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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Days 13-16: Yarra Valley to Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia

I get the impression that there is always another Australia under the surface, a parallel to what I can see and touch. In Bairnsdale, we saw signs for the Krowathunkoolong Keeping Place, but we did not get there when it was open. The Great Ocean Road is one of the most popular touring routes in Australia, but road work isn't done on it so it would be a nightmare to go this year, and anyway it's the school summer vacation so the roads would be jammed... In South Australia, the colony of little penguins on Kangaroo Island is closed to visitors, having been decimated by New Zealand fur seals. And Point Leo Beach has "excellent waves for surfing" but there weren't any to speak of when we went--no use for the bodyboards.

Everywhere we go, there is so much we don't see, so much more time we could spend. And then there are the Australians. Or rather, there aren't. I don't just mean indigenous Australians; I have met some people who seem to be natives of Australia, but not as many as I've met abroad. What I have met here are Canadian visitors, Greek immigrants, and English expatriates. I still don't know what Australians think of themselves, but I sure know what the expats think of them.

You see, cricket is big here, especially in Melbourne, where the Ashes have been going on. The Ashes are the burnt remains of bails (or is that biles?)--some piece of cricket gear from a long-ago match between England and Australia. The two nations play for these Ashes every two years. Right now the England team is so far behind that the match has already been won by Australia, but that doesn't mean they won't go on playing for days.

You may be familiar with the "cricket test" made famous by Norman Tebbit. Lord Tebbit held that a person could not truly belong in the U.K., specifically England, unless he supported England versus the country he or his parents had come from. This was Tebbit's way of saying that India or Pakistan supporters should go home, i.e., leave Britain.

Well, the expats here are comprehensively failing the cricket test. They are disappointed that "we" are losing--meaning England. The Australians in England, in turn, are doing exactly the same in supporting their country of origin. At least their team is winning.

As you can probably tell, cricket is not my sport, though I do know someone who plays on the Canadian national team.

We went down the Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne's playground, to Point Leo Foreshore Reserve. The peninsula itself is lovely, with vineyards, orchards, wineries--all the things we're used to driving past by now. At Point Leo Beach we swam in the Tasman Sea. For such a hot day, the water was as cold as I ever remember swimming in. It felt good once I was out and treading water, until my dogsledding toe went numb. My toes get cold more quickly than anything else, ever since I tried dogsledding four Januarys ago near Huntsville, Ontario. But that's another story.

This is Australia, where white cockatoos fly overhead during Christmas dinner and the kookaburras chatter like monkeys in the trees. Where we spotted kangaroos grazing in a field, as placidly as cattle. They were still there when we drove back, too, one bounding away from (wisely, not towards) the road.

The Christmas crackers were inexplicably Canadian and thus, instead of jokes, included printed trivia questions--in both French and English, bien sûr. If there were a Tebbit test for Canada, I'd pass it, with flying red and white.

Next stop Tasmania.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Days 10-12: Gippsland region to near Warrandyte, Victoria, Australia

"A vulgar flaunt is the flaring day,
The impudent, hot, unsparing day"
 --Sidney Lanier, 1880

Try reading poetry after some Christmas Day champagne in the sun. For that matter, try reading the Book of Revelation. The strange seems relevant and the relevant, strange, in a country where the water swirls down the drain counterclockwise and the stars appear upside-down. Of course, it is all relative. To penguins, people probably all look alike.

There are no penguins in the Gippsland Lakes, although I know there must be koalas because we smelled the eucalyptus trees all along the Lilly Pilly Gully trail. The hole in the ozone makes the sun burn the life out of you in Australia, and there are other serious environmental problems, but you'd never know it driving through, or past, one national park after another for hundreds of kilometers. I can understand why the first Europeans here, as in North America, must have thought there was no way they could ever ruin the land. They must have perceived its resources as infinite.

On our anniversary we were headed down the South Gippsland Highway towards Sale, which was nice, because we were civil-partnered at Sale Town Hall in Greater Manchester four years before. We had Christmas music playing, including "The Star Carol" which my family used to sing all together. That is the biggest thing missing, singing carols in harmony. Fortunately there were enough distractions in Victoria, "the place to be" according to the license plates. We passed through Stratford, on the Avon River, which doesn't much resemble its Shakespearean counterparts in either England or Ontario. Instead, the hay bales on hillsides reminded me at times of East Tennessee. But then, in the middle of the farm, there would be palm trees, and the spell would be broken again.

"Agnes Falls," said a place name sign. "I wish she'd stop doing that," T. said.

So we reached Wilsons Promontory, a huge national park which is the southernmost point of mainland Australia. It once was possible to walk from here to Tasmania, when the ancestors of the Kurnai and Boonwurung lived here; but did we see any of the middens (shell deposits) they've left behind on the beaches? In any case, "the Prom" made up for anything that may have gone wrong earlier in the trip, not least because now I can say T. and I finally went to the prom together. It is a 30-km drive just from the park entrance, and there the paved road ends and the trails go off in every direction. We took the Lilly Pilly Gully trail across the southern face of Mt. Bishop through stringy-bark forest. We saw evidence of living kangaroos, which was more than we'd seen so far, and an abundance of bird life, then walked through a stand of warm temperate rainforest, all in a few moderate miles.

We then took the access road to Squeaky Beach, so called because the sand is so fine that it squeaks under your feet. It had gotten a bit windy and cooler so I was wearing my Canadian Olympics sweatshirt, and so began chatting with a family from Ottawa, who are over here for five weeks before settling in New Zealand for two years. Good for them! I am sure I never exchanged "Merry Christmas" with Canadians on a beach before.

The woods were alive with birds, such as the laughing kookaburra and, among the nocturnal animals, the powerful owl. I liked the sound of that, and imagined T's David Attenborough narration: "Whatever shall we do, children? Let's ask Powerful Owl, who lives on the mountain." But it was only on our way out of the park that we stopped at a wildlife trail and came across bunches of kangaroos, placidly eating their dinner, then bounding away!

"Bah! don't hop!
            Stop!
Look at the owl, scarce seen, scarce heard,
O irritant, iterant, maddening bird!"

The Christmas decorations hanging on the lights in towns look just like those in my birthplace. Back in Tennessee, we used to joke that the possum didn't exist as a living animal, because we only ever saw the [nocturnal] species run over in the road. That is what I was beginning to think about 'roos!

Wilsons Prom is the nicest place I've seen in Australia, one of the nicest in the world. Down the road we saw signs for sheep shearing at the cricket club (!), four wineries on a single turnoff, and this gem right afterwards:
"If you drink, then drive, you're a bloody idiot."

If we thought kangaroos were hard to find in their natural state, the lodge was an even greater challenge. It was worth it in the end, though, as the view was the most panoramic I have ever seen, and the woodsy smell reminded me of one of my favorite places on earth, Algonquin. The place was bought by a couple who farm on the adjacent fields, and didn't want the place overdeveloped. As we looked across field and down the waters breaking on the beach to the misty mountains, a beautiful rainbow burst into view, as elusive as it came. As were the rabbits, one moment munching peacefully outside our window, the next vanishing as a bird of prey soared into view.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Days 7-9: New South Wales to Victoria coastal road

The national parks all along the coast are home to Aboriginal lands and middens, wild kangaroos, and beaches. Unfortunately, I have seen only the last of these, unless you count roadkill. Part of it is the time of day but the other problem is lovingly detailed maps of the parks and park areas--which you only see having driven all the way into the park. At that point, you've invariably taken the wrong access road, and of course there's no way from here to there; it's coast. So although every beach is stunning in its own way, I would advise travelers who want to see something in particular to know which road they want to take off the Princes Highway before they get there--don't look for signs. You cannot have too big or detailed a map.

Or too much money. It should be no surprise for an international city but Sydney was *expensive*. And if you thought you'd stop hemorrhaging Australian dollars when you got out into the country, think again, because I have never been as comprehensively ripped off in my life as in Marlo, at the mouth of the Snowy River. Not only did I not meet "the man from," but the lady who sold us lunch (and down Snowy River) attempted to charge more for a postcard than it would cost to mail from Australia! Which is saying something. Did I mention that this estuary area is also brimming with flies? They don't seem to bite, like Canadian blackflies, and everyone in Marlo seemed inured to them all over their clothing, bodies, babies. T. summed up Marlo with a reference to Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo, Australia's version of Lassie: "What's that, Skippy? Someone charged $100 for a bowl of soup? Who would do such a wicked thing?"

The rest of the scenic route from NSW across the Victoria state line was more than worth it, with so many national parks along the way one couldn't possibly stop at them all. In fact, I wondered, not for the first time, where all the Australians are. Working in London, I expect. It takes a lot to make London seem inexpensive but this place is doing it for me, and no wonder, with no one here but us visitors. They can see us coming a kilometer away!

