29 March 2015

Tradition Honored: TG Class of '15 in London

At 2:55 a.m. on Friday, 20 March 2015, I boarded the N5 bus at Hendon Central (towards Trafalgar Square) in black sweatpants with six Estonians. In 2007, -08, and -09, I also boarded the N5 very early in the morning at Hendon Central with Estonians. Back then, we all got off at Golders Green, and we all took a coach to Stansted Airport. This year, we all rode as far as Euston, connected with the N205 (towards Draper Fields), and alighted at the Liverpool Street Station, but just the Estonians took the 4:11 a.m. Stansted Express to the airport. I boarded the N205 back (towards Cleveland Terrace) by myself at about 4:30 a.m., transferred to the N5 (towards Edgware) and got off at Hendon Central. And went back to sleep.

To the best of my recollection, I had never been on a London Transport bus at 4 a.m. in sweatpants. The week of 15 March in London, although one of many for me since 1982, the sixth with Estonians, the fourth with students from Tapa Gümnaasium (TG), and the second with one of my high school classmates, was a week of many fantastic firsts.

On Sunday morning, after slapping our faces with cold water from the faucet of the Royal National in Bloomsbury (a first), Ed and Rita, my two Chicago travel companions, and I attended prayer services in the chapel at Lincoln's Inn (a first). John "No Man Is an Island" Dunne was a preacher at Lincoln's Inn, and the 15 March service was in his honor; the choir sang some of his metaphysical poems. It was also "Refreshments Sunday," which got us into the Great Hall, where we chatted with the preacher, glasses of complimentary red wine in hand. (Guess Anglicans don't do coffee and donuts like us Catholics.)

From Lincoln's Inn we headed to the Barbican to see Juliette Binoche in the Ivo van Hove production of Antigone (a first). Now I know of Greek tragedies and I know of Sophocles and Antigone, but I had no friggin' idea that, as the tale begins, Antigone's brothers have been killed, battling each other, and that, in 100 minutes with no intermission, Antigone either commits suicide or is buried alive (on her father's order), her fiance stabs himself to death, and her mother commits suicide. Heavy sigh. Little chuckle.

Fortunately, we were rescued by Rukiya, a London native, who whisked us away to Mangal, a Turkish restaurant in Dalston, where we were joined by five young men whom I had met in Chicago during the Windsor Fellowship's UK-US Youth Dialogue Programme.

But where are the Estonians, you are wondering? They arrived Monday afternoon, 16 March. I met the six of them, including two teachers (a first) at Stansted, and we all took the train back to Liverpool (a first; in 2007, -08, and -09 we went by coach), where my Chicago friends met us at 15.00. By 18.00, all nine of us had taken the tube north to Hendon Central, had checked into the London Backpackers Hostel, had gone back south to Waterloo, and had ordered fish and chips from a Polish waitress at the Fishcotheque (another first). So that the Estonians could luxuriate in a proper English accent, Sammy, one of the UK-US program guys, ate with us (another first for Kevin's TG excursions to London).

Masters Super Fish is the other "chippie" near Waterloo that I have had fish and chips from - to go, of course, to go and eat in the Waterloo train station like I was waiting for the 13.12 to Basingstoke. Truthfully, I think they taste better wrapped up in paper, sort of like Harold's Chicken with the slice of white bread at the bottom of the container. I had fish and chips again on this trip from Poppies in Camden Town (another first). They served them in a box, and while it was a bit easier to eat and walk, I still prefer my take-away in grease-soaked paper.

Tuesday morning, Estonians and Americans together paid a visit to Sir John Soane's Museum. (Be sure to see A Rake's Progress; stay for the presentation if it's given by an elderly gentleman wearing the white gloves.) From the Soane museum we popped over to the British Museum, where I learned serendipitously from a gilded cup that Procopius proposed to Saint Agnes, who declined and was consequently imprisoned in a brothel. When determined Procopius tried to rape her, he was strangled to death by a demon, but Saint Agnes revived and forgave him. The story is unexpectedly scandalous for a museum piece from the 14th century, and I stopped to look at it and stayed and read it only because there is a St. Agnes parish in North Lawndale and St. Procopius in Pilsen, close to where I work.

