The Incredible Invisible Milky Way

The Milky Way over Switzerland, (c) Stephane Vetter

Arlene and I just returned from three days in Mendocino, on the northern California coast. It had been foggy recently—a very common thing in Mendocino—but during our stay it was completely cloudless. And no moon! A stargazer’s paradise. I walked down the street to where there weren’t any nearby lights and looked up. And there it was! The magical mystical Milky Way: the combined glow of billions of stars in our own galaxy.

The Milky Way is magical to me because I can’t see it at home. There is so much artificial nighttime light in the Bay Area that only the brightest stars are visible. The Milky Way is still there, of course, RIGHT THERE, EVERY DAMN NIGHT, AND I CAN’T SEE IT.

My brother and I were both interested in astronomy at an early age. Every weekend we went around the neighborhood collecting used newspapers in the old red wagon, which we stacked up in our garage. Once we had accumulated a carload, we’d pile them into our Chevrolet station wagon and Dad would drive us into Oakland to the recycle yard. (I’m sure Dad spent more in gas, not to mention in his time, than we made selling the newsprint. He was generous that way.) After about two years, we took the money we had saved and bought a small telescope. I still remember the first night we used it and saw Saturn.

But we couldn’t see the Milky Way! Suburban Fremont in the mid-1960s already had way too much light pollution. Pretty much the only time I got to see the Milky Way as a lad was during Boy Scout summer camp, far from the city lights.  And as an adult, I still have to journey far to see it: this week was the first time I’d seen the Milky Way in several years. It’s one of the prices we pay to live in the city, and one of the reasons I often fantasize about living out of it.

Croatia 4: The Walls of Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik from the southeast

In 1929 George Bernard Shaw said “If you want to visit heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.” Hundreds of thousands of tourists take him up on it every year. We were there in May, before the summer hordes arrived, but it was still crowded during the morning hours when the big cruise ships were in port. Dubrovnik is very picturesque: you will be taking photographs around every corner.

View east down the Stradun from the walls near the Pile Gate

Dubrovnik boasts a magnificent wall completely surrounding the Old City, and for a modest charge you can walk the whole way around on top. I spent two hours making the circuit, wearing out my camera battery in the process. The walls have everything a castle-loving American could want: spectacular views, huge guard towers, 17th-century ruins, sheer cliffs above the crashing waves, and the chaotic geometry of hundreds of terracotta tile roofs.

Most of Dubrovnik was destroyed in the earthquake of 1667. It was rebuilt quickly, and so many of the buildings share the same architectural style, most notably along the wide main street, called Stradun (“big street”). Dubrovnik was shelled in the 1991 war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, an act that prompted widespread outrage. Almost all of the 1991 damage has been repaired, but I kept forcing myself to remember that this was only twenty years ago: all the adults here lived through that.

The island of Lokrum as seen from the city walls. According to legend, England's King Richard I was shipwrecked on Lokrum in 1192 on his way home from the Crusades.

For all its apparent livlihood, the most recent census counted only 1000 Croatian residents inside the Old City. Many locals fear it will become a ghost town, catering only to tourists—a sentiment familiar to the residents of Venice, 300 miles up the Adriatic coast from here.

Read David’s other blog posts about the Croatia trip!

Sheer cliffs down to the crashing waves
Terra cotta roofs and church domes

You’re welcome. No really, you’re welcome.

Whatever happened to “you’re welcome”? No, I’m not complaining that people aren’t polite anymore, far from it. But “you’re welcome” as a reply to “thank you” seems to be falling rapidly out of use. Instead, I hear people replying to “thank you” with… “thank you”. Huh?

I hear it all the time. I listen to a lot of radio shows and podcasts with interviews. At the end of every chat, the host says “Alice, thank you for speaking with us” and Alice usually replies “thank you.” My unscientific estimate is that this happens 80-90% of the time. The rest of the replies are almost usually some variant of “it’s been a pleasure”. But I rarely hear “you’re welcome”.

