Uncertainty on the metro

I left the Library a bit later today. For the last week or so, I’ve been sleeping in, and getting to work about 30 minutes to an hour later than usual, which I means I leave later, too. This wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that today, my lateness (presumably) allowed me to board one of DC Metro’s shiny new trains.

Very rarely, have I even seen these trains. When one arrived on the orange line, I braced myself: what would await me inside? The exterior is more homogenous than its predecessor: a deep, consistent metallic silver. The interior walls are pale and brightly lit. The varying shades of orange coloring the old cars’ seats are replaced with blue ones. The seats themselves are flatter, but definitely look more comfy. (My car was standing room only, so I didn’t get to test them.)

Two things, however, caught my eye. In the car were displaying each stop on the orange line. On each stop, the screen listed the number of stops it would take to get to each one. On the bottom, updates scrolled like a CNN newsfeed. It also provided information about what was located at the next stop, including carpooling, buses, biking, and parking. Another screen, lining the upper wall, also showed what stops were next, only it was bigger.

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PHOTO BY GREATERGREATERWASHINGTON.ORG

PHOTO BY GREATERGREATERWASHINGTON.ORG

PHOTO BY GREATERGREATERWASHINGTON.ORG

I couldn’t help but marvel at the dumb simplicity of it. Someone with no metro experience could get on this train, read one of those screens and know how many stops it would take to get to any station on her line and where she could transfer to any other line, without ever looking at a map. The screens tell you exactly what you need to know, except where you are in the city.

It reminds me of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. Not only are those screens yet another distraction (which I’m sure will be used for ads in the future), but they don’t promote the sense of place one acquires through carefully studying a metro map and actually riding the metro. They’re useful… mind-numbingly so.

Who among us, in our ignorance as subway novices, hasn’t had to pause and consider where the fuck he was going?

Who hasn’t had to jump off their car at the last minute only to realize they exited at the wrong stop?

You need those moments of uncertainty and panic – to learn, to live, to make life interesting, dammit. Those moments keep you engaged in the act of traveling and build your confidence. Having had many of them, I feel surer in my judgments when boarding the metro, even in a less familiar are of DC.

I worry these screens will prevent future riders from making the mistakes that will enable them to master the metro. Or maybe I’m just hearkening back to the good old days of two months ago. Only time will tell.

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Spontaneity and Awakening in DC

(I wrote this in response to Stray musings on openness, optimism, and pleasant surprises.)

“Good things happen. But more of them happen if you’re open to the possibility. And if you start from that premise, you’re less likely to miss the good things that might be happening around you while you’re grumbling and staring down at the sidewalk.”

Funny you should say this, because I’m finding that more and more in my own experience. I had a similarly positive experience on Amtrak from DC to Hartford the same day as your trip. We were only four minutes late. But this summer has been an education in being open to the new and the good in whatever forms they take.

Being in DC exposes you to a lot. I’m still terrifically shy, but I’ve managed to talk to loads of interesting people. And the most memorable encounters have been unplanned and spontaneous – not exactly in my social comfort zone.

For instance, one night I needed to get out of my apartment. I’d been sitting in my room too long staring at a computer screen, and it was too late for any kind of excursion. So I sat on a bench outside the lobby of my building. A tall, dark-haired man with a wide build approached me, offering me a cigarette in passable English. I declined politely. He told me that I looked like I had something on my mind. (I guess that’s my default.) We proceeded to talk for almost an hour and a half; I learned that he had been studying English in America for only a few months, and that he was from Saudi Arabia. We discussed everything from American and Saudi culture to women and dating. He admired America’s religious liberty, something he found his own country lacking. He did, however, scoff at many American women he perceived as promiscuous; all the while, he was working up the courage to ask out a girl who was moving out of the building imminently. (I could relate.)

He asked me whether I believed in God and I told him I didn’t really know. As a Muslim, he tried to address some of my doubts about the existence of God and said that prayer made him feel good, knowing that Allah is with him.

