Publication day for MAJORITY

Today is the day!  I am now a published novelist.

What a journey it has been! I will have more books published, including the sequels to this one, which are already written. But this one is special. It’s the one I spent the most time on. It’s my first novel on Amazon. It’s the one with all the pressure on it, as a series starter. And it’s the start of a series that I stand proudly behind.

Reviews and sales are immensely important to authors. I really appreciate everyone who bought a copy, and those who are planning to write a review, or who already wrote one on Goodreads or Amazon.

If sci-fi isn’t your thing, I would appreciate it if you tell a friend, or perhaps gift it to someone who loves thoughtful sci-fi! For freebies and peeks into my life, you can subscribe to my newsletter.

Thanks for being part of my life!

Majority by Abby Goldsmith

Also, I gave a bunch of interviews for this one!  If you’d like to see what I’ve been up to, check out John Scalzi’s blog, Rune S Nielsen’s blog, Jendia Gammon’s substack, Bookishly Jewish, Queen’s Asylum, Bryan Aiello’s YouTube channel, Hinterspace podcast, NFS podcast and a Reddit AMA!

★★★★★ “Engaging from the start, this complex space opera features relatable, believable characters; highly original, meticulous world building; and difficult moral and ethical dilemmas.”

Booklist review

★★★★★ “Thoughtful explorations of morality, altruism, justice and mercy, and the idea that godlike powers come with godlike responsibilities add depth and breadth to this auspicious entry in SF literature’s mutant-superman genre.”

Kirkus review

A.I. Artwork And Writing: a writer-artist’s perspective.

From what I’ve seen, A.I. generated artwork has a certain aesthetic to it. Faces are rarely defined. Imagery may be riotously detailed, which gives a superficial impression that it was lovingly worked on by hand for many days, but it lacks a coherent theme. That gives the impression that it is dreamlike imagery, or slap-dabbed together by someone in a creative frenzy. It is a certain look.

Perhaps that aesthetic will always be appealing. But I wonder if it will wear out its welcome? I’m already getting worn out on it. I feel as if I can recognize it when I see it, and it’s not what I want for my finalized novel covers. (Short stories, maybe.)

And I think the same applies to Jasper A.I. and other A.I. writing tools. People who read a lot of blogs and articles are learning to recognize overly emotional language that is incongruously used for conveying generic or low-value content.

I’ve seen A.I. performers, where people pay a service that simulates an actor to read lines. There is an uncanny valley effect with those. The “actor” looks quite human, but they blink a bit too often, and their smiles are quick and small and weirdly constrained.

I don’t know how the arts will adapt to these things. But speaking as a writer-artist, I’m not thrilled about it. I think this is all part of the race-to-the-bottom in the arts. Companies don’t want to pay artists and writers. Now they don’t have to.

The question is: Will the public accept A.I. art and writing as equal to the real thing? Or will they tune it out eventually? Will they tend to gravitate towards art and writing created by real people? Or will enough people fail to see the difference, or fail to care, so that the money flows towards A.I. tools more than it flows to human writers and artists?

Chemotherapy Update: Infusion #4

I’m about to undergo my fourth and final infusion of oxaliplatin. This is hardcore stuff. It’s a “platinum agent” that goes directly into my arteries through a medical implant called a “port”, like I’m some kind of electronic device. What does ox do? Well, aside from making me feel awful–anemic, fatigued, nauseas, and sick–it kills fast-growing cells in my body. Those cells might all be benign cells, such as bone marrow, digestive tract cells, and hair follicles. Or they might be evil cancerous tumor cells. This aggressive chemo treatment is meant to reduce the chances of the cancer taking root elsewhere in my body.

I’ve learned a lot on this journey. To catch you up: I had concerns for more than a year before I was diagnosed with cancer. I thought I was having sudden and severe food allergies, severe enough for me to make multiple visits to my primary care physician. She assured me “It’s not cancer.” Her reasoning was that my white blood cell count was normal, so therefore, I guess she thought the pain was all in my head. I am still angry about that misdiagnosis. The takeaway: Pain is not something to be dismissed, even if your doctor tells you it’s nothing. Always pay attention to random pain. It means something.

The pains became worse and more frequent. Intestinal cancer is hard to find or diagnose, and I was misdiagnosed at two different Urgent Care centers. When it became unbearable for a week in December, my husband figured we should skip the medical centers and go straight to the ER at the nearest major hospital, Baylor Scott & White. The staff there kept me overnight, ran scans and so forth, and within a day, I was told that I had a cancerous tumor and needed emergency surgery to get rid of it. That was shocking. A colectomy is major surgery with risks, and I was asked to agree to it ASAP. I was otherwise healthy–no co-mormidities, I exercised daily–and I am relatively young. I never expected anything like this. But I am grateful to the gastroenterologist and surgeon at that hospital. They gave me the news straight without any sugar-coating.

So. The tumor was removed, along with 21 lymph nodes in order to stage the cancer. Recovery from that surgery was very painful and rough. But within two months, I was more or less back to normal. I went to an oncologist, who strongly recommended this “cap-ox” chemotherapy regimen, which is standard for colon cancer beyond stage 1. I sought a second opinion from an expert at MD Anderson, which is a major cancer center in Houston. The oncologist at MD Anderson strongly recommended the same thing.

Which brings me to now. I began the cap-ox treatment in April. It’s really no joke, as far as side effects go. And the effects are cumulative. They get a little worse each time. I am astounded that some people endure this chemo regimen for years, or even for their entire lives. I am very, very lucky in that my cancer has not metasticized. Otherwise I would need to be on chemo for much longer.

What side effects, you ask?

Well, right now I have a rash on the soles of my feet which makes walking difficult. It gets worse if I walk any distance. That’s an effect from the capecitabine pills, which are the “cap” part of the cap-ox regimen. So never mind my daily walks. I can’t do those. Nor can I go swimming, because chlorine will exacerbate the rash. I’m not exercising much these days. Also, I’m anemic. I feel weaker than usual. There are gastro effects which are somewhat mitigated with pills. I’m immunocompromised. So I’m not traveling. My hair?  Every time I brush it, the brush comes away with a bird’s nest of hair. So it’s falling out a lot more than usual, yet no one can tell, because it was so thick in the first place! I guess it might all be gone if I was on this chemo for 2+ years. But that isn’t the plan.

The worst part of chemotherapy happens 2-5 days after each oxaliplatin infusion. That’s when the mitigating drugs wear off while the ox infusion is still working its cell-killing magic. On those days, I get so weak and exhausted, I can barely walk up stairs. I have to stop and rest every few steps. It’s really a pronounced effect. Keep in mind that I am a person who typically goes for brisk hour-long walks on a daily basis.

Oxaliplatin also causes sensitivity to cold. That means no ice water, no smoothies, no reaching into the freezer, no running my hands under cold tap water.  If I do those things, I feel an electric shock sensation. Also, it worsens the neuropathy in my fingers and toes and lips, which is another terrible side effect. So far, the neuropathy has been temporary. It goes away after 8-10 days. I really hope it never comes back. I’m an artist and writer who needs to be able to type. But I have learned that it is permanent for some random unlucky patients.

Okay! That’s enough complaining. I just wanted to de-mystify what chemotherapy entails. There are different chemo regimens for different types of cancer; my experience is not universal to all cancer patients. But it is standard for colon cancer. It is also known as an aggressive treatment. There are slightly gentler treatments for patients with health complications.

On the happier side, this will be my final infusion! I expect to feel fully healthy and back to normal by mid-July. It takes a while for all this stuff to wear off.

And yes, the medical professionals will scan me and check up on me for 2 years on a regular basis. It’s important to monitor me, because cancer is evil and can be sneaky and recur. I am told that the chances of recurrences are 10%. I really hope I am a lucky one who never sees it again.

I’ve learned that cancer runs in one side of my family. My grandparents on that side both died from intestinal cancer–but they were in their 80s and 90s. Same with at least one of their siblings. One of my aunts on that side has defeated lung cancer and breast cancer. My parent on that side also has signs of blood cancer, and has defeated skin cancer. So… yeah. It lurks in genetics. I hadn’t known how widespread it was on that side of the family until this happened, and the family stories came out.

Wishing you all a healthy and cancer-free life!

Feeling Seen, Not Yet A Marketing Machine

I am becoming loud & proud about my self-pub procrastination. I was ashamed of it for a long time. I was constantly making excuses, and assuring friends/readers that yes, I will have the books for sale soon.


