Friday, September 21, 2007

Skydiving: It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's ME!

So back in June I jumped out of a plane. It was easily the craziest thing I've ever done. I went with five other people: Paul, Weijian, Kenneth, Gene, and Phyllis. It all started the previous October, when I wanted to take Paul skydiving for his birthday. A bunch of us drove to the skydiving place on a brisk, windy day, but the gusts prevented us from ever going up in the plane. We'd waited around all day, to no avail. Is there a clearer sign from God than winds that refuse to die down? It seemed we weren't meant to jump out of a plane. I was immensely relieved.

Then in June Kenneth started emailing about it again. Damn Kenneth. In the space of a few months, I'd completely lost my nerve to do this and didn't really want to go. But Paul did, and I wasn't about to let my husband plunge toward the earth at 120 miles an hour by himself. So I booked an appointment for the six of us at Skydive the Ranch in upstate New York.

The three weeks leading up to our appointment were grueling. I spent many nights imagining that moment when I would peer out the airplane door and wait for my cue to leap. My palms got moist at the thought. I imagined what people would say at my funeral if I didn't make it. "Well ... she asked for it." Was I crazy? Who would take care of Nermal if the plane went down? What if I was being really stupid? I made Paul write out a joint will with me.

Saturday, June 30, 2007, was a sunny, mild, warm, and all-around wonderful-looking day. Guess there would be no last-minute reprieve from Mother Nature this time. The drive up to the ranch was tense. Gene looked like he was going to pass out. He kept asking, "Are we really going to do this?" Weijian had written goodbye letters that read like suicide notes to each of his family members. Even Paul seemed nervous. For a bunch of thrill-seekers, we sure weren't acting very thrilled.

Arriving at the ranch brought some relief. The site consists of an airplane runway, a large grassy field, and a hangar that serves as the ranch's office and prep space. Out of the sky, dozens of skydivers were floating down like snowflakes and landing in the grassy field. No one was screaming. No one was plunging to their death. And the prep space in the hangar was completely filled with other people who were packing their parachutes and getting ready to make the jump. In this place, leaping out of a plane seemed a completely normal thing to do. I relaxed a bit.

The first time you go skydiving, you must do it tandem, strapped to an experienced partner. We were each introduced to our partners, and mine, Steve, was really great. He kept telling me that he has thousands of jumps under his belt and he explained everything that was going to happen. He spoke very calmly and was very reassuring. I guess he deals with a lot of wide-eyed people. He also told me that since he's so much taller than me, I wouldn't have to worry about the landing, he'd do all the work. The guy was like 7 feet tall. When I was strapped to his chest, I think I resembled a baby in a bjorn.

The ride up in the tiny, rickety plane was an experience on its own. After taking off safely, Steve whispered to me, "We just made it past the most dangerous part of skydiving." All my friends were silent, probably feeling stupid and regretful, like me. There was no turning around now. We ascended really quickly, and before I knew it, we'd broken through a line of clouds. (Paul would later fall through one on his way down.) I began to hate Kenneth intensely, for getting the ball rolling on this trip. Then suddenly we were informed that we'd reached a suitable elevation, and would begin jumping.

The door opened. I thought incredulously, "I'm getting out of this plane, but it's still in the air." Phyllis was the first to go. One second she and her partner were perched by the door, the next they was gone. Then Gene went, then Kenneth, then Weijian (that's him in the photo below). It was all happening so quickly. Before Paul made his way to the door, I gave him a kiss and told him I'd see him on the ground. I hoped. Then he was gone, too. "He's not the most important man in your life right now--I am," Steve joked. I smiled weakly. When it came my turn to approach the door, I just started laughing hysterically. I seriously couldn't believe what I was about to do. Looking outside, the ground looked like a two-dimensional map. And before I knew it, Steve was pushing away from the plane, and I was going with him!

The fall was amazing. For about two or three seconds, you feel like you're falling, and all you want to do is get your footing. But then you hit terminal velocity, which means that you stop accelerating, and then it feels like you're riding in a convertible at 120 miles an hour. There's no weird feeling in your stomach, like on a roller coaster, just a lot of speed and wind. I stopped feeling nervous and was really enjoying myself. We fell for 8,000 feet, which took about 50 seconds, and then it was time to deploy the parachute. Steve guided my hand to the cord, and I pulled--but my hand slipped off! Before I could panic, Steve pulled the cord for me. I felt a yank as the parachute opened and caught, and then we were floating. We drifted down, down, down for the next 7 minutes. It was like parasailing, but more exciting, and you could make turns using a pair of string handles.