This whole conversation happened because I left my apartment. He started talking to me, but it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been out there.

And then there was my day at the Supreme Court, which was as close as I’ve come to a political and personal baptism.

I’d been checking Scotusblog like clockwork, Monday/Thursday/Friday, physically and psychologically bracing for the impact of King v. Burwell. I’d been thinking about the utter lunacy of the case and how a badly written sentence could have thrown millions of American lives into chaos. One headline after another read the same thing: “we’re probably fucked.” Eventually I had to just let it go – whatever would happen would happen. When the 6-3 ruling was announced, I felt relief, not just because of the result, but because of John Roberts’ reasoning: he interpreted the passage in the context of the law. It seems that common sense can still prevail, on occasion.

I remembered that another big case had yet to be announced: Obergefell v. Hodges. I’d assumed the Supreme Court would rule in favor of gay marriage, and I’d barely given it a second thought. However, it occurred to me, like the other case I’d been watching so intently, it was happening right outside my cubicle. There would be a crowd of thousands, elated or devastated, depending on the verdict, and I had to be among them. For some reason, I knew it would be decided that Friday, the day after King v. Burwell. I just had a feeling.

That day, the Library of Congress interns had a mandatory tour of the stacks from 9:00am to 10:00am. Having already been in the stacks (and seen your contributions to the Library’s collection) I was annoyed that the tour might prevent me from being outside the Supreme Court the moment the decision went down. The whole tour I was distracted. When it ended, I made a beeline for the first door I could find out of the Jefferson building.

Running parallel to me was a girl from my intern group, who up until this point I had not spoken to. I gathered from her velocity that she was headed the same way as me. I asked her if she was and she said yes.

I saw young people in suits sprinting toward the Capitol building, packets in hand. (I would learn that these were congressional interns racing to deliver decisions to their respective members, a time-honored tradition known as “the running of the interns.”) In front of the Supreme Court was a crowd of hundreds, probably thousands, cheering with an immediacy and urgency that made me think gay marriage had just been legalized.

Approaching the crowd, I introduced myself to the girl. Her name was Kyra, a rising junior government major at William and Mary. This was not her first time at the Court. She lived nearby, and in her high school years she’d been an LGBT activist. She had just taken the same Civil Rights and Civil Liberties class that I did last year. We had quite a bit in common.

As we talked, we inched through the crowd. It heartened me to see so many different kinds of people there: the young, the old, whites, blacks, the well-dressed, the hideously dressed, the LGBT, and the straight; signs that read “Catholics for Marriage Equality,” “Baptists for Marriage Equality,” and “Evangelicals for Marriage Equality.”

Christians showed up in full force.

Christians showed up in full force.

People right in front of me were being interviewed, with tape recorders in their faces. A woman offered Kyra and me signs that said “America is Ready for the Freedom to Marry.” We held them high and melded with the crowd. A man with what looked like a TV camera asked if he could shoot us holding the signs, and we agreed. Somewhere out there is footage of me in a very good mood.

After about 45 minutes, we started to head out, but stopped to listen to the Gay Men’s Chorus sing. Their peaceful, melodic harmony enriched the celebration.

The Gay Men's Choir.

The Gay Men’s Choir.

Kyra and I approached the Jefferson Building, and I knew I needed to ask her out. We had too much in common, and I had just had too much fun to let that moment just slip by and become just another lost opportunity. So I asked if she wanted to hang out over the weekend, and she said yes.

I feel like, to some people, that moment would have just been a given, but it’s never been so easy for me. I had never been able to so effortlessly bypass the anxiety and fear that prevented me from doing that. I got the fuck out of my own way for once.

And in less than an hour, I witnessed massive political change happen. The buildup of decades of activism and fighting against overt hatred and the even more powerful bigotry of the status quo that Doug Muder of the Weekly Sift talks about. Even I had been getting pretty cynical by this point, but to see it actually happen, in front of me – it felt life changing.

Good things happen.

