30 April 2010

Friday flicks: History and Beer in Munich

New E5BID feature! Every Friday, I'm going to post a video from the trip. At least until I run out of good footage. Or get sick of it. Or forget to do it. But it's a goal.

Frommer says that Munich is "a light-hearted, fun-loving city, whose residents look upon the pursuit of pleasure as a full-time occupation. ... Its avenues are broad, its theatres and nightspots are numerous and its prices are rock-bottom." Lee and I, ever the intrepid journalists, headed out to see if this was still true.

Here, Lee explains how the budget travel experience has changed and what you'll find in a typical hostel today. 

    Unstated but worth noting as crucial elements of the modern European hostel: 
    • Currency from around the world taped to the pillar in the middle of the bar. 
    • Bartender and other staff not natives of the country in which said hostel is located (in this case, they were British).
    • Assorted jaded backpackers straight out of central casting, going on and on--with pride--about the sketchiest, dirtiest places they'd stayed in all over the world, and having the classic "travelers" vs. "tourists" conversation. They, of course, were travelers. I strongly suspect that when they e-mailed friends back home, they claimed to be in Mongolia or Mozambique or someplace exotic and far-flung, rather than in Munich, mere steps from the central train station and the Oktoberfest grounds. 

    21 April 2010

    The lost glamour of the Hotel Texas (part I)

    After the innumerable disappointments of Venice, I couldn't wait to get to Rome. I'd seen enough canals, thanks, not to mention an overload of oppressively impressive architecture. I wanted something more, some stories to go with my sites--and, oh yeah, the Eternal City has some seriously epic stories to tell. Also kick-ass ruins and artisanal gelato and absurdly elaborate fountains and gorgeous contessas blowing air-kisses from Vespas. 

    This was where I was going to get my groove back. I even had an ace to play, a sure-fire groove restorer: Pensione Texas, a hotel that I'd been looking forward to since the day I opened Europe on Five Dollars a Day for the first time. Frommer spends nearly half a page describing the scene at this "glamorously-decorated" hotel, talking up its "really superb restaurant downstairs" and its worldly, intellectual clientele:
    Whenever 6 p.m. approached last summer, Hope and I felt a genuine urge to rush back to the "Texas," to hear the exciting conversation that fills the cocktail-lounge of the pension (our fellow guests, among others: a member of the Minneapolis Philharmonic, and his wife; a professor from the Free China University on [sic] Formosa) ...
    I so, so needed that. I was missing Lee. Missing intelligent conversation, missing hanging out in cocktail lounges (and, yeah, dive bars) and chatting the night away. One of the great frustrations of being a tourist is that your interactions tend to be fleeting, your discourse superficial. Here was my solution. If nothing else, it would at least offer a bit more comfort and, well, glamour than the spider-infested inns and boisterous hostels to which I'd become accustomed. 

    After I checked in, I pulled out my book and showed the above passage to the desk clerk, Alfredo, a tall, middle-aged man, effortlessly dapper in that ineffably Italian way. He had a perpetually wistful expression on his face, as though forever recalling some long-lost, bittersweet memory, and it grew even more poignant and pronounced as he examined the book. 

    "Yes," he said. "I remember this. We were in many books.  And the New York Times. Many publications. The president of Diner's Club International came here with his family. Elizabeth Taylor--Do you know Elizabeth Taylor?"

    I did.

    "She stayed here. She was at another hotel, more famous, but they all found out and were bothering her, the ... press, the ..."

    "The paparazzi? She came here to hide from the paparazzi?"


    He held up a finger and nodded his head, remembering something, then opened a desk drawer and pulled out a brochure from the 1960s. "I show people this sometimes, so they can see what it was like."

    [Click on the images for the full size.]


    I could almost hear him thinking, as he pointed to the praise and listed other celebrities who had stayed here, Ah, those were the days.

    In much of the rest of Europe, it had struck me that those rare Frommer-recommended places (hotels, restaurants) that were still around were almost exclusively those that were big and flashy and somehow fit tourist stereotypes of the culture--beer halls in Munich, hangar-sized cafés in Paris.  Frommer's description of the Hotel Texas, paired with the fact that it was still in operation, made me assume that this was the case here, too. It would be a gloriously and disconcertingly theme park version of a historic Roman hotel, grand and tacky all at once, overstuffed with Rococo furnishings and enormous artwork and hypersaturated color schemes--more or less what you see in the brochure.

