February 20, 2009

Going Back to Rockville

Yesterday (or maybe it was the day before yesterday) I embarked on a mission that took me to Rockville, Maryland--the sweet, innocent (& historic!) suburb of suburbs of the capital of the United States of America in which I live. I also live on the red line, and Rockville is also on the red line, so public transportation was an option. This year is only six weeks old and I have already been to three continents BUT I have never been to Rockville. I smell adventure.

The metro and my book put me to sleep in Van Ness and I woke up just in time for Rockville. Everything was concrete and painted lanes. I waited and waited at the station for the bus, but it never came. Nobody said hello, and I tried asking directions but nobody wanted to talk to me. So I walked. Two miles through the brown grass suburbs and naked tree parks with DO NOT... signs nailed to wooden posts. Past the Korean Presbyterian Church, the Latvian Lutheran Church, the Episcopalian Church and the First Baptist. I crossed over a sixteen-lane highway on a pedestrian bridge paid for by some Ruhr valley sister city in Germany--a cycle lane lined with overhead chain link guards to keep me from jumping to my death or throwing projectiles at people's windshields.

I wandered; I walked and walked. I accomplished my mission and then covered the miles of lawn and sidewalk and brick shopfronts back to the station, where I climbed on at Rockville and disappeared myself back to DC.

Only then did I have that kind of self-wake up call (Hey!) for the song and lyrics of R.E.M's most appropriate song: Don't Go Back to Rockville. Guitarist Mike Mills wrote it for his girlfriend who actually wanted to move back to Rockville, Maryland and his lyrical depiction of the place is kind of dead on. Also, it's a perfect song for the great American malaise known as the American suburbs because Rockville is the real-life Springfield of the United States. There's at least one Rockville in Maryland, Connecticut, California, Indiana, South Carolina, Utah, AND New Jersey (case closed).

Don't get me wrong, here. It's SO easy to trash the American suburbs--we all love to make fun of them but we all grew up in them. America's suburbs are why we lived to be this age and how we got to have straight teeth and know how to play tennis and swim butterfly and do algebra. What's more, it's America. We can't pretend that America is just purple mountains and the St. Louis arch and the Mojave desert and Pennsylvania Dutch mandalas painted on red barns surrounded by wheat fields. Most of America is cookie-cutter, communal mailbox, "from the lower 200's" subdivisions separated by school district and the asphalt expanses of shopping malls. Mock it not, because it just is. And the rest of the world from Johannesburg to Shanghai is trying their darndest to recreate the ideal we're trying our darndest to disdain.

U2's "The Joshua Tree" was the first cassette tape I ever owned. The second was R.E.M's "Eponymous" which changed my life. Here's the song that's been stuck in my head since Wednesday, filmed way back in 1985 when it was still fresh and edgy and not yet a cult classic, sung by a blonde and boyish Michael Stipe. I probably won't go back to Rockville, but if I do, I'd have this song on repeat.

February 12, 2009

My Life on the D-List

  • Gum-chewing, pissed-off woman with big hair speaking Brooklyneese: "Uh, isn't Rick Steves s'posed to be here?"
  • Me: "I dunno, I'm sorry. Maybe you could go check . . ."
  • Bothered woman: "I don't wanna go somewhere and ask--just tell me!" [shouting at me, the disobedient autistic child] "Is Rick Steves gonna be here or what??"
  • Me: "I think he might be coming later in the day, but I don't know for sure."
  • Woman: "Well I wish you'd just tell me 'cuz I don't want to go buy one of his books if he ain't comin'." She storms off in a huff.
And THAT, dear readers, was the extent of human interaction during my one hour book-signing at the New York Times Travel Show. Ah, New York! If it wasn't for your pizza, pastry, and publishing industry, would I ever go back? Yeah, OK, I probably would.

But Rick, did you not appreciate the warm and ready plastic seat that was awaiting for you to make greeting your adoring fans a bit more comfortable? Hey, don't mention it. Anytime, bro.

February 9, 2009

The Breakfast Club

I'm back from the breathtaking vistas of southern Chile and facing the cold realities of February. Sometimes travel happens so quickly and intensely that one can only reflect on the full experience after the fact. For years I've been desperately trying to trademark the phrase, "it's not where you travel, but who you travel with that matters." (My retirement plan is to sell little cross-stitched pillowcases and appliqued t-shirts with the phrase). For now though, I am left holding a week's worth of rich and bizarre memories--the wilted party favors of an incredible journey with five random travel writers. Allow me to introduce our motley bunch: Charles, Jimmy, Chantal, Shira, and myself. The Breakfast Club's cardboard VHS cover tagline said it best: "They Only Met Once, but it Changed Their Lives Forever." I will surely miss the antics of my fellow voyagers. Also, I am slowly dealing with the realization that I might just be the Anthony Michael Hall of travel writing.

February 7, 2009

Travels with Shira

So here it is, folks: my fifteen seconds of fame, over and done like the snap of a toe separator getting yanked from a size 6 foot. Let me introduce you to Shira Lazar (www.shiralazar.com) who the Fates brought into my life somewhere below the 54th parallel of the southern hemisphere. Shira's a TV personality extraordinaire who welcomed me into her sunshine ever so briefly. If I seem like an awkward speechless seventh grader next to the most popular girl in the school, it's because I was having an awkward seventh-grade moment. Yes, we are in Patagonia and that's a condor feather in my pocket.

February 4, 2009


Kayaking on Lago Grey in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

February 3, 2009

Penguin Pal

Isla Magdalena, Patagonia, Chile--the closest I've ever been to Antarctica. About a hundred thousand Magellanic penguins cooing and calling, scratching in the dirt and cocking their heads from side to side. I was in love and this little guy here was curious enough to jump out and look at me up close. I may forget a lot of the places I've been and the people I've met, but when two animals stare at each other long enough . . and connect, you can't forget that penguin, you know?

February 2, 2009


So I just set a new record: my northernmost point on the globe is Grimsey, an itty bitty rocky island north of Iceland at 66° 33′39″ N. Today I flew to to the southernmost bit of South America where it's light all the time and there's ice all around. Something like 53° 10' S which beats my earlier wanderings in New Zealand by nearly 10 degrees. Painfully close to Antarctica but not there yet, alas.