Back from Europe. Travel Post #3: Vienna Waits for You

Coming here to Vienna, I can’t hear Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz without seeing 2001’s stately, lovely docking scene. Now, that is powerful filmmaking.

I have been hearing Blue Danube a lot.

First, on the tarmac, before/after Austrian Airlines takeoffs/landings. Then, prominently – obviously — in the Mozart and Strauss concerts for tourists.

(We partook in one the other night, in the lovely 18th century Palais Auersperg, where, on January 12th, 1762, a 6-year-old Mozart entered history by jumping on Empress Maria Theresia’s lap.

Wien_-_Palais_Auersperg_(2)

© Bwag/Commons, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

No such historical events took place while we were there. But I did leave my bag at coat check, and had to run back to grab it before they closed up shop. You and I were on the phone while that was going on…)

We heard still more Blue Danube on the headphone audio guides at Hofburg, visiting the winter residence of the workaholic emperor Franz Joseph and his depressed, alienated, literary Empress, Sisi.

Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, in uniform, undated. Credit: Library of Congress

Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, in uniform, undated. Credit: Library of Congress

We saw the room where Franz Joseph regularly held well over a hundred audiences each day, during his extraordinary reign as “first public servant” of the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph took the throne soon after the failed European revolutions of 1848, and held it until 1916, halfway through the World War. 68 years: that is longevity.

By now, I’m an old pro at describing the Emperor’s audiences. Because Franz Joseph abhorred personal ostentation, these usually took place in one of the palace’s simpler rooms. They generally lasted three minutes, max. A visitor might be requesting a favor, or clemency… offering thanks for an honor… sharing a confidence. Whatever the agenda, the visits invariably closed with the emperor nodding slightly downward and telling his guest: “It has been a pleasure.”

(I know all this because the same exact ritual has already been described to me at the Emperor’s summer residence at Schloß Schönbrunn.)

Here in Vienna, this Emperor’s presence is everywhere. Vienna was at the peak of its power during his reign: the center of a thriving and complex multi-ethnic empire. The Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire sought to manage, control, and balance the interests of everyone from Ukrainians and Poles to Italians and Hungarians and Serbs.

(Woodrow Wilson seemed to imagine this would be easy. But, judging from the 20th century’s carnage, the empire’s successors did not do real well after Wilson effectively promoted their “self-determination of peoples.” I think we need a new generation of revisionist historians to uncover something Wilson was actually right about.)

Franz Joseph also needed to manage the aspirations of a growing middle class, while preventing the depredations of anarchists (who assassinated, among many others, his beloved wife).

Ah, Sisi, “The Reluctant Empress.” We must talk about Sisi, whose image seems even more ubiquitous in Vienna than Franz Joseph’s, once you leave his palaces and museums.

Here at Hofburg, we walk through Sisi’s life: as a 15-year-old girl who catches the new emperor’s eye when he was supposed to fall in love with her older sister… as a young bride overwhelmed by court life (and, allegedly, by an overbearing mother-in-law)… as a mother whose two-year-old daughter dies, and, decades later, loses a son to suicide. We are shown Sisi, the vain beauty, who spends hours having her hair done just so, with the perfect mixture of egg yolks and cognac.

But what’s she doing while her maids are grooming her? She’s learning Greek; having Homer read to her; writing original poetry. And what are all those books in her private room? That’s what I want to know.

Who was this woman they talk about everywhere here? This 19th century Princess Diana shining out from marble statues and cheap fridge magnets?

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Kangaroos, Santa Clauses, and Sisi…

The one played by Romy Schneider in the movies? The one you can “feel like” if you buy the right jewelry reproduction in the gift shop?

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…”Feel like an empress…”

If I were I a woman, I would not want to feel like this empress felt.

…While Franz Joseph was attempting to maintain control of an increasingly unwieldy empire (and marriage), he was also working to reinvent Vienna as a global capital on the level of Paris and London.