    But ...

    [To be continued, because I'm a jerk like that and because other non-writing duties are calling right now. Trust me, though: it's a good story, worth the wait, and with a special twist ending involving--no lie--Mussolini. Are you familiar with Grey Gardens?]

    07 April 2010

    Show me the merch

    [Forgive any formatting problems below as I update this post with new additions to the list. Blogger is acting up and not posting the same way twice!]

    Coming soon: Eat, Pray, Love-inspired jewelry, according to Galleycat:
    According to WWD, the LA-based jewelry company Dogeared will design the fashion line. Readers and viewers can buy the merchandise at Fred Segal and ABC Home, and prices will range between "$20 to more than $100." In addition, the company will provide similar merchandise for Sex in the City 2 ...
    This got me thinking about merchandise tie-ins for my book. What would be the logical options? Um. Tacky t-shirts. Tourist action figure (Now whips out the camera 3 times faster!). Postcards. Beer bottles or coasters, maybe. Pastries, definitely. Yes, that's it: E5BID-branded croissants! Any bakers who read this should call me to talk numbers, make deals, plan strategy. Big money awaits! Mega-profits guaranteed!!  

    Some other ideas for merchandise tie-ins for famous travel books:

    • A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson): hiking boots, freeze-dried meals, bear spray
    • The Innocents Abroad (Mark Twain): cigars, random bones of random saints
    • Assassination Vacation (Sarah Vowell): replica of Ford's Theater, grassy knoll, wind-up toy of singing-dancing assassin 
    • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson): um, nothing that would be legal to sell
    • Skating to Antarctica (Jenny Diski): mittens. Thick, super-insulated, Gore-Tex mittens.
    • A Year in Provence (Peter Mayle): pastis glasses, piece of sheetrock
    • Heat (Bill Buford): chef's toque, knives, book of Dante 
    • Via Twitter, from @CGTravels:  Into The Wild: emergency snacks
    • Global Soul (Pico Iyer): Skymall gift card, recipe for Korean Tandoori Calamari Tacos
    • Anything by Calvin Trillin: bib, Pepto-Bismol 
    • An Irreverent Curiosity (David Farley): Um ... Italian vocabulary flash cards. (Wait, what were you expecting me to say?)
    • Round Ireland with a Fridge (Tony Hawks): magnets, Tupperware, baking soda, Roisin's phone number
    GalleyCat has picked up this important cause (thanks for the shout-out, GC!), with editor Jason Boog offering this inspired-yet-terrifying suggestion: H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Cthulhu Sushi.  Lee, I'm sure, would love it.

    03 April 2010

    In defense of the beaten path

    In the wake of my appearance on CBC Radio's Q, I've started to realize that some people have me pegged as "the guy who defends tourists." While there's some truth to that, and while I don't mind playing that role to a certain degree, I want to be clear that I don't think that tourism is inherently good. Or, for that matter, inherently bad. Read any random sample of this blog and you'll see that I have incredibly mixed feelings about tourism, tourists, and the effects thereof.

    Having said that, allow me to now, yes, defend the beaten path in three ways. (Basically, these are the talking points I wish I'd raised, or elaborated upon, during my interview.)

    1. You meet some interesting people in the Tourist Culture
    As discussed previously, there's a distinct Tourist Culture, with its own dress code (khaki travel pants, sensible shoes), its own literature (guidebooks, obviously), its own cuisine (the Irish Pub), its own rituals ("Scusi, could you, por favor, mein camera ... take foto? Merci bonjour?").  The Tourist Culture includes people from all over the world, which means that you may well encounter a family from India while traveling in Finland (over 50,000 Indian tourists go there every year) or a few of the two million Chinese who visit Europe annually, or the diverse group Lee and I met on our beer tour in Munich, which included dedicated drinkers history buffs from Japan, South Africa, England, Argentina, and the US. In Berlin, also during a tour, we met a young guy from Malaysia who had been working in London and was heading back to Malaysia, by way of his own long-planned, much-saved-for Grand Tour.

