Milano Days

First Days in Milan: Friday and Saturday, July 28-29

Some people were surprised when I told them that I was in Italy instead of Latvia. One of the things I love to do is to do what I can to make time spent as meaningful as possible. I likely would have left America in June but for my CELTA course, so when I set my date for the end of July I didn’t really have any big objective other than getting to Latvia as soon as possible. However, school doesn’t start until September, so why rush? If I was going to travel to Europe anyway, why not see some other part. Instead of having a six hour layover in Frankfurt, I am having a five day layover in Milan. Rita also wanted to get back to Italy, so this worked out perfectly.

I don’t know much about Milan. I knew it was close to Monza which is where the Italian Grand Prix is held. I know it is close to Marinello which is the headquarters of Ferrari. I was told that it was an economic and fashion powerhouse with lots of important industries. But really, it wasn’t on my radar as far as cities to visit, but I am happy to be here. I have since learned that the Last Supper is located here and they have an amazing Duomo.

A quick spoiler… I never got to go into the Duomo, and we didn’t see “The Last Supper”, but, as Rita says, “You can’t do everything all the time, and this will give us something to look forward to next time we visit.” She doesn’t actually say those words, but something like that. (I just looked at that Duomo website to see the inside and… holy shit!)

Courtyard

Back to the story… so we made it to Milan, and we dropped the Alfa Romeo off, hailed a cab and made it to Via Elba 7 (an address that I have memorized) where Rita booked an AirBNB. We were let in through a locked gate into a lovely courtyard and then led up 5 flights of stairs to our room. We quickly unloaded our baggage, and then, even though it had been a harrowing day (see the last post), we decided to check out the neighborhood.

Again, streets in Italy are not straight, and most intersections are actually seven or eight (or nine in this case) roads coming together at diagonal angles and veering off in every direction. I believe that growing up in a city on a grid has been a disadvantage to me as I have to retune my instincts to navigate these streets. I get lost very easily. But Rita grew up in Latvia where you can’t get there from here, and roads never go where you think they will, so she helped me find my way. Much of traveling is learning to simply let go and allow yourself to be swept up in the moment. As my blog title reveals, I’m not very good at just letting go!

Skyscrapers

At the end of our block stand two “skyscrapers” at the Piazza Piemonte which just so happens to be on Via George Washington… go figure. Rita loved these two buildings as soon as she saw them from our taxi, and they’ve become our landmarks to remind us that we are close to “home.” They remind me a bit of the Ghostbusters’ building, but not quite as spooky. I can’t imagine how much it must cost to live at the top on the penthouse with the most spectacular view in the neighborhood!

 

Better View

So we walked past those, and followed our cab driver’s advice heading toward a lovely neighborhood with lots of restaurants and shops. We were tired, grumpy, and it was muggy. I just wanted to find something to eat… something Italian (smirk), so we stopped at a corner pizzaria. Finally, Italian pizza would be mine!

 

On another little side note, I sometimes get the feeling that waiters don’t want me in their establishments. It’s the little things like seating you in a corner next to the table where they cut meat… or not offering any condiments with the meal… or serving really slowly and making angry faces when you ask questions or make demands such as, “May we have some water, please?” You know… things like that.

 

Diavolo!

To be fair, the food was delicious. I had the equivalent to a pepperoni pizza called  Diavolo.  Rita had another seafood dish with various shellfish and a lovely salad. They even gave me a to-go box with some advertisement for a theme park on it. It was just like being in America! Sort of.

 

 

On our way back, I got lost, and Rita pointed us in the right direction. We were chased by Italian mosquitos (aptly named “zanzara”) all the way home.

I don’t know if I’ve slept better in my life. Our plan for the next day was to take it easy. Rita had some work to do, and I was happy to just acclimate to my surroundings.

My Surroundings

Our Flat

To be sure, Milan, like any major metropolitan city, has incredibly expensive real estate, so finding a nice AirBNB in the heart of the city was no easy task. We have a tiny but lovely attic flat with one room, a tiny kitchen area and a bathroom. It’s perfect for two people who aren’t worried about spending a lot of time here. The most important thing is that it has air conditioning and lots of storage space. The worst part is that it’s an attic, so the ceiling is slanted. If I told you how many times I have hit my head, you might cry instead of laugh.

On our first night, I was just examining the wooden beams that hold up the roof of this building. They are enormous and old. I have to imagine that they were from a tree felled not far from here and planed by an Italian craftsman. Dragged by horses and placed by a series of pulleys and ropes long before mechanical cranes. It does one’s soul good to be reminded of the bones of the building.

Saturday, July

Me and Marilyn

Since it was an uneventful day, I’ll take a moment or

Olive Oil

two to just give you an overview of life in Italy. We started the morning with a walk to a coffee shop for a double espresso where I took a photo with Marilyn. Then we found the local supermarket, Esselunga, where I bought this tiny bottle of olive oil, and we also bought some groceries. I think you can tell a lot about the values of a country by exploring their supermarkets. In America, it’s all about snacks, candy, and soda. In Italy, it’s olive oil, olives and wine. No surprise, right?

We meandered back home eating the figs that Rita bought. It was my first experience with figs, and the texture was a bit weird, but they were actually very edible.

After asking a few people for directions, we found our way back to via Elba, and back at the flat we had a relaxing afternoon. Rita did some work, and I did some writing. I did have a cool moment where some Italian person at the store asked me for help… in Italian! Rita says I look Italian, and maybe the Ferrari shirt helped? I don’t know.

 

Ferrari Guy

In the evening, I ran out to get some wine and some other ingredients so I could cook a nice Italian supper. I used fresh tomatoes, garlic, wine and oil to make my own sauce with some Italian sausage. We had a wonderful salad and some penne pasta. Everything tasted fresh and glorious… but again, I may exaggerate a bit. I find that I am easily pleased.

 

I almost forgot that on the way to the market, it rained, and I was able to see an Italian rainbow. Take that for what you will, but it was a welcomed sight for me!

Italian Rainbow

I have to shout out to my son Kyle who suggested we have some Chiante while in Italy. So far, we’ve had several glasses and we haven’t been disappointed yet. Although I had to explain the entire plot of Silence of the Lambs to be able to get Rita to understand my Hannibal Lecter reference… cultural differences.

Tomorrow? The Duomo!

Me Working

 

 

 

 

From Como to Lugano

Alpine Drive: July 28th

As many of my friends know, I have a bit of a notorious reputation as a driver. I was an avid risk taker back in my younger days, and I tend to enjoy a spirited adventurous driving style now and then. This trip to Italy was my chance to experience European driving and some of the best and most beautiful roads in the entire world. When you grow up in Nebraska, where roads are straight and mostly flat, the mere possibility of driving in such incredible places is just mind boggling.

 

Rita wanted to travel to Lugano, Switzerland, just north of Milan, to see the places where Rainis (a famous Latvian poet) was exiled in the early part of the 20th century. It sounded cool to me, so off we went. I planned to parlay this journey with a trip through the Swiss Alps to one of the most gorgeous roads in the world, Susten Pass. Cool, right?

So we packed up our things and got ready to leave Como, but before going we had to make an obligatory visit to the Como Cathedral. It was beautiful and majestic. I am always impressed with the incredible structures that people built nearly a thousand years ago.

Photos from Como

 

Then, we were on our way. The trip to Lugano was pretty uneventful. They didn’t even check passports at the border. The lake was gorgeous and we could see the mountains rising on all sides. We had to drive through a long tunnel right through one of the mountains to reach the city. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie or something. What did I do to deserve such beauty in my life?

 

Swiss Restaurant

Once in Lugano, we found a wonderful little

Swiss Francs in 3 languages

restaurant and had a long, lingering lunch as is the European custom (or so I’m told). No fast food or even moderate food. Just slow, deliberate food with time for drinking, conversation, and digestion. I had my first plate of Italian spaghetti with bolognese sauce. It was delicious, of course. When I received

my change, we noticed that they gave us Swiss Francs. I had forgotten that Switzerland is not part of the EU and they do not use Euro. Cool.

 

Me and GWs

The heart of Lugano is right on the lake, and we walked the promenade starting at the statue of George Washington down to a fountain. This is an interesting historical side note. Every where I go in the world, there seems to be this incredible love for George Washington. Italy has streets and statues, and so do Switzerland and Latvia. Who knew? Probably everyone but me. We are also running into Marilyn Monroe everywhere we go from coffee shops to advertisements to postcards—she continues to be popular in this region of the world.

 

Promenade

After a lovely walk, a visit with some swans, dipping our feet in the lake, conversations with a Mexican woman and an English couple, we began our walk back to the Alfa Romeo. Time seems to expand here, and I don’t know if it’s geographical, metaphysical, mental or what, but I swear we walked across Lugano for a day or more, but it turned out to be less than two hours. Which was good, because I only put 2 Euro in the parking meter! On the way back, Rita bought me a lovely Italian hat, and I was now ready to do some serious Swiss Alp driving!

 

Vroom!

It was now about 3 p.m. local time. I had to have the car back in Milan by 8 p.m. The mountain pass was just over an hour away. I figured that this would give us just enough time. Maybe we wouldn’t make the entire drive, but at least I would be able to drive on some winding mountain roads in an Italian sports car and live my dream. Simple. Wonderful. Amazing.

 

 

So we hit the highway and sped through the wonderful tunnels. We were making good time, but then I saw a symbol light up on the dashboard—a yellow circular symbol with some strange ridges. I wasn’t familiar with it, so I had Rita look through the manual, but she couldn’t find anything either. After my nerves were finally reaching their breaking point, I found a rest stop and checked for myself. Tire pressure low. You’d think they could just have a picture of something that looks like a tire?

 

Swiss rest stop.

Sure enough, the front right tire was very low. Dangerously low. I’m really glad I stopped. I found the donut and the jack in good order (yeah, I said donut) and did the deed that I have done so many times in my life. But there was no way I was going to enjoy a drive across a mountain pass on a donut. The top speed rating was 80 Kmh which is about 45 mph. Can you imagine crawling on a highway at that speed? And we had lost a good forty minutes conducting the tire change, so I made the executive decision to just drive back to Milan hoping that the tire would hold.

 

 

Standstill

Oh lucky us! We hit Lugano at rush hour, and for some reason, Italian drivers do not know how to merge. Every single exit for 20 miles meant traffic was at a complete and total standstill. I watched my ETA on the TomTom go from 6:15 p.m. to 6:45, then 6:55 and so on. By the time we finally go through the tunnel and out of Lugano, the ETA was 7:15. I was going to be cutting it very close, and the stupid yellow light was still on!

 

 

Now we were on the freeway which meant more tolls. Here I was driving on this little donut, traveling from Switzerland to Italy, giving up on my dream to drive in the mountains, forced to pay toll after toll just to limp the car back to Milan. I was dreading the final leg of the journey which would mean driving through the heart of the city itself. After my brief stint of city driving in Como, I couldn’t imagine what Milan would be like.

But I had my hat, and Rita was with me, so I knew everything would be okay.

TOMTOM: Turn here, now here, bear left, stay right, look that way, avoid this! Whoa… is this two lanes? I don’t know! Is that a stop light? Was that a police car? Can motorcycles really just drive down the middle of the street like that? Just keep driving, just keep driving, just keep driving!

After fifteen minutes of torturous city navigating, I remembered that I needed to fill up the gas tank. I opted to not pay extra for the fill up, and I also opted out of the extra insurance because I am an American Express customer, and they say they cover rental cars! (Remember my previous post?)

Well, after finding a gas station run by some angry Italians who clearly didn’t want our business at all, we made our way to the rental place in the center of Milan (I paid extra to drop it off there instead of driving all the way back to the airport). A nice red-headed woman was waiting for us as I parked outside. She made me fill out an accident report for the tire. I told here there was no accident, but that didn’t matter. She didn’t seem to feel sorry for me for missing my chance at my dream drive. All business.

