Category Archives: travel

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Alive

Writer Square b&w

Strangers in a strange land

[Nearly six months later]

Transitions, transitions…

I am on my first plane ride in nearly eight years, a direct flight to Denver, a city I’ve never been to. I am traveling with my younger son, K. (not his real initial)*, the nonverbal special-needs kid with the autism diagnosis. It is his first plane ride ever, and I have no idea how he will react. My other kid, M. (also not his real initial), the budding animator and stand-up comic, is visiting the grandparents in Florida.

It is my birthday, and I’m in no mood to reflect on my age. If I’d entered incipient oldcrockitude, by cracky, I was going to fight it with every fiber of my damn being, mainly by ignoring how old I am.

For various reasons I will be going back and forth to the airport a great deal this month, both on my behalf and my sons’. No, I’m not on tour; and if I were, exactly what kind of show would I be putting on for the good people (that’s “people” to rhyme with “monopoly”) of the Colorado metropolis anyway? Would it involve snappy patter, jazz hands, dry ice, broken glass strewn across the stage, strategically placed yams, a drum machine, and a big showstopping finale featuring the flags of the Baltic states? Yeah, let’s go with that.

My last flight was in 2009, when I traveled to Germany for a ceremony related to my family’s experiences in the Holocaust. After a hellish year, which I’ve chronicled on this blog, following the death of my wife in January of 2016, I felt lighter and more optimistic than I had in ages. At least on a personal level, I had the definite sense of an upward arc trending. (In the wider world, let’s just say “very interesting times.”)

The Denver trip was a short city break courtesy of the fiancee, who had some extra miles on good ol’ non-reclining-seat, everything-extra budget airbus Frontier to dump in a hurry and couldn’t take time off from work herself. Yes, I am engaged to be, eventually, married again. Life is odd. Unlike my encounter with Mrs. Pogoer, this one began as prosaically as you can get, with a casual coffee date. Unlike my fellow widower celebrity doppelganger Patton Oswalt, I received absolutely no negative feedback for this. At least to my face, everyone, including Donna’s relatives, has been nothing but supportive: Congratulations, I’m very happy for you. As it should be. Love, as they say, is infinitely expandable.

I look around at my fellow passengers and am struck by a sense of common humanity. I like and sympathize with them all. We’re on the same journey.

My fears about K.’s reactions to flight are, no pun intended, groundless. The kid just likes to be in motion, whether he’s walking, on a train, in a car, or on a nonstop flight to the Mile High City. He sits like an angel for the duration, looking out the window.

While M. bonds with the grandparents, I do my best to bond further with this inscrutable 12-year-old, the boy who likes to listen to the same parts of the same video over and over again throughout the day, who likes to put things together and take them apart, a born engineer, smarter and more capable than almost everyone knows. His family, and a few blessed teachers, know.

K. is game to go with me almost everywhere. I check into a cozy basement Airbnb flat on the northern edge of the Capitol Hill neighborhood downtown, and we explore, walking, Ubering and Lyfting, for two very full days. We go to the Molly Brown House, a well-touristed home restored to its 1910-ish glory, where we’re immediately told that her name was Margaret and that movie with Debbie Reynolds was only about 3 percent true. I love the place, K. doesn’t. Onward.

K. Is game enough for almost all our other urban explorations. We visit the State Capitol and eat at the Delectable Egg (a breakfast joint where I get the inevitable Denver omelette in situ) and a pizzeria called Brik on York and a hipster joint on South Broadway called Sputnik. I went to Sputnik immediately after spending six hours with K. walking the 80-acre Denver Zoo, a fine but exhausting place where we got our fill of giraffes, elephants, a gorilla family group, polar and brown bears, Komodo dragons, lions, red pandas, black rhinos, zebras, hippos, and overpriced mediocre zoo pizza.

Sputnik is next door to the Hi-Dive rock club and across the street from a fantastic place called the Mutiny Information Cafe, which gave me the impression of stepping across the threshold into 1987 Allston, Mass., with its vast collections of used books, LPs, cassettes, comics, rude punkish buttons, and actual paper zines for sale. Oh, and coffee, and a snarky savant of a barista/clerk/know-it-all who clearly wasn’t taking anything from anyone except money. K. and I were both exhausted at that point, but I was on a second wind from the discovery of such a place and the kid really didn’t care, so that was that.

