Travels posts

Friday May 13, 2022

My Voyage to Italy: Bonnie and Clyde at the Tollbooth

The idea was to stay in an agriturismo, an old stone farmhouse converted for tourism, in a small town in Tuscany, and from there spend a week visiting the neighboring hill towns: Montepulciano, Pienza, Arezzo, Cortona. That, it was decided, would be a good European intro for the niece and her boyfriend, who'd never been off the continent.

There would be six of us, in all, and Italian cars are not that big, so we'd need two drivers. Alex, my wife's brother, would be one. Was I comfortable being the other?

Of course, I said.

That was months before we went, when it was all a vague, fun, future thing; when I knew I'd learn some Italian; when I was totally on top of things and the master of my domain.

And then I showed up at Amerigo Vespucci Airport in Florence not speaking a word of Italian, running on maybe one or two hours of fitful airplane sleep, and feeling nauseous from breathing my own masked fumes for 20 hours straight. My wife was there to greet me. She'd just spent two weeks hiking through southern France and knew the whole layout and was enthusiastic. This is where we wait for a cab, she said. So we waited. For five minutes. Until a helpful cabbie told us, no, it's around the corner.

From there we took a cab to a Hertz rental place 0.7 miles from the airport rather than the Hertz at the airport, since, I'd determined a month earlier, in my master of my domain phase, that it was much, much cheaper. Except there was no Hertz 0.7 miles from the airport; there was just an IKEA. After some backseat cursing, in defeat, we had the cabbie drive us to the Hertz at the airport, where we explained the problem.

Oh, there's a Hertz there, we were told. It's inside the IKEA.

Of course there is.

We eventually got our car, a Clio, a cute hybrid so quiet I couldn't tell when it was running, and we set off for the agriturismo in Rapale, a small village 90 minutes south of Florence. Well, “set off.” It took a bit to navigate ourselves out of the area. We went in a few circles. But eventually we got off the busy, narrow, Florentine streets and onto a highway of some kind. But what was that string of booths we just passed? Wasn't it like toll booths? Except I chose the path of least resistance and just drove through them. That wasn't a mistake, was it?

It was.

A short time later, navigating via Google Maps, we got off this highway, which, yes, turned out to be a toll road, and now we were at a booth with its arm down and we didn't know what to do. And since we spoke zero Italian, we didn't know what it was asking us for. Money, no doubt. Do we try a credit card? Patricia said she had euros. Give me five euros, I said, and fed that in. Nothing. We tried another five. Nothing. Now we're panicking. Patricia got out and asked the car behind us what we needed to do. “You need to give it the ticket,” she was told. The ticket, it turned out, was the thing I didn't stop for.

Around the same time Patricia spotted an employee at a booth several lanes over and made a beeline for him, the machine we were at suddenly spewed out a long piece of paper. For all I know it was a summons but I assumed it was a receipt of some kind. I stared it, looked at Patricia several lanes over, looked at the passenger side door, still wide open, and said to myself, “Don't take it. If you take it, the gate barrier will go up, and you'll have to drive through without Patricia. So don't take it. Wait. Don't take it. Wait.”

And then my mind wandered and I took it.

And the gate barrier went up.

Cursing, I yelled Patricia's name, and inched forward, being careful not to bang the passenger-side door against anything. I reached over to try to pull it shut but couldn't. I yelled Patricia's name again.

Finally she heard me, saw me, gushed thanks to the booth attendant that was walking over with her, jumped into the open passenger-side door. And we sped out of there, the most incompetent Bonnie and Clyde team ever.

And that was the first hour of my vacation in Italy.

Posted at 07:48 AM on Friday May 13, 2022 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Tuesday May 10, 2022

My Voyage to Italy: Risultato del test

A few days before I flew to Florence, Italy, to spend two weeks in Tuscany with my wife and her family, a Trump-appointed U.S. district judge ruled that the Covid federal mask mandate for airlines and other modes of public transportation was unconstitutional. So the voyage was slightly different from what I'd anticipated. Only about 1/3 of the people at SeaTac Airport were wearing masks. Many on the flight didn't wear them. But there were still complications. About nine hours into the 10-hour flight to Paris, a Delta attendant told us, almost apologetically, that there were certain “red countries” where you have to wear a mask before arriving, and France was one of those, so please mask up for the last 40 minutes of the flight. It was like territorial waters for Covid.

U.S. policy at the moment seems kind of nuts to me. You don't have to mask up but you do have to present a negative Covid test before entering or re-entering the U.S.—regardless of vaccine status, regardless of citizenship. It's a policy that encourages both personal irresponsibility (mask schmask) and xenophobia (the problem is out there), and does nothing to clarify whether our pandemic is now an endemic. For Europe, the policy is the opposite: Come on in, just don't be an maskhole.

That U.S.-mandated Covid test loomed large during my trip. If I failed it, I'd be gone from work for five more days. Or 10 more days? Or more? How would that work? And how does one find a Covid hotel? And are you policed or can you still visit museums? Some part of me wondered whether I should try to get Covid early in the trip so I wouldn't have the problem later; so I wouldn't spend my vacation worrying about it.

To be honest, I probably should've gone maskless more often during that first leg of the trip—Seattle to Paris to Florence. That's a long slog. Add in extra hours at SeaTac, and the trip on light rail to SeaTac, and I was probably masked for nearly 20 hours straight, and during my last hour at CDG I think my own fumes were beginning to get to me. I felt nauseous. Even the usual standby of Coca-Cola and Pringles didn't help. When I finally landed in Florence, and we exited onto the Tarmac, I ripped that sucker off and breathed in deeply.

Anyway, all that masking helped. Or didn't—who knows? The day before we came back, we walked to a pharmacy near the Uffizi, paid 22€ apiece, got tested by a cute pharmacist with stylish brown ankle boots, waited outside for 20 minutes. Patricia got a cappuccino. Back at the pharmacy, they handed each of us a piece of paper folded into a little booklet: Certificazione verde COVID-19. It took a while to find the result—halfway down the second page: Risultato del test: Negativo. We celebrated. I complimented the pharmacist on her boots.

