teen tour summer

A Verb Vacation

The last time I was away was Thanksgiving, but the last time I felt really away, when I was using foreign currency and didn’t have a cellphone, was in 2011.

That was the year between my New York life and my Denver one. That summer, I spent a week in the Adirondacks, another one in Bulgaria, hopped through Istanbul and Berlin, and then spent three weeks driving across the country. My time in Germany was brief, maybe four days. But I’ve probably thought about that trip for more hours than I was actually on it. Berlin is a great city for a lot of reasons, but what I loved about being there was feeling very aware of the verbs—reading, writing, and running—that made me happy, and making time to do them all.

For the past four years, I’ve integrated all those verbs into my life. Even without the subway, I still manage to read a lot. I’ve woken up at 6:03 every day to write. After this blog post, I’ll go on a four-mile run in the park near my house. But after four years of such good habits, I’m starting to worry that I’ve duped myself. It’s not that being so verb-responsible hasn’t made me content. But always worrying about when I’m going to write or run, or choosing to read over spending time with people—it’s closed me off from some experiences. I have a feeling there’s more to life than doing the things I’m supposed to be doing.

A friend is meeting me in Seoul, and while I’m packing the addresses of three dozen friends to write postcards to, many books, and running shoes, I’m hoping not to get anything productive done. I’m hoping I’ll be present in Korea, instead of worrying about getting my reading, writing or running in.

No one needs a vacation, least of all me, who just went to New York last month. But I’m looking forward to taking a break from my verbs, if not myself, for a week.

Bad Luck and Bad Decisions

A few days after I came home from Part II of the Teen Tour Summer, Eastern European odyssey, I was in my hometown on my way to buy ice cream, when a woman approached me. She looked like she was about to cry, and said she needed $20 because she was locked out. The rest of what this woman said won’t make my ultimate decision—to loan her $20 and keep her son’s social security card as a kind of collateral—seem any wiser. 

But I had just come back from a trip where a lot of people helped me. There was the college acquaintance who let me stay in her apartment in Berlin, the Israeli real estate investor who gave me a ride to the train station in Burgas, and the teenage Turkish girl who showed me around the Asian side of Istanbul. She approached me when I got off the ferry—I was with some cyclists who I had met at the Black Sea in Bulgaria—and said, “I know a lot of people in Turkey are trying to rip you off, but I just want to show you around.” 

As sales pitches go, this was maybe not the best approach, but the bikers believed her, and I was with them. She led us to a good place for a lunch, took us to the bathhouse we wanted to visit, and brought us to a beautiful meditation garden, where she often reminded me to cover my legs. She was insistently friendly and odd, so odd that even though she paid for our bus tickets, I worried all day that she would lead us into an alley where we would be killed. But she didn’t, and now she and I are Facebook friends. 

All this is to say, when I got back to New York, I wanted to do the universe favors. I wanted to live in a place where if I got locked out of my apartment, someone would lend me $20 for a locksmith, and I would return that money. 

For a while, or like a week, it bothered me that I was naïve to give that woman money, that I should have paid more attention to how dirty her fingernails were, that no one responsible enough to pay back $20 would be willing to give her son’s social security card away, or would have the social security card of a stranger. I’ve outgrown that feeling. I’ve returned to a self I wouldn’t even call hardened, but a self that can’t get caught up in calling a strange woman every day for a week to get $18 back on a $20 loan.  

There are homeless people in Denver. They hang out at long traffic lights, willing to trade cigarettes for dollar bills. They hold signs about their service or their kids to distinguish themselves from travelers and oogles. In New York, when the subway door opened, and a man with no shoelaces and three coats shuffled through, there was no need for a sign. Still, anyone spending their day at the corner of Colorado and I-25 is probably not in a great place. And somehow, or because that’s the only way to get to work and get on with it, you have to roll up your window and not think too much about the world you would like to live in if you locked yourself out of your home. 

Car Crowding

“I don’t know if I want to be good at car camping,” Truman said on our tenth day on the road, and our fifth night in a tent.

And fair enough: car camping is neither luxurious nor outdoorsy. There are conveniences, like access to showers that take quarters and having bear-attracting odors locked safely in the car. But the fact is, you’re sleeping in a tent and cooking food on a glorified bunson burner. On our third night in Yellowstone, Truman said, “We haven’t had vegetables in four days.” We had even gone through the carrots we had brought as emergency roughage.

