Thursday, April 30, 2009

Congratulations in Order

Boy howdy. Will you look at that? Shannon's gone and gotten himself into the New Yorker.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Accidental Scofflaws

Shannon visited for a week. I figured he'd be out most nights, visiting with friends and relatives. But instead, he was on deadline, so he worked well into the night.

Saturday night rolled around and his plans fell through, leaving us looking at each other. I texted Denise and Roberta. Denise had a migraine. Roberta was napping. Shannon and I were going to have to entertain each other.

"Let's go eat."

"Let's get more pizza!" Shannon had discovered that a pie was $3.50 down the street and had been on a pizza kick for a few days.

"Last night's pizza made me sick. I ate too much of it and I'm lactose-intolerant. Let's go to Hoboken and get burgers at Arthur's instead."

Shannon was up for that, so we walked over to the trolley that goes along the waterfront. The Hoboken train was just pulling in. We raced to the farecard machine.

A queue of four. Argh! The train's doors slid open. We raced to the next machine. Another line. I did some mental calculations.

NJ farecard machines=suck. Take forever. Times 4=we'll have to wait 15-30 minutes for the next train. Odds of being checked for farecard=slim but not impossible. Fine? Big. A friend had gotten caught without a card once and had to pay $100. What's worse, minimal risk of getting caught and fined or waiting for another train?

"Your call," said Shannon.

"Let's go." We jumped on the train.

Saturday night in JC. A bunch of high school kids were on the train, making noise, wandering around, singing and rapping a bit, and roaming the aisle.

I was tense over the risk we were taking and didn't notice our surroundings. Shannon didn't care that the kids were dominating the car. He has kids of his own. Kids don't scare him. The kids ignored us as we ignored them.

In Hoboken, the doors slide open and everyone piled off. But something wasn't right.

Policemen at the end of the platform were checking for tickets.

Damn. How embarrassing.

"Can we just get back on the train?"

I ran a few more mental calculations.

Train won't leave for at least 10 minutes. We'll be sitting ducks in the trains alone, clearly having jumped back on in full view of the police.

"Payphone," I said. I picked up the payphone and spoke into it as Shannon stood next to me, attentively interesting in the phone as well.

The kids were being hassled by the police. Had they paid their fares? I couldn't tell.

"Shit, this is so embarrassing. We're going to get fined for not paying $1.90 each."

Bad call. Mental note: Don't do stupid things when you can avoid them.

We stared intently at the payphone. I spoke enthusiastically into the receiver, which had no dial tone at all. The policemen finished with the kids and wait—both wandered away.

I hung up the phone and we walked off the platform into the Hoboken train station.

"Sometimes it's good to look boring and middle-aged."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Unexpected Summer

Summer bullied spring into remission this weekend. I walked around downtown JC and then downtown NYC, wishing I'd worn sunscreen.

Friday, April 24, 2009


In the mornings, I always run late no matter how early I get out of bed. I walk through the mall to the Pavonia/Newport PATH station. Sometimes I get to the platform just as my train, the 33rd Street one, pulls in. Other times I read a magazine or book for a few minutes, waiting for my train and watching the Hoboken-World Trade Center train go by.

PATH trains are mostly reliable, a byproduct of our system being tiny at a lucky 13 stops (and miles) compared to New York City's 468-station metro. But our system is older and a bit creakier (and cheaper). When I first returned to JC in 2002 after a decade away, they appeared to be using the same trains as when I'd first moved there in 1988.

Monday morning, I was engrossed in a book when a gleam caught my eye. Shiny, quiet, sounds like Singapore's metro! What was it?

New trains. "They don't smell like pee," trumpeted a friend of a friend. These trains "whoosh" rather than clatter. They shine and they have mid-American recorded voices clearly reminding passengers to avoid the closing doors.

And they are only on the line I don't take. TRAIN ENVY!

This morning, the conductor on my old train reminded me in a barely audible voice over a crackly speaker that I should:

"Work hard, because at least you have a job. Lots of people don't. You could get fired and someone else might actually do your job better. Remember that and HAVE A NICE DAY."

When we get the new trains, I'll miss my morning reminders.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Straight Out of the Movies

On Sunday afternoons, I stop in at the used book sale down the street. It's in a church, and features fifty-cent paperbacks and dollar hardcovers.

I wonder if I'll ever run across one of my own books there. Seems likely, since one of the guidebooks is about New Jersey.

A month ago, I saw a book called American Shaolin on the paperback table. I'd never heard of it, and waffled for a minute. Sure, it was probably worth fifty cents, but was it worth carrying home and reading?

Absolutely. It was hilarious and enjoyable. The author—Matthew Polly—spent two years studying kung fu and kickboxing at the Shaolin Center in China. Which is engaging, sure, but he's also a funny writer.

One of my favorite lines was when a leader of the center points out that "America is so wealthy the poor people are fatter than the rich."

