Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Shine on, You Crazy Sunshine State

Shrines to dead Playboy models. Castles made of petrified sea creatures. A mania for Depression-era architecture. Why is Florida so nutty? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if it’s a chicken or egg situation—do heat, humidity, and insects the size of squirrels attract crazy people? Or do these things drive normal new arrivals nuts? Is it drugs? I’m not sure. Any insight would be appreciated.

All I can say is that Miami wasn’t quite what I expected—it was much better. I knew I’d like the deco district, and that I would find Little Havana interesting. I had no idea that so much of South Florida would be this way. I think I expected Southern California-style suburbia and air-conditioned blandness the second we left Miami proper. I definitely expected a strong redneck influence. I was wrong about all those things. Even the air conditioning. We managed to be there on the coldest day of the year. Floridians were all wearing sweaters and parkas and preparing for the Rapture. It wasn’t that cold, but we did turn on the heat in our hotel room two out of three nights.

Oh, and that clanking noise you heard? That was the sound of Florida lumbering its way out of last place on my list of favorite states. I’m not sure yet how many spots it moved up. I definitely shot past both Mississippi and Texas. After that, rankings get difficult because I’ve found at least one thing to like in every other state I’ve been to, so it’s hard to compare. I guess a better way to say it is that, on the strength of pure Miami zaniness, the Sunshine State dropped off my Don’t Like It list and onto the much larger list of States I Would Gladly Return To.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Coral Castle

I’ve added a few photos to my Miami gallery. They’re taken at a place called the Coral Castle, in Homestead, Florida. It’s about an hour’s drive southwest from Miami.

The Coral Castle was built in the 1930s and 1940s by a man named Ed Leedskalnin, who was, quite frankly, just plain nuts. As a young man in Latvia, he fell in love with a 16-year-old girl who ended up leaving him at the alter (possibly it was past her bedtime). He never got over this, even after moving to South Florida. After buying some land cheaply there, he decided to dedicate his life to building a castle out of coral rock, a fortress where he and his beloved (who would understand the error of her ways after she saw the coral bedroom furniture he carved for her) would live out their days.

It didn’t work out that way. The girl married someone else and stayed in Latvia. The man eventually died alone, surrounded by his self-published treatises on electromagnetism. It’s kind of a sad story, but it makes for an interesting tourist attraction now.

One thing that isn’t so crazy about the building is the decision to use coral rock. Apparently if you dig anywhere in this part of Florida, you find a few inches of sandy topsoil and about 4,000 feet of coral. What’s crazy, besides the fact that only the actual sleeping quarters has a roof, is what exactly he built out of the coral. After he’d built walls and a very Spartan bedroom/tool shed, he started building furniture. Out of rock. In the middle of his courtyard. Things like a 5,000-pound, heart-shaped dining-room table, a stone couch, and even a rocky double bed with a nearby coral cradle, just in case his Latvian lass had a change of heart.

One piece of furniture I really liked was his reading lounge. He built a sort of a stone chaise longue for reading in a reclining position. Ed was only about five feet tall. I’m not significantly taller, and I found that the curves and contours were incredibly comfortable for someone my size. Although I guess it wouldn’t be quite so nice in the rain.

Another amazing thing is the main gate to the castle, no longer in use. It weighs nine tons, but it’s said that back in the day, it was so well balanced that a child could push it open. The hinges are rusted and fused now, so it’s impossible to test if this was ever really true, but the guy does seem to have been some kind of eccentric genius for sure.

Another surreal touch is the fact that the whole complex is overrun by giant lizards. Well, maybe “overrun” is a strong word, but I saw several. They’re huge. Not iguana sized, but far larger than the speedy little fly-eaters we have in California. They were well over a foot long, and extremely colorful. I asked the lady in the gift shop what they were called. She didn’t know, but she did tell me that someone figured out that they are from West Africa. No one knows exactly how they got here, but they don’t seem to have major predators, and the population is starting to get a little out of hand.

My guidebook described the Coral Castle as possibly the strangest tourist attraction in Florida. The field is strong, but this just may be it.
28655 South Dixie Highway
Homestead, Fl 33030

Monday, February 26, 2007

My Personal Miami Vice

I’m a big fan of art deco architecture. I’m not sure where I get this from—you don’t see a lot of deco in New England—but somehow I acquired a taste. For that reason, I’ve wanted to go to Miami’s South Beach deco district for a long time. And this was almost the first thing Pipi and I did in the Miami area.

We went on a self-guided audio tour, which was nice. There’s nothing more exhausting than trudging along with a tour group. We got to do this at our own pace, which may have actually have been faster than the personal guided tour. We learned a lot about deco, including the fact that the ridges you often see above windows on art deco buildings are called “eyebrows.” Who knew? We also learned that windows that wrap around corners are a typical deco detail. The building Pipi and I live in, built in the late 1930s, has windows like this, which made me like our apartment even more.

