Wedding! August 2021

We got married!

Abby & Adam

Abby & Adam

Here’s our wedding website, if you want details about how we met and all that.

Adam has definitely changed my life for the better. He challenges me intellectually and creatively, he gives me excitement and a sense of peace, and he reads my books and supports my author career aspirations as a #1 fan. I’ve loved him for 9 years.

Nothing has really changed, but we made it official, with a rubber stamp and a meeting of our families. This was just the right size of wedding for us, small and casual.

Here is the recorded video of our marriage ceremony:

Afterwards, we stayed in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, we drove up Pike’s Peak, we bought some artwork in Taos, and we watched the sunset in White Sands National Park. A beautiful week!

Thank you to everyone who showed up in person, and on livestream, and to everyone who sent us gifts and cards!

Epic Series Writers group

A lot professional advice aimed at novelists doesn’t quite apply to writers of epic series. Everything about a major series is different from stand-alone novels. The approach, plotting, and methodology are different. The pitching, audience building strategies, and marketing are different.

I want a place where we can find on-target advice and support, without needing to dig through a morass of posts aimed at other types of novelists. So I made a focus group.

Epic Series Writers on Discord

Epic Series Writers on Facebook

Come join if you write epic series! Lurkers are welcome, but I want this group to stay very focused on the unique challenges and concerns of writing a series with 3+ books, totaling more than 150,000+ words collectively, that has to be read in the correct order.

Icepocalypse 2021

Greetings from the disaster zone that is central Texas.

Don’t worry about me. We were in a better position than many Texans, since we had camping gear, plus we grew up in cold climates. So we endured several days without electricity, heat, or running water, but we found workarounds. I even managed to get a little bit of work and writing done—between huddling under blankets and putting food in the snow and figuring out how to recharge devices.

Let me tell you about the Icepocalypse! Songbirds froze to death. Cars were stranded on every road, as people desperate to buy food or water ventured out of their freezing homes. “Open” signs remained in the windows of stores that were closed and abandoned, including major chains. No one had time to take the signs down. People went skiing or snowboarding or sledding on hilly streets that normally carry tons of traffic. People chopped ice out of swimming pools in order to be able to flush toilets.

It’s pretty surreal. I grew up in a place where ice storms were a regular thing, but obviously, Texas ain’t prepped for that. Southern homes are not well insulated. They get cold easily, and apartments have sprinkler systems with delicate pipes that are not designed for deep freezes.

I’m not going to pretend to have answers about how to strengthen the electric grid. I’m sure it’s complicated af.

But I will voice my criticism about the electric utilities’ poor communication. Millions of people got one text message that said: “Expect rolling blackouts that may last up to 40 minutes.” That was it. Nothing more. The second-most populated state in the U.S. lost power for nearly a week without any warning, with no updates, and no apologies. Who’s in charge of public relations over there?

The icicles started to melt today. It will be in the 60s F next week, and we should have running water by then. Yay!

Written Serialization Hubs

Where can you reach readers with your written serialized fiction? Here’s a list.

NON-EXCLUSIVE SERIALIZATION PLATFORMS FOR READERS

    • Wattpad (65+ million users)
    • Tapas (graphic novels as well as written)
    • Radish (requires application)
    • Inkitt (may want exclusivity, glitchy, Germany-based)
    • RoyalRoad (litRPG focus)
    • Curious Fictions (requires application)
    • WriterSky
    • ScribbleHub
    • Commaful (multimedia, optimal for short stories)
    • Swoon Reads (romance, Macmillan YA sourcing site)
    • Booksie
    • Fictionate.me 
    • Webtoons
    • 2Tale
    • Litnet
    • 4thewords.com
    • taylz.com
    • FicFun / Dreame (solicits from other services)
    • GetInkspired (monetized)
    • LoveNovel (LGBQT+)
    • Penana
    • Readitt.com
    • Movellas.com
    • Channillo.com (curated; requires application)
    • PenPee (UK-based, free tier requires participation, limits posting)
    • Unbound.com (crowdfunded print editions)
    • authorbitz
    • Foxteller 
    • MoonQuill
    • Neovel

 

FANFIC FOCUSED SERIALIZATION

    • Ao3 / Archive Of Our Own (popular fanfic site with a section for original fiction, apply to join)
    • LitHive.com
    • Quotev (old community)
    • FictionPress (pre-dates Wattpad, may want exclusivity)
    • Mibba (section for original fiction, young writers)

 

NON-ENGLISH SERIALIZATION MARKETS

    • Belletristica.com/en (mostly German)
    • Webnovel (China, Qidian’s English site) and Boxnovel
    • Qidian.com (huge serialization platform in China; they may take all rights)
    • Joara (Japanese)
    • Snack Book (Korean)
    • Bagle (Korean)
    • MoboReader.com (Changdu’s English outreach, requires application)
    • CreativeNovels.com (webnovel translation site, requires application)
    • GravityTales.com (China/Korea translation)
    • WuxiaWorld.com (China webnovels translation)
    • Scribay (French)

