Category Archives: travel

Claiming my existence: the Paris episode

Sometimes, travel lets us relax and recuperate, and I’m sure there’s a right time for that. But I’ve always felt traveling should help you learn, see, be surprised, and get out of yourself, or the effort isn’t worth it.

Fifty years ago, in 1972, I took my first trip to Paris. It was a puzzling, exhilarating, lonely experience. Maybe the most important thing I began to understand during that adventure was that it doesn’t matter much if you tell yourself that you love or hate where you ended up on your travels. You can learn something, be surprised, have rewarding experiences, and enjoy your life even if you dislike a place and never get comfortable there. The most important thing is that you gain distance from the familiar, because it blinds and eventually erases you until you forget yourself. Of course, discomfort can soon get tiresome if you don’t know how to replenish your energy, or your fears and hesitations take over your life. I’m still thankful that a chance encounter with another traveler at the right moment helped me let go of my dead-ending routines and make the best of the time I still had left in Paris.

That sojourn of almost three months has expanded in my memories and now feels like much longer and more colorful than it was. It still yields a bundle of recollections in which I can recognize myself. Of course, I remember much of the times immediately before and afterwards, but in comparison those feel more like watching somebody else’s life. Somehow, in Paris I entered a chamber that has a connecting door to my 2022 present.

I remember that journey to Paris very well, maybe because I was certain that I was making a big mistake and shouldn’t be going there. But I had made my decision, my parents paid for my train ticket, I was hoping to get by on my savings, and people had promised me that I was going to have the time of my life. After thirteen years of school, this summer was going to be the longest period of my life since my childhood to be completely unstructured.

One morning in May, shortly after seven, I picked up my suitcase and rode the tram to the main train station in Cologne. The ride took maybe twenty minutes, and then I was in the noisy, crowded station with its characteristic, oily smell and the frequent broadcast announcements, of which one could never understand anything whatsoever.

I had visited London for three or four weeks during the summers of 1970 and 1971. I knew English well enough to make myself understood, but I had a hard time following conversations when people spoke at their natural speeds and didn’t make allowances for me. Still, I felt I was doing much better at the end of my second visit than at the beginning of the first. Returning to London would have been a natural and reasonable thing to do. A few of my former classmates were going to be there. I loved the place and felt at home in it. Its giant size and chaotic layout never bothered or confused me. I knew where things were and what neighborhoods and streets I liked best. I could get cheap standing tickets to the BBC Proms at Albert Hall and hear some of the world’s most accomplished musicians play the music I loved.

Nobody I knew was going to Paris, and my French was stunted. At school, I hadn’t had any French classes in years. I carried on learning the language in evening courses offered by my city’s inexpensive adult education college, but soon ran out of steam. However, back then I felt that I could learn anything I wanted to very quickly, so I had no qualms about traveling somewhere where the language would be difficult. I was confident that I could pick it up. I didn’t have a map of the city, but I had read that you could get your bearings with the help of the route schemes posted in the Métro stations. That would do just fine.

As many times later, I was conflicted about traveling. Probably, what I wanted to do most was to be alone, sit in my room with the cat on my lap, reading and listening to music. But I knew that was so unacceptable to my parents and everyone I knew that I couldn’t even really admit it to myself. My parents and friends expected me to take a trip, and I felt that returning to England yet again would put me in a box or somehow shrink me. At the end of school, I was disoriented and missed having the familiar structures to guide my life. I saw that this wasn’t healthy and I should force myself to move on to whatever came next, and traveling would supply the necessary friction and suffering. Not always clearly and coherently, I believed that it was better for me to learn how to be a stranger, not pretend familiarity in a life where I usually felt I didn’t belong.

Curiosity helped a little bit, but I already expected that I would no longer experience it after a day or two. I did want to see for myself the famous, hyped locales and buildings that I had heard about. In my schools’ history classes, teachers covered the French revolution and its aftermath very thoroughly. Before that, Louis XIV and other French kings made their appearances, all the way back to enigmatic Charlemagne and his untalented, quarrelling sons. In contrast, we learned practically nothing about English history. It started with William the Conqueror in 1066, skipped to Queen Elizabeth I, rushed to the disasters of industrialization in the 19th century, and that was it.

Relatives living near Baden-Baden spoke French, had friends in the Alsace, and sometimes visited Strasbourg, less than one driving hour away. They knew where to cross the border on narrow, sometimes unpaved roads without being stopped. From them, I had acquired sweet illusions about French people and culture. For instance, the French were said to be enormously fond of their cats and dogs. They treated them well, much better than the Germans did, and even had cemeteries for them. I found that extremely attractive. Existing in a kind of utopian serenity, they were rumored to take time to appreciate and enjoy what was good about life. I was sure I could find friendly, smart, generous people my age and get to know them.

The train journey took about eight hours. Between Cologne and Aachen I indulged in a lengthy reverie about a young woman I hoped to see again, daydreaming so vividly that I still remember it. I had the second-class compartment to myself for much of the time. Customs officers silently and efficiently checked everybody’s passports shortly after we left Aachen. As we neared Brussels, commuters—grey, tired, chilled-looking people—got on the train for a short ride. They remained standing in the corridors. I saw long stretches of tiny rowhouses and apartment buildings in the immediate vicinity of industrial plants. Not far from the French border, the train stopped for way too long between flat, green fields. This time, the border patrol was more severe, although they just looked and frowned at me and my passport. Other people had to answer questions and open their luggage. On the French side, the clouds and trees seemed grey and tired, and so did the buildings. A few times intriguing, complicated buildings towered on the horizon, but they vanished quickly.

At the outskirts of Paris, the train lumbered unevenly past gigantic, hideous apartment buildings, crumbled-looking churches, and gaudy, shredded billboards advertising cigarettes and booze. With infernal squeaks, it crossed ancient-looking iron bridges over busy streets that seemed grossly unpleasant, like some kind of hell made out of dust and tired bodies. Unlike the train journey from Dover to London’s Victoria Station, where one had the illusion of imminent arrival but still rolled past what felt like millions of little brick homes clustering around parks and town centers that became ever more urban and chaotic, the last stop came quickly.

Standing in front of the Gare du Nord, I let the rough, noisy foreignness hit me and immediately regretted having come here. Voices I couldn’t understand, unfamiliar cars going much faster than street traffic did at home, shrill sirens, noxious air, rotten-looking, soot-covered buildings with ugly neon signage. Pedestrians moved awkwardly and quickly, as if blinded or with their faces turned inwards, loose in their clothes, not like the more tightly and extensively draped Germans. I had to make my way across town to the Porte d’Italie, where I would catch a bus to the suburb of Sceaux. I was going to stay in a youth hostel there, the only cheap-enough accommodation I had found in the metropolitan area. The man in charge of it had written me a couple of friendly postcards with directions.

