After Sunrise (Key West, 2000)

The sun rises at 6:34 a.m. Knowing the campground won’t be open for a few hours yet, I linger, basking in the scenic perfection and the surprising solitude. For now, it is a morning of sweet breezes, but it promises to be a scorcher of a day. Sometime after 8, I reluctantly leave the birds to saddle up again and ride to a Cuban coffeehouse. I order a large Cuban coffee, with milk and sugar. “You know what Cuban coffee is, right,” the barista asks me. I think I do, so I say yes. The coffee arrives in a skyscraper disguised as a Styrofoam cup. I taste it. The first sip is like diving headlong, mouth open, into a lake of pure cane granulated sugar. Apparently, Cuban coffee comes heavily sweetened from the start. My inadvertent order has made it undrinkable. I ride away with the cup and toss it into the first public trash bin I see. Then I find a patch of ground next to the darkened campground and read the day’s newspapers.

Today’s Key West Citizen has a story about a local man who fell from a balcony while trying to leap from the second floor at Rick’s Bar to a nearby tree. Also, 13 people have already died in Bike Week accidents in Daytona. The Miami Herald has a 16-page tribute to retired Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. They’re naming a street after him and building a statue of him.

At 10 a.m. I go to the office and grab the map to my address at 92A, Boyd’s Key West Campground, the southernmost camping spot in the U.S. The site is located on the ocean. I’m on a peninsula that stretches out past the mangroves, equidistant between two bathhouses, somewhere off the road where Amberjack Avenue turns into North Porpoise Point. The campground features several docks, a boat ramp, a marina, an outdoor lobster table and a fish table next to the dumping station. Near the entrance, there is a heated pool with a Tiki hut and a large-screen TV. I quickly unpack and set up my pup tent, then enter it and sleep for a couple of hours, leaving the flap open to invite any available sea breezes. But the sun beats down relentlessly, and so I wake before I want to, promising myself an early bed in the cooler part of the day. Before leaving camp, though, I decide to take a shower and then try out the heated pool. By now it’s just after the noon hour. The glare on the poolside TV washes out the image, turning it into a 72-inch radio, broadcasting the opening rounds of the NCAA basketball’s March Madness tournament. Mostly I just float, swim, sunbathe, repeat. Just beyond the pool, someone’s cockatoo calls out “Fred? Fred? Where are you, Fred? Fred?” Fred stays missing, or at least remains unresponsive to the cockatoo, during the length of my leisurely swim.

It turns out that the noisy cockatoo only ranks near the bottom of oddities at this campground. Here, people can mail coconuts to friends back home, using the husk instead of an envelope for an address, stamp and scripted message. A man named Lake patrols the grounds, selling illegal coral and shark’s tooth jewelry to willing coeds. (He always avoids me and my notebook, however, and seems to worry that I might write about his illicit trade. Which is a good call on his part.) Tourists routinely practice blowing into conch shells, which generally sounds like someone practicing tuba with a gunshot wound. The place is overrun with college kids on spring break, emptying out during the day, but visible early every morning in their sprawled-out, passed-out, prone selves, lying on the roofs of cars, on picnic tables, or on the hard ground, often without cover, collectively and unconsciously performing as a camp-wide chorus of snoring. My tent, positioned so close to one of the campground roads, turns out to be a bit of a hazard. On this night, after an early dinner and an evening watching the turtle races at Turtle Kraals, I wake to a flood of headlights and the sound of brakes squealing, with a Jeep’s tire stopped just inches away from a tent stake, about a foot from my head. The driver, drunk, leaves her Jeep there. She opens the car door, stumbles around, trips over my tent, and slurs loudly, “Jesus! It looks like a coffin. Is anybody in there?” Having woken with a start to recognize the precariousness of my life in that instant and having acknowledged that my continued existence on this planet in this dimension in this temporary timeline of human intrusion on the universe had depended on the braking ability of a wasted sorority girl who couldn’t find the road in her rented Jeep and was, at this moment, urinating on the ground next to my tent, all I can think of to say is, “Yup. Thanks for not running me over.” The trickle stops. Silence. Then the trickle starts again, Sorority Girl saying, “Jesus, that’s creepy.”

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Night at the Waffle House (Key West, 2000)

Riding stiffly in my jeans, overheating in the sultry air, I wander over wide sidewalks along the water, and pedal with an eye to the mangroves. Streetlights give them an eerie, green cast, as if viewed from night-vision goggles. In the hazy distance, the landscape suggests ghosts of thorny crowns. The water barely laps, its gloom thickening into silence. There is an odor of decaying matter. Even in the shadows it’s still possible to make out strewn trash, a couple of shopping carts, and pieces of Styrofoam drifting in the ripples. Soon I pass rows of houseboats, some lit, most dark. Noise erupts simultaneously from two boats, drunken sounds of card-playing triumph and tragedy in one; stoned laughter prompted by a movie comedian from the other. I smell the sweet, skunk-like aroma of cheap marijuana wafting through the saltwater forest.

