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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Some (not so brief) thoughts on London

Quite by accident, London is kind of the perfect opening destination for my trip, in that it's giving me something of a framing device for everything I'm about to see. I was at the British Museum (or, as one of my professors described it, a monument to Imperialism, and she's certainly not wrong, but man am I glad I went), looking at various artifacts and curiosities from the world over, and I found myself wondering what the difference might be between how the UK was representing these countries and how they would represent themselves--and I get to spend the next 4 months figuring out exactly that. What a cool thing. I don't think it'll be controversial to call the UK's involvement with the rest of the world ... problematic (very generally said: Imperialism-generally not a super thing), but you can see the fingerprints of that history everywhere, as well as London's continually developing role as an international city: I've heard far more in the way of other languages spoken on the subway than I've heard English.
So what about London itself?
London is, for lack of a better word, fast.
Strike that--London is manic. It's agressive. A city perpetually stuck in a state of giddy breathlessness. I tend to walk fast--I get my blinders on, smell the blood in the proverbial water, and go for my goal it's the only one left on the shelf--but I'm finding myself constantly in the slow lane here. And it's kind of fantastic.
London is overwhelming, in every sense of the word, but positively so. I can't help but thinking of a pair of quotes while I'm here: Samuel L. Johnson's (relatively) famous "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life"--I get the sentiment, and there's certainly enough to keep anyone occupied for ten lifetimes, but perhaps a more accurate sentiment might have been "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of literally everyone on the street treating every waking moment like it's the Indy 500 and just wants to sit down"--as well as the openings of Mrs. Dalloway, in which we all get to fall in love life, London, this moment in June. There's a reason London is a city consistently romanticized and lionized in pop culture--it's a city that begs for romance and oozes it from every pore. And I find myself totally woozy and intoxicated and smitten by the whole things--I've got stars in my eyes and they look like Big Bens and Millenium Bridges.
Also, fun fact--there's a reason that Virginia Woolf quote doesn't read 'life, London, this moment in January'--because it's cold. Listen, I'm from Leadville: in the 10 days before I left, it snowed over four feeet. It got under -10 most nights, and didn't get much above 0 during the days. I figured I'd be coming to Europe to escape winter. I took a rainjacket and I lauged in the face of piddly little London winter.
I know now that I'm wrong.
There are two types of cold: the Leadville cold, the quick and merciless cold, the kind of cold that freezes your hands to metal and can turn snow into ice in a hot second, the cold that takes your skin and laughs while doing that. And then there's the London cold--a damp, creeping thing that crawls under your skin and dies there. These two colds were not created equal. Now I'm wearing underarmor and two different sweaters and I still wish someone would light me on fire. Here's hoping as I move south there's less fog and more blizzards. Because I can handle blizzards--but give me this London stuff and I'm lost.

Finally: one random thought, one random act of kindness, and one thing I learned--because all three of these categories are important, and I want to end all of these blogs on a positive note.

Random thought: Language is a currency. And like any currency, some travel farther than others. Let's all take a moment how unbelievably privileged we are that we can speak our native language in most corners of the world and have at least some (justified) expectation of being understood. My hostel roommates have been from Poland, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia, and not yet has any one even considered the possibility of speaking a language other than English. And the fact that I get to use my native language is great--but how great (and important) is it/would it be if these people could use theirs as readily as I do mine? In case you need another reason why teaching/learning foreign languages is important, than here you are: make someone else's currency travel a bit more.

Random act of kindness: I know they're literally getting paid to be nice to me, but good grief are the people paid to help you in London wonderful. I was struggling to buy a train ticket on the kiosk-y thing, and a woman came up to me, did the whole process for me, showed me how to do it for next time, and made jokes the whole way through. If this had been in New York, chances are someone would have straight broken my legs had I asked for help.

One thing I learned: free water is apparently a profoundly American concept. In my infinite optimism, I just brought an empty water bottle and assumed I'd fill up as I go. I've seen approximately 2 drinking fountains since I've gotten here, and both were clearly designed for children (adults, I assumed, having long since given up the habit of drinking water). So I'm spending most of my days casually being on the verge of death by dehydration.


Long story short: London is groovy. Go see London. I'm a bit bummed to be moving on already--a small part of me already wonders if the trip has peaked as it began (I'm not so far into the trip that I'm used to the act of traveling yet, so every time I turn a street corner it feels like Christmas: 'where am I? Wow! Old buildings! Accents! Red buses! Oh happy day!"), and that everything I'll see from here might pale just a bit in comparison, but what a silly thought--I don't have to worry about comparisons because there won't be any--what's the point of comparing London with the national parks in Vietnam I hope to visit in a few months? DIfferent worlds--and as lovely as this one has been, I'm sure I'll find other lovely ones along the way.


Also, quick note about pictures: You may have noticed that this post is conspicuously lacking in pictures. Reason for that is all my pictures are on my phone, and I'm writing this on a different device, and have yet to figure out a way to quickly and/or conventiently get them over here or share them to this blog. So if you're friends with me on Facebook or are following me on Instagram (jkuster191), you're getting the full, uninturrupted stream, but if this your only resource, I'll have to work a bit to get those pictures here.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Day 1: Sometimes a Great Notion...

Hello all!

I'm going to need to come up with a different kind of greeting. I'm sitting in the airport with another hour to burn before I get on the plane, so I thought I'd try my hand at this whole travel blogging thing. I have to admit--I've never wrote about myself in a public context, and as of now it feels at best bizarre and at worst profoundly egotistic. But here we are. I'll do my best to be pithy, entertaining, and interesting, but I'm not sure I'll be able to promise any more than whatever strange, travel-addled thought is crawling its way through my brain at any given moment. So this could be an adventure.

To that end, I've been thinking about how to approach the next four months--it's such an alien experience to me that I'm lacking any kind of frame of reference or structure with which I can try to figure out my behavior--so maybe I'll end up living under a bridge in Prague for four months. Or maybe I'll add 30 more countries to my roster and see if I can break the record for most consecutive poor decisions in 50 countries straight. Who knows?

But in hopes of getting a little bit of clarity for the next months, I've decided to come up with a list of rules (guidelines?) (suggestions?) for what to do while I'm getting lost across the world.

1. And this is the most important one, the one designed to keep me a little bit sane--I am not allowed to punish myself or feel bad for not seeing every corner of the world. Here's the thing with traveling--despite the fact that I'll be dancing around in exotic locales and drifting from port to port, I will still (tragically) be a human being, which means this will, in a sense, be like any other four-month period in my life. Some days I will be grumpy. Some days I will want nothing more than to close the door and get some sleep. And this is ok--forcing myself to enjoy every second or else is a great recipe to hating it all. So if I need a break, I'll take a break, and I'm not allowed to beat myself up about it.
2. Say yes--within reason. This is an obvious one. It's tough to have adventures if I turn down everything that comes down my way. So if someone asks if I want to go surfing, or if I want to go to a concert in some back-alley pub, and it doesn't seem like I'm going to wake up in a bathtub with my kidneys harvested, then I ought to do it.
3. Don't get my kidneys harvested. Also an obvious one. Don't be stupid--a breahtakingly unrealistic goal, I know, but it's important to have dreams.
4. Don't panic--I have my visas, and I have a bank account. Everything else is negotiable. I have one million and one plans right now--and just about all of them are bound to go wrong. And this is also ok. I'm going to make mistakes, miss things, change [plans on the spur of the moment, etc.--and these will be the best parts of the trip, probably. So I need to let go of my inner control freak and roll with it.

So that's that--not sure this is a particularly interesting inaugural post, but I imagine it's going to take me a bit to find my feet, blog-wise. Until then, you'll have to bear with me--I'll do my best to post pretty pictures and things in the meantime, in hopes of tiding you over until I figure out something interesting to say.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Best of 2016, Part 3: Craft Categories

And we're back again--that's right, two in one day, because the depths of my sadism know no bounds--and apparently neither does your masochism, since you've clicked over here twice in one day. This is what they did to Joan of Arc to make her recant--they just posted a couple links on her wall and suddenly homegirl was all about getting out of that prison cell. Some things are just too much to ask of a person. And yet here you are. Think about your choices. I'd say I'll think about mine, but this is my blog, so by law I don't have to.

And as quickly as it's all come, this will be my last big movie post. I'm sure I'll manage some Oscar predictions even though I'll be traveling (because some things don't change regardless of the scenery), but otherwise this blog will start morphing into a travel blog starting .... soon. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe never. I've never travel blogged, nor have I ever written about myself and my experiences in a public space (and, frankly, am dreading the whole enterprise), so we'll see how it goes.

