Traveler vs. Hotel Room

I’ve been traveling a lot for work, which often means a bad night’s sleep.

For complicated reasons involving hotel no-vacancies, my only room option last week was on the other side of the machinery at the top of the elevator shaft. If you can imagine the sound of enormous carts rolling across bumpy pavement every ten to twenty seconds, you’ll have an idea of what it sounded like.

But it was either than or hump over to another hotel at at 11 p.m., so I took the room. I even fell asleep at a decent hour.

Then I woke up. It was about 3:30 a.m. The elevators were pretty quiet, but a green light was flashing from overhead every five seconds or so.

And I was hot. I tried to adjust the thermostat, but every single knob was missing. Luckily, I guess, it was preset for a decent temperature. I flipped back the fancy down comforter, which would have kept Nanook warm in the north, and went with a complicated thermal solution that involved wearing a long sleeve t-shirt under the sheet.

And then the elevators started to rumble again. I lay in bed for a while, then remembered I had a solution for the sound:


Those things that look like bullets are actually foam ear plugs. I’d forgotten I had them, but necessity is apparently a great spur for your memory. I put the ear plugs in, and there was much rejoicing. You can buy them at any drugstore. They pencil out to about 10 cents apiece. Trust me: a pair of those in your suitcase is money well spent.

But there was still a flashing green light above my head, and I needed a fix for it. A piece of tape would have been perfect, but I didn’t have tape (I am not, you know MacGuyver). I took a look at the light sources, which was a smoke alarm of some sort. 

After some casting about for suitable material, I realized the cardboard key sleeve that the hotel provides could be shimmed into the alarm on either side of the light, creating a barrier. Even better, the sleeve was printed in a dark color on one side, letting less light through.


I was proud of that hack … and it was probably for the best I didn’t see the mold around the smoke alarm (yeesh!) until I downloaded my photo a few days later.

So I managed to outwit the elevator, the balky air conditioner, and the green light — yet I still lost out on sleep, because I had to do major surgery on the hotel room in the middle of the night.

If you can help it, don’t travel for business.

Friday in Austin, Texas: Pool, Country Music, and Chicken Shit Bingo

I happened to be in Austin, Texas last weekend, which bills itself as the “Live music capital of the world.” I was visiting my friend Rob, who took me out to a local honky-tonk to hear some. We went to Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.

Ginny’s is  a simple rectangle of a building with an assortment of castoff decor. The pavement under the pool table had potholes. The paint on the ceiling was pockmarked and peeling. The door to the beer closet had no lock on it. You could call it run down, beat up or dingy. It was my kinda place.

Here’s my cruddy cell phone pic of Ginny’s. Those are some genuine Beautiful People (what other kind of man wears a pink shirt?) standing near the bar. Better still, that’s an elderly couple dancing in front of the band.

We bought a couple of beers, my friend asked for quarters for the pool table. We could play for free, the bartender told us. The coin-op part was broken.

The table was tucked into a corner between the excess chairs, and a spare stage riser. For certain shots near the rail, there was no other way to get behind the ball than to park your ass on the chairs.

The table’s felt was stained, one rail was warped, and one side pocket had a hole in it wide enough to let the ball fall out the side. At one point I sunk a shot in that pocket, and my friend ran out the front door like the joint had caught fire. He returned holding the ball.

The game paused when a large bug landed on the 8 ball.

But you know, the quirks were part of the fun. We shot pool and drank beer and listened to the band.  “Peewee Moore is a self proclaimed Honkytonk/Outlaw Country Singer/Songwriter in the same vein as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, and Hank Williams. He has been barnstorming around the country with his trio dubbed “Peewee Moore & The Awful Dreadful Snakes” doing an endless string of one night stands from Austin TX to you name it. ”

Deep into the band’s second set, Rob said that at some point, all the trucks, hard times, whiskey and women become interchangeable components of some greater country ür-song. “Freightliner woman, you jack-knifed my heart.” “I would drown myself in whiskey but my wife used it to bathe the dog” … But I digress.

Rob also mentioned that the table we were playing on was mildly famous. It turns out that one night a week, Ginny’s puts a board over the table, and a cage of chicken wire over the board. The board is a grid, and each grid has a number. Contestants pay money to stake claim to one of the numbers.

