Scams, Part Deux

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My favorite guys (not really), scammers, are out on the streets in Paris.  Although I previously wrote about scams and shell games, they abound and I have new photos.  Notice how they walk away in one of the pictures, that is because a cop had just walked into view.  Thieves, fraudsters, crooks, hucksters and n’eerdowell’s abound and there’s no way I could cover it all in my previous posts.  Here are some more scams you should be aware of.

Crowded trains/trams/busses provide abundant opportunities for pickpockets (beware on Geneva‘s public transport).  Pay attention.  Keep your hands on your bag.  Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket.  Pay attention to other passengers bumping and knocking into you.

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In a crowded train heist (common in Italy), dozens of future passengers squeeze their way into the train car, bus or tram a few minutes before departure. They exit just before the doors close and it departs, taking valuables with them.

See newspapers not only as a source of news, but as a handy screen.   I had a friend lose an iPhone to a nice old gentleman with a newspaper at a coffee bar.  Thieves don’t have to be old.  Beware of children (or anyone) waving a newspaper in your face.  It doesn’t have to be a newspaper.  If someone’s invading your personal space, you’re distracted.  It’s then really easy for a partner to come swipe your valuables.  Pay attention!

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Guys are suckers for pretty women.  Friends of mine are no exception.  They would strongly advise you to beware of pretty girls, especially those who invite you to meet them at a bar for a drink or suggest a restaurant.  Sometimes, they disappear and you get left with an insane bill.  The owners of the establishment are not usually open to discussion or negotiation.  You were warned.

I’ve always been afraid that someone will walk away with my camera.  It’s part of the reason you don’t see many pictures of the two of us together.  It turns out that I’ve got something else to worry about.  Sometimes those offering to pose with you in the cool period costume will have a partner willing to snap the picture.  They then hold your camera for ransom until you’ve paid for the most expensive picture of your life.   I’ll settle for cropping his fingers out of the picture like in the photo above.

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If something seems to good to be true, it is.  Don’t be a sucker.  If a taxi, rickshaw or any other mode of transport driver takes you to a store where the leather, jewelry, watches are priced low, there is a reason.

While we’re on the subject of cabbies, beware of inflated fares.  Check with your hotel to make sure your destination is open to avoid the it’s closed, but I know a better one just down the road problem.  You could also make them take you there to prove it.  Look for a license (if possible), otherwise, it’s just like hitchhiking with a price tag.

While not really a scam, I hate being taken or paying more than I have to.  In markets, stall/shop owners will frequently ask where you’re from.  They don’t do this because they want to make friends with you or just to get you to linger over their goods.  They are working out how much to charge you.  Obviously, if you come from a wealthy countries like the US, they think you have more money to spend.   Be careful with your answer, give and obscure/evasive answer.

 

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No World Wars In Western European Since 1945 = Nobel Peace Prize

Yesterday, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1993, I was living in Belgium and the Maastricht Treaty  (aka the Treaty on European Union) was taking effect.  It was all over the news…and I didn’t understand any of it.  I asked and a lovely Belgian friend explained it to me.   Before I tell you when they told me, lets detour to quick history lesson.   This is a list of just some of the battles that have the battles that have taken place on Belgian soil:

 

  • World War I The Battles of Flandres – There were five, yes five.  The First Battle of Ypres, the Second Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele, the  Battle of the Lys,  and the creatively named Fifth Battle of Ypres.  Germany and the Western Allies faced off once again in Belgium.  Industrialization increased the scale of wars and they took on a far more devastating nature.  Battles with over 50,000 fatalities became common.  Mustard gas doesn’t seem like a particularly good way to go either.  Belgian farmers still turn up canisters of gas when they plow their fields in the spring!
  • When the Germans wanted to invade France’s Mangiot Line fortifications built after WWI, they just went to Paris via Belgium.  Like many of the occupied countries during WWII, most of them weren’t too happy about their visitors.
  • Battle of the Ardennes (also known as the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne) – After the Allies landed in Normandy, they made their way to Germany.  If you’ve read the last few bullets, you know the easiest way from France to Germany (and vice versa).  Southern Belgium has the Ardennes mountains, which happen to be a good place to entrench (and freezing in the winter).  The Germans mounted an offensive and surrounded almost 20,000 American troops.  It’s famous for General Anthony McAuliffe‘s line, ‘Nuts,’ in response to the German’s request to surrender.  Although I have heard that  ‘Nuts’ was the only printable equivalent of the word that was actually used, it goes without saying that a battle ensued.

