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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Living the dream

I had a dream when I was a kid. A literal, “I’m asleep” kind of dream, that is. This isn’t an inspirational post. In it, I’m swimming along the bottom of the pool, my favorite place in all of Childhood’s Kingdom, when I realize I can breathe down there. Not fully, not well, but if I calm down and do it just right, modestly, I can breathe. I remember an infusion of calm and an understanding that everything could be fantastic. Could be better than I’d known to hope for. (It wasn’t until later that I suspected I’d just rolled over and was breathing through my pillow.)

Amsterdam welcomed me my first day
This morning I’m coming up for air. After 21 days of Best of Europe tour-guiding, I’m waking up to a day without appointments, no reservations to confirm or information to convey. Not even a city to depart.

The street is polite vespas and well-dressed Parisians, nothing on my plate but baguette crumbs and the promise of more good food to come, perhaps after a stroll by the Seine? And I remember that dream. Its epiphany that I can do something I really enjoy and get the air I need while doing it. And I realize that’s what I’ve been doing for 21 days.

Swiss Alpine calm
I’ve been swimming, diving into Amsterdam’s historic harbor before turning up the Rhine to reach Austrian Alpine passes, waterfalling down Roman roads to muse about Venetian canals before making my way through old Florence to reach older Rome, just to smile and drift up into Swiss glaciers, a liquid core of calm that persists when I slide down through the vineyards of Burgundy to wash up fully rational on Seine shores.

And I’ve been breathing.

Water was an element of my boyhood joy, and travel is essential for my adult satisfaction. Sharks and me, stop moving and we suffocate. But it’s not a compulsion, not addiction, neither distraction nor delusion. It’s adoration. Adulation. Celebration of our worldwide nation and the strokes that pull us all together.

Islam is supposed to be scary? Me and
the little girl don't buy it. You?
For years I traveled. Helpless before my vagabond urges. It was right for a time, but wrong in the end. Insufficient for the long term, serving nothing but my whims. Now there’s a purpose to my travel. In a world of multimedia capitalists who profit from our fear, who compete for the spectacles that widen our eyes and shrink our horizons, I find something more worthy than mere movement when I take others with me, show them these faces of beauty left here by centuries of human struggle and millennia of natural process.

For twenty one days spread across half a dozen countries we delight in the reality of the places, rooms in our global house, and I watch the tension of the first day dissolve into the ease of the last. Day One I see apprehension when I show them the train track that will reliably bring them home, Day Twenty I drop them off in Paris’s elegant metro maze and say “See you tomorrow” and they’re off without a pause.

And in the calm, when they don’t need me at all, I can imagine them going home, feeling merely tired, to be greeted by the anxious homebound with their pinched brows who desperately inquire “You were in Europe? But weren’t you worried? Didn’t you feel unsafe?”

And in my daydream I see their calm smile, perhaps wearing the appropriate regret for the incidents of the moment, but underneath is the deep understanding that the world is something other than the misconception made up by those make-up talking heads. And my traveling companions ease back to a full library of happy moments, warm welcomes, beautiful humanity and they can shrug off the constipated clench of petty terror. Stories they know better than to buy, now.

Think they wish they'd spent more time fearful and divided?
No, they didn’t feel unsafe. They felt free. If I did my job right. And the memory of every one of their smiles resonates within me, and I feel that dream’s sense of delighted astonishment, astonished delight, and can pull in deep lungfuls of fresh air.

Maybe it’s an inspiration post after all. For me, anyway.

Europe's normalcy and hospitality are waiting, on every boulevard and back street.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Tall and dark, their food was spiced differently and they spoke of a place called Yugoslavia that sounded exotic and sad. But it was all just texture for the aunt, uncle, and two cousins I grew up with. And it didn’t matter at all that instead of a genetic link of ancestry, we shared a history of morning drives towards afternoon picnics before evening dinners and piling into the streetlit car worn out and over-ready for bed. I referred to them as my “parallel family.”

Castle Rock with friends
We’d been family since before I was born. Back when our moms were college roommates. So I showed up for university with eyes wide for the first glimpse of the people who would someday be uncles and aunts to my own kids. No pressure. But impossible expectation is a supplementary explanation for why I am not in touch with anyone from my college years.

Within weeks of school starting, I was in a relationship that devoured most of my hours. Waking and sleeping. I basically lived in her apartment. (Is 15 years too late to send an apologetic fruit basket?) They were seven good years, but when they were over, they were gone with the girlfriend.