Posted at 07:46 AM on Tuesday May 10, 2022 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Thursday February 17, 2022

A Non-Essential Traveler in Vancouver B.C., Two Years After the Pandemic Began

Vancouver B.C. is just two and a half hours north of Seattle, Wash., but for much of the pandemic it might as well have been on the moon. Beginning in March 2020 the U.S.-Canada border was closed to non-essential travel, and once things opened up last fall, Covid tests were still hard to get, or expensive, or both. This past week Patricia and I visited for the first time in a long time—to see family who moved there in Oct. 2019, as well as a John Mulaney standup concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theater. (The show was cancelled; more on that another day.)

Here are some non-essential observations on the city to the north:

  • Bare midriffs on women are in.
  • So are skinny pants and highwaters on dudes. It's Revenge of the Nerds Part XXXI.
  • Vancouverites are wearing Yankee caps? What is this—Europe
  • The downtown area hardly seems to have suffered from the pandemic. Right now, parts of downtown Seattle seem like a ghost town, just you and the crazies, and the only thing missing is a tumbleweed blowing between you. Downtown Vancouver on a sunny Sunday afternoon—in the Robson Square, Canada Place, BC Place triangle where we were—was bustling with the aforementioned bare-midriff women and drainpipe dudes. Everyone was out.
  • As was the smell of pot—more so than in Seattle. You win this round, Vancouver!!
  • As were the mountains, which are much closer to the city than the Cascades and Olympics are to Seattle. Ditto, Vancouver!!!
  • I'd guess about 75% of the people we saw walking around outside were masked.
  • The anti-vax trucker protest in Ottawa was all over the news before we went, but the only such protest we saw in Vancouver was truckless, on foot, and about a dozen strong (or weak). They were marching near Robson Square, carrying the usual, sad, anti-vax and anti-science signs, and followed by a mocking crowd twice their size.
  • The lines at the border were short and efficient. Our Canadian border guard was kind of like a hard-ass Kate Winslet: looked like Winslet, sounded like a drill sergeant.
  • To get across the border you had to fill out an app, ArriveCAN, which gives you a QR code when you're done. You're told to show this at the border but they didn't want it. Hard-ass Kate Winslet just wanted the passports (which had been uploaded to the app), vax cards (ditto), and proof of a negative PCR test within the last 72 hours (oddly not uploadable to the app). Anyway, we were allowed in.
  • Are rest areas an American thing? In the north part of I-5, there's one every 30 miles or so, but no equivalent once you hit Canada. So odd. They seem like they'd be a Canadian thing.
  • From a distance, the Vancouver skyline looks ordinary to me: a lot of tall glass buildings in aqua and teal. Patricia liked it. 
  • They're still building a lot. We kept hearing and running into construction projects. Even when we visited the Vancouver Art Museum and were walking through the John & Yoko exhibit we'd hear the bang-bang of construction on a second-floor exhibit opening in spring.
  • The John & Yoko exhibit was so-so, the third floor exhibit wasn't much, but I dug the Shakespeare folio exhibit on the fourth floor. It could've used more words, though. I would've liked comparisons. You're looking at the first folio from 1623 under glass, and turned to the first page of “Romeo & Juliet,” and a comparison to, say, the Modern Signet edition would've been nice. I misremembered the “bite my thumb” back and forth, for example, and thought it was sooner and thus missing here. But the folio did include the maidenhead joke.
  • I experienced my first 4-D movie at the Vancouver Aquarium—a short film on octopi, which we attended with our nephew and his kids. The first time air blew on the back of my neck I think I jumped about a foot.
  • In the end, though, I'm not a fan. With movies you want immersion, not distraction, and that fourth D is distraction—like someone poking you every other minute. I kept flashing on the 1993 movie “Matinee” starring John Goodman, which was based on the life and times of impresario/con man William Castle, who trumpeted such features as “Emergo,” “Percepto” and “Illusion-o.” This was that, but science-y.
  • We ate well: from a sushi joint in Kitsilano to a ramen place in West End to a Mr. Shawarma food truck near Robson Square.
  • There's a giant chandelier hanging beneath the Granville Bridge. Apparently it's an art piece
  • Atop the Burrard Street Bridge, we saw a giant bald eagle, with an insane wingspan, soaring around, followed by a half dozen cawing crows. Sure, crows.
  • Overall, the city is much cleaner than Seattle, and we saw very few homeless and no homeless encampments. I was assuming the Canadian government was doing something right, but our niece says the homeless are mostly in the Downtown-East neighborhood, which we never visited.
  • Even so, our niece and nephew, with their two small kids, plan to stay. Whenever our nephew hears about the active shooter drills in American elementary schools, he thinks: Why go back?

Posted at 10:06 AM on Thursday February 17, 2022 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Saturday September 11, 2021

Day 15: When It Rains, Look for the Rainbow

At our gate at Dulles International Airport for the flight home, I saw a little girl wearing a T-shirt reading WHEN IT RAINS, LOOK FOR THE RAINBOW. It was like a special message for me.

I was happy to be heading home after two weeks amid the crowds in a worldwide pandemic, but I was in a piss-poor mood. My arms and ankles were covered in bug bites (my wife says I'm a cat whisperer but really I'm a mosquito whisperer, and I don't know how to turn it off); and while I'd been enjoying myself sipping a G&T and watching the Boston Red Sox slowly lose a 7-1 lead to the Tampa Bay Rays at the airport bar, the end of the bar we'd had to ourselves slowly filled with: 1) a fedora'ed dude saying a sentence every other minute to, I assume, someone at the other end of his Bluetooth; 2) a barfly who drunkenly tried to strike up a conversation about baseball but had trouble nailing the meaning of the word “pitcher”; and the final straw, 3) a hefty white dude sitting next to me, who apologized for knocking over my suitcase and immediately took off his mask before ordering anything, let alone eating/drinking anything. After that, I downed the rest of my drink and split to the gate, but it wasn't any better there. A row over, a young dude wearing sweatpants, flip-flops and a Seattle Kraken knit cap lounged unmasked with a proud, snarky look on his face—like he was stickin' it to the man. Then across from us: an older red-haired Scandinavian dude, same thing, sans the attitude.