You get the idea.  If you got tired reading that list, you can imagine how tired the Belgians were of the wars themselves.

My Belgian friend explained to be that linking their economies and cultures so thoroughly that untangling them was more difficult and costly than waging war was the only way to prevent it from happening again.  At that time, many people were alive who’d lived through the occupation and the war.  I met people whose family members were shot dead in front of their house by the Nazis.  When you think about it, Belgium is a country that only experienced intermittent periods of peace before foreign powers again waged war on their soil.  As a citizen of the tiny country that was continually caught in the cross-fire, they were hopeful that the European Union would help put an end to the seemingly never-ending series of wars waged by European powers like England, Spain, France, and Germany on their soil.

You can’t read the news today without reading about the European Union’s problems.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have good reasons for not joining (which they haven’t in order retain their neutrality and independence).  Nevertheless, as someone who likes a lot of Europeans and likes to travel, there hasn’t been a war on Belgian soil since WWII and I will happily celebrate that.

Scams, Easier Than Working For The Money

Men with friendship bracelets in front of Milan’s Duomo wanting to make new friends

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”  – Albert Einstein   Where there are idiots, scams abound.  We’re almost all guilty of it at one time or another, turning off our brains when we go on vacation.  Heck, it’s part of the reason people go on vacation.  Because people walk around like pigeons, scammers abound in tourist destinations.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about shell games.  There are many other frauds we’ve seen or heard about anecdotally from friends.

When we were in Milan, he laughed at me when I yelled at people who would not leave me alone.    They kept trying to tie a string friendship bracelet around my wrist.  If they got it on, they would then demand an exorbitant amount for it.  If I didn’t want to pay, they would ask for the bracelet back.  Giving it back is often difficult because they will tie it extremely tightly around my wrist.  If I didn’t pay, they might rip it off and demand I pay them “compensation.”  I didn’t want any part of it.  Plus, it makes me uneasy to have something tied around me with a stranger holding the end of the string.   It would seem intimidating to have someone able to yank on my arm like that.

Later that day, someone asked him the time and then tried to make friends with him while he was waiting outside for me.  He didn’t pull his hands out of his pockets to reveal his watch and let it be known that he was in no mood to chat.  The man got aggressive, but he stood his ground and responded calmly but firmly (with a little bluff of his own that made the guy hightail it out of there).  When there are bell towers with clocks all around, someone who asks the time is trouble.

In Paris, a common scam is to approach someone in the street offering to sell a gold ring they have ‘just found on the pavement’.  This happened to a friend of ours who told them “we just saw you drop it.”  Usually, these gold rings are nothing more than a cheap piece of metal, perhaps even a plumbing pipe joint ring.   The prettier and more distracting the scammer is, the more likely an accomplice is also picking your pocket.

In Madrid, we had a friend get her purse stolen from inside a restaurant.  I thought I was being careful, but someone at the neighboring table stopped someone in the midst of grabbing mine.  We’ve had a friend lose an iPhones from her table when it was sitting right next to her coffee.  Just because you are “safely” inside a restaurant (or a museum), doesn’t mean that someone isn’t just as likely to steal from you.  We’ve heard of people using newspapers, flows, etc. to distract and cover up these thefts.  We’ve even heard of the thieves looking like fellow tourists.

Pickpockets and bag snatchers are everywhere.  They can strike at anytime, but you are an easy mark when you are distracted.  Friends got their pockets picked in Paris while exiting the subway.  Someone stood in front of them trying to get on and blocking their way.  An associate took advantage of this slowdown and distraction to remove their wallet.  Another friend had bags stolen from in front of the hotel while loading their taxi!

Sometimes the money takers wear uniforms.  Remember to validate your train passes in Italy, even if you have a specific seat number on a specific train.  A few years ago we made the mistake of not punching our ticket in the machine at the end of the line.  We’d just bought the tickets and with assigned seats on a specific line….  Needless to say that crying didn’t work, only cash was accepted by the conductor, the “receipt” was illegible, and when he came back through to discuss the problem with us, he wasn’t wearing any identification.  Yep.  I’m still sore about it.

In Geneva, I have seen the same extremely pregnant woman begging at the bus stops around town for the past year.  Although time has passed, her pregnancy has not progressed.  Her baby is probably setting a Guinness World Record for the most time in utero.

