15 December 2012

So You Want to Be a Travel Writer

Greetings from a boat (er, SHIP, as I have been corrected multiple times) on its way from Panama to Ecuador. Yesterday, we passed through the Panama Canal, which was one of those experiences that is superficially uninteresting--I've been through locks and dams before; I've seen lakes and hillsides; I've gotten my life's worth of close-up views of overloaded cargo ships--but, when you look even slightly below the surface, more than a bit amazing.

I mean: THE PANAMA CANAL! What a marvel of engineering; what an absurd concept; what a hell of a history. 

Anyway. I'm a speaker on an Enrichment Voyage. Today's talk is titled "So You Want to Be a Travel Writer." I've stolen the title from Lee's post written during our European adventure, and I'm reprinting his entire post below. Enjoy! 

[By Lee]

Say you are, hypothetically, on an online dating site trying to find interesting people. You aren’t lame enough to NEED an online dating site, of course. You’ve got TONS of options. But let’s pretend. You might, hypothetically of course, type in “writer” in the search criteria in the hopes of turning up someone interesting. You might be surprised at the number of hits you get.

Until you find that every mention of the word “writer” appears somewhere in a sentence like this: “I’m an investment banker but what I really want to do is be a travel writer.” Or “My dream is to be a travel writer but right now I’m in sales.”

Everyone wants to be a travel writer. Travel writers get to go all over the place and see amazing things and have adventures and people pay them! Who wouldn’t want to be a travel writer? You probably want to be a travel writer. At least you think you do.

I’m into week two of traveling with a man who actually makes a small portion of his income selling articles about travel and let me tell you: you do not want to do this.

We’ll skip immediately past the hours of rewriting and research done in a lonely room in a cheap apartment in a city that is not glamorous but is just home. We won’t dwell on the fact that these solitary work hours are probably twenty times more common than an hour spent traveling. Let’s focus on the good stuff; the travel itself.

We walk something like eight miles a day, eating at least one of our meals, if not all of them, on our feet. Doug can write while walking and often does, pulling out a small spiral bound notebook as he navigates cobblestone streets. He goes through approximately a notebook every two days. It’s sick. Doug takes something like twenty pictures a day, often simply as visual notes. These eventually have to be catalogued. That note taking time doesn’t include the two hours Doug spends turning those notes into word documents on his laptop while I make bad jokes from the other bed and fall asleep.

But at least we’re being put up in a nice hotel, right? No. Feel like returning to dorm living? Travel writing is the job for you. Right now six German boys are wrestling in their room down the hall. We share a bathroom with them and with travelers from two other rooms. But at least we’ve got a balcony, right? No. We’ve got a window so old I’m afraid I’ll get lead poisoning by looking at it.

But trying new things is fun, right? Well, how often do YOU do it? People don’t really like to do new things. New foods cause upset stomachs, new sights take time to process, new people take energy to meet and get to know. Go down the street and ask the average person how many new things he or she has done in the last three days. Travel writers do not have the leisure of picking a few, shiny, hygienically treated new things to experience. They must be willing to try everything and anything, always. There’s no structure, no rest. When a travel writer wakes up in the morning, he often doesn’t know where he’s going to get breakfast. From the moment Doug’s eyes open, he is at work.

You don’t want to be a travel writer. You want to be paid to travel and, occasionally, opine. Who wouldn’t want that?

Those who ARE travel writers do not work in sales and talk about it. They go into debt to travel and write. The last thing they do each day, after putting their tired feet under their thin rented sheets and before closing their aching eyelids is think, “I hope someone pays me for this.”

But in the morning they do it again anyway. It is a wonderful life, but it is not for you.

26 November 2012

Crowd-sourcing then and now

I just read Arthur Frommer's latest newspaper column, in which he takes on crowd-sourced review sites such as TripAdvisor:
As for me, I find it increasingly difficult to rely on the user-generated sites. Scanning the reviews of a particular property, I frequently find that some 40 or so people claim it to be one of the best they have ever patronized, while another 40 or so people claim it is the worst they have ever patronized. Which to believe? Some defenders of the user-generated sites have composed elaborate formulas by which they eliminate the best and worst extremes, and simply look at reviews by people conferring only moderate praise or blame on the property. But then, what is the utility of using the site?

Though I'll be attacked as having a self-interest in this question, I will continue to rely on the judgment of experts — experienced journalists, in most instances — and not on the reviews of amateur and inexperienced critics.
Something about that sounded mighty familiar, so I went back and looked at some of my book notes. My 1963 edition of Europe on $5 a Day had its own version of user-generated tips at the end of each chapter-- Arthur was receiving some five thousand letters each year by 1967. As with internet comments, some of these comments were genuinely insightful, and some were ... not. Like this one from the Amsterdam chapter of E5D:
We are the oldest active firm of diamond manufacturers in this city. . . . As a form of publicity, we have a permanent Diamond and Diamond Manufacturing Exhibition, installed in the original premises of the firm, which are situated on the banks of the Amstel River. . .
This goes on. It highlights the hours, the air conditioning (“a novelty for Amsterdam”), the demonstrations by the diamond-cutters. “It's like the original spam comment,” Lee said. Arthur apparently agreed. In 2009, he told USA Today:
The whole emphasis on user-generated content is foolish. I was the first person to use it with the “readers' selections” in Europe on $5 A Day, in which I printed verbatim letters from readers. I was so proud of it. I even said they were better than mine because I was going to 40 or 50 hotels and a reader would remember one place that stands out. Then we realized it was being massively manipulated. Hotel (operators) were getting friends to send in recommendations. About 25 years ago we dropped it.
To fight the current spate of questionable, anonymously-offered travel opinions, some web sites are trying out old tactics. Such sites “aim to eliminate much of the annoyance of online trip planning by winnowing the selection of hotels and destinations to an edited list,” The New York Times breathlessly reported in 2010. “Call it the curated search.” Uh-huh. Or call it, you know, a guidebook. How soon we forget the time-tested tool when presented with its new, flashy offspring.

17 October 2012

Splurge on Socks: A Commencement Speech for Travelers

I was honored to be invited to give the keynote speech for last night's Meet Plan Go event in Minneapolis. Here's what I said: 

When I was asked to deliver a keynote speech here, I panicked. I kept imagining it like a commencement speech. In my mind, it was already snowing here in Minnesota, so you were all wearing stocking caps, and at the end, you tossed them in the air while my final platitudes faded and the opening notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" blared over the PA system.

Finally, I gave in and went with it. So here goes.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Meet, Plan, Go class of 2012 ...

Splurge on socks.

This is the single most important piece of advice you will learn this evening, so remember this and this alone. You must not skimp when it comes to socks. Blisters will Mess. You. Up. Universal truth.

Everything else is negotiable, everything else is subject to disagreement and debate. All of us who have ever set foot outside the house have an opinion, forming a cacophony of voices all too eager to spar about the one proper way to travel, the specific things you must see before you die, the singular manner in which you must behave when you travel.

Most of it, though offered with sincerity and good intentions, can be ignored. All of it is true and all of it is false. The key, of course, is figuring out which is which for you. Know what to dismiss, what advice to stare down with furrowed brow and knowing gaze and say, “Thanks, but no, I’ll do it my way.”

Also: buy bottled water. Always check the seal before you drink.

Squat toilets are tricky. Proceed with caution.

To travel is to ignore some fundamental part of your own instinct, some survival mechanism grafted to your DNA. Someone in your family tree, way back, was eaten by a bear or a tiger. It must have happened.

Stop worrying. It won’t happen to you. Probably. No matter how overwhelmed and scared you feel about the prospect of travel, about going to far-flung places, it’s almost certain that things will be weirder and more wonderful than you expected and will--for real--work out in the end.

And no matter how cocky and adventurous you’re feeling, you’ll still mess something up. You'll have moments of abject terror or paralyzing awkwardness. That I can guarantee.

You’re going to be the stupid tourist. You’re going to get into trouble. That’s okay. That’s the point. It's a necessary stop on all roads worth taking. It’s where the best stories come from.

