I have been fortunate to have business-related travel opportunities of late. In September I was able to go to Dubai and Italy for a total of 12 days. That afforded me the opportunity to see Milan, Venice and Florence, albeit for only about five hours each. When you have that kind of small window to see one of the great cities of the world, and you think there’s a pretty decent chance it’s the only time you’ll be there in your life, you have to make choices about how you will spend those precious few hours.
For the Italian cities, I took the hours I had and hit the ground running, almost literally. I walked as far as I could as fast as I could. I was by myself so I plotted my own course, was light on my feet, and just tried to soak up as much history, architecture, humanity and life as I was able to pack in. In Venice, I went to the Rialto, the plaza, shopped and ate. Shopping may not sound like a good use of time in Venice, but in fact it was. In Florence, I went in only one building, the Galleria, for the sole purpose of seeing Michelangelo’s David. (It was worth it. David is, without a doubt, the most impressive piece of art I have seen in my life.) But I also spent a fair amount of time taking in the duomo, the porto Vecchio, and the Uffizi from the outside. And, just marveling at Tuscany in general. No doubt, I left a lot on the table in both places. But they were days I will remember for the rest of my life.
Milan was mostly spent in the suburbs, but I took an evening to go downtown and see the duomo, la Scala, and Milan street life in general. It was Fashion Week in Milan, which is a bit like having Gay Pride Week in the Castro in San Francisco. When I stepped off the train I thought maybe everybody in Milan was a six foot tall, beautiful, immaculately-dressed woman or man. In fact, in a normal week I think only about 60% of the population fits that description.
And, not to be left out, Dubai was great too, but a whole different experience. The water park I went to there was world class; ever spend seven hours by yourself at a water park? You’ll sleep well that night if you do. Dubai was like a cross between New York City (for the melting pot culture and big-city feel), Las Vegas (feats of audacious architecture that are both awe-inspiring and crass, like building a replica of the Eiffel Tower…that’s one meter taller than the real Eiffel Tower) and what I imagine Riyadh to be (subservient women in full birqas, although that was only a small percentage of people overall). The luxury car spotting was primo in Dubai, but the highlight was swimming in the Gulf every morning…the water had to be close to 90 degrees. (Did you know they make swimming birqas?)
These are all kind of one-off trips, not a regular feature of my job, so I realize how fortunate I am to be able to see these places and definitely do not take these opportunities for granted. These trips have been special particularly because, although I have traveled quite a bit in the U.S., my international travel experience had previously been limited to a week in Belize, three hours in Vancouver, and yes, I also count going to Puerto Rico for a week as “international travel”. As you can imagine, my eyes were wide open on all these trips; everything was a new experience.
However, as a result of these being work-related trips, I’ve not been able to have my family or friends with me; I traveled with work colleagues to Dubai and Italy, and had a great time with them, but you feel odd seeing a place like Venice without the people you love. It was definitely bittersweet to have these opportunities, but to have them alone.
A new opportunity came up earlier this week; my employer recently purchased a company in Tel Aviv, Israel, and there was a business need for me to visit and share (and acquire) knowledge. It was a great time to go to Israel, in that I had to shovel about six inches of snow an hour before I got on the plane. Nothing helps you get through shoveling like knowing you’ll see palm trees in 12 hours. My time in Tel Aviv was mostly focused on business, so I didn’t get a chance to see Jerusalem or the older parts of the country. But I did feel like I was able to get a feel for Tel Aviv itself. Visually, it’s sort of like San Diego without all the blondes; very cosmopolitan, very bright people, great food.
Here’s what’s in my notebook from Israel:
As a sweet-tooth and lover of delicious pastries, it was a fine town to spend time in. Israel knows how to satisfy a sweet tooth.
People here have a very clear sense of the relative values of civil liberties and security. When your beautiful cafes start having a tendency to explode, and the country is small enough that your odds of having that kind of event hit close to home are relatively high, you probably feel a little different about building a giant wall and profiling the heck out of people vs. the value of free speech.
