Sassari and Alghero, Sardinia

Obviously, there has to be a beach stop along the way.

We stayed at a b&b that was in an old building on the main square. This was the ceiling in our room

And the entry hall

View from the room, before (or maybe during) a rainstorm

This is one of the largest cities on the island, but there isn’t much of anything there. There’s evidence that this was once a wealthy city, but things have been left to ruin. Not entire neighborhoods — just a random building here and there, between well-maintained others. Who owns them? What happened?

But there were also interesting modern touches. Like an overgrown planter, a Buddhist fountain, a door perch for cats, various important men…

There was a dramatic cathedral. This is when we started seeing poor people (usually women) begging at the church door, often using a baby or young child as a prop to get more sympathy.

We took a day trip to Alghero, which has a long history of different rulers (Arab, Spanish, etc) reflected in its architecture.

This may have been the famous rice sand beach. It’s covered with tiny, rubbed-smooth pebbles of quartz.

Or maybe this is the rice sand beach. In retrospect, I should’ve taken a closeup of the sand. Maybe next time…

Next, on to Cagliari!

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Porto Pollo and La Maddelena, Sardinia

The ferry from Corsica was quick and painless. We arrived at our residence with enough sunlight left to visit their private beach. It was protected by gates and signs warning of security cameras, but no actual cameras. The receptionist told us, apologetically, that there would have been lounge chairs and umbrellas and lots of people during the season but we were early. We found the completely empty beach quite all right.

Here’s a view of the sunset from our porch

The next day we took a little ferry to the island of La Maddelena. I think it’s a tourist island, but mostly for Italian or Sardinian tourists.

We spent the first part of the day exploring the island. It has tiny beaches everywhere — so many that chances are great you’ll find a private one. We did.

One of the first Italian words we learned on the trip was spiaggio (beach).

This white-sand beach was just for us

But eventually, we felt obligated to see other things, so we drove around more

The island has a bridge to an even smaller island, on which there was a botanical garden or archeology museum. But it was closed. As we would soon learn, everything in these Italian islands is closed during the hours of 1pm-5pm. Everything except maybe a cafe or tourist trinket shop. Even the gelaterias!

So obviously, there was nothing left to do but find another beach to lounge on. One without other people, of course.

We stayed until dinnertime. Yes, hours of beaching. Dinner was pizza, of course. The Italians make perfect crusts — thin and crispy. But the sauce is plain tomato paste with no seasonings. No garlic, no basil or other herbs, not even salt or pepper. And they skimp on cheese. Oh well, not every pizzeria can be Delfina.

Out the window, we watched the owner of the “ethnic store” scrub the flagstones in front of his store while his little daughter danced around. If only everyone were so civic minded.

Sardinia wants to be the next big tourist destination. Our free guides (provided by the residence) included a book written in flowery language about the beauty and cultural richness of Sardinia. It was over the top and sort of cute. I think it will be hard to maintain much character when everything is driven by tourism. They don’t know what they’re wishing for.

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Road to Bonifacio

Did I mention this was a road trip? Corsica has some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen. And hardly anyone visits in the off season — that is, anytime other than August, when the French have the entire month off and flock to Corsica.

Well, there may have been a beach stop along the way…

This was across from the town of Bonifacio, which is, itself, perched on a big cliff.

The sea is so calm

And these are views from the ferry, departing. Yeah, we didn’t spend much time actually in town — there is almost nowhere to stay! We did learn something useful though — don’t settle for the first gelato stand you see. In Bonifacio, if you park near the docks, you’ll have to go up about 100 steps to get to the town and you’ll see vendors selling supermarket ice cream out of tubs. Turn left and go up the street a bit — you’ll find artisan gelato made from local fruit. It’s worth the 30 extra steps, I promise.

Goodbye, Bonifacio

And the ferry took us onward to… Sardinia!

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Ajaccio

On the road between Calvi and Ajaccio I kept exclaiming “are those the Alps?” Obviously, these were not the Alps, but when I saw the real Alps, I still thought these looked more Alp-sy.

We intended to stop in Corte for lunch, but had no luck with parking. Instead, we set up a picnic in the wooded area on the outskirts of town, right in the middle of a river. We did have to trespass just a little (skirting around a dilapidated toolshed and behind a house).