In reality, here it is: I hate the concept of turning into a marketing machine.

Once I set the ball in motion on Amazon, I will have to transform into some kind of savvy businessperson if I want my epic series to have any chance in hell at being noticed. The fate of most self-pubbed books is that they drown in the ocean of obscurity. There’s a new book published every minute on Amazon. The self-pub success stories pour a ton of ad spend and marketing efforts into their series. This article about the failure of the long tail  says it well.

Instead of diving into book marketing, I’m very comfy serializing online. Readers kind of show up without me having to deploy ads or pour effort into newsletter swaps or study the dark arts of email campaigns. Readers say wonderfully nice things to me. It fulfills the part of me that wants acknowledgement/recognition for the magnum opus I’ve created.

So I’m admitting that I am procrastinating. I am freely telling people that I’ll get around to publishing and marketing my Torth series eventually… but I am enjoying the serialization life for now.

Also, I am probably going to do one more Hail Mary pass with literary agents. Yeah. Masochistic, I know.

At least this time, my expectations will be so low they’re subterranean. I’m aware that my series has no accurate comps, it does not match hot trends, it does not have a gimmicky angle that can be summarized in a sentence, and oh yeah, it’s not a stand-alone with series potential. It’s a full-fledged epic. Book 1 is an eternal problem. I was never able to make it behave.

But a few adventurous readers did take a chance on it, and some kept reading. So Book 1 does work for some people. I just don’t think that most literary agents are adventurous readers. They’re looking for “the same but different.”

Ah well. Why not collect at least 150 rejections, amiright?

Meanwhile, I have the excuse of chemotherapy for being lazy and not turning into a self-promotion marketing machine quite yet. I’m halfway through treatment. Hair is falling out, blood pressure is low, and I get very fatigued every third week due to oxaliplatin infusions. The other two weeks I can function pretty much normally. Hopefully there will be no trace of cancer after this.

Oh yeah! My new stand-alone novel-in-progress is a BREEZE in comparison to the Torth series. I’m not zooming ahead with passion on it. But dang, it’s easy and enjoyable. I think it may be easier to market, as well.

I’m also having a lot of fun creating 3D low poly art assets for my husband’s indie game. It’s his magnum opus, in the same way the Torth series is mine. His abilities with programming are blowing my mind.

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!

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.

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.

Adventure in Italy: Sirmione

Since Brian had already been traveling for two months, he opted to take a day off, so Amy and I went on our own to see Sirmione on Lake Garda; a spit of land that extends into a mountain lake and features a beach castle and the ruins of a Roman villa.

The Sirmione Peninsula

One thing we did not anticipate was heavy traffic.  It seems that August is when a lot of Italians take vacation, especially on a Friday going into a holiday week.  As soon as we arrived on Sirmione, we passed a few beach tourist plazas, and then we were at a standstill.  We’d already learned how hard it is to find parking in Italy, so when we saw the main parking lot shut down (two cars ahead of us!), we turned around and parked at a further lot, snagging a space out of sheer luck.  Then we resigned ourselves to a long, long walk.  In summer heat.  During a heatwave in Italy.

We couldn’t guess when we might see a restaurant, or if the castle area had anything along those lines, so we ate a pretty hotel outdoor restaurant overlooking the western half of the lake, shaded by umbrellas.  Refreshed, we continued our long trek.  We passed hundreds of tourists, including little kids on scooters and ladies with parasols.  I used my neon green umbrella for shade, since sunscreen runs into my eyes when I sweat.  At last, we crossed the moat into the castle area, which is set up like a scenic fishing village.  The castle itself is a beachside fortress, with extensive walls that extend into the harbor.

Since we had paid for parking until 6 PM, and we didn’t know how long things would take, we decided to go to our highest priority site first: the Roman “Grotto of Catullus” on the very tip of the peninsula.  So we walked past the castle and continued our hike through narrow streets choked with tourists.  Tiny cars attempted to push through the tourists, idling at a speed slower than walking, waiting in vain for the crowds to clear.  When we saw what appeared to be a shortcut away from the stifling, shrieking crowds of families, we took it.  We passed beaches full of bathers, and a shrine for Mary, and a children’s park.  There our path dead-ended.

