About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Goin' Walkabout

Whenever my wife and I head out on a trip, I have a once-per-location practice of going out for a photo expedition in the early morning or late afternoon -- when the lighting is at its most dramatic. I used to refer to this practice as "going walkabout", but as our travels have begun taking us into some pretty rural and remote areas, It's become more of a "drive and walkabout" sort of thing.

I've found, since I began doing this, that it gives me a genuine taste for a place. By that I mean a real feel for the genuine character of a locale without its makeup on.

Hollywood Blvd at night
I’ve written elsewhere on about this. What is very important to me when I’m on the road is to have a perspective on a place you don’t see duplicated elsewhere. First of all it gives me a personal perspective unique from the experience of so many other people. I can remember one such moment just outside of SkagwayAlaska, as I was taking early morning pictures of the cemetery there. (Cemeteries are among my favorite subjects. I don’t know why, and my wife is kinda creeped out by it.) As I was shooting, I realized I was hearing the sounds of a waterfall off in the forest. Sure enough, I found signs and a little trail that lead off into the trees.

Philadelphia after a blizzard
Roughly a tenth of a mile up the hill I found a tremendous cascade of water flowing down the side of a mountain, feeding a stream that eventually joined the Skagway River a quarter mile down the road. I stood at the base of this waterfall for several long minutes, astounded that the view of all this water pouring down onto the rocks and small pond was mine – for me alone. I was the only person in the world who could appreciate it at that one particular moment. There is a sensation there that cannot be recreated or even conveyed effectively (as you can tell!). Yes, I took pictures, but they don’t do the moment justice and never will.

British Columbia Rain Forest
I have other times similar to this. Watching the sun rise over the Colorado River. Taking pictures of a Route 66 art-deco gas station in Shamrock, Texas, as my car alarm suddenly starts blaring – while parked next to what can only be called a “seedy” motel. Instant visions of shotguns being leveled from the motel’s windows convinced me to forget taking pictures and get the car, and my ass, out of there as fast as possible. Or the time, in New Orleans, when I beat a hasty retreat from a confrontation between two store owners over the spraying of hose water “accidently” onto the other’s merchandise.

Or the time I was on “walkabout” before sunrise 
on Waikiki Beach. A woman who was walking the opposite direction leaned across to tell me I was “ringing” while taking pictures. Turned out it was my friend Larry back on the mainland, telling me he’d just been laid off from our mutual employer and could not be happier about it. I got some good shots that morning.
North Carolina Beach

Ocean Drive, Miami Beach
It’s an odd habit, I admit. The last thing most people want to do on a trip is wake up early, but for me it has its own special merit. Getting the real taste of a place comes when, as I say above, it hasn’t got its makeup on yet. In the early hours of “watering the sidewalks” before the tourists wake up and start their day.

Before the crowds hike up and surround the waterfall.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

ROAD TRIP: Mojave Desert

As I mentioned in my last blog post, there's a time known as “o’dark thirty” -- a time before most sane people crawl out of bed and start their day, usually so-named because it’s not only dark, but will remain that way for hours. Last Saturday, “o’dark thirty” was indeed that: 3:30 am.

I hauled myself out of bed at 3, showered and got dressed in record time. I grabbed my customary thermos of coffee and the camera bag – which I had brilliantly thought to pack up the night before – and left the house. My first stop would be the gas station, followed forty minutes later with a stop to pick up my friend Jim who had, perhaps in a moment of mental deficiency, agreed to accompany me on a photo shoot into the Mojave Desert. The early hour was required because, as any decent photographer will tell you, the best lighting for shooting something like a desert will be either in the just-past sunrise morning or just before sunset. I’ll get into the reason later, but rest assured that were it not for the morning lighting, I would never have succumbed to the alarm’s insistent buzz.

