Saturday, 29 December 2007

Only 362 More Days To Christmas...

Ah, yes - the turkey's been eaten, the presents have been unwrapped - I got socks* this year, as it turned out, a pair with Santa on and seven pairs with the day of the week in case I'm undecided. I always think getting socks marks a person as being 'of a certain age', and now it's finally my turn.

I, however, welcome the socks, although I reserve the right to wear them at a time and place of my own choosing. So there's every chance the Santa socks will be worn at Easter or St. Patrick's Day (but not both), and that the Sunday socks will be seen in public on Wednesday.

I didn't get the world peace I asked for, but it was a big ask, only slightly easier to find than a Nintendo DS Lite, which is saying something. So the socks were a nice consolation...

But I digress. The moment has passed, and I find myself on the edge of 2008, facing the new year with a mixture of optimism and hope. It's something I attempt each year, resisting as long as possible the descent into cynicism.

I usually last until about mid-January, but as I write this the trailer for Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie has just come on, so I may not last that long. Maybe he'll sting himself...

So what am I looking forward to next year?

Well, among other things (and in no particular order):

Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica - who is the final Cylon? Starbuck? Roslin? Henry, the mild-mannered janitor? Could be...

Iron Man - Robert Downey, Jr. is Tony Stark.

The Dark Knight - Ahahahahahahahahahaaaaaa!!!!!!!

The Olympic Games - because despite it all I believe it to be the among the noblest of ideals - that for a month, the nations of the world take their differences off the boil to participate in competition where nobody dies.

Star Trek XI - I just have to know...

Bond 22 - could SPECTRE be back?

The Rugby Six Nations - could this be Ireland's year?

The 2008 European Football Championships, even though Ireland won't be playing.

The Incredible Hulk - Edward Norton as David Banner? Yeah, okay, I can see that, but I still liked Ang Lee's movie.

Smallville - if only to see whether Lana is finally committed to Belle Reve...

That's just off the top of my head - I'm sure if I sat and thought about it I could come up with a whole plethora of things, but enthusiasm and 'flu don't play well together, so enthusiasm's taken it's bat and ball and gone home...

And on we go...

*not just socks, however - just thought I'd mention that...

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Parallel Universes...

I've been watching this show lately called Charlie Jade.

A Canada-South Africa co-production, it's set in a dystopian version of our own universe (the AlphaVerse) where the corporations rule. The titular hero is a private investigator who stumbles upon a plan by Vexcor, one of the major corporations, to build a link to other universes (Beta, Gamma) in order to steal the vital resources that have been exhausted in their own.

When a bomb destroys one of Vexcor's link facilities in the desert, Charlie is stranded in the BetaVerse and has to find a way to get home, but he finds himself caught up in the struggle to stop Vexcor's plan once it becomes apparent what will happen to the other universes if they're successful in bringing the link online.

The first season contains 20 episodes and stars U.S. actor Jeffrey Pierce as Charlie Jade. Word is that a second season has been written but remains in production limbo.

Check out the official site at www.charliejade.com.

Worth a look, if you get fed up with the Christmas specials...

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Story Virus - Act IV

Appears i've been tagged by JD over at Joe's Movie Corner to have a go at Splotchy's 'viral story'...

Curious.

Here's how it goes:

If you are one of the carriers of this story virus (i.e. you have been tagged and choose to contribute to it), you will have one responsibility, in addition to contributing your own piece of the story: you will have to tag at least one person that continues your story thread. So, say you tag five people. If four people decide to not participate, it's okay, as long as the fifth one does. And if all five participate, well that's five interesting threads the story spins off into.


The story so far:

I woke up hungry. I pulled my bedroom curtain to the side and looked out on a hazy morning. I dragged myself into the kitchen, in search of something to eat. I reached for a jar of applesauce sitting next to the sink, and found it very cold to the touch. I opened the jar and realized it was frozen. (Splotchy)

My first idea was to put the applesauce in the microwave. Hey, I was still tired. Could I scoop some out and put whipped cream on it? No, too solid. Why was it so damn cold in here? I walked over to the thermostat and saw that the heat hadn't clicked on all night and the temperature had dropped substantially overnight. Now, tired and hungry, I opened the access panel on the heater. There's the problem: why was someone cooking a duck in here? (SamuraiFrog)

Despite the frivolity of the situation, there was only one person who could've been cooking it... me. My sleepwalking had returned! The last time it happened, I woke up in a pool of blood and vodka in Stockholm! I ran to the phone to call my therapist, thinking he should be at his office. But the cold forced itself on me, so I grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around me first. I picked up the phone... but there was no dial tone. I placed it down gently, hearing a click. That's when the front door burst open. (J.D.)

All thought of food instantly vanished at the sight of the intruders. Their waving antennae, cloaked against the eyes of ordinary citizens, were no match for my special abilities, and I instantly recognised the carapace markings of the Xylak sect of the Cult of Makros, the most fearsome of their kind in the sector. That they had come here, now, in daylight, on a Tuesday, before breakfast, could mean only one thing -

Tagging Ray and Lee, and the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

Have fun...

Thursday, 29 November 2007

There's Two Kinds Of People In This World...

People who think Seinfeld is funny, and people like me.

People who like pigeons, and people like me.

People who believe that promoting Christmas from November 1st is a bad thing, if only because Hallowe'en (that's how it's spelt, by the way) stops them from doing it in September, after the summer holidays.

And there's people like me.

I'm not a fan of Christmas.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a 'Bah! Humbug!' sort of guy. Much.

But when I was growing up, not (okay maybe) so many years ago, Christmas was a good time, a happy time for families and not-so-happy time for turkeys.

You never saw a Christmas tree earlier than mid-December and the lights only went on the week before the big day.

You went to bed on Christmas Eve, trying to remember whether you'd been naughty or nice, and finally slept, determined to catch ol' St. Nick in his red Coca-Cola suit leaving presents and scarfing the mince pie and glass of port (it was cold outside, you understand) that you'd left for him.