And that's when the girl walked by with the secret message for me. I thought, “I'll try.”

So we boarded the plane and got ready to take off. And got ready. And got ready. And slowly I realized somethingn was wrong. We were all just sitting there, bunched together, breathing each other's air in the midst of a global pandemic. And eventually one of the flight attendants got on the intercom and said we were delayed. The reason? Vague. Later, when I tracked them down, the flight attendants said it wasn't just us, it was wide-ranging. Airport-wide? I asked. Beyond that, they said. All flights. All flights everywhere? I said. was envisioning a 9/11-type attack when they said they were just talking about United Airlines flights. Something about weight measurements? Basically something was off line. Here's how United described it in the texts they sent every half hour we waited:

  • Flight UA326 from Washington to Seattle is delayed because we are resolving an unexpected operational issue. It now departs at 6:10pm on September 6.
  • Flight UA326 from Washington to Seattle is delayed because we are resolving an unexpected operational issue. It now departs at 6:45pm on September 6.

Meanwhile, more and more people were removing their masks to eat this or drink that. I wanted to find that little girl. OK, where's the fucking rainbow? 

I admit I felt old on this trip. I did the math and realized I'm older than my father was when he last went to Rehoboth Beach. I believe he last went in '87, with me, visiting Karen, who was working at Funland during her second college summer and who brought along a bunch of college friends to join her. Dad would've been 55 then; I'm 58 now. I also think of his father, Christian Hans, Bedstefar, visiting us at Rehoboth in either '70 or '73, when he would've been in his 70s. He never went down to the beach; he sat on the boardwalk benches in his suit and watched us. What's the fun in that? I thought. I was 7 or 10, loved Bedtefar, wanted him with us. But I'm getting it now.

There's a statue we saw at the Whitney that speaks to me. My interpretation is all wrong, apparently, but that seems increasingly the case. In the previous room at the Whitney, in the exhibit “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019,” there's an installation by Liza Lou called “Kitchen,” which is just that: an ordinary American kitchen with tiled floors, a pie in the oven, dishes in the sink, and breakfast cereal like Cap'N Crunch and Frosted Flakes next to the folded newspaper on the small breakfast table. Except it dazzles; it sparkles. The entire thing. I immediately liked the inclusion of the consumerist portion of American life in American art—that's hard to do—and my initial thought was that it was a kind of paean to that life: that the ordinary life can still dazzle. Nope. According to the nearby descriptor, “the cheerfully branded products in Lou's Kitchen expose the contradictions that run throughout the marketing of American household goods, which promises the delights of homemaking while strategically ignoring the gender inequalilty of the traditional division of labor.” 

Sure. Though anyone who thinks marketing cares a whit about any kind of inequality rather than simply selling a product is probably someone who makes a living with arts grants. Plus finding what's wrong in an ordinary, modern American life isn't exactly hard; looking for what's worthwhile in that life seems the tougher, worthier task.

Anyway, while I liked Kitchen, the artwork that spoke to was in the next room: Viola Frey's “Me Man.” I got that one wrong, too, apparently. From the Whitney's website:

Frey first built the clay figure and allowed it to dry. Once hardened, she sawed it apart to produce sections that would fit in the kiln. After each piece had been glazed and fired separately, Frey reassembled and painted the whole sculpture. Her process remains legible in the material itself, with horizontal seams especially visible across Me Man's torso. As was common for Frey's sculptures of men, this one wears a blue suit and gesticulates, as though in the middle of conversation. A representation of the American businessman, Me Man likewise recalls television characters from the 1950s, and evidences Frey's interest in the satiric depiction of the totems of everyday life: in this case, middle-class respectability.

Satirizing “middle-class respectability”? Doesn't the art world know the middle class is dying?

I empathized. Maybe I identified. There was something sad about this man stuffed into a suit and stuck in a corner and trying to articulate something that fell on a deaf world. I think the way he was created exacerbates this. He was literally cut up, hardened, and stuck back together again. Everything about him feels constrained and pieced together. He's not whole. Maybe he once was. He had certainly been soft and malleable, and he might have been anything, but now he's this, and it's too late to change. To be honest, I had a bit of a Cameron and “La Grande Jatte” at the Chicago Art Institute moment. Maybe that's rainbow enough.

Posted at 09:14 AM on Saturday September 11, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Wednesday September 08, 2021

Day 14: Dwarfed in D.C.

The American wing of the National Gallery begins with Gilbert Stuart's paintings of the first presidents.

Has anyone ever made a movie where an indvidual is dwarfed by the monumental buildings of Washington D.C., the way that, say, John Garfield, is dwarfed by the lower Manhattan buildings in “Force of Evil” or Raoul Walsh's heroes against mountain landscapes in “High Sierra” and “Colorado Territory”? Seems ripe for doing. Patricia and I were so dwarfed Sunday morning, walking from our hotel on K Street to the National Mall. Other than a quick business trip or two in the 1990s, she'd never been to D.C., I hadn't been in a decade or two, so it was fun walking around, seeing the lesser known buildings, reading their taglines chiseled in stone. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is a good one (both foreign and domestic, yo), but seems oddly placed in front of the National Archives. “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society” is another good and obviously the IRS Building. It's from Oliver Wendell Holmes. Dems should quote it more often. Suggested alternative: “Pay your taxes, you libertarian fucks.”

Patricia wanted to go to the Natural History Museum but there were slow-moving lines snaking all around it when we showed up. Ditto the African American History and Culture Museum. Instead we walked around a bit, found our way to the National Gallery, got in. No line, no charge. Please come see art, people. We split up there and I made the mistake of beginning with the 13th-to-16th century Italian works, which I've seen everywhere. How many Madonna/childs can I take in? More than the art, I was curious how we got them all. That should be included in the plaque: year acquired, from whom, how. I do like the trajectory of who we paint (God, rich fucks, everyone else) and in what manner (formal/straight on, candid/living life). But it wasn't until I came across a discarded visitor map that I made a bee-line for the American wing, which begins with the classic Gilbert Stuart paintings of the first presidents, goes through the landscapes, and ends with American impressionism. I saw Albert Bierstadt's “The Buffalo Trail,” which so impressed me as an undergrad I bought a print for my room. After lunch, attracted by a Howard Rogers portrait of Reggie Jackson, from a 1974 Time magazine cover, we visited the National Portrait Gallery, which, in an exhibit on “Champions,” included a wing for sports stars and another for entertainment stars. I liked the former curation better. Reminded me of my youth: the big stars I watched (Reggie, Muhammad Ali), knew about (Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel), read about (Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Wilma Rudolph, Gertrude Ederle). No one in that wing seemed out of place to me. The entertainment wing seemed a bit suspect.