Also in Geneva, I had a woman try to show me how to work the public transport ticket machine at a bus stop.  She demanded money for her “services” and was very persistent.  In French, told her to go…  You can feel free to do it in the language of your choosing.

A Thirty Minute Tour Of Tirano

 

We stopped in Tirano because it is the end point for the Berninia Express.  Most visitors to Tirano stop on their way somewhere else whether on a train journey, to ski areas like to St. Moritz or Pontresina, or on the way to Milan. On someone’s advice, we decided not to stay in Tirano, Italy, but stayed in Lugano instead.  They told us Tirano was small and Lugano offered more to see and do in Lugano.  They were right.  It has only about 9,000 inhabitants (it is still considered a city because it has walls that were built to protect it).  We took a 30-minute train tour of the town.  Although it was in a wonderful setting, our tour was enough. Here are the highlights: The Catholic shrine of Madonna di Tirano is dedicated to the supposed appearance of the Blessed Mother to Mario Degli Omodei on September 29, 1504.  Pilgrims credit the appearance to an end to a pestilence.  They have a nice plaza around the church.

The town has some pretty old buildings but their beauty is trumped by the natural beauty of the Alps that surround it.

Tirano has a river, a gorgeous setting, some tranquil sun-drenched piazzas and some ancient, winding streets.  I’m pretty sure that the food there is pretty good.  We saw lots of people out in cafes enjoying the sun.  If we head there again, I will put it to the test.

 

Italian Unification

 

Although Italy has a long and storied history, think the Etruscans, the Romans, etc., it is easy to forget that it has been an independent nation for less time than the United States.  We learned some about Italian unification at the Risorgimento Museum in Milan. Since it was all in Italian, we could do some research after returning home.  Being history buffs, we found it interesting and liked the museum anyway.

Napoleon Bonaparte kicked out the Austrians and the Spanish out of Italy in 1796.  Until then, Italy had not existed a under a central power since the Romans.  It was a collection of city states that had been, for the most part, ruled by foreign powers (Austria, Spain, France).

Initially, Milan welcomed Napolean and built the triumphal arch, the Arco della Pace, for him.  They hoped that he would bring the ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality and brotherhood) to them.  In their eyes, he turned out to be just another narcissistic megalomaniac.  To express their dissatisfaction and disappointment, they turned the horses around.  Nevertheless, under Napoleon, Italy experienced it’s first taste of unification and it proved impossible to unring that bell.  It awakened hopes for Italy to become an independent nation.

The movement toward unification grew in the 50 years following Napoleon.  It started out as a revolutionionary movement on the fringes of society.  Since membership in this group (the Carbonari) was punishable by death, it was a secret society.  Understandable.

Giuseppe Mazzini led this professional revolutionary group.  Mazzini traveled extensively, spreading revolutionary propaganda, influencing Italian radicals and revolutionaries throughout Europe.  He was involved in the failed revolution 1848–49.

Giuseppe Garibaldi had a long military career before Victor Emmanuel convinced him to conquer Sicily.  In 1860 with 1,000 volunteers known as the Red Shirts, Garibaldi landed in Sicily, (which had rebelled against Francis II the king of the Two Sicilies), and conquered the island in a spectacular, daring campaign.  He then took Naples, and won a decisive battle on the Volturno River.  This led Victor Emmanuel’s proclamation as king of a united Italy.

Vittorio Emanuele II, king of Sardinia and the first king of united Italy.  He was the rallying point around which the movement coalesced.  These men were so fundamental to the formation of Italy that in virtually every Italian town, you find streets, squares, piazzas and buildings named after Victor Emanuel, Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour.

Camillo Cavour (statesman, premier of the Kingdom of Sardinia), pulled a fast one on France.  In a brilliant sleight of hand, he convinced them to drive Austria out of Italy (Franco-Austrian War).  One occupier down, one to go.   He convinced France to take part of Savoy and Nice in exchange for getting out of the rest of Italy.   Clever.

After Garibaldi’s victories and Victor Emmanuel’s coronation, when Tuscany, Parma, Modena, and the Romagna voted for annexation to Sardinia, Cavour sent Sardinian troops into the Papal States, which, with the exception of Latium and Rome, were soon annexed.  And presto, you have Italy.

