of the later parts of the caves.

The one thing that was a little bit of a let down was that we weren't allowed to take pictures, which sucked for me since I love taking pictures and this was one place I would've really liked to photograph. When I asked the tour guide why they had that rule she said people stopping to snap away slowed things down a lot (the tour was one and a half hours long, all walking), which I suppose I'm as guilty as anyone of, though rights to photos and people not paying attention also played parts in it I'm sure.

Met a pretty cool guy at the caves named Jesse who was from the Netherlands. He told me his work allowed him a lot of great chances to travel and he'd been to more coutries than even I had. At any rate, he had a rental car and gave me a lift back as far as the trolley which was really cool of him. I made it back to Trieste about 3:00 or so.

The first thing I did getting back was book passage to Rome. There was an overnight train open that night. Awesome. Transportation and accomadations both taken care of. I booked a hostel for Rome using the internet back at the hostel, bought a cheap pair of pretty lame jeans since I'd heard you had to wear long pants to get into the Vatican, and then asked the guy at the front desk of the hostel what there was to do in Trieste since I had several free hours in front of me.

Turned out there were actually a few things in Trieste worth seeing, but what caught my attention immediately was that there were two castles, and an old, ruined roman theatre there. Being that I hadn't been able to get to Germany to see the castles there, this caught my attention immediately. One of the two I'd passed on the train ride in, it was called Miramare (literally ocean-view) Castle and was a little ways from the central part of town. I put it on hold and decided to head towards the roman theater and the other castle since they were close to each other and walking distance from the hostel.

The roman theater I checked out was closed unfortunately, though you could still see it from the street. The other castle was called San Giusto, was pretty interesting, and had a nice view. I'd really wanted to see a castle that looked like a proper battle fortification though and had been in battle and not one that was simply a fancy dwelling for a noble, however, and San Giusto was a little more of the latter, unfortunately. But then again I think so was Miramare which I wasn't able to see since there just wasn't enough time to make it before it closed. Kind of a shame too, since Miramare looked like the nicer of the two both architecture and view-wise.

Almost everything was closed in Trieste that day and there wasn't too much to do. I spent quite a while on the bay and saw a really spectacular sunset there before having dinner and heading to the station to wait for my train.


Rome was by far the longest time I spent in one place on the whole trip, a result of it being my second to last destination and me having bought the ticket out in advance only to make slightly better time getting there than I'd planned for. Even still my time there was fairly short, and I spent more or less a full day getting out of the city as well to see Pompeii.

I arrived early morning and made my way by bus to the hostel, which was really close to the large station, Roma Termini. I decided more or less right away to book a train to Pompeii the following day to check it out. With the full day in front of me I decided to try and see the biggest things on the list first.

One really helpful thing Jesse had told me back in Slovenia regarding Rome was that you should go to the Forum before going to the Colosseum since they sold tickets for dual entry and the line at the Colosseum was really long while the one at the Forum was no wait at all. Probably saved me over 30 minutes.

The forum was amazing. It gets me how so much of such an ancient city could be preserved while a modern one sprouted up all around it. Judging by the way it appeared sunken under the main city's streets, I'd guess it was buried and excavated and only now being rebuilt. The colosseum was cool too, a lot to see within and a lot to read in what sort of served as a museum to it. I stayed in there for quite a long time and then, with what was left of my day made my way to the Vatican.

The front desk at the hostel I stayed at gave me another really good piece of advice regarding the Vatican. They told me that the line was really long in the morning since so people tended to go there early wanting to see it first, but that the line was basically gone by the early afternoon around 2:00 or so. They also said that the notorious dress code I'd heard so much about wasn't quite as strict as some people had made it out to be. Bare shoulders and shorts that went above the knees would get you kicked out by the "fashion police", but long shorts were fine. Man were they ever right. I showed up at about 3:30 and there was no line at all and even girls in dresses with bared shoulders were being let through by the now lax security.