Maybe you'll blog, maybe you won't. Either one is fine, no matter what your relatives say. 

Send postcards. Send one to me. I’ll write back.

About those socks: Don’t get white, don’t get cotton. I like Smartwool. They didn’t pay me to say that, but if they want to send me a lifetime supply, I won’t turn it down. Comfort is important in socks. If your feet aren’t happy, you’re not moving.

Every day on the road, do something uncomfortable and unfamiliar to rattle yourself.

Every day on the road, do something comfortable and familiar to ground yourself.

Go to an American restaurant in a foreign country just for the utterly perplexing sensation of seeing a familiar template twisted and skewed until you’re not even sure what it means to be American anymore.

Eurail passes are a hell of a deal. Switzerland, in general, is not.

Carry one and only one fortune-cookie platitude in your wallet at all times. Like this: find your own path.

Maybe you’ll single-handedly hack your way through the jungle to a quote-unquote "undiscovered" village in Borneo. Maybe you’ll dance the electric slide with your grandma outside the starboard snack bar on a Walt Disney cruise ship. Maybe you’ll do the R-T-W thing--’round the world, baby!--with your best friend from college. Maybe you’ll just hitchhike down the road a stretch, to that neighborhood where you’ve never been for one reason or another, and walk into the VFW for a pitcher of Miller and a round of darts with a Korean War vet named Tiny.

That’s all good. That all counts, no matter the destination, the budget, the amount of time, the company you keep. Manifest destiny comes in many flavors. Find yours; don’t worry about others. Realize that you can get lost and make new discoveries on the beaten path, just as you can be jaded and all too comfortable in the most exotic places. Whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re going, embrace it. Love it on your own terms. Take the opportunity to look below the surface. Of the sight, of the experience, of yourself.

Buy Tiny his beer. Buy other travelers drinks. Even if you’re not generally social--in fact, especially if you’re not usually social, because, well, carpe diem and all that--talk to the people you meet--the tourists, the locals, everyone. Sit at the bar. Bartenders are better than any guidebook.

Go to Venice once, to bask in the beauty. Only stay one day, though, because beauty is more fleeting than you think.

If you’re ever stranded at the Atlanta airport, your best food bet is the Atlanta Bread Company, by Gate 24.

Never fly through Atlanta.

Keep calm, carry on.

Pack light, carry on. Add your socks last. Stuff them into shoes, shove them into every nook of your packed suitcase. Wool compresses wonderfully.

There is so much information out there, so much scolding, so many proclamations. Seriously, ignore most of it. All that matters is your own inner voice. Learn to sift through the information overload in a way that is meaningful and useful to you.

Anyway. Don’t worry about it. You’re going somewhere. You’re following your dream, your passion, your folly--whatever that may be. You’re becoming a better person.

Be wary of anyone who tries to tell you that something will make you a better person. 

Be wary of anyone who says “I’m a traveler, not a tourist.” Never say that. I will hunt you down.

Get lost at least once each day.

Don’t panic.

And when you’ve figured out where you are, after all that walking, look down at your feet, all cozy and comfortable, and be glad that you splurged on those fancy socks.

And then put one foot in front of the other, propelled by your own curiosity. The world awaits.

NB: For those who were wondering, yes, I was more than a bit inspired by this

12 October 2012

Upcoming Events -- Stop By and Say Hi

I'll be here and there in the coming weeks and months. If you're in the area, stop by and say hi. Free haiku if you mention this blog post! 

October 13th: Twin Cities Book Festival (3pm, Local Lit Lounge) 

October 16th: Meet Plan Go Twin Cities (REI Bloomington, doors at 6pm) 
(Come learn about how to make your long-term travel daydreams become a reality. I'm giving the keynote speech, and lots of smarter, better-traveled panelists will be dispensing valuable wisdom.)

November 17th & 18th: Miami Book Fair International (exact day/location TBA) 

December 1st: Common Good Books, Saint Paul (2pm)

December 8th-January 2nd: Enrichment Voyage (South/Central America)
(Oh, and if you want to come along on this cruise, I can get you a deal. Seriously. Drop me a line. I'll buy you a drink and we'll play shuffleboard with Sandra Day O'Connor.)

02 October 2012

Major Scoop: Presidential Debate Rules

This just in: The Obama and Romney campaigns recently met to draft a few rules for the candidates' upcoming debates. These were supposed to be top-secret, but I've got the scoop for you thanks to a friend on the inside, who I'll give the code name Bo Jiden.

  1. Failure to say "God Bless America" in closing remarks results in automatic forfeit.
  2. If no clear winner identifiable after debate, candidates may use rock, paper, scissors (best two out of three) to decide outcome.
  3. Candidates allowed to put each other into "jinx" if both say same thing simultaneously.
  4. Excessive note-taking for sole purpose of inhaling Sharpie fumes is not allowed.
  5. Orange light will flash after each misuse or mispronunciation of words greater than four syllables, names of foreign leaders, or popular culture catch-phrases/memes.
  6. Candidates must remain fully clothed for the duration of the debate. They may not, for rhetorical or other purposes, tear off shirts, Hulk-style, or lower pants to show off religiously-affiliated undergarments or lucky Chicago Bears boxer briefs. 
  7. If candidates exceed time limit for response to question, red light flashes; if candidates stutter, pause or otherwise temporarily halt their response for more than five seconds, moderator allowed to squirt candidate with Super Soaker.
  8. Moderator barred from glaring, cursing, shaking head in disbelief, throwing glass of water, or otherwise reacting in any way to gross misstatements.
  9. Candidates may use voice-filtering devices to warp voices with robot, chipmunk, Darth Vader or professional wrestling announcer effects, but may not switch voice effects during debate.
  10. Cheerleaders will perform at halftime.
  11. Candidates may not question each other directly, but may taunt using terms “Booya!,” “Yeah, sucka!” and “Y’all trippin’.”
  12. Each candidate must do at least one impersonation, lasting at least thirty seconds, of either Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Angela Merkel, or, for domestic-policy debates, John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi. 
  13. Candidates may not poke, prod or hit other candidate directly, but may do so using giant foam "We're #1!" hand.
  14. Comeback zingers may not include fart jokes or "that's what she said." 
  15. Laugh track will be played after all jokes or attempted jokes; sound clip "Ooooh!" wil be played after all direct attacks on opponent's record.
  16. Discussion of Chumbawamba's recent break-up is off-limits, including but not limited to saying that "America got knocked down, but we'll get up again, you're never gonna keep us down." Discussion of LMFAO's rumored split is fair game.
  17. Paul Ryan allowed to substitute for Romney at halftime or any other stoppage of play.
  18. Use of sports metaphors limited to those sports in which candidate actually participates.
  19. Candidates not required to attend debate if assurance cannot be made that there will be cookies and punch afterward.
  20. Productive, reasonable discussion on genuinely important matters, with no gratuitous pandering, impossible-to-keep promises, or shameless distortions of reality, is forbidden.

04 September 2012

Book Outtake: Always Something Weird in Amsterdam

In the comments following my last post, about how to enjoy the beaten path, Lee pointed out that we when we patronized Europe's myriad drinking establishments, we would typically make a point of sitting at the bar to chat up the bartenders and get a bit of local insider knowledge. That comment reminded me of a deleted scene from the book, so here's an outtake. Enjoy!

Everywhere we went in Amsterdam, we spotted these creepily dapper young men, in groups of five or ten. Probably in their early twenties. They wore dark sportcoats, black ties, carefully-groomed hair, vacant looks in their eyes, and unidentifiable but vaguely New Agey amulets around their necks. Lee's theories about who they were ranged from Scientologists to competing a capella singing groups.

Now, by the university, we spotted yet another group of them. And this time, Lee wasn't going to settle for mere idle speculation. This time, he wanted answers. This time, he said, "Let's follow them.”

Amsterdam is, famously, not a wholesome place. Not dangerous per se. But not wholesome. Not the sort of place where you mess around with possible cultists. Or a capella singers.