We had to backtrack a ways, and find a better path up the peninsula.  At some point, we noticed a tram stop swarming with tourists, and we gladly paid 1 Euro each to ride the rest of the way in a covered tram.

The Grotto of Catullus

The sun was beating down, but we entered the Roman grotto area, eager to discover the ruins beyond.  Italian museums lack air conditioning.  The path led into a museum, and it had some interesting exhibits, which we were glad to see, despite sweat dripping off our faces and backs.  There were well-preserved Roman mosaic, pillars, utensils, jars, and other artifacts, all discovered at the site.  This lakeside villa used to belong to a wealthy “poet” nobleman who thrived during the time of Augustus Caesar.  The villa was destroyed by fire in the 3rd century, around the time when the Roman Empire was on the wane.  After that time, it was looted and used for various purposes, but the essence of its ancient grandeur lingers.

We saw that grandeur for ourselves once we stepped out of the hot museum and encountered a long colonnade of brick arches.  Tourists can explore these ruins at their own pace.  We continued onward, and saw ruined room after ruined room.  One part of the complex is labeled “room with a nice view,” and that’s an understatement.  Lake Garda is a crystal clear aqua color, with cloud-covered mountains as a backdrop.  It’s gorgeous.  This villa must have been a nice retreat for ancient Romans on their way between Rome and Gaul.  Local Italians apparently hang out here and swim in the aqua water, or pilot yachts and motorboats past the grotto.

The most impressive part of the ruins, to me, was a pair of a huge archways that must be four or five stories tall.  The fact that they’re in good condition, after two millenniums, shows that the medieval locals took good care of them, and respected whoever had designed and built them.  One of the archways has initials carved near the keystone at the top.  Someone must have used a ladder to get up there.

Archway at Grotte Catullo on Sirmione, Lake Garda

Archway at Grotte Catullo on Sirmione, Lake Garda

Satisfied that we’d seen what we’d come to see, we figured we had enough time to check out the castle as well.  So we sat at the tram stop and waited.  And waited.  An anxious mob of tourists eyed us.  When the tram finally showed up, it was only hauling one car; not nearly enough room for the mob of people waiting.  We tried to get aboard, but two people can’t compete with families of ten or more.  We couldn’t get on that tram, or the next one, which also took a long time and was also only hauling one car.  Maybe it was the time of the day, but it seemed the trams were no longer adequate.  So we had to walk back in the sweltering heat.  Three miles?  Five?  I have no idea, but altogether, I must have walked at least ten miles that day.  Not good for people with flat feet and plantar fasciitus, especially in a heat wave!

Scaliger Castle on Sirmione

We did take a quick look inside Scaliger Castle.  There are a few drawbridges, but most of what this castle offers to tourists today is beautiful views.  We saw a duck nesting in the moat, and a swan, and some large fish.  From the castle walls, we could see Lake Garda in all directions, as well as the medieval village.

Scaliger Castle, Sirmione on Lake Garda

Scaliger Castle, Sirmione on Lake Garda

We hurried back to our car, trying not to get a parking ticket.  By the end of that walk, we were both soaked in sweat and exhausted.  But I wanted to do dinner out instead of in the apartment, and I figured we must be near a lot of scenic lakeside towns that would soon open their restaurants for dinner.  So we headed to Desenzano del Garda, which is small by Italian standards, but indeed scenic.  Best of all, for us, the parking lot in town had open spaces!

The restaurant we chose looked nice, but it turned out to be the worst of the our trip, with poor service and food quality that was what you’d find in a low-end American chain restaurant.  We watched the sky darken over Lake Garda as the sun set, and wondered at some tourists in strange outfits, and a family with obnoxiously loud blonde children singing and marching in what looked like goose-steps, doing Nazi salutes.

Faulty Validation Tickets!

When we tried to exit the parking lot, the gate wouldn’t open and we got an error message.  So we were stuck inside the lot.  At a loss for what to do, I pressed the button on the machine that said “S.O.S.”  This turned out to be the correct course of action.  An Italian man spoke through the speaker, and he knew enough English to give us very unclear instructions.  He said, “Come to see me.”  Well, he was nowhere in sight.  So I backed my car up a long ways (dangerous in such a narrow aisle, but there was no way to turn around), and we saw a weird booth that looked like a shack.  Amy guessed the parking guy must be inside, and sure enough, he was.  He explained that the validation we’d gotten was faulty, and gave us one that allowed us to exit the lot.