Our not very offroad vehicle
Leaving the house I find my neighborhood gas station and pull in. The roads are empty, and the station itself has an eerily silent air to it as I get out and pump the gas. Normally abuzz with activity, it almost possesses a post-apocalyptic silence. The only sounds are those I’m making as I remove the gas cap, insert the nozzle and the pump comes to life. It’s a strange moment. Not even the attendant is visible inside the min-market, adding to my sense of solitude. Resisting the urge to get back in the car and head home I fill up the tank, replace the cap and, as I get into the car, spy the attendant now stocking the beer refrigerator towards the back of the market. At least I’m not quite as alone as my imagination was insisting.
Road Trip buddy Jim

There's a reality in the Los Angeles metro area that not matter what time you get on a freeway there will be traffic. At 3:30 on a Saturday morning this is put to a lie. While I was never quite really the only car on the road, we moved at what I could be describe as "full speed" the entire way to Diamond Bar to pick up my friend Jim. And sure enough, despite having budgeted forty minutes for the drive (which normally requires a solid hour if not more), a half hour later I pull into the driveway outside Jim’s house. calling him discreetly on his cellphone so as not to wake the rest of his family. Jim's up and ready, and soon we’re on the 210 freeway headed east with our eventual destination being a drive down Kelbaker Road and a section of Route 66. It's among the most remote yet historic parts of the California desert. Full of photographic targets, including ghost towns, long straight patches of empty highway, train rails (and frequent trains), and a surprising number of volcanic lava flows and cinder cones. Few people realize that the Mojave was an active lava field as recently as 800 years ago. The desert has preserved the terrain as if the flows were mere decades ago instead of centuries. It makes for a dramatic setting, particularly if the lighting is right…the colors in the lava and surrounding terrain are stunning.

We get to Ludlow in a couple of hours, arriving just before sunrise, which is precisely the timing I had been planning. We opt for breakfast at the Ludlow Cafe, an authentic old-style cafe echoing nicely an era some fifty years ago when the entire town was moved a quarter mile or so to the west when Interstate 40 was completed. For some very obscure reason the interstate highway commission couldn't be bothered to place the offramp near enough the town, so the town itself moved. It's a striking visual of a desert community struggling to hold on within just a few hundred feet of the old town's corpse. One has to wonder at the seemingly inept and inconsiderate planning that went into such a design. The stories of the multitude of towns destroyed when Route 66 was replaced by the interstate are manifold, but surely Ludlow should have been spared the planning commission's absurdity.
Old Ludlow, slowly crumbling away

But -- and this is important for our day -- the ruins of the old town are perfect fodder for my Nikons. After a quick breakfast and pleasant exchange with the restaurant's only waitress (at this time in the morning), we head east along Route 66, which parallels I-40 for six miles more or less, passing through the previously mentioned ruins of old Ludlow. We pause for a few minutes in this area for me to grab some shots by the early morning light. It's a strange and somewhat eerie sensation with the quite active roar of 40 in the air and the sound of a BNSF freight train rumbling by. Your ears and eyes don't quite agree on where you are, conveying to your brain the conflicting visuals of a dead town with the sounds of a busy town. It just doesn't seem to match up, and the mind rebels. I finish up with a few shots of the ruins and of the train -- just to make peace with that part of my brain -- and we're off again.
Route 66 is in good condition in this part of the desert, and we make good time. I take the twin gifts of an empty straight road to have a little fun with the car, getting our speed up a little faster than the CHP would prefer, but there are few cruisers on this part of the California Highway system and we can open the car up a bit more safely than we could on 40. In fact, once we leave Ludlow other cars are scarce, and we encounter only two for the next hour. There are more trains than automobiles in these parts.

A tree grows in the desert
Our first stop comes ten miles or so down the road, where the town of Bagdad once stood, or at least in the vicinity. The only marker is a dirt road which branches out into the desert toward a field of four large rock formations which seem to be the only markers between the road and the distant mountains to the south. Jim and I both estimate that the boulders are maybe two or three lies out, and the mountains at least fifteen. The desert messes with your sense of distance, and objects that seem to be just a few miles away may indeed be multiples of that. In this case we decide not to drive out to the boulders, first because it's a deceptive distance, and second because, to be honest, a sports car is probably not the best offroad vehicle. I'm sure my wife and our mechanic would agree, so after Jim takes a few minutes to walk over to the railroad tracks to greet in incoming train -- our second of the morning -- we continue on down the road, stopping briefly at a solitary tree which grows out here -- according to the internet it stands where a gas station once sat, and was spared the bulldozer which claimed the man-made elements of the stop. I don't know if it's true or not, but the tree still seems to be thriving in an area mostly marked by tumbleweeds.
Jim explores the lava field

Our third stop is next to a lava field. Jim takes advantage and rapidly climbs his way to the top for the view. I wander around the base of the black rocks, marveling at the otherworldly feel. If the sky were a different color you could easily convince yourself the rocks were of an extraterrestrial origin or perhaps a setpiece for an episode of the Twilight Zone in which someone is marooned upon a lonely planet. I wonder if Hollywood had ever visited this place, conveniently next to the road, and decide not. The ground in a little valley behind the rocks appears to be pristine. We decide to leave it that way and move on. As most landscape photographers will tell you, take only pictures and leave nature alone.

The town of Amboy in the distance
As I mention above, the area was volcanically active as recently as 800 years in the past. Amboy Crater was one of the most recent, and its cinder cone rises dramatically a couple hundred feet over the desert sand. It's a few miles west of the struggling town of Amboy, where the world-famous Roy's sign still stands in defiance of changing times. I am surprised to find a full-blown rest stop and parking lot off to the side of the highway where you can park and picnic, hike through the desert to the crater, or use the restrooms. My last pass through these facilities may have been there, but the road to access them was gravel, so I left well enough alone. In this case, we stop for a short break before heading towards Kelbaker Road. We decide not to stop in Amboy because already we're running a bit behind schedule and Jim needs to be back in LA by 1. We zoom on by -- though I've included a shot from a previous expedition so you can see what Amboy looks like. 
Roy's Cafe in Amboy

We find Kelbaker Road and it's smooth sailing. We encounter quite a few more cars and motorcycles on this stretch of road, most of which consider my Maximum Speeds to be inadequate. Go figure. I gun the engine, making it clear I could move faster if I wanted to, but this only eggs on a younger guy in a hopped up Corolla (wtf?), so I slow down and wait for him to pass. He doesn't, preferring instead to ride my bumper, so I actively pull off to the side and let him rocket on by. I don't mind driving fast, but I'm not going to race anyone and risk all of our lives on his dumb move.

The otherworldly granite wall just north of I-40 on Kelbaker Road
Now that we're off to the side of the road though, Jim and I decide to talk a short walk to take pictures of a spectacular wall of granite just northwest. You can see these rocks from I-40, and a short trip on Kelbaker Road brings you much closer as it winds to the east, skirting them in a pass between the granite and another mountainous structure of a completely different type and coloration. These are the sort of things which make the desert so fascinating to me. You have to wonder what would create such vastly different topologies within a short distance of each other. As you drive Kelbaker, the visuals are indeed stunning, ranging from granite, to sand dunes, to volcanic within the space of thirty miles.

Kelso's modern Post Office
Again relatively alone on the road we roll down the windows and let the outside air blast the cabin. It's a refreshing feeling, though I have to crank up the heater a bit to keep us from catching too much of a chill. Oddly, the temperature outside is just over seventy, but it feels much colder as it swirls through the car.

Time is getting short, but we decide to make a couple more stops. Deep in the middle of the Mojave, almost exactly halfway between interstate 15 and interstate 40, sits Kelso Depot. It's an oasis of sorts, originally constructed as a rail yard during the second world war. An old post office, restrooms and the surprisingly large train depot (which contains, among other things, a restaurant) are worth a few minutes so we oblige. The visitor's center is in very good condition, and offers a history of the depot and the railway's impact on Southern California.

Road Trip - Mojave Desert
Again we take off, heading North towards the town of Baker, familiar to millions as the main stopover between the city of Barstow and the Nevada state line. Baker is famous as the gateway to the Death Valley, as well as proud owner of the world's largest thermometer (thankfully not a medical one). As we make our way there we stop for two brief photo ops along the road. The first is to take pictures of more cinder cones to the east, an area I personally refer to as 'the four sisters" since there are four cinder cones lined up together. It's a spectacular view, and the colors of the rock have a red-black hue that makes them ideal for the sorts of pictures I want to take. As we stand alongside the road we note three four-wheel-drive vehicles come out of a nearby dirt road and head towards Baker. They're the only cars we see or have seen for nearly 45 minutes, pretty much since leaving Kelso. There's a calm serenity however, and we lean back against the car and just take it all in.

