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Greece

Jun 4

We got to our hotel in Athens on Wednesday evening just as the sun was going down.

The first thing you notice about the city is how nice the people are. After a couple days in Madrid, we were resigned to the “Europeans are rude to American tourists” problem. Athens turned that notion on its head. People were kind, caring and helpful. Dare I call their friendliness “Midwestern”?

The second thing you notice about Athens is the grime. The place could use a little TLC. It’s easy to understand how a city could come to be this way — the government’s broke and there’s large-scale protests going on at city hall. But you just get the feeling that the center of the city near the Acropolis, just blocks from a major international tourist destination, hadn’t seen a street sweeper or cleaning crew in a decade. Hard to imagine.


Here’s the view from our room.


View from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, where the food was almost as good as the sunset. Hello, Parthenon!

With only 24 hours in town, of course we had to trek up the Acropolis. It’s like a big state park. Pay 12 bucks and stroll around until you get tired. It’s quite the hike up the hill, and the views of the surrounding valley are almost as good as seeing the Parthenon itself.

The Parthenon is thousands of years old, and they’re doing an impressive restoration of many of the columns, which keeps parts of the building shrouded in scaffolding. As the pillars chip away, workers are creating small marble inserts that fill the cracks exactly. Would make for a fascinating episode of one of those “how they do it” TV shows.

It’s hard to believe just how much Athens sprawls out in every direction.

And there are tons of motorcycles in Athens. Just don’t open your car door too quick.

After Athens, we flew to Santorini, the true destination of our vacation. (Our trip planning began with a look at the white buildings perched on steep cliffs. “Let’s go there.”)

Santorini’s a tiny little island — about five miles tall by a couple wide — which is the remnant of a massive volcano that has twice (as recently as the 1950s) completely destroyed all of the civilized parts of the island. Before we left for Europe, concerned relatives mentioned the danger of going to Athens, where anarchy and tear gas would surely pose problems. I think we faced significantly more danger on Santorini. More on that in a minute.

You land on a runway that seems like it’s half as long as the island, then take a taxi through tiny towns at breakneck speed until you’re at the top of the hill. And then you walk around for 30 minutes trying to figure out which steps + door + narrow path combination leads to your hotel, getting more and more crabby, tired and frustrated until you see this:

April was a good and bad time to visit Santorini. Good because it’s too early for most other tourists, so the place is silent. Nobody around except the woman at the front desk and the guy who got a workout bringing food and poppy-seed margaritas to our room. But it’s not quite hot enough during the day to swim.

That worked out just fine, though. Having a couple days to do nothing but sit around and read magazines was pretty glorious, minus the sunburn. And with giant metropolis explorations on either end of the vacation, the small-town feel of Santorini was a welcome respite from the noise.


Stephanie made a friend. He liked ham.

Once the New Yorkers were all read and the sudokus were all finished, we actually left the resort. Locals say it’s a short walk down the hill from our hotel to the town of Fira.

About halfway down, we decided that the “short walk” was really a ploy to keep the local car rental businesses prosperous. All of the Smart cars were gone, so we found a place that rented four-wheelers. 24 hours for 10 bucks. No helmets required. Just get on and go. Previous experience? A form of identification? Psssh. Who needs ‘em? (Remember, the Greeks are super friendly.)

It was a fabulous, if dangerous, way to explore the island, which was just small enough that we could ride from one end to another on a couple gallons of gas.

On the northern tip of the island was Oia, with an upscale shopping area and lots of little restaurants with outdoor seating to watch the famous sunset. It was a couple miles from our resort on winding roads high above the water below. Beautiful.


Sunset watchers

The trip back from Oia was either “soooo fun” or treacherous, depending on which of us you ask.

Imagine those winding roads, high above the water below. IN THE DARK. WITH NO HELMETS. And, since this is a regular road, like with real cars and trucks, our little 100cc engine couldn’t quite muster enough power to lead the way home. Remember that scene from “Dumb and Dumber” where they’re riding the scooter in the mountains with a long line of cars behind since no one can pass? Yep, that was us.

The next day we made a stop at a little seaside town known for its black-sand beach. All of the locals were just arriving for the summer, so the town was filled with the sound of saws and drills as everyone fixed up their patios and awnings.

