Friday, September 30, 2005


September 28 – Madrid Airport
Well friends, I guess we have some catching up to do. There were two weeks in Spain, marked by higher highs and lower lows than I’ve felt in some time. But now I sit in the Madrid airport on my way to Munich for Oktoberfest and have a happy heart pinned to my left leg.

My real heart was less than happy in Barcelona, where Anaelle and I parted after dashing across the France-Spain border for the weekend. She went back north and I stayed south and it wasn’t any fun. Those kind of goodbyes—when you’ve spent several good weeks with someone and then you’re suddenly, terribly alone—don’t get any easier no matter how many you have.

Barcelona was too sad a place to stay so I took an expensive train to Madrid and re-joined the hostel life. It was nice to get drinks with a couple British girls and an American guy, even if they weren’t exactly my kind of people. By the fourth bar of the night everything around Grand Via was shut and we were lured into a shady bar under a neon sign. The girls weren’t opposed to getting a beer at a strip club but when we went in we found no stripping. The only thing dodgier than a strip club is a strip club without stripping; it means they’re selling something else. What they sold us were $12 beers which made us feel quite foolish.

On my second day in Madrid I switched hostels and ended up at Los Amigos, which may be my favorite hostel in the world, perhaps tied with Original Backpackers in Sydney. Original had the advantage of being the first hostel I had ever stayed at and producing good friends and a pseudo-girlfriend.

Los Amigos provided the same, with a big cast of friendly travelers who congregated in the cushy living room or spacious dinning room and shared bottles of sangria. There’s something about capital cities—Sydney, Paris, London, Madrid—that create a good backpacking mix of experienced long-termers and kinetic short-trippers; people energized with the excitement of just starting or nearly finishing their travels.

Kate is blonde and Canadian and she was sitting in the dining room. “How long are you traveling for?” someone asked her.

“Um, eight and a half months,” she said.

She said it the way I must say it when I say “a year.” It was laced with the embarrassment and false modesty of knowing you’re trip is the big kid on the block and you’re a little ashamed and a little proud and a little cocky. Kate was all those things. She’s spending all three trimesters in Europe and I think that’s a mistake.

“You’re spending eight and a half months in Europe?” I asked, peaking up from my computer. “You should go somewhere else. That’s too long in Europe. In my opinion.”

“That’s the wrong thing so say,” she said. And she meant it and from then on she didn’t like me and she was blonde and Canadian and from Vancouver. She turned to the girl she was traveling with and whispered her thoughts about me. “I’m always open to different kinds of people and never get upset but I really hate that guy over there, he’s a real asshole.”

There were two sisters from Canada and they came out with us one night. They had little fabric hearts pinned onto their clothes and they told me how they made 200 of the things to give out in Europe. They offered me a “Happy Heart/Broken Heart,” and I enthusiastically accepted. One side is all red with white trim and the other is made of two shattered pieces of the same red fabric. I wore mine happily because Madrid was a happy place.

Then some sangria and I decided greater happiness would be found in San Sebastian where Anaelle said she would meet me for the weekend. I wanted to go to Valencia, on the east coast, but San Sebastian was close to France and close to some other places so I went there and found Anaelle and much great happiness. On Sunday there was another hard goodbye that wasn’t quite as hard as the last one. I flipped my heart to the broken side, but I knew life would go on.

Still, I wasn’t strong enough to go to Bilbao or Pamplona, where I knew I would know no one. Instead I took the train back to Madrid where I thought some of the old crew might still be partying. They were and they came into the hostel around 1am that night as I sat in the hall typing. Kate the blonde from Canada, and Rachelle the brunette from Australia were among the inebriated. The day before I had e-mailed Kate and asked if she would still be around and suggested we should get a drink.

“Who the fuck does he think he is?” Kate wondered when she got the e-mail.

I was in Madrid instead of Portugal because the Brazilians had my passport. They were using it to quickly make a visa so I can go to Brazil next month. I had begged in broken Spanish for them to finish it in time for me to catch my flight to Germany. But in the mean time I couldn’t cross borders and see Portugal and instead just stayed in Madrid.

