Lifting Their Legs on the World

When I was a girl, my family took car trips around the country. I know there were many long, uninterrupted and rather boring stretches where my sister and I complained and asked, “Are we there yet?” Five minutes later, “Are we there yet?” I used the time to read, still a favorite pastime, or to stare out at the landscape.

Yet as time has ebbed, it isn’t the long drives I remember so much, it is the places along the way. I have several ethereal, out-of-context memories, such as an intersection in the middle of nowhere stopping us at a light in the middle of the night. I was in the backseat. It was dark. We were in the desert. That is all I know. Or the Native American roadside stand in New Mexico or some other southwest place, selling strange toys and dolls covered in actual fur. We stopped at a place to go to the bathroom, and I was given a plastic pony covered in grey felt. It was short and fat, a Thelwell style thing. I can’t remember if I was given the pony before or after my crying fit, the one that seems as if it lasted hours, because I hadn’t gotten something I wanted. I remember the stickiness of the car seat, my raw facial flesh from the salt and water and rubbing. It was cloudy, but it was also hot — our cars never had air conditioning. It seems unlikely my parents would have given it to me after crying in such a manner, but I also seem to have some vague notion of there being some unfairness too, and so I was given this trinket. This episode was obviously linked to some emotional overflowing, and therefore this is the reason it sticks in my brain. I know it was summer and I was 10 or 11.

Mostly though, I remember the places: the museum at the petrified forest, the fluorescent lights shining on off-white, speckled formica tile, the bits of hardened wood under glass on tables, and the signs explaining the geological phenomena. I remember a roadside dinosaur we could climb inside. I remember campsites in far flung places, usually the desert, because we traveled every summer to visit my grandpa and uncles and aunt in New Mexico. I remember Los Alamos and the mesa stable, walking out and looking over the cliffs at what seemed to be vast canyons. I remember the Grand Canyon, and the Great Hoover dam and its unbelievable, terrifying, breath stealing bridge. I could see the water, trapped on one side and then far, far below, the canyon on the other, empty of water. I would marvel that the water caught on the far side could be that deep. I remember the Glen Canyon damn, and riding wide boats among the sheer rock faces. We roamed wax museums, and visited the pretend old west in Carson City, Nevada. We stopped at roadside attractions showing the path of the pioneers along the Oregon trail, and visited ghost towns that had thrived in the heyday of the gold rush. I remember passing billboard after billboard, announcing the coming attractions, as well as signs you had to read as you passed by. Roadside poetry. So it went. Summer after summer, we took our yearly drive. Sometimes in the winter we also visited, and skated on iced-over ponds, or hiked through snowy forests.

Last summer, I took my daughters to Europe. We trekked through several cities. I found myself feeling sadness and a little frustration that in city after city, the same corporate shops dotted the landscapes. Museums were large, crowded, and expensive, certainly not the best option for my then 2 year old. I could not find a small chocolate shop in Antwerp. A shop owner in the Netherlands told me it was because the multinational corporations had driven up the cost of real estate and all the small shops had gone out of business.

When Milla was three, we trekked to our annual family reunion in South Dakota. It was the first time I had been to the small pioneer cemetery where one part of my family has been buried since settling on the plains in the mid-1800s. Many of those buried there were born in Scandinavia. I have a great, great, great aunt who was one of the only white people Sitting Bull befriended. She brought food to them because the American government was purposely starving them. She ignored the prohibition against it and fed them. There is a book about her. These hardy (and hard) people moved from a very cold, harsh place to another cold and harsh place. Some of them were run off their Scandinavian farms by political unrest in their countries. For this, I think some of them identified with the Natives on those plains and perhaps this is why they became allies.

The trip was a complete and utter disappointment on one level. I expected it to look like South Dakota. I expected a “South Dakota-ness” to the place. No. It was Target. It was Walmart. It was Burger King. It was the same ugly, conforming corporate crap we have where I live. Later I traveled to several other US cities. The same thing.