We ate well in D.C.: a Jose Andres tapas joint called Jaleo, which was just exquisite and required vax cards (thank you!); Doi Moi, a Vietnamese place further north, where we went with my college roommate Dean and his wife Kim; and Shouk, a mini-chain of Israeli/Middle Eastern food with amazing humus. We also got eaten well—or I did. I came home covered in bug bites from both Rehoboth and D.C. Patricia, none. I thought of this New Yorker cartoon, slide 9.

For a place where older people have monumental power, DC seems like a young city. Also good-looking. Saw a lot of tall women there, mostly blonde, to go with the monumental buildings. I assumed Dutch imports. Patricia saw a Black woman who looked to be about 6'4" with a gorgeous, flawless face. I admit, in the musuems, that's part of what I looked at: girls along with the art. D.C. also seems like a city bifurcated by wealth. It's like Seattle in this way but even more so, and along stricter racial lines. 

Posted at 07:59 AM on Wednesday September 08, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Tuesday September 07, 2021

Day 13: A Variety of Morbid Symptoms Appear (But Not Those)

Rehoboth makes it hard to get to and it makes it even harder to leave. Even if you have a car, it's a slog down 1. And if you don't, as we didn't, well, god bless.

I figured out my exit strategy late, which, as U.S. foreign policy will tell you, is never a good idea. Last Sunday, my first full day there, I ran down the options (we were heading to D.C. for the weekend, then flying home on Labor Day):

  1. rent a car, drive to DC
  2. bus to Wilmington, Amtrak to DC
  3. bus to DC
  4. hitch
  5. walk

I was assuming the first option but it proved to be a nonstarter, since there were none to rent—at least none that I could find. Inventory is down in the pandemic era, now people are traveling, and many don't want to do public transport, thus...  The bus to Wilmington seemed a slog, and, though I like Amtrak, why bus/train when you can just bus? Anyway, that's what we went with—even though, for some insane reason, the only Rehoboth-to-DC bus left at 6:45 PM and didn't arrive in DC until 9:30ish. Which meant a day of waiting around. Was this a chamber of commerce thing? Keep the tourists in town for another day of spending? It wound up being a kind of wasted day. I think of Antonio Gramsci: the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born; in this interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Patricia seemed off in the morning, tense, not quite there. We both agreed that a day at the beach wasn't smart: getting lubed up, sanded and salted one more time? Why? We were lucky that my sister's family was staying with a friend, who was staying at her friend's place for the Labor Day weekend, and who let us hang for the day; but we didn't want to overimpose with showers and all that. 

So what did we do during our “extra” day? Walked to a Starbucks, where the servers were masked but 95% of the patrons weren't. We walked back. Then we went to my first movie in a movie theater since the pandemic began. Not suprisingly, given Delaware's habits, few of the workers at the theater were masked, and even fewer of the customers. But thankfully the theater wasn't crowded, Patricia, Ryan and I sat in our own area, and when not snarfing movie popcorn (oh, movie popcorn, how I've missed thee) we stayed masked. 

The movie, by the way, was Marvel's “Shang Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings,” which has superlative critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes (92%/98%, respectively), and was abyssmal. Sorry, everyone. The scene on the bus was great. As soon as they got into la-la land, I could barely stand it. If I could climb walls, I would have.

The bus to DC, on Best Bus, wasn't bad, to be honest. People were told to mask up, most people were responsible, the driver was good. Our intro to DC was a little off. My wife had booked us at the AC Hotel, near the Convention Center, but it turns out there are two AC Hotels in downtown DC, and she didn't have the address readily available and we were taken to the wrong one. The clerk there wrote down the proper address but without the proper east/west/north/south designation, which confused the second cabbie. But we finally arrived. And it was nice to be in a place again where people took a worldwide pandemic seriously. 

Posted at 08:55 AM on Tuesday September 07, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Monday September 06, 2021

Days 9-12: Up Here, I'm Already Gone

Early morning, north Rehboth Beach

I'm ready to go home.

Normally in Rehoboth, I can't believe the days are dwindling down, and on the last day I try to suck every last bit out of it—one last swim, one last walk on the boardwalk, one last game of skee-ball—but now I'm like sure, end it, get it over with, done. I think of Kramer pointing at his noggin: Up here, I'm already gone.

I have to say: I'm disappointed in Rehoboth Beach specifically, and Delaware generally, for not taking a worldwide pandemic seriously. Most places we went to, few people were masked. My sister commented on the dangers of visiting NYC, with everyone piled on top of each other. But masks were worn there, indoors and often outside, vax cards were asked for. They knew the dangers. They'd been through the worst of it. Given the circumstances, they did what needed doing. In Delaware, it felt like they're not even trying. It felt like la-la land.

Monday was my busy day. I went to the beach at 10 AM (no one in our party joined me), fought the waves, read, sat, fought the waves, looked for the rest of my crew, left, had lunch, then went for a bikeride on my brother-in-law's bike. We're on Pennsylvania Avenue, first block, great place, so I rode north, away from the Boardwalk. I did the Gordon Pond Wildlife Trail, then just kept going. Could I do Lewes? Sure, why not? I bike in Seattle, where you can't help but encounter insane hills, and this was all flat, and I was flying. Once I got to the Lewes-Cape May ferry terminal, I turned around—and encountered a strong headwind. I'd had a tailwind the entire time—that's why I was flying. Not the first time that's happened to me. When I got back, I joined my family at the beach. 

