Buenos Aires, October 24
It is hard to get used to the fact that it is spring and not autumn in Buenos Aires. When I arrived, Bs As was one hour ahead of Eastern U. S. time. Sunday, the country did its “spring forward” to Daylight time, so now we’re two hours ahead. When the U. S. “falls back” early next month, we’ll be three hours ahead.
Sunday, October 19th was also “El Diá de Mamá”– Mother’s Day. It was one more reminder of how I’ve inverted my world. I called my mother and wished her a “Feliz Diá de Mamá.” My mother’s an elegant and wise woman and a barricuda on the Scrabble board. Scrabble is a game we play nearly every day and it is one part of the day that is missing, and that I miss, in Bs As. I would write more about my mother, but as she said to me earlier in the week: “How can you be a Man of Mystery when you tell everyone everything?”
Yesterday afternoon, I was walking near my apartment and I noticed a very young woman, probably still a teenager, huddled in a doorway, holding what appeared to be a newborn infant wrapped in a blanket. The baby had a lot of black hair, as some newborns do.
Later in the evening, I passed a policeman standing on the sidewalk on the same block as the doorway. He was cradling what I thought to be the same baby in his arms. He held it tighter and kissed it on the head. I am not sure what happened to the baby’s mother.
BUENOS AIRES, OCTOBER 21
It’s two giant feet for Sam, and two flights of short stairs for Samkind.
For the second time in a month, I have fallen down the stairs. Last month it was while I was looking at a text message and today when I was looking at my notebook. I was looking at my note so that I could remember the dutifully translated phrase for “did you find my black sweater yesterday?” I recovered my lost sweater (thankfully) from the coffee shop in which I wrote yesterday’s post. I almost broke my finger last month when I fell down the stairs at Starbucks in Roanoke (there seems to be a coffee pattern here) and today I twisted my ankle, but not so badly that I won’t be able to take my first Tango lesson later.
It’s six hours of Spanish a day now, four hours in a group class in the morning and two hours with a one-on-one instructor in the afternoon. I am exhausted by all the vocabulary and the grammar thrown at me. I’m sure that it will get better as the weeks go on.
When I went to the shoe store today for some zapatos negros, the saleswoman frowned when I told her my size. She wasn’t sure if she had the Argentine equivalent of an American size 11. When I was a teenager, everyone was sure I would grow into my feet like a puppy, but it didn’t exactly happen.
I am too busy paying attention to the next step to watch the current one. This can be dangerous, but I am THAT MAN, the man of action who laughs–mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha–at danger.
I just hope that I don’t leave my right foot in the coffee shop. I’ll need it for my lesson.
CAFE HAVANNA, BUENOS AIRES, OCTOBER 20
A few observations jotted down last night:
–It is better when alone to take a long walk than a long dinner.
–It is impossible to find nut butters here. Either peanut butter is banned, or it is a controlled substance only available by prescription.
–Going to an open supermarket is the best way to feel a part of things. There are no frozen meals, though, and it doesn’t appear that vegetables are high on the shopping list. Dulce de Leche (caramel sauce) is available in about twenty-five brands. The checkout lines snake through the store and it seems that everyone already has someone in line to whom they deliver a forgotten item. The register lines are narrow and with the crowd pushing in, it would kill a claustrophobe.
–My friend Sharon told me that the ice cream was the best in the world, even better than Italy. I am not usually an ice cream man, but the Chocolate with Almonds with a scoop of Dulce de Leche helado (ice cream) is the best dessert ever. Helado is even better than Gelato. I make one meal a day of Helado. This seems to me to be the cornerstone of a nutritious diet.
–Alain de Botton, THE ART OF TRAVEL
BUENOS AIRES, OCTOBER 16:
I arrived this morning–at last!–and agreed with my brother-in-law that the trip to Argentina is relatively easy. Since there is almost no time change, and since there is enough time to sleep on the plane, in Buenos Aires you can function well the first day.
Plus, the seat next to mine was empty, so no fat guy and no elbows jockeying for control on the community armrest.
I arrived about an hour early and took a cab to the apartment building. I had been told I could store my bag until the apartment was ready. When I arrived, no one knew anything, no one spoke English, and I couldn’t get my cell phone to connect. I ended up rolling my bag through the streets for the next couple of hours and ended up back at the building where the security guard cheerfully sent me to the apartment, which of course was locked. I remembered enough Spanish from my Rosetta Stone course that I said: “Donde estan los llaves?” He shrugged his shoulders and made a call. I asked if I should “¿Espero aquí?” again astonished that the words had come.
After getting settled in the small apartment, I heard drum beats and chants outside. I left and took my camera and saw a massive demonstration and I have no idea what the crowd was demonstrating for or against. There were banners with pictures of Che Guevara. Young women had their faces painted as skeletons. It felt chaotic and indiscipherable and somehow more alive that way.
The demostration continued down Avenida Corrientes and I walked next to it, interested in taking a longer walk. In front of me an elegantly dressed older gentleman tripped on a curb and fell backwards taking a long slow-motion roll onto his back. Two men helped him up by grabbing him by the arms, but he kept his legs straight and it took extra effort to right him. He assured them “bien, bien” and started walking again.
