International Travel: Journeys Across the Mason-Dixon

*If you haven’t read anything I’ve written before… Sarcasm is always in play. Good talk!

Observations of Southern America

Beale Street, Memphis.

Beale Street, Memphis.

Our current president skyrocketed to fame in 2004 when he told us that there was no such thing as a “red” America or a “blue” America – that we are just the United States of America. It was a truly touching statement – so much so that it helped launch him to the presidency with almost no prior political experience. It’s just too bad that it is entirely incorrect. There ARE two Americas. Hell, there are FIFTY different Americas. Travel across any state border and those that are perceptive wanderers will notice different customs, different rules, different accents, and different cultures. Some countries in the world can be driven through in the time it takes to get from Jersey to Ohio. America is vast in size and, thus, vast in its differences. To quote an overly inebriated Englishman that one night at a pub in Faversham was trying to explain to me why parts of America can be so drastically different – “your country is big-guh… our country is small-luh.”

If I were going to stereotype and lump together a large portion of the country based on relatively little time spent in that region, solely for the purpose of writing a short essay that virtually no one will read… I would stereotype Southern America. So I’m going to.

A little background – I was born in New York. I spent my formative years living in the woods in Maine, only to move to the Amish paradise of Pennsylvania just in time for high school and college. I am a northerner. The only place in the south that I had been to was Disney World – and there were enough northern transplants, retirees, and tourists in the Orlando region to make it feel like I was on Long Island.

DSCN1314My “knowledge” of the south included visions of Jim Crow segregation and how it had drawn to a close just fifteen years before my birth – and only after a protracted legal fight that in some situations required the use of federal troops and massive outbreaks of terrible violence. I thought of the pictures I had seen in school of Emmitt Till, or what was left of Emmitt Till, after he had made the mistake of making the insulting comment “hey, baby” at a white female. I knew that the south had literally fought a war to keep slavery alive as an institution.

Yeah, yeah… sure. You fought for “state’s rights” in the face of federal government oppression. I get it. Just know we in the north think that is a euphemism for wanting to have the right to own human beings.

The sight of a Confederate flag, to this day, still makes me shake my head. When I see it used as a belt buckle on a high school student, a license plate on a truck, or I drive through rural Pennsylvania and see it proudly waving from a large flagpole – I get chills. We have all read and seen examples of how the “Old South” still lives on in any number of ways. Headlines about occasional racial violence, school proms being integrated for the first time, and states refusing to take down their rebel banners from their capitol buildings had done nothing, up until this year, to dissuade my overriding thought that I genuinely despised the south.  I assumed that every white person in the south was a racist (turns out I was wrong), and that every white person in the south wishes they had won the Civil War (turns out I was right). I even at one point instituted a personal travel ban – I would not cross the Mason-Dixon for anyone or anything. Southern America was my Cuba.

Over the last few years I began to slowly evolve as all humans do as they get older. I’d use the term “mature” at the end of that sentence, but I’m pretty sure all that know me realize that word would not work there. I became very close friends with several people who were both born and raised in Southern America, or had attended college there. They all seemed relatively normal. I could understand what they said, they had no Klan hoods in their closet (that I’ve found as of this writing), and perhaps most stunning – they all could read. Having traveled extensively out in the western United States, it gradually became time to take a chance and lift my trade embargo with Southern America, and head off to the land of abject poverty, illiteracy, racism, high infant mortality rates, and David Duke. I was genuinely excited!

In the last two years I have crossed the international border with the country below us on eight different occasions. I visited parts of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas… so I guess that, for now at least, I get to continue to stereotype Louisiana as a bunch of French Cajuns who throw beads at topless women and watch the Weather Channel religiously from July through September.

It turns out I was wrong about Southern America… sorta.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park

Lessons Learned

The South is DEEPLY proud of their past. It is damn near alarming how proud the south is of “their roots.” You almost have to hand it to them – for a country that lost a war, they sure don’t hold back their praise for the players who cost them the big game. I grew up in the north – ya know, the side that won the Civil War – yet you never hear us gloating or bragging about the victory. Almost immediately after entering Virginia, and in every secessionist state that follows, you see signs on the highway for a plethora of Old Confederacy tourist destinations. There are Confederate flags, pins, bumper stickers, and shot glasses for sale quite literally everywhere.

You can go to Robert E. Lee’s home. You can see where Stonewall Jackson was born. You can visit where Jefferson Davis went to school. Keep in mind that the signs advertising these places are posted by the state government, making them official “must-sees” in the eyes of local tourist bureaus. I even saw a sign on one highway for the “STONEWALL JACKSON SHRINE.” Really?! A shrine? Not just a memorial… but a shrine? Aren’t shrines reserved for things that should be worshiped? I would hope to god that my country – the north – would never be in a situation where we need to build a shrine to worship a man whose claim to fame is that he won a couple battles for the losing side of a war and then got shot and killed by his own men by mistake.

Yet the tradition is pervasive and living on. I am willing to wager that 96% of high school students in the south would be able to describe who Robert E. Lee was. On the contrary, I am willing to wager that less than 15% of high school students in the north would have any clue whatsoever who Ulysses S. Grant was. I hate to break it to all of the graduating seniors down there in Dixie… this wasn’t the “War of Northern Aggression.” You fired the first shots. It’s okay to be proud of your heritage… just not when that pride causes you to brag about how you should have won a war that would have extended the enslavement of an entire race of people for who knows how much longer. You don’t go into Germany and see swastikas for sale in gas stations and pictures of Herman Goering hanging in people’s living rooms.

Do you know who this is?

Do you know who this is?

And to all those people that are offended thinking that I just compared slavery to the Holocaust… Relax. I didn’t. The Holocaust lasted like 10 years – slavery in America lasted for hundreds.

The people are friendly. Very friendly. The expression “Southern Hospitality” definitely applies. I’m not sure if you will find a friendlier, more polite group of people anywhere in the world. Peoples’ manners are impeccable. You even notice this while driving. I’m not sure that road rage even exists in the south. No one seems to be in a rush; if you make a mistake while driving, the driver in the car that you almost killed just smiles and waves in a forgiving manner. Everywhere you go you are greeted with a warm smile and a “how ya’ll dewin’ this mornin’?” Even when a person answers them with a northern accent, the charm does not go away. All of my preconceived notions about the south and its people were melted away within minutes of entering my first southern diner. People sitting around you will even engage you in conversation, and seem genuinely interested in what you have to say. Try doing that in any city in the north – they will look at you like you’re an absolute asshole, and may even tell you that you are one.

Alabama was beautiful... and then you arrive in Mississippi.

Alabama was beautiful… and then you arrive in Mississippi.

Mississippi can suck it. I was worried about someone from Mississippi reading this and that I might hurt their feelings… then I remembered that Mississippi has the highest illiteracy rate in America. A friend and I once drove the Natchez Trace national scenic highway, cruising through rolling hills, windows down, staring out at the peaceful southern scenery. We saw parts of Tennessee and Alabama that were strikingly memorable for their beauty – and then we got off of the highway in Mississippi. The shock and awe campaign in the Iraq War had nothing on the mental impact the sight of a “town” in Mississippi caused. To say that it felt like we had just entered Deliverance Country would be putting it mildly. I was genuinely concerned that I was going to be pulled over by some rogue cop for having a northern license plate and the audacity to drive a Prius in pick-up truck territory. I had visions of my body then being found four months later buried in a swamp with a bunch of college kids who had made the poor choice to register minority voters for their summer internship.

Don’t order nachos in Virginia. Unless in a Mexican restaurant… just don’t. And even then that would be a risky move. Trust me.

I’m pretty sure that they have an issue with drunk driving. If it is after 6 pm on any day of the week, I would guess that if you pulled over a random car you would have a 20% chance of finding a driver who was drinking while driving. Not drunk driving – drinking WHILE driving. I am willing to wager that around 30% of the drivers would blow over the legal limit. This percentage of course rises if the license plate on the car says Mississippi. The fact that they sell beer in gas stations should be a dead giveaway that this is occurring, but yet I doubt that they have the same issues in other places like Vermont. It just seems like it is an almost accepted part of the culture. I saw numerous digital signs at gas stations encouraging people to not drink and drive – the signs at gas stations where I live are trying to get you to die from lung cancer. I pulled into one in South Carolina for an emergency 5-Hour. The man in front of me was purchasing two six-packs of Bud Light and the attendant asked him if he wanted her to bag it. When he said yes, she did – and then asked him to please be sure to drive safely. How many times have you heard a gas station attendant tell you to drive safely? If you answer more than zero, you must live in a state where they sell you beer and know full well that you’re about to crack open a can the second you pull out of the parking lot.

Segregation is still in play – just not legally. There are no signs remaining from the Jim Crow era. There are no city ordinances prohibiting things like whites and blacks playing poker together. But I couldn’t help but notice a few things that made me realize that perhaps the population in the south is segregating themselves. Drive around the south. Visit different towns and places. See how little blacks and whites interact. I think you’ll be very surprised.

Old Rag Mountain, Virginia.

Old Rag Mountain, Virginia.

Respecting your elders is a way of life. Several of us sat in a small restaurant in North Carolina on a Saturday afternoon, eagerly anticipating any sort of calorie intake after having just summited Mount Mitchell. We watched the families all around us – enjoying their food, their conversation, and their time together. At the table next to us sat the quintessential “little old lady” – seated alone, hunched over her meal. We began to notice that every single worker that walked by, including bus boys and managers, stopped to talk to her.

“How ya’ll dew-in’, Misses Kay?” They would greet her with a hug, listen to her talk to them about her grandchildren – all as attentive as elementary students. Well… early elementary students. Other families stopped and talked to her on their way out, giving this sweet old woman the appearance of town mayor. Our waiter was a dead ringer for Spicoli, with his long shaggy blonde hair and his slow, stoned manner of speaking… if Spicoli had a southern drawl. We gave him our order, accepted his advice when he warned us that the one choice “tastes like dogs—t, man”, and went back to listening in on the conversations with Misses Kay. She noticed this… and there went the next twenty minutes of our lives.

“I had six sisters, and every single one of them was almost six feeeet tall. Look’ee at me – I’m barely five foot. Baby of the family, always have been! I guess that’s why I decided to teach ballroom dancin’ on roller skates.”  She must have realized that in us she had a captive audience. With our orders placed we were committed to staying at the table – there was no escaping her. Despite every effort we made to start our own conversation, nice little old lady Misses Kay proceeded to tell us a life story that, by length alone, would have made Homer proud.  She told us about every single one of her children and where they all ended up. She rambled on and on about ballroom dancing and her knees and how she needs to drink a shot of Jack Daniels every night at bedtime. She talked about her late husband and how he played for the Red Sox. She talked about working as an accountant during World War II, because the men of the family business had gone off to take down Emperor Hirohito. Gradually I found myself completely enthralled in the conversation. Here we had a genuine time capsule – alive, lucid, and willing to spill her guts.

We found out a lot that day about Misses Kay – but we also were reminded that there really is merit to the idea of respecting the people that came before you. The people in that restaurant that paid homage to her table, at which she evidently sits every single weekday and most weekends, had the right idea.

Mount Mitchell, North Carolina

Mount Mitchell, North Carolina


            I was reflecting on all of these lessons and memories on my drive home from my last foray into the mystic of the south. For all of the negative thoughts and emotions I once harbored towards the southern United States, I found myself genuinely appreciating the cultural differences and the charming and friendly people that I had the pleasure of meeting. The beautiful landscape, the wildlife, and the relaxed lifestyle made for the perfect mental cruising zone as I hurtled up I-95 towards my homeland. As I rounded a sharp bend, the highway exited the bucolic section of forest and presented a welcoming vision to the north that is awe-inspiring every time you see it – the massive structure that is the Pentagon. The Washington Monument rising high above in the horizon.  The capitol building in the distance with all its patriotic majesty. I smiled to myself and soaked in the view of what is still my favorite city in America… barely noticing that the car behind me was following a tad too closely.  The car then shifted to the right lane suddenly, trying to pass me despite the fact that the right lane was actually exiting the highway. Realizing their own error, the driver slammed on the brakes and was affixed to my tail again in an instant. I looked at my speedometer and saw that I was going exactly five miles per hour above the speed limit. The driver behind me looked animated – it seemed my being on the road was insulting his very being. He swerved to the right once more, for a split second looking like he was going to attempt the very illegal “shoulder pass.” He must have reconsidered, for again in an instant he was behind me. I heard the horn. He then found an opening in the lane to my left, swerved in, and flew by me – graciously extending to me the opportunity for a clean line of sight at his favorite finger of his right hand. I just smiled and waved as if he was a cousin I hadn’t seen in years – my favorite way to piss off a jackass on the road. I waited for a glimpse – sure enough, the license plate showed that the car was from New York.

