April 04, 2007

Marrakech, Morocco
Dancing with the Dutch and a Moonlit Camel Ride

First things first: if you’re coming to Morocco and you’re looking for a guide, contact madaboutmorocco and ask for James Cutting. James is also a location manager/scout and close protection specialist (that's fancy for bodyguard) serving the surprisingly large amount of film production that goes on here. We’re using him to see as much of Morocco as we can in three days and we’re having a great time.

Yes, that was a plug. But a sincere one.

We landed in Amsterdam first thing in the morning on a direct flight from Seattle with little sleep. Stumbled to my friend Sophie’s place around breakfast-time.

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We dropped off our stuff, showered, and headed back down the staircase to her apartment – which I’m pretty sure was built by the Mayans.

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A train and a bus ride to the Keukenhof Gardens, which are in full bloom now at the height of tulip season.

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We wandered past the flower displays at a hurried pace, cranky from the flight and impatient toward the generally geriatric garden-goers who blocked the walkway. It eventually dawned on us that we were not in a subway station, but rather: a garden.

IKEA has donated some furniture to the gardens – much of it hanging inaccessibly from trees.

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…okay, then.

We left the gardens and honed in on our real target; the massive, adjacent tulip fields divided into strips of red and purple and yellow and pink.

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We struggled for a while to find the right dancing spot, at first reluctant to tread too far into the flowers to get a shot standing amongst them. After some gumption-building, I finally ran in there. It felt taboo, and the tsk-tsk eyes of the other visitors made us hurry in and out, but it was ultimately a pretty harmless transgression.

Sorry tulips.

We slogged back to Amsterdam in the afternoon, by that point barely able to keep our eyes open. I was called a bleepity-bleep while boarding the light rail and almost refused service at a kebab place for speaking English. I may be rushing to conclusion, but I don’t think they’re so fond of Americans in Amsterdam anymore.

Not that I blame them. On the plane over, the guy in front of me was gripping a rolled-up copy of High Times and looked annoyed that he had to put pants on for the flight. I don’t know that Amsterdam ever actively positioned itself as the Las Vegas of Western Europe, but we seem to have inferred as much. The relaxed social policies, as they are, challenge us to behave as if we deserve them. Pardon me for saying so, but it seems like in America, we view freedoms as invitations rather than challenges.

Napped for an hour on Sophie’s futon, then barely got it together in time to reach the canal bridge in the center of town where we’d invited a bunch of strangers to show up and dance. People have been signing up on my site for a few weeks now. We pulled together about 75 names from The Netherlands and sent out invites, having no idea what to expect.

With Melissa’s deft navigation, we avoided a wrong turn that would’ve rendered the whole event a failure. We reached the statue we’d designated as a meeting place only a few minutes late. At first it seemed that no one had shown up. But as soon as the first brave soul approached me, the park benches emptied out and we had ourselves a small crowd.

I lifted the following images off the new videocamera we’re using to shoot the video.

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Processing everyone took about 10 minutes. It being The Netherlands, pretty much everyone had already printed out and signed the release form we sent them. That made our job a lot easier. Melissa photographed each participant and wrote the corresponding image file number on each form.

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Once that was done, I corralled everyone to a good spot, ran them through what we were going to do, entreated them to do their own dance rather than imitating mine, and off we went.

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The Europe trip is still two months off. That’s when we’ll be doing a lot of the group dances. This Netherlands clip was sort of a test run to hopefully learn some lessons that would help us plan out June better. Turns out we had a pretty good system. No big screw-ups.

After the shoot, we chatted with people a bit and I stood around for photos. No one asked me to dance in their pictures, which was surprising and kinda nice – not that I mind terribly either way.

Melissa and I left and met up with Sophie and her friend, Gloria, at a pub along the canal.

We had a couple drinks as the wee bit of adrenaline wore off, then exhaustion hit like an anvil and neither of us could keep our eyes open any longer.

We said goodbye to Sophie the next morning and wandered off to the airport for our flight to Morocco.

We landed in Casablanca the next day. Our bags did not.

