4 States, 2 Oceans, 1 Week

Scott and Brian Kurtz at Comic-con
Scott and Brian Kurtz at Comic-con

The last two weeks has been extremely busy for me. I racked up quite a few frequent flier miles, got to see some friends I haven’t seen in a long time, and saw a motley collection of Klingons, Stormtroopers, Super Heroes and travel bloggers.

San Diego

My week started out in New York City where I had spent the last week and had the New York City meet up. When I was coming to the US I was talking to my friend Scott Kurtz who was going to be in San Diego for Comic-con, the biggest comic convention in the world. He told me I should come over and check out the convention. Because he had a booth at the show, he was able to get me a pro-pass which gave me access to the expo floor and all the panel discussions. I’ve never been to Comic-con before, and I was interested in going. They do a lot of announcements for movies there and many people get dressed up as sci-fi or fantasy characters. I’m all about the traveling, so I figured it would be a great experience.

By your command...
By your command…

At Comic-con I realized that I am not a geek. I sort always of thought of myself as one, but honestly, I am not in the same league as these people. I used to collect comic books, but I don’t anymore. I like going to movies, but I am not obsessive about science fiction. I never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Serenity, Star Trek Voyager, or whatever the last Star Trek series was. I don’t buy action figures, I don’t dress up as characters from movies, and I have never played D&D. I was walking in the expo hall and a woman who was handing out fliers turned to give one to me and said: “oh, you don’t need one of these, you’re normal”. I’m not sure if that was an insult or a compliment.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Comic-con, but my enjoyment came as an observer, not as a participant. I walked around the floor trying to find something I was interested in but struck out. Even most of the panel discussions weren’t very interesting to me. I suppose I could have camped out for hours to see some celebrities hype their upcoming films, but that really didn’t do it for me.

Floor of the expo
The floor of the expo

The costumes that many of the people wear to Comic-con were very impressive. These aren’t your garden-variety, thrown together costumes you wear for Halloween. These are get-ups that have had a lot of time and effort put into them. I saw a team of guys dressed as the Ghostbusters who had equipment on their backs which were probably more elaborate than the movie. One guy had a very elaborate Predator costume made of latex and many people had handcrafted steampunk outfits.

I did get to see at least part of one panel with Scott and Brian. We went to see a live taping of the Totally Rad Show. The line to get in was really long and we ended up in the rear of the room and weren’t able to really see anything. Scott and ended up leaving early, and honestly, I didn’t really find them very interesting. I prefer Filmspotting as my movie podcast of choice.

Michigan Avenue at Sunset
Michigan Avenue at Sunset


Early Saturday morning I woke up and headed to the San Diego airport only to find the longest check-in line I’ve ever seen at an airport. It was literally going out the door of the building, and the line for security was equally long. Thankfully I arrived at the airport super early and managed to make my flight with time to spare.

After another layover in Minneapolis (I had one on Wednesday also), I arrived in Chicago, which I hadn’t visited in years. There is something about the skyline and the architecture of Chicago which is really impressive. It isn’t quite as dense as Hong Kong or New York, so the skyscrapers seem larger. It is the same reason they used Chicago instead of New York as the location for Gotham in the Dark Knight. It is the city of broad shoulders you know!

Sean Keener, Heather Pool, and Michael Yessis on a blog panel
Sean Keener, Heather Pool, and Michael Yessis on a blog panel

The reason I was in Chicago was for a travel blog conference hosted by TravelBlogExchange.com. I had picked this conference as a date set in stone to be back in the US, else I could just draw out the process of moving across Europe forever. I really wasn’t interested in the panel discussions as I was in just being able to meet people I haven’t met in person before. There were far more people there than I expected. I figured maybe 20 to 30 people would show up. There were easily over 100 and I think even more would have shown up if there had been more publicity. I met Mike Pugh who’s travel blog help inspire mine, Chris Christensen, Peter Carey, Pam Mandel, Jessica Spiegel. Kim Mance, Jen Leo, and a ton of other people who I met for the first time and others that I just forgot to list here. The bag of goodies they gave away was especially impressive considering that the conference was free.

