Sunday, March 12, 2017

Things I've learned, part 1

Today marks the official halfway point of this trip, both geographically and chronologically. I've got 8 weeks behind me and 8 ahead, and I've got one continent behind me and one ahead. So as I sit here in the airport, waiting to (essentially) leave Europe (guys, it fills me with so much existential anxiety that I don't know whether to classify russia as Europe or Asia), it seems like a good time to have a quick think about what I've learned. So here's follows a few random observations--all the things that haven't warranted their own blog post, but might be worth jotting down.

-speaking of blog posts; writing has gotten a whole lot harder since I lost (misplaced?) my Bluetooth keyboard in Venice. I've no idea whether it was taken from my room or if I left it (I don't recall if I left it out in the open during the day, and I couldn't find it checking out, but I *was* in a heck of a hurry). So that's a shame--blog posts will probably be more limited because I have to write all of them with my thumbs. Still, 8 weeks in and I've only lost a keyboard and one sock. That's some kind of minor miracle.
-I've been struggling to find the right words to express this since Morocco--I meant to do a whole post just about it (but see above re: missing keyboard)--and I'm still not sure I have them, but hey. My experiences in Morocco made me realize that, like it or not, I still carry an 'America first' narrative with me, subconsciously or otherwise--the idea that our country's narrative is the main story, and everyone else has to find a way to play into that. What do I mean? Long story short--I didn't like being in Rabat, I loved being in Marrakech. After some thinking, i realized I liked it because it was designed for me to like it. Rabat was no tourist city (i told a local i visited Rabat, and he said 'what were you doing there? That's not a city for you). Marrakech, however, was the epicenter of Moroccan tourism--the main areas were, in some ways, a pantomime of Morocco put on as a show. And this felt safe and comforting to me. It felt recognizable--because it was a version of an intimidatingly  different country that made sense in my narrative. Granted, there's nothing wrong with enjoying tourist stuff--if you exclusively avoid the beaten path you miss some amazing things--but it's worth critically examining *why* Marrakech felt so much safer and friendlier to me. This is something I'll have to work with for the rest of my trip, as I go to progressively more different places which may or may not cater to tourists. I'm hoping I'll have learnt something from Morocco and will be able to apply those lessons in, say, Mongolia or Southeast Asia. We'll see how that goes.
-it's probably for the best that I'm leaving Europe now. As amazing as Europe is, and as diverse as all these countries are, I've fallen into a bit of a rut of comparing. I'm seeing some of the most eye-popping and jaw-dropping things Europe has to offer--how can the other places compare. Too frequently I find myself being mildly disappointed that what I'm seeing isn't the best in the world. 'Sure, this is a nice museum, but is it as good as he Louvre?' 'Sure, this is a nice old town, but is it as beautiful as Salzburg?' 'Sure, this is a nice river view, but is it as nice as Budapest?' The answer is generally no--and that's not a bad thing. But after two months of seeing Europe, it's starting to blend together a bit for me. So it'll be good to change worlds, so to speak--to get somewhere for which I have no comparison.
-Lighter notes: some things I do seem totally innocuous to me, but are downright shocking to everyone around me. I was eating pizza in Rome, and the person at the next table watched me with slack-jawed disbelief. When his wife returned from the bathroom, he described to her in enthusiastic pantomime (complete with sound effects) in (what sounded to me like) Polish what I'd been doing. What had I been doing? Eating pizza with my hands, not with a knife and fork. But you know what? I will work with every cultural structure, learn about new ways of doing with joy in my heart, but I draw the line as eating pizza with a knife and fork, because some lines shouldn't be crossed. Sidebar: I think Americans are perceived as rude overseas (and overseas visitors can be perceived as rude in the USA) because we all assume that everyone has the same standard of politeness. But that's the further thing from the truth--everywhere (and everyone) has their own set of etiquette that thy assume isniniversal, and is generally broken purely by accident by re people visiting.
-quick notes on movie theaters in Europe--different and yet totally the same. In London, there were no ticket sellers; everyone used a machine. Then (in a development that would have literally killed my mother), the movie was preceded by close to 30 minutes of commercials and previews. Hungary and the Czech Republic were similar--biggest difference was that sets are reserved when you buy them. Apparently, the seats at the back are considered most desirable. I went to a theater in Prague--the guy working showed me the map of the theater and told me where the screen was. I picked a spot near-ish to the front. He looked at me, dumbfoundedly, and repeated himself: 'screen is *here*. I told him I understood. I think he ja a lot to think about when he went home that night.
-the 'off the beaten loath' sugggestjons on the jnternet are fairly ridiculous. While reading about Prague, I was told to 'skip those tourist waffles and find trdelnik, a dessert the locals love!' Sure, sounds great! I'm always up for being a dessert hipster. Much to my chagrin, however, there is a trdelnik cart on literally every street corner in the tourist sections of Prague. Don't get me wrong--trdelnik is delicious, it's like a churro-donut filled with ice cream, but off the beaten path it was not. I never did find those tourist waffles.
-an unexpected side effect of my speaking the local language: it hasn't made travel harder (yet), but it has made it slightly less fun. I loved going into every conversation like it was a tennis match, ready to serve back any language I was given. This was especially great in Morocco, where I could cycle through three or four languages in two minutes. Now I just start every conversation with a meek, poorly pronounced hello-equivalent and then try English. It's a bit of a shame.
-to that end, I decided it was a good idea to try and learn Russian just with the internet in less than a week. Spoiler alert--not so doable. It's been fun though.
-despite the fact that I have officially hit the point in my trip where I remember that I can get tired, I'm still profoundly greatful and giddy that this is my life. I will be totally exhausted and dead by May, but I went looking for an adventure and I've certainly found one.