I was focused on the parade and had slowed a bit. In front of me was a newsstand and the same man who had fallen was shaking another man by the shoulders and yelling in his face. Deep rage rose from the older man’s core and the dark, heavy bags under his eyes looked as if they were about to explode. The other man, finely dressed, middle-aged, and accompanied by a woman, was bemused and saddened and tried to calm him down by entreating “Señor, Señor…” Although, I couldn’t hear or understand him, I am sure that the man was trying to ask what had aggrieved the older man so much, but the older man would not calm down and his entire body shook visibly and violently.
I turned onto a main shopping arcade, Florida Street and the demonstration had rounded the corner and now met me head on, and jammed against the flow of people out shopping.
It stopped in front an official looking building where police had erected barricades and stood in a line, wearing helmets and riot gear. I was thrilled to be in the middle of it.
When I travel, I try not to be an obvious tourist. Often, when in other countries, people will stop and ask me directions. It happened to me a number of times in Germany and it happened today in Buenos Aires. I observe gentlemen’s shoes to make sure that mine do not make me look like a rube. I check to see how people dress. In this city, men wear darker colors and many wear jackets or suits. My shoes should be okay. I always dress in dark colors.
Each city has its own rules about pedestrian crossing. Some cities are strictly against jaywalking and cars have the right-of-way, as in Las Vegas and London. Some, like Boston, seem to have no rule about jaywalking or traffic lights. Everyone justs drifts along and expects the other guy to stop. It is a hybrid here. In general, people obey the crossing signs unless common sense tells them it is okay and then they cross. Unlike London, cars do not seem to speed up when they see a pedestrian.
Several years ago, I read an article in THE NEW YORK TIMES in which the writer gave his impressions of the famous O. J. Simpson White Bronco freeway chase. Unlike many viewers, he wasn’t emotional because he hadn’t known that O. J. wasn’t as good a man as his persona, but because the writer was from Southern California and missed the warm golden glow of the L. A. sunshine, a light he hadn’t been able to duplicate elsewhere.
The Argentine sunshine has that quality. Today’s sky was a cool blue, the light was golden. The warmth and the ice combine to create an effect that I had only seen before in L. A. Perhaps it is only that both cities are famous for smog, but the day seemed uniquely perfect and the city’s name “Good Airs” seemed to be correctly advertised, even if it is occasionally lampooned because of the often-polluted air.
Oh, and that thing about the Southern Hemisphere toilets flushing counter-clockwise?
At least in this apartment, it’s a myth.
I’m packing now and I wonder if I should have purchased a cape. A black cape would have given me a useful air of Amadeus dash and doom and bolstered my reputation as a Man of Mystery.
Too little, too late I’m afraid. I have given myself a firm rule of taking only one medium-sized rolling suitcase and a briefcase for my travels and a cape would have required its own special cape case. Also, soon it will be summer in Argentina (the toilets flush the other way, too) so my capewear would have only been useful for a couple of weeks.
Packing certainly creates a whole set of anxieties, but I elected not to bother with it until my departure day (today). I have been preparing for weeks, including a test trip to the Northwest. So I know what I need. I need massive amounts of prescription medications for my various ailments–I am the sickest well man you’ve ever met–and special ointments and hand-washable, wrinkle-resistant clothes. You get the idea.
I understand that in Buenos Aires they dress well when they go out, so that added a bit of extra bulk to my packing, but I have settled on one blue suit and I will wear the jacket with grey pants for that nonchalant, yet studied devil-may-care look.
The last several weeks there has been a sense of panic and anger in the air, and rightly so. In my case, my anxieties have played out in cars and they have been literally a wreck and have made me one, too. I have taken cars to the body shop three times in the last month. I am preparing a fourth visit on my way out of town. I took my 2003 BMW out of the body shop on Friday. They removed a lot of acorn dents and it looked very beautiful. Saturday, the car was parked in front of the post office and some kid who was getting on a team bus there decided it would be clever to run across the hood. He left three large footprints and some dents and scratches. He escaped before I could prosecute. Yesterday, a nice woman backed into me and dented my door. She was upset and had flagged down a policeman on a bike. Unlike the snotnose, she was impeccably honest and I did everything I could to calm her.
People are yelling at each other about politics. I’ve made an ass out of myself expounding on politics recently, as well. The tone has become ugly, partisan, and subtly racial. The stock market has crashed, a subject which I will cover in a future post.
I am tired of America’s controversies and I am tired of my hometown anxieties. Separation will be interesting. Viewing this country from a distance could give me the calm and perspective I need to see it clearly.
I am ready to leave, even as I have some stage fright about the arrival in Buenos Aires tomorrow. An American innocent travels to a new country and probably gains experience he hadn’t expected. I hope you’ll follow along.
Please laugh at me, Argentina.
A Postscript: Last year, I was fortunate enough to have one of my writing heroes, David Sedaris, inscribe a book for me. He was friendly and polite to everyone who came for an inscription and patiently placed a custom inscription in every person’s book. I told him I was a blocked writer and asked him for whatever advice he might give. He inscribed my copy of NAKED, my favorite collection of his essays:
Write about capes.
I’ve been waiting a year for the right time.
I’m having that anxiety dream again. I’ve shown up two hours late for the SATs. I’m in my underwear and no one notices. I am panicked and humiliated. I chastise myself for not being prepared and I know that the mistake will ruin my life.
This time, though, I am not asleep. I am living the dream.
It is starting to sink in that in four days I will be in Buenos Aires.
I watched a movie in Spanish last night and I only understood a few words. I have been so busy getting this blog in good shape and attending to all my errands and arrangements, that I haven’t had enough time for studying the traveler’s Spanish I’ll need for el aeropuerto or for el restaurante. I didn’t make time for the Borges I was going to read.
