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February 19, 2002

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Strange as it seems to me, my journey is over and I find myself at home again, a bit over a year since when I started. It has been an experience I'll never forget, an experience I'm still absorbing, but an experience that is already seeming like a dream. Since my Interlude update I hop scotched around Europe soaking up food, drink, and history. So here I offer another woefully inadequate summary plus some flippant conclusions about the nature of our planet.

I took the ferry from Morocco across the Straits of Gibraltar into Algeciras, Spain. After a couple of days wandering around checking out the Christmas decorations and eating at tapas bars, I headed out to Cadiz and enjoyed walks around the historic port town with its cathedrals, parks, restaurants, and old streets in which festive Christmas celebrations thrived. From there I headed up to Seville where I hovered around their magnificent gothic cathedral converted from an old mosque. In Seville I enjoyed both formal and informal performances of flamenco dance and music at all hours of the night -- it truly is a pastime enthusiastically practiced by the locals in the region. Christmas came while I was in Seville and I witnessed an incredible midnight mass in the soaring chambers of the cathedral and a turkey dinner in a nearby Irish pub. From Seville I headed over to Granada, nestled in the base of the original Sierra Nevada mountain range. The primary attraction in Granada is the fabulous, sprawling Alhambra and Generalife, a beautiful combination of palaces and fortifications with structures dating back to the 9th century. Throughout these structures are numerous gardens and fountain assemblies, all looking out over Granada and views of the Sierras. From Granada I headed into Barcelona, where I would celebrate New Years based in the Bario Gotic. Barcelona is packed full of gothic architecture, museums full of all sorts of art but particularly art from Picasso. Throughout the city are the organically sculpted buildings from the modernista architect Gaudi, including the incredibly bizarre cathedral-like La Sagrada Familia. (Picasso, it is interesting to note, despised the work of Gaudi.) While in Barcelona I spent a day visiting the monastery and mountain of Montserrat, nestled amongst the rock pillars of the serrated peak, where I enjoyed some peaceful walks along trails offering grand views of the countryside below. After seeing in the New Year with celebrations along famed La Rambla in Barcelona, I headed up through Basque Country to San Sebastian, a gorgeous coastal town perched on a peninsula and river. The night life never stops in San Sebastian and they are the undisputed kings of tapas. Mostly I just wandered around the town for a few days grazing in tapas bars, but I also took walks around the old fortifications in the surrounding hills. From San Sebastian it was down to busy Madrid. Madrid is bursting at the seams with museums (including Museo del Prado) featuring all sorts of incredible artists; in addition to Picasso, ample works were featured from Salvador Dali, Goya, and El Greco, to name a few. As usual there are ample cathedrals and awe-inspiring architectural achievements throughout the city. Such sites were so common that wonderful things that would normally gobsmack me simply fade into the background. Spain was pretty incredible; someday in warmer weather I would like to return and walk around in the hills more extensively.

Soon, however, I was on a plane to Rome on a quest for a perfect plate of pasta. Italy was absolutely overwhelming with good food and historic sites to see. In Rome I visited many Roman ruins including the Coliseum and Forum, as well as the Vatican. Seeing St. Peters Basilica, climbing into the duomo with it's grand views of Rome, and touring the Sistine Chapel were experiences I will never forget. I spent a lot of time wandering around Rome and checking out its many other sites, plus enjoying a wide representation of cuisine from all over the country. From Rome I headed up to the hill town of Sienna, then on to Firenze (Florence...dunno how we ever got Florence from Firenze). Sienna and its central plaza were beautiful and gothic with numerous cathedrals, and Florence was simply overwhelming. So many museums and cathedrals to see! Highlights included seeing Michelangelo's David, Dusk and Dawn, Night and Day, plus Botteceli's Birth of Venus along with his Primavera. It was humbling to stand in front of such works that up until that point I had only read about in books for my entire life. The city is soaked in so much history (not the least of which was the extended influence of the Medicis) and lore. The food was more hearty here, being up in the Tuscany region with its fine wines. After Florence I zipped over to Venice to see that famous city of canals. Once again I was overwhelmed with history, museums and cathedrals, not the least of which was San Marcos where I finally got to see those confounding spandrels I read about in Darwin's Dangerous Idea earlier in the trip. I toured both on foot and in boats on the canals all through the city, sometimes just wandering aimlessly through the narrow back streets. After Florence it was back to Rome where I caught a plane up to Ireland. Italy was a whirlwind tour and I absolutely must return someday and spend more measured time there. If anything, Italy was even more overwhelming at the sheer quantity of amazing sites -- entire hordes of what would normally be considered national treasures are relegated to second-class status because of the limited nature of the human attention span. I could spend years in Italy and still feel like I'd missed most of it. With barely two weeks of Italy under my belt, I was off to Ireland.