Such a thing can’t happen twice in one night, right?  Apparently it can.  Our second mishap that night was another faulty validation ticket, this time at a tollbooth on the A4 tollway.  The gate wouldn’t let us through.  Once again, I pressed the S.O.S. button.  This time, the Italian man speaking through the staticky speaker sounded a lot less pleasant, and he hardly spoke any English.  After a lot of confusing back-and-forth, during which time the guy sounded angrier and angrier, we explained that we had come from Sirmione, and he told us, “Three Euros.”  That was enough to let us through.

But the worst mishap of that night happened after we were safely back in our Verona apartment and getting ready for bed.  The apartment had two bedrooms; one missing a lock on the door, the other with an old-looking key in the lock.  I opted to use the locked bathroom.  When I was done, I twisted the key to unlock it … and I heard a tiny breaking sound.  After that, nothing I tried could open the door.  I twisted the key every way, I tried to yank it out, I tried to turn the key while turning the door handle in different directions, I tried pushing the key further in, and so forth.  Nothing helped.

Locked in the Bathroom!

So I called for help, and luckily my friends could hear me.  Once they understood that I was trapped in the bathroom, they called the front desk for help.  The nighttime receptionist-manager was alone at the desk, possibly stressed out, and didn’t understand the problem at first.  He entered our apartment, apparently expecting some different problem, and he was surprised when I rattled the door.  “There is a person in there!?” he exclaimed.  Brian and Amy explained that the lock was broken, and he hurried away with assurances that help would be on its way.

I could only hear what was happening outside if I shut off the light, since the light and the fan were operated by the same switch, and the fan was loud.  So I stood by light switch and shut it off whenever I needed to talk to someone.  Brian and Amy assured me that the manager was getting help.  This turned out to be a process that took about an hour, and did not seem to include any locksmith.  The manager returned with a toolkit and attempted to get the key out of the lock, to no avail.  I tried to help from the inside of the door, to no avail.  “But this is incredible!” the manager said, and left again, maybe to find more help.

I wondered if I could sleep on a hard bathroom floor, using a towel for a mattress.  As stressed out as I was, I doubted I would sleep at all.  Meanwhile, Amy was working the far side of the door with the toolkit which the manager had left behind.  She pried off the lock plate, exposing the keyhole.  I could see my friends through the keyhole, but we still couldn’t get the key to slide out or unlock the door.  After a bit more work, Brian jammed the key through the keyhole and it came out in my hands.  The door remained locked.  The stressed-out manager returned, and this time, with the old key removed, he was able to unlock the door using his master key.

I did not lock any more hotel bathroom doors during this trip.

To be continued …

Adventure in Italy: Verona and Venice

Thanks to my friend Amy’s navigation skills, we drove the 3 hours from Turin to Verona without getting lost on confusing unmarked highways and spaghetti-shaped interchange ramps. We checked into the Residence Viale Venezia on the outskirts of town. This dormitory-style apartment was a welcome break for us, since we each got our own private bedroom, and we had booked it for four days. It turned out to be a little on the run-down side, with shower water that turned ice cold at random times due to a mysterious water heater, which we only learned how to reset on the last day. The neighborhood was a little bit sketchy, with homeless people sleeping on the streets.

Verona, Italy

Once settled in, we opted to skip the 2 hour walk around the city in scorching hot weather, but we did hike straight to the center of town to see the ancient Verona Arena, which was built during the 1st century A.D. by the Roman Empire and is still used today for opera performances. This arena looks like the Coliseum in Rome, and although not quite as big, it is better preserved, with a section of the outer wall still standing, and many of the inner gates in use for opera attendees.