Eons, not hours
There's a beauty in the desert, a feeling of ancient grandeur. We tend to become so wrapped up on our daily lives that the sale of time escapes us in the focus on the next few hours or days. Out here, though, time is measured in eons. It forces you, through both scale and wonder, to look at things not from a momentary perspective, but from one of a vaster framework in which our lives themselves are short and insignificant…that each moment must be appreciated and enjoyed because, really, the world works independently of our artificial constraints. It forces you to back away from our own sensibilities and accept and become part of something much larger than yourself, where you can bellow fruitlessly against the world or you can step back and nakedly accept that you need to be part of the greater whole, not the other way around. It's a difficult lesson to swallow. 

Jim and I stand in awe for a few minutes longer before climbing back in the car and heading home. And, encountering traffic and realizing we're going to be late, I can feel the moment pass and I once again am reduced to my much smaller human world of timeframes, traffic and limited horizons.

It's a difficult lesson to swallow, indeed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Taster's Choice and the Open Road

My wife and I have often talked about the trips we took as kids. By and large, our fondest memories are those of road trips with the family.

I am fortunate to have crossed the country a number of times, as well as lesser trips up and down both coasts. Road trips were an essential building block of my current passion for travel.

So it occurred to me this morning, as I was popping a Folger's Black Silk K-cup into my Keurig coffee maker, how much the smell of coffee is closely associated with my childhood memories of those dark, cold mornings as we set out for another fascinating destination.
Black coffee. Strong coffee. Coffee poured and consumed on the road, the smell of which drifts (wafts?) into the back seat of the car, where my sisters and I would spend many hours looking out the windows at the passing scenery. Collectively, it has to number easily into hundreds of hours. In cars ranging from a black Corvair to a green Pontiac LeMans. From a blue Ford station wagon, to a silver (and gutless) Chevrolet Vega. Roads as traveled as Interstate 95 on the eastern seaboard to the Pacific Coast Highway in the west -- and as untraveled as Bear Valley Road through the desert, southeast of Victorville, California and sidetrips through the Arkansas lake country.

O'Dark Thirty
The setup is this: Wake up at o-dark thirty, a phrase coined by my father to describe those hours before any sentient being should legally be awake. (We always had to be on the road very early in the morning, this was part of the overall plan with my parents. If you're on a long haul, it's best to start before the roads become clogged with commuters. To beat the middday heat, and to have the opportunity, at the end of a long day behind the wheel -- or in the back seat as was usually my lot -- to get out, stretch the legs and have a more relaxed evening before rising again early the next morning to continue the journey.) (I never quite understood the phrase “to beat traffic” until much later in life when that same traffic would become the bane of my existence. One of them anyway. I always connected the phrase to somehow getting pounded if you missed your window.) (But I make the first of several digressions.)

The family would be rousted out of bed by my mother, some time before the sun was up. We would shower, get dressed, then head down to the kitchen for breakfast before leaving.

(“Down to the kitchen” is an interesting term now that I look at it, since we always seemed to live in two story homes and so the gathering of the family was always “down” in the kitchen.)

(The truth is, now that I consider it, that we moved into a two story while I was in third grade and every home subsequent to that had more than one floor. Since post-third grade is where the majority of my clearest memories are in still-accessible parts of my gray matter, the description “down” to the kitchen fits.) (But, again, I digress.) 

Back to travel. And coffee.

One of the essential accessories on each trip -- well, road trip -- was the tall, usually red plaid Thermos bottle my mother would prepare and bring along with us. Coffee. Strong, black coffee. Black was the only way my parents ever drank it. Usually Taster’s Choice Instant, since I rarely if ever saw a percolator or other brewing device. Black.

(No jokes, but I will admit to laughing out loud at the movie Airplane. You know the line I mean.)

 Sugar and milk were reserved for those rare occasions when we kids got to drink a cup. Oh joy, oh rapture. There was something magical and delicious about getting the treat of a cup of coffee that sticks with me to this day. Not to diss that 20 ounce beast sitting on my desk while I write, but it can’t compare to the deeply ingrained memory of what I sipped when I was twelve, thirteen. No matter that the cup was 30% milk and heavily sugared, it was my cup -- which not only tasted good, but made me a quasi-adult for the duration, or so I imagined. I empathize with other teens who held the same view of cigarettes, though in all honesty my coffee fix was a bit more sustainable. (Yes, digression #3.)