Welcome home.

Cherry Grove Beach, South Carolina

Cherry Grove Beach, South Carolina


One Night in Vienna

I have learned a lot about life strictly from traveling, but perhaps nothing that is more true than this statement – sometimes the best way to get to know a country’s culture is in a pub.

My night started innocent enough. I had been in Vienna for just days, a stranger in a foreign world and with only a basic grasp of the language. By basic, of course, I mean I knew how to say hello, how to ask someone if they spoke English, and how to order a beer. The couple I was traveling with had decided to stay in our rented flat for the night, and I spent the evening hours brainstorming a spur of the moment jaunt over to Bratislava by train early the next morning. Why Bratislava? I decided the better question was… why not Bratislava?



In a few days I would be leaving Vienna for good and making my way to the village of Maria Alm in the Alps, and there I would be on my own for an extended period of time. A quick solo-outing in Vienna would provide some much needed experience for the mountain village, where the likelihood of people speaking English would decrease dramatically. I walked out of the flat, turned right, and decided to stop at the first pub I came across on our street to make for an easy walk home. I carried with me no map… no cell phone… no German to English dictionary… and no idea even what the street name was where the flat was located. A common theme of my posts involves my stupidity – this post is no different.

DSCN0315Finding a pub in a European city doesn’t require any effort – they’re everywhere. Two blocks into the stroll and I had located one that looked suitable – a few groups of friends having drinks at several tables, two patrons downing large glasses of ale seated at the bar, and a bartender who was sipping a beer while chain-smoking Marlboro Reds. In my broken “German” I asked for a large beer while pointing at a tap. I was very pleased that the bartender answered in German… not because I understood what he said (I didn’t), but because in many situations in Europe an attempt to speak the native language is often greeted by the person responding in English because they instantly figured out that you were just another dumb American tourist. I decided to limit myself to exactly three beers before making my way home to get some pre-Bratislava shut-eye. I then sat in silence and consumed my beverages, listening to the sounds of conversations and laughter happening all around me. Almost nothing can match the perfectly beautiful solitude that you experience in a public place when you understand nothing of what is being said. I felt totally content with life as I sipped down the last of my brews and prepared to slip back out into the night and return to the flat. My night out alone in Vienna was over.

Someone at that moment slapped my back.

I reacted defensively and turned quickly to face whoever had struck me from behind, immediately assuming that the person meant me harm. My eyes were locked with a smiling and disheveled Austrian, who was clearly intoxicated. The smell of beer permeated his entire being, and his unkempt beard with its straggly gray hairs made him appear far older than he was. He was speaking very loudly, in German (obviously) with what I can only assume was slurred speech. He was hammered. After a twenty-second diatribe he let loose a loud laugh, slapping my back again. It was only then that he realized I had no clue what he was saying. I tried to apologize, and forced out some Deutsche for “I’m sorry, but I’m just another self-centered American who doesn’t care to know the language of the country I am actually in.”

DSCN0314His face lit up. “YOU ARE AMERICAN!” Within seconds of this realization I was seated at a table with seven other ripped senior citizen Austrians, all of whom were peppering me with questions about myself and my native land. One woman explained that it had been years since she was able to hold a conversation in English, and she was thoroughly enjoying this opportunity. Every few minutes the table ordered another round of “Jeager bombs” (Red Bull was invented in Austria, and in my opinion is consumed there more than water), and the entire table celebrated by yelling “PROST!” and slamming down their drinks. These people were clearly on a whole other level of drinking. When I asked if I could return their kindness by buying them a round, the older woman at the end of the table said “This is my pub.”


While the Medicare-eligible Austrians attempted to kill me through kindness and alcohol poisoning, a large group of teenagers had made their way into the bar and were by all appearances having an amazing time. It turns out they were celebrating their graduation from high school. I noticed some adults mixed in amongst the group and just assumed it was a few of their parents out paying for their child’s success. My inebriated new friends corrected my assumption by pointing out how nice it was to see teachers taking their newly graduated students out for a post-celebration Schnapps and beer.

This concept was shocking to me, at first, as clearly the notion of a teacher in America taking their students out for a beer a day after administering their economics final would surely be front page news in the local section. Then I remembered the cultural lessons I was beginning to learn about Europe, and the fact that literally upon graduation from high school an Austrian was a legal adult. As much as I respected the bond among them that would allow this seemingly strange relationship, I could think of literally not one teacher from my high school that I would have wanted to have a beer with on my graduation night – and yet I felt a strange sense of nostalgia while watching the group commemorate the occasion by racing to the highest BAC possible.

DSCN0263Eventually I felt a strong sensation coming from my bladder demanding that I find my way through the graduates to a bathroom. On my way back a wobbly kid accidentally stumbled into me. He turned to apologize and tried to strike up a conversation… my blank stare did not stop him from continuing. I finally tried to politely explain, again, that I could not speak German… immediately one of his friends turned in amazement – “YOU ARE AMERICAN!”

This pub sure had a way of making you feel loved.

They walked me back to their table to join in the celebration. I felt extremely uncomfortable, given the fact that they were no more than 18 years old, but tried to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t Kansas anymore. Drinks were ordered. Stories were exchanged. Questions were raised. They seemed genuinely thrilled that I had been to such famous places like New York City and Washington, D.C. I made the mistake of asking them if they were fans of Dirk Nowitzki, the German-born basketball player who had won the NBA Championship the month before.

“Dirk Nowitzki is a motherf——r.”

I was amazed. I had found a rabid sports fan who felt passion on a level that a person from outside Philadelphia could appreciate. I had to know why he felt so strongly about a player that, for the most part, was popular back in the states. I mean… the guy looks like some long-haired hippie vagabond who happens to be 6’10” and can shoot a basketball and do it while trying out for a role in Point Break.

The answer was simple enough. “He is a German.”

Ah. That little thing called Anschluss from the days of Hitler is evidently still remembered. Apparently some Austrians are to this day not very fond of their neighbors to the west who once forcibly added them to their empire. It probably also doesn’t help that Hitler actually IS Austrian.

