Thinking About Travel…

I love this sign and the idea behind it. I love the design, the pop of the black and white letters, and the shape. It says a lot about the business and the people who run it. It’s attached to the wall outside a “simple” organic café next to our apartment in Mallorca. SIM–PLE. Yes, it’s a café sign, but I’ve taken it as an expression of my travel philosophy.

Simple, in this case, doesn’t exclude the complex; it merely strives to keep things uncomplicated. For example, we’re on the island of Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, and we’re here for a month. Basically, we’re hanging out, watching people, sampling foods, visiting markets, and reading about the island’s history. It’s “simple” travel. We have the luxury of time, something most tourists don’t have, so if we want to take a day off, we take a day off. Nothing is lost. We’re here to relax, enjoy, and learn, not maximize or quantify the experience.

For years we were more intense and adventurous, traveling on bikes, carrying everything with us, riding 30-60 miles a day with no reservations. We always said that when we couldn’t climb the hills any more we’d do a tour of flat old Holland. We did that in 2009. It was our last overseas bike trip.

Four years later when we returned from working in Saigon, we needed to rethink our travel philosophy. We still wanted to travel, but didn’t want to bounce from town to town living out of a suitcase. As a result, we came up with the “simple” concept of picking a different location each year and living there for two months as close to the local economy as possible. So far, we’ve done Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Palma.

Travel, especially foreign travel, is an opportunity to learn – whether it’s on the road or hunkered down in a remote village. People travel for different reasons. Curiosity. Family. Business. Culture. History. Adventure. But, travelers have stories and like to share them. I have many, but one of my joys is listening to others stories. When we lived in Saigon our mantra was, “You don’t end up in Saigon by accident. If you’re here, there’s a story worth hearing.” And, we loved to pry those stories out of our friends and visitors alike.

We see travel as part of the global village experience especially when a friend or acquaintance notes our location and offers a local tip. It happens all the time. I have six friends with ties to this island – three Germans, one Brit, and two Americans. They all live here part of the year. When we were looking for an apartment to rent the Brit recommended the Sta. Catalina neighborhood, and her recommendation was spot on. Earlier this week, our American/German friends, Bill and Dorothea, invited us to visit Soller, the village they moved to 31 years ago, and soon after that a mutual friend of theirs in Carmel, California told us to make sure they took us to a restaurant that was a highlight of his trip to Mallorca. Soon after that a Belgian friend who lives in Singapore saw on Facebook that we were in Mallorca and wrote to tell us about a restaurant in Palma that we shouldn’t miss. We tried it today and it was a smash hit. Word travels fast in the global community. Next week, we’re going to spend two days with a German friend who’s coming to the island for a business meeting. Small world.

But it isn’t just old friends who amplify the global citizenship aspect of travel. Friendly locals give a trip that personal touch that’s so often missing when you’re a tourist. Two weeks ago we met a Russian/Chilean couple who live here, and they invited us to their home to try a local Mallorquin food and meet their 25-year-old son whose new technology is designed to enhance the lives of rural Tanzanians. And, yesterday we bonded with a Swedish woman – Anna the Swede – at SIM-PLE. She mentioned that her son and daughter are nationally ranked skiers in Sweden, as mine were in the US, and she couldn’t wait to tell us about her idea for a service oriented health and fitness business in Palma. M’s marketing savvy and Anna the Swede’s reading of the local market were perfect for each other. We’ll stay in touch with Anna too.

M and I will continue to travel, to connect with old friends and meet new ones. We’ll try to ferret out the essence of the places we visit and study their histories. Mallorca is an island culture that dates back to the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and the competing jurisdictions of Castile and Aragon until it was eventually united under the Bourbon dynasty in the 18th century. There’s plenty for us to work with but we’ll try to distill the experience and keep it SIM-PLE. We’re not academics who want to rewrite history or reveal something new and definitive about the places we visit. We simply want to be good global citizens and share our experiences with other global citizens wherever we are.

