Monthly Archives: July 2010


When I first landed in Europe last month with my family, I had lots of goals. I wanted to drink wine in France, beer in England, and whisky in Scotland. (I had a few cultural goals as well, like having a glass of champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower, hoisting a pint at the Globe, and enjoying a “wee dram” in the shadows of Edinburgh Castle. That sort of thing.) By the time I left, however, I only had one goal: to somehow make it back home in one piece. As it turned out, this was the hardest goal of all to achieve. Or, at least it was for me.

As soon as we arrived in London, I had lectured both Clyde and Clementine about the importance of realizing that, in the U.K., cars drive on the “wrong” side of the road, and how it was therefore vitally important for them to look both ways every time they stepped into a street. I think my exact words were, “In the U.K., you never know where the next car is coming from.”

And then I stepped in front of a bus that was being driven on the sidewalk.

Luckily for me the deafening horn inches from my face propelled me out of harm’s way (literally—I don’t think I actually moved; I think the horn itself knocked me back a few paces), but still, it was a valuable lesson for all of us. ( As it turned out, this was a section of “road” that, in the interest of traffic flow, allowed cars—and trucks and buses—to “sneak” across a small section of sidewalk. With no warning. In a Latin American country such a dangerous piece of sidewalk would probably be marked by the collection of crosses and floral offerings left for the souls of the departed pedestrians. In London, where it rains almost every day, there was not even a trail of blood.)

Still, even though I could plausibly blame that close encounter on the bus driver’s lack of sidewalk etiquette (according to Emily Post, it is bad form to speed up on the sidewalk), my other near death experiences were not so easily explained away. Let’s see: after the bus in the center of London there was the black taxi cab outside of Wembley Stadium, the tractor in Glastonbury, an antique Citroen in the heart of Paris, and a Land Rover being driven by a man in a kilt in Edinburgh. It got so bad that the only time I felt completely safe was when I was either in my bed or on the toilet, and even then I had a sneaking suspicion that my sangfroid was slightly misplaced.

The truth was that even after a month overseas I had no idea how to cross a street safely: I could neither figure out which direction cars would be coming from, or where they were allowed to drive, so that, in the end, I was reduced to waiting on street corners and hoping that someone would come along and cross first so that I could follow. (Although even that was no guarantee—unless I literally inserted myself into their back pocket I was still a goner: that one step behind them was sometimes all it took for me to be left out in traffic like the proverbial deer in the headlights.)

In fact, it got to the point that eventually the only way I really felt safe crossing the street was when I was with my son, Clyde; even though he’s only nine he somehow seemed to have the traffic situation figured out about five minutes after we got there. Some people might think that’s because his top three goals didn’t involve drinking, but I know the truth.

It was simply a case of beginner’s (sober) luck.

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Toilets R Us

Whenever I travel, one of my prime concerns is how to locate a “good” toilet. This hasn’t always been as easy as you might think, because the “American Standard” toilet is just that: the American standard. In many other parts of the world the porcelain throne is still a yet to be achieved ideal. (To give you an idea of how much of an ideal, picture this: we once went to a bar in Chang Mai, Thailand where, in the spot most people reserve for pictures of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Elvis, there was instead a life-size photo of an American Standard toilet, complete with votive candles and floral offerings.)

It’s not that I’m terribly squeamish about such things (when you gotta go, you gotta go)—it’s just that when you’re already dealing with a different culture and their different bathroom habits, adding a language barrier into the mix can cause things to quickly get awkward. Forget peeing in the bidet: there have been times when the room to which I was directed to was so dark and fetid, the hole in the ground so small, and the assortment of random objects thrown into the corner so eclectic that I was seventy percent sure I was probably peeing (or worse) in the mop closet. But what could I have done? Like I said: when you gotta go, you gotta go.

Still, despite all of my different encounters with toilets in various parts of the world, I never thought that the place I would have the strangest, and the most awkward bathroom experience ever, would be in Paris, France.

I should have known what I was in for when Clementine, who had gone in ahead of me, came out with a horrified look on on her face and said, “These people are so weird,” but by that point I was so used to hearing that from her on a regular basis that I didn’t give it much thought. After all: this was France. How weird could it really be?

As it turns out: REALLY weird.

Because, the thing is, this wasn’t just a bathroom—it was a bathroom store. Everything, including the model you eventually got to use, had a price tag on it. And when I say eventually, I mean eventually, because before you even got close to their number one (and two) seller, you first had to pass racks and racks of “specialty” toilet paper: Sudoku TP, crossword TP, flowered TP, and TP in every color of the rainbow, including black. (If you’re old, like me, you probably remember when this was the fad in the US as well—colored toilet paper to match your colored toilet, sink, and tub. Well, apparently, like roller-blading and Jerry Lewis, in France it never went out of style.)

