12 December 2011

Postcard Gallery: Bangladesh, New Zealand, epic four-page letter

Forgive me, Postcard Gallery--I have neglected you too long. But even though I'm a slacker, my mailbox runneth over. Highlights include a homemade postcard from Bangladesh, a note from an actual postcard archivist (!), and a four-page masterpiece of a letter, written in dip pen and featuring a half-page illustration. It's glorious. Click on the images for higher resolution.

From Renee in Bangladesh (who took the photo on the front):

Yes, this is the first postcard I've received from Bangladesh. Thanks, Renee!
From Eva Holland way up in the Yukon, where it's been snowing since, like, August:

The "historic Minneapolis train bridge" is the Stone Arch Bridge, one of
my favorite spots in the city.
From Debra Gust at the Curt Teich Postcard Archives, which is apparently a real thing and which I must visit at once, at the Lake County Discovery Museum:

From ... I honestly don't know who, other than someone channeling Garrison Keillor while driving through Saint Peter, Minnesota (although the picture is of Denmark):

From Jane in New Zealand (who also sent me that delightful bear-o-gram a while back; the bear has settled in among the travel books on my shelves and seems quite content, although it does occasionally commandeer my computer to look up the latest news about the All-Blacks):

And, finally, the letter. Now, let me introduce this by saying that I get giddy every time I see a piece of paper in my mailbox. Few things (chocolate croissants, for example) make me happier than getting a postcard or a letter, even from people I know (hi, Mom!). But. There is still something particularly wonderful about getting mail from absolute strangers, especially when they've clearly gone above and beyond in the effort. Every now and then, I get a letter that makes me not just smile but do a little jig right here in the post office--or, in this case, basically sprint outside and do a triumphant, sprinting lap around the building.

Brendon Ly is, I hereby decree, the coolest 15-year-old in Ottawa. He's the one who sent me the postcard from there a few weeks ago, the one beginning, "Hello, Stranger." When I opened his latest letter, this was the first thing I saw:

Crappy picture on my part, but you get the idea.
An authentic, mint-condition vintage air-mail envelope. Unused. Just ... for me to add to my collection (or, you know, send to someone). And then there was this:

A four-page letter. In old-style script writing. (Note at the top of the first page: "Pre-script: Usually I print.") Needless to say, no e-mail could possibly convey the same sense of personality and, well, charm as this letter, and even a high-resolution scan can't capture its nuances and details. Like the ink. As he notes on page three, "By the way, if you run a finger over the words, they will have a raised texture to them. I think this Chinese ink has shellac in it ... The thickness added by the shellac also helps it cling to dip pens, but will apparently clog up a fountain pen." Sure enough: it's raised. (NB: I had no idea fountain pens and dip pens were not the same thing. When I read that, I wanted to click over to Google to do some quick research--ignoring the rest of the letter for a sec, as I would have if it were an e-mail, only to return to it half an hour later after getting hopelessly distracted--but, this being a letter, I couldn't just move my mouse a few inches and click away. I couldn't be distracted. Score one more point for letters: they're more immersive.)

That blue pen you see above is a calligraphy pen, just to show off the differences in texture and stroke and style.

Finally, on the last page, the show-stopper. A hand-drawn illustration perfectly sized to make into a postcard. Included in the envelope was a piece of card stock with a the back already formatted.

"You know the rest," he says. "Send it to whomever you want to."

In other words, continue the cycle. Keep it going. Keep writing. Keep sharing. Not in the easy, mindless digital form--"sharing is caring," says all the 18-point Arial above a row of icons for FaceTwitPlusWhateverElseWasInventedYesterday. But in the more tangible, more physical, more personal sense. More texture, quite literally.

What a joy to get this letter--any letter, any postcard, of course, but especially this one.

And, yes, I will send the postcard on to someone else. Part of me wants to keep it for myself and not take scissors to paper. But that would defeat the entire point. A tear will trickle down my cheek as I release it into the mailbox, just like in those Disney films, the ones with the whales or the lions or the what-have-yous, and the benevolent caretakers who know the animals must be returned to the wild. Go free, young postcard! Venture forth! Godspeed! Find your place in the world! 

Keep writing.

So. Thanks, correspondents! Much appreciated. My own stamp-affixed messages are already en route in some cases; the rest will be on the way in the next day or two--although, Brendon, it might take me a bit longer to come up with something to match your awesomeness.

14 November 2011

The Authoritative Guide to Being an Expert Tourist (vol. 1)

Congratulations on advancing this far, young tourist. You've done well.

You have mastered the Security Line Rumba, that dance of slipping off your shoes and emptying your pockets while pirouetting to avoid the trio of hungover conventioneers whacking you with their carry-ons as they try to dig out their laptops.

Your internal Irish Pub radar is so well-honed that you can smell the Guinness and County Cork tchotchkes from three miles away.

You have perfected the Goofy Tourist Picture Pose, every bit as ridiculous and labored as a supermodel's pout-strut, but accessorized so much more creatively, with the Eiffel Tower as a hat or Manneken Pis pee(r)ing over your shoulder or Mary Tyler Moore as your bronzed arm-candy (see fig. 1). (See further reading section below.)

Fig. 1
But those were just the basics. You have proven your interest and commitment. Now you must prove yourself. It is time to move on to the Advanced Touristing Techniques. And I, your Touristing Guru Master Expert Dude, am here to help. Master just a few more skills, young camera-toting, globe-trotting, guidebook-waving grasshopper, and you, too, will be able to call yourself a true Advanced Expert Tourist.

