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.