 

Buon Appetito! Eating Our Way Through Milan

Although we saw some cool stuff in Milan, one of the main reasons to go to Italy is for the food and drink.  They are an attraction in and of themselves and did not disappoint.

We had at least two cappuccino for breakfast every day.  Italians only order cappuchinos until 10:00.  Although italians only drink cappuccino until 10:00 a.m., they pop in for expressos all day long.  If you run into a friend in the street, it is customary to pop into a café for a quick espresso at the bar while you catch up.  Ten minutes later, you’re back on your way.  Perfect for caffeine addicts like us who don’t always like to linger at a table.

Before dinner, Italian tradition is to have an aperitivo.  It is a pre-meal drink meant to stimulate appetite, but seems to be an excuse to go out for a drink, relax and chat with friends.   When in Rome, or Milan…

I loved the Antipasti, the appetizer course, because I usually hadn’t gorged myself yet so I could eat while I was actually hungry.  The food was so good that I did a good amount of eating when I wasn’t actually hungry.  It was so tasty that I just had to eat it.   Who knows when I’d have another chance to taste something like that?

One of his favorites was a cheese plate that included burrata, a fresh artisanal cheese made from mozzarella and cream.  Although people eat cheeses that are older than some of our nieces and nephews, you are supposed to eat burrata within 24 hours after it is made.  Ours came on a plate with fresh buffalo mozzarella and ricotta.  De-lish-us!

In Italy, pasta is usually the next course, known as Primo Patti.  Although they sometimes serve soup, rice,  polenta, etc., it’s usually a rich pasta dish.  Carbalicious.

Secondo, the main course, usually consists of chicken, meat, or fish.  With so many courses, thankfully the portions aren’t too large.  Most Italians don’t eat an antipastoprimosecondo and dolce at every meal, but the selections are always on the menu.  Just because we pigged out doesn’t mean you are required to.

The dolce (Italian for sweet), dessert, ends the meal.  People often order an espresso to help digestion and to finish off a meal.  Plus it gives them more time to sit and talk over food and drink.

Sorry, we couldn’t wait to take a picture before taking a bite out of our daily gelato.  We weren’t the only ones who liked gelato, just check out this cute little guy.  He was going to town on his gelato.  Notice how he is inside the restaurant.

Remember, friends don’t let friends serve each other packaged food.  Viva l’Italia.

La Scala, Where The Fat Lady Sings

 

 

 

 

 

“The opera ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings.”  Dan Cook (or Yogi Berra, depending on which version of the story you believe)

I grew up in a family of opera fans.  We named our pets after characters in operas.  As a result, I can’t even remember how young I was when I first heard of La Scala.  When we saw the outside, I thought “this is it?”   When it was built in 1778, it houses on the then-narrow street made it impossible to admire the façade. My dad never would have forgiven us if we didn’t do the tour, so we did (and picked him up a little something from the gift shop).  It was impressive.  Note: they want you to purchase the guidebook in the gift shop so very little is labeled in English and almost nothing is put in context for those unfamiliar with opera. Luckily, I’d absorbed enough by osmosis to recognize and understand the significance of some of the more important objects.  Opera lovers will be enthralled.  

Although they say no pictures,  groups of tourists happily snapped away at every available opportunity.   I snapped a few for you, although I tried to be discreet about it.  I didn’t use a flash and even made him cough to cover up the sound of the shutter clicking.  Watch out Boris and Natasha, there’s a new secret agent on the loose.  Actually, judging from the quality of the photos, your jobs may be safe.

The interior is amazing. Opulent and elegant, it is everything that such a legendary and prestigious place should be.  Charlotte has a nice theater and I “make” him go to the opera every year whether he likes it or not.  It’s good for him and the cheap seats aren’t much more than a movie.  Although Charlotte’s and many other theaters are larger, La Scala blows them out of the water. Check out the royal box.  Can you imagine seeing a show from there?  Can you imagine the hijinks that box has seen? Unfortunately, La Scala was bombed during WWII. Highlights of the museum include: The death masks of famous composers like Giuseppe Verdi Franz Lizst’s piano Toscanini‘s baton Verdi’s top hat, portrait, wives’ portraits, and other miscellany that belonged to or depicted the Costumes Ancient musical instruments

Highlights of the museum include:

  • The death masks of famous composers like Giuseppe Verdi
  • Franz Lizst’s piano
  • Toscanini’s baton
  • Verdi’s top hat, portrait, wives’ portraits, and other miscellany that belonged to or depicted the composer
  • Cool portraits
  • Costumes
  • Ancient musical instruments

Duomo’s Rooftop, A Sculpture Garden In The Sky

My favorite part about visiting the Duomo was the rooftop.  I’ve been to cathedral’s (like Strasbourg) where you can visit the bell tower, but I don’t know of any where you can visit the roof.  The Duomo’s is filled with statues (there are over 135 spires and 10x more statues), making the rooftop a sort of sculpture gallery with a stellar view of the city.