The tour mostly stuck to Ocean Drive, in South Beach. This street has an amazing number of deco buildings, mostly hotels. Apparently a lot were nearly knocked down in the 1980s, which spurred a movement to restore them instead. It’s beautiful now—almost too beautiful. The people are intimidatingly pretty. I don’t think we’d have had much luck trying to get past the velvet ropes at the clubs there, but we weren’t interested in that. We just wanted to see the buildings. We had lunch in the most deco diner ever, a metal-plated Pullman car-style diner that for some reason had been moved there from Pennsylvania. It was all exactly what I’d hoped for. A great introduction to Miami.

Here are a few South Beach photos.

Friday, February 23, 2007

We Interrupt This Travelogue…

...To bring you exciting news: The San Francisco Chronicle is considering publishing one of my essays. This isn’t a travel essay; this is that piece about a neighbor’s suicide. I sent it to the Chronicle Sunday magazine, and the editor told me she likes it, and would like it even better with a couple of edits. I did that and sent it back to her today. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

That About Sums it Up

Dave Barry has been saying this for years, but I still was unprepared. I guess I thought he might be making it up. But he’s not. South Florida is wacky. It’s got the craziest drivers, the zaniest media circuses, and the oddest architecture imaginable. I like the place a lot; quirkiness is good, in my book. I’m just surprised, is all. The other parts of Florida that I’ve been to (and which are not Orlando) have been conservative, bland and suburban. Miami is appealingly weird. More on this tomorrow—I actually have a day job this week, editing a cookbook, and the deadline is looming.

(Oh, the sign pictured is above the entrance to a bar on Biscayne Boulevard, near the Ft. Lauderdale airport. This may be the official Florida state motto. If it isn’t, it ought to be.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Just Back From…

The Anna Nicole Smith Vigil in Broward County, Florida.

We went because: Anna Nicole Smith died near Miami, and various parties are fighting over who gets her body in a courtroom in Ft. Lauderdale. I don’t know if it’s the biggest story in the country right now (though it may be--we joked that CNN stood for “Constant Nicole News”). But it certainly is the biggest thing going on in Florida. How could we miss it?

Don’t miss: The makeshift memorial that has sprung up at the morgue in Dania Beach, where Anna Nicole’s body is being kept.

Don’t bother: Driving past the County courthouse in Ft. Lauderdale hoping to catch a glimpse of the litigants in the body-custody case. The media scrum around the entrance is so tight you’ll never be able to see through them. And besides, the real star of the show is the one person we know won’t be able to make it.

Coolest Souvenir: If you’re in the right place at the right time, you may get to see yourself on national television.

Worth a splurge: Please, if you want to honor the woman’s memory, pick up something classier than the not-found-in-nature-colored teddy bears and left-over Valentine’s day balloons from Walgreen’s that people have been leaving.

I wish I’d packed: My computer. As good as Pipi is at navigation, it would have been a lot easier to find the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office with the help of the Internet.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Pipi is much better now, thanks! She went to work this morning and expects to make it though the day.

Also, we’re leaving town early tomorrow morning for Miami, so I probably won’t blog until we’re back Wednesday. I’ll let you all know then how it went!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Staying out of Each Other’s Way

I’m pretty used to having the place to myself during the day. So it came as a little bit of a shock when Pipi came home early from work today. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to have co-workers, so there was a little bit of an adjustment. The apartment is plenty big; the trick was in finding me the space to work, and Pipi the space to relax and feel sorry for herself, which is everyone’s right on a sick day.

In the end it wasn’t that hard. I have a laptop, so it was easy to move to the living room. Pipi took to bed with the sound turned off on her hand-held video game. Everyone was happy. Just another minor adventure in working at home.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine’s Day

No big news to report today. I just want to wish everyone a very happy Valentine’s Day!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Though Round the Girdled Earth They Roam…

…They still manage to find each other. Dartmouth folks, I mean. Yesterday I got an email out of the blue from a classmate I was slightly acquainted with in college. He saw a blurb about travel writing I sent to our class newsletter and decided to get in touch. It turns out he’s now the managing editor at MSN travel. This could be a very good thing. I will try not to let 10 more years go by before my next class notes update.

(And yes, the word is “girdled.” I checked.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Some Good News

I’m part of a professional Bay-Area group called Left Coast Writers. There are meetings roughly twice a month, one where members can give readings, and one where a guest speaker is brought in to talk to us. Sometimes there are book launch parties for members lucky enough to have gotten published on a grand scale. There are usually networking gatherings after each meeting. The leader is a very successful woman named Linda Watanabe-McFerrin who makes herself very available for consultations and advice. All in all, it’s a very valuable resource for writers in Northern California.

One other perk of membership is that there is a Web site associated with it called Road Work. Six times a month, they publish a members’ writings there. I’m going to be the May author—they’ve agreed to take an essay that started life as a January blog entry. (I gave it a good working over before I sent it. It’s better now.)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Personal Best

Also, a Bay-Area publication got back to me with a rejection in what is, for that periodical, record time: 47 days.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Mongolia: Now With 50% Less Mutton

You’re probably wondering which article they rejected—I wondered, too. I had to do some research to figure out which one. Turns out it was a travel essay about Mongolia. Kind of a tough sell, I guess.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Returning to Normal

Meanwhile, life goes on. After an unprecedented streak of recognition and publication, the rejections are starting to pick up again. I got a very nice form letter from the L.A. Times magazine telling me my article did not meet their editorial needs at that time. As usual, I’m just glad they let me know. (To their credit, the L.A. Times is very good about that.)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Over the weekend, Cunard’s Queen Mary II was in port. It’s the largest ship ever to enter the San Francisco Bay. It’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a larger ship that makes the trip, because the QM2 steamed under the Bay Bridge with only about 40 feet to spare. If the tide had been high, it would have been more like 25 feet.

I went to the Marina Green with my parents to see it come in, and this turned out to be a pretty good viewing point. The ship made its entrance dramatically, about an hour late, flanked by helicopters, small planes, a tugboat, a pilot, and a fireboat spewing fountains of seawater all over. It was certainly an impressive sight.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Boy Was I Off

My photo appeared yesterday. It wasn’t a Russian sign at all—it was this one. The photo wasn’t taken in any particularly exotic place, unless you consider Alameda, CA exotic. (It is technically an island.) I sent it in about a year ago. I guess they have a backlog.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Every Freelancer’s Dream

Actually, this is probably everyone’s dream: You hear the mail arrive, and go downstairs for it thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if today someone sent me money I wasn’t expecting?”

Well, today it happened. I got a check for $50 from Doug Lansky, of Signspotting fame. This is a syndicated weekly column that highlights unintentionally funny signs sent in by travelers. I don’t know what sign they’re using. I have sent pictures of quite a few over the years. My round-the-world trip yielded several. (And I didn’t even have my camera handy when I saw the funniest one, a sign in Beijing pointing the way to the “Clubfoot ball team”—a soccer club, I think.)

I’m guessing it’s one of the pictures I took in Russia. For a European country, they have surpassingly strange signage. My mother and I had a good laugh over one at a church in St. Petersberg that had about 20 little cartoon pictures with slashes through them illustrating things you weren’t allowed to do on church grounds. This seemed to include sleepwalking, sledding, feature-film making, and wearing Speedo bathing suits. I hope that’s the one they use. I don’t know when exactly they’ll print it. The San Francisco Chronicle travel section carries the column, so I’ll just have to keep an eye out for it.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Buuz Bistro? Dumpling Depot?

Mongolian is a hard language for English speakers to wrap their ears around. It’s also written using the same Cyrillic alphabet that Russian uses. Plus, there’s really no instantly recognizable national dish that makes for a snappy restaurant name, in the manner of Burger Bistro, or Leaning Tower of Pizza.

These are all possible reasons why Oakland’s only Mongolian restaurant is called Pizza Rama.

The restaurant does serve pizza, but if I were running a Mongolian restaurant, I probably would have chosen to play down the European element. They seem to be doing well, though, so that shows what I know. (Maybe I am in the right line of work after all?)

I’ve been meaning to give this place a try since Pipi noticed it downtown months ago. I finally did at lunch today. I had a plate of buuz, which is something I remembered eating when I was in Mongolia last summer. The buuz served to me at the nomad camp outside of Ulaan Bataar was flat and fried; these were steamed but otherwise similar. They were very oily, very meaty, and very, very filling, like the burly big brother of a Chinese dumpling.

The place itself was interesting. It looked like any other small pizza joint, except that there were two enormous menus posted on the wall, one in English and one in Mongolian. There was a message board that had several notices tacked to it, most of them in Mongolian. I could tell that two were for used cars, because the model name was written in English. One was bi-lingual, advertising a room for rent. (No vegetarians need apply, I’m guessing.) There was a stack of glossy fliers of the size and shape that usually advertise nightclub events, but these advertised Grandkhaan Mongolian Vodka. The place seems to be a sort of Mongolian community center, which is kind of cool. I wonder how many Mongolians there are in Oakland?