Tuesday, my sister and I picked up her son and my wife at the BWI airport (she'd taken Amtrack to the Baltimore terminal, then cabbed to BWI), then we argued about going to Hemingway's restaurant in Stevensville—her favorite, but her son and I were both wary. We were warier when again we saw none of the servers were masked. But we got a booth away from everyone, and everything seemed mostly OK. Still, it wasn't a meal worth risking your life over.

The rest of the week blends together. Some nice early morning walks along the beach (thinking of Aunt Karen, who used to do that when I was a kid), a thunderstrom amid the Hurricane Ida remnants that flooded New Jersey and NYC. We played games like “Chameleon” in the evenings. One night, we ate out at Dogfish Head, along the main drag, and those servers were masked. Good on them. Responsible business owners. How about that?

Friday, I got up early to watch the sun rise, but unlike my 7 AM walks along the beach, where hardly anyone else was around, this one was packed, everyone focused on the sunrise like it never happened. That day kind of sped by. Went to the beach after lunch, then a search for a long-sleeved tee for Patricia (we didn't find one), or a diet pop for my sister (ditto), then back to the beach, where I watched the next generation teaching their kids how to jump the waves. That evening, I got a final Gus & Gus four-piece chicken meal. On the way, passing one of those T-shirt (or Tea-shirt) shops, this one called Tidal Rave's 5&10, I saw a bunch of bastardizations of Marilyn Monroe: the screen goddess remade for the loutish Trumpian set. I'm not an IP attorney but I assume this is unauthorized usage. What sad fuckstick dreams up shit like this? Feels like the wrong side of the American experiment. End it, get it over with, done.

I'm not an IP attorney but I assume this is unauthorized usage.

Posted at 07:02 AM on Monday September 06, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Wednesday September 01, 2021

Days 3-5: All the Museums in New York


Heading downtown to the Whitney in 95-degree heat.

The days begin to blend together during a vacation, don't they? Initially, everything is new and memorable, then they become routine and skip by. Most of the rest of my time in NYC was like that. Every day was about three things: 1) We're doing a museum or two, 2) how do we get there, 3) how do we beat the heat?

Over the three days, the answers were:

  1. The Morgan Library, the Whitney, the Met, and the Museum of the City of New York
  2. Walk from 102nd to 37th; subway; walk; walk
  3. We don't; it beats us.

I guess I'm one of the few people who's excited to see the Morgan Library not for its exhibits (Shahzia Sikander art, Jayne Wrightsman Bookbindings Collection), and not because it houses, you know, an insane book collection, including three of the original Guttenberg Bibles, but because it's the site of the final showdown between Coalhouse Walker Jr.'s gang and the powers that be in “Ragtime”—both E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel and Milos Forman's 1981 movieI'm curious if Forman filmed the scenes outdoors in New York or if they built the set elsewhere. Streets didn't seem wide enough.

I loved the Whitney: an exhibit of Dawoud Bey's photography and a greatly curated collection, including artwork of Jacob Lawrence and Edward Hopper. The Met is the Met: overwhelming. Wanted more from the Museum of the City of New York but not sure what. The main exhibit was the '80s New York music scene and included MTV intros and Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” on MTV. Other than Madonna as New York transplant, and I guess MTV stationed in the city, didn't see much of an NYC connection. 

What did I learn?

  • Mendl's Bakery in Wes Anderson's “Grand Budapest Hotel” has to be based on Ladurée, a high-end, pastel-boxed bakery in Paris and at 70th and Madison. We stopped there for coffee and the most delicious macaron I've ever tasted.
  • Bergdorf's has those ultra thin escalators from early in the 20th century; love those
  • I saw no mention of Doctorow or Coalhouse Walker Jr. at the Morgan Library, but it does include some of Scott Joplin's sheet music under glass—right next to an original Guttenberg Bible. Our robber barons were so much more well-read back then.
  • New York in August can exhaust you; hydrate. 

“And now 'Wall Street Rag,' composed by the great Scott Joplin.”

Posted at 05:55 AM on Wednesday September 01, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Tuesday August 31, 2021

Days 7-8: My Cheap Blue Beachtowel

Sun comes up, it's Tuesday morning.

I first noticed it when I was applying sunscreen after that first dip in the ocean Sunday afternoon: little aqua blue flakes on my skin. Coming from the sunscreen? Like an extra ingredient? Like: “Now with aqua blue flakes!!!”? But they were the same color as the Rehoboth Beach beach towel I'd bought that morning, so I assumed that was the culprit. I guessed I should've washed it before I used it. I was hoping it was a temporary thing.

But it was the same after Monday morning and late afternoon swims, and that night I washed it with the rest of my clothes. The lint tray wound up packed with aqua blue fluff. And there were little bits of it all over the rest of my clothes.

So is it good to go now? Or did I get a defective and/or cheaply made beach towel for $19.95 at Rehoboth Lifestyle at 77 Rehoboth Avenue? Or maybe the whole line of these “First and Anchor”/“Made in China” beach towels is defective—preying on tourists in need? I know, in the scheme of things, but still a bummer. “Hey, how did your vacation go?” “Great. I picked aqua blue flakes out of everything.”

I bought it shortly after I figured out my Rehoboth exit strategy Sunday morning. Patricia and I are flying out of D.C. next weekend, and without a car there's no clear path to get there. There's no train. Rental cars are either all rented or at a premium. There is a bus to D.C. but it only leaves once a day, at 6:30 PM, from the parking lot behind the Volunteer Fire Station on Rehoboth Avenue, and doesn't arrive in D.C. until 9:30ish. That would screw up dinner plans. There's a train from Wilmington but that requires a busride to Wilmington via the DART bus service, whose website is kind of unhelpful. It's tough to see at a glance how often the buses go, where they go (how many stops), and if you can buy tickets beforehand (feels like: not). Both my sister's family and my brother-in-law's family have a car, but they're packed. In the end, the best exit strategy seemed the evening bus to D.C. I'm hoping that its company is as responsible as Amtrak is in terms of pandemic mask policies.

