Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sacks, Boats, and Clots!

In New Zealand, there are tons of things to do. Imagine the most extreme outdoor activity, and the Kiwis do it, only better. You could camp, tramp, bike and surf; kayak, snowboard, heli-ski and scuba dive. We didn’t do any of that stuff, but we did find the fence with all the bras on it.

We hiked of course. But you can only hike for so long before you say to yourself, “I wonder where the fence is with all the bras on it?” We’d looked for Hobbits and tried wine in the Marlborough region. I’d photographed mushrooms and ferns. We’d allowed bugs to feast on our flesh while we sipped wine by glacial lakes. What we needed was something more dangerous and appropriately extreme for New Zealand’s standards.

“How about a glacier hike?” says my partner. “It’s only 75 dollars.”

“I’m not paying to hike.”

“You have to sign a release form.”

“What. In case you’re injured—”

“Or killed.”

“Let’s do it.”

And so it came about that the next morning we showed up at 7:30 for the Franz Josef Glacier hike (lunch not included). I packed us two roasted turkey sandwiches on rosemary/sundried tomato bread, accented by a touch of fig mustard. We were going to rough it.

“Sign here and here,” said the woman behind the desk in the tourist office.

I read the release form twice. Yes, we could indeed die on this trip. Excellent. Or as the Kiwis say, “Sweet!”

“Sacks, Boats and Clots!” someone yelled from a big room to our left.

I stuck my head into the room, expecting the promised surreal scene implied by sacks and boats and clots. Instead, I saw the rest of our group getting ready for our death hike. One line for socks, one for boots, and one for cleats. Our Kiwi brethren must think we twist and bend vowels as much as we think they do.

We got in line and suited up with the enthusiasm of Amundsen and Byrd. My excitement began to wane, however, when we were all herded onto a bus like the nelly tourists we were.

“This isn’t going to be dangerous,” I said to my traveling companion. “They’re serving coffee. Oh, ma’am? Two creams please,” I said to the guide who was serving drinks and who, when our group split into two groups, turned out to be a great glacier hike guide. We didn’t get her.

Our guide couldn’t have been older than fourteen. He told lots of jokes. He also told us everything he knew about the glacier in the first ten minutes: it was ice and the ice was melting (that’s what that water was running off it). Oh, he told us other stuff, but I understood only about ten percent of it thanks to his interesting but perverse vowel enunciation. I got a few words: something about snow and cold and “sweet” this and “sweet” that—

“When’s it gonna get dangerous?” I heard myself yell as I watched the other group towering high above us on the glacier.

For an hour we hiked on pre-chiseled trails. There were actual stairs carved into the ice with cables spiked into the ice like handrails. I expected to see a Starbucks around the next serac. One of our hiking companions was dressed for a day at the mall. I was feeling cheated. The bra fence would have been more fun.

Ultimately, the glacier hike turned out to be delightfully dangerous thanks to our guide’s incompetence, which he admitted at the oddest times. I’m one of those tour participants who stays right next to the guide the entire time (a holdover from my days as the teacher’s pet). Once, as our child-guide was cutting a new path through the ice, he slipped and chided himself, “Where the f*** are we?”

Soon we were crawling up slippery faces of blue ice, leaping over crevasses and smirking at the terror on one another’s faces as our guide told us (a joke about?) an Australian tourist who had died leaping over a crevasse the week before. Finally, real Kiwi danger. For a moment, I was lost in a prehistoric age of ice.

And I have the pictures to prove it.

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to O is for Odessa.

I must be off,


 Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Ficton, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day. 

Monday, August 17, 2009

Silly Giddy

A brief sidestep from my usual fare. Nothing like an infomercial, right? I did, however, have this experience while traveling.

Since my story "My Parents' Worth" was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People, I've taken up the habit of popping in to bookstores just to see if the book is there. The first time I had the opportunity to do this was a couple of weeks ago in the Atlanta airport. Sure enough, the bookstore had its obligatory two copies, both turned so that the not-so-slender binding was showing. I turned the book around (you're welcome, Chicken Soup). OK, then I bought one of the copies. Give me a break. It was the first time I'd found something I'd written in a bookstore.