Before long, the Waffle House sign looms like a beacon for the wayward, the lost, the homeless and the hungry. In the parking lot, several people watch from their cars, radios blaring, munching on take-out, as I begin the elaborate ritual of disembarking, disrobing and locking the bike next to a post by the window. A man with a large, white box comes up to me and asks if he can sleep next to my bicycle. He explains that it will give drivers something visible enough to prevent them from running him over in the dark. I agree to his request, thinking that the sight of a sleeping man may also keep would-be thieves from trying to steal the bike. So it’s a win-win.

Inside the restaurant, the air conditioning is arctic. A jukebox plays tunes by Elvis and Madonna. The room is sprinkled with loud, drunken college students from other parts of the country, gorging on late-night carbohydrates before resuming their all-night debauchery. A couple of men sit solo in booths, nursing coffees. A heavily made-up woman with a frosted wig occupies another booth, practically sitting in the lap of a stringbean-shaped man in jeans and a t-shirt wearing a trucker’s cap with the symbol of the American flag and the words “These Colors Don’t Run” on the brim.

I settle into a booth by the window, where I can keep one eye on my bicycle. “Mambo #5” suddenly plays on the record-spinner. My waitress, Zelda, brings me a menu and asks where I’m from. Even though I live in New Hampshire now, I say Rhode Island. “That’s one of them cold states, ain’t it,” she asks. “Like Canada.” “It’s north,” I say. “In New England. Near Boston.” Zelda tells me she has never been out of state, but she didn’t think she could live in a cold place. “Never been north of Jacksonville,” she says. “What brings you here?” I tell her I’m riding a bicycle to Maine. She stares at me blankly. “Also north. Also part of New England.” Zelda doesn’t saying anything, doesn’t move, so I add, meekly, “Like Canada.” That seems to satisfy her. She looks out the window. “On that little bicycle!” Zelda points to my Specialized Crossroads hybrid and trailer hitched to a pole next to a sleeping man with a white box in the parking lot. “Well, I’ll be. Bless your heart. Be careful. There’s a lot of crazy druggie totally drunk killer-type people on the road these days, but I suppose you already know that. I don’t trust this world for nothing. Wouldn’t want to be going to a strange place for anything in the world nowadays.” I shrug a shrug of exaggerated indifference. “Everywhere is local,” I say. “Anything can happen anywhere.” Zelda looks at me again with a mix of suspicion and interest. “Amen, honey,” she finally says. “How do you like your eggs?”

Turns out I like them scrambled today, “scattered” (spread on the grill) and “smothered” (with sautéed onions) and “covered” (with melted cheese) and “chunked” (with grilled hickory smoked ham) and “capped” (with grilled button mushrooms), skipping the “diced” (grilled tomatoes), “peppered” (jalapeno peppers), “topped” (chili) and “country” (sausage gravy) options, which manifested themselves in other booths as “all the way” orders.

I had come to The Waffle House because it is open all night, saving me the expense of spending what little money I have for a bed for six hours. So I had time to study the diner lingo and custom plate code that sets The Waffle House apart from other 24-hour chains. Beyond the chickenscratch jargon written on waitress receipts, the restaurant adds a second layer of communication on the grill line. Cooks will take a customer’s plate and decipher the condiments on it to determine the food that should accompany the china. A pat of butter, for example, indicates the customer ordered a T-bone steak. To determine how the steak should be prepared, the cook takes note of the butter’s position on the plate (12 o’clock means well done, 3 o’clock is medium, 6 o’clock is rare). Mustard packets signify other meats. Mustard up (showing the writing) means pork chop; mustard down means country ham. Other condiments are used similarly. A packet of apple butter means the customer chose raisin toast. A jelly packet at the bottom of the plate denotes scrambled eggs. And so on, with other items such as ketchup, syrup and mayonnaise packets, pickles, cheese wedges and pieces of hash browns all combining with clock-oriented plate positioning to determine the customer’s meal. [Blogger’s note: A 2017 ESPN The Magazine article breaks the code fairly comprehensively.]

My plate comes back quickly, with a mustard packet (down) and jelly packet (bottom edge) interspersed with the food. The Eric Clapton version of “I Shot the Sheriff” plays on the jukebox. I eat slowly, knowing that I still have about six hours until first light, when I can mount my bike and ride to the nearest campground, which will serve as my lodging for the next few days. The air conditioning is still full bore, and even dressed as I am, bundled up for New Hampshire blizzard weather, I feel as if I am dining in a meat locker. Maybe this is the way they keep people from loitering?