There are still piles of paper all over the apartment that need attention. Dust bunnies multiply and hop as I walk by.
They give you a 200 just for showing up for the SAT.
I’ll be wearing my underwear in public. But, it’ll be beneath my clothes.
Still, it as if the world can see. It can see.
Yet, like in the dream, everyone will be so busy that no one may notice.
I am a fan of Tim Ferris and his blog/book/business The Four-Hour Workweek. Get rid of the distractions in your life! Cut unnecessary e-mail! Don’t answer calls that are too stupid! Outsource your life! Automate your business and your personal life! Become a weightlifter, a Chinese TV star, a World Champion Kick Boxer! The possibilities were endless. The romance of the well-lived alternative to the nine-to-five grind was right at my fingertips, just waiting for my large brain and a high-speed Internet connection. I saw it all within reach. I had been putting my finances online for several years.
I was ready to start doing nothing. I have been a full-time father, a part-time graduate student, a successful investor, and an aspiring writer the last thirteen years. I was in the hotel business with my dad for 15 years before that, and had to shut the business down because of too much debt and not enough customers. Then my dad passed away and I didn’t have to be in his business anymore.
I was a blocked, depressed, chunky little writer wannabe. I finally said to myself: “That’s it, no more hitting your head against the wall. You’ll never write and you are wasting your time. Let it go.”
The late nineties was a great time for the stock market and I was raking it in from the investments I made with my inheritance. My real estate was in the toilet. My wife was sick. My children were little. It was hard to figure out what to do. I liked school and I liked the stock market and my family needed me. I got out of business and became a private investor.
I didn’t go back into business and I was embarrassed. People would see me sitting around coffee shops or going to the gym in the middle of the day. They thought I was far richer than I actually was and I felt unproductive and lost. They would silently chuckle or secretly bristle with envy as they imagined my life of leisure and luxury. They had no idea.
Sure, friends felt a little sorry for me because of my dad’s difficult illness and my wife’s poor health. After a while, though, they got tired of my dark moods and my constant whining. I took suffering, puffed it up with self-pity, and put a scoop of despair on top. Needless to say, I wasn’t the life of the party, and I wasn’t invited to many.
I would try to write and I would work on my graduate studies. I wore black and acquired an air of mystery. Without an easily identifiable job, my children’s friends started to speculate. I must be a CIA assassin or a member of the Jewish Mafia. I intimidated people with my dark powers. Actually, I was just bummed out.
Here I am years later, a little chunkier and a little greyer. My children are grown and out-of-town. I am divorced. I have too little to do and too much time. It is discouraging watching the stock market slide. The support payments for my ex-wife and funding my children’s dependency are draining my accounts.
As I mentioned, there is also the writer’s block. My coach, Bradley Foster, an excellent motivator with a sympathetic ear, had tried everything possible. He asked me to describe what the block felt like. It felt like a large, square, opaque, and heavy concrete block was encasing my head. I felt it had been troweled into a cube. I could picture what it looked liked from the outside and even imagined a Mason with a trowel finishing it off.
Hitting my head against the wall didn’t break the block.
I am turning 50 in December. I don’t like birthdays. It has nothing to do with the advance of age. It has to do, in part, with my father’s attitude when I was young. He would give me my present weeks in advance, tell me its price, and brag to his friends and siblings how spoiled I was. After a while, I didn’t feel like I deserved a birthday present. December was a dark month. Clouds rolled in and the mercury dropped. The Christmas season consumed everyone and my birthday was an afterthought. When I was married, my wife often was too busy or too sick to observe my birthday. I bought my own cake and candles so my children could have ice cream and cake on my birthday.
It got to the point where I would Scrooge on my birthday and told everyone not to give me presents for Christmas. I didn’t deserve them. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want my birthday anymore. I didn’t want to be spoiled.
I was going to take my toys and keep them to myself.
Now my 50th looms. I don’t want any parties. I don’t want cake and I don’t like ice cream. I don’t even want to be in the same hemisphere.
I want to run away from home.
Yes, I know. I am writing about not kvetching by kvetching. I am trying to explain, though, how I started to let go and move forward.
Ferriss was right about the opportunity to structure my life so that I could go anywhere and do anything. Here I was, though, farting around and playing Scrabulous, buying shit on the web, trading jokes by e-mail, and compulsively checking the market. The days floated by. I didn’t have the concentration to read a book. I didn’t even watch movies at home. They seemed like too much effort.
My coach, Bradley Foster, said I had reached what Frederick Perls called “The Point of Creative Indifference.” Doing things the same way didn’t make any sense. I hadn’t found the way to move past that point and find a better way. Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” I was drifting through my days, doing the same thing, with virtually no purpose and no results. I wasn’t winning any Kick Boxing championships. I wasn’t forming a Pirate Reenactment Society. I hadn’t received any calls begging my advice for restructuring the mortgage crisis or writing and directing the latest comic book movie.
I said, “fuck it” to my dreams of writing. It would be better if I just let them float away. I was upset and embarrassed that I didn’t know what to do next. I let my friends know that the writing was dead. Thirty-five years of trying and failing…it just wasn’t worth it anymore. Self-loathing and darkness descended. The shade had been pulled down and clouds rolled in. The sunshine went to a secure, undisclosed location. I couldn’t stand my apartment anymore and I would hike out to Starbucks, sit in the sunshine, try to read, and end up wasting more time with Google.
