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7/20/2018 The end of the trip

Sorry for the Blooper Reel comic today. TWC is working fine, I'm just overworked. I think I committed to too much this month. Moving, finishing an online class design (which ended up involving a lot more work than I originally planned), and teaching a summer class all of the coming week on top of everything else I normally need to do is leaving me with too little time for anything. Sigh... Well, if I can just get through next week and get the rest of the lecture for that online class recorded on time, I'll be good. Though by good I mean that things will calm down and leave me with time to finish unpacking my office and library and work on the Aurora's Nightmare demo. Anyway, today I'll finally get the Europe travelogue finished.

July 1st (Sunday): Back to Zurich
For better or worse, we decided to get a round trip ticket from Zurich for the trip, rather than trying to fly in there and fly back from Florence. That meant taking the trains all the way back to Zurich. Unfortunately, it wasn't an especially smooth trip.
The first complication was buying the tickets. I actually did that in the evening a few days back (I wanted to make sure we got seats), but decided to write about it now just to stay on theme. Anyway, when you need to buy train tickets in Italy you can use the machines in the train station or a web site, but only so long as you're staying in the country. If you want to travel to another country, you need to go to the ticket office. So I waited in line and then told the agent that I wanted tickets to Zurich on Sunday morning. Strangely, the request left him really confused and he spent several minutes trying to figure out what I wanted and telling me it wasn't possible while I (who had naturally looked up the train routes ahead of time), insisted that it was. The fact that he spoke very little English and I spoke no Italian didn't really help. At first, I thought he was confused by my rail pass but finally, after getting increasingly frustrated with his refusals, I took out my phone and and showed him the trains I wanted on the Eurail app. That finally worked. See, there are no direct trains from Florence to Zurich and, apparently, it never crossed the agent's mind that I could change trains along the way. It that so uncommon in Italy, or was that guy just rather slow? Anyway, I finally got the tickets.
Fast forward to Sunday morning and Connie and I took Zack and our luggage and made our way to the train station. Our first train was from Florence to Milan. It ended up being about ten minutes late. I didn't mind that too much, since we had 45 minutes to change trains. But the fact that they didn't actually announce the delay and just let the train's number sit on the board without a listed platform after the scheduled departure time passed stressed me out a bit while we waited.
But we boarded the train and everything was good...until we got to Milan. We arrived to find that our train to Zurich was running 45 minutes late. That was annoying. Then 45 minutes turned into 1 1/2 hours. It actually ended up being even later than that but at the end they decided not keep updating it on the board (either they were lazy or didn't want to show how late it was). Eventually though, we got on the train and were on our way to Zurich. Though I have to say, I really missed the big Swiss trains with their kids' play areas.
It seemed that the train between Milan and Zurich runs back and forth all day so the delay was affecting not just our trip, but all the rest for that day as well. Now, normally when a train is running late there are things the company might due to help catch back up a bit. One option is to increase the speed and make the trip faster, though that can only do so much. Another option is to send out another train to cover its later routes, so at least they aren't impacted by the delay. Trenitalia (Italy's train company), on the other hand, decided it would make more sense to have the train force everyone off in a small town an hour away from Zurich and go back to Milan early. That sucked for us, and everyone else on the train. And I'm sure it sucked even more for all the people in Zurich who were waiting for the train to Milan. Even worse, they didn't offer anything in the way of an apology or compensation and, since we were in Switzerland, we couldn't really complain to Trenitalia staff. Long story short, Trenitalia sucks.
Fortunately, we were able to get a local train to Zurich (they didn't check tickets, so I'm not sure if we would have needed to pay or not). So we did make it, albeit considerably later than planned. It's a nice looking city, but due to the delays we didn't have a lot of time explore. We did walk around a bit in an nice old area by the river to find a restaurant. The food was good, but cost about three times as much as it would have in Italy. After that, we let Zack spend some time at a nearby playground and then called it a night.

