“Only Connect!” A Motto to Travel Under

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
–E. M. Forster

Back in the 90’s, the nerds exultant over the Internet, in zines like 2600 and Mondo 2000, saw a utopia ahead. They saw a future of equality through anonymity, of direct democracy, and empathy via a wire into the home of everyone on Earth.

In retrospect, from 2017, it’s easy to say that they were wrong. They were certainly naïve. The Internet, a tool originally built to purpose to decentralize communication, in an inspired fever-dream of the cold war, has succeeded in that goal — shattering hierarchies of dissemination, disrupting traditional structures in our society.

Disruption, is an understatement. Like if the captain came on the intercom after that guy was dragged off the plane and said, “CRRRK!– sorry for the disruption, folks. Well… we’re about to get underway here…” But it was because someone recorded the assault on a smart phone and then had the means to distribute it to the whole world via this network, that changes could be made to make flying less miserable…. OK. Bad example. But maybe not so for police shootings recorded. Or for a small Silicon Valley ride-hailing company to crash the equity in the New York City Taxi medallion. Or the ability of a small group of people in one country to stoke already divisive debate in another during the run up to its national election.

Or the way that the Internet’s enabled people to group themselves, rather than merely by geography, by nearly everything else — shared interest, history, identity — and in so doing strengthen their beliefs and identities. For good and for ill we’re creating new communities and new realities online — neo-nazis and citizen scientists, enlightened discussions on government and worm holes of conspiracy. The technology gives us more of what we want, keeping us on the platforms to show us ads, learning our apparent likes and feeding it to us. We’re hard wired for it, like with salt, sugar and fat, mice compulsively hitting the lever. Junkfood for the mind.

But not all of it, not the desire. People still meet online, people date, and find love, or they don’t. They organize meetings, birthday parties, and revolutions online. They glimpse other lands and book flights to them. We only want to connect. Because we need to see ourselves in other people and them in us. As when we travel, and catch a spark of recognition in someone so otherwise foreign, we crack open the door to empathy.

I believe that the Internet utopians had it right, at least in spirit. We have a machine that we can use to gain empathy for others, for anyone on Earth. And as we’re constructing new communities and identities, we seem to be losing old ones, and that’s scary. But if we can just peer into one-another’s bubbles, as we so want to, maybe even shout in a Hullo!, we might just lessen that fear, and live in fragments no longer.

The night I arrived in China, in my early twenties, the guy down the hall invited himself over and we communicated however we could — pen and paper, baijou and peanuts.


La Divina Pizza, Santa Croce, Florence

Some of La Divina Pizza’s creations and a bottle of Baladin, an early Italian craft beer

La Divina Pizza uses their own starter and long rises their dough.  La Divina Pizza sells by the slice – actually the charming, short woman behind the counter holds a pair of scissors over the pan and says, qui?  Più?  O meno?  And you sorta indicate with nods and gestures and she cuts a slice.

They’re open til midnight every night except Sunday when they’re closed.  And if you’re walking back from the Murate after a show and it’s not too too late it’s the perfect place to pull up a stool and eat a couple slices off a worn, wood board.

I’ve had roasted walnuts on my pizza at Divina, cheeses I’d never heard of, bright purple vegetables whose names I didn’t catch and didn’t recognize, and it’s always been awesome.  Maybe sometimes weird, but always a joy.

It’s a mix of locals and tourists there, mainly the former.  They get their produce from the outdoor markets.  And they give a shit.

Old Codger at the Farm Market

This guy.
This guy

Had a van which seemed to be the Tuscan farm-supply market equivalent of a surplus store. I liked his look, as he gave me the hairy eyeball.

So I asked if I could try on his hat. He let me, and insisted that I also put on his vest and the shirt beneath it. Figuring this would be photographic gold (and it is), I obliged.

I should have recognized the vibe. I sensed it. It just hadn’t made it to the frontal lobes before he grabbed me by the throat to show me what a tough guy he was. I punched him in the nuts.

