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Monday, August 22, 2011

In which I discuss expectations … and offer unsolicited travel advice



“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list” – Susan Songtag


As far as I’m concerned, expectations, like rules, are best experienced broken. There are few things as disappointing as having my expectations met precisely. I want to be surprised. Pleasantly, if possible, but unpleasantly works too. I want to pick up a book and discover something I wasn’t expecting even if that “something” is that I don’t like it whilst everyone else did, or that I loved it whilst everyone else did not. I want to watch a movie and be incapable of guessing the ending (it doesn’t happen often). I want to travel and have my expectations of what I’ll experience utterly shattered. In fact, one of my favorite parts of traveling is arriving somewhere that exceeds or deceeds my expectations.

“Deceeds?” you ask. “First of all, I’m not entirely sure that’s a word, Steve. And second, why in the world would you be happy discovering a place that is less than you thought it’d be?”

Excellent question, persistent voice in the back of my head.  First, “deceeds,” while not yet a widely accepted term, is gaining footing and I, like Shakesphere, am a vocabulary trailblazer. As for the second question: When a location exceeds or deceeds expectations it’s proof positive that the only way to really know a place is to visit it. Allow me to share one experience of “deceeding expectations” with you – one that might come as a surprise….

PRESENTING: VENICE, ITALY


Ah, Venice. Even from that small picture it looks magical, doesn’t it? It’s the image I had of Venice before I arrived. Buildings partially submerged by azure water that look so inviting you wonder if one could just swim from one place to another, or at least take a quick dip should the heat become too much. Perhaps you imagine smells of savory dishes wafting across the canals from restaurants and caf├ęs – a sublime aromatic masterpiece impossible to describe with mere words. No doubt there’s a Gondolier just outside the frame steering his boat down the narrow waterways whilst serenading a pair of love-struck tourists with an Italian opera.

Indeed, I had high expectations.

Now, I’m not saying this picture is a fake. Nor am I saying that people who come back from Venice with such a description are liars. It’s just not reflective of my experience. Don’t get me wrong, Venice is awesome and the canals are amazing whether you explore them by boat or on foot. But if, by some unfortunate happenstance, you fell in, you’d not laugh, nor frolic (unless you’re using “frolic” as a euphemism for “panic”). When I was in Venice the canal water was a brown sludge that smelled as through raw sewage had been pumped directly into it from the surrounding buildings. So, if you go to Venice and fall in the canals, my advice would be as follows: Find yourself a syringe filled with enough antibiotics to treat a promiscuous water buffalo and stab it directly into your heart.

Furthermore, while Gondoliers do serenade their passengers, most boats I saw were filled to capacity, so it’s hardly romantic. Should you splurge for a private ride there are still so many boats on the canals that it looks more like a crash-derby, or an Italian version of “bumper boats,” than a relaxing float. Oh, one more thing, since the Gondoliers are all singing different songs, it can, at times, sound as though you’ve just stumbled into an aviary built specifically for angry baritone birds.

“Well that doesn’t sound good, Steve,” you say. “I think I’m going to scratch Venice off my list of places I want to visit.”

Don’t do that! Despite all that I just described, Venice is one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been. It’s just not at all what I expected. I mean, sure the smells aren’t thrilling, and you might be underwhelmed by your gondola ride, but you won’t regret the visit.

Here’s how I’d describe what you might expect of your first day in Venice (based on my experience): You’ll find your hotel, unpack and go for a walk. The streets, you should be aware, are designed to confound the world’s greatest maze-runner, so be warned, it won’t take long before you’re completely and hopelessly lost. Just when you’re frustration level is reaching its limit you’ll take a right, or maybe a left, and suddenly find yourself in a plaza surrounded by centuries old buildings. In the center will be an ornate stone fountain where locals and tourists alike are taking a break. A dozen or so pigeons will be pecking at crumbs and two or three amateur painters – who seem anything but amateur – will be seated behind easels, painting the very image that you’re experiencing. At the far edge of the plaza you’ll see a street musician – a violinist – who pulls the whole experience together with a piece of music you’re sure you’ve never heard, but which still feels familiar somehow.