Something erased these individual places and made them homogenuous and boring. I know what it is: capitalism. Capitalism took away the South Dakota-ness, and the Oregon-ness, and the Arizona-ness and replaced them with bland, ugly sameness. There are no little shops selling trinkets made by locals. If there are, they are now in the upscale, “artsy” places and the people making things sell them for a small fortune to tourists whose tours are to shop. Tour brochures in motels feature the “best” malls and the “best” shopping. Going to places and finding things to do that are not shopping is difficult. Oh, you can pay a fortune to ride on some guided boat, or to rent some piece of equipment you likely own at home such as a bicycle or kayak, but it’s rare to go to places and find things about that place that you can’t find in every other place all over. Even Europe has lost its uniqueness in each city. Family trips are taken to destination resorts that are exactly the same as every other corporate resort. Even the lines are the same. All that might change is the weather. Too bad the corporations can’t control that.

Bill Bryson, in his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid describes rides in cars visiting places in the US. I’ve read many memoirs where the author remembers such things. I have also read stories where such summer trips played a key role in the plot. Driving around in the backseat as a child is a key cultural memory for those of us born between the 1930s and early 1980s.

Since taking vacations as an adult, I have spent many trips trying to find places like those I visited as a child, unusual places that I can take my children that define the place they are in. I’ve been frustrated by the search. I’ve raged against travel brochures that feature shopping as a tourist attraction. What, so I can buy the same shit made in China that is sold all over the world and then lug it home? I drove across the country in 2009. Every single roadside, every single town was monochromatic, exactly like the one before. Nothing had its own identity.

In another favorite book of mine by Bryson In a Sunburned Country, Bryson describes a town called Alice Springs, Australia, near the site of an Aboriginal holy place at the base of the MacDonnell Mountain Range. It is overrun with McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Kmart. He says that Americans have created “a philosophy of retailing that is totally without aesthetics…” He also says it is totally irresistible, but I do not agree. I absolutely hate it and I do resist it. I avoid these places like the plague.

I’m currently reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. In it, he describes perfectly how we are losing the identities of the world’s places. He describes his love of London, his visits there for thirty years, spanning from 1966 to 2006. Every year he went at least once, many even more. Yet in the last decade, London is losing itself because of the corporations “lifting their legs along London’s streets.” Oh, my good man, what an apt description. In it I had an Ah ha! moment that identified what has been missing from my vacations and visits to places that are not home. I thought it was something about me, that maybe I have lost my luster, and that this is why I haven’t been able to fully enjoy these places I’ve gone. I had an expectation of that feeling of newness, visiting something different from myself that I experienced as a child vacationing in the backseat of our family car.

Yet it wasn’t me at all. It was this erasing of individual identities from the places in the world. It was all the hideous conformity, with no regard whatsoever for the place that had been there. It’s the chasing of the almighty dollar.

We have to do something to change this. We have to stop the reign of capitalism. Something has to shift. People have to believe it is possible before we all become Stepford robots keeping up with the Joneses to buy ugly, plastic junk that destroys our planet. We need to go out of our way to find the few places that still exist where homogeneity isn’t the rule and take our children to these places.

Last summer I visited my friend in Ephrata, Washington. There isn’t much there; Walmart took care of that, although some small shops are trying to make a go of it. Yet they are shops, not tourist destinations. My friend took me for a drive out to the Columbia Basin plateau, a site of magnificent geology, where lava flows and massive floods created incredible landscapes. Up on the edge of one of the cliffs over a coulee there was a little museum telling the story of the geology, the ice age, and its effect on the land. My 13 year old actually read the information on the exhibits. It reminded me of the places we visited as a child. These places do exist. Find them. Take your children. Give them memories that are worthy of reminiscing. Don’t let us all turn into monochromatic robots, shopping our way around the world.

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BedandBreakfast.com is a Big Lie Site

I used BedandBreakfast.com, also Inns.com, to locate a B & B in Barcelona.  The reviews for the B & B I ultimately chose were fantastic, not one bad one in the bunch.  They raved about the owner, the cooking, the facilities, all of it.  I sought reviews on other sites, but there weren’t many available for the place I wanted to stay.  After searching for a month and gathering quotes, I made my choice, primarily based on the information on BedandBreakfast.com, as well as the email conversations I had with the owner.

Unfortunately, our experience did not line up with our expectations, so much so that when we returned home, I wrote a diplomatic, but negative review.  The owner wasn’t there. The woman who replaced her was nasty.  The only breakfast was a couple of slices of bread with jam.  The location was a good one for Barcelona, but was situated next door to a fire station, not exactly relaxing for a vacation.  And the rooms had no air conditioning or fans, which was next to impossible to tolerate during August.