* * *

On the landmark Skinny Bridge--which our canal boat tour guide described only as historic and the most-photographed bridge in Amsterdam (“So I will slow down to allow you to take your own photos”)--we had seen seven of these men standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a row, facing another three, who appeared to be giving orders.

Near our hotel, in the heart of the tourist area by the train station, another group had walked by, some of them with an extra, incongruous accessory: a chartreuse sweatshirt, dirty and mangled and seemingly pulled from a canal, tied loosely around their necks, preppie-style. On the front of the sweatshirts was a large orange and yellow logo for a company, or perhaps an oddly-named sect, called Taco Mundo. The addition of the sweaters, needless to day, did nothing to diminish our confusion.

At this moment, by the university, there were perhaps two dozen of them milling around, chatting and casting furtive glances at passersby.

Three of them broke off from the group and headed toward the Red Light District.

“I've got it--I know who they are, ” Lee said as we followed them from a safe distance, my legs striding quickly to keep up while up in my brain, dueling thought-factions of anxiety and adventurousness grappled for control over my muscles. “They're the European version of a street gang.”

Rain clouds formed above us, darkening the skies and lending our pursuit a dramatic, ominous air that rather unsettled me. Anxiety was winning.

The dapper dudes dodged past families and tour groups, their strides purposeful, never slowing, even when the rain began. At the edge of the Red Light District, they stopped in front of the door to a building that, unlike many of the others here in the surprisingly-clean Red Light District, had a truly dilapidated appearance and a nefarious aura. For a few moments, they spoke with a young woman sitting on a chair in front of the door. Then they disappeared inside.

* * *

The skies opened up, drenching us, so we took shelter in the nearest bar. Lee was in his element, immediately striking up conversation with our bartender, Klara, a cute blonde graduate student from Poland. When she confessed to not knowing much about some of the liquor bottles on the shelves behind her, he excitedly explained the finer points of the various boozes, adding commentary and asides like, “I knew some people who drank Ricard. They were trapeze artists.”

He offered to teach her how to make a particularly daring and esoteric shot.

“You'll do one with us, right?” he asked, flashing a grin that I was beginning to think of as his trademark, a smile that goads you, charms you, into doing something that your common sense is strenuously advising you to avoid.

Klara giggled nervously. “Okay!”

“And you'll let us have them for free, right? Since I'm teaching you how to do it?”

“Oh, I don't …” Her gaze met Lee's. Game over. “Okay, my boss is not here. If he comes, you will have to pay. But if he does not, then it's okay.”

We could hear the rain pick up outside. More drenched patrons surged through the door.

“Busy,” Klara said, frowning, and went off to serve the newcomers.

* * *

Within a few moments, Klara's boss appeared, which meant no free booze for us—a relief for me, because I wasn't sure I trusted Lee's secret shot not to leave me retching in the gutter or, worse, dancing on top of the bar. I was content to nurse my beer.

All around the bar, there were ads some kind of Bolivian alcohol made with coca leaf. Lee asked Klara about it, noting that he'd never seen it in the US. Was it illegal back home? She shrugged. Probably. That was all the enticement Lee needed. He ordered one. It was bright green and looked like it probably glowed in the dark.

“Time for some hallucinations,” Lee smirked as he tossed it back. Luckily for posterity and Lee's future ambitions for elected office, I videotaped the key moment:

* * *

Klara noticed my book sitting on the bar. “Europe on five … dollars? Each day?”

“Yep, that's all we can spend,” Lee said, that grin creeping back. “You can't charge us anything more.”

Klara's eyes widened, and she was speechless until Lee burst out laughing and explained the project. She understood the concept, but not the appeal. “Every day, something weird in Amsterdam,” she said.

* * *

Which reminded us of something. The Dapper A Capella Cult Gang.

"Question for you," Lee said to Klara. "We've been seeing these guys around town ..."

Klara nodded in recognition as he explained. We waited for her explanation.

"They are very bad men," we expected her to say. Well, okay, I expected it. She would then continue, "You must avoid them if you want to see your families and internal organs again."

Perhaps Lee's glow-in-the-dark Bolivian coca alcohol would factor into it--the booze brainwashed you, made you into a zombie who survived only on glow-in-the-dark coca and Taco Mundo.

And brains.

I leaned forward on my bar stool as Klara winced and started to speak. I looked around the room, wondering if perhaps she should speak in a whisper, lest the wrong persons hear. I scoped out the closest exits.

Klara rolled her eyes. “Student group,” she said. “Like you have in American movies.”

We thought for a few moments. “Fraternities?” Lee asked, his brain evidently more optimistic than mine. “Like in Animal House?”

“I do not know this one,” Klara replied.

"It's like a club, and they live together. And before they can join, they have to do stupid stuff," Lee said.

"Ah, yes. One of these."

Lee and I both sighed slightly. Mine was relief; his was disappointment.

27 August 2012

Enough With the Road Less Traveled: Six Ways to Enjoy the Beaten Path On Your Own Terms

Here's a great conversation-killer when you're talking travel: "I like the beaten path."

It's right up there with "I just can't [scratch] get rid of [scratch scratch] these bedbugs" and "For style and function on the road, you really can't beat cargo-pant Zubaz."

But I do like the beaten path. I feel no shame in saying that, even as I brace myself for the ensuing awkward silence.

The thing is--and I'm far from the first to say this, and it's a point I discuss quite a bit in the book--there's a reason people go there, a reason the path is beaten: because there's some cool stuff there. It's just as absurd to avoid a place simply because other people are there (even lots of other people) as it is to go there for the express purpose of following the crowds. And sometimes, yeah, the crowds are too thick, the site not actually all that attractive. Sometimes the tourist-haters are right. But not always. And that's a judgment you really need to make for yourself, on your own terms.

It's not just the "there's cool stuff there" argument that wins me over, though. Because sometimes (hello, Venice) even if a place is beautiful or interesting, the innate touristy-ness of the place--the crowds, the souvenir stands, the fact that you've seen all these sites in movies and friends' postcards--does rather detract from the over all allure.

I also like the beaten path precisely because of the extra effort required to make it feel interesting and new. Even in the midst of crowds, there are some measures you can take to shift the focus.

(And besides which, if you'll forgive one last digression, it's not like the proverbial road less traveled can't lead to its own flavor of misery. I mean, if I learned nothing from the important lessons of all those Hitchcock movies I watched at at far-too-early age, it's that taking one wrong turn will almost always lead to you being either (a) dead or (b) falsely accused of murder and tied up in a sprawling and sinister plot that involves, at minimum, the FBI, organized crime, and a femme fatale whose innate and oh-so-sublime sultriness is rather diminished by that whole fatale part.)
Manneken Pis in Brussels. Discuss.

Anyway. Like so, so many other things in life, travel is what you make of it. And here, based on my own experiences on that well-trod trail, are six ways to enjoy the beaten path on your own terms.

1. People-watch. Just sit on a bench or in a sidewalk cafe and watch the parade of life pass by. I mean, don't be creepy about it--you don't want the friendly local residents to call the cops about the shifty-eyed weirdo, lest you end up needing to reference the "What To Do If You're Tossed In Jail" section of your guidebook. But do just sit and watch. The world's an interesting place. Take it in. To make things more interesting, start keeping tallies of various archetypes: businesspersons traveling in packs; kids on skateboards; art-school hipsters who nonconform in the same way as all their counterparts in every other city on the planet; tourists trying to blend in but failing spectacularly.

2. Chat up the service industry workers. The woman at the gift shop, the server at the gelateria. If they're originally from the place, ask them how it's changed--or just, you know, ask them for their own advice. If they're immigrants--and a ton of service-industry workers are--ask them for their local-but-outsider take on this place. Touristic transactions don't have to be cold and impersonal.

 3. Look for the unfamiliar takes on things that are familiar to you. Because sometimes the sorta-familiar things can seem even more bizarre than the wholly new, because you understand the template but not the end result. Watch a Japanese sitcom, even if you don't speak Japanese, and see if the stock characters and situations hew to your expectations. Listen to the unintelligible trash-talk of Vienna teenagers playing pickup basketball in a park. Go to the local fast-food joint and order the least-familiar item on the menu. Also look around for the remixed versions of the local food or music—the immigrants' take on the traditional local music, or the locals' take on their immigrant neighbors' traditional foods. Look for the caroms of culture, the reinterpretations that create(as I put it in the book) the discreet poetry of the everyday but unexpected.

