Lingua franca

  Back in the early 70s, I was traveling by car with a companion who got the jeep stuck in a ditch in northern Italy. I dispatched myself to go for help. Knowing the rural isolation of the area had probably not sprouted an English speaker, I realized I'd probably have to make myself understood in Italian. We'd been driving in Italy for a couple of hours, so I believed I'd sufficiently gotten the handle on the essence of the language, which to my mind simply meant adding a vowel such as “a” or “o” to the end of the English word. For instance the word for “arrive” in Italian is “arrivo.”

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Taken to the cleaners

   I'm not sure the precise moment when I knew I was being hustled by “Giovanni” (if that was even his real name), but by the time he'd steered Carol and I away from Naples’s Castle Sant’Elmo that we were looking for and he had promised to direct us to, I knew we were being hustled.

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Foodies part two 

   Our Tuscania hosts, Mark and Ginger, were leading Carol and I on a walk through their lovely, ancient and quiet town toward a restaurant for a “light lunch.” As we walked, Ginger told us about the restaurant we'd be going to that night. “There'll be eight courses including desserts (dessertS!), and all the wine you can drink.” This is what I was loving about Italy so far: We were going to lunch talking about dinner.

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A journey of 10,000 miles has to begin somewhere

Someone asked Carol and I recently whether we met any interesting people on our travels. Carol found the question amusing, as it had been addressed to me as well as her. Carol has observed that about the only other entities I go more out of my way to avoid besides museums, ruins of any kind and churches are people. It begs the question then, as to how I get any enjoyment out of travel, but I do. It's a mystery.

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Foodies

  Carol was determined to maintain a dietary regimen in a country whose entire life rhythm revolves around mealtime. Whenever I'd mention aspects of the glorious Italian culture and history, such as “bread,” “lasagna” and “gelato”, Carol would wag a matronly finger and under a determined, arched eyebrow, admonish: “We're gonna be good, Reid.”

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Wherefore the hell art thou going, Romeo?

   Every seven years there is a special dance performed during Germany's version of Mardi Gras day. It's called, in English, the Coopers Dance. It commemorates a celebration staged by Munich’s barrel makers following the city's deadly bout with the Black Plague back in 1517. The dance was designed to give the plague's survivors something to smile about again. I guess, for the average  Munchener in 1517, if the barrel makers were dancing happily in the streets, it meant they were making barrels again, and that meant the brewers were making beer again.

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Hannibal crossing the Alps, I'm not

   Carol and I were having a glass or two in a pleasantly traditional German restaurant on the first evening of our arrival in Europe, the start of a month-long Eurail train trip through Italy. Apropo of nothing more than jet lag, perhaps, Carol suddenly asked brightly, “Shouldn't we start talking about where we're going?”

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Menage a trois

   If there had been any shred of doubt (and there hasn't been) that Carolyn’s loving, generosity of spirit was alive and well amongst us, it came with our seat assignments for Carol’s and my flight to Europe this past Saturday. Care must be taken to avoid seeming to wallow in privilege, so this story bears a bit of a run up.

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Ain't Dere No More

 

Site of my first and only public spanking for eating my lunch during class time, and trying to impress Melanie Ybarzabel, my first grade girlfriend (tho she had no idea of that status, of course)

Site of my first and only public spanking for eating my lunch during class time, and trying to impress Melanie Ybarzabel, my first grade girlfriend (tho she had no idea of that status, of course)

“We'll go see lites in St. Bernard

And what they got that's gone…

Atlantic Thrift...Ain't dere no more

Drug store was Trist...Ain't dere no more

Jerry LaVie's...Ain't dere no more

                         --Benny Crunch and the Bunch

 

   Carol didn't believe the name of my grammar school - Our Lady of Prompt Succor. “What does ‘prompt sucker’ even mean?” she said, convinced I was having her on. Even when we'd walked to the school and I showed her the sign, she still didn't believe it. “What is a prompt succor?” she asked again, staring at the sign in great perplexity.

   I explained that prayers to the Blessed Mother was credited with saving New Orleans from a fire, stopping just as it approached the Ursuline Convent, and another time She was credited with us winning the Battle of New Orleans at the last minute. “Prompt Succor,” I explained, “means ‘quick help.’”

   Carol shook her head. “Still doesn't make any sense to name a school after ‘quick help.’”

   Carol would discover there was a whole lot of things that didn't make sense during our walking tour of my hometown of Chalmette, a perniciously corrupt and mosquito-infested atoll of reclaimed swamp just southeast of New Orleans. Later that afternoon, I would be surprised at how much I enjoyed revisiting the place, given it was home to so many childhood memories I've spent a lifetime trying to forget.

The BVM, I guess you could say, was my first superheroine: stopping fires and defeating the British 

The BVM, I guess you could say, was my first superheroine: stopping fires and defeating the British 

   Pausing by what had been my grandparents’ house (now a vacant lot, as a result of Hurricane Katrina) I told Carol about how we would sit on the porch eating sno cones, and watch giant sewer rats frolic in the drainage ditch in front of the house. I showed her the little street that I'd crossed on my brand new bike in defiance of my parents’ prohibition against crossing it, and how the moment I rode through that boundary, my parents drove up to the intersection. “It was that day I learned I was the type that would never get away with anything, so I straightened up right then and there.”

   On Judge Perez Drive (named after a Sheriff who ran the parish of St. Bernard like a tinhorn South American dictator) I explained how that street had, in my youth, been unpaved and separated by a large drainage canal (now paved over) and also populated with huge gamboling sewer rats.

   “Wouldn't that canal have helped with the flooding after Katrina?” Carol asked. I explained that the brain trust of the parish had traditionally erred on the side of projects that enhanced flooding during storms, “such as the Mississippi River - Gulf Outlet that became a superhighway for the storm surge that inundated the parish during Katrina.”

Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw's house: Ain't Dere No More

Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw's house: Ain't Dere No More

   At the now vacant lot that had been my childhood home with my parents and brothers, I shared the experience of evacuating in advance of rising floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965. “We left the house in ankle deep water, and by the time we arrived at the shelter three blocks away, the water had risen to above our knees. “There was nothing set up at the shelter, no water, blankets or supplies of any kind. “Dogs were crapping in the hallways and stairwells and the toilets were not working. In other words, it was the same as the Superdome after Katrina forty years later. Nothing changes here.”

Posing at what was once my bedroom window, where I spent many an evening dreaming about being anywhere else but at home

Posing at what was once my bedroom window, where I spent many an evening dreaming about being anywhere else but at home

   But things had changed, as I was happy to note. The house where I grew up and the one where I spent so much of my youth had both been wiped off the face of the earth, as if they - and by extension, myself - had never existed here.

   Which somehow suited me just fine. We Ubered back to the French Quarter, and I felt a great sense of completion.

You can go home again

   Our big streetcar trip up St. Charles Ave. was aborted midway through, due to a 7-alarm fire that consumed a historic home in the Garden District. No one was injured, and anyway that wasn't the biggest crisis that afflicted Carol and I at the start of our New Orleans adventure. At a French Quarter eatery just after our arrival in the city, I was served what was the first in what would become a Homeric odyssey of po boys over the next three days. But the “French bread” - within which my shrimp lay defenseless for my impending masticating assault  - was soft! And spongy! With the interior texture of marshmallow! And not French bread at all! It was a lese majeste of gargantuan proportions.

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“There's pride on Bourbon Street”

If there was any doubt I was back in the city where I grew up but as a hayseed tourist this time, it was made clear in my very first steps onto Bourbon St.

   “I can tell you where you got your shoes,” a tall, African American man said walking straight up to me. Still possessing the sting of having lost $10 on this scam some thirty years ago on a Mardi Gras visit to New Orleans, I was ready for it this time.

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Do you know what it means...To miss New Orleans

It's not overstating it to suggest a visit to New Orleans is a great tune up for an extended trip to Europe. Parts of the city come closest to the look and feel of Europe that no other city in the United States can muster. New Orleans is unique, I think, among American cities in that way. European cities of comparable size all seem to come with a charm, grace, pace and architectural beauty that is at once nostalgically Old World, yet eminently livable by every modern measure. European cities are as much playground as centers of commerce. They clang, ring, chime and clatter. Cafes spill cheerful patrons onto sidewalks and along cobbled squares. They effuse joie de vie, gemütlichkeit and la bella vita. They invite walking, if not pure wandering.

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Valen-times

  For our first Valentine's Day together, Carol suggested filet mignon and a movie at home. “The restaurants here are all crazy on Valentine's,” she explained. I'm blessed her idea of crazy matches mine, especially when it comes to dining. It will, though, be my first Valentine's Day lacking any exuberant panache or over-the-top flair.

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Three widows

Back in the early 1970s, at the height of my self-delusion of single handedly saving the world, I applied to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH. I remember writing the required biographical essay in language so flowery that I had to water it before sealing it in the envelope. So filled with myself at the time I might have included a photo of me in leotards and a cape. I never heard back from Antioch, not even a form rejection letter. I think it was the cape, though it might have been the leotards

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Descent into the Polar Vortex

   Turns out I had timed our January arrival in Chicago via Amtrak's Southwest Chief to coincide with the delivery of the Arctic Circle's Polar Vortex. I say “turns out” because planning the trip had nothing to do with advance weather forecasts. Even if it had, I would not have been put off by any climate effects emerging from something that sounded like a new thrill ride on the city's Navy Pier, or a new constellation of planetary alignment revealing itself for the first time in Chicago's night sky. In this I would soon become much enlightened.

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