So, awakened at an early, pre-dawn hour we performed the litany of last-minute activities necessary for an extended trip -- loading luggage into the trunk; taking turns in the bathroom to make sure no unnecessary stops would be needed; making sure the dog was walked and fed -- while Mom heated tap water in a coffee pot on the stove and organized the half-lidded progeny through their respective chores. After the requisite number of spoonsful of Taster’s Choice, she would pour the boiling water into the Thermos. She’d tighten the cap, screw on the cup, and off we would be trundled into the car.

Them, somewhere, usually once we’d achieved the interstate and it was smooth sailing, the top would come back off, and I can summon, to this day, the nose prickling aroma as my mother gently poured a half cup for my father, handing him, carefully, that pre-travel-mug plastic cup of morning nectar. From the back seat I would watch as the steam rose up from the throat of the Thermos, filling my nose with that wonderful scent of early morning traveling coffee. It meant somewhere distant, somewhere interesting and new, was just down the road. And it was a fundamental part of my childhood’s framework of travel. Early=coffee=road trip.

A coffeehouse cup? Not the same.
To this day I look forward to that first sip of coffee from my travel mug as we head down the highway in search of adventure. It's rarely o'dark thirty any more -- that's pretty much reserved for my daily commute -- but it is an exciting and fun way to start the day, knowing there's something very cool awaiting you at the end of the line. But it's not quite the same, truth be told.

Like so many childhood recollections, that same morning tradition, packed into the back seat as the smell of Taster's Choice wafts back from the passenger seat as it gets poured, cannot be recreated, duplicated or re-experienced, try as I might. We’ve grown so accustomed to our Starbuck’s Venti paper cup, sitting in a car’s now-standardized cupholders, that the thought of home-made instant coffee in a Thermos seems distant and somehow wonderfully Father Knows Best

But to me, and doubtless many more around the country, it’s a part of the trip, it’s a part of the tradition, and it’s a part of the memory written indelibly into the dark corners of my thoughts.

We have a road trip coming up in the new year. Maybe it’s time I bought myself a Thermos.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

ROAD TRIP: Taormina

"Boy, Etna does NOT look happy."

We look up and sure enough a large plume of smoke is coming from the top of the very active volcano some twenty miles from our current location in the mountaintop town of Tourmina, Sicily.

Our tour guide is reassuring. "It is safe, I think. We usually have some sort of knowledge if it is going to erupt. Usually." She smiles gently, but I resolve to keep my eye on the summit nonetheless. 

Mount Etna, viewed from the Taormina parking structure
Taormina is an ancient town, with an at-times Bohemian reputation (the writer Harold Acton once referred to Taormina as "a polite synonym for Sodom"). The town sits atop a steep seaside promontory roughly an hour or so south of the port city of Messina, along Sicily's eastern coast. The view from atop the mountain is truly spectacular, looking west down the Catanian Coast. The ocean is a deep Mediterranean blue, with a dusting of whitecaps along the surface. We can see a half dozen multimillion dollar yachts at anchor in the bay below, adding a dose of elegant luxury to the scene. 

We leave the imminent threat of Etna behind and wander into the town proper. One major street cuts through the cent of town, with fashionable boutiques sharing the storefronts with sidewalk cages and a handful of tourist shops. There are, every hundred or so feet, street vendors hawking what seems to be a blob of goo which holds it's shape unless you lob it against the ground, where it splats into a little puddle then slowly gathers itself back into its three dimensional form. It seems to do little else, so we move on.

A sidewalk cafe along the Corso Umberto
The coastline south to Catania

Finding ourselves a little table we engage in what has become our favorite pastime, people-watching. Large tour groups from the only other ship in Messina came blasting through town, overrunning our comparatively little posse from the Wind Surf. We have perhaps thirty visitors, they have at least three groups of equal size, and appear to be on more of a schedule than we are. As a result we seem to merge groups for a short time before they move along, restoring us to our pre-absorption intimacy. Then, as if to reduce our size further, our tour group dissolves for an hour or so of free time -- and thus we find ourselves in our little cafe.

