Living in Other People’s Homes

It has occurred to me a number of times over the course of the past few weeks that for the past six months we have been living in other people’s homes. Because we’ve been renting on the short-term rental market (Airbnb, Homestay, VRBO) we’ve stayed in hotels maybe 10 nights out of the 180-odd nights that have passed since we left Denver. By the same token, for that same period of time, other people have been living in our home in Denver. We get updates every so often from our property managers, but for the most part, we don’t hear anything, so I can only assume that things are just fine.

Living like this prompts you to think about the nature our lives together and the domestic spaces we inhabit. Sipping coffee from other people’s mugs, eating dinner from other people’s plates, relaxing on other people’s sofas and sleeping in other people’s beds for a considerable period of time makes you wonder about things: Where is our home? How do the things we surround ourselves with hold our memories?  What holds us together? What pulls us apart?

A house is brick and mortar. It’s something you buy and sell and occupy or allow someone else to occupy for you. A house is defined by legal documents like the deed or mortgage that sits in a box in your basement, and it’s defined through space–there’s a foundation, walls and a roof and there’s a fence that separates your property from your neighbors’.

A home, on the other hand, gathers up the emotional current of family life; it holds our memories, conversations, arguments, joys and failures. A home is the box of Christmas ornaments in your storage closet, the creaky step on the stairs that you just can’t fix and aren’t really sure that you wish to. A home is the way your front door key slides into the lock and the window in your bedroom that you gaze from in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.

A hotel room is an instrument–you use it for a night or two, maybe three, and it’s primarily a place to drop your bags and return to after a day of sightseeing. There’s a bed and a bathroom and there are some mass-produced cups and glasses and towels, but a hotel room isn’t populated with material objects that hold memories, that carry on traditions and that shine a light onto the interiors of our lives. A hotel room doesn’t leave anything behind. Once you leave, the cleaning crew comes through as sweeps, dusts and wipes away what you left behind.

I often wonder how living in other people’s homes has changed our experiences on the road, and while I’m sure staying in hotels would have been just fine, I also think that we would have missed some of the things we’ve gained. Beyond the costs and the inconvenience of staying in hotels, living in Airbnbs gives you access to a different kind of travel. It’s a travel of existence, as opposed to a travel of instrumentality.

Because you communicate directly with the Airbnb hosts, you learn things about their lives just through exchanging information and sorting out arrival and departure plans. My favorite Airbnb homes are the ones that are occupied by the owners. This situation was actually quite common among the places we stayed and it’s especially the case when you rent outside tourist regions and when you get off that tourist grid. In these homes, you can, in some ways, literally see and feel the imprint of other lives in the houses you are visiting. Generally, these properties are the primary residence of the owners, who clear out when renters arrive. I like these kinds of arrangements because you are actually living in someone’s house and you are sharing in a part of their lives. It’s a home that is populated with material items that have personal and family history.

The owner of the shotgun row home we rented in Sydney, Australia collected Asian art and had children’s drawings (his nephews and nieces, I presumed) taped to the refrigerator. The flat we rented in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was owned by a British national whose bookshelves were stuffed with French literature and Cambodian history and whose walls were lined with  portraits of family members. With their fine English suits and dresses and their knowing, confident gazes, they looked like they came from a long line of diplomats. The frayed edges of the blanket on the sofa of the young woman’s flat in Tokyo, the chips and stains in the tea cups of the Chinese couple’s hi-rise in Auckland, the weathered picnic table in the backyard of the farm house in Rotorua, New Zealand–all these things, all this stuff, makes up the history of other people’s lives that we, in some small way, participated and shared in. It causes me to wonder: what will our home in Denver feel like when return?  Will it feel, for a time, just like another short-term rental which we are passing through? Or will we immediately reconnect with the material world that we’d left behind?

Five years ago, the short-term rental market barely existed so we would have spent the better part of the last six months in hotels. There are some real benefits in renting off the short-term rental market. From a purely economic perspective, you save a lot of money. A three-star hotel room in any given European city would be a minimum of 150 euros a night, about twice what we generally spend on an Airbnb. So, thinking like an economist, this is great for everyone: we have more money in our pockets to spend in restaurants and shops and the local economy, in turn, the community benefits from our extra Euros floating around. By the same token, our house in Denver is nearly fully occupied, so are we bringing in revenue to pay off the mortgage and there are people in the house, making it less likely to be broken into or flooded from a broken pipe.

The short-term rental market also offers you a wider range of geographical places to stay in most cities. Most hotels, that is, are located in central tourist areas (city centers) or commercial areas (like near airports) so you can get caught in tourist traps and geographical spaces that are dominated by multinational commercial interests. The short-term rental market, though, is made up of properties in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout most major cities.  When we were in Sydney, for instance, we stayed in Surrey Hills, a neighborhood about three light rail stops from the main business district. We ate in locally owned restaurants, shopped in small markets and just sort of mixed in with the other residents of Surrey Hills. This was the case, as well, in our stays in Phnom Penh, Tokyo, Budapest, Rome and Seville.