Tuesday afternoon, we snaked in between glass office towers on the Docklands Light Rail to the Cutty Sark (a first), and then we walked back to the days of Henry VIII at the Old Royal Naval College (a first again). Guided tours can be tedious, particularly when English is a second or third language, especially when there's 600 years to recount. Lizzie Loveridge, however, was as erudite as a Cambridge professor but as candid as Benita Butrell as she recreated the royals' lives along the Thames from memory with an endearing English accent. I tuned in and out as the cast of characters grew and interbred and won fame and fortune and lost it. Yet Ms. Loveridge's vivid story-telling, loaded with enthusiasm, as we stood outside, beneath Wren's twin domes with the white Queen's House to the south and the mocha river to the north, eerily surrounded me with people from the past. Ms. Loveridge's lively tales broke Nelson from his concrete shell in Trafalgar Square and floated him ceremoniously in a coffin down to the Naval College's Water Gate as if it were 1806 again.

Wednesday morning, we - well, they, not me, of course - took more pictures of Big Ben, walked up Whitehall, past groups of Italian school children outside No. 10 Downing Street, and into the House Guards Parade for the daily ceremony that I could not convince Rita, my Mexican co-worker-turned-Anglophile, was better than the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. I mean, Rita, you get to be so close that the butts of the Life Guards' horses are literally in your face.

My first time to Horse Guards was in the fall of 1982 as a college senior enrolled in the Rosary-in-London program (see the picture at the beginning of this post on the left), and here I was again (yes, on the right) 33 years later.

Shahin, another UK-US program participant, met us in Trafalgar Square Wednesday afternoon and escorted us to the Saatchi Gallery (a first), an unexpectedly free contemporary art museum in the splendidly re-purposed Royal Military Asylum in the tony Chelsea neighborhood. I wanted to see the giant ants. In addition, there were paintings of Soviet times for Rita and Eve, the two middle-age, Estonian teachers, and Ed, a history buff; paintings by Mexican and Spanish artists for Rita, my co-worker; and a few titties for the boys. Rita taught English with me; Eve is an art teacher whose Russian is better than her English. I purposefully juxtaposed - seriously - the walk through the Saatchi Gallery with our peek into the National Gallery in the morning, and so I asked Eve in rusty Estonian which museum she liked better. She was adamant that she liked it all, like a kid who had ridden the log flume, the ferris wheel, and the roller coaster and had fun on all of them!

From Whitehall during the day to Whitechapel in the evening, where Jack the Ripper slit the throats of prostitutes - this is how we roll in London. Shahin had booked us a table at the Needoo Grill, famous for "authentic Punjabi cuisine". Now Estonians rarely wander too far outside their culinary comfort zone of baked pork and boiled potatoes. These six Estonians, however, immediately picked up on the energy of the packed restaurant and delighted in the waiter's apathy in taking our orders and his brusqueness in delivering our food.

Everyone cleaned their plates and even agreed to try more when Shahin suggested dessert...back on Whitechapel Road...from a refrigerated case embedded in a storefront. Shahin ordered, and what we got, surprisingly, were milk-based products: balls of flour soaked in milk and little Twinkies-like cakes saturated with milk. We ate them standing right there alongside Whitechapel Road like we had all just been handed a million dollars. A variation of the little cakes had what I thought might be flakes of coconut on it, but, as I bit into it, I felt the texture of Parmesan cheese. I don't know what kind of face I made as the topping touched my lips, but, honestly, in 40 years of knowing Ed, I had never seen him laugh so hard.

Thursday morning, half of us walked to the Brent Crossing Shopping Centre, where I got a nice, strong Americano at a Caffe Nero, and the other half took the tube one stop north to the Royal Air Force Museum. We met back at the hostel at noon or so and then headed, together, to museum row: the free Natural History Museum, the free Science Museum, and the free V and A. (I even stumbled onto the campus of the Imperial College London (another first), looking for free wifi.) When at 5 p.m. I told everyone we had one more hour until Arvand, another UK-US program participant and our Thursday night dinner guide, could meet up with us, they all dashed back into the museums (maybe because they were warm inside).

I went to the South Kensington tube station to meet Arvand. Ummm. Rush hour is at 5 p.m. in London, too, and London is a city of about eight million people who have to get home from work. At South Kensington a few thousand extra people poured into the station because all three museums closed at six. A few more thousand extra people were bubbling up from the escalators for drinks or dinner in Kensington and/or a performance at Royal Albert Hall. White, black, brown, tall, short, young, old, casually dressed, smartly dressed, elegantly dressed, chatty, confused, ambivalent  - my eyes bounced from each of them as I tried to spot Arvand, whom I hadn't seen for nine months. If the 12 o'clock position were the turnstiles for the "Way Out" directly in front of me, I caught Arvand in the corner of my eye at 8 o'clock, rushing past me. I stopped him dead in his tracks with a tight hug of relief.

Dusk turned us all into shameless voyeurs as Arvand led us through the winding residential streets of Chelsea. One woman apologized for impeding our forward progress on the sidewalk as she guided a car out of a gated driveway onto the roadway. I believe she confided to us that the driver was not that adept at backing out.