This will be an ongoing set of lessons--the wisdom of the ancients cannot be explained in a single blog post, nor can true proficiency be attained if your focus is not pure and constant. I ask--nay, implore--you to begin practicing forthwith and to dedicate yourself to the cause with singular vigor. More lessons will follow shortly.


Get out of the way or join the dance: Two methods of interacting with other camera-toting tourists.

Method 1: The camera-duck/tourist-pivot
The scenario: You're walking through a busy tourist area and you spot someone seemingly staring--hard--into space, a big, cheesy grin affixed to his or her face.

Rookie mistake: After staring hard at the person, trying to determine what that demented Jack Nicholson-in-The Shining grin is all about (and whether or not you should be sprinting away), you realize that said person is posing for a picture. You stop abruptly so as not to walk into the frame, but your halting, flustered demeanor makes the poser and the photographer both become self-conscious, and the poser starts to apologize just as the camera shutter clicks, necessitating a do-over or ten. The spontaneity is lost, the moment ruined, and it's all your fault.

Advanced technique: After much time on the tourist trail and much practice spotting the assorted and multitudinous but not-very-elusive breeds of photo-posers, you will hone your vision and instinct and be able to spot them from a minimum of twenty strides away. Pretend you don't see them but stay out of the frame. Don't break stride, don't make eye contact, just duck or pivot around them.

Recommended practice: Ducking and/or pivoting without breaking stride. I suggest at least five reps of ten pivots and fifteen walking-ducks per day.

31 October 2011

The best postcards are the ones that begin, "Hello, Stranger"

This? This is fantastic. Utterly charming. It hit my mailbox not long ago, from a teenage correspondent in Canada.

(Name and address redacted.)

Update: Here's the front:

17 October 2011

Postcard Gallery: Bear-o-gram, clog-o-gram, and snail-mailed e-mail

The handwritten letter revolution continues! Can't stop, won't stop, etc. Take a look at some of the mail that's showed up in my mailbox in the last few weeks. Actually, before you do that, know this: my mailbox is currently empty, but I have ten--count 'em, ten--postcards just itching to be sent in response to ... someone. So write to me and I promise I'll write back!

And now, the Gallery-O-Handwritten (well, mostly handwritten) Awesomeness:

Clockwise from top left (with selected ones singled out below):
  •  "Snail Mail My Email" letter (a concept I discussed earlier) from Susan and Tom
  • Door County (Wisconsin) postcard from Shirley
  • Bear-o-gram--a very cool paper bear sculpture that came in an envelope with assembly instructions--from Jane in New Zealand
  • Iceberg Lake (Glacier National Park) postcard from my father
  • Clog postcard (!) from Jean 
  • Fenway Park (Boston) postcard from Mike
  • Minneapolis postcard from Sebastian
  • Postcard with a lovely drawing of a restaurant by Jane in New Zealand
  • Lefse postcard (by Minneapolis's favorite illustrator, Adam Turman) from, uh, Garrison Keillor (see below)
  • San Diego postcard from Susan and Tom
Okay, now a few close-ups, with notes. First of all, that bear-o-gram. That's one adorable and sharp-looking, bear, no? And it looks no worse for the wear despite the long journey from New Zealand: 

Then there's this, from my friend Sebastian, who works at the intersection of technology and travel
Does the use of a handwriting font make this better or worse? Discuss.
And that sweet lefse postcard is, as mentioned, signed by Garrison Keillor ... whose handwriting looks suspiciously similar to that of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison:
It says: "Doug--Love the blog! As you are aware, I'm looking
for someone to take over for me as host of A Prairie Home Companion.
Interested? You'll have to work on your stereotypes of Minnesotans.
Best, Garrison Keillor."

Susan and Tom, who live on a boat, sent this to me after I posted about the "Snail Mail My Email" program a while back. (Basically, you email your note to someone else, who then does the writing and mailing for you.) I was ambivalent ... okay, no, I kind of thought it was absurd, offering the appearance of a handwritten note without the effort. But Susan and Tom make a valid point: not everyone has easy access to a post office or otherwise finds it hard to send mail the old-fashioned way (like, say, if you live on a boat). 

And finally, baseball fans NOT from Boston will enjoy this postcard from Mike, sent about a week before the regular season ended (with the Red Sox, indeed, pulling an epic collapse): 

So. Who's next? 

26 September 2011

Nicollet Island: my secret garden

This summer, I've been working as a Segway tour guide on the Minneapolis riverfront.

That's right. I'll pause while you stop laughing--Segways are inherently humorous; no way around that.* 

Okay, giggling over? Thanks. Moving on. It's been most interesting to see the other side of the tourist experience--to be the guide showing people around my city, to be the spectacle in the tourists' viewfinders. (I figure that on every single tour, I'm in at least 100 photos.) 

More on that some other time. But one of the best things about doing the tours is that they give me a chance to show off one of my favorite places on the planet, Nicollet Island. What makes it so great? I'm so glad you asked. Here, go read this Onion AV Club article I wrote about it! 

* To answer the frequently asked questions:
1. No, the inventor did not die in a Segway accident. But the owner of the company did.
2. No, it's not that hard to ride, in spite of the mishaps you saw on Arrested Development or the Ellen show or when George W. Bush tried to do it.
3. About $7,000.

24 September 2011

Two-hour tourist: Chicago

I won't pretend that you can get any sense of a place in two hours, but sometimes that's all you've got. You're taking a road trip and have to keep moving, or you have an extended layover with just enough time to dash from the airport to the city to see one or two things.

The question is, what do you see? What one or two things are readily accessible and can be experienced in a short period of time (that is, no huge historic sites or ten-course tasting menus or all-day tours) but still offer something unique to that particular place?