And you woke up, to see it snowing outside if you were lucky, before rushing your parents with

"It's Christmas! Santa's been!!"

at four in the morning.

Everybody benefited. It was a spiritual sorbet, cleansing the proverbial palate of the strife and strain of the past year.


It was a chance for a new beginning, a fresh start, where people could make resolutions to be better in the coming year.

A happy, innocent time for families.

Not any more, sad to say.

Commercialism has dealt the holiday season a deathblow.

The Christmas lights went up the first week in November, almost eight weeks before Christmas (I refuse to refer to it as Xmas and I'm not even religious).

The City Centre closed for four hours last Sunday while someone 'officially' switched on the Christmas lights in O'Connell St.

Four Hours! How the 4*%# does it take four hours to flip a switch announcing there's five shopping weeks left?

And between now and Dec. 24th you'll take your life in your hands trying to find that Nintendo Wii or whatever the toy du siecle happens to be, abrogating your responsibilities to your fellow man so that your kid (who knows what it's all about, trust me) can have the particular top-of-the-league item that 'all their friends are getting, honest' only to discard it after a couple of weeks because the cool's worn off and I'm venting, aren't I?

Damn.

Look, it's almost December. Pass the word.

I'm issuing Captain Incredible's Holiday Directive #1:

Observe the spirit of Christmas.

Watch either 'It's A Wonderful Life', 'Miracle on 34th St.' or 'Scrooged'.

Perform an unexpected act of kindness for a total stranger, even one you're never going to meet.

Coins in the return slot. Toys for orphans. Clothes for the poor. A helping hand for those who truly need it. Think of something.

Revive the spirit of Christmas. Make it social, ethical even, if not religious.

Do it all year around.

Be good.

Incredible, out.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Roma, Parta Due...

So there I was, in the Eternal City, on a Friday...

On this particular Friday, I had planned to go to the Colosseum, however this didn't happen, so I went to visit the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain instead.


The day was overcast.

I took the 62 and was surprised to find myself the intended victim of pickpockets.

Allow me to explain.

On Roman buses, there are, invariably, three doors.
The doors at the front and back of the bus are for boarding; the middle door is for alighting. Ticket validation machines are located at front and back. You validate your ticket and I'm your uncle.

Unfortunately there are those, less scrupulous passengers who pin you to the ticket machine while they attempt to pick your pocket, which was what almost happened to me. I found myself bracketed on one side by a weaselly-faced little man and on the other by a grandmotherly-looking woman, and I had to forcibly wrench myself out of their grip and into a corner to prevent myself from falling over at the first bump in the road. At the second bump in the road, I put my hand to my side to rebalance, in time to feel the woman's index finger emerging from my pocket. I never felt it go in, that's how good she was. She excused herself, feigning embarrassment, and pretended to ignore me from then on.

I moved to the middle of the bus where I could keep an eye on her and her associate, and the rest of the trip passed without incident.

I wandered around for a while before finding the Trevi Fountain.
Anita Ekberg was not in evidence, but there were many tourists. Not the same, somehow.

I took a couple of shots (here they are)



and moved on, heading for the Pantheon.



The Pantheon is a remarkable building. The only light comes from a hole in the roof, or Oculus.

Speaking as someone who has a hole in his roof, I wish the ancient Romans had built my house.


But anyway, it was pissing rain, inside and out, so as soon as it let up I headed for the Abbey Theatre and shelter.


While there, I met a variety of tourists, and it felt like home. Ron and Teresa from Dublin, who it turned out would be returning on the same flight as me on Sunday; Julie and Karen from the U.S., enjoying every minute of Rome; and a group from Northern Ireland on a sort of scavenger hunt, trying to find a bunch of tourist spots for their quiz later that evening.


As it turned out, I had the guidebook from which the photos in their quiz had been scanned, so with my help (a fine example of cross-border/cross-culture cooperation, if you ask me) they aced it.
My cultural duty done (I always find myself giving directions to other tourists in foreign cities where I've never been before) and the rain having stopped, I went on my way.

While reading my guidebook as I waited for for my bus, I noticed a young woman looking shyly at me at the bus stop.
She reminded me a little of Talia Shire as Adrian in 'Rocky'. She looked away as our eyes met, twice, but before I had time to investigate her bus arrived and she was gone.

Curous, inasmuch as it's not something I'm used to
...

Saturday:


This was it, the big one.


I was headed for the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, and the gods couldn't have ordained a better day for it.
I took the No. 60 to Pza. Venezia and promptly got lost.

Found my way to Circus Maximus and helped a visiting French motorist with directions, in spite of never having driven a car in Italy, let alone Rome.
Hopefully he found someone more competent before he ended up on the road to Napoli-i-i...

This is the Circus as it appears today:




Finally I found my way to Palatino and the Forum. queued for twenty minutes while a group of American tourists paid for individual tickets by individual credit card. When I eventually got to the ticket desk I saw a sign announcing that the Colosseum would close for security reasons at 1400h, and that ticket holders could enter up to 1300h.

It was 1120h, and I had all morning.

The Forum was fascinating. Incredible to think that Roman emperors walked here over two thousand years ago. I wandered for over an hour and a half, taking it all in while attempting to get my camera to record anything.





At 1250 I decided to head for the Colosseum. Bastard Carabinieri closed it at 1245.

Tickets, we were informed, would be honoured the following day. Great, only I was going home the following day.


Marvellous.


Plans ruined, I decided to go back to the hotel and shower and pack. I had to be back in the Abbey Theatre later for the football.
I stood under the shower for almost a half hour (a frightening picture for my colleagues, I'm sure), washing away two thousand years of dust and sunburn, then took a brief nap before heading back out for the evening.

The pub was packed when I got there - one bar was going to show the Ireland-Germany game, every other room would have the France-England rugby match.
Unable to get a seat in the soccer area, I found a stool between two English rugby fans, brothers named Simon andHoward, in Rome with their parents who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and a Frenchman named Jean and his wife, who wandered away in search of a seat.

Ron and Teresa from Dublin showed up and we formed a bulwark of neutrality between two implacable cultural enemies. The great thing about rugby, I found, is that it really doesn't matter who wins as long as the game is well-played.

We all had an excellent evening, and didn't even care about Ireland not winning at home to Germany.


Julie and Karen turned up - I didn't see them among the crowd until I heard "Bob!" and got a hug from Julie. Ah, Rome...


I got lost going home - too much Nastro Azzuro will do that to you.
I missed the last bus, so decided to ask a cop for directions to Pza. Fiume. He very obligingly showed me where it was on my map, albeit without pointing to where I was in relation to it. I flagged a cab instead, and managed to not engage the driver in conversation (I've been known to speak German when drunk). He got me where I wanted, I made it to my room, and slept the sleep of the exhausted.

Sunday:
Woke up, hung over but not badly so. Finished packing and ordered a taxi for noon to get me to the airport. Had breakfast, then took a final walk around the area to get a few photos.

Found out what the Romans really did for us.


The taxi arrived early, just as I got back from my walk. There was a demonstration of sorts about to begin, I didn't ask what about, but a lot of TV cameras were deploying, so the cab driver wanted to be on his way. We made it to the airport in forty minutes.

There were pigeons in the airport.


Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about pigeons. Call it an idiosyncracy if you will, but I just hate the things, rats with feathers that they are, and here they were, indoors, crapping everywhere.


That's just wrong.
My last, reassuring memory of Rome was that they couldn't get through the security check without exploding.

At last, hope.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Favourite Movies

A while ago I was channel-hopping between commercials and came across a movie I hadn't seen in years: 'My Darling Clementine' (John Ford, 1946) starring Henry Fonda and Victor Mature. By chance, another channel was showing the 'Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Both movies, of course, tell the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and the famous (or infamous) showdown between the Earps and Clantons on October 26, 1881, in the city of Tombstone, Arizona.

I've always been fascinated by that particular episode in American History, and it struck me that there have been several attempts to put it on the big screen, many of which I've seen.

So here are my favourite 'Wyatt & Doc' movies:

My Darling Clementine:


The film purports to tell the story of how cattle drovers Wyatt Earp and his brothers Morgan and Virgil become lawmen in Tombstone in order to find out who murdered their brother James and stole their cattle.

This will turn out to be Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan in full patriarch mode) and his gang, and with the arrival of gambler and gunman Doc Holliday, the scene is set for the climactic showdown at the OK Corral, after which Wyatt hangs up his guns and moves on.

As a piece of entertainment it's up there with Ford's best. Fonda is of course excellent as taciturn Wyatt, never using more words than necessary, a clean-cut, moral hero for a post-war audience. Brennan is the bad hat, a thoroughgoing villain with no respect for any law but his own. And Victor Mature gives one of the strongest performances of his career as Holliday, if you ignore the fact (as the producers did) that he plays him without any trace of the tuberculosis that ravaged Doc in real life.

In typical John Ford Style, the Arizona desert is played by Monument Valley, Utah.


It works out in the end, of course - law triumphs, evil perishes, antihero finds redemption in heroic sacrifice, hero rides away alone, his work done.


But historically accurate? Sadly not, but then Ford was a romantic...

Gunfight At The OK Corral:


Eleven years later, John Sturges told the Earp/Clanton story in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt, Kirk Douglas as Doc, Lyle Bettger as Ike Clanton and a young Dennis Hopper as Billy Clanton.

The story starts off in Dodge City, Kansas, with Wyatt bringing order to the lawless cow-town at the behest of the local council. It's there that he meets Holliday, a man who, although not perhaps sharing Earp's morals, can be trusted to keep his word. They trade favours, i.e., saving each other's life, before Wyatt decides it's time to move on. He heads for Tombstone, and is joined on the trail by Doc, for whom 'the cards had turned cold'.


It is of course in Tombstone that they encounter the Clantons, cowboys and cattle rustlers, who take none too kindly to the Earps poking their noses in where they don't belong. Things escalate when Wyatt, newly-appointed town marshal, disarms the town and anyone entering it. Doc plays cards.


However, tensions between the Earps and Clantons escalate, culminating the the murder of James Earp (the expendable one). Wyatt gets a message that Ike Clanton wants to settle things once and for all, at the OK Corral on the edge of town.

The Earps and Doc head up the street at dawn, where the Clantons wait.


There is a gunfight. The Clantons lose. Virgil and Morgan Earp are also killed.


The picture closes with Wyatt and Doc leaving town and going their separate ways, passing Boot Hill cemetery on the way out of town.


Again, entertaining if you didn't know the history. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas play off each other excellently, and make their characters three-dimensional (even if they do chew up the scenery a bit).

But in the final analysis (mine anyway) it's a drama, made successful by not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

Hour of the Gun:



A sequel of sorts followed in 1967, when Sturges directed Hour Of The Gun, with James Garner as Wyatt and Jason Robards as Doc. Whether because he was dissatisfied with the original film or wanted to tell the story at a more historically accurate level I'm uncertain, but to me this is a far better picture than the Lancaster/Douglas effort.

The film opens with the caption "This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened."


There's no flashback, no explanation. You know the four men in black walking down the street are the Earps and Holliday; you know where they're going and why.


The confrontation takes place; three men lie dead, and the story proceeds from there, with the shootings of Virgil and Morgan, Wyatt's subsequent appointment as US Marshal and his so-called 'vendetta' during which he and his men track down everyone involved with the crippling of Virgil and the murder of Morgan.


There's no sentimentality here - no romantic subplots to broaden the appeal (in fact there's only one woman with a speaking part in the picture). This is less a story about justice than about revenge, and James Garner's Wyatt is worlds apart from Burt Lancaster's in Sturges's earlier picture.


Jason Robards is excellent as Holliday, initially supportive of Wyatt, but gradually becoming disillusioned when it becomes obvious that his friend has no intention of returning any of the Clanton men for trial. As they track down Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) in Mexico, Holliday exhorts his friend not to forget the rules he's lived by. Wyatt replies that he's not a complete hypocrite; he's given up on the rules. He takes off his badge and they go to find and kill Clanton.


