Wednesday, February 03, 2016

An Oasis of Calm in Santo Domingo

I’ve had another article published on the Girls That Roam site. It’s a review of the hotel I stayed in last summer in the Dominican Republic.

I think I come off as a little bit of a wussy traveler in this one, whining about the heat and how everyone speaks Spanish. In real life, I wasn’t a bit disappointed that people spoke Spanish; I was disappointed with myself for not speaking it better. Or at all, almost. I thought I would be able to get by, having taken a year at U.C. Berkeley Extension and done respectably well. But I was rusty, and Dominican Spanish is different from Mexican Spanish, and to my chagrin, I struggled with basic conversations.

Consequently, I found my hotel to be an oasis and a safety zone. I’m not proud of this, and I assure you, I did leave the property and venture out into the real country. But I sure appreciated the comfort when I was there. Here is my review of the hotel I stayed in, the Renaissance Santo Domingo Jaragua Hotel & Casino.

(Spoiler: I liked it. I’m going to like most places with exotic cocktails.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Good Eats in Orlando

Florida is a little bit of a scary place to me. It’s full of tropical bugs, snakes, alligators, and hurricanes. My marriage wasn’t legal there until a few months ago, and I think the governor might be an alien. Not an immigrant; an actual bird-necked, hairless, laser-eyed denizen of another planet.

Still, there’s really good food in Florida, so I’m willing to cut it some slack. I went on a press trip to Orlando at the end of 2013 and was pleasantly surprised at how good the dining scene was there. I wrote a review of a few restaurants I really liked, and one just saw the light of day. Quite a bit of time has passed since my visit, so it’s possible that some things have changed. I did check out Yelp, and I am happy to report that the place, called Ceviche, is still around, and people still seem to like it.

(There are a few Ceviches. I can’t speak for the outposts in Tampa or St. Petersburg, having never been, but I definitely recommend the Orlando Church St. location.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Write What You Know

Most articles that I write are on subjects that interest me to some degree—I never would have pitched them or been sought out as the writer if someone didn’t think they were in my wheelhouse.

So there are articles where I enjoy the research and then there are articles I may have been born to write. This one, on eating in Tuscany, is one of the latter. It’s about a week spent dining in and around Florence with my parents and sister, and was by far the most fun to research of any article I have written in recent memory.

I’m fairly proud of it. I still like the humorous touches, and I think my love of Italian cuisine comes through. If it had been up to me, I would have written it in the past tense, because I think present tense makes jumps in time more confusing. But it wasn’t up to me—the Girls That Roam site requires articles to be in the present tense. I can live with it.

If anyone wants to send me back to Italy for a follow-up, just to make sure that that gelato place is as good as I remembered, I’m up for it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Pom Pom Girl

Here’s yet another article that took a little siesta before getting published. It’s about a really interesting restaurateur in Orlando whom I met about two years ago, the last time I was in the city. The time lag is not a big problem, though. The restaurants are still open and unchanged in theme, so just about all the info is still relevant.

Pom Moongauklang, a.k.a. Pom Pom, was born in Thailand and lived all over the United States before opening a pair of restaurants in Orlando. They serve the wackiest and most delicious fusion sandwiches and tacos I’ve ever had. Her restaurants were one of several pleasant food surprises I had in Orlando. Pom herself also turned out to be a delightful interview. If you are ever in Central Florida, check out her restaurants, Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria (best at lunch) and Tako Cheena (best in the wee hours when Thai peanut tacos sound like something so crazy they just might work—and they do.)

Thursday, December 03, 2015

My Divas Turn

Here’s an article I wrote a long time ago that just saw the light of day. (I think I wrote it toward the end of last winter; a late-fall appearance is probably more appropriate.) This was a funny assignment from the start. When my editor gave it to me, we both were under the impression that Divas SnowGear--the subject of the article--was a skiwear company. It’s not; they make snowmobile apparel. When I explained our goof to the editor, she suggested I go ahead with the company profile anyway to see what happened.