 

EXCLUSIVE / INVITE-ONLY / TOWARDS TRADITIONAL DEAL

    • SerialBox (SFF, hard to get in)
    • Galatea (an Inkitt venture)
    • EpisodicReading.com (2yr exclusive)
    • ThePigeonHole.com (sources from trad publishers)
    • AlexiBooks.com (sources from trad publishers)
    • Hooked.co (texting style stories)
    • Tap by Wattpad (texting style stories)
    • Peep.jp (was Taskey.me; Japanese; crowd-sourced translation if you serialize for free, texting style stories)

 

CLOSED / DEFUNCT

    • Describli (seeking backers on IndieGoGo)
    • ReaderCoin (audio focus)
    • Sweek
    • JukePop Serials (crowd-funded)
    • SparkaTale
    • WriteOn (Amazon; more like a critique group)
    • Book Country (Penguin Random House; more like a critique group)
    • Authonomy (HarperCollins)
    • CloudyPen
    • Figment

 

And what if you self-host?

COPY/PASTE PLATFORMS

    • Medium (ideal for non-fic)
    • Reddit (several subreddits, such as r/redditserials)
    • SubStack
    • Steem (I hear ad bots rule)
    • Listing Hubs such as WebFictionGuide
    • Newsletters for readers
    • Crowd-funding platforms such as Patreon
    • Special interest groups on Facebook, Goodreads, Discord, forums, etc.
    • Back matter in ebooks with a similar readership

Self-Publishing Before E-Readers And Apps: 1998—2006

In the early years of the internet, before Amazon was open to self-publishers, distribution for independent authors was very limited.

Print was still king.  Ebooks and Audiobooks did exist, but they were quite niche.  Tech-savvy people might read a PDF on their computer.  There were no smart-phones or tablets, and laptops were a rarity.  There were no apps.  Sony produced the world’s first popular e-reader device in 2006, with Amazon following that up with its Kindle in 2007.  Barnes & Noble was late to the game, offering its competing Nook in 2009. 

In the late 1990s through 2007, Audible was a boutique company that had yet to be purchased by Amazon.  Its selection of audiobooks was even more limited than what you could find at your local Barnes & Noble.  Since audiobook production runs to many thousands of dollars per book, it was prohibitively costly for small presses and independent authors, and besides, Audible only bought from major New York producers who worked with the Big Six.

So in the brand new internet era, print was still the most desirable format. 

If you lacked the patience or the desire to impress big publishers in New York City, might there be another way to get your books into print and into bookstores?

Enter print-on-demand services.

A tech-savvy author-entrepreneur or a small press could use Adobe QuarkXPress (the precursor to InDesign), or freeware tools such as Sigil or Calibre, to format their manuscripts for print (and for e-reader devices, once those became a thing).  That author could then upload the PDF to a niche retailer for independent books, such as JukeBox or NoiseTrade.  One of the largest was a site called Lulu, a darling of micro-press and small press publishers, which survives to this day.  Once your book became part of the Lulu catalog, it had a sales page.  It could be purchased, printed, and shipped to a paying customer.

Independent authors began to take advantage of these services. 

They were shy about it, at first.  Self-publishing had a major stigma attached to it, since at the time, it was synonymous with so-called “vanity presses.”

A Vanity Press meant pay-to-publish.  No publisher would admit to being a vanity press, but in plain English, they only published paying customers and they did not pay royalties.  In other words, the money flowed from the writer to the publisher, instead of from the publisher to the writer.  This arrangement was fine for mom’s cookbook, or for dad’s book of nature photos and poems, or for grandma’s genealogy book.  If you wanted a nicely bound version of those books, someone had to provide it. 

But for fiction?  No.  Booksellers steered clear of anything printed by a vanity press.  If you published your romance or your science fiction with a vanity press, you would never receive royalties.  You would never get it into bookstores.  The venture could only lose you money.  Fiction books from vanity presses were sneered upon as the province of complete failures.

Print-on-demand services such as Lulu were a new thing.  They offered fiction writers the services of a vanity press without the downsides, and—many hoped—without the stigma.  You, as an author, did not pay Lulu.  Lulu simply hosted the file of your manuscript, and if a customer bought it, the customer paid for printing and shipping.  That lent self-published books an aura of legitimacy.

It was supposed to, anyway. 

Unfortunately, many author-entrepreneurs in the brave new era had never tried to improve their craft.  They were hobbyists or amateurs, their books never workshopped or edited.  Some weren’t even proofread.  This was before proofreading tools such as Grammarly existed. 

