Sunday, November 5, 2017

When California Meets Florida

When California meets Florida, the comparisons are inevitable. Both have Disney, Universal, and miles and miles of beach, and let us not forget, oranges. But exactly how does Southern California differ from Southern Florida? As a left-coast resident, the prospect of traveling to Florida, even if it were for business, was intriguing. The southeast of this great nation has not yet made it on to our travel list. So, boarding the flight and heading out to an international conference in Orlando, J and L set out to discover what all the fuss was about.

Mountain lion -- just chillin in the warm California sun
As the plane touched ground in Orlando, a fellow passenger and native Floridian remarked, "Welcome to Florida, where everything bites."

Not exactly the kind of warm welcome one might anticipate. Everything bites? Oh yes, mosquitoes, alligators, and the endangered Florida panther.

The panther, named the state animal in 1982 doesn't roar (or should we call it a scream) like it's California cougar cousin, the mountain lion. The California indigenous mountain lions can be found in many places in the state of California and beyond, and despite the fact that an adult male can weigh 200 pounds, with a body length of fifty-four inches AND a three foot long tail, they are elusive and secretive creatures, seldom seen by its human neighbors. And thank goodness! They can jump 18 feet into the air from a sitting position and take down a deer or elk every week or two. With plenty to eat, the mountain lion population is thriving.
This Floridian looks a little angry...
On the other hand, the Florida panther is endangered.  It emits distinctive sounds including whistles, chirps, growls, hisses and purrs, reminding us that this deadly creature is related to that innocent-looking house-cat reading over your shoulder. Slimmer than it's California cousin, males can average about 160 pounds, but can be over seven feet long. That body style allows the panther to jump fifteen feet into the air and forty feet horizontally. Suddenly a thought entered my mind --  perhaps I should stay on the plane.

We were assured that this endangered critter generally did not attend conferences; we were safe.

So, off to do business, and see what else Florida had to offer. Off in a rental car we came across our first (of many) toll roads. There are few toll roads in Southern California, but a lot a of traffic congestion. Very little congestion in Florida, but you literally have to pay for it. Maybe that's not a bad a trade-off.

And scenic? Residing in Southern California's High Desert region, we haven't seen so much green since visiting Ireland a few summers back. And water? No apparent drought here. Whereas Southern California is on nearly permanent water restriction, and the local municipalities will even pay you to quit watering your lawn, green things abound in Florida. Consider the Mojave Desert and Death Valley versus the Everglades, the 'River of Grass.' Water everywhere. Well, they did just have that hurricane. Hmmm. We have earthquakes and fires. Mother Nature does have her way of keeping us humble.

But it is the culture of Southern Florida which really caught our attention during this brief visit. There is a distinct tropical aura, more reminiscent of the Caribbean or Hawaii, than of California. Which makes perfect sense when you think about it. Los Angeles is more subtropical than tropical, situated at approximately 34 degrees north latitude, compared with Orlando at 28 degrees north. The cultural feel is that of a mix of Northeastern US, Canadian and European transplants. Even the Latin feel is different: Cuban and Puerto Rican rather than Mexican in influence. Couldn't say from such a brief visit, but there seems to be a general feeling of a slower pace than Southern California. Perhaps because Florida remains a mecca for retirees, with a median age of 42, eleven years older than that of California. No rat race here.

Florida's version of a screening room
With beautiful weather most of the year, residents like to spend a lot of time outdoors. Californians may dine, or sip a glass of Napa Valley wine on their back porch, year round. Floridians may have to employ a few safety precautions to enjoy these year-round outdoor pleasures. Case in point, the Florida porch -- keeping your children and pets safe from alligators and mosquitoes. Smart idea, if you want to enjoy your Florida orange juice in peace. Remember, humans aren't the only creatures which thrive in warm weather.

Florida definitely has California beat when it comes to cost of living, taxes, and even golf (California comes in third behind Florida in the ranking of best courses). No wonder retirees love this place. Instead of sunscreen though, Florida golfing requires a generous dose of repellent. And do not even think about rescuing your errant ball from the water hazards. Those alligators aren't too quick on land, but they own the water.