There was an ever-evolving group of happy Amigos at the hostel. Kalin, a Montanan culinary student was in my room. He and I went for kebabs with Kate and Rachelle on Monday afternoon. After the lunch we got up and left and Kalin realized his bag had been stolen as we ate. His camera and passport were gone.

Thinking quickly, Kate went to a neighboring deli, procured a can of San Miguel beer, and helped Kalin back onto the road of sanity and insobriety.

“Why don’t we all just get drunk this afternoon,” one of the girls suggested. It was the perfect cure.

Displaying the best possible characteristics of the backpacker crowd, six of us escorted Kalin to the U.S. Embassy to apply for a new passport. We made sure he didn’t get too upset or stay too sober. We bought 4.5 liters of sangria (for $5) and went to a park.

On the walk back to the hostel to regroup for the evening we passed Plaza de Neptuno, the giant fountain in the middle of the city where a dozen lanes of traffic converge. “Let’s go swimming in the fountain,” Rachelle suggested.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

But then we decided to do it later that night.

Later that night we had bought 4.5 more liters of sangria and a bottle of wine. We had drank most of them by the end of dinner. Then we were all in Kate’s room and she was sitting up on her top bunk and then I was sitting up there too. I was drunk and tired so I lied on her leg.

“Come on, we’re going swimming,” Rachelle insisted. Moving 15 drunk backpackers towards the fountain proved impossible but eventually there were six of us walking east through Puerto del Sol and towards Plaza de Neptuno.

After 20 minutes we were there and the fountain was turned off and it didn’t matter. Kate and Rochelle stripped down to their bras and me to my boxers. We stepped into the fountain, turned around and saw three cop cars. If they patrolled the kebab shop as vigilantly as the fountain, Kalin would still have his passport and we would have had a nice swim. But instead we had to get out of the water and empty our bottle of wine.

Everyone went dancing at a club until 5am except Kate and I who went back to the hostel. In the morning she didn’t think I was “a giant asshole” anymore.

The next day someone else got their wallet stolen but we were too hungover to drink with them. We went for a walk and bought some groceries and made lunch. By that point, “we” meant Kate and me. We went to this little place where they serve churros with mugs of melted chocolate. We were in Spain so we took a siesta.

Then it was today and I was going to Munich. “I’m new to this,” Kate said and she meant that she hadn’t shared a single bed with a single person since she started traveling six weeks ago. “I probably shouldn’t say it, but I think I’m going to miss you.”

And I guess she might. When you’ve spent a couple weeks with someone and then you’re totally alone, that’s a feeling Kate and me and everyone else will always hate whenever we feel it. But it was only a couple days of bedsharing for Kate and I and I’m going to Germany to meet a friend from home so it wasn’t so hard to walk out of Los Amigos towards the Opera metro station. Spain had given many good memories and it hadn’t even taken a passport or wallet in return. Kate, the blonde from Vancouver who is spending too long in Europe didn’t hate me anymore. I left for Munich with a happy heart and an expectant liver.

ESPANA Illustrated

The Los Amigos crew

Happy Heart/Broken Heart

Canadian Kate

Fountain Swimming

Hablo Espanol

The best Spanish instructors Portsmouth Middle School, Portsmouth High School, and New York University could provide did little to teach me Spanish. After three and a half years in the Rhode Island public schools I placed in the lowest possible Spanish class at NYU.

After two semesters at NYU there was another placement test. I failed it and had to take an additional semester to advance in their program. Then I struggled through another three terms, spending nearly $20,000 on the language, though never learning with certainty how to say the words “Twenty-thousand dollars.”

I had a sense though as Spain approached, that a funny thing had happened to my Spanish. None of the first 18 countries I visited this year were Spanish speaking, but by picking up a few words of Thai, Nepalese, Dutch, and French, I’d learned something about languages: You don’t need to know much to get by.

In Barcelona, Spanish felt like a native tongue. Instead of only knowing “hello” and “thank you” I could say real words and even conjugate the odd verb. Anaelle—who had been my French guide in France—sat back and let me be her Spanish guide in Spain. And by God, I could do it. With pretty much everyone I traveled with in Spain, I served as the Spanish speaker.

In school, as the middling grades piled up, I became aware of how little I knew. I was paralyzed into silence by a fear that I’d screw up the preterite or destroy the grammar of a simple sentence.