Last weekend, I was in the Chicago area for my girlfriend's brother's wedding (congrats, Peter and Katie!). The day after the wedding, my girlfriend, Maren, and I took the train into the Chicago Loop and had about two hours to be tourists. There wasn't time to explore the neighborhoods. There wasn't time for a Cubs game.

For me, one of the must-sees in any city is the landmark park. They make for great people-watching, and there's something about the dichotomy of nature and surrounding urbanity that I find impossibly alluring. Central Park in New York, Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, Retiro in Madrid, and so on. (Come to think of it, one of my favorite things to do in any given city is to find a pastry shop and eat my gluteny goodness in that landmark park--and I've done so in each of the above parks.)

In Chicago, the lakefront area has two adjacent parks, Millenium Park and Grant Park, which are always crowded, even on a brisk, rainy fall afternoon. We opted for Millenium, because I wanted to see the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, popularly called the Bean because, indeed, it looks like an enormous, metallic bean, fit for consumption by some Brobdingnagian robot hiding behind the Hancock Building (Jerry Bruckheimer, you're welcome to that visual for your next movie--no charge). The last few times I've been to Chicago, the Bean or the park have been closed for various reasons, and I was starting to take it personally. But this time, there it was, open, uncovered, and just begging us to pose in front of it for roughly 2,531 photos.

If I can't think of any new topics for blog posts, I'm just gonna start
posting the other 2,530 photos one at a time.
Next stop: the Chicago Cultural Center, at the suggestion of my friend Charlie. Formerly a library, the building is now, well, a cultural center, with various exhibits and a cafe, not to mention a whole hell of a lot of really cool interior details--like, for example, the world's largest Tiffany art-glass dome. For starters. And glass mosaics like you'd expect in some sort of Nero-worthy Roman villa. Except it's all free and open to the public, and conveniently located just across Michigan Avenue from Millenium Park. As Maren and I wandered around, we could hear what sounded like some sort of Enya-esque calliope music reverberating throughout the building. Eventually, we tracked down the source: a public concert, in one of those mosaic-covered rooms, of a Javanese gamelan group. There were some twenty or thirty musicians in all, some playing xylophone-like instruments, some chanting, some hitting gongs. (And, it must be said, they were all conspicuously, emphatically white--it was as though some Chicago book club read Eat, Pray, Love, then all went to Bali to soak up some Eastern Spiritual Wisdom Stuff and, having achieved enlightenment, came back to Chicago to resume life as investment bankers who got together on weekends for gamelan jam sessions, just to relive those heady, magical days in Bali. Just guessing.)

As Javanese gamelan groups go, they were the best I've ever heard. Also the only ones. We headed out after one song. Back to the train station--by way of a bakery, of course.

And, honestly, I think that was a perfect two-hour tourist itinerary--two big, unique landmarks, some good people-watching, some cultural education. Plus a doughnut.

So now I'm trying to think of what I'd recommend for a two-hour tourist in other cities I know well. 

Minneapolis: Downtown riverfront. Walk along the Saint Anthony Falls History Trail, through Mill Ruins Park and across the Stone Arch Bridge. Read the various historic markers that explain how the city grew up right here, around Saint Anthony Falls. Get some coffee or a tea-infused cocktail on the patio at the Aster Cafe or some gelato at Wilde Roast. Go out on the endless bridge at the Guthrie Theatre. 

(UPDATE) Or ... Eat Street and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Eat Street is a roughly mile-long section of Nicollet Avenue lined with restaurants of every variety; the main stretch is centered at 26th Avenue and extends a couple of blocks up and down Nicollet. It's an eclectic mix of eats, a veritable United Nations: Caribbean, Vietnamese, Malaysian, German, Chinese, Mexican ... you name it. And there's a pretty wide price range in terms of price range and ambiance--if you want Vietnamese food, for example, you can choose between the hole-in-the-wall Jasmine Deli or the swankily modern, bistro-y Jasmine 26 (which has has bubble tea cocktails, and they're every bit as fantastic they sound). So grab a bite to eat. And then walk three blocks to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I know your time is waning, especially if you lingered over your food, but the MIA is free, so don't feel too bad about spending a limited amount of time there. The museum covers a full range of important art eras--not so different from any other big-city museum, to be honest, but it's still an impressive collection--but make a beeline for section dedicated to Prairie School design (I think it's on the fourth floor) for proof positive that the sense of place here in the Midwest is every bit as inspiring as mountains or the sea. 

Seattle: Pike Place Market. See the flying fish. Touristy as hell, it's true, but get over it. I, for one, will never get tired of watching those fishmongers toss massive salmons to each other like fish Frisbees, never dropping them, joking all the while. You'd probably have some extra time, though, and the surrounding areas of downtown Seattle aren't that interesting, although you could go walk around by the waterfront, even if it is rather covered up with piers and such in that part of town. 

Okay. Question for the masses. I have two hours in your hometown. Maaaybe three. Where should I go? 

14 September 2011

That *other* writer and his *other* outdated guidebook

So. This.

A new book has come to my attention. It's a humorous memoir by a writer who traveled around a continent using only "the guide that started it all." Hilarity ensues. Lessons are learned. History is explored. So much has changed. So little has changed. And so on. Stop me if this sounds familiar.

Nope, that's not my book. That's some OTHER guy who did the same thing I did, but touring Southeast Asia with a 1975 copy of Lonely Planet. His name is Brian Thacker and his book came out, uh, two weeks ago. It's called Tell Them to Get Lost: Travels with the Lonely Planet Guide that Started it All. From the book synopsis on Thacker's web site:

When Tony Wheeler wrote Lonely Planet's first-ever shoestring guidebook, South-East Asia offered 'cheap and interesting travel without the constantly oppressing misery of some of the less fortunate parts of Asia'. Certain 'hotspots' in the region attracted the tourist crowds, but there were many 'untouched places' too.