Both coasts have always attracted tourists from around the world since the 16th century Spanish explorers "discovered"  the areas (Native American residents notwithstanding). California has flown the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the US, becoming the 31st state in 1850 after gold was discovered. Florida became the 27th state five years earlier, after flying both the Spanish and British standards.

Clearly, SoCal and SoFla seem to attract dreamers from around the world -- very cosmopolitan. While crime, natural disasters, drugs plague these beautiful areas to a similar degree, families live and play with relative abandon at the attractions and beaches alike. There exists in both the Golden State and the Sunshine State, a general feeling that life is about as good as the weather. What more could you ask for?

About those beaches though...

California has the waves, the dramatic coastlines, whale watching, and...well, the occasional shark.

Florida has warmer water, two coastlines (Atlantic and Gulf), and...yes, there are sharks here, too. And manatees. There is, however, no wet suit required, and fortunately, the alligators don't surf.

And this guy's just a baby....
So, if you can handle the humidity....get out there and enjoy a bit of Florida sunshine.

Just remember though:  everything bites.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Vlad's Birthplace

The fortified town of Sighisoara
Sighisoara is an idyllic city, but is also the birthplace of a man was who born to be remembered for his gruesome atrocities against humanity. Then again, if you ask the folks from Romania, the vast majority with whom we spoke believe this very same man is a national hero. To the Romanians, Vlad Dracula saved Europe from the invading Ottoman Empire. Though he may have left a trail of death wherever he and his army marched across the country, one fact remains steadfast - the Turks left Europe broken after encountering what this man was capable of.

Am I hero or monster? Choose your answer very carefully!
He didn't earn the nickname from those very same Turks as Vlad the Impaler (Tepes) randomly. No, this Prince of Wallachia used unimaginable tortures on his enemies, both foreign and domestic. He was cruel, there is no doubt, but 15th century Europe was cruel with empires fighting each other constantly, family murdering family to take the throne, invading armies butchering everyone and everything that they came across. At that time, life was cheap.

Very cheap.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's start with a cute little story of a boy being born in the small village of Sighisoara.

In the wooded lands known as Transylvania, centrally located in Romania bordered, by the Carpathian Mountains, Vlad's father, Vlad II had lived in a small three story home in the fortified town of Sighisoara. He had been destined to rule Wallachia but had to leave and live in a brief exile in Transylvania when his half-brother, Alexander I Aldea invaded Wallachia and dethroned Dan II.

Vlad II - Vlad III's father

Fortified entrance for Sighisoara

View from the top of the original Sighisoara
Seems complicated? During the fifteenth century in Europe politics were nothing if not confusing - trying to keep up with who killed who for the throne, (and there were many thrones), is enough to drive a researcher batty.

Get it? 'Batty' and we are writing about Transylvania and vampires - well not vampires exactly, but the region from which Bram Stoker got the idea for his infamous vampire tale. Clever!

Laureen getting ready to visit Vlad III
So, the Dracul family's patriarch, Vlad II, had become a member of the Order of the Dragon in 1431. He was inducted by Sigismund of Luxembourg, while living in Sighisoara awaiting when the moment that the time would be right for Dracul II (as he came to be known) to move back to Wallachia and regain his throne.

The house were Vlad III was born...

Campy but fun - Dracula trying to make a meal of John.

But this isn't about Dracul II. Rather it is about a little boy born into a family with a mother, perhaps Dracul II's wife, Cneajna - a daughter of Alexander I of Moldavia - or a mistress, along with his older brother Mircea. Dracul II's last male child, Radu wouldn't be born until around 1439. So, the Vlad Dracula we know from countless tales and films started life like any other person who was born into royalty.

He was brought up to read, write, master horsemanship, learn warrior skills, and perhaps a few other skills that would make him a delight in any royal court.
Little Vlad used to run through these streets as a young boy...
But then again, little Vlad III did grow up to be something the world had never seen before.

A monster or a hero, depending on your perspective.

And this is the question we pondered during our trip to Romania. Who was this person? This Vlad III - was he the hero who kept Europe safe from the Ottoman Empire? Or just a psychopath who enjoyed killing for killing sake?

If a monster - why all the plaques and statues of him throughout so much of Romania?
Doing research for a new novel - J mentioned that one thing he learned from the three weeks traveling Romania is that he knows less than he did before the trip. There are so many back alleys and plot twists to understanding who this person made famous, or infamous, by the Irish writer Stoker that it almost defies comprehension.

A store owner in a cobbled narrow street of Sighisoara shared that to her and most Romanians, Vlad III - Vlad the Impaler was a national hero. She said that if I were to write his story, please let the world know he was a good man, a true hero, and of course, not a vampire. Though she did admit his way of restoring order in a difficult time may have seem cruel. She said, "He was a cruel leader for a cruel time." We must judge individuals by the time in which they live. Very wise, these Roma.

The tourist information administrator, the one dissenting voice with whom J and L spoke in our travels, stated that she believed Vlad was nothing but evil. "I've never heard anyone say he was a good man."

J stated that he never said Vlad III was a good man but perhaps a hero.

"I've never heard that either," the woman followed up.

Pretty women love the bad boys - don't they?
Whatever her beliefs were, there is one thing that is certain about Vlad III - the Dracula in Stoker's novel - he is good for business. The main portion of Romania's tourists come for one thing and one thing only - Dracula.

Many shops depend on the myth or reality of Dracula - Vlad III
Traveling the highways and byways of Romania, one can get a certain feeling that the population - a large part of the population believes Vlad III is a hero but there are those who feel the methods he used to control the population were beyond cruel and bordered evil.
Was this gargoyle in Sighisoara a harbinger for of the future reign of Vlad III?
Of course, it is not these researchers purview to decide on how people should feel but just to simply write stories backed by research and exploration.

Then again, this is the telling of a young boy being born in 1431 in a small but important fortified town in Transylvania.
Dude, who are really? And don't impale me for being impudent?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Renaissance Faire - Big Bear Style

Since J and L first started this blog years ago, we always suggested looking in one's own backyard for something fun to do. Excitement is just around the corner if the adventurous go in search of interesting things to explore.

How about a Renaissance Faire? Renaissance in those costumes, please!
That's what we did on a very warm weekend in Southern California. With temperatures in the triple digits, the traveling duo, along with their friend and cameraman Paul Bakas, headed for Big Bear to the Renaissance Faire and cooler temperatures. The Faire was held in the mountain community of Fawnskin, where, at 7000 ft elevation, it was twenty degrees cooler, making the short hour drive well worth it. The venue was situated in a forest of beautiful pine trees which made us feel as though we were transported back in time.  Colorfully dressed knights, ladies, minstrels, entertainers, and guests strolled among the dozens of vendors selling anything from potions to weapons. There was something for everyone.

The afore-mentioned photographer, Paul Bakas, taking a selfie the hard way.
The Big Bear Renaissance Society has been around since 2002 and is a non-profit educational corporation. The purpose of the Faire is to bring history alive for both children and adults alike. The event which runs every weekend in the month of August, allowing people to walk through the pines and view events which mimic what times must have been like during the time of the Renaissance. There are jousting matches, jugglers, sword swallowers, story tellers, and a host of others dressed in period garb.

And he juggles too - ten feet off the ground
This particular weekend was themed as 'steampunk' at the Renaissance!

Is this Steamed Punked enough?
It was like science fiction meets the Old West, which then in turns meets a bunch of people from the fifteenth century.  An eclectic turnout of individuals to be sure.

All sorts of revelers were on hand - from various centuries
But where the heck did this idea for reveling in the past come from?

A tired but still fighting Black Knight wanted to know the same thing...
The history of these Renaissance Faires is actually quite unique to the United States. That doesn't mean to imply that in other parts of the world there aren't themed weekend events, but this is certainly a more American experience. Research points to the beginning of these faires in the United States back in the 1950's. John Langstaff, a traditionalist folk musician wanted people to relive the medieval times and created a music revival in 1957 in New York City. It was referred to as 'A Christmas Masque of Traditional Revels' and was a huge success. In 1966 there was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production with Dustin Hoffman in a starring role and finally in 1971 Langstaff created the permanent 'Christmas Revels' in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

We truly believe though the actual beginning of what today is known as the Renaissance Faire began in Southern California. In 1963 a schoolteacher by the name of Phyllis Patterson, along her husband Ron, put on a small faire in her backyard in Laurel Canyon as a class activity. It caught on and they conducted a one weekend fundraiser for radio station KPFK in Los Angeles - and thus the living history of the Renaissance was born. As the years went by the Patterson's expanded the themed weekend due to all the attention they were receiving both locally and nationally. Soon, Renaissance groups were multiplying and through the decades there are dozens upon dozens of groups who build imaginary English villages from the deserts of California to the green forests of Vermont.