 

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At Home in Palma…

I’m sorry Seattle… I’m really tired of long winters, gray skies, and the rain that’s coming soon. When we left Saigon four years ago I put together the Surviving Seattle blog in an effort to cope with it, but in my heart of hearts I’ve always been a blue sky, warm water, palm trees kind of guy and this month I’m falling in love with Palma de Mallorca.

I don’t want to oversell it. We just spent a month in Berlin, and I’m easily seduced. It’s not really apfels and oranges to compare Seattle and Berlin to Palma. They’re both northern temperate climates and though our Berlin weather was seasonably good outside dining wasn’t really in the cards. On the other hand, stepping off the airplane in Palma on Thursday – the day a storm nearly blew Berlin away – the early evening sky was dark blue, and it felt like Santa Monica. Indeed, parts of the taxi ride from the airport into Palma looked like Marina del Rey. I immediately thought of tapas and wine at an outside table. Sidewalk cafes were tugging at me. I’ll own it; Southern California has always felt like my natural habitat. Berlin was a treat, Seattle is exciting, but I could live in Palma.

The taxi took us to our Airbnb apartment in the Santa Catalina neighborhood near the marina. The owner, Roman, is an architect and the studio is well designed and exactly as described on Airbnb.

The neighborhood is hip and chock full of restaurants, tapas spots, bars and small cafes. Right next door is a breakfast bar with espresso drinks, organic fruit, homemade yoghurt, and a Southern California ambience. For the past two mornings we’ve been the oldest people there by 40 years.

So, what is it about Palma that “feels” so right? I think it’s the Mediterranean and the mindset that goes with it. The weather is warm, and the people are relaxed and informal. If you’re not worried about being blown away, washed away, or buried in sand or snow you can relax, take time in the afternoon for a siesta, eat dinner at 10, drink wine until midnight, and sleep soundly. You don’t need a down parka and wool hat; T-shirts, shorts and flip flops do the job unless you’re working and then you might wear a suit but no Thom Browne metrosexual suits that make you look like you raided your child’s closet. Spanish businessmen wear suits that are comfortable and their jackets come off when it’s hot.

One of the unexpected benefits of our Mallorcan visit was discovering there was a Masters tennis event in town – the Legends Cup – with some old familiar names like Mats Wilander, Carlos Moya (below), Alex Corretja, Tim Henman and Henri Leconte in the draw. The venue, the Palma Tennis and Sports Club, is just around the corner from our Airbnb apartment so we bought tickets and went twice over its four-day run.

It was fun; the tennis was not all that serious, some good, some clowning around, but the best thing was not about tennis but meeting a local couple, Nicolas and Gisela Ostrovsky-Periera. We happened to share a table in the food area and got to talking. Nicolas is the General Manager of a very special Hilton hotel and resort, called Sa Torre, and she consults for another hotel chain. Interesting people. His father is Russian, his mother Swedish, and he was born in Paris. She is from Chile and they met in Sweden. Global citizens. We like them.

We had an animated conversation with the Ostrovskys, and Nicolas invited us to visit the hotel property, whose main building is a 14th century manor house. It sounds like an offer we shouldn’t refuse. If that wasn’t generous enough, today we got an email from Gisela asking us to come over to their apartment for an informal traditional Mallorquin dinner of “pamboli,” – bread with olive oil, Iberian ham, cheese and tomatoes. We were blown away by the invitation. We are just home now and don’t know which was better the food or the hospitality. We were joined by their son, Andreas, a younger version of themselves – born in Sweden, raised in Mallorca, school in London, and now working in Tanzania. This kind of experience, like the one we had in Berlin with Antje and Bernd is a reminder of how important it is to reach out to newcomers. We’re just two older Americans who are interested in the people and places we travel and that quality about us seems to be apparent to others and respected accordingly.

There is nothing like travel to make the world seem smaller and more manageable. Our experience in Berlin was similar. We were embraced by old friends and welcomed by new ones.