I looked at Tim Ferriss’s book again. He explained that this isn’t about sitting under a palm tree.
D’oh! I hadn’t made the connection. I not only had to make time, I had to fill it?
I took a trip to Germany this past summer with my family. My brother-in-law, a native of Germany, speaks five languages. We were touring Germany, using Frankfurt as a base because my nephew and niece worked there. I was trying to say a little German: Goethestrasse…bitte…hunt…kaffe. We spent a day in Strasbourg. Some of the French I learned in college was floating up. I couldn’t really speak, but I could say un table pour cinq, s’il vous plait. My brother-in-law was watching me try, amused, but also supportive. He told me of someone he knew that had taken several six-month sabbaticals in Europe. I should do that and I would learn a language. Maybe I could be a concierge or assist in some other form of trade. The Europeans would like me, maybe.
I filed this under the Great, But Not Going To Happen file, and got back to my post jet-lag grump, riding in the back of the van, feeling like I was part of the family in Little Miss Sunshine.
Now I was back home. The idea of filling the void ricocheted about the unutilized synapses of my unemployed brain. I was still a void, but a less miserable one.
Then it hit me. Foreign Travel. Language Study. Pursue Hobbies. 50th Birthday.
I looked into the French Alps. Learning fluency in French and skiing from December through April seemed to fit the bill. By the time I got a quote for the trip, the school and the airfare, I filed this idea back in the Great, But Not Going To Happen file.
I was indifferent again.
My son, David, is getting a good education in Economics. He’s a senior at Gettysburg College and has spent the summer as an intern at an insurance company. He’s quite ambitious in business. He networked all summer and spent time with people, discussing confidential personal financial matters.
People were impressed and said he “has a lot of his grandfather in him.” Quite a compliment to him, and the inference is that the acumen skipped a generation.
It made me smile that these people perceived his talent and, with unintentional irony, left me out of his good qualities. However, it also made me think a bit.
My father let me in to his personal financial life when I was Dave’s age. Dave was ethical and trustworthy and he and my daughter were going to end up with whatever crumbs were left of my finances anyway. I rewrote my will and made him executor.
Perhaps I shouldn’t try to do something in which I am not talented. When my father died, he made me a co-trustee of his money and my family had recently made a switch to a new trust company. We made the switch in part because of the enthusiasm and knowledge of the company’s investment manager.
I brought Dave to a meeting with concerning some matters regarding my finances and he instantly made friends with the investment manager. As the meeting went on, I became more and more of a sideshow and I floated away from the conference table and watched the focus change to Dave. I felt amusement, also fatherly pride. I had come a long way. Earlier in my life, I might have felt slighted and abused. Now I was starting to feel as if this was the way it was supposed to work.
I had been trading stocks through a broker that was asleep. He had inherited my late broker’s book and never really paid much attention to it. He never gave me advice and never called except to ask where I got my ideas. The firm was expensive to do business with and was being acquired by a bank with which I had a recent dispute.
I asked Dave’s opinion about taking my portfolio over to the trust company. I felt that the same enthusiasm the manager was bringing to the rest of his accounts he would bring to mine. I wouldn’t end up paying more fees. Plus, I could actually have someone who had ideas and could help me. The manager was someone who enjoyed teaching his discipline and had decided to mentor him. The manager e-mailed reams of material to Dave and the manager was spending hours with him.
I made an appointment with the company so that Dave and I could meet with them. On the morning of the appointment I got a nervous call from Dave. He had cases to work on. Packing for school. He had to write a paper. He didn’t know how he could get it all done and still make the meeting. “No problem,” I said. “I’ve handled a lot of meetings alone. I’m sure I can do this one.”
I arrived promptly at 10:30. The three main officers greeted me and asked: “Where’s David?” I explained about his other commitments and the investment manager looked as if he was blinking back tears. He pointed to a bank of computer screens. “But we’re all set up for him.”
I called Dave and said: “Get your ass down here. They all looked depressed when they found out you weren’t coming.”
I stalled them for a few minutes with some kind of story I found funny and they laughed with studied courtesy.
Dave walked in the door and you could feel a collective sigh of relief. The computers were fired up and the manager started showing me his charts of what he would “reduce”—meaning sell—and what he would hold. The discussion got intense and detailed. The people in the room were pitching the information to Dave and I started to get the feeling that they didn’t think I could understand. I threw in a few comments here and there to let them know I had a little knowledge of business, but after a while the manager and Dave were deep in discussion, occasionally directing a comment my way just to make sure I understood that they understood.
The company got the business. The manager was going to start managing the portfolio, only making adjustments or trades with my permission. “Do you mind if I run the ideas past David first?”
“No,” I said, “that sounds like a good idea.”
Now I had retired from full-time parenting, writing, and running my investments. There was only one part left if I wanted to go abroad, an increasingly likely scenario if I could find a place, unlike Europe, that I could afford.
I had to find a way to handle the few pieces of mail and the few bills that wouldn’t be forwarded on to me by the Internet.
I thought about following Tim’s advice about outsourcing personal assistants to India. That wouldn’t solve the problem. I needed someone to look at all the shit that comes in and sort it.
The first thing I did is start thinking about the mail that comes in. So much of it is catalogues, announcements, newsletters, pitches, and fundraising. To the extent I could, I e-mailed or wrote people and told me to get them off of their lists. I had my landlord and my banker start sending notices by e-mail. I got in touch with stopthejunkmail.com and had them go to work taking me off all the lists. I could have done this myself, but I didn’t feel like taking too much time.
