Monthly Archives: July 2008

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Where are all the dead tourists?

When driving along highways and byways in the United States, I often see makeshift crosses or memorials for those who have died in car accidents on the same route. Flowers and painted signs implore drivers to make an example of the dead and to please watch the road.

But as the bbf and I walked along a steep Atlantic coastal road today, sliding through half-hearted fences to sightsee at the edges of the limestone cliffs demarcating our certain deaths, I wondered where all the dead people were. It would be stupidly easy to fall off a cliff and to give up the ghost on the rocky ledges below. I’m not being morbid or trying to worry my family; I’m just being pragmatic. How could travelers not have fallen from these precipitous places? Especially drunk tourists, or cocky teenagers, or naive children? And I found myself wanting to Google the dead on those cliffs, to create memorials in my mind based upon the obituaries I found on the internet. “Child, 7, dead after tragic fall from Cascais cliff when chasing pigeon.” Or “Tourist bicycle careens off cliff, instantly killing Gerald Shoemaker, age 46, English, drunk.” [Nothing noteworthy turned up in my search.]

Maybe everyone is more cliff-savvy in Europe than they are in the States. But I know about rogue waves, veering cars, sudden gusts of wind, slips of the tennis shoe. Accidents happen, and in America, we’re constantly reminded of those accidents. In Cascais today I found myself being more careful on the cliffs because I didn’t know who had died at their feet, and I had only my fatalistic imagination as a barometer.

An old black and white cat weaved through the limestone rocks – she had probably been exploring the cliff ledges for a decade – and in her leaden stare she said, “You might just be the first.”

Screw you, cat. I’m buying Crocs tomorrow. We’ll see who makes it through the month.

Battle of accordion players who exploit puppies for cash

Yesterday I swooned over a Cascais busker whose tiny dog collected change in a bucket while his Portuguese master played the accordion. Here’s a picture:

Portuguese busker with over-worked dog

You see something like this one day and think, “What a precious slice-of-life!” You see the same thing the next day and you think, “I’m so over this. And P.S. – poor dog.”

Then I walked a block further and saw another accordion player with a nearly identical dog who also cooled his haunches on an upside-down shoebox. But this second dog had not been trained to collect euros in a plastic bucket in its mouth. Still, I thought, one of these busker dudes must have totally copied the other busker dude’s routine. Aren’t there vigilante street laws for that kind of thing? Can’t you get shot for stealing another dude’s accordion beat?

Then I remembered that I’m no longer in the United States. Maybe two cute dogs can coexist on the same urban block without someone getting shot. I walked by the rival buskers later and they were talking to each other like brothers while their tiny dogs played amicably at their feet.

Still, I’m disappointed I didn’t witness some kind of authentic Portuguese street fight, with the two dogs in the middle collecting blood and teeth in their kitschy plastic buckets. I am a tourist after all. I live for that kind of stuff.

Took a day off from the beach yesterday

That Portuguese vacation atmosphere can be so exhausting. Instead of beaching, we took a coastal bus from Cascais to Sintra, a royal vacation spot of yore that all the guide books said we had to check out. The bus flew around sinuous turns and blustered by cliffs with no embankments to speak of, but I was quite comfortable. You can shoot me out of a cannon to get from point A to point B, but as long as I’m not in a plane, I’m perfectly happy. The bbf, on the other hand, got sick to his stomach and remembered the statistics about Portuguese car accidents numbering the highest in Europe.

The bus stopped at Cabo da Roca, the continent’s westernmost point, long enough for two Japanese tourists to climb aboard and immediately fall asleep (those people are travel pros). En route to Sintra, we also sped through tiny Portuguese towns where fat little dogs and young skateboarders stuck their heads through metal fences to watch us pass. On those narrow streets, the bus came within inches of their adorable noses.