We fly home. For me at least, the magic dust is gone. It’s not eight years now since I last flew, just three days. My fellow passengers are just people again, some annoying as hell, especially the overweight, middle-aged guy who spends at least 20 minutes at the boarding gate barking into an earpiece to a staffer at his tech company that his team doesn’t know what it’s doing, and he’s going to escalate.

Still, he doesn’t come close to ruining the trip. Even pessimists have to agree: Sometimes things go right.

And K. doesn’t mind it a bit. He sits peacefully throughout the flight, contemplating the clouds.

Beyond the sundown mural

One of eight 1940 murals in the first-floor rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol, this one contemplating the future. “Beyond the sundown is Tomorrow’s Wisdom/today is going to be long ago”

 

*in-joke tribute to a late former editor of mine in the Boston days
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Revisiting my visit to Sarajevo

I visited Sarajevo in April 2001 for about a week, and subsequently wrote this article with an eye to publication in a newspaper — any newspaper, really. For one reason or another, it was never published; I suppose it didn’t and doesn’t fit neatly into a typical travel section and is perhaps a bit too service-feature-ish for a more arty mag. But I still like it and wanted to put it out there, finally, for those who might be interested.

Sarajevo was an odd place for me; I felt very much at home in Ljubljana, but in Sarajevo I was uneasy and unsure of myself. In a diary entry at the time, I wrote, “There’s something very odd about listening to Kirsty MacColl singing ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ while walking through Freedom Square, Sarajevo, on Palm Sunday.” That about sums it up, I think.

This version dates from around the spring of 2002, shortly after I’d relocated to Austin; I’ve only lightly tweaked it here. I’ve left in the extremely travel-sectiony “If You Go” bits after the article proper, though I’m sure nearly all of it is now seriously obsolete info.

 

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Free counters

Worlds colliding…in a good way

Of all the articles I’ve ever written over my career, this newly published piece has to be in the top 5 if not at the all-time peak, concerning as it does so many of my favorite things:  (1) Slovenia, (2) expats and foreign visitors, (3) alternative musicians and writers. Also, it appears in (4) the in-flight magazine of Adria Airways, Slovenia’s national carrier, which happens to be, in my opinion, the finest airline magazine I’ve ever seen.

On top of all this, it’s the first article I’ve ever done that you can read in Slovene (all the articles in the magazine appear in both Slovene and English, expertly translated). Love it to pieces. To read, go to the third dot at the bottom and scroll to what’s identified as page 46 (which is actually page 56 when you get into the page).

What more could I possibly ask for? Oh, yeah, there’s this one thing where a photo of musician Chris Eckman is miscaptioned with my name, to which I say, huh? We look nothing alike…

Goodbye to All That

You won't find her at the market anymore.

I’m afraid I’m not perfect. Ever since I repatriated to the USA at the end of 2001, I admit I’ve had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to putting up with the tastes and opinions of Americans who’ve never been farther away than an occasional week in the Caribbean or Mexico, as well as all those businesses that make their living catering to those tastes and opinions. (“I decided to go live in Slovenia on a whim, and I did,” I say to myself with chest puffed metaphorically out. “I’m just as good as anyone else out there! Maybe better!”) Whenever I go into a home-furnishings shop and browse through the photos and posters in the Exotic Destinations section, I know exactly what I’ll find: Paris, Venice, New York, maybe Tuscany, precious little else. What a bore.

Which is why I so enjoy talking to those folk I consider to be ‘my people’: those who either are, or have been, expats, well-traveled world citizens, or at least People Who Know Europe. Not that I should talk so loudly — I’ve never been east of Romania, never been to Africa (except for Tunisia), never been to Asia. I’ve always wondered about what’s around the bend, what’s beyond the farthest outpost in my experience.