We are somewhat separated from the political messes of the world but even so we’re just a short boat ride away from Barcelona where Catalonia is coming undone over its independence referendum, and our daily newsfeeds remind us that Donald Trump is bloviating and threatening nuclear war at home while refugees continue to flee the Middle East and North Africa. The world is no safer than when we left home though we have geographically and psychologically separated ourselves from the chaos.

I continue to look for the silver lining and find it in the friends we’re making, the extraordinary places we’re visiting, and the mix of cultures we encounter in our travels. Like our “Restore Our Faith in America Tour” of Washington DC and the presidential homes in Virginia last fall, we might call this the “Restore Our Faith in the Global Community Tour” of 2017 – always searching for positivity and perspective.

We’re going back to Seattle and I know we will love being in our nest, but I always feel refreshed and renewed after time in the sun, whether it’s Santa Monica or Palma. At a minimum it will help us cope with the ongoing political nightmare at home.

Beautiful Mallorca

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Other End of the Telescope…

I’m always astonished at how time and space collapse when viewed through the other end of the telescope—how, as our lifelines expand, we see changes that weren’t evident as they were happening, of cycles we thought were one-offs repeating themselves, and how overseas travel helps us see beyond the forest of our everyday surroundings. The riverside restaurants in the picture above have taken the place of The Berlin Wall that stood here in 1989.

Being in Germany today heightens these reflections. I had the incomparable experience of working and living in Berlin for almost 10 years when it was an island in the East German sea, when the only ways in and out were the three air corridors or the three restricted highways between West Berlin and the rest of West Germany. I was there and walked through the Brandenburg Gate on October 3, 1990 when the two Germanys were officially reunited. All of this in my lifetime. Astonishing.

Earlier this week M and I took the train to Hamburg to visit a friend, another eye opening time collapsing experience. From our Airbnb apartment in Berlin I purchased the tickets online (138 Euros for two) and downloaded the tickets to the Deutsche Bundesbahn app on my iPhone. I could see the platform number, car number, and seat numbers and any changes to the above before our departure.

On Tuesday we rode the S-Bahn directly into the new (2006) Hauptbahnhof where our train to Hamburg was due to depart. We had an hour to spare, so we sat in one of the many state-of-the-art bakeries on one of the 5 levels of the station and drank our cappuccinos and ate pflaumenkuchen before the train departed.

The ride to Hamburg in 2nd Class was first rate. The train was spotless and the two-hour trip flew by. As usual, the flat, mostly agricultural, Elbe River plain was covered in a heavy morning fog, but the soft, shrouded landscape was reminiscent of an earlier time when farming was more important than industry and one could see nothing but cultivated fields stretching to the horizon.

Hamburg itself is one of the richest and most attractive cities in the world. The downtown core, a mixture of glass, gothic and upscale shopping is anchored by the Vier Jahrezeiten (Four Seasons) Hotel on the Kleine Alster (the smaller part of the divided Alster “lake” that is really a river) while the larger lake, surrounded by a lovely park and trails is ringed with the mansions of Hamburg’s wealthiest citizens.

Some things were as I remembered them, including the location of the Vidal Sassoon Salon where I used to come for haircuts. In those days I flew for free, had lots of curly hair and my own stylist. It was a 40-minute flight and a short bus ride to the salon. Today, it’s a train ride, a safety razor and a box of band aids. The hair is gone and so are the free flights and stylist. Those were the days. Now I’m on the outside looking in. Check out the photo.

Yet, today Hamburg is a mixture of both old and new, art and industry, land and sea. The flagship of the New Hamburg is the recently completed, wildly over-budget Elbphilharmonie that rises like a ghost ship out of the Hamburg harbor like the Flying Dutchman.

Controversial from its inception and criticized for its cost and time overruns, it is now the pride of Hamburg and its biggest tourist attraction. Tours are free and oversubscribed but unfortunately don’t include a look inside the two concert halls. Nevertheless, the outside balconies at the hall’s performance levels do provide an excellent view of the city and its famous harbor – the third largest in Europe.

Hamburg has come a long way since its reputation tilted heavily to the seamy nightlife around the Reeperbahn with its famous red-light district and clubs where the Beatles elevated their art. Those places are still there, but no longer of much interest to tourists or townspeople. Today, the home of the Hanseatic League and the Hapag-Lloyd shipping empire is a thriving upscale commercial center where Persian carpets and Ethiopian coffee are major imports and 1 out of 3 incoming shipping containers starts its journey in China. The harbor tour is well worth the hour it takes to see the inner workings of one of Europe’s most interesting cities.

But, it’s not all business and fine arts. The food scene is thriving too and Hamburg with its northern German cuisine is an interesting contrast to that of most other European cities where local offerings have given way to more international tastes. One of the most interesting restaurants we visited was Mutterland, a local place that has maintained its character, décor and cuisine. Here, 30,000 hand-painted tiles adorn the floor and walls and shown to their best advantage with upscale service and modern lighting.

Our trip to Hamburg was a quick one and it wouldn’t have been nearly as power packed if it hadn’t been for our friend Julia Hummel. 22 years ago she was an exchange student of Marilynn’s in Seattle and since then has become a member of our extended family. She’s visited us in Seattle more than once, and she and her sister, Katrin, have met us in Paris, Rome, Pirmesens (their home in Germany), and Saigon. Next week we’ll see them both in Frankfurt – another benefit of global friendships and citizenship. Here she is with Marilynn at the Elbphilharmonie.

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City of Spies

It might have been lifted out of a spy novel–the caller, without identifying himself, simply referred to “the interview you requested…” The instructions that followed asked me to have the front desk contact “Mr. Winter” and, when cleared, directed to his room.  So, on a hot summer day in 1962, I drove from the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to meet with a CIA recruiter.

I knew, even then, that “Mr. Winter” was not his real name, but it was kind of sexy going through the charade. “Mr. Winter” fit the profile of what, in those days, was the stereotypical CIA spook – tall, Waspish, Navy-blue suit, white shirt, rep silk Club tie and the bearing of a Yale graduate. I don’t remember a thing about the interview except that it was business-like. I never heard another word from “Mr. Winter” or The Company.

I’m reminded of this because here, in Berlin, spies, spying, and spy craft are an important part of the local history. It’s the real life setting for the fictional world of John le Carre’ who in his latest novel, A Legacy of Spies,  again reminds us that secrecy is the currency of spies which, in turn, moves me to find parallels between the secrecy of the old spy world and the more recent clumsy attempts by Donald Trump and his campaign to hide meetings and relationships that were known to many, difficult to hide, and suggest something more sinister than mere forgetfulness.

Le Carre’ is hard on spies. He stresses that spies and spy agencies walk a tightrope between the values they espouse and the methods they employ. That they often cross the line by utilizing methods in conflict with their values.

That’s the underlying plotline of his new novel in which George Smiley, the iconic spymaster, and Peter Guillam, George’s right hand man, are brought back to answer for sins purportedly committed 50 years ago – sins that may have been committed in the unfolding of Operation Windfall, the centerpiece of le Carre’s first great novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I love Berlin. Living here during the Cold War had a certain dis-ease to it; a wrong turn might take you to a dead end at the Wall, Vopos with mirrors looked under busses, trucks, and cars for defectors at Checkpoint Charlie, and stern, pockmark-faced clerks with Red stars on their headgear checked passports in the dimly lit, tile lined room that was the pedestrian crossing point to East Berlin at Friedrichstrasse.

It wasn’t so long ago that walking the streets of East Berlin felt eerily dangerous. The Stasi were watching and terrorizing citizens while Len Deighton and le Carre’ were setting their spy fiction in its sooty gray streets lined with ugly East-bloc apartment buildings. There are still reminders of that time –   broken sections of the Wall that stand crookedly, the Brandenburg Gate where Vopos stood guard with Kalashnikovs, and the bulbous needle-tipped TV tower that looms over Alexanderplatz. Today, barely 27 years after the fall of The Wall, Berlin is vastly different. The streets of East Berlin are full of young people and it hums with small shops, jazz clubs, artist studios, alternative spaces and hipster Kniepes.

