Rewards of the return visit

Friends, those kooks, occasionally wonder why I often return to places I’ve already traveled to instead of going somewhere new and horizon-expanding. The answers are simple and numerous. One, obviously, is that I’ve fallen for a city or country and the days I visited were but a tantalizing taste. I want more. To really get under the skin of a place. So I go back.

(It should be said that last week I was enjoying my first journey to Buenos Aires — my first time in South America — so I still seek the exotic and uncharted.)

To return to a destination is also to refresh the original experiences that made it special and to caulk the holes of crumbling memory. Right now I’m considering a revisit to Madrid, Spain, where I went like 20 years ago. That trip is a fond haze.

Besides Picasso’s gobsmacking “Guernica” and the gems of the Prado Museum — I’m specially partial to the wackadoodle Bosch triptych — I remember only a convivial Irish pub where I met some fun locals and a whiplashing green rollercoaster on the city outskirts. It didn’t even seem to be part of an amusement park, just this stand-alone adrenaline machine amid the trees. Anyway, it was a blast. 

So I’m mulling Madrid for my fall trip, with a three-day excursion north to Bilbao, which is famous mainly for its warped and woozy Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim art museum but has, since the museum’s opening in 1997, blossomed with attractions and an arty, edgy personality all its own.

Guggenheim Bilbao

I’ve yearned to go to Bilbao for at least 15 years, but you don’t just go directly to the city, you typically go through a hub like Barcelona or Madrid then trek north by train to Spain’s autonomous and beautiful Basque Country.

Thus I’m piggybacking a new place with a place I’ve been before, but both should be rejuvenating and illuminating, since, as I said, my memories of Madrid are a scintillating smudge. 

This happens. I went to Rome in March and even though I had been there twice before, it was changed as much as I’d changed in the intervening years. Same with my January visit to Lisbon. I recognized much of the city, but it was also strikingly novel, a whole new world. It’s about layers: each visit peels back exciting ones, those you didn’t see or didn’t have time for the first go around. Discovery is fathomless.

And this is from someone who journals copiously and snaps photos like a paparazzo. But those mementos are static, mere documents, like a map or a postcard. Throbbing, breathing life is the aim, so, yeah, it’s time to go back.

Doggedly loving Buenos Aires

My hotel’s neighborhood echoes with the piercing sound of dogs barking their heads off. These are happy hounds, some of the zillions scampering about Buenos Aires, a city smitten with its canines, as everyone enjoys telling this shameless dog lover who fawns over any pup that crosses his path.

And here, that path is peppered with poop. My leafy, boutiquey hood of Palermo challenges you with a minefield of feces, much of which bears the imprint of hapless sneakers. Dog walkers, and they are legion, are regular scat scofflaws, ignoring rules that you pick up your pooch’s poop. What is this, Paris?

But it’s OK. I’m just delighting in the dogs — so many, of such varied breeds! — that stroll in packs of five or more with professional dog walkers, a bona fide career in this metropolis of 15 million humans. It’s winter now in Argentina, and this week temperatures hover around 55 degrees F, so lots of the critters sport sweaters, making them even more charming, and dapper. 

Dog parks are everywhere it seems. Even on paid walking tours, I lag behind to watch packs of gamboling, barking, ball-chasing, humping and jumping mutts. (How is it such small yappy dogs are so brazen with their gigantic peers?)

I’ve been in the beautiful capital city three days, and already it’s a dog’s life.

Winkless at 35,000 feet

Right now it’s 104 degrees at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, which seems appropriate considering the facility’s infernal namesake. I have arrived from the East Coast, where it was 74 at 10 a.m. — it will hit 94 — and I am connecting to a flight that will take me to the land of 54 degrees, for it is winter in Buenos Aires, my latest destination on my quest to see as much of the world as I can before it blows up.

Hours later, I write this in the dark on a punishing nine-hour redeye during that weird interval when the pilot douses the cabin lights so his human cargo can go sleepy time. I’m a jet-plane insomniac so that trick ain’t working. Instead I atrophy in my seat, reading a bit, maybe watching a few minutes of a movie (or eavesdropping on what others are watching — almost uniform tripe), but mostly fiddling my brain’s thumbs and sneaking the occasional mini bottle of scotch that I smuggled aboard. (Contraband. I rule.)