For now, simpler things: today I'm going to shine a light on all my favorite movie-things about which no other sane human cares--the craft categories! Yaaaay! But I'd love to convince you why getting jazzed about costumes and sound effects and prosthetics is the right way to watch movies--because there's *so much* richness there for the taking, and all you have to do is look. So get in my imagination-boat and let's go have a look at some of the cool things I saw in movies this year, and I'll do my very best not to exhaust you.

(Note: I've included a brief description/definition of a few categories, in case you're not positive to what each craft category refers.)


Best of 2016, Part 2: Directing/Screenplays/Acting

And we're back again today--apply whichever Henry V quote best pertains to your state of mind at this moment (I always assume it's the one with going into the breach once more, dear friends, but what do I know? Maybe you're feeling the one about ghosts. This blog is your oyster) and let's sally forth.

Today will be a massive and ungainly creeping horror-show full of the worst kinds of intensity--should be fun. Because I'm trying to sandwich all of these posts in before I leave on Sunday, I'm going to be tackling a pretty massive amount of content: first, we'll tackle the categories at which I am contractually bound to say that I've dreamed at failing: directing and screenplays. And then, if anyone is still alive, we'll plow onto the acting categories. Hooray!

In interest of super brevity (brevity's rad cousin from Indiana), I'm going to try to do something pithy and insightful for every entry in only one sentence. I hope you've got your pearls close at hand, because by the end of this you will have clutched the ever-living crap out of them.

Best Director
Just for the hell of it, these will be written in the format of recipe instructions. Look out, world.
(I think this means I'm already going to kill super brevity and toss it in the desert just like I did regular brevity.)

5. Barry Jenkins-Moonlight
Take two parts identity crisis, one part three-pronged story structure, and simmer them repressed desire and gorgeous lighting for 10 years. Rinse, try not to repeat.

4. Pablo Lorrain-Jackie
Throw the recipe book out--you don't need it anyway--and make something gorgeous and jaw-dropping while glaring at everyone and daring them to ask why you're not going to let them eat it.

3. Denis Villeneuve-Arrival
Be patient--the cake of your dreams will come to you. In the meantime, whittle the most intricately crafted and lovely cake pan that you can. Expect the people looking for the cake to get what's going on.

2. Martin Scorsese-Silence
Don't cook anything--give everyone you know something wonderful, and then punch them repeatedly in the face. Say nothing if they ask why. Drink their sweet, sweet tears.

1. Damien Chazelle-La La Land
Spend years making the lightest, crunchiest, most colorful confections you can imagine, lay them out in a looooooong buffet, invite all your friends, let them fall in love with your spread, and then remind them that it will all be gone in an hour and they better enjoy what they can while they have the time.

Honorable mention: a cake metaphor that ends in horrific violence for Jeremy Saulnier and Green Room (I hate leaving him off, but that's how it is).

Best Original Screenplay
And these will all be tenuous metaphors packed to the gills with left-field allusions and historical jokes, because I'm feeling whimsical, and dammit, no force on Earth will damper my whimsy train.

5. Taylor Sheridan-Hell or High Water
Cormac McCarthy tossed in a blender with Tracy Letts and the guy who got fired from SNL for being too depressing.
"I've been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys. Not anymore."
;
4. Byron Howard, Rich Moore et al.-Zootopia
Like if Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Spike Lee were both furries and had a baby whose only sustenance was animal based puns.
Dad: Judy, you ever wonder how your mom and me got to be so darn happy?
Judy: Nope.
Dad: Well, we gave up on our dreams and we settled. Right, Bon?
Mom: Oh yes, that's right. We settled hard.

3. Jeremy Saulnier-Green Room
If the spirit of Pol Pot possessed a young Quentin Tarantino (rental store era Tarantino, not Jackie Brown era Tarantino) and convinced him to scribble out a dream journal after watching Triumph of the Will.
It's funny. You were so scary at night."

2. Kenneth Lonergan-Manchester by the Sea
This is the screenplay Will Hunting writes after driving out to California, realizing Minnie Driver never loved him, and then getting hit by a bus hitchhiking back to Boston.
Patrick: What happened to your hand?
Lee: I cut it.
Patrick: Oh thanks. For a minute there, I didn't know what happened.

1. Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou-The Lobster
No metaphor I can come up with makes this movie stranger or more delightful than it already is--Colin Farrell runs into the woods and invents a secret sign language to involve getting turned into a lobster. I can't beat that in terms of sheer wacky genius.
Hotel Manager: Have you thought about what kind of animal you'd like to be if you end up alone?
David: Yes. A Lobster.
Hotel Manager: Why a lobster?
David: Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.

Honorable mention: Jackie puts on a pink hat and coolly lights an entire genre on fire and then starts from scratch.

Best Adapted Screenplay
5. Whit Stillman-Love and Friendship
Jane Austen and the writers of Arrested Development get together and make Thomas Hardy's bear dance around in a frilly dress--this movie is an ironic interpretation of that bear's interior monologue.
"Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates. Only by having children ourselves can we begin to understand such a dynamic."

4. Jeff Nichols-Loving
This is the sound an unstoppable force makes when it encounters an unmovable object, and both simultaneously decide to drop their adjectives for the common good.
(No quotes worth posting from IMDB, and I just don't remember the movie's screenplay to quote it verbatim. At any rate, the dialogue isn't so much the point of this movie.)

3. Barry Jenkins-Moonlight
Somewhere, in a parallel universe where everything is one shade more beautiful and profound than the one we inhabit, a closeted, 40-year old investment banker wakes up crying, but can't remember why. 
"Ok, let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you. I promise. I won't let you go. Hey man, I got you. There you go. Ten seconds. Right there. You in the middle of the world."

2. Eric Heisserer-Arrival
If Andrei Tarkovksy and a very patient linguist got together and slapped an Isaac Asimov pinata, this movie would eventually fall out.
Halpern: We have to consider the idea that our visitors are prodding us to fight among ourselves until only one faction prevails.
Dr. Banks: There's no evidence of that.
Halpern: Sure there is. Just grab a history book.

1. Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese-Silence
A sermon using a Bible in which all the red words have been taken out, delivered by a pastor who has never met his congregation, heard by an audience that turns into giraffes when no one is looking.
"You see Jesus in Gethsemane and believe your trial is the same as his. Those five in the pit are suffering too, just like Jesus, but they don't have your pride. They would never compare themselves to Jesus. Do you have the right to make them suffer? I heard the cries of suffering in this same cell. And I acted."

Honorable mention: sweat-drenched pastiche in A Bigger Splash

Note: I've disqualified Fences from this award--not because it's not a fantastic script, which it absolutely is, *but* because it is the exact same script as used for the theater production (the writing credit at the end of the film is "August Wilson, adapted from his play," but August Wilson has been dead for a decade). I loooooove this script/play, but think there's something to be said for reserving movie awards for scripts that were written for the movie.

And though I imagine they are totally worthless in helping you understand why I picked these movies/performances, or why you should see them, or what is special about them, I'm going to keep up the tenuous metaphor track, because I'm having a blast and want to see how deep this rabbit hole goes. I bet two categories from now I'll be able to smell colors.

Best Actor
5. Jesse Plemons-Other People
The Anger and Sadness characters from Inside Out stacked on top of each other and wearing a trenchcoat, tasked with lying their way into a country club for successful straight people.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eq8Lm47N2gk

4. Daniel Radcliffe-Swiss Army Man
A farting and lovelorn corpse with superpowers. This isn't a metaphor or an embellishment--it's just what Daniel Radcliffe plays in the movie.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyESae31dpE

3. Joel Edgerton-Loving
If an Easter Island head were given the opportunity to speak about all it had seen, but chose not to.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SL_RGN5u8U

2. Casey Affleck-Manchester by the Sea
The angry foster child of a closed throat and a clenched fist.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVVDhmp0rPc

1. Denzel Washington-Fences
The leader of a pack of mammoths, carelessly wandered into a tar-pit, glacially sinking lower, centimeter by centimeter, doing its best to pretend it doesn't mind that everyone around it can keep walking.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqH1PLM3XCQ

Honorable mention: Ryan Gosling's by turns weepy and ebullient jazz pianist in La La Land

Best Actress
5. Kate Winslet-The Dressmaker
Sing, muse, of the anger of Kate Winslet, daughter of a RuPaul's Drag Race fever dream, who came here to make dresses and burn down your house, and she's all out of dresses.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxYe9YHZPrA

4. Taraji P. Hensen-Hidden Figures
This is the way a rung near the bottom of a ladder feels if it knew it could do advanced mathmatics much better than the rungs closer to the top.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzB-8Vh_HFc

3. Ruth Negga-Loving
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, the sound it makes will eventually move to Virginia, don a gingham house dress, and stare into the camera.
(Very few clips of this movie on Youtube, so just go have a second look at the clip I posted w/ Joel Edgerton.)