Sintra sits at the foot of a lushly forested mountain. At the top of the mountain, the Moorish Castle and the Palace of Pena overlook the city. So we had to figure out how to climb the mountain. I wanted to walk, but the bbf wanted to take a bus convertible, one of those roofless contraptions that tourists always snob around in. Thankfully, I listened for once and we didn’t have to hike five miles straight uphill while the aforementioned accident-prone vehicles sped past. And it was fun to wave at the naive hikers far below our bus when they collapsed from dehydration.

I was grateful to have energy left over for climbing to the top of the castle ruins and checking out the Sintra valley. I even had energy left to shove some American teenagers out of the way when they obstructed my camera view. When my family lived in England for a year when I was a kid, castle ruins were my and my siblings’ favorite weekend destinations. At places like Kenilworth, we didn’t have to worry about breaking Tudor furniture or stomping on some queen’s garden; we could just scale the crumbling walls and imagine ourselves to be ancient royalty (albeit the kind that got rained upon). Ignoring the personal danger involved in climbing medieval turrets like trees, castle ruins are great places for kids. And I still love them. Especially when you can walk a precipitous wall within inches of your (or some obnoxious teenager’s) certain death.

After the Moorish Castle, we wandered farther uphill to the Palace of Pena, a former monastery that fell into ruin, like most everything in the Lisbon area, after the great earthquake of 1775. But the Portuguese royals renovated the monastery in the 19th century, converting it to their summer palace, and possibly the original inspiration for Disneyland. The palace sprawls over the mountain, incorporating “Oriental,” Arabic, and other Eastern influences in its architecture – very trendy at the time. Inside, we spotted a painting that seemed to depict dogs playing poker, but they turned out to be monkeys. Thank heavens King Carlos had at least that much taste.

Does anyone need another travel blog? Probably not. More to the point, is anyone envious yet? I heard that it’s in the 90s in Virginia. It’s sunny and in the low 80s here. But I’ve done my time in the Virginia summer. This trip is my reward for two summers spent in Williamsburg, VA, breaking into hotel swimming pools and sweating through underpants.

Tonight I think we’ll walk to the big Cascais nightclub called “Coconuts.” If they are spinning bad European techno, we might even go in.


Salman Rushdie the sex machine

Just finished The Enchantress of Florence (as I’ve already informed both Goodreads and Facebook’s “Visual Bookshelf” application – hoodyhoo!).

I like Salman Rushdie better when he’s being comic and not writing reverently about threesomes and hookers. Unless those hookers are aptly named Mattress and Skeleton, and are not – once again – the most beautiful women in the world. I thought the book was going to explode with big, black, enchanting eyes – the atomic bombs of the Mughal Empire.

But I’m probably just jealous. Rushdie, when will you acknowledge the mystical, seductive powers of gum-chewing, cargo-shorts-wearing, bookish American girls? When will you build us a kingdom of our own? I’m talking elephants, lakes filled with chardonnay, and male concubine poets.

Diary of an Exercise Addict

An old friend of mine from high school has a memoir coming out soon: Diary of an Exercise Addict. In the book, Peach Friedman (as seen in People Magazine! pdf) chronicles her bout with exercise bulimia, a condition that almost took her life. And OMG, Jamie-Lynn Sigler from The Sopranos is a Peach fan. More important to this story, I am a Peach fan. And my dad shot a guy once, Tony Soprano-style. Or maybe he shot a duck? Or maybe he surgically removed a bullet? Something like that. In any case, where’s Jamie-Lynn Sigler’s literary blog? And it’s not like she went to HIGH SCHOOL with a published author.

Remember those Firm exercise videos? The first ones? Featuring Janet Jones, Wayne Gretsky’s wife, who was freakishly strong? I did those. Sometimes three times a day. Sometimes without eating anything for 24 hours. Sometimes after running seven miles in case there was half a calorie left to burn.

These disorders are so isolating, contradicting their superficial appearance of pleasing others. They only leave you more alone, when it was the lonely feeling that drove you to begin your regiment in the first place.