But after driving more than 4000 miles over three weeks, and camping in Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and now Colorado, we know how to do it. Some tips: you can’t have too many reusable bags and bottles filled with water. Small treats, like chocolate and wine, go a long way. Buy firewood when the opportunity presents itself.

Yesterday was the last night we will spend out of a car. We knew where to stay: we found a site by a small tributary to the Colorado River. We knew how to be friendly: we ran out of fuel for our stove, but asked around and were able to borrow another camper’s spare. And we knew how to cook: we made brown rice with herring and avocado with a side of steamed broccoli.

But the pleasantness of last night was in part because we were in Rifle, CO, a small town 100 miles north of a national park I had never heard of. We’re here because Truman’s grandmother grew up here.

There isn’t much tourist industry in Rifle. The mountains aren’t too tall and the rivers aren’t too wide. But that’s what I like about modest beauty. It’s still beautiful, but there are no crowds.

Sounds from the Road

One of the defining elements of my time in South Dakota has been the Sturgis Rally. For an official week, and unofficially, the week before and after the rally, South Dakota gives into the tourist dollars of a half-million Harley-Davidson enthusiasts.

By design, motorcycling is a solitary activity, and I can appreciate how exciting this rally must have been for them. It’s a chance to meet other riders, show off sunglass tan lines and buy leather accessories.

But as someone driving across the country in a hatchback, the rally has been a pain. In South Dakota, I wasn’t able to experience the silence I imagine fills the state during non-rally weeks. And I feel bad for South Dakota residents. Summer there is so short, and three weeks of it are given up to the rumble of motorcyclists. Of course these riders nearly double the population of the state, and the economic benefit outweighs the cost in noise pollution.

When I planned this trip, I had never heard of Sturgis. The timing just worked out to be in South Dakota at the same time as all those bikers. I have a friend who drove out to LA from New Jersey, the timing just worked for her to do the whole trip in five days. Even if driving across the country feels like my American birthright, it’s really an adventure in logistics. It’s not possible to plan the perfect cross-country adventure. Things just time out as they do. 

Loving An Idea

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Yesterday, I was in a cave, but a few days before, I was in “The Greatest Domestic Space in America,” Frank Lloyd Wright’s living room in Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It was of course beautiful and impractical, a joy to tour but probably impossible to live in. 

I like visiting Frank Lloyd Wright buildings–I’ve seen maybe seven so far–but while flipping through Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly Magazine in the visitors’ center, I started feeling a bit like a dope. Can you imagine writing the editor’s note to that? What’s to report? Frank Lloyd Wright is still dead and we need more money to repair the leaking? 

After the tour, we went to the Unitarian Church where Frank Lloyd Wright, his family and some of his apprentices were buried. On some graves, the deceased were described by one relationship–loving mother, devoted brother, loyal student. By Frank Lloyd Wright’s grave, there was a quote from the architect himself: “Love of an idea is love of God.”

Speaking of loving an idea, the Sturgis Bicycle Rally is happening all around us in South Dakota. The density of motorcyclists hasn’t stopped being absurd. I don’t know what idea these riders love, but they all seem very happy to be together, wearing leather and talking about RPMs.

Just A Bit More About That Lake

It was Jordan’s lake. Well, she never owned it, but it was her neighborhood lake out in Solon, Ohio. It was where she learned to swim, where she and the other neighbors used to bike to every day in the summer, and where she was a lifeguard in high school. Before we jumped in, Jordan, her dad, Truman, and I had gone trail running in the nearby Metropark. It wasn’t a huge park or a wild one, but it was enough of both of these things that Truman and I got lost and dogs could be off leash.

We were sneaking into this lake, in a way, since Jordan’s family doesn’t live in Solon anymore, and she has no more claim to this lake than I have to the high school I went to ten years ago. No one stopped us though. As Truman noticed while watching Jordan and me walk to the car, we don’t look like kids anymore. No, we look like adults, perhaps even new homeowners in Solon. And while I was treading water in this lake, I had this feeling that after a nice place to run and a natural body of water to swim in, the rest was just details.

Going West


I’m in New York right now, in a brief lag between my summer trips. When I was hiking in the Adirondacks or biking through Berlin, it was easy to forget that all this fun was made possible by The Great Unknown. I have no idea what my life will look like in six months, but who can worry about that while swimming in the Black Sea? In my parents’ house, packing and unpacking, watching reality TV and eating fresh fruit from Costco, all I can think about is the West. 