I wanted to save as much money as possible for books and records, so I decided to walk instead of taking the Métro at the Gare du Nord. But when I checked the map at another Métro station, I changed my mind because I saw how little progress I had made. It was best to double back to the Gare de l’Est, not far from where I had arrived, or I would have to change from one Métro line to another—definitely the kind of hateful challenge I wanted to avoid. When I eventually arrived at the Port d’Italie, furious crowds rushed every which way and crammed into the buses. I was sick from the fumes and the heat.

The youth hostel was a two-story, distressed building surrounded by weedy lots and a dense, small grove of fragile-looking trees. Except for the postcard writer, who continued to be friendly in person, nobody much was around. I gave him most of my colorful French banknotes, ate the rest of the crackers I had brought with me, and slept on the lower level of a bunk bed. Eventually, I figured out that most of the other male guests spent evenings and nights in the women’s quarters, the other half of the building. The following day, I would also find out that I got panic attacks when I walked through the woodsy area at night—the shortest way from the bus stop to the hostel—and avoided it.

But I had been used to intense, crippling fears for many years. Something I didn’t expect and which was much worse were the toilets. The youth hostel only had the kind of latrines that consist of a hole in the floor, with ribbed tiles on each side where you’re supposed to place your feet. I couldn’t make that work and was constipated for days. Then I found Métro stations where you could hand a few coins to an attendant—usually, a dignified, elderly Black woman—and use an extremely clean sit-down toilet. For a little more, you could take a long, hot shower and dry yourself with a freshly laundered towel that made you feel like a better person.

A few steps away from the hostel was a gargantuan supermarket, much larger than those at home. The orange building was brightly lit inside and outside, always open, never crowded, and nobody bothered you if you needed to look at packaged products to figure out what they were. The supermarket became my source of pale bread and eggs I fried in the filthy, crude hostel kitchen until I figured out that street food in the Quartier Latin was even less expensive. It also sold clothing, household goods, furniture, and stationary. I found lemon-green plastic templates to help students draw a map of France, with perforations for department borders and the main cities, and bought a handful as gifts for friends.

I adopted a routine where I rode the bus to the Porte d’Italie, took the Métro to some distant station, and hiked through the neighborhoods from there. I found that Paris wasn’t likeable or welcoming, especially not for somebody on a tiny budget. I was appalled to be asked to pay so I could sit on a chair in the Tuileries or be hounded by a photographer who wanted to sell me a portrait of myself. The bookstores were expensive, and staff didn’t let you browse for long before they suggested you make a purchase. People my age didn’t look like me, they mostly dressed and acted as if they were twenty years older, and many seemed perpetually angry. I didn’t find any of the “alternative” and “underground” teahouses, vegetarian cafés, or bookshops that attracted somewhat misplaced, awkward, questioning people like myself in Cologne or London. Soon, I felt that being unmoored and alone in Paris was a kind of self-inflicted punishment.

It took me a long time to get a little more comfortable and find neighborhoods, parks, and streets I enjoyed or that were a little calmer than the rest of the hectic urban environment, which always seemed to be fueled by inaudible screams. When I could, I slowed down, sat somewhere and watched life go by, read, and wrote—in my journal, or letters and postcards home. I only remember one particular book I purchased and read with great love and enjoyment, a biography of Gustav Mahler, then and now a composer whose work I never tire of. His exalted outcries in quoted letters to his wife and other people evoked an almost erotic feeling of despair in me.

I found quiet spots which were never crowded and where I could shelter from the dusty, hot, hyper-charged city, including some stretches along the left bank of the Seine. When I sat on my favorite bench across from the Quai des Orfèvres, I saw men fishing next to large, painted letters on the wall behind them which read, “Laissez vivre les petits poissons.” I wished I could meet people like those who had painted that admonition, but didn’t know how to find them.

Traipsing around Paris, the long commutes to and from the youth hostel, the frustrated, oppressed vibe I got from the people on the streets, the bad air and relentless heat—it was all too exhausting. After a little over a month, when my birthday came around, I felt I had to change course or maybe go home early. It was clear to me that Paris and I didn’t care for each other. That day, I didn’t have a destination and wasn’t interested in being here. I just wanted to sit somewhere and breathe. Also, I wished I were in London, maybe visiting the Compendium Bookstore in Camden Town or walking around Hampstead Heath.

I came to an area I found particularly brittle and cold, and where I had not spent much time—a little east of the Trocadéro, not far from the Palais de Tokyo, maybe strolling along Rue Fresnel or Rue Foucault. How did I meet the tall, friendly man I spent the next few hours with? Maybe I smiled at him. Maybe he asked me for directions. He spoke very little French or English, and I didn’t know Japanese at all. It was a struggle to make oneself understood, but we persevered. If he told me his name, I forgot it. I learned that he was from Tokyo, traveling by himself, and would be in Paris for just a few days. He was a little older than me. He didn’t carry the stereotypical tourist paraphernalia—no camera, no shoulder bag, no guidebook. I can still see him in his white shirt, grey trousers, and black shoes, leaning back and seemingly at ease in the world in a way I hadn’t discovered yet.

In the laborious, difficult conversation I was able to communicate only a small portion of what occurred to me, but I did successfully share that it was my birthday. Brightening as if it were his own, he invited me for lunch. We found a café nearby, sat at the edge where the fleet of tables and chairs spilled onto the sidewalk, and spent what felt like a long time there. We drank coffee and ate croque monsieur sandwiches that looked and tasted as if they had been made weeks ago, then kept chilled. But I was happy about the company and the break from my routine.

That day was a Tuesday, peak working week. But the café and the immediate neighborhood were almost entirely emptied of people and traffic. A couple of other guests sat inside, but none were on the terrace, and the waiter let us linger as long as we wanted to. Eventually, the large sidewalk trees began throwing their shadows over us and it got chilly.

After several hours of enthusiastic, yet difficult conversation I was exhausted and needed to be alone. I thanked my companion, who paid for everything, and we shook hands. We didn’t make plans to meet again.

It’s not that I suddenly loved Paris, but this encounter helped me transform the remainder of my time there. I felt I could be here—or maybe anywhere—without feeling that everybody and everything around me was hostile. I realized that the people and their city didn’t care about me one way or another. From the looks of it, they were probably a lot more uncomfortable than me. I found other things to do than just hike around. I climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and enjoyed the views. Not far from the Sorbonne, a small cinema showed all the films of Ingmar Bergman with French subtitles, and I watched many of them. I saw an entire villa populated by George Segal’s plaster figures. Several times, I visited the Archives Nationales, fascinated by the manuscripts and books on display. I found it appalling and funny that King Louis XVI in his journal recorded July 14, 1789, with just one word: “rien.” Some of the art I saw in museums I appreciated; Georges Braque, Yves Tanguy, André Breton stood out for me. One evening, in what was then a blue-collar neighborhood close to the Canal Saint-Martin, I watched a crude, heartfelt performance of a musical that critiqued capitalistic power structures, and had brief chats with people. I even visited and disliked the Louvre, back then a musty, staid, poorly lit prison for art and stolen treasures. I enjoyed the ancient Egyptian artifacts on display, but what one could see of the collection was mostly small-scale and stuffed into a few dim, low-ceilinged rooms, not like the awesome, expansive displays at the British Museum.

Until that point, the other inmates of the youth hostel had been shadows I barely noticed. Now, they blossomed into colors, voices, and dimensions. I was invited for group dinners by people who were friends with the manager and had stayed here for many months already, in a kind of limbo where they were no longer traveling and had made a sort of temporary home here. With them, I finally got to talk a little. They even fulfilled my dream of the animal-loving French when I saw how kindly and affectionately they treated the cat who sometimes visited. That was a revelation; I had only seen the more chilly, top-down, clueless interactions most German people had with their animals. An Algerian poet—much older than everybody else there—showed me his work and spontaneously gave me an exceedingly accurate characterization of the young woman who sent me a letter to the hostel, based on her handwriting. Toward the end, two recently arrived Swedish women and I became friendly and roamed the city together.

I was very ready to get back on the train when it was time to leave. I knew I wouldn’t miss Paris, although I expected to come here again, maybe when I had a little more money to spend. I don’t remember where this character occurs in Camus’ writing, but an older, grey-suited man I met during the journey had the same kind of obsession with train schedules and rail lines as that figure in one of his novels. He stood at the end of the last, empty wagon, performing an endless litany of train- and rail-related details.

Much of this first sojourn in Paris was unenjoyable, stressful, and boring. But it helped me find a way of being away from my usual surroundings and find out a little more about who and what I was. This is easier and more revealing when you’re somewhere that doesn’t agree with you. You get to claim your existence and own and inhabit a place by wrestling with it and experiencing whatever’s there, horrendous and beautiful and cruel. That’s why imagined, long wished-for paradises are so frustrating and dull when you finally seem to reach them. They reflect your limitations so much that you never actually arrive. Unless some person or event confronts and benignly derails you, what you do and choose while you’re there doesn’t have the power to help you question, see, and understand yourself or anything else.

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A letter to Alaska Airlines: Do right by your Spanish-speaking passengers!

Earlier this week, I was on Alaska flight 3403 from Mexico City to Los Angeles. Spanish-speaking passengers were treated poorly and unprofessionally. Below is the letter I’m sending to the company.

 

May 18, 2018

Dear Alaska Airlines leadership,

Your airline flies to several locations in Mexico, including Mexico City, the capital, Cancun, Loreto, Puerto Vallarta, and other destinations. I assume you are aware of the business value of transporting people from the U.S. to Mexico and from Mexico to the U.S. Our recent flight experience, however, made me wonder about your understanding of what it takes to deliver this international service and provide an excellent customer experience.

On May 16, 2018, my wife and I were on flight 3403 from Mexico City to Los Angeles, where we would change planes to fly home to Seattle. The Alaska representatives at the check-in desk, all of them Latinos, were professional and friendly. They spoke to passengers – a mix of Mexican and U.S. travelers – in Spanish and English, according to their preferences. They took time to respond to questions and provide helpful information regarding how to find the right gate and what customs and immigration processing in LA would be like. They did an outstanding job with an increasingly impatient group of passengers, who had been queuing up for quite some time before the check-in counters opened.

In contrast, the Alaska team members on the flight itself could politely be described as abrupt, unpolished, and disrespectful. They spoke to passengers only and always in English, even when they asked questions or made comments in Spanish, and were unable or at the least challenged to understand English. This is extremely rude behavior. Even the security briefing was only given in English. On international flights, one usually gets the briefing in the native language of most passengers as well as in English, so this was an obvious lapse. Cabin announcements throughout the flight were also only delivered in English.

As far as I’m concerned, you owe all of your Spanish-speaking passengers on that flight at the very least an apology. They were treated miserably. Speakers of Spanish missed critical safety information and were not able to learn from the cabin crew how arrival and customs checks would play out. The family sitting in front of us had problems with the English version of the U.S. customs form and asked for a Spanish one, which they never received. The Alaska flight attendant treated them in a curt, patronizing manner that would have made most anybody bristle. It’s possible that they did not understand all of her unhelpful remarks because they were in English only.

Imagine if this happened to you – you are on a flight, need to understand important safety, customs-related, or connecting-gate information, and you cannot, because it’s not being provided in your language. Now, imagine that your language is not just spoken by a small population, but by hundreds of millions of people in Spain and Latin America. Would you feel disrespected, unappreciated, or slighted? I noticed that Spanish-speaking passengers on our flight were confused and unhappy. I don’t know if any of them complained.

As you know, Mexico City is one of the world’s largest urban centers, home to millions of potential travelers, both professional and for leisure, as well as a range of leading universities, medical research organizations, and global and Mexican businesses. Mexico is a close and vital neighbor of the U.S., and Alaska Airlines needs to serve passengers well or lose business to Delta and other airlines nipping at its heels. You simply can’t have people working for you who treat Mexican travelers as if they were not worthy of respect, as if they were problems, not passengers. After my experience on flight 3403, I’m not at all sure that Alaska Airlines understands what it takes to serve a sophisticated, international audience.

I have lived and traveled in Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s, when we had excellent service from Mexican airlines providing direct flights from Seattle to Mexico City. I have never seen that any English-speaking passenger was treated as condescendingly then as the Spanish-speaking guests on your flight 3403 last week. It’s a delicate time in relations between Mexico and the U.S. and anything that can help people connect and build bridges among their families, companies, and cultures is of great value. Your cabin crew did us all a disservice in that regard.

All the best –

Chris Lemoine

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A perfect, eternal winter evening, thanks to Alban Berg

My parents made many efforts to connect with me, the distant, fear-plagued son they loved and appreciated, but just could not reach. I did not notice or understand their efforts then, but much later, long after they were gone.

Because, as a child and a very young person, I tended to avoid my father and find him difficult to relate to, they sometimes tried to bridge the chasm between us. It was awkward for both him and me, and for me it was also puzzling. As I saw it, we found each other strange and not particularly interesting or likable, so why did they insist on changing this?

When I was fourteen or fifteen, maybe the last attempt of this kind took place. I don’t remember how the conversations went or whether I was even part of them, but, right after New Year’s Day, my father and I took a regional train into the hilly region east of Cologne and spent most of a week in a small guest house, on a back alley in a tiny village. The train let us off in a town called Gummersbach, and from there we took a bus to our destination. It was deep winter, and the more I think about it, the year must have been 1968.

The previous summer, my father had spent five or six weeks in a clinic in the area. His doctor had sent him there to participate in controlled weight-loss and exercise programs. He did not cheat like the other men, who went to grocery stores and pubs to enhance their diet, but he did not lose any weight at all. Later I heard that my mother took him butter and other favorite things to eat when she and I visited every few days. I didn’t even notice. We were in a rustic, not very clean bed-and-breakfast not far away. Who lost weight during those weeks was I – unplanned, but very lucky for me.