Of course, as always, the guy next to me is comatose, swaddled in a blue airline blankie, a rivulet of drool squiggling down his chin — paradise. And there I’ll be when we disembark, sleep-deprived, pissed-off, testy, tetchy, impatient — and singing glory hallelujah I’m in South America, my first time on the continent! Bloodshot eyeballs, bewhiskered, frowzy hair — who cares. The miracle of modern aeronautics has delivered me someplace new and far, uncharted and exciting. I have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

And that’s the gist of it. No matter how physically miserable I am right now — there’s six hours left on the flight and I’ll be burning untold calories fidgeting, not to mention enduring fearsome temblors of turbulence — I still have much to look forward to, lots of which I’ll probably share here. 

Meanwhile, I have a funny novel to finish, some hooch to furtively sip and a few episodes of “Rick and Morty” to watch. Things could be a hell of a lot worse.

Argentina, here we come (gulp)

The plane is set to depart Sunday at 2:09 p.m. local time, and by 2:49 p.m. I plan to have a scotch resting on my drop-down tray next to my trusty laptop or a scintillating paperback, my carry-on tucked overhead, seat reclined and the fat, brushing butts and sharp, errant elbows of fellow fussing passengers over and done and in their seats, preferably nowhere near me.

Grrr.

Air travel, the great triathlon, the great grumble-thon. Packing, getting to the airport — in an Uber, no less, with those ubiquitous pine trees dangling from the rearview that reek of urinal cakes — boarding the plane sheep-like, the scrum of seating, and all the fun, head-imploding minutiae in between. (Security — fuck yeah!) As a blanket complaint, it couldn’t be more cliché. Deal.

I’m soaring from the East Coast to a layover in Houston, then off to Buenos Aires for nine days, which seems a little excessive but at this point I’m kind of stuck. (Note to self: check out Montevideo in nearby Uruguay, or ride a horsey with some dusty Argentinian gauchos. Eat steak. Mounds of it. I really don’t know.)

Dress appropriately. This one’s tricky. It will be 90 degrees at my departure and 53 degrees at my arrival in South America, where it is currently winter below the equator. I’ll wear jeans and a t-shirt and carry a mid-weight jacket on the plane. When I arrive in Buenos Aires I’ll figure out what to unpack and put on. A cinch.

I’m the fourth most neurotic traveler on the globe, and so of course I’m bitten with anxiety about what’s in store in a city, a country, a continent, I’ve never been to. Will I be dazzled? Will I have fun? Will my many plans pan out? Will I get robbed and beaten in a taxi cab?

My myriad trips always work out fine or better despite my weak-kneed worries. And of course I’m already scheming the trip after this, my annual late-October journey. I was leaning toward Budapest, where I’ve never been, and Krakow, where I have been and loved. Now I’m considering Madrid, where I’ve been, and Bilbao and San Sebastián in Basque Country, which are new to me.

But first things first. I have Buenos Aires to explore and get lost in yet. Museums and mausoleums; graffiti and galleries; tango and tours; all within sweeping European influence tangled with Latin passion and grandeur. A mad melange.

And before that, the flight. Oh, god, muzzle the chatterboxes, in my row or any row. Or the bewhiskered guy next to me who plays video games for 10 hours straight. Or, heaven forfend, the shrieking infant, diapered spawn of the devil. 

I can do this. I always do. Excuse me, flight attendant, I need a tall cocktail of one part gin, two parts exasperation, and a splash of fizzy rage. Gee, thanks. And I wash it all down with one big Xanax. And from there we’ll see how things go.

My bet: swimmingly. Absolutely swimmingly.

In praise of small pleasures

Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog. 

This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.

There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy. 

Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy: 

“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.” 

Or any number of absurdist gems: 

“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”

But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you. 

Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic. 

So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.

What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.

The dog. 

The dog. 

The dog.

Notebooks to MacBook — it’s not the same

Used to be a small notebook and a fist-sized camera were my best friends on my travels, each jammed in a coat pocket ready to record spontaneous events. I’d take florid notes in my notebook — usually a trusty Moleskin and always in blue ink, always — and snap shots with my Panasonic Lumix, a sleek digital wonder, like a geeky shutterbug rapt with the world.