Hence the Ringstraße (Ringstrasse). This world-renowned circular road replaced ancient city walls that once protected Vienna against Ottoman invaders. Many European cities replaced their walls with ring roads, but Franz Joseph also wanted his Ringstraße to host the city’s most impressive new buildings and public parks. A classically-styled Parliament. An impressive City Hall (which now hosts an amazing outdoor summer movie festival). Natural history and fine arts museums, the Vienna opera house, and a whole lot more.

(You can see the whole Ringstraße for one tram fare. Buy the Wiener Linien transit day pass, or a 2- or 3-day Vienna Card and see it all for next to nothing on the “1” and “2” tram lines. Please do NOT pay for the tourist “Hop On Hop Off Bus” I call it the “Trudge On Trudge Off Bus… but, again, I digress…)

It’s 2015, but you can’t miss much of the sparkling magic of 19th century Vienna. Conversely, tourists find it harder to get at the history that made the Empire so vulnerable. You get little sense of its internal security apparatus, or its limitations on the free press… no sense of what it took for Franz Joseph to maintain rule for 68 years, even as Austria lost wars and struggled to compete with the likes of Germany’s Bismarck.

This is really striking, given that the Empire ultimately, spectacularly, failed. Visiting these palaces, it’s as if history has been written by the losers. The cliché says that can’t happen. But some of us Americans know how the South revised our Civil War’s history in ways completely inconsistent with the documentary evidence.

Sometimes history is written by whoever is most determined to write it.

History aside, we’d hoped to see an opera while we’re in Vienna. But the opera shuts down in July and August for vacation. I like a society that doesn’t work 24/7. To visit the Donauturm tower for its exquisite view of the city,* we subway-ed out towards Vienna’s suburban corporate parks. At night, there wasn’t a light on in any of those buildings. Where I come from, there would be people up there working (or simulating work) all over the place. The legendary Spanish Riding School was shut down for the summer, too: even Vienna’s trained horses get a vacation.

Billy Joel’s 1977 song, Vienna, uses the city as something of a metaphor for slowing down and connecting with the timeless:

Slow down, you crazy child

And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile

It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two

When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

I doubt the disconcertingly modern Vienna Tourist Board would like that.

They’ve adopted the slogan Vienna: Now or Never. Seems their marketing research says lots of people want to go to Vienna eventually… but they figure it’ll still be there whenever they’re ready. Not good enough! Tourists should be told the old Vienna of Franz Joseph and Freud is slipping away: if you don’t hurry up and get here, it’ll be gone forever.

Perhaps. But people tell you the same thing everywhere: whatever made their hometowns unique is disappearing.

Despite its McDonaldses and neon-lit Wurstelprater amusement park, Vienna feels more out of time than almost anywhere I’ve been. Barring geopolitical upheaval or civilizational collapse, I bet it’ll feel much the same if you wait ’til you’re 59 to visit.

(Not that you should.)

I’ll say this, though. After five days here, when I hear Strauss’s Blue Danube now, I don’t see Kubrick anymore. I see parks and opera houses and classical statuary; summer palaces and winter palaces; the double eagles of lost Austrian empire.

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The Double Eagles of Austrian Empire

*If you visit Donauturm at night, skip the fancy restaurant: just have dessert at the rotating coffee shop. The view is equally magnificent, and a lot cheaper. I don’t want to say their chocolate sachertorte was as good as the famous Café Sacher Wien. But, rumor has it, some of those center-city sachertortes are a bit overrated. And if we want one enough, we can always have one shipped to us.

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Housekeeping note: I plan to post a few more tidbits on Vienna, a few pictures I want to share with you, and (eventually) a lengthy post on Munich.

Back from Europe. Travel Post #2: Of lachs & locks

One thing I’m lovin’ on this trip is the lachs. That’s lox to you and me. Germans and Austrians seem to love their smoked salmon, and – for me at least – it’s the absolute highlight of the free breakfasts we’ve been getting. Lox is friggin’ expensive at home (I have no idea what it costs in Central Europe). And, as I’ve mentioned before, Mom hates the stuff (she has kind of a pre-sushi ‘raw fish, P U’ attitude towards it). So I’m doubly hesitant to bring it home here.