And you thought that was just a part of the plot of Sound of Music.

As a fan of history, I had to admire that I was speaking to a teenager who had such a strong grasp on an issue from 70 years before. I asked if everyone there felt that way about ze Germans or Nowitzki. He turned and yelled to a friend – “the American wants to know what you feel about Dirk Nowitzki!”

“Dirk Nowitzki is a MOTHERF—–R!”

I turned and asked why.

“Because he is a f—–g German.”

Maria Alm.

Maria Alm.

Soon it appeared that the party was breaking up, and I looked at my watch and saw that it was now well past midnight. I tried to wish them a last congratulations and goodbye, but they were having none of it. Apparently the graduation party was just getting started. When I tried to convince them that I had a train to catch in a few hours to Bratislava, they said, almost in unison, “F–k Bratislava!”

I became caught up in the current of intoxicated youths as they stumbled down the streets. Some would stop and urinate from the sidewalk onto the roads, waving at cars as they drove by under the streetlights. One fell over into a puddle of his own piss on the sidewalk. I was concerned for his well-being, but noticed that all of his friends (and the remaining teachers) all just pointed at him and laughed. This behavior seemed far too normal for them.

This Austrian-pub crawl continued to four other establishments, and I simply followed the group as they went from place to place. They asked if I liked “O-bey-ma.” After processing what they were asking, I told them that yes, I had voted for Barack Obama. Three of the students became very happy, all yelling out that “we LOVE O-bey-ma!” Some others actually congratulated me on my vote, as if I had scored well on an exam. Another told me that “Bush was a motherf—–r.” They were able to discuss American speeches, candidates, congressman, and Supreme Court decisions with greater precision and accuracy than political science students in American universities. I was impressed.

They then became fixated on showing me a certain form of ID they all carried – and laughing hysterically when I didn’t know what it was. Drivers license? No. School ID? No.

It was their national health insurance card.

“If get sick, I go to doctor… no problems. If get hurt, I go to doctor… no problems. You in America… problems. O-bey-ma will fix your problems.”

They had drank the Kool-aid.


I saw people pass out on tables. I saw people chain smoke cigarettes like they were in an episode of Mad Men. I watched young kids flirting and falling in love on what was a special night for them on many levels. I wandered down back alleys and side streets as we crawled from pub to pub, fully caught up in the moment. And this group of amiable Austrians had accepted me into their intimate celebration.

I made the mistake of glimpsing at my watch. The time read 5:35… am. Where was the ceremonial last call? Where was the brutish bouncer telling us the time had come for us to leave? I had long since missed any chance I had of making it to Bratislava that day, and realized that back at the flat my travel companions were waking for their morning coffee and realizing I had never made it home. I quickly said goodbye, exchanged Facebook info with some of my new acquaintances, and bolted out the door.

There really is something surreal about having lost the total concept of time during a night, and then suddenly thrusting yourself outside into the morning sunrise. Your eyes squint shut as your brain searches for an equilibrium. I remember actually slowly breaking into a smile… then a laugh. “Three beers, eh? Good talk.”

It was at that truly happy moment that a sudden realization hit – I had no idea where I was.

So, I did the logical thing… and just started walking. I took random turns that vaguely looked familiar, which of course weren’t familiar at all. I looked for street names that I recognized and found none. I thought that perhaps I would run into another person doing their morning walk of shame who would be able to point me in the direction of a landmark I would recognize, yet nobody was out and about. After an hour, I still had seen nothing whatsoever that would help guide me back towards the flat. I was preparing to make like I was homeless and go to sleep on the next park bench I came across, as exhaustion was setting in. And then, I saw it.

DSCN0247This statue, pictured above, I had taken a picture of on my walk the day before – and I knew that it was about an hour’s walk from the flat. I had been saved – a mattress was in my immediate future.

When my head finally hit the pillow, memories of lessons learned swirled. Austrians love Red Bull. They hate Germans. They get absolutely ripped when celebrating. Nationalized health care is expected by them. They are not fans of George Bush, and they have an inflated view of O-bey-ma. They can be intelligent, mature, foolish, and childish in a ten minute window. But, by far the most important lesson – they are incredible people with kind and caring hearts, who – for one night, at least – made this American feel like he was among friends.

Holiday Rental Car Adventures

Screw Hertz.

And screw Enterprise.

I know those rather terse sentiments have been expressed across the globe on a number of occasions by countless travelers, and I know that the negative rental experiences on our Winter Holiday were by no means unique – but the statement still remains. Screw both of ’em.

We arrived in London on a rainy Christmas morning. Ahead of us lay a one-week jaunt through downtown London and the surrounding English countryside, and then culminating with a journey across the Channel to Paris for the New Years Eve celebration. We would then attempt to catch what was sure to be a groggy flight home. To pull off this trip around such prominent international holidays (and the British holiday of Boxing Day) would require precise planning, the help of an insane Englishman serving as an advisor/guide, and the cooperation of rental car companies in two different countries… Oh, and luck – which we evidently left behind in ‘Merica.

Our first indicator that things were going to take a turn for the worst happened within fifteen minutes of arriving at the Heathrow Airport Enterprise, but it was so subtle that inexperienced travelers like us missed it. When the worker pulled up in the pouring rain driving a shiny silver Prius, we celebrated our genius at having rented a car so economical on fuel. Comments were made about being able to tell the sky-high European gas prices to suck it, while at the same time I was able to relish the opportunity to mock our designated driver for having to chauffeur us in a car he so viciously derides while back in the States. IMG_1853The visibly hungover Englishman rushed us through signing paperwork while we stood in the rain, quickly explaining what we were supposedly signing. We understood virtually none of what he was saying. The instant he was finished, he ended the conversation with the traditional “cheers” and was on his way. We thought that it was odd that we had no walk-around to see if there was any prior damage to the car, but were too excited with the thought that we were in London on Christmas day to say anything about it. In retrospect… we can picture that “plunker” walking away amused at having screwed over a few stupid Americans for daring to make him work on this cherished religious holiday.