More views along the road to Ajaccio

Just outside Ajaccio is the Iles Sanguinaires “the bloody islands” — named for their color, not for any actual blood spilled. It was nearing sunset, so not that popular. There was no way up to the tower, sadly.

In Ajaccio proper, we stayed around the corner from Napoleon’s birthplace. There was a woman seated at exit to the building, minding her stand of tourist goods. Here’s the beach that was about two blocks away and never had people. I guess the tourists come for Napoleon and the locals have better beaches.

Our host left us a table full of Corsican food, including specialties like blood sausage, a hard goat cheese and a lemon. True hospitality. (I was going to show you some pictures taken from a restaurant meal but they’re not beautiful. The lamb tagine was amazing, but looked like brown goop.)

We had a few days to wander, and found that even the cats ride scooters.

The library housed not only ancient texts, but also current students. I didn’t get a picture of the latter, but I like the idea that historic libraries can still be used today and not just for tourism.

We went to the Musée Fesch, which was the right size for a museum. I was impressed by their Leda and the Swan painting.

I am a little obsessed with beaches. Always chasing the ideal, which is probably Lanikai on Oahu, minus the people. This beach came close. At least the “minus the people” part!

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Calvi, Corsica

We ferried over from the French mainland (Nice), and N drove hours in the dark to get us to Calvi. Terrifying windy roads with no lighting. The ferries forbid passengers from staying in their cars. For safety reasons, so they say. But they also don’t just give you accommodations. No. Renting a single bed in a room that’s barely large enough to move in will cost more than the average AirBnB in Paris. So we slept on the floor, amongst barking dogs (yes, everyone and their mother had a dog on the Corsica ferry) and inconsolable babies under florescent lights. My personal hell.

Calvi appeals to the type of person whose country is too young to have seen much history, and whose cities are full of buildings that are blank and modern. This is the cathedral in the citadelle. It looks abandoned — like something from a ghost town.

This is a still-occupied building, also inside the citadelle. See the greenish door on the second floor that just opens into thin air?

We had lunch on this patch of grass near the fortification wall. This cat was friendly, but had ulterior motives. He kept us company until we finished eating and there were no more scraps for him.

View from the wall

We wandered the town a little, but there wasn’t much there.

Following a delicious smell, we found a tiny bakeshop selling cookies — canistrelli, a Corsican specialty. Think, a crunchy rather than sandy shortbread with flavors like lemon zest and salted caramel.

The cashier pictured here chatted with us on her smoking break. She said she felt like a failure, working at a cookie shop at the age of thirtysomething. But people work and work hard every day so that they can go to a place like Corsica for two weeks out of the year. She gets to spend every day there. It’s too bad that everyone has the same basic image of success: the person who has a well-respected career, makes tons of money, owns lots of stuff.

The beach was covered in brown fur balls. We never figured out what they were, exactly, but we saw a woman collecting a plastic bag full of them. We asked her, and she shrugged. “I just like using them to decorate.”

We stayed at a “residence” — basically a wooded area full of self-sufficient cabins with fully equipped kitchens, bathrooms, showers, etc. This is a view along the walk home.

Our place was also close to the sea, so we went for a sunset. On the way we saw this shell pink house that looked like something you would find in California. There were also half-built structures with no evidence that work was continuing. Maybe illegal coastline development is a problem.

Some backstory — at the supermarket I insisted we get a can of tartiflette for dinner. A large can. I had such nice memories of it that I sort of forgot how crappy canned versions of things usually are. This was sour and not at all like real tartiflette. Yes, I’ve learned my lesson. We were eating it outside our cabin and this dog came sniffing around, looking hopeful. So we wiped down the tartiflette can with all of our remaining bread and gave it to her. She was so happy that she followed us down to the sea for our evening walk. We pretty much thought we had a dog. Permanently.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. On the path home, a fluffed-up, aggressive pomeranian barked at her, blocking her way. She turned back to the sea and we never saw her again. I hope she didn’t starve to death out there.

This was the sunset from our little sea cove.

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Don’t be a fool: designer labels

I’ve decided to do a series on the ways we’re being taken advantage of by business. Today’s post is on designer clothing and accessories, and was motivated by this article which claims that stars get paid up to $250,000 to wear a designer’s clothes on the red carpet. Note that if you get paid that much, two red carpet events is about all it takes to put you in the 1%. Yes, just for wearing a specific designer’s dress to an event a couple of times. I want that job.

