Monday, March 22, 2010

First Time on Skis

I do not think it is a secret that I am not a big winter enthusiast. That can be a hinderance in Scandinavia considering it has been winter now, or what I would consider winter, for about six months. That said, I took on the challenge of attempting to ski this past weekend.

Perhaps I was not what you would call a natural. I think I was a bit hampered by fear. Typically, I am not fearful of such things but after a near brush with death last year biking on a Colorado mountain, I was a little more cognizant of my own mortality. I had been mountain biking for a few days and growing more confident each day. Translation: doing stupider and stupider things without a helmet.

This culminated in me biking down a rocky mountain slope with my dog on a leash. The dog suddenly jumped in front of my tire and I invariably fell while going really, really fast and hit my head. Thankfully, at that time, I was pretty ignorant of head injuries and impending death. It wasn't until later when a celebrity of sorts fell and hit her head skiing that I realized how serious such things can be and also a friend of mine's mother, an ER nurse, clued me in on such injuries.

So now I am a bit skittish. Fear is your worst enemy when trying an adrenaline sport such as skiing. Fear also comes with age. That seems almost counterintuitive. It does, however, explain the five year olds buzzing past me and the fifteen year olds flipping down the mountains on their snow boards.

First off, if it involves packing a lot of gear, it's not for me. Skiing involves packing a lot of crap. Boots, skis, hats, gloves, snow pants, base layers, scarves, poles, helmets. Far more planning than I care to engage in. And the boots? Seriously? Torture devices if ever there were any. "Who does this" I kept asking myself.

The first day: We get up and put on all the stuff. There I was: prepared to go out on the slopes or a moon mission. It could have been either from my perspective. It was raining. After an early morning lesson by our Russian ski instructor, my daughter and I sat at a picnic table, in the drizzle, amusing ourselves by trying to come up with places we'd rather not have been. Other than in a hospital (which was an entirely possible outcome) or in a doctor's office receiving a fatal diagnosis, we were coming up short. A weekend getting water boarded at Guantanamo Bay outranked the present circumstances. At least it was warm at Gitmo and they were serving decent food.

Day two was better. The sun was out and it was a warm day. My daughter and son by this time were whizzing down the hills and by lunch time I had actually stopped falling. I never graduated past the easy slope but I overcame my fear and was actually somewhat addicted to going down the hill "one more time" by the end of the day.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Flying Ryan Air

Flying to Rome was my first experience with Ryan Air. Ryan Air is typically the butt of jokes because of it's ala carte menu of services and no frills approach to flying. Anyone who had flown in the United States since the time when speculators drove oil prices up to nearly $150 a barrel, is well used to ala carte services from their airlines. You will pay to book luggage, pre-board, have a Coke and recently they've even added pay toilets (1 euro) for one hour or less flights. The good news is, however, the flights are cheap. Dirt cheap in some instances. I have heard of instances of 20sek fares. (approximately $2.50)

That said, I thought it was a great value. Four of us flew to Rome for about $600, which is actually pricey where Ryan airfare is considered. The plane was new. I've flown some transcontinental flights with Delta on planes that looked like they were being held together with dental floss and electric tape. The seats were cramped but no more so than any standard domestic class flight, really.

Additionally, it is about 90 miles outside of Stockholm in a little city called Nyköping. They make it easy to get there. Busses leave central station all day at regular intervals. I actually liked the opportunity to drive through the calm and scenic Swedish countryside. Something I rarely get the chance to do. Farms and gentle rolling slopes covered in snow dot the countryside.

Most of the complaints regarding Ryan air come from the fees. If a flight is advertised as 5sek, some get irate to see it turn to 150sek with fees for internet booking, luggage, etc. Again further proof that some people really do just expect something for nothing. I am firm believer that most times, you get what you pay for. Then it is up to you to weigh your priorities.

All things considered, it's still a great value for inexpensive travel. Even with the fees you are likely to pay double or triple with SAS or other large commercial airlines. For a quick long weekend trip and a short flight Ryan air does the job quite nicely.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Whatsa Matter, You Donta Lova Your Momma?

That is the cry of the dejected street vendors in the squares of Rome. How can you not love it?

I have finally found the quintessential Europe that all Americans envision. I knew it had to exist. Stereotypes are never formed out of complete fabrication. That place, that little slice of heaven on the European continent, is Italy. I am hooked.

Only twice have I visited a place and felt such an envy. The first was Bangkok. The second Rome. A feeling of looking through the glass window into to an exclusive club where I could never gain membership. All this was their birthright. Oh, please let reincarnation be real and let me come back an Italian.

Long leisurely breakfasts on rooftop gardens leading to long leisurely dinners at outside sidewalk trattorias, fashionistas at every turn, sun, citrus and that intangible Italian spirit pervades every intoxicating breath of air. Instantly, their happiness is palpable and, like all moods, it is contagious.

Wisecracking and curious waiters are part of the ambiance. By the end of your time here, I guarantee you'll be saying things like "Mamma Mia" (yes, they really do say this) and "Prego". Instantly, you understand New York City and the obvious impact Italians have had on the NYC culture. The service is excellent in every capacity. Fashion smart sales clerks in three simple moves take the jacket you are trying on from drab to high chic. "How did she do that you ask yourself", as you tell her, "I'll take it, how could I not?"

Might I add:!?

Perfect moments are easy to come by in Italy. They are like busses, if you miss one, just wait, another will come in fifteen minutes. Close your eyes and imagine shop owners on lazy Sunday mornings cleaning their windows listening to some forlorn Italian opera telling the tale of unrequited love, open shuttered windows with Italian grandmothers banging clean rugs while conversing with a street side neighbor, meandering alleyways of cobblestone echoing Italian love songs or threesomes of portly, older Italian men in hats and with cane, sipping tiny black expressos while passing the time playing cards. It is all that and more.

Affordable too. Ofcourse, Italy has it's welfare state but like all of the more rebellious southern European countries, a good third of the country performs business through the "back door". It is estimated 25%-30% of the Italian economy is blackmarket. To a newly transformed anarcho-capitalist as myself, I say "Viva la Italy-bring it all down, man". The black market distorts things a bit and adds downward pressure to prices. Coming from Stockholm, it was a bargain hunters dream.

Noticeably reduced is that, "gotta get mine first" mindset I find so prevalent in collectivist societies. "Scusi" abounds. Yes, they really say excuse me when they brush up against you or inadvertently bump shoulders. What a novel concept. Doors are held open and heavy arms eased with willing assistance. Smiles and dancing eyes tell the tale of a life to be enjoyed, not endured.

Of course, the food. You'd really have to work hard to have a bad meal. Fresh handmade pastas, seafood, pizzas, carafes of red wines, gelatos to die for, lasagnes, my personal favorite-gnocchi's, and all affordable. None of this, Scandinavia, needing to take out a small loan for dinner for four.

This was also only Rome. I can only imagine it improves from here in the smaller more out of the way destinations.