The gift shop in the Nashville airport had eight copies. That felt good.

The best feeling, however, came as I was leaving the U.S. (again via Atlanta). The bookshop Simply Books near my gate had the book in the New Releases at the front of the store. If you look closely, you'll see I'm bumping bindings with Dan Brown. Should this make me feel good or bad?

I must be off,

Saturday, August 15, 2009

New Zealand: Pull up to Paradise and Park

My equation for a stress-free vacation: x + y = 0, where x is equal to the number of decisions I have to make and y is equal to . . . the number of decisions I have to make.

Stress on vacation is the bane of all travelers. Getting from the airport to the hotel, bullying the taxi driver into driving you to the hotel for nearly nothing, changing rooms three times to get the biggest and quietest, replacing the drinks in the minibar with your own wine, and so on. Arguing about where you’re going to eat for dinner in a strange city is fun, but it can be time-consuming. It’s all too stressful for words—hence the equation above.

On a stress scale from 1 to 10—where 10 is the level at which you’ve folded out that little knife on your wine opener to slit your traveling companion’s throat in his sleep—traveling through New Zealand in a motorhome gets a 1 with an “Ahhhhhhh, New Zealand” and a nostalgic smile from me. Kiwis can’t even spell the word stress, which they pronounce striss—possibly the reason for the misspelling?

We picked up our Kea motorhome in Auckland—my traveling companion had made all the arrangements six years in advance—and headed, uh, well I don’t know which way we went. We just started driving. I think I was in charge of the music (three Crowded House CDs) and the Lord of the Rings map.

I was also in charge of cooking. During the sixteen days we spent on the road in New Zealand, we ate in one restaurant; the rest of the time, we dined chez Christopher. And boy was the food good. From the grocery stores along the way, we bought fresh beef, fish, salad and wine—I’m sure the weight of the wine affected our gas mileage.

Through the large windows of our Kea motorhome, we were treated to the most splendid views of glacial lakes, waterfalls, temperate rainforests, Hobbits. The sound system was top-notch, and the kitchen set-up was perfect if not understandably small. Yes, this is beginning to sound like an ad for Kea motorhomes.

Kea, Kea, Kea.

In New Zealand, it’s legal to park and sleep anywhere it’s not expressly forbidden, but there are enough campsites along the way, both rustic and serviced. We usually just pulled up to paradise and parked. One blustery night with our front wheels an inch from the waters of Lake Wakatipu, we were almost blown into the lake. Man, that was fun. Back the motorhome up a few feet, you suggest? Where’s your sense of adventure? This is New Zealand, folks: home of bungee jumping and, uh . . . bungee jumping!

Not once did we have to pack and unpack, racing to check in to the next hotel; only once did we look for a restaurant. It was expensive, and the food was average (absolute slop compared to the haut cuisine at Chez Christopher). We did anything we wanted, whenever we wanted. Liberated from the day-to-day pressures of schedules, our minds were free to enjoy the beauty of the islands.

The only catch to motoring in paradise is emptying the toilet tank. But what did I care? I was in charge exclusively of music, Hobbit map, and cooking.

More Kiwi tales in the weeks to come.

I must be off,

Thursday, August 13, 2009

All Set

I wouldn't say I like surprises when I travel; I simply don't enjoy planning. I've left that part of the trip to my partner and traveling companion for the last eleven years. He loves planning; I love how adorable I look when I shrug and say, "I have no idea where we're going. Ask him."

A few years ago, we traveled to New Zealand-a three-week trip "we" had planned for months. I knew New Zealand was home to Crowded House, one of my favorite bands, and that's really all I needed to know. I was all set for my Kiwi experience. Or not.

As we were checking in at the airport in Munich, the Austrian Airline staff member-we'll call her Sissy-mentioned something to my partner about needing an e-visa. She said it would just take a second to fill out the form on the internet.

"I thought we didn't need a visa for New Zealand," I said.

"You don't," Sissy replied. "But you have a stopover in Sydney."

"That's Australia," my partner said.

