Friday, May 20, 2011

Bourgeois Dilemma #7: are we ready for that talk on the birds and the bees?

Since the end of the world is tomorrow I figure I might as well get off my ass and do one last dilemma.

I have a tween. Now when I was 10.5 I wasn’t called a tween because the gods and goddesses that market shit to kids hadn’t made up that demographic yet. The truth is I cannot remember if I was as clued up about my impending pubescence, but then again I didn’t watch Glee. The sexual tension between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura was about as racy as it got.

The family tradition of overly subtle sex education came down on both sides of my family – my mother having been pulled in to her mother’s dressing room one morning in 1947 to be told Dear, this is Kotex, you put it between your legs. No idea about when or why or anything else at all. Thank god for older sisters.

My father fared maybe a little better, with his mother sitting on his bed one night and presenting him with a book depicting the gestational periods of the major mammals. And his father simply saying Be gentle. They seemed to have worked it out OK in the end so probably didn’t feel the need to do much more. Me, somewhere between the sales rep from Playtex showing up in grade five, a sex ed class in grade 7 that involved massive over sharing on the part of an Estonian gym teacher with an uncircumcised son named Thomas and a few copies of my older cousin’s esquire magazine in the attic in my grandmother’s beach house, I was able to figure out the basics by about 8th grade.

But I am a mother of a different generation. We are savvy, in touch and open about all the important things in life. We arm our sacred creations with information, sensitivity and give them the basis for an open and honest dialogue with us as parents that will fuel their growth into centered, self respecting and balanced adults. We may at times be forced in to uncomfortable situations by virtue of the age, for example, walking through the security sensors a the corner duane reade puts a 5 year old face to face with a nivea lip balm ad depicting tonsil hockey between a couple with luscious smooth lips. Wright’s pharmacy in cos cob CT didn’t have stuff like that in 1977.

Recently, I took my big girl on a special mother daughter hotel night in NYC. I chose the Standard, as 1) I got a good corporate rate from a client and 2) it had a cute pop up ice rink all winter and we wanted to option to skate. Now, I’ve been to dinner at the grill and spend most of my workdays about a block away from the hotel. But I’ve wasn't in ny the summer it opened and totally missed that it is a concept hotel based around sex.

So when we got there, the funky videos in the elevator caught my eye, but didn’t really prepare me for what was coming.

Upon entering the room, a beautiful wood paneled version of a high-end ship cabin, my big girl immediately opened the mini bar and started to admire the vintage candy. And the box of condoms with cute little sex position cartoons on the side.

Why are there three?


Why are there three?

I was across the room admiring the view down to the statue of liberty and had to make my way over to see what three she was talking about.

Oh, I don’t know. Gee, isn’t it time we head out to H&M to get those clothes you want?

Down on the street.

Do they break?


Do they break? Is that why there are three?

Now of course, my big girl knows what a condom is, but only in the vaguest sense. Since she also knows what sex is and some of the mechanics, courtesy of her older cousin. But the graphic elements and what a condom actually does, not really.

Um. Well, they could break but that’s not really why. Do you understand what it does?

Umm. Not really.

I have stuck myself right deep into it now.

So I go back to the simple way that we explained it when she was 5 and asked where babies come from.

Well honey, you know that when the mommy and the daddy have that special hug to make a baby? Well, those things keep the part of the daddy that makes the baby from going in to the mommy to make the baby. (never one to miss a teachable moment, I tack on to the end: And they also make sure that people stay healthy when they do the special hug. )

The look I get makes it clear that I am nowhere near to answering the question.

Yeah, but why do you need three?

Umm. Well, you see, the special hug is actually kind of nice and fun and if you aren’t making the baby, you might want to have that special hug more than one time in a weekend if you are staying at a nice hotel.

Or if the hotel would like you to have the special hug up against the window with the lights on for all to see.

Silence. Whew. Question answered or at least maybe I grossed her out enough that she will let it go.

A few blocks later…

Can I get white jeans?

Thank god, subject switched and we can move on beyond the total awkwardness of that.

Until we get back to the room after a lovely dinner to see that out next-door neighbors have the do not disturb sign on the door and my big girl turns to me with a wry smile and says

They must be using the third condom.

Next time, I am booking the Hilton.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bourgeois Dilemma #30: how much should we tip, dear?

This year for spring break, we had the sheer joy of a week of skiing in utah, land of the greatest snow on earth. We had the fun of traveling with my sweet husband’s brother and his wife. Not just any brother, but his identical twin. You see, MSH is actually a matched set. And, while it is not the subject of this writing, MSH2 is married to my college roommate. Perhaps the subject one of those twin studies about the twins who are separated at birth and end up married to sisters identical houses with their hair parted on the same side, but in this case it unfolded in a much more complicated way that that. Aside from the fact that this arrangement means that our children are cousins and genetic half sisters, it also means that we have a lot of fun together. And in this instance, my dear friend and I have discovered the perfect new nickname for each other after 25 odd years of friendship. MSH2 is forced to spend large swatches of time in unit 48 doing a deal over the course of the trip which leaves MSH with the two ladies and our kids traveling as a pack. Thus, Sister Wife is born.