Tombstone:


Almost twenty-five years later, the first of two new versions of the story hit the big screen. The first, directed by George P. Cosmatos (Escape to Athena) appeared in 1993.

It cost half as much as 'Wyatt Earp', which would follow a year later, but returned twice that in receipts. Kurt Russell plays Wyatt as a gambler and entrepreneur who arrives in Tombstone with his brothers (the ever-reliable Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton) and sets up in a local saloon dealing Faro.

Doc Holliday shows up, played here by Val Kilmer, not first choice for the role but definitely the right choice.

Before long they come into conflict with the Cowboys, led by Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Booth) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), to whom Doc takes a particular dislike. Wyatt doesn't want trouble, but things come to a head. Virgil takes the job as town marshal and, with Morgan as his deputy, sets about disarming the town.

A troupe of travelling actors arrives in town, including a spirited young woman named Josephine Marcus (the lovely Dana Delany), who makes it her business to get to know the seemingly-disinterested Wyatt.

Tensions build on both sides; Holliday and Ringo have words on several occasions, one exchange in Latin revealing their educated backgrounds.

There is a gunfight - the Clantons lose. Virgil and Morgan are later shot in reprisal, Virgil crippled, Morgan killed. Wyatt, Doc and some associates form a posse and hunt down the killers.

In this version, the instigators are Curly Bill Brocious and Johhny Ringo, with Ike Clanton portrayed as a cowardly braggart who ultimately escapes Wyatt's vengeance by discarding the red sash worn by the gang while in flight from his pursuers.

Wyatt kills Brocious, while Holliday shoots Ringo, and justice (or vengeance) is served.

A gritty, atmospheric story, realistic production design and dialogue makes this my second favourite version of the legend.

Wyatt Earp:


The following year saw the release of Lawrence Kasdan's take on the saga. Kasdan wrote and directed Silverado in 1985 in what was seen as a revival of the 'classic' Western. The cast included Kevin Costner, and Kasdan went to him to play Wyatt Earp in what was essentially a biopic.

The story, which appears to follow the established facts, follows the young Wyatt growing up in his father's (played by Gene Hackman) house, where he and his siblings are drilled that 'nothing is more important than family'. This forms one of the main themes within the story, and is something Wyatt returns to on occasion.

The famous gunfight takes place, with Wyatt signing on as deputy marshal to his brother, and from there the story follows the subsequent events and Wyatt's vendetta. As with Tombstone, Wyatt's relationship with actress Josie Marcus receives honest coverage.

Costner is his usual solid self, although it seemed to me his performance was a little stilted at times. Dennis Quaid is all but unrecognisable as Holliday, so pale and consumptive-looking that one would be forgiven for thinking he'd taken method acting just a little too far.

But for all that, the movie scored on all the important levels, possibly to the detriment of its box-office.

No accounting for taste.

So there you have it - five movies, one classic, two great, one good, one meh.

For me, Hour of the Gun tops the list, followed by Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, My Darling Clementine and finally Gunfight at the OK Corral. Ford's version would have been higher if he'd worked with the facts - after all, he was supposed to have actually known Wyatt when the lawman worked as a technical advisor in Hollywood. But as I said, he was a romantic...

If you've seen these films, you'll have your own preferences - as ever, opinions and comments are welcome.

Until next time...

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

I've Got Builders In My Attic...

...because it started raining again in my bedroom at 8am.

Reconstruction work on the roof of my apartment block is ongoing, and somehow, water got into the attic spaces of about a dozen units overnight, finally leaking into the various apartments and waking people up.

There's five guys up there now, bailing and mopping, and working out where the problem is. Looks like someone might have been up on the roof during the night causing trouble, but there's supposed to be a site security guard to prevent that from happening.

Meanwhile, I'm out a day's leave and all my worldly possessions are now in the living room.

Are we having fun yet?

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Remember I Went To Rome?

Ah yes, the Eternal City...

...And in all of it's history, throughout all those centuries, the only thing missing was me.

Until about 9a.m. on Tuesday, October 8th, that is.

This is me arriving at Termini Station after a rather more comfortable trip from Vienna than I had getting there:

I got in the queue outside for taxis, managing to annoy a local who decided he didn't want the next cab, but the one after that (mine) and ended up missing both. It's complicated, but wasn't my fault.

The stories about Roman traffic are legendary and well-deserved, and my particular chariot race lasted about twenty minutes before finally ending up at my hotel off the Piazza Fiume.

See the second floor (third to American readers)?

My room was in the back, with a marvellous view of the airshaft in the centre of the building. But I didn't even get to check in before the concierge, a man named Mustafa, explained apologetically that my room wasn't ready yet, and he'd made alternative arrangements for me for that night in another hotel on the far side of the piazza. Fair enough.

He took half my luggage and led the way to a similar building 100 metres away, and I was shown to my room, where I unpacked and showered before heading out for the day. The bathroom was large, with a comfortably-sized shower with good water pressure. Just what I needed after 36 hours without one.

Anyway, having unpacked, I took to the streets and headed for the Spanish Steps, having been led to believe they were within reasonable walking distance. This turned out to be the case, although the route I took was more meandering than 'Roman Road', so I got to see a lot more than if I'd gone directly.

The blister count was high, and after my second shower of the day, I slept well.

Wednesday:

The following day I moved all my stuff back across the piazza to Mustafa's hotel, where my room now awaited. Given where I'd spent the previous night, I had expected something different, but it wasn't all bad.

Air conditioning, PC with internet connection and the most reasonably-priced and well-stocked minibar* I've ever encountered made up for the lack of a real view, but the size of the shower was something of a let-down.


Phone booth.

Small phone booth.

I will speak no more of this.

*No bottle opener

After getting myself squared away (again) I took a short walk around the immediate neighbourhood, to acquaint myself with the area. It is truly beautiful. A man could live here and be happy.