But lest this starts to sound like free advertising for the short-term rental market, let me say that there’s also a dark side to this whole thing because while it’s easy for me to hail the cost and convenience of Airbnb rentals, the reality is that Airbnb rentals can do real damage in many places. Think about it: you own a two bedroom flat in downtown Barcelona and you start to realize that you can make more money renting your place through Airbnb. What are you going to do? Or, worse: you are an estate agent/real estate developer and you start buying up whole apartment complexes in downtown Barcelona, turning a majority of the units over to Airbnb rentals. That’s great for the developer and the landlord and for people like me, but if you live in one of these areas, how would you feel if swaths of the real estate market in your neighborhood started getting turned over to short-term rentals?

It took me way too long to come around to this understanding. In fact, I remember almost the exact moment that I snapped out of this optimistic haze and started thinking about the deeper and darker implications of short-term rental market: Sujata and I were out for a stroll in Barcelona on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful evening. There were loads of people out on the streets, there was music in the cafes and bars, folks were walking around with bags of groceries to make their Christmas meals and bags of presents to give to their loved ones. Everyone seemed happy and I just kept looking around in wonderment that I was here, in the middle of Barcelona, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, during the holiday season. Sujata broke my naive reverie by declaring, “You know, this is great and all, but what is this city going to look like in five years when this whole neighborhood is turned over to Airbnb rentals.”

Thud.

Most of us enjoy living where we live because we know and trust our neighbors. Strong communities and strong neighborhoods are made up of families and individuals who have a stake in the communities they live in and who watch out for each other. Back home in Denver, there have been countless times when I’m making something in the kitchen and realize that I’m short one ingredient so I just send the kids over to our neighbors to make up the difference. They go over to Wayne and Darlene’s for an egg or an onion or down to Matt and Malia’s for a fist full of basil (or more likely, two fingers of whiskey). And what we take is always paid back: homemade cookies for the eggs, a bowl of fresh pesto for the basil and, a beer or two for the whiskey. And it’s not just about borrowing household items. It’s quid pro quo; you take a little and you give a little and in the exchange you develop relationships with your neighbors. Sure, you get people watching your back, but you also get the richness of knowing the people who live on your block.

You can’t operate that way, though, in a community that’s dominated by short-term rentals. It’s not so much that people don’t trust each other; they just don’t know each other and ultimately not knowing breeds mistrust.

So, I get it that great cities like London, Barcelona and New York are wary of short-term rentals eating into their communities. This dynamic is a testament to the complexity of living in the globalized world we live in. The benefits abound, and an argument can be made that those benefits are shared, to some extent, across a diverse and wide range of participants. The deleterious aspects are there as well, although they are a bit more difficult to see (or easier to ignore). This, I suspect, is the nature of the economic world we live in.  Multinational corporations like Apple and Airbnb (I think it will be offered as an IPO this year) provide us with reasonably inexpensive goods and services that make our lives easier on many levels. So easy, in fact, that it benefits us to ignore what lies underneath. That said, I don’t expect that we will stop renting Airbnbs because of ethical considerations. But it does, I think, point to the fact that we need strong and ethically-minded public officials who know how to establish fair and thoughtful legislation that allows for the kind of freedom and adventure that a traveler experiences through Airbnb and, at the same time, protects and nourishes the integrity of community life.

 

 

 

 

Madrid, Day 1

We just boarded the Ave Express from Madrid to Seville and I have three hours to reflect on the two days we spent in Spain’s capital city. We had planned on taking the train from Barcelona straight to Seville but we waited too long to get our train tickets, so we ended up having to go to Seville via Madrid.

Arriving to Madrid late afternoon, we left the Atocha Estacion, walked down Atocha Boulevard for about 10 minutes and found our place on a little side street in the Lavapies barrio. I wondered about the prevalence of things called “Atocha,” so I looked it up when we got to our flat. Atocha, it turns out is a Catholic image of Christ as a Child that is associated with Spanish and Latin American cultures.

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Image of the Holy Infant of Atocha

The Lavapies neighborhood is an up and coming, soon to be gentrified section of the city that is currently a nice mix of old-timers, hipsters and recent immigrants. I suspect that if we revisit Madrid in five years (or less) it will be almost entirely turned over the hipsters, but, for now, there’s a nice heterogeneity to the place.

Our Airbnb flat was a shotgun arrangement; nice and clean enough, but it had a very small living room space, so we just dropped our bags and went back outside, looking for a place to eat dinner. The plethora of good vegetarian food across Europe remains a pleasant surprise and our first night in Madrid proved no different. We found a little tapas bar called El Sur where we had patas bravas, tortilla de patas and espinicas con garbanzos.  The waiter asked us if we wanted a Spanish or English menu. We cried out “Ambos!” and he, sensing our desire to communicate in Spanish replied, “Okay, I will speak in English and you will speak in Spanish.” Fair enough. He was a super nice guy and toward the end of dinner, he came by and dropped off two shots of Spanish ron. Five minutes later, he came by with two more shots. Whoa.

Afterwards, we went home to our flat and had an unremarkable evening except for the fact that Sujata broke my phone. We both found this funny (I also found it annoying) in that one of our cab drivers in Timisoara went on and on about how the IPhone 5 was basically indestructible. He wasn’t aware of the extent of Sujata’s torpeza.