2. Natalie Portman-Jackie
Camelot--not the real place, but the fantasy, the romantic yearnings of hundreds of thousands of wistful bookworms, English majors, and suburban housewives strewn across centuries--comes to ghastly, unnatural life and staggers down 5th avenue in New York, wailing to all the people who can't hear it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J5f3IIhadQ

1. Viola Davis-Fences
The part of an iceberg that's visible over water may only be a small fraction of the iceberg's size and strength--but it's the only part that has a voice, and so it does the best it can, it sings its songs and it feels small, but every now again an ocean liner comes along and the iceberg gets to remind us and itself that it is vast--it contains multitudes--and can still be counted on in a pinch to do something world-shattering.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bb7fNq-bWfk

Honorable mention: Emma Stone's sass and vulnerability in La La Land

Best Supporting Actor
5. Garrett Hedlund-Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
A G.I. Joe doll comes to life, and its first words are that it wishes it could have voted for Elizabeth Warren for president.
(Totally unironic side note--can we talk about how criminally underappreciated Garrett Hedlund is, and how he's constantly giving complex and nuanced performances in movies that have no interest in complex, nuanced performances? Why doesn't this guy have a better career?)
(Side note two--I forgot to mention the other day that no movie this year has misunderstood its source material as breathtakingly as this one. Who thought it was a good idea to take an unbelievably angry satire about the falseness of patriotic pageantry and try to turn it into a feel-good celebration of patriotism?)
(Side note three--no clip. Bummer.)

4. Lucas Hedges-Manchester by the Sea
This is the puppy that thinks it doesn't need you, but then you leave, and it doesn't know what to do with itself--it cries and yowls and maybe it pees on the rug, and when you get back it jumps up on your leg and you momentarily forget that it fully expects you to clean up what it did.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep6MBba9EtU

3. Mahershala Ali-Moonlight
You have been floating on the ocean in a life raft for weeks--just you, a pack of rations, and your thoughts, not even a tiger that's a metaphor for God to help you while away the time--and suddenly it starts to rain, the kind of warm, gentle rain that reminds you of summers spent from someone else's childhood, the kind of rain that makes you feel, however briefly, that you're a human being with wants and needs and hopes and dreams that have nothing to do with survival.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TykeMz-fA2k

2. Trevante Rhodes-Moonlight
But when that rain ends, you become very, very cold. You have two choices--throw yourself into the ocean and accept your fate, or stay on the raft and make yourself believe that you no longer have the ability to perceive temperature. Somehow you manage to do both simultaneously.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsYGVVSekUA

1. Alden Ehrenreich-Hail, Caesar!
You know Karl May never actually visited the Southwest, right? He stayed up, late into the night, scrawling dizzy daydreams of cowboys and their dizzying and charmed lives, basing all his novels on the American Southwest on the cowboy he pretended to be while playing as a child. This is that cowboy--fully grown, sure of himself, and then forced to move to the city and become a real estate agent for rich, older women.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGpsXuMvApo

Honorable mention:

Best Supporting Actress
5. Michelle Williams-Manchester by the Sea
You know the tired-looking woman who is forced to hold the boom mike every day during the filming of Real Housewives of New Jersey? Ask her about her life.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPQ9WSRUSWI

4. Molly Shannon-Other People
It feels kind of disengenous and strange to try to come up with a silly blurb for a performance that's a woman dying of cancer, so I'll just say it's a lovely, warm, sad performance.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFrWYJ5vF3w

3. Linda Edmond-Indignation
A conquered Amazonian who, as punishment for her crime of daring to live in the jungle, is forced to make kosher meals for lesser men for centuries.
(There's literally no video on Youtube that features Logan Lerman's poor, harangued mother in this movie, so just close your eyes and imagine you're watching a clip right now.)