Then the chicken comes goes in the cage and cruises around does some version of the Poultry Strut. Sooner or later, the chicken takes a shit. Whoever owns the chicken shit-besmirched square is the lucky winner of Chicken Shit Bingo. Yee haw!

(You can skip the first three minutes or so, if all you really want to see is the, um, money shot.)

My Photo With* the Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup is visiting the Portland area, part of its summer PR tour (in these tough economic times, I guess even icons have to promote). Hockey’s great trophy, which was originally a decorative English punch bowl, was downtown today. It’s also visiting a couple of local ice arenas, and Captain Ron’s Sports Bar & Grill in Sherwood, where my hockey team used to drink. It’s going to all the storied places!

Anyhow, it was appearing today at Pioneer Square, at lunch. Time for a field trip to see the hallowed cup, which has been drop-kicked onto the Rideau Canal (1905), stolen (1907), forgotten in Montreal (1924), stolen again (1970), and sunk in a swimming pool (1993).

Despite (or maybe because of) its colorful history, it’s one of the most cherished prizes in sports.  Captains of hockey teams that win conference championships have a superstition of refusing to touch the conference trophy–they don’t want to jinx their chances of lifting the Cup.

Actually, its popularity extends much farther than NHL hockey teams. For decades, the two titans of Canadian beer production, Molson’s and Labatt, engaged in epic, stalemated trench warfare for market share. Then one year Labatt hit on the idea of including miniature Stanley Cups in specially marked cases of beer. In a market where a fraction of a percentage point gain in market share is big news, they scored the equivalent of a marketing hat trick. The lesson for you marketing students is that the gift-in-the-Happy-Meal model works for beer drinkers too–but only if you give them exactly the right gift.

Back to today. I could have my picture taken with the cup if I donated to charity, but by the time I arrived, the square was full of people:

I didn’t have time to wait in line. So I walked out on that cement ledge on the left, and got a little closer:

Better, but not that great. Then I talked a nice girl, who was taking a lunch break from jury duty, into taking my picture:

Sure, you could quibble, that the Cup is small, and out of focus, and 100 ft. behind me. All true. On the other hand, I paid it some respect. Unlike the dork in the red t-shirt (below) …

… who had his picture taken–but only after he’d put his stuffed purple octopus in the top.

Well, whatever. Mission accomplished, with only a slight asterisk. Oh, and Sherwood Helping Hands? I owe you a donation.

Pastry Hunt, 2.0

In the comments to my blog post “A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods,” one commenter asked, “Would you be able to tell us where in Paris you had that memorable pain au chocolat?”

Good question — and I’m using good question the way a politician does, when s/he doesn’t have an answer. When I travel I lean on a guidebook for things like hours, directions and tips, but I also do a lot wandering around on foot, and tend to eat at whatever place looks appetizing.

I learned this tip from my cousin. We were rambling through Seattle one day in search of lunch, and I had my nose in my guidebook. He suggested winging it, and we ended up eating in Chinatown at a place called Uncle Ball’s. The food was just okay, but eating at a place with such a bizarre name was one of the highlights of our trip.

But I digress. I didn’t actually know the name or exact location of the patisserie in Paris, but I did know it’s general location, since I had gone to the Saturday produce market at Place de la Bastille:

Then I wandered down a side street, went by a good-looking patisserie, and bought goodies there. I also remembered it was right around the corner from a Starbucks.

Thanks to the awesome power of Google (and I mean awesome in both senses of the word), it’s alarmingly easy to retrace my steps. I didn’t know the name of the side street,  so I simply mapped the locations of Starbucks nearby.

Place de la Bastille

Detail from a map of Paris, showing Place de la Bastille

From that I knew the Bucky’s I was thinking of was on Rue de la Roquette. I used Google Street View to check out the street corner a half-block away and then panned around, and … voilà:

There’s your answer: La Tradition du Pain, at Rue Duval/Rue Saint Sabin. If you paste the store’s name into Google, you can even see some Italian guy’s photo of the display cases on Flickr.

His photo caption sums up my thoughts pretty nicely: Aspettavo il giorno successivo solo per fare di nuovo colazione lì sperimentando altre squisitezze!

(P.S. – Don’t read Italian? Try dropping the sentence into Google Translate.)

What’s for Flunch?

I saw this sign in Paris and it gave me a chuckle, so I took a picture. Flunch. It looks like a typo, or one of those cute Euro near-misses at rendering a sign in English.