The author went to Shaolin in the mid-90s, years before Yancey and I rolled up to the entrance as tourists during MariesWorldTour in 2001. We had booked onto a small group organized trip for a part of China (which turned out to be life-altering when Yancey's assigned roommate was a certain Australian) and when I was paging through my guidebook during our stop in Luoyang, I came across a familiar name.

"Shaolin Temple is 80 km from Luoyang."

I read this to Yancey and our plans were sealed. We were both huge fans of Hong Kong cinema (we're comic book people, after all) and nothing was going to stop us from making a pilgrimage to the home of kung fu.

What we didn't expect was that the entire group would want to go as well. But they did and we all had a long day of watching kung fu and wandering through the Pagoda Forest. All tourism sites in China are packed with Chinese tourists, and Shaolin was no exception, but we still had a great day there.

And a few months later, a group of Shaolin Monks performed in Berlin when I was renting a flat there mid-trip. The smallest boy struck a pose for me on the metro platform.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Better than Being Dead

Oh, ick.

It's another one of those days, when I reflect on my achievements of the past year and wallow in the hopelessness of the human condition and wonder what exactly it is about me that sends men scampering for the hills.

Or rather jungle or tundra or the nearest available hostel.

But strangely, rather then whining about how a year ago, I thought I'd gotten it right this time and found a decent man who was a good deal less commitment-phobic than my usual swashbucklers, I'm feeling pretty good and like "Screw him and the way he didn't just dump me but rather obliterated me from his stuck-in-the-past work-obsessed existence" and there's the additional knowledge of this:

I don't have to be like everyone else. So I'm single, childless, alone, and struggling to make peace with staying in one place and holding down a job and normal life instead of roaming the planet.

So what. Many people might call that lucky.

43 and gaining wisdom. Happy birthday to me.

Monday, April 20, 2009

No Mistaking Africa

I ordered a book called Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind, by Curtis Keim. Why? Because my Google Alerts popped it up. I am briefly mentioned in it twice, as the author of Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik which is referenced in two passages.

The book showed up, first opened by my neighbor who took it in along with her own books, but then opened by me.

I'm just starting to read the book, but I find myself absurdly grateful to the author for having written it.

The gist is this:

Africa—and by Africa we mean sub-Saharan—is more than dancing villagers, benevolent aid workers, and safaris. It's more than AIDS and elephants. More than "Aren't the natives adorable and so much more REAL than Americans?"

Thank you, thank you, to Curtis Keim for writing this. It's something I have been assaulted by in book reviews and in interviews. So many people show up wanting to read about the proud native, the beautiful friendly children, and the insights gained through living as a volunteer in a rural village that desperately needs the white man's help. (Baloney.)

Duh. It's a continent. There are cities, rich people, and people living absolutely normal, healthy lives all over sub-Saharan Africa. There are factories and roads and shopping malls and flushing toilets. And if I have to defend myself one more time against someone who is upset that I didn't write a "beautiful native" book, I might well "chuck a spear" myself.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

More Girly Classes with Marie and Denise

Denise and I went over to M. Avery Designs in Hoboken yesterday to take a bag-creating class.

We had a blast. Had a leisurely ride over via Light Rail, gobbled up some brunch in an outdoor cafe on a beautiful spring morning, and sauntered down to the sewing studio by noon.

An 11-year-old girl was there, creating an adult bib for her grandmother. A boy of about the same age fastidiously sewed a shirt for his mother.

"I've been sewing three years," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. Future clothing designer right there.

Denise and I are both experienced bag-makers now and this was an introductory class so it was pretty easy and over in two hours. We're going back on May 9th to make wraparound skirts.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Peeps Gone Wild

By now, we all know that the Washington Post has a yearly Peeps diorama contest.

But I was unaware that the Chicago Tribune also has one. And this year, its winner takes the crystallized marshmallow.

Wow. Or as my translator would say "Waw!"

It's the Wizard of Oz. Done in the Peep medium.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Nice View

Which view is better, the one from the Top of the Rock or the one from the Empire State Building?

In my opinion, it's a draw. The ESB has the history, the monkey, and you can see the Chrysler Building.

But one thing you can't see from the Empire State Building.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Peep Show Redux

Here is a photo documentary of my Easter celebration.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Stamp Collecting

I'm not exactly a stamp collector, and yet, I have accumulated some stamps over the years. King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan in 1998, Lord of the Rings stamps in New Zealand in 2003, and some cool safari animals from Namibia in 2005.

And then there's the X-Men. From Mongolia. Huh? Don't ask me. But Yancey and I both bought the entire supply of X-Men stamps at the Ulaan Bataar post office in 2001.

Here is a gallery of the stamps I have bought along the way as I've traveled.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Better Late

I don't remember what year it was when Steve and I went to Berlin. '89? 90? 91? It's all a blur.