So have Tony's recommendations stood the test of time? Just how much has South-East Asia changed since the Wheelers ambled through the region in flared pants? Brian Thacker decides to retrace Tony and Maureen's footsteps through Portuguese Timor, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Burma using the original 1975 South east Asia on a Shoestring as his only guidebook.

Part of me wants to read this right now, because it sounds hilarious and insightful, etc. The other part of me ... the other part of me wants to go test the structural integrity of his wall by giving it some massive smacks with his cranium. But I presume there's plenty of room in this nascent genre for both of us.

To be clear, I'm more amused by this coincidence than annoyed. It was inevitable that someone else would also have the--if I may say so--great/bad idea to travel in this willfully-misguided way. Brian Thacker, I hope we meet someday and have the chance to swap outdated-guidebook stories. And when we do, you're buying the beers.

13 September 2011

Postcard Gallery - late summer edition

The handwritten letter revolution continues! Thanks to all of the amazing correspondents who have sent letters, cards, postcards, and aerograms. This batch features letters from Costa Rica, The Netherlands, American Samoa, and that impossibly exotic land known as the Minnesota State Fair.

Taking things left to right, in rows, from the top:
  • Top row: Corny (ha ha) Nebraska postcard from Maren; abstract art/postcard from my toddler nephews and niece.
  • Second row: letter in a sweeet map envelope, also from Maren; sockeye salmon postcard from my nephews and niece in Seattle.
  • Third row: retro postcard from the Minnesota State Fair, from my parents; meta-and-incredibly-cool Postcardly postcard of postcards, from Pam Mandel.
  • Fourth row: London postcard from my sister and brother-in-law while they were losing at a pub quiz in London; card from Gee in The Netherlands; promotional postcard for The Current.
  • Bottom row: Orkney postcard from my parents, who are obsessed with Orkney and go there roughly every three weeks (or at least once a year); aerogram (from my template!) from Erin in American Samoa, where you can apparently mail a letter to the mainland USA for just a single first-class postage stamp, which is a pretty neat trick if you think about it; and, finally, a fine-looking lizard posing for the cameras in Costa Rica, courtesy of Susan and Tom, who live on a boat there. 
Keep 'em coming, please! My address is right over there in the sidebar to the right >>. And if I owe you my own letter/postcard, it'll go in the mail today. No, seriously--they're all written and ready to send. 

06 September 2011

Six travel videos to inspire wanderlust

I know, I know. You don't come here for lists. You don't come here for videos. You can get that stuff at roughly 10,312 other blogs. All true. Nonetheless, here we are.

Of late, I've been getting itchy feet and trying to think of my next adventure, which has led to some random Googling and travel-blog-reading, plus too much time spent on YouTube and Vimeo looking at videos and feeling all inspired ... and then clicking over to the next video rather than, you know, planning a trip. So here are some of the greatest hits of the many videos out there that will pique your wanderlust.

First up: "Where the Hell is Matt?" It's an obvious choice, and everyone reading this is probably among the 38 million (!!) people who have watched it already, but this viral video of Dancing Matt doing his thing all over the world still makes me smile. Mesmerizing.

In a somewhat similar vein are these newer videos posed about a month ago. There are three: Eat, Learn, Move. Instead of following a dorky dancer around the world, though, these ones show a guy participating in each of the titular verbs around the world. Quirky, delightful, subtly thrilling--like eye candy for the traveler.

Granted, most of the above videos would be hard for the rest of us to replicate. I, for one, don't have the means to fly all over the world (forty-four countries for dancing Matt Harding, eleven for the eating, moving, learning guy) and put together epic montage videos. So in the more realistic "I could maybe do that" realm, here are a couple of others. Ironically, these more accessible-seeming adventures are, unlike the more epic ones above, entirely fictitious. They're ads for a language-learning program, so I suppose the very intent of these videos is supposed to be to make us feel like we could live out these stories--they're travel fairy tales, but still relatable.

There are also similar videos for Beijing and London.

And finally, on a more humorous front, here's my pal Darren Garnick discussing his blog Tacky Tourist Photos and showing off some of the best submissions.

Anyone have any to add? What videos make you want to hit the road?

11 August 2011

Real mail via email: a round-up of services and apps and such

The letters and postcards and aerograms keep rolling in--thanks, Awesome People. I'll update the gallery soon.

I've also recently become aware of some interesting modern, digitally-assisted takes on the handwritten postcard, efforts that combine the wonders of the internet with actual physical pieces of mail in innovative and intriguing ways.

First up, as mentioned by a commenter on a recent post, Postcrossing is "a postcard exchange project that invites everyone to send and receive postcards from random places in the world. For free!" In this case, you--you personally--are writing and receiving Real Mail. According to the site, in six years of the project, participants have sent more than eight million postcards. I think that bears repeating and an impressed nod and raise of the eyebrows, yes? Eight. Million. Postcards. Cheers to that.

Then, via GalleyCat, there's Snail Mail My Email:
Type a message to a friend, family member, pet, politician, or lover, and email it to snailmailmyemail@gmail.com. Then sit back and relax while your email is handwritten, sent out, and delivered to the recipient of your choosing, completely free of charge!
It's only available through August 15th. So, you know, act now. 