4. Indulge in the kitsch. Buy a tacky postcard and send it to your best friend. Go to a landmark and take a photo with a ridiculous pose—pretending to wear the Eiffel Tower as a hat, for example. Be silly. No shame. I mean, come on: You're an outsider in an unfamiliar place--that's the stuff of sitcoms right there. Embrace the absurdity of the situation. Have fun with it.

5. Or, be serious. Become a student of history. Nearly every tourist site is famous for a good reason—its innovative design, its astonishing back story. Read every brochure and plaque you can find. Brussels's iconic statue, Manneken Pis, is weird, but he's pretty interesting—and, okay, even weirder still—once you know just how popular he is and why.

6. Get lost. Shut the guidebook, turn off the smartphone, close the map, and wander. Trust in your own instincts and the Goddess Serendipity (and the fact that reality typically does not, in fact, conform to sinister Hitchcock plots). If you see something interesting in the distance or smell an interesting smell, go investigate. Lower your expectations and your understanding of where you are; reintroduce an element of mystery.

21 August 2012

Wants vs. Needs: Guest Post by a 1960s Traveler

One of the unanticipated joys of writing a book about recent history, it turns out, is hearing from people who were active participants in the cultural moment--individuals for whom the now-legendary triumphs and travails and watershed moments are not merely the stuff of books but were once day-to-day reality. 

I've been getting quite a few letters and emails from 1960s travelers like my mother, Grand Tourists from that initial, influential wave of budget travel. Many of the emails come with stories or questions--I used Frommer's book for real; I stayed in the same hotel in Rome; Do you know if this restaurant in Amsterdam is still open? 

I particularly enjoyed the story I received from Ron Dunn, and I'm grateful that he has given me permission to share it here on the blog. 

Athens,  Kolonaki Square, 1895. Via Flickr Creative Commons, photo by Martin Baldwin-Edwards.

Wants vs. Needs
By Ron Dunn

The early March weather of 1967 was pleasantly warm and sunny as I sat down at a table in Athens’ Constitution Square, just across the street from my hotel. My visit was for three days so I had bought enough Drachmas to cover my needs and left my traveler’s checks in my hotel room. A band was playing bouzouki music as I placed an order for a beer from a wandering waiter. This was a dramatic change from the bleak winter I recently left in the Midwest.

When the beer was served and paid for, a girl who was very distractingly dressed sat down beside me and asked, “What airline are you with?” I was surprised at her comment, but, Olympic Airways was offering airline personnel a weekend in Greece for $49.99 and Athens was flooded with airline people. I must have looked the part—and I was. My situation was with Sabena’s 30 days in Europe for $100. I may have looked like a wealthy American—but I was not.

She ordered a drink and continued to talk in fairly good English about the city, then to my disgust, turned to more personal issues. My finances were limited; I wanted to experience as much Europe as I could. Girls are expensive, especially her type. Her cleavage caressed a pearl necklace with each lusty breath—and captured my gaze and attention. In spite of that I showed no interest in her advances; advances that went from verbal to physical. I chased her away with surprising ease and was enjoying the rest of my beer until the waiter firmly demanded payment for her drink—a very expensive drink. When my hand went into my pocket I discovered a stomach churning, stunning, emptiness. She was a professional pick-pocket, and the waiter was part of the scheme. I’m sure he told her where the money was and that there was a lot. The waiter insisted on payment and convincingly threatened me. A brief thought of trying to flee entered my head, but left when he took me by the arm and told me to go to my hotel and cash a check. His thumb ground painfully into my right bicep as we crossed the street and entered the hotel. He made note of my room number as I claimed my key and reminded me that I must return—or else… Return I did, cashed a check and paid him off. He ran out the door and away from the square.

When I cashed another check and explained to the clerk what had happened, he told me to go to the tourist police, which was nearby. The police interrupted my story and told me what happened. The man was not a waiter. He went to a café, bought the beer and set me up with the girl. Their only help was to advise me to beware of the company I keep. Their cavalier attitude was discouraging, but I held no grudge against the Greeks. This could have happened anywhere, even at home.

It was time to recalculate my finances. My library copy of Arthur Frommer’s Europe On Five Dollars A Day listed some very inexpensive hotels in the remaining cities I would visit. None cheap enough to allow me to also eat or drink, my per diem was now down to about three dollars a day. My personal checking account was as empty as a pick-pocket’s victim and my only credit card was with Standard Oil. I could have gone home but the thought never crossed my mind. The Siren’s Song that led to this turn of events would not keep me from Holland, France, Monaco, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. There I was, thousands of miles away from home with the only sure source of food coming every three or four days when I changed cities. Every change involved flying back to Brussels and then going to the next destination. That was a little inconvenient, but had nourishing fringe benefits; food and drink was served on each leg.

Creative provisioning became the order of the day. Breakfast really did break a fast every day. Going toward the end of the serving period just as most were leaving allowed me to pick up leftovers to give to my very “best friend,” my tote bag. Hot chocolate was the beverage of choice, it has nourishment. Mountains of jams and jellies covered rolls and bread from crust to crust. Lump sugar was available for coffee—but not after I left. My pockets were filled with the contents of the bowls. It is a bad source of energy, but it helped to keep me going. The inventory of fruit stands was often reduced as I walked by. Flight attendants passed through the cabins with baskets of hard rolls. My “best friend” captured them for later banquets. Sometimes we would deplane through the galley and the horn-of-plenty bread basket provided even more feasting items. Cheese and wine were very cheap, so I bought those from time to time with spare change I could not trade in at a currency exchange.

The hotels I stayed in during the rest of the journey were all family owned and offered little more than shelter, breakfast, and a toilet down the hall. Business and personal travel of later years provided exceptional accommodations on three continents, but none provided the comfort of the old-world lodging of this trip.

Public transportation and the “shoe-leather express” took me to places the average tourist would never see; I was a traveler, not a tourist, especially not an American tourist. The bus line from Nice, France ended at Menton, France, about a mile from the Italian border. A short walk by European standards placed me at the border where I was thoroughly cross-examined by the border guards. They could not understand why an American would walk from one country to another. They were suspicious of my “best friend” and its contents. After a lot of dialog and enough gesturing to create “Italian Elbow Syndrome” they finally let me pass. After several hours I was back at the French border and was subjected to the same treatment. I asked them to check with the Italians, but there had been a shift change and the Italian guards knew nothing about an American on foot. With a reluctant “bon voyage” I was allowed to pass. Years later, I laughed as I saw an I Love Lucy episode that was staged at the same crossing—with similar problems.

The highlight of my trip was to be a week of skiing in the Swiss Alps. Captain Bert Jensen who I knew from a previous Austrian ski trip was in the Regina, a five star hotel in Grindelwald, Switzerland. He was leaving the next day, but made arrangements at his hotel for me to cash a personal check for one-hundred Swiss Francs, about forty dollars, that I hoped would arrive home after I did. He also referred me to a nearby economy hotel of questionable stars.

Frau Moser, the owner of the Bel Aire Eden didn’t want to rent me a room with breakfast only. She preferred to provide half or full pension service and made some comments about cheap Americans. When I told her my story she softened a little and let me in, but I had to pay in advance. Ski rental and lift tickets would put me back to survival living again.

The next morning I noticed Frau Moser watching over her “Inn Mates” like a prison warden watches in-mates. Creative provisioning was out of the question. I listened for my native language and targeted Anthony Atkinson from England. As we talked over breakfast, I discovered he was on limited finances too. One could take only a small amount of money from England at that time. His full pension included a picnic lunch, which was more than he cared for. We struck a deal, I would buy two beers for us, and he would share his lunch.