The next day was our only full day in Madrid so we decided to spend the bulk of it at the Prado, the national art museum of Spain. When I was a sophomore in college I took an art history class from a professor named Ted Prescott. We read Robert Hughes’ great book on twentieth-century art, The Shock of the New, and we even took a field trip to the Smithsonian National Art Gallery. This was my first exposure to serious art and art criticism and, after all these years, the things I learned and learned to appreciate in Dr. Prescott’s class stay with me. It was with great joy, then, that I walked through the Prado’s galleries with my family. Our kids, happily, enjoy art museums as much as Sujata and I; they especially love listening to the audio guides and giving us their analyses and interpretations of what they are seeing.

The first section of the Prado is full of paintings by the Italian Renaissance painter, Titan. Some of his work examines the break between Greco-Roman and Renaissance cultures so there are a fair number of paintings that deal with mythological figures like Hephaestus, Venus and Adonis, to name a few. Here a few images of Titan’s work at the Prado that deal with Greek mythology:

Our kids love Greek mythology so it’s not uncommon when we are in any given museum to hear one of them shout, “Dad, look! There’s a Hephaestus over here” or for one of them to casually remark, “Oh, hey, Dad, did you see the painting of Atlanta?” When I was 11 I spent most of my time memorizing the batting averages of the Cincinnati Reds. I know I wasn’t running through the positive and negative attributes of the mortals and the gods of the Greeks.

We spent the bulk of our time at the Prado gazing at the large and impressive collection of paintings by the great Spanish artists, Velasquez and Goya. Velasquez’ style and technique is exquisite, but I can’t really get beyond his fawning over royalty.  It’s one of the reasons, too, that I didn’t love Gaudi’s architecture–it grabs you and it calls attention to itself, but ultimately, both Velasquez and Gaudi were working for The Man and from what I could see, failed to express much overt criticism of Establishment thinking and practices.

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Velasquez’ masterpiece “La Meninas”

That’s precisely why I was most interested and taken by Goya’s work, especially the pinturas negras that he did toward the end of his life. The pinturas negras are especially interesting in that he painted them as murals on the walls of his home. Can you imagine coming home and finding this on the dining room wall?

The pinturas negras hang in a dimly-lit, long and narrow room and as you walk through the room the paintings themselves seem to stare at you from many different angles. Eleanor, whose favorite painting in the Prado was Reuben’s’ “The Three Graces,” was, you can imagine, horrified by all this and walked around with her eyes covered most of the time. After Goya’s death, they transferred the murals to canvas and now they hang in their own room as a permanent exhibit at the Prado.

The Prado also has a nice collection of Flemish painters with an entire room turned over to a few pieces by the fantastical late-medieval artist, Hieronymus Bosch or, El Bosco, as they call him at the Prado. We all stood in wonder in front of “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a triptych that illustrates the wages of sin in an unvarnished and startling manner.

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At lunch later that day we talked at great length about the parts of the painting that amused and startled us: Lu loved the representation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Atticus loved the little Totoro figure to the right of Eve (it’s a rabbit), Sujata liked the blue monster that was eating humans and popping them into a pit (yup) and I loved the images of the oversized birds gazing of the shoulders of the diminutive humans.

I am not attracted to excessive moralizing in art and as I regarded “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I found myself wondering why, given Bosch’s unfiltered recriminations against the pursuit of human pleasure, I was so delighted by his work. Part of it, I think, is that Bosch’s world is just so damn weird and surprising and that in and of itself makes it interesting to see and to talk about.

After we left the Prado we found a little restaurant where I continued my European habit of taking an espresso and a sparkling water in the middle of the day. Emil introduced me to this practice at Viniloteca early on in our stay in Romania so now, besides the fact that I enjoy the combination, it also reminds me of Emil.

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After lunch we walked across Madrid, through the central tourist district and over to the Palacio Real. The line to get into the Palace was ridiculously long and we were all a bit cashed out from the morning in the Prado, so we decided to walk back across town to a churros and chocolate shop.

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The line outside the Palacio Real

This walk was about my least favorite thing about Madrid, maybe about our entire time in Spain. The streets were clogged with people, mostly tourists.

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The dreaded walk across the Plaza Major

Moreover, kids were running around throwing those caps that making a loud popping noise when they hit the ground. I hate those things and I hate those kinds of intense crowds and, happily, Sujata sensed my discomfort and quickly led us to the churros y chocolate place. I always thought that churros were Mexican and I never thought I’d have churros that were better than the ones we get at Pinche Tacos in our neighborhood back in Denver. I was wrong on both counts: churros are from Europe, probably Spain, and the churros we had at Chocolateria San Gines were the best I’ve ever had.

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We made our way back to our flat and continued our tradition of propping the exhausted children in front of their screens where they get lost in Minecraft for an hour as we traipse to the nearest drinking establishment, sample the local beer, wine or cocktail, take in the local culture, reflect on our day and plan for the next.

We’ve spent quite a lot of time on trains this autumn and early winter and the Spanish train system–it’s called Renfe–has been, by far, the most pleasant rail experience. The Renfe trains run on time, the bathrooms are clean, the staff is exceedingly nice and helpful, the stations are efficient and interesting and the seats are comfortable. I’ve spent many pleasant hours on these trains reading, writing, playing chess with the kids and just staring out the window. One of my favorite things to do on these long trips is to order an espresso and agua con gas and stand in the cocina coche looking out across the beautiful Spanish countryside.

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Sujata and Lu chilling on the Ave Express to Seville

This trip from Madrid to Seville is our last trip on Renfe, at least until we return to Spain.

What I’ll miss and not miss about Japan

I’m sitting in the Osaka airport, getting ready to a board flight to Budapest, via Dubai. After a two-day layover in Budapest, we are off to Timisoara, Romania, where I’ll start my Fulbright teaching assignment at West University.

Before I leave Japan, here are a few things I’ll miss, and a few things I won’t:

Things I will miss about Japan:

  1. 7/11 Stores. The 7/11 stores in Japan are, for the most part, clean, stocked with nutritious Japanese food and run by people who are polite. I will especially miss the onigiiri–a ball of rice with plums or any kind of fresh fish rice wrapped in nigiri. Atticus especially likes onigiri because he learned that’s what samurai warriors carried in their pockets on long journeys. Sujata says that if you are looking for an Air B and B in Japan, make sure it’s close to both a train station and a 7/11 and that’s good advice.
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The 7/11 around the corner from us in Osaka
  1. Ramen Shops. We have three or four ramen shops in Denver and none of them hold a candle to even the worst ramen we’ve had here in Japan. My favorite ramen shop is a little 6-seat corner shop under an elevated train near the Osaka Mall. We walked in there this past Sunday afternoon and in addition to being served some most delicious ramen, one of the patrons (a local who was friendly with the owner) shared his sushi with us (which he had brought in, probably from 7/11).
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The exterior of a typical ramen shop
  1. Japanese Public Transportation. There may be another country in the world that has a sophisticated public transportation as Japan’s, but I’ve never been there. For the past three weeks, we have used our Japan Rail passes and they have taken us everywhere we have wanted to go on this island–that includes big cities and small, out of the way towns. Beyond that the trains are clean and they run frequently and on time. It is simply astonishing how the public transportation systems, especially in the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka move people around. Finally, the shinkansens (the high-speed trains that crisscross the country) are brilliant. It is maddening that the U.S. can’t put together a public transportation system like what they have here in Japan.
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Osaka Station–Japan Railways
  1. Bowing and saying “Arigato gozaimasu!” I love how the Japanese bow as a sign of greeting and respect. I especially love bowing to older folks as I’m walking down the street or moving through the train stations. “Arigato gozaimasu” means “thank you very much,” and literally everywhere you go in Japan you hear people singing out, “Arigato gozaimasu!!”
  1. The Japanese people I’ve met and had contact with. They are an excessively kind and gracious folk. I love their understated emotions, the way they smile at me when I muster a few Japanese words and, especially, the way the elderly Japanese women fawn over my daughter.
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Yusuke, who gave Atticus and I the best haircuts we’ve ever had

Things I will not miss about Japan:

  1. Hitting my head. If you are over 6′, like I am, Japan is a treacherous country. Most of the light fixtures and door casings hover anywhere from 5’9″ to 5’11” off the floor. This means that pretty much anywhere I go there are things looming in the direction of my scalp.
  1. People staring at me. I suspect this has something to do with #1. I know it’s not because I’m terrifically handsome or that I have foreign object hanging from my nose, ears or mouth. I’ve actually seen dudes standing in front of me elbow their friends and then nod their head my way.
  1. Shopping/Malls. I really hate shopping and I especially hate shopping malls. In Japan, you cannot get away from either of these things. Each rail stop is anchored by a large shopping mall, so you literally have to walk through a mall each time you change trains or get off at your stop. Beyond that, people are just shopping everywhere, all the time. I really can’t figure out where they put all the stuff.
  1. Shopping for jeans. I didn’t pack any jeans in my backpack because they are heavy and I knew it would be super hot in all the places we have been traveling, so I’ve just been wearing shorts and Kuhl travel pants. Japan is a very fashionable culture–people look smart and stylish so I thought (wrongly) that if I could get a cool pair of Japanese denim that I’d fit right in and then people would look at my jeans and not elbow their mates about the excessively tall, white guy standing next to them at the 7/11. This quest has been an absolute and major fail and I am convinced (now, after wandering through countless department and even ’boutique’ jeans stores) that there is not a single pair of jeans in this entire country that fit me. Oh, and it’s the same for sneakers. They have to coolest Converse Chuck Taylor Hi Tops here. None of them fit me. Yesterday, desperate, I asked a clerk if they carried a size 11 and she looked at me, shook her head vigorously, and made the classic Japanese “No!” sign–you just cross your arms in front of you, bow and shake your head quickly back and forth. Sujata caught this and burst out laughing right there in front of the poor shop girl.
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Japanese “No!”
  1. Smoking in restaurants. It’s not too common in the bigger restaurants near city centers, but if you pop into the smaller ramen or sushi shops (which we like to do) off the beaten path, people are smoking, and it really sucks. It’s the same in the bars. Sujata and I went to this little place around the corner from out apartment last night and we were the only two people (of 6, including the bartender) who were not smoking.