So, MSH, MSH2, sister wife and I plan a great ski trip. Condo unit 48 is the perfect set up and the snow is amazing. Along the way, for all the reasons one does, we elect to engage the services of ski instructors – via ski school for the younger kids in the group, and on a morning dumping with snow for MSH, myself, sister wife and my eldest niece (MSH2, poor chap, is back at unit 48 pacing on the phone to the east coast). The employment of outdoor sports professionals: ski instructors, fly fishing guides, tennis pros and the like goes hand in hand with the practice of providing a gratuity, more commonly known as tipping.

Tipping is without question one of those lightening rod issues that can tell you a great deal about someone’s background. There is a difference between people who, say, tip the maître’d in a fancy restaurant in order to better their chances at a good table and people who inherently know the per person/per day rate to tip the housekeeper at the gasparilla inn down in boca grande. MSH and MSH2, bounced on their grandfather’s knee to the dulcet tones of you boys will love hotchkiss and yale from a tender age, definitely fall in the latter camp. Never mind that MSH eschewed Harvard for the “artsy” ivy league and had to answer his grandfather’s weekly telephonic inquiry how’s yale? by saying uh, grandpa, I don’t go to yale, I go to brown. WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU DO THAT? would resound over the wire in retort each and every time.

Tipping as a practice dates back a fair way – in a recent family movie night screening of zefirrelli’s Romeo and Juliet which among other things prompted my little girl to ask why can’t there just be a happy ending?, I noted with eagerness that even ROMEO tipped the nurse after she relayed juliet’s plan to marry him.

But MSH squared don’t have such an easy time forking over a fistful of cash to the likes of Bill the ski instructor. Or, in the case of MSH in particular, the discomfort with the very act of tipping causes a spasm of sorts: some people might eschew the practice altogether, but not MSH.

We are nearing the end of the two hour session with Bill, most of which has been conducted in a blinding white out as the second of two feet of fresh powder falls around us. The sun has finally emerged, bill has expertly guided us to a section of the mountain where no one has been and we are gazing down a steep slope of virgin powder. My 14 year old niece and bill move down the slope like poetry in motion, followed shortly thereafter by sister wife, who’s been skiing since she was in cloth diapers. This leaves MSH and me. I am just inept at skiing this level of fresh snow – throw me down any hill in the ice-ridden catskills and I can do it. But two feet of fresh fluffy snow and my skis just have no idea what to do. Bill has helped, no doubt, but I am still a panicker. MSH goes ahead and is doing well (he is, after all, a natural athlete) but all of the sudden he bites it hard and manages to lose both skis.

On an ice hill, a yard sale is easily managed by crawling up and down until you can collect all of your gear and mount up to continue down the hill. But in waist deep fresh powder, it’s a bit tricky and it took even sporty MSH the better part of 15 minutes to right the ship, clean the boots and bindings and continue. So by the time he joined Bill and our crew, he was equal parts exhausted, humiliated and frustrated. And that magic moment of saying thanking and pressing an Andrew Jackson into the palm of the instructor had come. MSH must have been suffering from some sort of white out or altitude induced brain cramp, because what I saw in his hand was not one, not two, but three $20 bills . . . for a two hour lesson that was $235.

Thank you says Bill, maintaining eye contact at all times with MSH (this must be the protocol). Then, surreptitiously looking down, Bill notices the cash in his hand. thank you thank YOU thaNK YOU THANK YOU and then he splutters out some stream of consciousness rant about how he can now get his audi serviced and Bill and MSH share a manly exchange about dealers and how they rip you off every time you take the car in yeah, chuckles MSH in his best deep voice $500 to change the windshield wipers!

Bill skis off and we all turn to look at MSH who confirms the preposterous tip. What becomes clear when I go to pick up my big girl and her cousin from ski school, is that Bill has gone back and radioed the ski school staff in morse code:

If you have anyone from the twin father family in your group, stand by for a ginourmous tip.

Luke, the affable brit with a pediatrician wife (what better place for a ski instructor-pediatrician match up than utah, land of powder + large families?), stood next to me for a solid 8 minutes. It’s possible, of course that he found me to be delightful company with my ski helmet hair smashed all over my head and a trickle of cold induced runniness dripping off the end of my nose, but more likely that he was looking for the cash.

From that moment on, the issue of THE TIP became a leitmotif for the rest of the trip as we discussed how much to tip the ski instructors, the ski shuttle driver, the concierge at the condo complex whom I called enough that I made her a favorite on my iphone. Second to last day of the trip, MSH makes his usual trip to the ATM in the ski lodge to stock up on a wad of $20s that he peels off at will: three ski instructors, Mr. Van Driver, Ms. Concierge, the Jack Mormon who gave us a tour of salt lake city en route to the airport….his awkwardness over the very act of tipping muted by the joy on the faces of the recipients of his beneficence.

Next time, I am going to make change of the $20s for $5s. He can feel like he’s doling out the big money but our bank account will retain it’s integrity at the end of the trip: best of both worlds.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bourgeois Dilemma #8: Would you like the cheese course?

Good morning. I'm on a bit of a tear as february got away from me and I need to finish my travelogue as the month ends . . . tomorrow. Also have to go sledding and watch the red carpet, so time is limited.