Tony and I walked into the hotel and the lovely aroma of the evening meal as we returned from each day’s skiing and parted company. He went to a nice dinner; while I suffered a double dose of caloric deprivation. I went to bed with hard rolls (there weren’t any fruit stands in the Alps) and tried to stay warm. Frau Moser was very stingy with her heat. This was the start of a “love affair” with the area that lasted over twenty years. I returned to the Bel Aire Eden for a few years until I had a family and rented a chalet. The half pension service was wonderful, and there was heat when Frau Moser’s son took over.

My month in Europe came to an end in Grindelwald. Three trains, five airplanes, and about forty hours later I arrived in Kansas City. My “best friend” was empty, my stomach was full, there was a dime in my pocket, and I was happy to have a treasure chest of long lasting pleasant memories. Memories that make one understand that what is really important is what one needs—not what one wants. I came to fully appreciate this while sitting on a hotel room balcony on the French Riviera enjoying some airline, by then, very hard rolls, cheese, wine, stolen fruit, and fascinating scenery. Earlier in the day I had stood visually devouring a pizza being made in a storefront Trattoria and felt sorry for myself because I was so poor that I could not go in and enjoy the simple comfort of a good hot meal. The water from my drip-dry shirts was playing a tune on the newspapers I gathered to quell the flood. I took inventory of my situation and felt a wave of delight sweep over me. I had shelter, clean clothing, food, wine, and much more exotic surroundings than Kansas City—I was a very wealthy man.

23 July 2012

An American Tourist's Guide to London--in 1963

Ye Olde London, with Ye Newe London Eye slightly visible.
Photo from Flickr user Jr.ge. Used via Creative Commons. 

I didn't go to London during my Not-So-Grand Tour. It seemed too easy, too familiar. I'd been there before—less likelihood of getting lost. I knew the culture—less likelihood of accidentally insulting someone's mother. I spoke the language, or at least something resembling it—less likelihood of all of the above, in addition to all manner of other communication embarrassments.

All in all: less likelihood of the sort of awkward, out-of-my-comfort-zone moments that are agonizing and frustrating and even dangerous at the time, but which later make for hilarious, revealing stories (that is, books).

But lately, I've begun to regret skipping it, because the world's eyes have turned Thames-ward. I hear there's an event happening over there soon. Something involving various muscle-bound individuals showing off their athletic prowess in the name of country and competition and product endorsements.

A few months ago, the incomparable AA Gill wrote a piece about London, his hometown, for the New York Times, ostensibly in the service of Olympics-bound visitors. Embracing the city's evolution, in the past few decades, into a cultural tapestry without peer, an “amazingly polyglot and variegated” world capital, Gill shuns the classic stereotypes.
You want stiff-lipped men in bowler hats and cheeky cockneys with their thumbs in their waistcoats and fish on their heads.
I’m sorry, but they’re not here anymore. No city’s exported image lags so far behind its homegrown veracity than London’s, so let’s start with what you’re not going to find. We’re all out of cheeky cockneys, pearly kings and their queens, and costermongers. You’re not going to find ’60s psychedelia and the Beatles in Carnaby Street. There aren’t any punks under 50 on the King’s Road; there are no more tweedy, mustachioed, closeted gay writers in Bloomsbury, no Harry Potter at King’s Cross. There aren’t men in white tie, smoking cigars outside Pall Mall clubs and there isn’t any fog, but you can find Sherlock Holmes’s house on Baker Street.” 
… London is a city of ghosts; you feel them here. Not just of people, but eras. The ghost of empire, or the blitz, the plague, the smoky ghost of the Great Fire that gave us Christopher Wren’s churches and ushered in the Georgian city. London can see the dead, and hugs them close.
Let's say, for the sake of argument and—ahem—convenience, that you're interested in unearthing some of those ghosts. Not the Ye Olde London variety, Gothic and grim, but the more recent past, the Beatles' era, fresh enough in our collective cultural memory to feel like it's still relevant, even for those of us who weren't yet born when John Lennon died.

I happen to own a guidebook from back then. Europe on Five Dollars a Day, 1963 edition. I've been leafing through the London chapter of late and making some some notes about early-1960s London, Arthur Frommer-style. And by the way, if anyone wants to do some on-the-ground Frommering (Lee's term for the scavenger hunts we undertook every day in our attempts to use the guidebook in other European cities) and report back on how things have changed or have not, drop me a line. I might know a guy who can send a PDF.

Frommer on London

Frommer begins:
London, to some, is an imposing place, to be respected rather than enjoyed. To me, this city is as unpretentious as the smallest country hamlet. When London is known and absorbed, it remains in the mind not as a memory of monuments and museums, but of utterly simple and sympathetic sights: the galleries at Covent Gardens filled with students rapt upon a Sadler's Wells ballet; the calm and smoky innards of a corner pub; the clusters of children in Kensington Park; the cheese-and-ale parties in the one-room skylight flats of Chelsea.

All you've heard to the contrary, Londoners are among the friendliest people of Europe, and London itself is an inviting town.
Stereotypes linger, of course, and these remain the classic tableaus that populate our modern daydreams of London, even if the haze of those corner pubs dissipated with the nation's initiation, a few years back, of an indoor smoking ban. Still, though: the pubs, the gardens, the young artists and bohemians and tight-trouser-wearers holding informal salons in unfinished lofts. Gill was right.

09 July 2012

Not-so-fiery Colorado

Greetings from Daniels Park in Colorado. 

Flew into DIA on the 4th of July and the air color matched the ground: a hundred shades of brown. The air smelled brown, too, that heady wood-burning smell that makes you crave s'mores and want to tell ghost stories. Except those Proustian memories of summer camp were more than a bit tempered by the knowledge that vast swaths of the state were ablaze, and the damage was considerably more traumatic than a charred marshmallow or two. 

But over the weekend, the clouds moved in, and the weather felt more like Seattle than Denver. Sheets and sheets of rain.

One thing that you miss when you live in a flat place like Minneapolis is not just the views of mountains--majestic enough in their own right--but the way that rolling topography enhances the depth of light, the tangible texturedness of a place. From the top of this hill, we could see other hills and the rain and fog and clouds between them, delineating the distances and making the horizon not just a point on a two-dimensional scrim but something more layered and elusive and coy. 
Photo by Maren.

19 June 2012

This just in: Washington Post, Die Zeit, etc.

So one day you wake up and you get an email from a friend saying there's a big piece about you and your book in The Washington Post. And that is a very good day. (I mean, seriously, holy crap, The Washington Post!) Bonus bit of awesomeness: photo credit for Maren.

Note to anyone in DC: If you want a copy (or two or ten), I believe there are still some signed books at Hill's Kitchen, where I did a reading back in April. (And it's a fantastic store worth checking out even if you're not buying my book.)

Other recent press: Lee's mom wrote a very nice review for the York Sunday News, Die Zeit newspaper in Germany did a big ol' interview (in German; they translated it, so don't be too impressed by my foreign language skills), and the delightful Paul Lasley and Elizabeth Harryman had me on their radio show, On Travel. And, amazingly and awesomely, there's been lots more media coverage beyond that, including radio and TV and print; if you want the full list, click on over the "Press and Praise" section of the book site, or head over to the Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day Facebook page.

AND. Poop Strong Update. I recently blogged about my friend Arijit, a stellar fella who is battling cancer with humor. I noted that he's having a raffle, and one of the items is a travel/writing consultation with yours truly. The raffle is now live; the tickets are now for sale; the action is happenin'. So: Going on a trip? Let me help you plan--especially if you're heading to Europe. I know that place. Wrote a book about it. But I've got plenty of general travel tips and tricks up my sleeve, too. Or I'd love to help you with your writing/blogging project. Need someone to look over your short story or to give you tips on the process of finding an agent? I can help with that, too. In short: travel writer available for consultation regarding both parts of that job title. The more tickets you buy, the better your odds. Just sayin'.

Other raffle items include a beautiful mola from the San Blas Islands of Panama, a VIP ticket to a Tenacious D concert (including a backstage pass--meet Jack Black!), and primo tickets to a Yankees vs. Red Sox game at Fenway. Buy raffle tickets and get more details here. And thanks. Thanks so much for supporting Arijit.