Things change. Today I carry along a MacBook Air for writing and an iPhone 12 mini for photos, and of course it’s not the same. Instead of turning my weathered notebooks into lavishly illustrated, ink-splashed scrapbooks, slathered with ticket stubs, business cards, adverts and newspaper clippings, I now find a dark place in uncrowded bars and lobbies or my hotel room to type and record the day’s impressions in the glow of the computer. It lacks all the tactile fun and creativity of the notebooks, which exude an intoxicated brio, but it’s rather utilitarian, and right to the point. I no longer need Glue Stick. 

The iPhone, I hate to admit, takes equal if not better pictures than the Lumix, so I miss little there. Plus it’s far smaller cargo to tote around. Like an Altoids tin.

But it’s the notebooks, those eye-popping documents of doodling, journaling and scrap-bookery that give me pause. I miss crazily jotting in them all that I saw, heard, tasted with a right-now urgency. They pulsed. Popped.

So why don’t I still do it? Sad to say I don’t have the energy for them anymore. I’m a more sedate traveler now. The last time I brought along a Moleskin was to Paris six years ago, and I wrote almost nothing in it and collected limply a few ticket stubs and scraps to glue in it. I’ve gotten a little jaded. And, erm, older. I don’t feel the need to rip out newspaper clippings or save little street flyers and stick them to the creamy blank pages.

But I still record and retain, with passion. The laptop keeps things throbbing. On my last trip, to Italy, I produced five live reports from the airport, the hotel bar, my room and elsewhere, with photos. I blogged them, something I couldn’t do with the chicken scratch of my paper journals and all their scrappy idiosyncrasy and improvisatory punch. They were page-bound, and hitting “send” or “publish” wasn’t an option.

Still, I can’t abandon the idea of a physical journal for one’s travels. If done right, with raging curiosity and a magpie’s eye for minutiae, the books make marvelous keepsakes and souvenirs, stuffed with facts and ephemera, a living gallery of the journey. They’re also a great repository for the names and emails of people you meet along the way.

Scribbling in bars and cafes frequently draws the attention of fellow travelers, who approach and ask what you’re up to. There you are, channeling the absinthe-tippling artists and philosophers of fin de siècle Europe say, or today’s hoary Brooklyn hipsters. It’s an art form, and it’s the best thing you’ll bring back from your trip. Swear.

Istanbul, 2018. It’s come to this.

 

The trip is going swell, and I haven’t even left yet

Just yesterday, Argentina lifted its Covid test requirements to enter the country. That had me high-fiving the heavens, until I realized it’s not that big a deal, just the removal of a minor headache on the to-do list of travel planning. Still, I’m very happy, as it’s one less document hassle, one less trip to the pharmacy and one less molestation of my mucus membranes. 

Even more exciting is my finding a flight to Buenos Aires in July for $200 cheaper than the flight I almost bought. And I’ve also realized the time difference between here and Argentina is a piffling two hours, which should mean minimal to zero jet lag. These serial boons bode well for a trip that was hatched just days ago. What next? I get bumped to First Class with my own personal masseuse?  

That’s all good news for this pessimist (aka: a frequently disappointed idealist), who tends to see the glass not half-full, but smashed to pieces on the floor after accidentally bumping it with a clumsy elbow, the half-empty contents gone splash. July is three months off, and a lot can happen. The world walks on rickety stilts, and banana peels abound.

For now, I’ll keep planning for the nine-day trip, while life cartwheels forth. Outside, birds tootle like madmen and the sun beats down with self-satisfied ardor. The dog grumbles at the plumber. I play drums to an old-school roster that includes Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Metallica’s “Sad But True,” with B-sides of Black Crowes and Beck. 

I finally saw “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming, frustrating mess (it’s a big shaggy dog licking you all over the face), led by the seductively quirky Alana Haim — and shut off the Will Smith tennis-dad vehicle “King Richard” when it failed to transcend ingratiating, made-for-TV pablum. 

I’m beguiled by the snappy, scrappy Netflix sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” whose 22-minute episodes I dip into like greasy finger snacks. And in the spirit of Argentina, I might, just maybe, watch the goopy 1997 musical “Evita,” starring Madonna as Eva Perón. 

(Fun facts: The director of “Evita,” Alan Parker, was a master genre-hopper: “Fame,” “Pink Floyd — The Wall,” “Midnight Express,” “Angel Heart,” “The Commitments,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Angela’s Ashes,” and more. I once interviewed him. He was a mensch. Then I was assigned to review his new movie, “The Life of David Gale.” I gave it one star.)

But back to Buenos Aires, because that’s what really has me in its clutches. More good news on that front: I cinched a seat for in-demand steakhouse Don Julio, which is rated #34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I probably eat steak four times a decade, and since it’s an Argentine thing, I’m definitely tucking in. My chest may implode. I don’t care.

I’m sure I’ll eat a mess of foods I don’t normally eat, as I recently did in Portugal (veal, pork sausage) and Italy (beef cheek, suckling pig). I like to do what the locals do. I feel all authentic — and often horribly guilty.

To me, that’s the point of travel. Tasting the new (an entire cobra in Hanoi), witnessing the exotic (billowing funeral pyres in Kathmandu), grazing danger (being detained by Hezbollah in Beirut), meeting cool people (all those faces!).

Buenos Aires is sure to offer some of that. Places rarely fail me. And things are going well already. That thumping you hear is me frantically knocking wood.

A trip that’s up in the air

This is the book I just ordered:

Big and bold it announces “Buenos Aires,” and you can gather from it that Argentina’s capital is in my sights for my next destination. The nerve, the gall, you might huff, considering I got back from Italy a mere four days ago. But see, I’m a greedy globe-trekker, scheming my next move on the plane back from my latest journey like a cheating lover. 

Buenos Aires wasn’t on my bucket list. Though I almost went years ago, I’ve never been to South America. As I was decompressing after my flight home from Rome, I was chatting with a woman, a friend of a friend, whose entire life is an unbroken blur of world travel. She asked where I was off to next and I had no answer. I really didn’t know. I just knew it would happen in the fall, my prime travel season.

I told her I never travel in the summer because of the heat and the crowds, and she, a veteran of Argentina, suggested Buenos Aires. Below the equator, our summer is their winter, of course. I could go in July and luxuriate in 59-degree temps in a jacket and jeans. And it’s the off-season, so crowds are thinner and prices cheaper. I was on my computer researching the city within minutes. 

I was taken. Infused with Spanish, Italian and French colonial influences that lend it a lusty European sheen, yet still boldly Latin, the city of 13 million people is famed for a dizzying eclecticism that runs from its architecture to cuisine, including ubiquitous beef steaks and flowing Malbec. Street art animates facades, baroque cemeteries lure the living, and, if you’re into it, clubs smolder with tango. (I’ll watch the dance, but not partake, lest I cause an international incident.)

It’s all enticing until you shop for flights, which run a stroke-inducing $1,200 to $1,300 in July. Argentina also requires you to buy travel insurance to cover any hypothetical Covid treatments. That’s in addition to a negative Covid test, proof of vaccination and some other minor paperwork. 

That’s the downside. The upside is stylish and affordable boutique hotels (I already have one picked out), 15-minute taxi rides costing $2.50 USD, dinner with a full bottle of wine for $10, free museums, jumping cafe and bar cultures and, by most accounts, loopy, lively people. I’ll tell you more when my book arrives. 

Buenos Aires is Spanish for “fair winds” or “good air,” and isn’t that nice. It’s not certain that I’m going there; I’m thick in homework and investigation. I’m vetting this city that seems magnificent on paper, and might be even more so in the flesh. I’ll see where those fair winds carry me.

P.S. If you don’t think I’m already pondering my fall voyage, you are grossly ill-informed. Scotland? Iceland? Poland? Peru?

Italy finito, beautifully

As I write this, 35,000 feet in the sky on a jet back to the States from nine fine days in Italy, I’m swollen with that cruddy reverse homesickness in which you miss the place you visited instead of your actual home. Rome and Naples were wonderful and I wasn’t ready to leave and I wanna go back. I’ve got the home-bound blues.

Still, my last rueful day in Rome was brilliant, quite literally — balmy mid-60s, cloudless, cerulean skies, sunglass weather. The kind of conditions that make people dress way too skimpily for the actual temperature. I was perfect in jeans, a light jacket and t-shirt. The guy in the short-shorts and tank top, not so much. 

Especially if he wanted to get into the Pantheon, the almost 2,000-year-old Roman temple turned Catholic church, where modest dress is a must. Leaders, popes and artists, including Raphael, are buried in the cylindrical building, which is famous for its oculus (or big hole) at the tip of its dome, shooting down a thick beam of sunlight like a celestial Bat-Signal.