But…as usual…I digress.


There used to be a terrific character named Sophia Petrillo on a show called The Golden Girls, who told some sort of distorted memory of her childhood in Sicily. She would begin virtually every story with the phrase "Picture it, Sicily, 19…" and then go into an anecdote of some kind regarding, usually, her youthful flings and adventures. Sicily was, for Sophia, a land of grand memories and sometimes not so grand family members. Taormina, in the minds of many who have never been there, is also the home of the mafia. Of "The Family", and the rough and tumble times of the early twentieth century. This is largely because Taormina was for a time the home of the film production company making The Godfather (actually shot in nearby villages). But the mafia is, as they say, an unspoken influence best left to the locals. In truth, there's almost nothing to it that will bother the casual visitor, and the warmth of the Sicilian people immediately puts you at ease. 

Throughout its history, this part of the world has been a focal point for the merging of cultures. Italian, Greek, Roman, Arabian and other cultures have long had an influence in this important crossroads of the Mediterranean, and in many ways the area has played an important role in the empires of the past.

Freshness is an essential ingredient of Sicilian cuisine
Taormina of the 21st century is a wonderful town, populated by a proud people who, aware of their past, are eager to accommodate the visitors they meet on the street -- even those of us who arrive, like lambs to the slaughter, on megabuses dispatched by mega-cruiseships in the harbor. (In our case, not such a mega, since this was a side trip during our fantastic trip on the Wind Surf. But for the single bus from the Surf, a good three were dispatched for every other cruiser in Messina. To the point where, when we dawdled just a bit too long along the main street of Taormina, we became overrun with the tour group immediately following our own.) (What we discovered, shortly thereafter, is that the correct procedure is to allow the other group to pass, giving you free run of the place once they have raced by the points of casual interest in search of the One Major Attraction -- in Taormina's case, the ancient Greek Theater overlooking Etna and the coast -- and rebounded their own vehicle back to the harbor.)
Our friend Vicky looking for a photo op

The Best Cannoli in Italy
If you chance to find yourself in this part of the world, make Taormina an absolute stop. Plan for several hours, avoiding mid-morning through early afternoon (the times when the busses arrive). Take a leisurely stroll down the Corso Umberto (the main shopping and restaurants) and stop for a cannoli at the Cafe le Quattro Fontane (http://www.le4fontane.it/) in the beautiful Piazza Duomo in the center of town, voted as the top cannoli in all of Italy by the four of us sitting at the table.

Sit for a while, and just drink (and eat) Taormina in. But if you hear a deep rumble in the distance every once in a while, relax. It's only Mount Etna, expressing its discontent.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


We all have those days, particularly when you cross over that age-related line of judgmentalism that seems to hover at just about 40 years, when we suddenly look at the younger generation of teens, realize we no longer share much of anything in common with them,  and begin tsk, tsk, tsking to ourselves as we watch them deal with the world -- 'our' world --  they are only now uncovering. 

It’s easy to do, and in the second decade of the twenty-first century the world is in such a dire situation we can often find new and better ways of clicking our tongue in disdain over their supposed greed, isolation, sense of entitlement, etc. Fill in the blank with your frustration of choice. (And ignore the brutal reality that our thoughts echo almost exactly what our own parents and others said about US at that age...)

Coffee with the locals
Liquid refreshment?
So it came as -- to use a cliche -- a huge breath of fresh air, while speaking to a friend’'s daughter the other night, to learn how much young people still "get it". We had, for the first time in nearly a year I think, gone to their house for a long overdue visit, and our get-togethers with these particular friends always center around some sort of meal, whether we’'re barbequing, eating Chinese (or Subway or sandwiches), or dining out at a local restaurant. Just part of a pattern of behavior our little foursome plus kids) has adopted in the nearly 25 years of friendship (we’'re celebrating our “Friendiversary” in the next couple of weeks) -- and it nicely reflects the way my wife and I like to absorb local culture when we'’re on the road. Sharing a meal is often the best way to learn about other people, whether you're traveling to foreign countries or just spending a pleasant evening with friends.