After I wrote the review, I received a message back from BedandBreakfast.com asking for proof I stayed at the B & B.  I sent the confirmation email from the owner.  Not good enough.  I sent the Paypal receipt for the deposit.  Not good enough.  I even sent a photo of us in the room. Not good enough.  We had paid in cash, and since the owner was not there and her replacement could not understand my request for a receipt, I had no further proof.  They would not post the review.  I have sent the owner 6 requests for a receipt, but except for one response in which she claimed to be out of town and that she would send one upon her return, I have had no response.  BedandBreakfast.com claimed I could have been a competitor trying to bring down that B & B.  Right.  I fabricated emails with the owner, I sent $45 through Paypal to some fabricated account.  I made up the whole thing, just to give a bad review? It’s ridiculous.

Don’t trust BedandBreakfast.com. I looked through their listings, and could not find any negative reviews. They filter them out. Don’t use their site to make your travel decision because you won’t be getting an accurate picture.  Their site lies.

Eggs in Spain, and indeed the Netherlands, too.

I have two observation about eggs from my trip to Europe.  A couple of days after my arrival in the Netherlands I was dispatched to the grocery store to fetch eggs.  I could not find them.  I searched and searched and returned empty-handed. Both Milla and Anne told me the eggs were by the cereal, so the next time I was in the grocery store I looked for the cereal.  Lo and behold, there on the shelf next to the cereal sat the eggs. They were not in the refrigeration section, which is why I had not located them previously. I had gone around and around to all the refrigerated sections in the store.  No wonder I hadn’t found them.

This was quite a revelation, these eggs on the grocery store shelf. I have known my mother to toss out entire cartons of eggs because they sat on the counter all day.  What a waste.  I will let her know, and everyone else who might care, that Europeans leave their eggs on the shelf in the grocery store.   There have been no major outbreaks of  Salmonella in the Netherlands (I checked, via the internets, so if the internets can be trusted, this is likely the case), which must mean that leaving eggs out of refrigeration for a while won’t hurt anyone.  I wonder how much money could be saved in the US on refrigeration if eggs were not kept cold.  Or maybe it’s that the US leaves them out longer than the eggs in Europe.  I will have to do some investigating and get back to that one.

I made another egg discovery in Europe.  You can buy, off the shelf, actual eggs from chickens that are truly free-range.  I’m not talking about the bullshit US version of free-range where they keep them locked up until they are 5 weeks old, then open a tiny door at the end of a long shed, knowing full well they will never leave that shed until the day they die.  No.  I’m talking true free-range from a field chickens who eat bugs and grass and scratch their little feetsies in the dirt.  I get my eggs true free-range from a field chickens.  I have to go to a neighbor’s house who has them brought in from a ranch and sells them to willing buyers.  I pay $5 a dozen, which isn’t horrible considering true free-range eggs at the local farmers markets are usually $10 a dozen.  The true free-range eggs in Europe were about $3 Euros a dozen, which was the same price as the non-true free-range eggs in Europe.  Not bad. Imagine that, true free-range eggs sold in the grocery store on the shelf for a moderate price.  And we’re told it can’t happen here. What a load of dooky (dookie?).

Finally, the absolute best egg discovery I made in Europe was in Spain.  Every single huevo I ordered in Spain was perfection. They were fried, with the whites completely cooked but not burned, the yellows still runny, and salted. NO PEPPER!!  Perfect.  I could not have ordered an egg more to my liking if I tried.  I have never, I repeat NEVER gotten an egg exactly as I like it at a restaurant in the US.  It is seemingly impossible here.  For some reason, either the whites not runny, or the whites not burned, or the yellows still runny, or the just salty part is a little too difficult for cooks here to manage.  Cooks here also seem to find it nearly impossible, even when asked, to leave off the pepper, which drives me to distraction because I can’t stand pepper and I really can’t stand it on eggs. I don’t send the eggs back for having pepper unless the pepper is so heavy I can barely see the egg, so I’ve had to scarf down peppered eggs on many occasions even when I didn’t want to.  Now I just rarely eat eggs out because it’s so hard for US cooks to figure them out to my liking.  But not the Spanish cooks, and I didn’t even SPECIFY!! They just came to me exactly as I like them, every single time I ordered them.  I loved it.  Maybe I was a Spaniard in a past life and this is why I like eggs the way they make them there.  I don’t know.