Our lovely tour guide in Naples told us he gets chills whenever he enters the shrine. I did not get chills, but I was aptly awed by the ambient beauty and unimaginable feats of engineering. So often in Italy, if you regard your surroundings for just a moment, astonishment floods in and you wonder what hit you. It’s called the sublime.

I didn’t care if I found it or not, but fate planted an unmistakable sign in front of me — a literal street sign — so I ambled over to the vacantly majestic Trevi Fountain, where mugging selfie dolts and preening sun-worshippers congregate on days like this, as if Nicola Salvi’s pompous 1735 fountain is a swimming pool or the beach and not just a glorious repository for Bernini-style sculpture. I do respect this extravagant splash machine, but it’s a brief pitstop, not a gawk spot, despite its iconic role in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” a personal favorite. 

A local beer, a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich, and a cappuccino later, I headed to the Vatican for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum, a riot of artistic riches. Our tour guide barely made it on time, and my mood was starting to curdle. But she materialized at last, a petite Italian who used a plush Woodstock doll dangling from a stick in lieu of the boring old tourist-group flag for us to follow amid the crushing, claustrophobic crowds (many of them terrible teenagers, lolling, laughing and leering). 

She gave each of us little radios with ear buds so we could hear her literate narration of highlights in the museum. But the contraptions were on the fritz, all buzz, fizz and crackle — sonic flatulence that drowned out her spiels about each grand piece of art, from writhing statues of men and lions and Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” to the visual commotion of Michelangelo’s peerless Sistine Chapel ceiling. The works spoke for themselves.

As we finished, I asked the guide for the nearest taxi line, and she warned me to be careful with them, that they quote outlandish prices and don’t use the meter. And so it was. I approached a driver and told him my address and he promptly said it would cost 40 euros because of, you know, that zany Tuesday traffic. I scoffed and said, “You’re crazy,” and he responded, “You’re crazy.” Genius.

I hailed a passing cab, got in, and paid 14 euros back to my hotel, where I wound down, went out and ate pasta, sipped wine, and, reflecting on the past nine days, sighed: perfetto. Which in English translates simply as: damn

The trivia of travel travails

My taxi driver was having none of it. On a bright, brisk Sunday in Rome, he wove through traffic and bowled down skinny cobblestone alleyways clotted with gelato-lapping pedestrians. Amusement was at a premium. “Everyone walking! Tourists! Ice cream! Ice cream! Ice cream!” he fumed. (Earlier in the day, I had some gelato. Suddenly, I felt like a putz.)

His car horn bleated. Gaggles of walkers reluctantly parted like the Red Sea. My driver grumbled to himself. Someone said “Sorry” as she jumped aside. “Sorry!” the cabbie repeated mockingly.

What a sourpuss, I thought, yet I understood his frustration. And soon enough, I became the grouser. As he took detour after crazy detour, I could recognize none of the scenery, and finally I blurted, “Do you know where you’re going?” 

The meter skyrocketed and my exasperation flared. I quietly seethed and loudly sighed. The driver apologized. It’s Sunday, he explained. Swaths of road are closed, traffic is atrocious, people are eating ice cream mindlessly in the street. A normally 10 euro ride quickly ballooned to more than double that. “Ridiculous,” I sniffed. “Sorry,” he said, this time without mockery.

So goes travel, with its minor irritations, unpredictable hassles, junk that seems like a big deal in the moment but is so often just life doing its thorny thing. The drama becomes but a fleeting speck in mere minutes. The intoxicating mists of travel return.

Seriously, I had just finished marveling at three massive and magnificent Caravaggio canvases in a 15th century church, strolled the Spanish Steps and Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, gawked at the Roman Forum, and, yes, licked dreamy gelato in the Italian capital under sparkling spring skies. Espresso was sipped.

Where does complaint possibly fit into this scenario?

It doesn’t. And the day’s splendor continued undimmed, including a celestial dinner of grilled tuna, carbonara, Italian meats. Because it’s hard to douse the naked joys of the journey, to discount the novelty of uninhibited voyaging.

Make a plan but don’t be too rigid. Then hit the streets and let life unfurl in its own mad fashion. You’ll find frustration, no doubt. But also, I promise, the divine. 

Colosseum, April 4