04 June 2012

Book postscript: Sidekick makes good

If you've read the book or kept tabs on my trip as it unfolded, you know Lee. Here's the first mention of him in Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day:

Allow me to introduce my friend Lee. “Friend” might be stretching it, actually, because the truth is, I barely knew him. We had spent a grand total of perhaps three or four hours together in person, at a writers’ conference in Key West, where we’d met two years earlier; since then, we’d kept in touch via email. Lee’s a novelist, bartender, and freelance scribe whose beats include nightlife and the singles scene. He lives in Baltimore and looks a bit like the actor Ryan Gosling. He has a quick, broad smile and, always, a wry gleam in his eyes. From what I’d gathered from our limited interactions and the man- about- town tone of his writing, he was the very definition of dashing and rakish—in other words, an appropriately inappropriate sidekick for someone who is, as the Dutch say, kindofaneuroticintrovert.
Reading that, and the rest of the book, you probably wouldn't think of Lee as the settling-down-and-getting-married type, at least not in the remotely foreseeable future--except, perhaps, to the Contessa we encountered in Munich. And in any case, by the time we got onto our respective airplanes back to the States, it was clear that there would be no Hollywood-worthy enchantment, no perfectly-scripted tales of European romance, ending with Alpine castles and the words "Happily Ever After" in a filigreed script.

Now, throughout the book, I tweak some of the tropes of travel memoirs, particularly the ones with sub-titles like How I Dropped Out of the Corporate Rat Race and Went to a Traditional Village and Herded Goats and Found Love and Meaning and Happiness.

If I'm to be honest, though, I have to confess that even though I was staying on the beaten path, and even though I roll my eyes at the paint-by-numbers epiphanies of so many travel books, I was secretly crossing my fingers for some of that myself. I mean, that is how it's supposed to work, right? Every passport stamp brings you closer to Total Happiness™? Especially when you're traveling with a vintage travel guide that you  like to imagine has some sort of old-fashioned magical powers?

But, no, it didn't work out like that. (And I spoil nothing about the book, I hope, by mentioning this fact.)

Of course it didn't. You can't script life.

But there's a twist. Always.

When Lee got back to Baltimore, he had a first date with Angy, a woman he'd met only briefly before. He mentioned to her that he'd just been in Europe, and she casually said, oh, that's interesting, tell me more. They started dating and she soon confessed, to Lee's amusement, that she'd been following our exploits through my blog—she knew all about the trip. As I was finishing my manuscript, Lee e-mailed me to say that they were engaged. I know it's naïve, wishful thinking to imagine that our trip had anything to do with that, but even so, I like to hold out hope that perhaps my guidebook had some residual supernatural properties after all.

My book tour in April ended in Washington, DC. The destination was intentional and the timing was intentional, because the following night, I had a commitment just up the road, in Baltimore: Lee and Angy's wedding. 


The morning after the wedding, over a late brunch with Lee and Angy and a small group of their friends, the story of Angy's blog-stalking came up again, in the context of introducing me. Lots of raised eyebrows and knowing grins in my direction: "Ooh, you're THAT guy!" 

I've gotta tell you: they're perfect together, not least because Angy shares Lee's kindness and spirit of adventure and, yes, that wry grin. I'm looking forward to hearing their own tales of journeys together. (For example, they just moved from Baltimore to Salt Lake City, where they are the resident cocktail experts and worm-keepers. You can read all of their exploits and findings, including the differences between "magic dust" in Baltimore and Utah, on their aptly-named blog, BmoreInUtah.) 

I'm also looking forward to traveling with them someday--a happy anticipation that is tempered with a dash of terror at hearing not one but two different people urging me to do something by saying, with matching wry grins, "Come on, Doug ... Spirit of adventure!" 

Actually, make that three people saying that, because I recently got engaged. And my blog inadvertently helped woo my globe-trotting fiancee, Maren. 

And ... well, that's another, longer story. 

29 May 2012

The Brief Wondrous (and Salmon-Scented) Life of Professor Yeti

Once upon a time, I worked for an erudite yeti. Ghostwrote an advice column for him with my friends Teague and Alex. (Hard-core E5WTD fans may recognize those names as the guys with whom I did the Doughnut Quest a couple of years ago.)

Alex got married about a week ago (mazel tov, Alex & Alissa!). He asked me to tell a story at the rehearsal dinner, and the one that immediately came to mind was the tale of Professor Yeti, a web site that he, Teague, and I started shortly after we all graduated from Carleton College in 2003. The site is down--after we stopped publishing it, we accidentally let the domain name expire.* But you still can peruse the archives thanks to the borderline-creepy magic of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

PY logo. Bear in mind that
we're writers, not artists.
The rest of this post is adapted from the piece I wrote for the rehearsal dinner.

This is the epic tale of the short but glorious life of a world-renowned publication called Professor Yeti. Motto: “The missing link in online journalism.” Alternate motto: "The online magazine of elusive news, astute views, and questionable advice."

Teague, Alex, and I had all been interested in writing and had each worked on the school newspaper at Carleton, and I think we all had that classic restlessness of the recently-graduated.

So we started an online publication. Now, I should note that this was in 2003, still the early days of the internet. Blogs weren't really a thing. Quirky essay-filled sites like The Awl or The Morning News weren't around. We had no real template, just the naive ambition of youth.

The plan was simple: one new edition every two weeks, with seven or eight articles and reviews and, the signature piece, an advice column penned by Professor Yeti himself, the world's only bigfoot with a PhD.

For purposes of this story, I want to focus on that advice column, Ask Professor Yeti.

Because, really. It is amusing and endearing but most of all amazing for me to think back to the hours that Alex, Teague and I spent sitting around their Uptown apartment—I can still see the wood floors and the orange chair—honing that voice, trying to figure out what a pedantic yeti would sound like and would want to talk about.

We settled into a groove of absurdist pompousness garnished with a healthy helping of woodland wisdom, as befits an eight-foot-tall primate who pairs a fine port with freshly uprooted juniper bush and wears a three-piece suit while ruminating on a fallen tree.

In response to a question about dealing with obnoxiously noisy coworkers, the good professor said:
I understand your plight. When I was a young yeti, I was visiting some friends in British Columbia, having a lovely champagne brunch on a tranquil beach, when a family of birds landed nearby to practice their calls. Bird songs can be melodic and charming, to be sure, but it is my experience that they offer up such sweet music only in the vicinity of humans. It’s part of a scam to keep birdwatchers enthralled — a friend of mine, a sparrow who asks that I not use his name, says that bluejays in particular are known to be major stakeholders in companies that manufacture binoculars.

In any event, birds, you should know, are less soulful in their singing in remote, wooded locals. There, they screech and rasp and chant dirty ditties. And so it was that my lovely brunch was utterly destroyed by a large group of birds squawking off-key.

I threw a stick at them, and they quickly dispersed.

Professor Yeti
 All three of us had day jobs that were not exactly our chosen fields, and doling out questionable advice couched in esoteric woodland metaphors wasn't exactly what we had gone to school for, either. But for me, at least, it was actually a good transition to the real world of collaborative projects and concrete deadlines and accountability. It gave me a sense of duty and of purpose, in an off-kilter sort of way.

And in that early-adulthood time when the world was overwhelming in its burdens and potential, and full of conflicting advice from my well-meaning elders … well, it started to feel entirely natural to dole out my own confidently-offered but not necessarily useful advice, like spicing up a Super Bowl party by hiring a marching band to play on the front lawn or trying to woo a woman by adopting a salmon for her.

