Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving Message

I began, like quite a lot of you, as the winner of a race, a tiny adventurer headed for that egg in the uteral sky. I plopped out near Frankfurt, Germany (probably not so much like most of you). It didn’t take me long to realize the people around me were spitting a language my parents didn’t spit very well. There was nothing for it: we moved back to the US and the American South, where our drawl would be appreciated.

But I couldn’t stay there.

Had I always longed to travel? Yes. Did I ever say to anyone, “Anyone, I want to see every inch of the world before I die!”? Never. But I knew I’d do it.

Life is an adventure.

I fly a lot. Every time I take off, I bow my head and thank God for the adventure. We all have our rituals, right? Sometimes we can get bogged down in our problems and forget that every second on this earth is an opportunity for adventure. Yeah, I’m repeating the word—adventure—because it makes me happy.

Fifteen years ago I didn’t see life this way. Then one day I started thanking God for the adventure. Problems? Bring ‘em on. They’re all part of the adventure. Risk? Why not? It’s all part of the adventure. Curveballs? Adventure!

Today, as we think about everything we’re thankful for, I encourage you to see life as an adventure. I’m silly—a silly, silly adventurer.

I must be off,

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

And the Winner is...

The ultimate number one worstest, most awfullest guided tour I’ve ever had....

Gentlemen, the envelope . . . please.

This year’s award for Christopher’s worstest awfullest guided tour goes to the I’m-too-sexy-for-these-old-tourists tour of Jerusalem!

Polite applause, a few boos, speaker feedback.

Jerusalem, ladies and gentlemen, is a city full of holy traffic and holier tourists. The city has made quite a bustling business of the whole God thing. From the Western Wall to the Via dolorosa, God is on sale in one form or another. Line up here for God! It would be shameful . . . if we weren’t pushing and shoving to be first in that line. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I told a Greek Orthodox priest to stuff it. He was herding tourists past the purported place of Jesus’s crucifixion.

As a Christian, I sort of wanted a second or two at this place that has been so central in my life. How many times have I heard “Chris, lay your sins at the foot of the cross”? Well, here it was, and this priest was shooing me away from it. I held up a dollar and he let me stay. This is the reality of Jerusalem. And tour buses. Lots of tour buses.

“Hurry as you get out of the bus!” Zachi, our olive-oily Israeli tour guide yelled. “It will only stop for a moment as we are not allowed to stop here.”

Without challenging the illegality of stopping in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, thirty elderly tourists—and myself—scrambled to do as they were told. In seconds we were all standing on the shoulder of a steep road outside the walls of the city in the broiling sun. Oily Zachi was about forty yards away from us yelling “Come on! What are you waiting for? This way!”

This is my memory of Zachi: 100 yards ahead of the group and brawny. On the bus, he told us he drank six bottles of Israeli olive oil a day. Israeli olive oil is healthier than other olive oil apparently because it increases body hair by seven thousand percent.

My fondest memory of the I’m-too-sexy-for-these-old-tourists tour of Jerusalem is also my least. At the Western Wall there is a tunnel that connects the square to the rest of the city. I suppose Zachi suggested meeting there after our bathroom break because it was out of the sun. That was considerate, but it was also the most congested place in Jerusalem. In a matter of a few minutes we—my parents and I—found ourselves in a raging river of people.

The image of a man shoving my mother so hard that she spilled her water, lost her balance and screamed will stay with me as a symbol of Jerusalem. I shoved him back of course. (Eye for an eye.) Our eyes met, actually. He understood. Don’t mess with my mom.

Shoving in Jerusalem is par for the course. On the Via della Rosa, the path Jesus took to the cross, you will find nothing but shoving crowds. And you certainly won’t find Zachi. Like greased lightning, he’ll be miles ahead of you. This is not the place to be if you want to stroll through a market. You’ll be trampled to death (by some weirdo pretending he’s Jesus with a big wooden cross).

A local boy of about ten years of age thought it was perfectly acceptable to plow his way through our group. As he was shoving the woman in front of me with his forearm (so hard that she was screaming), I pinned the little pissant to the wall and said, “Stop . . . pushing . . . her.” And then I prayed, “Lord, please don’t let his father come and kick my ass.”

All this to say, if you’re looking for a holy place, it’s not Jerusalem. It’s the Sea of Galilee, it’s Bethlehem (hey, it’s Machu Picchu)—but not Jerusalem. The city is angry and crowded with merchants just trying to make a buck off your God.