In 1997, while Zimbabwe was a far and better cry from where it is today, the country was not widely touristed outside of vic falls and perhaps a few other places. we were traveling in the eastern highlands for several reasons: its accessibility by car to our friend's house in harare, its remote and gorgeous countryside (think montana with huge deposits of boulders left behind by long melted glaciers) its fly fishing - reported to be on par with scotland, and the kicker: a remote cottage in a national forest belonging to friends of our hosts which we were welcome to use.

We had planed to stay in a hotel that evening en route to the remote highland cottage and had booked at an old resort hotel that was developed in the days of cecil rhodes to approximate a grand resort. scanning the reviews prior to departure gave us the idea that this would be a romantic idly with walks along flower lined pathways, delicious meals in a glamorous dining room and comfortable accommodations that would provide a good foundation of luxury prior to setting off to rough it for a couple of days in the wilderness cottage. Now, the sojourn in the cottage had been scrapped due to the risk of traveling with no spare if we get another flat, we will be doomed. So we were eagerly anticipating a few days of r&r, rhodesia style.

Check in seemed fine. MSH apologized for the fact that we were late on account of the car trouble and as there were about four people at the front desk and no other guests that we could see, we received ample attention from the front desk staff. MSH tends to eschew bellman, not in the way that my father might so as to save the tip, but because he doesn't want to trouble them with carrying his bag. So we set off down the hall as directed to our room.

The hallway was without doubt the first sign that things were not what they used to be at Troutbeck. The lighting, the width and length of the hall, and the threadbare wall to wall carpet with an oriental-esque pattern screamed one thing and one thing only: the shining. All we needed was a bloody necked pair of twins appearing in a mirage at the end and I would have gone screaming off in the car to that cottage, spare or no spare. But we are glass half full people, so we stuck with it and went down to our room. Now, in my experience, I prefer to go UP to a hotel room, but the resort is built into a bucolic hillside, so we went down.

To say that the room left a lot to be desired would be a gross understatement. I am OK with threadbare and appreciate the chintz laden splendor of the bygone days of understated elegance as well as anyone, but this was more of a basement lair with a prevailing damp and a bathroom that had been renovated so as to strip if of any charm, to say the least. Years later, when I gave birth to my big girl in the un-renovated wing of Mt. Sinai hospital in NYC, I went in to the bathroom for that awesome first shower after childbirth and exclaimed this reminds me of the bathroom at troutbeck!

MSH is a resolute optimist, so we don't let things like yucky rooms in deserted hotels get us down. We changed into our evening clothes and headed down to the dining room - we were, in fact, quite hungry after the stress and exertion of the day and were looking forward to a proper meal. The dining room was at the far opposite end of the hotel so we had the chance to stroll in a proper old fashioned way to take our evening meal.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the vision of a man in evening wear sitting in a huge rattan chair, Mr. Rourke style, behind a desk counting money into a money box. Not just a few bills, but hundreds and hundreds of bills. He was not able to bring himself away from this absorbing task though we paused in front of his station, so we continued in to the dining room. And a grand dining room it was. Hundreds of tables were set, awaiting 500 or so phantom guests. That evening, there were exactly four parties in the dining room including us. An older couple, a foursome including a man with a grapefruit sized goiter on the side of his face and a group of business men.

Given the small number of guests that night, they had given most of the staff a night off so there were two older men who were there to serve us. A vestige of the grander time, they were also in tuxedos, but it seemed from the aroma that they were the same tuxedos that had been worn by the dining room staff for several generations. You might recall from an earlier post that I have an acute sense of smell, so this type of olfactory stimulation has a particularly profound impact on my ability to dig in to a meal. No matter, as one does we ordered the four course prix fix and some wine and had a few laughs about the flat tire and the roadside crew.

The menu, it seemed, was decidedly rhodesian: blanched asparagus soup, lemon sole, salad and a neapolitan ice cream dessert. Given the benefit of the exchange rate and to make up for the near disaster of the afternoon, we had sprung for a wine from the top half of the wine list and were enjoying it quite a bit when the first course arrived under a silver dome.

It was, in fact a blanched asparagus soup. quite blanched. two sad spears of pale asparagus floating in a pool of off white water in a huge bowl. tepid and completely inedible. we each took a bite, grimaced and washed it down with a glass of wine. the bus boy came to remove the plates a while later and luckily didn't seem to notice that the level of the soup in the bowl was more or less unchanged and that the asparagus spears were still floating there. luckily, he was happy to relay our request for another bottle of wine, which was going down a lot more easily than to food. the fish course, it goes without saying, was also inedible. and the salad greens seemed to have been flown in from england rather than just picked fresh out of a garden that had to be there, just around the corner.

We returned each plate to the dutiful busboy pretty much untouched, though MSH did a better job than I did at managing a few bites in a valiant effort not to insult these poor people, working diligently to serve an elegant and proper english meal in the middle of zimbabwe. the dessert was the crowning glory: a freezer burned melange of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla slivers with stale cake in between and a viscous strawberry compote over top. Even my starving sweet tooth couldn't manage it.