Or here's my personal favorite, from April 2004:

Dear Professor Yeti,
Doctor Seuss would have been a hundred this year. In honor of the occasion, I have been trying to find mathematical messages in his work; in fact, I am writing my master’s thesis about this. I’m convinced there’s some sort of algorithm that explains all the rhymes and explains all the allegorical themes that run throughout the Seuss canon. So far, though, I’m stuck on “one fish, two fish.” Have you given this any thought?
Horton Sneech, San Diego
Dear Horton:

Of course I’ve thought about it. Here’s the formula:
The theme you can gauge
From the third-to-last page
Just add your age
Invert your wage
Subtract a finger
Add a toe
(Or two point five
if your cousin’s named Joe)
Divide by the eye
Of a scrambling newt
Double the sine
Of the size of Beirut
Does he use the word “wry”?
If yes, give a toot,
And then you must try
With all might to compute
The log of the number’s
Inverted square root
Now return to that page
(The third from the back)
Tally the Ts
And each comical yak
Add two for all drawings
Of fleas in mid-sneeze
Subtract every adverb
And all anxious young bees
A prumvid means war
A blooznit means peace
A grimble means famine
A trinkle means feast
Compare all the numbers
Observe every word
Now get out your slide rule
(I assume you’re a nerd)
Count it all up
Write it all down
All will be clear
Sure as my fur’s brown
If you’re still stuck
Perplexed with a frown,
Just send it to me
With Prince William’s Crown,
The key to the town,
A ham of renown
Plus a parrot named Prout
… And I’ll figure it out
Professor Yeti

Eventually, of course, actual adulthood set in, which broke up our band. But we had a good run of it: fifty issues, more than two years, and something like a hundred fifty queries for the good professor. Sometimes other people even wrote us letters. One was in Latin. Professor Yeti also responded in Latin (and man was that a pain for his ghostwriters).

Over the last few days, I've been going back through my Professor Yeti files. And I have to confess that more than once, I teared up. Because I never would have guessed it, but it turns out that I really miss channeling the spirit of a haughty, erudite, three-piece-suit attired yeti.

* THIS JUST IN: Just checked to see if the domain name was available again, and it was--so I bought it. Which means someday soon, I hope, we'll put the site back in full public view, where it belongs. 

24 May 2012

Poop Strong: Goofy Name, Great Cause

*UPDATE: It is with the heaviest of hearts that I update this post to say that Arijit Guha died on March 22, 2013. I miss him so much. But please keep reading to see why he was such a wonderful guy.*

This is my friend Arijit (pictured with his wife, Heather). He's one of the funniest, kindest, flat-out coolest people I know, the type of person for whom the term "full of life" was invented. We went to school together at Carleton College (hail the maize and blue!).

You know that guy (or woman) at your college who organized all the class activities and served on the student government and always seemed to be involved the coolest organizations on campus--and might even help found an organization if there was a void? For the Carleton class of 2003, that was Ari. (And that much-needed organization was the Gender Neutral Cheer Boys, an absurdist take on cheerleading, about which much more in Note 1.)

But what's most impressive to me--and this part is most important and just truly, incredibly rare--was that Ari filled that role without having any ego about it. Big man on campus, sure, but also big-hearted. He was simply nice to everyone, even the socially inept among us (hey, the world would be boring without some of us around, right? RIGHT??)--and, therefore, beloved by everyone, too.

He's awesomely goofy in all the right ways. After college, he grew his hair out and then subjected himself to the most ridiculous haircut possible for charity, raising nearly $4,000 for Doctors Without Borders and other worthy causes, and ending up with a Krusty the Klown hairdo.

Now, Ari needs some help from the rest of us. At the ripe old age of 31, he's battling Stage IV colon cancer and, due to the high costs of treatment, potential medical bankruptcy. 

This is the point in the post at which three-quarters of you are about to tune out. Don't. Please, please. Don't. This is not gonna be some Hallmark Channel sob story. 'Round these parts, we use humor to fight the crappy parts of life.

Case in point: Ari has set up a web site about said battle with colon cancer, a web site titled Poop Strong. Among the various items you can purchase there are brown "Poop Strong" bracelets (you know, like those yellow bracelets some guy named Lance made popular a while back) and various incredibly fashionable and deliciously offbeat t-shirts.

The man's been ravaged by cancer, blasted with radiation, had his abdomen sliced open and his colon yanked out, at the ripe old age of just 31 ... and he's laughing in the face of it all. That's bad-ass. (Um, no pun intended there.)

Also bad-ass and amazing (and, yes, more than a bit heartbreaking) is the fact that he's doing all of this large-scale fundraising and event coordination--not a small task for anyone--while he's battling really seriously major cancer and also, you know, trying to live a normal life and do normal-life things. Seriously, ponder that. (2)

If you want to know more about his story, keep reading. But here's the point:

(Here, we'll make this brown, in honor of Poop Strong):

1. Arijit Guha is awesome human being. He is precisely the sort of person the world needs more of.

2. He needs our help to continue being awesome. Because, man, FUCK CANCER. And medical bankruptcy, too.

3. You can help him AND get some sweet stuff at the same time by buying said sweet stuff on PoopStrong.org: a goofy t-shirt, a brown bracelet, a poopstrong.org email address (and you know you want that). Or ...

Another thing you can get to support Ari is to buy a raffle ticket. You can win some fantastic books, courtesy of Hill's Kitchen, signed and adorned with the Poop Strong rally cry by authors like celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Spike Mendelsohn--or you can get a copy of a Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day signed by yours truly. Or a signed Hold Steady album. Or lots of other cool stuff.

Ahem: http://store.poopstrong.org/products

Oh, and, in about a week, there'll be another item added to the raffle: an hour of my time to provide travel or writing consultation by phone/Skype (or in-person if you're in the Twin Cities area). Going on a trip? Let me help you plan--especially if you're heading to Europe. I know that place. Wrote a book about it. But I've got plenty of general travel tips and tricks up my sleeve, too. Or I'd love to help you with your writing/blogging project. Need someone to look over your short story or to give you tips on the process of finding an agent? I can help with that, too. In short: travel writer available for consultation regarding both parts of that job title.

But the only way to get it, aside from giving me a round-trip plane ticket to Paris and a private car to Gerard Mulot, is to enter the raffle. Buy a ticket over at PoopStrong.org, once it's posted on June 1st.; and for now buy a ticket for other cool stuff.

Thanks! And ... Poop Strong!


Okay, you want more of Arijit's story? Here, check this out. Further proof of his stellar sense of humor and all-around excellence as a human being:

And now, let's turn things over to the man himself
Last January, my wife and I returned from a trip to India and soon after our return, I was beset with intense pain in my abdomen. After numerous visits to the ASU student health clinic failed to uncover what was going on, I eventually headed to a gastroenterologist, who did a colonoscopy and discovered I had a 6-cm-wide growth in my colon that was nearly completely obstructive. I soon learned the tumor was malignant and then, when in surgery to remove the cancerous growth, my surgeon discovered that the cancer had spread well beyond the colon and small tumors had metastasized throughout my abdominal cavity. The extent of the disease meant my colon could not be re-connected and I emerged from surgery with a colostomy. In a matter of weeks, I went from thinking I had a bad stomach bug to learning I had metastatic colorectal cancer.
Fortunately, in part due to my young age and the extraordinary care I have received at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, I’ve been able to cope quite well so far despite the difficulties of treatment. Unfortunately, cancer treatment is quite expensive, and recently the ASU student insurance plan stopped covering my cost of care. The Aetna student health insurance plan provided by ASU caps the lifetime insurance benefit paid out at $300,000, which the high cost of treatment used up in less than one year.

(1) The Gender Neutral Cheerboys filled the role of absurdist pep band and athletic boosters for our liberal-arts college's endearingly inept football team. Listen to the story on NPR's "Only a Game" back in 2002 (skip to about 15:00 for the story). Ari's comments to the reporter: "The first word I'd use [to describe us] is 'incompetent.' ... Pretty much, we make sure that the Carleton fans are louder than the opposing teams' fans, because a lot of the time ... the Carleton fans will actually be outnumbered by the visitors, so we still want to make that Carleton presence felt. At a school this size, it's not just these random football players you don't know, but your friends, your classmates, the people who live down the hall from you. So as incompetent as we are and as ridiculous as we may seem out there, the real reason we're out here is just to cheer on our friends and show support."