It took me another week to actually look it up. According to Wikipedia, Flunch is a restaurant chain roughly comparable to Sizzler. More interesting is the entry’s trivia section: “The word ‘flunch’ is a portmanteau of ‘fast’ and ‘lunch’; it has become part of French slang, coining the verb, ‘fluncher’.”

That’s a slightly disturbing trend. Imagine if American fast food restaurants achieve verb status — or, almost as bad, if their marketing departments attempt to promote their names by turning them into verbs:

  • “Just let me Arby’s this before the meeting starts”
  • “We’re not just eating lunch, we’re Fuddruckering it”
  • “I love the way that girl Chick-Fil-As her food with her sensuous lips”

But that’s only a mildly amusing concept for us Americans, because we’ve been Dunkin’ Donutsed by marketers for so long, we’re used to fast food companies committing language atrocities. I’ve actually written about it before, when I came to obvious conclusion that many of the foods with crappy names — Hardee’s Monster Biscuit, Bob Evans Stacked and Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes — tend to be epically crappy foods.

I happen to be Dairy Queening in and out of a book called Pardon My French: Unleash Your Inner Gaul, which is a guide to French words and phrases, especially ones that explain some quirk of French culture.

In the book’s first section (Food and Drink, mais bien sur), the author Charles Timoney explains the phrase manger chaud — literally, to eat hot.

The average French person will expect to eat mat at least once a day and will also expect at least one dish of each main meal to be served hot. Suggesting that a colleague might skip a decent meal and just grab a sandwich may well be met with an appalled cry of “Mais if faut manger chaud!”

If we can take Timoney at his word (unless he’s secretly a cultural knuckle-dragger, I’m inclined to, since he’s lived there 20-plus years), a proper hot sit-down meal is a big deal to the French. I mean, all you have to do is walk around Paris and see the soixante million or so cafes and bistros, compared to the relatively low number of MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

But there’s another disturbing trend that’s more disturbing than bad verbing. Slate magazine points it out in their story, Why is there so much violent crime at fast-food restaurants? A lowlight reel:

In January, Toledo, Ohio, resident Melodi Dushane punched out a McDonald’s drive-through window when she was told they didn’t sell Chicken McNuggets in the morning. Another woman recently drove through a crowd of people in a McDonald’s parking lot, injuring four. In 2008, a Los Angeles man punched a 16-year-old girl in the face at a McDonald’s after she complained about him cutting the line. A Wendy’s customer reportedly assaulted a female clerk at a drive-through window in 2007 after she didn’t tell him to “have a nice day.”

The story cites a number of reasons for this: location on busy streets, the restaurants keep long hours, and a lot of cash, their customers tend to be younger and poorer, and so do their employees. But the reason I found most interesting was at the bottom of the piece:

Customers may feel stressed out, too. Professors at the University of Toronto released a study in 2010 concluding that exposure to the logos of fast-food chains like Wendy’s and Burger King made people hasty and impatient. When “fast” food doesn’t live up to its name, people might lash out.

That’s kind of rich, isn’t it? The golden arches condition us to expect speed. We’ve become Pavlov’s dinner guests.

I’m not surprised customers are stressed out. Think about the fast food business model: They want you to speed up to the counter (or drive-through), order, pay, and then leave. They don’t want people in their restaurants, since that creates a mess they have to pay someone to clean up. The entire place is designed to be bright, clean-looking, and inhospitable: the molded furniture, the tiny tables, the fluorescent lighting,  the lack of amenities on the table, the lack of a waiter, etc. Often they wrap your food for you (whether you want it wrapped or not), the default assumption being that you’re going to eat somewhere else.

Yet another book about France I was Krispy Kreme-ing recently explained the difference between restaurants and bistros. Since that book is still in Paris and I am not, I’ll have to lean on Wikipedia for a brief history:

Bistros likely developed out of the basement kitchens of Parisian apartments, where tenants paid for both room and board. Landlords could supplement their income by opening their kitchen to the paying public. Menus were built around foods that were simple, could be prepared in quantity and would keep over time. Wine and coffee were also served.

In Paris,  restaurants were for the well-to-do, and the bistros were for the working class (kind of our like our fast-food restaurants, but without dancing spokes-clowns). Nowadays, Parisiens are being infected by flunch, and the US is a littered landscape of Carl’s Jr.,  El Pollo Loco, Panda Express, and Quiznos, where people brawl and mow each other down with their cars.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to master the art of the bistro — something the Parisiens figured out back in 1884.