Our primary waiter returned after the busboy took another full plate back to the dining room to inquire as to whether everything was alright.

Waiter: Sir, I see that you are not eating very much, is everything alright?

MSH: Oh no, everything is fine. you see, my wife and I are just not very big eaters!

An absurd statement. This was in the era of our fattest fat times, those early married years when his family's habit of dessert and my family's habit of runny cheese and crackers before dinner merged to create our perfect union and packed about 10-15 pounds on to both of us. The plentiful wine that we enjoyed on the terrace of our first rental didn't exactly help.

The sweet earnestness with which MSH answered this inquiry was so endearing, the spectacle of the inedible food and the eeriness of the palatial empty dining room with its chandeliers and table after table set with china, silver and linens so overwhelming that I was overcome with an violent need to laugh. Were we in a more typical bustling restaurant setting, I might have been able to get away with it. But the echo factor here would have come in to play and the last thing I wanted to do was make a scene and further insult the very sweet waiter and his team. so i tried to stifle the laughter and conceal it under a fake coughing fit of sorts, which of course only made it worse. . . .and before long I was reduced to a silent shaking spasm of laughter so intense that i had tears streaming down my face. thank god, MSH had the brilliance to order a third bottle of wine which was able to quell the fit. we hesitated for a minute when offered a cheese plate, as we had just claimed a lack of appetite - thankfully we accepted the offer and within minutes a platter of the most delicious cheese and bread was before us. consistency be damned, we dove into that cheese plate and had to restrain ourselves from licking the plate clean at the end.

later than night, after MSH had chased off someone who seemed to think that our french doors were the entrance to their room, we resolved to leave the hotel we had rechristened YUCKbeck. Happily, we had the cover of the "car trouble" which gave MSH the requisite reason we were checking out a day early (some people might have been straight up and informed the manager that the room was dank, the food inedible and that we had a break in attempt over the night, but that's not how we roll).

I went back on line to see if Troutbeck was even still in business and noted that it is - trip advisor welcomed me to write a review of the hotel which I refrained from doing as the data is too aged. But that piqued my curiosity and I noted one recent review from LaurelHouse103 from West sussex. All these years later, his experience was quite similar to ours though they've obviously opened up the menu options a bit and cleaned the rooms. Lovely setting but disappointing service does not match it's $180 price tag...

I guess, should we ever have a reason to return, we'll book somewhere else.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bourgeois Dilemma #7: Fix-a-flat, zimbabwe style

(continued from last week)

Wumpa wumpa wumpa wumpa.

um, i say under my breath in a sort of whisper, I think we have a flat tire. My Sweet Husband, typical of his species, does not have an overdeveloped appreciation for commentary from the shotgun position. one wonders, at times, why do they call it "back seat" driving - did the women used to ride in the back?

anyhow, it becomes evident even though I don't repeat myself, that something is most definitely off in the vehicle and so we pull over to find that in fact, the left right tire, or tyre, is indeed punctured and flat.

now I will go on record at this stage so as to say that my suspicion at that moment, and for all the years since, is that the flat tyre is a result of the fact that MSH has overcompensated slightly for the driving on the wrong side of the road factor and has, in fact, been driving OFF the wrong side of the road for the trip off the main highway to see the oldest stone paining in sub saharan africa at diana's vow. it's not really his fault, it's a crap road and the disorientation factor on account of the wrong sided driving is not insignificant. add to that the adrenaline and posttraumatic stress factor of the momentary belief that his beloved was carjacked, and I guess you cannot blame the guy.

the theory that is spawned at that moment, circa 4PM on the side of the road in the middle of, well, in the middle of nowhere really, is that the purported carjackers had pierced the rear tyre. we don't push too hard on this one, as if we do we might draw the obvious conclusion: if you want to rob someone of their vehicle, giving them a slow leak so that they get a flat tyre 100 kilometers or so up the road might not be the best way to do so. we go with it, and drive on a bit to a flat piece of the road with the hopes of quickly addressing the issue. What I don't know until later that evening is that MSH is quietly scanning the horizon for some sort of dwelling, imaging us cozying up perhaps with the local pharmacist reading poetry to each other by the light of the kerosene lamp, in his rondavel hut.

I, on the other hand, am very optimistic because I know how to change a tire. it wasn't my dad - for whatever reason his automotive training did not extend beyond the stick shift lesson and a copy of his texaco charge card. my tire changing skills were hard fought on a dead end "camping" trip in corsica with the daughter of my college summer italian host family and her horrific boyfriend. after 4 days in a tent at a camp sight crowded with french and italian people who's long hair clogged the drain in the communal shower; more bowls of corsican fish stew than one can imagine (it was the only item on the menu we could afford) and an ill fated ferry trip to a secluded beach that was actually covered in dried seaweed, ending in a bar and ultimately hitchhiking back on a sailboat, I was desperate to get off of corsica and back to florence where I could be ALONE. So on that trip, as we raced along the winding cliff hanging hairpin turn roads in a fiat uno, I was particularly able to feel the flat tire as I had assumed a crash position of sorts lying on the back seat with my feet on the left side of the car and my arms on the right so as to brace myself when the car went over the cliff. the flat tire came alongside a road perched atop a cliff (no guard rails in corsica) just at a moment when it became clear to me that if we didn't get back to Ajaccio that we were going to miss the last ferry back to italy. I moved to the tire and the jack and activated changing with a speed and strength otherwise associated with women pulling burning cars off of their children. My efficacy in completing this task prompted massimiliano to inquire if I had experience as a rally team member. If I had the nerve, i would have replied to him with the truth that was in my heart: no, but if i have to spend even one more hour with you that I have to, I am going to hurl myself over the edge of this cliff.