And another thing…the Spanish eggs, like the Netherland eggs, and like my true-free range eggs here, had the same bright orange, tasty yokes.  I suspect these Spanish eggs were true free-range as well.  Eggs that are not truly free-range, including the pretend free-range version in the US, simply do not have these healthy, tasty yokes.  They are anemic and bleah, with no flavor at all.  The Spanish eggs were utter perfection, through and through.

Barcelona

I have noticed since being in Barcelona, and indeed I have noticed in all of our European travels this summer, a lot more men carting around children than I see in the states.  And here in Spain I have noticed many, many sets of grandparents or a grandparent caring for young children.  I wonder if instead of placing children with daycare centers, more people here utilize family for childcare.  I’m talking about babies and very young children.

Today while swimming in the Mediterranean I was drifting in from a swim out a ways from shore, when a turd floated by.  I immediately exited the water, packed up the baby, and went to take a shower.  I just could not swim with turds.  Call me particular.

Düsseldorf

We spent 2 days in Düsseldorf, Germany.  Actually, we stayed in a suburb called Ratingan at the in-laws of my friend, Anne. However we went into Düsseldorf both days we were there.  The weather the entire time was pretty abysmal, especially for August, but this did not stop us from exploring.  Sunday morning in Ratingan we were all soaked on our way to breakfast at a lovely bakery.  Breakfast, while damp, was quite delicious. There was a lot of construction going on downtown, which Anne says has been going on for years.  I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing.  I don’t know enough to judge.

In any case, we made it around the construction zone and wandered up and down lovely alleyways to the Rhine. At the Rhine, the sky in the distance looked quite menacing, so we beat a fast track back to the car.  We seemed to miss the rain, which was a first for the trip.

I snapped some photos of my beautiful daughter along the Rhine and with her umbrella.  Her smile is truly breathtaking.

Milla on the Rhine, August 14, 2011

Milla in Düsseldorf, Germany, August 14, 2011.

Amsterdam, I love you.

August 15, 2011:

Magical, magical, magical.  I fell in love with Amsterdam nearly immediately.  Exiting the central station and moving out into the sun was no more unusual than any other such exits, except that the sun was shining and we’ve been trudging through thick raindrops since we arrived.  This alone made the departure special.  We had planned to take a boat ride around the canals, but after a snack, I wasn’t so interested in sitting in a plastic, encased tube, which is how the canal boats are, so we headed off towards Dam Square with the intent to catch a boat ride later.

We wandered down a busy thoroughfare that was much too touristy, but fun in a campy way.  Marijuana smoke drifted in and out of the crowd, and Milla wrinkled her nose and smiled at this.  We smell marijuana when we visit the Last Thursday festival in Portland, but it’s not legal.  We also passed a sex museum.  Milla found this quite salacious, marijuana smoking and sex shops right out in the open, which of course gave her another giggle.

Dam Square was crowded and full of life.  A Scot danced and played, then asked for tips.  Around the square various persons stood attired in an array of costumes that must have been hotter than hell.  One was a knight, covered in shiny, green stones, with a brilliant, diamond encrusted shield.  Every few moments he shifted slightly to his left, then again, then again, until he circled and faced us.  As he turned away I could see beneath his helmet. The skin there was red and sweaty.  He must have been roasting there in the sun wearing such a heavy costume.  Nearby Poseidon posed with a family of three. He allowed one of the sons to hold his pearly blue, shell covered staff.  Darth Vader stood alone to one side.  No one seemed much interested in him; modern gods pale in comparison to Poseidon and knights.  I can only imagine the level of sweltering under his black cape and hood.

As we passed through the square and crowds, pushing Isabel in her stroller along the bumpy cobblestones, I felt a gradual welling of desire for this place in my chest.  I wanted to get past the tourism and into the very old city. I did not so much mind the crowds, but had no desire for McDonald’s and other hideous modern entrapments.  Come, I said to Milla. Let’s head off this way.  We took a narrow road away from the square and moved along until we came to a quiet street along a canal.

As in Delft, a small town we visited a couple of days ago, cars parked right along the canal.  There were no fences or other obstructions between them and the water.  Surely parking must be a stressful affair, even when one is used to doing it.  Later on our boat tour, we heard that an average of one car per week falls into a canal.  Yikes!