The stress will melt, and soon you’ll be on your way. You’ll stumble upon several other plazas while you explore. They’ll be similar, yet different enough to inspire a break. The streets will twist and turn. The stench of the canals will fade into the background and before long you’ll hardly notice it. Hungry, you’ll happen upon a restaurant that doesn’t look all that special, but will serve the best pasta, or pizza, or seafood you’ve ever had. And just when you’re almost back at your hotel, you’ll stop for a scoop (or four) of gelato.

I loved Italy. I loved Venice. I loved that it wasn’t at all what I expected. Go there if you get the chance, and when you do, I sincerely hope your experience is different than mine. In the meantime, read a book that someone insists is the worst book ever, or one they insist is the best. Watch a movie with awful reviews. Try a food that everyone says is awful. See if you agree.

I hope you’re surprised.  

PS – if you’re looking for a bit of food that people either love or hate, might I suggest a durian. To me, it tastes (and smells) like a sweaty pair of gym socks that have been chewed upon by a diseased camel with chronic halitosis, but I know people who swear it’s the best thing they’ve ever tasted.

Friday, August 12, 2011

IN WHICH I EMBARRASS MYSELF


Has it really been two weeks since I last posted? Well I’ll be better from now on. I hereby offer this embarrassing story as a penitence for my lack of blogging. Also, I promise this will be the last baby-related story I tell for a while. I remember when my friends had children and all they could talk about was their kids. It made me want to hurt them (My friends, not my friend’s kids … jeez, I’m not a monster). 

The lead up: There is a real possibility that my son, who is now two weeks old, has been trained by a special infant division of the Marines. He has somehow developed deadly, assassin-like accuracy with his bodily functions, which I know he’s doing on purpose since my wife never gets peed or pooped on. He does like to mix up his attacks though. I think he makes a game out it. He’ll sometimes wait until the fresh diaper is half-way on before launching an attack, which he does because clearly he gets a kick out of seeing how many diapers he can make me go through in a single changing.

“C’mon, Steve,” you say. “Getting peed and pooped on is all part of the game. It happens to every parent. Plus, going through diapers is just something that happens. It’s hardly anything to be embarrassed about.”

Ah, yes. Very true. Let me explain a bit further and see if your opinion changes.

The other morning I woke up and realized we only had six diapers left. Surely enough to satisfy the morning needs of my little boy. I figured I’d change him, have a shower and a bit of breakfast, and then run to the store – no real rush. Little did I know he had picked that particular morning to launch: Operation Shock and Awe. In the course of a single changing, utilizing guerrilla tactics and remarkable bowel control, he went through five diapers. Two of which were, sadly, collateral damage (I had inadvertently placed them too close to the blast zones).

It wasn’t just the diapers that got marred in the cross fire. The little guy managed to position his hips at just the right angle so that he arced his mustard colored projectiles over the edges of his bassinet striking me twice, a suitcase, the wall, and a snow white stuffed bear that will, I’m quite certain, never be the same again.

“Fine,” I said. “You win.” 

He smiled at my concession (although my wife says those aren’t real smiles) and allowed me to get the last diaper on him without incident. I handed him off to my wife who had thoroughly enjoyed watching the war games her two men were engaged in, and headed off to the store. Having made trips like this in the past, I knew exactly where the diapers were and was at the checkout counter in seconds.

Ready? Here comes the embarrassing part.  When I handed my credit card to the lovely checkout lady she reached for it, stopped short, withdrew her hand, glanced at me, the box of diapers I was purchasing, back at my card and then back at my face. With each turn of her head her expression descended further and further into horror and disgust.

I was about to ask what the problem was, when she took another step back and pointed at my wrist and muttered, “Is that …”

Yes. You guessed it. I had cleaned my hands after changing the diapers, of course, but in my haste to get to the store I neglected to check my arms. I was splattered with poop from my wrist to the middle of my forearm and hadn’t noticed.

I promised the woman I’d only ever use the self checkout from now on!

PS – For those of you new or expecting parents wondering what books will best prepare you for parenthood … I’m currently reading one I think might help: