Monthly Archives: March 2009

Capri

Capri is a half hour ferry ride from Sorrento, which sounds much more idyllic than it was because of the rough seas.  As in the second the ferry left port our craft was battered by two meter swells on average, causing the man sitting next to me to dash for the bathroom in minutes and the woman sitting on my other side to shriek in laughter with me on each plunge for lack of anything better to do. (She was from Turkey, so I learned the delightful detail that “roller coaster” in Turkey is “boogie woogie.”) Even I started actively staring at a point on the horizon by the end of it though, meaning I was more than happy to finally set foot on the firm ground of Capri-

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Capri was love at first sight.  It’s gorgeous.  If anyone wants to start a yearly scientific conference there and invite me, I would give you my full support.

Unfortunately due to the rough waters I couldn’t go see the world-famous Blue Grotto, but I settled for a nice walk along the stunning coastline instead.  Because if you can think of anything better to do on a beautiful spring day than a stroll around Capri let’s hear about it.

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The Arco Naturale about a half hour walk from the town of Capri, the former mouth of an old grotto.   Capri itself is crowded with lots of tourists and expensive stores (it is the first place I’ve been where there were two Prada stores about 100m apart from each other!) but the coast is pretty desolate  so I loved having it more or less to myself.image4691

A typical view on my walk, with the Italian mainland in the distance.   You know why I think I like Capri?   Because it is surprisingly similar to New Zealand, and anything that reminds me of New Zealand tends to make me very happy.

Another reason I really like Capri is because I saw a sign on a random streetcorner helpfully informing me that the poet Pablo Neruda once stayed the night here, and wrote one of his famous poems.  Any isle where they not only know who Pablo Neruda is but know having him visit is worth mentioning is obviously a place to love.

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A shot of the vegetation on the hillside, varying from cacti to wildflowers.  It’s such a variety that I began wondering just where I was…

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Wow.  I think this is the point where I started wishing a little that some dashing local Italian would stroll by who I could fall madly in love with, ideally with a villa conveniently positioned to overlook this spot.  If only the Romeos would learn to wash their hair sometimes!

Mind, I later learned that one of my cousins got engaged on Capri, so maybe this is a genetic thing.  Or maybe just a member of the human race who has been to Capri thing.

image483Finally, footsore and getting chilled by the wind, I went for my obligatory investigation into cappuccino culture.  I don’t normally drink the stuff at home unless I’m working on some homework set late into the night, meaning the relative lack of caffeine intake these past few months made this guy murder.  As in I drank this one around 4pm, went for an hour-long sprint of a walk when back on the mainland, and still couldn’t get to sleep until 3am.  And of course they are too delicious to ignore, unlike back home, so we’ll see if I manage to survive Italy without succumbing to caffeine poisoning.  Ciao!

Pompeii

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When I was five years old, the year after our family trip to Italy, my parents gave me a children’s book on the destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Because my preschool teacher clearly needed a child in her charge capable of explaining pyroclastic flow and who Pliny the Younger was this book was my absolute favorite, narrowly edging out other fascinating topics in my library such as the pop-up book explaining how the brain works and the cartoon one focusing on Newton’s Laws.

Yeah, I don’t know how I turned out the way I did either. But long story short ever since I have always had a fondness of volcanoes, ancient Romans, and volcanoes destroying ancient Romans, so keeping all that in mind it was time to visit Pompeii again.

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Me in the impressive ancient Pompeii forum, with Vesuvius poking up in the background. It might sound odd saying this about a mountain, but Vesuvius is pretty badass.  It’s erupted quite a few times since the Pompeii-destroying eruption but the last one was in 1944- the longest dormancy period since 79 A.D.  If that wasn’t enough, the area around Vesuvius is estimated to have about 3 million people living there, meaning I am adding Naples to my “stupidest place to build a city because you know it’s going to be destroyed by volcanic activity soon” list (the first entry being Auckland, New Zealand, of course).

With that burst of optimistic sunshine, let us continue.

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This is a storeroom just off the forum for the archaeological finds that have yet to be cataloged.  They also have a few of the infamous plaster casts here of people who died in the eruption.  These casts exist because of a stroke of genius in my opinion- after the bodies were covered with volcanic ash they decayed, leaving a space in the rock, and someone realized if you poured plaster of Paris in when finding one of these depressions you’d find the shape of the person as they died (or, in the case of another morbidly interesting cast, a dog who was left tied up to his chain).

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This is Pompeii’s genius moment number two- they restored all the old fountains so water still comes out of them.  Heck, there are still depressions on either side from where people rested their jars when collecting water!  The particular gent in this picture was a construction worker in Pompeii (restoration is a never-ending task around here) who was cleaning his espresso maker.  This juxtaposition of old vs new culture seemed just perfect to me.

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A typical street in Pompeii- most are like this, and it actually takes about a half hour to just walk from one side to the other!  I also love the raised stones you can see in the street before the fence- in short the road at that time was no place to step, what with all the sewage and nastiness running in it, so they put stones in that were low enough for the carts to go over but high enough that you can step across.  A built-in zebra crossing!  You can see lots of the wheel ruts in the stones on the road as well, which are pretty neat to see.

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The old Colosseum in Pompeii with a shot of some of the ten million schoolchildren there on field trips (trust me, you don’t have to imagine what ancient Pompeii sounds like thanks to these kids!).  I liked this place because it’s the most vivid Pompeii memory I have from when I was four years old- I remember running up and down the steps of the Colosseum with energy I’m not certain how I possessed considering this time around I needed to sit in the grass for a break.  You can’t go up into the steps anymore either though, so good thing I remember the last time!

As a teaser though, I’m not done with Pompeii.  You see, one advantage of no longer being four is how I could now go to the ancient brothel filled these days primarily by giggling Japanese tourists, and I’m not sure what to do with those pictures yet.  Probably combine them with the ones from the “Secret Room” at the Archaeological Museum in Naples when I get to it, but until then I will tell you that the ancient Romans definitely weren’t prudes!

Sorrento

I bid goodbye to Aniko and Massimo and their kind hospitality to head on a winding bus journey to the south of Italy.  Massimo had come up with a detailed itinerary for me as to follow throughout the country and Aniko gave me a giant bag of food in a final effort to fatten me up, and after a long day I reached Sorrento-

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Sorrento and the surrounding region is, undoubtedly and unquestionably, another lovely spot of the world.  So much, that they grow citrus here!

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A view into a lemon grove which was nicely scented with that lemony aroma.  There is something so lovely and exotic about a lemon grove, let alone having them ubiquitous, that I was absolutely enchanted.

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Me in another citrus garden, home of lemon, orange and apple trees (not citrus, but to explain the flowering trees).  I must say perhaps I’m doing things wrong by not coming in the official season- most of the hotels are closed, and I had my room at the amazing Seven Hostel all to myself- but if you ask me it’s perfect.  No crowds, and perfectly ripe citrus and flowering trees everywhere!

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By the way, this vehicle is something I have only ever seen in Italy but love immensely: a three-wheeled truck!  The steering is actually like that you see on a motorbike and they’re use for agricculture, though Aniko said they are a problem because you can drive one at thirteen and not need  a license.   Thus people who have their license revoked will go around in these or irresponsible parents buy them for their teenagers, so you need to be a little wary whenever seeing one on the road.

I don’t care though, as I really, really want a three-wheeled truck now.

image430And as a final picture, a view from the top of the cliffs down to the port in Sorrento.  I must say though, the weirdest thing about being here is looking down from the ciffs into the water.  The reason for that is the first time I did it I realized “but wait, I’ve done this before!” in a most odd moment of deja vu, until I realized I have a memory of staring down at the ocean from the top of a cliff when I was young.  No doubt on that long-ago childhood trip to Italy.

There is more to write, as always, but the night is young and the wine is cheap and the two statements must be brought together.  Until later then…

San Marino

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Because microstates are fun, and I am not referring to the physics kind, Sunday was spent on a trip to San Marino.   San  Marino is an independent state within Italy which occupies a grand 60 square kilometers with a population of 20,000 souls, so who could ever pass up a country that is the size of a small town?

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The view of San Marino whilst driving towards it- surely, this hill is not one you would willingly wish to invade.   The view was beautiful in all directions on this drive too-image391

Not bad considering the day before we were in the middle of a snowstorm!

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One of three forts on the top of San Marino, ie the top of the hill in the first picture.   Curiously, San Marino also has a (tiny) standing army even today- the smallest country in the world to do so- who basically parade around in silly uniforms.   They also have things on display around the fort like a pair of cannons donated to them from Switzerland should Italy ever invade I guess.

It should be noted by the way that there is an Italian embassy in San Marino.   In case you can’t drive the five minutes out of the border, I suppose.

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A cable car  that runs from the bottom of the hill to the top- probably the only aerial tramway described in detail on a country’s main page on Wikipedia.image413

Another tourist site, the parliament building with the statue of liberty in the front.   San Marino gets the interesting distinction of being the world’s oldest republic state, founded in the fourth century, and they are quite proud of this.  In fact, when Napoleon conquered Italy he refused to take San Marino; when asked why he said “why? It’s a model republic!”

Also, apparently if you are elected to public office in San Marino and refuse, you are sent to jail.   Something to keep in mind for anyone seeking citizenship I guess!

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So what is there to do in San Marino anyway?   Answer: buy stuff at cheap prices.   San Marino has no taxes on products sold in stores, meaning everything is almost as cheap as goods in Asia, meaning it’s filled with tourists on a daytrip across the border who can’t resist a purchase or two.  Frankly, it has the feel of a giant duty-free section in an airport.  This picture is here because it turns  out there are lots and lots of weapons stores in San Marino, conceivably so the gents have something to peruse while the ladies are hung up in the many jewelry shops.

The no-tax thing leads to an interesting variant between San Marinoans and Italians, though, in the sense that they are much more bent on earning money as soon as possible- few people go on to university because why bother when you can get such a great steady income from tourism?  So few people go for further education that there aren’t even any lawyers in San Marino- they all need to be imported from Italy- which arguably isn’t the most terrible example but leads to the San Marinoans to have a lack of culture compared to their Italian counterparts.  So say the Italians anyway.

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Finally, a picture of Massimo who finally gave up the camera so Aniko could take a picture!   This is the obligatory stop in one of the many liquor stores to try one of the few exports of the country- because it’s so cheap,  the guys who work at the store have no problem giving you multiple small shots with no obligation to buy.   What a nice country!image420One final photo from the end of the day, admiring the gorgeous sunset.  My goodness, I would never tire of admiring the gorgeous scenery in this part of the world.

Italy, Land of Repressed Memories

You can tell when you cross from Austria to Italy on the train because all of a sudden every bit of arable land is filled with vineyards.  I am not kidding.

My first stop in Italy was not a particularly conventional one, but rather the town of Urbino an hour’s drive from Rimini, down the Adriatic coast on the eastern side of the boot (anyone who doesn’t consider Italy a geographical boot is not paying attention).   They’re nice places- Rimini is in the heart of the Italian Riviera, and Urbino is such a classic Rennisance town it has a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List- but my main reason to visit was to visit old family friends, Aniko and Massimo-

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Aniko  is my mother’s friend from back in college and Massimo is her Italian husband, who you will not see in  pictures because he confiscated my camera in the name of being my personal paparazzi.   Due to the decades-long connection Aniko belongs to that group of your family’s friends who  would have no hesitation in scolding you when you were younger and fussing over you now that you’re older.   And I must admit, after two months on the road having a house to come back to and people who take a personal interest in feeding you every ten seconds is quite nice.

In the above picture Aniko and I are standing on a lookout to the old town of Urbino.  You know what the weirdest thing about it is though?  I’ve been here before- when I was four years old my family did a grand tour of Italy, and while you can’t remember much of anything when you’re 4 it’s funny what comes back.  Their house is instantly recognizable to me even if I have no active memory of it- a few other incidents like that, and I am touring Italy with a fascination for all the repressed memories that crop up.  We’ll see what else I uncover along the way.

Until then, I have to say that all I remembered concretely about Urbino is how Aniko’s son Stefano was the first person I ever met who spoke neither English or Hungarian, thus trashing my childhood perception that I could somehow communicate with everyone I would meet.  Stefano had a white desk in his room, which stressed me as much as a 4 year old can be stressed because my mom had warned me to not draw off the page, but of course I did.  The desk is still there, though childhood marks are thankfully not.

But anyway, because there is more to Italy than what I remember from 20 years ago let us continue shall we?

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Urbino is a city on a hill, and this is a view from the very bottom of it with the  theatre in front.  The interesting thing about it is how the insides of most buildings are surprisingly modern- there is a very good university here- but you can’t change the outside facades anymore by law.  This makes the city overall incredibly lovely.

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The main cathedral in Urbino, sitting on the main square.  Classic doesn’t begin to describe this place- in fact, whenever you study Renaissance architecture you will inevitably study the main square of Urbino!

Raphael was born here too, by the way.  In case the Renaissance-ness needed further merit.

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One of my favorite things in Urbino, though, was the museum in the old Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace).  The place is filled with one lovely painting after another (I confess I spent a lot of time gawking at how ugly the Virgin Marys are in European paintings- ugly daughters of patrons?), but my favorites were the woodworks.  There was a room filled with nothing but these beautiful wood panels, each more lovely than the last.

Anyway, Urbino was Friday.  Saturday morning Aniko taught me the important art of how to make delicious tiramisu while Massimo worked- there is an interesting quirk in Italian workplaces whereby you can work until 2pm each day provided you work on Saturdays as well, conceivably to help out those who have kids in school and accommodate siesta.  Personally, I find this idea rather brilliant.  Anyway, once the afternoon came around Massimo drove in the breakneck way known to anyone who’s ever seen an Italian behind the wheel (let’s just say Italians would be at home in Asia) until we reached Rimini-

image3801Like any proper Italian town, Rimini is an old Roman colony with lots of historical remnants.  So to start this is the 2,000 year old Arch of Augustus where the Flavian road begain- which obviously went to Rome, as all roads lead to it…

Another interesting thing about Italy I must mention- you know how you all spent the middle and high school language requirement taking useful things like French or Spanish?  Well I did four years of Latin- would have done more as I enjoyed it but the teacher did not exactly make me feel welcome- so combined with that history minor it was pretty inevitable that I would come to Italy.  After all, where would I find things like this?
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This Latin writing is here to mark the spot where the very history of the world was written- the spot where, in 49 B.C., Julius Caesar made his famous speech to his soldiers after crossing the Rubicon saying alea iacta est, the die is cast, and proceeded to march on Rome.  Needless to say, I was beside myself with excitement.

It is interesting to note that the famous Rubicon is and never was much of a river- it’s about 12km north of Rimini but was described as a stream even in Roman times.  The exact location of the Rubicon was lost altogether for centuries actually, until some die-hard classicists reidentified it in the 1930s, so all it was ever good for was an arbitrary line after which you were not allowed to pass with your legions.  Rimini was the closest big town in the area though, even then, so saying Caesar made his speech in the old forum makes a lot of sense.   Plus hey, they have a statue,  so clearly this is where it happened!image3841

There are a few other old things around Rimini too.  Like check out this bridge-

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This is the Tiberius bridge, which dates to the first century A.D.  As you can see in the background cars still drive over it, people still walk over it, like there’s nothing at all unusual about this.  If this was practically anywhere else in the world you wouldn’t be able to go within 50 feet of it, but here in Italy everyone just shrugs and moves on with life.

image388And last but certainly not least, the obligatory stop for gelato which is a requirement in Italy.  I don’t know if you noticed from the pictures but this past weekend in Italy was cold– they got weather they usually see around December in March, which is quite unprecedented- to the point where it snowed quite heavily at times.  But whoever said that was an excuse to cut down on the gelato?

Summary of Austria

I came to Austria to ski so I can’t pretend to have a full grasp of the country, but I liked what I saw-

Highlights-

– I really liked Kitzbuhel.  Seeing as I was working on the advice of my parents who visited here over 25 years ago, I suppose it runs in the family.  The skiing was great too.

– Speaking of skiing, I almost feel like I need to write a ”how to ski on less than a hundred dollars a day” guide because had I not rented my equipment I could have done it easily!  Ok, so in the grand scheme of things it was still more than I would have spent over several days whilst in Asia just a few days prior, but 30 Euros for lodging and 35 Euros a day for the ticket… Seeing as you spend about 50 Euros a day in Europe anyway (ok, I do) my little skiing adventure was pretty much the equivalent of two days in Europe otherwise.  Not bad at all.

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– I really liked the hostel I stayed at, Snowbunnys, particularly because the owner Dave is really an awesome guy.  Both personality-wise and giving me my own room once the weekend crowd was gone-wise… And this is, by the way, a picture of one of Dave’s cats (who is one of the first cats I’ve met who is fatter than my cat).  Apparently he doesn’t like guests much but he took a liking to me.

– Getting my sundog photos onto spaceweather.com!  Because who doesn’t like getting their photographs international exposure?

img_4312Lowlights:

– To German guys who go on vacation in Austria: please try to be a little more normal.  Not only do I have a new candidate for the worst pick-up line ever from the one who asked every girl in the hostel ”so, are you a lesbian?” (no, but when you put it like that…), there was another guy who was propositioning everyone after about five minutes of casual conversation.  I mean dude, at least buy the party girls a drink first… He ended up spending the night being reassured by the first German guy that all the girls weren’t into guys anyway.

To be completely fair to German guys the ones I met in Asia and their own country were perfectly normal souls, so maybe it’s just the ones in Kitzbuhel who had issues.

– The weather really could have been better- the first day was rainy at the bottom and snow at the top, the second was dreary until well into the afternoon, and the third had the lunchtime snow shower.  Obviously one can’t prepare against such things (and hey, wasn’t it not too long ago I thought precipitation was a far-fetched concept?), but as my brother pointed out this is probably all so I have a variety of things to talk about.

And with this Austrian experience I headed on to the rolling hills of Italy, which will be discussed once I have a moment to do so.  Ciao!

