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Get Hip To This Timely Tip

Tags: Chicago; St. Looey; Joplin, Missouri; Oklahoma City*; Amarillo; Gallup, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona; Winona; Kingman; Barstow; San Bernardino.

The Old is the New New summer hiatus continues, but Route 96, my ten-year-old summer roadtrip blog, is kicking right along. We’re in the southwest now, and well into the good stuff. Highlights so far include Graceland, naturally, Enterprise Square, Oklahoma, a decaying theme park celebrating the free market system, and Miles Music Museum, probably the creepiest museum in Arkansas. Check it out if you still love our freedoms.

*Not actually all that pretty. Go figure.

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Get Your Kicks

Tags: How I spent my summer vacation.

Old is the New New is still on summer hiatus, but here’s the new old content I’ve been promising you: my new summer vacation blog, Route 96!

Ten years ago, in the summer of 1996, I and two friends drove across the USA and back. Actually, that makes the trip sound more linear than it was. Really, we drove around the country, in a big rambling loop. We avoided the interstates whenever possible, taking two-lane highways and seeking out all the roadside Americana we could find: Graceland and Las Vegas, sure, but also things like Carhenge, Roswell’s UFO Research Center, and the World’s Largest Talking Cow. We covered ten thousand miles and visited twenty-five states. It was one of the most excellent things I’ve ever done in my life.

After we returned, I wrote the whole trip up and published it as a zine. Because that was what one did in the days before weblogs. Ten years later, to commemorate the anniversary of that trip, to share the love with a new generation, and to imagine a time where I could seriously contemplate spending four freaking weeks tooling across the continent with my underemployed buddies, I’m going to blog the ten-year-old zine, entry by entry, on this snazzy new weblog. (I’m also using this as a way to play with WordPress, since I’m thinking of switching this blog over to that at some point.)

Come, get your kicks on Route 96.

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France part Dinkum: Professor, what’s another name for pirate treasure?

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Parlez-Moi, with Sol

“Professor, what’s another name for pirate treasure?”
“Well, I think it’s booty… booty… booty… That’s what it is!”

My Ontario high school French held up tolerably well in France. I was able to ask for directions, order in restaurants, and politely inform one stupid American woman in the airport that “19.08” was not the price of the sandwich she wanted to buy (“Nineteen DOLLARS for a SANDWICH? Is that REAL dollars or FRENCH dollars?”) but the day’s date. (The real price was clearly marked in LARGE BLOCK LETTERS.) Oh, and when Pitou ruined the picnic by stealing Mama’s poulet, I was all set.

I was thrown a curve, however, by our little Lonely Planet phrase book. Like any English to French phrase book, it listed words and phrases in English, in French, and then in a phonetic approximation of the French pronunciation. Simple enough, right? But any time we used the book we were met with uncomprehending stares.

It was bouteille, the French word for “bottle,” that finally tipped us off. I knew thought it was pronounced “boo-tye,” the second syllable sounding like “Thai” or “tie,” with a little bit of an “ayee” at the end if you’re feeling frisky. But Lonely Planet gave the pronunciation as “boo-tay.” I felt just a little funny calling for bootay in a fancy restaurant.

[Edit: Note schooling me on French pronunciation in comments below. Grumble grumble big shot Manitobans think they’re so great…]

What I’d forgotten when I bought the book was that Lonely Planet is an Australian company. The phonetics were written for Aussie accents. “Boo-tay,” rhymes with “g’day,” actually is a pretty good approximation of bouteille. Once we’d cracked that Rosetta Stone (and when I say “we”, I mean “Lisa”), we could see that the whole phrasebook was like that: ‘ay’ for ‘aye’ and ‘r’s on the end of everything except the few places they belonged: “ler” for le, “der” for de, “zher per” for je peux. So the book wasn’t worthless to us, but we did have to channel Crocodile Dundee while reading it, a tricky bit of cognitive processing that led me to walk into more than a few lamp posts and open manholes.

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France part Trois: Royale With Cheese

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

a.k.a. Ook Ook, the Lip Cancer Chimp

We got back nearly two weeks ago, so the statute of limitations must surely have expired on these France posts. They’re not very popular, either: not only have comments been light, but I’ve been un-Friended by at least one reader after each one. But, as I’m posting these as much for my own memory as for the general amusement, I’m going to stubbornly continue.