Later, the concierge showed me which bus route to take to get to Piazza Navona - the 62.

The 62 goes from the Porta Pia all the way to St Peter's, and everything I wanted to visit was in a line between these two points, so that was okay.

To any prospective tourists, here's what you do:
Buy your ticket at a Tabacchi (tobacconist). At the time of publishing (ahem), tickets cost €1 and are good for one trip on the Metro or 75 minutes on buses.

Buses are clean, punctual, and largely pickpocket-free.


Anyway, I took the 62 to the Corso d'Italia and got off at what I believed to be the correct stop. It was, but I had the map upside-down, so I walked purposefully in the wrong direction for several minutes before I copped on.


Returning whence I started, I met some Canadian tourists who knew exactly where they were going, and accompanied them. Oh, Canada...

Piazza Navona is a long, elliptical space, possibly large enough to have been a gladiatorial arena or a market. Not long enough, perhaps, for chariot races, but you can't have everything. What it did have, at this early hour, was very few people, so I was free to wander without obstruction.

The piazza is home to Bernini's 'Fontana Di Quattro Fiumi' or 'Fountain of the Four Rivers',

which, when I arrived, was covered due to 'renovation'.

But I got a photo or two, after which I went for lunch in an Irish-themed bar called "The Abbey Theatre". (Important note: when abroad, every self-respecting Irishman makes it his business to find an Irish pub, as genuine as possible. Mostly for the Guinness, but also because the staff will usually be better than the local tourist bureau at pointing you at the best spots.)


The barman was a guy from Portmarnock (that's in Dublin), but his boss was pure Roman, who seemed to have a problem with tourists, but in a funny sort of way - he ran a mile as soon as someone started speaking English. The Guinness was so-so, but the food was worthwhile.

I resolved to return, if only because they'd be showing the Ireland vs. Germany Euro 2008 football qualifier. Plus the England vs. France World Cup rugby match. At the same time.

Cool.

After lunch, I wandered around a bit more, absorbing the architecture and style of the place. I put the map away and just walked, since I appear to have proven I can't read a map, which came as a surprise (to me, anyway).

I found a building claiming to house the State Archives, with a long courtyard at the end of which was a small chapel. This is it:

The chapel interior was unremarkable compared to the exterior, but provided somewhere to rest one's feet, which I did.

Later, when they'd recovered, I took a stroll along the Tiber, to the top of the Via Giulia. This is the view downstream, towards St. Peter's:

And this is the upstream view:

My guidebook suggested that a walk along the Via Giulia would reveal many sites of historical interest, and indeed it did, most notably the Headquarters of the National Anti-Mafia Police Task Force. The building was difficult to miss, and I got the impression that photography would be, shall we say, discouraged, so I saved them the trouble and continued, finally ending up back at Navona.


Thursday:


There's no point in going to St Peter's on Wednesday, because the Pope gives his weekly audience and admission is by ticket only, which one has to organise way in advance.

Happily, being something of an atheist (sorry Mom), I went on Thursday, only to find that the queue for the basilica went twice around the piazza.


So I decided to see the Vatican Museum first. The queue for this was but 40 minutes long, despite the assertions of would-be tourguides that it'd be two hours before I got to the ticket desk.

That being said, it took another twenty minutes to pay for tickets and get past security (apparently everything is a potential target these days).


The Vatican Museums house quite possibly the most beautiful collection of artworks I have ever seen. I paid about €6 for an audioguide and headed off, into the past.

This is the Cortile della Pigna, named for the giant bronze pine cone that once formed part of a Roman fountain. Behind it is the Egyptian Museum, with everything but a Go'a'uld with his Jaffa guards.

This is a bust of Athena. She, as we all know, was a Greek goddess, known in the Roman pantheon as Minerva, but Roman art boasts many examples of copies of Greek statues honouring her.

A bust of Julius Caesar. People were not-quite-queueing to have their photos taken next to it, usually in a 'me and my best mate' sort of pose. Rather childish, I thought.

The Octagonal Garden. Originally square, Pope Alexander VI Borgia decided he wanted some changes made, so added four more sides. Except for the loud young tour guide who, proud of his voice, used it to hammer everybody within earshot with how much he knew, I expect it might have been quite a restful, contemplative place.

If one were Pope.



The rest of my photographs are much the same and don't do it justice.

You have to go and experience it for yourself.
It took me almost six hours, but I did it, I made my way through the libraries, the Map Room, the tapestries, all the way to the Sistine Chapel itself.

The chapel painted by Perugino and Botticelli, Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling the defining work of his life.


This is where Popes are elected, have been for over five hundred years. Living history.

Watch 'The Shoes of The Fisherman' sometime - the scenes where Cardinal Leo McKern and the rest of the College of Cardinals elect Anthony Quinn to be Pope give some indication what it could be like. Even an atheist like myself couldn't but be affected by it all.

After that, St Peter's was an anticlimax. This is it at 5pm. I'm at the end of what is by now a rather smaller queue. It took about fifteen minutes to get to the area near the security cordon where, after passing through metal detectors (I swear I spent about five hours altogether those two weeks queueing for metal detectors) I was free to walk up to the Basilica itself.


This is what the Pope sees (well, almost) when he addresses the faithful:

Cool, isn't it?

The Basilica was huge, dark, and not what I expected. I don't know what I expected, exactly, but that wasn't it. A lot of marble and statues.

Maybe I was just tired. It was almost 6pm, after all, and I hadn't eaten since breakfast.

I took the 62 home, where after a brief nap, a shower, shaved, and change of clothes, I visited a restaurant recommended by the concierge, "La Cantinola di Livio" on the Via Calabria.

It was in this establishment that I had my first experience of Italian dining, the four-course meal with wine and liqueur, and which changed forevermore my ideas about Italian cuisine.

Livio's was run by the owner, a man who, the moment I saw him, reminded me of a cross between Borat and Manuel from 'Fawlty Towers'. The similarities were entirely visual, however, and he and his staff made me fell like a regular customer. I got the impression that many of his customers were non-Italians, and that he was enjoying the evening every bit as much as they were.