July 2nd (Monday): Returning to the US
Our hotel was right near Zurich's main train station and from there it was a quick ten minute ride to the airport. Unlike the previous day, everything went pretty smoothly. The plane left on time, and Zack was fairly well behaved on the flight. Honestly, there's not too much to say, it was a straight forward trip. We had to wait in a really long line to get through customs back in the US, but that was it. It sure was nice having a direct flight for a change.
And that was the end of our big Europe trip. I'd say that I'm now pretty comfortable traveling in Switzerland and Italy and wouldn't have any real problems going back to either one. It was a great trip and I really enjoyed my time in both countries, though for different reasons. Hard to say when, but I suspect Connie and I will revisit both Switzerland and Italy eventually...

Whew... Next week I'll try and post a bit about what I've been doing since returning to the US and then I'll be totally caught up, at least as far as this site is concerned.



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7/18/2018 Wrapping up Italy

Ok, let's see if I can get the travelogue wrapped up...

June 30th (Saturday): Siena
We had a couple options for our last day trip, but we settled on Siena. The train station is actually a little outside the main town. You can walk for around half an hour (all up hill though) or take a short bus ride to get into Siena proper. We took the bus, though finding the right one was a little tricky (there's three bus stops near the station).
Siena isn't especially large, but it is a neat old town. What really sets it apart is that it's on a hill (or rather several hills, I think). So expect to do a lot of climbing. There also seemed to be a strong Roman influence, so it appears that Siena and Rome had close ties, though I haven't had a chance to look into its history.
We walked through the town for a bit as we made our way to the Piazza del Campo. It was very different from other piazzas we've visited. As you can see in the picture, it's sloped and surrounded by a dirt road. There's also bleachers all around the the sides (old fashioned wooden ones hanging over the shops and restaurants). Apparently, there's a big horse race, or some such, that's held there. And I can't forget about the birds. There's a ton of them living in the nooks in the buildings flying all over above the piazza. It's a pretty unique area, and cool to see.
The big building with the clock tower on one end of the piazza is the Palazzo Pubbilico, which is where the ruler of the city lived. It's pretty fancy inside, though only a relatively small part of it was open to the public. But there was some nice art and the upper level had a good view. I wanted to climb the clock tower, but entry was on a time system and the time slots didn't really sync up with our schedule. A little disappointing, but it's not like I hadn't already climbed plenty of towers on this trip.
Our next stop was Santa Maria della Scala, an old hospital that had been converted into a museum containing some art and a collection of Catholic relics. There's also a chapel inside. I feel like we probably missed a lot of it though, since we paused for a while to rest while Zack napped.
Right across the street from Santa Maria is Siena's Duomo. I grabbed combo tickets for everything without paying too much attention to the details. Turns out one thing on the ticket had a timed entry but we had some time to kill before that, so we headed inside. While smaller than many of the Duomos we'd visited, Siena's was very unique in a number of ways. The zebra striping on the walls and pillars immediately jumped out. But another interesting element was that, aside from the impressive paintings and architecture, the floor was covered with a large number of designs. Some seemed purely artistic, but the majority were of different scenes from the Bible. The choice of subject matter was pretty unusual though. I suppose Moses with the ten commandments is pretty iconic, if slightly odd for a Catholic church. But Sampson using the donkey's jawbone? Or Absalom getting caught in a tree? Now that's a story that rarely gets any sort of artistic depiction... The library (in a side room) was also worth a visit due to the art and collection of illuminated books.
Once we finished exploring, we headed to the meeting place for our timed thing. Turns out, it was a tour of the Duomo's roof. While nowhere near impressive as the Milan Duomo's roof, it did give some nice views of the interior and Siena itself. I enjoyed it but, considering how much extra it cost compared to the regular combo ticket (which gets you in everything else), I'm not sure it was really worth the price.
The combo ticket also got us into a museum which contained a bunch of relics from the Duomo and another viewpoint (though I skipped that since only a few people were allowed up at once and we had limited time), a large crypt, and probably the nicest baptistry we'd seen anywhere in Italy.
Connie didn't want to get back to Florence too late so, after finishing up everything on the ticket, we made our way to a bus stop and then back to the train station. I walked around a little in Florence that evening, just for fun (and a last gelato), but that wrapped up our time touring in Italy. Connie and I both really enjoyed it. Neither of us were especially fond of Milan, other than the Duomo, but the other towns and cities we visited were really nice and many of them would be worth revisiting in the future. If you like history, old buildings, and/or art, Italy is certainly worth a visit. Heck, Connie said she'd go back just for the food. While a return visit to Italy isn't on top of my international travel list, it would be a lot of fun and I can already think of plenty of other things to see and do there.