Because of all this—exit strategy, beach towel—I didn't get into the surf until Sunday afternoon, about 24 hours after I'd arrived. Monday morning, the last Monday of the summer season, the beach was quiet—mostly grandparents and grandkids, and a few single parents with children. Monday afternoon, I biked through the Gordon Pond Wildlife area over to Lewes, then went back to the beach like Frankie and Annette. Tuesday morning, during a 7 AM stroll along the boardwalk, amid all the geriatric joggers, I saw a school of dolphin swimming close to shore.

Overall, it's the usual beach routine in unusual times. Gus & Gus isn't allowing indoor dining (good for them), so Saturday we ate our gyros and cheese steaks on the boardwalk (they were out of chicken), then went to Funland, mostly staying outside, where my sister cleaned up at Whac-a-Mole and that squirtgun horserace game. Sunday, for dinner, we went to Obie's on the north part of the boardwalk, but we were the only ones who walked into the place masked. Monday we ate in. My brother-in-law's family lives in Canada, which requires a COVID-free test within 72 hours of reentry, and the family member who's heading back first had his on Monday: negative. Rite-Aid and Walgreen's do drive-through tests but he went to a nearby clinic, paid the extra $60 or so for the quick test, said it was much more efficient than the Canadian system. Then he went swimming.

Posted at 07:10 AM on Tuesday August 31, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Monday August 30, 2021

Day 6: Dolles Sign, We Hardly Knew Ye

Rehoboth's iconic Dolles Salt Water Taffy sign has greeted visitors since 1927, but now it's disappearing.

I know. I never did Days 3-5 but hope to backtrack and pick it up at some point.

Saturday I made the trek from New York City to Rehoboth Beach, Del., thinking about COVID. Every sniffle, every inadvertent cough, you probe yourself and wonder. You're careful all of the time but you still wonder. The Amtrak ride from Penn Station, New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Hall, to the Joseph R. Biden Jr. station in Wilmington, Del., was about as good as it could get under the circumstances. (Note to Republicans: Support infrastructure and maybe you'll have something named after you, too.) The train was clean, the conductor/ticket taker told people to mask up, no one complained. New York generally has been good. Half the people walked the streets masked, and indoors that was pretty much everyone, but of course they knew the tragedy of it. Delaware was a revelation.

My sister and her family picked me up in Wilmington and we made our way south but stopped near Dover for lunch: Grotto Pizza. Don't know how well-known that chain is outside of Delaware, but they're pretty big in Rehoboth and getting bigger. Too big? The most iconic sign in Rehoboth is the Dolles Salt Water Taffy sign that towers over the center of the boardwalk at Rehoboth Avenue, but apparently the owner of the property recently tripled the rent, Dolles is getting out, Grotto's is coming in, and it's removing the sign. When I read about it earlier this summer I said to myself, “That's it, no more Grotto's for me,” which, let's face it, wasn't a huge sacrifice, living in Seattle, and not being a huge fan during my infrequent stops in Rehoboth. And yet here I was, in my very first stop in Delaware, breaking that promise. My sister's family ordered a pizza and I ate a slice. I missed my slice of good New York pizza and ate a slice of lukewarm Grottos. The gods look down and laugh.

But the greater disturbance for me was inside Grotto's, where none of the customers were masked. Worse, none of the servers were masked. I haven't seen that in a while. You'd never guess we were in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

Most of Rehoboth was the same. Buying groceries along route 1, or walking along the crowded boardwalk Saturday night, you'd see a few other masks but not many. At Penn Station, it was 95% masked and maybe 5% unmasked. I remember one lone, crazy Black dude walking back and forth along the length of the station, a weird smile on his face, plus a few Nosenheimers (people who haven't figured out how to wear a mask after 18 pandemic months), but everyone else was responsible. Rehoboth feels 95% unmasked, 5% masked. The unmasked look stupid and feel belligerent. Maybe I'm just reading too much into it. But that was a thought: “I never realized how stupid everyone here looks.”

At least the place we're staying at is beautiful and close to the beach.

For the moment, the iconic shop is occupied by a Henna store, which wasn't exactly doing gangbuster business on Saturday night. 

Posted at 05:45 AM on Monday August 30, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Friday August 27, 2021

Day 2: Across 110th Street

A heroic statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. on 125th Street. 

Lesson of the day: If you want to avoid crowds on the subway in the middle of rush hour, and in the middle of a pandemic, sit in a non-air-conditioned car. On the 6 local, uptown, it was just me, Patricia, and about five black women. At various stops we'd see people step in, feel the heat, or the lack of cool, and step out again, running down the line to find one with AC. Another plus: When you make it back to the surface, the mid-day temps actually feel cool. It's like Blanche DuBois and her hot baths in summer. 

We spent the morning walking around Harlem, which neither of us had ever done before. We're staying at basically 102nd and 5th Avenue, so we started out in Central Park—the Conservatory Garden and the Untermyer Fountain, where it was us, joggers, and women pushing strollers—and then around that lake in the northeast corner of the park and onto 110th Street. Thus the movie and the song.

Walking up Malcolm X Blvd., we noticed a couple of great taglines in businesses along the way: a funeral parlor, for example, “where beauty softens your grief.” Turns out the New York Times wrote about this guy back in 2003. Then there was the ATLAH Church, whose sign out front softened nothing:


This church and its signs are apparently infamous—a Black, east coast version of the right-wing nutjob signs of Chehalis, Wash. At least it's had financial troubles.

Our destination was the Apollo Theater on 125th, which was open, but where not much was going on. Two women were working there. The older one was kind and chatty, the younger one behind the souvenir counter was bored and not. Patricia admired the chandaliers. We bought postcards of bills promoting old Apollo shows.

Walking back to the apartment, I asked Patricia how comfortable she felt in Harlem. “Pretty comfortable. Not too uncomfortable.” Pause. “You kind of stick out.”

I've stuck out before, of course, living in Taiwan for several years in the 1980s. But there you stuck out in a mostly positive fashion. You were a symbol of your race, which felt positive: America, ESL, Hollywood. In Harlem, you felt like you were a symbol of your race that felt negative. But it's all “felt”; you don't know anything. And at the end of the day, you assume most people don't give a shit. Everyone's busy. But yes, I felt we stuck out, too. It's not a bad thing to feel. To feel some aspect of what it's like.

After a lunch of the previous day's Zabar's purchases, we took the subway down to the Strand, spent about an hour and no money there (they didn't have any of the movie books I was looking for), then walked the neighborhood in search of coffee and maybe air-conditioning. Tough enough being a tourist in New York City in August; the pandemic adds another layer of difficulty. It's better to sit outside in a pandemic, but it's not better to sit outside in New York City in August when it's sunny and 95. Either way, the few tables we saw were either occupied or in the sun, so we walked for a bit, then sat on a bench in the shade in Washington Square Park. A few shops in the neighborhood were closed. Most seem to have survived the pandemic. 

Posted at 05:19 AM on Friday August 27, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 26, 2021

Day 1: No Baby, No Cry

North toward Harlem.

Eventually you realize there are no babies crying. You're on a packed plane, a red-eye bound for New York, and it's pretty quiet. Where are the babies? Then you realize in the waiting area beforehand there were no babies. A few kids running around, but on your flight? It's adults. Because why bring an unvaccinated baby on a flight in the middle of another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic? You can be vaccinated, and you have to be masked, but babies can't be vaccinated or masked. Sure, I may be stupid enough to risk the journey but why would I put my baby at risk? So no babies, no cry.

There turns out to be a lot less conversation between seatmates, too. The person sitting next to you isn't someone who might make the hours go by more quickly, it's someone who might make your life go by more quickly. No one's doing it. The masks get in the way anyway. In the end, everyone is just steeling themselves for the flight. It's a planeful of people, flying on a red-rye in a crash-prone Boeing 737, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, heading toward a hurricane. 

We're not the smartest people in the world.

We'd made the plans months ago when there were maybe 70k cases of Covid per week in the U.S. and it was in steep decline. Since then, the Delta variant has been wreaking havoc among the unvaccinated, and worry among the vaccinated, and it's back up to two million cases a week, according to Johns Hopkins. But we went through with it: my wife full of confidence, me full of dread. 

The pilot tells us we'll have a smooth flight with a bumpy landing. It's the opposite. In the middle of the country we experience a lot of turbulence but flying into Newark is pretty smooth. The red-eye is a good way to go if you can sleep on flights, and in the past I could a bit, if I nibbled some Xanax and had one of those neck pillows. I didn't and hadn't, so my wife and I both arrive bleary-eyed, complaining of lower back pain (hers) and hamstring tightness (mine). Then we don't make much of the rest of the day. Too tired. We're staying with friends on the upper east side. We do walk west across Central Park and down Broadway to Zabar's and pick up stuff for lunch, which we're thinking of eating outside somewhere. But we keep getting flash downpours. We try to hail a cab on Broadway. No luck. We walk east to Amsterdam Ave, and no luck there, either, which is when Patricia sees SaraBeth's, a restaurant she knows and likes. And that's where we have lunch, under a constructed transulescent roof, our Zabar's bag at her feet, sitting next to former SNL alum Tim Meadows, our first celebrity siting, whose order was misplaced and he has to order again. A late afternoon attempt at a nap goes nowhere. I think of Kramer: “I missed my chance.” 

Another memory: Arriving in New York, getting a coffee at the airpot, then heading outside and being able to take off our N95 masks after, what, nine hours total, and breathe the fresh air. Yes, even Newark is fresh after nine hours masked. Then the cab ride into Manhattan, our cabbie dodging every which way through narrow spaces. I'm reminded again of what New York is: cramped and quick. The former makes the latter necessary. You've gotta make space for you. I would never survive here.

Posted at 04:56 AM on Thursday August 26, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 19, 2021

The Pictographs of the Pac NW, Cont.

My wife found this one in Salem, Oregon:

To go with these. Vomit is still my favorite.

Posted at 09:45 AM on Thursday August 19, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Sunday August 01, 2021

The Pictographs of Hood Canal

This weekend, my wife and I took the Bremerton ferry over to Hood Canal—which is not a canal—to spend time with her family in Union, Wash. Saturday, the bunch of us went over to Potlatch State Park, where, after walking north along the beach until I hit a rivulet separating the public from the private, I came across a sign extolling the various types of salmon in the area: chinook, pink, steelhead, chum (they got rooked in the name game), sockeye, coho and cutthroat. And on the reverse of that sign? A warning against eating raw shellfish, with a pretty funny pictograph:

Later, we went up to Hoodsport to visit our two must-visit places in the area: Hoodsport Coffee Co., and their Olympic Mountain ice cream; and The Hardware Distillery, which makes great whiskey, vodka, gin, aqua vite, and assorted spirits. It was our first time back to either place since before the pandemic. We visited the coffee/ice cream place first (they were serving people outside rather than indoors, which I was glad to see as the pandemic ratchets up again), but we had to wait around for the distillery to open at noon. While waiting, we visited, among other places, the local library across Higway 101, where I came across yet another odd pictograph—this one a warning against slippery steps. I've seen slipping pictographs before, but never where the guy looked like he might be Gene Kelly or Ben Vereen clicking his heels.

No feet but look at those fingers. 

Oh, right. In my Potlatch beachwalk, over the barnacled rocks along the shore, I also came across this googly-eyed guy, which looks like something God made in arts and crafts class:

I think I'm just two or three Hood Canal pictographs shy of my own movie rating system: from Ben Vereen (4 stars!) to Vibrio Bacteria (looking at you, Zack Snyder).

Posted at 02:19 PM on Sunday August 01, 2021 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Monday July 01, 2019

Things I Learned On Vacation in Belgium and France

Our Lady stands.