We were too late for the party, but not so late that you could just meander from West Germany to Berlin without going on a train and getting passports checked. It must have been right after the Berlin Wall came down. We went and took a look at the wall, and bought chunks of the Wall in little bags. Or so they say. Could be any chunks of concrete, really.

I don't remember a lot of that time since I didn't write about it and blogs had not been invented yet. But when I stumbled over this packet of concrete yesterday, I suddenly remembered the Wall as it was then and as it was in 2001, when it was a small slab, one of the few sections left standing for historical purposes.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

My Barcelona: Shopping

At the risk of sounding vapid, one reason I keep returning to Barcelona is that nice clothes are sold there.

Plus, I get to buy caganers in Barcelona. But I could get those mail-order.

But I can't buy clothes from the small Barcelona designers online. Maybe someday, but not yet.

My absolute favorite Barcelona designer is named Boyd Baten and his clothes are sold at a little shop called Bionic on Petritxol (#18), a tiny alley between Plaza del Pi and Portaferrissa (which is home to a number of low-cost chain clothing stores such as H&M).

I've never found anything at the Mango Outlet, or at Zara or Camper, but I do sometimes stumble over something nice at Il Corte Ingles, the mega-department store on Plaza Catalunya.

I buy cool European Pumas on Jaume, to the east of Avinyo, but damned if I know the name of the store. It's a generic sneaker shop. All I know if that it sells Pumas we don't get in the States, so I always stop there. Not that I'm some huge Puma collector—but I like to have some super-lightweight, comfy shoes in my pack. From there, I always stroll down Avinyo, stopping in all the boutiques along the way.

My other don't-miss clothing stores:

Fete makes interesting—cheap—T-shirts and long-sleeve shirts. I go to their outlet shop at Princesa 13 near Argenteria.

On Land is about a half-block further down Princesa, at #25. It is NOT cheap. But it has a lot of lovely clothing. Sometimes I even buy some instead of just browsing.

Anna Povo in Born always gets a visit from me, in spite of having more girly clothes than I usually wear. But they are lovely, not too expensive, and best of all, the shop is open on Sundays.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Day Job: Ron on the Radio

Here's Ron Wagner talking on Iowa Public Radio. Ron draws some comics for me, when he's not busy making cartoons.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Tax Time

I'm getting my tax materials together.

I'm not a big spender... my worst offenses are in books and computer/internet-related items.

But then there's travel, the biggest line item by far at $5,107.38 for 2008. That's not bad when you consider that I went to Colombia, Bolivia, and rafted the Grand Canyon.

Excluding cash expenses of snacks and souvenirs on the road, I spent a mere $989.56 on Colombia, $1124 on Bolivia/Peru (paid for all but the daily out-of-pocket in 2008), and yowza... $2728.90 for rafting the Grand Canyon.

Looks like I'll be on a tight budget and only trips related to Kuwait for a while.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Belated Review

I have to admit that when I get e-mails from strangers at my vanity-mail address, I often ignore them for a while.

That's because they frequently say things like this:

"I want to travel too. How can I travel?"

Any e-mail that requires WAY more effort for me to answer than it did for the other person to type ends up pretty low on my priority list.

So I didn't pay much attention to a note that came in a month ago from a stranger. Then a few weeks later, she sent another note. She was an aspiring young thoughtful writer and I'd clicked right off her e-mail without reading it when I was busy with the theme park in Kuwait.

In my defense, I was preoccupied in ways I cannot describe. And writing a show. And being assaulted by children while being photographed by veiled women. You know how it is.

Anyway, Jennifer Crystal turned out to be a smart young talented writer shopping around her engaging travel narrative. And she did know me, though I did not know her. She'd written a review of Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik in Spring of 2007! Which I'd completely missed!

In my defense, I was living in Cairo at the time where you *definitely* cannot buy the magazine she reviewed Dik-Dik in: Transitions Abroad. The review wasn't on their website, so my Google Alerts didn't ping me.

Her review was so kind and thoughtful. Thank you, Jen, though my gratitude comes ridiculously late.

Friday, April 03, 2009

My Barcelona: Food

Eating is one part of the tourism/travel experience where I badly fall down and can't get up.

Why? Cuz I have 19 food allergies, or rather sensitivities. What does this mean? In many cases, nothing at all. I eat something bad for me, like skim milk in my coffee, and it makes me a teensy bit queasy, so little that I don't even notice anymore. In other cases, like a double scoop of ice cream, I'd be violently ill for a few days.

I know my limits. So do you, if you've been reading this blog for a while.

To me, the two supervillains of eating are tofu and seafood. The former gives me huge red itchy welts on the back of my legs. Nice! The latter makes me vomit. Mmmm.

Other products that cause smaller reactions include olives and MSG. And the aforementioned dairy. Sandwiches usually leave me quite exhausted but only for a few hours. This could be wheat or it could be sauce.