We'd arranged to meet our guide, James, at the airport. James is a Brit who has lived all over Africa. After a stint in the UK, he moved here five years ago with his now-wife, partly for the weather, partly for the excitement, and partly, I gather, for Morocco's general not-England-ness.

Melissa waited with him while I sorted out our luggage situation. I got them to send it along, once they found it, on another flight in the direction James was taking us: a town called Ouazazat (pronounced like Whass-is-at?). It was a risky plan, but our time in Morocco is short and we can’t afford to wait around for luggage.

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We hopped in the 4x4 and drove from Casablanca to Marrakech on what James says is the “most dangerous road in the world.” Sucker that I am for world’s most anythings, I was intrigued. I’ve heard the same claim made of a road in Bolivia, and I’ve certainly encountered other roads in Africa and SE Asia that should be in the running.

James says 6000 people die every year on the road between Morocco’s two main cities – not from poor road quality, it’s actually quite good. The problem is no one in Morocco has to actually learn how to drive in order to get a license. They drive on the principle of Inshallah, or “Will of Allah,” meaning if Allah wants them to survive driving into oncoming traffic to pass other vehicles, he’ll make sure they survive.

Conversely, if Allah doesn’t want them to survive, they’re certainly making it a lot easier for him. But I’m not sure that figures into the philosophy.

There are a lot of countries that operate similarly, both muslim and otherwise, but most of them don’t have highways as straight, roads as flat, enforcement as weak, or cars as fast as Morocco’s. Hence the statistic.

Over the course of the ride, James gave us a thorough and engaging introductory course in Moroccan culture, history, and politics. I was relieved that he’s a good talker, since we had about 30 hours to go in the car with him.

James also talked about working close protection for Brad Pitt and Jake Gylenhall on the films they’ve shot here, which was a lot of fun to listen to. He doesn’t dish (Brad, Jake, your secrets are safe), but he has some great stories.

James explained that all the hotels in Marrakech were full because of Europeans coming down for Easter holidays, so he offered to put us up at his house for the night.

James had some other friends form the UK staying with him and they knew all about “Where the Hell is Matt,” so he’d already gotten an earful. When we got into Marrakech, we met up with his wife and friends for a fancy meal at a nice, French expat restaurant.

I’m not a very social guy. Parties and bars don’t work well for me. But I really enjoy a good dinner with just the right mix and quantity of people. At dinner, you can talk, you can eat, you can hear everybody. It’s intimate, but not overly so. It’s just a really nice thing that I don’t do often enough. And dinners in new and exotic places with interesting folks: even better.

We went to bed, again, completely exhausted.

We woke the next morning, ready to venture out, luggage-less, into the wilds of Morocco. But first we spent some time playing with James’ dogs.

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The first few hours of the drive took us up, up, and up into the High Atlas mountains. We peaked at an altitude of around 2600 meters – nowhere near the oxygen-depriving Andean ordeal of last year, but enough that I could feel it.

The High Atlas roadsides are lined with men selling geodes stuffed with crystals. For a span of dozens of kilometers, each man is roughly shouting distance from the next, and they’re all selling the same thing. I guess the theory is if you don’t want what they’re selling the first 500 times they wave it in your face, you’re bound to pull over for the 501st guy.

The rocks they’re selling generally aren’t even worth the pennies they’re selling them for. The men cover the crystals inside the geodes with paint and nail polish to make them appear shinier. It’s hardly convincing, even at a drive-by glance at highway speeds.

The other things they sell are fossils, which are more up my alley. The High Atlas mountains were once deep under the ocean. These days, a little digging can produce complete fossil remains of trilobites and ammonites; weird little creatures that were around over 300 million years ago – long before anything had bothered trying to crawl onto land. The best of the fossils are amazingly vivid. You get a real sense of how the creatures moved and what they looked like. And they’re plentiful enough that you can get a good one for $30 or so. But alas, most of the fossils sold on the roadsides are fake as well. So you just keep driving.

Coming down from the mountains, we passed through Ouazazat; where our bags were supposed to be. I called the airport, but they hadn’t found them, so we kept going and are now hoping to catch them on the way back.

Inshallah!