I wonder if Janet Jones also found enlightenment eventually. Did she at last let some of her superhuman muscles atrophy? Or is she still doing squat thrusts with ten-pound weights into the night, praying that some other young woman is sweating with her in the dark?

On the allure of bad books

I typically put down a book after a single chapter if the narrator’s voice bothers me. But in the past couple weeks I’ve read two books cover to cover that I disliked from the first page: Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and Ann Cleeves’s Raven Black. Granted, these books belong in two different categories. The first is a literary exploration of Race, Ghetto Fetishism, Art, Superhero-dom, Etc.; the second is a beach thriller set on Scotland’s Shetland Island. But I hated both of them. And yet I kept turning the pages until the end.

As a fiction writer, it can sometimes be enjoyable (in a schadenfreudy way) to read bad fiction. You don’t have to suffer jealousy of great writing. You can spend the time analyzing what you, as an author, would do differently. And you can gloat about being a better writer, even if it’s not true (Is anyone reading me on the beach? No.). You’re reading a book, but the whole time you’re thinking, “I’m reading a book.” I don’t want to read someone’s book; I want to enter another world where the author is invisible and where I’ll learn something worthwhile. But some authors are too good or too bad to disappear into their writing. Jonatham Lethem is a little too good – he writes well, but his voice doesn’t ring true for me. Ann Cleeves is a little too bad – she’s obviously found a story, but not her sea legs.

It’s not the first time I’ve read a disappointing book cover to cover. Sometimes you sense a story that needs to be exposed beneath the surface of poor writing. Sometimes you sense great writing beneath a story that doesn’t need to be exposed. These readable, unreadable books have to be written. They are training wheels. But they say more about the authors than they do about real life. And I suppose I keep reading sometimes because I commiserate with the green authors instead of with their fictional creations.

It’s a paradoxical demand we place on novelists. They must create something utterly fictional, but utterly real. And what horrible pressure: even the worst writer will know immediately if the writing is flawed. We’ve all read many more books than we have written, a statistic which makes us “experts” on the craft. And yet the best reader can write terrible books again and again. Maybe reading those books is penance for an author’s own bad writing. Maybe there’s a price to pay for putting words into the world. You have to do time for the trade you love. At least let that time be spent on the beach.

Portugal and Portuguy

We’re here in Cascais (“Cash-Cash”), Portugal, about 30 minutes from Lisbon. So far so good. We found a park with wandering peacocks and kennels of white rabbits. The bbf is excited because Culture Club is playing in the Irish bar where we internet. Portuguese beach kids are way cute – confirming that the English parents did, in fact, kidnap Madeleine. The policia just needed an outsider’s perspective to solve that one.

Thong bikinis – still popular.

Smoking – not as popular.

Speedos – only popular if they’re bulging.

Let me stop and clarify for a second that all my friends hate me because I’m here. So I don’t want to show off about the pristine beaches and the bunny rabbits and the citadels and such. Maybe I should just chronicle the bad stuff. Like I’m pretty sure I saw some poodle shit on the cobbled street earlier. Right before I bought ripe cherries from a street vendor and had my picture taken on a castle wall. And I got a grain of sand in my eye while I was tanning. So it’s not all roses here. But they do climb the walls of my apartment.

I’m sure we’ll eventually have a day of bad weather or at least some GI problems. But for now, we like the local beer, we like the green wine, we like the Right Said Fred video playing on the pub TV (local beer helps), we like that no one has tried to sell us heroin yet, and we like watching the teenagers making out in the ocean. It’s like they’ve never kissed anyone before – it’s beautiful.

But we wish we could share our trip with everyone. So if you want to give me your mailing address, I’ll send you a postcard. I won’t even charge you like this guy. And I promise to write you something insensible, maybe in broken Portuguese. Quick, get your postcard while you can. This place will only exist while I’m here. It’s called global solipsism, and it only works for me.

I am seriously about to scratch off my big toe

Which came first – the New Yorker article or the bee sting? And if bees are so extinct, why is there one embedded in my foot? I wasn’t even trying.