We were met at the Italian restaurant Buona Sera with its interesting "treehouse" seating by Suraj, one of the first UK-US participants I hosted in Chicago. We sang "Happy Birthday" in Estonian to Suraj even though it had really been Arvand's birthday (my bad). Outside the restaurant, Rita, my colleague, asked a tall man with long shoes and a short cigarette to take the official commemorative photo of Tapa Gumnaasium 12.kl Kevadvaheaeg 2015 Ekskursioon.

Back at the hostel, with both Ritas under the covers already, we popped open the bottle of champagne that Sammy had brought to Mangal and toasted to the fulfillment of a tradition I had started in 2007 with my English students, to the intersection of my lives in Chicago and Estonia, and, most importantly, to a fantastic week across London. Sadly, 2:55 was just a few hours away.

17 November 2014

I Heart Trains

I love trains.

At the Oak Park stop on the CTA’s Green Line, my tense, concave shoulders, sheltering my chest from the winter’s wind, have surrendered and fallen as a westbound BNSF freight train rushed by behind me and an eastbound el train trudged up in front of me. 

I love intracity public transportation systems like the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) and London's underground as well as international passenger service like Thalys, particularly from Amsterdam's Schiphol to Brussel's Midi. 

In the spring of 2010, I was finishing up an eight-month, sixteen-hundred-mile transition from Tapa back to Chicago at the spartan residences of the Irving Park YMCA. My grant writer job at Saint Anthony Hospital had me on the CTA's Blue Line at around 6:45 every weekday morning. My it’s-way-too-early scowl relaxed into a low-key, that’s-nice grin every time the northwest-bound Metra commuter train from the Loop and the southeast-bound Metra train from the suburbs glided pass each other and stopped at the Irving Park station while, at about the same time, six southbound lanes of the Kennedy Expressway away, my southeast-bound el train clattered alongside the Irving Park platform.

In 2011, the CTA put its new 5000 series rail cars on the Pink Line, the line that took me to my office after the Blue Line dropped me off beneath the Thompson Center in the Loop. Like many of the trains of the London underground, the 5000 series had aisle-facing seats. Unlike the trains of the underground, the seats in the CTA's new cars were not wide enough for us Chicagoans to sit our big butts on. Moreover, when you sat, you sat a crotch-level of the standing passengers.

Recently, on an outbound Pink Line train ("from the Loop") at about 7 a.m., there were more seats than passengers, and we civilly populated every other seat down the length of the train as well as conveniently sat kitty-corner from the rider facing us. Unfortunately, it was a different story on an inbound train ("toward the Loop") around 5 p.m., especially when the train pulled out of the Polk Street station on the University of Illinois campus. The good thing about winter coats, though, is that they cover everyone's crotches. So, although I was sitting down when the train got to Polk, I had just a column of black, waterproof polyester to stare at as if it were the dark sky over the Near West Side.

A lot of suburban commuters board at Polk Street, and they are a bit apprehensive about squeezing into a seat in between two passengers of color from the Southwest Side. Those that are affiliated with STEM departments at the university do a better job at calculating with a quick glance how successful they will be at backing their buttocks up into a seat. Others, generally the university's medical center patients, announce their intent to sit by shuffling down the aisle to a vacant seat, stare at it, turn 180 degrees to give passengers on either side time to lean away or scoot over, and then plop down.

On the 5000-series cars, unless you are in the seats next to the emergency exits at both ends of the car, there is really nowhere to scoot or lean to give a fellow sitting passenger a little more room. Once nicely packed in, contiguous passengers, shoulder to shoulder, sway left and right in unison to the stops and starts of the train with only independent head and hand movements possible.
In addition, the backpacks, briefcases, and Lululemon totes of passengers who do sit down have no protection on the floor from the pivoting footwear of the standing passengers, unlike if they were nestled between their legs in the conventional forward/rear-facing seats.

The only thing I like about the 5000-series cars is the digital clock at both ends. I don't have to try to snake my hand into a pants or coat pocket to see if I am still on schedule after the train has been stopped, waiting for signal clearance.

Which trains have you seen? 
Above: Amtrak, Springfield.
Below: Metra, Chicagoland. METRO Rail, Houston. Tram, Tallinn (in front of church). Old locomotive, Tapa. Estonian Rail freight train, Tapa. Estonian Rail, Tapa (with logs). Estonian passenger train, Tallinn. Estonian passenger train, Tapa (at night). Commuter train, Czech Republic? High speed Finnish passenger train, to Helsinki. Could be another Finnish train. Metro, The Hague. Commuter train to Hamburg, Germany.