A carafe of the house red and one of water were placed in front of me along with some bruschetta and olives, and that was before I'd even opened the menu.

The wine was Chianti, nice and light, and I drank as much of the water as I did of it.

The first course, or Antipasto, was cured ham and melon, a portion that looked as though it would serve four people (and in Ireland, probably would) but which suited me fine.

The Primo was Spaghetti alla' Bolognese, on which I even had some Parmesan, which I usually avoid like vampires do garlic. It was excellent.

The Segundo, a fillet steak with garden salad, and the Dolce, or dessert, Tarta alla' Nonna, or Grandmother Cake.

The meal took a good two hours, and I took my time and enjoyed it. The owner spent much of the time talking with two of his female customers, one of whom I figure was a regular visitor. She was explaining to her companion that she'd tried pretty much everything on the menu at one time or other, and recommended certain dishes to her. She was a big woman, with a deep, hearty laugh that she used often, and reminded me (strangely) a little of Susan from Sesame Street.

I finished the evening with an espresso and a shot-sized glass of something called Amaro.

It's very bitter, hence the name (Italian for bitter) very strong, and definitely an acquired taste, and is taken after a meal as a 'digestivo'.

Wikipedia describes Amaro as

"
...a variety of Italian herbal liqueur, commonly drunk as an after-dinner digestif. It is usually bitter and sweet, sometimes syrupy, usually with an alcohol content between 16% and 35%. Amari are typically produced by macerating herbs, roots, flowers, bark, and/or citrus peels in alcohol, either neutral spirits or wine, mixing the filtrate with sugar syrup, and allowing the mixture to age in casks or in bottles..."

Worked for me.

The bill came to a mere €42.

I left a decent tip, thanked the owner, and went on my way.

And then there was Friday...

Friday, 2 November 2007

Lee? You There?

Right, let me begin with a confession - unlike Batman, or, indeed, the late Ralph Dibny, I make no claims to be the World's Greatest Detective. Thus, my powers of observation are no better or worse than those of you normal people.

However, being the Mightiest of Men (TM), I expect a little more of myself than to miss a post by someone who's taken the time and trouble to produce one and mention me by name.

Sadly, and to my chagrin, this has been the case, and so, to Lee, over at Quit Your Day Job, my most abject and humile apologies.

Some time back, I tagged Lee with the Meme of Four, to which I missed his response until today. Modesty prevents me from reproducing it here (she's standing behind me, threatening to take my keyboard) but I will respond by revealing a factoid or two (although I might be lying (but I never lie (or do I?))).

As to my 'nom de guerre' - it was chosen in tribute to none other than the Man of Magnet, the Legend in Leotards, the great Captain Invincible, who won WWII single-handed, exposing it as a fiendish plot of none other than Mr. Midnight. He timeshares the Statue of Liberty, and I get it every Labor Day Weekend...



As a Hero of Neptune, I am the de facto planetary police force. Not bad for a lump of ice 4.5 billion kilometers from Earth, I hear you say. But Neptune has a surface area 15 times that of Earth, and 13 moons.


And when you consider that because the atmosphere has a high concentration of helium, reading someone their rights can reduce all concerned to tears of laughter and frustration, so I think you'll agree I have my work cut out for me.

I took the job on the basis it was just for 30 days. The Board didn't say it was Neptunian days, (and I rarely read the small print) so in Earth terms that's about 30 years.

Cable City is somewhere to rest my head when I get a weekend off, which happens more often than not these days (Xylaks are going into a hibernation period). I try and patrol regularly, but unfortunately the press make a big deal of my leaving for Neptune, so crime sort of peaks in my absence (I'm only incredible, after all - not stupendous).

While relaxing, I like to watch movies and read books - sometimes the movie of a book, sometimes the book of a movie. I came upon "The Princess Bride" at a film festival in Neptune City (a Rob Reiner season - he's very big on Neptune) and was hooked instantly.


There's absolutely nothing bad about the film - it has, as the Grandfather explains to the Boy, 'everything' - adventure, sports, giants, pirates, revenge, true love, and one of the best swordfights in cinema history (I myself have used Thibault on occasion to counter Capo Ferro).

The book is every bit as good, and remains one of my favourites. I like to use quotes from it from time to time, just to see if anyone picks up on it. You ought to see my email signature in the day job I use as a cover. How I get away with that is anyone's guess.

So once again to Lee, thank you kindly for the coverage, and remember - "You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles."

Till next time...

Monday, 29 October 2007

Rome Gone? Bear With Me...

...I'm not altogether satisfied with the post, and while editing and adding photos, I started getting bX-6tj0s5 error messages during attempted image uploads.

Soon as it's fixed, we'll continue...

Monday, 22 October 2007

Intermission: Mad Clowns

So I went to the National Concert Hall on Friday, where the RTE National Symphony Orchestra gave a performance consisting of Beethoven's 4th Symphony, a passage from "Tristan Und Isolde" by Wagner, and 'Tod Und Verklarung" by Richard Strauss.

Live classical recitals would not have been high on my list of things to see, but my Dad had a spare ticket and I said 'Why not?'

It was a highly enjoyable evening, although at one point during the Wagner I almost expected Elmer Fudd to come on and sing "Weturn My Wove". Sadly, this didn't happen, and I went for a couple of pints with my father before he caught his bus home.

I was on my own way home when, feeling hungry, I stopped into Eddie Rocket's Diner on South Anne St. for a bite.

Eddie's is an American-style diner with a '50s motif, and the food is pretty good. At this hour, just before closing time for the pubs and opening time for nightclubs, there weren't many customers, and so I got my food quickly enough.

It was while I was eating that I noticed a commotion at the door.

The bouncer, a large solid guy, was stopping some clown from entering, and the guy wasn't happy. He looked drunk, and was doing everything he could to get past the bouncer, who gently but firmly kept pushing him back from the door.