Journey to Hollersbach

One thing that is important to note about skiing in Europe versus North America is how the aim is somehow a little different.  In the US and Canada we tend to ski in wilderness on trecherous slopes with one little ski village at the bottom if that, whereas in Europe all the mountains were already filled with little villages and resthouses on the slope.  As a result, skiing in Europe almost feels more like a mode of transportation to get between villages than something for its own sake (heck, I had locals commuting by gondola with me a few times!), meaning there is often an extensive ski network over several mountains to explore.

As such, when Dave of Snowbunnys mentioned to me offhand it was possible to ski all the way to Hollersbach, a town approximately 20km away, I obviously had to do it.  The journey traverses seven peaks according to the map, taking in at minimum two gondolas, an areal tram, 13 chairlifts, and one T-bar.  Gotta say, it’s a long day too…

img_4298Because people who pay 28 Euro a night for accomodation do not exactly get ski-in real estate, I got to walk about ten minutes every day to the gondola. (And for my brother and dad, I did this with lots of gusto actually because I discovered it’s easy to carry your skis when the bindings actually work!) Kitzbuhel itself is a nice little town to walk through as seen above, and I particularly liked this florist next to a bakery.

For the sake of seeing just how long it took me to ski the seven peaks, the time onto the gondola was 9:28am.  I don’t know what I was doing up that early on a ski holiday either.

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The top of the world.  Or at least that’s that’s what it felt like.  Looking here from peak number 2 to number 3.

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And this is one of the main reasons why 20km might sound like a lot but surprisingly isn’t- the 3S bahn!  Opened only five years ago, this tram goes 3.8km in about five minutes.  To top it off there is also only one support beam along the way, meaning one can’t help but feel a little giddy suspended a few hundred meters above the mountain valley at the halfway point.  Especially the one time when it stopped right in the middle for me, and while I trust engineers and all all I can think of at that point is how a jet plane accidentally cut an aerial tram’s line a few years ago, killing all those in the tram.  Once you get over that though, it’s pretty sweet.

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An advertisement I rather liked in the tram terminal.  They advertise the 3S by saying it’s like flying, if that makes more sense.

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The view from the other side of the 3S, which is mainly skiing above the tree line.  Perhaps because it already felt like the top of the world and there isn’t much oxygen at 2000m, but somewhere along the way I started referring to going to the end of the ski field as going to ”the end of the world.”  Sort of in the sense that old explorers fully expected to find one.

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Avalanche!  So this happened not in the ski area but rather on the 3,000m peak overlooking it, but it definitely happened sometime in a 24 hour period because it hadn’t been there the day before.  There are several such remnants on this mountain actually, this is just the most prominent one… This is also noteworthy because I never found Kitzbuhel to be a particularly challenging mountain- I only turned down two runs as too difficult and I’m not that good- but I was told later this is in part because they don’t allow huge moguls to form on the black runs this time of year.  Turns out you don’t want a lot of clumpy snow just waiting to slide and kill skiers, a move I approve of.

img_4286The last bit of skiable terrain, in the town of Hollersbach!  And when Yvette saw her skiing domain she wept, for there were no more mountains to conquer… Until she realized she still had to go back so it was time to get going!

Time at reaching Hollersbach: 12:24, or just under three hours of skiing to reach it.  I feel a little more hard core now.

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Unfortunately the way back was not quite as photogenic- a brief snowstorm popped up, throwing stinging snow into your face, so I holed up in one of the many resthouses for the worst part of it.  I am a bit in love with such Austrian establishments because besides the awesome and cheap schnitzel and strudel diet every single one has a giant ceramic oven from which all the warmth comes from.  They have these in Hungary too, and the little corner you can wedge yourself into where it’s extr-warm is called the kucko, and there is nothing quite like coming in all cold from skiing, draping your wet mittens onto the warm tiles, and feeling yourself warming up.  Really, can we please import these to ski places in the United States already?

img_4296Finally the snow let up, so I skied the last bit home.  By this point it was getting pretty late (I stopped skiing around 4pm) so I ran into these local kids from the Kitzbuhel ski club on the last bit.  At this time of year the bottom of the mountain is pretty cruddy- one day it was all slush, the next day all ice, the day after slush and ice- but these kids were going down on one ski each.  Better than I can ski on two actually.  Probably why they don’t make the bottom part of the mountain any easier to ski, unlike us mortals all the locals could do it on one when they were eight!

And that was my ski journey.  Needless to say by the time I got back to Snowbunnys I went straight to my bunk and spent a long time staring at the bunk above me.  What a great day.