09 November 2014

London Youth Meet Tapa Youth Meet London Youth 2015

Sender Londoners to Tapa with me! Give now!

As you may know from reading this blog, over the summers of 2007, -08, and -09, as an English teacher at Tapa Gümnaasium, I took a handful of my high school students to London for a long weekend and a look at many of the things they had seen in their textbooks.

I also taught a class of sixth graders, who will graduate from high school in June 2015. Earlier this year, through their "homeroom teacher", I agreed to take them to London during their spring break in March 2015. They are flying in from Tapa (via Tallinn), and I am flying in from Chicago.

Now, over the summers of 2012, -13, -14, back here in Chicago, I have hosted youth from London participating in a leadership program organized by World Chicago. So when the Tapa students are in London, we will meet up with some of the youth I have hosted and have met through the leadership program.

Currently, I am asking for support to take up to 4 London youth to Tapa in February 2015 for a long weekend to meet the seniors before going to London in March and, more importantly, to speak to and work with the other Tapa Gümnaasium students in their English classes. I will meet the London youth in London, accompany them to Tapa, and then back to London.

Send Londoners to Tapa with me! Give now!

I believe $1,500 will cover round-trip transportation, including airfare on EasyJet or Ryanair, from London to Tapa, Estonia for up to 4 London youth. Anything less than $1,500 will cover transportation for 1, 2, or 3 youth. Anything more than $1,500, or not applied directly to transportation, will cover the costs of a meet-and-greet or bon voyage party in Tapa with London and Tapa youth.

By supporting this project, you will
  • help me bring together two different groups of youth I have had the privilege of working with;
  • give Tapa students the opportunity to speak English with native speakers their own age;
  • provide London youth a local's view of Tapa;
  • let London youth romp in the snow; and
  • show London youth what Estonian classrooms are like.
Send Londoners to Tapa with me! Give now!

04 August 2014

Signs of Old Age: Grey chest hairs and rants about white people

Last week, my mother sent me an article from Springfield's State Journal Register about "New life" in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. (The Tribune ran the same article with a less condescending headline.) Like a former English teacher grading a student's essay that I knew was not going to follow the rubric, I marked the article up with insolent comments and sent it back to my mother.

I work in Little Village, the neighborhood that borders Pilsen to the west. Ninety percent of its residents are Mexican, too. While its claim to fame is that 26th Street, its own "commercial epicenter," is second only to Michigan Avenue in generating sales tax revenue for the City of Chicago, it remains one of Pilsen's little step sisters.

My beef (or should I say my carne asada) with the article, whose author is an arrogantly self-disclosed North Sider, is that it credits the 2013 opening of a trendy restaurant and its basement bar with making the concrete Pilsen neighborhood uncharacteristically resplendent. Much like new Starbuckses used to do, no doubt. The author seems relieved that a restaurant in Pilsen has finally replaced the omnipresent 32-ounce jars of pickled carrots and cauliflower with roasted chicken bits from an organic farm in Michigan and that white guys with bushy beards are drinking craft cocktails in what looks like the wood-paneled basement of a thousand homes in Springfield.

Call me old and crotchety, but my real beef is that, more and more, we, like the author, rush in to re-create what we are accustomed to and comfortable with rather than sit back and take the time to learn about the unknown and unfamiliar. Nuevo Leon serves a uniquely Pilsen breakfast in Spanish with politicians, businessmen, caballeros, and families. During summer evenings, Harrison Park referees serious soccer games, while during the dark nights of Advent, 18th Street guides Las Posadas in their quests for shelter from the cold. The murals, which are residents, too, sell red and green tamales with unrebukable elderly women and mango and coconut ice cream with sketchy paleteros. This is the life of Pilsen. It doesn't exist - it shouldn't exist - on the North Side.   

01 March 2014

Tapa Gümnaasium 95

Yes, of course, Estonians celebrate birthdays every year. However, every five years, they really celebrate. Every 10 years, they really, really celebrate - so much so that birthdays at 10, 20, 30, 40, etc. years of age are called a juubel (think jubilee, or the bakery that used to be in Carlinville).

Estonian institutions are no exception. In March 2009, I was privileged to be a part of Tapa Gümnaasium's 90th anniversary celebration, held, as always, at the school. I had survived two academic years by then. I was "over the moon" to learn that many of the students I had taught for a semester in 1999 as a Peace Corps volunteer still remembered me. At some time during the evening of the class reunions, though, a corpulent, elderly Estonian women chided me for walking through the school's corridor with a glass and a bottle of wine in my hands. Apparently, I had exceeded the limits of really, really celebrating.