This was all leading to a major purchase, an Apple MacBook Air, which gave me a reduction in weight, a good feeling, and I have to admit, a new toy to enjoy. What won me over was the MobileMe service and the ability to use another computer’s optical drive as a remote drive. One can rent movies from the iTunes store and back up files wirelessly. The large files, though, overwhelm the Wi-Fi gods, so I bought a little 250 GB drive that only weighs seven ounces, has its own retractable USB cord and comes with a nice little protective storage bag.
I spent about two days trying to figure out how to back up my files by using Apple’s MobileMe service. It doesn’t work well with large files, so I just figured out how to back up some vital Word documents. My calendar and contacts were already backed up using MobileMe with my laptop and iPhone.
I spent an inordinate time backing up 2000 e-mails on AOL’s AOL Desk Top. This was a pain, but some of my most creative writing during the last couple of years was crafted in this temporary medium. Now I can keep my important 1600 e-mails concerning bill notices, old travel itineraries, forwarded jokes, Viagra, and refinancing along with the 400 more important messages with friends.
I admit that the computer is expensive, but I asked for it as an early birthday present, and the Birthday Bunny left it under my pillow.
I geared up in other ways. I bought a new rolling bag. I bought a travel towel, a rain jacket, a keychain backpack in part because of this post Tim’s post on traveling light and thought about all the things that I could eliminate.
Unlike Tim Ferriss, I have accumulated all the detritus of middle-aged hypochondriasis and several intractable medical conditions. I have sleep apnea and have to carry a CPAP machine with me. I found one that is one-third the size and half the weight. This fits better and saves me from having to carry two bags. I also have a bunch of meds, a night splint, a tendency to get cold at night, which requires pajamas, various gadget requirements such as cords and so forth, and the almost constant schlepping of large volumes that I promise myself I will read. Pens, notebooks, toiletries, over-the-counter medicines, contact lenses and three pairs of glasses—reading, sunglasses, and progressive prescription glasses—are necessities and luxuries that make it very hard for me to strip down quite as Tim, but I am doing a little better.
All of these gadgets can work on 110-240v power which means that I only need a multi-country adapter with no transformer such as the one sold at Hammacher Schlemmer (I know, this is a ridiculously expensive store, but they take anything back that doesn’t work and this particular gadget isn’t badly priced.)
My day-to-day life was outsourced, my bag was packed, my files were backed up, and my financial life had been benignly hijacked. I was ready to go. Where?
I was once again reading Tim Ferriss’s posts and discovered one about Buenos Aires. The country is beautiful, the dollar buys a lot, and there is great culture and beautiful avenues. He gave tips about ways to party and the way to rent an apartment. I searched Google and found lots of temporary apartments for what seemed to be bargain prices.
The city has language schools and I found one on Google that sounded comprehensive and affordable. Tango lessons were available for $5 an hour. I had known a lot of people who had enjoyed Buenos Aires. I had one sister who fell in love with it last year and my other sister gave it good reviews this year.
Food was inexpensive. The place would cost half as much as Europe and was more of a departure. I had never been to South America.
After a day or two, I decided to take the plunge. I booked nine weeks, from October 15th through December 21st.
The issue I have with Tim Ferriss is that he always seems to work everything out to a high degree of success. We mortals don’t always have the same skill or luck. Plus, it is easier to imagine his life when you are thirty and single than when you are middle-aged, arthritic and have enough baggage for a Victorian safari.
That made me wonder: What if I used my fiftieth to try to do some of the same things and see how they worked with my limitations. I was sensitive and moody. I wasn’t very athletic. I was short and a little chubby. I seemed to have lost my nerve long ago.
This made me think of some conditions for this project. I would attempt things that I was a complete beginner, or at least had failed at before. I would do things that people thought very difficult or impossible to learn at mid-age. I would attempt things that would potentially lead to failure or humiliation.
This would certainly suit my sense of humor and irony.
I started to research packing and tools. Traveling light was important. Having gadgets was also desirable. This would allow me experience with both.
I would write about this topic on a blog and I hoped to build a website that might attract some revenue to fund these missions. If you build it they will come, and I hope that at last I had found a mission and a potential audience.
I guess I picked the wrong week to give up writing.
I found a quote that summed up my mission. Al Pacino spoke these lines in SCENT OF A WOMAN:
No mistakes in the tango,
not like life.
It’s simple. That’s what makes
the tango so great.
If you make a mistake,
get all tangled up, just tango on.
I had found the new project.
09.15.08 From SEATTLE, WA TO VANCOUVER, B. C.
The Canadian Border between Washington and British Columbia was approaching and with it the guilt that descends on all innocent parties when facing the authorities. I took my passport out of the briefcase and placed it in the cupholder.
I didn’t know if I would have to fill out forms or how it worked. It had been many years since I had driven across this border and then it was without incident. Another time at another crossing, I had faced a skeptical, officious, yet courteous Canadian Customs Officer who didn’t like that I was alone with my nine-year old son looking to see the Canadian sister to Montana’s Glacier Park. “Where’s Mom?” she demanded and I felt as if I was on trial. I didn’t understand it immediately, but later, I figured out she was making sure that I wasn’t either a child molester or a custody-dispute kidnapper.