I recently enjoyed writing an article on expat creatives in Slovenia — musicians, filmmakers, writers. It wasn’t part of my plan, but all those I ended up interviewing were Americans. It seems to me that the American expat is a breed apart from, say, the German, Australian or British expat. Because the USA is so isolated, American expats tend to think they have a lot more to prove when they move overseas — not to be seen as the typical insular, monolingual American, for example, they tend to throw themselves into their host cultures full-throttle. They need to Make A Statement, carve out their territory. They don’t want to be back home, they sense there’s other stuff out there worth exploring, and if they sometimes seem to want to become more Italian than the Italians or more Russian than the Russians, who can blame them?

Some expats are, of course, more, well, naturally out there (in more than one sense) than others. Take the notorious writings and escapades of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, who started the eXile newspaper in Moscow (and wrote a book about it, which I haven’t read). Ames and Taibbi, who haven’t spoken to each other in years, have relocated (not exactly with glee) back to the US and — as a recent Esquire piece makes clear — haven’t exactly mellowed with age. Nutcases, once-and-future addicts and world-class haters they may well be, but Ames and Taibbi are probably the expats all other expats should be measured against, the ones who actually lived the lives other, more timid sojourners only daydreamed about. (That most of these daydreams remained daydreams is probably a good thing.)

Nearly equaling those guys for gumption is New York writer/musician/cult figure Mykel Board, who decided to relocate to Mongolia for a year in 1995-96, for the heck of it, and had the adventure of his life — or at least one of them — and wrote about it to hilarious effect in his book Even a Daughter is Better Than Nothing (I’ve read it, you should too; it can be bought for cheap on Amazon.com).

I haven’t read any of those books about Americans relocating to Tuscany or Provence — too mainstream, couldn’t care less about these people’s plumbing and wiring problems in renovating that oh-so-picture-perfect farmhouse, reminds me too much of the silly posters in the picture-framing section of the store anyway.

I experienced a far different sensation recently, reading a memoir of a place I know well, by a woman who came to Slovenia before I did and remains there now. I’m speaking of  Erica Johnson Debeljak, whose memoir of her early years in Slovenia, Forbidden Bread, was published last year by North Atlantic Books. It is a passing strange thing to read a book written by someone I know, with whom I shared a city for a time. We didn’t see each other every week, but I knew Erica and her husband, the noted poet, essayist and educator Aleš Debeljak (for whom I edited a manuscript or two while I was living in Ljubljana and working as an English language editor), on a casual basis. I used to think of Erica as the Official American Female Expat in Slovenia, since she was obviously a smart and capable person who had done very well for herself in terms of switching careers along with countries, combining this with raising a beautiful family and maintaining a rather high profile in the SI (one wintry day on the street near my flat in Bežigrad, I remember seeing a large photo of Aleš, Erica and their young children on a billboard, in a winter scene, possibly riding on a sled, in what I’m almost sure was an ad for the ubiquitous Slovenian cellphone company Mobitel). As her memoir makes clear, though, the first years were anything but a smooth ride as she adjusted to and sometimes clashed with the customs of her new home, represented in all forms from the infamous bureaucracy of the new state to the rural lifestyles of her husband’s family.

Erica moved to Slovenia only a couple of years after it had declared its independence from the fast-fragmenting Yugoslavia, and battles were still going on just to the south between Croats and Serbs (at her otherwise idyllic wedding reception, she could hear machine-gun fire a few miles away over the border in Karlovac, Croatia).  You’d expect capsule descriptions of the history of the region and Slovenia in particular, and Erica provides them clearly and concisely, but the heart of the book is a personal story of her struggles with the new land. There’s the odd language, of course, but language is a fixed and codified thing; you can take classes in it, and it can be mastered with sufficient amounts of concentration and practice (lots of it).

You can’t, however, take a class in social attitudes (at least not, as far as I know, in Slovenia). Certain things can only be learned by direct experience, such as the Slovenes’ aversion to drafts of any kind (riding in a hot car on a hot day with no air conditioning, nobody opens a window — which I can vouch for), and triple-diapering a baby (which I’d never heard of before reading this book — something about worrying about setting the baby’s hips out of joint). Although the Slovenes tend to be competent and honest, they’re also not as direct as Americans, which can be both a blessing and a curse, but is ultimately just another detail for an expat to adjust to.