After we returned the four-wheeler (and climbed back up the hill to the hotel), we made the short, steep walk/climb to the top of Skaros, the site of an ancient castle that fell into the ocean during an earthquake. Scared of heights? Stay far away from Skaros.


The buildings are really just perched on the cliffs.

With that, we’re almost two-thirds of the way through the trip. Next top: Paris.

That time we went to Europe

May 28

You may have heard we went to Europe. But you haven’t seen many of the photos. So here we go.

Motivated by pictures of white buildings on impossibly high cliffs, we set our sites on Greece a couple years ago. It finally worked out this spring, so we headed east, in search of warm weather and relaxation. We ended up with nearly the perfect vacation — urban adventure sandwiched around a relaxing long weekend sitting by the pool sipping cold drinks.

We didn’t check any bags, just had carry-ons. And we didn’t take a camera besides my iPhone.

First stop: Madrid.

We navigated the trains without major incident and emerged from the tunnel in Puerta del Sol, an old town square in central Madrid. Our hotel is nearly visible in this picture, just past the green scaffolding. The square was a ring of restaurants and street performers and little cafes that sold jamon.

Lots and lots of jamon. Pigs were hanging everywhere in Madrid. Drying in the air. Just waiting for you to order a sandwich. Those sandwiches are the pride of Madrid, I think.

This guy hadn’t ever heard of The World-Herald.

On the first day in Madrid, we walked everywhere. (Later in the trip we figured we walked more than six miles most days.) On our second day, we got smart (or was it tired?) and hopped on a double-decker tour bus. Instant upgrade. It’s kind of an embarassingly touristy thing to do, but when you’re only in town for a couple days, it’s hard to beat. Tons of history, see the whole city, no walking, no cab/subway fares.


That’s Plaza Mayor. Giant central square surrounded by an old palace.


The Royal Palace. Open to tourists unless famous diplomats are in town talking about the debt crisis. This is as close as we got.


National Library. (Or maybe it’s a museum now?) Lots of statues of old dudes. Look close for the “300.” It was their anniversary.


A bank. Or maybe a government office.


Apartments. Not quite 24th and Leavenworth.

Bonus points for the tour bus because it’s in English. Or you can tell yourself you’re cultured and listen to it in Portuguese.

Santiago Bernabeu, the famous soccer home of Real Madrid

As we were leaving our hotel on Tuesday, the man at the desk asked us if we were football fans.

Sure, I said.

“Are you guys interested in tickets to the Real Madrid match tomorrow?”

HOLY CRAP.

Real just happened to be playing in the second leg of the Champions League semifinals the next day. Home game against Bayern Munich. One of the most important matches in Europe this year. And he’s offering tickets. AND WE’RE LEAVING TOWN. Epic fail.

We walked out the door into a sea of Munich fans who had taken over Puerta del Sol near our hotel in anticipation of the match. Horns blaring. Chanting. Heckling. At this point, kickoff was still more than 24 hours away, but it’s as if the Germans had flown all the way to Madrid and organized a pep rally outside our hotel door just to rub in the fact that we couldn’t go.

* * *

What else? We hung out with our friend Laura both nights. She’s teaching English to little kids and enjoys wine about as much as we do, which made for great fun.

We ate meatballs and tiny burgers with her over sangria as she explained the difficulties of teaching adjectives to rowdy fifth graders.

One night we ended up at a hip little hot dog place after listening to a Spanish lounge singer belting out American classics at a packed little bar. And then we found Iowa.

Not pictured: Stephanie swinging from that scaffolding near our hotel. And then falling.

Next stop (and next blog post): Greece!

A sweet tip

Oct 6

Brought back from a months-long blogging hiatus by an email trick? Well, you gotta start somewhere.

Just learned that you can append your Gmail address with a plus sign or a period and some text to create your own external filter of sorts.

An example probably makes this easier.

In effect, “bvankat@gmail.com” is the same as “bvankat+twitter@gmail.com”, which is the same as “b.vankat@gmail.com”. The email all goes to the same place. The sweet part is, you can use these “separate” email accounts to register for things online, then route the incoming mail based on the address to which it was sent.