You’ve probably heard it said that everyone in Tel Aviv has a cell phone and it is omnipresent. This is a lie; it appeared to me that most people had three or four phones, and they were omnipresent. Whenever we implant phones into people, it will happen here first.
People here are nuts about the NBA and basketball. I had more detailed conversations about the Timberwolves than I’ve had in a year here in the Twin Cities. They really know their stuff; when people heard I was at the Kevin Love 31/31 game against the Knicks, I drew a crowd. They are all intrigued by the Wolves’ Love/Michael Beasley duo, which is nice. (A lot nicer than the Ricky Rubio scouting reports I heard…) It turned out there was a regular Tuesday night basketball game at this company. I was ecstatic when they invited me to play, even though I didn’t have quite the right shoes and my only shorts were swimming trunks. It was great to run with those guys; it’s just a connection on a whole different level.
There were two things about the game that I’ll remember. One was an extended, two-minute argument (in Hebrew) about what the score was. I couldn’t tell if it was actually heated or if this was just how these guys rolled. I stood to the side and smiled; when it was over I asked one of the guys on our team what the score was and he grumbled “Hell if I know.” I never did learn what the count was in that game, nor did it matter: They played first team to 12 wins, or the game is over after 12 minutes. But there’s just a very loose clock being kept on the side. So you never really know how much time you have. Remind you of any other sport? Here’s another thing that might remind you of another sport: When there’s any reason to stop play and inbound the ball, they would immediately scoop the ball up, run to the sideline, and do a soccer-style throw in as they run up and down the sideline. And it all happened fast. So, for example, if someone on your team travels and the other team gets to inbound the ball, you better find your man quick, because that ball’s getting thrown in immediately and they’re not waiting for you. Makes total sense when you think about their soccer background, and actually it was kind of fun once I got used to it. It was a great night.
I left basketball with only another six hours till I had to leave for the airport for a 5:40 AM flight back home, via a five-hour layover in Amsterdam. I decided to take a cab to the beach, even though it was dark. I didn’t feel like I could say I had seen Tel Aviv if I didn’t get to the beach. As I was getting out of the taxi once we arrived at the boardwalk, I could have sworn my driver asked me a question that implied an offer of an escort service. It wasn’t obvious by any means, and I didn’t clarify. But it was unexpected; “sex industry” wasn’t the first thing that came to my mind when I thought of Tel Aviv. However, as I walked the boardwalk I saw those business card-size advertisements for escort services laying all over the ground, like you see in Las Vegas. This made me think perhaps the cab driver really was asking me what I thought he was asking me; I guess Tel Aviv is like any other large, international city that way.
I ate dinner on the boardwalk at an English-style pub, which was pretty freakin’ English because there are a ton of ex-pats there. That in itself was an experience, full of mini-dramas not worth recounting to you here but which were entertaining nonetheless. As I got into the cab to return to my hotel, the driver immediately turned to me and said, in a thick accent, “Hey…you like girls?” The answer was “Yes…I married one!” When I told him I just wanted to go to my hotel he was obviously put out, he said in kind of a snotty voice, “You’re welcome.” Very pleasant guy. He asked me to change a $100 bill, I told him I couldn’t. (I realized later he was in the process of sizing up how much he could overcharge me.) As we drive, he sprays himself all over with a body spray. “You want some?” When I refuse he says, “But it’s Adidas!” As he shows me the can, I see he’s right. Adidas makes a body spray. But still I refuse; he shakes his head in disbelief. As we drive he asks me where I’m from. When I tell him Minnesota he starts talking about how he loves the U.S. and something about Beverly Hills. At first I’m thinking, “Wow. Is that really what people think of when you mention the U.S.? Beverly Hills?” In fact, he was talking about Brenda from Beverly Hills 90210, who was from Minnesota. I have not heard Shannon Doherty discussed with such reverence in a long time. That was hilarious, but not the funniest thing that happened on the cab ride. After we arrived at my hotel, he conned me into overpaying him. I was aware of what was happening, but at that point I really wanted to be out of his cab so I just went along with it. Plus, hey, I was looking for a way to get rid of all my Sheckels anyway. As I was leaving the cab he asked my name and offered me his hand to shake. But this guy was smarmy deluxe and I didn’t trust him much, so I gave him a fake name. It was totally spur of the moment, but I just lied. I said, “Bob. My name is Bob.” And he says, in his thick accent, “Kevin. I’m Kevin.” “Kevin?,” I asked incredulously. I just got out, shaking my head. I’m sure “Kevin” laughed hard as he drove away after sticking “Bob” with a bogus cab fare. At least a memorable ride will last a lot longer for me than that extra $20 did for “Kevin”.