A quibble, though. So. Obviously, I support every effort to bring back handwritten letters (and some of the letters in their gallery are really quite charming). But ... come on. This seems like a ... well, kind of lazy and indirect way of doing it. Yes, yes, I get it: the whole outsourcing thing is the point of the project, and I should think of it as artistic expression and an exercise in a new form of crowd-sourcing, not as a way to bring back Real Mail. But still: really?! It's sort of like if you took a pot of chicken noodle soup over to a sick friend ... but had someone else make the soup (from your family recipe, though!), and also had a courier deliver it. The end product says, "Thinking of you." The process says, "But not really." 

One of my mom's postcards to my dad in 1967.
Sorta kinda similarly, there are a couple of sites/apps that will send a postcard to someone using a photo and text that you upload. That is, you upload your photo and you write some text, and then the company makes it into a postcard and sends it off. There may be tons of sites/apps for this, but the two I know of are Postcardly and goPostal. For some reason, I actually find this more charming than cheating. Snail Mail My Email, because it's longer text, and it's being handwritten by someone else just feels so sneaky to me--again, there's the general appearance of thoughtfulness without the actual effort. But the postcards don't pretend to be something else, and they take your photo and make it into the front of a postcard, which otherwise involves takes some serious doing. It's a shortcut, sure, but it's not trying to be anything else. 

02 August 2011

Postcard-writing and the New York Review of Books

My friend Arijit alerted me to a lovely post from the New York Review of Books blog, titled "The Lost Art of Postcard Writing." Key quote:
Unlike letter writing, there never has been, and there never could be, an anthology of the best of postcard writing, because when people collect postcards, it’s usually for reasons other than their literary qualities. If there was such a book, I’m sure it would contain hundreds of anonymous masterpieces of this minimalist art, since unlike letters, cards require a verbal concision that can rise to high level of eloquence: brief and heart-breaking glimpses into someone’s existence, in addition to countless amusing and well-told anecdotes.
There's something about the last paragraph, though, that I find a bit off-putting:  
So, dear reader, if you happen, on your daily rounds, to come across in a coffee shop or a restaurant some poor soul sitting alone over a postcard and visibly struggling with what to write, take pity on him or her. They are the last of a species, and are almost certainly middle aged or elderly, already nervous and worried about all the problems older people face in this country.
That generalization that people who write postcards are, in some nebulous-but-important sense Older--well, it's probably correct. Almost certainly. And yet there's also something so reductive about that artfully-drawn scene and its insistence on corralling the postcard-writers into some dusty museum display of a bygone era, as though to write a postcard is to put down one's shuffleboard stick and scribble some comments about how Truman sure was a good president, gee whiz, before pushing the walker down the hall to the activity room for the 2pm ragtime sing-along. 

Come on. Don't consign the very act of postcard-writing to the nursing home for lost-cause, nearly-dead communication, along with Morse code and the Pony Express. Don't take pity on postcard writers. To ask for pity, to claim that this is the domain of only the "problem"-ridden "older people"--this isn't going to do much to make anyone else want to write postcards, either. Lament the decline, sure, but spare me the eulogies. 

We may be a dwindling--note that I did not say "dying"--species at the moment, but if my own mailbox is any indication, us postcard-writers still have plenty of life, plenty of stories.  

01 August 2011

Home, heartbreak, and the Minneapolis 35W bridge collapse

Sometimes the greatest thrill of travel is how it puts your home into fresh perspective, how you return to a familiar yet newly, oddly foreign place. I could never be one of those travel writers without a fixed address, without a specific place called home. For me, for now, home is Minneapolis--it's where I feel grounded, it's my own internal True North.

If there's one specific location here in Mill City that tugs at my soul in some deeper way and has that resonance of this-is-who-I-am-this-is-where-I-belong, it's the Mississippi riverfront. It didn't always have that effect--for the longest time, I thought of the Mississippi as not much more than a glorified cesspool. But then, four years and two months ago, I moved to an apartment four blocks away.

And then, two months later--four years ago today--something happened on the river. The Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the water. Thirteen people died.

I didn't see the collapse take place, but I saw its aftermath. It's seared into my mind. This is what I wrote about it that night:


The Bridge . . .

I cross the Mississippi twice each day as I commute to and from work, and Old Man River lost his mystique for me long ago. For me, and most people in Minneapolis, the water is far more likely to spawn winces from the reek of chemicals than awe over its legend. Mostly, though, we don't even think about it at all — it's just there, a passive obstacle pretty much devoid of meaning. We have a lot of bridges over the Mississippi, and crossing them is typically no more spirit-moving than driving on any other street, especially in this summer of drought, when the waters are muddy and lethargic.

But now we have one less bridge, and no one here in River City can think about much else today.

I’m safe. My friends, co-workers, and relatives are safe, as far as I know. But I’ve already heard too many stories of close calls, and once my mind starts, inevitably, to wander down the path of “what if,” it’s impossible to stop. What if I’d had the day off, as I was supposed to before a big project came up? My father wouldn’t have given me a ride home, so during rush hour, he would have taken his usual route and passed directly under the . . .

But so far, I’ve always let that ellipsis take over at the last minute — completing those thoughts is pointless and terrifying.

When I got home today, I was feeling so beat and lethargic on this hot day that I cranked up the AC and collapsed in bed. When I woke up from my nap and went online for a second and checked the local news, I saw the headline: BREAKING NEWS . . .

The bridge had been down for about forty minutes. I went outside and saw a flock of helicopters hovering over the river. A plume of smoke in the distance. An chorus of sirens filled the air, relentless and haunting. I walked over to the Stone Arch Bridge, the next bridge upstream from 35W, along with thousands of other pedestrians. We were all thinking and muttering and sharing those same trailing-off observations: It could have been me, it could have been my friend, it could have been my brother, it could have been, it could have been, it could have been . . .