What happened was this piece, about Divas SnowGear and its founder, Wendy Gavinski. I knew nothing about snowmobiling when I called Wendy up and asked if I could interview her by phone. She made it easy for me, though. She’s a genuinely nice person and helped me learn a lot that I didn’t know about the sport, and also helped me unlearn a lot of things that I thought I knew but which aren’t really true. This one was a pleasure to research and write because it opened a whole new world to me. (I still haven’t ever been snowmobiling, though.)

P.S. “…a metaphor waiting to happen…” I kinda like that line. And the subtitle made me laugh out loud, and sent me digging through last year’s files to check to see if I submitted the copy with that sub-head or if my editor added it. It’s mine!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

….And Getting Smaller

I took this photo in the spring of 2002, at Disneyland Paris. I was there on a press trip. It wasn’t the first time I had been on a plane since September 11, 2001, but it was my first trans-Atlantic trip since that day, and I remember feeling uncharacteristically uneasy preparing for the flight. My father called me on my new cell phone at the airport to assure me that everything would be all right. I hadn’t told him I was nervous; he just knew. It was a nervous time.

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The Paris I arrived in that March wasn’t the fabled Paris-in-the Springtime, and it certainly wasn’t the Paris I remembered. I had last been in the city during the summer of 1987. That was the break between my junior and senior years in high school, and I was staying for the month of August with a French family that had a daughter my age. They didn’t live in Paris, but had friends who did and the mother and daughter and I spent nearly a week exploring the City of Light based out of the friends’ apartment.

It was a tremendously exciting time for me. Coming from a college town two hours by car (not that I had one) from the nearest major city, just walking urban boulevards felt like an adventure. Riding on the metro (just like the song!), speaking a foreign language, stepping on cobblestones older than my own country, sniffing Peugeot exhaust, eating in cafes…it all seemed too good to be true, like I’d been offered a glimpse into an impossibly exciting larger world that awaited me as soon as I was old enough to get out of my hometown. (It also helped that in the late ’80s, French teenagers thought there was nothing more hyper-chouette than America. These were kids who could drink beer any time they wanted, and somehow they still thought I was cool.)

Every day was a different arrondissement. Montmartre one day, the Picasso Museum another, and, on one particularly memorable day, Paris’ Arab Quarter. Bustling, spicy-smelling, and punctuated by the staccato sounds of languages I didn’t understand a word of, this part of the city struck me as the most exotic place I’d ever been. We went to a Moroccan restaurant for lunch, and I had couscous for the first time in my life. Like any teenager, I worried this new dish would taste strange to me, but it was delicious—nothing odder than grain, vegetables, and sausage. Afterwards, I walked the streets of the neighborhood with a little more confidence. Sure, the swirl of music and chatter coming out of the shops was incomprehensible to me, and yes, the smells wafting around were unfamiliar, but these people liked couscous. I liked couscous. Common ground already. The yawning gulf between my preppie life and the Arab world got a tiny bit smaller.

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France, six months after 9/11 (and with me now in my 30s), was cool, gray, and glum. I spent all but about a furtive hour of my trip on or near the grounds of Disneyland Paris, which was not even trying to live up to its Happiest Place on Earth reputation. The park was populated—barely—by sparse crowds of ruddy English tourists, cast members dressed as the most nihilistic Disney characters you’ll ever see (I swear I saw Mickey Mouse smoking, but that must be my memory playing tricks on me), and, inexplicably, David Hasselhoff, strutting around with his entourage, wearing a duster and sunglasses at night.

The atmosphere was unsettled in a very literal way—it rained on and off the whole time I was there. There was never a purging downpour; nothing that gave you a sense that and end was in sight. It just drizzled sporadically out of a heavy sky that hung low over a close horizon.

The mood was unsettled, too. America was reeling from attack, but we hadn’t yet made the decision to go to war and stop eating French fries. Six months removed from the day, I still sensed a little bit of the sentiment that nous sommes tous Américains. But teenagers didn’t exactly light up when they heard my accent, either. It seemed none of us knew what to make of each other anymore.