"That was unkind," I said.

"Done," Sissy said and grabbed my passport. "Oh," she said after a couple of seconds. "It keeps telling me to refer passenger to the Australian Embassy."

"That's in Berlin," said my partner.

"Shut up."

"Sorry," said Sissy. "It keeps telling me-"

"Sissy, it's Sunday morning," I didn't shout. "How could I possibly contact the embassy?"

"This is a very good point," she said. "I'm afraid I cannot let you on the airplane."

As I've clearly indicated, I'm in charge only of cluelessness and adorableness on our trips (although in the mornings I sometimes fetch coffee from a Starbucks if it’s close). My partner holds the reins when it comes to planning. Assigning fault was therefore a no-brainer.

"You're an American!" he yelled. "You have to know what the requirements are for Americans! You never know anything. You are a completely useless—but adorable—hunk of hooey! [paraphrased]"

True. But I can also think on my feet (I can tap and buck dance as well).

I batted my eyes at Sissy and suggested, "What would happen, Sis, if I stayed in the transit room until our flight to Auckland the next day?"

"You cannot stay in the transit room for longer than eight hours."

"And if I bought a ticket to Auckland that left within that time?" You may have trouble believing--considering my history of blissful stupidity--that I came up with this plan--but I did.

"That will work." She typed furiously—which was good, because our flight was already boarding—and handed me my boarding card for Sydney as well as my ticket to Auckland. “You’re all set.”

So, 900 dollars poorer and several racing heartbeats later, we boarded the plane to Vienna and then one to Kuala Lumpur, in which I explained my predicament to the Austrian Air crew “a few” times as they waltzed through the cabin. They were polite and understanding, but there was nothing they could do but bring more alcohol.

I know what you're thinking, so I’ll go ahead and put the words in your mouth. "Was the Riesling good on board?”

“I’m glad you asked. It was OK. Riesling has come a long way since the ‘70s. It got a bad name then because the Germans were pumping it out to make a quick buck. Actually the Austrians are better at Sauvignon Blanc these days.”

After thirteen hours in the air and several bottles of Riesling, we arrived in In Kuala Lumpur, where we were allowed a couple of hours to stretch our legs, buy a Starbucks coffee mug, and rattle on to anyone with ears about my e-visa fiasco.

I was in the middle of telling four small children from Sweden a stirring variation of my plight when I heard an Australian accent behind me: "Give me your passport." I turned around to see a woman in an Austrian Airlines uniform. She was middle-aged and there was a halo around her head. "I have a friend who works at the embassy in Canberra."

"You don't." I laughed.

"I do."

"You don't."

"I do. And the embassy just opened."

Three minutes later, Sheila--which will be the name of my firstborn child--gave me back my passport and said, "You're all set."

Check in for my fondest travel memories of New Zealand this month.

I must be off,

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Soft Spot for Florence

I love Florence, kind of like I love my grumbly great grandmother. She’s never liked me much, but she’s very old, so I have a soft spot in my heart for her anyway.

The old town of Florence is essentially an ugly, run-down sprawl of buildings that haven’t been painted since the Medicis wouldn’t have crossed the Arno for a gelato. And what an ugly river the Arno is. The broad, twentieth-century street that runs along the city’s famous river is more like a parking lot than a promenade. You’ll want to park there of course, as close to the Ponte Vecchio as possible where you’ll have quick access to the Uffizi museum and the major tourist attractions. Inside the old town, a drab maze littered with trash and tourists, get that gelato you’ve been craving since you parked your car in the blazing sun and head for the center, Piazza della Signoria. But whatever you do, don’t eat at one of the tourist-torture restaurants on the square.

The city lost its enthusiasm for hospitality a long time ago. In 1994, I visited Florence for the first time. At that time I managed a fusion cuisine restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, so I was more interested in food than frescoes. Maybe I should have eaten a fresco rather than the Menu Turistico, but at that time I wasn’t aware of the contempt Florence (and most other Italian tourist meccas) has for tourists. The tourist menu is just the beginning of Itay’s cruel joke—of which the humble tourist is the brunt.