Our drive got off to an ominous start… immediately. We pulled out of the parking spot and saw a car heading in our direction. My friend’s thought was to react as he would in the States – by pulling into his side of the lane. This, of course, would have been the wrong side of the lane. We successfully pissed off our first native driver 6.3 seconds after hitting the gas pedal for the first time. Check. And this was only the beginning. Please try navigating the streets of London while simultaneously adjusting to not freaking out every time a bus looks to be heading full-speed towards a collision certain to result in your death (hint: it’s every time you see a bus coming in the opposite direction). Balance this fear with listening to a navigation system that operates on a time delay while dealing with roads that change names on the same block, lanes that change without warning and shift into different parts of traffic, and an angry co-pilot that rips the navigation system off of the windshield and spikes it into the floor of the car. How complicated is driving in London? When we finally arrived at our hotel, we asked the clerk where we could park. She said “just turn right.” What this helpful instruction turned out to mean was “make six different turns on one-way streets and drive for twelve minutes to arrive at a car park that is actually a two-minute walk from the hotel.”


We vowed to limit our driving while in the London city limits, and spent the rest of Christmas meandering around trying to find establishments actually willing to be sacrilegious and open. Luckily, the proprietor of an Indian cuisine restaurant did not believe in the one true lord and savior. Our stomach linings weren’t thrilled later in the evening, but such is life.

The day after Christmas in Britain is the aforementioned Boxing Day. We tried to get an explanation from a variety of Brits in a number of pubs as to the purpose of Boxing Day – these efforts proved to be futile. Thankfully we dominated England in two wars so we can avoid celebrating this ridiculous holiday, and instead get a day off of school every year for the much more worthy Columbus Day. At least if a Brit came here we could give them a legitimate answer as to what we celebrate – “some dude got lost looking for India.” Anyways… through the help of our insane English friend we had procured tickets to an English Premier League soccer game on Boxing Day. IMG_1773We had high expectations.

After finding a great parking spot in the bucolic neighborhood of Fulham, we accidentally wandered into a pub meant only for season ticket holders of the Fulham football squad. Our foursome was stared at for the entirety of our stay. It was only later that we were told that in England, a woman who orders a beer in a pub and sits at the bar is actually widely considered to be a prostitute. Needless to say, the female member of our group wasn’t thrilled as to the meaning of all of the stares… In the end, we witnessed the spectacle that is English soccer – dedicated fans singing team songs, intoxicated hooligans screaming unintelligible profanities at referees, and a level of skill that makes MLS in America look like an under-12 league. Southampton used a late penalty kick to pull out the draw against hometown Fulham, and we were thrilled.

We walked back to the rental car still abuzz with adrenaline from what we agreed was one of the best sporting events we had ever been to. The fact that we were walking in the pouring rain did nothing to dampen our spirits… but the discovery that our car had been broken into did the trick. The Prius had been parked on the side of a street in a classy neighborhood right outside a Porsche dealership. A freaking security camera was pointed directly at our car. Talk about having some serious balls. All four of us lost something that night… jewelry, a Kindle, a Droid, and one lucky winner hit the jackpot by having his entire backpack taken – MacBook Air, his only keys to his Saab (Saab doesn’t exist anymore… how funny is that), and passport included. The London Police Department were kind enough to show up an hour later and basically tell us we were idiots for having had baggage in our car. They also stated that it didn’t help that the rental company had put a big sticker on the windshield announcing to thieves that it was a rental car, and thus probably carrying luggage. For this we wish to offer you our sincere thanks, Enterprise.

The American Embassy in London was quickly added to our itinerary to acquire a new passport. An entire day of travel was lost. We tried to regain our positive vibe by spending a night at the White Horse Inn in Faversham and making conversation with two highly inebriated Brits at the bar. Some of their brilliant dialogue: “I’ve been to Spain… Portugal… Orlando… Spain… and Portugal.” When asked where in Spain he had been, he said “Portugal.” He also tried to explain differences in American culture when compared to his – “your country is… bigger. Ours is… smaller.” Cheers, mate.

When we returned the rental to Enterprise in preparation for our trek to France, we received the full rental car rogering that some of you other unlucky “wankers” out there have faced. Evidently there was a small chunk of tire ripped out on one lucky wheel, and there was a hole in the back bumper (smaller than a thimble) where it looked like someone had, for fun, stabbed it with a screwdriver. This small hole was listed in the official damage report by the manager as a “5-centimeter hole, rear bumper.” Five-centimeter hole?!? Thankfully, reason prevailed and the report was changed to a more accurate measurement. Our bill for the damage? $1014. One-thousand and fourteen dollars.

Screw you, Enterprise.

We were sick of Britain and ready to move on to France, a country notorious for their fondness of Americans and speaking English. Our English friend picked us up and drove us onto the Chunnel Train, and we arrived in Calais, France on Sunday, December 30th. We had been warned that France was predominantly a Catholic country, and thus many things (like car rental places) would be closed on Sundays. I had always assumed they were godless heathen socialists who ripped wine and had extramarital affairs like it was a national pastime, and figured picking up our car would not be a problem. We had reserved a car through Hertz, and a call had even been placed to their management to ensure that they would have a person waiting for us at 10:30 am. They guaranteed this would occur, and signaled their agreement by emailing us a confirmation of the pick-up time and kindly charging our credit card. Much to our surprise… no one was there. They were closed. Multiple calls were placed to Hertz, all ending with their company telling us we had no car rented through them. They had no record of our confirmation number. No records with our names were in their system. If we really needed a car that day, they would be willing to open in four hours. How kind of them. We paced outside while placing angry call after angry call. We gave up. And right when we did, they decided to call us back. We’re sorry, they said. They DID, in fact, have our reservation. They DID, in fact, have a car for us. They DID, in fact, know they were to be there at 10:30 am. And how were they going to fix their mistake? “We will open for you in four hours.”

Screw you, Hertz.

The domino effect was instant. Our only way to Paris was by train, and because it happens to be to one of the most popular cities on the planet for New Years Eve, this was problematic. All trains to Paris were already sold out for the day. We ended up needing to purchase a ticket to a city in the opposite direction just to be able to board a train there to take us to Paris. For those keeping track at home, this was 55 Euros per person… I hope you know your exchange rates. After barely catching the second train, we arrived in Paris. It was 3 kilometers to the hotel (yes, kilometers… we were in Europe) and the streets were packed with people and cars. A taxi for some reason became the chosen method to get there. One hour in traffic that would make Manhattan blush and 80 Euros later, and we had become HUGE fans of Hertz. Throw in the 60 Euros we eventually needed to Pacman Jones just to get to the airport on New Years Day, and we became full-blown Hertz groupies. And what did Hertz do to make up for their error and to help us recoup all of our additional costs? We were given two $25 vouchers.