The math goes something like this: olives + dairy + bread + seafood = green sickly Marie.

Mediterranean diet = NO.

This is one reason I originally opted for renting apartments rather than hotels in Barcelona. With a kitchen, I can control what I eat. But over time, I've come across several great restaurants that are not dependent on fish or dairy or olive oil.

Like Milk. It's just a little bistro-type place on Gignas in the old part of town, between Born and Ramblas. And it has a great weekend brunch.

Another is Habana Vieja. I am a sucker for ropa vieja, though I think it's better in both LA and New York. And er, JC. Still, this little restaurant on the tiny restaurant row of Banys Vells (near the Picasso Museum) is delish.

The maze-like warren of alleys between Argenteria and Banys Vells have dozens of small bistros. As does the Gracia neighborhood uptown. Two other great options are Arabic food (open on Sundays!) in Raval and cheap chicken and chips down on the beach. Yummy.

And in a hurry, stop into one of the Spain fast food chains: Bocetta or Pans. Both serve sandwiches. On weekdays, haul yourself up to Eixample and stop in virtually any restaurant at lunchtime for the cheap menu del dia. They have these downtown too, but you'll do better outside of the tourist area. Lunchtime is also a good time to try the more expensive restaurants, like 4 Gats.

The Boqueria market off Ramblas appears touristy at first glance. And yes it is. Very touristy. But keep walking to the back and you'll find incredible fruits and veggies, meats, grains, and finally, snack bars. Vegetarians should head straight to the back wall, where a vegetarian mini-restaurant thrives at lunchtime. Everyone else? Don't miss the delicious fresh juice stalls at the front of the market.

For a snack, stop in the alley of Petrixol for churros and xocolata, near Plaza de Pi. You'll be eating fried sugary dough and thick hot chocolate so show up hungry and without regrets.

Eating is good and all, but there is still one drawback to eating out in Barcelona.

Smoking is still allowed in some places.

And one other thing on that list of 19 allergies? Tobacco.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Foolish or uh, Awesome!

Of all the April Fools jokes I spotted yesterday, this one was the best:'s tauntaun sleeping bag

I wanted one badly! But my mother has already informed me that she cannot buy it for me for my birthday. Why? 1) It isn't real. 2) It's not in my size.

Apparently, the e-reception for the fictitious product was so good that is actually considering producing it. Though I doubt they'll really put intestines on the bad-smelling insides.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

My Barcelona: Accommodation

A friend who was working on an article e-mailed me the other day.

"In one sentence, why do you like Barcelona?"

Er... dunno.

I settled on it being artsy without being snotty. Creative without being self-congratulatory, some alleys rough-and-ready with others being clogged with tourists (which keep services open late). Barcelona tolerates me conveniently and anonymously. I can roam through Raval or Born without anyone accosting me, can move right into a neighborhood and feel perfectly at home in the urban, improvisational environment. And I can buy clothes. More on that another day.

That's more than a sentence.

I've never stayed in a hotel in Barcelona. I've always rented apartments. They're usually cheaper and you can make food if you're hungry when the restaurants aren't open. Like at seven at night.

Where to stay:

-I've rented from Rentalona more times than I can remember. Why? Cuz it's cheap. The locations just outside the heavily touristed area are perfect for me. The Arc de Sant Pau is, to me, MY apartment. I was the first person to move in after they renovated it in 2004. I was there two months, after having renting a grungier place uptown from an annoying lawyer guy. But the Arc de Sant Pau isn't for everyone. It's a sixth-story walkup, or maybe 5, I forget, and the stairs are small and decrepit. Plus the water pressure in Raval, in the whole area, is not so great. I like Raval, but I avoid it these days after having encountered the same water pressure issue in a private apartment last year. Rentalona's Soho Studios are, however, a great deal in a great location across Ramblas. Ask for one on the outside, with a window.

If Rentalona's Soho Studios had wifi, I'd never have looked for any other apartments. But they don't, so...

-My pals Jack and Kaddee rented from this place and had an excellent experience with it. Jack said the place they stayed, which I think was on the main tourist drag being Plaza Real, was basic but decent. And cheap too.

-Normally, I couldn't afford something like this, but as the economy tanks, there have been some marvelous sales. I used this site to get a newly renovated 3-bedroom (with elevator) right on Argenteria, just at the edge of Born. Beautiful area, close to my favorite restaurants, ethernet internet, and even glass doors that I could pull open to the morning sun.

There are probably hundreds of these apartment rental websites for Barcelona. These are just the ones I can personally vouch for. I'd say to watch out for a few things: 1) water pressure 2) location (you may or may not want to be where the tourists drink) 3) walk-ups without elevators. Also check the security and cleaning fees before you sign up! Some places add too many fees which make the price less appealing.