What struck me, though, was that no one seemed to realized that for other people, it was. They were there, wrong place, wrong time. And now some of them are dead. The mood on the Stone Arch Bridge was somber, but not distraught or anguished — there were many vacant eyes, but none welling with tears. From our vantage point, we could see twisted metal and accordioned concrete, but no cars or people — we understood the collapse, but not the reality of the human toll.

Everyone was taking photos with their cell phones, though phone service was pretty much out. (This, actually, had been my first clue that something terrible had happened — in our modern age, a phone screen that has ample reception bars but an ominous “network busy” screen is a sign that something is seriously amiss.) Those who could get through were blabbing away to their friends: "Yeah, I'm on the Stone Arch Bridge, but if I hadn't missed my exit, I might have been . . ." 

I made my way to the University Avenue overpass above the freeway, the closest vantage point to the collapsed bridge. Here, there was a different mood. You could see the cars, the trucks . . . and the school bus, leaning against the side of the bridge on a section that was angled toward the river. I later learned that everyone got out safely, but at that moment, none of us knew; we could only speculate and hope. We were closer to the scene than anyone watching on TV at home, and yet we were less aware of what had happened or what was happening. Rumors and hypotheses flowed through the crowd, but facts were elusive; all we could do was exchange helpless glances and wonder if . . . 

As I headed home, hoping to beat the thunderstorm that was rolling in, I saw more emergency vehicles than should ever be in one place. The parking lot outside one apartment building had been turned into a staging ground for a long line of ambulances from seemingly every hospital in the Twin Cities. Search-and-rescue boats fought their way through traffic, trying to get to the riverfront. And everywhere,everywhere, fire trucks. From Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Vadnais Heights, Inver Grove Heights, Maplewood, all over. Police from Roseville were directing traffic. In spite of the chaos, it was all astonishingly orderly — all of the emergency workers seemed to know exactly what they were doing; it was a model of teamwork and efficiency.

It’s so tempting to talk about how the waterway that was the lifeblood of Minneapolis is now a scar, or how the dark clouds that filled the sky after the collapse were some signal from on high of mourning or of looming apocalypse. But for me, metaphor loses some of its impact when you see something so jarring, so unexpected, so awful — the hard reality of mangled concrete and burning cars and a yellow school bus seeming to dangle on the precipice makes life seem too stark, too real. I don’t need clouds to tell me the gravity of the situation.

Because for some people, this wasn’t just “That was almost me, if only . . .”


The silver lining was the community's instant response. People who were passing by on bikes, on foot, in cars, in boats all rushed in immediately to help. No one ran away; everyone ran in.

The Minnesota Twins--who at the time played in the Metrodome, half a mile away from the bridge--had a game an hour after the bridge collapse, and decided not to cancel because it would mean sending 25,000 people back out onto the streets, impeding the rescue effort. So they made an announcement and said here's what's happened, but we're asking you to stay here while we play the game. The headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the next day read, "Twins Help By Playing."

For my part, my neighbor and I agreed that we had to do something, but didn't know what and didn't want to get in the way. So we got cases of water and Gatorade and passed the bottles out to rescue workers and the traffic control officers and the random people who were doing the real work on this hot day. It felt like the least we could do--make sure they had something to drink and a thank-you for all they were doing, before we disappeared back into the night, letting them do their jobs. And we went home and tried to sleep.




More coverage:
For the complete story, here's the Star Tribune's multimedia package on the collapse from a couple of years later. Note: If you're from the Twin Cities and/or this is at all painful for you, you should immediately click "skip intro" when you follow that link. A video of the actual collapse starts playing right away, and it's more than a bit of a trigger of memories and anguish. I say that not to sound dramatic but because when I opened the link just now, that anguish really did come back in an unexpected rush as I impulsively and very suddenly found myself yelling and then bawling.

27 July 2011

Postcard gallery: Croatia, sand castles, New Zealand, Edgar Allan Poe

All kinds of pen-and-paper awesomeness have been showing up in my mailbox of late. In fact, I now get more letters and postcards than I do blog comments—which is absolutely wonderful. Old-school handwritten correspondence for the win. And it bears repeating: these letters and postcards convey a specific sense of personality and sense of place and general warmth that e-mails and tweets and text messages never can.

A partial sampling from the last couple of weeks:

Clockwise from upper left:
  • Edgar Allan Poe looking handsome-but-sad, from Lee (see below for his note on the back).
  • Aerogram (!) from Mike Barish.
  • Plitvička Jezera, Croatia from Shirley.
  • Handmade map aerogram (!!) from Susie in New Zealand (close-up below).
  • How To Build a Sandcastle group postcard from my parents, uncle, and cousins, writing from the Jersey shore (the cool, classy kind, not the MTV kind).* 
  • Rannoch Moor, Scotland postcard from … I don’t know who. Given the location of the scene on the front of the card, I’m going to guess it’s from my friend DS in Glasgow (if so: cheers, mate!). See below for the hilarious note on the reverse side.
  • Arches National Park (Utah) postcard from Eva Holland.
* NOTE: Group postcards are a family tradition and often include greetings from waiters, newly-met friends, and random passersby. Each line is in new handwriting, the sentences getting more compressed toward the bottom as everyone squeezes in, correspondence as clown car. It makes for an interesting, telling artifact of a particular moment of time, showing not just where you were but who was with you and who had what to say about that place and that moment.

A few close-ups:

Yes, Lee. We'll be going to the State Fair and watching the Twins play outdoors
--I asked them to move back outside just so that we could do things the old-fashioned
way when you came to visit.