Verona Arena

We spontaneously hopped aboard a tourist tram to see the rest of historic Verona. The tram had a loudspeaker recorded loop in three languages, including English. However, it was impossible to hear the recording over the noise of static and four shrieking children seated behind us. I can only guess at what the tram showed us. One site, for sure, was the “balcony of Juliet,” draped with vines, which was supposedly an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

We had a lovely dinner in the square around the arena, with lots of open-air restaurants and a tourist tram stop. Well-dressed opera-goers strolled through the square, and I noticed some local residents climb sloped rooftops to watch the performance in the arena, or sit on steps to listen. We could hear the opera and the applause inside. Since we walked completely around the arena, we noticed heaps of theatrical props piled outside, including gigantic sphinxes and pharaoh heads larger than cars. And on the way to and from our little excursion, we saw the ancient San Fermo church, and also what looked like a Roman gate.

Every day of our trip has been hot weather, so we end up as bundles of sweat. I needed to do my laundry at the apartment, and Brian warned us that European washers are slow. When I started my laundry around 10 PM, I was disappointed to see “3 h” light up. I assumed that meant 3 hours. When I checked the laundry around midnight, it said “6 h” and it was still going. Very disheartened, I fell asleep and hoped my clothes wouldn’t be wrinkled messes in the morning.  But fortunately, it turned out all right, and I hung my clothes around the apartment to dry. Later on, I heard from Brian and Amy that the wash takes about 3 hours.

A Day Trip to Venice from Verona

During our second day in Verona, Amy stayed in the apartment to recover from lack of sleep. I talked Brian into a day trip to Venice (it didn’t take much persuasion) by train. A quick internet search showed that trains travel regularly from Verona to San Lucia Station on the Grand Canal of Venice, and the trip is as little as 9 Euros per person, and less than two hours. So off we went.

We ate lunch in the Verona Porta Nuova train station, then caught a slow train that arrived in Venice at 3 pm. From there, we had no itinerary, so we crossed a scenic bridge over the Grand Canal and began to explore. Every street looked beautiful and strange. We passed lots of tourists hauling their wheeled suitcases, searching the maze of streets for their hotels. There didn’t seem to be any cars in that part of Venice, but boats serve the same purpose, with large “water buses” and “water taxis,” as well as private motorboats, kayaks, and gondolas with men in striped shirts poling them. The waterways are as busy as city streets.

I wanted a boat tour of the city. We passed some waiting gondolas, but we kept moving when the pole men told the us the price, figuring we could find a less expensive ride elsewhere. We crossed bridge after bridge, and went down crooked and curving streets, and soon got lost, but we figured we’d see the towering domes of big buildings along the Grand Canal and find our way back. Instead, we found other main waterways, with ancient and grand-looking buildings along them. I saw lots of water taxis passing by, so I stood on a dock and called out to one. Sure enough, he was happy to take passengers on a tour and end up back near San Lucia Station. We had the rather large taxi boat to ourselves! And these water taxis are in very good condition, with shiny polished wood. Our driver spoke good English and pointed out sites along the way. We went through some narrow canals where people live, and onto open water which is full of water buses, and so much boat traffic, it’s amazing no one crashed into each other. We passed a Gothic-looking hospital with water ambulances docked outside, and also the island which is used as a cemetery for the city.

Venice Grand Canal

Venice Grand Canal

Once our ride was over, we headed into a marketplace, where I bought some masquerade masks and other items for prices that are probably 1/5th what I’d find in Texas. We had dinner at a lovely restaurant along the Grand Canal, with spikes to scare away seagulls, and a canopy that retracted as soon as the sun went down. Then the lamps all lit up, and it was even more beautiful, with the colors of sunset lingering in the sky.

On the way back to the train station, Brian and I both bought watercolor paintings of Venician scenes from a street vendor; the artist and his daughter. I’ve noticed that the prices for artwork in Italy are seriously lower than what I’ve seen in the States. Food prices are on par, and gasoline is three times as expensive, but good artwork is so affordable, I’m sort of in shock about it.

We took the high speed “Frecciarossa” train back to Verona. Although this train looks aerodynamic, we thought it was not a whole a lot faster than the slow train. It had fewer stops, and we got back around 9 or 9:30 during a sudden thunderstorm. Our plan was to take the bus back to our apartment, but the weather was so gross and the signs were so confusing, we hopped aboard the only bus with the right route number. It turned out to be going in the wrong direction. Six other passengers made the same mistake, so we all had to wait for the bus to get to the end of its route and then loop back in the other direction; maybe 45 minutes extra.

What overseas vacation would be complete without a few mishaps? Keep reading and I’ll get to those….

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