  • Motorized scooters are big in Paris even though nothing seems less Parisian
  • Segways are big with tourists everywhere even though nothing seems less human
  • From the traditional vantage point looking east, Notre Dame looks the same. We know it's not, but at least the exterior holds up
  • There is actually a bigger and—dare I say it?—more beautiful Notre Dame in France: the one in Strasbourg, which was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. I thought I was done with European cathedrals from the Middle Ages until I saw that one; then my mouth just fell open.
  • Spider-Man #3, with the introduction of Doc Ock, which cost 12 cents in the U.S., cost 9p in Britain. A comic shop south of Montemarte was selling this Brit pub, along with Tin Tin and a collection of Silver Age Marvel comics. I think the proprietor thought my French was better than it was, because he tore off on a story that was probably fascinating but with which I couldn't keep up. The gist: he bought the Marvel comics in NYC in the 1970s and ‘80s, when bookshops were everywhere, and man weren’t those the days? He was asking either 300€ for the Spidey (what was writen on the back of the plastic covering) or 1,000€ (what my shitty French thought he said). I was tempted

  • The French version of “The Catcher in the Rye” is called “L‘attrape-coeur” (literally: “The Heart Catcher”), and the phrase “...and all that David Copperfield kind of crap” is translated as “ toutes ces conneries a la David Copperfield.” One of those newstands/shops along the Seine was selling it, as well as Salilnger’s “Nine Stories” (“Nouvelles”). These I bought, but they were cheaper: 7€ for the deuce
  • I could spend a lot of €s at those newstands/shops along the Seine; they have my stuff. I still regret passing on those Tour de France posters
  • The only time I ever want to smoke is when I'm sitting alone at a small table at a Paris cafe watching the world go by. A cigarette feels de rigueur
  • They‘ll use anything to sell anything: In this case, a photo of communist leader Che Guevara with a stogie to promote Father’s Day specials at a cigar and spirits shop in Brussels. I'd say Che is rolling over in his grave but, given the T-shirts and everything else, he's probably rolled out by now

  • The train station in Antwerp should be declared an international treasure
  • Is it a new fashion trend in Belgium for young women to wear men's dress shirts as dresses? I saw it a few times. Let me speak for all men in the world: We approve
  • “Ghent” in Ghent is spelled “Gent.” Muscles from Brussels, Gent from Ghent. What does Antwerp get? Twerp? Seems unfair. Someone work on that
  • Someone should publish a book about all the memorials in all the small towns throughout Europe to their WWI dead; I would be your first customer. They are heartbreaking
  • Belgian breakfast cereals include Choco Clams and Honey Bubbles and Miel Pops Loops and Choco Cookies and “Cereal Flakes Met Pure Chocolade Au Chocolat Noir.” Really anything with chocolate

  • It's hard to find pannekoeken in Ghent, which is a crime
  • It's hard to find mussles in Ghent, which ditto
  • Apparently the most stolen painting in the world is “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” 1432, by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, and one of its panels, taken in 1934, is still missing. The painting was a key component of the George Clooney movie “The Monuments Men,” which almost makes me want to watch it again, even though I found it pretty disappointing upon its release in 2014
  • Is adoring a mystic lamb far removed from idolizing a golden calf? Just tossing out
  • Artists in the Middle Ages couldn't paint babies for shit
  • Museums are best when they intermingle centuries-old art with modern art, as at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent
  • If you bike outside the cities in Belgium you‘re going to see lots of cows and horses

  • If you’re biking to an artists colony outside Ghent, chances are you‘ll find exactly zero artists and lots of rich people. It’s really a rich people's colony
  • Not many groups of humans are known as “colonies.” I can think of three: leper, nudist, artist. The first two, in a way, contain elements of the third
  • Cheese, chocolate and bread from a convenience store and eaten on a park bench is a way better lunch for the bike-ride-weary than anything you might get in, say, an expensive restaurant in a rich people's colony
  • Remember to take video as well as photos. Coming across that classic car parade in Eke, for example, would‘ve been a good moment for video, Erik
  • Get off the beaten path in Bruges; go to the danker places with the locals
  • If you’re biking east of Bruges, the restaurant to go to is Siphon, which is a few miles east of Damme (pronounced DAH-me). It's a fourth-generation family-run restaurant that is closed on weekends but was packed on a Monday afternoon around 1:30 with older folks dressed to the nines. Oh, and get the steak. I didn‘t, but I saw it arrive for someone else and goddamn
  • Getting zero laughs when you pronounce your team “Damme (pronounced DAH-me) bums” doesn’t necessarily mean they didn't hear you  
  • Go left at Siphon, rather than right, if you want to make Sluis, Holland. We went right. Which was wrong. We never made Holland
  • Asking directions when you‘re lost is better than relying on maps or GPS
  • I have a good sense of direction on a grid but add diagonals and curved streets and I’m hopeless
  • European sports fans watch the Super Bowl! I had no idea. When we mentioned we were from Seattle to some Germans in Ghent for the weekend, the first thing they said was: “Seahawks!” Then they talked up the Super Bowl, which they said they watch every year. Because sports
  • But they don't watch baseball. Because boring. To them
  • Europeans are still wearing Yankees caps. Someone needs to tell them that they‘re wearing the cap of the favorite team of Donald Trump. OK, I will
  • Trump has replaced Pinnochio as the international symbol for lying. A Dutch magazine we saw in a Ghent laundromat used this cover line: “Iedereen liegt: De Trump in elk van ons,” which translates to “Everyone lies: The Trump in all of us” 
  • A clothes store window in Ghent displays not only dresses and outfits but tiny versions of same on dolls. Fun!
  • My name can pass as Flemish
  • Expect to be admonished by wait staff if you don’t finish your charcuterie in Strasbourg
  • Expect to get a “Bien sur” shrug by wait staff when asked if the charcuterie and cheese plates come with bread: “Oui, c‘est France”
  • No Michelin guides for France were made between 1940 and 1944, for obvious reasons
  • In museums, sometimes the story is the crowds around the artwork rather than the artwork

  • Henri Matisse visited Harlem in 1930 and became a fan of jazz
  • A lot of people in the 21st century trust their lives to that grinding gears of 19th century technology that is the Eiffel Tower. I am among them
  • In France, the Waldo of “Where’s Waldo” is called Charlie: “Ou Est Charlie?” He looks the same

  • There are those who maintain and those who let things get run down. The Hotel Chopin in Paris is among the former, and is recommended; the Midnight Hotel in Paris is among the latter, and isn't
  • No number of yellow-vest protesters is so worrisome as to prevent a line of 3-4 cops from turning to check out a stunning blonde walking by
  • Vive le France et Belgique
Posted at 07:59 AM on Monday July 01, 2019 in category Travels   |   Permalink  
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