And tomorrow I head there with my friend Cody, the Truman Capote to my Harper Lee. Our first stop is Jordan’s parents’ house in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her dad was the first person to sell waterbeds east of the Mississippi; he was also the last. And back in the day, he was fierce ultramarathoner. On Friday morning, he and I are going for a run. And then Truman and I will drive to Chicago. 

Practical and Good.

Along with tap water and free toilets, before this trip, I didn’t appreciate how in America, you can pay to eat any fruit you want any time of year. But in Sofia, Istanbul and Berlin, there is only seasonal fruit. In Bulgaria, my friend was canning cherries before I came, and in Germany, white asparagus season, which I missed, is a big deal because when it’s over, there’s no more white asparagus.

Out of season fruit and vegetables don’t add much to my life. Generally, people in Sofia, Istanbul and Berlin seem to enjoy the same conveniences, save for nectarines in the winter, that Americans have, like indoor plumbing, the internet and fashion scarves. And since individuals have less money in those places, there are less private cars, and more public infrastructure. There was no need for a car in any of the places I visited, which to me is the ultimate amenity of living in New York.

In the case of Berlin, there is some pride that basic luxuries come cheap. The city’s unofficial slogan is “poor, but sexy.” And Berlin, which was sexy to me, is kind of broke. It’s possible to live very well on a bad job in Berlin, but there are few good jobs to be had. This is especially true for people without EU passports. I met a few ex-ex-pats whose hearts belong to Berlin, but whose wallets demand they work elsewhere. But still, it wasn’t like people in Berlin had bad teeth, which was sometimes the case in Sofia and Istanbul. (Also, isn’t it funny how if you have good teeth, no one thinks you’re rich, but having bad teeth means you’re poor?)

Back to the title of this post, which is a play on the “Square. Practical. Good.“ slogan of Ritter Sport, a German chocolate bar which can be found out of season at many New York bodegas. An ex-pat friend said that slogan is so German: direct, not exactly wrong, and without the same kind of consumer wish fulfillment that is so common in American ads. She also says Germans identify themselves less with the products they own. And like buying fruit only when it’s in season, that seems practical and good.

Just Some Things I've Been Thinking As I Approach Hour 70 in Berlin

  • Berlin seems like a city that was built for more people than it contains. There is no crowding on the sidewalks, bike lanes, streets, trams, buses or subways.
  • Which is an odd feeling. Berlin is evenly distributed, and never dense. Even the ceilings are high.
  • An American Berlin friend I have said it’s a city built for about five million people with only 3.5 million inhabitants, which is maybe why it’s so cheap. Another friend said there’s stringent rent control at work as well.
  • And its cheapness seems to be a trap for some people. It’s affordable and lovely here, but there aren’t a lot of jobs, which could be why there aren’t more people around.
  • One thing that is particularly lovely are the parks. There are a ton of them!
  • None is as well tended as New York’s grass museum, Central Park, but it doesn’t matter. Public space can still work with uneven hedges.
  • The smaller parks are about the size of Fort Greene Park, but level with the street, so they are more integrated with the city.
  • And seeing people interact with these spaces, Jane Jacobs may have been wrong about parks always being dangerous.
  • Of course, it gets dark here around 10 pm in the summer.   
  • So it’s easy to stay up late, and wake up with the feeling of not being tired exactly, but feeling poorly rested.
  • Good thing, like many Berliners, I don’t have anywhere to be.

Mehr Von Einer Amerikanischen Auslanderin

One thing I didn’t appreciate about America until this trip: that tap water is always free, as are bathrooms. It makes my whole “Stay Hydrated” lifestyle much more affordable.

I’m in Berlin now, which is the first place I’ve been where I’ve been mistaken as a local. Seems like everyone here shares my not-quite blond hair and light eyes. (Tasteless joke: I guess that was the point.)

Every time I go abroad, it takes me a while to remember that not everyone speaks English. I guess this an obvious thing, but one that is easy to forget in the States, a place where it’s ok that I nearly failed Spanish for three years in high school and then again for three semesters in college. With my linguistic limits and hypocrisy acknowledged, it always surprises me to hear children talking to their parents in another language. Like, don’t those parents know that to talk to me, their kids are going to need to speak English?