Middle of the Road English Cemetery


I heard last night a little child go singing
’Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,
O bella libertà, O bella!—stringing
The same words still on notes he went in search
So high for, you concluded the upspringing
Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch
Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,
And that the heart of Italy must beat,
While such a voice had leave to rise serene
’Twixt church and palace of a Florence street
A little child, too, who not long had been
By mother’s finger steadied on his feet,
And still O bella libertà he sang.

–from Casa Guidi Windows
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning Continue reading “Middle of the Road English Cemetery”

Ukulelist of the U-Bahn

The Hauptbahnhof (central train station) of Munich is an interesting place to be late at night during Oktoberfest. Like when you see a man crawling across the platform, too drunk to walk, but determined to make it.

But I prefer to remember the American with the Uke.

He was playing a song I’m going to call “Lucky Lips,” because that was the refrain. He was in the middle of a knot of young German women all in dirndl, he in lederhosen, everyone happy to be alive and young and among good people, and as they all piled into the last subway car I thought they were lucky indeed.

Le Cure, a Place to Live (if not to visit)

Quietly nestled North and East of the city center of Florence, beyond the once grand Piazza della Libertà, across the railroad tracks, at the very boundary of the city, just before via Giovanni Boccaccio climbs and twists up the hill to the grand palazzi of Fiesole, lays Le Cure.

Le Cure, named for the women known as Le Cureandie who once washed clothes along the Mugnone which bisects the neighborhood, remains unassuming and largely unattractive to tourists.

And it was precisely for this reason that I would live there, well that and because it’s where B lived. In an apartment whose other units housed her mother, her half-brother, and a cousin. But in this neighborhood I would remain after all of that fell apart, moving to the other side of the Mugnone. Which is to say three blocks away.

Though Italians don’t have the same relationship to “blocks,” as a term for navigating and describing relative positions, as Americans do. This is easy enough to understand by just looking at a map of most Italian cities and trying to puzzle out the streets, or, for the naively confident, attempting to brave them behind the wheel. Most directions are given relative to piazzas, and knowing your local piazzas is like knowing your freeways in LA or your bridges and subway lines in New York (too many times I’ve nodded as a local animatedly pointed me around via landmarks I should have known, thanked them profusely, and then discretely consulted the map on my phone, which didn’t judge).

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Il Caminetto, Strada in Chianti – Peasant Food on White Tablecloths

Ristorante Il Caminetto serves traditional Tuscan cucina povera.  And while Mark Bittman may find Lucca to the north-west more exciting, Il Caminetto’s idyllic setting, overlooking a valley of olives and grapes on the road into Strada in Chianti; its warmth and service, they furnished me with a dual-language cookbook on my 3rd or 4th visit; not to mention perfectly prepared and presented crostini, verdure fritte, ravioli, ribollita, bistecca alla fiorentina… make it my own personal happy place.

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In Praise of 7-Eleven: Copenhagen, HK, LA

Returning via Copenhagen where, for a few hours, I dashed through the city with a resident old friend, making up for lost time, through the Victorian greenhouse with its damp and spindly spiraling staircases, to the outdoor market where we got a cheese plate and beers as the year’s Christmas ales had just come out. Where the cabs were all new Mercedes and the 7-Elevens were like mini Whole Foods with local, artisanal products in glass cases by the register, and the employees spoke English better then I do and who you suspected were on a serious career track here, sharp as young lawyers. Though no one could find a needle or similar which I could use to swap out my SIM card so I could call my friend who I was dropping in on out of the blue, despite a search of the 7-Eleven and the grocery store next door whose manager was called and took the issue as seriously as I did. Fortunately, as a civilized country, the train had free and open wifi, and having tried all the numbers I’d ever had for my friend in all the countries he’d lived, over Skype and Whatsapp, I finally caught him at breakfast. Proudly he informed me he was eating pickled herring. And as I juggled the map on my phone and read out the names of upcoming stops to him, I got off now
Now! Continue reading “In Praise of 7-Eleven: Copenhagen, HK, LA”