Of course, it must make sense for major fashion houses to spend this kind of money — it’s a tiny part of their advertising budget and it reaches a wide audience. But what doesn’t make sense is for normal people (like most of us) to ever bother buying anything designer. I’ve heard arguments that we’re paying for quality, and while that’s partially true, I think the bigger part of the inflated price tags is advertising. Basically, when we average people buy designer, we’re using our small income (the median US income was $51,939 in 2013) to pay people who are in the top 0.001% or so. Pay them to do what? Pay them to fool more middle class/poor people like us into buying more of the designer’s overpriced goods.

Instead of being influenced by the hottest celebrity wearing a particular designer, try looking around your own town for people with accessories (most commonly, shoes, scarves, watches, handbags) from that designer. You’re not going to become a glamorous starlet like Chloe Moretz because you have a Coach bag.

More likely, you’ll still be the tired, overweight nurse in her scrubs riding the bus. Or the old Asian woman in her too-short jeans and garishly bright fleece from Old Navy. There are ways to achieve the timeless style in designer ads, but it isn’t by buying what they’re selling. Doing so would only be playing their fool.

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Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum is located in a cute neighborhood full of French people. The restaurants, cafes and little card shops have a San Francisco hipster feel to them. But even more so. They out-organic, out-vegan us there any day. The museum is not only free, but one of the nicest I’ve been to.

Here’s the entry hall dome

And here is the spawn of Medusa and Chuthulu hanging from it

There are also these men lounging everwhere. Here, over a doorway and under an antlered thing who seems very suspicious of me.

This was the tomb of a cardinal, and was commissioned by a rival to make him look lazy. He does seem to be lounging rather than dead.

There’s something lovely about where this statue is placed. I was startled when I saw it.

I heard once that all the nudes in art were a form of proto-porn. I wasn’t sure about the claim, since most nude paintings I remembered didn’t seem particularly suggestive. This, however… Note that he was placed in a room full of religious art. Maybe the curator has a sense of humor.

These were giant and (I think) modern. Too bad the don’t sell copies of them in the store!

I think they moved an entire fancy baroque room from a hotel and put it in the museum.

The tea room. I was introduced here to a real strawberry shortcake. Yum.

Those are all the photogenic parts of the England part of our trip. Next, it’s on the Corsica!

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London and Oxford

Let’s start with the obligatory Big Ben shot with the bonus double-decker bus. We were staying with a friend near Leicester Square and this was taken not far from there.

Westminster Abbey now charges a £20 entrance fee. It’s a new fad at popular tourist churches throughout Europe. We passed, and just looked from outside.

St. James Park looks like a painting. There are 3 parks that are one after the other. Our host said he still can’t tell St. James Park from Green Park.

Seeing ducks at the park always reminds me of the story told by a social worker specializing in helping refugees adapt to their new country. She has to tell Asian refugees that the ducks in the park are not for dinner and that it’s forbidden to hunt them. (But they look so juicy!)

No trip to London is complete without a slow stroll through Harrod’s food halls to ogle the cakes. What is a hummingbird cake, anyway? Does hummingbird taste like chicken?

I’m not sure if her face is cracked on purpose. I do like her lounge lion though. Maybe they sell them at IKEA.

We spent a day in Oxford. This is the Bodleian Library.

And the Radcliffe Camera

And this is an old wooden door with rusty bits and a lion. Europeans are obsessed with lions. I’m sure they find me very odd for taking pictures of their doors. Maybe they wonder to themselves whether I’m from a country where doors haven’t been invented yet.

We went to a couple of museums, including one full of curiosities like shrunken heads, but I’ll spare you. The outsides were lovely.

This man with his giant bird friend — maybe it’s supposed to symbolize a friendship between America and France. That guy looks pretty French. And I’m sure that ridiculous bird is our national mascot.

Christ Church now charges an entrance fee too. But Evensong is free. I took a few sneaky pics on my way out. The ritual of evensong is slightly goofy, with a lot of standing and sitting, and a priest doing monotone chanting.

We had a kebab dinner (from the kebab truck at Pembroke Square)

and watched the sun fade out over Christ Church meadow.