Personally, I struggled in a very literal way to know what to do with myself. I was a childless adult trudging around a wet theme park. What was the story here? Four days in France had seemed like an impossibly short trip before I left, but standing in the rain surrounded by depressed Disney characters and D-list celebrities, it was starting to seem like at least three days too many.

During one break in the weather, I found myself standing in front of a familiar ride, one which I’d first ridden at the age of three in Florida, and which seems to exist in more or less the same form in every Disney park around the world. A series of banners flew out front against a threatening sky, proclaiming bravely in several languages—including French and Arabic—that, “It’s a Small World.” Childhood felt very far away at that moment, but strangely, my teen years, the times when Gallic Parisians and north African immigrants coexisted peacefully and at least one American found the Arab world beguiling, seemed even further out of reach.

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And now I feel that way again. When I look at this picture, I can remember exactly what I was thinking when I took it, because I’m thinking exactly the same thing now. I remember that I was struck by the achingly idealistic slogan silhouetted against the eerie clouds. I liked seeing the flags with lots of different languages waving together, and wondered if this uneasy alliance of nationalities would ever be possible again. Mostly I felt—and still feel, acutely, that the world really is small. And not because we’ve built bridges across our differences. It just seems that whenever something explodes on one part of the planet, we all feel jostled. (And in the time-honored tradition of people everywhere who feel their space nearing capacity, we start putting up velvet ropes and making up rules about who can and can’t come in.)

How is it that people who trace their roots to Charlemagne and followers of Islam once shared Parisian streets peacefully? And that observing this neighborhood made me think the world was full of possibility, not calamity? How do we get back to this place? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure the answer is more complex than couscous, less violent than airstrikes, more compassionate than turning away refugees, and more laborious than putting a French flag filter on our profile pictures. But beyond that, I don’t really know, either.

(Couscous, though…that couldn’t hurt, right? Never underestimate the power of kitchen diplomacy.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Get to Cuba Before It’s Spoiled. Any Further.

Nobody asked me, but here’s what I think.

I’m not a fan of the Castro regime. I’ve been to Cuba and was not seduced by the siren song (it’s actually more of a duet) of free healthcare and free education. My traveling companions and I heard a lot about both, especially healthcare, enough that I realized the Cuban government really wanted to influence our thinking on this issue.

They didn’t succeed, though. I saw two things with my own eyes that made me think that what most Cubans pay for medical attention is about what that attention is worth: Nothing. The first incident was in the middle of the trip, when the van my group was riding in picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to be a doctor on her way to work. (What kind of a doctor can’t afford a car? Questions already.)

Some of the group who spoke good Spanish got her to open up about working conditions at her hospital. It came out that they had some shocking shortages, including a lot of basic things like over-the-counter pain medications and antiseptics. We dug into our toiletry bags and handed over all the Advil and Neosporin we could find, feeling virtuous and unsettled at the same time.

Later, as I was leaving Cuba, I noticed that the woman I showed my papers to at passport control had taped up her glasses. I don’t mean that she had repaired the frames that way, I mean that one of the lenses had shattered and she had pieced it back together and was attempting to keep the shards in place using strips of clear tape. I realized that Cuban medical care might be free, but that you can’t just run to LensCrafters any time you feel like it.

I also witnessed a little of Cuba’s gay scene, entirely by accident. Pipi and I went out for dessert one evening with two not-entirely-straight men from our group. When we got to the ice cream parlor, we realized that some kind of gay gathering was taking place there. I have heard of groups of gay people in the United States organizing one-night takeovers of bars, turning a mainstream establishment into a gay one by force of numbers. Something like this seemed to be happening here, although there was none of the sense of playful anarchy that is usually accompanies takeovers at home.

This was a scene of quiet desperation; a dozen gay men hiding in plain sight under florescent lighting, each wanting to connect with the others but mostly hoping they looked plausibly like they were simply enjoying an icy treat on a hot night, by themselves, all dressed to the nueves.