That was always my way. My romantic relationship had absolute primacy. Where I spent my time. If my She was unavailable, then I’d call up a friend. Familiar story, tragic mistake, but comfortable in the meantime.

So as I entered this phase of my life (single for the first time since...elementary school?) I resolved to do it differently. I just didn’t know what that would look like.

My turn
It looks like Mondays on rock climbing walls with East Bay friends. Tuesday Lebanese burrito in Dolores Park with my brother and his crew. Wednesday climbing with an amplified set of San Franciscans, before Thursday with my old roommate and his fiance. Friday’s Happy Hour will be well named for the company of friends from middle school, and Saturday we’ll socialize in the farmer’s market sunshine.

And the weekends? Driving to Point Reyes for green hillsides and ocean vistas before watching the sun set into my beloved Pacific Ocean, whose eternal beauty complements mortal friendships, whatever their scale.

Or drive down to Castle Rock to rappel down a granite slab then climb back up, sticking fingers in arachnid crevices and unknowable mammalian dens.

Or up to Tahoe, maybe snowshoeing, or a social maelstrom of mullet wigs, karaoke, and the conviction that no matter how weird the conversation gets, that’s cool.
Tahoe. Made sense at the time.

None of this is a shocking revelation. That friends are good. But that doesn’t lessen their importance. In our Social Media Age, murky medium of social isolation, I want to shout my gratitude for real human contact out into this inhuman ether, knowing it will reach the eyes of friends I’ve never met (yet?), and maybe even stir an additional gathering of friends or two.

Because whether we share genes or not, met in college or on the wall, with smiles or fonts, our lives are made richer by our Parallel Family.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Feeling fine and Florentine

“The Tuscan Frying Pan,” Florence was earning its title that day, certified in sweat dripping down the backs and sides of tourists squinting in the Piazza della Signoria, and my hair felt, again, like one of those Russian fur hats. Time for a haircut. And wouldn’t you know it, Florence is the home of my favorite barber.

I went straight for the small shop, undistracted by the Basilica di San Lorenzo where one of my favorite Italians holds wishes on his tomb, not stopping at the old friend of a hotel (taken by a different Rick Steves group, the lucky buggers), and swerving around the periodic bulges of visitors whose shoulders relaxed bit by bit with every lick of their slowly melting gelato. Visciola e fragola? Va bene.

Old Town Florence is a tourism city for sure, and the crowds used to irritate me, but working as a guide has helped me see the ways they’re doing it right (improved traffic laws, cleaning the duomo, and coordinating the many marvelous sites) and given me an increased appreciation of the place and its importance in our collective past. So now they’re not the addled brains of people in my way, they’re international minds growing in appreciation and understanding of the birthplace of the Renaissance rebirth.

But yes, at the moment, I wanted them to move. I needed that haircut. Kindly get the inferno out of my way, signore. Before I get Borgia on your ass.

I made it. The slightly cooler confines of a barbieri who’s been cutting hair here since the 1970s and his colleague with a coif like Grace Jones on an ambitious day. They greeted me with their usual dignified and affable buon giorno.

Scissors snipped, buzzer buzzed, and when the razor had scraped the edges clean I felt like a renewed man, renaissance of the scalp. ready to stand on a pedestal if I must, sling in hand, and face the future with concentration and confidence and just a hint of gel.

Back into that Tuscan sun of fame and infamy, punishing and beautiful, try to escape it but don’t forget you traveled here to see it. Down the canyons of Medici streets, past Strozzi home and Brunelleschi dome, a little slower now, a bit more strut, something lyrical in between the paces. Feeling a tad more Italian.

Florence is a pilgrimage, and I wanted to pay homage to the great ones. Architects, poets, and the family of men who led nations, and they’re just the audience for the names we know. Galileo, Ghiberti, Machiavelli, and Dante, men whose deeds echo and dance and scheme and enlighten down through the centuries.

Then over to stand in front of the tomb of perhaps the greatest artist in human history. It was just me, the cooler air, dust motes painted by stained glass light slanting down through basilica space, and the tomb of Michelangelo Buonarotti.