As I finish forkfuls of breakfast, a man walks up to the register to pay his bill. He leaves a tip in change on his table, grabs a huge handful of straws for reasons that nag at the imagination, and strolls out the door. Just then, two college coeds in short, black dresses hiding bathing suits walk in, their skin glowing like lobsters after a boil. They ask the waitress if she has any aloe. She doesn’t. They thank her and leave. Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” plays on the jukebox. A blender occasionally interrupts the song, improving it. The room smells strongly of spilled syrup. Voices in the parking lot rise and fall as teens and college students, choosing to eat in their cars, insult and objectify one another from their rolled-down window perspectives. After finishing my meal, I ask for another pour of the bottomless cup of coffee and take out my journal to chronicle the day’s events so far. In the morgue-like cold of The Waffle House, my cup unleashes wraiths of steam, spewing spiraling coils of an endless smoke serpent, before vanishing into the babble of competing conversations and the greasy air.

Alternating between my notebook and a John Irving novel, one of the half-dozen paperbacks I’ve toted along to keep me company during restless moments and rainy days, I manage to kill a couple of hours. Business is sporadic, alternating between the drunk and noisy interrupting their nightly bar marathons to gorge and caffeinate their way to a false sense of sobriety, and the quiet and lonely, all men of middle age and older, staring out windows or into nothingness while waiting for the waitress to change the temperature of their stagnant coffee. One group of college guys orders a round of large chocolate milks to go, to coat their stomachs. The men in the booths address Zelda and the other waitresses as “Sweetheart” whenever they want something. Larry the Cook complains about the younger generation: “It’s the damn television. They have to be entertained all the time. They don’t know how to entertain themselves except to go out and get drunk and get sick and suffer through the hangover and go out and get drunk and get sick all over again.” Everyone looks beat up, worn out, wasted, spent and discarded, like a scene from a George Romero movie, only here the characters eat omelets instead of brains. Meanwhile, I scribble and nap, ambitions of philosophy and adventure ultimately losing out to fatigue.

The night moves on in this manner. A man walks in claiming he placed an order. The waitress and the manager insist he hasn’t. They argue for a while until the man realizes that he ordered a pizza from somewhere else instead. Once in a while, I exchange a buck for four quarters to play six songs on the jukebox. The selection is limited, for my taste. Half of the 45s are Waffle House originals, songs about raisin toast or egg styles. The majority of the rest are country tunes, ballads and pop standards embracing the clichés of the genre – loyal but unfortunate dogs, unfaithful or unsupportive wives and girlfriends, bar fights, prison sentences, guns as friends. I find a few Rolling Stones hits, more Clapton, a Bob Segar, Bryan Ferry, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, and play some of them more than once. Eventually, however, I’m aware that the rest of the room doesn’t care much for my selections. A few strangers follow my own journey to the jukebox, pumping new quarters into the machine, and the rest of the night is just Jimmy Buffet or jail memories, broken-down dogs and twangy guitar.

At about 2 a.m., I am alarmed to see that William Carter and his sidekick have stumbled through the front door. I try to will myself invisible. Then I pretend to sleep, slumped against the window with a pen dangling in my right hand, hanging mid-scribble over a country music rant. William is telling his Igor that the government should bring back the two-cent coin, but there are probably too many pennies in circulation to get rid of them now. Somehow they don’t notice me. Or they are too drunk to remember me. Or they don’t care. In any case, they move to another part of the room, eat and leave within the hour. At the register, William pulls out a massive wad of bills from his pocket, a clutch of green as thick as the spinach that Popeye grabs to make himself strong. As he and his man Friday exit awkwardly, staggering and mumbling obscenities into the night, I finally remember who they remind me of…Lenny and George (or was it Lenny and Squiggy?) from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” my junior high school reading of which having forever been permanently replaced by the Warner Brothers “Daffy Duck” version: “…and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him…”

The night settles into darkness, punctuated by amber streetlights and the clustering moths that swirl around them. I read another chapter of Irving. I doodle in my journal. I request a heater pour of coffee. Sometime before first light, when the sky fades from black to a dark blue hue that I know will brighten rapidly, I leave The Waffle House. On my receipt, there is a message: “You had a choice and you chose us. Thank you. Waffle House.” As I reconfigure my ride, I notice that the sleeping man with the white box is gone. I cycle to an inlet, away from any signs of human habitation. In the tangle of green reeds and weeds, there are pink roseate spoonbills and white egrets and hungry pelicans joining me in the new morning, starting over, like me, rising with the sun and beginning their search for the waffles of their kind that will feed them for another day.

 

 

Prelude (Spinning Tales: Scenes from a Bike Ride, 2000)

The plane arrives late in Key West. The airport closes at midnight, leaving me with less than two hours to unbox my bike, put it together and gear up. While I work, the security guard, named Tom, comes out of his vestibule to talk.

“You want to watch out for bike thieves,” he says. “Bicycle’s the most popular ride in town. They’re always getting stolen. Do you have a lock?”

“Two.”

“Use them both, and try to keep an eye on the bike as much as you can.”

Tom, a recreational cyclist himself, warns me about broken glass and nails on the roadways, and mentioned a thorn particular to the Keys, the bane of many cyclists.

“They’re sharp and hard as nails,” he says. “They’ll rip right through rubber.”