While I have various gripes about how Americans use the language (such as using “less” when “fewer” is called for), this one seems more perplexing than anything else. Saying “you’re welcome” hardly seems controversial, but clearly this has been a trend for some time. Back in 2004 I remember listening to Terry Gross interview former NPR host Bob Edwards on Fresh Air. At the end of the talk, Gross thanked Edwards for coming, and he replied “You’re welcome,” and after a pause he added “I’ve never liked it when people answer ‘thank you’ with ‘thank you.’ ”

Anyway, so you are welcome. Really.


Croatia 3: Where have you gone, Marko Polo?

Get your Marco Polo t-shirts here!

The Venetians hail famous explorer Marco Polo (1254?-1324) as one of their own, but Croatians will tell you that Marko—with a ‘k’—was actually born in the town of Korčula, on the island of the same name. For someone who died almost 700 years ago, he is in excellent health: Marko Polo house, Marko Polo restaurant, Marko Polo ice cream… the man is around every corner.

Marko Polo may have been born here. There's an admission charge, but not much to see.

Don’t let this deter you from visiting Korčula, however. It is a compact, circular walled town on the eastern tip of the island, overlooking the strait of PeljeÅ¡ac. It has charm and views in abundance. The distinctive herringbone pattern of streets was supposedly designed to permit airflow but to protect against high winds.

At the center of the walled town, at the top of the hill, is the cathedral of St Mark. The exterior is decorated with many carved faces: humans, mermaids, animals. The interior has a beautiful wooden roof which contrasts with the light grey stone. If St Mark rings a bell, it is indeed the same saint as San Marco in Venice—which makes sense when you remember that Venice controlled modern-day Dalmatia for several centuries. There are many buildings in Korčula decorated with the winged lion of Venice.

Fanciful carvings on St Mark's cathedral

I can also speak highly of Korčula’s pastries. The ice cream, not so much. Nothing we had anywhere in Croatia comes close to the quality of Italian gelato.

Read David’s other blog posts about the Croatia trip!

The walled town of Korčula as our ship approached the harbor

Croatia 2: Be careful in that belfry

I’ve always liked climbing up to the top of tall buildings in Europe. It’s probably because I like stone circular staircases so much. St Paul’s in London, Notre Dame in Paris, St Peter’s in Rome, the Duomo in Florence. Typically I enter a doorway off to one side of the cavernous central space, and ascend the various claustrophobic staircases until I emerge at the top and take in the breathtaking view of the ancient city. The large domes are particularly interesting because the final ascents are sandwiched in between the inner and outer shells of the dome.

In the belfry of the church tower in Trogir, Croatia
The harrowing climb up to the belfry in Trogir, seen from the top

So when we arrived in Croatia, naturally I wanted to ascend the first belfry tower I encountered: Saint Duje’s Church, inside the Roman-era “Diocletian’s Palace” in Split. I paid my 10 kuna (about $2) and I headed up the staircase. Halfway up, however, I realized what I had gotten myself into: instead of a safe, windowless stone staircase, I was on metal stairs attached to the sides of the tower on one side. The other side was a sheer drop to the bottom of the shaft. It may seem contradictory that I both enjoy climbing towers and have a pronounced fear of heights, but there you are. It took every ounce of “when am I coming back to Croatia? Carpe diem!” that I could muster to steadfastly ignore the  chasm beside me and concentrate only on climbing the stairs.

So two days later, in the delightful walled town of Trogir, what I did do? Why, I climbed another bell tower, this one with an even rustier and more rickety staircase than the first. My friend and fellow musician Mary Lea was a big help getting me to the top. The last few steps were as steep as a ladder, and involved stuffing myself through a hole about two feet square.

Looking up to the Trogir belfry from the base of the tower

Two belfries were enough for me! Later in the trip, however, I did take a walk along the magnificent city walls in Dubrovnik, which were stunning and not at all acrophobic.

Read David’s other blog posts about the Croatia trip!