The bugs that were singing as we set off on our coastal drive were unbelievably loud, as they are again three nights later. I would call them cicadas in North America. We took our time on the Grand Pacific Drive out of Sydney, which is as breathtaking as it sounds, stopping at a little fishing spot called Audley and then down the road at Garie Beach. Further on to Coledale Beach and the delightful town of Kiama, which has a blow hole (that wasn't blowing). Vineyards vied with Christmas tree farms as we made our way along the Shoalhaven River, finishing in Jervis Bay for the night. We walked along Hyams Beach, which is apparently cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the world's whitest sand.

Trying to stay with the spirit of the holidays, I put on Ella Fitzgerald's "Christmas Island" which was as appropriate a carol as one could play in this climate. "Veni Emmanuel" was playing as we drove back from the beach, and the "fingers of God" were stretching down from the clouds. One of those moments a photograph cannot capture.

There are no photographs from Pebbly Beach in the Murramarang National Park either, but that is because it is a clothing optional beach (or we made it so). There was a roadblock just out of town where the police were stopping drivers and breathalyzing them. This is normal in Australia. It was 11:00 in the morning. I have never seen anyone stopped on a British motorway for any reason, at any time, no matter if they were going 100 miles an hour or weaving in and out of lanes. So it was kind of nice to see the police at work. There are so many cutesy signs along the Princes Highway warning (in rhyme) of the dangers of falling asleep that I started to tune them out after a while, so not sure how effective that is, but the focus on safety is admirable.

Perhaps appropriate, given my snake handling in the Singapore Zoo, we stayed our second night in Eden. Along the way we picked up some fresh fruit at a roadside stand, including what I have been made fun of for calling my all time favorite food, delicious fresh peaches straight off the tree. This was at Tabourie, or, as T. thought I'd said, "Tim Hortons"! Wishful thinking maybe.

There was also some good grub to be had at Milton Heritage Bakery, dating from 1870, which is old in modern Australian terms. Having scored our second lovely motel manager in a row (this one accompanied by a lovely dog called Maggie), we made our way to the Eden Fishermen's Club a.k.a. Fisho's, which had a view, seafood, and slot machines. Not being interested in the last of these, I found Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular on TV and was perfectly content.

The best stop in Victoria so far has been Betka Beach, with a gorgeous lookout and powerful surf. This was on a detour to Mallacoota, an inlet in Croajingolong National Park. Conran Coastal Park contains the only stand of native palms in Victoria, and the road there leads you to the aforementioned Snowy River.

I have noticed one thing advertised everywhere is Devonshire tea. Scones, that is. It seems odd at this end of the world, but then, the coast is not totally dissimilar to the southwest coast of England. Except the water is not freezing, and it is summer during the holiday season. Imagine my joy at listening to Woody Guthrie's "Happy Joyous Hanukkah" as we drove along the forested Princes Highway.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day 4-6: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Lovely, yet different. That is TDT's thought on first setting foot on a new continent, Australia. The birds sing, but they sound different. Christmas carols drift up the hill, but the sun is hot and people are wearing shorts.

I can only imagine what the original inhabitants thought when Europeans first arrived in Sydney Harbour, the date now celebrated as Australia Day. On the one side, a penal colony, on the other, a people whose name, like that of the Inuit in northern Canada, simply means "people." After all they did not know there were any others. It seems that misunderstanding was mutual.

We crossed the equator and flew down the Java Sea, the majority of our flight being over Australia itself--the north coast, Alice Springs in the middle of the outback. It is a lesson in geography just to realize how near Australia is to Indonesia. The airport is at Botany Bay. Sydney is the major international gateway and seems to have the iconic places we associate with Australia--the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and Bondi Beach. The spectacular natural harbour, which so enticed Europeans, is best experienced by ferry, and features not only built-up shopping areas like Darling Harbour, but the freakishly classic Luna Park, a kind of Sydney Coney Island.

I emerged from the subway feeling like I was in Chicago--the cavernous streets and buildings were the same, but not the environment. The bright full moon is not the same angle of the moon that I see in the northern hemisphere. Imagine how far away this must have seemed in the days when ship was the only means of travel. Yet nowhere in the world now is more than a day or two apart by plane.

Just behind Luna Park is Kirribilli, where the governor apparently lives, although I will associate it more with fantastic al fresco dining. There are strange juxtapositions of culture everywhere. "Charing Cross Indian Delight takeaway"  and a didgeridoo player at Circular Quay, who seems to play the same perpetual role there as the bagpipe player does outside Edinburgh station.

From my first visit to the Pacific Ocean I knew that it is best experienced with a body board, but I didn't spend that long at Bondi Beach. Instead, we walked along the clifftops to Coogee, with spectacular views all the way from Icebergs swimming club, to Tamarama Beach, Bronte Beach, Clovelly Bowling Club and beach, Gordons Bay where the shore divers were busy, and Dolphins Point, which memorializes Australians killed in the 2002 Bali bombing. (It seems weird that Australians would go anywhere for a holiday, given that they have Australia, but I wondered the same thing when I first met European tourists visiting places like the Grand Canyon. It's always the different place that appeals!)

At several stops along the way we dipped into rock pools that use the natural sea water--delightful if you don't like sticking to the sand. At Coogee Beach was what I was told was "an ocker Aussie pub," a real pub with a "Tab" for in-pub betting. Not like England at all. Nor was the open-top bus tour where basically, if you stood up and got decapitated by a tree branch, it was your own fault, mate! Very touristy and yet strangely liberating.

The Sydney Opera House sits on Bennelong Point, named for an Aborigine who got to know the English language and civilization. Well-intended perhaps, although to his detriment. Next to this are the Royal Botanic Gardens and its sobering display "Cadi Jam Ora" ("I am in Cadi"). You walk through the gardens and a timeline about the Gadigal people who once used this as an initiation ground, finally learning about the Freedom Riders (a 1960s parallel to efforts in the U.S.A. for black citizens' equality). Then round Chinatown and the Anzac memorial, lest we forget the sacrifices of Australian and New Zealand troops during the World Wars.

Given the history of North American Indians, I can't help being reminded along the way of the people who lived in Australia tens of thousands of years before smallpox and guns arrived. Despite this history, and that of the convicts transported here, it is a sunny, chilled-out land where people work to live and know how to enjoy family time and the great outdoors. This is a massive overgeneralization and I could be roundly criticized for it, but it's my first impression--and what do you expect from a free blog?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Day 2-3: Singapore

The Discreet Traveler normally starts exploring a new city by figuring out public transit and going as far as possible that way. But Singapore is so cheap by taxi--in fact the price of everything is bizarre: a taxi ride to the top of Mt. Faber cost less than a cup of coffee in the hotel. This, our second cab driver, played "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and other songs of that era on his radio, in contrast to the Asian station the previous driver had been listening to. One thing I don't see drivers do is talking on phones, or anything like they do in other countries. Singapore has so many stern warnings about not texting, drinking, etc., and of course everything's punishable by penalties up to death, depending on whether chewing gum or drugs are involved. At Currency House, where the Singapore dollars are stored, the symbol of "no trespassing" was literally a guy with his hands up and someone pointing a machine gun at him. I didn't dare photograph this, lest I too get shot!

Once at Mt. Faber we had brunch overlooking the South China Sea. Hokkien noodles and Singapore laksa, which is a spicy noodle soup with seafood. We then walked down the Southern Ridges, a series of trails through the rainforest environment right in the middle of the built-up city state. The Henderson Waves, a suspended walkway high above the forest floor, then the elevated walk to Hort Park, where we admired an orchid while "White Christmas" surreally played in the background. At Kent Ridge Park, we took the canopy walk and ended up at Reflections at Bukit Chandu. This commemorates the brave but ill-fated resistance of the Malay Regiment "C" Company in 1942. They were resisting the Japanese Empire on behalf of the British Empire, but all too soon, Singapore fell to Japan, with brutal consequences including a hospital massacre and the rounding up of Western civilians on the island.

We had seen many signs warning of what to do if we ran into wild monkeys, but never actually saw any on this walk. Got a second wind in the evening and walked over to Chinatown, where we had seafood congee (a kind of comfort food rice porridge) and bamboo curry rice in front of the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Mosque Street (all street signs with names in Mandarin as well) runs parallel to Pagoda Street, which in turn has Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore.

An incessant loop of Kenny G Christmas songs had been playing in the hotel lobby since our arrival. We read in the news that snow covered Bethlehem, but "Winter Wonderland" and so on continued to sound surreal in the hot, clear weather of Singapore. We went to the zoo and ate breakfast in the company of orang-utans ("people of the forest" in Malay). I also spent some quality time with a corn snake and was able to see chimpanzees, busily getting at their fruit with tools, the activity which, when observed by Jane Goodall in Tanzania, caused Louis Leakey to remark that humanity was going to have to be redefined.

The Singapore Zoo is the greenest and most free-ranging I have ever seen. The orang-utans leap overhead and heaven help you if you are standing in the wrong place! It is sad to see white tigers in captivity (not that there'd be any left otherwise), although comforting that the exhibit is sponsored by Tiger beer, since we've been swilling it the whole trip. Including at the famous Long Bar of Raffles Hotel, where the less appetizing Singapore sling was invented. Other colonial remnants of Singapore's past include the cenotaph by the Singapore River, a memorial to the First World War dead when it was still the Straits Settlements.

This country is very green, not only in terms of plant life, but different recycling containers--more than many Western cities can manage. And what a pleasure it is ("loos I have known") to refresh oneself in what is usually a clean bathroom in a garden setting! Asia, and the rest of the world, have a long way to go in terms of the environment but at least Singapore is trying. Which reminds me, The Discreet Traveler needs to offset the carbon footprint of our long-haul air travel.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

As good as it gets

Of all the lines from films I have seen, the one I quote to myself most often--pretty much every morning when I get in to work--is from Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets. Nicholson's character walks into a waiting room of patients like himself, and asks aloud, "What if this is as good as it gets?"

It's a threat, but it's also a promise. This life that we have right now is as good as it gets. For me, travel is one way of making the most of it. I never thought, for example, that I would ever board a cruise ship; it seemed as far away as I could imagine from my style of independent traveling. But, after twelve days of everyone making me feel wonderful, all my fellow passengers being relaxed and friendly, and exploring wonderful new ports every day, I would do it again!

If you ever find, as I did, that there is a cruise going to a whole bunch of places you've always wanted to visit, there is probably no better way to visit them all. You will spend money on the trip but I've never gotten such value for money--there was not one thing I didn't enjoy. The one practical tip I have is to steer clear of the all-inclusive drinks packages (soft or otherwise)--waste of money. No one could, or should, drink enough to make them cost-effective, and cruise ships are cashless anyway, so where's the convenience?

I am not trying to convert, though. I am under no illusion of being on a missionary journey, like the apostle Paul. My attempts to shoehorn Paul into every stop of a pleasure cruise continued: I asked a gentleman I met on this trip, whose voice reminded me uncannily of my Grandpa's, if Paul had been to Rhodes, and Grandpa must have been up all night looking for the answer because the next day he told me: Acts 21:1. "Remember that!"

Happiness is sitting in the breezy shade of one's own back deck, sailing up the Ionian Sea. I have watched some spectacular sunsets in my life, but never before actually captured that elusive instant when the sun disappears behind the horizon. That night, I saw the red ball "drop" into the Adriatic. The next morning we sailed into Venice and began to explore.

The island of Murano is known for glassmaking, Burano for lace, but hardly any Burano women make lace anymore. In a generation even the one we saw (cameras snapping all around her; how can she work?) will probably not be there. The real beauty of that island is its wonderful little houses painted in bright primary colors. It was a contrast to Piazza San Marco and the famous basilica, not to mention the Palazzo Ducale (Doges' Palace), whose balcony looks out over the Grand Canal. This stunning view was roped off for some kind of special event, but we climbed over and pleaded ignorance long enough to see it for ourselves. It was Italy, after all, not the land of rule enforcement.

I had wanted to see the Ponte dei Sospiri for more than twenty years, ever since seeing Oxford's own Bridge of Sighs, which is over a road. Walking through it kind of defeats the point, though. Venice is a place I could spend a lot more time, a lot less rushed. The obligatory ripoff gondola ride barely shows you a bit of one canal, and there are so many.

Fireworks over the harbor of Venezia--what for? Who knows! It would have been the perfect end to the trip, except, of course, we had to get to Marco Polo Airport the next day. We went by way of Padova and its Basilica di Sant'Antonio. Having experienced Venice and Padua in summertime, I don't think people should be so put off by the climate of Canada in winter...

One more limone gelato for the road, or the sky. How I wished we were going by ship! Marco Polo Airport is not recommended, not least because one can't check in early and there is really nowhere indoors to wait at all, or anything to do. Not much of a complaint perhaps, but this after an entire trip of which I enjoyed every moment, on which absolutely nothing went wrong. I did get a kick out of the airplane pilot. Not only was "Captain Tracy" a woman--still unusual in my flying experience--but she made announcements in Italian as well as English. I was impressed.

Moments like these make up a journey, and, if we are blessed, a life too. I plead now, as I do every year, for us all not to miss these moments, the free ones as well as those that are money well spent. I am absolutely confident that we will not get to the end of our lives and care about our appraisals at work. What the people who loved us will share, then, will be pictures, memories of good times we spent together. And things that made them laugh.

I am not sure I am becoming a "hedonist," as T. would have it, but as Anne of Green Gables said, "I withheld not my heart from any joy" is biblical too. Don't miss a sunset; you never know when you'll get another one like it. Happy Holidays--every one of them!

Around the world in 50 days

The Discreet Traveler and companion are going around the world in 50 days. It would not normally be discreet of me to publish in advance that I’m going, but in this case, we have someone staying to look after our house (no, really) and you don't want to mess with her. Do you know the expression "shoot you soon as look at you"?

This is mainly a trip to Australia, which The Discreet Traveler has never visited before. It is Round-the-World in the sense that there are five main flight legs: from Europe to the Middle East (just changing planes), to southeast Asia, to Australia, to the west coast of North America, and finally back to Europe. It's a long way to go, which is partly why we're breaking it up; but don't be put off. Just in the past couple of weeks I've heard of two different women over 80 years old having a jaunt out to Australia, and that's from Britain, a brutal distance away. Let me remind you: If you have an opportunity, take it. Don't think you'll come back and get it later. Man, I'm still mourning a laptop case on that principle...

So: Day 0-1: London to Singapore via Dubai

This morning The Discreet Traveler was further east than I had ever been before. In British pronunciation Dubai sounds like "Jew-bai," which is ironic, because Jews are banned from the United Arab Emirates. Oh wait--so are homosexuals. We had to change planes there because Qantas, the Australian airline, has sold its soul to Emirates, so we got out of Dubai airport as fast as we could, consoling ourselves with the reputation of Emirates as a first-class airline. Nothing special about it at all, in fact. I haven't been served so little food and drink since the lately departed "Ted," United's "express" airline that would fly you three hours across the U.S.A. with nothing. There were metal utensils and real napkins, though, and an actual glass on Qantas, which did remind me of a more civilized era of air travel.

The flight from London was a reminder of just how small Europe is, as we crossed almost all of it in a couple of hours. Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania, then across the Black Sea, Turkey and Iraq. Having made our connection, we breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed the Gulf of Oman and over to India, and down the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This is also TDT's first visit to Asia, and, while male homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore, female is not even acknowledged (both a British Empire legacy). It was a bit of a throwback to the 1980s coming out to the front desk clerk; fortunately, Singapore hoteliers are as discreet as the traveler!

I don't know about Judaism, either, but the other major world religions are well represented in Singapore, with mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and various churches all cheek by jowl (in fact I saw a Catholic church that could have been a mosque for its white minarets--you could only tell by the small crosses rather than crescents). I have never gotten through an airport so quickly and efficiently as at Changi, even much smaller ones; nor have I seen more Christmas decorations anywhere. Singapore is Malay, Indian, Chinese, and English, and the reindeer and ornaments together with palm trees and orchids make for a rather surreal tropical combination.

Could not complain about the trip, other than jet lag, but enjoyed a local meal at Pin Wei Xuan, involving chili crab and something called "God Bless You," which I think was a play on its three main ingredients in Chinese. Potato, capsicums, and what I only told T. later was eggplant (aubergine), once she'd safely enjoyed it!


Sunday, December 1, 2013

The very old donkey, and other tales of Greek islands

There are two harbors in Rhodes: the commercial harbour (where you can easily walk on and off the ship) and Mandriki Harbor, which is where the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, once stood. In case it was not clear from my last post, I recommend Rhodes. If you want history, there is St. Paul’s Gate and the Square of the Hebrew Martyrs; if you want gelato, I had the best frozen yogurt of my life, with honey and nuts. If you want to be out on a boat, really feeling the waves and the cool sea breeze, 6 euros will get you a glass-bottomed boat tour (ignore the glass bottom) and half an hour around the harbors, with views of the best-preserved inhabited medieval city. Our boat guy was playing Bob Marley the whole time and rolling a cigarette; we half wondered if it was a spliff and he’d be passing it around!

Our next island was Santorini—named after St. Irene by the Italians, but called Thira by the Greeks. A funny thing happened waiting for the cable car at the top: we befriended a couple from Tasmania and, by the time we reached the harbor a couple of minutes later, we were invited to their pub at the end of the Sydney–Hobart boat race (a future post, perhaps?) The friendliness of people on this trip, in fact, is unrivaled in my recent experience; I lost track of all the places in Canada and the U.S.A. folks came from, but one woman had been, like me, a Paralympics volunteer—sledge hockey, Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.

Pointed across the Sea of Crete at Santorini, it occurred to me that every day I saw something more beautiful than the day before. Took a “pirate boat” to two uninhabited volcanic islands in the middle of the submerged caldera (collapsed volcano). We hiked the first, Nea Kameni, seeing the smoking sulfur holes and feeling the heat within. Then we sailed to Palia (Old) Kameni, where I had to fulfil a bet I’d made. I’d been working out, you see (delighted when some big man left a weight machine and I didn’t have to adjust the weight), and said that if T. came to the gym I would jump into the sea. So, at Palia Kameni I jumped off the boat and swam to the thermal springs area. 

Pretty much the entire journey, T. had been talking about how awful it was to ride a donkey up to the top of Santorini thirty years before. What do you suppose she wanted to do the moment we arrived at Fira? “If it’s good enough for the Holy Mother, it’s good enough for me,” T. said, and proceeded to clamber onto, she swore, the same donkey that had tried to throw her off all the way up in the 1980s! “You would have hated every minute of it!” she assured me joyfully.

I certainly recommend the clifftop town, which has truly breathtaking views, but I can testify that the cable car does just as well. And it’s much faster, so I waited at the top with a lady from West Virginia, whose granddaughters had made the donkey decision too. I saw her again…

If possible, an even more stunning view is the starry sky at night. I grew up in the country, yet have never seen stars so numerous and bright, ever.

The southern coast of Crete is as close to Libya as the northern coast is to mainland Greece. The history is sobering too: after more than two thousand years on the island, the Jewish community of Crete was finally obliterated when the last surviving Cretan Jews, some two hundred people, died on a German boat—sunk by the British. That’s war for you.

The Mediterranean was more peaceful where we were swimming, at Costa Costa Beach. I’ve never walked on such soft sand. The town, Hania on the northwest coast, has Byzantine buildings, a Venetian lighthouse, and a mosque that has been closed since the Turks were “relocated” in 1923. You can’t get away from history in this region. Even Paul had another cameo here, where, in the Acts of the Apostles, he warned his ship’s crew of the shipwreck to come on Malta.

What impressed me most about this journey was the cleanliness and friendliness of everyone, beginning from Rome. In the Mediterranean, we were treated like adults, instead of constantly being regulated. The contrast with life under the nanny state is hard to miss. We can choose to swim, dive, hike, etc. and take our own risks. Even ride an obstreperous donkey that should have long since retired.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The L Word

I said "girlfriend" recently, as in "my girlfriend." It was full of affection, but I was corrected by a gay man. Surely I didn't mean girlfriend, he said. Implicit in this was the assumption--to me, a straight assumption--that a girlfriend is not a significant other. For that, he wanted the word.

Whereas I like girlfriend. Girlfriend isn't insignificant; it means we're still dating, still having fun! Wow, haven't politics changed.

Twenty-five years ago, Betty Berzon published Permanent Partners. She wrote about the daring and fortitude of gay and lesbian couples who lived in committed relationships for years. They did so, not only without any legal recognition (even “domestic partnerships” were rare then), but often without social recognition. Their families of choice might be supportive, but in the larger world, the relationships were closeted. Even many gay people tended to assume, in those days, that relationships didn’t last, and to ask “Are you and X still together?” when they would not have asked this of a heterosexual wife or husband.

Fast forward to 2013 and a growing number of the United States have same-sex marriage. Gays and lesbians have the option (not the obligation) to commit to the same legal rights and responsibilities as any other couple. Many have embraced an equivalence to heterosexual marriage that was undreamed of in Betty Berzon’s world. Commitment ceremonies, yes, but not weddings. And would a gay or lesbian person ever refer to their “husband” or “wife”?

I don’t miss inequality or persecution. I have as much fun at a wedding as anybody else. Sometimes I even call what we had a “wedding,” because other people do and, well, it’s just easier. They mean well. They are being supportive, saying that my relationship is equal to a traditional marriage. And I love them for that.

But what really lights my fire is the radical, the dissenting voice. The different. The self-determining. And for this, nothing beats lover for me.

Roberts’ Rules of Lesbian Living states: “The word lover is always more than straight people really want to know.” Not apologizing for that is part of being different. Lover means something different to straight people; but it was our word. It is sexual, liberated. Queer.

To some extent, partner works this way in the U.S.A. If an American has a “partner,” that tends to mean a same-sex partner. But this is not true in other countries. You can buy a “Happy birthday to my partner” card in Britain, but it isn’t a gay card. It isn’t there to make us feel included. Most “partners” in this country are long-term heterosexual couples, who just don’t choose to get married.

Betty Berzon thought that partner was an imperfect term, and I agree. I still think it sounds like we opened a dry-cleaning business together. The thing about America, though, is that same-sex marriage is important there because marriage is important there. America is essentially a conservative country, and marriage is a conservative institution.

In the U.S., it still is not typical to have a “partner” if you are of the opposite sex. It somehow is not real enough, committed enough, until you marry that person. No wonder same-sex marriage has become the be-all and end-all of equality in that country.

I believe everyone should have that choice, no doubt about it, but I am troubled by the belief that marriage is what proves we have arrived as equal citizens. Gay and lesbian Americans can still be fired, lose their homes or custody of their children for being who they are. Gays and lesbians who are not in a relationship, or not interested in getting married, are also our community. We can dance at your wedding without ever acquiring a wife.

So hats (and other things) off to lovers, people. I love lover, for the very reason it is too much information for some. It is our word. We chose it. Just as we chose our lovers, and the way we built relationships with them, piece by piece, without the wholesale support of society or law.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ruins

This past June The Discreet Traveler was fortunate enough to travel to various parts of Greece and several ancient sites including Efes--the biblical Ephesus--in Turkey. I went along on the lofty pretext of discovering places where the apostle Paul had voyaged, according to the New Testament. Things started off badly, though, in a pub quiz the night before we docked at Piraeus, when the questions were of this "guess what it stands for" type: 39 BOTOT. Imagine my horror when I didn't get this answer--39 Books Of The Old Testament. Some pilgrim I was! 

I was traveling in the company of three companions who have all traveled more widely than I have, been in these parts of the world before, and decades ago. So they have been regaling me, in Italy and Greece, with stories about how much better Europe was in the 1970s, when of course I wasn't there. "You used to be able to walk right up to St. Peter's in Rome," they say, "no lines." "Oh man, I remember when I was first here, you could walk right up and break pieces off the Parthenon! Must be why it's roped off now!" This happened at ruin after ruin, and I could only be grateful that they were roped off, or we'd be in the position of Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, watching his devout companions hack bits off every biblical site they visited. 

I was suitably impressed by the Acropolis, the ancient Agora, Hadrian's Arch, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus; I wish I'd had more time in Athens and would love to use it as a future base for visiting more of mainland Greece. What I couldn't find an answer for was why there were dogs everywhere. I mean everywhere, even portraits of dogs (dressed up in clothes) on the walls of a café. They were as ubiquitous as the cats in the Upper Barraka Gardens of Malta. We were touring Athens on our own, but there was a guide on the bus and I asked her about the dogs. She said not to worry about them, they are the responsibility of the municipality and I should see the cats on the Greek Islands! Or, as it turned out, in Turkey.

Turkey was different, not least because the ruins were just there, for anyone to see and walk through. Unlike the Parthenon, people must not have started breaking chunks off the ruins of Ephesus yet, so it is possible to walk down the Curetes Way, a complete Roman street through an entire ruined city, see the Library of Celsus, and walk into the Great Theatre where Paul preached in the Book of Acts. In other words, it was the way everyone kept telling me Greece and Rome used to be, because the nomadic Turks didn't build over the ancient sites, leaving them there. We also went to Milet (Miletus), where Paul gave his farewell speech, and Magnesia, a ruin so newly dug up we appeared to be doing it a favor by visiting it. 

At Didyma, I stood in the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, magnificently pagan, and listened to the muezzin's call to prayer from the mosque across the street. I cannot say what the rest of Turkey is like, but I would love to go back and see for myself.

The Greek island of Rhodes is closer to Turkey than it is to mainland Greece. Rhodes has had layer upon layer of cultures: the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, the Church of Our Lady of the Verge, and the new synagogue, rebuilt by survivors, are all within a short distance of each other within the old walled city. The Jewish quarter makes a somber impression, because during wartime occupation, two thousand Jews were deported to Nazi camps; only fifty survived. 

Except for the glorious weather (in Greek mythology, Rodos was the bride of Helios, the sun), there could not have been a greater contrast with the island of Mykonos. We spent a hedonistic day at gay- and family-friendly Elia Beach. It may be possible to get over the blues of the Aegean Sea or the joy of swimming in it, but I wasn't able to. There was a mom--in her 80s--and her five grown daughters along for the trip, and she and one daughter were the very first to whip their tops off and plunge into the cold water. That's what I want to be like when I grow up.

The mark of a good vacation: I wrote in my journal, "I hardly ever think about work, England, or even e-mail, and when I do I don't give a damn."





Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The eleventh tip

Thanks to reader M. for pointing out an additional tip for The Discreet Traveler. If you are a person of color, or your name or origin suggests "global south," I am sure this is not news to you:

11. Racial profiling is very, very real. It does not matter what passport you hold or who you're traveling with. If you look or have a name that might belong to a certain nationality or region of the world, expect to be marked for searches wherever you go.

Sad, but true.

Through no merit of my own, I have the privilege of not experiencing this sort of profiling, but on a much lower level, I can sympathize. I have often run up against a disbelief in, even contempt for, acquired nationality. Today, for instance, yet another British person told me "You're not really Canadian," meaning I was born and grew up somewhere else.

I am not quite sure why it is so important to some people to pigeonhole me as one nationality or the other, the way people need to know if a baby is a boy or a girl. Does this person deny the Canadianness of the woman upstairs, who was born in Romania and still sounds Romanian? But this woman and I have Toronto and Canada Day in common, even both took classes from George Brown College.

I said, Well I was Canadian when I moved to the United Kingdom and registered to vote. Commonwealth citizens who live in the UK can vote in elections here; Americans cannot. And I was Canadian when I exchanged my Ontario driver's license for a UK one, something I couldn't have done with a U. S. license.

I was even Canadian during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, when, like other Torontonians from all over the world, I cheered Canada's hockey teams (women's and men's) to gold medal victories. I wasn't a citizen yet. I didn't have a Canadian passport. But I had pride in a country that I had chosen, and the only country that has ever chosen me.

So yes, some people will question who or what you are, no matter how hard you have worked to achieve it. I guess they don't realize that someone who has gone through a lot to become American or Canadian--maybe even British--may value their new country more than many do who just happen to have been born some place.

Whether you are African-American, Syrian-Canadian, or Pakistani-British, the Discreet Traveler is sorry that the world is this way. Tip: Let's make it better.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Top 10: Crossing borders

UK colleague, approaching U.S. immigration officer with her then-fiancé.
IO: What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?
UK: For a holiday, plus, we're getting married while we're here.
IO: Do you have any intention of staying longer than you're allowed to?
UK (looking at him like he is a nutjob): And pay for health care?!
IO: Good point. Next!
This same colleague, on another occasion, was asked by the U.S. IO what she did back in the UK. She was a bank manager. I guess the IO decided someone who was a bank manager in the UK was unlikely to harbor secret ambitions to work in her cousin’s gas station in America.

One of the key goals of The Discreet Traveler is to visit different countries, as easily as possible. The first step in doing this is usually “immigration”—the officers who are in charge of letting people into their country, or not. These officers are called various things depending on where they are in the world. For the purposes of this post, immigration officer (IO) refers to them.

If you’re a typical traveler, you’re just planning to visit a different country from where you live, not “immigrate” there. So it may not make sense to think of going through “immigration.” The first step of your trip, though, is getting into that other country, and these are the guys (and gals) who will let you in, or have the power to keep you out of it. Since many different rules and unwritten understandings govern the way IOs do their job, and your goal is to get past them quickly and lawfully, it will save you much time and heartache to think the way they do.

If you’ve traveled a lot, and had many different experiences at many different borders, some of them are bound to have been less pleasant than others. You may have developed views about IOs in general, or those of one country in particular, that are less than positive. You may even believe that many of the laws and regulations of international travel are ridiculous, that people should be freer to travel than we currently are—and The Discreet Traveler has sympathy for these views. Nonetheless, thinking like an IO, no matter how contrary to your personal opinions, will make your life easier. It is for that reason that I have these tips for you here—not because I necessarily agree with them.

An IO thinks in a certain way because it is his or her job. IOs have a great deal of individual discretion to let you into a country, or not. Having a visa, or a visa waiver, or a passport from a particular country does not guarantee that the country you’re visiting will let you in—only the IO can decide this. You can think this system is fair or not. The point is, make your life easier by acknowledging the way IOs do their job.

They are called immigration officers because their default position is to assume that you are immigrating. Again, you may think this is ridiculous—you have a perfectly nice country to go home to, do they really think everyone in the world wants to immigrate to their country, etc. Nonetheless, it is up to you to convince the IO that you are not immigrating (unless, of course, you are, and have the proper visa for that) Take a deep breath, and look at your situation the way the IO does. How do you look to him or her?

The other thing to remember is that The Discreet Traveler recommends discretion—not dishonesty. Answering the questions the IO asks, and not volunteering all sorts of other information, will save both of you time. Answering a question less than truthfully could, if the truth is uncovered later, get you in more trouble than the original answer. Of course it is none of the IO’s business, but that’s the point—they can ask you anything; you have no rights at their border. 

Top 10 tips:

1. Assume that those around you, unless they have gone through immigration themselves, do not know correct information about their country and its policies. Expect to have to research this yourself, from official sources. Expect your friends to be surprised when they learn of your experiences.

2. Assume that it will be harder to get into a country than you think. Expect to have to apply for something, or pay for something, ahead of time. Expect to have to provide evidence, and pack it in your hand luggage. Be pleasantly surprised if it turns out you don’t need this.

3. Be prepared, and therefore relaxed. Even though you might be tired from a long trip, relax and be pleasant to the IO. There is always the chance s/he will reciprocate. A tense or confrontational person is the most likely to get grilled, regardless if you have any bad intentions or anything to hide.

4. Countries are different. U.S. and Canadian passport holders rarely attract any attention at all from European IOs, except for the United Kingdom, which pays a great deal of attention to people at the border. The U.S. reserves the right to give everybody a hard time, including its own citizens. Other countries may have legal and cultural aspects, for example on homosexuality, that require extra care or may even deter you from traveling there. Think these things through and decide in advance how to approach the IO (lawfully and honestly). Don’t just turn up at a border and grandstand, unless your purpose is not to get into the country (ever), but rather to publicize something politically.

5. Every experience is different. Every IO has discretion to do his/her job differently from the next person. You will stand in one line one time, fill out different forms different times, etc. Sometimes you will be made to feel welcome in a country you’ve never visited before, and sometimes your own country (or one of them) will treat you rudely. Just keep breathing and treat it as part of the adventure. Your only objective is to get in, and if the IO happens to be friendly and make it a pleasant experience, that is a bonus.

6. Satisfy the IO that you can enter the country. If you need a visa, have it, and open your passport to that page. If you need a visa waiver, get it in advance and carry a printed copy just in case. If your passport allows visa-free travel, know that—and appreciate it! Some nationalities rarely get that opportunity.

7. Satisfy the IO that while you’re visiting, you will behave consistently with the terms of a visitor’s visa (or whatever you have). Unless you have a work permit, the IO wants to know that you will not be undertaking work of any kind, not online, not even volunteer (check the immigration laws of the country in advance). If you’re traveling on business, make sure it covers whatever training or meetings you’re going to do. If you’re visiting friends, know where they live, and be honest about your relationship with them. The IO doesn’t really care, but if you don’t know anything about these “friends,” you might be suspected of making them up.

8. Satisfy the IO that you’ll leave when you’re supposed to. A return or onward ticket is extremely helpful to have (printed out), though not always possible. A home, job, family to go back to is useful to be able to demonstrate. If you can’t point to anything that ties you to another country, the IO may decide you are a risk to overstay, especially if you do have ties to the country you’re visiting—a girlfriend or boyfriend, for example.

9. All these tips assume that you do intend to abide by the laws of the country you are visiting (even if you disagree with them), and leave when you are supposed to, and that you are telling the IO the truth. If you choose not to do any of these things, please know that it is not recommended. Not only from an honesty point of view, but pragmatically. You are more likely to have problems, both now and in the future, if an IO thinks you have lied.

10. When, as will happen, you learn better and some other traveler makes a naïve mistake that could have been easily avoided if s/he had known in advance what you know, be compassionate to those travelers. Their intentions may have been honorable and they have had a bad experience. Try to help them for the next time, not blame them for their previous mistakes.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The good citizen

I came across an obituary in the Toronto Star. It was for L. Col. Paul Tuz, a member of the Order of Canada. I met Paul Tuz when he presided over my citizenship ceremony in 2005. He'd served in HM Forces, as the President of the Better Business Bureau, and as the Hon Consul General of Mali.

It is because of Paul Tuz that I'm a Canadian today. Not literally because he swore me in, but because of what he told us about citizenship.

Paul Tuz was not born a Canadian citizen either. He was born in Austria in 1929. When Hitler annexed his birthplace nine years later, Austria decided that citizenship was a right that could be taken away. At least, from those who, like Paul Tuz, had Jewish ancestors.

But he left Austria behind, surviving the war and making his life in Canada. "You're lucky," he told us new Canadians. "Canada doesn't require you to give up your original citizenship. My daughter, for example, was born in the United States, so she's an American and a Canadian citizen."

It felt good, at the very hour I became Canadian, to be reminded of my own situation. It felt good that Paul Tuz acknowledged both my citizenships as an example.

He carried a diplomatic passport from Mali in his service to that country. And he, like us, had become Canadian. His wife was originally from Mexico. One country could not contain Paul Tuz!

Austria didn't come up again until one of his children, seeking the opportunity to live and work in the European Union, asked about getting an Austrian passport. It was while looking into this that he discovered Austria had never restored his citizenship.

"Are you serious?" he said to the Austrian official. "All these years after the Nazi era, and I'm still not an Austrian citizen? I'm calling Time magazine and telling them Hitler is alive and well in Austria today!"

He left in anger, only to be called by his wife. She told him there was a message on the phone in German, which she didn't understand.

"Herr Tuz," the message said, "this is the Austrian consulate. Please come back right away--your passport is ready!"

After Paul Tuz's story, we pledged our loyalty to our new country and sang "O Canada." I attempted it in French, since the opening lines, "O Canada! Land of our forefathers," is more accurate than the English "Our home and native land." I wasn't born in Canada, but my great-great-grandfather was. I am Canadian–American.

Then we had our picture taken with the maple leaf flag and Paul Tuz CM. Because 2005 was the Year of the Veteran (Année de l'ancien combattant), we also got pins with a poppy on them, in memory of the Second World War ending sixty years before.

Citizenship is about service. Maybe where we're born, maybe where we serve in the armed forces or the business community or the diplomatic corps. On that day, I learned a new meaning of citizenship--wherever we serve.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The World Ends in Las Vegas

Las Vegas surprised me. I'd never thought it would hold any appeal to me as a travel destination, since gambling holds no appeal. Twenty years ago I was in Monaco and avoided the Monte Carlo casino; if I'd  wanted to throw money away while watching naked women, I could get undressed in front of a mirror and pitch my francs out the window. I've since placed a few bets, in various contexts, and it's left me stone cold. In Las Vegas, what else is there to do?

On this particular trip, in May 2011, someone had put up billboards in the United States announcing the end of the world. Like so many things about the U.S., this is hard to explain. It's partly that there are so many people some of them are bound to be taken in by almost anything, and partly the almost limitless space that can be put to advertising use. This combination makes for regular panics about the end of the world. It also, of course, explains Las Vegas.

I didn't convert to gambling but I enjoyed walking down the Strip, hanging out watching T. throw her money away play, and getting the odd free drink (though this didn't happen nearly often enough). I also enjoyed things I didn't expect to, such as people smoking indoors in Nevada, even cigars. I wouldn't ordinarily enjoy smoke anywhere, but being back in an environment where people were free to do so made me somewhat nostalgic.

Freedom, in fact, was the word that came to mind. Freedom to gamble and whore and "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," of course, but more than that, a relaxed attitude that really refreshed me. In trying to figure out why, I realized how debased a word freedom had become since 2000, which happens to be the last year I lived in America. Freedom became associated with the pretty much non-stop war footing the country has been on in the past twelve years. "Freedom" is why we put up with naked-body scanners and our e-mails being read, kill citizens with drones, force-feed prisoners and throw away the key, as well as the thousand little indignities of travel that have been the legacy of the Bush administration (and which Obama has, in too many cases, enhanced or continued). Whatever freedom is, it sure isn't much fun anymore.

By contrast, Las Vegas is all about fun. Apart from the odd ghastly-looking zombie who's been up all night hitting the same slot machine, everybody I see there always seems relaxed. "Good luck!" is the standard greeting, even from other visitors. Ever since I first emigrated, I've been struck on my return trips to the States by how much more people talk to you there, how they smile and say "Have a nice day!"; what seemed like insincere customer-service speak before is a nice change now that I don't get it in my day-to-day life. If America in general feels like this, Las Vegas is America to the extreme.

I cannot know how different the U.S.A. really is from how it was in the twentieth century, when I still lived there. But others' observations have strengthened my suspicion that the country I grew up in is gone. It was open, friendly, trusting (some would say naïve) in a way that it hasn't been since September 11. I don't remember seeing military everywhere I traveled in America, or the low-level anxiety. We knew that there were terrorists, of course, but mostly, growing up, I assumed that foreigners just wanted to come and live in America, not blow it up.

Las Vegas still feels like that to me. People from all over the world, even Europe, come to gaze at the fake Eiffel Tower and pyramids. There are bargains to get to Las Vegas, because they want everyone to spend money in the casinos themselves, and so travelers are its lifeblood, not feared or hated. Vegas is gaudy, unapologetic, fifty years behind the times--in the sense of a time when America was booming, its self-perception unshaken. The irony is that Vegas sits in a desert so godforsaken it was used for above-ground nuclear tests, weapons of mass destruction that were designed for foreign enemies, but killed and scarred generations of Americans instead. With this decades-old backdrop of terror, maybe Vegas is just the city of nothing to lose.

So, three o'clock in the afternoon Vegas time (not that there are any clocks) the world was going to end. I'd forgotten all about this, because shortly before the time, we were enjoying a pool party the like of which I'd never experienced when I actually was a young woman. So I was living it up in the pool, surrounded by people holding bottles of beer, when the d.j. announced "End of the world drinks, two for the price of one!" I didn't know what he was talking about. I swam away from the bar.

When the hour had passed, the d.j. told us the world hadn't ended after all. This being Vegas, everyone cheered and bought drinks anyway. T. was a little miffed when I got back to our deck chairs. "I can't believe the world was going to end and you went swimming and left me here alone!"

But that's Las Vegas. Carefree. Believe me, if I am around for the end of the world, a pool with a bar is exactly where I want to be.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

First world problems: Introducing Bob and Paddington

After the euphoria of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling (see below), reality must be setting in for a lot of couples. Here in London, for example, there are many binational couples--one partner from the U.S.A., the other British or from a third country. We have made our homes outside the U.S.; we have lives here. Some of the Americans, though, must always have been waiting to go "home," and will be making plans to take their partners with them.

This is not very romantic (and devil's-advocate) of me, but I imagine not every non-U.S. partner is thrilled about this. Immigration in Western industrialized nations always seems based on the premise that everyone on earth would like to live there. So at the U.S. border, every foreigner is treated as a suspected immigrant, the more so if s/he is from the "global south" (i.e., not the industrialized West). And it seems assumed that all Americans with foreign partners are only living abroad, in "exile," because outdated U.S. law forced them to.

Were there not British (or Canadian or other "first world") partners who said over the years, "Sure, honey, I'd move to America with you, but I CAN'T"? Suppose this is the case for our hypothetical (male) couple: a U.S. citizen named Bob Caygeon, and his British partner, Paddington Bear (as in Bear with me). Is not Paddington saying silently to himself now, "Oh, sh*t. I didn't really mean it"?

Equality only means we now have all the same complications as opposite-sex binational couples. It does not solve the problem of where the jobs are, how far we live from our families, or what degree of cultural difference we are willing to put up with.

If Bob has gotten used to a healthcare system, or a low level of gun violence, or a generous allowance of vacation time, he may not be interested in moving to the U.S. now. If, on the other hand, he doesn't get to see his young (or old) family members often enough, or he's never really adapted to life overseas, he now has the job of convincing Paddington to make the same sacrifices that he has made all these years.

In a way, this is a nice problem to have. It means we are free and equal. It means we will have the same opportunities, and the same risks, as straight people who have fallen in love with someone from another country. We can visit the U.S. as a family and be ourselves at the border. It still doesn't mean we might not have a bad experience or someone who hassles our partner, but it won't be because they're the same sex--it will be because they are foreign.

And, importantly, it will depend on how foreign they are. Does Paddington, for example, look Peruvian, or was he born in Peru? Citizens of the global south, let us never forget, have a harder time doing pretty much everything. Even if they get the chance to travel, it must be hard to be looked at so often with suspicion, of trying to overstay a visa or commit a crime or heaven knows what.

"First world problems" are defined as problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that "third worlders" would probably roll their eyes at. For those Americans, and our families, now debating which privileged country is best to live in, we are blessed to have such a first world problem.

There are over two hundred countries on earth, and most don't recognize same-sex partnerships at all, or even criminalize them. The change in U.S. law is a first world problem for some of us. For other families, it is lifesaving.

Paddington and Bob will appear in a future episode of The Discreet Traveler. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The irony has entered my soul

My bilingual evening in the pub was about half successful. On my right, most of our multinational party was gamely attempting to speak French. I find my confidence in another language takes a great leap when I'm in a pub rather than a classroom, so I was chatting away about my Fête du Canada experience in Trafalgar Square.

I was sampling a beer called Naked Ladies (not nearly as nice as it sounds) when the man and woman on my left began to engage me in English conversation. They understood enough French to take me for a Canadian, which I guess explains why they launched the following topic: how Americans don't get irony.

Where does this idea come from? I've heard it a lot on this particular sojourn in England, but I was never aware of this misconception when I lived in Oxford. Possibly because Oxford is full of sarcastic Americans speaking ironically all the time.

Everyone in my family, and most of my American friends, not only use irony and sarcasm, but have a difficult time not doing so. We of course do know people who don't "get" sarcasm. They are called stupid.

No, I'm just being sarcastic--see what I did there? But honestly, I was in a bind as to how to respond. If I "came out" as an American, and expressed any sort of annoyance at this patently false observation, I was only going to prove their point. Americans, the man said with confidence, take everything literally and therefore are offended. They don't know when someone is taking the p*ss. (NB: I never heard that expression before this round in England either--"to mock, tease, ridicule, or scoff"--but I certainly knew how to do it!)

So finally, I turned to them both and said, "Have you ever met my mother?"

Because my mom, and I mean this as the highest compliment, is the most ironic person I have ever heard. Her path, on which the rest of us are set for life, is to never say anything straight if there is any possible way to be sarcastic about it. We cannot even help it. Glimpses of this can be found in my fiction: "He's ugly" means "What a good-looking guy." "Brilliant" does not mean (as it does in England) "great, thanks," it means, "what a stupid thing to do." (Come to think of it, so does "Great, thanks.")

The guy said, "Why? Is your mother English?"

"No," I said, "she's American!"

Friday, June 28, 2013

Proud

For anyone who doesn't know, the U.S. Supreme Court has been busy this week. Several of their rulings have implications, but the case most resonant for The Discreet Traveler is United States v. Windsor. Edith Windsor was married in Toronto, Ontario, and her marriage was recognized by the state she and her spouse lived in, but not by the United States.

The Court overturned a key section of the hateful and, they've finally confirmed, unconstitutional "Defense of Marriage" Act, clearing the way for Americans' marriages to be recognized by the federal government. For the first time, there is a way for U.S. citizens to live lawfully with their spouses in America, even if they are both gay and foreign!

I've been mulling over my reaction to this victory, which has taken so terribly long. "Couples forced into exile will be coming home soon," reads Immigration Equality's Web site. That is, couples who ever had the option to live together at all, before this decision. It is wonderful that Americans finally have this choice.

But am I going to go "home" from "exile"? The U.S.A. feels like a young love I broke up with thirteen years ago, who's come back to say she's changed. I'm happy to hear it; I wish all the best to her and whomever she lives with in the future. It would be weird to move back in together, though. Right?

My reaction has been to feel, about my native country, a way I haven't felt in a very long time. Proud. Oh, I know that everyone who hated gays on Tuesday still hated us Wednesday, when the Court ruled. And on a larger scale, I know that many things are still very wrong with the U.S.A. Given domestic surveillance and terrorist policies abroad*, there are ways we are still stuck in the Reagan era--or the Eisenhower.

But when I heard the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C. sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" outside the Supreme Court, I felt good about it. Not just because the singing was fantastic. I felt proud of a national anthem that isn't even my favorite patriotic song. Because, for the first time, I heard gay Americans singing "the land of the free" as if it applied to them. As if it was, not a reality that has been accomplished for everyone (see *), but an ideal worth aspiring to. The way an American should feel.

Tomorrow, I'll march with the first contingent of Democrats Abroad UK to participate in a Pride parade in London. The theme, funnily enough, is marriage, since England and Wales are kinda-sorta-maybe-soon getting same-sex marriage, which we've not been allowed before. Everyone will be talking about the changes in the States, of course, and we'll have American flags.

I’ve heard the American flag booed at Pride marches before, which I don’t agree with. But then, I’ve been booed for other reasons. Pride isn’t only a celebration; historically it is a protest for our rights. Rights that nobody was ever going to allow us to exercise without a fight. Every freedom we have now is only ours because we fought for it then.

This will be the first Pride I’ve marched in London since 1994. British gays were far from equal nineteen years ago. I was with the Stonewall Immigration Group, working to get any kind of discretion at all for the partners of British citizens. Actual legal recognition was beyond our dreams.

That same year, a telex (!) was sent to all Canadian immigration officers instructing them to recognize same-sex partners for immigration purposes. It took me six more years but I finally became an independent immigrant to Canada.

I’ve said in the past that homophobic U.S. laws have made the most practical difference in my adult life, but now I see that that is wrong. The overturning of those laws makes no practical difference in my life. What changed my life, and for the better, was the wheel turning positively in other countries. Canada led the way in 1994. Even ten years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas, Canada had marriage. Real, coast-to-coast-to-coast, equal marriage, while the states were only just decriminalizing homosexuality. I’ve moved on, but I know how many Americans and their families feel, because I remember feeling it.

So this week, as I do every year, I’ll celebrate three holidays. My High Holy Days. Today is the anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, so of course it is Pride. And the Fourth of July has special resonance this year, as Americans celebrate their independence.

In between is Canada Day. Which I, as a Canadian, celebrate too. Because Canada became my home and showed us a way, when there was no way.

Merci, Canada, for leading the way.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Loos I have known

From the past and Deep Things, I revert to something more contemporary and lighthearted. Both my mom and the great Cheri Crystal have, on separate occasions, spoken of writing the trials of a North American traveler in search of what Canadians call washrooms.

Before I go on, I'll address the question of whether it is appropriate to write about "loos" at all. The human need to eliminate is not really something we want to read or talk about. Yet it is a necessary part of life, at least as much as food or sex. Based on a lot of what gets published or posted nowadays, people want to read endlessly about the human body in other positions. Without going into gory details, may I just point out that in the absence of a toilet, the Westerner accustomed to such gets gradually uncomfortable. Given long enough discomfort, it becomes difficult to focus on anything else--the sights of Berlin or the scintillating conversation of one's fellow travelers.

Erma Bombeck, the American humorist, once wrote a column on the subject of European pay toilets: "Your kidneys are destroyed for a lousy dime!" The fact is, women, and in particular North American women, are up a certain creek when traveling on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Europeans, it seems, do not require toilets, or do not require them very often, so it doesn't occur to them to make them available to other people except for a fee. Heaven help you if you don't have 30 p and, well, have to.

I say "women" because men, not to cast aspersions on any of them individually, don't seem to require toilets at all. I base this observation both on the fact that I have never seen a line for the men's room in any country in the world (have you?) but also on the equation of any convenient public place, like the stairs to my local train station, with a urinal. It's not nice for the rest of us, but sometimes I envy those guys.

Because it is not enough for a woman finally to find a washroom, and scrape up the money to pay for it. She then has to stand in a "queue" while the lucky woman who got there first, and is currently occupying the toilet, crimps her eyelashes, finishes the book she was reading, and blow drys her hair. Public toilets are generally so disgusting that I, personally, would never spend a second inside that I didn't have to, but I find I'm alone in this preference. All a woman has to do is get in the bathroom ahead of other women and it's screw you, sister, I'm in this for myself. Time to count every coin in my purse in case of another toilet somewhere else!

There are, of course, exceptions. There are bathrooms so nice you don't have to hold your breath while you wash your hands, like most of the ones on board the ship we were on recently. All credit for these go to the cleaners, and I really mean this, because I worked as a cleaner once. People in general leave public bathrooms in a state that defies belief--unless you, too, have had the misfortune to work as a cleaner, you would not believe it either. It's a common human failing not to give a stuff about the mess we leave behind unless we are the ones who have to clean it up. See pollution, etc.

The one good thing about being in desperate enough need is that you don't really care what state the bathroom is in. Just get in, get out, move on. We were in Padua, Italy, and most of the people traveling with us were spending their entire free time standing in a line at the cathedral of St. Anthony--the toilet line, not the line to view the saint's tomb or receive communion. I made a mad dash to a café to buy a bottle of water, which would have continued the cycle of needing the bathroom had it not been so dehydrating outdoors, and then found the ladies' room. (Despite my somewhat butch appearance, this was a perfectly safe thing to do on the continent. I've never been confronted as a dangerous male at the door of a ladies' room outside Anglo-America--but that's another column.)

There was no line. I was greatly relieved, no less so upon my discovery that this toilet was a Turkish-style hole in the floor.  It helps to have learned (from years in the public schools) never to sit down.

I could not suppress a smug smile when I, very rapidly, emerged to find a small cluster of women behind me, all totally flummoxed about what to do. They gave up and did not form a line.

Oh yeah. Always, wherever you go in the world, always carry tissues with you. And small change. Someday you'll thank me for this.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Of aces and spades

I had a really disappointing conversation the other day. There were five of us: me, a young Australian woman, and three women between ten and fifteen years older than I am. I don't know the three women well, but I'd worked with all of them. They are British, specifically English--and oh yes, all five of us are white. Does this matter? Well, apparently it matters to them.

They started off having a perfectly understandable "moan" about things we can all relate to, living in the London area. It's crowded. They keep knocking down old buildings to house everybody. There isn't enough room.

Soon, the topic became "foreigners" and people coming from other countries. At this point, I exchanged a smile with young Aussie, because obviously, the other three women didn't mean us. They were talking about the open borders of the rest of the European Union, and the E.U. in general, which does leave a lot to be desired. Things had changed so fast, the three said. It felt out of control; this was a small island.

Even though I'm an immigrant myself, I understand where they are coming from. I didn't come here to diversify Britain's population or because I thought there was unlimited room. I'm just here because my partner is.

The three discussed which prime minister was to blame for taking Britain into the E.U. in the first place. It couldn't have been Margaret Thatcher, one said; was it Tony Major? (She meant John Major, although another one actually thought it could have been Tony Blair!) I repeated several times that Britain joined the European Community forty years ago, though I couldn't remember which prime minister off the top of my head. (For the record, ladies: no, it was not a Labour PM, it was Edward Heath, a Conservative.)

But it was like I wasn't speaking at all. Because facts were not the point. Someone said one in twelve people in London was foreign. I felt the need to say something, so I pointed out that I came here from Toronto, where one in two people was born outside Canada--including me. Aussie said she was the only white kid on her school bus. She didn't say this like there was anything wrong with it; she said it like that's the way the world is now, people move all over, from Australia or Canada. Maybe we younger people are just better equipped to deal with it.

What the three women were talking about wasn't Europe anymore. It was people who aren't white. They said it; I'm not putting words in their mouths. It wasn't just about immigrants, either, but second generation--people born in Britain just like they were. Only the three didn't see it that way. The word breed was used, several times: "These people" don't have children; they breed. It also became clear that hearing languages other than English offended these women's ears. "Shop staff speak to each other in their own language; they shouldn't be allowed to. How do I know they're not saying, 'Oh, here comes that bitch'?"

Well, I was thinking by now, I don't blame them, if they know you regard them as non-British vermin who "breed"!

Don't misunderstand me. However misreported in the tabloid press, there are issues with the E.U., and issues with the benefits system (abused, in Britain as in other countries, more by native citizens than by first or second generation immigrants). A small, crowded island really shouldn't have the same immigrant culture as the New World. And I would not expect the welcome and encouragement to citizenship in Britain that I had in Canada.

Nor do I agree with many laws and policies in Britain myself. I disagree with any restrictions on free speech--including the criminalization of racist speech. (I'm not sure how often people are in fact prosecuted for offensive speech, or if such law is designed more for self-censorship, to inhibit people in what they say in the first place. It certainly didn't inhibit these three.)

What disappointed me about this conversation is that, earlier in the day, we had been joined by a sixth woman, who (or whose family) was originally from the Indian subcontinent. None of these views were expressed in her presence. By expressing them when I was there, though, the three were including me, in a way I didn't wish to be included. They were saying, "You're white, so you must feel the same way."

Of course the actual words were: "And if you say this, people think you're racist!" Thing is, I don't want to think of these women as racist. They are not lunatics, giving fascist salutes or attacking mosques. They are likeable professionals who seemed to treat their colleagues and clients with perfect courtesy.

Nor do I mean to extrapolate from these three women to all British people of their background. To generalize by nationality, or any other category, is of lifelong repugnance to me, and no better than what they'd been saying.

In the next room were other colleagues and hundreds of our clients, of many colors and nationalities, including white British. Someday, if the three become old and sick, these are the doctors who will care for them. Maybe these women are not racist.

But when someone says, "The people around me aren't white, and that bothers me"--well...what would you call it?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. 2013

T. and I are celebrating a special occasion. We always seem to be; our good fortune calls for celebrating as frequently as possible. So on a rainy night in the Scottish capital, we head for The Cellar Door, a vaguely nautical-looking basement restaurant that promises especially good food.

Our table discussion turns to taxes and the morality of avoiding them. I say that nobody likes paying taxes and some taxes seem truly unfair, but as long as they are the law, then the only thing I can do is pay them, while working to change them (and any law that is unfair). I think this is part of the Discreet Traveler mentality. As I am a citizen of two countries, and resident in a third, being a "good citizen" means different things to me than perhaps to a homegrown patriot. I am a guest in this country. Paying taxes, and obeying laws, are how I participate in a nation, not owing allegiance. I don't expect to agree with policies for which I didn't vote. I honor the requirements of the country for as long as I choose to live here.

This is getting a bit heavy so we order some drinks. T. has Tiger beer from Singapore, while I have a white wine, a Gewürztraminer from Chile. Chilean is my favorite white, and the waitress says this particular wine is her favorite on their list. It is very good, as is the first course of The Cellar Door's "surprise menu," a smoked salmon spring roll. How nouvelle écossaise. This is followed by another Tiger and a ribeye steak for T., and a glass of merlot and the surprise main course for me. She finds the steak a little thin, but cooked the way she ordered it, and my lamb is out of this world. The greens are very good too, as are my mashed potatoes. T. thinks the excellent chips (fries) must be double fried, to get them so crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

I am tempted to go for all three surprise courses, but opt instead for cheese with port for dessert. I have what my sister describes as a "cheese tooth." Even T., who has the sticky toffee pudding, can't resist the cheddar, which is called Isle of Mull--crumbly texture like a Cheshire cheese. All the cheeses are Scottish, and served with Arran oatcakes. Another principle of the Discreet Traveler: Whenever you have the opportunity, sample local.

The waitress brings the bill, not outrageous. and I note that she hasn't charged me for the glass of red wine. "Thank you!" she says. "Not everybody would have mentioned that." Well, we were just talking about this, the Honest Abe mentality (Abraham Lincoln was said to have walked miles back to repay a shopkeeper who'd given him too many pennies).

"I can't help it," I say, and she agrees, she's the same way. If she'd overcharged me, I certainly would have complained. You can take the girl out of America, but...

Tomorrow I'm off to my day job, and T. is off to buy Isle of Mull cheddar cheese.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Discreet Traveler

I wish I had been wrong in predicting that the U.S. Senate would cave on immigration reform that would benefit families like mine. But, the Senate has caved on a lot lately. Meanwhile, a terrorist act last night in London has, predictably, been blamed on "immigration" by the head of the British National Party. And, the Obama administration is officially admitting what was already known: that it uses targeted drones to kill American citizens. I need to limit my "rants"--er, critiques--to one paragraph at a time! 

So, I'm relaunching my 'blog as THE DISCREET TRAVELER. Part travel log, part travel guide--anecdotal, based on my own experience--and part critique. If you've read Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, I'm going for a twenty-first-century version of that, but a shade less satirical. Twain makes fun of the places he visits, of his fellow travelers, and of himself, but ultimately concludes:

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

This "blog" (Web log) is a record of travels, like the log book of the ships I read about in stories as a child, and longed to sail away on. And a soundtrack seems as good a launching point as any. On a train from London to Edinburgh, I pop on my headphones and out comes "American Idiot," by Green Day. "American Idiot" is what the songwriter assures us he does not want to be.

I am not a travel writer, but a writer who travels, as much as I possibly can. I would go so far as to say that I am only a storyteller, and began writing stories down, as a way of creating adventures that I had not (yet) personally had. If life is a journey, then my life has been a lot of smaller journeys. The next song, for instance, is Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again," which also plays in my first novel, Arusha. I remember this song on the country radio station many mornings, as I rode the school bus. I grew up in Carter County, Tennessee, trying not to become an American idiot. I wanted to travel the world, further than anyone in my county school had been or even heard of.

So much for the TRAVELER. As for the DISCREET...it is my goal to tread, and to help my readers tread, as lightly and thoughtfully on our travels as we can. The joy of this earth is that we, all living creatures, share it together. Getting to see as much of the world and its people as possible, with as little negative impact as possible, requires an open mind and a willingness to learn. Observing, maybe criticizing, but with a discretion that never veers off into paranoia. The better part of travel is discretion, as Falstaff might have said.

So welcome to my journey of today. Our last song is Dido's "Life For Rent." The train conductor asks us to have our "travel documents" handy, and my first thought is, What travel documents? Scotland has not yet declared independence; it's part of the United Kingdom. So we definitely don't require passports.

It turns out he only means tickets. Still, it starts me thinking. When do you need a passport? "When crossing national borders" seems a good answer, yet as England to Scotland proves, what border means, and what nation means, is far from straightforward. And I intend to go far.