Still in Germany, or from my one day of walking around Berlin, most people speak a bit of English and haven’t minded helping me out with maps or taking my food order. The only exception was the guy at the TV Tower, who sounded like he was being called on in English class and just wanted to go home and die, which is something I can relate to. This is all to say that for the past two weeks, any time a local has answered my question in English, I want to thank them for paying attention in high school.

Young and Old Abroad

‘It makes you feel young,’ my best friend said when we arrived in Sozopol after a bus from Burgas and an overnight train from Sofia. Young, that at 28, we were still up for losing a night of sleep to save some lev on a hotel, young that we still had the sense of adventure about us to go on an improtu beach vacation with her landlord, and young, that after meeting as 7-year-olds and becoming friends in eighth grade, we were still the same pair who got kinishes from the hot dog truck when we were supposed to be walking around the lakes of our high school for gym, the same two who, when bored of Prague after a few days, hopped on a bus to Paris, and now the same friends who were sleep-deprived and had no place to stay in a beach town on the Black Sea.

I have been thinking a lot about her comment on this trip. 'It makes you feel young’ implies that our age isn’t enough, which frankly, it isn’t.  We do not have kids or mortgages, but we could, and while there is still time for life changing decisions, there has also been enough time to acquire moles on our backs and wrinkles around our eyes.

On this trip, I find myself both young and old. Young because I will stay at hostel and share a bathroom, but old because I will pay for a private room. Young because I am proud of the tan I have acquired on this trip, but old because I am a little worried about the sun spots that will follow. Young because I sought free samples of Turkish delight while walking through a bazaar, but old because I am enjoying a 8 TL frappe in an air-conditioned cafe right now.    

But there are some things that I enjoy about getting older. For one, I know the routines that make me happy. While I’ve been travelling alone, I’ve managed to read, write and run, the most fulfilling verbs I know. My hotel room is ground level, and every night, I can hear the American pop music which plays for tourists like me late into the night. One evening, while brushing my teeth, I was reminded of my sophomore year in college, when I would wait until 4 am to walk home from the bar with my friends, unaware that I could leave on my own. I am glad I know that now.

But one thing that doesn’t change with age is how hard it is to remember how big this world is, and how many people are living right alongside me.  This morning, I went to the archaeology museum, and saw the artifacts of Empires I hadn’t thought about since 9th grade world history. Maybe as an American, or just as a person, I can’t comprehend how many lives have come before my own, but it was nice to see their coins and remember that they were here once, too.  

So back to my old friend. She’s an anthropology student, studying trash collection, specifically of the Roma community, in Bulgaria. She started coming to Sofia in 2003, before international phones were ubiquitous and before she knew how to read Cyrillic. On my second to last night in Bulgaria, we went to a Roma wedding, which had some of the garish charms of an American one, but also had kids rollerblading with one skate and propelling themselves with their sneakered foot and cotton candy sellers hanging out on the fringes of the reception. And while I love my friend, I do not always share her propensity to dance with strangers who don’t speak English. So we decided I should go home early, before it got dark, and hail a cab when I left the Roma neighborhood and reached the outskirts of Sofia. She wrote down her address in Cyrillic and told me many times how to find a taxi and also not to look at men directly in the eye. It was a shorter journey than the one she took eight years ago during her first summer in Bulgaria, and one that was also completed without incident. And yet when she returned to her apartment, she told me that she had spent the rest of the wedding worrying about me and wishing she had lent me her phone so I could have texted another wedding guest with news of my safe arrival.

And so we are not as young as we once were. But that’s ok, too.                                                                                                                                 

As I Travel, Some Thoughts on Travel

Well, I found the comma key but not the apostrophe one, so I wıll have to make do.

On a recent season of The Bachelorette (thıs ıs a no judgment web zone when ıt comes to TV watchıng habıts) a contestant, who was ın Turkey no less, says somethıng about how travel ıs such a good way to get to know someone. Lıke so much about The Bachelorette, thıs sentıment struck me as false. I would hope ıf you are on a realıty TV romance show, the person you meet could get down wıth an ABC sponsored vacatıon. If I were produce a realıty romance TV show, I would call ıt Tedıous and Mundane and gıve the hopeful romantıcs a budget and 20 mınutes ın a supermarket to shop for the week. That ıs a real way to get to know someone.

And generally, most people are lıkeable on vacatıon. I suppose people have dıfferent travel styles, but ıf you are bıkıng through Eastern Europe and you meet some other rıders along the way, chances are you can chıll together for a week or so. 

But stıll, havıng met some bıkers on a beach ın Bulgarıa (and lıkıng to bıke myself, though travelıng by bus) and then meetıng up wıth them agaın ın İstanbul, travel does seem to be ıf, not a perfect way to get know someone else, a good way to remember who I am. Lıke wıth few practıcal oblıgatıons or socıal sıgnıfıcers or any ıdea what to do ın İstanbul, thıs ıs who I am, meetıng new people, explorıng a new place. And ıt ıs good and bad, but all sort of famılıar and true.

Im Typıng on a Turkısh Keyboard So No Commas or Apostrophes In Thıs Post

So I left Sofıa and embarked on the 3rd leg of my teen tour entıtled Theres a Good Chance Ill Never Have Thıs Tıme Agaın So I Mıght As Well Explore. Wıth that ın mınd I arrıved ın İstanbul after an 8 hour bus rıde and no place to stay. Oh to be young! Except Im not as young as I once was and happıly overpaıd a cab to take to me the tourıst neıghborhood where I am now surrounded by the Uruguayans and Germans and Australıans who ın part fund the Turkısh economy. I dont exactly mınd gettıng rıpped off. All I know about Istanbul comes from the Lonely Planet guıde a frıend lent me and I mıght as well be readıng the Java Scrıpt manual ın the book trade pıle at my hostel. I have no ıdea where I am or how to speak Turkısh and these hotels and restaurants wıll accept my ıgnorance for money. Its a faır trade ın an ımperfect market. Oh to be an Amerıcan!

Speakıng of cultural ımperıalısm one of the thıngs that surprısed me about Bulgarıa ıs how lıttle anythıng but Bulgarıan was spoken. Sımılarly sızed countrıes lıke Sweden and Denmark have accepted that theır language wıll never be a global tongue and have taught generatıons Englısh. Even Chına has decıded ıts just more effecıent to teach ıts busıness leaders Englısh than to waıt for others to learn Chınese. But Bulgarıa doesnt seem to care about the tourısts whıch I suppose one has to respect.

Tomorrow ıts off to Hagıa Sofıa. Hılary Ballon I hope you know Ive taken your advıce on usıng your Intro to Archıtecture Class as a world travel guıde.


PS Almost every computer user Ive seen on thıs trıp has been on Facebook. Congratulatıons Mark Zuckerberg.

A Phone-cation

Around January of this year, I was in a bad mood at a decent party and I really wanted someone to text. I didn’t want to find a better party or even connect with someone else. I just wanted out of where I was, at least through my phone. If I had had a smartphone, I wouldn’t have even needed to text someone. I could have checked my email or played angry birds. But if I had spent that night on the phone, I wouldn’t have been at that party. A smartphone is portal out of anywhere, but it lets you out of being in one place completely.

One of my favorite things about this leg of my teen tour summer is not having a phone at all. In Europe, the only person I know is my best friend, and we’re SMS'ing IRL all the time. Incidentially, this friend has a habit of “forgetting” her phone charger whenever she goes on vacation, which is a pain unless you’re on vacation with her. But I see her point: a phone-free trip really is a break from everything.

I’m sure this Luddite sentiment comes from the fact that I have weeks of travel ahead of me without a job or an apartment to worry about in the meantime. But still, it’s a true thing that staring at a small screen never makes me feel any happier.

A Funny Thing About Drinking In Sofia

So since I was about 16, my only real political stance has been anti-bottled water. It’s not just that I’m cheap, which I am, but also that bottled water is the stupidest. It’s bad for the environment in a million different ways: the collection of it ruins stream beds, the transportation and storage of it leaves a huge carbon footprint, and the actual container stays on earth longer than we will.

Unlike most cities, Sofia is not by a major waterway. Instead, the city was founded because a river of potable mineral water flows underneath it. There are fountains in the city with water so fresh that it is still warm from the earth. Unfortunately, these fountains are kind of inconvenient and the city’s tap water is bad. People rely on bottled water here to such an extent that at restaurants, if you want flat water, you have to order a bottle of it.

As someone who tries to stay hydrated and eschews bottled water, this is all very difficult for me. Adding to the dilemma, in the Roma neighborhood I visited yesterday, using a toilet, or peeing at all, wasn’t really an option.

Here’s something else from the Roma neighborhood I went to yesterday: I don’t appreciate my dentist enough.