The landing was really smooth--well, for me, anyway; Steve bore both of our weights since I was dangling off his chest and not touching the ground. Once I was down I wanted to do it again. My friends and I were all laughing and crying and high-fiving each other. I drove everyone back to my house, and on the way, everyone zonked out in the backseat--I guess the adrenaline really takes it out of you. I was feeling really tired myself, and kept thinking, "Wouldn't it be ironic if I fell asleep and we all died in a car accident after surviving skydiving?" But we eventually made it home without incident. Then Paul and I spent the next day participating in some less-exciting activities: gardening and finishing up a jigsaw puzzle!

So I'd recommend skydiving for anyone who's ever considered doing it. It was definitely the biggest thrill of my life, and I doubt anything will ever come close, but it's totally worth it--once you're back on the ground, at least.

Flat Stanley Takes Manhattan

A while back, I received a package in the mail from my much-younger cousin, Edward, who lives in Lake Tahoe. The contents contained a 10-inch tall drawing of a boy, labeled Flat Stanley, and a set of instructions. Edward's class was participating in the nationwide Flat Stanley project, whereby each child creates and mails a Flat Stanley to friends and family around the world for a visit. As the recipient of a Stanley, my job was to show him around town, record our adventures through writing and photographs, and send everything back to Nevada. My cat, Nermal, who is a jealous beast and very protective of his territory, didn't take to our houseguest very well.My home was in Flushing at the time, but I was pretty sure that Edward didn't have a tour of Queens in mind when he chose me as his Flat Stanley escort. So Paul, Flat Stanley, and I piled on the subway and headed into the Big Apple.

I come into the city every weekday for work, but it's nice to view New York from a visitor's eyes (even when said eyes are drawn in by crayons) every now and then. We took Stanley for a spin around town, hitting Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and Times Square.

At one point, Stanley, being the piece of paper that he is, almost fell through a subway grate.

But in the end, everyone made it home safely, and I was able to send Stanley, a newly minted lover of New York, back to his quieter life in Lake Tahoe in one piece.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Floating Through the Mediterranean

Paul and I booked a Mediterranean cruise 9 months ago, and finally took the trip last week. The cruise left from Barcelona and stopped at Nice, Pisa, Rome, Naples, and Palermo.


So we take the red-eye to Barcelona, and while the plan had been to sleep on the plane, our uncomfortable seats (is there a crappier airline than Delta?) made this virtually impossible. Paul and I landed in Spain completely bleary-eyed at 8 in the morning. We dropped our bags off on the cruise ship (which wasn't leaving until 7 that night) and tried to find a Barcelona bike tour that I'd read about online. The tour supposedly started from a certain plaza, but Barcelona had so many damn plazas that I guess we wound up at the wrong one 'cause there was no fleet of bikes waiting for us at the Plaza Sant Jaume. We decided to grab a ficelle sandwich filled with prosciutto and a very tasty, unidentifiable white cheese and wander around the Gothic Quarter on foot. Barcelona is quite funky, with all the Gaudi architecture on one block and Old World buildings on the next. We stopped to take pictures at a cloisters that we stumbled upon, guarded by a flock of very European-looking geese. (What makes them so European-looking? It's hard to explain. They were sort of furrier.) We also checked out the Picasso museum (from the outside--the line was way long) and ate at a yummy tapas restaurant called Taller. Order the fried squid rings if you go. Paul was pleased that the restaurant only charged him 2 euro for the Coke he got, not an outrageous 4 euro, like in Paris. He gave Barcelona his stamp of approval based on just that fact. We'd intended to wander around the city until it was time to board the ship, but by 2 in the afternoon we were both slurring our words from the lack of sleep, so we headed to the boat and gratefully surrendered ourselves to the services of Royal Caribbean.


Our first port of call was Nice, France. The last time we were in France was a year ago, when Paul and I made a day-trip to Paris during the heat wave that killed more than a hundred elderly Europeans. Paris was seriously not geared for staying cool, so you can imagine what the un-air-conditioned subway smelled like. Needless to say, we didn't have such a great time.

Our experience in Nice was very different. The weather was perfect, the city looked absolutely adorable, and we spent some time browsing through an open-air market where all the products were beautiful and/or delicious. Kind of like New York City's Union Square market, but much more colorful and interesting, with lots of free samples. I am a free-sample whore.