My parents had probably found the guest house through recommendations from customers. The trip would have been my mother’s idea, and I’m sure she also bought our train tickets at the travel agency around the corner from the shoe store she owned and ran with my father. Then she packed both our suitcases. Maybe she even took the tram with us to the station and see us off. If we left on a Sunday, the store would have been closed. January was generally a quiet month, so she could easily handle the shop on her own with help from the one or two saleswomen who worked there. Until 1976, when my father had a heart attack while I was living in London, these would be the only days she had entirely to herself.

At that time, most people living in the city wore the same clothes for almost everything they did. If they participated in a sport, like soccer or running, they wore what went with that. But for hiking, bicycling, kicking a ball around, shopping, visiting family, running an errand to a government office, attending church – you wore respectable, clean clothes, not too dressy and certainly not shabby. Unless you were a mountain climber or dedicated to a sport, outdoor gear and specialized clothing for certain activities didn’t come into use until much later. Day in, day out, my father dressed in a white shirt and tie, a grey or brown suit, and an overcoat and hat when it was cold. We both would have had plain leather shoes, maybe with riffled rubber soles to make it easier to walk in snow and ice, but still useless for any more ambitious hikes. He had a hat. I didn’t.

Winters in Cologne were chilly, with temperatures close to freezing for many weeks. Sometimes, it snowed, but never for longer than a day or two, and within a few more days it was all melted. But as soon as the bus let us off, we were in a white country, where snow would have begun fallen sometime in October and kept coming since then. Main roads had been cleared, but fields and buildings were covered with a couple of feet of firm, old snow. Within a few steps, our feet were wet and freezing, our pant legs soaked, and our hands frozen, because we also lacked gloves.

I don’t remember how we found the unmarked guest house. My father must have had good directions. It was a small single-family home with just a handful of rentable rooms. We were the only guests. The Christmas tree was still in the living room, and seasonal cookies and pastries piled in a large plate on a table next to it. It smelled nice and felt most comfortable. We had separate rooms, and I’m sure we shared a bathroom.

Of those days, I don’t recall any conversations. We took all our meals at the house; there was no restaurant or café in the small village. I remember the silent, dark-haired woman who sometimes spoke with my father and ran the place.

We took endless walks in the snow, with our miserable shoes and thin clothing. The hills all looked alike, and within a few steps you lost sight of the village. There were hardly any people out and about, cattle and horses were in their barns, cars and trucks coming through were few. We walked slowly, because we did not want to slip and fall. Once or twice we got lost and did not find our way back to the house until after dark.

There was no newspaper, radio, nor TV for the guests. We did find a current issue of Hör Zu, a weekly magazine with a detailed program for all the major radio stations as well as the two or three German TV broadcasters operating then. A concert listing interested me. I asked my father for an evening’s loan of his portable radio, which he used to listen to political and sports news at 8 p.m. The program started after that, so we didn’t clash.

The reception was terrible. I was fully dressed and under the sheets in my bed, because it was freezing in the room. However, I had to keep moving around to adjust the antenna and improve the placement of the radio. I forget what the first piece played by the orchestra was, but I spent most of the time tweaking the frequency dial and repositioning radio and antenna

.

When the second program item began, I was used to the static and had achieved some sort of stability. The steady rushing sound was acceptable, and I’d gotten rid of the annoying chirping and whistling. I could give my full attention to the violin concerto by Alban Berg.

This was one of the best listening experiences in my whole life. Some detail was obliterated because of the poor transmission quality, but what remained was lovely, heartbreaking, amazing music. It touched me in a way few things ever did, and until that moment, probably nothing. I clearly remember the surprise and amazement when I heard the last section, where Berg weaves a Bach chorale into his music. The piece only takes a little over twenty minutes, but my felt experience time amounted to several hours. Berg’s violin concerto was a perfect match for the dry, cold, black January evening in this room, in this January, in this life. It made for an unforgettable moment. This happened almost fifty years ago, but I can still hear the barely-there ending. I knew then that this hearing of the Berg concerto would never leave me, and it hasn’t. It will be part of me until I leave this world.

I’m sure I listened to the symphony or whatever came next, but don’t remember what it was. Maybe I wrote in my journal, or read in my book. The following morning, I returned the radio to my father and thanked him. We spent another day or two in the snow before taking the bus and train home. I don’t recall going to church during out time in snow land – the village did not have a church, but we would have made our way to another village or town to go to mass. That means we were home before Sunday. My school started again on Monday. My father returned to the store. I don’t think we ever talked about these frozen, beautiful days together.

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Pedestrians don’t need to die, although we tolerate their killing

A few hours ago, once again I was almost hit by a car, in a marked crosswalk. The driver saw me coming, wasn’t going fast, and had time to stop. But she didn’t. This does not happen to me every day, but often enough that I choose intersections with lights or, at least, all-way stops. But even that is no safety assurance. A few blocks away, at the intersection of Madison, Union, and 12th Avenue, cars often don’t stop for pedestrians who have the green light, causing many close calls.

Google “pedestrian deaths” and you’ll be appalled.

Many studies show how pedestrian fatalities trend in different cities and regions. Some improve over time, some not.

Many drivers forget that pedestrians are people just like they are. Instead, they see a needless obstacle that slows them down.

Many drivers forget that pedestrians are people just like they are. Instead, they see a needless obstacle that slows them down.

Male pedestrians seem to be more likely to die from their injuries. But men, women, and children die—every day, all the time. Hundreds and thousands of them, every year. As a driver, I have experienced situations where a person walked out or ran into my lane, in the middle of a block, and only luck stopped me from hitting them. But that happens quite rarely. As far as I can tell from experience and reading up on the subject, almost all pedestrian deaths are preventable. They don’t have to happen.

Why, then, do we let them continue?

Nobody I know agrees with the statement, “Pedestrians deserve to die.” Why do we accept pedestrian fatalities as a given?

Conversations about this topic are often frustrating. Drivers are angry (aren’t they always?). Pedestrians are mad and feel there’s nothing they can do, because they are the weakest party in traffic. They don’t get much respect, in any case—some folks treat this issue like something that’s not worth worrying about. “If pedestrians are careful, nothing happens to them,” I sometimes hear. But that’s not true. Plenty of careful pedestrians I know have been in very dangerous situations.

There may be some drivers who are zombies, sadists, or raging idiots. But most of them are people much like you and I. They even walk sometimes, experiencing the indignities of pedestrian life for themselves. And yet, when we get behind the wheel, we are subject to some sort of possession that makes us lose all empathy. Why is that? Why do we behave so often as if we were callous, unfeeling killers, completely oblivious to the pedestrian risk and experience? We can make and use powerful driving machines, but we have not evolved to the point where we can use them responsibly as a matter of course. Instead, they take us over.