Ireland was fantastic. After landing in Dublin I immediately headed over to the west coast and based myself in Galway. I finally had my proper pint of Guinness to celebrate the end of my trip and found many enthusiastic and friendly people with whom to chat while enjoying a pint. For the record, a "real Guinness" in Ireland is very slightly sweeter than our versions at home -- beyond that I thought they tasted pretty similar, which is to say fantastic. Along the way to Galway I met up with a local squeezebox player who plays sessions in the Galway pubs. There are tons of pubs in Galway and sessions in just about every one, every night. Soon enough I found myself with a scattering of new friends, most of whom were session players. One unexpected result of hanging out with my new friends was attending a wonderful performance of their world famous local choir as they performed all sorts of a cappella renditions of baroque music and songs with influences from all over the world -- including mambazo. A bunch of Irish choir singers singing and dancing mambazo was the last thing I expected to see there. I took a day trip out to the Aran Islands and visited the ancient stone fort of Dun Aengus, a ring fortification dating from the 8th century perched on vertical cliffs mercilessly pounded by the Atlantic. From Galway I rented a car for a couple of days and lost myself in the countryside of Claire; along the way I saw the impressive Cliffs of Moehr, the craggy hills of the Burren with its megalithic tombs and forts, and the gorgeous coast of the Connemara with its interior of lakes, bogs, and tea-colored mossy streams. Eventually I wound back up into Dublin where I toured the various impressive sites, including the magnificent and well-presented Book of Kells and its 1200 year old illuminated vellum pages. While in Dublin I dropped in on the font of so much joy in the world, the Guiness Brewery. I toured the gorgeous green Wicklow area south of Dublin, both the coastal regions and the Glendalough valley nestled up in the mountains with its wooded and peaty trails. I cannot say enough about Ireland. Suffice to say that I loved it, identified deeply with it, and must someday return for lengthy exploration of that resonate place.

Frome Dublin I flew to London where I visited for two days with my friends Derren and Lucy whom I had met down in Indonesia. They had finished their own trip by that time so I dropped in. They were magnificent hosts and the visit was a relaxing prelude to returning home.

Eventually I boarded that plane home, though, which took me back to the U.S. about one year and two weeks after I left. The return has been overwhelming in some respects as even the most familiar of things currently enjoy a renewed aura for me. I'm sure with time this will pass, but thus far, in addition to being with Susan again, it has been a nonstop sequence of seeing old friends, visiting favorite restaurants, and simply absorbing the atmosphere of familiar haunts. None of it has quite soaked in yet.

This quick summary of the end of my trip, like the Interlude, is woefully inadequate in detail. Someday I hope to flesh out the descriptions more fully.

So what about the world and the trip? Do I have any profound observations or lessons? Of course I do; I'm sure I'll still be coming up with them for the rest of my life. I will forever be thankful that I was able to take such a trip and for the support and understanding of my friends and family, especially Susan. But for now, I'll leave you with these shatteringly profound observations:

The world is big.