But this week, I’m on vacation, and I’ve been loading up. At NJ prices, I believe I’ve eaten up well over 1% of this vacation’s cost in lachs. We all have our own definitions of luxury: for me, this will do just fine.

One thing I’m NOT lovin’ on this trip is the locks. They are all different and, to me, incomprehensible. It took forever to figure out how to unlock the room door in Munich, merely a few days to master the one in Vienna, and we never did figure out the safe. It took ten minutes for Mom to escape the train bathroom between Munich and Vienna. Then I got hopelessly locked in the basement handicapped bathroom in the 21er Haus Museum of Contemporary Art in Vienna. This required me to text message Mom to summon the authorities, who soon arrived to liberate me.

With this momentary embarrassment behind me, I can muse on how interesting the little differences in societies can be. Slightly different locks and breakfast selections and toilets and showers and language idioms and subway payment arrangements.

It’s sort of a form of evolution, in which different societies generate slightly different but roughly equally workable solutions to the multitude of tiny practical problems they all face.

Occasionally you can at least hypothesize ways in which cultural differences might be responsible for these divergences. For example, in both Munich and Vienna, you buy and stamp your bus/tram/subway system ticket and then never have to show it, scan it, deposit it – you just get on and ride, scout’s honor. (There must be some spot-checking happening somewhere, but we rode these systems twenty times and never saw it.)

Someone reared in the NY/NJ metropolitan area might suspect this system is only practical in a society more willing to accept rules than his own.

Similarly, an American might be intrigued by toilets that offer two flush buttons, depending on… umm, how much needs to be flushed. Why do these Europeans not envision such a conservation measure as yet another sign of impending tyranny? <grin>

But many of the differences seem quite random, like genetic drift. Or perhaps they are secondary adaptations, byproducts of some other evolutionary adaptation, what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called spandrels.

As you may have noticed, I find this stuff really fascinating… when I’m not trapped in the toilet, that is <grin>.

Someone else must, too. But I’m not sure exactly who that would be. I am imagining myself at one of the parties we go to here in town. With whom might I share my peculiar enthusiasms?

Back from Europe. Travel Post #1 of ??: Bratislava

(First of more than one post. Looks like I might be working backwards from Day #9 of our trip…)

How often do we completely miss what’s right in front of us?

We need guides.

(That’s what a great professor is for, right? To help you see what’s most important and powerful in a discipline? To help you enter into its practice and culture… begin comprehending its rules and conventions and the reasons for them… discover what it hopes to accomplish, and be? Matthew Crawford talks about the irreconcilable contradiction between Americans’ individualist contempt for authority vs. the true mastery you only earn by first surrendering to someone who’s spent a lifetime at it. But that’s a post for another day.)

Whether it’s a discipline or a place, the more unfamiliar your surroundings, the more you need a guide. In Bratislava, Slovakia, we had a great one: Andrea of Be Free Tours.

I’d heard of “Free City Walking Tours” before. No reservations or strings: you just show up at the appointed place/time, join the tour, walk with your local guide for 2-3 hours, and then pay whatever you think it’s worth.

Of course, showing up isn’t always easy when you’ve never been in the country before! We arrived at the Bratislava main train station just fine, for merely 16€ each, roundtrip, thanks to the ÖBB’s amazing “BratisLover” train deal. Then we had our share of wrong turns, confusion, and steep staircases to climb in a hurry. (Hint: don’t write the meeting place in a tablet app where you might erase it. Use pen and paper.)

Huffing and puffing, we found the tour just as it was getting started – right down the street from the U.S. embassy. (Recognizable, as usual nowadays, for its forbidding gates and security personnel.)

The meeting place: a massive statue of Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav. Had I happened upon on it alone, it would’ve been just another unfamiliar, stolid European face and body, atop yet another name I couldn’t pronounce.

(Wikimedia's photo was better than mine.)

(Wikimedia’s photo was better than mine.)