I had taken this trip as a dry run for my Argentina trip. I wanted to see what gear worked and what didn’t, how I would handle the unstructured time, and reconnect with an old college friend. The first few days of the trip had been fantastic. The weather had been clear and sunny—not business in usual in Seattle—and my college friend, Henry, whom I hadn’t seen in 13 years, was still as funny, warm and, well, collegial, as he was when we had first met freshman week of 1976. He has a young family and a wife who is a committed environmentalist and a worker with an international health organization. She was a bit upset that I decided to rent a car rather than take the less polluting train, but I had planned to pick up a friend at SeaTac two days later to travel with me during the last few days. That never materialized because my friend was from Texas, which had just been devastated by Hurricane Ike. That would lead to angst and dread as the week went on, which I would later write about in AN UNEASY CROSSING.
We drank good coffee, went to the flagship REI, and the first Costco. I went for a long hilly run with Henry’s wife Laura, a triathlete. Somehow, I didn’t keel over. The air was clean and the neighborhood was sparkling and the children were giggling. We ate good vegetables and Henry and I laughed while we tried to see who could sing the most trivial TV jingle. Monday morning, I decamped and started walking towards the rental car office. Even though I had packed everything in a rolling bag, I was sweating in the morning sun. Henry had given me simple directions and I had stopped for a cup of cappuccino. I was a bit jittery, worrying that maybe I had lost my way, and was checking the directions. I saw a large canopy in front of me and I was sure that I must have taken a wrong turn. I trudged back up the hill, cursing and shaking and at the top of the hill passed a gay health agency and a sex toy shop. I checked my GPS and found that I had been right before. I went back down the hill and turned toward the freeway. I sighed when I realized that I should have turned the corner by the Tango Restaurant. A few minutes later I was at Hertz, got my keys, went to the seventh floor, and another car was in the space where mine should have been. I used the remote key, heard the horn beep, followed the beep, crossed barricades and hopped over railings. Still, there was no car. Finally, an attendant found me struggling between two levels and wedged between two cars. She told me that the car hadn’t been in the right spot and still needed to be cleaned. I was already supposed to be in Vancouver, and I hadn’t made it out of Seattle.
* * * * *
I came to the station and was greeted by a young woman with dark eyebrows that had an interesting bare place like a pencil line through the middle of one brow.
“Where are you traveling from?” asked the agent.
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“Why did you travel all the way up here?” she asked.
“I was visiting some friends in Seattle.” She obviously hadn’t been briefed by the British Columbia Tourist Commission.
“Seattle, uh huh.” Her eyes narrowed: “What is your occupation?”
Many times I would have answered “Investor” but this often sounds too vague for belief. I decided to be more confident and replied “writer.”
“What do you write?”
“Fiction and public relations?”
“The public relations work.”
“The fiction some day, eh? Anyone paying you for work up here?” I shook my head and said “the only writing will be in my journal.” I didn’t mention a blog because she might have some opinions about the Internet, too. “Have any guns?” I replied no again. She studied my passport a bit longer, and sniffed “If I could get someone to pay me to write, I wouldn’t do this for a living.”
“Have you had any criminal violations, including DUIs?” I replied no again. She reluctantly let me pass, skeptical about my stated occupation and feeling that there was something a little fishy about me. As I drove away, I kind of agreed with her.
* * * * *
The gentleman on my first flight was from Montreal. He recommended Stanley Park in Vancouver. Even though I had toured Vancouver 12 years ago in a hired prom-sized limousine with a salt-and-pepper mustached driver who spoke in the honeyed tones of Alex Trebek, I didn’t remember the park.
I checked into the Hyatt with a bargain rate thanks to Priceline.com. I felt clever for pulling off a coup and then would curse the same company two days later for installing me in a dump.
Sunshine streamed in my window, beautiful women in heels marched to spacious offices on the courteous streets below, I yawned and felt beauty and cleanliness all around me.
I asked the concierge for directions to Stanley Park and took a delightful run to the Harbour. Seaplanes hummed above and kayaks plied the waters in front of me.
I shivered after the run and walked through busy beaches and through a district that I felt was heading the right way. While I was prepared to experience discomfort, that wouldn’t happen just yet.
The next afternoon, I made good on my promise to take some pictures. I didn’t run this time, but I waited patiently by Lions Gate Bridge for a well-composed picture of a seaplane flying above.
Runners and cyclists swarmed around me and I captured them in silhouette rounding the corner of the seawall path. I completed the six-mile route and walked back through the neighborhoods, confident of my route and feeling a bit unauthentic because everything was working so well.
That evening I decided to visit a different part of town to have dinner. The guidebook mentioned several possibilities. I decided to walk toward Gastown and see what I could find.
Georgia Street became shadowy and construction-ridden as I walked down the avenue. I felt nervous because my blood sugar was dropping. There were fewer and fewer people. I knew my natural radar detectors would alert me to danger, but I was still anxious.
I didn’t know what to eat and I was less and less confident. I walked past a marijuana museum and a “sensual massage” place that I had seen advertised as “discreet.” The opaque-painted glass doors advertised the place as full of disease and criminality. I hunched my shoulder and wanted a safer neighborhood, or neighbourhood, as the Canadians would spell it.
I was growing increasingly impatient as my blood sugar swooned. I encountered more construction, dark streets with neon, and dangerous-looking gentlemen. I was set to go back to the hotel and have another overpriced room-service dinner listening to CNN. I passed a Chinese restaurant. Canada has great Asian food and Vancouver has a large population of expatriate Hong Kong Chinese. I went up the stairs of the restaurant.