Seriously, this is a sweet envelope--it's made from a map of the Caribbean. 

It's good to keep those writing fingers in shape now and then.

Thanks, all, for joining the Campaign of Awesome People Bringing Back the Handwritten Letter (CAPBBHL—totally catchy, right?). If I have your address, my own postcard to you should be arriving shortly.

And if anyone else wants to join the CAPBBHL cause, my address is right over there in the sidebar. à

Write on.

18 July 2011

Notes on watching the World Cup in an airport bar

I am a soccer nerd. As a player, I am merely semi-competent, although I do have precisely one good move--the step-over turn--and will totally burn you with it, at least until you catch up two seconds later. As a fan, I am somewhat less than a European hooligan, but decidedly more enthusiastic than the average American. Our national attitude toward the beautiful game is pretty well summed up by the header at the top of The Onion's sports section, which has links to the site's sub-sections, in this order and with this wording: baseball, basketball, football, hockey, motorsports, women's sports/soccer.

But it's amazing what a little bit of success in a major international competition can do, at least temporarily. Last year, when the American men's team made a minor run in the World Cup in South Africa, the zeitgeist briefly made room for terms like offside trap, back-heel pass, vuvuzela, and What the hell are you doing, Landon Donovan? And in 1999, famously, the Women's World Cup had its fleeting but bright moment in the national spotlight, with Brandi Chastain's screaming celebration, after making the winning penalty kick in the shoot-out against China, becoming an iconic photo, gracing the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated.

Still, few Americans this year seemed to realize that the Women's World Cup was underway. I'll confess that although I read game re-caps, I didn't actually see a single group-stage game aside from a couple of YouTube highlights.

And then came The Goal. Abby Wambach's laser-precise header off a brilliant cross from Megan Rapinoe in the game against Brazil. (Sadly, I can't find any videos of it--they've all been taken down for copyright violations. If you haven't seen it, though, know that it is bona fide gorgeous). Suddenly, the nation awoke. Abby Wambach became a trending topic on Twitter. Lil' Wayne tweeted his congrats, as did, well, seemingly everyone. (My favorite part of this, by the way, was that Rapinoe also got her due. Americans love the goal-scorers--in any sport--but have a tendency to overlook the people who do all the set-up work. It was nice to see an outside midfielder--my old position--get her richly-deserved praise for the phenomenal service.)

There was no way I was going to miss the final, not as a confirmed soccer nut but also, suddenly, not as an American with even a passing interest in sports. Just one problem: I was going to be on an airplane, coming back from my cousin's wedding in Philadelphia (mazel tov, Jason and Emily!). My plane would arrive at MSP midway through the second half. If I planned right, I could find a television and watch the end.

When I left MSP on Friday, I grabbed an airport map so I could plan a route to a bar at the airport. I packed lightly so that I could carry on my bag and sprint of the airplane. And when I landed on Sunday, that's what I did--I ran off the plane and straight to the French Meadow.

Which was packed. I mean, packed. All the seats at the bar counter were taken, as well as all the tables with even a partial view of the restaurant's two small-ish screens. A low fence separated the restaurant from the concourse, where another two dozen or so people stood staring, rapt. I joined them.

Really crappy phone-camera image of the scene.
But you get the idea.

15 July 2011

Eight reactions to getting galleys from your publisher

1. Initial anticipation
The UPS guy delivers a large parcel for you. From Penguin. Admire the packaging. Never before has bubble wrap looked, to your eyes, so much like a Fabergé Egg. (What, you don’t see it?) But now the anticipation is killing you—stop gazing and open the dang thing already.  

2. Wild-eyed, kid-on-Christmas-morning glee
Get a knife. Slice carefully, trying very hard, in your shaky-handed giddiness, not to lop off a finger—or, worse, even slightly knick those precious, precious galleys.

3. Cinematic moment of discovery and triumph
Open the bubble wrap and pull out a galley like Indiana Jones unearthing an ancient, possibly-magical relic. Listen for the John Williams soundtrack soaring in the background.


4. Savor
Stare. For a good long time.


5. High-five Mary Tyler Moore.

6. A Toast!
Introduce your new friend Galley to your dear old pal Vintage Frommer’s Guidebook, the book your book is basically all about. Buy them each a drink. Let the conversation flow.

7. Back To Work
Realize you still have to review the galleys and make some last-minute updates and corrections and fix that one really awkward paragraph that has been confounding you for months.

8. Share the Moment
Also realize you should remind people of some important info, because after all that work, you think you've actually maybe done an okay-pretty-good job (especially once that paragraph is fixed) and it would really be pretty sweet if people, you know, actually bought it, read it, enjoyed it.

Pre-order links:
Also, please keep in touch!

Sign up for the e-newsletter to get updates on book launch events and info. (Two options: you can sign up for semi-regular updates from me or, if you prefer, just a reminder when the book comes out. I promise to keep it short, sweet, and sporadic--no spam.)

And! Andand. To keep in touch the old-fashioned, pen-and-paper way, send me a real letter/postcard/aerogram (template! over! here!). I promise to write back and I just might feature it in my Postcard Gallery. You can write to me at:

Doug Mack
PO Box 1922
Minneapolis, MN 55458-1922

13 July 2011

Guidebooks of doom and the new Chinese Grand Tourists

These links are a bit old, but still of note: 

The Wall Street Journal reports that in Hawaii, too many tourists are doing dangerous-slash-stupid things based on guidebook recommendations. So many, in fact, that the state legislature is considering a law to "hold Hawaii guidebook writers personally liable for deaths or accidents at spots they recommend."