By the time I left Chicago on Tuesday, I was mentally and physically exhausted from all the running around. My next trip, however, would be my biggest one yet. Home. More tomorrow….

(Note: every photo used in this article was taken on my brand new iPhone)

Epic Fail

Much of this was written at 40,000 ft above the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Newfoundland and the Canary Islands.

Today I committed the biggest mistake of my entire trip. Last night I purchased my ticket to New York. I got a hotel out near Heathrow because the weekend rates there are cheap and I didn’t want to waste time in the morning trying to get there. TAP Portugal had the cheapest flights so I booked a 6:15am flight to New York with a layover in Portugal. There was also a 6am flight so I figured I’d give myself the extra 15 minutes.

I get to the airport only to find they do not have me booked in the computer. I’m sort of worried because I really need to get to New York. I go to a coffee shop in the terminal to check my email and get the booking information. When I check the email I realized I had made a huge mistake. The 6am flight was out of Heathrow, the 6:15 flight was out of Gatwick…nowhere close to Heathrow. I was at the wrong airport and shit out of luck. The ticket was not refundable.

I had sworn I saw Heathrow when I did the search, and I had seen Heathrow….on the other flight. I even went to the Heathrow website to find out what terminal TAP flew from the night before. It never dawned on me that they would be flying out of two different airports at almost the exact same time…. and I didn’t read close enough.

Prior to this the worst mistake I made was misreading the departure time for a flight from Samoa to Tonga. I arrived at the Apia airport just to see the Air New Zealand flight taking off. For that flight I managed to get the ticket changed, but I had to wait in Samoa a week for the next flight to Tonga. This time I had to buy another ticket. The price they quoted me at the gate was as cheap as the cheapest tickets I saw online, so I figured there was no point in going back to a hotel and starting over. I got a new ticket, took the 6am flight and rushed everything to get on the plane. I was just like OJ running through the airport (minus the murdering people part).

Getting the to plane was complicated by the small fact that I had a corkscrew in my backpack that I purchased in Florence. They ended up swabbing everything in my bags making my dash to the plane even worse.

Oddly enough, I never went through any immigration check leaving the UK or Portugal. There wasn’t one for me to go through that I could see.

On the plane I was given the customs card for US immigration and one of the questions on the card was “Countries visited on this trip prior to US arrival”. I think they were looking for a full list, but there wasn’t enough room to write everything down. I just put: 40. (I’m defining country for this purpose as places that were real countries or had passport stamps since I was in Hawaii for the second time of my trip in August 2007. Hong Kong, Macau Taiwan, Northern Marianas Islands would be included but Guam would not.)

Once I arrived in Newark I had surprisingly little trouble going through immigration. The guy at the passport desk was more impressed than anything else.

This is my first time in New York since the 2000 World Series between the Mets and the Yankees. I haven’t been here since 9/11. Despite the economic problems hitting the financial sector hard, the city seems nicer and cleaner than it was when I was last here.

My first day in New York i set out immediately to the Apple store in midtown Manhattan. Just prior to the start of my trip I saw the Steve Jobs launch of the iPhone. I purchased an iPod Touch in Tokyo which was one of the best travel items I’ve ever purchased. The new iPhone however had even more features which would help both travel and blog. If you are a regular reader, you probably have noticed that I haven’t been updating as much the last few weeks. My days have consisted of waking up, hitting the streets and getting back to the hotel/hostel at night really tired. I’m hoping to do audio updates for the site while I’m on the street. I’m also able to Twitter and upload photos immediately after I take them.

I’ll be here for another week or so before I fly off to San Diego for a few days to hang out at Comicon then I take off for Chicago for the Travel Blog Expo on the 26th.

If you are in New York, we are having a meet up with some other travel bloggers on Monday, July 20th. Just contact me for details if you are interested in attending.

Seven Tips For Visting An Art Museum

I am not an artist. In fact I am probably the farthest thing from an artist you can possibly be. I can’t draw, paint, sculpt or play a musical instrument. I’m also not a serious student of art history. I’ve never taken a course on the subject or studied it in a rigorous manner. I have however, had the pleasure of visiting many of the great museums of the world. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered from visiting museums around the world.


The first rule of art museum is “do not touch anything”. The second rule of art museum is DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. For the love of baby Jesus, don’t touch anything. Imagine yourself touching something….then don’t do that. Wanting to touch something is a natural human reaction. Keep your hands in your pockets or behind your back and keep a few steps away from any paintings. Even a light touch can damage old and fragile art works. Remember to take whatever you do and multiply it thousands of times over hundreds of years. That is how long things hopefully will survive and even small actions can add up. Look at the wear on the foot of the statue of St. Peter in the Vatican or on the pig in Florence. You can see how just a few decades of touching can wear down solid metal. Imagine what it can do to cloth. A few years ago a guy at the Minneapolis Museum of Art sat on a several hundred year old chair and broke it. Don’t be that guy.

2) Don’t bring children

This one might be controversial, but for the most part kids are bored stiff in art museums. That is why they have special children’s museums where kids can run around, touch stuff and not get in trouble. I saw one kid running around at the Chagall museum in Nice, France who almost fell down and put his hand through a painting. I don’t know what the optimal age is to bring a kid to an art museum, but it is probably over the age of 10. At least a baby can sleep the entire time, but somewhere between the ages of 2 and 10 kids will have as much fun at an art museum as they would going to church.

3) Leave the camera at home

About half the museums I’ve been to do not allow any sort of photography at all. The other half will not allow flash photography or tripods. There is no way possible you will get an image of a great work of art you can print out and hang on the wall. To get that you’d need access to the photo under good lighting conditions (which do not exist in museums for photography), in a studio with a tripod. If you do bring a camera make sure you know how to turn off the autoflash on the camera. I see this all the time: people take out their pocket camera or cell phone and the flash goes off because they don’t know how to turn the flash off. The light from a flash is short but intense. Added up thousands of times it would be like putting a painting in the sun. If you do bring your camera the best photos will be when you take photos of the entire room, not of a single piece of art. You will never get a good photo of the Mona Lisa, but you might get an interesting photo of a throng of people gawking at the Mona Lisa. Likewise, you can often zoom in on a part of a painting and get better results than trying to get the whole painting. (see the image on the right). Now days, I usually don’t even bother bringing a camera at all.

4) There isn’t some deeper meaning that you are missing

Many people are intimidated by going to museums. They think there is something they ought to “get” and feel dumb when they don’t get it. They can stare at something all day and not understand why it is supposed to be a big deal. The secret is….there is nothing to get. Museums are about history more than anything else. The Mona Lisa might be the most famous painting in the world, but that doesn’t mean it is the best painting. It is famous for two reasons: 1) It was stolen in the early 20th Century which made it an object of popular culture, 2) it is one of the few works of Leonardo di Vinci who is a person of historical note even outside of his paintings. You can enjoy the painting for what it is (a portrait of a woman) but you can also use it as a vehicle to learn about the artist, the time period it was created, and the history of the physical work itself. Some works are like Paris Hilton; famous because they are famous. Some paintings were never meant to be great. They were just portraits of rich people or meant to be an ornament for a church. Today they are in a museum because they are old.

5) Don’t try to see everything

Some people feel the need to get their moneys worth when they go to a museum. Even if you walk in every room there is no way you are going to “see” everything in all but the smallest museums. I’ve been to the Minneapolis Institute of Art dozens of times and every time I go back I notice something new I have probably walked past many times before. If you go to the Louvre, the British Museum or the Metropolitan, there is no way you can see and appreciate everything in one trip. If you are visiting a museum you probably will not be returning to, get a map of the building and prioritize the things you want to see. If you don’t walk into every room, don’t worry about it.

6) Feel free to like and not like things

Many people do not like modern art. That is a perfectly fine opinion. Not everything is equal. If you don’t like something, try to look at it in a different way. Don’t look for a deeper meaning to Jackson Pollock (see #5 above) because there isn’t one. It is just a pretty picture. If you don’t like something, then at least try to articulate to yourself why you don’t like it. Likewise, if you do like something try to figure out why. One of my favorite painters is Gerrit van Honthorst. You never hear much about him but I think his paintings were very innovative with what he did with light. I learned about him from seeing his works in museums. No one told me about him in an art class and I was never told I was supposed to like him, I just did.

7) Use a guide

If there are walking tours available while you are there, join them. If they have audio guides available where you can listen to descriptions of various works, get one. Buy a small guidebook if that is all that is available. There are often small things in artworks you would have no idea they were there unless you were a student of history or of that particular artist. A person in a painting might be a specific person, but you’d never know that without any context. Likewise, if there is a particular famous work at a museum you are visiting you might want to research it online before you go. The more information you have, the more you will enjoy your experience.

The Netherlands in 360 Degrees

I normally only showcase my photography on this site, but I’m going to make an exception this time because the exception is so cool.

When I was in the Netherlands I was contacted by Karel who is the #1 player on Where On Google Earth. He lives in the Netherlands and offered to drive me around the country for two days to visit some of the World Heritage sites in the Netherlands. One of his hobbies is taking 360° panorama photographs. He also runs the website 360VR.nl which showcases his work.

He recently sent me some of the panorama photos taken during our trip to the World Heritage sites of Holland, and I wanted to share them with everyone. The photos are taken on a tripod with a fisheye lens and later stitched together to get the 360° effect. You can use your mouse to move around the image. (You need QuickTime installed to view the panoramas)

Schokland used to be an island in the middle of the sea. As the land around it was reclaimed, it became landlocked. The photo was taken at the edge of what used to be the harbor. It is now totally surrounded by polder farmland. You can see our bicycles up against a fence as well as the old lighthouse.

The Afsluitdijk is an enormous 32 km (20 miles) barrier that separates the North Sea from Lake Ijssel (IJsselmeer). This photo was taken on an overpass which crosses the road. I was hiding on the staircase on one end of the overpass when he took the photo.

If you like his panoramas you can view more of them at his site 360VR.nl. There are several more panoramas in the “recent” section which were taken during our exploration of the Netherlands including the outside and inside of the Woudagemaal steam pump facility.

London Calling

My time in London has been very hectic. I’m staying out of the central London area because everything near the attractions is really expensive. I’m out near Greenwich and the O2/Millenium Dome which really isn’t so bad. I have to spend about £6/day on the train, not including the underground fees. It still is cheaper than staying in the city center.

Since I’ve been here I’ve visited Maritime Greenwich and the Observatory museum (where the Prime Meridian is located and John Harrison’s clocks), the Tower of London, Westminster Abby, the Kew Gardens, the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria & Albert museum, and I’ve seen four movies in Leicester Square, catching up on everything I’ve missed in the last several months. There are still a bunch of places I haven’t visited including the Imperial War Museum. I visited St. Paul’s and Parliament on previous visits so I’m not too in a rush to see those.

I’ve found myself having to get used to having conversations in English again. I had gotten very used to only speaking in brief phrases when going to stores or ordering food in a restaurant. Now I can use full sentences like “I’ll have the fish and chips with extra tartar sauce, no vinegar on the chips but please put on some salt”, but I still find myself using fragments like “one fish and chips”. Its bizarre, but true.

London is by far the most diverse city outside of the US I’ve seen on my trip. In fact it probably beats most US cities other than Los Angles or New York. It is an expensive city even with the recent changes in the Pound relative to the Dollar. (that just means it used to be really, really expensive). Entrance to the Tower of London and Westminster Abby was expensive at £17 and £15 respectively. This is more than offset by the fact that entrance to all the museums in London is free. Also if you purchase an Oyster card (which you should do if you will be spending any time in the city) makes taking the Underground more affordable.