I’m not sure what the teachers could have done differently; I didn’t know Spanish and the other students did and they had to give me a crappy grade. But it would have been nice to know back then that I knew enough. If you can put the right verb next to the right noun they’ll figure it out.

Immersion is the only way to really learn a language, people like to say. For me, the word immersion always conjured up images of drowning. But maybe it’s more like scuba diving—you aren’t going to drown but you’ll learn to swim. So I’ve swam around Spain a little bit, and it’s been nice.

Fitting a Year into an Hour

September 23
For reasons I don’t fully understand, I haven’t written on the blog about the documentary, which is the thing that consumes more of my time than anything else. I’ve started to write about it a couple times but then stopped. I think if the documentary is on my mind then I want to work on it, not write about it.

But now I’m on a long train from Madrid to San Sebastian and with a little less than three months left in the trip it seems I should say something about the movie. I’m sure some of this will be boring for TV people or be incomprehensible for non-TV people but such is life.

I’ve shot 67 hours of footage so far. That’s the question people always ask. The other question they always ask is “So, what is the focus.” I like it better when they ask how many hours I’ve shot.

The focus is, umm, well it’s about backpacking culture and the phenomenon of long-term around the world travel. And it’s about the people I meet and the places I go. And cultural encounters. That’s the best I can say and maybe that’s not good enough.

I don’t consider shooting video to be work. Shooting b-roll (which is support video, like a shot of a building, or of someone getting on a train etc) is just like taking pictures and I enjoy trying to get the most out of the camera that I can. I’ve become a much better shooter in the last eight months.

Maybe my favorite thing in the world is interviewing people. I know that because I get a happy and contented feeling after doing an interview that I don’t get from anything else. I think I’ve become a much better interviewer in the last eight months too.

The problem with interviews—and b-roll to a lesser extent—is all the work you have to do once the tape is full. For every hour I shoot there are three hours of clerical work to do. I have to transcribe every word of the interviews and catalogue each shot of video. It’s called “logging” and it’s what you do when you first get a job in TV. I think I’m a very good logger and it helps me a lot as a producer. The first draft of the script is done as I log—I make connections between soundbites and shots that work together and come up with most of my visual ideas during this stage.

Depending on what is on the tape a log runs up to 10 pages as a word document. It’s imperative to do detailed logging because there’s so much footage from such a wide range of times and places that I need to be very organized. I have 90 topical categories for soundbites and I assign a number to each bite, so an entry looks like this:

18:32:55 [52] Traffic it’s own entity. It’s like there’s trucks, buses, cars, a bazillion motor bikes, bicycles, an old lady, and someone in a rickshaw all going down the street together.


4:20:44 [26] I don’t know, it’s not difficult to meet people but the hardest part of traveling is saying goodbye to people I think. Because you can make really good friends with people and then after three days you may never never see them again and that’s weird

The first numbers (18:32:55) indicate where the clip is. [52] is the category for ‘Asian traffic’ and [26] is the category for ‘Saying goodbye’ so when I want to find soundbites about saying goodbye I can search through the 93 pages of interview transcripts for [26] and pull up all the things people have said about the topic.

Once the video is organized I load it all onto one of my two external hard drives so I can work with it. That takes one to two hours per tape. This is all before any script has been written or video edited. Sexy, huh?

I have a mental outline for the movie which is constantly evolving as the trip progresses. I’m almost always thinking about the film and almost every day a little idea will pop up and refine things a little. This afternoon as I waited for the Madrid Metro is occurred to me that each continent should have it’s own theme. This seems to be a partial solution to a problem I have: there aren’t story lines that carry through the whole trip because I’m the only person along for the whole ride. I’m afraid it will just be a mush of travel stuff without a linear story to follow. I think giving each quarter of the film (there are four continents) an overarching theme will help with that. We’ll see.

I’m aiming to make a one-hour show (and maybe a 90 minute version for DVDs or film festivals). So far I’ve edited 40 minutes, about 15 of which will end up in the final version. The sections I’ve completed are the “Before I leave” section (a fairly tight 7 minutes) and almost all of “Asia” (a loose 30 minutes). I’ve also cut a version of “Australia” which sucks and I’m scrapping.