I think it bears repeating: the best guide is some common sense. 

There's that old headline trope again: Europe on [monetary amount] a day, the cheap journalism cliche that originated with, of course, Europe on Five Dollars a Day, and now just won't stop. In any case, though, this article offers an interesting insight into the newest generation of Grand Tourists. Many of the points and anecdotes are similar to those in the Economist article from last year about Chinese Grand Tourists, although it's still fertile ground for storytelling. 
In the front row of the bus, Li stood facing the group with a microphone in hand, a posture he would retain for most of our waking hours in the days ahead. In the life of a Chinese tourist, guides play an especially prominent role—translator, raconteur, and field marshal—and Li projected a calm, seasoned air. He often referred to himself in the third person—Guide Li—and he prided himself on efficiency. “Everyone, our watches should be synchronized,” he said. “It is now 7:16 p.m.” He implored us to be five minutes early for every departure. “We flew all the way here,” he said. “Let’s make the most of it.”
As long as the demographics of tourists keep changing--that is, as long as more people from more places and more backgrounds start traveling--the tourist trail will continue to evolve, to have fresh stories, to retain an intrinsic newness and intrigue. Each person, each culture passing through, leaves its own mark.  

11 July 2011

An Amsterdam pirate speaks

So back in Amsterdam, on our first night together, Lee and I went to a pirate bar. You can guess whose idea this was--and which of us was somewhat convinced that he was about to inadvertently donate his skeleton to the  decor of the place. For the full story, go back and read my post "Scenes from a pirate bar in Amsterdam."

You know who else read it? Pirates. Amsterdam canal pirates. Apparently pirates read blogs. Apparently pirates, like the rest of us, like to search for themselves on the internet. (For that reason, allow me to state: Blackbeard, if you ever decide to start plundering bakeries, I'd be happy to help. Yo, ho, ho and a barrel of pain au chocolat.) Because a couple of days ago, I got a comment on that year-old post. It's disappointingly free of piratese and seafarer lingo--nary an "Aaarrr" or "Matey" or the Dutch equivalent, whatever that may be--but it's still pretty interesting. Quoth the pirate:
As one of the people working in the pirates bar, I have to comment on this, as I see it, funny post. It sounds like you entered pirates at about 10.30 pm, if at that time it was your fourth bar, you just started too early, mostly all parties start after 11 pm. I think you witnessed a pub-crawl comming every night around 10.45 pm, after that, the night starts. Yeah, there are a lot of english people on the pub-crawl, but you should have been there after 12.30, when most dutch people come to town...

Still hope you enjoyed our bar, and maybe see you another time...
Yes, Amsterdam Pirate, if Lee and I are ever in Amsterdam together again, we will definitely have to stop by and say hi. Or "Aaarrr." And, truly, thanks for clearing up the mystery of the sudden influx of Brits. We did ask a random person if it was a pub crawl, and he said no, but perhaps we just happened to ask the one person who happened to have wandered in on his own.

Also, let it be noted that the International Talk Like a Pirate Day web site has an entire page of Dutch translations of pirate vocabulary and expressions. Like:

Buit / scheepsbuit  booty, swag
Kielhalen  to drag someone along the keel of the ship
Schatkist  treasure chest

AND that same page has Dutch pirate songs. Seriously. Amsterdam Pirates Bar employee, if you're listening: mass pirate song sing-alongs would really enhance the spirit of your bar. You know those carousing Brits would love it. 

26 June 2011

I've got mail

As noted recently, as part of my campaign to bring back the handwritten letter/postcard/aerogram, I now have an official post office box. Write to me! And I'll write back and/or, if you don't mind, put your postcard here on the blog.

Like these wonderful pieces of correspondence, which were waiting for me when I did my inaugural mail run a few days ago. Thanks to the two mystery correspondents! 

First, a postcard (with an Eiffel Tower design on the front) from someone in San Francisco: 

And! This letter from none other than Oracle CEO Larry Ellison*:

* Or perhaps--just maybe--an imposter with a sense of humor and access to Oracle letterhead. 

Keep 'em coming, please! Postcards, fake CEO notes, silly tourist photos, aerograms (template! over! here!), pastry tips, anything you've got! Long live the handwritten letter.

Doug Mack
PO Box 1922
Minneapolis, MN 55458-1922

16 June 2011

Live and in concert! One night only! (Kinda)

Don't worry--you don't actually have to hear me sing. I've just always wanted to type that headline.

But! If you're in the Twin Cities next week, you can, in fact, see me live and in conversation with Mr. Breakaway, Kirk Horsted. Please join us on Thursday for an informal EuroTravelTalk about, well, European travel and my own experiences with same--in particular, my Not-So-Grand Tour with a 45-year-old guidebook.

When: Thursday, June 23rd, 7-9pm
Where: Ginger Hop in Nordeast Minneapolis
Featuring: Travel! Humor! Pathos! More travel! Etc.! Also: cheap beer.

Kirk's official event description:

Greetings Dreamers & Schemers!
Sweet summer has finally arrived in Minnesota, but that doesn't mean we can't break away for a few hours to ponder more exotic places...

On Thursday, June 23, from 7 – 9p, please join us for an informal Meetup to talk travels, BreakAways, and ???. We’ll have a light agenda, serious $4 beers & $5 wines, and face-to-face fun & chat. (Food menu also available.) 

You can RSVP on the event pages at MeetPlanGo or Meetup ... or just show up! I'd love to see you there, answer some questions, and hear your travel stories.

Special Super Awesome Added Bonus: free stuff! I'll be giving out some aerograms and postcards and maybe even a travel book or two.