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.


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.


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.


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.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Sad Post-Script

In my last post, I mentioned that my grandfather was still with us physically, but sadly, that’s no longer true. He passed away last week in Virginia at the age of 94. His last weeks were tough, with way too much pain and confusion. I’d like to think he’s in a better place now, which in his case would be a world where a movie still costs a nickel and your change always includes Indian pennies.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Halfpence None the Richer

Recently, I found myself standing at the sink, washing dishes, and humming to myself. This isn’t unusual; I’m prone to tunes.

What was unusual was the particular tune I was humming. For a while I was doing it sub-consciously, but eventually I became aware that although daffodils are popping up in my neighborhood, I was mumbling the words to a Christmas ditty that I think I learned from the Muppets.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.

Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,

If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you.

Why was I humming this song? With me, there’s often a reason. Once, for instance, when I was in college, I had an internship in New York City. Every time I went out for a period of about a week, I got an Indigo Girls song stuck in my head. I do love the Indigo Girls, but the predictability began to bug me eventually. It was always the same song (I don’t Wanna Know), and in fact, it was always the chorus. And not the whole chorus; just the first line of the chorus, over and over again.

I’m not scared and I’m not lonely….

When I finally gave it some conscious thought, I realized that this was nothing more than a classic case of lying to myself. I was 20 years old and had thought that Manhattan would be an exciting adventure. But that winter, the city overwhelmed me. Everywhere I went, men leered and groped, and panhandlers tugged at my sleeve. It seemed like no matter what direction I was headed, I was always walking directly into a bitter wind. I never got the hang of slaloming through the crush of humanity on every sidewalk, and I remember thinking that if a manhole opened up and swallowed me, nobody would notice or even know the difference.

Scared and lonely? I’d never felt both emotions so acutely in my life. Any musical statement on my part to the contrary was wishful thinking, a jangly self-comforting ritual in the key of G. (Luckily this flash of self-awareness was enough to short-circuit the repeat button, and freed me to go back to my usual ear-worm repertoire of bubble-gum pop and advertising jingles.)

O.K., that was a dark example. Usually, there’s a more benign explanation for why I’m compulsively playing something over and over again in my mind. As for the Christmas carol in February, it’s not out of the question that I was having a little bit of a hard time letting the holidays go. I think the key word in the song, though, is “ha’penny.”

A ha’penny is an extinct coin; a half of an English penny. I was thinking about them because I’ve been thinking about old foreign coins a lot lately. The reason for this is that at the end of last year, I took possession of a significant portion of my paternal grandfather’s coin collection. He is still with us, but at 94, his mind isn’t what it once was and he has literally lost the ability to make heads or tails of his collection. So my grandmother gave the coins to the grandchildren, and to my delight, I ended up with a lot of the foreign ones.

In the days before my brain latched onto the ha’penny song, I’d been cataloging some older coins from South Africa that used the British pre-decimal system of coinage. I’d decided that it was time that I learned what that was all about, as I’d never really understood what a shilling was, or how an English penny is different from a cent.

Having learned about pennies, and half-pennies, and how they relate to shillings and pounds (12 pence to the shilling; 20 shillings to the pound), I was, that evening, reviewing what I’d learned in my head. That’s what sent me down the path of singing about old English coinage. As with the Indigo Girls song in New York, realizing what was going on turned off the soundtrack, and I was able to stop hearing Miss Piggy’s voice in my head.

I found, however, that when the music stopped I was still hung up on the subject of half-pennies. They are a very small unit of currency. In the pre-decimal days, there were 240 pennies to the pound, meaning that a half-penny was one 480th of a pound. Even in the Victorian era, that can’t have been much money. (By 1983, the year before half-pennies were demonetized, an MP in favor of ditching the coin remarked that “Most people don’t even bother to pick them up when they drop them.”)

I started thinking what paltry offering a penny was, and thinking how truly wretched someone must be if they didn’t even have the “ha’penny” mentioned in the song. From that condescending place, I moved to a position of…I want to say gratitude, but it was really something closer to smugness, a feeling of grandiosity that came from knowing that when I give to charity, I’m able to do it in amounts greater than a penny.

But then, that toxic little bubble burst into an oily puddle around me when I realized that technically, I didn’t have a half-penny, either. Pennies, sure. Half-dollars, half-francs, and even an American half-dime from the days before nickels…those I had. But a ha’penny? Nope. By the song’s metric, I was poorer than the most pitiable Dickensian indigent.

Except that, as it turns out, I wasn’t.

The next evening I went through the last batch of coins, a small baggie filled with British currency. I had purposely saved it for last because a lot of the coins looked old and weird, and I thought this group might be the most interesting of all.

I was right, and the haul turned out to include a lot of great coins, like a sixpence with a portrait of crazy King George III, a lot of big old clunky copper pennies the size of poker chips, and, yes, a half-penny, dated 1885.

These coins delight me to no end really just because I’m a big nerd about these things. The coins aren’t valuable to collectors—old as they are, they were nevertheless minted in large quantities and aren’t very rare. They aren’t worth a thing in the real world, as the last pre-decimal coins were withdrawn in the early 1990s and are no longer legal tender. No contemporary beggar would be a bit jolly to see any of these coins in his hat—least of all that ha’penny.

But I choose to look at it this way: Having the half-penny lifts me above the Victorian-era poverty line, which has got to be some sort of accomplishment. (Take that, Great Recession.) The coin is also a token showing that I’ve been entrusted with a minor family treasure. As I’ve said, this collection is not valuable in a quantifiable way, but my grandfather loved it, and I love it, too, which makes me feel rich in a way that only coin geeks will understand. (The rest of you will just have to trust me.)

Also, I don’t live in New York anymore, so I’ve got that going for me, too.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


Girls That Roam has come through for me again, publishing a marathon article I wrote about a rum-themed cruise that Pipi and I took in November.

I’ve had a lot of fun writing articles for Girls That Roam, because they’ve all been based on really great trips. But this was the most fun of all to research. For this article, I spent a week in the tropics, drinking rum with my wife, which is pretty much the definition of living the dream, as far as I’m concerned.

This trip was significant for me for two reasons. First and foremost, it represented my honeymoon. Pipi and I have been together for many, many years, and legally married more than a year ago. But we’d never taken an official honeymoon, so we decided that this would be it.

The trip was also significant because it is the first cruise I took without trepidation. I’ve cruised before, and haven’t always enjoyed it. The Transatlantic cruise I took as a teenager was too adult for me, and the booze cruises I took in my early 30s were, by then, a little juvenile.

On the precipice of middle-age, I was talked into taking a Caribbean cruise with a group of rum aficionados, and it was a ton of fun. I realized that cruising can be enjoyable for independent travelers; it’s just really important to pick one that goes to places you’d actually like to explore. That sounds obvious, but it’s very easy to pick the wrong cruise, because so often they are marketed based on either price or the reputation of the cruise line, and often are picked based on which departure ports are the easiest to get to, and whether or not they happen during a particular convenient week.

Pipi and I got this cruise, our second Caribbean sailing, just right. The departure and return ports (leaving from San Juan, returning to Miami) were not all that convenient, and Carnival wouldn’t have been my first choice of cruise line. But none of that mattered much. We went with a group of friends and saw a bunch of islands that really interested us. It was a fun, relaxing vacation where we felt we saw a little bit of the world, not just beaches. And we got to visit several distilleries and drink a little rum, which makes any trip better.

Even a cruise.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What’s New Under the (Punishingly Hot) Sun

One more article of mine has been published on the Girls that Roam site. As usual, it’s about Orlando; this time, about theme parks specifically.

I set up a little bit of a challenge for myself on this one. I decided to make the article be, in large part, about how to best navigate the theme parks. Why did I decide this? Well, I needed some sort of angle, because the fact that these parks exist is not exactly breaking news, so a simple overview was out of the question.

Not much about Florida theme parks, when you come right down to it, is really a secret. They’re some of the best known, and best promoted attractions in the world, so it’s a little hard to find new things to say about them.

I personally find theme parks a little overwhelming. I like them, but the noise, the crowds, and in Orlando’s case, the baking sun all wear me down pretty quickly. I figured I must not be the only person this happens to, so I decided to write an article that would make life easier for us easily over-stimulated folk.

The problem was, the group I was traveling with didn’t really see the theme parks in a way that has much to do with the average person’s Orlando theme-park experience. I traveled there on a press trip, a whirlwind affair where, over the course of several 18-hour days, we were taken to just about every spot in Central Florida--for about five minutes. One day we covered three parks—Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Universal Studios—in one dawn-to-darkness burst of roller coasters, fried food, and sustained shrieking.

As a group, we did manage to experience quite a bit of each park, but only because we were afforded essentially a VIP experience. Park staff escorted us to the front of lines, put us on air-conditioned buses to get us from park gate to park gate, and made sure we were properly fed and hydrated so that our energy didn’t flag.

What I’m saying is that this is another one of those articles that required a lot of research once I got home. I had to remember what it’s like to visit parks as a normal person (which I have done) and then find out what programs and perks exist that normal people have access to.

So that’s what this article is—a guide to remaining sane in Orlando, based on my completely insane theme park experience.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

That’s Ms. Soskin to You

I’ve had another article published by Girls That Roam, the online women’s travel magazine. This one is not about Orlando; it’s on Richmond, California’s Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park.

That’s a mouthful of a name, and perhaps in sympathy, my article ran a little long, too. It could have been tighter, I see now, but I do feel that the parts came together at the end, so I’m fairly happy with it.

I did want to make one note, though, just to show that I was raised right.

The Girls That Roam house style is to use a person’s whole name on first reference, and then their first name for subsequent references. I respect house style guides, having been responsible for compiling and enforcing several different ones in my time. This particular rule didn’t bother me at all until now, as all of the articles I have written so far for GTR have been about pretty laid-back (and relatively young) people who would think it was weird if I called them anything but their given names.

This Rosie the Riveter article was a little different, though. A person who gets mentioned a lot is park ranger Betty Reid Soskin, who, at 92, is just about old enough to be my grandmother. She is also African-American, which makes me even more inclined to err on the side of awkward earnestness. (I am thinking of a book I once read by two African-American women whose parents, born into slavery, called each other Mr. and Mrs. Delany until the end of their days—affording each other a respect that at the time they rarely got outside their home.)

What I am saying is that I would never dream of calling this woman “Betty” to her face, but the way the article appears, it looks like that’s what I’m doing behind her back. It’s just a house rule that I can’t change, and I hope I am forgiven--or at least unnoticed--by Ms. Soskin.

(She did mention, in a talk I saw her give recently, that she has mostly outlived her rage. So I’ve got that going for me.)