Screw you, Hertz.

But, in the end… all that mattered were the amazing spots we had seen, the experiences and stories we could now tell about, and another successful trip being put into the books. London and Paris for Christmas and New Years?? George W. can land that fighter jet now, because the Mission has been Accomplished. The mishaps that occur on a trip are only part of the journey – as is how you respond to them. We had an amazing time with memories and tales that could last a lifetime…

No thanks to those plunkers at Hertz and Enterprise.


Get Out On The Road.

We have been on the road for a substantial part of the past month in our attempt to traverse as many highways and as many footpaths as possible, while sampling a variety of watering holes, throughout these United States. Many nights we spent hurtling through the darkness towards whatever destination lay ahead, with the only sleep coming in the form of a rest area amongst the truckers for a couple of hours off of a dimly lit intestate. Others were in a tent, strategically located inside one of America’s most brilliant and jaw-dropping national parks. Some may wonder why people would subject themselves to endless nights out of their home,  or perhaps why every night away wouldn’t be spent in the friendly confines of a hotel. We visited five national parks, stayed in ten different cities, and drove through parts of twenty-five states in our three-week journey. That’s why.

Traveling is an addiction. The more you see, the more you want to see. The more goals that get crossed off, the more get written down. You find yourself constantly scheming, constantly envisioning whatever the next place to be conquered will be. It is an inherent part of being an American – throughout history we have been told “go west, young man,” and for generations we have continued to answer the call. The independence achieved when you head out on that open highway towards uncertainty, the anonymity of being a stranger is a distant city, the ability to behold scenes that bring home to you the absolute meaninglessness of your life against the breathtaking span of what we call earth, while simultaneously awing you with the overwhelming power and majesty of what we call God – we do it for the stories. We do it for the experiences.

Shall We Daydream?

With the Mega Millions jackpot now up to an insanely large bundle of cash, it is time for all us to give pause to the stress of our daily lives for a brief moment. The memo you are reading can wait. The papers you are grading will still be there in an hour. The important e-mail that just dinged on your Black Berry isn’t really that important. Take some time for you… and take it right now.

The lottery can be an absolute blessing, and not just to those who have lightning see fit to strike them with the winning ticket. With a purchase of one single $1 ticket you instantly earn the right to daydream about what it is you would do if you are the lucky winner. These daydreams can prove to be vital to getting through the monotony of our existence. Think about it… what WOULD you do if you won the lottery?

Put aside the traditional notions you hear lottery winners say when they are holding the large check being handed to them. Go beyond the boring “well, I’d buy a really cool sports car” or “I’d buy a mansion” or “I’d blow it all on meth and end up living in the exact same trailer I live in now.” You’ve bought the ticket and you see the winning numbers both on your screen and in your hands… what would you do?

I know what I would do…

After being discharged from the county jail for the ensuing public intoxication and indecent exposure charges that followed my discovery of the winning numbers being in my possession, I would set into motion the “Greatest Lottery Winnings Plan Known to Man.” It took me a while to think of the name for it, but I believe the title says it all. I would promptly contact a shrewd tax attorney who would be paid to find every possible loophole to allow me to keep as much of the one-time payout option in my hands and out of the government’s. Upon having the funds wired into my bank account, the celebration would begin.

First, I would dispense 10% of the winnings to charitable organizations of my choosing. It sounds cliche, but come on – I just won over a hundred million in cash – it’s the right thing to do. These charities would of course have to be the kind that do not pay the people running them six-figure salaries, so that eliminates almost every charity in America (especially the “religious” ones). If I’m giving away millions, I want to see it feeding starving children and not padding some tool’s wallet who sits in an office all day. Once I felt good enough about myself, the fun spending would begin.

In no particular order…

– One million dollars would be deposited in each of my sibling’s bank accounts for them to decide what they would like to do with it. If they decide to pay off their mortgage, use it for their kid’s college fund, or blow it all on a collection of Alaskan Eskimo quilts, so be it.

– My father would never work another day in his life. Not sure how much this would take to make happen, but trust me – it would happen. He and my mother would be forced into an early retirement and spend their lives doing anything they want with one simple exception – they are not to work ever again. They had to raise me – they’ve done enough.

– I have a list of five friends that would each be receiving a duffel bag filled with $500,000 in cash. They don’t know who they are yet, but I do. They are far more likely to spend it on a wild weekend in Shanghai than something “mature,” but that’s why they’re my friends (and also why they only get $500,000).

– All other friends and people who have been nice to me would then be paid off for their kindness with a check for $5,000. Thanks for being nice to me, everyone.

– The Brethren (you know who you are) would now all be season ticket holders for the New York Football Giants. This is non-negotiable. Upper level seats only – we need to stay in touch with the poor… they’re more fun to watch football with.

– The Cabinet (you know who you are) would then embark upon a one-year journey. Each of the four members would need to select one place on earth where they would like to live for a 3-month window… and then the four of us would move there together and experience the culture. When the window is up, we pack up and move on to the next destination. For those wondering where my 3-month window would be – it is Omaha, Nebraska.

– Ok… seriously? Omaha? I’d actually choose Sweden. I do not have a legitimate reason as to why Sweden… but we sure would have fun.

– Following the year of travel, a small lot of land would be purchased on a beach in Costa Rica, which I would then declare to be “home base” for the rest of my life. Any one of my friends who had enough cash left to join me would be more than welcome. A lifetime would then be spent traveling the globe while living off of the interest that the rest of my winnings would be earning. The only “work” I would do would be hiking up to the top of a mountain and every time I need to make myself a cocktail. And so… they lived happily ever after.

The End.

What? You don’t think that’s the greatest lottery winnings plan of all time??? Then by all means… join the daydream. Please respond with YOUR greatest lottery winnings plan of all time. But to be able to do so, you need to go purchase a lottery ticket right now… as it is the key to letting your mind wander. Go get that ticket – it could change your life permanently… or at least for today.

How to Fix America’s Education System

Clearly a topic as difficult as the title of this piece cannot be appropriately and adequately discussed in the following paragraphs, but it is worth a shot if it could potentially get discussion started. I have a small background in education, in that I went to a real live American high school and survived… though by no means does this make me an expert in the field. This fact does not then mean that I can’t have an opinion, no matter how unpopular this opinion may be to my friends in education, to parents, to politicians, and to students themselves. These thoughts may be controversial to some, yet seem like common sense to others – that is the nature of this beast… but make no mistake – education is one of the most important issues facing our nation’s future. We can no longer afford to fall behind the best and the brightest from China and India – we have the talent and ability necessary to compete and outwork other nations, we just do not currently operate in a system that best develops our talent. Here is how I believe we can fix the system…

1) We switch to year-round schooling. The fact that the vast majority of American schools operate under the antiquated system of having summers off to allow students to work in the fields says a lot about why we are struggling. This is not the 1800s anymore. Why we continue to support a system that clearly is outdated is beyond me.

Do you work on one of these? That's what I thought...

Yes, some parents wish for their children to attend summer camps. Yes, some students want to be able to work summer jobs. So what?! The status quo no longer is acceptable – feathers will need to be ruffled. Allowing students to hit the reset button on their brains every June and then spend the next three months erasing everything they possibly can is foolish – especially considering that the teachers then expect the students to be where they need to be when they begin the next level of classes in September.

You can still maintain the integrity of a 200-day school year while avoiding a 90-day vacation. It is what needs to be done – it’s just that no politician feels like pushing for this due to how unpopular it would be with parents, students, and the teacher’s unions.

2. Standardized tests are not the answer. I find it hard to believe that some of the greatest thinkers in our nation’s history would have done well on standardized tests with multiple choice questions that then allow you to fill in a bubble on a scan-tron sheet. The fact that we then expect TODAY’S teenagers to somehow maintain focus while taking these things is foolish – and it is in no way an indicator of what a student can achieve. Forcing schools to find ways to get their students to pass the test does two things – it forces the teachers to teach to a test rather than the local school board approved curriculum, and it stifles if not destroys student creativity. It does NOT foster learning.

3. Remove pay increases for teachers based on seniority and move to a merit pay system. Yes, I said it. If a teacher is doing a better job than another teacher, they deserve more money. I do not know why that statement is controversial, but for some reason it is. One of the big arguments against merit pay is that it cannot be based on standardized tests. Obviously, as you could probably guess, I agree. But one of the other arguments by the teachers’ unions is that it cannot be based on the thoughts and feelings of the schools’ individual administrations. Why? Why is it that the principals and superintendents, who are the teachers’ bosses, cannot determine who deserves more pay and who deserves less pay? Isn’t this how the vast majority of professions pay their employees? What are the administrators there for if not to evaluate teachers and help them improve?

Think of the incentives currently given to attract quality teachers… the longer they stay in the profession, the more money they will make. A good teacher makes just as much as a bad teacher. In fact, if a great teacher has been there ten years less than a lousy teacher, they make less money. How does this make sense to anyone? In my opinion, this punishes the good teachers by stifling their desire to grow and improve, while at the same time rewarding mediocrity. If you do just enough to keep your job, you will get the small pay raise at the end of each year, guaranteed.

If you decided to move to a merit pay system, you would begin attracting people who are BETTER at their job. If I was teaching and saw that the person in the room next to me was making $15,000 more per year, you had better believe I’d be going to that teacher and asking for help and suggestions on how to improve so that I, too, could taste some of that extra cash. Money IS a motivating factor – it is the reason why Americans wake up every day and go to work – why not use the power of money to improve our educators?

This is not a plea to increase teacher pay. This is a plea to increase SOME teachers’ pay. If we expect our teachers to be college educated professionals who are responsible for the development of our children, while simultaneously continuing their own education at the graduate level, then we should pay them what they deserve… emphasis on deserve. I have no problem whatsoever arguing for a quality teacher who is rated superior by their administration receiving a salary of $100,000 per year (a society that pays NFL practice squad players more than that should agree with me). I also have no problem with paying a terrible teacher at far lower rates than they currently earn. If they have a problem with the pay they are earning, they should find another job or get better at this one. Welcome to the real world.

4. We finally admit that not every American student is meant to go to college. Not every American student is academically capable of being proficient on a math test checking their ability to complete equations in trigonometry. I know this will sting. I know many Americans will say that we are denigrating the youth of America. Many may say we are ripping apart the “American Dream.” No… we are being realists. Do you think China tells their students that they ALL can be physicists? No chance.

The self-esteem movement in this country has gone too far. When physical education teachers are being told to only incorporate games in their classes where there are no winners and losers, then you know we have some serious issues. No wonder we aren’t as competitive with other countries – they are pushing their best and brightest to succeed; we are worrying about making every child think they are just as good as everyone else.

To put it bluntly – not every student is cut out for college. If we’re being honest – not every student is cut out for an academic high school. The fact that the No Child Left Behind legislation states that every single student (regardless of academic ability, language of origin, and mental capacity) must be on “grade level” is just setting schools and students up for failure.

In order to better meet the needs of ALL students, we need to completely revamp the entire public school system. In my opinion, the K-8 grades can stay somewhat similar in that they have students of all abilities working together in classrooms and they are getting a basic background in all subject areas. But at the end of middle school/junior high/whatever it is they call it these days, the students and parents should have options… real, actual, relevant options.

If a student is intent on going to college and can demonstrate through their performance in K-8 that they have the potential to do so, then they get sent to a college-prep, academic “high school.” There they will be given a rigorous schedule and workload – one that actually does prepare them for further studies at a college or university.

"Wow... this is really preparing me for my job as a caterer."

If a student wishes to enter the workforce out of high school, then they at this point should be able to begin interning or apprenticing in various work programs that train them for their chosen profession. I mean… if we’re being honest… why exactly do we make future mechanics take biology class? Why do we make future electricians study Shakespeare? Can saying “is this a dagger which I see before me?” help that person wire a home? These students should be focused on preparing for a life as a productive member of society – that doesn’t always mean they need to have a good grasp on what the Treaty of Versailles did to Europe in the 1930s. They would get the well-rounded background in a variety of subjects in K-8, but then would be given training and courses specific to their future in place of traditional “high school.” We’d have a legion of workers prepared for their fields at age 18. And I am not saying this to demean mechanics (I am way too stupid to figure out how an internal-combustion engine works… put gas in it, and it runs) or electricians (my father has done quite well for himself as one) – my point is that America’s current education system doesn’t prepare academic students for college, nor does it prepare laborers for entry into the workforce.