St Peter's was without a doubt the most impressive cathedral I'd ever seen in my life. Ceilings of amphitheatrical heights, every inch of wall engraved or painted, and high windows letting the light shine through in thick, radiant beams through the dim interior giving the whole place this sort of hushed and holy, awe inspiring feel to it. Unfortunately, without realizing the way to the Sistine Chapel was through the Vatican Museum, I left afterwards, making a return trip necessary.

With what was left of my day I went to the Spanish Steps, saw the fountain there, and watched the sunset, and then walked to the Piazza del Popolo nearby. The last thing I saw that night before heading back to the hostel was the fountain at the Piazza del Republicca.

Back at the hostel itself, I met some other backpackers who were from Australia that were pretty cool, but sadly leaving the following day. Also met a couple of cool French girls who were traveling through too, and also leaving the next day. I stayed up a while chatting with one of them having a pretty cool conversation about nationalism in america, Japan, and France, 9/11 conspiracy theories and some other cool shit before having to cut it short and get some shut eye.


I've been to a lot of ruins in my time, especially in the last 5 years, but I really would have to say that Pompeii was about my best experience at any. I suppose part of this has to do with the fact that I knew more about the site and the culture and the circumstances which led to its demise than any others I've visited, but other than that what else is there? They're certainly not the largest or most spectacular I've seen (India and Egypt both have bigger and more elaborate), and their setting wasn't the most unique (the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde were far more out there). I think perhaps more than anything else was the immensity of it all and how well preserved they are; you literally can wander the entirety of an ancient city that's been frozen in time.

Walking the streets there gives the most unique feeling imaginable, and unlike other ruins which seemed to remind me of how long they'd been abandoned or how no one now lived there, Pompeii seemed instead to reminding me that people once did. And I felt much more closely there what it might've been like to have lived there. So many of the little details of peoples' day to day lives are still there, the markets selling fish and meat and produce; the restaurants; the bath houses and brothels; the colossium and theater; the temples and public forums.

Equally interesting one could say was the way it all fell apart, sudden and violent by volcanic eruption. A lot of attention has been given to the way many died being buried in volcanic ash and ingenious way plaster was poured into the empty cavities containing bones to recreate a sort of cast or shell and giving us a glimpse as to what the person looked like when they perished. At first I was wondering if they would have many of these bodies lying about where they were found, but surprisingly saw only a few in certain houses. "Why not leave the bodies where they fell and thus keep things truly locked frozen in time?" I thought to myself. But after a while it hit me that see bodies lying around eveywhere might be a bit creepy, morbid too when I think about it. I can just see the little kids visiting with their families and begging to leave even faster "Mommy, I wanna go home. This place is scary" and so on...

I lost myself in history looking at things and reading what I could, and spent nearly five hours doing so. Probably could've stayed a bit longer, but it was starting to get late and I also wanted to get back at a somewhat decent time and it was a two hour train ride back to Rome plus the trains only went once every couple of hours.

Rome Revisited

I got back that evening and met the new arrivals to my room at the hostel. A group Australians (Adam, Renee, Josh, and Oliver) who were really cool and having arrived only that day to see mostly the same things I'd seen the day before were pretty much on the same page as me for sightseeing. I ended up spending the next day checking out Rome with them, while they went to see Pompeii the following one.

We checked out Trevi Fountain and the Church of Saint Ignazio which had a painted ceiling that was just incredible. After that was the Pantheon, an extremely old building that was remarkably well preserved, and once was a temple to the ancient Roman gods but was converted to a Christian church later. Interesting exchange with the guys too about religion and the landmarks it inspired. As non-believers, it's sometimes a bit unusual to be standing in the midst of something like the Pantheon (which both times I visited had choirs singing hymns the whole of the time I was in there), and yet it's not at all difficult to justify being there to appreciate it as a work of art or beauty. I don't know who wouldn't be impressed seeing things like the paintings, sculptures and decorations in those places, and to an ancient audience, I can only imagine, wanting to be a part of it would be only natural. Knowing what the whole of it actually entails, and the history of it all now, makes things a bit different for a more modern audience, but enjoying it for its craft alone is enough.