The barrier between Jerusalem and Bethlehem

But let’s end on a positive note, shall we? The best guided tour I’ve ever had was in Tallinn, Estonia. I was checking out little clay houses in a shop window when I heard a German tour guide say something interesting about the city. Feigning interest in a doll shop, I inched toward the group. I tagged along, a bit shifty-eyed, as the group wound through the town. I pretended to ignore the tour guide the whole time, and he pretended to ignore me . . . but he never let me get too far away, and he never talked about how much olive oil he drank. Come to think of it, this was also the cheapest guided tour I’ve ever had.

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to K is for Ko Phi Phi Don.

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.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Museum of Competing Tour Guides

Number Two on my “Top Three awfullest Guided Tours” list is the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, better known as The Egyptian Museum in Cairo—but I like to refer to it as the Museum of Competing Tour Guides.

You know the phenomenon: one person starts shouting more loudly to be heard over another person who’s shouting more loudly to be heard over another person who’s shouting, and so on. Only the New York Stock Exchange during a hailstorm is louder than this place. Safe to say, no one ever understands anything a tour guide screams within these marble walls. If you’re interested in ancient Egyptian history, you’re better off reading a book or marrying a mummy.

Our guide was nice, albeit a little hoarse, and she tried her best to outscream her colleagues; but the tour was too chaotic and LOUD for me. Eventually I wandered off by myself—with my fingers in my ears—to see what I could see (as my grandfather used to put it). As it turns out, there’s a lot of, uh, really old stuff in this museum. And that’s about the extent of what I saw on my solo circuit. Oh wait. I found a sarcophagus for a midget. That was cool.

The shiny lapis lazuli stone of the tour was the five minutes we were shuffled into a room to view the Tutankhamen exhibit . . . alone, without our tour guide. In fact, there were no guides in the King Tut room, just browsing tourists enjoying the silence . . . for five whole minutes. Pitiful, yes, but at least they don’t put you on a moving sidewalk so they can control the amount of time you spend contemplating the wealth of dead people as they do with the British Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. But the monarchy isn’t dead, Chris, you insist. OK, dead and dying people. There are no moving floors in the Egyptian Museum, but they do have a grand staircase—which elderly people must climb to go to the bathroom.

At the top of this grand staircase, you’re greeted by the fact that you are expected to pay to go to the toilet. This wouldn’t be unusual except for the fact that you, fresh off a cruise ship, are on a tour of a museum in a country where you have not exchanged money. You have nothing but dollars, euros or pounds, and you—a seventy-year-old woman from Aberdeen (with a walker and a weak bladder) who has just climbed her own little Mt. Everest to pee—are not about to pay the guy five quid (the smallest note you have). He’s lucky you’re too tired to fight. You either hold it, or once again, you look like a rude tourist who doesn’t understand the predicament of the poor guy who cleans toilets for a living. I did not hold it, and I’m sure my father didn’t either.

I’m sure my father said something like, “See that screaming tour guide down there? Yeah, the one with blood streaming out of her mouth. Go ask her for a few piasters. But ask loudly.”

I must be off,

Monday, November 9, 2009

Der Mauerfall

Heute vor zwanzig Jahren hat die Mauer ihren Schrecken zwischen Ost und West verloren. Dieses Jahrhundertereignis hat eine besondere Bedeutung für mich als Wahl-Deutscher und Partner von einem Deutschen.

Niemand sollte dieses Leid spuren, aber diese Freiheit…alle.

Ich bin mal weg,

Twenty years ago today, Honecker's tiger--the Berlin Wall--lost its teeth for good. This once-in-a-lifetime event has special meaning for me as an American expat living in Germany for the last fifteen years (and with my partner from East Berlin for the last eleven).

No one should feel this suffering, but everyone should know this freedom.

I must be off (Angela Merkel is talking about her experience of Nov. 9, 1989),

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Glorious Guided Tour

The concept of the guided tour is simple—tell a throng of tourists the same thing at the same time and make more money. You’ve seen them: the groups of teenagers halfheartedly following a fusty old fart with a red umbrella, a gaggle of Japanese geriatrics huddling around a woman with a microphone . . . and a red umbrella, the herd of trendy tourists on bikes.

In Rome last year, my parents were generous enough to treat our entire group to a guided tour of The Vatican, the Catacombs, 200 piddly meters of the Appian Way, and a few other sites where first-century Christians wrote “I was martyred here” on the walls. The six-hour tour for six people cost them the price of a laptop. So, first of all, Mom and Dad, thank you.