I think I’ve been hesitant to write about the project because my feelings about it are so bi-polar. Sometimes I think it’s going to be great and sometimes I think it’s going to suck. I’m a little closer to thinking it’s going to suck right now but not too far on that side. It all depends on the reaction of the last person who looked at it or the success of editing or writing the last part I worked on.

I’ve invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into it all and it will be really demoralizing if it fails. Before I get to find out if it’s any good I have to finish it, which will take a ton more work. It’s hard to spend too much time on it when I think it’s all a big waste so maybe that’s why I’m writing this instead of organizing some footage. But as I sit here the desire to break down some interviews into numbered categories is taking hold, so I think I’ll go do that now.

A girl I was sharing a room with a couple weeks ago asked me about the movie. “Oh, do you really need to write down what happens on all those tapes?” Yeah, you sort of do. And then you have assemble them into something coherent and interesting. And if your story sucks then all the pretty b-roll and transcribed interviews don’t count for much.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A New Trip at the Old Course

August 22 – bus from St. Andrews to Glascow
If you had to place a ball marker at the site of the renaissance of my year, it would be awfully close to the 17th green of the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Travel is a sport of expectations and when your taste for “attractions” has been withered by seven months of temples, churches, galleries and vistas, you stop even bothering to formulate expectations.

So it was sunset in St. Andrews and Jennifer was walking me around town. We passed the Art History building at the University of St. Andrews, where she studied with Prince William until he graduated a few months ago. Behind the building the land fell off to the sea and the beach in the distance was framed by evening mist. You knew it looked familiar even before Jennifer said it was where they shot the beach scene in Chariots of Fire.

Beyond the beach were the little perfect hills of the Old Course, abutting the shore. We walked on down the hill and found a row of buildings lined up perfectly to the south. The north edge of town was bound by the North Sea, and to the east the Royal and Ancient Golf Club helped form a square. Slipped into this box—instead of a statue, or park, or town square—was the 18th green.

You’ve seen the Old Course on TV, maybe just last month when it hosted the British Open. The view from the parking lot of the Royal and Ancient shows you the giant 18th green, with the fairway behind it and the rest of the course stretching out in the distance. The first tee is to the right with the ocean crashing behind it. When you keep walking through town along the course, the 18th fairway is just a makeable putt to your right. There are people crossing the fairway on the path from town to the ocean.

After three-hundred fifty yards you reach the 18th tee and then the 17th green. Our walking path cuts so close to the green, and the pin is cut so close to the path, that the hole is about 15 feet away.

The sun is sitting low now and the long straw grass is casting longer shadows around the Atkins-skinny fairways. For the first time in months you’re excited to be seeing something. Big Ben is just a clock, and St. Andrews is just a golf course, but when you stumble onto something by accident you have an honest response to it. It isn’t colored by the expectations of guidebook blurbs or the recommendations of other travelers. It’s yours. So you write about it yourself which ruins it for everyone who reads what you wrote, and makes them wonder why you spoke so highly of the place.

For you, St. Andrews won’t rank with the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal. But it did for me.

Edinburgh, Scotland in pictures

Edinburgh in August is one of the great places in the world to be. A glut of festivals clog the city with every lovely shade of life...

Mona Lisa Smirk

Paris, France
“The first thing we have to do is find out where the Mona Lisa is.”

That’s the North American voice behind me in line at the Louvre. The world’s most famous museum can seem a lot like an airport where everyone is going to the same gate.

Visiting the Louvre and only looking at the Mona Lisa is like going to Europe and only touring Paris, but then again it’s exactly those kind of people who mob the Seine all summer long. Some will also visit the Venus de Milos and the Winged Victory—the same way they’ll also visit London and Rome—but for the most part they’ll swallow an ice cube and make a claim on most of the ‘berg.

When I first visited Paris 30 months ago, the Mona Lisa was tucked away in Room 13 of the Italian Renaissance section. It was a relatively non-descript location, not dissimilar to where Starry Night used to hide in the old MoMA in New York. But she was far from hidden, with signs throughout the Louve pointing towards her location and a wooden retaining bar arching around her to keep the people at bay.