The weather here has been cold and rainy. Before I arrived they had a brief heat wave with temperatures getting up to the 90’sF (35ish C). Since then the temperature has been in the 12-20C (60’s F) range.

I enjoy London. It has made the short list of places I’ve visited that I’d consider living. The biggest downside is the cost. I saw the prices on some flats at real estate office and they were expensive to say the least.

I’ll be here a few more days before heading to New York and then to Chicago. If you are in either one of those cities and would like to meet up for drinks send an email to [email protected]

Anarchy Getting to the UK….or, The Chunnel of Love

To date, all my travel by train (save for 48 hour hell trip from Dallas to LA) has been pretty uneventful. Getting from The Hague to London, however, was sort of a nightmare.

It started on Thursday when I was planning on leaving Amsterdam and going to London with a stop in The Hague to meet up with Guido, who runs the Happy Hotelier blog and a really, really nice small hotel in The Hague. I figured I have lunch with him, see the sites in the Hague then move on to London.

At no time in my rail travels have I ever had any issues getting tickets or getting a train. A most you have wait an hour, but usually the entire experience is pretty straightforward. When I checked on the price of a ticket to London from The Hague they quoted me a price of €260, which is about $360. Screw that. Discount airlines are plentiful and cheap from Amsterdam to London, so I ended up staying that night in Guido’s hotel.

Researching tickets I found that I could get a ticket to London by train for €100 less if I purchased it online, and when factoring in the taxes and fees, it was close to the same price as getting a discount airline on Friday. Factor in not needing to take a train/bus from Gatwick and the train was probably the better deal. Plus, I also wanted the experience of going through the Chunnel, so I went with the train.

I purchased the train ticket on the EuroStar website from The Hague to London and was given a 6 character code to claim my tickets at the station. Sounded easy enough. I’d have a 50 minute layover in Brussels but the whole thing didn’t sound any more difficult than any other train trip I’ve taken.

Fast forward to Friday. Guido takes me to the train station and I find out that the Dutch system can’t print out tickets which were reserved on the French (Eurostar) website because they have a 7 character code and the French use a 6 character code. Basically, they are letting someone sell tickets on their trains that they cannot process. The guy at the counter just shrugged and told us to talk to the conductor on the train.

It turns out the train going to Brussels was late, so Guido just suggested I take the next train (which was also late) so I have a chance to get to Brussels in time (which turned out to be the right choice). He talked to the train agents for me and I got on board the train….along with everyone else who was waiting for next train. There were no seats available to I had to stand from The Hague to Rotterdam and then had to sit on a small folding seat the rest of the way in the car reserved for bicycles.

When I got to Brussels my 50 minute layover didn’t seem so leisurely anymore. I ran to the ticket counter to get my London ticket, waited in line for 15 minutes to be told to go to another place to get my ticket. I run over to the other counter and (surprise!) they managed to print out my London ticket AND my Brussels ticket with no problem. Of course the Brussels ticket was totally useless as I was already in Brussels, but I guess it is the thought that counts.

Once I had the ticket in hand, I I ran to the train to find out that there was a whole passport/security procedure I had to go through. I didn’t think about it, but I guess it makes sense. It was sort of like going through it at an airport, but it was all done in a very small area and much more efficiently. I got stamped out of the Schengen zone, stamped into the UK and made it to the train with 5 minutes to spare.

I guess the lesson I learned from this is to treat the London to France train more like a flight than a train ride. Don’t show up at the last minute like you can on a train, plan time to go through customs and security, and book ahead of time. In fact, other than the novelty of going under the English Channel, it is probably easier to just avoid the whole thing and just take a cheap flight. If you can get a cheap train ticket, the connivence of showing up in the middle of the city is nice, but might not be worth it if you have to pay full fare.