I left the hotel at 3:00 AM to get to the airport. I was already exhausted; I had done Tel Aviv the best I could with the free time I had. This cab driver offers me no solicitations; he’s all business. Of course, it is also 3:00 AM. Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” comes on the radio, and I think about being at Baylor debate camp, summer of 1985. Then I notice he’s singing quietly along to the song, and I wonder what my cab driver was doing in the summer of 1985. Even in Tel Aviv, it’s a small world.
Now let me start by acknowledging there are two things that come to most people’s mind when you mention Amsterdam: Having lunch in one of their cafes, because their menus are of such high quality and you can get things there you can’t get here, and the Red Light District. But there’s a lot more to Amsterdam than that; a LOT more. Or so I have heard. Me, I was only there to see the cafés and the Red Light District. OK, I’m joking. Or am I? Being a history buff, a birder, a lover of culture, I was there for so many reasons. So there’s really no telling what a man of my tastes might do with two hours in Amsterdam. Who can say?
It took me an hour and a half to get out of the airport and onto the right train; I ended up with exactly two hours in downtown from the time I stepped off the train to the time I had to get back on. Two hours in one of the great cities of the world isn’t much time. I immediately left Centraal Station and marched into the heart of the city. It was cold and overcast, small patches of snow packed on the brick streets and sidewalks, a great day for a brisk walk. My previous plan with Venice and Florence would be put into play here: Walk as far as I can as fast as I can, to see as much as I can. I know I’m walking by amazing museums, awe-inspiring churches, literally history at every turn, but the more time I spend in one building or place is three or five more blocks of Amsterdam I’m not going to see. I might never get back here in my life, and I just need to keep moving—I want to know what it’s like to simply be a dweller of this city, even if only for an extended lunch hour on a cloudy, cold Wednesday in early December.
But hey, I can’t be expected to undertake an urban race-walk in sub-freezing temperatures in one of the great cities of the world without proper nourishment. I immediately found a café; there were many to choose from, but time constraints being what they were I went to the second place I saw…ordered from the extensive menu…lunch was wonderful. Perfect, in fact. Very laid back, staff was helpful. I intended to have lunch and run quickly, but I ended up staying for half an hour, just taking it in. I watched locals and tourists young and old come in and order lunch to go. A couple other people showed up and ordered lunch in, but for most of the time I was the only one there. Surprisingly, there was reggae music playing in the background. When I was done I had some lunch left over, and sometimes you just don’t want to bring your lunch on the plane, especially because on the way out of the airport I noticed there were a lot of dogs trained to find people’s lunches, so I donated my leftover lunch to the other patron there at the time. I made a friend that day.
I stepped out onto the street and had exactly 92 minutes to walk far, fast. I knew this because I had set my phone alarm. This whole operation had to come off without a hitch due to the time constraints; my first mistake would be my last. I left the café, turned left…and started walking. After a certain point I had to consult my map of Amsterdam, which turned out not to be the best; I had torn it out of the in-flight magazine on the airplane. Predictably, it turns out they left some streets and street names off the map. Not a huge deal. But here’s the thing: Amsterdam is really easy to get lost in. It’s sort of a collection of concentric horseshoe shapes, intersected by streets and canals. It makes sense, being built by the Dutch and all; it’s not all labyrinthine like Venice, which truly is a chaotic experience…but it’s still damned easy to get lost, even if you didn’t just have a large lunch.