But we are in Zimbabwe in 1997, a far cry from Corsica in 1987. And the vehicle is of a high-end sort with a spare tire compartment and organized in a meticulous fashion that for some unknown reason I associate with the pantry of an English country house. In fact, it is so neatly packed that at first we don’t recognize the hydraulic jack – we are looking for the two-piece metal manual kind. So we are rather deep into the boot trying to sort this out when the first person comes up the road – a young man in a mechanic’s jump suit leading a pair of yoked oxen on a rope. Clearly it is not an everyday occurrence to have an American couple in a range rover with a flat tire there on the road, so as the minutes pass, a variety of people who might have otherwise been walking home (from where, I have no clue) aggregate there on the side of the road to watch us deal with the flat tire.

The best way to for me to stay out of trouble with MSH in a situation like this is to act as a conduit for information and/or instruction prepared by authoritarian figures or third parties, as opposed to interjecting my own opinion. So my role is to read aloud from the manual is a clear and loud voice so that MSH can execute the changing of the tire/tyre. This surely adds to the spectacle that entrances the road side gathering: jump suit man; a man riding a bicycle carrying a long pole; a set of twins with a cow; and an older man in a suit carrying a brief case who seems to have some level of authority and respect from his assembled peers.

What’s curious about the situation as it unfolds is that the gentlemen watch with keen interest but offer no help. Perhaps it’s my command of the manual and MSH’s manly swagger as he lifts the spare and uses the automatic bolt tightener. At the end of the operation, I read from the manual slowly and steadily:

Now, release the pressure valve on the hydraulic lift slowly and steadily

MSH pops open the valve like he’s cracking open a can of beer and the vehicle lurches down onto the spare with a loud WHABOOM.

Our gentlemen actually break out into a quiet round of applause and the man in the suits declares: GOOD

And in fact, it was. We pulled off of the side of that road after a perfect photo op: me with the gentleman next to the repaired vehicle – in our album from the trip on the shelf in the living room to this day. The sun went down almost immediately thereafter and we flicked on the headlights and headed off to our resort hotel destination tired but triumphant having no idea as to the adventure that was to unfold as the evening progressed.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bourgeois Dilemma #6: American Express accepted here

Just about 14 years ago almost to the week, my sweet husband and I had the chance to take two weeks off and travel in South Africa and Zimbabwe, hosted by some dear and very generous friends who were living in Harare at the time. It was a spectacular trip that we remember so fondly. The first leg was in Zimbabwe and was planned to include a sojourn in a remote cabin in the northeast highlands – to mix some fly fishing in with visits to ancient stone paintings and the like.

Our friends offered their vehicle – standard issue range rover, and off we went into the wilderness. MSH at the wheel as in his typically manly fashion he had braved the avis in the Johannesburg airport and had a grip on driving the manual transmission vehicle on the wrong side of the road.

We had one stop before we took off into the woods, to cash some travelers checks in town. Now, if you are quick at math you might have calculated that the year was 1997. And yes, ATM machines were in abundance even in Harare. But my sweet husband was convincing as he prepared his departure checklist that travelers’ checks were de rigueur for global travelers, based on his experience, which was not insignificant. So as we boarded SAA flight 34, MSH had tucked into the inside pocket of his brooks brothers travel blazer our passports, boarding passes, and a slim pleather wallet with about $1,000 in American Express Travelers’ checks.

Parking in downtown Harare at this time was a relatively free form affair that involved finding a parking space minder and paying him to keep watch over the car. MSH pulled in to a spot and made the necessary arrangement, leaving me in the car to add a layer of protection over our belongings and the car itself which stuck out a bit in town.

At the time I had a mere 5 years of new york city under my belt, but I knew better than to look as if I didn’t have full command of the situation so I slid over to the driver’s seat and tried to look as if I would be fully confident pulling out of that parking space at any moment. I kept watch on my erstwhile protector as he made his deals with other parkers and moved about his territory. It was probably a typical day in Harare that morning – fairly bustling. And to say that a blond lady in a big range rover sitting and waiting in the car was a bit high impact might be an understatement.

At one critical moment I noted my parking attendant walking in to an adjacent alley with another fellow and there was just something about their manner that didn’t sit right with me. I kept my eyes peeled as my protector came out and approached my vehicle while his pal circled around to the rear left. This was at a moment in Zimbabwe where it seemed as if the country would be a beacon of hope for sub Saharan Africa, so there was no inherent threat. But, something about their demeanor and their motions set off alarm bells with me so I decided the most prudent thing to do would be to get out of there. This was an impulse easier conceived than executed, as I had not actually been behind the wheel of a car in the land where one needs to drive on the left and shift on the left.