The book’s final chapter jumps ahead from 1995 — just after the birth of the Debeljaks’ first child — to 2008, when they have a teenage girl and two growing boys and Slovenia is a member of the EU and NATO, the tolar is history, and modernization has, as Erica writes, rendered obsolete much of what she covered in her memoir. It’s meant to be jolting, and it certainly was for me. Expats understandably tend to romanticize their chosen foreign destination, even when, as one hip Slovene woman once told me, “your paradise is someone else’s prison.” Over the five years I spent in Slovenia I could see the old ways fading out as certainly as the cafes with Tito-era decor gave way with a vengeance to postmodern facades and shops that wouldn’t be out of place in Copenhagen, Rome or London. I accept that time can’t be reversed, but at this point I wonder how I’ll feel when I set foot in Slovenia again. You can’t go home away from home again. I know that at the least, I’ll miss the tolars.

31 things about me

1. When I was about 11 or 12, I ran a race with my sister in the driveway of our house, racing toward the garage door, and stopped by putting my hands out on a window of the selfsame garage door. My right arm went through the window, slicing open the underside of my arm. I required stitches at the hospital. I still have a long, curving scar reaching nearly from elbow to wrist, plus a small scar shaped like a fish on the underside of my right wrist. I don’t mind the scars. They’re part of me now.

2. In 1983, while driving down a mountain on Maui, my sister drew my attention to a picture in a magazine of a pig at a luau, and I looked at it, drove off the road and down a cliff. The car was stopped by a thicket of bushes, and we were both fine. A few feet in either direction and we would have probably died there.

3.  Despite the evidence of #1 and #2, I do not consider my sister to be a jinx.
4. My wife and I were born eight minutes and about 25 miles apart on a hot day in July.

5. I spent my last birthday ending in a zero alone at the Pivo in Cvetje (Beer and Flowers) Festival in Laško, Slovenia. It rained.

6. Although that had its charms, my next birthday, which also ends in a zero, will be spent someplace else.

7. I am good at putting on accents and imitating voices, and have a pretty good ear for pitch. Or think I do.
8. I believe I have suffered some hearing loss from my years of clubgoing (mainly in Boston), although not badly enough for it to be a serious handicap.

9. Politically, I am more liberal now than I was in high school.
10. I didn’t go to a funeral until I was 29 years old. Over the following six years I went to three more.

11. I like drawing cartoon heads and have done so from an early age. My wife thinks I missed a calling as a cartoonist.

12. I like to sing, but have never done so in public apart from one evening of karaoke in the Water Tank bar in Austin, Texas. My wife tells me I could be a good singer if I took it seriously.

13. I lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia, from the fall of 1996 to the end of 2001.

14. And I haven’t shut up about it since.

15. I saw Bill Clinton speak in the center of Ljubljana to a massive crowd in the pouring rain on a June day in 1999, and later wrote about it for publication. A photo I took from the press bleachers shows a sea of umbrellas in Kongresni trg.

16. I have visited 20 countries in the world aside from the two I’ve lived in. I’d like to visit many more before I die.

17. On my short list of places I’d like to visit that I haven’t previously: Russia, Bali, Bulgaria, Thailand, Turkey, Israel, Serbia, Iceland.
18. One of the most daring (or craziest) things I’ve ever done was spend two weeks as the second-oldest camper participant in Outward Bound Romania in the summer of 1998. I think the main reason I stuck it out was that I didn’t want to be talked about as “the American who quit.” (You can read an extended diary of my experiences here.)
19. Most people think I’m younger than I actually am. Including me.

20. I’m probably the only person who has interviewed both Richard Hell and Joel Osteen. (Not at the same time, alas.)
21. I saw Bambi for the first time at the age of 31. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone younger than that see that sick movie.
22. In person I may seem quite introverted, although not nearly as much as I used to. I am more comfortable as an observer than as a participant, in the way of writers.

23. I interviewed Joan Jett at a club in New Hampshire in 1984. It wasn’t one of my better interviews.

24. I participated in plays and musicals in high school and can still sing much of the score from “Guys and Dolls.”

25. While in high school, I amused myself by writing parodies of the plays I was acting in and showing them to my fellow performers for their amusement.