I was sitting in a trattoria, poring over the menu. I didn’t know how to go about ordering, so I took the easy—stupid—way out and ordered the Menu Stupido. It was a three-course dinner including a glass of “wine” for around ten dollars. I thought, “Hey, you’re in Italy. The food is always good here. They invented food, right?”

My food was a bland, unimaginative rendition of what I would call “Italian-esque food my mother might try to make.” The pasta was obviously from the supermarket and so was the tomato sauce on top. Can you call a few chopped up tomatoes a sauce? No herbs, not even pepper. Just diced tomatoes. The main course was a flat piece of meat—veal?—the size of my palm served on a plate. No use looking for the rest of it. That was it. Dessert was one scoop of gelato.

Needless to say, after this meal, I was peckish. During my feast I kept seeing the waiter take plates of grilled squid and antipasti and tiramisu to the Italians in the dining room. On one of his jaunts through the room, I grabbed his arm—I know that’s rude, but just try to stop me when I’m hungry—and said, “I’ll have that,” and pointed at the ragu in his hand.


“Don’t try to stop me.”

I got what I wanted . . . and more. I grabbed his arm so many times that he started showing me the dishes before he took them to other tables. I ate well that evening after all and learned my first Italian lesson: if you don’t say what you want, you’re not going to get it.

Tourist hotels are even worse. Your room will certainly be on a busy street. All Italians have vespas, and they all have somewhere to go at three in the morning. Make sure you get a room that faces the courtyard so that you can listen to the Italians in the next apartment building fighting all night instead. It’s quieter.

Breakfast at your hotel will be sparing but loud. Italians eat only a pastry with an espresso for breakfast, but they still take about an hour to get settled at their breakfast table. First, they'll all have a look at the "buffet" before they find a table. The wife will get back to her seat with one packet of sugar, sit down, then remember that she needs a spoon. She’ll get the spoon, sit down, then remember that she wants yogurt. Her husband will start yelling at her, then get up to get the bread himself. When he sits down, she'll ask him to get something for her. This boisterous up-and-down will go on for quite a long time.

You, on the other hand, will peruse the meager offerings—frozen pastries, yogurt, two iffy apples, plastic-wrapped bread, fruit-colored juices and Italy’s claim to fame, coffee, and take your seat in silence. And here’s the saddest part. Here, in the heart of espresso country, the coffee you’ll get will probably be instant or something spelled “Kawfee.” You’ll have to get it out of a machine yourself. But stop! Don’t do this. If you look around, you’ll find a perfectly operable cappuccino machine. Ask for one. Or ask for an espresso doppio. The waiter will make you one just like he’s been making them for the Italians at the hotel. When you’ve finished your espresso doppio, order another one. Do it for me.

A few years ago, I was staying in a two-star travellers' hotel. The breakfast was a prepackaged product that a server unfroze for the guests who’d ordered breakfast (although it was included in the price of the room). After poking my nuclear-war-safe pastry and sniffing my “Kawfee,” I headed to the front desk to have a talk with the owner.

“I’d like to cancel breakfast for tomorrow.”

“No problem,” she said and smiled broadly.

“But I would also like it taken off my bill.”

“No can do.”

“But why? It’s awful,” I replied in a voice that sounded remarkably like Bill Bryson.

“Try to understand,” she said, smiling. “If you don’t eat the breakfast, I make more money.” And I will never see you again, so what do I care?

“Ah, now I understand,” I said. “You know, I’ve changed my mind. I’d like breakfast tomorrow morning after all.”


The next morning, I stabbed the pastry beyond reusability, opened all the packages of jam-like sugar substance and margarine, and got four refills on my “Kawfee,” which I poured in the trash. There was another packet of something called “morning spread.” I was afraid of it, so I left it alone.

I love Florence. I love the museums, the markets, the nightlife. I love the fact that I meet someone new every time I go there. There is something special about the place despite her aversion to guests, her dirty streets, her crumbling architecture, her pickpockets, and her boring food.

You simply have to tell her what you want. I wonder if that would work for my great grandmother and the family fortune?
I must be off,