Adventure in Italy: Val d’Aosta

As I write this, I’m sitting outside the ristorante at the base of the Hotel Au Soleil in Saint-Vincente, Italia.  We just spent the last two days in the Val d’Aosta, and we’ll be leaving tomorrow morning for Torino (Turin).

I think I’ve leveled up as a driver in the Italian Alps.  The rotaries are beginning to make sense, and so are the tollbooths.  I’ve learned that [P] Parking signs are rarely as close or convenient as they seem, and parking almost always includes a tariff, even if it’s a small one.  I’m driving a hybrid car, which at first had me worried that it would stall out at every red light or stop sign.  It turns out the engine just automatically shuts off when the car is idle, and it turns back on when I hit the gas pedal.  It takes some getting used to, and the car doesn’t have nearly as much “pick up” as I’m used to, but it gets wonderful gas mileage.  Three days into our trip, and we’re only down half a tank.  We haven’t had to fill up yet.

Monte Bianco Skyway

As for the Alps, what can I say?  They are as majestic and amazing as photos indicate.  The peaks are sharp twists of granite, with glaciers and snow between them, and clouds crowning their summits.  It’s 90 F in the valley, and we can see snow, and it looks close.  Earlier today, we drove through a series of mountain tunnels to the Monte Bianco Skyway, and we paid about 49 Euros per person to ride it up to the Helbronner peak.  From that height, about 11,300 feet elevation, we were able to see Switzerland and France, including the Matterhorn in distance (although it was obscured by a wreath of clouds), and the much closer Gigante peak.  I needed my jacket for about five minutes, since Italy is in a heatwave, but it was maybe 50 F at the top.  We saw people snowshoeing across the nearby glacier, and also rock climbing.

The skyway was built in 2015, and it’s really well-engineered—although this week it could have used air conditioning!  They pack a lot of people into the high-speed cable cars, standing room only.  The summit feels a little bit like a party, with a DJ and cool breezes.  There was also a crystal exhibit, showing that early crystal hunters used to climb these peaks in the 18th century to get crystals.

Skyway Monte Bianco

Skyway Monte Bianco

Cogne Valley

After that, we drove to the alpine village of Cogne, which is up a gnarly 12 mile cliffside road.  European drivers whip around the hairpin turns and swerve blindly into oncoming traffic lanes.  It makes me wonder how many of them die every month from cliff road accidents.  Anyway, I earned some experience points going up and down that road without dying, and it was pretty fun.  We looked for the Roman aqueduct which is supposed to be around there, but all we noticed from the road was an ancient-looking wall.  Maybe that was the foundation of an old castle, or maybe it was the remnants of part of the aqueduct.  Moving on, we checked out the Lillaz waterfall, which is very scenic, although it requires a bit of a hike to get to.  Cogne itself is gorgeous, with lots of wildflowers and mountains, and several scenic villages that look very Swiss.

Cogne Valley, Italy

Cogne Valley, Italy

We ended up not having time to visit any castles today, although we saw quite a few castles from the road.  Some looked medieval, some were in ruins, whereas others were more recent and ornate.

Aosta Valley

Yesterday, we spent a large portion of the day walking around the city of Aosta.  Not only is it a beautiful city, but it has an impressive history as a Roman gateway to Gaul.  Not much is left to see from the fallen empire, but there are remnants of a gate, an archway, and some pieces of a theatre left standing.  Against the backdrop of the Alps, this is all impressive to see.  We bought a day pass to see these sites, including a paleochristian church crypt from the 5th century, and an antiquities museum where a lot of local treasures and relics are displayed.  I thought it was interesting to see a chronology of the Roman emperors stamped into ancient coins.  There were underground archeological sites on display, where we were able to walk over plexiglass and see an ancient well, and other remnants.

Aosta Roman theatre relic

Aosta Roman theatre relic

Aosta has a lot of quaint, walkable streets.  We passed the Hotel de Villes, which is very fancy, and there was an artisan street fair out front.  We ended up eating at the Flavours di Val’Aosta, where I ate some kind of mashed chickpeas and candied bell peppers which they called a ‘burger,’ and it was super delicious.  There was an organ grinder to add to the quaint atmosphere.

Speaking of food, so far on this trip to Italy, I’ve been amazed and pleased to be able to find meals without dairy or cheese.  This was something I’d worried about, since I had trouble when I visited Paris in 2012.  But tonight we ate at our hotel restaurant, and they had several non-cheese options.  I enjoyed a steak with veggies, which were much more flavorful than what we might find in American chain restaurants.

Fénis Castle

Yesterday, we also took some time to visit Fénis castle, which is about 15 minutes from our hotel.  They only allow guided tour groups inside, and they told us the guide would only speak Italian, but that was okay with us.  Our guide ended up giving the tour in three languages: Italian, French, and English.  It was clear he hadn’t expected to have guests from a few different countries, but he did a great job!  I thought the most impressive part of the castle was a humongous fireplace used for roasting oxen; probably more than one.  Our group of 20 people or so could all stand inside this fireplace and peer up at the distant chimney, which looked pretty creepy.  This castle was apparently built in the 1200s, had its glory days around the 1500s, was abandoned around the 1700s, and used as a barn in the 1800s.

Fenis Castle

Fenis Castle

Tomorrow we are going to drive to Turin and see what we see.

Adventure in the Italian Alps: Flight Day

My adventure begins.

I’ve looked forward to this trip to northern Italy all year.  It took a lot of planning, and I hope that will pay off.  We ruled out Rome and Naples right away, since it’s the heat of the summer and the height of summer tourism.  I will make a separate trip to those places, preferably in spring or autumn.

It was a lot harder to cut Florence and Venice out of our trip.  The reason was logistics.  We only have a limited time of 12 days (14 days if you include air travel), and I’ve put a high priority on seeing off-the-beaten-track places, such as the Aosta Valley and Sacra di San Michele and Portofino.  Reliable, on-demand public transportation in the Italian Alps looks iffy and hard to find, at least on the internet, so we’re renting a car.  But it seems that having a car will be a pain-in-the-ass in cities.  Venice and Florence have restrictions on non-locals driving around, and travelers who have visited Italy say that driving through intersections and roundabouts in big Italian cities can be a game of “chicken.”  At first, I figured we’d leave the rental car parked somewhere and take a train into those major cities.  But if I made Florence or Venice a priority, I’d have to cut out a number of days in the off-the-beaten track places.  And if I only allocated two or three days to sites in the Alps, it seemed pointless to rent a car, which would transform this vacation into a different kind of trip.  Maybe we could hire an Uber or something, but I’ve been unable to find out how feasible that is in Italy.

So this is my off-the-beaten-track rental car tour of the Italian Alps.  We’ll spend some time in Milan, Turin, and Verona, but also in the Aosta Valley and Lake Garda.  It should be … amazing.  I’m sure I’ll make an effort to return to Italy to see Florence, Venice, Rome, Naples, and the many other places I’ll miss seeing on this trip.

As I write this, I’m in the Austin Airport waiting for the first leg of my journey to JFK in New York.  From there, I’ll take an overnight Emirates flight to Milan which arrives at noon the next day.

I was unable to choose seats on the JetBlue flights through my Emirates reservation.  I thought that was weird, so when I got an error message trying to check in online (“unconfirmed passenger, see a JetBlue representative at the airport”), I had a panic attack.  It turns out they just needed my passport, and apparently they lack any ability to do that online.  So I chose a seat for my return back to Austin in 14 days, and now I’m feeling good!

Thank you to my roommate and coworkers, holding down the fort while I’m gone.

It’s 2018? Holy Crap, Life Got in the Way.

Happy New Year! It’s 2018, and I’ll turn forty in a few weeks.