I go for a swim rather than watch the debate

If I were back in the States, I suspect that I’d be doing what most of my friends are doing now–wringing their hands, yelling or throwing things at the television or just staring wide eyed and slack jawed at the inanities and sorrowful state of our politics.

I didn’t watch the first presidential debate. It’s Tuesday morning here in Osaka, and watching television during the day depresses me. I don’t feel much of a duty to watch and I expect that it will be talked about until the end of the Republic (which seems like it’s looming), so I’ll have many chances to hear/read about it.

Sujata took the kids to Universal Studios (thank you, Sujata!), which left me a full, wide open day to do as I please and the best part (so far–it’s still afternoon) was a swim at the Osaka Pool.

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Outside the Osaka Pool

I haven’t been able to swim since we were in Phnom Penh and that was nearly a month ago. I couldn’t find a decent pool in Vietnam and up until today that was the case in Japan as well. It’s not like there aren’t good pools here, it’s just that they can be difficult to get to, especially when you rely on walking (Sapana calls it Bus #11) or public transportation. Deciphering pool schedules in Japan is also challenging. Yesterday morning I checked the Osaka Pool schedule and it said they were open so I walked the one mile to the site, only to find they were closed. I’m here to spend time with my family and sightsee but I have to say that one of my dreams is to travel around the world visiting and writing about different swimming pools. I generally talk to the folks who work at the pools and I’ve been amazed by the kind of information you can get–for instance in Darwin, I had a long conversation with the pool manager about the history of that particular pool, how it fits in with the larger neighborhood and the fact they the City was getting ready to rip out the existing pool and put in a much larger and competition-friendly pool. This is harder to do, of course, in Japan where all I can say (with hand gestures) is “How much swim?” or “Locker room this way?” I look and sound like such a fool.

The Osaka Pool was, by far, the best pool I’ve found–not just in Japan, but all the places I’ve swam on this trip. First of all, the structure is enormous and it looks like a giant space ship.

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The Osaka Pool, ready to take off, beyond the trees

Most of the pools I swim at home are housed in ugly, hopelessly square brick buildings that look like some tight-wad public administrator held a gun to the head of the architect who designed them and promised to shoot if the architect went 1 cent over the already-paltry budget. Not the Osaka Pool–the thing looks like it’s ready to lift off.

It’s lovely inside as well. Not private-pool-you-can’t-come-in-here-unless-you-pay-$30 kind of lovely. I never go to those pools anyway–I always look for public pools mostly because they are less expensive–I paid 700 yen which equals 7 US dollars to swim at the Osaka Pool–but also because I don’t like going to those toney places anyway.

Like so many other things in Japan, you purchase your entry ticket at a vending machine, even though there is a lovely person sitting behind the counter just a few paces from the machine.

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The vending machine where you purchase your entry ticket

The locker room was spacious and clean and it even had lockers with free locks. This is a big plus–most of the places I swim at don’t even have lockers, let alone free locks. On more than a number of occasions, I’ve had to tote my shoes, my bag and whatever else I was carrying with me to the pool side and kind of keep an eye on it between strokes.

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Free locker!

The very best thing about the Osaka Pool, though, was that it was 50 meters. I love 50 meter pools because I feel like I can really get my strokes going and I just love the freedom and beauty of that long line ahead of me.

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One of my favorite sights

I was lucky, too, in that the pool was virtually empty today. I had an entire lane all to myself. This, too, is a big deal. One of the reasons I love to swim is because I don’t have to think about anything outside of what I’m doing but if I’m sharing a lane I have to keep an eye on the other person and wonder if they are overtaking me or vice versa. When I’m running or cycling, for instance, I always have to be thinking “Is that dude in the car going to hit me?” or “Can I pass this other cyclist without getting hit by the oncoming car?” I don’t mind sharing lanes at the pool and, in fact, when it’s crowded and I have my own lane I always make way for another swimmer (a lot of swimmers don’t do this and it’s really annoying).

I listened to Charles Mingus’ Ah Um on the walk to the pool and Nick Cave’s The Good Son on the way back. Then I stopped and picked up some fresh onigiri (I am going to miss Japanese onigiri!)  and ate it back at our apartment. I thought about the debate and the upcoming election a little bit, but it felt more like a pesky insect that buzzes your head everyonce in awhile.

Now, I’m off for another adventure.

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Post swim selfie

Our own Tripadvisor

We are wrapping up our visit to Japan as well as, this is hard to believe, the first leg of our three-part adventure.

Up to this point, our trip has been more exciting and interesting than I ever imagined. We have had a few glitches here and there, but overall, our travels and the time we are spending together have been amazing. We have been moving for nine weeks now so part of me is looking forward to settling down in Romania and slowing the pace down a bit. Another part of me will miss the peripatetic nature of our days.

Pulling off a trip like this involves a great deal of planning. There is the long-term planning, like purchasing airline tickets and making sure all the dates match up so that you haven’t bought tickets to fly from Osaka when you are actually in Tokyo. And there are also lots of short-term and micro decisions that have to be made quickly, like “Where are we going to eat at the end of a long day when the kids are starving and we forgot to eat lunch and now none of the restaurants are open” kind of decisions.

And if it weren’t for Sujata taking the lead and applying her unbridled enthusiasm and deft decision making to both the macro and micro level decisions, this part of the trip would not have been half as enjoyable.

 

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Peeling tropical fruit on a fast boat trip in Vietnam

You really have to see her in action to appreciate Sujata’s global trip planning abilities. Some of her skills, I’ve noticed, come from old-fashioned hard work. She reads the Lonely Planet guides inside and out, researches blog posts on the places we are going and picks up enough of the language to get by (or, at least in Japan, will mumble Japanese-sounding palaver in response to questions that she cannot understand). Other skills are more instinctual–she can sniff out the best places for lunch or dinner, she can wind our way through byzantine-like alleys, lead us through throngs of shoppers in some of Japan’s most intensely crowded malls and she seems to have a sixth sense for finding the Japan Railways stations.

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Playing drums at an Air B and B in Japan
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Applying bug spray in Vietnam–even the mosquitoes love Sujata

That said, it’s not all fun and games. In Japan, for instance, Sujata’s enthusiasm for sightseeing sometimes turned into a kind of manic pursuit to visit Guinness Book of World Records numbers of shrines and temples in a single day. At the end of one particularly long day of shrine-seeing, feeling dehydrated and so exhausted that I could barely pick up my feet, I accused her of leading us on a Baatan Death March. That phrase has stuck and it’s been recycled and woven into our daily life so that “Baatan Death March” has become a code word for, “I need to sit and rest,” or “I need water,” or “Where is the nearest bar?

If I were in charge of the trip, we’d be getting on the wrong trains and airplanes, showing up for a hotel stay in Battanbang when we had a room reserved in Phnom Penh, wandering around in circles while I tried to find the nearest vegetarian restraunt on Google Maps and I’m sure we would have lost the children at least a couple of times. The only time anything like that has happened was in Japan when we got on the wrong Shinkansen in Tokyo. Even that, though, was my fault.

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Upon realizing we are on the wrong Shinkansen

Sujata is a successful physician, but if you are planning a trip abroad and you are looking for your own personal tripadvisor, she is available upon request.

Tokyo Swallows! Hai! Hai!

Okay, the first thing you need to know is that “Hai!” means “Yes!” in Japanese. The exclamation point is very important because it’s not “Hai.” It’s “Hai! Hai!” so you say it with enthusiasm.

“Hai!” is a fun word–it’s playful and strong and full of vigor.  Maybe you know “Hai!” from the Flaming Lips’ great song, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” a song about a young Japanese girl who saves Tokyo from robots programmed to destroy the city. The tune starts with Wayne Coyne’s scratchy, tentative vocals: “Her name is Yoshimi/She’s a black belt in Karate,” and then almost before he can finish the last word of the line, “karate,” in the middle soundscape you hear a small but strong female Japanese voice shout, “Hai! Hai!” I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times and I still find those Hais thrilling. My kids have been singing along to “Yoshimi” since they were wee ones and they, too, still love to shout out the “Hai! Hai!” parts of the song.

It makes sense that the Flaming Lips would tap into this–they are the rock and roll embodiment of the Japanese “Hai!”

If you visit Japan, an excellent place to find the “Hai!” of this great country is at the professional baseball games, as we did last week.

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My friend, David Cooper, told me that Japanese baseball games were something to see–a real insight into the culture so last Sunday afternoon as we were walking around Tokyo, Sujata said, “Let’s go to a baseball game tonight.” A short time later, we had tickets in hand for a twilight game between the Swallows and the Tigers.

We arrived to the stadium about a half hour before first pitch and as we approached the gates I heard a marching band. It sounded like any given Big Ten university campus on a Saturday afternoon before a big gridiron matchup. I could help but wonder aloud, “A marching band at a baseball game?”

The marching band was still playing and I could tell that there were actually two marching bands–one for the home and the other for the away team, I presumed. I looked onto the field and I noticed something else rather strange: cheerleaders. “Are we in the right place?” I slyly asked Sujata. She checked the tickets with mock seriousness and announced that, yes, we were in the right place. This, too, I have to say, is one of the great things about visiting Japan: you never really know what you are going to get, but if you just stick with it, whatever it is, it turns out to be pretty cool.

Our seats were on the first base line about halfway between first base and the right field wall. Pretty good seats for the equivalent of 20 USD. We had been walking around all day–my legs were tired and I really wanted to try an Ebisu–the premium beer of Sapporo–so I looked around for the beerman–you know him: the grizzled staple of all MLB professional baseball games who trudges up and down the stairs with pre-poured Coors, PBR or Budweiser and who sloshes half of the beer in your lap as you turn over your money and he hands you the beer. That guy.

Here, though, in the Tokyo Stadium, I couldn’t find the beer guy. The closest thing I saw to any beer delivery service were lithe, twenty-something girls in brightly-colored uniforms toting large backpacks and . . .  I couldn’t believe my eyes . . . they were carrying kegs on their back and pouring the beer from the keg to a cup as the customers ordered. They gracefully handed out the fresh pours with smiles and “Konnichiwas!” and they ran up and down the steps with the energy of marathon runners.

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I was thinking that this was probably Yoshimi’s early training to destroy the evil robots.

Sujata and I noticed all this at the same time and in unison we cried out, “HAI! HAI!” We both waved our hands like first-graders who know the answer to the question the teacher just asked and, within seconds, there was a lovely beer girl pouring us an Ebisu.

We couldn’t have been happier.

The Japanese have many things over the United States. The food is better, more tasteful and healthier. The country is more environmentally conscious than we are, the people are immaculate dressers, have cool haircuts and are gracious, kind and funny.

Now, add the beer girls at the baseball games to that list.

I felt like I had already gotten my money’s worth. And then the game began.

With all the excitement about the suds I sort of lost track of what was happening on the field and in the stands. Sujata told me that when she purchased the tickets, the attendant asked if we wanted seats on the home or away side. Kind of a strange question for a professional baseball game, right? She, rightly, chose the home side and until I started focusing on the larger surroundings I didn’t realize that we were sitting in a sea of white and blue and green shirts–the colors of the Swallows, it turned out. I let my gaze cross the field and there across the third base line and throughout left and into center field was a sea of yellow and white–the colors of the Tigers. Atticus, upon realizing that we were sitting on the Swallows side, looked down at his shirt and duly noted to all of us that his shirt had a very large tiger on it. He knows enough about how American sports fans can be sometimes be crazy and violent so he became a bit frightened and asked if he could buy a Swallows shirt to cover up his Tiger. We went back and forth on this for a bit (I said don’t worry, but he was having none of it). He finally snuck out in search of a Swallows shirt, returned sans shirt but clutching a bag of french fries and seemed to forget about his oppositional shirt fairly quickly.

By that time, there was so much going on in the stands and on the field that it was easy to forget any perceived danger from aggressive fans.

Between innings, the cheerleaders for the Swallows and then the Tigers ran out onto the field and danced to Japanese pop songs. The Swallows mascot hammed it up with the cheerleaders, as mascots are wont to do.

When they were finished, fans of the Swallows started singing a whole panoply of fight songs that, from what I could tell, were paeans to their home team.

The game itself was pretty much like any other baseball game, although the Japanese pitchers really take their time between pitches so the innings go on forever. I timed it once and the Swallows pitcher took a full 90 seconds between pitches. We stayed at the game for two hours and that was only the end of the fourth inning!

It was the fight songs, though, that were the most interesting and exciting parts of our first live experience with Japanese professional baseball. I don’t know whether or not the Japanese have a good sense of rhythm, but judging from the display they put on at the Swallows/Tigers game, I’d say they do indeed. All of the fight songs began with a kind of rhythmic build up. The band would lay out the tune and the fans picked up with the band, clapping their hands. Many people came to the game with two smallish baseball bats that I quickly realized were made of a hard plastic. They would whack the bats together, so the clapping hands, the music from the band, the singing and the whacking bats–all that occasioned a wonderfully organized cacophony.

As the Swallows band and fans were belting out their fight songs, the Tigers’ side patiently waited and when the Swallows were finished, the Tigers’ band and fans started up with their own fight songs. It went on and on like this for the entire time that we were in the stadium and I’m sure that as the game went into the late innings, the singing, playing and clapping got even more robust.

There is much to be learned about Japanese culture in all of this. First of all, as I noted earlier, you see the graciousness and orderliness of the culture here at these games. I did not hear one fan yell in anger or taunt the opposing team nor did I notice the home team heckling their own players. There were many opportunities for some of the bad behavior you might see at any given MLB game–the Swallows really sucked that night and the Tigers’ starting pitcher beaned one of the Swallows best players in the head and nothing happened. The benches didn’t flinch, the fans actually went quiet and, this I couldn’t believe, the trainers took the player into the dugout for 5-10 minutes, looked him over, pronounced him okay to return to the game. He ended up striking out, so maybe they should have left him in the dugout.

We’re on the supersonic fast train to Kyoto right now–I’m hoping we can catch one more baseball game before we leave Japan.

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How to say hello in southeast Asia

One of the many things I have loved about traveling through southeast Asia and, now, Japan, is the ways that people in this part of the world greet each other.

Greetings are, of course, cultural codes that are so ingrained into our daily lives that they seem natural or even invisible. When you travel though, seemingly quotidian things, like saying hello to friends and strangers, become interesting spaces to understand and communicate across cultures.

In the States, there are a variety of ways to greet folks. If you come across an acquaintance–not a close friend–you would probably say, “Hello, it’s so nice to see you.” Men tend to reach out and shake the person’s hand.  A woman might keep her hands down at her side or she might show her palms in an act of welcome and openness. Unless it’s a professional setting, women don’t tend to shake hands and men don’t tend to shake hands with women.