A handful of these self-published authors solicited massive numbers of people, via email, to buy a copy of their print-on-demand books.  I got suckered in by two such emails in the early 2000s.  The idea of indie authors was a new and exciting thing, so I remember being eager to try their books.  After reading each one, I had regrets about supporting those authors in any way, shape, or form.  They were truly awful.  If that had been my sole experience with self-published authors, it would have left a very bad impression—and it did, for many people.

However, extraordinary innovations were happening on the digital frontiers of online serialization, fanfic, and podcast novels.

Creative hubs formed online.  If you sought free fiction that was more accessible, and fresher, than anything at your local library, then you would find sites such as FanFiction, ElfWood, DeviantArt, and LiveJournal.  These sites and their ilk were less popular, and perhaps less reputable, than today’s Tumblr, YouTube, Medium, and Wattpad.  However, they were the precursors to today’s biggest hubs of amateur and experimental fiction content offered for free. 

As far as I knew at the time, there was only one site where podcast novels were gathered and showcased.  I visited Podiobooks on a regular basis. 

I was skeptical, at first.  There were a bunch of authors on Podiobooks whom I had never heard of, and not a single big-name author or best-seller.  So why did I go there?  The answer is simple.  I ran out of audiobooks that I wanted to listen to, and I craved more.  I had upgraded to MP3s sometime before the year 2000, and I found audiobooks on cassette tapes or even CDs to be old-fashioned and unwieldy, not to mention expensive.  I subscribed to Audible around 2002, but all they had at the time were major best-sellers and classics, nothing edgy or new.  And I had a day job which involved 8 to 10 hours of animation artwork per day.  I needed audio-only entertainment, and I needed lots of it.

Nor was I the only digital artist who listened to audiobooks all day, every day.  Several of my coworkers and friends were almost as obsessed with audiobooks as I was.  I can’t remember if one of them introduced me to Podiobooks, or if it was the other way around.  One way or another, a bunch of us became fans of the site.

Sure, some of those random podcast novels were terrible.  But they were free—unlike print-on-demand books.  They were episodic, too.  If you listened to the first episode, you could pretty much tell whether it was worth listening further.  The site incorporated fan votes, much like Wattpad does now.  The most popular books ranked high and were the most visible.

That was how I discovered Scott Sigler, the first indie author whom I became a fan of.  His works dominated the sci-fi category of Podiobooks.  When I ran out of Sigler books to listen to, I tried just about every other book on the site, hoping to find another author like him.  And I did find a few other gems which stick in my mind to this day.

The year was 2005.

The way Scott Sigler marketed his books caught my attention, because it was utterly different than anything I had ever seen an author do before.  He thanked his readers by offering stuff.  In the opening of every podcast episode, he recorded a skippable ad which included a coupon discount code for a product which a tech-savvy reader might desire.

10% off a domain name at GoDaddy.  5% off a SquareSpace website.  $50 off Nike shoes.  Sigler respected his audience enough to guess what demographic of people they were.  He recorded his own ads, as well as narrating his own audiobooks.  He did it all in a professional manner, with intro music and high quality audio, which was edited and produced by a team of people, whom he credited. 

When I listened to Sigler’s podcast novels, I began to understand what might be possible without a traditional publisher.  Sigler gave away every audiobook for free.  Yet somehow, he seemed to be earning enough income to pay a team of friends to help him produce a high quality podcast of his own novels.  Somehow, he had wrangled partnerships with major corporations such as GoDaddy and Nike.  They were allowing him to advertise for them.

Mind.  Blown.  How was this possible?

I visited his website, and saw that every one of his books was available for sale as a print-on-demand book.  Want to see them on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble or Borders?  Well, then tell them, silly.  Write to their headquarters.  Oh, and also, you could buy Sigler merchandise.  If you wore a baseball cap or a T-shirt with a logo from one of his books, it was basically a counterculture signal to other fans.  It was sneaky.  And it was fun.

By the year 2006, I openly yearned to become a best-selling author, traditionally published by one of the Big Six.  At the same time, secretly, I also yearned to be like Scott Sigler.  Those two desires were at war within me, and caused a lot of internal confusion and conflict. 

So when Amazon opened its floodgates to everyone and anyone in November 2007, I was paying attention.

This article is part of an ongoing series I’m posting on Wattpad.

iLasik Post-Op, Day One

I’ve needed glasses since age six, with -10 vision (which translates to 20/1000), plus mild astigmatisms. Yesterday I got Lasik surgery to correct my myopia and astigmatisms, with an Intralase Wavefront excimer (molecular) laser.

From what I understand, this super-accurate laser was developed in the last 10 years. Prior to 2009 or so, I wouldn’t have been eligible for Lasik. There would have been blades involved, and a recovery period of months, if I could do it at all. This is a new kind of iLasik, which should have me recovered and seeing 20/20 within a week, and fully healed within 3 months.

You may be wondering what the procedure feels like.