He looked good. I looked good. Florence looked good. Travel, now that is good. Buon viaggio a tutti.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Shoes. OMG, shoes

Snowshoeing in Tahoe really did this pair in
No one had ever complimented me on my shoes. Why would they? They’re just, y’know, shoes. But that last pair I had, people loved those ones. Friends, colleagues, and at least one shopkeeper all dug my footwear. I appreciated it, but it was weird for people to have opinions about my possessions.

But I kinda loved them. As I usually do, by the end. Not for their style or materials, not the eyelets and sole stitching of their physical form, but for the time we trod together, the moments and their memories that we walked through. My shoes usually last about half a year. That is, an off-season and a tour season. By the end of the latter, they’re generally pretty ripe with Roman kilometers and their sweat, Parisian avenues and their petite piles of l’puppy poopoo, then perhaps a retirement on the pedals of my bicycle, hospice on the easy floors of my apartment.

These shoes were made for walking,
and not one time did they crash,
but after all these sweaty miles
they're going in the trash.

I walked from one part of my life
into another in this pair.
When the time comes to set them aside, it usually takes me awhile. “These have pretty much had it” I’ll think over the course of a week or four. “Time to get a new pair.” Then somehow I’m still wearing them.

I’m not a very good customer. Not skilled at consumerism, nor devout in my materialism. I feel satisfaction at wearing something out instead of throwing away a still serviceable item. I don’t get a rush when I buy something new, no pleasure when it’s time to purchase. Connection to things only comes at the end, for me. When I set them on the garbage can in Amsterdam, seeing it as a museum pedestal when I walk away to catch the airport tram. And I wanted to salute when I put this last pair, worn well beyond the norm, into the bin.

No, it’s not that I love shoes. They’re just useful for protecting my feet. But when their job is done, they remind me to say thank you for the miles. To give gratitude for every pace of living.
I wonder where the next pair will take me

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Tam Coc Bich Dong is even better than it sounds

The swarm of tourists, cameras around necks, visors against the sun, umbrellas against the rain, and socks up to the knees beat me to the entrance. Crud. But they milled a moment, waiting for someone to tell them what to do, so I smiled and slid through them like unfamiliar street food to get in line for a ticket.

I wanted to see Tam Coc-Bích Đông and its flooded caves, but preferably without 70 gawking foreigners. Granted they’d been born closer to this place than I had, but their mass seemed inauthentic, obstructive to the sort of Vietnamese experiences I was seeking. As with all other bajillion tourists, I wanted to be the only one.

The blob of them started oozing towards the boats, but in the unfocused way of passive participants. More of that time-proven tourism technique, aggressive-with-a-smile, and I cut through their shuffling tsunami to the line of waiting skiffs.

“Xxxxzzzz” I have no idea what she said, but the efficient woman pointed me towards the first boat, followed by the two women behind me. Our rower arrived, one of the women in conical hats who’d been chatting in the shade.

In my weeks in Vietnam I’d noticed a trend. Most of the people I saw working were women. The motorbike taxis and barbers were men, but women staffed the shops, hawked in the market, poured the tea, cooked the food, and now, rowed the boats. Most afternoons I’d take a low plastic stool by the side of the street with the men. They’d smoke and play a board game, we’d all drink a beer and share smiling motions before settling in for silent camaraderie. But the work? Women did most of that.

I’m not inclined to tell anyone how to run their culture, but having this lady do all the physical labor while I sat back and relaxed? Just not how I was raised. I accompanied my words of “Can I help you row?” with more useful gestures, and a big smile erupted under the conical hat. She passed forward an oar made from a section of a bucket strapped it to a piece of PVC pipe, and I dug in.

We passed through cave after cave, sometimes leaning low under the sharp karst stalactites and jagged cave mouths. We three visitors got out to explore temples and pathways, then rejoined our hostess in boat 11.

My companions were a mother and daughter from Hanoi, but that’s as far as our gestures could take us. They found it uproarious every time I thanked them in Vietnamese. “Cảm ợn!” they’d cry after I said it, and we’d all grin at each other. (I don’t think it’s supposed to have that dot under the o, but I’m lost in Fontlandia.)

As we moved from place to place, something else became apparent. We were the jet boat superstars of Tam Coc. I don’t really know what I’m doing with an oar, but it’s not hard to fly past everyone else when they’re not helping. Boat after boat of fit young men, doing nothing. It was weird.