2. Kate Dickey-The Witch
Anne Coulter has night terrors--this is the worst of the apparations that comes to her in the night, the one that oozes out from under the floor boards and stares at her until she can no longer tell the difference between the mirror and the silent, dead-eyed banshee weeping in the corner.
(also no clips here, but why haven't you seen this movie yet?)

1. Naomie Harris-Moonlight
There is nothing moral or immoral about a tornado--it is purely amoral, a primal force of nature that acts according to its nature without thought to the consequences, because what would it think? A trailer park is a tiny, insignificant obstacle standing in the way of its ancient and inevitable quest to move from A to B. So the tornado goes through the trailer park with its eyes glazed over, and there's nothing to do but wait until it's over and then try to pick up the pieces.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90LsAY8Z_x0

Honorable mention: Terrible wigs but man what warmth from Nicole Kidman in Lion


That was utterly ridiculous. I don't really know what to make of anything I just wrote, and I daresay you might not either. Hooray! It was fun though.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Best of 2016, Part 1: Top 10, Zen Awards

I find myself in a strange position this year. Simply put: movies have been something of an afterthought of late.

If you've known me for any amount of time, or, hell, spoken to me for more than 6 1/2 minutes, you know that's not something I'd be bound to say. Just the fact that I've got a movie blog and have been posting lists like this in form or another for 11 years now (sweet kettle of corn I am ancient and horrible) is a relatively sizable hint that I toss myself at movies with a bit more enthusiasm and (dare I say) pizazz than the joe-average moviegoer.

And yet that's just not worked out for me this year. Rather than listing the veritable cornucopia (cornucopiae?) of responsibilities, stresses, woes, etc. that have followed me around this year like love-sick puppies, suffice to say that this past year--and the last six-ish months in particular--have been pretty definitively the busiest of my short and silly life thus far. Which, unfortunately, means that I haven't been able to dedicate the time to movies that I normally ought. Even in the context of writing this--I imagine these posts will be somewhat rushed and truncated, because I'm leaving for a 4-month, 3 continent extravaganza in 5 days, and shockingly a whole big bucket of my mental processing space is stuck on that.

So, for the first time since high school, I'm going to offer some kind of New Years resolution: this year I will be better at movies. Even if I have to work all day, I am going to not be the kind of lazy sad-sack who just stares into space when I get home; I'm going to stare into space at movies, and it will be delightful. I don't care if I don't finish my work until 3.00 and have to wake up at 7.00--that will be the perfect time to watch that three hour long Hungarian epic about potatoes I've been meaning to see.
(Note: this resolution is going to have to wait a few months though, because see above, re: trip, extravaganza, etc.)

The point of this rant? This year I've only seen 50 movies. I know, I know, 50 movies from one calendar year seems like a giddy luxury to people who only went to the theater twice this year, but for me it's a jaw-dropping, legitimately embarrassing tally. Note that my record for one calendar year is 98, and my average is easily in the 80s. Oh well. Part of this is no doubt due to the wackiness that I previously described, as well as the fact that I'm writing this a full month earlier than usual--there are tons of movies I'd love to see that just haven't expanded to my corner of the world yet. And as usual, I'm horrendously lacking in foreign films, because we just don't deserve them in the middle of the country (every year for 11 years I've had to write that, and every year I roll my eyes just a little harder). So apologies to movies like 20th Century Women, Live by Night, Patriots Day, Florence Foster Jenkins, Toni Erdmann, Land of Mine, Neruda, The Handmaiden, etc., etc., etc.

The other takeaway: I haven't had the time (or willpower) to seek out as many obscure movies that you may have never heard of, which means that my list is a bit more commercial than usual. Not that there's anything wrong with that--it just means that you may have actually seen some of these movies. The horror!

So here's the format: I'll kick things off with a top 20 list (which, admittedly, seems a bit excessive when I've only seen 50 movies, but I'm nothing if not excessive), followed by the annual Zen awards (preceded by the annual 'please someone give me a better title for my awards' award for things Joe says every year without fail). So if you can grit your teeth and wade through the breathtaking abuse of the English language and common decency that I am about to unleash, you'll be rewarded with a bit of silliness at the end (still no common decency though). Oh happy day! Catch it all in breathtaking Cinemascope after the jump.