Our group was divided into two subgroups: English/Spanish speakers and German speakers. Since the English/Spanish group was so large and the German group comprised only three bubbly women from Berlin, whom I’d already been jawing with on the bus, I went with the giggly Germans. Lucky me. My tour guide was articulate, funny, and informative.

My parents, my nephew and his wife, on the other hand, had the misfortune of a “bilingual” guide whose first language was definitely Spanish. His second language was most certainly Italian; his third probably French. His twelfth or fourteenth language was a muttered approximation of a language close to, but not quite, English.

Have you heard? These mass-tourism cattle drives have gone high-tech. When you get on the bus, the guide gives you a contraption with a little rubber tube that’s meant to carry the sound from the contraption to your ear. I’m pretty sure Alexander Graham Bell used a similar device (if not exactly the same one). You’ve strung two cups together with a string before, so you know what I’m talking about.

In my intimate German group, we didn’t even need the technology, but life in my parents’ group, as I soon learned when I accompanied my father up the Appian Way, was hard. The guide stayed so far in front of the group—he obviously had someplace to be—that the only way to hear him was through the little rubber tube. And no amount of fiddling with the knobs on the contraption made the man’s voice louder, less mumbly or more English.

“This thing is crap,” my father said, catching up to the guide.

A student in Rome just trying to “earn” an easy euro, the guide was unimpressed by, or perhaps didn’t understand, my father’s criticism. His bad. My father likes to get what he pays for.

“And you’re not much better,” Dad said. “You need to slow down, stay with us and speak clearly. We’re paying you. And if I can’t understand you, I’ll ask for my money back.”

Oh, goodness. I enjoyed that bit of drama. Their guide was truly awful—and I don’t mean full of awe. He had the personality of sandstone and the voice of a (Spanish) coma patient. The last thing he wanted to do was give tours of these boring old archaeological sites in boring old Rome to these boring old tourists.

But as awful as this tour was, it wasn’t the worst tour I’ve ever had (I was, after all, with the German group. Servus, Helga and Uli! Loved the pictures of your grandchildren on facebook, Sieglinde!). I’d put this tour at number three on my “Top three awfullest tours” list. Second place next time: Jerusalem and the Via della Rosa.

I must be off,

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Post that wasn't Funny

When the lush green mountains of South Tyrol transform into Fruity Pebbles in the fall, hikers speed south with their cameras to eternalize this beauty. Last weekend, I did the same. From Munich to Merano in about three hours. The International Merano Wine Festival was also a pull.

(Caution. This blog post will wax personal. If you’re not a curious person by nature, you might want to read some of my past posts. If you’re stalking me, you’re going to love this.)

Still here? I knew you would be. It won’t get that juicy, and I’m afraid it’s not going to be humorous. Fall isn’t humorous, is it? That would be spring.

My head—cluttered with work responsibilities I’ve put off too long, construction on the house, doing my taxes, studying for my driving test, arguments with family, arguments with writers, my own writing projects—needed the fresh air of South Tyrol. Unfortunately, the fall colors sent my head right back to the worries I wanted to escape for a few days.

Those fall colors—the reds, yellows, golds and browns—only seem romantic because we know the tree isn’t dying. But those trees will die eventually, I thought. Goodness, I was down and going deeper. And so I just let myself think about suffering relationships and moldering projects as I stared at a hard copy of chapter 13 of my current project, trying to smooth out a bumpy transition.

When we arrived in Merano, I started snapping pictures. It was pretty, but we’d missed the perfect picture of fall by about a week: that moment when the trees are bushy with vibrant color against a blue sky and snow-peaked mountains.

By this time thoroughly depressed, I thought back to writerly and personal relationships that were once bushy and vibrant but that had since lost most of their leaves. And I wish I had a picture of those better moments to get me through this fall. Yes, a very personal observation, but I’ll broaden it. In all relationships, we go through times when we hold up the camera to take a picture and think “Hmm. Maybe we should wait and take a picture when our relationship looks better. Our relationship needs a haircut . . . bad.”

But the tree’s not dead yet. Call me silly and sentimental and adorable (if you must), but I know I can stand to be more generous with the people around me and dare to enjoy the fall.

OK, so there. I’ve written the blog post that wasn’t funny. The fall post. I can’t wait for snow.

I must be off,