In short order, the wheels are in place and spinning true. Tom helps me test the brakes. I pack up all four panniers and attach them to the front and back, install the mirror, stack the back rack with camping gear, and put whatever was left into my backpack. Tom snaps a picture with his digital camera and becomes the first of countless strangers on the journey telling me to be wary of drivers.

It was my first night on an adventure that I had not planned beyond the sketchy idea of cycling from the southernmost point of the continental U.S. in Key West, Florida, beginning vaguely on a plot next to the Real Southernmost Point (which is private property and therefore gated and inaccessible) to the easternmost point at a lighthouse at West Quoddy Head, Maine.

The previous night, my friends at home in New Hampshire, had thrown me a bon voyage party at Joe Carbone’s log cabin in the woods of Ashland. The cabin shook with the sounds of Cajun music and the winds of a nor’easter. Harpoon IPAs cooled in snowbanks that covered the entryway. Drifts formed powdery dunes on one side of the house, blotting out the windows. Joe cooked a feast and smoked enough cigarettes to set off the smog alert in Concord. Sometime before midnight, with the help of my friends, I dug out my car, resembling an igloo of white, from its snowbound parking spot between the trees. We pushed it onto the country road and I made my way slowly to the highway for a leisurely drive south to meet a deadline of a next-day flight out of Boston. The winds calmed and the night’s clouds parted, leaving a waxing crescent moon and a star-dazzled sky, while little white hills of fresh snow formed by plows duplicated vistas of the rolling landscape that surrounded me. The next afternoon, with my bike in a box, I boarded the plane at Logan, arrived in Orlando, conveniently lost my address book and took a puddle-jumper to the airport in Key West. And now here I am, talking with Tom.

“It’s bad here,” he says. “Someone’s getting killed every day. Everybody’s drunk or stoned out of their mind, falling asleep at the wheel. It’s chaos on the roads down here, and you don’t stand much of a chance on a bicycle.”

He tells me a story about a cyclist who rode from Alaska through Canada and down the East Coast of the U.S. When he got to Miami, the cyclist became convinced that he would never make it all the way to Key West on bike, so he finished the ride on a bus.

I had planned to go to a campground the next morning, but still had at least six hours before daylight and had no interest in spending $300 for a short night’s sleep. I ask Tom if there was anywhere I could go.

“The Waffle House,” he says. “It’s open 24 hours. Only a mile or so away.”

Tom opens the door for me and I straddle my bike on the concrete, still overdressed in the jeans and sweatshirt the New England winter demanded. The air is thick and sweet, smelling of deodorant and spice and the salty sea. I click my foot into the pedals and roll off the sidewalk toward the lapping water.

“Yo! How you go?”

A man outside the airport door steps in front of my bike, forcing me to test those brakes straight away. He is paunchy and short and drunk, and keeping company with someone who is paunchier and shorter and drunker. The sidekick gestures and gyrates at no one in particular, screaming vulgarities into the night.

“You look like you’re on a spiritual quest,” says the man, introducing himself as William Carter.

“I don’t know about that,” I say. “It’s a bike ride.”

“It’s more than a bike ride,” Carter says. “With all that gear you’re carrying.”

Warning lights flash in my head. Am I going to be mugged before I complete even one wheel revolution?

Carter seems to sense my suspicion. “Where are you going,” he asks, while his friend continues screaming at invisible F-wads and A-holes.

“I’m going to Maine.”

“Fuckin’ way.”

“Not tonight,” I say. “Tonight I’m going to The Waffle House.”

“Well, I tell you,” Carter says, as his friend sticks out his middle finger to passing taxis, “I could tell right away you’re a soul with a purpose. You’re on a mission. A spiritual quest. I know these things. I consider myself a holy man. Do you believe in God?”

Hesitation. Always in situations like this. “In my own way,” I say.

“Which one,” he asks. “The Baptist God? The Mormon God? The alien god? Everybody’s got a different God. I look at the big picture. It’s bigger than any of the religions. The Baptists down here don’t like me talking about it. I have to check my outhouse for booby traps. Know what I’m saying?”

Not really. I’m just trying to ride to Maine here.

“The Bible’s just a goddamn rule book,” Carter continues. “The Baptists hate it when I say that. But it’s true. I’m not saying it’s worthless, but you can’t limit yourself. God’s not just some bureaucrat, laying down laws and sending down lightning bolts. God’s everything, everywhere. Fuck, God’s in that mangrove. He’s in your backpack. He’s the fucking worm in a bottle of tequila.”

“F-you, A-hole,” the sidekick screams at a passing motorcycle.

Carter looks at me sideways, waiting for me to respond. I can’t believe this is how I have to start a 10-week bike ride.

“I like to think I get a sense of God whenever I’m in nature,” I say, finally. “Not so much in church. That’s just me, though.”

“Exactly my point,” Carter says. “You find God wherever you look for him. So we understand each other. Fuck, yeah.”

Carter raises his hand to high-five me and misses.

“Yeah, well,” I say, grasping for a way to get away. “I’ve got my quest to begin here, so…”

“Fuck, yeah,” he says. “Off you go.” He turns to look at his friend, who continues to flip the bird and curse out strangers in cars that ignore them, shakes his head, then he turns back to me. “Won’t be joining you. Too drunk to drive. Too drunk to remember where we parked. Although I think it was somewhere in Oklahoma. Anyway, fuck it. Go with God. Fuck, yeah.”

What’s Past is Prologue (Berlin, 2017)

It had been a strange week for news that felt personal. A few days into our German excursion, Air Berlin, the airline Rob and I had flown from Boston to Dusseldorf just days before, announced that it had gone bankrupt. While we were exploring the relics and remnants of Nazi and Cold War history in Mitte, wondering if we had a ride back to New England, we heard that an American tourist had been arrested in Germany for giving the “Heil Hitler” extended-arm to salute to locals. The next day, after wandering among monuments and exhibitions dedicated to exposing the hateful heritage of 20th century Germany, we heard about neo-Nazis and KKK members and other white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, and the horrific death of a protester who was run down by a racist in a speeding car.

During that week, Berlin was an escape, an engaging distraction from a country that didn’t feel like home anymore, and from the daily sense that the world was cracking apart in a billion directions. We took solace in the conscious actions of Berliners to face up to their city’s legacy. In a poignant travel essay describing his own summer trip to Berlin with his wife in The Boston Globe, correspondent Jerry Rubin noted “Berliners have openly and publicly explored their terrible history through public monuments in a way that Americans have seldom done with their own legacy of racism.” So true. While our President dismays over the toppling of Confederate statues dedicated to white supremacist leaders of the Civil War who were traitors to the Union, Germans are sending schoolchildren to preserved Holocaust camps to teach them what happened there and warn them that it could happen again.

Berlin’s willingness to expose its past publicly in such thought-provoking detail seemed in stark contrast with the shallow, kitschy, whitewashed tourism we so often embrace in the U.S. Meandering through the city, we came upon one surprise after another, presenting opportunities for reflection and contemplation, bringing a sense of depth to the amiable hubbub of sightseeing and pleasure-seeking. More, from Rubin: “Brass plaques embedded in the sidewalks of homes formerly occupied by Jews tell their name and when and where they were murdered. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a powerful multi-block memorial and museum with a name that speaks to the honesty of the city.”

Everywhere we walked, among the grand streets, in the public squares, through quiet neighborhoods, in parks and along rivers, we saw markers and public art works, murals and graffiti quotes, monuments in glass, metal, brick, stone and other media, plaques and photographs, sculptures abstract, surreal and larger-than-life, fragments and pieces of the former Nazi Germany or Cold War Germany that worked in concert to create an open and honest dialogue with the citizenry. Being a tourist in that remarkable city felt like eavesdropping on the collective consciousness of its people. Every step was a conversation. Around every corner, a different ghost told its story.

Among the brick and stone and asphalt of a city remade from rubble, and the thousands of construction cranes that are reshaping modern Berlin, these monuments serve as both testimonial and confessional. They speak to what is possible in a civilization when people confront the ugly realities of past actions in deep, authentic and meaningful ways. They are living lessons, taught daily to passersby. If you listen carefully, you can hear the ghosts prodding you, nagging at you: “This is what we were. What will you be now?”

Frank Zappa in a Sponge-Coat (Iceland, 2017)

While walking through Reykjavik, I overheard two schoolboys carrying on a conversation, seamlessly mixing English and Icelandic into their dialogue for no apparent reason, other than they could. Wherever I went, people would speak to me first in Icelandic, then immediately switch over to English whenever I said “hello” or “hi” back to them, indicating that, while I was embarrassed to try out my phrase-book Icelandic in real time and space, it was no big deal for them to shift linguistic gears.

But it’s an odd sensation for the monolingual American to witness and hear this dynamic, because some of the sounds in Icelandic are simply not made in English. There are tongue placement novelties and unfamiliar guttural noises and long extended phonemic symphonies at play that make understanding (much less replicating) the language a near-impossibility for the embedded English speaker. A case in point was the name of a young man who served as a guide for a volcano tour. He said his name three times. To me, it sounded like a 36-letter word of invented consonants and vowels. I couldn’t make it out. I couldn’t repeat it back to him. I couldn’t even figure out how to write it down in my notebook. Later, when I asked another guide to pronounce the same name, which he did flawlessly, I said. “Yeah. I’m never gonna get that.” “No,” the other guide said solemnly. “No, you’re not.”

Still, there were a few phrases that I used now and then, when I wanted to show the locals I was at least making the effort. “Skal” means, essentially, “cheers.” It’s pronounced somewhere between “scowl” and “skall,” a subtlety of tongue that all Icelanders seem to manage, but eludes the tourist, who either overemphasizes the “owl” sound, or the “all” sound, or just says “skull,” as if he was back in college, pounding beer funnels. Skull isn’t the worst choice, actually, since the word “skal” refers etymologically to the drinking vessel that was raised during a toast, which, in the apocryphal history of the Nordic lands, may have been the skull of a human enemy or a hunted animal. In any case, skal was my go-to word, the little bit of lingo that gave me my necessary tourist’s illusion of belonging to a place I enjoyed.

So I said “skal” a lot – along with “godan daggin” (good day or good morning) and “einn bjor, takk” (one beer, thanks). The remarkable thing about Icelandic words and phrases is that they were pretty much saying the same exact things in the 9th century as they are today. Unlike many languages, especially English, which have gone through several evolutions of language, to the point where the modern versions have little in common in sound or spelling (and in some cases, even meaning) as the Middle and Old forms, Icelandic remained static for more than a millennium, thanks mostly to the fact that nobody other than the original settlers ever went there. So you had an island nation that was 75 percent Nordic and 25 percent Celtic (the latter being mostly slave women or monks in the beginning times), which saw no reason to move on from saying “Eg kem alveg af fjollum” (“I come from the mountains”), partly because, it’s Iceland, and many people still come from the mountains, and partly because the phrase, which equates to the English expression, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” is ambiguous enough that the listener never knows whether the speaker is being self-deprecating or insulting.

On the other hand, if you hear, “Eg mun finna pig i fjoru,” and, using your portable Google Translate app, figure out that it means “I will find you on a beach,” you should know that this is not a good thing. (The “pig” in the word probably gives it away, even to an English speaker, mistaking the vocabulary for his own.) Its idiomatic meaning is that the speaker will one day hunt you down and exact his bloody revenge on you, as his ancestors once did to your kind – or someone else very similar to you, you disgusting piece of filth – as related in the sagas, which every schoolchild in the country has read and memorized.

One of the most difficult things about learning Icelandic is that most of their words are so long, your ear gives up trying halfway through the word. For example, the longest word in Icelandic is:

Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur.

It has 64 letters and means “A keychain ring for the outdoor key of road workers shed in a moor called Vaðlaheiði,” which seems like taking an obsession with precision in language a bit too far.

After freaking out over the length of most Icelandic words, and the oddity of their regionalized meanings, then factoring in the consonant and vowel sounds that aren’t replicated in English and the individualized letters (for the hard and soft “th” sounds), which are not in the English alphabet, or the fact that there is no C, Q, W or Z, rendering most typewriters obsolete, you’ll just want to cry out something from the depth of your soul, like “Eyjafjallajokull!,” which sounds like the usual nonsense emerging from soul depth, but is actually the unpronounceable name of a real Icelandic volcano that famously erupted in 2010. Throughout the four days I was in Iceland, about a half-dozen natives asked me to try pronouncing the volcano (making Americans attempt to say Icelandic words is a pretty popular local leisure activity). If you are a good sport, they’ll give you the exact translation into English. “Eyja” (island), “fjalla” (mountain), “jokull” (glacier), compressed into “Islandmountainglacier” with no breath in between. After that, they may ask you to try a few Icelandic tongue-twisters. Most were impossible for me, but I earned my “skal” saying “Frank Zappa i svampfrakka,” over and over, which, as the title of this post indicates, roughly translates to “Frank Zappa in a sponge-coat,” for no apparent reason other than Icelandic amusement.

Quality Hangs (Berlin, Glasgow, Iceland, 2017)

A friend of mine tells me that I should write a travel book called “Pub Guy,” since so many of my stories start, end or were discovered in a travel journey’s respite of a watering hole. There is a reason for this. Pubs, especially in Celtic and Anglo strongholds and outposts – think Great Britain and Ireland, Boston and Melbourne – invite conversation, inducing it through libation, which relaxes the mind and the tongue, provoking a blend of gab and laughter that the Irish call “the craic.” They are places where people talk easily and comfortably. And even as such encroachments as television, satellite radio, video games, lottery games and other entertainments have tried to dampen the oral tradition inside the land of taps and pints, pubs are still places where you can strike up a conversation with a stranger that you will always remember, even though you’ll probably never see the person again.

Depending on where you travel, you can find the same dynamic at work everywhere. Donut shops in Canada. Cafes in Paris. Coffeehouses in Amsterdam. No matter where you go, there will be places where locals congregate to discuss the day’s news and, maybe halfheartedly, solve the world’s problems.

In Germany, it’s the biergarten (beer garden). People gather outdoors, in some scenic landscape, at long tables, downing liters of German-style beers, eating traditional Bavarian food (heavy on sausages, breads and potatoes). They meet and eat and drink and ramble, evoking an air of casual appreciation for the simplicity of their custom. The Germans have a word for it: gemutlichkeit. There is no exact English translation, but it the word conveys a communal feeling of warmth, friendliness, good cheer and belonging. On my recent trip to Berlin and the surrounding countryside, the German word I can’t pronounce, explain or translate was certainly felt. It’s hard to describe, precisely, how soul-satisfying it is to talk and eat and drink and laugh over plates of wurst, fries and pretzels while watching barges and tourist boats (including one with a Moby Dick theme) putter down the River Spree, at the Zollpackhof Biergarten in Mitte. Or to spy crows angling to steal sauerkraut and share long tables with hipsters, artists and families at Prater Biergarten in Prenzlauer Berg, the oldest beer garden in Berlin. Or to chat about tourists and politics and nature and customs in broken English and broken German with our friend Thomas, the proprietor of a beer garden in a leisure park about 40 miles outside of Berlin. Except to say that the feelings were not unlike hanging out at my local in Warren or long-ago visits to diners from my Rhode Island youth (RIP, Wampanoag Diner). It was a sense of pleasure derived from the blending of comfort and discovery, and the recognition that, in the evolution of our human selves, this is how civilization is supposed to work.

The feelings were the same in Glasgow, where social interaction frequently occurs in pubs. These places, with their tucked-away booths and tables and elbow-to-elbow bars, lend themselves to long hours of leisurely chatter, especially when it’s raining, which is seemingly always. Being there, one understands the connection between the word “cozy” and its Gaelic etymological forebear, cosagach – another foreign word with no appropriate English equivalent, variously defined as full of holes or crevices, snug, warm, cozy or sheltered.

Earlier this year, I was in Glasgow with my friends, the Perleys, dodging raindrops and sampling Scotch in places named Oran Mor and The Pot Still. At the latter, I was thrilled to find my favorite distiller, Benromach, well represented. At one point I ordered a 22-year-old dram. The bartender double-checked to see if I wanted to spend the money, since the cost was considerable. It was my last night in Scotland, and I can’t find Benromach at any age easily in my home state, so I indulged. The entire bar watched the generous pour and eyeballed me as I lifted the glass. Out of courtesy, I waited for my friends to receive their drinks. The seated customers laughed. “Drink it up, mate,” one man said. “It’s evaporating as you stand.” I demurred. “The angels have already taken their share,” his friend chimed in. “And they’re cheap bastards.”

In Reykjavik, and around Iceland, where coffeehouses and bars abound, the most popular social gathering spots are the hot springs and public pools fed by natural geothermal water that pop up throughout the country (there are 17 public pools in Reykjavik alone). Typically, these are places where young people hang out during the afternoon, especially since there is little else for them to do, and where adults meet after work to discuss the news of the day. I went to one as part of a midnight tour (during June, when it is light always) in south Iceland, in the village of Fludir. Marketers now call it Secret Lagoon, but it was once known as Gamla Laugin, originally built in 1891, when it became Iceland’s first public swimming pool. As thermal pools became popular throughout the country, Secret Lagoon fell into disuse, and was a “secret” hangout for the land’s owner and his friends for years, until he decided to turn it into a place where tourists and locals could experience in-the-raw, authentic thermal pool swimming. Surrounded by a mottled lava field, with a range of low mountains in the distance, the hot spring is lined with natural rock and maintains a temperature of 96 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, with water bubbling up from the earth at a rate of 10 liters per second, constantly replenishing itself so that there is a steady supply of fresh, clean water in the pool.

The ritual is as follows. Men and women enter separate changing rooms, where they can store their clothes in lockers. You take off your clothes. Shower. Put on a swimsuit. Then walk out a door to a patio that leads to the pool. I ordered a beer from the bar, found a crevice that made a good bottle holder, and swam back and forth in the blue water, chatting with locals about how often they do this (“Every day”) and whether they believe in trolls (“Some things can’t be explained. When that happens, we blame trolls.”)

All of it – the nature basking, the hot spring indulgence, the trippy talk – seemed like a civilized way to end a day, even when that day, stuck as it is in midsummer in Iceland, never really ends.

 

 

A Tourist in Berlin (2017)

Before leaving Furstenberg, we enjoyed coffee and omelets at a café to the accompaniment of a bug zapper that fried flying insects with alarming regularity, producing an extended electric sizzle sound whenever one unfortunate, but surprisingly hardy, mosquito got too close. Its ability to withstand electrification was impressive, and the effect was a constant, relentless zapping sound that suggested an agony and torture borne of mosquito screams, if only we had the ears to hear it. Eventually, the racket proved too much even for the owners, who clicked off the device to return the room to silence.

After wandering the town, we geared up and left our lodging, and pedaled a short distance to a train station, where we bought single tickets for ourselves and our bikes, and waited for the train. While in the automated ticket seller line, we had another Trump discussion. A man who had helped us purchase the tickets asked where we were from.

“Near Boston,” we said, which is our go-to description whenever we leave the States, since experience has shown few people outside the U.S. have heard of New Hampshire or Rhode Island. The man shriveled his face and scowled. “I know Boston,” he said. “Leftists.” He shook his head in disgust.

“Well, if by that you mean I’m not a Trump guy, you’re right about that,” I said.

“I like him because he speaks his mind,” the man said. “Most politicians don’t do that.”

With as much courtesy as possible, we collectively suggested that speaking your mind isn’t a positive attribute when your words are divisive, polarizing, racist, bullying, sexist, homophobic, misogynistic, childish, boorish, vulgar, ignorant and calculated to give comfort to the basest of human behaviors. The man, a teacher at a Waldorf School in Berlin, disagreed, preferring Trump to Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and declaring immigration to be a plague on Germany.

“They come to Germany, and they don’t want to be German,” he said.
A young man behind him in line said, “I’m sorry, but I have to interrupt, because you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Well, why don’t you enlighten me then,” the older man said.

“Have you ever actually talked with any immigrants,” the younger man asked. “I work with refugees. All they want is to have a chance at a better life. What does it even mean to be German? Identity evolves. It’s not fixed. There is no one way to be German. The people who thought that way in the past caused a lot of suffering in the world.”

The two men continued their argument, even as the younger one was paying for his tickets, and as tempting as it was to join the debate and try to solve the world’s problems there and then, we had a train to catch to Berlin, so we apologized and abandoned the dialogue to haul our bikes down and up steps to the opposite platform. The train arrived soon after, and we rolled our bikes into the last carriage, which featured a large white symbol of a bicycle designating it for two-wheeled passengers. People lined up and secured the bikes on one side, then flipped over a seat and sat on the other. German engineering being what it is, we never felt the jostle and shake of the train as it whooshed to Berlin, seemingly floating on air.

We arrived at the “Blade Runner”-esque Berlin Central Station, took an elevator to the main floor and cycled through the city back to our origin bike shop, enduring one minor calamity when Nancy toppled over after catching a wheel in a tram line rail. She wasn’t hurt, however, and soon thereafter I bade a fond farewell to my sturdy Diamant Elan, and we took a taxi to a beer garden that Rob and I had enjoyed earlier in the week.

After lunch, we hoofed it through town, showing Nancy some of our previous sightseeing, including the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Room of Silence and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We were about a mile from our hotel when a man on a sidewalk held up a 2-liter glass and asked if we were thirsty. He was trying to attract business to his establishment, and he made us laugh as we walked past him, so Nancy decided we needed to go back. We took seats in comfortable chairs not far from the curb and told the man, yes, we will have one 2-liter beer, filled to the brim with pilsner, to share. It was about the most touristy thing we could have done in Berlin, so we lived in the moment, shooting selfies with our host, a Lebanese immigrant who spoke four languages, and chatting up various passersby, who smiled, pointed and stared wide-eyed at the size of our drinking glass.

“Do you have anything larger,” we asked. “Or is this the biggest glass we can get?”

“It’s the biggest you can get in Berlin,” our host said. “In Munich, you can drink a 3-liter beer, if you can lift the glass.”

We were the prototypical loud, laughing, attention-grabbing American tourists – certainly by now drunk enough not to care – but the host and waiters were grateful for the diversion we caused.

“You are on vacation,” our host said, reassuring us. “You’re supposed to have a good time. Some people go on vacation and never have a good time. We see them here, always yelling at each other, complaining about things, angry, walking around with frowns on their faces. I don’t think they ever have any fun.”

As we were drinking, the host from a cafe across the street ran over and said, “Six Euros for the same size.” They said they were brothers, and competed with one another for daily business. We downed the rest of our pilsner and accepted the challenge, crossing the street to the other restaurant, cozying over to the sidewalk seats and ordering another 2-liter from the other host, who immediately said, “I was just kidding about the six Euros.” We had another rollicking time trying to snare pedestrians to join in the fun. The hosts kept switching places, adding to the chaos. The other patrons, who had probably been aghast when we first swayed over, soon found themselves laughing with us, and even agreed to take our picture with our new Lebanese-German friends. We chatted about how friendly and welcoming Berlin seemed to us.

“This is a place that gets mostly tourists,” our host said. “It’s not the real Berlin.”

And in that hazy, dull-witted, frozen-smile moment, I had an epiphany about travel. It doesn’t always have to be a search for meaning or profundity or life-changing experience or fear-conquering adventure or a new way of looking at the world or a transformative encounter. There were a number of highlights during the week I spent in Berlin and surrounds, but that day, which continued into the evening in another part of town, when we were joined by my sister from England, and watched a clown perform street theater and ate dinner as rain painted the boulevard in glossy neon at a beer salon recommended to us by our daytime hosts, was one of the most giddily happy times I’ve ever had while traveling. It reinforced the idea that solo travel, family travel, partner travel and group travel all offer different dynamics of experiencing a place. And it reminded me that, when exploring the universe, sometimes it’s OK to be a tourist. Sometimes it’s OK to just open your mouth to 2-liter beers and open your heart to fake Berlin and laugh with strangers in another part of the world. Sometimes it’s OK that travel is nothing more than that.