First, they gave me a Valium and two Aleve. I sat in a waiting room with Adam (my significant other) with Disney-esque music piped in, so I felt like I was going to visit the land of Tomorrow, or maybe a theme park.

While those meds took effect, an assistant cleaned my eyes with drops and iodine around the skin. The surgeon came in and used drops to numb my eyes, and then used a marker to draw directly on my eyeballs, showing where the astigmatisms were. I was getting super nervous. The surgeon left and came back in to check on me. I must have been freaking out a little, because he backed out, saying, “We’ll wait a little longer for that Valium to take effect.”

Sure enough, I felt calmer after a few minutes, although still freaked out. The assistants put a surgical cap on me, and surgical booties on my feet. They led me to the operating room, which is kept chilly. A large window enabled Adam to sit outside and watch the procedure; he took the featured photo.

Three people were in the operating room, besides me: The surgeon, the surgeon’s assistant, and a laser tech. They lay me down on a bed that can rotate between two large laser machines. One machine makes the incision in the cornea. The other machine corrects vision. While the surgeon worked, the assistant talked me through everything that was happening, and made sure I followed the directions, which was very helpful and prevented me from completely freaking out.

They filled my eyes with numbing drops. Then they prepped my eyes, and began surgery on my right eye first. They used tape to keep my eyelashes out of the way, and a glassy monocle thing to keep my eye open. They used suction cups on my eyeballs, too. It’s a very fast and uncomfortable procedure, where I had to gaze at a blinking orange light while I felt weird pressures on my eye. No pain, due to the numbing drops.

Then that eye was covered, and they lasered my left eye. For some reason, I had trouble focusing on the orange blinking light with my left eye. It was so out of focus, it seemed to fill my vision. The laser stopped a few times, since it was having trouble tracking my eye. But soon it was done.

Immediately after surgery, my vision was streaky and steamed up, as if looking through warped and wet glass. I had to keep my eyes closed. A driver is necessary for Lasik, and Adam led me to the car and drove me home.

The Lasik place gave me eyedrops with antibiotics and steroids to help the inflammation, and told me to use those, then sleep for 4-6 hours, or to rest with my eyes closed. They told me there would be some pain once the numbing drops wore off.

Pain woke me up after about an hour of sleep. It was very intense pain, and I think that may be because I had such a high prescription. My eyes felt badly sunburned, as if I had witnessed a nuclear explosion up close. I’ve had eye pain before from contact lens problems, which felt like hydrochloric acid. This was more like burning. It was very intense. I took a Tylenol, and was alarmed enough that Adam called the Lasik center to make sure it was normal. They said that they pain should go away around 8pm.

Sure enough, it did!

I ate dinner, and noticed that my eyesight was improving in weird ways. It wasn’t 20/20, but it was definitely better than 20/1000. I estimate it to be somewhere in between, maybe like 20/200. Things up close were clear, but things beyond 5 feet or so were foggy and indistinct.

I went to sleep. Friends who have had Lasik say they see very well the next day, and I was hopeful that I’d be able to drive myself to my post-op eye appointment in the morning.

It isn’t quite like that. I woke up seeing much more clearly, and the pain was gone. Far distances still look blurry. Everything looks like it’s though a soft light filter, the way wedding photos are softened. My right eye is seeing much better than the left. This is creating a weird, disorienting effect. If I close my right eye, this computer screen (as I type this blog post) is barely legible due to blurriness. If I close my left eye, it is crystal clear.

My post-op appointment was with my regular optometrist. He said the eyes heal at different rates, and the difference may also be due to inflammation. My high prescription meant they burned away a lot of cornea. He said I am healing well.

For now, this is pretty cool. I can use a computer and read without glasses! We will see how things are in a week, with my next appointment.

Putting the Science in Fiction

I’m stoked to be part of this anthology! It’s wonderful when real life crosses streams with my writing, proving that my job experience in animation counts for more than just having an income (pshaw).

Thanks to Dan Koboldt, the editor who put this together. And thanks to Writer’s Digest Books for taking it to publication and distribution across all major bookstores. Chuck Wendig, who’s been making waves in the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, wrote the foreword.

Have you ever wondered how sci-fi screenwriters and authors get their research right? And how many get it wrong? Every article in this book explores a branch of science that is often misrepresented in popular mass media. My article, “CGI is Not Made By Computers,” covers how the human labor component of special effects is often glossed over, or erased, in stories with a virtual reality or video game premise.

Every article I read in here turned out to be fascinating, and I’m honored to be included with so many engineers, physicians, and scientists.

“Putting the Science in Fiction” will be available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Writer’s Digest Store, and other major retailers starting Tuesday.