Quick rankings
Top 5 cities this far--
1. Barcelona
2. London
3. Rome
4. Marrakech
5. either Budapest or Salzburg, depending on the minute.

Favorite experiences (can't bring myself to rank them)
-spending a whole day getting lost in the Louvre
-watching the sun set over the Thames
-finding a totally visitor-less Roman ruin in Lyon
-getting slapped with a massive Catalan culture festival in Barcelona
-haggling in the souks in Marrakech
-the Vivaldi concert in Venice
-eating dinner in the piazza Navarro in Rome
-and, of course, the overwhelming kindness and generosity of all the friends I've gotten to visit. Y'all are spectacular.

So then: 8 weeks, 11 countries, 2 planes, 1ferry, more trains than I care to count, and 585 miles walked. Wackiness.

Next up--traveling the trans-Siberian railroad, my mom's first overseas experience, visiting some of the niggest cities in the world, going back to Japan, and navigating Southeast Asia. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Final Oscar Predictions--the rushed and cold edition

That's right--even if I have to do it with terrible campground wi-fi after a very long day of battling tourist crowds in Venice, no force on this or any other Earth can stop me from doing Oscar predictions. Tragically, this will be the first year in over a decade that I won't be able to watch the Oscars themselves--see above, re: terrible wi-fi. Although even if the wi-fi were super, I'm not sure there are any Italian websites streaming the Oscars. And even if there were, it wouldn't change the fact that they Oscars air fro m1.30-4.30 AM over here, and I'm just not strong enough for that. So all of you will have to watch for me and let me know how it goes.

I wish I could say that the following predictions would detail nail-biting, stress-inducing races that come down to the wire, but I don't want to lie to you. Instead, you'll get to ask yourself the same question 14 times in a row: just how much does the Academy love La La Land

Best Picture
The Nominees:
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

To answer the question right off the bat: the Academy loves La La Land so, so much. I've heard a few murmurs of Moonlight riding political sentiments and the growing desire for inclusiveness to a surprise win, but I just can't see it happening. Brokeback Mountain couldn't win when it was the massive frontrunner--no way a queer-themed movie topples an absolute Oscar juggernaut. That's not the world we live in not yet, anyway).

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Moonlight
Should Win: La La Land
Should Have Been Here: Silence

Director
The nominees:
Damian Chazelle-La La Land
Mel Gibson-Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins-Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan-Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve-Arrival

Copy and past the argument for best picture. Sidebar--if/when Chazelle wins, he'll become the youngest person to ever win best director, ousting Norman Taurog for Skippy, who has held the record for over 80 years. Sidebar #2--have I mentioned how much I hate the fact that Gibson is nominated here? Because it makes me want to jump out a window.

Will Win: Damian Chazelle-La La Land
Could Win: Barry Jenkins-Moonlight
Should Win: Damian Chazelle-La La Land
Should Have Been Here: Martin Scorsese-Silence

Actor
The nominees:
Casey Affleck-Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield=Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling-La La Land
Viggo Mortensen-Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington-Fences

This one is a nail-biter in fact, if only because it's one of the few places La La Land probably won't triumph. Affleck was the presumptive frontrunner for months, but there's been a late-in-the-game momentum shift in favor of Washington's work. Either could take it, or, alternately, they're so close that a third contestant slips through the gap (because literally every category La La Land's in has some kind of narrative that ends up with it winning).

Will Win: Denzel Washington-Fences
Could Win: Casey Affleck-Manchester by the Sea
Should Win: Denzel Washington-Fences
Should Have Been Here: Joel Edgerton-Loving

Actress
The nominees:
Isabelle Huppert-Elle
Ruth Negga-Loving
Natalie Portman-Jackie
Emma Stone-La La Land
Meryl Streep-Florence Foster Jenkins

A well-liked actress in the right age bracket giving a charismatic star turn in the best picture frontrunner? Check, check, check, check. It's tough to imagine Stone losing this one--though, bizarrely, her biggest competition comes from the transgressive and not-widely-seen Elle. A win for Huppert would be a massive upset, but a totally fantastic one.