If this seems unfair, oh well… life isn’t fair. It’s time American students find out about this bizarre concept at an earlier age.

All of that being said… there is absolutely no way any of it will ever happen. It’s easy for politicians to claim they want to fix education, as it makes for a good campaign stump speech… but actually doing something to fix it will require changing the entire system, and that would be far too controversial to attempt.

Does anyone speak Mandarin?

The War on Religion? Really?

There is no such thing as a “War on Religion” in this country. I am not currently living in fear of receiving the mark of the beast, or having myself burned at the stake, or even being disemboweled in a town square due to my faith in Christianity. I’m not even afraid to post that statement on the Internet. No member of a “left-wing cabal” is on their way to my house to squelch my freedom of speech. No “brown shirts” are coming to imprison me.

Then why is there a significant portion of the population, predominantly people who would categorize themselves as Republican Christians or evangelicals, who genuinely believe that right now there is a battle being fought over their freedom of religion? It is simple… because the politicians and the media are telling them it is so. People concerned over a person’s right to practice tenets of their faith wouldn’t lie… would they?

The answer is obviously yes. And the cause of the lie makes total sense if you think about it.

Political parties have done interesting things over the course of American history to win elections. Ballot boxes have been stuffed, people have been paid off, laws have been broken, lies have been said and put in newspapers and on television. Candidate’s fidelity, sexuality, loyalty, patriotism, and yes, even their religion, have been attacked in an effort to win elections. LBJ insinuated that electing his opponent would result in nuclear war. Did I say insinuated?

Americans for some reason continue to believe that these sort of fabrications and blatant lies are a thing of the past – that their chosen candidates, political party, or preferred news network truly have their best interest in heart. We have not learned our lesson – politicians, of both parties, will say anything they can to get elected. There is NO limit. Democrats have done it to Republicans, Republicans have done it to Democrats.

So why turn to religion in this election? Religion unites people of all faiths. Stating that a party or a candidate (or the sitting President) is waging a war on organized religion frightens the millions of people with faith in this country – and religion is a powerful force to frighten. Wars have been fought over religion, so it is reasonable to deduce that people (if they’re afraid enough) will do anything to ensure the survival of their faith. In 2012, they are being told that the very survival of their faith depends on defeating President Obama. Why?

The GOP campaign strategy for months was to criticize the President’s record on jobs, spending, and the economy. Every Republican candidate insisted in speeches and debates that the President was destroying the economy and putting America into a hole we could never recover from. This was a logical argument – at the time. But then a problem occurred for their campaigns – unemployment has dipped, the stock market rose, and the economy showed signs of regular growth. We’ve had 23 straight months of job gains. The President’s approval rating is back to 50%. If the Republicans still wanted to win the election, the campaign strategy needed to shift – and shift it did.

And this is why the strategy makes sense, despite how morally objectionable it is. There is a significant portion of Americans that already question President Obama’s legitimacy due to his supposed lack of a birth certificate. There is a significant portion of Americans that believe he is a Muslim. There is a significant portion of Americans that believe he is a radical communist, and with that belief comes the thought that he is an atheist. The table was already set for this strategy – the Republicans just needed the motivation to use it. Now that the economy is recovering, the motivation has arrived. Religion and social values have become the new front-runners with regards to issues being discussed on the campaign trail, which has helped lead to the rise of the ultra-conservative Rick Santorum (who I still think has no chance… emphasis on think).

The firestorm was easy to create. All it took was a provision mandating that employers (such as hospitals), even those of a religious nature, cover birth control for female workers. This provision was seized upon by the GOP as an egregious assault on American’s freedom of religion, as some religious faiths (particularly Catholics) don’t believe in the use of birth control. Let’s forget the fact that the vast majority of Catholic women support the use of birth control. Let’s also forget the fact that the vast majority of insurance plans cover male-oriented sex-related prescription drugs like Viagra while denying females coverage for the pill, which screams of archaic gender discrimination.

This mandate caused a plethora of news coverage (particularly on Fox News) slamming the President for his blatant attack on religious freedoms and liberties. Mitt Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference that Obama was “attacking religious liberty.” Newt Gingrich stated that Obama was going to declare war on the Catholic church if he was elected to a second term. Rick Santorum compared the future of America to the French revolution, and said that due to Obama’s “hostility towards religion” that we are heading down the road to the “guillotine.” I am not making that up – but he sure was.

Obama backed down on the mandate – he offered a compromise by stating that he felt women should have access to covered birth control, but that the insurance companies (not the employers tied to a religion or faith) have to cover the pills. Fair is fair, right? Wrong. The sharks sensed the blood in the water. The attacks have only increased. You have Congress pushing bills to stop religious discrimination (I’m sure the Muslims in America are thrilled… oh… wait). You have Santorum saying that the government cannot force you to pay for something that is against your beliefs (tell that to the Quakers whose tax dollars go to the Department of Defense).

Let’s be rational here. If we are going to say that insurance companies should not have to cover birth control due to the conflicts with some religions, then we might as well tell insurance companies that they don’t have to cover anything that disagrees with any faith. No more blood transfusions. No more painkillers. I’m pretty sure we can find a tenet of a faith somewhere that precludes insurance companies from covering anything.

While we’re at it, ALL religions will need to have an equal say, not just the Catholic church. Sure, they may be the ones currently screaming about how much they are being discriminated against (despite having millions of members and a Pope who dictates domestic policies for a number of nations), but soon Muslims, Buddhists, Scientologists, and even atheists should have a hand in all domestic and foreign policy. I, for one, plan on arguing my religious opposition to groundless wars and want my tax dollars only going towards things my faith allows. How far will the Republicans take this? How far will the rabbit hole go? The answer is not far.

Republicans don’t really want full religious freedom. They don’t want adulterers being executed in the street because the Bible says to (Gingrich agrees with me). They don’t want homosexuals being stoned to death. They don’t want slavery re-instituted. They don’t want Muslims to even be able to build mosques in certain places. They don’t think I should be imprisoned for working on the Sabbath. They don’t think we should sacrifice a red cow at the site of an unsolved murder. They don’t think Tom Cruise is sane.

They just want to win the election. So, until that happens… just know that Chairman Obama is going to turn what was America into an atheist-socialist-communist-Muslim country. Yeah… something like that.