Another side effect: Multiple twitter accounts!

Twitter only allows you to sign up for one account per email address. That’s fine. Most people don’t need more than that. But for people interested in additional identities (say, in the newsroom, where we manage multiple multi-user accounts) it was always hard to remember which email address was tied to which account. Not any more.

Granted, this was an extremely nerdy problem. But it’s still a problem.

Inspiration

Feb 16

The annual Society for News Design awards were handed out last weekend, and a secret ballot determined the winner of the contest’s “best in show,” known as the World’s Best Designed Newspaper.

Some years, multiple papers win, some years none do. Here’s a bunch of pages from this year’s lone winner, Portugal’s “i”.

Some truly beautiful ideas in there.

Also, Stephanie started her own blog! Turns out Tumblr has just the right mix of features and simplicity that was preventing her from posting more around here. So, until I find a way to pull those posts into this blog, definitely bookmark her new spot on the web: stephanievankat.tumblr.com

This is why the internet is awesome

Oct 7

We’re sitting here watching the Nebraska game and a commercial comes on in which we kind of recognize one of the actors. Trying to identify the guy is driving me nuts. Chris says to “ask the internet.”

So I did.

Typed “Who is that guy in the Lowe’s commercial?” in to the search box.

First result is a page on answers.com where someone asked the same question.

Answer: “His real name is RJ Kelly and he’s the same guy who rips off the kids in the Ally Bank commericals.”

No context. No clues. I didn’t even specify which Lowe’s commercial I was talking about. And in 10 seconds, I have the answer to my question.

Love it.

Huge

May 18

After skipping out on visits to the gym for the past, oh, two months, I finally got off my TV-watching recliner for some exercise.

Some time ago, I downloaded the workout DVDs for P90X, the loud infomercial screamer videos that basically scare you into getting into shape. Then, I promptly ignored them until last night.

The first video is an hour-long arms and back workout. And granted, I the “X” in P90X stands for extreme, but I wasn’t quite ready for 10 million pushups in the first 40 minutes. Yikes. Brutally sore today.

At work, I told someone about the different options for the workouts, which allow you to choose how vigorous of a program you want to follow. Basically, there’s one for “maintaining fitness” and another for “tearing off the sleeves of all your shirts.”

Then I got home and looked in the mirror.

Brilliantly timed coincidence or proof that P90X makes people stronger than the Incredible Hulk on Day 1?

You decide while I drink my creatine shake.

So awesome

May 6

If you listen to NPR, I don’t need to tell you how amazing it would be to have Nina Totenberg and Robert Siegel doing a Lady Gaga singalong. Behold:

Today in the newsroom

Feb 17

Managing editor walks over by my desk with two coats slung over his shoulder.

Me: Hey there. What’s with the coats?
Him: Oh, nothing. Just holding the mayor’s coat. He’s in the bathroom.

Then Jim Suttle comes out and they go to lunch.

Friday night at the Homy

Feb 13

Mom and Dad called us tonight to meet for some drinks at the Homy Inn after dinner. And, while they were waiting for us, they struck up a conversation with a guy sitting at the bar.

Friendly guy, a little intoxicated. He added talked Dad’s ear off and hit on Mom for a while before finally getting up to leave. But before he walked out, he gave one of the greatest drunken speeches I’ve ever witnessed.

He went on and on — probably three minutes — about how in love the two of them seemed. No matter what happens in the universe, they were always meant to be together, he said. (Which of course led both Mom and Dad to make a wisecrack about trying to get rid of the other.)

Here’s the guy’s kicker, directed at Mom. A classic:

“Even if you die and he’s still alive, you’ll still be together eventually, happily ever after. It’s just meant to be. You can both live on in another life in another universe. He’ll be the horse’s ass and you’ll be the jockey.”

And with that, he bid us adieu (no really, he bid us adieu!) and walked out the door.

Holy crap, watch this.

Jan 21

You’re probably doing yourself a disservice if you don’t watch this in full screen.

Alaska Nanooks 2010 Hockey Intro from Szymon Weglarski on Vimeo.

[Vimeo - Alaska Nanooks 2010 Hockey Intro]


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