And yet, even though all that fancy toilet paper provided dozens of chances for “customers” to stop and shop, that wasn’t what was causing the hold up. No, the real slow down—the “blockage,” as it were—was the guy in charge: you couldn’t just grab a stall when it came open; you had to wait for the “Maitre d’” of toilets to personally personally escort you to your “seat.” And of course, like any good French maitre d’, he liked to make you wait.

By the time I was finally out of there I was of the same opinion as Clementine: these people were really weird. It was only later, upon reflection, that I considered whether or not I had been the victim of some sort of a hoax. After all, we were right next to the Louvre—maybe the whole thing was just some kind of performance art.

All I know is that if that visit ever shows up on youtube I want my euro back.

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Happy Family

This is an open letter to the Happy Family attending the Glastonbury Music Festival the other week—the one whose glacial speed nearly made me miss getting to the front in time to see Kate Nash throw up; hopefully, you will read it before we attend any more festivals together. I’m sure you know who you are: the family of five who were moving at a snail’s pace in a crowd of approximately fifteen thousand people, all the while holding hands in a long, drawn out snake; the family that was acting like you were playing “Red Rover” with the crowd; the family that got offended whenever someone tried to cut through your daisy chain of happy family-ness.

Yeah, you. So tell me: what’s up with that? Were you under the impression that you were the Von Trapp family and the Nazis were just behind you? Did you believe that the only way to make it over the Alps/through the crowds without leaving someone behind was to cling to each other for all you were worth? Or maybe it wasn’t anything so interesting as all that: maybe one of you dropped a contact lens, and the rest of you decided to do one last sweep for it—together, of course, because that’s what Happy Families do.

Anyway, my point is this: we get that you are a Happy Family. We get that you are all together (how could we not, with your matching t-shirts and equally matching sunburns?). But do you think that maybe, just maybe, you could save your show of familial solidarity until after the big crowd?

Don’t get me wrong: I like happy families. Really. Occasionally, I’m even a member of one of them myself. So, yeah: I understand. After all, I have kids, too—kids who, for the most part, I don’t want to lose in a crowd either (well, not the boy). But, even so, I have somehow managed to bring my children to the far reaches of the world—and back—without once having to resort to forming a human scythe to do it.

I know, Happy Family, that you may be reading this and saying Well, so what? What difference does it make to you how we choose to keep our family together in a crowd? Here’s the thing: when you do things like play “crack the whip” with an unwilling crowd, or ram into people’s ankles with your Ford Explorer of a stroller, or, worst of all, deposit your “bum bombs” in any place other than a trash can, it does make a difference to me, because you are making things harder for the rest of us who are trying to take our families to non-standard family events. Trust me: when we show up at something like a music festival we already get the eye rolls and the “well, there goes my good time” looks—we don’t need your help. We don’t need for you to have made a pass through the crowd before us, sweeping away all good will in your wake. We can establish enmity all on our own.

And, the thing is, like I mentioned before, I understand why you do the things you do. I understand how tiresome it can be to have to endure the nasty looks every time you walk into a restaurant that isn’t decorated in primary colors, and I understand how that frustration can lead to the belief that in return for raising the next generation of nurses, and soldiers, and video game designers, you deserve to take a few liberties with other peoples’ ankles and time.

And, you know, you may have a point. But, next time, it’d be nice if you could make your point someplace where getting to the next stage doesn’t matter quite so much. Or at least someplace where Kate Nash is going to be sober.

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We always talk about how we want our children to surpass us: if we have a high school diploma, then we want them to go to college. If we have a college degree, then we want them to get their doctorate. And if we get our doctorate—well, then we probably want them to quit wasting their time in academia and learn something really useful, like plumbing. But the point is, we always want them to do us one better, no matter how well (or poorly) we may have done in the first place.

At least, that’s the theory.

