19 May 2011

Where would you go for one day? One week? One month? Forever?

"So where would you go back to right now, if you could?" 

I hear this nearly every time I'm in a social setting and mention my Not-So-Grand Tour. It's a fair question, always a good conversation-continuer (especially for someone like me who is always eager to compare travel notes). Anthony's comment on my last post reminded me of my problems replying to the query, though--I don't have a single good answer. 

I respond, "How long do I have? A night? A week? A month? Forever?"

Because there are some cities where it's just flat-out dull to be a tourist: not a lot of big, flashy sites or official Things To Do. They're just filled with normal people doing normal, everyday things. In a word: boring. Lookin' at you, Brussels.

And yet Brussels also has a discreet weird/surreal streak (visit the Magritte museum and you'll see what I mean) and a disarming sense of unease with itself--a historic city where much of the history has been demolished; a French-speaking city in a Dutch-speaking region of a famously conflicted country--that I find compelling and even enchanting. I can imagine living there--it seems like an interesting place to grow into, a taste one acquires. A place to settle down. Just not to visit for a couple of days. 

As it happens, though Brussels is also where I'd go for just one night, because it's home to one of the best bars I've ever visited, Delirium Tremens. Total tourist trap, but there seemed to be plenty of locals there, and even though the place is huge, it's compartmentalized in such a way that it always feels intimate. Best of all, it a genial, conversational atmosphere like I've never seen--the place buzzed with energy but wasn't loud and didn't feel like an obnoxious "scene." I've talked a lot about the tourist trail as the crossroads of the world, and this is a classic example. (Lee, care to chime in about this?)

So here's my list (as of this moment, though it changes often) of Where I'd Go Back To Right Now: 

One night: Brussels. With Lee and/or other friends, though I think it's best shared with just a few people. We'd go to Delirium Tremens and then stumble through the Grand Place very late at night, and sit on those cobblestones with the ghosts of that historic space dancing around us. There might also be some waffles and chocolate involved.

Grand Place at night. Pretty sweet, yes?
One week: Berlin. Because it's another confusing, conflicted, historically rich city. Even though we were there for four days, I feel like I didn't see any of it. 

One month: Madrid. Part of it is that I really want to master Spanish. I know just barely enough to get by, more or less, but I'd love to master the language. But I also just feel in love with the people, the food, the architecture, the general vibrant but not frenzied spirit of place. It's a culture I'd like to get to know more. At the same time, though, Madrid feels like someone I might date for ages but know, in my heart of hearts, that I would never want to marry--there's an attraction, to be sure, but that underlying mutual sense of ease and understanding and belonging just won't ever come. Madrid would be a great extended fling. So would Rome. Or Paris. All so charming and beautiful and fun and achingly chic. Six months, definitely. An amazing six months, to be sure. Maybe a year. More than that, though? I'm not certain.

To live: Brussels or Amsterdam. I guess there's just something so intoxicatingly romantic about living on a canal, and Amsterdam feels like more of a Real City than Venice. I loved the Jordaan neighborhood, slightly removed from the tourist center, quieter and funkier than the more popular areas (I don't need to go back to Damrak ever, thanks). It may not have the intrinsically attractive aesthetics and world-capital energy of Rome, Paris, and Madrid, but I'm more than okay with that. And Brussels ... well, as above, there's just an ineffable weirdness to the city that I find completely alluring. It seems like an artistic, intelligent, subtly witty and semi-neurotic kind of place. Again, not first-glance beautiful by any means, but subtle charming all the same. As I said, a place to grow into, bit by bit, but--I'm guessing--more than worth the effort. Ultimately, Amsterdam and Brussels both just feel like cities with the right combination of grit and beauty; they're cultured but not pretentious. I felt grounded and at peace in some intangible way.

Plus, Brussels has some great patisseries, which counts for a lot in my book. Beer, bakeries, historic buildings, low-key-but-convivial vibe. Done. I'm happy.

So. Anyone else want to play along? One day, one week, one month, and/or for the rest of your life. Where would you go? (Anywhere, not just in Europe.)