Review of Don Papa’s Pizza, Lijiang, CN

As a bit of background, despite how it’s going to make me seem, in China as a tourist/ ex-pat, I was used to accomodation. You ask for a coke at the two-table family dumpling restaurant (with one table occupied by the family making the dumplings), and you see the little kid running down the street to wherever to buy the coke. Or how at the packed noodle place the no-smokng sign doesn’t apply to you (it wasn’t me, it was my Chinese friend). OK, so bear this in mind, rules often were more guidelines.

So G and I are in Lijiang — the ancient village on canals, drop-dead gorgeous — and we pass a restaurant called Don Papa’s.

Please also consider that there’s a lot of silly English signage in China — my bare mattress when I first moved into my place was covered in the repeating text “Hope it was good” — and I get it, I don’t read Chinese, I really appreciate seeing English, but it’s still funny. Anyway, I’m used to and expect silly names in English and a restaurant called Don Papa’s didn’t sound like the most authentic Italian eatery in the world, in fact it sounded like the name you’d come up with after watching the cartoon version of The Godfather.

So we go up there anyway, because we want pizza — I’ve been living in China for months at this point and sometimes you just want pizza. The building is an antique, all spindly wood with the wrap-around decks on each level, exactly the sort of place where the badguys go crashing backward through the second-floor railings and out on to the street below.

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Not Getting Conned Again

The last time I’d been swindled in China I went to the cops, and got laughed out of the building when I told them my story.

This time that wasn’t gonna happen.

This time I literally couldn’t afford it.

This time I was in the middle of China with my buddy, G, two-thousand kilometers from my apartment, and it was all the money I had.

I told G, “wait by the door. If he runs for it, take him.”

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In Praise of Walking: Moscow Edition

It was in Moscow, early one jetlagged morning, where I fell in love with walking, later to morph into running, on the red trails of Southern Colorado and green ones of North-West Portland, but the walking started in Moscow.

I’d managed to get a little out of shape, years of sitting on my ass as a digital marketer and love of Mexican food were taking their toll. I was still smoking. I wasn’t yet thirty, and I was gettin– I was chubby. The photo of me in front of St. Basil’s in Red Square holding the sign with the rough count of how many miles to one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in LA (hey, it got me on the wall), is all the proof necessary.

I couldn’t sleep any longer and it was already light (turns out that doesn’t mean the same thing in Moscow in the Summer as it does back home). So I put on my shoes and left the apartment on the third ring road encircling the Kremlin like a bullseye, and set out at random.

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Digressing Through Shenzhen — Looking for The Real

“Empty talk endangers the nation, practical work brings prosperity.”

I arrived in Shenzhen to study computer animation. I’d just left a job I liked very much at a major animation studio in LA after several seasons working as an animation coordinator. I loved working with the artists, but I didn’t see myself moving up the management ladder. So, off to China. Of course.

I’d been studying Mandarin for a while at that point, Pimsleur and tutors who were friends and friends of friends. I’d also been reading a lot of Lawrence Lessig, a then Stanford Law professor who was writing books about the Internet and our broken intellectual property system and the opportunity and threats posed by new technology if the traditional media monopolies were allowed to extend their models of control into the fabric of this new medium. This was not long after the height of the filesharing wars, the RIAA and MPAA were suing kids for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Steve Jobs had just come out with the iPod.

So off to China I went with an entire rolling suitcase entirely filled with books. It turns out this is not a great idea, particularly when you have to take multiple flights, stairs, subway, boat, and cab to your final destination. Anyway, I finally got to the school and it wasn’t long before I realized that studying a highly technical thing in a language I didn’t really know wasn’t gonna work out. But I’d come all that way, with all those books, so I got an apartment ($225/m for a two-bedroom, furnished) and set about answering the question: what is Real?