But, because I had a guide, I came to know him as a courageous poet who promoted Slovak culture in an era when the nation’s rulers were aggressively discouraging it.

And because Andrea was my guide, I learned that — as a national hero — his difficult poetry was part of the mandatory school curriculum. And I learned just how much the kids in Slovakia hated to study it.

Later, I stood in a nondescript little square, above rusted pipes leading down cement stairs to ratty public bathrooms:

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But because Andrea was my guide, I learned of the days in 1968 when Soviet troops marched into this very square… and a local photographer took the photo of one man facing down a tank right here… and I learned how the Soviets tried to track down his magazine in those offices right there… and how that photo was smuggled out to show the world just what was happening here.

bratislava tank man

Without her narrative, I would’ve noticed only the rusted pipes — and the Subway sandwich shop across the street. (We see what we know.)

Beyond politics, because I had a great guide, I learned how it feels to be a young woman in Slovakia on Easter Monday. That’s the day tradition tells boys to soak women in freezing cold water. And it’s the day tradition tells girls to give those boys gifts in appreciation of the attention that’s been “poured” upon them.

And I learned how it feels when Easter Monday rolls around and you’ve got to explain all this stuff to the female exchange student living with you.

From our funny, empathetic guide, I got a sense of the national insecurity that can go with being a small country much of the world is only dimly aware of. Once the smaller half of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia now stands proudly independent, but it’s often confused with other parts of the former Yugoslavia. (“In 2005, George Bush was making a speech about us. We were scared he was going to confuse us with Slovenia, because he did things like that. But he got it right. If he had mixed us up, we would have understood, because lots of people do. If I’m somewhere else and I’m asked where I’m from, I know it’s going to be a long conversation, best done with a map.” *

Says Andrea, Slovakia can occasionally be hilariously concerned with attracting positive outside attention. Or with countering negative portrayals, such as Eli Roth’s notorious Hostel, wherein backpackers meet a particularly gruesome fate here.

(The movie was actually shot elsewhere, Andrea assures us. Local authorities hoped to coax Roth into a visit, aiming to convince him that Bratislava is actually a wonderful destination — full of fascinating history, great architecture, and warm, welcoming people. He wouldn’t come. I’m not sure there’s a screenplay in that! But FWIW, she totally convinced me.)

Walk a city’s streets, but do you know what its citizens think about them? See a city’s monuments, without knowing the stories their builders intended to tell? Or the stories those monuments tell now (not always the same)?

See a city’s restaurants, without knowing its rumors? (Why was that Carlton hotel closed so long? Did one local chef really poison his rival’s powdered sugar?)

Share a city’s paving stones with people whose struggles and hopes and fears and ironic jokes are invisible to you? We loved Barcelona and Madrid last year. But, even knowing that Spain is suffering terrible economic privations, we noticed very little unemployment, misery, or even ennui. It was there; how did we miss it all?

(Andrea made sure this didn’t happen in Bratislava. We wouldn’t leave without knowing that a teacher makes 500 euro per month regardless of seniority; that rent often runs 300 euro, and that day-to-day living costs can be a lot higher than tourists think.)

Mom and I tag team. She starts talking to strangers. She never thinks: “They don’t want to talk to me.” Sometimes she completely misses the body language that says “I’m busy, go away.” And practically every day she comes across someone who’s really friendly and ready to share, if you truly care about them (and, as I keep marveling to you, Mom totally does, and totally shows it).

Once Mom and “whoever” start talking, I can jump in with a hopefully intelligent question or comment based on my vast storehouse of usually irrelevant knowledge <grin>. (Knowing something about Archduke Franz Ferdinand and 1914 has come in very handy here, where those events don’t seem quite so distant.) Then, we’re off to the races.