Sitting down, I realized that I had come to a restaurant that I visited with my family 12 years before. I ordered a Sapporo and had a large, difficult to eat, and expensive lobster with black bean sauce, sorry that I didn’t have four or five more people so that I could try some more dishes.
The next day I drove back across the border. The American Customs Agent also asked me, “What brought you all the way up here?” He hid his resentment and failed aspirations and didn’t interrogate me about my nascent writing career.
09.18.08-09.20.08 SEATTLE AND THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA
I think I’m ferry phobic.
I’m crossing the Puget Sound from Bremerton to Seattle on the Washington State Ferry.
I am anxious, shallow-breathed, paranoid.
I felt the same way going out to the Olympic Peninsula. A plethora of checking, a panic while I look for my iPhone and discover that it is in my hand. I have patted my pockets several times for my keys and I worry that I won’t be able to start my car, causing a thrashing by an angry mob of delayed drivers.
I had a problem driving on to the ferry. The attendant yelled at me to get in my lane. I slumped in my seat and thought: I’m simply trying to avoid hitting you, sir, please don’t yell.
The last three days have been a bust. After a bright and successful visit to my college friend in Seattle and an exquisite time in Vancouver, the solo visit to Seattle was dark and scary and I felt sick and achy. I couldn’t get warm. The “charming” “boutique” hotel was overpriced and it felt dark and foreboding. Fucking Priceline.com.
I walked the dark and deserted streets around the hotel, crossing the street to avoid contact with the beggars. I went to a drug store and bought Tylenol, Mylanta, and a heating pad. I got a Subway sandwich and ate in bed while I watched the third hour of news that day.
The next morning I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge, and I inched my way to the ferry dock and had to take a circuitous route back when I realized that I had tried to go in an exit. I didn’t want to be stupid. I didn’t want to be yelled at.
The anxiety continued on the ferry and I still felt bad when I successfully drove off the ferry. CNBC was blasting on the satellite radio and I was listening to opinion after opinion about the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.
The market was in free-fall. I was alone. I still wasn’t sure if I was heading the right direction to the hotel. The sparkling weather of Vancouver had descended into a slate gray. The water offered no visual relief. It mirrored the sky. The trees looked dark.
I had lost some of the swagger and verve from my Vancouver mission and the visit with my friend.
I was on my way to the beautiful hotel on the Hood Canal. 100% recommended by my friends. It cost a lot. I was hoping it would be nice.
I came into the driveway. A two-story lodge lobby waited. A cheery gas log fire gave the impression of hearth and home. I tried to check in, but my room wasn’t ready.
I had an overpriced lunch and started hiccupping. I couldn’t get warm. I was reading a story by Borges about going up a labyrinth into a forbidden, eternal city with trap doors and false hallways and impossible buildings.
I paced the hallways of the resort and looked out at the afternoon’s palpable overcast. I tried to get in the pool and fitness room, but you needed a room key. I staggered down the halls, woozy from ennui and nervous energy. I imagined blood cascading out of the elevators like THE SHINING. The exterior atmosphere and location was out of TWIN PEAKS. I thought of Agent Cooper’s lines: A damn fine piece of pie…a helluva cup of Joe.
It was two o’clock. I couldn’t focus on another jewel-crafted tale of vertigo, myth, and obfuscation by Borges. I went to the desk and asked for my room. I guess it had been ready for some time. No one had called.
* * * * *
It is a foggy day in Seattle and we are a few minutes away from the ferry terminal. I want to take a picture of the skyline so that I can show the gloom and the unease. I make it down to the car deck and shoulder my way past the front cars, find my keys, and open the trunk of my rental so that I can get my camera out. I tear through my suitcase and I can’t find the camera. I look in the front pockets of my briefcase and I still can’t find it. I pat my jacket pocket: and fuck, there is it. I can’t deal with the suitcase now. I’ll have to do it when the cold wind isn’t blowing past me and the ferry isn’t powering beneath me. I slam the trunk. I feel my stomach sink below the ferry’s hull. Shit, did I leave the keys in there? I shudder and imagine the anger of scores of commuters.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, back at the Bates Motel, I checked into my room. It was a tasteful and romantic room with a view of the water. Companion plans had fallen through, or perhaps never were meant to be. My only companions for the next couple of days, were three crafty and annoying flies. I had little ability to catch them, tried shooing them out the balcony door, but they had checked in for the duration.
I looked outside, hopeful for a path by the water that I could use to take a run. There was no place to run, only to hide. Outside, there wasn’t a boat in the water and the only sign of life was a solitary reader, sitting in the courtyard, attempting to warm herself by a fire pit.
There was an orthopedic conference on the lower level, where a pleasant young woman had tried to check me in. Not a doctor, ma’am, but might as well be. There were several weathered old couples tottering around in active wear and flaunting the standard they had set in their golden years. They greeted me with forced grimaces and nodded and a squinted through wrinkles and rimless glasses.
This was going to be a long couple of days.
It’s a test, I told myself, a way to deal with solitude. I tried to read some more. I switched on the TV. Jim Cramer and Maria Bartilroma were yelling on CNBC about the end of the planet. I was in my $300 a day room in the middle of nowhere, grinding my teeth and waiting for the dinner reservation I had made earlier in the week for a table for two that was now a table for one.