The next stop was Eze, which is a tiny medieval town built into a rock face. If mountain-dwelling hobbits existed, they would live in a place like this. Think little homes and stores carved into stone walls, accessible through heavy, etched wooden doors. It looks like a movie set. There is only one way in, and one narrow street that winds up and down the mountain. There are donkeys (again, very furry, European-looking ones) that carry luggage for people staying at the hotel at the top. Paul and I were both enchanted. We ate lunch at a place called Le Cheval Blanc (the White Horse) and shared a table with a nice honeymooning couple from Atlanta. The wife was an attorney so she and Paul immediately got on. Actually, we met a lot of lawyers and doctors on this trip. Not too many other grossly underpaid copy editors, though.

After Eze, we visited Monaco, the second-smallest independent nation in the world (after Vatican City) and the most freakin' expensive place in the world. It is home to the Monte Carlo casino (the real one, after which the one in Vegas is modeled). Paul had intended to make a bet in there, just so he could say that he played at the Monte Carlo, but the minimum bet at the roulette table precluded his plans. We were so bourgeois. We couldn't even play the slot machines because the minimum amount to insert was 5 euros, we had only 3 in coins, and we felt too embarrassed to ask for change from the casino cashier. So much for gambling at the Monte Carlo!

Monaco is also the final resting place of '50s American actress Grace Kelly, who married the Prince of Monaco and is today revered in this place--her image is everywhere. She was also purported to have been very unfaithful and was later killed in a mysterious driving accident. I knew who Grace Kelly was, of course, but I had no idea that she'd become the Princess of Monaco. We got to see her tomb, in the church where she'd been married. It's weird to think about how a working-class girl from Philly became a movie star, married a bona-fide prince, and now I was looking down at her grave in Monaco.


Our next stop was in Italy, at the port of Livorno, where we took a tour bus to Pisa. I've seen images of the leaning tower and I'd known what to expect, but there's nothing like laying your eyes on the real thing. The tower really looked like it was about to tip over; I was nervous for the people who'd climbed to the top and were peering down on us. And I'd been imagining the tower standing by itself, but it's actually located right next to a church and a basilica. ("Basilica," which didn't exist in my vocabulary prior to this trip, was quickly becoming my favorite word to say.) Paul and I took the requisite "holding up the tower" shots, then purchased a very thick pear drink and a Lion chocolate bar from a street vendor. I love Lion bars, which feature the unbeatable combination of wafer, caramel and rice krispies. They exist only in Europe and in certain pricey sandwich shops here in New York.

Visiting Pisa only took about four hours, and we spent the rest of the day visiting a winery in the Tuscan countryside. (You'd think that being a copy editor for a magazine called Wine Spectator I would have visited a winery prior to this but, well, I haven't.)

I'd never heard of this winery, Fattoria Michi, and it was located in Montecarlo, not Montepulciano, so I wasn't expecting much, but the grounds were beautiful, and tour of the facilities was very informative. I know all about the different oak barrels and fermentation tanks from work, but to actually see and touch them was something else. And then we got to sample the wines (2 white, 1 red, 1 dessert) over a light meal of bread, olive oil, cheese, salami and prosciutto. I will never get tired of gobbling down prosciutto. The wine was a bit rustic for my tastes--but quaffable.


The next day was Sept. 11, and it was a bit of a relief to spend the day abroad, away from all the significance that the day holds in New York. We landed in Rome, and a bus took us to the center of the city, where we were dropped off near the Trevi Fountain. Turning the corner of the narrow street that leads to the fountain is a real surprise. The Trevi Fountain is the mother of all fountains: It's a massive, building-size structure with several streams of water spurting magnificently into a large pool. A statue of Neptune stands at the center amongst other statues, and we were instructed by our tour guide to throw a coin into the fountain with our backs to the statue (looking Neptune in the eye while making a wish is extremely bad luck). A few modern-day Romans decked out in gladiator costumes hang out by the fountain, in case you want to take a picture with them for money. I just secretly took a photo of them for free. (Although from the looks of this picture, it seems one of them may have spotted me. Oops.)

Next we checked out the Colosseum and Roman Forum, a collection of ruins that lies at the center of the city. Both were slightly underwhelming for me. Walking into the Colosseum felt similar to walking into Yankee stadium. There's no floor to the center of the Colosseum, so you get to see the labyrinths below, where they kept the animals and gladiators. Maybe I didn't enjoy the Colosseum because I don't like to think about all the animals dying for human entertainment. (The gladiators I feel less sorry for.) Paul didn't seem nearly as disturbed. We ate at a restaurant near the Roman Forum: lasagna to start, lemon chicken, veggies, and potatoes as the main course, and a potent Tiramisu for dessert. The chicken and veggies were delicious. Of course, they had probably also been bathed in butter.