Eventually, I realize I’m a lot farther away from where I thought I was, and I have a tiny anxious moment. My map’s not entirely up to the task I have set it, and while I’m not concerned about missing my train, I am concerned I won’t be able to see the Red Light District. Eventually I resort to using the many magnificent church spires as navigation tools; I lost perhaps 15 minutes as I regained my bearings. But even then, I was still covering new ground in Amsterdam; it wasn’t exactly a tragedy. Along the way I was enticed many times to stop and take in the magnificent birding opportunities the canals offered. Tons of scaup, ducks, swans, sea birds; I damn near got sucked into that a couple times, and that’ll eat up time like nobody’s business. Instead, I put my head down and kept moving. Later for you, birds.
Now, let me explain my rationale for getting to the Red Light District: I simply wanted to see it. Nothing more, nothing less. How do you go to Amsterdam and not see that? Plus, I like to look at sexy women. There, I said it. It’s not a crime. Not here, anyway. Do I feel dissonance, knowing the realities of the sex trade and how that negatively impacts so many people’s lives? Of course. I also don’t like Big Media conglomerates, the Coca-Cola company, or our country’s fascination with big-money athletics at the expense of more fundamental societal needs, but I consume those things, too. Life is complicated, shit happens, and I wanted to see the Red Light District.
The thing is, I expected the Red Light District to be a little more distinct. And at night I suppose it is, as you can see the glow of the red lights emanating from the windows. But in the daytime…it looks mostly like anywhere else in Amsterdam. So I’m walking down a street and I see what I think is a mannequin in a street-level window. Like, this woman’s actually imitating a mannequin. But then she blinked. Then I blinked. Holy cow! This was it.
Here’s what I learned: Don’t break stride. If you break stride, you learn that window that you think is a window is really a functioning door, and that door is going to open. In the span of about 30 seconds, I went from a brisk walk with my head down to having a Salma Hayek clone ask me if there was something else she could show me. I didn’t expect to have this conversation at all; I half expected to see “Kevin” over on the side brokering this deal, but it was just me and her. I said, “No, thanks”, and walked away a lot faster than I arrived. Then I chided myself on my Midwestern embarrassment and resolved to go down a few more streets, careful to stay to the other side of the walkway and take a slower pace. After all, if I was going to see the Red Light District, it only seemed right to take a moment to actually see it.
It was quite something, talent with a capital “T”. Pick your archetype, it’s there. Gaudy lingerie? Yes. The full arm tattoos with the Gothic Skank look? Check. Got Queen Latifah issues? You can work them out here. Girl next door with the pig tails, librarian glasses and the white cotton top? Uh…better walk faster. Hey, is that Russian blonde in the mini-skirt wearing a Santa hat? Oh my, look at the time! Gotta get out of here and catch that train!
And just like that, I was back in “normal” Amsterdam, whatever that is. I continued my walk back to the station, stopping to take in as much as I could. Seeing all the locals on their bikes made me homesick for my wife Jane, it was very easy to imagine her riding by on her cruiser. She’s German/Finnish/Swiss, but she would fit right in here. I realized my time here was almost done, and although I had enjoyed it the most of any of my recent travels, it really hit me hard that I was alone. I would recount these stories to her and my friends, but it could never replace a shared experience. I knew she had been to Amsterdam when she was in college, and so I imagined a younger her walking these streets, eyes wide open as mine were that day. I resolved then and there we would come back here, together. I imagined us riding through the streets together on our bikes; it was easy to see, it felt so real.
A long time ago I camped in Tahoe with some close friends. It was a perfect guys’ weekend, but I also imagined sitting on those same rocks, looking over those same lakes someday with Jane, Linus and Lily. It took six years to make that dream come true, but it happened this summer, and it was a special moment.
This Amsterdam bike ride I imagined with Jane? That’s going to happen, too.