It doesn’t help that, through the millennia, pedestrians were treated as scum. Superior and successful people had horses, carts, coaches, elephants, sleighs, slaves to carry them—they got off their feet as soon as status and wealth permitted them to do so. Physically, their position was almost always elevated, so they could look down on walkers, much like SUV drivers can do today. Pedestrians were in the way, not on the way.

I don’t think moralizing and pointing fingers—any fingers—is helpful, or we would have seen a difference some time ago. So, what can we do? Here are some ideas:

  • Drivers’ education. Provide more training on safe pedestrian/driver interactions. Test more stringently on driving behaviors that are safe for pedestrians. Treat driving more like a privilege, not an entitlement. Do not give driving licenses to learning drivers who have a tendency to act aggressively and thoughtlessly in traffic.
  • Change the perception of driving. It’s a fun, resource-intensive, potentially lethal thing to do. The risks for pedestrians and drivers are huge. We’re telling smokers and drinkers that their habits might be harmful to themselves and others. Why can’t we incorporate similar “drive responsibly” messaging into advertising for cars and drivers’ education? If a generation or two are exposed to it, their driving behaviors might be different.
  • Right turn on red. In areas where a lot of people walk, this adds to pedestrian risk. Drivers simply don’t like to stop and look. We should prohibit the right turn on red at many more intersections than we do now, and find better placement for the signs that inform drivers of the change.
  • Pedestrian education. Pedestrians need to learn how to assert themselves safely. Standing by the roadside waiting for drivers to pass is sometimes unavoidable, but other times you can step out and help them stop, especially if you wear bright clothing, wave, or carry one of those orange flags one sometimes finds. Take your rights. When drivers do the right thing and stop for you, don’t wave them on. Smile, thank them, and cross in front of them. Especially when there’s another pedestrian also trying to cross, it’s completely unacceptable and very unsafe to wave drivers on.
  • Pedestrian action. If you are hit or almost hit by a driver, especially when you are crossing legally, call the police. Try and get a description of the car and driver, or the license number if you can. Walk more. Walk in groups. The more walkers drivers see, the more they will get into the habit of cooperating with them.
  • Change the way we talk. Usually, a pedestrian death is not the result of an “accident.” It’s the result of our actions and attitudes. Call it what it is, a killing. And, sometimes, it’s murder. Let’s get real about how we discuss this. It doesn’t do any good to belittle it.
  • Enforcement. I’m all for the red-light and other traffic cameras, I’ll admit. Also, I would like to see police departments spend more time observing driver behavior and ticketing drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians. I know there are issues of resources and priorities that can make this difficult.
  • Penalties. Our laws are very easy on drivers who kill people, drunk or sober. That needs to change. It won’t happen unless a lot of people clamor for it.
  • Crossing guards. People volunteer in school zones, but why not at risky intersections in other areas? Lots of older people and unemployed might have time to work a crossing during commute times. Cities might even find some funds to pay them a stipend.
  • Social media and conversations. We need to help each other wake up, remember, and be the traffic participants we would like others to become. The status quo is not acceptable. Let’s have practical, non-moralizing talks about what we are trying to change—a car-friendly mindset that’s supported by centuries of pedestrian abuse.

I know pedestrian fatalities may seem like a minor problem if you consider wars, poverty, racism, and climate change. But people are dying needlessly. Is that really what you want? If you ever walk or drive—you can help change the way we act in traffic. Got any ideas?

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Saints, heroes, villains (4): Serenity with a secret

When I graduated from my school in Germany at the end of the 13th grade, I took some time off before I started a temp job at Bayer, the pharmaceutics manufacturer that ruined people’s health and the environment all over the area. (More on a villain there some other time.) Before I went to work, I spent two months in Paris. I didn’t have much money, so I stayed in a youth hostel just outside of the city limits and took buses and the metro to get around.

That youth hostel wasn’t your typical wholesome hiker, biker, live-simply-folks, and naturalist hangout. Far from it. It was more like a rock’n’roll stoner commune where the faint line between men’s and women’s quarters had long vanished. Some people arrived, took in the social scene for a few weeks, and never saw the Eiffel Tower or much of anything else. A couple of the scintillating, resourceful travelers I met there later visited me in Cologne.

However, I never saw Rasoul again. He was there before I came and left in the middle of the night, a couple of days before I took the train home. Rasoul was from Algeria, but I don’t know how long he had been away from there. He did not travel for fun the way the rest of us did, I’m sure of that. Maybe he was waiting for somebody or something. He was older than everybody else there and looked a little like Gabriel García Marquez in his early forties. Unlike Marquez, Rasoul did not write fiction. He wrote poems.

Rasoul’s poetry rhymed and sounded marvelous when he read it to us, his voice so low we guessed more than we heard the words. His poems were never longer than sixteen lines or so. His handwriting was ornamental, almost calligraphic. Sitting next to him, I could not read it. I don’t remember what the poems were about—a deity, an angel, a relationship, a forgotten magic. It was lovely to listen to him.

Rasoul also told stories about his travels and experiences. My French at the time wasn’t so great, and I did not understand all of it. But I enjoyed listening to him, watching his lively facial expressions, and catching the gist of an anecdote. I missed his company when he wasn’t around. He was very popular with the women in the place and spent more time with them than with his male friends. Sometimes he disappeared for a day or two, but always returned, until he didn’t.

One of Rasoul’s specialties was interpreting a person’s handwriting. He looked at the letters and gave way to his creativity and intuition. From time to time, I received a postcard from a friend at home. One was from a girlfriend who I was about to separate from. Rasoul’s interpretation of her character was a complete surprise and, I thought, very true. It almost made me feel in love with her again. But she and I were wrong for each other. I knew that.

At the time, I often wondered where Rasoul had come from and where he was headed. He just didn’t seem like an ordinary person, or at least he wasn’t like anybody I had met up to that point in my life. Nobody else had his serenity and poise. Back then, and remembering him now, I believe that something had happened to him—a tremendous insight, a transformation. I don’t know what the visible form of this event was or why it affected Rasoul the way it did. I wonder where life took him after he left the youth hostel, but I’ll never know.

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Saints, heroes, villains (1): The cab driver who got me not to be myself

When I was a boy, I had a fat, heavy book called Helden und Heilige, which translates as “Heroes and Saints.” It was a work of hagiography, with life stories, appreciations, and images of all the saints of the Catholic church. I loved reading about these people. The more remote they were in time, the more interesting feats and miracles they were said to have accomplished. I was very disappointed when the church eventually reformed its calendar and a few of my favorite saints did not have a name day anymore. Today, traveling in Europe, I sometimes come across churches, memorials, ruins, rocks, and features of the landscape named after fascinating, amazing saints and heroes who may have lived there at some point. At least somebody’s story became associated with a place that helps to keep a memory or myth alive. Quite a few of these saints appear to be known only in the regions close by.