Some of my peers have enjoyed major leaps forward in their career, or their family, during the past year or two. I don’t feel as if much has changed for me. That’s a frustrating feeling. When I look back at what I accomplished in a year, it doesn’t seem like enough. I finished the final draft of Book 1, and I’m halfway through finalizing Book 2. I also began writing Book 6. I’m on track to finish my enormous epic series this year or next.

But where’s my audience? Shouldn’t I be building my readership? How do I expect to compete with the millions of other SFF authors who are busy promoting and cross-promoting?

Yeah. That’s what I need to work on.

If you are one of my readers, please understand how grateful I am. My blog posts sometimes veer into naked angst, as I’m on the journey to becoming an “authorpreneur,” or self-made author. My heroes are Scott Sigler, Hugh Howey, Andy Weir, Drew Hayes, Michael J. Sullivan, and a bunch of other self-made authors who built an underground following and made it into the mainstream. I want a career like theirs. I write epic sci-fi and fantasy, and I’m confident that I’ve got something original and unique, and, well, exceptionally good. But proving that is different from doing it. There’s writing books, and then there’s selling books, and those two endeavors are not the same.

Before I publish Book 1, I need to send out ARCs (advanced reader copies), and ask for reviews and endorsements. I need to firm up my launch plan and set a date. I need a good cover artist, and I need to find a good audiobook narrator. I want to hire a virtual assistant to help me with ads and promo and newsletter activities. I’m afraid of blowing a lot of money on the launch, only to have the whole series fizzle and die along with my author career. This launch will be the culmination of decades of hard work, for me. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime risk. I’ll publish other series, but I doubt I’ll ever put this much effort and stress into one again.

You can help by asking for a copy of the first book of my series. It has an ending, so even if you’re not a series reader, you’ll still get a kick out of it, especially if you have any interest in exploring crowd psychology through a SFF lens. I’ll be happy to send you a free e-book version, in exchange for an honest review when I hit the “publish” button.

Here’s a few highlights from my past year:

  • I enjoyed a vacation in South Korea, right when all those nuclear threats were flying around.
  • I visited New Orleans for the first time, during the French Quarter Festival.
  • I made a few dollars worth of passive income, through RedBubble, 3DExport, and TurboSquid. I only have a few illustrations and 3D art assets for sale, so it’s cool whenever someone buys one, because I know they’re a random browser who doesn’t know who I am.
  • I’m very proud of the short story I have published in the Futuristica sci-fi anthology. This is one of my best.
  • I got into trading cryptocurrencies, and it looks like I may make a few extra hundred or thousand dollars, although nothing is guaranteed in the crypto underworld. It’s a lot more exciting than investing in stocks, since it’s so volatile, with so much mystique.

And a few things upcoming in 2018:

  • I’ll have an article published by Writer’s Digest.
  • I’m going to get a Lasik consultation. Since my eyesight is -10, I probably won’t be eligible for the surgery, but I’m curious about new alternatives, such as lens implants.
  • My travel plans include the Cayman Islands, thanks to the awesome company where I work.
  • And I’m likely going to take a trip Europe later this year, possibly to Scotland, or to Austria.
  • I’m still co-hosting the Stories for Nerds podcast, but I’m considering attempting something strange and new on Twitch.tv.
  • I will try my best not to let being forty years old and single get me down. Treasure what you have.

Maximus Post-Mortem

I had some great times and lived a lot of life in my 2000 Nissan Maxima.

There was that road trip through New Mexico in 2010 with my friends Amy and Brian, when we visited George R.R. Martin at his home office, and explored Taos and White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns.

And that 2009 road trip around Texas, from Austin to Corpus Christie to Houston and back, with my friend Kendra. We got pulled over late at night, and the cop seemed to think we must be Thelma and Lois.

And that 2008 road trip down Route 66, from Los Angeles to St. Louis, with my friend Valerie, when we hiked through the Painted Desert and stopped at ghost towns.