Ouazazat is the center of the sizable film business in Morocco. The first film shot there was Lawrence of Arabia. There’ve been dozens more since, like Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, Sahara, Syriana, Blackhawk Down, and, very recently, Babel. Morocco routinely doubles for the Middle East, the Himalayas, and pretty much everywhere in Africa – they even used it as a stand-in for Nevada last year in The Hills Have Eyes 2.

It pretty much works like this:

If you need a modern city, you go to Vancouver.
If you need an old city, you go to Prague.
If you need trees, you go to New Zealand.
If you need sand, you go to Morocco.

Ouazazat is a convenient access point for several of Morocco’s commonly-used desert locations, so it has soundstages, sets, and tolerable accommodation for the trickle of celebrities on extended visits. Aside from this notable distinction, the town is nothing much to speak of.

James pointed out the Jerusalem set for Kingdom of Heaven. It’s still standing there, out in the desert; a replica of the militarized fort the contentious city had become during the height of the crusades. It sort of looks like JERUSALEM: Hotel and Casino, which I think we can all agree is a terrible, terrible idea.

Five more hours through the desert. Sunset pee break!

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We reached Merzuga well after sundown. The tourist hotel cluster of Merzuga marks the western edge of the Sahara desert proper. With only a few hundred meters’ walk, you’re in some of the tallest sand dunes in the world. It’s the location for the famous sunrise shot from Larry of Arabia, and it’s one of two spots we’d targeted for the Morocco clip.

James strongly advised that we see it either at sunrise or sunset. Since we missed sunset and couldn’t afford to wait out another day, it had to be sunrise. You can’t build a road through sand dunes, and with neither a tank or helicopter handy, the only way to get out there is two hours on camelback. That meant we could either wake up at 4am and race out into the dunes before the sun came up, or we could wolf down a quick dinner and sleep amongst the dunes in one of the bivouac tents they keep out there.

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Well, what would you do?

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The tent is pretty cozy. It’s bitter cold out and we still don’t have our luggage, so we’re wearing the same stuff we put on back in Amsterdam. Fortunately, there was a stack of thick blankets in the corner and that’s keeping us warm.

The ideal circumstances for my virgin camel ride would not have been in pitch blackness. But then, once you’ve got your butt in the right place and there's a guy towing you where you need to go, there’s not much to do aside from hold on.

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I took that with the videocamera’s night vision mode. You can’t see much. Neither could I. The guide is walking barefoot and holding the reigns of my camel. Melissa’s camel is tethered like a caboose to my camel’s back side.

Melissa was loving the whole thing, by the way. My appreciation was narrower; it started when I got used to the idea that my camel wasn’t going to fall on its face and go sliding down a mountain of sand; it ended when my legs lost the ability to close.

I would put camel riding in that bin of experiences that I’ve done, I’m glad I’ve done, and I don’t need to ever do again. Skydiving is in there. So is dancing on that rock in Norway. Climbing Kilimanjaro. Diving Blue Hole. Reading Moby Dick. Meeting Kevin Federline.

Anyway, tomorrow is going to be a long day. Goodnight.

April 01, 2007

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
On the Nature of Trilogies

Part threes are tricky.

With part twos you’re saying, “Hey, part one worked out pretty well. I’m going to do it again and see if folks are still interested.”

With part threes you’re saying, “I think I’ve really got something here. I can keep doing this over and over and people won’t get tired of it.” And of course, that’s when things tend to fall apart.

So we have the trilogy; a discrete narrative framework. A closed loop. Its expiration pre-ordained, so as to assure the audience that it won't go on indefinitely and become a nuisance.

It’s fairly reliable that most ideas will run their course by the second regurgitation. And a concept as sparse as mine certainly runs that risk.

The dancing videos weren’t conceived as a trilogy. Of course, they weren’t really conceived at all. But it feels to me now like there’s one more worth doing, and then I should be done.

I keep coming back to the Evil Dead trilogy. The first movie was a lark. The second Evil Dead was actually just a remake of the first only better and with more money. By the third, they’d run out of things to do with a cabin in the woods. It was a continuation, but different in tone and genre. That seems like the right course for me. I need to get out of the cabin.