Luckily, i possess an excellent command of the stick shift courtesy of my father who’s idea of teaching his children to drive shift was to ferry his 1980 volkswagon fox (a car which seemed to have an extra ton on it) to a t stop with an incline of about 19% grade and to shout GO FIRST GEAR NOW RIGHT TURN WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU as the gears ground and the car slid perilously backwards down the hill with the motor racing and your sweaty palm sliding off the shift knob while your feet worked the clutch and the gas in a frantic seesaw.

My reptilian brain summoned this skill as I lurched off into the busy downtown street chanting left side left side left side under my breath and trying to acclimate my left hand to the familiar sequence of movements from 1st gear to 2nd into 3rd and then back down. Complicating matters were the relatively high proportion of traffic circles and the local custom of using a form of the game of chicken to enter and exit the circles as opposed to the YIELD that I was reared on. Never mind the fact that I was just driving, concentrating on the mechanics of the car and not so much where I had come from or needed to get back to.

Split screen at this moment would show MSH in the bank cashing his checks. Not a transaction handled at the walk up counter, but an operation involving three offices and a series of stamps at each stop. He might very well have been the last person to cash an American express travelers check at the national bank of Zimbabwe, with its three shiny atm machines in the lobby, but the bank manager and his assistant and the assistants assistant made the most of the transaction, throwing in some extra stamps and signatures for good measure.

Triumphant with his $200 cashed into $Z35,000 (forgive the fact that I don't remember the actual exchange rate and really forgive the fact that I cannot bring myself to dwell on the great tragedy that is Zimbabwe, who's currency no longer exists so horrific its plight as a nation), MSH emerged from the bank to note that the car, with his wife inside, was gone. To this day, I am not entirely sure how high his blood pressure might have spiked but luckily, before he stroked out, I reeled around the corner, threw open the passenger door and shouted GET IN, an order which he promptly obeyed.

And then we were free, flying up the highway paved by money Mugabe had stolen from the people of Zimbabwe to make his commute faster, and off into the mountains. We did enjoy the rock painting cited by the guidebooks en route, and then shortly thereafter, a rhythmic wumpa wumpa wumpa caused me to murmur I think we might have a flat tire.

Up next: fix a flat, African countryside style.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bourgeois Dilemma #6: We will never have a lunch this good again

For those of you who didn't have the time to read dilemma # 19, I have decided to dedicate the dreary snow bound days of late jan and early feb to a travelogue of sorts. today, our honeymoon continues. well, by that I mean that I will write some more about our honeymoon trip.

we continued from the german/greek island of samos across to the western coast of turkey. travelling by ferry we crossed the aegean sea to the turkish port of kusadsi. here, we instantly realized that without even my sweet husband's few greek phrases like Θα ήθελα μια κρύα μπύρα, we were in over our heads. our go to side splitter when faced with phrases like Adam çit ötesinde kaplanlar doğuya doğru yönelme, girmeyin was

i dunno, it's greek to me.

but we made our way along merrily, lugging our bags to the car rental place easily located near the ferry terminal on a small side street. if you are imaging an avis with it's own gas pump, let me stop you right there. if you know anyone who has been a tourist in turkey in the last 20 years or so, it's quite likely that if their itinerary called for motor travel of any significance, they found a driver with his own high end car to take them. there are many reasons for this: the language, the roads. and the roads. but for the same reason that my sweet husband thought it would be a reasonable adventure to travel by truck in rwanda with one bag in 1988, he decided that getting a car and driver for his honeymoon in turkey would be gauche.

so after some pantomime with the fellow in the upstairs office at the "car rental" establishment, we mounted up the Sahim 5 litre, tossing our bags in the trunk. Naturally, the car had it's own lucky rabbit foot hanging around the rear view mirror which looked like a good thing until I noticed that there were hand written notes and some chap stick in the glove box. clearly, this wasn't really a rental car. it was the guy's brother in law's car. before we started, MSH went to the trunk and moved our bags, accompanied by the strong scent of gasoline, to the back seat. I asked why and he responded it will just be easier to get what we need that way. which is honeymoon code for well honey, I noticed that the gas tank was visible in the trunk of the car and I'm not sure if you were really tracking that little issue with the ford Pinto back when you were just a little girl, but it's my idea that this little trip is the beginning of our lovely life together, not that we go up in flames somewhere near pamukkale.

We set off to see Ephesus, one of the most amazing structures in antiquity where you too can capture an image of your spouse sitting on the oldest flush toilet in the world holding a copy of the international herald tribune sports page. It is a site of quite unparalleled splendor, if even back then in 1994, a little over touristed. Our afternoon plan involved a visit to a more remote and much less travelled site of priene. Should you ever find yourself in turkey, please visit this wonderful place. Chugging along in the sahim 5 ltire, narrowly missing only one accident (who knew that a right turn signal, when made from a tractor with a grandmother dangling off of the back actually means that you are going to swing left and cut off the road completely - perhaps another point in support of the driver), we came upon a little villa with some men playing backgammon out front. A terraced garden had a few tables and it seemed like a good idea to stop and get some lunch so we pulled in. naturally, as I was wearing my "too cute not to buy for your honeymoon" pink seersucker above the knee dress, we got some attention as we walked on to the terrace. It was mid afternoon and there was no one in sight other that the backgammon players. We sat down and MSH put forth his few recently learned phrases in turkish. one of the backgammon players hopped up and brought us some cokes and we managed to indicate that we wanted food. there was no menu, so we were directed back to the kitchen where pot lids were raised and food was stirred so that we could see what was cooking. we pointed and smiled, and returned to our table. amazingly, we were served one of the most delicious meals I have ever had in my life. we smiled and beamed and made it clear that we loved this food to the great joy of our hosts. by the end they were laughing and talking to us in turkish and we were talking to them in english - they even poured warm lemon scented water on our hands before we left, smiling and waving along the road to priene. now that was a day on your honeymoon to remember.

especially when, the next day, after a night in a huge, tacky modern hotel, we set out to go to the salt bath spa of pamukkele. Along the road, as we ventured further away from some of the more traveled destinations, we found a nameless side of the road side site where the archaeologist himself showed us what he was dusting off. to this day, you can ask our children about our honeymoon and they are likely to come back with a verbatim of that moment along the lines of and then there was the place where they stopped and actually met the archaeologist who was still discovering what was there. After that, we were thrust along a series of roads with the steepest drop off I have seen since I made the mistake of going to corsica with my italian friend and her crazy boyfriend for a week of "camping" at the age of 18. as a survival mechanism, I clutched the inside door handle of the sahim 5 litre and read aloud from the book of turkish history so as to avoid looking out the window at the ravine soaring away from underneath the right tires.

In about 2000 BC Asia Minor was in the hands of the Hittites, who migrated from the area east of the Black Sea. Their civilization rivaled that of the Egyptians and Babylonians. In the 12th century BC their empire fell to the Assyrians. Small seaboard states grew up, only to fall to the Greeks, OH SHIT SLOW DOWN WE ARE GOING TO GO OVER THE CLIFF OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT.....

this trick only worked so well and soon enough the concentration it was taking my sweet husband to drive with his new wife on the verge of tears and mania, and the self control it was taking me not to push him out of the way and take the wheel so that I could pilot the car at a safer speed meant that we were both extremely hungry. confident that we would be able to find an oasis like the one we had discovered near priene, we refused to stop at just any roadside spot. it had to be right, with a terrace overhung by trees and a friendly but not too much so group of men rattling the dice and clicking backgammon men as they drank their turkish coffee.

our first attempt at recreating the lunchtime eden was downright ominous. the roadside inn had all of the earmarks of success. well, it had some men playing backgammon. in fact, it had a large number of men playing backgammon and they weren't all that interested in being joined by a couple of blonds including a 20 something young woman in a skirt. we hopped back in to the sahim 5 litre and moseyed on down the road. well, along and around and up and down. maybe these 16 odd years later it's a little different there on the inner road from ephesus to antalya, but back then there wasn't much to be seen. a few three wheeler skoda trucks, early stage turkish entrepreneurs on mobile phones in big mercedes, and us in the sahim. perhaps everyone else had a bag lunched packed by their mom. MSH sought that lunch just as hard as he had sought the pristine beach on samos. to no avail.

at long last, we were just starving and potentially delirious. a roadside structure emerged as in a mirage and a small haunch of meat being grilled on a vertical spit - now familiar to most NYers as the roadside gyros that is more or less untouchable except in the most extreme emergency. MSH pulled the sahim in and gassed up at the pump then went and ordered up a couple of plates of the special of the day. always one to make the best of it, he exclaimed as we sat at the listing plastic picnic table shouting over the grinding gears of the trucks as they passed - isn't it amazing that you can pull in to a little place like this and get such an amazing meal. Something was not right, but I didn't have the heart to break it to him so instead just picked at the pita bread and pushed the meat around without eating it, as any well intentioned newlywed would have done at that moment. I would love to remember this and be able to tell you that everything was fine after that. But my sweet husband, for all of his exotic and death defying globe trotting, possesses a singular combination of a tricky stomach and a grim determination to avoid any over the counter medication of any form. We lived in memory of that rancid meat (lamb, cow, goat, what was it exactly?) for several days and for many months thereafter I affixed to our fridge a photo of MSH looking particularly miserable on a poolside chaise lounge at the very first proper hotel of the trip.

thank god, after a few days of white rice and coke he was recovered to the point where we were able to enjoy one of our all time favorites: order everything and anything on the menu that is prepared table-side, preferably involving flames: Cesar salad, steak diane and baked alaska. Now, what they were doing serving baked alaska in a hotel restaurant on the southern coast of turkey is really beyond me.

Must have been the Disney Cruise ship that had just docked in the bay.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bourgeois Dilemma #19: This beach is too crowded

Sitting here in my hotel room while my children screech at each other over possession of a hand me down iphone 3G and its few apps (we have spent a lovely few days skiing - lots of snow but toe numbing cold), it seems like a good idea to mount an armchair travelogue of sorts for the cold winter months.

Travel is a main feature of our life though the algorithm of diminished bank accounts and increasing family size and work means that it's not as frequent, far ranging or luxurious as i would personally prefer. so we hearken back to a simpler time and recall highlights from some of our most memorable vacations.