In March 2014, the school celebrated its 95th anniversary. (Watch a 12-minute video of the highlights of the three-day celebration here and get a real taste of Estonian folklore and tradition.) Unfortunately, I was not in Tapa in person, but I appeared in print in Meie Koolmeistrid (page 224), the commemorative book that was published and included the kind words of Rita Püümann, a fellow English teacher. Below are her remarks in the book, which Google and I translated into English.

Meie Koolmeistrid
Our Faculty, literally Our School Masters

On inimesi kes töötavad oma elust vaid mõned aastad õpetajana aga neid mäletavad nii õpilased kui ka kolleegid eredate tähtedena. Selline oli ka inglise keele õpetaja Kevin Hogan, kes tuli meile kaugelt Ameerikast ja on nüüd oma sõnade järgi Eestist sõltuvuses. Mis tegi Kevini nii eriliseks õpetajaka? Arvan, et tean vastust.

There are people from our life who work for only some years as a teacher but they are remembered by students and colleagues as shining stars. Such a person was English teacher Kevin Hogan, who came to us from America afar, and now he is addicted to walking the talk of Estonia. What made Kevin such a special teacher? I think I know the answer.

See oli inimlikkus kõige laimas tähenduses ja äärmiselt hea lastetuba. Kui praegu küsida õpilastelt, keda ta õpetas põhikoolis, mille poolest õpetaja Hogan erines teistest õpetajatest, siis vastavad nad sageli, et ei oska täpselt öelda, aga ta oli nii sõbralik, hooliv ja mõistis tunnis nalja teha. 

He was the best of humanity, challenging what is considered an exceedingly good children's room [a probably grossly inaccurate translation]. If today you ask the students whom he taught in elementary school what about Mr. Hogan was different from the other teachers, they often respond that they cannot say exactly but that he was very friendly, caring, and he made learning fun.

Ei ole just palju niisuguseid õpetajaid, kes suudavad õpilaste huvid oma isiklikest huvidest kõrgemale tõsta, aga Kevin suutis. Näiteks võttis lapsed sappa ja põrutas Londoni, korraldas keelelaagri või käis lihtsalt ekskursioonidel kaasas Eestimaad avastamas. Kolleegina iseloomustaksin ma teda kui abivalmit, äärmiselt viisakat, seiklushimulist ja tarka meest. Sellist inimest oodatakse tagasi ja olenemata vahemaadest on ta sina jaoks alati olemas.

There are definitely not many teachers who are able to put students’ interests above their own, but Kevin did. For example, he identified children and introduced them to London [another inaccurate translation], organized language camps, or simply went along on excursions to discover Estonia. As a colleague, I characterized him as a helpful, extremely polite, adventure-loving, and smart man. One would wait the return of such a person, and regardless of the distances he is always there for you.

12 October 2013

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Õnnelik korstnapühkija ja mina
Narrative coming soon. Really.

A man, his boy, their pitsa

Near the northern tip of Estonia
22 floors above Chicago

18 February 2013

15,000 Miles on Planes, Trains, Buses, & Automobiles

I Have an Idea!
Well, I have a bit of time right now while glasses of ice water flush goblets of glogg out of my blood stream. Cindy, Karen, Sarah, and Becki are always encouraging me to write more. So.... By the way, within my circle of potato-salad-eating friends in Tapa, Estonia we all agreed that our ability to speak our second or third language (Estonian for me, English for them) improved proportionately to the amount of alcohol we drank at any given function. I do not believe that this axiom applied only to the imbibition of Russian vodka. In Springfield on Christmas Eve, the more glogg I drank, the more mellifluous my Chinese became, as my sister confirmed. No, I don't know how to speak Chinese, too (although my father has spoken an unintelligible pan-Asian dialect around the house since I was young), but my six-year-old niece was writing letters in Chinese and asked me to read them aloud. No, she does not know Chinese either, but she was drinking more than her share of sparkling grape juice.

This Christmas past, I was impressed (as I am impressed every December) that Ed and Doreen, Mark and Betsy, and Nora and Dwight had the time to complete thoughtful retrospections of their families’ 2012 activities and accomplishments, to create illustrated narratives on bond paper of the highlights of said accomplishments, and to circulate said printed narratives to family and friends through the United States Postal Service -- all the while silver bells were on their street corners, carolers were at their spinets, and Jack Frost was nipping at their noses. I thought that this was something that I had always wanted to do but had never done until, quite recently, I found a copy of “Late for La Traviata, Or Ashcroft Is Covering the Breasts of Justice,” which I wrote in 2003 (three years after returning from the Peace Corps) and mailed to family and friends. Borders and Marshall Field’s were both still open. Amy was still sending me her family’s annual compilation of favorite recipes, like sleepy bunny cookies. A Latino Jesus was riding CTA buses carrying a three-foot wooden cross. And the United States was at war. In my letter I mentioned that, in her recollection of a night in jail for participating in a Code Pink demonstration, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, had written: “If our species does not outgrow its tendency to fight wars, we can kiss all we have created, and ourselves, good-bye.” I seconded that by writing especially alliteratively: “War is a wank in the woods.”