In the case of our friends, their daughter has recently been able to take a trip to Italy as p[art of a school-organized tour group, the cost of which was a sacrifice her family was willing to make to help widen her boundaries and give her a better sense of the world which surrounds her. (And a sacrifice it was: the family usually takes an annual vacation together for some group time – an increasingly valuable commodity now that the kids are nearing their 20th and 18th birthdays, respectively. Their week with the kids has become an important event for the parents, which only serves to highlight their sacrifice of their group trip to pay for the daughter’s voyage.) (To her credit, the girl earned it through hard work and growth in the last couple of years, so it was in no way a ”bluebird” indulgent act on the part of her folks.)
Get lost in the crowd

In many ways the daughter is a typical teen. Self-absorbed to a degree – though she also works with special needs kids at her school, which speaks volumes regarding her personality – and constantly pressing here and there to see how many more freedoms she can assume in life. She'’s articulate, outgoing, and apparently doesn'’t mind spending an evening with the old folks.
The farmer's market

All this is background to the moment in our conversation when she noted one of her biggest frustrations on the trip: the lack of personal time she was able to spend just roaming around while on an escorted tour. Yes, she recognizes that she was able to see and do so many more things than she might have had the tour not been a death march, but she was disappointed that, as she notes, there was no real chance to take in the local Italian culture. In other words, no alone time to spend just sitting and absorbing.

When I asked her what she would have liked to have gotten a chance to do, she said she wanted to go out for an evening, find a local cafe and sit with a cheap meal, glass of wine (looking sheepishly at her parents as she said it) and watch the world go by.  That's it, she said, just stop running and take it all in -- get a feel for the places she visited.

A Day at the Museum
This revelation that she considered a visit to another culture was not the same as absorbing that culture, came a surprise for me -- so I burrowed in to ask what she meant. After all, she was able to see several sites in Rome we had missed, as well as getting to the cities of Siena and Florence. Wasn’t it enough to tag those historic sites and move on? (I will admit that for years my wife and I would rush around town’s and villages doing precisely this, but in our case it was to free up time to stop and drink in each destination at a later hour. In visiting our nation’s capital, for example, it might be “Yeah, cool, the Washington Monument…next?” followed by a quick tram ride to the Vietnam Memorial…“Next!”…but at the same time the gained hours were being set aside for a leisurely meal at a local place in, for example, Georgetown. To our way of thinking, buildings represent the images of a place, but not the flesh and blood of it.)

In our friend’s daughter’s mind – and this is what is the surprise for me – the highlight of the trip would have been to go to a local cafĂ©, on her own, and sit down for a true Italian dinner (of course the fantasy involves a glass of wine) and just sit, eat and absorb the scene. A surprisingly mature Anthony Bourdainesque approach for any traveler, let alone a teenager.

Wandering the alleys
Cultures are often best experienced through their food, through the way it is prepared and served, and most importantly how it is experienced.

This, of course, is precisely one of our own favorite adventures when on the road, and I told her so. Arturo’s in New York. Chez Paul in Paris. The Killarney House outside Annapolis. Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Fort Worth. Next Noodle Bar on Robson in Vancouver. Getting the chance to sit in a “local’s hangout” and just spend some time, as they do, watching the world go by and enjoying the fruits of their own local cuisine is one of the grand time-tested ways to truly discover the soul of other places, and it was quite a pleasant surprise to hear such a sentiment coming from someone of a generation I’d – old fartishness and all – written off as completely inadequate to running the world in the future. Their values are not my values, and I spent my formative years in the self-indulgent ‘70s. Go figure.
Exploring new places

(Yeah, yeah, I know I mentioned Italian in New York, Irish in Annapolis, Chinese in Vancouver. At least I got steaks in Texas and French in France right, but each and every one of the places mentioned is very much a local spot – read, “non-tourist” with the exception of Cattlemen’s, which is haunted by both locals and “fur’ners” alike – reflecting a local flavor in a major way. Get over it.)

But sharing a meal, eating the local cuisine, finding something in common and not trying to superimpose your own expectations on others is the surest way to walk away with a sense of relief, of fun and understanding, and more importantly, to discover that you, too, have gained something valuable in the process.

Kind of like talking to a teenage traveler as you share a meal at a friend’s house: Sometimes, if you take the time, you'’ll learn something surprising.