Will Win: Emma Stone-La La Land
Could Win: Isabelle Huppert-Elle
Should Win: Natalie Portman-Jackie*
Should Have Been Here: Viola Davis-Fences (or, if you prefer, since Davis is nominated in supporting [and she's definitely not supporting in this movie], Taraji P. Henson-Hidden Figures)

*Note: I haven't seen Elle or Florence Foster Jenkins

Supporting Actor
The nominees:
Mahershala Ali-Moonlight
Jeff Bridges-Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges-Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel-Lion
Michael Shannon-Nocturnal Animals

This is a tough one, in no small part because it's pretty inextricably tied to another category. The question to ask here is whether or not the Academy will feel like recognizing both Moonlight and Lion, and whether they'll use the Adapted Screenplay category to do that as well. It's easy to argue that either movie will win both categories, or that each will pick up one--but which does which. My gut says that Ali and Moonlight take this, but don't be surprised if Patel wins here. Or maybe something even crazier happens, and Bridges walks away with his second Oscar.

Will Win: Mahershala Ali-Moonlight
Could Win: Dev Patel-Lion
Should Win: Mahershala Ali-Moonlight
Should Have Been Here: Alden Ehrenreich-Hail, Caesar!

Supporting Actress
The nominees:
Viola Davis-Fences
Naomie Harris-Moonlight
Nicole Kidman-Lion
Octavia Spencer-Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams-Manchester by the Sea

No way Davis loses this--it's a titanic performance, she's *actually* a lead, which helps her win, and the Academy owes her big after giving best actress to Meryl over her in 2011.

Will Win: Viola Davis-Fences
Could Win: Michelle Williams-Manchester by the Sea
Should Win: Viola Davis-Fences (or, if you prefer someone who is *actually* in a supporting role, Naomie Harris-Moonlight)
Should Have Been Here: Kate Dickey-The Witch

Original Screenplay
The nominees:
20th Century Women
Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea

La La Land vs. Manchester--if Affleck loses best actor, then this is the only realistic place to reward his film, which is certainly popular and well-regarded. And musicals rarely win screenplay awards--but how far can the La La Land train go?

Will Win: Manchester by the Sea
Could Win: La La Land
Should Win: The Lobster
Should Have Been Here: Green Room

Adapted Screenplay
The nominees:
Arrival
Fences
Hidden Figures
Lion
Moonlight

This is probably Moonlight's to lose, right? That being said, Lion has been coming on strong--like we mentioned with supporting actor. But still, I have to assume this goes to Moonlight. Or hey, maybe something wacky happens and Arrival sneaks in.

Will Win: Moonlight
Could Win: Lion
Should Win: Arrival
Should Have Been Here: Silence

Production Design
The Nominees:
Arrival
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land
Passengers

Definitely goes to La La Land. Caesar and Passengers are just glad to be here, no Harry Potter movie has ever won an Oscar, and Arrival is probably too minimalistic.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Arrival
Should Win: Passengers
Should Have Been Here: The Witch

Costume Design
The Nominees:
Allied
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie
La La Land

This is a tough one. First things first--we can safely assume Allied and Beasts are out. So do they go with the massive charging elephant of a movie, or do they resist it because it's contemporary costumes--which never win--and go with something period? And if so, do they go Jackie or Florence? Smart money is on Jackie--it's a movie as much about the style of its titular character as anything else--but I've a hunch that La La Land goes on a bit of a sweep.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Jackie
Should Win: Jackie
Should Have Been Here: The Dressmaker*

*Note: I haven't seen Allied or Florence Foster Jenkins

Visual Effects
The nominees:
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Jungle Book
Rogue One

This might be easier than I'm making it (Jungle Book takes it on account of being eye-popping), but I've got a feeling this one's a bit more complicated than all that. After all, Doctor  Strange is eye-popping too--and a Marvel movie has to win this Oscar eventually, right? And Kubo is gorgeous and unique. Heck, even Rogue One has an argument behind it for winning.

Will Win: Kubo and the Two Strings
Could Win: The Jungle Book
Should Win: Doctor Strange
Should Have Been Here: Captain America: Civil War

Makeup and Hairstyling
The nominees:
A Man Called Owe
Star Trek Beyond
Suicide Squad

All of these seem impossible as winners, don't they? I suppose it's the (kind of) love for Owe vs . the instinct that Star Trek movies exist to win makeup awards.

Will Win: Star Trek Beyond
Could Win: A Man Called Owe
Should Win: Abstain (I've only seen Star Trek)

Film Editing
The nominees:
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Moonlight

La La Land wins this in a walk. Next.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Moonlight
Should Win: Arrival
Should Have Been Here: Swiss Army Man

Cinematography
The nominees:
Arrival
La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Silence

I think La La Land's got this one in the bag too, but if there's any late-surging affection for Moonlight or Lion, expect it to manifest here.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Lion
Should Win: Silence
Should Have Been Here: The Witch

Original Score
The nominees:
Jackie
La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Passengers

La La Land is kind of all about its music--the only way it loses here is if it's set to lose everything.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Lion
Should Win: Jackie
Should Have Been Here: Swiss Army Man

Sound Mixing
The nominees:
13 Hours
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One

A category where musicals usually dominate if nominated--even if said musicals aren't potentially record-breaking Oscar gladiators.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Arrival
Should Win: Arrival
Should Have Been Here: Don't Breathe

Sound Editing
The nominees:
Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Sully

A three-way race between Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, and La La Land right up to the end. Fun fact--this race could be an awfully important, because it could be the only category's standing between La La Land tying the record for most Oscars won by a movie (11) or even breaking it. So keep your eyes on your TVs during the sound categories, kids.

Will Win: Arrival
Could Win: La La Land
Should Win: Arrival
Should Have Been Here: Rogue One

Original Song
The nominees:
"Audition (The Fools who Dream)"-La La Land
"Can't Fight the Feeling"-Trolls
"City of Stars"-La La Land
"Empty Chair"-Jim: The James Foley Story
"How Far I'll Go"-Moana

Easy to assume that La La Land pulls this one out too. There's an argument that the two songs split and give the well-loved Lin-Manuel Miranda to ride Moana to glory, but I just don't see that happening this year.

Will Win: "City of Stars"-La La Land
Could Win: "How Far I'll Go"-Moana
Should Win:-"How Far I'll Go"-Moana
Should Have Been Here: "Montage"-Swiss Army Man

Animated Film
The nominees:
Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
Moana
The Red Turtle
Zootopia

Zootopia probably has this wrapped up, buy Kubo *has* been coming on awfully strong lately--and Laika studios has never won an Oscar. It's definitely a threat here.

Will Win: Kubo and the Two Strings (screw it--no guts, no glory)
Could Win: Zootopia
Should Win: Kubo and the Two Strings*

*note: I haven't seen My Life as a Zucchini or The Red Turtle

Foreign Language Film
Land of Mine-Denmark
A Man Called Owe-Sweden
Tanna-Australia
Toni Erdmann-Germany
The Salesman-Iran

Six weeks ago I'd have told you that Toni Erdmann would win this in a walk--but then the world went crazy, and now who knows? In a moment of politics and Oscars intersecting, it's likely that The Salesman wins a protest vote--director Asghar Faradi probably won't be able to attend the ceremony, due to visa bans/political stupidity. And Land of Mine and A Man Called Owe both have pretty big followings. Aaaaand Toni Erdmann is still the critical favorite. So who knows?

Will Win: The Salesman
Could Win: Toni Erdmann
Should Win: Abstain. I haven't seen any of these movies, because we don't deserve subtitled movies in the middle of the country.

Documentary Feature
The nominees:
13th
FIre at Sea
I am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
OJ: Made in America

Probably Oj's to lose, but 13th, Fire at Sea, and I am... are all legitimate threats.

Will Win: OJ: Made in America
Could Win: 13th
Should Win: Abstain--I have seen any of these, but mainly because I'm lazy and ran out of time before my trip.


So that's that. If I'm right, La La Land wins 10 trophies--stopping just short of being record-breaking. It could win as many as 12, and I don't think it'll win any fewer than 9. It'll be interesting to watch just how many Oscar dreams it can kill in a single sitting.



Thursday, February 16, 2017

On Being Polite

When I visited San Francisco a few years ago, I paid $20 for someone's mix-tape. He was just one of many different flavors of hustler native to the Bay area--catch a tourist's eye, give them a sob story about your path as a starving artist, get them to hold your mix-tape, and then kindly let them know that a donation is expected. And I know all this now, but at the time I went for it hook, line, and sinker. At the end of the day, I paid him $20 not just for the mix-tape, but just to get him to let go of my hand and let me walk back to my car in peace.

The moral of this story? I am not great at saying no to people on the streets. I'm not great at ignoring people, refusing to make eye contact, etc. If someone says something to me, I'm bound to try and say something back. I know that cities are full of people inventing new ways to get into my wallet, and I know that I'm ridiculously susceptible. So I do my best to be mindful.

Today I failed at all that. And everything went fine, but it gave me some new perspectives on how I need to navigate the world.

I was walking around the Rabat kasbah--a massive fortress-settlement by the sea, a centuries-old community surrounded by walls. Strolling under the walls, I hear someone shout something; I look up at one of the many men sitting on top of the walls. He tells me the entrance is near the stairs. I thank him and head to the stairs, where I find him waiting for me.

"Where you from?" he asks.
"The United States."
"You like Trump or Obama?" (In case anyone is wondering how aware people are of American politics overseas.)
"I like Obama."
"You come stay in my country anytime." (In case anyone is wondering how American politics are currently being received in Muslim-majority countries.)

I walk to the edge of the wall, taking in the view. He follows, pointing out buildings, giving me tidbits about the history. He is friendly, outgoing, and knowledgeable. When I turn away from the sea, he beckons me to follow him.

This is the moment where I know what will happen--he will give me a few bits and pieces of info before asking me for some money. I've fallen for it before, and I'm sure I'll fall for it again. Now is the time to disengage--to thank him for his time and walk away.

"What's your name?" I ask.
"Tarek. I speak 5 languages and I live in kasbah all my life."

And so I follow. What, after all, is the worst that can happen?

Before we go any further, I want to end the suspense and say that nothing terrible happened to me. Tarek continued to be a wonderful tour guide; he took me all through the kasbah, showing me little nooks and crannies, showing me things the other tourists missed. How many saw for instance, that one of the cannons defending the main entrance had a portion of the Koran engraved into its side? How many other tourists had the scripts on the walls translated for them? How many were taken to a back room where bread was being baked in a massive earthen oven?

And how many were invited back to Tarek's house for tea made by his mother?

I acknowledge that what I did here was very stupid, and that I'm really lucky that nothing happened to me. Tarek continues to be a polite host--regaling me, of course, with a sob story explaining why he needed money. He shows me the ugly scars adorning his left arm and hand that he claims were left there by a father that abandoned his family, and how sometimes he sits on his roof smoking, so that he can try to forget.

It is in this moment I realize that he might not be telling the truth about his scars--or that he is, but he is possibly not all there. I'm not afraid--the view is beautiful, Tarek is kind, and I can hear his mother cooking downstairs. But I acknowledge, in a disjointed, distanced sort of way, that this could end very poorly for me. I casually mention to Tarek that I need to meet friends in my hostel soon. He says of course. I'm sure I'm not the first tourist who has said this after finding themselves on the roof with him.

After we drink the tea his mother has brought us, we head back into the city. I tell Tarek that I need to leave, but that I'd like to help him and his brother (the excuse he gave for needing money). He says that would be very nice. I avoid the fact that I need to pay him--I am very much alone in a city that belongs to him. And so does he. Only when I give him money does he apologize that I'm 'helping' him. He says that I'm nice, and I'm always welcome in his home. At first, I was somewhat touched by this, and moved to think that he wasn't a bad guy--maybe he was legitimately in need. But upon reflection, this is the only part of the adventure that scares me the most. He wasn't apologizing that he needed money: he was apologizing because we both knew if I didn't give him anything, the very friendly visit I'd been having could easily take a different direction. He is apologizing for what happens if I don't agree to help his brother.

Dilemma #1: should I be mad that he got my money this way? After all, I had an amazing experience (up until I casually realized I could be in danger)--I got to see the side of a city most tourists never do, I got to chat with a local in English, French, and Spanish about his hopes and dreams, I got some incredible, first-hand contact with a culture that I'm sure I'll remember long after I've forgotten after other parts of my trip. And because of the exchange rate here, it didn't even cost me too much. He got the equivalent of $30 for me--wouldn't I have been willing to pay this had I gone through an official tour guide? I paid as much in London just to go inside a cathedral. Surely an hour-long intimate tour of the kasbah was worth just as much. $30 is no massive sum for me, but Tarek can feed his family with it for a month. Exchange rates are funny that way.

Dilemma #2: isn't the money irrelevant when I very well could have been putting my life at risk? I know I was lucky--Tarek was a scammer, but an honest and caring one who legitimately wanted to share his city with me. I'm not even sure scammed is the right word--I unexpectedly paid for a fantastic experience.

But how very, very stupid am I to follow a stranger into his home? If this had been another man, or maybe another city, or another country, any number of things could have happened. I wouldn't have been sitting on a rooftop terrace, drinking tea and talking Moroccan politics in halting French.

Dilemma #3: I am ultimately who I am. If someone asks me a question on the street, it's difficult for me to brush by. I'm not good at walking past beggars. For what it's worth, I'm used to believing in the best in people. This will maybe be the most difficult aspect of my trip--recognizing that the people who offer to help me don't want to help. That I am seen as a resource--and I am exactly that--whose worth can be extracted by means either gentle or otherwise. I acknowledge that, for my safety, I need to learn to be hard.

But what kind of a way is this to travel the world? How can I meet people, experience other ideas and perspectives, encounter other cultures, if I treat every walk down the street like a battle, if I make sure to shut down every person who comes to speak with me? Until Tarek, everyone in Rabat has been exceedingly kind--many people have stopped to wish me good day, or welcome me to Morocco. Maybe I'd been lulled into a false sense of security by the beauty of the ocean and the openness of everyone I'd met thus far. So how should I have responded to an encounter that I assumed, at the time, was just like all the others I'd had thus far? When is the right time to start pretending that the people I meet on the street aren't people? Sure, I realize there are lines to be drawn--speak, be polite, but don't follow anyone, don't let them convince me of anything, etc. But where does that distinction begin? I know I should have brushed by Tarek on the stairs. I should have mumbled something in German about not understanding, and gone my merry way. This would have been safe and practical. But it also wouldn't be me.

So this is my first major dilemma of my trip. How do I guard myself against the people who want to exploit me or do me harm without doing so in a way that makes me feel as if I'm turning my back on the world?

I legitimately don't know.

So long story short: I listened to the man on the wall, was treated to an amazing tour, and gradually realized how potentially dangerous a situation I'd managed to find. And now I'm not sure which face I should wear when I walk out the door.


So there's that. Morocco continues to be a learning experience. And don't worry--I haven't let this ruin my day, or my trip--I still had a great day seeing breathtaking things, and I continue to look forward to all my adventures to come. In 5 years this is a story I'll tell and laugh about.

But for now color me puzzled. There are plenty of Tareks between me and my flight back to the USA, and I have to admit that I'm not looking forward to looking each of them in the eye and telling them I have no interest in speaking to them or learning their story. But I suppose I'll have to. It's safe and it's practical.

Monday, February 13, 2017

4 weeks down, 12 to go--some thoughts on the first quarter

So one quarter of my trip--29 of 113 days--is officially gone, which means I thought it best to take a moment to reflect on what's happened thus far. Although 84 days seems like a mammoth amount of time to continue living out of a backpack, I can tell already that it's going to slip by faster than I can even imagine--even the four weeks thus far have gone like the blink of an eye.

This is a doubly good time to take a step back, in that it's something of the end of a chapter in this trip. Until now, I've spent all of my time in Western Europe in countries in which I have at least some passing familiarity with the language. And while the UK, Germany, Austria, France, and Spain are all wonderful in their own individual ways, their worlds are not so far removed from the reality I normally inhabit, nor are they worlds that I'm incapable of navigating. This changes tomorrow as I set off on a two-day trip that ends with me standing, befuddled, on a train platform in Rabat, Morocco. Morocco is the first country I'll be in in which A) I don't at least somewhat speak the main language, B) is the first country I'll be in which doesn't use an alphabet I can read, and C) is the first country I'll be in whose culture completely diverges both from the one in which I was raised and the ones I've been touring up until now.

So it'll be an adventure. Until then, here are some brief impressions on what I've seen thus far.

-One thing that I absolutely can't capture in pictures is that each city speaks its own language--not just the people, but the buildings and the architecture. Everywhere I go is different in some subtle, ineffable way that doesn't show up in pictures, but is nevertheless present. It's the way that London is like a brownstone neighborhood of New York City if it had been sent back a few centuries in a time machine and then never washed again. Salzburg is the inside of an easter basket--all pastels and presents and chocolates, but then you look in a shop window and the Easter Bunny turns around and kicks you in the stomach. If the girl who was always at Hot Topic was given an unlimited supply of concrete and a children's primer on urban decay, Berlin is the city she'd have created--a defiantly ugly sprawling vivacious mess. Paris is like walking inside a miniature model of a city. And Barcelona is the sound a dress makes as it floats on the air, permanently outside of time. And this is to say nothing of the little towns I've been to, Fuessen (what the inside of Walt Disney's head probably looked like) or Rouen (if the Halloween and Valentine's Day sections of your local grocery store had a baby) or Lyon (a world in sepia). Pictures don't cut it, and I'm not sure words do either, but it's a heck of a thing to stand in it.
-Translators have one of the world's most important jobs. I eating dinner with a friend, her sister, and said sister's boyfriend, and we all did our best to communicate, but one thing led to another and the three of us ended up looking to my friend--the only one at the table who spoke both English and French very well. And without her, we couldn't have communicated the way we did--we'd have stumbled along, and stared manically into each other's faces, but it wouldn't have come to as much. Translating is an act of construction, and it's a vital one.
-that being said--good grief has everyone been patient with my language skills. No one tried to speak English with me in Germany, and they were just as patient in France; the only time someone switched to English (in a conversation that started in French) was after I said "I'm so sorry, my French is terrible." Even my atrocious high school Spanish has managed here and there. So people *are* willing to do their best to communicate if you can meet them somewhere along the way.
-it's too early to be sick of hostels, but hey, here we are. Hostels are fine, but I am so happy when I stay with a friend and I don't have to do everything in the dark, surrounded by nine strangers.
-speaking of friends: I probably need to come up with two different categories--'favorite city visited alone' and 'favorite city with a guide. I can get plenty out of a city on my own, but it pales in comparison to what I get to see and do with someone who knows their way around. SO massive, massive thanks to all the people strewn across Western Europe who've helped me along thus far.

A few stats:
I have visited:
               -6 countries (UK, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France, Spain)
               -heard 7 languages commonly used (Icelandic [during my layover in Reykjavik], English, Flemish, German, French, Spanish, and Catalan) (not to say anything of the smattering of other languages I've heard spoken by other tourists or locals--I think I've heard just about every language by now, but most common are Chinese and Arabic)
             -used two different currencies (the pound and the euro). I'm finally starting to figure out the euro coins, which of course means that I'll be switching currencies in two days.
            -number of cathedrals/basilicas/churches seen: 18 (two in London, one in Winkel, two in Salzburg, two in Berlin, two in Paris, two in Rouen, one in Chartres, one in Voiron, two in Lyon, and three in Barcelona). I'm probably forgetting a few. I've seen a lot of cathedrals. Points to Westminster Abbey in London for being the most historically interesting, points to Salzburger Dom for having the most intricate interiors, points to the Rouen cathedral for the best facade, and points to the Sagrada Familia for being the first time just looking at something pretty has made me cry.
            -number of museums seen: 10 (the British Museum and the Tate Modern in London, the Austrian military history museum in Salzburg, the Topographie des Terrors in Berlin, the Louvre in Paris, the Joan of Arc museum in Rouen, the movie props and miniatures museum and the museum of fine arts in Lyon, and the Museum of Barcelona History and the Maritime Museum in Barcelona). The Louvre wins all of these contests in a walk.
            -Favorite city thus far: easily Barcelona. Far and away Barcelona. I decided Barcelona was my favorite city about two hours after getting here, and nothing I've seen in the past 4 days has changed my mind.
           -favorite moments: walking along the Thames as the sun went down in London, spending 8 hours strolling the Louvre, happening on Roman ruins in Lyon and getting them all to myself, and seeing the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
          -best meal: Again, Barcelona (sorry Elise)--I have a bunch of options here, but I think I've got to go with the tapas we got the first night I was here--a huge variety of food, the names of which I've generally forgotten, but the octopus was a standout.

So that's that--tomorrow I leave for Morocco, which means that by Wednesday I will have left the relative familiarity of Western Europe in favor of something new. And I can't wait. ...but I should probably figure out how to say "please help me, I have no idea what's going on" in Moroccan Arabic.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On Little Things and Books

Here's the thing about culture shock thus far--and I admit that it my be different for me, in that A) thus far I've been (relatively) fluent in the language of every country in which I've spent time and B) I'm picking up and moving every few days like a particularly capricious and whimsical tornado tromping its way through a trailer park: it's not necessarily what I expected. Speaking a different language? Not a problem (although the day where I traveled from London to Mainz with a stopover in Belgium and got 4 different languages in one day was more than a little exhausting and made my brain feel like lukewarm spaghetti). Different cultures? Groovy! What a great chance to learn! Restaurants that do things in a slightly different order than what I want? Kill me now.

It's the little things that are exhausting--the minutiae that govern every day, the rules you don't think about that are subtly, almost imperceptibly different that trip you up and make you feel like a crazy person. So, just for fun, here are a few of the little things that are perplexing in their differences because seriously why would these be different anywhere it's so eeeeaaaasssssyyy *screaming noises*:

-I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: neither bathrooms nor water are for free I can't get over this, and refuse to on general principle. And so I spend every day a dehydrated mess with a bladder teetering on the edge of a catastrophic, Old-Faithful-esque explosion.
-There's no standardization in restaurant protocol--when to sit down, when to pay, how to pay, where to pay. This doesn't seem to bug anyone else, but every time I eat out it's an exercise in floaty-dancing.
-Americans are spoiled rotten with street signs, in that we actually have them. Stop taking this for granted. Alternately, apparently Europeans have the kind of honed and preternatural senses of direction about which we can only dream.
-Rules of the road (or lack thereof): I have yet to fully understand traffic laws anywhere I go, and am convinced that it will be this lack of understanding, and not a pack of wild Russian dogs or an exotic illness or anything like that which will be the death of me out here. In London no one pays attention to the walk/don't walk signs except when they do, and every time I thought I figured out the pattern I'd casually almost get run over by a Vespa. In Germany people obey the walk/don't walk signs with wild-eyed dedication except when they don't and I could never quite get the rhythm down for that either. Point is, if you go overseas you'll probably get run over. Act accordingly.
-Cussing is taboo in the US, but just a fact of life here--just today I've seen at least two different billboards/ads that would make a Sunday school teacher scarping off into the hills.
-On that note--tragically, I never got a picture of the Dildo King billboards in Berlin, but they were everywhere. This is a city that is incredibly passionate about selling dildos (dildoes? What's the grammatically correct way to pluralize dildo? Dildae? Dils-do?).
-personal space. Again, Americans are spoiled rotten, in that over here it's *not* generally assumed that everyone will stay at least an armslength away. If you get a foot then today is a good day for you.
-Post offices--German bureaucracy is maddening and confusing, but German postal workers (at least from my limited sample of one office in Prenzlauer Berg) are delightful human beings. It may have taken me 40 minutes, but I got my package sent and the woman who helped me didn't even make e feel like an idiot while doing it.

I'm sure there are other examples--and they'll bug me the second I step out the door--but the point is this: it's not the big cultural differences that make you do a double take; it's the everyday occurrences that you suddenly  can't negotiate, and everyone around you can't comprehend why you don't know what's going on because who doesn't know that? It's wacky?

Parting note: I've decided during my trip to try and only read books that take place in or capture the spirit of the countries I'm visiting. I cheated a bit at the beginning and read At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill, which is very much about Dublin, but is also very much about Ireland's relationship with the UK, so I allowed it. Why I decided to start with a 600 page historical epic is anyone's guess, but it meant I had to skip my Germany book. But now I'm in France--I read Perfume: Story of a Murderer on the train here, and, in a fit of woeful optimism, will start A Tale of Two Cities tonight. If I somehow plow through that, I've got The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer to tide me over (or, if it comes to it, to work as my Hungary book). And once I hit Italy am morally and legally obligated to read Andre Aciman's Call me by Your Name, which is arguably my favorite book and takes place in Italy. What I want/need, however, are suggestions for all the other countries. So, if you have a favorite book that takes places in or evokes (deep breath) Spain, Morocco, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand, please do let me know! Save me time googling so I can spend more time doing what I really love--getting lost on European trains and then pretending I know exactly where I'm going.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Oscar Predictions 2016: Cry Havok, and Let Slip the etc., etc.

Here's the deal--I know this space is currently a travel blog, and I intend to get right back to those pithy anecdotes about public transit, but I am who I am. A tiger can't change its spots (if it had any), and I can't stop myself from writing up Oscar predictions, even if I'm doing it on a train and this is theoretically the quiet car and I should probably stop typing like I'm mad at my keyboard. These are my spots, and I'm sticking with them.

Things will be a little different this year: Normally I do an entire series of posts and give a detailed profile of every category. It's a blast (for me) but it takes hours and hours and an entire week to post in its entirely. I only have 55 minutes before I have to get off this train, so we're doing Oscar Predictions: Lightning Round. I'll just give my predictions and a (hopefully) brief rundown of what to look out for. We'll see if I can finish before Wurzburg--if not I guess I'll just have to miss my stop again to finish.
(Note: I'm not going to miss my stop. I'm going to look out the window in a blind panic every two minutes in fear of missing my stop. ICE trains aren't quite as forgiving as regional German transport.)


And Now, an Illustrative Parable about Trains

Apparently, trains are harder than I thought.

And I'm not just talking about the security checks on iternational trains (which, I know I should have been surprised that they happen, but you try figuring out security when you're not expecting it, you don't know the rules, and it's happening in French), I'm talking about the deceptively straightfoward process of getting on and off trains.

Problem the first: The doors on German trains do not always open. There's a little button to push if, for whatever reason, you want to escape die deutsche Bahn. This is a helpful little tidbit to file away if ever you find yourself mournfully watching your stop drifting away from you as the doors remain resolutely, malevolently closed.

Problem the second: not all train stations are created equal. So if you're expecting a platform or a building, and all you're greeted with is the side of the road, don't run up and down the train in a panic looking for the station until your stop slowly drifts away from you and the doors remain resolutely, malevolently closed.

The obvious subtext here--I missed my stop. For many reasons (at least two!) The good news: I'm perfecting the art of getting lost in Europe--I managed to get off at the next stop (I picked someone who looked like they were getting out and I followed them and did exactly what they did. They probably thought I was stalking them by the end), and then decided to walk back to my original destination (only a few KM). So I missed my stop, but I got to stroll along the Rhine for an hour, which was lovely.

But this isn't the end of the story.

Problem the third: many of the train stations I'm encountering don't have people who sell tickets; just kiosks. It's 2017. I get this. I can use a kiosk like a grown up and smile while doing it.

Problem the fourth (or maybe Problem the third, subparagraph 1): these delightful machines do not take 20 Euro bills. Nor do they take cards. Would anyone like to guess what I had in my wallet while trying to buy a return ticket?

Problem the fifth: not necessarily a train-related problem. Oestrich-Winkel, the lovely, picturesque village I was visiting, is profoundly uninterested in selling anything other than wine. So if, hypothetically, one wants to buy something quickly to get smaller bills and doesn't want to buy 40 euros worth of authentic Rhine valley wine, one may or may not be hypothetically out of luck.

Obvious subtext #2: after hours of walking and touring in the cold--a really wonderful experience--I was looking forward to getting on the train (yay heaters! yay sitting!), only to be confronted with a horrible Catch-22: in order to get on the train, I needed smaller bills, and in order to get smaller bills, I kind of needed to get on the train.

In all of my time in Oestrich-Winkel (roughly 5 hours), I encountered exactly one business that was open and selling things that wouldn't break my bank: a bakery.
This bakery had no menu. No signs on its products. Just various pastries and one very taciturn baker.

My German isn't bad--in fact, it's rather good. I've had no trouble communicating, negotiating, etc. But I've apparently drawn the line at learning words for pastries, the names of which I wouldn't know in English either.

Here follows a transcript of my transaction:

Me: I would like... ...one of those things.
Baker: ...you mean the (insert unintelligble German here. It had something to do with nuts.)
Me: ....yes. Exactly.
Baker: (glares)

The good news, part 2: whatever I bought was delicious.

The part that proves I'm an idiot, part 1: I remembered on my way back to the station, having missed a few trains during my bakery quest, that you can buy tickets on the traIn, and can use a card.

The part that proves I'm an idiot, part 2: there was a man behind an info desk not 10 feet from the kiosk in the station the whole time. I hope he enjoyed watching my panic enfold in real time.


The moral: trains are hard.