That Maxima took me to the Grand Canyon with Tom, and to San Francisco with Kate, and to the Sequoia Forest with Sarah, and to San Diego Comic Con several times, and through Joshua Tree forest, and along the Pacific Coast Highway, and many dozens of times through Topanga Canyon and Angeles Forest and Newport Beach.

I used that Maxima to commute to my first job in the video-game industry, at Paradox Development in Moorpark. If the 118 freeway was clogged, I used an alternate route that wound through orange groves and then up a steep switchback mountain pass, where I’d sometimes get stuck behind a slow-moving truck from the nearby mine.

That Maxima took me to clubs and movies in Burbank and Hollywood. I have so many memories of cruising in it down Sunset Blvd. or Mulholland Dr. or Fairfax, or visiting the Getty Museum, or Pasadena, or Santa Monica. So many memories of traffic on the Hollywood Freeway and the 5. There was that one nightmarish 7 hour long jam when the 5 freeway shut down when the Hollywood Bowl was letting out, and cars had to back off the freeway on ramps, one by one, to get out of the gridlock.

At some point in its life, the Maxima acquired the name Maximus. I drove Maximus from Springfield, Missouri to Austin, Texas. Maximus took me from Austin to San Antonio dozens of times, and also to Houston and Dallas and San Marcos and Corpus Christie.

After that crazy road trip through Chaco Canyon, where I drove 17 miles down a washboard dirt road with cattle and dust in the way, Maximus needed his first major repair. It was a catalytic converter, I think, and the suspension and muffler needed to be replaced.

Then Maximus needed CV axles replaced. The battery died, and then the alternator, late at night. Huge thanks to my friend Mike for fixing that. The tires began to go flat on a regular basis. I got a flat tire driving home from a New Year’s Eve party in 2015, which was fun with the fireworks going off everywhere.

I kept putting off buying a new car, because other things in life were so much more important and immediate. My career and my relationships needed attention. Maximus seemed fine after each repair, and I figured that I would know when Maximus stopped being reliable. He only had 135,000 miles on him. Surely he could go until 200,000. Heck, I have two different friends who drive Fords (an Expedition and an old pickup truck) with more than 250,000 miles on them.

Well, towards the end of 2016, I realized that I could no longer trust Maximus to keep going without a lot of major repair work. He might only be at 145,000 miles, but he was old, manufactured before the turn of the millennium. I’d rented cheap economic Versas that felt more spry than him, and they had modern bells and whistles, such as USB connections and Bluetooth. Maximus used to be a powerful, fast car. Now he’s slow to roll and slow to stop. When I took him to the local dealership for yet another repair, they gave me a list of recommended fixes that looked expensive enough to buy a younger car, and I knew it was time to send Maximus on to his final stages of life. I don’t know where’ll end up. But he’s gone now, sitting in a dealership lot, probably ready to be auctioned off or sold to someone in need.

Maximus the Maxima was a good car. I think he should have lasted longer, but I’m very glad to be driving something from this decade.

Maximus the Maxima

Maximus the Maxima

My Blog is Special

I’m not the sort of person who overshares about my mundane life. I have a day job that I enjoy, I have wonderful friends, I have a love life, I come from a family, I used to own dogs, and I’m fully aware that all that stuff is irrelevant to a complete stranger. Sure, I could spice it up and make it all fascinating (I am a writer), but then truly personal details would slip into my posts, and I’m not comfortable with that.

At least not on social media.

This blog is my corner of the internet, so here I’ll take risks and touch on touchy topics. I solemnly vow that my blog posts (and my newsletter) will always contains substance and depth. If you just want my version of sarcastic quips and fun media, then follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

Also, I’m not here to shout into the aether. I want discourse. I want interaction. The more comments I get, the more I’ll blog about worthwhile subjects.

Thank you for reading.

The Time Has Come

Thanks to developer Adam Thompson of First Earth Game, my website was converted from a hacked-together HTML framework to a professional-grade WordPress site, hosted on Digital Ocean. Artwork is by the ridiculously talented Byzwa Dher. I did the visual design. I’m so excited about this change!

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