We made our way across through several other fountains, squares and churches to the Castel Sant'Angelo and finally on to the Vatican Museum. The museum itself was great, filled with tons of the most splendid art I'd seen, even compared to the Louvre. And like the Louvre as well, it seemed almost a shame actually that we had to go through it as quickly as we did considering just how much of it there was and the attention such quality could justifiably take.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was yet another of those sights just astounding to see in person. The room itself was kept a bit dim I felt (probably to prevent fading) but nonetheless a vision to behold. Then came the ascent up to the top of St Peter's with an awesome view of the Vatican and a panorama of all the city.

What was left of the day was spent making reservations and plans for the ongoing trip and more or less eventless, but still was one of the most enjoyable I'd had, thanks in large part to those I'd hung out with.

I remember having an interesting conversation with the girl, Renee, about Australians and travel. It had struck me that I'd met an awful lot of Ozzies on the trip I was on (one in every city thus far I think except the south France portion which was short and spent entirely with Roman) and various others I'd been on as well. "I think Australians are pretty well traveled," I commented, "either that or a bit more adventurous than those of many other coutries."

"I don't know if I'd say that," was how she responded. "Many don't want to leave at all, but for those that do... I think that for all its size there isn't too much diversity in Oz and those with wanderlust tend to be quick to get out of the country and look around since you can see a lot of what Australia has to offer pretty quickly."

It got me thinking a bit about how other peoples from other countries did their traveling. I'd heard from the French guys I'd met in Slovenia that many in France traveled extensively because it was simply in their culture and the social system afforded them a lot of time off. Germans too, I heard, in general had a very long vacation time due to their tough work ethic and feelings that because they worked so hard they should play hard too. I don't know too much about any others but the Japanese, I've felt for quite a while, really don't spend enough time taking it easy. Americans have a habit of jumping in their cars and taking roadtrips since many are a little xenophobic and can at times be reluctant to go abroad, but also because such trips are faster and cheaper. That, and the US does have some incredible natural sights as well.

My final day in Rome was spent seeing what things I'd missed (like the monument Vittoria and the War Museum), shopping for souvenirs, and otherwise just relaxing since I felt I'd managed to see everything I'd really really wanted to the days before.


My flight to England was delayed, much to my dismay considering it was set to arrive quite late at night to begin with, and then once I arrived, I was upset to discover that the line getting through customs was a long, slow mess as well. By the time I finally got in, it was past one in the morning, and all the local trains and buses and stopped leaving me more or less stranded at the airport.

I'd really wanted to see my friend, Matt, who I'd met in Japan, but instead had the misfortunate of it being a holiday weekend I didn't know about, and found he couldn't meet since he'd already made plans to go out of the country with some of his friends. He let me stay with his family, however, which though I felt a little unusual about not knowing them and all, I also thought was not a good idea to turn it down since it took care of my accommadations and gave me someone to talk to who was local and knew their way around.

The only trouble was first getting to them. Having little in the way of change to use on payphones, and learning really quickly that you had almost no time at all to speak on one if you used it, I was able to do little more than make contact and then decide I'd have to spend the night sleeping on the airport floor before setting out the next day. Though a lot of others were camped out there in the terminal as well, it hard and uncomfortable on the floor. Worst of all, with a storm rolling through at the time, England turned out to be pretty cold actually comparing to the heat I'd just come out of in Rome and especially what I'd been used to before the trip in Tokyo.

The next morning I couldn't get through to Matt's family, and lacking internet to see if anyone else I knew in the London was ok to hang out, decided to strike off on my own. It ended up being yet another prank of fate that due to the holiday weekend and other bad circumstance, I would end up being unable to meet with any of the four friends I had in the area who I'd contacted in advance.

I headed first to the Tower of London. Though expensive and a little crowded, it was without doubt, one of the most interesting places I visited on the entire trip. As if the structure, the exhibitions, and the Crown Jewels on display weren't enough, the history of that place blew me away and kept me there a lot longer than I'd at first expected.

The storm not only made things damp and chilly, but darkened what light there was of the day much quicker. With what was left of the day I went to see St Paul's Cathedral but only was able to photograph the outside since it was already closed for the day. There was an entry price as well, I think, and seeing that it looked a bit high I decided not to come back the next day. After that I went to see Big Ben and the Parliament Building, both of which were excellent.

It was around that time, however, that I also began to feel really sick. I'd had something of a headache since about when I woke up that morning, I think due to sleeping on the floor of the airport, but around this time my stomach began to really hurt too and I was having trouble keeping down my lunch. I called Matt's family again, this time getting through and made my way by train to their place. Under the weather as I was, I probably didn't make too good a first impression, and was so wretched had to almost immediately go straight to bed, but they were very kind and the next morning I felt much better.

Just how short my stay was really hit home about this time as my final full day was beginning and as much as I would've liked to get out of London and see the countryside, I couldn't. I'd been pretty interested in seeing one of the stone circle (not Stone Henge, but possibly Avebury or West Kennett) and one of the castles too (had my eye on Warwick), but again I suppose it just gives me something to do if ever I were to return. Because I'd gotten sick the day before, however, I instead opted to stay in London my final day and spent my time seeing what sights I could there and doing some final souvenir shopping for friends and coworkers back home. I saw Soho, Picadilly, Trafalgar Square, London Eye, and revisited Big Ben. Though it's touristy as hell, I probably should've seen Buckingham Palace and watched the Changing of the Guard but instead didn't bother. I also was able to try the Brit-Indian curry they had out there.

It's funny to me a little how the Japanese actually bad mouth English food as if it tastes bad or something, and while I am inclined to say that French, Italian and many other countries traditional food is more flavorful, I actually quite liked English food for all its simplicity. By contrast, a lot of the British friends I have really like to brag about having "the best curry in the world", made by Indian immigrants there who have access to much better ingredients and facilities in England than those back in India. Bearing in mind I had already been to India (best butter chicken curry I've ever had, I ate there), and that there are a few places in Tokyo that make amazing curry too (A-Raj in Ikebukuro is just great), I was determined to see if the curry in London lived up to the hype. I found a place in the Picadilly area, really one I just happened to pass by, and went in to give it a go. It was lunch time so they had good prices on specials, and the curry itself... pretty damn good. Not sure if I can say it was better than A-Raj or the better stuff I had in India, but it was definitely on the level. Shame I only had one day there and not enough time to go to another place. Considering I'd picked the place out at random and hadn't necessarily gone to a well known restaurant but still got something really good, I'd have to say I was pretty impressed.

I headed back to Matt's family not too late since I wanted to get back at a decent hour for them. Packed my things up for the morning and left the next day, my flight home eventless except for a delay in Malaysia which got me back home a couple hours later than I would've liked.

The shortness of time I had at some of places I'd gone to, served as a near constant reminder to me that the things I wanted to do in Europe couldn't all be done in so short a time, and that for most cities (especially big ones and even more so for whole countries) a couple of days simply wasn't enough time. I wonder sometimes if perhaps I spread myself to thin and so that the whole trip had a bit too much of a whirlwind feel to it, impressions fleeting rather than lasting. On the other hand, I have to say that I did things the way I wanted to in the end, and that had I taken a different approach I'd have probably simply regretted different things. Not everything goes as we plan, especially on trips we take, and to be quite honest I'm somewhat strange in wanting a messier life than most other people I've met. In many ways, I like things more complicated, and when it comes to travel it's the unexpected things that happen which give the journey a consistency of adventure or unknown. That, and all things considered, even if nothing goes the way you plan you still don't have a bad trip to Europe.

Arrival at the airport in Amsterdam




Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower


Aix en Provence

Aix en Provence


Venice, Grand Canal

Venice, Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute

On the road between Italy and Slovenia

Gnocchi di Susine. A sweet, cinnamony glazed, prune filled gnocchi that isn't common or popular outside of northern Italy. It did have an unusual taste, but was really glad I tried it while I was up there cause it was pretty good.

Skocjan Caves

The sunset in Trieste

Rome, Forum

The Colosseum

Saint Peter's Basilica

Piazza del Popolo


Pompeii, bathhouse

Tower Bridge

London Tower

Big Ben

London Eye on the left, Parliament building and Big Ben on the right

Trafalgar Square