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Abduction in the Yucatan

The prison actually has a single, 5-star review on Google

Though nightclub La Choza, Valladolid, Merida, is now shuttered, and the jungle has been slowly reclaiming it. No reviews.

A review of the nightclub La Choza, Valiodad, Merida (the one across the street from the prison).

Let’s say you’re eighteen and on vacation with your family in the Yucatan, which I can’t say enough about, though I won’t here. And you’ve struck up a friendship with the mariachi band at the hotel, The Lodge at Chichen Itza (Lovely place. Go). And the band invites you out for drinks and you accept and they say to meet them at midnight out front. So you step quietly out of your room and wait out front of the hotel where a taxi pulls up with one of them driving and you squeeze in the middle and head off into the jungle for the local watering hole.

Conversation is easy, they’re a fun bunch. But at some point you realize you’ve been driving into the jungle for a long time. You’ve been chatting ceaselessly, maybe out of nervousness, unconsciously, and now you begin to wonder: what the hell have I gotten into? But you’re eighteen, you’re dumb, and you’re pretty much committed at this point anyway. The road goes on and on through blackness as you begin to imagine what your new life will be like.

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Sex, Apfelwein and Vergangenheitsbewältigung

Deciphering Frankfurt

Have you ever been to Frankfurt? Some people love it.

I extended a layover on my way to Italy by a day to discover Germany, whose language I’d been studying and had lots of happy thoughts about.  And while I had all my Italian accommodation lined up, I thought it would be extra fun for my first trip to Germany to leave it all to the fates in Frankfurt.

So with camping-size backpack on my back, and otherwise normal-size backpack on my front (otherwise, had it not been stuffed to the gills (Here’s a picture showing off its most useful feature when I bought it in Hong Kong’s TST… before it was stolen)), I navigated through Arrivals and was directed by a helpful baggage area money changer down the escalator to the subway station where I’d be able to take a train into town.

Which was where I found myself trying to understand a dense grid of information, looking like someone had populated an Excel spreadsheet with dummy data to appear impressive, and probably entirely accurate and useful to the patient and literate German.

So I studied it, worked it, cracked its code and from that felt the satisfaction of perseverance. I’m just kidding, I asked the guy next to me, the only guy there, who was reading it as well. Or rather actually reading it. And wearing a cowboy hat.

Continue reading “Sex, Apfelwein and Vergangenheitsbewältigung”

Motorino’ing Florence at Night in Search of Food

B and me at Mercato Centrale after returning to Italy (lots of flying, little sleep)

Miami (Layover): 6 hours. Too early and too far to get Cuban food. Walk the airport end-to-end, scrounge

Brussels (Layover): 7 hours.  Somehow still too early to get food. Train into central, meet latenight (early) partyers returning home, exchange pleasant expletives

Rome: a train

Florence (S. M. Novella): and finally B’s mom’s car, which could fit my bags

We drove up into Le Cure and parked in the church’s private lot. She had a clicker, and the reason she had a clicker for the church’s parking was a long story and I didn’t understand anyway. Suffice it to say parking’s hard in Florence and you do whatever it takes.

So it wasn’t until late when I’d gotten settled into her place. I hadn’t slept in a day and half, but I was psyched to get out and see the city I love. And I was hungry…

Florence can be tricky at night. Some say it’s lame after hours. I never thought so, though I’m most content just walking it from end to end. I’ve walked it at every hour, day and night and I’ve never felt unsafe, rather, enthralled by the history dripping from every stone in the street, every edifice and alley surrounding, never tiring of it. But getting food in the middle of the night can be tough if you don’t know where to go. And up in Le Cure, a quiet residential neighborhood on the Northern edge of the city, more so. Except B has a motorino! Continue reading “Motorino’ing Florence at Night in Search of Food”