Okay, well that one seems obvious, but our planet really is enormous. You might think a year is big as well, but not once you try and apply it to travel around the world. You start off wanting to go everywhere and end up realizing that you have barely scratched the surface once you are forced to dispense with plans for visiting most of the world. Perception of time is an interesting side effect with regards to the size of a year. Since I was constantly busy, it seems like only yesterday that I left -- that memory is so vivid, as is most other memories along the way. So vivid, in fact, that if I sit down and think about it I can remember every single place I slept, every night of the year. That sort of fine granularity is incredible, but normally unavailable to us since when we stay in one place we tend to stack similar memories on top of one another, in the same slot, so to speak. So time flew, but I have this fine granularity of the memories that makes that same short year seem larger than any other in my life. Large as it may seem, though, it is still tiny when you try and wrap it around the whole world. Which leads us to:

The world is indeed round.

You might think that this is obvious merely because it is what you have been told all your life. Well, as a little game to myself, I decided to assume I did not know this and try and observe facts that would allow me to deduce this on my own. First off, based on my compass and other determining factors, I traveled roughly westward the whole year and ended up in the same spot. Ahah, the world is not flat! I traveled around in a circle, the world must be round! Well, not necessarily. The world could be a big cone, with the North Pole at the apex, and I could have merely traveled around a section of that cone. Well, well, well. I dispensed with the conical theory based on two things: first, though I never precisely derived the apparent distance, the horizon always appeared roughly the same distance away, and more importantly, the same distance away in all directions. So unless I was always on some bulging blemish on the cone then I must have been on something roughly spherical. More important in my conclusion, however, were observations of the stars.

Right off the bat I noticed one thing when I stepped off the plane in New Zealand, and even more so further down in Tasmania: All of the familiar constellations appeared upside down relative to their "normal" positions on the horizon. (I came up with a joke about how the Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major, looked upside down relative to the horizon: You know, I came up with several theories as to why the Big Dipper looks upside down here in the southern hemisphere, but none of them held water. Ba-dum-dump.) Take Orion, for example, the mighty hunter drawing his bow. Down in the deep down under, he appears to be standing on his head as he arcs over the horizon during the night, as opposed to up here where he appears to stand upright. As I gradually moved further north, Orion appeared to rotate relative to the horizon, and right on the equator he appears to be lying down sideways during his nightly arc. On a cone you would never see this since there is no curved topography to traverse as you move from the base to the apex. Hence I was moving over a curved surface of some sort as I headed north. Now it is still possible, since I never personally visited the poles, that we are on some sort of spherically bulging cylinder with truncated flat surfaces on the northern and southern extremities (think of a sphere with the 'ends' sawed off). I'll have to disprove that notion at a later date -- for now, I am satisfied with a sphere as a working model; failing a visit to the poles I'm sure I can deduce the completed sphere with a series of gravimetric measurements or some other indirect method.

Now there are perhaps those of you out there than might actually call me on the limited nature of my model. Nay, you might say, simplistic assumptions such as a mere sphere in three dimensions are completely inadequate topologies for explaining how we move through spacetime! Well, I do admit that the spherical model is only a convenient frame of reference for describing our daily motions. Those of you who want to discuss the finer points of how we are actually burrowing through a spiraling four-dimensional lifeline, the projection of which looks nothing like a sphere in three dimensions, are welcome to buy me a beer and settle in for a satisfying and chewy discussion.

It is wonderful to be home.


Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Almanac: Europe is beer heaven. There were so many brands and varieties to choose from that I really had no time for a lengthy analysis of them all. Alas, though, in Spain and Italy I focused more on the wines. As previously mentioned, I had my genuine pint of Guiness in Ireland, just slightly sweeter than our own pints. I also wandered around the hallowed buildings of Shangrila, yes indeed, the Guiness Brewery itself in Dublin. Rejoice! I must say, upon my return however, that I was launched into ectasy to be given a Sierra Nevada Celebration ale by Susan when I returned. Cascade Hops! How I missed it; Cascade Hops are something America can truly offer to the rest of the beer world.