Yes. Exactly. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Although, perhaps tres à propos, given Pope Benedict’s last Christmas message, there is no white, black, or brown Jesus riding CTA buses or trains any more. But I digress. In homage to the enjoyable years-in-review I received last December, here is a recap of my 2012, which started off on Waterloo Bridge, took me near the top of Mt. Rogers, and ended on the second floor of the newest Mariano’s Fresh Market. As fate will have it, this is the totally serendipitous celebration of the 10-year anniversary of “Late for La Traviata” and commemoration of my third -- well, maybe almost fourth -- year back from my second stint in Estonia, my Peace Corps host country. Regardless, after reading in December about how Ed and Doreen pulled a couple of drowning Germans from the Jarabacoa River in the DR over spring break, I’ve got to really man up.

How Many More Stops Really?
Cindy and I met my Tapa friends Tiit and Lairi on December 30 (2011) in one of those ubiquitous plexiglass bus shelters across the street from 221B Baker Street, London. Lairi had flown for the first time, and both of them had landed in an English-speaking country for the first time. That night, we all went to a cozy pub that could not have been more English, drank beer at room temperature that could not have been smoother, and ate sausages that could not have been, well, more Estonian. It brought Tiit and Lairi back from the shock of chit-chatting with Indian immigration officers at Stansted and speeding for two straight hours along the M11 in a luxury coach. As we were leaving the pub, a local patron said something to me. Between my buzz and his accent I had absolutely no idea what it was. I hoped it was more like “Aren’t you Gene Hackman?” than “You forgot to bus your table,” and I wished him and his friends a happy New Year.

The next evening, New Year’s Eve, we were in the median on Waterloo Bridge, herded like cattle between ubiquitous metal barricades along the Strand, with two bottles of champagne in my Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum backpack. I remember hearing Big Ben’s 12 haunting dongs at midnight. I remember looking at hundreds of miniature screens of mobiles, clasped in raised hands, taping the synchronized explosions from the London Eye and the colored clouds of smoke that blew our way, but I don’t remember seeing the spectacular fireworks display that the BBC posted on YouTube. (I believe my Facebook site somewhere has Cindy's own video recording of the fireworks that we penny-stinkers saw.)

10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1.
To get back into the Embankment Tube station, which was a serious actin’-a-fool-free zone, we had to retrace our steps along the Strand and pass through a wall of pertinacious volunteers in orange vests, a phalanx of horse-mounted Metropolitan police officers, and, finally, a black wall of Metropolitan police on either side of the street. It was all much more civil than when I walked down the Esplandini after Helsinki’s 2000 New Year’s Eve fireworks and grimaced at the countless Backstreet Boys fans bent over puking and dodged the numerous statuesque lumberjacks launching volleys of flares from cardboard tubes in both of their hands…in the middle of a friggin’ crowd.

In London, the next morning, the first of 2012, although the House Guards could have shielded us from the persistent rain, the chill we got from standing, after having stood outdoors for four hours the night before, forced us to forsake the last half of the New Year’s Day parade and stop at the deceivingly upscale Pizza Express for a delightful adult lunch in English, German, and Estonian. Yes, we were sampling more English beers.

Now, a bit of backstory: sometime between 2001 and 2005, when I was in Estonia visiting, Tiit and I (and our friend Oleg) flew to Berlin for a weekend because Estonia Air had a promotional airfare from Tallinn for a penny. I was the self-appointed tour guide. Tiit wanted to sit down to a big Saturday night dinner at a proper restaurant, but all I could find on my map was a café that served apple strudel. Well, I felt I failed him terribly, especially after he had pretended to enjoy the second half of the Berlin Philharmonic concert.

This trip to London was a chance for me, again the self-appointed tour guide, to finally make it up to him. Cindy and her younger brother are fans of Chicago’s churrascarias, albeit moreso for the caipirinhas than the smorgasbord of skewered meats. So I searched and found a churrascaria on High Street in Putney, close to a Tube station, just over the Thames, in the opposite direction of the oddly-behaving man in the pedestrian tunnel dressed as Superman. Although Lairi remained relatively stoical throughout the evening, Tiit went all out. He and Cindy tried every Brazilian beer on the menu. At one point, I looked up at Tiit and through my caipirinha-glazed eyes saw sweat rolling down his right temple because he was dipping every bite of beef, pork, and chicken he ate into a hot Indian chilli sauce. As no sauce in Estonia is ever hot enough for him and no Estonian restaurant ever serves all-you-can-eat meat, I felt I had redeemed myself.

We rolled/stumbled out of the restaurant onto High Street. Cindy, unable to spot the elevated tracks of the CTA's Pink or Green Line, noticed that a bus could take us all the way back to Baker Street. A red double-decker bus. With empty seats up top. In the very front, directly above the driver. We should have all been mugged, we were so indiscreetly giddy.

Keen on double-decker buses, I took a blue Megabus double-decker to Indianapolis in May. Surprisingly, the regular Megabus that brought me back to Chicago had more legroom than the double-decker, and the driver had enough sense to pull it over to the side of Interstate 65 in White County and let an unbelievably low wall of spectral clouds sweep over us. It shook our bus; I think it would have tipped a double-decker over.

I went to Indianapolis by myself because I had never been to Indianapolis by myself, and, consequently, I had never been to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art or to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. I had walked around and drove around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument with friends on previous visits but had never gone up the 200-some-odd feet to its observation deck until, in May, I bought a $2 ticket. I had never strolled the Canal Walk, either, which was, sadly, pedestrian in both senses of the adjective. Yet it led me to a portion of the hitherto unknown Indianapolis Cultural Trail and the totally unexpected but intriguing and educational Glick Peace Walk, honoring “luminaries” from Benjamin Franklin to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the Labor Day weekend, having had been infected in my twenties with affichomanie, I hopped Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service to stare affectionately beside the bratwurst intelligentsia at “Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries” at the Milwaukee Museum of Art. If Indianapolis were Hollywood director Ron Howard, then I think Milwaukee would be John Huston. Milwaukee’s river walk is goin’ on.

The Number 331 pulled up alongside one of Amtrak’s ubiquitous dark and musty covered platforms, but this one cowered behind a bright, award-winning, intermodal station with 40-foot glass walls that shamed its shabby neighbor, a sad, hollow, cement post office from the Sixties. I scampered to the Milwaukee Public Market, crossing the Milwaukee River into the Historic Third Ward, a former warehouse district from the late 1850s. Armed with a flaky pastry and a double Americano, I walked down Broadway Street and sized up the First Annual Third Ward Art Festival, but I kept getting distracted by the four- and five-story-high architectural details of the “massive brick” warehouses and, at the same time, excited by shops like Broadway Paper and Toni’s Hoarders World that occupied the renovated structures.

I apply the “taxi test” in assessing whether a city is good or great: Do you have to call a cab or can you just hail one on the street? Do you have to look for excitement or do you just run into it? Indianapolis is a good city: I went looking for the Chatterbox and only ran into a Marsh grocery store (and got a delicious ham salad sandwich). Well, to be fair, the next morning, the finish line of the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon appeared just a couple of blocks from my hotel with a helicopter hovering overhead. That was cool. Yet, still, I liked Milwaukee more; it's a great city. I ran into the art festival as well as an Italian bakery (Sciortino’s) with a half-dozen flavors of biscotti; a brewery (Lakefront) with a Palm Garden in what used to be a coal-fired power plant; a coffee shop (Anondyne) with loners and families and couples sitting opposite each other staring at the screens of their own laptops; and the Fonz (albeit bronzed and really only about five-feet tall). If there could still be any doubt that Milwaukee is a great city, the Milwaukee School of Engineering houses a collection of European paintings of coopers, tanners, and forgers.

Counting the four- or five-hour layover I had had at Lambert Field in December 2009 and the stroll I took through the Serra Sculpture Park in downtown St. Louis, my weekend in Indianapolis and my 30 hours in Milwaukee completed a trifurcated tour of my Midwest.

Take an earful from me once, go with me on a hike
Along sand stretches on the great inland sea here
And while the eastern breeze blows on us and the restless surge
Of the lake waves on the breakwater breaks with an ever fresh monotone,
Let us ask ourselves: What is truth? What do you or I know?
How much do the wisest of the world’s men know about where the massed human procession is going?
From “On the Way” by Carl Sandburg
I ventured outside my Midwest comfort zone, too, in 2012. In December, my friend Ed and I were in Kansas City (Kansas and Missouri), still home to Hallmark cards. In November, my sister and I took Interstate 55 south to Winona, Mississippi and then Highway 82 east to Mississippi State University. On the way back to The North, with my nephew in the backseat now stuffed full of Chick-fil-A sandwiches, we stopped at Elvis Presley's birthplace and childhood home in Tupelo and William Faulkner's family estate in Oxford.