We all meet remarkable people in our lives. You don’t have to be G. I. Gurdjieff to have this happen to you. We also cross paths with deceptive, troubled, and vicious characters. I know I have benefited from getting to know both kinds. They don’t ever deserve to be forgotten, even if I never knew who they were or what happened to them after we parted. Starting today, I’ll be presenting some of the saints, heroes, and villains I’ve had the fortune to meet. Today:

The kind cab driver who took me to my house and back to the airport

A couple of years ago, Evelyn and I went to Ravenna, Italy, for the first time. Our flights went from Seattle to Amsterdam and from there to Bologna, where we would pick up the rental car. The long Amsterdam flight left around 1:30pm and we got to the airport shortly after 11am.

We checked our luggage, got our boarding passes, and got into the security line.

That’s when I realized I didn’t have my driving license. Without the license, I wouldn’t be able to get the car in Bologna. The printed copy of it wouldn’t do me any good. Without a car, we would not be able to take day trips to the many places in the Emilia Romagna where one cannot get by train or bus. It would still be an interesting time, but probably disappointing in some ways. We decided I needed to get my license, which was somewhere in our house.

While Evelyn stayed in line for her screening, I rushed out of the airport and got into a taxi. I was beginning to panic. Time suddenly felt very short. The driver was a kindly-looking man in his sixties. He had a long, white beard and wore a turban. His voice was gentle and pleasant to listen to. I explained my query and that I hoped not to miss my plane. I forgot what he said, but, surprising myself, I was immediately at ease.

It was a beautiful, blue-sky September Saturday. Freeway traffic into Seattle was horribly backed up. By the time we had to slow down, I didn’t care anymore about making my plane. The driver and I were in conversation. I don’t remember all of what we talked about, but I do recall him telling me about his family members in India, and in Atlanta, New Jersey, and other places in the United States. “I have been to visit them all,” he said. “I am so happy I don’t live where they do. These places are not beautiful. But Seattle is. They come to visit me and are jealous. ‘Welcome to the heaven’, I say to them.”

Usually, I would be very unpleasant and awfully stressed out in this situation. But that man helped to relax, accept, and let things be. I remember thinking, “He’s right, this is one of the best places in the world. It’s not a big deal if my miss my plane and get to Ravenna a day later. Or never.” I also remember saying to myself, “This is not like me at all. It probably won’t last, but it’s very nice for now.”

Eventually, we reached our exit and got to our house. I asked him to wait in front. I ran into the house, unlocked my office, found the license on the scanner/printer, locked my office, locked the house, rushed back to the cab. The driver was gracefully turning a page in a leather-bound book with Arabic writing on the cover. He closed it immediately; I didn’t see what it was and didn’t want to quiz him.

On the way back to the airport, the driver shared more of his views. “Trust is extremely important, it’s the most important thing,” I remember him saying. “Trust and faith. I trust in God to take care.”

Eventually, he dropped me off in front of the terminal. I paid and gave him a large tip. He waved and wished me a happy journey. The plane was already boarding when I got to the gate.

I did not get the driver’s name. He was the kindest, most calming person I could have met under the circumstances. It’s unlikely I would ever share his religious convictions. But his serene graciousness, gentle humor, and kind presence? I can only hope to aspire to that.

So, “welcome to the heaven,” merry Christmas, a delightful solstice, or whatever else you celebrate.

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Where are you from?

Technically, I'm from here. But how true is that?

Technically, I’m from here. But how true is that?

After a lifetime ‘abroad’ and unable to speak any language with a proper native accent, I’m still learning how to be a foreigner gracefully. Maybe I’m simply more immature and rootless than many other people. It still bothers me when I’m in a certain country where English is not the main currency, and people assume I’m no good at speaking their language and insist on talking to me in English no matter how many times I respond in their own.

It also still bugs me when people ask me, “Where are you from?” This is often expressed as, “I hear some kind of an accent, but can’t quite place it… where are you from?” Usually, when I’m at home in Seattle and dealing with clients or professional associates, I respond as politely as I can, but don’t really know what to say.

I’ve noticed similar reactions in other long-term foreigners. It seems natural that everybody is from somewhere. But, really, where are you from? Why is it so hard to just answer the question? To start with, the assumption is that you are not from here, and an unwelcome exclusion may be implied. People put you in a box, take you out of another one, and so forth. It can be confrontational and create distance where no distance is wanted.

Also, the facts are not all that easy. I was born in Germany, never felt at home there, and left as soon as I was able to. I resided in a certain country, then lived and traveled in a couple of other ones, and eventually found my way to Seattle, where I mostly liked it and also realized I was tired of roaming. I’m still here. There really isn’t an easy answer for me to “Where are you from?” Yes, at some point I came from somewhere, Cologne, which I recall as a lovely city that didn’t really belong in that strange and cruel country, but the Cologne I remember doesn’t really exist anymore. I yearn for it sometimes, but that doesn’t bring it back. To respond with “Seattle” doesn’t seem quite truthful, especially when I’m having one of those days where I’d rather be anywhere than here. It gets complicated very quickly. I must have responded hundreds of times to the follow-up question, “But your name doesn’t sound German…?” Even though listeners’ eyes usually glaze over when I do.

Other foreigners tell similar stories. You live and travel a bit, and a few decades later you realize you’re not coming from or going to anyplace in particular, you don’t feel a lot of loyalty to any place or country, you’re from Earth and hope to be a decent person. Try giving that as an answer to “Where are you from?” and prepare for some severe irritation.

But there’s another way to listen and reply to the question “Where are you from?” My advice is to minimize any chat about the facts, because, shockingly, nobody actually cares. The questioner has noticed a difference, or something you nonetheless seem to share with her. What she is likely asking is, “What do you and I really have in common?” Now, that is something you can explore with her in a much more interesting conversation than anything to do with distant, mythical places. You can get the trivial details out of the way and move on to a more meaningful exchange. Once or twice I succeeded with something like, “I’m originally from Germany… and I really love baking bread and making pasta at home.” This approach tends to be more satisfying and truthful—bread and pasta are much closer to me than Germany ever was or will be. Most people like eating one or the other, so the risk of starting a completely inappropriate conversation is low. But you should adjust for context. In a professional environment you might want to direct the talk more towards the skills or issues you want to focus on. “I grew up in France, where people celebrate the twentieth year of SMS communications this month.”

So, fellow foreigners: Please experiment, and be patient with your conversation partners and yourselves.

And you, dear natives: I’m curious—where are you from, really?

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On the Summerland trail, ten years later

It took me ten years and a couple of weeks to come back here. I last walked on the Summerland trail at Mount Rainier National Park in September 2002. This was on a week day, and my Civic was the only car in the parking area when I arrived at about 8am. Roughly three miles in, one crosses a one-log bridge with a sideways-leaning railing. After walking about a quarter of a mile on the other side, I saw a small black bear on the trail, doing who knows what, thirty feet or so away from me. While I waited for him to move away, I took a picture that didn’t turn out because I was not holding the camera still. Then, much closer to me, at about half that distance, the bushes rustled and a much bigger bear emerged, looked at me, and started moving in my direction. I panicked and ran, my heart beating in my ears. My memory insists that I flew down the steep, rocky trail at cheetah-like speed until I got back to the bridge.