Getting ready to leave on a long trip is the hardest part for me. When it comes time to put your regular life into hibernation, there are a thousand little things to do. But I have a feeble man-brain that can only hold one or two thoughts at a time. For every new task that pops into my head, one of the old ones falls out the back.

I think I took care of pretty much all the big stuff. To do that, I had to spend a whole day staring at my living room floor, putzing around for a little bit, then more staring, putzing, staring again, putzing, more staring.

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I’m carrying a lot of baggage this time. Fifty-three pounds. I think the most I’ve ever taken was fifty-five, but that included a bag of dive gear, and I won’t be doing any diving in Africa. This time, I didn’t hold back much with the packing cause I sort of figured I need the exercise.

We’re taking a fancy, high-definition videocamera. It stores everything on a 30GB hard drive and then burns off onto DVDs. That’s going to be fun to play around with.

I brought a portable Canon photo printer. It’s the same one I took to Africa three years ago. It provided me with one of the best times I had on that whole trip. I spent a morning wandering through a village on the shores of Lake Victoria, taking pictures of every kid I came across. I went back to the hotel for lunch, printed all the pictures out, then spent the afternoon tracking down all the kids and handing them their photos. It caused a huge scene – the kids went bonkers – but it was a lot of fun. And once I’d done that, the whole town opened up to me. Everyone wanted photos of themselves.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to doing that again – maybe in Ethiopia this time.

Maybe Timbuktu.

I’m on a plane to Amsterdam right now for a quick stop on the way to Africa.

Stocked up on puzzle books at the newsstand.

Well, hello there, sponsor!

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Melissa and I spent the morning running the last couple errands. We said goodbye to her dog, Sydney.

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Syd’s been through this before. She knew what was going on and she wasn’t having any of it. She tore out the door and tried to jump in the car.

Sad.

We’re only gone for a month, though. This isn’t the extended epic of last time. We’re zipping through eight countries from the top of Africa to the bottom, then back home for a breather, and off again to Europe for the month of June. And so on and so on, but right now I’m just focused on trip number one.

I'm on the plane right now, just coming out of the North Atlantic and over Scotland. In a few hours we’re going to the Dutch tulip fields to shoot the first clip. I missed tulip season last year, so I timed this visit to synch up.

After that, we’re going to a bridge in Amsterdam where we’ve invited a bunch of people to meet up and dance with me. It’ll be an interesting experience, and I’m sure we’ll learn a lot. I don’t know what to expect. It’s a bit scary opening the door so wide to a bunch of strangers, but I’m putting my faith in the fundamental goodness and all that.

We’ll see how it goes.

Oh, by the way, the outtakes music is finally available on iTunes. It took a month longer than it was supposed to to finally get up there, and then once they did get it up, they named it wrong, so instead of searching for "dancing outtakes" you have to search for "dance outtakes". In any case, for the handful of people diligent enough to track it down, it can now be purchased.

The money doesn't go to me. It goes where it belongs; to the composer, Garry Schyman. So throw him a bone and download it. It's only a dollar.

May 23, 2006

Rødby, Denmark
Wi-Fishing

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I’m on a train on a boat. Apparently they can do that. The train rumbles up onto the ferry, gate closes, and off we go. I feel like a LEGO man.

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We’re en route from Paris, overnight. Got stuck in a cabin with two other guys. Four men sleeping in a tiny, bedless room requires some degree of…intimacy. One of our roommates was Indag, an Ethiopian working at Mother Teresa’s care center in Addis Abba.

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Wonderful guy, but virtuous qualities aside, I’m not sure he knows about soap.

Don't have much to report on Europe. It's still Europe. Been Europe for a long time. Likely to remain so.

Most of what I've seen has been from the window of a train. At this point, to be honest, my sightseeing receptors have been worn down to dull nubs. I'm on country number 37 since December. Just working on a project now. Very close to finishing and trying to make it as good as it can be. Any side experiences are incidental.

Matt is the perfect companion for where my head is at right now. His superhuman endurance is matched only by his superhuman indifference.