Night of the living ranch dressing, and flying cats

We survived the first week with the French exchange student, despite our bad French. While polluting the poor kid with onion rings at a restaurant, Carmen tried to say that she liked the ranch dressing (je l’aime = I like it). Instead, she said je t’aime — I like you. Ranch dressing had become a being.

Yesterday the boys were playing with little Nerf guns, and I tried to say my coat was impermeable to the bullets: “Mon manteau est imperméable aux … euh, Curran, comment-dit-on ‘bullets’?”

Curran: “Fléchettes.”

Me: “Quoi? Les chats?”

Today we go to le champ de citrouilles — the pumpkin patch. I’m sure we can’t possibly mismangle the language there.

The Cyclist Who Waved at Trains

I was riding my bike home from work last night when I reached a railroad crossing, where WES was crossing.

(Wes reminds me a little of Daisy, from the Thomas the Tank Engine series.)

Anyhow, as I roll up to the railroad crossing, there’s a cyclist in front of me. And as WES rolls by, he waves.

It did not occur to me to wave. Then again, I wasn’t all the way to the intersection, and I had been in the saddle for 45 minutes, so I was more occupied with trying to keep my tongue from lolling out. But traffic was still stopped when I arrived, so I asked the cyclist if anyone waved back.

“I can’t see through the reflection on the windows,” he said. “But it seemed the friendly thing to do.”


He and I rode together, which means he rode and I slogged behind him. I noticed that for a guy who’s friendly to train passengers, he practiced the Idaho stop, even at intersections where, you know, the car to the side was there first.

I caught up to him at a large intersection, where he struck up a conversation, and asked directions. I rode with him a little more to lead him through a neighborhood, and then we parted ways.

When I got home, I kept thinking about him waving, and his comment about “the friendly thing to do.”

It was a friendly thing, but I couldn’t help thinking none of this would have happened if we weren’t on bikes.

I doubt motorists would wave. Not because they’re all unfriendly, but for the same reason the cyclist couldn’t see the train passengers’ reaction to his behavior — because of the reflection. And because motorists don’t usually wave to each other.

Plus, the only way that he and I ever have a conversation is if we’re on bikes. People in cars in cities don’t strike up conversations, and rarely ask directions of other motorists.

Which is another way of pointing out a fundamental difference between bikes and cars. In a car, you’re surrounded by glass and steel–walled off, as it were. On a bike, you’re in the environment. You feel the air (and unfortunately, the rain), you feel the slope of the ground and the bumps in the road … and you can talk to other cyclists.

PS – The blog title kinda sounds like a parody of a Stieg Larsson book, doesn’t it?

The World’s Hardest Consonant

Almost concurrent to the 2010 National Spelling Bee, I had another misadventure with my last name. As some of you know, the spelling of my last name has been fiendishly constructed to flummox PR people as well as fully sentient humans.

Last week I checked into a hotel for a conference and spelled my last name. Twice.

Later on, I wanted to use the hotel’s free Wifi, but when I tried the Last Name/Room Number form, it didn’t work.

I called the front desk. “Oh, we misspelled your name. Try O-C-H-W-A-P.”

(WTF? Well, OK. I tried it. Still didn’t work.)

I called tech support, and explained what was happening. I pictured a guy in a call center in the steppes of Asia, wearing a headset in a tiny cubicle. We went back and forth for a couple minutes, while various approaches failed.

I wasn’t angry or impatient, but I could sense his angst.

Anyway, the guy eventually figured out that the clerk had not only mangled my name, she had mangled the misspelling of my name. That is to say, she spelled “Ochwat” wrong, then said she spelled it “Ochwap,” when in fact she had spelled it “Ochwab.”

If she were a batter, she would be skulking back to the dugout after her three whiffs.

Tech guy eventually cleared the problem–and by that I mean he got me connected to the Internet.

But the problem with my name still remains, lying in wait for the next unsuspecting front desk clerk.

The Mystery of the Hawaiian Chickens

That there is a feral chicken, roaming the beach in Kauai. I took a lot of photos when I was on Kauai last month, of beaches, sunsets, coastline, fish, and jungly stuff. But if you want a pic that captures the essence of the island, it has to have a chicken in it.

It had been twelve or thirteen years since I’d been to Kauai, and I didn’t remember seeing chickens the last time. But this time we noticed them right away.