Alfa on a Donut

I was confident after leaving that even though she threatened to charge me something for whatever damage had been done to the tire, that I would be protected by my trusty AMEX card! WRONG! After arriving at our flat (more about this in the next installment) I found out that AMEX had been trying to contact me to check for fraud on this car rental in Italy. I told them it wasn’t fraud, but I wondered about my insurance coverage. This is when I was transferred to the insurance division and told, politely, that six countries are not covered by their insurance. Guess which country is on the list! Go on… just try to guess. You’ll never guess! That’s right… ITALY. Italy is not covered. And when I checked the website, I literally had to go through three layers of agreements to find that tiny print. What the heck?

So now I am in limbo waiting to see how much they charge me for the tire. Perhaps they will make me replace the whole wheel? Maybe the whole car? I don’t know. At this point, anything could happen. I have heard car rental companies can be pretty terrible when they get serious.

Other than that… other than the little mishap with the Alfa, the drive was pretty awful. But other than that, the day again seemed to last for a century, and so much life was lived and so much joy was had that it’s hard to let a little thing like a flat tire bring you down.

Lugano Photos

Side note: Right now, I am typing this in the dark, and there are mosquitos dive bombing me constantly. I don’t know how they found me in this attic flat in Milan, Italy, but my goodness. I have resorted to eating raw garlic and rubbing it on me to try to evade their vampiric bites. I haven’t seen such aggressive mosquitos in awhile. Why do they exist?

 

Il bene e il male

The Good and the Bad (Italian Style)

As any experienced traveler will confirm, you never know what the unexpected will bring, so it is better to always be flexible and to be unconcerned if the world does not unfold as planned. The sun will rise and the sun will set, and everything else is up to chance.

 

 

The highlight of the first leg of my trip from Omaha to Miami was that my weight was used to provide ballast for the plane, and I was bumped up to business class. I have never slept so well. I woke up when we touched down in Miami, and it felt like no time had passed at all.

 

The trip to Lisbon on TAP Portugal  was mostly uneventful. They had no vegetarian food options, which I found odd. The planes aren’t nearly as luxurious as Lufthansa which I flew with Sue, Glen and dad last summer. The staff was pleasant. I spilled wine on myself and ruined my white shirt. Typical.

The final stint was from Lisbon to Milan. Rita warned me that in southern Europe the people are not as time-conscious as Germans or Americans. She was right. The plane was scheduled to board at 6:15 and take off at 7:15. We didn’t board until after 7 and took off at around 8. No one seemed to care. I was a bit worried because I was planning to pick her up at the Bergamo airport when she arrived.

In Milan, all of my electronic devices were dying. I had no European power converter, and the internet was awful. I decided to pay for the AT&T travel plan which is absolutely outrageous at $10/day of use. As soon as I get to Latvia, I will be cancelling my service and picking up a local provider. I went to Hertz to get my car rental and stood in line waiting for them to call my number only to realize that I rented from Enterprise through Locacar via Orbitz. Luckily, my Orbitz app reminded me of my reservation. My head was not in the right place after 27 hours of plane flights and airport layovers.

 

At Enterprise, I did not get the Audi that I had reserved, but instead got an Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback which was a lovely car. I rented it via my American Express card which is supposed to provide rental insurance. More about this later. I did pay extra for the Tom Tom GPS which was imperative. The drive to Bergamo was an hour in city traffic. My first move was to get out of the airport alive, and the Tom Tom took me the wrong way down a one way street. Not a good start.

I will say this, Italians love their roundabouts. I have never seen anything like it. Every 800 yards, there is a roundabout, and you have to carefully choose your exit because you may end up in some driveway if you don’t pay attention. Not that this happened to me.

Truthfully, other than the three tolls, the drive to Bergamo was pretty easy. Getting out of the airport parking lot took some doing. Every other toll was simple, you put your credit card in and the gate opened. But this one? You had to go to the booth to get the ticket to pay to escape. Why? I don’t know. They just like to make things complicated for people like me.

 

Traffic and Roundabouts Abound

Then it was on to Como for the first leg of my Italian holiday. This is where the roundabouts came to play. Traffic was light, which was a blessing, but the short 50 kilometer drive took over an hour with the constant slowing down and speeding up. Once we got closer to the mountains, the scenery was gorgeous which made the drive much more pleasant. We bought some plums after taking a wrong turn and carried on.

 

 

Streets of Como

The worst part of the day was when we arrived in Como and I relied on Google Maps to guide us to the Posta Design hotel in the heart of the city. Like many Italian cities (apparently) these towns are designed with a central cathedral and plazas and streets that radiate from the center. Some are designed for walking, and some allow cars. But a person who has never been to such a city would have absolutely no idea that google maps would guide him into a

Narrow streets

pedestrian walkway ending in a dead end at a nice restaurant while people watched him backing the Alfa Romeo slowly out with a nice Italian man moving chairs out of the way and guiding him. And how could he possibly know that the Polizia had mounted cameras all over the plaza for just such a case. A kind taxi driver told us that we had already been photographed, and that we would likely get a ticket. I have no idea what happens in this case, but it will be my second international ticket. Not bad, eh?

 

 

Eventually, after twisting and turning on narrow streets, and making a few more wrong turns we finally found the hotel. There was absolutely no way we could have driven there. As it was, we had to park two blocks away even after asking the lady at the front desk what to do.

So that was the worst. But once I figured out parking and unloaded the suitcases and settled in, Como was a really nice place to spend the evening.

Lake Como

The lake at night was spiritual with mountains rising up on all sides, lit up by the manors that climb the hills. People were out and about, and apparently they don’t really start eating supper until very late, so our meal at this fancy seafood place was perfect.

 

 

 

Eyes of the Shrimp

We ordered way too much food. I had shrimp with eyes staring at me, and a delicious swordfish. The other people in the restaurant ordered these giant steaming bowls of every seafood imaginable, and even sea bass coated in salt and set on fire to cook at your table while you waited. Incredible!

 

 

 

If you’re ever in northern Italy, I would recommend Como, but I would recommend taking public transportation and leaving the driving up to experts. Up next, Switzerland, and more good, bad, and a little ugly!

And an obligatory slideshow. Enjoy! Godere!

 

 

A Week of Goodbyes

A Toast

I feel so loved right now. That’s a nice way to start a conversation, isn’t it? Feeling loved, lucky, at one with the omnipresent universe that surrounds me. Despite any setbacks, I have to say I had an incredible week or so of goodbyes that I could not imagine having been any better.