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"Hey Matt, how about we take the 8am from Amsterdam back to Paris, then catch the metro to the airport and another train to Haute-Picardie station in the middle of nowhere? Once there, we sit by the side of the tracks for two hours and you film me dancing every time a high-speed train passes by. Then we go back to Paris so we can catch the overnight to Copenhagen and then the next available cargo ship to Norway so I can go dance on a rock wedged between two cliffs."

"...yep. Okay."

"Oh, and since my wallet was stolen, would you mind paying for everything while we wait for the wire transfer to go through?"

This is not meant to imply he's some sort of traveling zombie. Most of the time he's actually leading the way; a whiz with train schedules, way more on the ball at making arrangements, and generally more attentive about where we are, where we're going, and when we need to grab our stuff and run.

I've said it before: there is no better travel companion than an Australian. They're like Wookies.

Aside from the dancing stuff, our primary focus is the constant need to find free wi-fi.

Eifel Tower? Whatever. Where's the McDonald's?

It's not the food, mind you. They've usually got fast, free signals.

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The most pathetic display is at train stops, when one of us (usually me) pings the local networks for an unsecured signal from within the train. In the rare event that we find one, both of us scramble to complete our respective e-tasks before the train pulls out again.

I am not proud.

Left Paris the first time -- what, a week ago now? Took the overnight to Munich and met up with Melissa's old friend, Martin.

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Despite appearances, Martin is not, in fact, Ben Stiller with glued-on facial hair.

Still groggy from our fourth straight night on a train, Martin took us out to a traditional Bavarian breakfast of white sausages and beer.

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The beer was great. The sausages weren't.

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We were instructed in proper sausage-eating technique. You're supposed to put one end in your mouth and squeeze the meat out, avoiding the skin, which shouldn't be eaten.

I'll spare you the pictures. They are...graphic.

On reflection, this may have been a practical joke.

Joining us for the day: Golo.

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Golo is a flight attendant for Lufthansa. He shaves his arm pits, and yet he is not gay.

Here is one of 200 pictures Golo took of us.

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Golo generously entertained for the day while Martin worked. He insisted we suck the marrow from the bone that is Munich.

Here's some old building.

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Guys surfing on the river Isar, which feeds into the Danube. They have some net set up beneath the surface to create a constant, fixed wave.

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Tragically blurry action shot.

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Walked through the English Garden. Played some frisbee. Napped under a tree. Watched the nudists sunbathe.

I try to take public nakedness in stride, as do many of us. I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from taking their clothes off -- even the old fat guys are an amusing spectacle. But coming straight out of the Middle East, it's still hard to fathom the mental baggage that comes with culture; the incredible breadth of ways in which we live.

Over a mildly inebriated dinner, Matt put forth the evidence suggesting the World Trade Center was, in fact, demolished from within by pre-placed explosives. As the lone American, my nationalistic pride renders me incapable of accepting the horrific truths implied.

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It is more than likely that this picture exists solely because of the blonde in the middle.

Golo took it. Golo who is not gay.

Another overnight train. Next stop: Berlin.

Ah, Berlin. What can I say about my six whole hours there?

Neat wall.

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Got one of my all-time favorite dancing clips. One of those unplanned moments you can't duplicate.

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Still more evidence that what Germany finds sensual and erotic is, to me, hideous and disturbing.

Train to Amsterdam to meet up with Sophie for the third time on this trip. Caught her in Australia just before she moved. Met up with her in China while she was en route. And here she is, settling into her new job and life in The Netherlands; my favorite country whose name starts with a definite article.

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Amsterdam was sort of a break for us. What little motivation we had to do anything was beaten back into its hole by her neighbor's fast, unsecured wi-fi connection. We mostly just went out when it wasn't working.

In my defense: I have no money or credit cards right now and Western Europe is very, very expensive. Peeing costs $1.25. Using my computer is one of the only free things I can do.

Plus it connects me to home. And I'm ready to be home.

The big dancing clip idea for the Netherlands was to visit Delft University of Technology, where some students recently created the world's largest 3D display.