Say What?!
In August, I flew into Charlotte and then drove a cherry red Dodge Charger to the Blue Ridge Parkway to see Nik, a Croatian American from Providence, Rhode Island whom I hired and taught with in Tapa. Nik succeeded me as “The American in Tapa,” but now he teaches at a private elementary school in Pärnu because he prefers to live along the sea rather than along the railroad tracks. He was in North Carolina all summer, helping his parents out at the motel and restaurant they own in the mountains. 

Nik kept talking about being “in the mountains,” but then Nik drinks a lot. Interstate 77 from Charlotte was no more mountainous than Interstate 55 south of St. Louis. When I turned west onto Old Highway 21, I still did not see any mountains on the horizon. Eventually, though, the Charger needed a heavier foot to keep it at 65 m.p.h. The road scrunched up into left and right turns that were sharper than those on the road to Lincoln's New Salem. I was climbing: foot on the gas, turning right, leaning right, foot tapping the brake, turning left, leaning left, looking ahead for the next curve, foot on the gas, back to the right, hugging the steering wheel, a little gas, then the brake, and back to the left -- for about an hour in the dark on wet, black pavement with the windshield wipers trying intermittently to break my concentration.

I got better at driving at the posted speed limit with each day of sightseeing "in the mountains," zigzagging across the Blue Ridge Parkway with Nik. 
That is not to say I could have swerved in time to have kept from hitting that possum-like critter meandering in the middle of the night across the wet highway as I was accelerating to get around yet another steep bend. One glorious, sunny day, we thought we had made it to the top of Mt. Rogers, for we had walked, shirtless, hatless, in the direction the markers to Mt. Rogers were pointing. But when we got to what looked like the top, we saw another sign pointing to Mt. Rogers even further over hill and dale. It didn't look much higher than where we were standing, so we headed back down. By the way, they grow tobacco and Christmas trees in North Carolina.

My semi-mancation weekend in Kansas City was one of three face-to-face engagements with Facebook friends who are former classmates. Talk about logging out and shutting down and going outside my comfort zone. Woo-who! In Kansas City, Ed and I visited a fellow Griffin High School classmate whom Ed hadn't seen for 10 years and I hadn't seen for 30 but had exchanged comments with over photos he had posted to Facebook. All three of us raved about Lincoln; "snarked down" Gates Bar-B-Q sandwiches; enjoyed the somber, fact-filled National World War I Museum; and concurred that the man in the alley who said his wife had just had a baby at a nearby hospital really wanted more from us than 10 bucks for gas to get them home.

Earlier in the year, I had lunch at Uncle Bub's BBQ with Susan, a fellow graduate from Little Flower School's Class of 1975, whom I had not seen for at least 30 years. She is a Cubs fan and posts photos of her trips to Wrigley Field on Facebook. When she talked about taking the train, I thought she was referring to Amtrak from Springfield (because everybody who grew up in Springfield still lives in Springfield), but she was really referring to Metra from Plainfield. Since having lunch with me, Susan has whooped my butt countless times in Words with Friends. Yet, having grown up in Laketown with me and attended Little Flower with me, she is very apologetic when she scores 50 points with a two-letter word or 500 points when she uses all seven letters.

Jackie, the third classmate I met up with, graduated from Rosary College a year behind me. I had forgotten that she had spent a whole semester in London with me. My bad. Although we had not seen each other for -- you guessed it -- 30 years, she remains as I thought she was in college: pragmatic but opinionated, insipid but droll. In interacting with Jim, Susan, and Jackie there was a comforting familiarity that was nostalgic yet refreshingly unpretentious.

Is This Chicago or Egiptus?

Alas, I did not get to Estonia in 2012 but Enni ja Maia, 2/1,340,000th of Estonia, came to me in March. While your conscientious self-appointed tour guide took them to a performance of Hair at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora; to Mass at Old St. Pat’s with Mayor Emmanuel, followed by brunch with the Trinity Irish Dancers; and to Abraham Lincoln’s home, tomb, and Presidential museum in Springfield and fed them a deep dish cheese pizza from Bacino’s; a ham horseshoe from Darcy’s Pint; and four classic deep fried appetizers at Miller’s Pub, all that I bet they remember about Chicago is the unexpectedly and unseasonably warm temperatures!

Double alas, come Monday, December 31, 2012, on the way home from work, I checked out the new Mariano’s at Halsted and Monroe for clementines, got home, and fell asleep before 2013 arrived in Newfoundland.