It was almost comic.

The thing is, when I said clown, I meant it.

This guy had the whole rig - green wig, red nose, whiteface, harlequin suit, big funny shoes, the works.

The wig came off, the clown was hopping mad, and the comedy was gone. People were trying to leave but weren't sure they could get out safely. Fear of assault with a rubber chicken can give pause to even the mightiest of men.

But the clown's attention was fully locked on the bouncer who, unfazed in the slightest, was having none of him.

One of the waitresses was about to take her break but was afraid to leave, so I, the mightiest of men, ran interference on my way out. The clown didn't bother us (just as well for him), and I said there'd probably be a cop along soon, so she'd be okay getting back in later.

Suitably reassured, we parted ways and I headed for home.

Sure enough, two cops appeared around the corner, and I went over.

"Gentlemen," I said, to get their attention, "you didn't by any chance get a call about a mad clown?"

I must have been grinning, because they looked at each other, then at me, no doubt wondering if I was having a laugh, or drunk, or both.

"No, where?" said one, grinning himself.

"Eddie Rocket's," I said, pointing back the way I'd come. "He's giving the bouncer a bit of grief about not getting in."

"Really? Is he still there?" said the other cop, also cracking a smile. He sounded almost eager.

"Oh yes," I said. "You can't miss him - big shoes, red nose..."

But they were gone, obviously in a hurry. It was going to look good on the night's report - maybe he'd resist...

Nobody likes a clown.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Things To Do In Vienna When You're Dead...

With typical German efficiency, my train to Vienna left Berlin on time, and I looked forward to my first night's sleep aboard a train.

Shouldn't have been surprised, then, when I only managed a couple of hours around 3am. This, I believe, was largely due to the unevenness of the track at irregular intervals, as there seemed to be many cross-tracks and a lot of bumping about.

But anyway, I arrived in Vienna tired but optimistic and headed from the Ostbahnhof to the Sudbahnhof to drop off my luggage and go explore Harry Lime's city.

Like Berlin, Vienna has a decent public transport system, and I managed to find my way to the city centre without too much difficulty. My carefully-planned, er, plan called for a bus tour of the city followed by lunch followed by a quick visit to whichever of the local attractions was within my time limit - my train to Rome was due to leave at 7pm.

Sounds easy enough. However, without map or guidebook I found myself totally lost and unable to find where the tours started from. A couple of buses went by, but no luck. The local Hilton Hotel was able to supply a map, however, and using it I eventually found my way to the Vienna State Opera House in Herbert Von Karajan Platz.

As a side note - Herbert Von Karajan is widely regarded as having been one of the leading conductors of the 20th Century, and led the Berlin Philharmonic for decades, both before and after WWII, as well as conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and directing the Viennese State Opera.
But you knew that.


From this point I was able, finally, to take a two-hour tour (at high speed, in some cases) of Vienna and its highlights, even passing the station from where I would leave for Rome later on.

If I had given it more thought I probably would have planned it better, because a day in Vienna doesn't do it justice. The overwhelming impression I came away with was that it was like Cameron Frye's house -

"It's very beautiful and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything."

Tired and defeated, I headed for the station, had good pizza and a cold beer, and boarded a train for Rome.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Meanwhile, In Berlin...

Sat., Oct. 6th:

I strolled around the Ku'damm and was suitably impressed by it. It's a shopping playground for the very wealthy, with stores devoted to all of the well-known designer labels (except Prada, for some reason - sorry, Renée), each with its own doorman/security guard to welcome/repel the welcome/unworthy.

There being nothing there for me, I made my way to Wittenbergplatz and KaDeWe.

KaDeWe, short for Kauf Des Westes, claims to be the biggest department store in Germany, and possibly in Europe.

I wouldn't be surprised. It's as big as, if not bigger than Macy's in New York, so that should put it in perspective. One whole floor is devoted to food and drink of every kind and origin, and there are counters at which one can sample the various dishes on display.

Every city should have one.

After spending a couple of hours and a few Euro on some food and DVDs, I left and headed for the (ahem) Kaiser Wilhelm II Gedachtnis Kirche, on Hardenbergplatz.

This is the unreconstructed ruin of a chapel built before WWI for the then Kaiser, which was largely destroyed in WWII. Unlike much of the surrounding area, it was not restored after the war, but preserved in its present condition as a reminder of the horrors of war.


The building next to it is more recent, built as a modern counterpoint. It's almost entirely constructed using lead glass bricks which, on a sunny day, are said to give a beautiful lighting effect within.

Sadly, it was closed the day I was there so I can't comment.

The other side of the square houses the Europa Centre, a modest shopping mall with restaurants and craft shops, as well as Saturn, part of a large German chain of electrical goods stores. Sort of like Dixons, HMV and Power City all rolled into one (non-Irish readers insert local equivalents here).


After a little more exploring, I found myself at a sign pointing to the Panorama Lounge on the 20th floor. That'd be just beneath the Mercedes-Benz star.

For me this meant one thing: British Intelligence HQ, West Berlin, as anyone who has seen 'The Quiller Memorandum' will recall. I thought this part of the Europa Centre was offices, and thus not open to the public, but for 6 Euro I could take the elevator up to where Alec Guinness looked out over the city and sent George Segal off on his mission across the Wall.


The view from the lounge is indeed panoramic, and largely unobstructed. Worth a visit, should one find oneself in Berlin.

After a few more photos, it was back to the hotel. Hadn't the energy to go out again, so I watched a James Bond movie in German instead. Sounded like Roger Moore did his own voice dubbing, but I can't be certain.

Sun, Oct. 7th:

What do you do when you've spilled coffee all over the only pair of jeans you brought with you, the hotel doesn't have a weekend cleaning service, and the shops don't open on Sunday?

Despair.

I won't bore you with the details - suffice to say it left stains in embarrassing places and leave it at that.

I changed into less casual attire and, determined to make the best of my last day in Germany, headed for Alexanderplatz, where, as it turned out, C&A saved my life and sartorial self-image. Turns out shops were opening on Sunday after all, it being the run-up to Christmas, and I managed to find what I needed.