The hostess sat me in the dark, facing a wall, embarrassed for me that I had no company. Laughs filtered up from the doctors’ cocktail party on the deck below. I ate something well prepared and trendy but for the life of me I can’t remember it.
I tried to go to sleep but a chubby white and brown cat kept crying outside. The front desk chuckled when I called and said it was one of the house cats.
I had come this way because of a beautiful visit I had years ago with my ex-wife and her aunt and uncle. It was misty, but the Olympic Mountains were self-confident to the point of arrogance and the peaks gracefully posed for pictures. I took a healthful breath of air and imagined trout jumping out of streams and animals of some sort eating leaves and smiling. Mr. Bluebird was on my shoulder. The relatives-in-law had a cabin they had built with their own hands out of logs and it had pleasant, tall windows overlooking mountains and water. The uncle taught math at the local college, the aunt was a spirit of the earth. Life was cheery and natural.
We were dropped off at the same ferry on which I am currently suffering a panic attack. On that past trip, I hadn’t felt well all day and shivered in the back of the avuncular well-traveled family station wagon, where I hid under a musty comforter. On the ferry going back to Seattle my teeth were chattering, I shook and felt a serious illness developing. I was at a business conference, but I spent the next three days in bed, unable to talk and suffering with a 104-degree fever. Within three months I had lost 30 pounds and went from a 42 regular to a 38 regular jacket. It was a bad case of the flu followed by a serious lack of appetite. The doctor named it post-viral syndrome. It sure as hell wasn’t disco fever.
Was this the reason I had become so phobic?
* * * * *
The next day I was determined to find some beautiful scenery. I drove 50 miles or so up the coast looking for a decent mountain, but all I saw was the same slate grey canal. I did get one picture of a rotting boat with old pilings.
I decided to reverse course and drove towards Olympia, the state capital. The guidebook had a few good words about it. I arrived in time for lunch and saw nice little streets, a pretty granite Capitol, and the place felt pretty good. I walked by the waterfront and found an oyster house and went in. It was one of those paneled seafood restaurants on the water, with pictures of the legacy fishermen and of the place from the 40s. In some of the pictures, proud, strong men were wearing white aprons.
A beautiful young waitress came and took my drink order. She was a little shy and hovered right behind my seat. With my arthritic neck I could barely turn to talk to her. She was a beautiful blonde with fine features and a thin veneer of make-up that showed a little more sophistication than the other waitresses. We made a little eye contact and I could tell she liked me a bit, too. She noticed me gazing at her left hand under the tray. I spied a ring and told myself to stop the flirting. When I mentioned my choice of the oyster stew, she swooned a bit. I knew that I had hit on her favorite. I congratulated myself for scoring points.
She waited on another table and I saw that she had a ring on her middle finger, not her ring finger. I started to fantasize about how we would meet after her work and we would have a nice weekend. Completely incompetent in these matters, I thought of a line that could work. Coffee shop! Ask her about a coffee shop!
She brought the check and I asked her where I could find a good coffee place. She smiled and looked into my eyes (still over my shoulder…I was glad that I had booked a massage later) and she said that she had only been in town a couple of months, but she liked a place two blocks that way and two blocks over. I said that I had been there two hours and she blushed and said welcome.
She was half my age. I was only in town for an hour. I decided to let it go and left her an oversized tip.
I left the restaurant still buzzing from the high of a love affair without danger or commitment. I floated to the place I had parked my car, realized that I had parked a block down, got in the car and started to drive the way she had directed. I saw her on the corner. I guess she must have been working a split shift. I waved and she nodded with a smile of recognition and a little embarrassment. I had tipped my hand by over-tipping.
Then it hit me. She looked like my ex-wife did twenty-five years ago. I felt like a middle-aged fool. I never did find the coffee shop. In my vanity, I would like to think she looked there for me, in vain.
* * * * *
Now I am on the ferry deck, camera in hand, keys found in my jacket pocket, and shaking a little too hard to hold the camera steady. I steady my hand, take a couple of pictures, and shuffle back to my car, sighing and shaking as I slip into the car and behind the wheel.
The ferry docks in the station. The cars in front of me start out. I follow slowly and I find myself on the drive. I am grateful to know my land legs will come back and soon I will be stumbling down the streets of Seattle, that purple-hazed over-caffeinated city of fog, drizzle, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain.
I am flying home September 21, the day after visiting Seattle. The Sunday NEW YORK TIMES has a special Fall Travel section. On the cover is a beautiful young model in an earth-inspired dress standing in front of a moss-covered tree in a shaded forest. The cover’s headline: OUT ON A LIMB. The location: Olympic National Forest, Washington.
Inside there is an entire photo spread, one in which the model wears a $13,500 Fendi dress and shows off other dresses in various environments of fog, mist, and moss.
The front page of the section has an introductory line:
MOSS-DRAPED RAINFORESTS, SHIMMERING LAKES, MIST-SHROUDED BEACHES, SNOWY PEAKS—WASHINGTON STATE’S OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK IS A WORLD APART.
And the title:
The writer, Darcy Frey, tells us that “I moved easily here from remote high-country wilderness to temperate coastal rain forest to miles of wild and rugged coastline—a topological trifecta found elsewhere on the planet only in a few other places, like New Zealand, the coast of Chile and Tasmania.”
This was the atmosphere I long remembered and what I had expected to see. Somehow I got sidetracked and skirted along the edges, only traveling on the road to disappointment.
It is time for me to stop traveling in the past and to start dancing towards the future.