So, on the short Vienna-to-Duesseldorf hop of our flight home, we met a 32-year-old guy and his sister on their first visit to New York City. He’d been born in Sarajevo, and escaped in the 1990s when Bosnia was going up in flames. His family moved to Austria with just the clothes on their backs. He freely shared his experiences: what it’s been like for them, what Sarajevo’s like now. (I found myself thankful for the affordances of a life in a boring and verdant American suburb. The apocryphal Chinese insult came to mind: “May you live in interesting times.” I hope you never do.)

In exchange for his friendly candor, I offered a few ideas for a week in New York City (fun neighborhoods, subway tips, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, Shakespeare in the Park).

Practically everyone’s a guide to somewhere. (You, too.)

Anyhow, this new strategy sort of works for me, and (true cliché) travel is about the people. I’m fighting my own introversion because I hate being that hermetically-sealed idiot tourist who’s told when to get on/off the bus/boat, where to look/not look, and where to buy cheap sweatshop souvenirs made 7K+ miles away. That’s why I want no part of your typical canned tour.

But, as Mom (and Rick Steves) have helped me understand, it’s one thing to travel on your own. Practically any fool can do that. OK, it’s cool that I can master any subway system in just a few days. (If it uses the Roman alphabet. I doubt I’d do so well in Cyrillic or Chinese!)

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I traveled a lot of cities alone. Toronto. DC. San Francisco. Portland, Oregon.

I rode the transit systems… read the newspapers, wall posters, graffiti… visited parks, supermarkets, local bookstores (which were everywhere back then). I got to know those cities about as well as you could without actually talking to anyone. Looking back, it was kind of an autistic way to travel. I totally mastered certain visible aspects of those places. But if it was emotional, intangible, unwritten, it didn’t exist.

I wafted through those cities like a ghost.

Way harder and better, of course, is to actually engage. In the future, you know I’ll be looking for more Free City Walking Tours (and I recommend them to you unreservedly, just as I recommend you do a LOT of traveling). And I’m learning, after all these years, to appreciate the amazing resource that is Mom on the road.

Maybe someday I’ll even start one of those conversations.

(Photos and more reflections to follow. After some clients have been served.)

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* I am embarrassed to admit that I did what George W. Bush did not do. After rehearsing all week to get it right — and carefully, accurately filling out my customs paperwork — when the US customs agent asked me which countries I had just visited, I said “Croatia.” Andrea, I apologize.

Stray musings on openness, optimism, and pleasant surprises

And we are aloft.

Yesterday, the entire United Airlines global system shut down for nearly two hours thanks to a failed network router. Apparently every United flight everywhere was grounded. Had we been here, it would’ve been a total fiasco. As it stands, we’re not scheduled to arrive until 7 a.m. tomorrow. (Cue my griping about how much I hate overnight flights…)

When that many flights are cancelled or delayed across the entire globe, it wreaks havoc. Planes and pilots aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Connections and turnarounds are missed. It takes time for the system to recover. Nor did it build my confidence to read all the online chatter about how United has supposedly tried to merge its systems with Continental’s “on the cheap,” leading to massive technological clusterfks all over the place.

So I was, frankly, expecting a mess today… especially after United.com’s website wouldn’t let us check in last night.

But that is not what happened.

Everything has gone perfectly, from the moment I woke up today. I weighed myself, just under 150, lightest all year. I met my last two deadlines this morning. (There will be work to do on the plane — especially coming home — but right this instant, I’m late on nothing.) We left the house barely eight minutes late. There was hardly any traffic to Newark Airport (I found a way to evade Route 17). Off-airport valet parking was easy-peasy (and this time I did NOT take my car key with me, making it impossible for them to park my car.) The shuttle was right there waiting for us. Luggage drop-off and boarding-pass printing, quick and simple.

And get this: inexplicably, TSA handed special blue cards to Mom and me, exempting us from all that take-off-your-shoes rigamarole. (What algorithm finally decided we’re harmless?)

We left no cellphones or flash drives or passports in TSA’s buckets. There were free power outlets in the waiting area. (Would you believe Terminal C has a “Meditation Room” now?)

We boarded on time. We took off almost on time, too. The pre-takeoff safety video was actually entertaining. And it is alleged that Economy Class on this flight includes a three-course dinner. (I’ll keep you posted on this.)