After lunch, we climbed aboard the bus to ride over to Vatican City, home of the Pope and the world's most expensive souvenirs. I collect magnets from my travels, and the one from the Vatican was--ironically for a church--a whopping 8 euros (or approximately $13, thanks to the crappy exchange range). At Vatican City, we only had time to visit St. Peter's Basilica, which had a massive line, but not the Sistine Chapel, unfortunately. Prior to the trip, I'd been passionately warned by several people about the pickpockets in Rome. Being a seasoned New Yorker, I was not too worried, although one well-traveled friend assured me that the stories are not an exaggeration and that pickpocketing is practically a sport in Italy.

So we were being herded along a very disorganized queue to get into St. Peter's, and Paul and I kept getting separated by other jostling tourists. Suddenly I heard Paul yell, "Hey! This guy is trying to pickpocket me!" I turned around and saw him pointing at a youngish guy standing next to him. The guy's face was hard to read because he was wearing shades, but he started checking his bag, as if he was afraid he himself had been pickpocketed. "This guy! Right here!" Paul continued yelling, pointing at the dude. I'm praying he's got the right guy, because it's a pretty severe accusation. But then the guy abruptly turned around and got off the line, flanked by three other people his age that have materialized in the crowd, and the pack headed away in a hurry. Turns out Paul had thwarted a band of Artful Dodgers! Apparently, Paul had felt something in his pocket and looked down to see a hand reaching in. Upon being spotted, the guy who the hand belonged to withdrew it quickly, sans wallet. At first, Paul just glared at the guy, but then he decided to speak up to get him to go away. The whole thing was really surreal but I'm relieved that it has a happy ending. Actually, based on the way Paul was dressed that day (bucket hat, guided tour ear piece, hapless expression) it's no wonder he was targeted by pickpockets. Just look at the photo. Could you really blame those kids? Hell, I'd have pickpocketed him myself if I didn't already share a joint bank account with him.

It was a bit difficult to concentrate on St. Peter's Basilica after that incident, but the building was extremely impressive. The size of it alone floored me--the ceiling appears to be miles above you. And the mosaics are so incredibly cool. From a distance they look like paintings but when you look at them closely, you see that the images are composed of tiny, colorful pieces. The basilica just goes on and on. Our very knowledgeable guide, Francesco, said you could spend days in there. I believe him.


Next port of call: Naples. We'd booked a tour that took you to visit the town of Amalfi, then transported you to Pompeii for a few hours. To reach Amalfi, you have to drive through several little towns on a long, winding, narrow downward road that's carved into a mountainside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

The drive is truly dizzying. Looking down, it's a sheer drop. I don't know how our bus driver negotiated the sharp turns in our ginormous bus, but he managed without a single scratch. I took at least 50 shots--the view just got better and better--and deleted about 45 of them when I got home. Thank goodness for digital cameras.

At the bottom of the mountain, we ate at the restaurant of the aptly named Hotel Panorama. What can I say, it was another delicious Italian meal. I've never enjoyed green beans as much as I did in Italy. Then Paul and I walked along the beach, which was composed of tiny black rocks, although that didn't deter beachgoers from laying out (ouch). We got to dip our feet in the Mediterranean. The water was freezing, but some hardcore swimmers were out in the waves. Just another day in paradise. I felt like I was living in a postcard.

We spent the afternoon in Pompeii, a completely different world located only half an hour away. I was glad I'd visited the Roman Forum before seeing Pompeii, because had it been the other way around, the Roman Forum would have been pretty disappointing. Pompeii is much better preserved--you get a real sense of what it's like to live in 79 AD. There were little shops and people's homes, and even a brothel, which our tour guide, Manuela (an informative and intimidating woman who demanded we refer to her as "Mama"), seemed to be obsessed with--she kept us there for a while. Those Pompeiians were pretty advanced, and even had water running through pipes in the ground. Too bad Mt. Vesuvius had to explode, and these people had to get buried under all that hot ash. The expressions on their faces and their poses were a bit gruesome.

The tour brought us back to the ship with an hour before it was set to leave, and Paul and I decided to explore Naples on foot. I had just read a book called Eat, Pray, Love, in which the author proclaimed that Pizzeria da Michele in Naples made the best pizza on earth, so we set out to find it. The streets of Naples are hopelessly congested, with scooters, cars, and pedestrians battling it out in all directions. By the time we located the pizzeria, we had only 20 minutes to get back to the boat, so I was nervous about ordering and waiting around for a pizza. Little did I know that the wood-burning oven is like 5 million degrees, and our raw pie was baked in literally one minute. One second the pizza was just a lump of dough, the next it was a fully formed pizza, the crust bubbling; it was the craziest thing I ever saw.

The pizza guy packed it in a box for us and we made a mad dash back to the ship. On the way back, I was almost hit by a Smart Car and Paul nearly slammed into a speeding Vespa. Amazingly, we reached the boat with 5 minutes to spare, which was just as well, because it turned out we couldn't bring the pizza on board and had to scarf it down on the dock. Paul was inhaling it like he was in a speed-eating contest. The pizza was a bit cold, but I could imagine how delicious it would be if it were hot. Needless to say, our appetites for dinner were ruined, but the experience was really fun.


Palermo, in Sicily, was our last port of call. We were armed with a list of places to visit, and we were going to attempt to do it all by ourselves--no guided tour. First stop: the Capuchin Catacombs, which is su
pposed to be one of the largest catacombs in Europe, located on the edge of Palermo. We disembarked the ship and headed straight for a bevy of cab drivers ... like lambs into a den of wolves. One driver immediately pounced, and we began the song and dance of haggling down the price. In the end we agreed on a number, although I was certain we were still being ripped off. Paul, infuriatingly, didn't seem to mind. The cabbie proceeded to drive us to the catacombs, chain-smoking and cursing out women drivers the whole way.At the entrance to the catacombs, a cute old Sicilian monk took our fee of 1.5 euros each. We descended a couple of flights and were suddenly faced with a long corridor of bodies, some still with flesh and hair, strung against the wall or lying on bunk-bed structures built into the wall. All the bodies were dressed in old-fashioned clothing. Some were more decomposed than others.

The piece de la resistance is the embalmed and almost complete intact body of a 2-year-old girl, the last person to be buried in these catacombs, in 1920. You'd think a place like this would stink from all the decomposition, but the air is surprisingly neutral. Still, I had some trouble breathing.

We decided to visit a more conventional attraction next, the Duomo di Palermo, a church whose architecture is a blend of Norman, Neapolitan, Catalan and Muslim styles. During this trip, I visited more churches than I have my whole life. The Duomo was, as you'd expect, beautiful and awesome. A coworker of mine had recommended a restaurant and a gelato place, and we sought those out next. The restaurant, Antica Focacceria San Francisco, was perfect--a casual, bustling little eatery that served a Sicilian specialty: boiled beef spleen sandwiches. Paul and I stuck to my coworker's recommendation of panelle (mashed chickpea fritters); a croquette filled with ham, cheese, and--delightfully--risotto; and a cannolo. I'm not a fan of cannoli, but this one tasted pretty great. Paul made short work of it.After the light meal, we set out to find dessert. The temperature was in the mid-'80s, and a gelato was definitely in order. We found the Bristol right by the port, and I ordered a pesca (peach)-flavored gelato. My coworker hadn't steered us wrong--it was the gelato to end all gelati. All in all, a nice way to finish our day.


There are some people who knock cruising, but I maintain that it's a great way to get a taste of a region, especially for easily disorientated people like me, or high-maintenance people (like Paul!). And Royal Caribbean does not disappoint. It was nice to know, 10 hours into traipsing around Rome, that an elegantly presented and delicious 3-course dinner was waiting for us back on the boat that night. Takes some of the pressure off and eliminates some of the crankiness that vacations can inspire. Plus, given the exchange rate, I think we saved a lot of money by shelling out dollars instead of euros for room and board, much of our food, all of our tours, and transportation from city to city.While we didn't get to spend a lot of time on the boat, we did manage to squeeze in some activities: climbing the rock wall, ice skating, in-line skating, ping-pong, swimming, the midnight buffet. And then of course, there was the casino, which kept luring us back with these free tournaments. We participated in a free slots tournament (picture 40 people pressing frantically on their "Bet One" button), and Paul actually came in third, winning a bottle of sparkling wine. Then there was the Texas Hold 'Em tournament (not free), occurring on the last day of the trip, which was spent at sea. Paul and I both wanted to enter, but the buy-in turned out to be too rich for our blood. Later in the day, however, we participated in a free raffle, and I walked away with an entry to the tournament, plus four match-plays for the tables! Paul and I were high-fiving each other the whole night. Unfortunately, I later got only half-way through the tournament, but I had a good time and I think I played respectably. Paul, meanwhile, was spending all his time at the craps table, his new favorite game. I'm still not sure how that game manages to be so confusing and exciting at the same time.