I say “week or so” because the first goodbye was a writing tour of Omaha that took place on June 16th. I can’t say much more about it because I was sworn to secrecy, but let’s just say that the goodbyes shared on that night were enough for any normal person to feel good about going anywhere. I cherish that night even though the journal I brought with me has since vanished.

Then, after my trip to Colorado with the Grinvalds’ clan and my two week CELTA bootcamp in Springfield, I returned back to Omaha to finish my packing where I met with a number of other memorable goodbyes.

Matt and I camped out at River West just outside of Waterloo. We just happened pick the night they were showing Bill Murray movies including Caddy Shack and What About Bob? I will admit that I haven’t laughed that hard in a long, long time. In a philosophical sense, Bill Murray is trying to kill the gopher in Caddy Shack, while he plays a metaphorical gopher to Richard Dreyfuss’ ego in What About Bob? 

 

I got to see Rita Jerins while helping move one of her plants. We had a nice, intimate conversation that I will treasure.

 

 

 

Shirley Manson… amazing.

The following week, my brother Alan took me to see

Blondie Still Rocking

the Garbage and Blondie concert at Stir Concert Cove. It was a hot and angry night in terms of weather, but the concert was excellent, and we both had a nice time. I especially enjoyed Garbage’s incredible rapport with the crowd. It felt so genuine. When she came down and hugged a guy standing right next to us, I was in awe. Blonde, although in her seventies, can still sing well, and the original band really nailed it despite two of them wearing tank tops circa 1974.

On Saturday, I had a goodbye with Emily at Shuck’s where I had a roundabout of oysters and their legendary buffalo shrimp. Highly Recommend. This was followed by Rick and Susan’s annual party and then an infamous poker game where knuckles were broken… figuratively speaking.

 

 

Goodbye EP3 🙁

Then, on Sunday, after buying my Honda Civic Si from me, Sue took me with her and Doni and Alexsei to see Paul McCartney at the Century Link Arena. She pointed out that this was the fourth time that I got to see him play over a span of 25 years. She has seen him five times. Can you do better for a last

Paul Waving the Flag

American concert than Paul McCartney? I don’t think so. His voice was a little shaky, but he rock and rolled for over 2 hours. He told some incredible stories, and he got away with playing “Temporary Secretary” live and having people cheer for it. Listen at your own risk (worst. song. ever.).

 

 

 

The Party People

The highlight of it all was my official going away party that was supposed to be a surprise, and despite the fact that I knew about it and people came to my house, it was still surprising. People from my past and present showed up along with all my siblings and other family members to share a toast, eat some food, and drink some beverages together. It was like Ligo in July! All of my siblings contributed to the food supply, and neighbors, colleagues, friends and family joined together. We even did a champagne toast followed by a snort of Black Balsam for good measure. Thanks to all who came and thanks to those who sent their good wishes via Facebook.

Party Selfies

Goodbye Vinyl

But my last night in town was really special, too. After lunch with one of my favorite colleagues, Eric Sayre at the New Orleans themed Herbe Sainte, I had a final listen to my vinyl and Kyle and Al came over. Kyle and I tasted some of the red wines that were left after the party. Then Rod Howe brought together a few of the gang of the Free Thinkers, and each of them left a little message in my notebook. We had a nice dinner at the Brazen Head. My dad, Kyle, and Al also showed up. Tears were shed in the parking lot.

The Brazenhead

 

Cribbage

Then I had one last cribbage game at the Homy Inn

Good Boy

with Matt. I won, I think. And I spent a very restless few hours of not quite sleeping, worried about my 4 a.m. alarm. Alex the cat joined me on the couch, and I got the feeling that he knew something was up.

 

 

My only regret is leaving a bit of a mess in the house for Al, Chris, and dad to negotiate. I just had too much stuff and not enough time to figure out what to do with it. The garage sale was a bust, but I was able to sell some of the bigger items thanks to friends like Tiffany, Brenda, and Henry.

 

 

The Clouds of Miami

So as I sit her at the airport in Miami waiting for my flight to Lisbon, I have all these warm feelings. I just have to say think you to everyone for being a part of these memories! Your energy will be with me as I move forward and try to figure out what I’m doing in Latvia for the next year or so!

 

 

 

First Class!

And let me mention that my trip out of Omaha began with an upgrade to First Class to balance out the weight of the plane. So I guess a little extra baggage can come in handy now and then!

 

 

The Process of Packing

It Belongs in a Museum!

Today, the fine people at the Latvian American Shipping Line will be coming to my house to take away the crate of possessions that I have deemed important enough to take on my excursion to Latvia.

The packing process has been going on in my mind for months now. What to take, what to leave, what to throw away? How does one condense the contents of his life into a 1 meter cube? How do you take a three-bedroom ranch house and shove it into a small box to send across the ocean? It was not easy.

I spent a good ten hours yesterday going through the house, gathering things, and boxing them up carefully. I started with the practical, like my home office which I figure will be my number one need in Latvia. I plan to do a lot of writing and such, so I took my computer, monitor and printer along with assorted gadgets. Disassembling the iMac made everything feel so real.

I loaded up some kitchen stuff, a few plates, bowls, silverware and utensils. Just in case I want to cook and eat while I’m there.

I kept thinking… what do I want to bring that will be hard to replace? What do I want to bring so I can just start living right away? Maybe I packed too much. I guess time will tell.

Piles of Writing

The hardest part of the packing process was my old journals. I have a plan… I have been writing all my life, but I have never taken the time to really work through my writing, edit it and polish it for possible publication. I see my time in Latvia as a chance to do this. Away from the distractions of my normal life. In a new place with a new perspective, I can find the time and grit to work through my writing. Organize it. Develop it. Publish it.

But the process of digging through your life, one notebook at a time… seeing all the depression and anxiety that you went through in high school, college, two marriages and beyond? That’s pretty potent stuff. I found myself recollecting all these moments that I had forgotten. I even have a bulletin from my baptism ceremony. Who keeps all that stuff? Liesma, that’s who.