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It's a matrix of ping pong balls with red diodes inside of them. When assembled, the screen is 8 meters wide, 4 meters tall, and 2 meters deep. It plays animations, rudimentary 3D games, and displays SMSs that are sent to it.

We devoted an evening to the search, but all we found was this.

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It was down for the day.

Would've been neat.

Oh, well.

Sophie's back-up suggestion was to dance in the tulip fields. I was skeptical at first, but her pictures swayed me. Devoted another afternoon to that one.

Turns out the tulip window ended two weeks ago and they're all gone.

Oh, The Netherlands, why do you spurn me so?

Went to the Van Gogh museum. Saw the "Potato Eaters," "Wheat Field with Crows," "Bedroom in Arles." But alas, my favorite, "Starry Night," was not there. It's either in Paris or New York.

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He's one painter whose work you've really gotta see firsthand. I'm far from an art connoisseur, but there's something about those thick globs of paint -- the texture, the way the light shines off it.

Soph took us on a tour of Amsterdam's famous red light district. No pictures allowed.

Saw the window-lined streets with hookers on display like zoo animals. Entrances to live sex performances everywhere you turn.

It was fascinating.

I'd like to declare that we should all break the shackles of repression and embrace such zones in every city, but I've gotta admit it was pretty messed up. Lots of men behaving badly. Unpleasant.

Not sure the benefits outweigh the damage.

Oh, and the pot thing. Wow. If you don't like the smell of marijuana, don't go to Amsterdam.

Watched Da Vinci Code. Lots of interesting things going on there, but as a movie, I thought it was utter crap.

They didn't even try to make anyone interesting. So many hugely talented actors, but except for Ian McKellan's queeny scenery-chewing, no one had anything to do.

I must confess though, it did give me an idea...

Left Amsterdam for Paris, stopping briefly to change trains in Brussels. Since Matt is about 10 times smarter than me, I enjoy engaging in the one thing I'm better at: movie trivia. We passed the time playing Six Degrees.

Connected Jet Li to Estelle Getty in three names. Eddie Vedder to Posh Spice in four. Errol Flynn to Halie Joel Osment in five. Matt finally stumped me with Kurt Russell to Patrick Swayze using only actors they've killed or been killed by in films.

I returned the volley with a more left-brained challenge: give me the highest prime number under 10,000. He opened his laptop, wrote a prime number generator, and gave me the answer in 5 minutes.

Nerds in transit.

On our first stop in Paris a week ago, we failed to get a dancing clip in front of a high-speed TGV train. After some research online, I learned the best place to go trainspotting is the remote outpost of Haute-Picardie station. To quote from the shockingly relevant web page:

"Haute-Picardie belongs to a rare breed of stations: it is located directly on a high speed line, with platforms just a few meters from the TGV Nord-Europe tracks. Only a handful of trains stop there each day; most pass on through without slowing...there isn't a building for miles around, except for the station itself. The reason is this: TGV Haute-Picardie is the child of a sterile political controversy, revolving around which of two nearby cities should have got TGV service. The conflict was artfully resolved by the French government with a compromise: the station was built in between, or to be exact, in the middle of nowhere. For what this station is otherwise worth, it is without doubt a great place to watch TGVs, which is precisely the matter that concerns us here."

Indeed it is!

We arrived at the station with two hours before our return train to Paris. In that time, I danced in front of as many trains as we could manage to catch. See the thing is, those trains move REALLY FAST!

I mean you don't even see them coming. And they're going about 1/3 the speed of sound, so you can't hear them either. It's just a spontaneous, exhilarating burst of wind and fury every ten minutes or so.

We caught about a dozen clips from every distance and angle we could think of. Most of them didn't work, but one is golden. I made sure to lift my feet off the ground as I danced, cause I just know I'll get comments insisting I sped up the footage.

But you can't speed up jumping. No, it's for real. The trains really go that fast.

Back to Paris, caught the overnight to Hamburg, changed trains to Copenhagen, and here we are.

Tomorrow we arrive in Norway, and the next day we're heading to the fjords to attempt the most death-defying clip I've ever done: Kjeragbolten.

I'm not much of a death-defier. I may try and reason with it, but ultimately what happens is up to death's discretion.