The Wheel of Time Turns, and Here Comes Amazon Prime

I was thrilled when HBO picked up “Game of Thrones”, one of my favorite fantasy series of books. But my all-time favorite fantasy series is “The Wheel of Time,” and I figured that would face bigger hurdles to TV adaptation. It’s a much longer series (yes, much longer than GoT). It’s going to require major visual effects (yes, more than GoT). It has a huge ensemble cast of characters (yes, more than GoT). And the author, Robert Jordan, is deceased, so he can’t have any input into the creative translation from books to screen.

When GoT proved successful, other TV studios began to experiment with book series adaptations, and then we all knew it was just a matter of time until someone tried to adapt the WoT. But I’m sure something this colossal is a hard sell. I mean, it’s colossal. If HBO threw $100 million at the first season of the GoT, and all the copycat series were less successful, then how can any studio justify giving a gigantic budget to yet another fantasy series adaptation? If the money managers are not fans of these books, they won’t necessarily understand why this one has potential to be as popular, or more popular, than Game of Thrones.

So Amazon Prime wants to make a big splash into the land of original TV content. Maybe they see the potential here.

According to this article, Amazon signed a director/producer who is a fan of the WoT books. So that’s good.

It sounds like they are going to focus the first season on Moiraine rather than on the main characters in the books. That may work, or it may end up coming across as boring. Moiraine is a female Gandalf; she isn’t the most personable of characters. However, the books have a great ensemble cast, which is key in making a great TV series.

“Game of Thrones” got an excellent adaptation, in part, because George R.R. Martin knew the TV industry well. As a former director and executive producer, he was able to recognize the kind of talent who would do his story justice in TV format and negotiate contracts with them. That won’t be the case with the “Wheel of Time.” And while I admire Amazon as an innovative company, they also have a rather industrial and non-artistic approach to their ventures, which could be an impediment to top-notch film-making.

The source material gives this TV show great potential, but there is also great potential for screw-ups.

Adventure in Italy: Milan and Home

It was time to check out and head to Val Calmonica. This was going to be most offbeat part of our trip, in an obscure mountain range, to see neolithic rock art. We packed up our stuff, checked out of the Verona apartment by 10 AM, and proceeded on the two hour drive through Brescia and past Lake Iseo, to Breno.

Lake Iseo, Italy

All of the Alps and alpine lakes of northern Italy are beautiful, but I think Lake Iseo might be one of the most stunning. It’s cradled between green mountains, like a volcanic lake, with a huge mountainous island in the middle. We took a winding highway along cliffs, past the lake, through a series of long tunnels. Some of these tunnels have archways that offer glimpses of a mountain panorama, but you can’t stop, because traffic moves fast and there’s no shoulder on the roadway. My GPS began to look like the cave level of a video-game. There were roads and towns on top of tunnels. A few of these very long tunnels slope downward, so it feels like a roller-coaster into the center of the Earth for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.

Lake Iseo, Italy

Lake Iseo, Italy

We arrived in the picturesque town of Breno. Hotel Giardino was easy to find, and it looked lovely. However, when we checked in, I couldn’t find my passport. This was a severe problem, since my flight home was in two days!

I emptied my purse and my backpack. I searched the car. It was nowhere to be found. I figured it couldn’t possibly be in my suitcase—why would I put it there? I never put important things in my suitcase, just clothes and gifts—so I figured that checking the tightly packed suitcase would be a waste of time. As far as I could remember, I only ever put my passport in one of two places, and it was simply gone. And my backup credit card was also missing!

Missing U.S.A. Passport in Italy!

It seemed impossible, since I keep a close eye on my stuff while traveling. Neither of my friends were missing anything, and they had left their passports in the Verona apartment during day trips, just like I thought I had.

So I had a mini-panic attack. I couldn’t begin to guess how I had lost the passport and card. We spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to obtain an emergency passport. Only the hotel lobby had Wi-Fi. I downloaded Google Voice and proceeded to try to get a hold of the nearest U.S. Consulate in Milan, which was closed that day, since it was a weekend. I called the apartment in Verona and asked them to search the room for my passport. They did, and when I called back, they apologized, saying they did not find it.

Then I followed government website instructions and reported the missing passport to Italian police. This needed to be done in person. The report can be made to any police station in Italy, and the local one was an 8 minute walk up a hill. Amy kindly offered to come with me.

I was wary of entering an Italian police station, especially since it had a locked gate and barred windows (albeit a gorgeous view of the Alps). But at least I wasn’t alone, and the desk officer seemed nice, and he expected me, since the hotel manager had called ahead. He filed a report. This took longer than I expected, maybe half an hour, and involved some paperwork. His office was decorated with interesting pictures of police doing good deeds, and also a large wooden Jesus on a cross. Finished, he handed me a paper and said, “This will help you at the Consulate.”