Hmm... I was hoping to finish the entire travelogue today, but that entry ran a bit long so I think I'll stop here and do the last little bit on Friday.

See you then!


7/16/2018 A walled city

Ok, straight to the travelogue.

June 29th (Friday): Lucca
The next day trip on my list was Lucca. It's claim to fame is its old city, which is pretty much fully intact and surrounded by a wall. The wall encircles the entire old city, though it only really looks like a wall from the outside. From the inside, it's more of a hill that you can walk or bike on. There's a number of parks and the like up there as well, making it a pleasant place to kill some time. The entire loop is around 2 1/2 miles, but Connie and I only did half of it (going from the south end of the city to the north) before descending into the city. Compared to other old Italian cities, Lucca felt a bit more compact, probably because it all had to fit inside the wall. We headed towards the Anfiteatro Romano, the remains of a former Roman amphitheater. While it doesn't exactly look like the one in Rome anymore, seeing a big round piazza of sorts in the middle of the city was kind of cool.
From there, we swung by the nearby Torre Guinigi. Lucca has a surprisingly large number of towers, especially given its size, but Guinigi stands out due to the trees (olive, I think) on top. Naturally, I had to climb it. Annoyingly, Zack was napping again, so I had to carry him all the way up with me. The view was worth the effort though.
Back on the ground, I spotted a bubble tea place (they exist in Italy, but they're pretty uncommon) which had some alcoholic flavors. Didn't try one, but I guess that's Italy for you.
Our next stop was San Michele in Foro, though we stopped outside for a bit first to let Zack run around. Like many big Catholic churches in Italy, San Michele contained a number of graves and tombs, though they seemed to be almost the main focus here. This mummy of sorts was the centerpiece and, while the others we'd seen were kind of ambiguous, this one really looked like a mummy. Kinda creepy to see in a church.
Right behind San Michele was a bakery selling Buccelatto, a traditional Luccan sweet bread. It was essentially a raisin bread, but also had a strong taste of either licorice or fennel (they have a pretty similar flavor), which made it rather unique. We also grabbed some pizza and headed down towards the south end of town to visit the local Duomo. As far as Duomos go, it wasn't one of the more impressive ones that we'd seen, but it did have some very nice stained glass windows.
After that, we headed to a playground we'd spotted earlier to let Zack have some fun before making our way back to Florence to wrap up the day.

Random Italy Comment: Demographics
One thing I noticed when in Italy was that the average person couldn't seem to tell whether or not I was Italian, at least not without hearing me talk. That was a kind of interesting experience, since I'm used to be the obvious foreigner in Asia. Even in Switzerland, I think most natives could easily tell I was a tourist. Anyway, aside from the native Italians, Connie and I spotted a number of people who appeared to be of middle eastern descent. I actually remember reading an article a couple years back about how many young Italians didn't want to work in industries that require a lot of time and effort (like restaurants) so those areas were becoming increasingly dominated by immigrants. From my very casual observation, that seems plausible.

Hmm... The travelogue is nearing its end (one more big entry and a couple shorter ones), but I've got an early day coming up, so I think I'll stop here and try to finish it up on Wednesday.



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