Priceless works of art are fickle mistresses though, and Room 13 was jilted this spring in favor of a posher, larger pad down the hall in Room 5. Even for small, aged, 30x21 women size apparently matters, and even when you’re already on the banks of the Seine, the upwardly mobile are always looking to mobilize to a better location.

The north wall of Room 13 is on the rebound and has replaced its stunning, waifish ex-girlfriend with two large mistresses, one by an anonymous artist and the other by one who might as well be. La Mort de Seneque—which depicts a philosopher’s suicide—is by Luca Giordano who you and I don’t know and neither do any of the people who pass through here accidentally on the way to Room 5.

You can still see the scuffmarks on the floor, and the black screw holes that used to support the wooden retraining bar. The large windows are visible again; when Lisa lived here they were covered up.

Her new home is a sad place on a rainy Tuesday in August. Since the weather is no good every non-French speaker in Paris decides to visit the Louvre. And as they all descend on Room 5—that airport gate everyone is leaving from—there is a low hum like a jet engine at the moment the wheels start turning. The sound comes from behind a wall rising up in the middle of the room and when you walk around the wall there are two hundred tourists pushing up against a railing as if it’s 1990 and they’re the first people let into a Michael Jackson concert.

My first response, which was surprising to me, was to want to cry. There had been a lot of people in Room 13 on that sunny February afternoon when I was first here, but this was somehow much more vulgar, probably because there were so many more people, it was so impossible to look at the painting and the guards were constantly shouting, “Si vous plait, one photo and then move away. Si vous plait!”

That was probably the saddest part: No one was looking at the painting they came all this way to see, they were just taking a shitty picture of it. The compulsion of museumgoers to take their picture infront of an object much more beautiful than they is a mystery of the Louvre left unaddressed by Dan Brown.

I ask the guard near Lisa if it’s always like this.

“Yes,” he says. “This is the most famous piece of art in the world.”

But the Mona Lisa has as much to with art as Christmas does with Christianity. Both transcend their original intent in all the worst possible ways, commercialized and mass marketed past the vanishing point. Those still foolishly interested in the original message find it mostly washed away by the deluge of Tickle Me Elmos and Mona Lisa coffee mugs.

Like Stonehenge (where once you could walk between the rocks but now they’re fenced off) and the Taj Mahal (where today you can walk inside but someday you won’t) the Mona Lisa will be covered in more layers of glass and velvet ropes and wooden guard rails until finally they install a conveyor belt out front and charge you 10 euros for each trip by the tiny painting.

But until she’s crushed physically and not just metaphorically, Mona Lisa will keep smirking out towards us. And as we snap away at her and her mirror-like black dress, she’ll reflect back on us in the countless shitty pictures the embarrassing image of all of us focusing so many millions of pixels on something we didn’t even bother to see.

Hemingway's Paris

Paris, France
Forty years before Dan Brown directed masses of Robert Langdon wannabes to the Louvre and St. Sulpice, another American author wrote controversially and compellingly about unknown Paris society. Instead of vilifying the Catholic church, Ernest Hemingway outed F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s account of being young and broke in Paris, was published three years after his 1961 suicide.

But the years the book covers are 1921-26 so I wondered if Hem’s Paris was just water under the Pont de la Concorde.

It was during those lean years—when Hemingway was in his early-to-mid twenties—that he wrote his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. He didn’t write it at La Rotonde or La Domes where many of the day’s fashionable writers sipped crème cafes because, Hemingway wrote, people were there “to be seen publicly.” Instead he worked at La Closerie des Lilas, the quieter café down the street where “no one was on exhibition”

La Closerie des Lilas thanks Ernest dearly because today it can charge $6.60 for a café crème, while the chairs at La Rotonde and La Domes—still facing the street for maximum see-and-be-seen effect—are mainly empty. The $53 prix fix dinner at La Domes is actually cheaper than it’s counterpart at La Closerie.

La Closerie’s brochure quotes liberally from A Moveable Feast but ignores Hemingway’s primary endorsement.

“Have things really changed since the twenties?” the brochure asks, suggesting the café has always been a place “to spot celebrities and enjoy a fleeting flutter of recognition.”

If the café is home to some displaced nostalgia it may be because there are so few places to place it. The closest you’ll come to Papa’s ghost in this neighborhood is to meet eyes with one of the two photos of him behind the bar at La Closerie. He lived a block over, above a sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, but when I walked by to see what had happened to his old address I found it had literally vanished. The street skips from 111 to 115.

He doesn’t give an address for the hotel on Rue Mouffetard where he rented a room to work during that time and I couldn’t find it as I walked up and down “that wonderful narrow crowded market street.” It’s surprising since almost every building in Paris has a plaque naming a famous writer who lived there at some point. Such a plaque hangs from 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine where Hemmingway first lived in Paris. On the bottom floor a boutique calls itself Paris et un fete—Paris is a feast—apparently hoping that beer-bellied American pseudo-intellectuals will settle on a floral-print dress when they fail to find a museum below Papa’s old pad.

Today the area is home to upscale cafes, budget crepe stands, and tourist-aimed retailers, but when Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921 and moved into the two-room flat with “no hot water and no inside toilet,” he was embarrassed to give his home address to Sylvia Beach for membership in her lending library. The address “could not have been a poorer one.”

Beach owned Shakespeare and Company, an English bookstore that underfed Hemingway would devise ways of visiting without passing the sweet-smelling bakeries on the way from his apartment to the store on 12 rue de l’Odeon. Beach became famous herself for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 out of her small bookshop. Today the shops on rue de l’Odeon generally sell things that are old, expensive, or caffeinated. It’s also still a good place to buy books—nine of the 22 buildings on the small street have shops selling books—but not number 12; Shakespeare and Company is now Ann Gerard Creations, a minimalist jewelry shop.

Hemingway knew when he wrote A Moveable Feast in 1960 that Beach’s shop had been closed by the Germans when they occupied Paris. He knew it because he helped liberate the shop at the end of the war when he was attached to an American infantry division while reporting on the war. But he omitted all that and focused in Feast on the time in the 1920’s when a group of ex-pat writers—tabbed “The Lost Generation” by Gertrude Stein—descended on Paris and changed the course of English literature. By the 1960’s much of that story had already been told but the posthumous publication of Feast revealed intimate details of the era—from disclosing Fitzgerald’s insecurity with his endowment, to casting doubt on who had come up with the group’s name.

In Hemingway’s account Stein picked up the name when she was having her Model T repaired. The mechanic didn’t meet her standards and when she complained to his boss, the supervisor said to the mechanic, “‘You are all a generation perdue.’” Stein agreed.

“‘That’s what you are…You are all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.’”

Today, Stein’s old studio on 27 rue de Flores occupies a neighborhood slightly more sterile but generally indistinguishable from Hemingway’s; there’s a consulting firm and an internet café in the neighboring buildings. But what has endured is the name she borrowed from the mechanic and used to label the brilliant, bohemian group of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce and others who grew up between the two World Wars. It’s that eight-decade old mystique that still brings so many young writers to Paris, and whether they find magic on the banks of the Seine, for the most part they don’t find anything of interest in the addresses that once meant so much.

Assuming a distaste for $6.60 café crèmes, the best place to find some derivative of what’s been lost in the last 80 years is to find the new Shakespeare and Company. Beach never re-opened the shop she was forced to close in the darkest days of World War II but she later turned over much of her library—including her original copy of Ulysses—to George Whitman, who owned a bookstore across the Seine from Notre Dame cathedral. After Beach’s death in 1962, Whitman re-named the store Shakespeare and Company and today it houses some remnant of what a lot of people come to Paris looking for.

Between the stacks of books are thin, dusty mattresses that visiting writers and backpackers can call home on two conditions: they must work two hours per day in the store, and write an autobiography about their life and ambitions.

“They’re young people who want to write and they come to Paris because they dream of Paris at night,” Jonathan McNamara, an Irish bookworm who’s worked at the store for a year told me over coffee. “They come here and they have no money, they have no job, they just have a passport…They show up and George gives them a place to stay and feeds them pancakes on Sunday mornings…He’s basically opening up his house and his bookshop for people to stay there.”

“Everybody who travels is indeed in search of something. Now whether its that something that they imagine was there 80 years ago or imagine is there today is impossible to say….Paris has become an archetype, it’s this idea of everything that your own home will never be.”