At first we made a game of it, saying “chicken!” when we saw one on the side of the road. Then that got too commonplace, so we started counting them. But on  the sides of the some roads we easily counted 20 or so. Finally we stopped mentioning them, except for an occasional comment like, “Damn, this island has a lot of wild chickens.”

There are so many that the Hawaiian visitor’s bureau even has a page answering the question, “Why Does Kauai Have So Many Wild Chickens?”

Two theories: the Hawaii site cites wikipedia, which suggests that “sugarcane plantation laborers in the late 1800s and early 1900s brought and raised chickens (for eating and cockfighting) and many got loose over the years and multiplied.” (The entry has since been changed. Don’t you just love chicken scholarship?)

The other is that when Hurricane Iniki walloped the island in 1992, it destroyed a number of chicken farms.

Since I don’t remember them on the island in 1990, I’ m going with the hurricane theory.

No matter. Go to Kauai. Because there are zillions of ways to enjoy it that are chicken-free. Like this: (image via wikipedia)

Come Fly with Me

“Alain de Botton, author of popular books including ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life’ and ‘The Art of Travel”’… in what apparently is both a literary and aeronautic first … is serving a one-week appointment as Heathrow’s ‘writer in residence.'” – New York Times

Dear Mr. de Botton:

Congratulations on your appointment as Heathrow/Terminal 5’s first writer in residence. Even though Heathrow’s owner, BAA, has granted you complete editorial freedom, as public relations professionals we would like to emphasize a few talking points to ensure a successful enterprise for everyone involved.

First, Terminal 5 is not actually underwater, despite the animation on the British Airways web page. The tropical fish, eagle rays and sea turtles gliding through an aquatic concourse are merely messaging, to emphasize the gliding ease with which passengers can get on their way “quickly and hassle-free.”

Reminding people that the terminal isn’t filled with water would prevent real public relations problems: the fear in the minds of non-swimming passengers, the anger and self-esteem issues if women think we’re comparing them to sea turtles … that sort of thing.

Worse, passengers could easily mistake Terminal 5’s wave-form roof or its aquatic-themed web page for the unlikely event of a water landing, and we definitely want to avoid any panic about whether or not their seat cushions will work as flotation devices.

Second, anything you could do to bolster the public’s image of the Terminal 5’s state-of-the-art baggage system would be a huge benefit. Entre nous, it seems like picking scabs to bring back those uncomfortable memories of 5,000 stranded and furious passengers, losing 28,000 pieces of luggage, canceling 500 flights, etc. etc.

We hired a writer instead of a historian because we want to go forward, not back—and we are going forward, the future inspiring winged prose and all that. (That phrase isn’t half bad, is it? Feel free to use it, giving credit where it’s due, of course.)

Speaking of phrasing, while extolling the Heathrow experience, please exercise restraint in your artistic impressions. You’re no doubt above Douglas Adams-type japes about how no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase “as pretty as an airport.” But it’s all too easy to craft a simile comparing passengers’ Waiting for Godot experience to the hot dogs eternally spinning on those metal rollers. Also, take it from us that it’s best to avoid attempting any description of luggage finally emerging from dark orifices and plopping onto conveyors.

Third, musings about Baudelaire and Nietzsche are all very comforting for when reading by the fire, but is there anything in the writings of those dead Euros that counter aviation’s current perception problem? Not just the passengers broiling on tarmacs in aluminum gulags, or the bovine indignity of being whisked like so much solid matter through the airstream. But also environmentalists’ gloomy reminders that a single jet jaunt to Hong Kong has a bigger carbon footprint than several African nations.

Perhaps you could wordsmith an astute philosophical observation to address this? Something like “There is no greater happiness than a ruddy-cheeked Englishwoman fresh from holidays in Mallorca who enjoyed one of BAA’s customary on-time arrivals” ought to do the trick.

Fourth, you will visit our unique mall experience and its added cachet of international travel, not to mention the great, wide tapestry of humanity who will come to relish it. We are particularly interested in the part of the tapestry eligible for our exclusive Concorde Room, with its bespoke furnishings, ensuite bathrooms and private cabanas. Is there any way you could sing the room’s praises without fomenting class hatred? That would be a real bonus.

Finally, remember that as an employee, after using the lavatory you must wash before returning to work.

The BAA communications team