26. One of these fellow performers suggested I abandon plans to become an actor and focus on writing instead. This was good advice.

27. I like all different sorts of music, but always seem to come back to new wave, punk and garage rock (both original and neo).

28. Since marrying, my wife’s tastes for cabaret, classical music and opera have rubbed off on me. To a certain extent.

29. My wife never ceases to amaze me.

30. I am the proud father of two nearly four-year-old fraternal twin boys who couldn’t be more different, yet delight me in equal measure. Yes, it’s worth it.

31. My favorite quote is from Raymond Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”

Let me tell you about my town…

Although when I started this blog I intended it as a personal outlet with which to sound off about anything and everything, rather than as an adjunct to a resume or one of those websites that shouts, “Here I am, look how great I be,” I don’t see anything wrong with occasionally trumpeting things I’ve done that I’m proud of — it is, after all, my website and if I don’t talk about this kind of stuff, who will?

This past year I’ve been lucky enough to have been keeping quite busy as a freelancer specializing in travel and business-oriented writing; I even restarted a long-dormant sideline (which used to be a main gig back in the day, in another life) of writing about music and musicians, this time for Austin’s daily newspaper, which I’m very happy about — it gives me an excuse to chat with and ask nosy questions of people like Nick Lowe and Amy Rigby, not to mention attending the occasional free concert in the middle of the week (I wouldn’t want to be out nightclubbing every night, even if I could stand to do that anymore, but once in a while is fine, it keeps the juices flowing, especially while feverishly scribbling in the dark as I listen to the goings-on on stage). I’ve also done quite a bit of writing about my adopted city of Austin for a variety of magazines, from Voyageur (the house organ of Carlson Hotels Worldwide) to Ty Pennington At Home.

In any event, back in April of 2007 I was approached by an editor at Fodor’s Travel asking if I’d like to update and expand listings for their Austin website — which I did, using the old, dated text as a framework, deleting closed restaurants (there were several), making notes of which hotels had changed ownership (quite a few), editing at will and adding reams of new copy.

That fall, I was tapped to write the Austin chapter of a forthcoming actual print guidebook; Fodor’s had published a guide to Texas over a decade ago, but it had been so long that this new project was treated as a first edition, which, essentially, it is. The book was published in July, and you can buy it here. A smaller guide to San Antonio, Austin, & the Hill Country, with expanded listings for those areas, came out in August.

Full disclosure: I only wrote what I estimate to be 85 percent of the Austin chapter (another writer handled most of the nightlife/entertainment section, because it was such a huge job and deadlines were short), but, yeah, I’m the guy you can blame if the chapter steers you wrong. It was a lot of work that felt at times like a final exam in being a Real Travel Writer, as I zipped around from one hotel to another like a lunatic (no, I didn’t stay in every one of these hotels overnight, but I did check out the rooms and public spaces thoroughly, from historic landmarks to highway off-ramp crash pads), dashed from one Austin Attraction to the next, gave some ink to a host of new shopping opportunities, laid down the Basics of Getting There and Getting Around (uh, no, you don’t need a car downtown), and familiarized myself with good and bad, cheap and luxe restaurants alike (and no, in case you’re wondering, I did not end up eating dozens of meals on the cuff). I took great delight in deleting two restaurants from the listings that in my opinion, had become faded tourist traps (I’m not saying which ones; if you know Austin well, you might deduce them from their absence), and a hotel or two with exceptionally rude front-desk staff.

I tried as hard as I could to be as current with the listings as possible, but of course, right after the deadline things happened like long-time restaurants closing and the city’s arena football and hockey teams (both minor-league affairs) folding. Chefs leave, shops close; what can you do. Call ahead. Check the web site.

In any case, I can now say that I’ve probably seen the interiors of more hotels in Austin than almost anyone except serial masochists and temporary maids.  During the course of my research, by the way, I determined that nearly all of these hotels either: a) have recently completed a major renovation, b) are in the middle of major renovations, or c) are planning major renovations next year.

Or at the least, they’re getting new carpeting and some chairs for the lobby. Oh, and Sleep Number beds are big. And if the place doesn’t have in-room flat-screen TVs yet? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Looking for a place to stay? Get in touch.