We rambled along and came to a busier street with another, larger canal running through it and decided then to take a boat tour.  We stood and purchased our tickets, and proceeded down onto the wooden boardwalk to wait our turn on a bench.  The sun was really warm and I commented to Milla that I would take being warm any day over the rain.  Isabel peeked over the edge of the boardwalk into the water, turning to tell me about the sloshing water and ducks.  Hoo? she asked, pointing into the depths below.

We sat for ten minutes before a boat came to pick us up.  The best part about getting to such a tour before the boat arrives is that you are near the front when it boards, which affords you the opportunity to choose the best seats. The boat was long and narrow, an aisle running between booths of vinyl benches with tables between.  The entire thing was encased in a plastic windows.  Two sets of the windows were open on top, and at the very front and the very back, windows were open on either side as well.  We chose a booth at the very back next to an open window, and for the rest of the ride, i was so grateful for this choice and opportunity.  The boat groaned, its engine grinding and smelly as the contraption turned to begin its journey, turning and snaking along the wider canal.

Moments later the boat turned down a smaller channel and as the sun shined upon us, the breeze gently pulling at our hair, with Milla smiling and Isabel giggling, I fell completely and utterly in love with Amsterdam.  The boat ride was completely enchanting.  We passed crooked, skinny houses, built on uneven piles driven into the sticky muck that is the city’s base.  Our guide recited in four languages the story of early taxation based on a building’s width.  He pointed out overhead the wenches attached to gables and used to swing furniture through open windows because the doors are too narrow to admit anything of consequence. We heard stories of ancient merchants and mariners, and cars falling in channels, and the cost to build small fences, and as the boat moved along, I thought, I would love to live in this place.

As we floated along, my 22 month old daughter waved at everyone.  We passed groups of young men hanging out on the edge of the canal.  Isabel waved and they all broke into bright smiles.  We passed two old people snuggling together on a bench.  Isabel waved and waved, and they smiled and waved vigorously in return.  We slid beneath a stone bridge.  A handsome, dark skinned man ambled along its side.  Isabel waved at him and his smile was so genuine and lovely, my heart nearly broke at its beauty.  My sweet child was making many people happy, if only for a moment.  Her wave is flat-handed, like a royal waving to her subjects.

After 45 minutes, the boat moved out of the canal and into the broad channel near the central station.  It passed a bicycle parking garage filled with thousands of bicycles, and the central train station.  As we rounded the corner into the main channel, we looked up up up at the bow of a giant cruise ship.  We thought we were going to hit it, it was that close!  At the last moment, our boat curved round the ship and made its way further down the channel.  It then turned back into the canal and back to where we began.

I loved Amsterdam.  Then entire time we floated through the beautiful canals, I was in complete bliss. After our ride we wandered until we came across the Waterstones Bookstore.  More bliss.  Four stories of books, which for me is like putting a drunk in a bar, I’m such a book addict.  I could never give up paper and covers in favor of some electronic reading device.  There is so much more to the experience than the reading of the words.  Milla and Isabel settled into the children’s section and I was able to have some free moments wandering by myself, which was heavenly.

After making a few purchases (of course), we left Waterstones and discovered two more bookstores, the American Bookstore and a small local shop.  All were in Spull Square, a delightful place full of trees, birds, sun, and visitors.  Dogs romped.  Birds chirped and ate crumbs.  Groups congregated.  The sun shone.  We sat for a while on a bench eating our purchases from the AH grocery.  This was a fine discovery, minus the vomit on the stairs out front–ewww!  We were able to purchase lunch meat, cheese, bread, and fruit.  We ate these in Spull Square until a yellow jacket decided to chase us away.  Milla screamed and some locals laughed at her.  It was kind of funny.  We then waited for Anne at a coffee shop and drank decaf Americanos.  Isabel played and nursed.  Once Anne arrived, we caught a train to the theater where we watched her fiance in an opera.  It was all wonderful fun.

Good:  Trains are fast.  Weather is lovely.  Buildings are charming and crooked.  There are hooks from the tops of the buildings with which to swing furniture in through the windows of narrow old houses.

Not so good:  Vomit in front of the grocery store and the smell.

Sublime:  Isabel waving at people on the shore and their smiles and waves in return.  She took them by surprise, this tiny person waving at them from a boat.

Isabel in front of a canal in Amsterdam.

Milla in Amsterdam.