The truth is, we only want them to do better than us after we’ve already stopped trying: sure, we want them to beat our highest score, but not not while we’re still playing the game. Think about it: would Michael Jordan appreciate being dunked on by his own son while he was still playing for the Bulls? Would J.S Bach be happy to have J.C. Bach sell more CDs than him while he was still composing? By the same token, would I be happy to have Clementine outlast me in a mosh pit while I was still within moshing age? The answer to all of these questions, is, of course, a resounding no.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Just a few weeks ago, Clementine was able to hang all night in the mosh pit at a Green Day show in London, while I . . . well . . .I had to be carried out. What? You couldn’t read that? Well, I don’t know, the cost of ink and all, and there is a recession, and, um, well . . . Okay. Fine. I had to be carried out. I HAD TO BE CARRIED OUT. There, are you happy? It’s true: when the mosh pit went crazy, I bailed. And since I was too close to the front to move back, that meant I had to beg for help from the burly stewards in front of the stage, who dragged me over the railing and out of harm’s way. To add insult to injury, as I went I swore I could hear someone shout, “There’s somebody’s mum!” And the sad part is, they were right.

And so I went and stood in the back, with the other mums and dads, where there was room to move, and breathe, and drink, and dance, and waited for Clementine to come find me. When she did, nearly three hours later, she was completely squashed, and sweaty, and happy.

“That was the BEST SHOW EVER,” she gushed. “Billie Joe LOOKED at me. Where were you?”

“Here,” I mumbled. “In the back. With the mums.”

“Oh,” she said. “Why?”

And what could I say? That when the bodies started to pile on me all I could think of was Altamont, and then the 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati, and then every concert everywhere where something had gone wrong? That I could imagine all too easily a booted foot coming down and breaking my ankle, and what a financial nightmare being injured in a foreign country would be? That neither I nor my bra had the oomph to pogo up and down for the next three hours? Or, worst of all, that mentally I had left the mosh pit a few years back?

In the end, I didn’t say any of that. I muttered something about “the douchebag behind me” (which there was—I have the bruises to prove it), and she let it go at that. But really, the reason Clementine danced all night underneath Billie Joe’s nose, and I sat back with the mums, is because, much as I hate to admit it, when it comes to moshing at least, this Queen is dead.

Long live the new Queen.

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Pack Mule

So there I was, sitting at Sky Harbor Airport, and, miracle of miracles, both of my children were still alive.

Of course, this probably had more to do with the fact that the food vouchers issued by British Airways were also good for alcohol than due to any acts of grace on the part of my children, but still.

We were there.

Our bags were there.

And I still had two (living) children.

That this could ever have come to pass had been under considerable doubt as little as two days earlier, when we had first taken our suitcases on a trial run down to the Pay ‘n’ Take. (The point of this trip being to determine whether or not we could manage our luggage, not whether or not we could manage a pint.) As it turned out though, we could manage both—although some of us also “managed” to annoy the hell out of the rest of us during the half mile trek.

Why? I dunno: maybe it had something to do with the fact that the people who weren’t carrying fifty pounds of luggage kept telling the people who were to hurry up. Or maybe it was how those same annoying little people insisted on getting in the way of the aforementioned Sherpas, dancing in front of us in mockery while chanting “So slow, so slow, you are so slow.”

If we hadn’t been so loaded down we would have chased after them; unfortunately, that would probably just have led to a “Homer chases Bart” type spectacle, which would not have helped alleviate the undignified feelings we were experiencing at all. And so we let them go: our (supposedly) thrifty packers.

Don’t get me wrong: in any other circumstances I would have been proud that my children had turned out to be such light packers; so unburdened with the need for heavy frivolities like make-up and game boys that they could dance around mockingly in front of us. However, the reality of the situation demanded that I feel otherwise.

The truth is my children are not some kind of “packing idiot savants;” they are just idiots.

Consider the following: despite the fact that we were traveling to a music festival that is legendary for its mud—this festival is one of the only places where non-combat doctors can study real, live, trenchfoot—if given the choice, my children would have left their rubber boots (wellies) at home. And despite the fact that after this festival we were traveling to a city—Paris—that is equally legendary for how the locals look down on the slovenly dressed tourists, they also would have traveled with only a collection of t-shirts, cargo shorts, and flip-flops.

And then there’s the little matter of hygiene. Toothbrushes? Who needs ’em? Spare socks and underwear? It’s only a month, right?

I will admit, though, that traveling with my kids now is much easier than it was when they were infants, when even a trip to the park meant packing a bag for every contingency, from mild fevers to a suitcase bomb. (Really. Ever since 9/11 my first aid kit has included radiation sickness pills). But despite the fact that I’ve slowly insisted they become more and more responsible for their own comfort, there’s a part of me that will never stop worrying that they are, actually, comfortable, the same way my sixty-five year old mother still asks me if I’m warm enough when we go out.

And so, I pack; they pack; and then I pack some more. And somehow we always manage to have almost everything. But still: I could do without the dancing.

(Update: as it happens, this has been the sunniest week in England in a decade. Sigh. Once again, Kids:1, Mom:0).

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