I confess, the best part of being in Berlin today is being outside the full-on shit-storm of daily Trump coverage. We live in a global village so we’re not beyond its reach, but here, in Germany, we don’t have to endure the daily deluge of tweets and counter-tweets, insults and counter-insults and other Trump inanities that rain down on us from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the New York Times.

On the other hand being here drives home le Carre’s dictum about secrecy and the spy world, about methods and values. It’s obvious to most Americans that the secrecy, dishonesty, and duplicity of Trump and his posse is in conflict with our traditional values and that they crossed into alien territory to pursue the presidency. The world is watching. Our German friends ask us repeatedly to explain what’s happening in America. Isn’t it ironic that Angela Merkel and the Germans have become keepers of the democratic, anti-fascist, ethical flame?

So, why does the City of Spies have such resonance with me? Isn’t it all past history? Not so; in many ways Berlin is the symbol of a spy culture that is very much alive. Thirty years ago it was Russians vs. Americans. Their spies vs. our spies. Today, they’re still at the game and it looks like they’re winning. Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Carter Page, Erik Prince and Jeff Sessions were all playing footsie with agents of the Russian intelligence services during the campaign and hid their involvement. American intelligence services are on the defensive and struggling to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of other Western services. Trump and his posse are “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” clumsy, stupid, and naïve, but their actions are undermining America’s stature in the world and that’s exactly what Russia’s action plan intended.

In Berlin’s old Jewish quarter, near Hackescher Markt and the golden dome of the Neue Synagogue (above) built in 1859, there are small brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk outside the apartments of deported and murdered Jews. Germans have not forgotten their legacy and the dark stain of National Socialism, much as Americans can never get away from their own legacy of slavery. It’s such a mystery to me that a small segment of America is now allowing itself to forget the genocidal horror of the Holocaust and promoting white supremacy as a legitimate strand in national politics.

We can’t accept secrecy that hides the truth. We can’t accept methods that undermine our values. We can’t accept policies that favor only a tiny percentage of our citizens. We can’t allow the government to punish our most vulnerable. Today, Germany is shining a light on a dark period in its history. We have to join them by condemning the normalization of intolerance, bigotry, and racism.

I would never have been a good spook. I’m glad “Mr. Winter” didn’t make me an offer. I might have been persuaded or flattered into signing up. Instead, I departed El Toro for Berkeley where I had the good fortune to spend three years learning about the law and institutions that support the rule of law. Three years well spent. Thank you, “Mr. Winter.”

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Are We Comfortable Yet?

There is nothing quite so humbling as stepping on foreign soil and realizing that your self-assurance, built over decades, has dissolved—a reminder that when you leave the comfort of home, the security of family and friends, and cross into territory where language, culture, and daily activities are even slightly different, an element of insecurity rises to the surface. There’s no turning back; you’re on an adventure, so drink up. Prost!

M and I are here in Berlin for a month. It feels strange to be out of my comfort zone after living here for almost a decade—but that was 30 years ago. It’s odd that I didn’t feel the same on extended stays in Paris and Rome, but I guess I have higher expectations because of my history here. I should be at ease. I was never truly fluent but I had no trouble being understood or getting things done. I know the vocabulary’s in there and wants out, but for now it feels like a painful dental extraction when the clerk or cab driver stares at me and I can’t find the right word to complete the transaction. It reminds me of an experience in Spain with my son, Brent. He was 8, and I wanted him to be part of the adventure, so I gave him money to buy a Coke at a roadside cafe and told him how to ask for it in Spanish. He looked at me, paused for a minute and then said, “But what if they talk to me?” I know how he felt. Today, my German is so rusty I can’t quite get going, and while the rust is beginning to flake off it’s annoying, frustrating, and embarrassing that things don’t come more easily.

Experienced international travelers know there will always hitches along the way. This time, in spite of our experience with Vodafone sim cards in Rome, the German sims we bought at Deutsche Post didn’t work when we got back to our apartment. After trying for two hours to register them online I gave up, and because it was Saturday, when German stores close at noon, I knew we wouldn’t be able to solve the problem until Monday morning. In the US we’d simply drop into the local Verizon or AT&T store and it would be over. I applaud the weekend closures here – very civilized – but it meant having to wait until Monday morning to get the phones working. As they say, patience is a virtue, but virtue is tested when we leave the boundaries of our everyday lives.

There are many differences large and small for the traveler in Germany – credit card usage, public transport, business hours, automobile etiquette, tipping, washing machines without dryers, etc. One particularly annoying difference for the American traveler is in the use of credit cards. At home we charge almost everything. It’s great for record keeping, not having to carry cash, and, of course, Frequent Flier miles. But, here many small businesses and restaurants as well as state agencies like the Post and public transport vending machines are not so credit card friendly. As a consequence we’ve been to the ATM (not always easy to find) four times in order to get our business done. Even Vodafone rejected my credit card with a purchase of 56 Euros. I couldn’t make sense of it, but it meant another stop at the ATM.

We’ll be fine once we get acclimated, but the disruption reminds us there are positive effects too. There will be sweaty palms and awkward moments, but doing things differently creates new neural pathways that keep the brain alive and active. Learning new things and new ways keeps us flexible and resilient – and, yes, younger. All travel is stressful, but foreign travel means there are new challenges every step of the way. New places, new faces, new foods, new languages, new customs, even new kinds of beds and bed linens. Things seem almost the same but they’re not. Foreign travel is an exercise in adaptation – something recommended for those of a certain age – or any age.

On that positive side, we travel to see and experience new things, and we’ve has some nice surprises too. As much as I enjoyed living here in the 70’s and 80’s, I didn’t always find it easy to make friends with the locals. Maybe, this time, it’s the presence of M my friendly smiley companion, but strangers have been eager to talk with us and we’ve made several new friends in our short time here.

When we showed up exhausted and jet lagged at the wrong Airbnb address, the surprised owner helped us find the correct address and summoned her daughter, Charly (her spelling), to get her car and give us a ride. Charly, who spent part of the summer in Seattle, is our new friend and planning to have lunch with us soon. A couple of nights later at a local Italian restaurant M started a conversation with the family at the adjoining table and when they stood up to leave they handed us a slip of paper with their address and an invitation to stop by for a glass of wine. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing 30 years ago.

I’m not a glass half empty person, but I lack patience – that previously mentioned virtue – and tend to forget our successes. In retrospect, I recognize that we haven’t been idle since our arrival. Not only have we met new people on the street and in restaurants, but we have had two exceptionally interesting evenings. One was a sumptuous dinner at the elegant Altbau apartment of a British friend where we were introduced to her longtime companion, the former German ambassador to France and the UK. As happy as we are to be out of the Trumpian US news cycle, this evening with educated informed Europeans was a special treat with a different global perspective.

And, while that evening was stimulating and made us feel welcome, we are crazy lucky to have selected this particular Airbnb apartment in a large Jungendstihl house in the lovely residential neighborhood of Zehlendorf. Our hostess Antje, an architect, has transformed an English basement into a stylish, comfortable French-inspired apartment looking out on a lush garden. On arrival, Antje greeted us warmly and when she saw my guitar she told us that her husband also played guitar and planned to jam with friends at the house on Tuesday night. After checking with him, we were invited to join in and could either listen or play along. It all happened last night and turned out to be one of those unforeseen events that sticks forever in memory. After seeing that I could at least follow along, I joined the jam and we worked our way through a repertoire of Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Peter Cetera, and the Eagles. Quite an evening.

Sometimes it takes a while to be at ease in a foreign setting, but if we keep plugging away it will come. I know I’ll never feel totally at home away from home, but it’s a great adventure and might even create some brain nourishing neural pathways. Here’s hoping. Prost!

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