If you came across someone who is a really good friend, you might be more demonstrative. You might say something like, “Oh, man, it’s so great to see you! How have you been?” Or, you might use another term. I like to call my good friends, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Big Man” or “Big Fella.”

In much of southeast Asia, a greeting is generally accompanied by namaskar– all you do is to put your hands together in front of your chest so that the tips of your fingers are just below your chin and then slightly bow your head toward the person you are greeting. So, if you are in Cambodia, you would greet someone by saying “Sousday,” as you are doing namaskar.

It is not common to shake hands in many parts of southeast Asia. This took a bit of getting used to for me, as shaking the hand of a stranger or even a good friend is very natural for me and for most Americans, I suspect. The few times I did put out my hand in southeast Asia, people would look at me kind of uncomfortably and then grab my extended hand with both of their hands. All you can do then, is put your hand on top of theirs so what you are left with is four hands piled on top of each other.

It’s awkward and I only did that once or twice.

It didn’t take long for me to get used to greeting folks with a namaskar. I should note here, too, that I’m aware that there are distinctions between namaste and namaskar, but for this post, I’m using them coterminously.

Sujata likes to tease all the yoga people back in Denver who are inclined to greet each other with a namaskar and say, “Namaste.” She finds it humorously affecting and a mild form of cultural appropriation. “They’re just saying ‘Hello,'” she laughs. I’m of a very different mind: I don’t think it’s odd for people to do namaskar at home and I loved doing namaskar when I greeted people when we were in Bali and Cambodia. I’m a tall white guy, so I already felt sort of awkward in many of the places we went and doing namaskar helped me to fit in or to at least demonstrate my respect for where we were.

As I’m thinking about this now, I’m coming to realize how gendered hand shaking is in the States. And it’s not just that, as I mentioned above, there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to greetings. It’s also the way greetings, especially handshakes, are done. American men tend to tightly grasp the hand of the person they are shaking and they put their shoulder into it a bit so the action can oftentimes come across as assertive. Sometimes men are judged if they have a ‘weak’ or ‘limp’ handshake.

Namaskar is actually a much more gender neutral way of greeting. Part of that may simply the root meaning of namaskar–it’s to demonstrate respect for the person you are greeting. Because there is not physcial contact between the greeters, it simply cannot become an act of dominance. In the same way, men and women do namaskar exactly the same way; that is, there is not a gendered way (from what I could tell) to namaskar. And, given that there is no physcial contact (as in a handshake or a hug) men and women can namaskar to each other without eithe paryt feeling uncomfortable.

Tuk tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Cambodia–you can’t walk out of your house or a cafe or restaurant, let alone cross an intersection without a tuk tuk singing out, “Sir! Tuk Tuk?!”  If you did acknowledge them and say “No thank you,” most of the drivers would quickly respond, “How about tomorrow?”–as if I knew when I’d be needing a tuk tuk  a full 24 hours later! Most people–foreigners and nationals–just ignore them (unless they need a tuk tuk, of course) and just keeping walking without acknowledging the request. I spent enough time in tuk tuks, especially in Cambodia, to realize that these guys are really super cool, friendly and hard working. Most of them love to chat and they’ll offer all kinds of advice and insights into the city. And even if they are not garrolous, you have to respect what they do–it’s hard and dangrous work, there’s more competition than you can imagine and they don’t make money. They are not, for instance organized into tuk tuk collectives (like taxi drivers, for instance) so they are all out there struggling for customers. Given that, then, after a few days in Cambodia, when a tuk tuk  driver bawled out to me I would always acknowledge him with a namaskar and the typical Khmer greeting, “Sousday!” If nothing else, it made me feel good that I was acknowledging these underappreciated purveyors of cheap (and fun!) street travel, and most of the time, they smiled and, sang out “Sousday!” accompanied by a namaskar.

There’s another reason I like to greet people with namaskar: it reminds me of Walt Whitman and the mid-nineteenth-century American writers I love. Here are the opening lines of  Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

These are some of my favorite lines in all of American literature partly because what Whitman is doing is performing a literary namaskar for his reader. Among the great early American writers, Whitman wasn’t alone in his love of eastern culture and traditions. Emerson, Thoreau and all their Transcendentalist friends (save that old codger, Hawthorne) were walking around Cambridge and Concord with copies of the Vedas and the Upanishads tucked under their arms, looking for ancient literary and cultural inspiration as they forged their own. Emerson read deeply among sacred Hindu texts, and he turned Thoreau on to them as well. Some of Emerson’s greatest essays and poem directly and indirectly invoke Indian mythology and culture and Thoreau based much of his writing on his reading of eastern texts.

If Walt Whitman  was passing through any southeast Asian country he, too, would freely namaskar everyone he met.

I think that is one of the things I liked so much about southeast Asia: there were so many opportunities to connect with people. I could have stopped and chatted with any tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in the same way that I could have chatted with any shop owner, restaurant owner, patron or bar fly in Ubud or Phenom Penh. It’s the same way in Ireland and that’s probably why I like Ireland so much, although doing namaskar in Ireland might get you punched in the face.