We stayed for much of our time in Paris in Montmartre, the semi-seedy, semi-arty district of the city that’s home to the Moulin Rouge. Montmartre is very cool, picturesque and funky with steep hills and narrow streets. (We had the most amazing chocolate desserts ever made in the history of the universe at a little bar / café there called A Zebra in Montmartre.) The movie Amelie was set there (the neighborhood, not the bar), and that gives you a good idea of the vibe. Except that when filming, the director of Amelie scrubbed every sidewalk and wall and alley clean to give it that sparkly magical realism glow. So picture the movie Amelie under a thin layer of dog shit—that’s Montmartre.

More specifically, we stayed in Place Pigalle. Pigalle has been a sex district since at least the days of the Moulin Rouge, a century ago. (When I mentioned Pigalle to my Dad, who was in Europe with the RCAF in the sixties, he said, “Oh, you mean ‘Pig Alley’!” a little too quickly.) But it doesn’t exactly look like a Toulouse-Latrec painting anymore. Our hotel was dwarfed by giant neon signs on either side flashing ‘SEXODROME’ and ‘LIVE GIRLS PEEP SHOW.’

French smut is so cheerful and up-front, isn’t it? No euphemistic names like “Adult Entertainment” or “Gentleman’s Club” here. (The two places you still hear the word “gentleman” in modern English: on strip clubs and when cops talk to the media about particularly loathsome criminals.) OK, “Sexodrome” sounds a little like an unappetizing Cronenberg film, but I do appreciate its directness. Likewise “Club Supersex,” the name of a Montreal strip bar that every adult male in Boston seems to have heard of. It is interesting, though, that all the signs in Place Pigalle are in English: LIVE GIRLS, PEEP SHOW, and so on. Is this because the clientele are English-speaking tourists, or has English somehow become the international language of smut? I’m reminded that while the English call syphilis “the French disease,” the French, of course, call syphilis “the English disease.” (In Montreal, those signs would of course say LES LIVE GIRLS and LE PEEP SHOW, in deference to Bill 101 and the delicate sensibilities of the Quebecois.)

But if the neighborhood was a bit declassé, our hotel was deluxe. Everything was covered with crushed velvet in purple or crimson. Every wall and every door was upholstered with pillows. Every door knob and light fixture and toilet brush was encrusted with “gold” and “jewels.” In the lobby and the restaurant, they piped in throbbing Euro techno. Grey-haired Scottish ladies tried to make conversation at breakfast as George Michael moaned over a bass track from a German leather club. Our TV was a flat screen, but with a huge and ornate gold “frame” around it as if it was a Renaissance painting—the kind of flat-screen TV that Marie Antoinette might have had. In fact, the whole place had a gorgeous, ridiculous, oversexed Marie-Antoinette-just-before-the-Revolution vibe to it. Let them eat erotic cake!

Best of all, the hotel rooms had names instead of numbers. On the first few floors, these were the names of classically romantic French figures: Renoir, Monet, George Sand, Edith Piaf. But by our floor, they may have been running out: there was the Maurice Chevalier room, then the “John Lenon” [sic] room, then the Madonna room, the Naomi Campbell room, and finally our room: Cindy Crawford.

Cindy Crawford? Sure, I appreciated her Diet Pepsi commercial during puberty, but is she really a timeless icon of romance? But the hotel staff seemed to think they were doing us a great favor by putting us in the Cindy suite. Whenever anyone on the staff heard what room we were in—at the front desk, at breakfast—they would give us a grin and a knowing wink: Ah, la Crawford! Oui, oui! C’est magnifique! At one point I asked the desk clerk for my room key by number rather than name, but he knew the name without checking: “Oh, Cindy Crawford, n’est-ce pas?” What could I do but give him my best “yes, we’re both men of the world, say no more, squire, say no more” smile? And he handed over the room key (avec Cindy’s picture on it, mole and everything), with an honest-to-god French “ONH ONH ONHHHH!”

It was such a perfect moment. I can’t believe they actually say that. It was kind of like it would be to have an Englishman say “Stiff upper lip, wot wot?” to you. Or if you met an American who spontaneously threw his ten-gallon hat in the air, shot it with his Colt, and hollered “yeeeee-haw!”

One of these things is not like the others. Well, maybe two.