I went on a little philosophical thought meandering about memory. I know that photographs lock in memories. I can’t tell at this point if I remember Christmas in Yutan, or if I just remember the pictures that I have of those times. Now, after reading so many of my old journal writings, I wonder if those locked in the memories that I have? Is writing just like taking a photograph? You write down the story, and then it digs a deeper groove in the old brain matter? So you’re more likely to recall it later. And of course, the memory is only as good as what you’ve written, so it may not be exactly what happened. But it never is, is it?

I have three main projects that I plan to work on: 1) The story of Vitauts. Everyone says you should write his story, and I plan to take time to do this. I don’t know what form it will take, but I’m going to give it a shot. 2) Liesma’s writing. Mom left behind scraps of her own thoughts and written work. I plan to organize that and put it together, maybe just for our family, but maybe there is something there behind the words that others would find interesting. 3) My own work. I have written numerous stories, poems, plays, and even a couple of novels. It would be nice to organize them and see if there is anything good among all that drivel.

I keep thinking of the museum analogy. If all the paintings in a museum were just kind of piled up in someone’s basement, you wouldn’t think much of them. But the fact that they have been catalogued and organized makes them more worthy of our viewership. So much is in the presentation. What is a work of art leaning against the wall in some old house? What is a Rembrandt that has been rolled up and put away in a closet somewhere? Maybe I can make my writing more presentable.

So last night, I packed up all the boxes, taped them shut and carried them to the garage. This morning, I did the hard work of stacking the boxes in the crate, soon realizing that space was much more tight than I had imagined. I had to do some strategic shoving and played a bit of tetris to make everything fit, but I think it’s good. I like the fact that most of the stuff is so tightly packed because it means there will be less shifting, and hopefully, less breaking as the crate makes its way from Nebraska to Daugmales pagasts, Latvia.

After sealing up the box, I heard the Kill Bill whistling song. I remember that there was something I used to own that played that song, but I don’t know what it is exactly. Maybe my old flip phone? Hopefully, the battery will die and it won’t cause some person on a ship to go crazy and just start the crate on fire. I could see that happening. “Where is that whistling coming from? Janis, bring the torch!” 

 

Springfield Last Day

Art

Here I am at Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe, waiting for food for forty minutes now. Am I complaining, yeah, I guess so.

The waiter just brought over my check, and I haven’t seen a whiff of my food yet. That’s a first for me. I was a bit shocked and said, “But I haven’t gotten my food yet!” Not quite a freak-out moment, but close. Really close.

I just wanted hash browns (why is that two words?) and scrambled eggs, thinking that would be a quick breakfast. It wasn’t.

Okay, enough about that. Let’s talk about the cool stuff.

More Art

Today is the last day of my CELTA training. It’s been brutal as my cohort will attest to, but also rewarding. I have learned so much about teaching in a different and new way. It feels kind of like the Nebraska Writing Project in the way I have transformed some of my methods based on new learning.

 

 

Voldemort Daiquiri

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to go out and experience more of the city given a tour by a native named Karissa. I met Karissa at the Tennessee Williams Festival a couple of years ago, and, by the way, she’s not only a client, but she runs the whole thing. We met in the hotel Vandivort (I can’t stop calling it Voldemort) for a couple of drinks. The hotel is just amazing. One interesting kind of snobby thing I’ve noticed is that there are some places that are so cool, they could exist in any of the great cities of the world and be just fine. La Buvette in Omaha’s Old Market is one of them, and the Vandivort is another.

 

In the Window of Vandivort

We lucked out an it was Wednesday happy hour! I had some interesting cocktails (names forgotten) but one had pineapple in it. This is when I learned of Karissa’s allergy to pineapple from her time working at a pineapple ice cream stand in her younger and more vulnerable years (this will be important later, I promise!). A local musician started playing Beatles songs after chatting with Karissa for a bit. The story is worth repeating.

 

 

Cottonmouth King

Karissa is in the process of building a house in the woods outside of Springfield. She went home the other day to a strange, musty smell. She searched the basement for the source, and much to her surprise, there was a cottonmouth snake waiting. Angry and alone. She called a friendly neighborhood snake killer who came and jumped on it. Crisis averted.

 

 

Another place in the Vandivort

So Karissa knew this musician who knew another guy from Springfield that I met in New Orleans. Small world. We sat in four different places in the hotel, and I tried the cashew chicken because it was invented in Springfield. Little did I know that Karissa’s other life is the director of ESL summer camps all over the country. She had just flown in from New York and was leaving for California the next day to “put out fires.” She was very supportive of both my CELTA training and my overseas adventure.

 

 

Bass Pro Rocks!

She wanted to show me a bit of Springfield, so we went to the famous Bass Pro Shop, established in 1972 (same year as I), where we met her son, brother, niece, nephew and father. It is a pretty amazing establishment, and this is their flagship store. I guess it would be equivalent to going to Cabela’s in Sydney, but more big.

 

I told her that when I was a kid, I used to get the catalog, and I always imagined that the main store was in Canada. I never thought it was like a real place people could go. It is just enormous with real-live alligators, turtles, fish in aquariums and this huge outdoor display that makes one feel as if he is in Colorado or Montana. We visited the gun museum that had an actual musket from 1580 that seemed to be in suspiciously amazing shape. It was incredible.

 

Teddy Roosevelt

At the Teddy Roosevelt display, where the former President resides behind a glass case dressed in his best outdoorsy gear, a little kid and his dad showed up. The kid, out of nowhere, just burst out, “Hey there little man! Come outta that cage so I can punch you in your face!” We were in awe.

 

Then we went to the restaurant inside of Bass Pro (just us two at this point, the rest of the fam went home). The restaurant is called “Hemingway’s” and it is, indeed, and homage to the legendary author whom Karissa kept referring to as “Papa.” It was nice to end up there because I told Karissa that I was going to Latvia to write, and I was planning on packing up all my old journals. She told me that Hemingway’s wife lost all his journals on a train, and he never forgave her for that. Lesson learned.

Finally, Karissa asked me what time the sun set. She had the perfect place planned to see it. We headed to another bar called Barley, Wheat and Rye. It was on the rooftop of a building somewhere in Springfield, and when we walked in, I remarked how incredible it looked with wood paneling and leather sofas. The waitress said, “Yup, decorated by Ron Swanson.” That’s a Parks and Rec. joke, if you didn’t know… which is cool because I got it. I just started binge watching a few weeks ago! Fate. I tell you. Fate.