Breno, Italy

Breno, Italy

Breno looked like a beautiful place to spend a day, and I was sorry to miss touring the area. Apparently there was a Renaissance Faire going on at the local castle—the king and queen came downstairs in our hotel—and I am super curious as to how an Italian Renaissance Faire differs from the silly merchandise-fests we have in North America. But I was too worried about my missing passport to enjoy anything. As far as I could tell, the only way to get an emergency passport would be early on Monday morning at the U.S. Consulate in Milan. I needed to be in Milan by 8 AM the next day.

So we packed up again, and the hotel kindly offered a discount, since we had only stayed a few hours. We drove 2.5 hours to Milan and checked into our final hotel of the trip, one day early.

And guess what? Once we settled into our rooms, I methodically unpacked everything from my suitcase … and there it was. My passport and my credit card were both at the very bottom of my suitcase, buried under a lot of stuff.  I think that traveling causes me to be less organized and more forgetful than I normally am. My daily life at home can be such a routine that I never make mistakes like that; I know exactly where my stuff is.  I swear, I’ve never lost a credit card or a passport or anything like that in my life! This was embarrassing.

We tried to get a good night’s rest in this large hotel; a snazzy high-rise in the middle of a suburban area. For me, it was difficult, with hard beds and barely functional air conditioning. At least I didn’t need to wake up early to wait in line at the Consulate!

A Day of Exploring Milan, Italy

The next day—our final day of vacation together—we explored Milan, and the weather actually cooled off a little bit. First, we explored the canal, which the desk receptionist recommended as a nice area for shopping and food. This involved a bus ride on the tollway, and then figuring out the underground Metro rail. The bus was more difficult to figure out than the subway. We had trouble finding the pick up area, and we learned—by sheer luck, due to the kindness of an Italian stranger—that the return bus would depart from a different street.

Anyway, after some navigational confusion, we found ourselves in the canal area, populated by outdoor restaurants. Most of the shops were closed, since Italians tend to take off Mondays. We had a delicious meal, listened to thunder, and went back to the Metro before a downpour started.

Canal of Milan, Italy

Canal of Milan, Italy

We emerged at the Duomo of Milan; the enormous, ornate, pink marble Gothic cathedral which is the city’s icon. Of course, there was a line of tourists wrapped around one side of the building, so we decided not to go inside. The outside of the cathedral is impressive enough; more beautiful than Notre Dame in Paris. The spires look like drip castles, each one topped by a statue holding some kind of instrument or weapon. The whole front facade is crazy with statues and reliefs, and the iron doors are all embossed with scenes as well.

Duomo of Milan

Duomo of Milan

We strolled through the grand hall nearby. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II has high-end stores, impressive marble floors, wrought iron balconies, and an arched smoky glass ceiling that evokes the 1890s. We passed Armani shops and explored the bookstore, interested to see which popular American authors have been translated into Italian. I was pleased to see books by a couple of hybrid authors (traditionally published, but originally independent authors). Then we had some expensive and fancy gelato, waiting for the storm to pass.

Galleria of Milan

Galleria of Milan

At a break in the rain, we reentered the Metro and emerged at the Sforza Castle. The interior museums were all closed, since it was Monday, but the outer grounds and inner courtyards are open to the public. We passed an outdoor polka concert and proceeded over the drawbridge and into the impressive interior. Hey, I’ve watched “The Borgias” by Showtime, so maybe I know a little bit about the Sforza family!

There seem to be dozens of stray cats and kittens that live on the castle grounds. People were petting them. I wonder how they get into the grassy moat area, and how they get back out. We took a few kitty photos, pondered some ancient sarcophagi and Roman pillars, and then headed back to our hotel.

Sforza Castle in Milan, Italy

Sforza Castle in Milan, Italy

Dinner was at an Italian shopping mall next to our hotel. This mall seemed to be mostly devoted to a cinema, a playland for kids, and a floor full of restaurants, with very few stores. The restaurants were arranged like plaza restaurants, with outdoor seating, except it was in the mall hallway instead of in an outdoor plaza. The night before, we had eaten at one of these restaurants, and it blasted loud Italian pop music. So this night, we decided to explore the cinema floor. We discovered an American-themed restaurant called Old Wild West. Cute! It had bench seats designed to look like covered wagons. The menu featured dishes named after Western states (and a few not-so-Western ones, like Mississippi and Kentucky).

That was our goodbye meal. We clinked our wine glasses together, and prepared for our flights the next day. Brian was heading to Vienna, Austria for a week. Amy had a morning flight back to New England. I had an Emirates flight to JFK in New York, with a JetBlue connection back to Austin.

Milan-Malpensa Airport

There isn’t much more to recount. With help from Brian, I found the airport without any trouble, although we both got a little confused about the rental car return. We accidentally entered a long-term parking lot. Fortunately, we figured out how to get out of it, and into the WinRent garage section, on our second try. second try. They sent me a bill for the final half-tank of diesel, and it was a bit more than I would have wanted. Oops.

I went through a long mob of a line at the Emirates counter, and Brian had to wait a long time for his Austrian Air counter to open up. Once we each got our boarding passes and checked our luggage, we had a delicious meal at an airport restaurant called Rosso Pomo Doro. Then we had to say goodbye at the security checkpoint.

The Milan-Malpensa airport is weird (at least, to me). The airport seems small by U.S. standards, but the gates are spread far apart, so it can be a 25 minute hike to your gate even if you speed-walk (the monitors helpfully show walking times). Everything is glitzy and glamorous-looking. I figured I had some time after I went through security, but it turned out there is an extra “passport” checkpoint after the security checkpoint for overseas flights. There were no signs to forewarn people, so families were panicking, cutting through the slow-moving passport line so as not to miss their overseas flights to Dubai or New Dehli or Melbourne. I shuffled through this long line with everyone else, and managed to arrive at my gate with probably twenty minutes to spare.

The Emirates flight from JFK to New York was overbooked and crowded, but the plane had a nice interior design, with plenty of USB and electrical outlets, and recessed lighting. This is the largest Airbus possible, with two floors that run the length of the plane. It requires three separate gate tunnels to board all 500 passengers. And then there was the usual confusion at JFK airport, with rechecking luggage.

I downloaded the U.S. Government’s mobile passport app, but it was useless without an internet connection; I guess the overseas flight jacks up AT&T or something, because I was unable to get connectivity even after restarting my phone and restarting the wi-fi.  It works fine now, after a few hours.

Glad I built in an extra day of vacation to account for jet lag!

Adventure in Italy: Bolzano

We slept in a little bit, and decided to venture forth with our trip to Bolzano, a city close to the border of Austria. However, I checked the traffic map and was dismayed to see traffic jams lit up everywhere; the 90 minute drive would take more than two and a half hours. We decided to go for a train ride. This time, instead of hiking to a distant bus stop and then risking getting on the wrong bus at the end of a long day, we parked at Porta Nuova train station in Verona. It was only 7 Euros for the day, which is a nice bargain in Europe.

We were fortunate to get train tickets from a vending machine, and the next train to Bolzano Bozen station was leaving in twenty minutes. That was easy enough. But the train turned out to be uncomfortably crowded, packed with screaming infants and children. Our assigned seats were already occupied by a couple of Italian families who admitted to us that they had bought tickets from Rome to Verona, but apparently it was common to do this and then stay on the train a few more stops, to wherever they wanted to go. Seeing our confusion, some family members shuffled into different seats, and several stops later, the train emptied enough for us to move to a slightly quieter seating area.

Bolzano, Italy

Bolzano is a pleasant mountain town that looks and acts more Austrian than Italian. Most of the signs are in German, and it seems everyone there is bilingual or trilingual. A forbidding-yet-scenic Gothic cathedral dominates Walther Square at the center of town. There’s also an interesting statue of a nobleman with lions. Our first order of business was to grab lunch before all the restaurants shut down (most restaurants in Italy stay closed from 2 Pm until 7 PM). We found a lovely place shaded by umbrellas and facing the cathedral, and Brian got to speak German for the first time on this trip, ordering our food for us from an Austrian waiter.

Bolzano, Italy: Walther Square

Bolzano, Italy: Walther Square

While eating, we saw lots of hikers with huge backpacks and walking poles, and figured they must have come out of mountain trails. We also noticed a van parked nearby that said “Runklestein Castle – Gratis,” implying a free shuttle to the castle which we wanted to see. It drove away before we were done paying our bill, but it returned within 20 minutes. Sure enough, the driver was happy to take tourists to Runklestein Castle. We hopped into the gloriously air-conditioned shuttle, which we had to ourselves. The driver was playing country music from the U.S.

Runklestein Castle

The shuttle dropped us off at the foot of the castle hill, at a cobblestone walkway that winds upward at a steep angle. Up we went. This walk is scenic, but it would be a hardship for anyone with mobility problems. The cobblestones protrude a lot, and also worn smooth, so they’re slippery and bumpy to walk on at the same time, and the path is quite steep.

However, this was by far the most interesting castle of our trip, and well worth seeing. From what I gathered from the English-language brochure, the castle was originally built in the 12th century and soon bought by local wine merchants, who seem to have used it as the medieval version of a party house. This castle is renowned for its well-preserved “secular frescoes.” Before seeing the castle, I assumed that meant idyllic scenes of picnics and kneading bread. These frescoes are a lot more interesting than that.

Runklestein Castle in Tyrol

Runklestein Castle in Tyrol

Also, I figure this castle must be really off the beaten track, because the gift shop is tiny—mostly books in German and Italian only—and the elderly lady at the ticket counter was alone there. She seemed surprised that we came all the way from America.

Anyway, we proceeded with our self-guided tour. Unlike other places we had visited on this vacation, there were lots of places to sit and rest, and quite a lot of rooms to explore. The frescoes are somewhat worn and damaged, as one expects from paintings 1,000 years old, but instead of showing endless Catholic iconography full of sadness and suffering, they give a wonderful sense of happiness and whimsy, and even a sense of personality. There are scenes of jousts, epic battles, hunts, and ballroom dances. One room, dubbed “the couples room,” is decorated with lords and ladies gazing lovingly towards each other. Another room shows nude men along the upper walls, and they’re painted in a way that I think indicates an artist who was attempting life studies in an age well before the Renaissance. Why nude men? The reasons are forgotten to history, but someone (maybe a lady?) must have commissioned it.

Another room had frescoes of a wide variety of animals, including monkeys, and the species are mostly recognizable. An outer wall showed scenes from ancient Greek mythology, with mythological Giants. A window area shows two lords wooing two ladies; one getting rejected and the other accepted. One of the striking things about these frescoes is the apparent equality between lords and ladies. One odd fresco shows a procession where two ladies, dressed like royalty, are smiling, and the lords between them look inexplicably sad. I can’t guess what that’s about.

Fresco of procession with smiling ladies and sad lords

Fresco of procession with smiling ladies and sad lords

Other rooms of the castle display ancient tomes and other relics. The tower has an excellent view of mountains, including a local cable car. And there is a tavern which claims to serve medieval traditional fare, although we didn’t test it out.

There are absolutely no religious paintings or relics on display in this castle; at least none that I could see. One room had frescoes of the Cycle of Tristan, which I gather might be vaguely religious, but it’s some kind of epic sea voyage. When I look at the skill of the artist(s), who could not have had any training in realism, since realism in art would not be “rediscovered” until the Renaissance, I get the sense that this castle’s occupants might have been a little bubble of forward-thinking medieval people who managed to isolate themselves from their contemporaries and have an attempt at their own Renaissance, centuries before the real thing. Runklestein Castle was known as a waypoint for Germanic kings on their way to get blessed by the Pope in Rome. I suspect the more pious kings must have avoided it.

After we hiked down the hill, and took the air-conditioned shuttle back into town (that shuttle was very prompt), we had enough time to visit the Archeology Museum which displays the 5,000+ years old mummified corpse of Ötzi the Iceman.

Ötzi Museum in Bolzano

This museum is really worth seeing if you have any interest in prehistory. It’s air-conditioned, everything is in three languages, including English, and the exhibits are arranged so that you can walk through at an easy, steady pace without missing anything. We reviewed the story of how the mummy was found, and then we saw the mummy through a porthole window, where it remains frozen, with remnants of skin still clinging to the skeleton. All of the mummy’s clothes and belongings are on display, with extensive descriptions of what they are and how they must have been made. There is an interactive exhibit where you can see X-rays of the mummy, dissecting his health status, and how he was murdered. Towards the end of the self-guided tour, there is a stunningly realistic mannequin of the iceman as he must have looked in real life, reconstructed by forensic artists and top-notch sculptors. Although the iceman was 40 to 50 years old, he looked like an old man by today’s standards, with a bad knee and arthritis and gray hair streaked with white. He was shorter and smaller than most European women are today, although he had a robust build. His torso tattoos probably served a purpose akin to acupuncture. They’ve done DNA analyses on his genes, and his maternal haplogroup has gone extinct in humankind, but his paternal haplogroup remains alive in Europe.

Otzi reconstruction of the mummy

Otzi reconstruction of the mummy

So that was really cool. After the Ötzi exhibit, we had dinner at a different restaurant in Walther Square, watched a gorgeous sunset, and caught the late train home.

Strange Italian Train Ride

This time, the train was mostly empty. I guess Italians don’t like to travel at dinner time or later, since that seemed consistent everywhere we traveled in Italy. We avoided a loud troop of hikers who looked like girl scouts, and instead chose a train car that was empty except for us. The only strange thing that happened on our ride home was a back-and-forth chase between a teenage-looking black guy blasting music from his headphones and a no-nonsense Italian train official with a whistle. The guy got into our train car and sat down for maybe half a minute before the official burst in, yelling at him in Italian to get off the train. The guy argued back, then said, “Aw, man!” and ran into the next car. The official chased him, angrily blowing his whistle.

This happened three more times throughout our ride. It resembled a cartoon, like Wiley Coyote chasing the Roadrunner or something. Somehow, the teenage-looking guy managed to keep avoiding the official, who just got angrier and angrier, chasing him back and forth through the moving train cars. That same official told me to take my feet off the seat in front of me. He seemed very put out that I didn’t understand Italian.

That experience was an anomaly. Overall, most of people we encountered in Italy were very kind and helpful, and understanding of our confusion. Many receptionists and ticket-counter people went out of their way to help us, drawing maps for us, or asking their English-speaking friends if they had trouble translating.

« Older posts
© 2021 Abby Goldsmith