14 May 2011

New title, new design, same me

Some housekeeping. So you might have noticed something. Like this blog's new title and new design. Both now thirty-eight percent lighter and cheerier and lower cholesterol.

(If you're viewing this in Google Reader or some other RSS feed thing, you'll have to click through to see what I'm talking about.)

The new title--Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day--reflects what I think, maybe, possibly (ask me later) is the final title of the actual book. It's more tangible, more accurate, more funny this way, yes? Yes. Good. I'm glad you agree. Oh, and, yes, I'm aware the that the domain name and the new title are different. Working on it--trying to get it so that all of the old links still work and such, before I transfer to a new domain name.

Content-wise, the blog will stay more or less the same: quips, rants, stories, and general commentary on travel topics, particularly those relating to:
  1. unexpected angles and insights on tourism and the beaten path, because there's usually a hidden story behind the cliche; 
  2. guidebooks and travel apps and how we get informed when we plan our journeys; and 
  3. the history and evolution of tourism in the last generation. 

I may also start posting about other things more often. We'll see. Honestly, until the book comes out next year, posting is probably going to be pretty light. But if you want any posts about anything, by all means, holler (doug@douglasmack.net).

Wow, that's a lot of boring behind-the-scenes stuff. To bring us back on-topic, I leave you with the full version of the photo I used for the new header. It's from something I stumbled across in Paris when I was lost, the Parade for Sex and Beer. At least, I think that's what it was. I don't know. I couldn't figure it out and I rather enjoyed the mystery of the bizarre spectacle, so I didn't ask anyone.

This is why it's so awesome to be lost: you accidentally stumble upon this sort of thing.

03 May 2011

Long live the handwritten letter: an aerogram template for you

1. Aerograms are awesome, if you still remember what they are. 
I love aerograms--or aĆ©rogrammes, if you want to sound sophisticated-slash-French. Alas, they're dying out. The United States Postal Service doesn't sell them anymore; neither do many other postal services around the world. Every time I type the word aerogram, my computer puts a little wavy red line below it. That's not a real word, dummy, it says. To which I reply, in my best just-turned-30-so-feeling-curmudgeonly voice, Add to dictionary, you ignorant youngster.

2. Maybe I should back up and explain.
In fact, I may already lost a few of you, as I would if I were talking about rotary phones or sextants. What's he talking about? Think of it as the stationery version of Ikea's flat-pack furniture: it looks like a standard sheet of paper, fold here, fold there, and now your letter is its own envelope. Correspondence meets origami--a neat trick, one that adds an extra layer of intimacy and interactivity that you'll never experience with e-mail or text messages. As Evan Rail put in an aerogram-appreciation essay on World Hum a while back:
Unlike an electronic message, writing an aerogram is an incredibly tactile way to communicate. In reading it, not only are you holding something that your correspondent also once held, but you are allowing your eyes to be guided by the curves and lines that person created—where the writer’s hand once dipped and swept, the reader’s eye then follows. 
3. They look like this (the top one is semi-unfolded):
My parents wrote a LOT of aerograms to each other during my mom's 1967 Grand Tour.
These are just a tiny fraction of the full stash.
4. Now go make your own.
But! Before we go getting all nostalgic and wistful--or start looking for an iPhone app that generates a holographic aerogram-opening effect whenever you receive a new e-mail message--allow me to intervene and offer you your very own easy-to-use aerogram template, set up to print on a standard (well, for Americans) letter-size sheet of paper. Unfolded, it looks like this:

Click on the image for the full-size PDF version.
Some assembly required, but that's the fun. Basically, you cut off those gray corners and then fold it up; instructions included in the upper right corner of the sheet.

Download the full-size (8.5" x 11"), high-resolution, ready-to-print PDF via Google Docs right over here. (UPDATE: If you have problems printing that version, try this this one instead, with an added bonus aerogram design on the second page.) For the full effect, print it on a flimsy blue paper.

5. Long live the aerogram! Long live the handwritten letter! Send lots! 
Send one to me, even! My address is over there in the sidebar to the left. If you do, I promise to write back.