As I write, we’re cruising at 33,000 feet. We’ve been quickly permitted to run our laptops again, and we’ve been promised a smooth 7 hour and 25 minute flight, landing ten minutes early.

This would have been my day to buy a lottery ticket.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pleasant surprises. (Perhaps you have, too?)

A few days ago, the Mets were playing out West, Dodgers, I think. It was midnight. They’d just gone down in order, top of the eighth, leaving the score – you guessed it – 0-0. Was there the slightest doubt what would happen?

I couldn’t stand to watch yet another remarkable pitching performance end in ashes. So I switched off the TV, and went to bed. Next morning, I discovered they’d scored three in the ninth, and won three-zip.

Good things happen. But more of them happen if you’re open to the possibility. And if you start from that premise, you’re less likely to miss the good things that might be happening around you while you’re grumbling and staring down at the sidewalk.

Orthogonal to this discussion, let me tell you what Mom’s up to, across the aisle.

I’d downloaded the Rick Steves travel app on my Android tablet, and loaded up the Munich video walking tour for her. Well, she’s already made friends with a German couple that knows the city well, and they’re annotating each new image with their own experiences.

Already, we’ve learned (reassuringly) that you can order less than a full liter of beer in a Munich biergarten.

That’s Mom. Friendly. Outgoing. Cares about people. Makes friends. People like her. And she didn’t even have to compliment anyone’s jewelry (though, admittedly, the night is young.)

Have you read the chapter in The World Beyond Your Head where Crawford trashes airports full of CNN and people with headphones and smartphones who are utterly resistant to human contact? But there’s Mom, proving it doesn’t have to be that way.

I suspect she is depending on me to do more of the human interaction this week. I took four years of German, and she knows not a word of the language. (Well, OK, she knows “Guten Morgen,” which will be quite useful tomorrow at 7 a.m.)

But you mark my words, it’ll be her, same as always. Sadly, I seem to recall a lot less German than she thinks I do. Far more important, though, Mom speaks human. I think she could connect anywhere. Count it a blessing and miracle you have those genes, too, not just mine! 🙂

(OT, the flight attendant just offered me a Chardonnay. Yup, wine in Economy Class, neatly accompanied by cheese and crackers. You’d get a kick out of these wine selections, too: poured from oversized juice box containers that remind me of the ones you used to get in first grade…)

Pleasant surprises!

Mom has been gleaning more details about how those Munich biergartens work. This reminds me of how I need to become a better traveler. Is there table service? Do you have to call the waiter? Do you tip? How much? I get weirded out when I don’t know what to do.

I need to work on that.

For one thing, I intend to watch more closely. If people go up to the counter to request a pastry in a Vienna coffeehouse, then that’s what I’ll try.

“When in Rome,” right? If everyone leaves the opera house and orders a wurst from the street truck, then I just might need a wurst.

I doubt those come in vegetarian.

(But lo and behold, United’s in-flight entrees do. Hey, it’s even Indian: “Chaka Saag; Cumin Basmati Rice; Tarka Dal.” Chick peas. Curry. My winning streak continues!)

Thinking of the wurst (so to speak) reminds me of one of my biggest regrets about Spain. Most really good restaurants in Madrid don’t start serving dinner until something like 9 pm, and I, we, don’t like to eat that late. So we wound up eating in crap tourist traps that served awful swill early. What’s more, most of the good stuff seems to contain jamon (ham). I passed. Purist that I am.

So, as much as I loved Spain, I can’t say I miss the taste of it. But that’s nobody’s fault but my own. Maybe I can do a little better this time.

Ninety calories of mango sorbet wrap up dinner here, as we pass a couple hundred miles south of Greenland on the Great Circle route. I guess it was a three-course dinner. I consider myself quite well fed for an economy class passenger in the year 2015.

What’s more, I may actually be starting to like the flavor of mangoes.

I wonder what else I might like if I tried it.