We always try to take the stairs, so we bought a ticket for the stairs instead of the elevator.  On a 35-degree day, it was an economically good, but exceptionally hot choice.  With views like these, who cares?

I brought my big lens with me and had a blast playing with it.

All of the statues are different.  Many of the ones that depict martyred saints were a bit gory.

The perspective was fascinating.   It was like walking through a forest of spires and statues.  I don’t like open heights, but there was no way I was missing this!

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Next to Milan’s Duomo, is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a four-story glass-covered shopping arcade.

We sat down for our first of several coffees at the Campari Cafe, just inside the opening.  The cappuccinos were the best these caffeine addicts had ever tasted.  I’m not exaggerating.  It was the best coffee I’d ever had.  Sitting on the patio, we had front row seats for some great people watching.   I am sure that people in Geneva and other places are just as interesting, but the culture is so private that you feel bad staring.  In Milan, everyone is there to see and be seen, so it feels perfectly acceptable.

Campari was invented in this historic café.  Giuseppe Verdi and Auturo Toscanini used to hangout here after a performance at the nearby La Scala Opera House.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was built right after Italian unification in 1870 to be a showplace for modern Milan.  This patriotic, art deco building still is.

It was Milan’s first building with electric lighting.

Guiseppe Mengoni designed it, but tragically plummeted to his death from the scuffling just weeks before it was finished.

For good luck, locals (and tons of tourists) spin on one of the floor’s mosaics.  The mosaic is of a bull, Milan’s symbol.  You don’t just step on any part of it.  You spin, grinding your foot into its, um, what’s the word for cojones in Italian?  We saw over a dozen people do it.   People walked out of their way to do a quick spin before continuing with their business.

I’m all for breaking some balls, but the extraordinary amount of wear and tear means that the poor bull gets a new set every few years.  The ground is permanently indented there.

Milan’s Duomo-mo-mo

From the square, the Duomo, Milan’s cathedral, is stunningly beautiful.   It looks fresh and cool in the heat of the day.  In the afternoon, it radiates with the warm late afternoon, early evening light.  At night, it glows.

It took centuries to build and spent most of its life as a construction zone.  Started in 1386, the building continued until 1810.  They added the final touches in 1965.  Renovations began shortly thereafter.  Go figure.  As a result, the inside is a mish-mash of architectural styles and materials. It is huge (housing over 40,000 only the Vatican’s, London’s and Seville’s are larger).   With 52 hundred-foot pillars, over 2000 statues (just inside) and countless enormous paintings, you didn’t know where to look.  It was a bit overwhelming and the huge mix of styles made it hard to process.

It contains everything, including the kitchen sink.  It’s so big, there has to be one in there somewhere.  Some of the more interesting items include:

  • The body of Saint Carl Borromeo in a glass casket in the crypt.
  • Rappers aren’t the only men who like to wear a lot of bling.  Apparently, priests and/or cardinals do as well.

  • On a similar note, kings aren’t the only ones who like to wear crowns.
  • That little red dot to the right above the altar is where they keep a nail reputed to be the one that nailed Christ’s right hand.

  • This guy was a little creepy.  Check out the hand.
  • Although the ceiling (second photo above) looks carved, it is actually a much more budget-friendly trompe l’oeil paint effect.  Top that Trading Spaces.

  • Even the marble floor is interesting.  We learned that black marble is harder than other marbles.  As a result, the different colors in the floor have worn unevenly.  Amazingly, you can feel it when you walk!

  • My favorite thing inside was the 16th century statue carved by a student of Leonardo da Vinci.  It depicts Saint Bartolommeo, a Christian martyr who was skinned alive by the Romans.  It is grotesque, but is an amazing depiction of human anatomy and a powerful sculpture in its own right.    Ironically, the knowledge of human anatomy needed to sculpt this was only available from dissection, something prohibited by the Catholic church at the time of sculpting.