Category Archives: travel

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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BC: Before Cleveland

Tomorrow, Evelyn and I will get on a plane from Seattle to Houston, then on another one from there to Cleveland. We didn’t find any practical, affordable direct flights to get there, although we managed that for the return trip. Many flights route you through nearby Detroit or Chicago. When we went to Cleveland the last time, ten years ago, thunder storms caused our plane to be parked on some distant Chicago runway for a few hours, with us sweating inside. When we got there, a lot of construction around the airport made getting around difficult. The African-American gentleman who managed the crowded line for the rental car shuttle joked in a way that still made me squirm. But I suppose it is possible that he was actually being sarcastic in response to a (white and white-shirted) business traveler’s obnoxiousness.

Back then, downtown Cleveland seemed mostly quiet.

What will Cleveland’s Terminal Tower complex and Public Square feel like tomorrow, I wonder?

You could make a U-turn on Euclid Avenue, the main thoroughfare, without waiting for traffic or bothering anybody. Splendid old department store buildings were boarded up and had obviously been so for many years. Public Square in front of the Terminal Tower was mostly empty of pedestrians. People moved around in their cars; I don’t think I saw a single bicycle commuter. Some innocuous public art didn’t much alleviate the sense of loneliness at the center of the city. Yes, at the Terminal Tower lots of people changed trains, caught buses, and rode elevators up into their offices, but very few of them seemed to walk anywhere from there. The theater district only came alive at night. Except for a few restaurants and drinking places, the place was dead after about 5:30pm.

And, you know what? Everybody was incredibly, genuinely friendly. It wasn’t like the “Seattle nice,” where people smile at you while they’re often seething in their skin. Folks were engaged, ready to have conversations, and helpful; they reminded me of people in Italy, where you never know if the next person you meet will be one of your best friends and patron saints. They didn’t try to run you over when you were crossing the street, the way I see it here at home all the time. The most passive-aggressive driver behavior I saw, if that’s what it was, was a slow, barely noticeable roll forward while waiting for red lights.

Huge areas of the city felt like stony deserts, with barely maintained residences, potholed streets, and almost no retail outside of gas stations and depressing convenience stores. Somewhere in the east 40s, I remember leaving an old-fashioned Czech or Slovak restaurant and seeing a bunch of black kids up the street throwing rocks at cars and windows. They didn’t look aggressive or angry. I think they were just bored. Just a few driving minutes away from them, there was the excellent art museum (which also had wonderful air conditioning, a huge asset). On a weekday, very few visitors had come to see the collections.

The communities right outside the city—Cleveland Heights, Parma, Shaker Heights, Garfield Heights, and so forth—that’s where middle-class and wealthier people seemed to make their homes. Bonus points for any place name with “heights” in it, of course. I expect that hasn’t changed, but maybe now a few more people actually live in downtown? I also have high hopes for a district called Ohio City, just west of the Cuyahoga River. In 2002, it had a wonderful indoor market, surrounded by a lively, intriguing neighborhood. Throughout Ohio City, many residents had obviously moved in recently and were working hard to maintain their homes and gardens beautifully. The area was still a little incoherent and somewhat intimidating then, but I get the impression that much has happened since. It sounds like many more people have taken advantage of inexpensive housing and were willing to get to work. The district now boosts a huge variety of artisan businesses, restaurants, and services for residents. I’m looking forward to spending some time there.

When I talk with Seattle friends and colleagues about visiting Cleveland, they quickly volunteer a few clichés, probably much like people elsewhere have at hand about Seattle. I don’t think any of these pat statements, about any place, are ever true anymore, but maybe there was a notion of some actual perception in them a few generations ago. It seems that hardly anybody is disposed to like Cleveland, but they have no idea why. We really need to get out of the house more.

I might not get to the blog while I’m traveling, but will report again when I’m back, late next week. Please visit again!

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