The four of us Americans were sussed out by the gay Cubans, and apparently we were trusted, because we got an invite to some kind of after-party, which I think was taking place at someone’s house. (I speak poor Spanish and didn’t get all the details.) As tempting as it was to accept an invitation to visit a Cuban home, we declined. Our curiosity was innocent, but we weren’t sure the invitation was. The whole thing felt a little seedy, so we steered clear. It saddened me to think that this was about as fabulous as gay nightlife gets in Cuba, and I realized that even if Cuba’s complimentary healthcare really were any good, and even if a college education really is free, I could never trade that for the freedom to be who I am.

So please believe me when I say I’m not a fan of the Castros. I am not beguiled by the promise of a socialist paradise, and I do not think they treat their people fairly.

I do, however, think lifting the embargo is a good thing.

My feeling is that 54 years of restrictions have not dislodged the Castro regime, and it seems unlikely to me that the 55th time is the charm. The embargo doesn’t seem to have hurt the people in power, and the flip side of that is that I don’t think lifting it will help them much, either.

In fact, I don’t think lifting the embargo is going to change much of anything. Maybe cutting Cuba off from tourism and trade would have had an effect if the whole world had taken part, but they didn’t. We took our ball and went home, but the rest of the world kept playing and honestly, I don’t think we were missed very much.

I went to Cuba in 2003. When I did, I packed a flashlight for blackouts and also lots of things you normally find in Western hotels, like shampoo and soap, because I was convinced that poor benighted Cuba couldn’t possibly offer travelers these amenities.

The joke was on me. The hotel Pipi and I stayed at in Havana was one of the nicest we’d ever stayed in on vacation. The lights stayed on. So did the cable TV in our room, and so did the fax machines in the business center. There was plenty of soap, and the shampoo never ran out.

This particular hotel was a Cuban/Dutch joint venture, and staying there, as well as in at an all-inclusive beach resort full of French and German tourists, made me realize that all of the tourism and trade opportunities that the U.S. has been passing up all these years are being scooped up by other countries. Cuba is not untouched by foreign influence. It’s just untouched by us.

Take cars, for example. We all have this idea that Cuba is full of American cars from the 1950s, painstakingly maintained because no other cars are available. It would be nice to think that Cuba is utterly dependent on us for its automotive needs, and that the people are all plotting overthrow so that they can get some new wheels, but it’s not quite like that. Those old Chevrolets are still there; it’s not a myth. But there are lots of other cars, too. As you can see from the photo above (taken in Havana in 2003), modern cars are available on the island. Just not from us.

So I think the lifting of the embargo will change Cuba very little. It will have some nice benefits for Americans, though. We’ll be able to visit the country, and to drink Havana Club rum and of course, smoke Cuban cigars. (Which none of us have been doing for the last 50 years, right? Riiiiight.)

That’s the good news—the Castro regime will not gain much, but curious American travelers will.

There is some bad news, though, which concerns anyone hoping to visit Cuba before it’s spoiled by capitalism, and that news is: You’re too late. You’ve missed it by….well, I don’t actually know how long. This unspoiled Cuba may actually never have existed. It may just be a mass assumption on the part of Americans, this idea that a country whose culture we have no influence on must exist in a sort of naïve state of arrested development.

True, Cuba is not yet overrun by Starbucks or Walgreens. You can’t get French fries or a Slurpee on every corner yet. Cuba is noticeably free of American convenience foods, and that is a remarkable situation.

But when Cuba opens up to us, don’t go for that reason. Don’t go for things you’re hoping not to see. Go because it’s beautiful. Go because the people are warm, the beaches are soft, rum flows freely, and fantastic live music pours out of every bar and restaurant on the island. Go because you can. Go because every visiting American is a poster child for liberty and an ambassador for economic freedoms.

Go because a pitcher of mint and lime can accomplish in an hour what five decades of spite and deprivation never could, which is to make friends out of wary strangers eying each other across 90 miles of ocean.