Every young couple dreams and plans for their honeymoon, that mythological trip where husband and wife get to know each other in the luminous moments after their union. My sweet husband, naturally, had the class not only to propose to me on bended knee but also to plan our honeymoon more or less on his own. He has and always will be the better traveler of the two of us, adventurous and organized at the same time perhaps as a result of a gap year spent working and traveling around the world and generating stories enough for years and years to come and then there was the time when I ended up in norway and the farmer's daughter mother told me: "Lotte is on the pill". Since he had spent some time in a youth hostel on crete, and the only art history slide I could recall to this date is the porch of the maidens, we decided to go to greece and tack on some time in turkey on the end.

We had a mere two weeks as my big ad agency career was waiting so we chose to go to athens to see the porch, and then on to a greek island just off the coast of turkey to save time. Everything went swimmingly until we arrived on the island and noted that the airstrip seemed a bit large. and there was an airberlin 747 parked on the tarmac. we arrived at the hotel with the heart sinking realization that it was not the white washed beach side taverna of my sweet husbands fond memories, but a massive development mainly populated with pasty and large berliners. the room was fine and gave out onto a terrace overlooking the beach. stepping over a large snoring man in a bikini to find our way to the water wasn't really what we had in mind but it was dinner time so we made our way to the dining room. Thursday night: GREEK NIGHT proclaimed the sign at the tray pick up in the cafeteria line and that was when my sweet husband went over the edge. The tricky part of addressing that urge was that this was 1994. no cell phone, no internet, no way to quickly and easily find the right place to stay.

MSH: We have got to get out of here. I am going to go to town to find another place to stay.

ME: Honey, really, it's ok - the bed is comfortable, let's just ask the concierge for a rental car so we can just sleep here.

MSH: can they even do that?

ME: yes, hotel concierges can do anything. and look, we can exchange our dinner voucher for a lunch basket and go where we want, when we want.

MSH: ok, i guess that will work.

The next morning, we set out with a plan to find a beach featured in a book a friend had given us called trekking in greece. easily found, we were the only ones there for the whole day and experienced a perfect blue lagoon kind of honey moon day complete with the addition of a picnic basket that would feed a large family of germans. that evening we had a lovely dinner in the nearby town at a marina and it seemed that things were back on the right track. the next and final day on the island, had it been up to me I would have returned to the same beach but my sweet husband feels the need to forge a new path each day on holiday so we took the road across the other side of the island.

Now, I am hard wired to get to the beach and have a built in radar for good beach spotting from the roadside. there's no magic, you just look for the spots along the road with a few not too many cars parked - enough people to mean that its worth stopping, not so many that it will be crowded. better if the cars are open top jeeps and the like. more chance of cute surfers, not that I needed to be looking for those at this particular juncture, but it's good to know. As we drove along, there were several good looking spots like that but at each juncture, MSH said no, I think if we go a bit further we can find one where we are on our own . . . I want to find one like yesterday. So we drove and when the road turned from asphalt to dirt, we kept driving. and as the track got smaller and the grade more steep, we kept going. in fact, we kept going until all i could see out of the windshield was sky at which point i freaked out and screamed STOPTHECAROHMYGODWEAREGOINGTODRIVEOFFACLIFFSTOPTHECARRRRR.

He did, of course and we were perched on top of a hill with a small footpath leading down to a village and a crescent of a beach beyond. grinning, msh pulled the picnic basket out of the car and we started our way down the path to the beat of the ponk ponk ponk of a fisherman repairing the boat anchored in front of the beach. worth the death defying drive for sure. we got down to the beach ready to settle in for the day but needed to clear off a little debris in order to find a place to sit. somehow, this little slice of paradise was littered with a combination of tangled fish nets, rubbish and a few dead fish. no matter, the view was lovely, the sand soft and the lapping of the waves and the plinging hammer were a nice musical background for a honeymooning couple. so we spread our towel and laid out the ham, hard boiled eggs and wiener schitzel provided by the gasthof. it was going to be fine until we were swarmed by something i have yet to see again: a combination between a bee, a wasp, a dragonfly that came in the size of a hummingbird.

our decision to get out of there was instantaneous and mutual. we scrabbled together our things and beat a retreat up the footpath checking behingd to make sure that the bug bird things were not swarming behind like the bees that take the life of one of the poor campers in the excellent horror 1983 horror flick sleep away camp. I noted on one of these glances that the fisherman was coming in off his boat and registered relief that we wouldn't have to add buying our way out of trespassing to the itemized expenses from the trip. As we made our way along he came up the path after us and my ever chipper, ever sweet husband called out KALIMERA! the response came back in perfect if accented english oh, are you americans.

Hmm. Not even greek. Turns out he was a dutch businessman who had purchased the entire village off of an ad in his local newspaper. So much for the quaint greek fishing village. and so much for using your parent's travel agent to book your honeymoon.

not to worry, we went back and finished out the day quite happily in one of the previously scouted beaches along the road and since it was high noon by the time we arrived, the other beach goers had retreated to the shade or an intelligent nap inside. more beach for us.

up next: honeymoon part two, turkey and its its roadside cuisine.