Water and ice at Summerland

Since then, I’ve not been back to the Summerland trail. It’s one of the most popular in this National Park, which millions of people visit. The crowd-free periods, after the thaws in late spring until summer takes off, and from fall until it snows again, are quite brief, and there are only so many weekends. From Seattle, it takes about two to two-and-a-half hours to get there, much of it on tedious freeways and suburban roads. But yesterday, I had a Saturday to myself and decided to go.

I got to the White River entrance on the Park’s east side in under two hours without even speeding—there wasn’t much traffic yet. I paid a $15 entrance fee, which allows me to return for seven days. Considering how breathtakingly amazing and lovely the place is, this is a good deal, even if one only visits once. When I used the restroom close to the entrance, I realized how chilly it was. I was delighted—at this point, I find Seattle’s endless warm temperatures and cloudless blue skies depressing.

After crossing Frying Pan Creek, one parks across from the trailhead, about three miles’ distance from the Park entrance. I was glad that some other people were already there and had set out before I did. Maybe the bears would understand that it was better for them and us not to meet. The trail to Summerland is about 4.2 miles one way, ascending with almost every step. Most of the gentle, first three miles take you through forest. Lots of tall evergreens, some fallen trees, small shrubs, and unusually few mushrooms, because it’s been so awfully dry the last few months. I enjoyed feeling cold until I forgot about it as I was climbing. The sun blanched the tops of the trees, but rarely came down to my level.

With less and less sun and light, these blue flowers at Summerland hang in, although many of them are already looking tired

However, as soon as you cross that bridge, the scenery changes. The trail rises more drastically. You face dramatic views of the mountain, glaciers, and outlying formations. Tall trees eventually give way to shrubs and clusters of shorter trees. Before, in the forest, smells were dry, dusty, and clean. Here, it smelled like being in a huge wine cave, sweet and pleasurably rotten. I took my time to appreciate mossy rocks, patches of frost on ground shrubs, icicles dangling off rocks, and small blue flowers.

Up at Summerland

Eventually, after a hike of about two hours, I got to Summerland, a large subalpine meadow. Signs ask you to stay on the trails and not ruin the land any further, but some hikers merrily took off for their picnics right in the middle of it. But there weren’t enough of them to spoil the experience. Here, one feels close to the mountain’s strange, quiet life. Hues of blue and green on the rocks, together with the warm greens, yellows, and oranges of the vegetation, make the place look playful. The moon was still in the sky. Patches of clear ice covered rocks. Small ice formations lingered along creek beds and in other shady spots. After a break, I continued for another mile or so, until the trail got too squirrelly for me and the ice patches were too large to navigate comfortably.

Ice art by a small creek

The way down took me much longer. For one thing, I was sad to leave. Also, the trail was bone dry, with lots of treacherous, rolling rubble, and I had to pay attention, which always slows me down. My walking stick saved me from falling many times. On the return hike, I finally heard a few birds. Other than them, the only wildlife I saw was a few insects and some chipmunks. A woman explained to a group of teenage girls, “Many of the chipmunks carry the plague. You must avoid them at all costs.” But no bears. No little bear, no big bear. I was happy about that.

No bear this time!

I had much time to reflect on then and now. In 2002, I was 49, living off my stock options and drawing unemployment after having been laid off at Veritas Software, which was eventually bought by Symantec. In 2012, I’m doing freelance work after having been laid off at the small marketing company where I spent most of the time in between the two Summerland hikes. In 2002, I used email and regularly visited some of the same news sites I still go to today, but social media was not in the picture. Back then, I weighed a bit more. But now my knees are getting creaky and I can feel twinges of arthritis in my hands and feet. In 2002, our neighborhood was much more troubled than today, and we were going to have a home invasion in early 2003. Today, different people live across the alley; trouble still abounds but crime seems more under control. There were certain things I didn’t know in 2002—for example, that my heritage is part Jewish. Or that the wars that had just gotten started would still go on now, with no realistic end in sight, no matter what official verbiage suggests.

Today, more so than ten years ago, I wonder how much time I still have to go on walking the Earth. Will I get back to Summerland anytime soon?

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Urban Hiking: A Way to Grow with the Power of Attention

In most of our cities, you find areas you don’t know much about, even if you live there. When you travel through them in your car or on public transport, you don’t pay much attention to them. They just don’t look all that interesting or attractive. Maybe they’re not entirely safe. Walking there may be unpleasant and difficult because of intense traffic, missing sidewalks, freeways and rail lines cutting off access, or a lack of intersections where pedestrians can cross safely.

At home and when we travel, we should pay more attention to these places. We surround ourselves with exquisite, complex environments and infrastructures, but we don’t always know what’s there. The people working or living in these overlooked areas don’t always like it there, either. They may be too poor or uninterested to take pride in their neighborhoods, and let properties fall down and streets be strewn with refuse. If their work takes them there, they probably know exactly how to get in and out while paying minimal attention to what they don’t want to see. As a consequence, many cities include neglected and forgotten districts with large populations.

I think the best way to learn about these areas is to walk through them. It gives you a chance to see the faces, breathe the air, see the sights, without escaping the moment. You never know what you might find. In many years of exploring cities in different countries, I have always found the forgotten districts to be worth the time, risk, and effort it takes to get to know them. Sure, by all means, visit the historic centers, parks, waterfronts, and lovely neighborhoods. But take time out to walk through the no-man’s lands.

If you have a good map of the city you’re in, take a look—how much of it do you actually know or come through with any frequency? How much of it is undiscovered country? Does that make you a little curious? Are you wondering how people live in certain parts, where they go shopping, what their houses, markets, and community bulletin boards look like?

Start with a good map of the city you want to explore. Digital and printed maps are both fine.

I find what often works well is taking public transport to the last station and walking back from there toward the center of town or a neighborhood I know. I recommend this especially for cities that have a roughly circular layout, such as Paris or Cologne. Elsewhere, maybe you need to ask somebody to drop you off with a car. Or, if there’s enough unknown territory to get to know, pick a district and traverse it in a number of directions.

What did I find by doing this kind of hiking? Lots of things tourists don’t see. Niche neighborhoods where people never expect to see an outsider and therefore don’t treat you like a tourist, but like a real person. I will never forget the friendly faces and small interactions in a horribly poor and unhealthy neighborhood at the fringe of Mexico City. There are cemeteries that give you insight into histories and mind sets. Green areas where nature reclaims the territory and settles it with a surprising variety of plants and animals. Fantastic views of city landmarks from new angles. In some older, industrial cities, an amazing wealth of lovely bridges. Post-industrial landscapes, some rotten, some lovely. Commercial buildings, factories, port facilities, train yards, and pocket parks with powerful esthetic appeal.