I took a few photos of the train station (The Bourne Supremacy) for my brother, then wandered for a bit before returning to the hotel to check out.


I had a few hours to kill, so I spent them in the hotel bar watching Spurs 'lose' 2-2 to Liverpool (threw away a Robbie Keane 2-goal lead) and drinking the local pilsner.

The game over, I grabbed my luggage and headed for the station, bidding Berlin and Germany a fond farewell.

Next time: The train to Vienna, the city of Vienna, and leaving Vienna.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Previously on Captain Incredible - Hero of Neptune:

Stressed out...

Need a holiday - badly...


Berlin and Rome with a brief stop in Vienna.


So how did it go?
Read on...

Wednesday, October 3rd:


Didn't sleep previous night, because I had to be up at 3:00am, so I was tired and borderline cranky by the time the taxi arrived at 4:00. But I kept it to myself and approached the day with enthusiasm.

I have a Gil Elvgren 'page-a-day' calendar, and before leaving the house, I turned the page. October 3rd's pic was of a young lady sitting on a steamer trunk in the rain, umbrella up. Later I would come to regard this as an omen.

Got to the airport at 4:20 am, and headed for check-in. The guy at the desk looked at my ticket, then at me, then back at the ticket.
"What time does the flight take off?" I asked, unable to recall precisely.
"Last Wednesday" he replied.

"No, I'm flying out this morning," I explained, thinking one of us hadn't heard properly.


You can't imagine the surprise when he showed me how my ticket had been booked for Sept. 26th, one week previous. I still have no idea how that happened.

"You'll have to change the ticket at the desk over there when it opens at 5:00," he told me. "There'll be a charge, but it shouldn't be much."

So I waited for the ticket desk to open, where I explained what had happened with my reservation. The lady at the desk was sympathetic, and only charged me €182.50 for a new ticket.


The plane was not full, and I had a whole row to myself. Two hours and an airline breakfast got me to Berlin without further incident.
I took the S-Bahn (overground light rail) to Alexanderplatz and a U-Bahn (underground) to Stadtmitte, and was checked into my hotel by 12:00.

This is what the room looked like, in case anyone's interested:
Lay on bed briefly (just to test it, mind) and woke up at 6:30pm.

I took a walk around the immediate area - Friedrichstrasse, Unter Den Linden, Potsdamer Platz. Strange to think I was staying in what used to be East Berlin. It's undergone an extraordinary degree of revitalisation since the Wall came down, to bring it up to par with the other half of the city, and rebuilding is still in progress along areas where the Wall used to be.

The day I arrived, October 3rd, is the anniversary of the day the Wall fell, and thus a holiday in Germany. I headed for the Brandenburg Gate, but that area was cordoned off for some sort of rock concert or something and only ticketholders were getting through.
Two young women spotted each other at 50 meters and ran to each other with squeals and hugs - you'd swear the wall had only just come down.

I went back to my hotel and switched on the TV - CNN says there's a rail strike coming in Berlin if talks between unions and management aren't successful.
I'm travelling by train to Vienna on Sunday - this could be a problem.

Thurs, Oct 4th:


Almost interrupted by housekeeping while in the shower - could have been embarrassing.


After breakfast, took a bus tour of the city to try and plan what to see over the next few days.

Visited the Deutsches Historisches Museum - a thoroughly fascinating place, presenting the history of Germany from Roman times to the present day, chronologically.


The history of the period 1930-1945 is extensive, yet presented in an unbiased fashion. There's a lot of emphasis on German day-to-day life during the war, with the equivalent patriotic posters exhorting citizens to buy war bonds and collect scrap metal, etc., not something one normally sees in historical studies of the period. Strange to see children's toys, newspapers, movie posters, etc., from that time...


Back to hotel for rest and a beer, then off to find something to eat. I found an Australian joint in the Sony Centre in Potsdamer Platz and had a ribeye steak and a couple of pints of Fosters - ripper!


Fri, Oct 5th:
Went to the Hauptbahnhof, or central rail station, to find out about the rail strike.
Turns out it was just a three-hour stoppage but could lead to more. A
s I was in the neighbourhood, I decided to visit the Bundestag, the German seat of government. It's open to the public and admission is free, so the queue is usually long.


Here's a photo:
The queue was considerably shorter when I joined it, but still took an hour and twenty minutes to get in. This is because they only allow groups of about fifty at a time to pass through security, and wait until such a number has left before allowing more in. But once you get in, you can go to the roof, and the Dome.

Which I did.
From within the dome there's a panoramic view of Berlin. Two spiral walkways (one up, one down) ensure a smooth flow of traffic, unless children are involved. Fortunately I didn't trip over any, so that was okay.

Followed signs to the Brandenburg Gate, only 350m away, and had coffee and danish at Starbucks on the Pariser Platz, saving my weary feet. The usual tourist stuff, but also sparrows - many sparrows. With scarcely a pigeon to be seen, these little guys hopped from table to table looking for crumbs - cheeky as hell, also, and totally unafraid.
Later - went back to Corroborree, that Australian place, for Thai Curry and a beer, before going to see The Bourne Ultimatum in the cinema next door. It was shown in the original dialogue, which is just as well because my German is poor - I get lost when the words have more than four syllables and capital letters in the middle.

A couple of tourists thought it would be fun to join in with the actors and adlib some comedy, but that was put a stop to by some locals pretty quickly.

Sat, Oct. 6th:

I've decided I don't like Berlin's public transport system.

It's fast, efficient, clean and always punctual, so why, you may ask?

It's the map. There are two services - the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, both of which are represented on the same map. The map is printedwithout a full legend differentiating the two services, in a size that includes a lot of small print.

My eyes hurt, and so do my feet.

Today I'm heading for the Kurfurstendamm and Alaexanderplatz, both at opposite ends of the same U-line. Should make things a bit easier.

Tune in next time to learn what happened next...