(2) I'll spare you my own rant about how how messed-up the American health care system is, but if you really want my two cents, you can read my post "The American Dream and the freelance writer." Obamacare really can't get here fast enough.

30 April 2012

Warm beer & the metric system: A simple plan for British/American unity

Sometimes I kind of hate social networking. Other times, I find it a peerless forum for transnational dialogue, an international gathering ground and exemplary resource for cross-cultural dispute resolution. I know, I know: high-minded statement, that. Go ahead, roll your eyes. Meanwhile, Pam Mandel (a.k.a. Nerd's Eye View) and David Whitley (a.k.a. Grumpy Traveller) and I will be resolving the Very Important Matter of negotiating a British-American cross-cultural exchange and agreement. If any countries would like us to mediate dispute resolutions, we're available for a nominal fees. We'll be at Camp David next week.

This conversation happened a while back, but I've been distracted by, you know, stuff. Also, the sun was in my eyes and, uh, the ball took a bad hop off a pebble.

Anyway, the discussion/world-peace-creating starts with me, asking, on Twitter, about proper spelling and accenting of the word "resume" (the thing you submit with a job application). And then we got into the heart of the matter. The tweets below are reprinted verbatim minus the inclusion of our respective Twitter handles in the responses.

i like the accent. otherwise, you're just continuing after a pause.

I knew there was a reason we call it a CV rather than resumé. Less accent-based confusion.

Yeah, let's just do that. I'm in. (And while we're at it, we oughta finally start using the metric system.)

 If you can start including tax in the stated price of everything, that'd be nice too.

And play football with your feet. In return, we'll install mixer taps.

can we also work out something around the s/z issue and all those extra "U"s?

Certainly. I'll pop a proper dictionary in the post* for you all. (*Mail. Ach, damn, this just gets tricksier).

Fair trade all around. Also, if we cut back to 2 ice cubes per drink, will you please give us at least 1? Thx.

Done. And if we put our beers in the fridge, can you make yours taste of something?

if we can resolve the ice issue, the three of us should go to camp david next and settle the middle east.

now david, did i not take you to a place that has REAL BEER? i'm wounded.

OK, OK. Make the *cheese* taste of something.

 Also, we promise to install air conditioning if you'll let us open a window every now and then.

Pam, the man has a point about USA beer *in general.* But we're working on it. And keep it out of the fridge!

i think we're making some good progress, but i won't let a brit lecture me on "cuisine".

AC, windows. Deal. Also, we'll teach you to make a proper doughnut if you'll teach us to make a proper scone.

@douglasmack: [in response to @nerdseyeview's comment about Brits and "cuisine"]
Quite. I was just about to get to this "full English breakfast" business ... ;)

oh, i DO like a good scone. rather.

All the world's problems should be solved like this. Proper bacon in return for more than one breakfast option?

Someone call the Nobel committee. Okay, you're in charge of bacon, we're in charge of WARM toast.

Also, we'll stop ruining fish with batter if you promise to discover the 'vegetable'.

Done, but we might offer you some tips re: preparing "the vegetable"--canned mashed peas don't count!

 i'm really unclear on which US you visited, david. are you sure you actually left britain?

The southern US. I think the vegetables may have been obscured by the freeways and parking lots.

14 April 2012

Two-Hour Tourist: Portland

My first impression of Portland, when I was there a few days ago to read at Powell's, was this: Portland is satisfyingly Portland, in the same way that Rome is satisfyingly Rome. Except that where Rome has its gelaterias; its ancient ruins; its manic drivers; its Gucci-wearing, impeccably coiffed, effortlessly glamorous passersby, Portland has its brew pubs; its green space; its fixed-gear bikes; its stripe-wearing, elaborately tattooed, calculatedly disheveled citizens.

There was a sad lack of flannel and beards at my reading,
though. Photo by Jessica Spiegel of WhyGo Italy.
I didn't have much time to be a tourist and see the sites, just a few hours. But it's not a big city, and I had a ringer to show me around, my awesome friend Celeste Brash, Lonely Planet guidebook writer, blogger extraordinaire, and all-purpose good company. She picked me up from the train station and said that she was working on a downtown Portland walking tour for an upcoming Lonely Planet book. Would I like to walk the route with her as she planned it out? Um, yes. Please.

I won't list everything we did and I won't reveal the particular walking route—obviously, I don't want to poach her guidebook material. But if and when you head to Portland, do go find the latest Lonely Planet and follow her suggestions. The itinerary really does make for an excellent introduction to the city, hitting the waterfront, downtown, and the three major food groups: beer, caffeine, and grease.

In the spirit of my earlier Two-Hour Tourist post, about Chicago, here's my own suggested list of things to do if you only have two hours in Portland.

First of all, get downtown. The Max light rail is your best way into the city from the airport, and to connect to various points around the city. It's always better to spend a limited amount of time exploring on foot and getting a snapshot of a particular area than trying to hop around the city by train or bus or car, seeing things only for a few fleeting moments. So: downtown.

Start your tour with some fortifications and a glimpse of a true stereotype-fulfilling Portland-ness at Voodoo Doughnuts. The line can be long—Celeste and I were there on a Friday around 3pm, and even then the queue ran out the door—but the time passes quickly because the scene offers some stellar free entertainment. There's the people-watching which is extraordinary—lots of the aforementioned stripe-wearing, elaborately tattooed, calculatedly disheveled citizens, plus all manner of other people whose attire and hairdos makes mild-mannered Midwesterners instinctively mutter, “That's interesting.” There's also the rotating case of doughnuts (like the rotating case that displays pies in an old-school diner), which include your standard raised glazed rings but also others covered in Fruit Loops or topped with bacon or filled with mango. There's a voodoo doll doughnut, naturally—a Long John with little appendages and filled with something red, served with a pretzel stick in lieu of a needle—and another called the Cock and Balls (not kidding and not asking for any more details). Throughout Portland, you see signs and bumper stickers that say, “Keep Portland Weird,” and Voodoo Doughnuts seems like the standard-bearer for that weirdness—and just to be clear, I love it so for that very reason.

And how are the doughnuts? Oh, right. Good question. They're outstanding: pillowy and not overly greasy or cloyingly sweet. If they'd been part of the Doughnut Quest a couple of years ago, I suspect they would have placed just behind the Doughnut Plant in terms of pure deliciousness. Plus, you know, style points for the performance-art bizarreness of the menu and a certain portion of the staff and clientele.

Moving on. Your appetite sated, waddle over to Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park for a stroll along the Willamette River. Sit on a bench and watch the parade of passersby. (Actually, what you should do is get your doughnuts to go and then eat in the park. I can think of no finer introduction to a city; in fact, without even planning it, when I'm in a new place, I somehow always find myself in a park eating a pastry.)

After you've gotten your fill of nature, wander back into downtown, through Pioneer Square—a public space that functions as the living room of the city—and end up at Powell's. You know Powell's, yes? The huge bookstore? It's … well, yes, huge. Enchantingly so, like an endless magical forest of books. They shelve both new and used books together, so there's a wonderful mix of literature from various eras, like at the library. Seriously, it's mesmerizing, the way the rooms and shelves and books just go on forever. The travel section alone is the size of many small bookstores (and since you asked, my book is in the “Travel memoirs—Europe” section …).

Your time is probably getting short now, so move along to one last stop. If you live in a major American city, you've probably noticed that food trucks are becoming, officially, A Thing. I don't just mean hotdog carts and jingle-blaring vans from which sketchy-looking dudes sell melting Bomb Pops. I mean mobile kitchens proffering actual food, restaurant-worthy food. Anyway, in Portland, food trucks are a genuinely big deal, more than just a passing trend. They're ubiquitous, and there are even some places around the city where there are five six or a dozen or more parked more or less permanently on an otherwise vacant lot, forming a food court far more eclectic and affordable and delicious than anything you'll find at even the most offbeat mall. I got some delicious tacos for $1.50 each, after considering other trucks proffering burgers and Indian curries and pad thai and crepes and—not making this up—escargot and foie gras. Yeah. From a food cart.

It's a weird and wonderful place, Portland. Truly.