Springfield Sunset

So we sat on the patio, watched the sunset and talked of philosophy, the world’s problems and all of our issues and anxieties. It was a nice time. The waitress was wonderful, and had a bit of Leslie Knope in her. She gave me the new term “Starter Marriage” in reference to her 3 year millennial marriage.

 

 

 

Pineapple Whip

As a CELTA student, I had to be responsible, so after the sun went down, it was time to get home to prepare for the next day. But, on the way back, Karissa saw a pineapple ice cream stand… “Pineapple Whip.” She turned around instantly and took me there. Incredible. Full circle. There is so much love in this universe, and much of it has been bestowed upon me in the past few years.

Thank you Pineapple God!

So in the process of seeing Springfield, and learning more about the city, the Farmer’s market and history, I also made another incredibly cool new friend.

I almost died the next day trying to get ready for class, but that which doesn’t kill us makes us saltier.

 

 

 

 

 

Springfield on a Saturday Night

After teaching my 4th and final lesson for the first week of my two week CELTA training, I was happy to meet up with my old NeWP friend Cathie for a local’s tour of the town and some really good barbecue.

We decided to go to Pappy’s Place, which is a tiny little bistro attached to a house somewhere on the north side of Springfield. I followed her to the destination, and got really turned around. I had to push it through a yellow light with a cop sitting right there, but I did not get pulled over.

Pappy’s is a strange place. I expected strange. It was a Saturday night, and we were the only patrons visiting the establishment. The “waitress” was an aged woman who didn’t really seemed concerned about us being there—one of those “take it or leave it” servers. We ordered a couple of beers, and I got the ribs because if you’re going to go for barbecue, you have to get ribs, right? They were out of beef and a bunch of beers. It’s one thing I’ve noticed about Springfield… a lot of places are out of things or just not open at all. It’s weird.

Linda, our waitress, brought us a second round of beers, followed by our plates of food, and it was excellent. I don’t know if I really need to describe the meal like some kind of restaurant critic, but the meat flaked off the bone, the sauce was flavorful, and the beans and fries were a nice accompaniment. I ended up taking most of the ribs home because there was way more food than I needed. That was kind of my plan.

Toward the end of our supper, an African-American woman came in, sat down at the bar and ordered a pitcher of beer. She sang to herself in a sweet voice, and then turned around and offered to share her pitcher. “I can’t drink this all by myself,” she said. But I said I was driving, and we couldn’t stay. She had ridden her bike, and I was kind of jealous of that freedom. Not bringing a bike was a big mistake.

Then Cathie and I decided to go visit the north downtown… which I didn’t know existed until she led me there. She explained that this was originally a segregated city, and this would have been the black downtown… whereas the downtown near where I am staying is the “white downtown.” Curious. We had a debate as to whether Missouri was a Confederate State or a free state. I still remember learning about the Missouri Compromise in 8th grade. It was confusing then, and it’s still confusing today.

We ended up going to Lindberg’s bar, the oldest bar in Springfield, and it was an incredible choice. As we walked in, Jason, the bouncer greeted us and didn’t charge us a cover. We got a nice table in the corner by the window, and we were just in time to hear these two women shredding the fiddle playing some Irish music. It was wonderful.

We ordered a couple of beers, local stuff, and enjoyed the show. Cathie was delighted when I told her about our writing Scrawl, and I happened to have a notebook with me so she could write. We took a little time to write and share, and our waitress, Dale, a college student and a writer, also partook. She gave the notebook to Jason, the bouncer, who overheard me talking about Latvia and came over to tell us his story about backpacking through the Baltics. It was like a family reunion.

He told us that a Reggae band was coming up followed by a funk band with “like 16 people on stage.” Good times.

As the reggae band, One Drop Pulse, played I went to see them up close. Live music is always better when you become a part of the crowd. Drunk people were grooving, and the lead guitar kept fiddling with his pickup. It was loose. After a song, I asked him if that was a feature, and he said, “No, it’s a broken piece of shit, but I love the way it sounds!” Who could argue with that logic.

Then the funk band set up, and the stage filled with a few horns, a keyboard, two singers, and a bunch of guitarists. My favorite part was this petite blond girl who just stood in the center of the stage with the light on her, warming up her vocals, making herself bigger than life. Surrounded by all these dudes, she just held her own like nothing else.

To tell you the truth though, I liked the reggae band better. I’m not exactly sure why, but there was just something more alive about their performance. Maybe it was the drummer who was like 6′ 8″, or the overweight bassist who just sat in a chair kicking ass and belting out a song of his own… but they just seemed really genuine. Even with the snapback caps and whatever, I appreciated their jam.

The night ended around midnight. Cathie took a Lyft home, and I meandered my way through the city streets forgetting which way was north and south. I don’t know why all cities can be as simple and direct as Omaha. Number streets go north and south, named streets go east and west. In Springfield, they all have names. You just have no idea what direction you are going unless you live here or look at a map. That is my only complaint about an otherwise wonderful night out.

I thought I would drive to Branson on Sunday, but I was just totally exhausted. I ended up taking a long nap in the afternoon, and then just waiting to go back to bed in the evening. I tell you what about CELTA… it wears you out in ways you didn’t know you could be worn out!

Four more days!

CELTA Bootcamp: Behind the Scenes

CELTA

I feel like I have told some people that I’m doing this CELTA thing, but not many really understand it. Quite frankly, I’m not 100% certain I get it myself, so I’m writing about it to work through and untangle the mystery.

According to Cambridge, CELTA stands for “Certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.” In my book, the acronym should be CTESOL. But seriously, this other website says it stands for “Certificate in English Language Teaching”… which makes more sense. It also says it’s the “most widely accepted” TESOL program in the world! (Another acronym, go figure).  While I was browsing the Cambridge website, this caught my eye as well: CELTA is now eligible for funding under the Advanced Learner Loans scheme. Scheme? I hope that had a British definition that is a bit less shady than our own.

So why am I taking this class and getting this certification? It all boils down to the fact that I applied to teach English at this one school in Latvia. I sent in my CV and a letter of application. The response I got was that basically, they won’t even look at me unless I have some certification to teach English to non-English speakers. So I did some research, and found out that I can get this certification after a single class, and it was being offered online, so here I am. Sitting in an apartment in Springfield, Missouri teaching English to students from all over the world through Missouri State.

After twenty years of teaching experience in public schools, it has been a very interesting adventure to learn to teach English to non-native speakers. The class began online using a rather confusing system called “Fronter.” It is kind of like Blackboard, but a bit more streamlined. We had about six online “face-to-face” sessions with our instructor and classmates. There are six of us in all. I am, I think, the oldest member of the CELTA crew, and we all have different reasons for being here.

The Classroom

I think all of us have plans to relocate overseas to teach. The certificate seems to be most highly respected in Europe, so it makes sense for me to be taking this class. Because it originates in Cambridge, the training videos and the language of the course has all been in British English. This has made it kind of fun. We have to analyze pronunciations of words using the phonetic alphabet, and you really get to see how differently we speak. I was accused of making fun of the training videos when I did a drawling British accent, but really, it was admiration and emulation!

So after completing 26 or so modules online with all kinds of activities, videos, lessons, and readings, we have come together, face to face in one of the nexuses of the Universe, Springfield, Missouri. The set-up is pretty simple. Three of us are taking turns teaching a group of beginning speakers, and the other three are teaching an intermediate group. After four lessons, we switch, and then, hopefully, get our certificate after teaching eight lessons.

The lessons vary in content. Some are focused on vocabulary, some grammar, some the production of language, and some listening and speaking. We have frameworks to follow, all kinds of new acronyms, and a completely different style and focus than I have grown used to over all these years. In some ways, this has made me a more contemplative and, probably, better teacher. The planning for each 40-minute lesson takes hours. My classmates have literally been spending 6-8 hours getting ready for one teaching session. I tried to explain how crazy this was by putting it in terms of my teaching load at Westside. Imagine prepping for that long for each of my preps for each day of the week? It would be impossible.

Today, I described the feeling like learning to dance a new dance for the first time. I am not sure where my feet go, and everything feels a bit awkward, and I am forgetting to listen to the music because I’m afraid of getting it wrong. With that said, I have watched my fellow teachers, and they are doing a fantastic job. It is actually amazing how comfortable they are in front of the classroom after only having this online instruction!

So, each day, we go to the campus building at 8:30 a.m. We teach until 12:30, and then decompress and analyze our lessons in the afternoon. Most of us then go home, nap, and begin preparing for the next day. When I compare this to boot camp, I don’t think I am exaggerating. My instructor warned us that it would be exhausting, and it is. So why am I writing this? I think it helps.

A sample of the textbook

The hardest part of the pedagogy to wrap my head around is the pedagogy itself. We are teaching rather complex lessons to these beginning learners. It is so hard to think that they won’t really get much of the content, but ultimately, they will learn English in the process. Because we are limited to just this two-week session, and given the curriculum, it is hard for me to imagine what an entire course would look like, but it is all becoming a bit more clear. I am enjoying the challenge of coming up with lessons that are balanced and helpful. I loathe the textbook that we are using because they shove 10 exercises on a single page with difficult instructions and lots of confusing graphics. I don’t know why textbooks are designed that way.

Ultimately, I am looking forward to wrapping up my time here and to feel this immense pressure being released and lifted only to reveal this other, perhaps greater, pressure of moving that is just around the corner. It is hard to focus on the future when the present is right there in front of you! I have to say that I love these students. They are an inspiration to me as they start their new lives in America with very little understanding of our language. We have students from Asia, Africa, and Europe, all striving together to carve out a little piece of the American Dream! What could be more powerful than that?

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a Silent Independence Day

July 4th, 2017

Springfield, Missouri, USA

The video pretty much says it all. Blake and I ended up watching Sense8 after a long, long trip to the Steak & Shake, which has really cheap food, and really slow service (but I still recommend it).

Takhomasak: Steak and Shake Sign

As we are here teaching English to language learners, we were both bothered by this sign… apparently it means that you can “Take home a sack.” Get it? Neither did we. But these signs were all over both outside and inside the restaurant.

 

 

 

While watching Sense8 and getting ready for our first lessons, I intermittently checked outside to see if there were any fireworks. 9 p.m.? Nope. 9:30? Nope. 9:45? We thought we heard something. 10? A flash in the distant sky. Then, after I went to bed, I heard someone shoot off something near the apartment. But for the most part, it was a silent, flash-free evening, and this was strange.

This morning, I learned that they did have fireworks:  http://www.ky3.com/content/news/Hundreds-stick-through-the-rain-at-Freedom-Fest-in-Springfield-432582433.html

But, the fireworks were not at Hammon’s Field as we were told they would be, but rather 5 miles away at some other location, and, apparently, sponsored by a church rather than the city of Springfield. Times must be tough down here? Or maybe it’s a good thing?

Springfield Map
2016 4th of July near Lake of the Ozarks

It was also rainy and cold, which made for an odd Independence Day. Last

Illegal Stuff

year, I also spent the 4th in Missouri up at the Lake of the Ozarks with the family. We drove out to a secluded spot above some small town to watch them perform their less-than-mediocre fireworks. Then we shot off some of our own, apparently illegally. I find it so strange that the state that Nebraskans drive to to buy illegal fireworks seems to no embrace their own passion for incendiary entertainment. It’s like if you went to Colorado and found no potheads or something.

Blake, my roommate, said that holidays all lose their significance after you grow older. He, at age 24, is already feeling that Christmas just isn’t what it used to be. So if there is a steady decline in the joy we feel at each holiday, what keeps them going? What is the spirit of the holiday? Is it all about children and seeing them get excited for the first time at something we used to get excited for? Is it all a perfunctory response to stimuli… we are supposed to celebrate this thing, and so we do, kind of automatons going through the motions of the celebration without actually engaging?

I know that I’ve felt that way before. After mom died, Christmas lost most of its meaning for me. I felt like an impartial observer at our family celebration, stepping back from the fray and watching us go through the motions. What used to seem spontaneous, now felt scheduled and mandatory. What used to be fun and loud with lots of engagement, now seemed like just one more thing we had to do together.

Getting to the next thing. Is this a postmodern phenomenon? This idea of “let’s just do this now so that we can do whatever is next” seems to be pervasive. I remember asking my students as they started gathering up before the bell rang, “What are you so excited to get to?” They had no answer. It was just instinct or learned behavior to anticipate the ringing of the bell signifying a change, and therefore, getting ready to go!

I find myself counting down the time it will take to get from one thing to the next. I have 21 days left in the United States. I have 40 minutes of teaching. I have to be at the school until 4 p.m. And then, when I have free time, I am still thinking about whatever is going to happen next. This is, what I might call, anti-mindfulness. And despite my efforts to be mindful and aware of what I am doing right now, I still find myself making mental to do lists, and watching the clock for the next symbol that will lead to whatever is next.

I always feel more alive when I am busy and active. Time flies by when you are completely engaged in the moment. It is only when you are waiting for the next thing that time seems to slow down and stall.

So last night, waiting for the fireworks that never came, I felt like time was at a virtual standstill. Even while watching Sense8, the clock was reluctant to tick. And after I finally decided there was nothing to wait for anymore, my anticipation for my first CELTA lesson the next morning had my mind occupied, and made sleep difficult.

Kyle Climbing

The big question, I guess, is what are the meaningful moments? What are the landmark events that we are waiting for and actually paying attention to when they happen? Recently, for me, rock climbing in Colorado was a mindful, purposeful event that I was aware of in the moment without thinking about much else. Our guide, Mike, even pointed out that’s what he loved about climbing. When you are clinging to a rock 200 feet above the ground, your mind is totally and absolutely focused on that moment and nothing else.

 

 

What are the societal norms or rules for paying attention in the moment? Between smart phones, televisions, and other distractions, it seems that our limit for focused time is extremely limited. How does one pay attention in a world that seems to chip away at our attention span over and over again?

 

 

Springfield Continued: Still July 4th

Fraternity Row. Closed.

As I am sitting here in my room in Springfield, Missouri, it feels like this is good practice for my move to Latvia which happens in just three weeks. In 22 days, I’ll be on a plane headed for Milan, Italy, and then on August 1, I’ll be in Riga, Latvia. So everything here and now is a bit surreal—even this BK coffee that I’m drinking out of desperation for coffee. The silence and semi-isolation of this flat feels almost monastic, and I feel, if I weren’t lazy, that I could accomplish just about anything. But back to my ground-truthing of Springfield.

After my walk and my beer and pizza, I went out again for some more truth in the early evening. I changed my clothes from the “casual business” teacher attire, to much more comfortable shorts and a t-shirt. I traded my dress shoes for my Brooks running shoes, and the sun had begun it’s retreat in the western sky, so Springfield had cooled, and the light was now lovely. I wonder how much of my mood could be explained by any of these factors? The bottom line is that my second walk through Springfield was much more pleasant than the first.

Dumpsters.
Public garbage.

It could also be the direction that I went, and the surroundings. Even in the alleyway of dumpsters, my mood was light, and my steps full of energy and optimism. I was contemplating the situation of public garbage that exists in American cities. Why is it that people think it is okay to simply toss trash out onto public lands? Is it a question of ownership? If we thought that this land was really our land, and that it belonged to all of us, would we still abuse it? And why is there garbage piled up outside of an empty dumpster? Were people just too lazy to take that final step of opening it up and tossing it inside? I don’t know. I just know that wherever I walk, I see garbage lining the streets of America.

And let’s not forget music. On this walk, I was wearing my headphones and listening to my heart-pounding punk rock mix making even a trip into the CVS an enjoyable experience. The one detriment to this addition is that I didn’t have my hearing aids in, and most people just don’t talk loudly enough for me to hear. Take these shrouded cars, for instance. As I walked by, I wanted to get a nice photo of them because it looked interesting. The owner came out and started chatting with me. He said something about putting my cell phone away because it was just bad news and mumble mumble. He told me some other things about California and life, and death. Cars. I’m sure he spouted some wisdom about old age and love in there, too… but it was all too quiet. I did ask him specifically about what was hidden under the covers, but I’ll just let you think about it before I tell.

I started the walk by taking photos of some interesting older buildings with cool signs. Then I got to the official campus of Missouri State and took note of the lovely trees that line the campus. I wanted to get off the main road, so I dove into a quiet neighborhood. It took me a little while to notice that there are seemingly no hills in Springfield, or at least none where I was. You kind of forget how hilly Omaha is until you go to other towns that are flat and think… “Hey, I could ride my bike here forever.”

 

The foliage in this little quiet neighborhood was beautiful. I couldn’t resist taking pictures of some houses and flowers. It was so peaceful and clean. This part of Springfield was just the opposite of the concrete nightmare of the early afternoon that I had walked through before. This was ideal, romantic, beautiful. There was a little coffee shop in an old house, so full with young coffee drinkers in the evening, that I didn’t even get myself a cup.

 

 

 

As I roamed, I longed to write, so I stopped at the CVS (which is way better than Walgreens) and bought a journal. So far, I haven’t really collected much that is profound, but I did try to figure out what Rachel did to earn a “thank you” from Burger King.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

In Springfield there is no beer.

The evening ended with a margarita at the bar across the street, Ebbett’s Field. It is apparently owned by the pervious coach of the Missouri State Bears, Terry Allen. The saddest thing that can happen in a bar happened. I wanted a beer, but all the taps were out of order. Something with the keg system, they said. Couldn’t be helped. But my roommate, Blake, joined me for a margarita, and we spent some time on the patio discussing fireflies, mosquitos and the fate of the postmodern world. It’s what you do.

Update: The walk took place on July 3, and now it’s July 4th. I am thinking about teaching my first lesson in the morning, and this is probably the first 4th of July I have ever spent in my 45 years without seeing or lighting off a single firework. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing… it feels pretty weird. I suppose I should be used to weird by now. I’m going to have to write something about 4th of July’s past… I’ll keep you posted. 

I leave you with the flora and fauna of Springfield, Missouri.