    These are the types of people you meet in the Tourist Culture: interesting people from all over the world.

    Truth is, you're not going to just parachute into another culture and fit right in with the locals, no matter how hard you try, no matter how carefully you plan your attire or try to study the language. You're an outsider. That will be obvious to them. And no matter how eager you are to interact with them, they probably don't want to interact with you--they just want to go about their daily lives, danke, and not be bothered by this stranger who's come to stare at them and mangle their language and ask to see how the Authentic Local Thing is done. No, it's the other people like you, the other outsiders, who are most likely to strike up conversation with you. You're a kindred spirit. And, truly, you'll find that a lot of those people are--like you--actually pretty damn interesting and, gosh, not the clichéd shallow, tacky tourists of stereotype.

    So, no, you probably won't meet a lot of hobbled, cloaked-in-oh-so-native-garb grandmotherly types if you stay on the beaten path. You won't encounter many of the eccentric characters who populate the year-in-a-remote-village memoirs that have become such a cliche of travel writing. And, sure, fine: it's a shame that you won't meet those Authentic Individuals™. But you will meet all kinds of other people who will be more than worth your while. And maybe, just maybe, you'll become friends and keep in touch, and they'll invite you to visit them in their homeland--allowing you to get off the beaten path and get a local's perspective, precisely because you didn't do that last time around.

    2. Travel is not about bragging rights
    There's a prominent travel blogger who says he's a "one-man National Geographic." There are lots of other travel bloggers and writers and just-plain-travelers who boast of how many countries they've visited, like there's some kind of lifetime merit badge that they're trying to earn.

    What's the point of such boasts, though?  At their base, aren't they just statements of status and privilege and an admission of a myopic, self-absorbed worldview that mistakes accumulation of passport stamps for open-mindedness and intelligence? Is this not like the kids in high school who thought their entire self-worth was dependent on how many decals were on their letter jackets?

    I don't know how many countries I've visited. Sure, I could figure it out. But I just don't care. I don't travel so that I can place-drop in conversation. Similarly, I don't seek out the lowest-price hostel--or, for that matter, the highest-price hotel. I look for--wait for it--the place that best fits my own personal needs in terms of budget, safety, and location (meaning, of course, proximity to a bakery). Which, by the way, might change on a day-to-day basis--some days, I want to save money and don't mind a bit of discomfort; others, I desperately need a hot shower and a good night's sleep on clean sheets.

    Travel seems to have become a status marker of sorts, with specific travel attitudes and methodologies as carefully calibrated as attire worn on a first date. It's a chance to show the rest of the world--or at least blog readers and Facebook friends--what kind of person said traveler wants to be.  That, to me, is absurd. (Um, pay no attention to the fact that you're reading this on a blog by a person who would love for you to think of him as at least mildly witty and semi-intelligent. Pay. No. Attention.)

    It's absurd when it means visiting only the most famous cities and landmarks, hewing only to the instructions of  the latest Fodor's. It's equally absurd when it means avoiding any cities or landmarks for the specific reason that they're popular. (Most absurd of all, though, is anyone who uses The 1,000 Places To Go Before You Die as dogma.) Seriously, I thought we all learned this by the time we were teenagers: sometimes the crowds are right, sometimes they're wrong--you have to find your own path, and that's going to be a mix of the popular and the unpopular.

    Travel is not about bragging rights. It's about exploring, learning, and trying to understand the new. It's about enjoying the bounty of weirdness and wonderfulness of the planet--some of which just happens to be located on the beaten path.

    3. The beaten path is already beaten. So don't go beating more paths. 
    There's also the argument--which I made on Q--that following the tourist trail is the truest eco-tourism, the greenest and most ethical option, because those places already overrun and McDonaldized and otherwise ruined. You're staying on the sidewalk, not trampling the fragile flowers of the untouched, untouristed places. I'm not sure I'm convinced of my own argument here, actually (feel free to argue pro/con in the comments). I don't want it to be true--that would kind of break my heart. But I fear that it just might be absolutely correct.