My mother and daughter friends loved it. “Oh yeah!” the daughter would laugh and pump her fist every time we passed another boat, especially when they’d take up oars and try to race us, splashing ineffectually before falling behind. I admit it was a bit of an ego stroke for me, but more importantly, it was just fun. My Vietnamese ladies and I, out for a cruise on the cool green waters of Tam Coc, our laughter bumping around the karst canyons.

That set the tone for my time in Ninh Binh, smiles and Vietnamese encounters. A day-trip from Hanoi, it had its tourist enclaves, but if I avoided those I’d go days without seeing another white face. (It was a great place for local kids wanting to practice English.)

Yes, Ninh Binh was my semi-secret town, discovered enough to have good, cheap hotels, but not railroaded by tourism. Just as long as Hollywood didn’t come along and film a major blockbuster action movie in its gorgeous scenery.


Friday, April 7, 2017

I want your life

“I wish I had your life.” I get that a lot. “Must be tough!” they say with a smile. And I can’t disagree. I have it incredibly good. Incomprehensibly good. Sometimes I can feel the weight of the billions of lives lived and living that would give anything for a fraction of the ease, privilege, and pleasure my life has. I don’t know how to give adequate thanks.

I can’t complain.

Today was another good day. Of friends, interest, safety and ease. And rain, musical on the windowpanes, while out in it it’s something harder, gusting to feel like stabs, only softening to water to run down inside your clothes.

A friend and I walked around San Francisco tonight, from Market Street up to Grace Cathedral, down for a meandering burble about Chinatown before finding ourselves in Long Beach and going with it, until we stood on Coit Tower’s promontory with the storm blown in off the Pacific. Back through the Financial District to drip on Bart trains, he went south, I came east.

Then a bike ride through streets like faucets open to any nook of me that was merely soggy not soaked, changing that.

For a moment, the unadulterated wind behind me, I was sailing with the vapor snakes that gave form to every vagary of wind. Grey writhing things that slid on the wet black pavement and made me feel like an windborn seaborn waterborne god.

The road curved out of that harmony, wind rocking my frame and tugging my handlebars, sticks invisible in the undertree rubble kicking my wheel out at sudden angles, tire lost in a mush of sodden leaves that my mind registered would make braking impossible under the bobbing red stoplights.

But I made it home, equally soaked and in love with the world. Moved a snail off my doorstep. And felt something unexpected and familiar.

Because I have it good. Really good. I love my life, my freedom, the fact that today I bought two plane tickets touching three continents. I don’t want to give this up. But standing in the stoop under a single yellow bulb

I realized that if I’d done things differently. Lived a little bit otherhow. There would be someone here when I got home. Someone to laugh at my soaked state, help me inside, take care of my clothes and set an old towel under my bicycle while I climb in the shower.

Instead I’ll do it for myself. And it’s fine. Really is. But here in these quiet moments after midnight, when it feels like everyone else is in bed with their paired each-others, I find myself looking over and “I wish I had your life.”

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

My pigeon-approved way of lifeI've

I've spent years NOT taking photos of pigeons
but in Venice, all things are beautiful
Sunlight on the feather caught my eye. Sliding through sunlight down from the eave above. The exuberant swirl as the grey and black piece of flight made manifest danced its way down to mere earth. My steps slowed a little to watch it. I didn’t stop, places to go things to do, but I acknowledged its beauty for a moment.

It was rather the flipside of reading the news these days, where a truly abhorrent man defiantly drowning himself in rage and petty ego to try and cover his sadness is leading a coterie of foolish greed, down off the upslope of history. Pronouncements we haven’t heard since Stalin, combined with the deliberate destruction of hope and protection, and I’ll tell ya, it’s enough to get a fella down.

But you just look at those, acknowledge them, participate when possible, care, but keep going.

So here was an afternoon of sunny sidewalk, and a descending path of a beautiful feather, give it the same treatment of slow acknowledgement and recognition, but keep going.

And the universe endorsed my response. Or at least the pigeon did.

The first gigantic gob of fecal surplus landed right in front of me, where I would have been had I not slowed to admire the falling feather. Then the second splash of posterior production, avian anal abundance, landed right behind me, where I would have caught it had I lingered a little too long.

I was framed in falling pigeon poo, pristine and untouched as I made my way forward into the friendly future. Perhaps the political offal we’re seeing will fall to either side as well, fertilizer for something better.

And if not? Well. At least I didn’t get shat on, on a lovely Saturday afternoon.