 

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Shaun the Sheep in London

Just got back last week from a two-ish month trip to Europe. We started in London where N’s friend has a spectacular flat near Leicester Square. Shaun the Sheep was everywhere, doing a promo tour for an upcoming movie.

I was first introduced to Shaun the Sheep last winter during a stay at N’s uncle’s house in the north of France. He doesn’t speak English and my French is incomprehensible. But we could both understand the language of sheep antics! He had a stack of Shaun DVDs for his grandson — or so he claimed. (He watched them nightly, even when his grandson wasn’t around.)

Here’s Shaun is in Trafalgar Square dressed as Napoleon:

And on the border of Green Park, another Shaun the Sheep! I overheard someone saying there were 47 around London.

A geometric / modern art Shaun in front of the British Council

A chinoiserie Shaun in Chinatown

A child spots Shaun! Shaun looks wary.

My favorite is the Cath Kidston Shaun. Pictured here staring at a man in purple hoodie. While he stared back.

I’m a little frightened of the smile-faced grey cloud on top of this Shaun’s head

Very meta

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How to make MUNI as good as Leap or Chariot

Fancy busses are popping up all over San Francisco. Okay, mostly in the Marina. Services like Leap and Chariot are only a nudge more expensive than MUNI and somehow much more appealing. How can MUNI keep up?

1. Delegate

Wheelchair service should be its own separate thing. SF Paratransit can be expanded, or, if there are enough wheelchair users who can afford it, some private company can be formed to service them. Or maybe they can avail themselves of services like home grocery delivery. There’s no need to inconvenience a bus of 50 commuters by making them wait for the painfully slow wheelchair ramp.

2. Ensure fare payment

This will help keep busses nice in two ways: it keeps the homeless off and it increases revenue. San Francisco introduced all-door boarding when the Clipper card was introduced. While this practice supposedly “doesn’t increase fare evasion”, that could be because MUNI drivers were never that thorough with checking proof of payment. In London, the busses have an inspector at the door, making sure you either pay or get off. But on London busses, it’s easy to make sure you paid, and that brings me to the next point.

3. Make everyone use the Clipper reader

No more cash, no more transfer slips, no more paper muni passes for any group. Everyone gets a Clipper card or an RFID enabled paper ticket. No ticket purchases on the bus. Every single person must pass something over the card reader, get a beep of approval or be asked to leave the bus. With all-door boarding, this can be achieved by having human beep-checkers at each door. Job-creation, yay.

4. Friendlier bus drivers

Apparently, being a MUNI driver is a highly-paid and highly sought-after job. Fantastic. Encourage riders to text the MUNI bus number with their problem to a complaints hotline. A driver passes a stop even though the bus isn’t full? The driver is rude or grumpy? 3 strikes and you’re out. There are plenty of people lining up for that job.

5. Special lanes and light priorty

This has already started, but congested areas around the city should have MUNI only lines and stoplights that give priorty to MUNI busses.

6. Reduce number of stops

Busses should stop once every 5-6 blocks instead of every 2-3. I think doing #1 makes #6 entirely feasible. If it’s a great hardship to walk a few extra blocks, there’s probably a better service for you.

The most pleasant thing about services like Leap and Chariot isn’t what they provide, it’s what they exclude. I don’t really care about plush seats or bars or pressed juice and coffee. Wifi is great, but so is my cell phone’s data plan. The main draw is that there probably won’t be any crazy homeless people and the inevitable urine smell that clings to them. There won’t be people listening to ghetto rap so loudly (and on such crap headphones) that I’m forced to listen too. Or people who eat sunflower seeds and spit the shells on the floor. Or people who take hooker baths with makeup remover sheets then discard them all over the floor. Or old ladies on flip phones having shouting matches in an angry-chicken Asian language. Or delusional vets who scream about non-existant enemy tanks. (Yes, I have personally encountered all of these on MUNI busses).  I think #2 above might help MUNI with these things too. The fare inspector can kick people off for bad behavior or disturbing others even if I am mistaken and the examples I cited were all paying customers.

Generally, having private companies pop up in competition with public services indicates there’s something that can be done better. With a few improvements, MUNI might yet put these obnoxiously hipster little startups out of business.

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