Looks like a small English village, even with a traveling juggler
And here we were in Big Bear pretending to have dropped backwards five centuries to drink mead, chomp on turkey legs, and yell 'huzzah' about a million times per hour. Laughter, yelling at knights on horseback, listening to a foursome of crazy Dutch trying to get the crowd to sing, and other activities kept the guests very busy and happy.

Crazy Dutchman (his words, not ours) trying to get us to sing in harmony
The jousting and dismounted fighting contests were a thrill and the crowds roared for their favorite Champion.

Ready for battle

This actually followed the original jousting matches held in England during the time of the Renaissance. Knights would meet at the King's request to hold festivals and conduct death defying acts of bravery. Charging at an opponent on the back of a horse with a staff made of pointed wood does seem rather brave or rather stupid. In the eyes of the beholder one would assume. We think the latter is more accurate. Anyway, the contests would go on for a day or more and prizes would be awarded by the monarch to the eventual winner - usually the last man standing. And here we were in twenty-first century about to watch a re-enactment of the festivities held over six hundred years ago or longer.

Of course, the Lady of the Day had to come out and thrill the crowds upon her beautiful mount. The contests could only start after her grand entrance and exit. Grace was the only word that could describe the moment she entered the arena.

What a beautiful moment between horse and rider

After the Lady and her steed left the arena the games began - and what games they were.

The Red and White Knight - Our Champion!

The Blue and White Knight 

The Black Knight getting ready to finish the Blue and White Knight
Unfortunately, the Black Knight dispatched our hero in the first round and then after a brutal battle with lances, swords, and mace he easily killed (only pretend) the Blue and White Knight. We do believe the fix was in - it always seems as though the evil knight wins. Or is that just in fairy tales?

After the crowds dispersed from the jousting arena it was time to wander through the village taking photos and looking for the next entertainment. Of course, that called for a call at the pub for a Dragon's Blood and a stout mead.

Laureen, admiring the action.
If there's a stage, then J is at home delivering his thoughts.

...and of course, there's always time for shopping...

And finally the pub - it was rather warm and humid- a needed health break

A moment of Cheesecake for the ladies in the audience
After cooling down a bit - and we mean just a bit it was time to venture out and find some more entertainment for the afternoon.

One unbelievable performer was the acrobat who joked with the crowd while literally standing on his head ten feet above the ground on thin posts stuck into a metal table. He relayed how he and he had started in gymnastics at the age of five and now traveled the world performing for crowds. One of the strangest tricks, to say the least, was when he tugged a tennis racket over his entire body. A guy of normal height and weight going through 'Spalding' - it couldn't be done! It was one of those moments that the fans were wondering - 'how the heck is he doing this?"

At least it was for John, Laureen and Paul.

Snaking his body through a tennis racket - minus the strings

Oh Come On! Must be a trick - nope, it wasn't

Another performer was just as talented but in a different billing. A sword swallower - people really do that? Yes they do and it is not for the faint of heart to watch a fully grown man swallow a three foot sword. Well, he only swallows it up to the hilt - but still?  He stated that he has conquered the gag reflex - good starting point - and then moves certain intestines so the point of the sword does not pierce anything important. And here we thought everything in our gut was important.

That is disgusting and dangerous - talk about heart burn!

Well, one never knows what one will find at a Renaissance Faire but what the traveling explorers discovered only an hour away was a day full of fun and awe inspiring talent. Again, to find and enjoy the world around, one only has to look in their backyard. We did on this weekend and are very glad we did.

Who needs music when you have the right partner?
A special thanks to our good friend - Paul Bakas for taking the photographs so we could dance.

And thus ends this latest adventure.

For further information concerning the Renaissance Faire in Big Bear, California: