Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Eau de credit cards and missed opportunities

Every day, when Pat comes to find me here in the office, typing (*ahem*) away at some story assignment, he plops down a pile of mail on the desk: postcards for cooking classes, magazines (Our State, The New Yorker, Traveler), another plea for money from Doctors Without Borders. Mixed in, for the last week or so, we've found nearly every other day (it seems), a credit card bill slid in there, hoping to go unnoticed so that the shocking 18 percent (or more) interest rate can begin immediately and send you to the poor house for that $2 can of soup you bought at the grocery store (on credit, no cash that day!) that suddenly turned into a $20 can of Solid Gold Tomato. Much more fitting for eBay than for a desperation lunch.

Not surprisingly, the bills, they're high. Two nearly $750 plane tickets and hotel rooms that went more than $500 each (damn that exchange rate with is TERRIBLE right now. Michael, a native Italian who lives now in New Jersey told us, as we all waited to get on the Rome-bound flight at the Newark Airport, how he thought the exchange rate signals the Downfall Of America. "It is TERRIBLE," he said. I quote him with abandon.) equals a nightly rooftop money dance. While we got a card before we left that didn't charge the ridiculous "foreign transaction fee," which nickel and dimes you into oblivion, and while we paid cash for most things (As with laptopitis, Italians also seem immune from the scourge of credit. Though, really, a credit card is much more convenient than carrying around armfuls of Euros, even if they offer nice insulation during the Never-ending Roman Rains.), the card bills? Not so much fun.

[While in the US, you can buy a pair of $2.14 shoelaces on credit -- which we did, when Pat suddenly realized that we were leaving in a matter of hours and he didn't have shoelaces for the only pair of shoes he wanted to bring -- you better be forking over Large Ones for that bottle of wine and pastries, my friends. When in Rome...]

This brings me to the Post Travel/Delayed Pain Blues, or what some could call the Oh For The Love Of God, Just Rip The Band Aid Off Blues.

Here they are:
  1. Why didn't we go to that jazz club? Why was I such a tired wimp?

  2. That museum, the one that's supposed to be better than the Vatican, why didn't we go there again?

  3. Why didn't I learn the right settings for my camera thus avoiding all those washed out, overexposed/underexposed, blurry pictures that are now cluttering my computer? And why didn't I take more (good) pictures? (Associated blue: Why didn't I get an MFA in photography before leaving?)

  4. And Pompeii? Why didn't we go there again? Why did we just stay in Rome for seven days? Were we crazy?

  5. Why didn't I pitch some travel story ideas before leaving? (Associated blue: When am I going to get started, for real?)

  6. And that day where I just read for hours while it poured outside, why didn't we do something except give each other the Cold Shoulder and I'll Never Speak To You Agains? Why didn't we buy another umbrella and leave the hotel room?

  7. Why?
In the days following our return, I wasn't haunted so much by what we did but by The Missed Opportunities, the times where I just didn't want to walk anymore, by the times the sunlight disappeared before we were through, the times I couldn't take another blank-eyed marble bust of this or that. It's the traveler's version of buyer's remorse, these "coulda, shoulda, wouldas."

Monday, February 26, 2007

"That was how it started."

If you haven't read this story, do. I find it completely fascinating.

From the story:

That was how it started. That was the first flicker of what would become the—What? Phenomenon? Moment? Cautionary tale? Success story? Footnote?—of Cory Kennedy.

If it's hard to characterize, it may be because hers is a dispatch from uncharted cultural waters. Never before have media, technology and celebrity collided with adolescence at such warp speed. Never before has it been so easy for, say, a middle-class kid with a curfew and no driver's license to rise to international fame almost without her parents' knowledge.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Crowd pleaser

Have some free time in Black Mountain on Saturday? My vote is on the dreadlocked hermit.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A moment on the lips...

I need to go to the gym. Allow me to offer pictorial evidence of the reasons why:

The artichokes: drenched in butter. The pasta: drenched in cream. The cappuccino: don't make me laugh, it's whole milk of course.

And, damn, was it good!

But here I am, stunned by the amount of Roman pizza I had already eaten, but in love with the waitress in blue who could have stepped out of an Alabama diner, but was in Rome, just blocks from the Spanish Steps (one of the most-visited Roman squares, where the spiderweb of roads lead to Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana). She thought we were French and shook her delicious blonde curls and fluttered her blue-lidded eyes with a laugh and a "No!" when I asked if she spoke English. Finally!

Monday, February 19, 2007

The ghost of authenticity

We woke up early the second day we were in Rome because we spent the first day in a post-jet haze, sleeping, eating late, taking showers and trying to shrug off airplane staleness and lethargy. We slid out of our hotel room and headed north toward the Tiber River. Still rush hour, laughably small cars crowded the streets, honking and pushing each other out of the way. At nearly 6-feet-tall, I don't think my knee would fit in one of those common-as-pigeons Smart cars that flaunting their smallness and fuel efficiency (if not tendency to get into accidents at every intersection).

The streets were wet from a midnight rain, but the sun came and went and the light was amazing and I felt so thankful to not be in survival mode. Below-zero windchills caused us to hide like mice in Teru's Brooklyn apartment for part of our New York trip. So I thawed in the Wednesday morning sun in Rome. Filled with cups of coffee (American, churned at our hotel from a machine stamped with Nestle) and slices of bread and cheese, we walked.

If you read anything about traveling, you'll quickly hear this snobby notion of "authenticity" bandied about like a sack of airplane peanuts. It hovers like a judgmental ghost. And surely you'll understand that I'm not the type of person who goes to Paris and eats at Hard Rock. (I'm barely the type of person who wants to go to Paris at all -- a great sacrilege reinforced last night when I said as much to an Asheville artist during her art opening. She gasped, grabbed my right shoulder and looked to the sky as if to dodge inevitable lightning.)

But as we walked, it was as if a tourist tractor beam caught us and here we were, looking to the blue sky filled with the remains of the Coliseum. Before spending a week there, Rome was the Coliseum, La Dolce Vita and Roman Holiday. But it became, that morning, pieces of marble where Caesar stood, the spot where clouds of virgin girls help keep a sacred flame going, columns standing in the sky, held together by who knows what. And here, at what is left of the Coliseum, Rome became the flocks of pecking pigeons and the hordes of map-wielding tourists and the shaky stands of souvenirs and pairs of Italians dressed like extras from a HBO set who will charge you 10 Euros for a snapshot with them.

That ghost sat on my shoulder, click-clacking its tongue. No, no. This is not Rome, is it?

In a city where it's really hard to find a restaurant with a menu not translated into English, finding an "authentic" Roman experience is as hard as finding a street without graffiti. It makes the question moot. If you don't live there and speak the language, how "authentic" can your traveling be? I rationalized: to go to a city and not honor its monuments in some way is to ignore its skeleton, the story it tells the world about itself, the things it honors and supports regardless of its motivation to do so. Here, in Buncombe County, people who have lived here for 40, 50 years are still considered "outsiders," people who don't know anything about the community.

So I sat on the wall outside the Coliseum, listening to the English, the French, the German, the Japanese languages swirling around us in the clear (it was winter) Roman air. We wandered the towers and levels of it, gazing down at the maze of a labyrinth revealed below. We hightailed it to the exits when a loud bell announced it would close and darken.

But I still had to shake my head at the Americans who, when we boarded the plane to leave a week later, asked the flight attendant what grazie and prego meant. To come to Italy and not know how to say "please" and "thank you"? That's not just unauthentic. It's just rude.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Exclamated secret to curing jet lag! Use at your own risk!

I Googled "avoid jet lag" today. That's because Pat and I are falling asleep on the couch at 6:30 p.m., just like my parents did when, sedated by hamburger steak and green beans, they'd snore away the evening as Alex Trebek quizzed the latest Jeopardy! (America's Favorite Quiz Show) champion. Maybe it's heriditary, but I'm blaming it on a six hour time difference.

Google found 971,000 hits. Obviously, not one thing works. Yet. But here's what I found out from TravelSmart.

I should have drunk more water, less cocktails. I should not have relied on sleeping pills. I narrowly avoided disaster by refusing that pot of beans and cabbage offered at the airport food court. I should have packed facial clothes, lip balm, nasal spray, moisturizer, high-fiber snacks and heat pads (I'm guessing this was written before the quart zipper bag, three-ounce max rule went into effect because this is pushing the bounds of plasticy physics).

I particularly liked this advice and wished I had only traveled smarter:

Take along gel eye masks. They are inexpensive and available at your local drugstore, Target and Walmart. Ask the flight attendant to keep them in the fridge until a half hour before landing. Like a cold shower for your eyes, this treatment helps alleviate the "raccoon look" that comes with long flights.

Boy, do I know the raccoon look. And, boy, I just bet flight attendants jump at any chance they have to store eye masks in the airplane fridge, along with your leftovers and boxes of baking soda.

But now that we're back (uh, for two days), all these prevent-jet-lag tips are doing me absolutely no good. So I have come up with the Newsome Shock Cure for Jet Lag, which costs less than $5 and can help you stay up for The Daily Show: Drink a triple shot of espresso lightened with milk and made frothy with milk froth while eating a mini can of Pringles from the local gas station! Proceed to consume slowly while driving your car up your extremely bouncy dirt road which, just minutes before, made you want to scream and cry but suddenly comes in handy as the friction mixes this cheap cocktail up, making less work for your digestive system! Talk in a high, fast pitch to your pets and husband who locked himself out of the house, all of whom back slowly into other rooms lest you see the whites of their eyes! Type ferociously on the computer! Regret what you wrote later!

Sweet! Salty! Lazy! Only slightly scary! With minimum investment!

Updated: It worked! Let the payments start rolling in...

Europe by rail, Southeast Asia by air

Time to plan. There are only so many weeks before we're scheduled to leave town again, this time for the summer.

(By the way, know anyone who wants to housesit this summer?)

So, in poking around this morning (and, again, avoiding the gigs of photos to sort), I found some deals on The Washington Post's What's the Deal site:

Buy a Eurail Select Pass before March 31 and get a free day of rail travel. Deal is good on 6-, 8- and 10-day Eurail Select Passes. Prices vary based on number of countries and days. For example, a six-day pass to three countries is $445 and includes a free seventh day of travel. Travelers have up to six months from date of purchase to begin traveling, and a two-month period to use their rail pass. Purchase at http://www.eurail.com/ or through Rail Europe (877-257-2887, http://www.raileurope.com/) and Flight Centre (866-967-5351, http://www.flightcentre.us/).

And this, which is so tempting:

Singapore Airlines' Southeast Asia Air Pass, which includes round-trip air from New York to Singapore plus round-trip flights from Singapore to three cities, is now $1,699 plus taxes, which vary by travel itinerary. Travelers can choose from 26 destinations in Asia, including Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. All travel must be booked and completed by May 31; maximum stay is 45 days. Info: http://www.asianairpass.com/.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wherein I talk about underwear. AGAIN.

I know, I know. I didn't update this while we were in Rome. Laptop-free, I thought (mistakenly) that I'd be able to track down a computer at the hotels where we bunked during our weeklong trip. Turns out on the list of How Italians (read: Romans) Are Different Than Americans (read: Swannanoans), lacking a dose of computer obsession is near the top of the list. (More graffiti, coffee and wine obsessed, and that's fine by me. And, really, not so different.)

Now I'm facing a mound of post-trip updating, photo organizing and unpacking. It numbs the mind considering the hours it will take. (I logged many last night and don't have one yet to post for you. But watch here and Flickr.)

But, oh, wait. Scratch unpacking SINCE OUR BAGS DIDN'T MAKE IT BACK WITH US. Pat's didn't make it out of Italy. Mine made it to Newark, but fearing the storms that swooped up the East Coast on Tuesday night, our evening flight to Greenville, S.C. was cancelled. So we literally ran through customs, security and the Newark airport concourses to make the earlier flight. Thank God we did that, considering the weather reports out of the North. Still, my bag got left behind, though I heard today (via four phone calls from the baggage delivery guy -- NOW THAT'S SERVICE) that my little suitcase is waiting at the illustrious Greenville airport for Pat's to show up. They don't know where it is. (This reminds me of the story his family tells of a family vacation to Seattle from Wisconsin where their luggage was sent to JAPAN by accident. Whaaaa???)

Good thing I only took two pair of underwear and one pair of socks, otherwise I'd be in line at the Target buying new clothes. (Kidding. I took THREE pair of underwear, okay?)

Sunday, February 4, 2007

A reflection

Why do you travel? For me, it's to see new places, expose myself to new things, people, culture. Walking unfamiliar streets, eyes peeled to the sky; watching people pass you on the street; hearing the street noises in a new city: needless to say, the urge to see and do these things in an unfamiliar place aren't original.

But one thing struck me yesterday as I looked at the photography exhibit at MoMA. Even though I was surrounded by some of the world's best art, I found myself searching for the familiar in the art there, particularly in the photographs. Which I loved. The shots of nature and models and portraits were intersting. But the photographs of Knoxville and the girl at the flea market in Georgia, I couldn't get enough of those. I go hundreds of miles away from my home to experience something new, yet search for the familiar when I get there? Why? I really don't know. Maybe I'm drawn to other people's interpretation of your home, in general terms, out of the environment in which it was created and reflected. It's like looking in the mirror in the dark, where you struggle to recognize the shape you know is there without even opening your eyes.

Or maybe I'm homesick for a home I couldn't wait to leave.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

36 hours in New York (so far)

It's freaking cold and we're walking our legs off. Go here for some photos.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

To do: Blink and Breathe

Last night, the parking lots of the local grocery stores were jammed with people buying milk and bread to hoard for the forecasted, pending Snow Storm of the Year (here and here -- which says snow is moving into the mountains. Really? Where?). In my particular western North Carolina neighborhood, that equals about two inches of snow. Still, Pat and I ran around until late last night doing last minute errands, like BUYING SHOELACES and A WINTER COAT for someone who shall remain nameless. But in this two-person family, all you have to know is that it wasn't me.

So, (you saw this coming, huh?) I woke up at the crack of dawn today to NO snow. Not even a wimpy flake. And while the sky is solid gray and looks like it's about to dump, looks are deceiving.

Now it's forecasted to come tonight, so we're crossing our fingers that we'll be able to jump on our plane in the early morning.

That's on the list, by the way: Catch plane.

In the preparation department, I am a manic list maker, or Maker of Lists Full of Obvious Tasks. Like: Drop the dog off! Bring passport! Make sure cat has food and water! Pack clothes! And underwear!

While I have no trouble remembering Life's Big Stuff, I frequently forget things and get frustrated and flustered when I go somewhere and realize I have left something small, but critical to me, behind. At Kathryn's wedding I remembered the gift and the dress and the shoes. But not the underwear. That was TOO obvious. (And I'm not a commando kind of girl, unlike some unfortunate celebrities whose privates were recently flashed to the world, so I had to drag Kathryn to the store so I could buy some wedding-worthy undies.)

This trip, what will be missing? A toothbrush? Three ounces (Really? THREE OUNCES IS ALL?) of contact solution? Who knows.