What do you need for this? Good shoes and comfortable clothing. A sense of adventure and curiosity. An open mind that lets you set your expectations and limitations aside for a few hours. A good map, honestly—not one of those hotel-issued travesties that just show you the downtown core. ID. Some cash to pay for a snack or transportation, but not too much. Your camera, but use it respectfully if you take pictures of people or their private property—get permission when you can. Some paper and a pen, or a recording device, to take notes. This kind of adventure doesn’t cost much except time and attention. Of course, it is also very sustainable as long as your body holds up: Your environmental impact will be minimal.

And, what can you get out of it? That depends on who you are. You might make a new friend. You might fall in love with a forgotten waterfront, a building, or an old bridge. You can tell stories. You might want to take action on a social or environmental situation you become aware of.

However, what I think is best about urban hiking is that it gives us a chance to re-soul districts that are part of our world, but we have numbed ourselves to their existence. Expanding consciousness is always preferable to shrinking it or keeping it the same. Attention is a marvelous, powerful force. If enough people give attention to something, it can change and grow. And so can we, the walkers.

In another posting, I might make some suggestions for walks in cities here and there. Please tell me if you have any you would like to share.

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PC: Post-Cleveland, or: Visit Cleveland now, before the crowds catch on

I mentioned a few days ago that Evelyn and I were headed to Cleveland and didn’t quite know what to expect. Ten years ago Cleveland was beautiful and tough to love, with lots of potential.

The news is mostly good. You can’t do a U-turn on Euclid downtown anymore. There’s too much traffic and now a dedicated bus lane with elegantly designed stations goes all the way out to Case Western Reserve, where you find some wonderful museums, a fine university, Severance Hall, marvelous architecture, and a whole district occupied by the ever-expanding Cleveland Clinic, one of the best healthcare facilities in the world. People milled across previously dormant Public Square every time we came through. And those department-store buildings that were boarded up and looking like demolition would come next? They have all been renovated and are full of commercial and residential tenants. One of them, right by the Terminal Tower, houses a casino, which opened a few months ago. I hear the casino plays a key role in bringing people, cash, and investment to downtown. I’m all for it. Maybe in time, there will be some other businesses and venues doing their part, so the downtown area doesn’t become too dependent on the casino.

The old-school Italian deli and grocery store, Gallucci, at Euclid and 66th, boasts a renovated location with picnic tables outside. In the Cleveland area, they’re still one of the best resources for cooks and people who eat. The neighborhood around them used to be a waste land of rusting industrial properties and falling-down warehouses. It’s turning around and becoming interesting again. A Slovenian restaurant not too far away is re-creating itself for different times, with live-music and other events. Cleveland State University is expanding slowly toward the deli; more and more faculty, administrators, and students will find out what value they can get for a small handful of cash.

Looking toward downtown Cleveland from Tremont: Magic even on a rainy Tuesday.

Ohio City, celebrating its centennial this year, sparkles with lovely homes and lots of new businesses. I like that it’s not all about food and drink, although there’s a lot of that, too, especially around the Westside Market, which now rivals the market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Seattle’s Pike Place Market for outstanding, local vegetables, fruit, bread, fish, meat, and other edibles, in a spectacular setting. Real-estate prices are still extremely reasonable—do the research with a soft towel around your chin in case your jaw drops. Right next to Ohio City, the Tremont neighborhood is worth your time, too. I found it once again extremely hard to get to—lots of roadwork and misleading detour signs on top of the already difficult access caused by the freeways that effectively make this place an island—but I’m glad I persevered. A while ago, a restaurant called Fat Cats was just about the only nice spot to eat there. Now they have a bunch of others and, just like in Ohio City, many artisans and craftspeople set up shop there. A small farmers’ market offered lots of fresh produce; I hope it gets enough traffic to make it worth the vendors’ while. There are so many catholic, Russian orthodox, Greek orthodox, and other churches there, I find it hard to believe they are all viable as the population changes—will the younger people moving there (very affordably, yes) maintain the traditions? Who will take the place of the older residents from East European communities that are quickly melting away? I hope the lower-income folks who now live in Tremont and Ohio City don’t get gentrified out of their homes and environment—they must be included in whatever creative developments happen over the next few years.

Speaking of, Cleveland could really use some more interesting businesses to add diversity to its commercial portfolio. It should be the perfect location for biomedical entrepreneurs. Or software companies that draw on the talent among local youth who need something worthwhile to do after graduation. How about some Microsoft Dynamics partners who could bring ERP and CRM systems to local businesses and help them be more successful at what they do? Directors and producers, take note—Cleveland is full of fascinating, old-industrial and post-industrial environments and intriguing vistas. The view from Tremont toward downtown, for example—that’s magic.

Sure, a lot of work remains to be done, just like anywhere. There are still huge green fields where properties burned during race riots in the 1960s, but the areas surrounding them are much more livable now than even ten years ago. Huge industrial wastelands on both sides of the Cuyahoga river are fascinating to me because I’m like that, but they aren’t really an asset. One could redevelop some of these areas as parks, with walkways along the river, even, maybe with a few contemporary businesses locating nearby. It’s simply intolerable to have these huge areas that are so hostile to human beings.

Elsewhere, Lake Erie is still mostly cut off from the city by freeways and commercial development. It’s too bad, but will be hard to change. I think it will probably be easier to bring the Cuyahoga back into the city, inch by inch. The Flats aren’t enough, but their areas of influence are growing, especially east of the river. We should remember and appreciate that the businesses and people who took a chance on the Flats were brave and, largely, successful. A food-and-drink place there, Shooters, is 25 years old in 2012. To most people now, it’s nothing all that special, but when they opened back in 1987, they took a huge gamble on a trashed part of town. Nobody could have reasonably predicted that they would pull it off and bring along a handful of follow-on businesses. Still, there are even today large parts of the Flats nobody seems to care for or remember that they own it, which is too bad.

For our few days there, we had a lovely and very inexpensive house, courtesy of Shaker Rentals, in Shaker Heights, and it was interesting to learn about that community and its history. It was nice to see that Shaker Heights, except for a few fat-cat stretches along Shaker Boulevard, is mostly integrated. On one sunny Sunday morning and the rainy Tuesday that followed, we spent a few hours at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has for years added to its building as well as its already outstanding collections. When the new atrium opens (it’s a bit reminiscent of Foster’s re-built British Museum), there’ll be a huge splash in the media. People will go on about how Cleveland is making a turn for the better and is getting back on the map. But really, it’s been splendid for a long time.

If you’re more traditionally minded, there’s Little Italy, in spite of all the fake-y folklore a real community with strong ties to the old country, and the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s best. Of course, lots of live theatre. And the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. I won’t go on—do a simple search and you’ll find buckets of things to interest you.

Anyway, visit and love Cleveland now, before the tourist crowds catch on and rub their sweaty hands all over the bloom. Autumn and spring are beautiful there. Winter can be harsh, gorgeous in its own way, and summer is hot, but you get spectacular thunder storms to help you cool off and disrupt the languid mood. Enjoy!

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