"Kraków!"    [ 11 ]   
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June 2016
 Calvin & Hobbes

In his classic comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes", maestro Bill Watterson sometimes employed funny-sounding locations as a punchline delivered by 6-year-old Calvin. This was usually as educational as it was funny, and most efficacious for me as learning all 50 U.S. states and their capitals in grade school left scant room in my brain for memorizing, say, the capitals of European nations. (Boise, Idaho ... Cheyenne, Wyoming ... Augusta, Maine — I've still got it!)

Encountering such references to places that are real yet completely alien in my own experience, where untold millions live out their daily lives having never heard of "Phoenix, Arizona," makes me wonder what such 'other' lives must be like. People are people wherever you go. Cultural differences cannot change the fundamental nature of our species. We all universally laugh and cry, love and hurt, strive and fail. But just as pizza varies from brand to brand / city to city / culture to culture, so too the flavor of Life differs from country to country. Sometimes ~ . .. well hold on, I'm getting ahead of myself...

Back in 1999, the Ocean Blue wrote an euphonious song entitled ♫ "Denmark" ♫ which describes a city of 'real listeners, full of coffee, living softly'... I imagine Denmark to be quite a different experience than the American Southwest, with its own peculiar North Sea laws and societal customs, mannerisms and expectations wholly unfamiliar to the likes of this ruffian. I wonder what it must be like to actually go there and explore Copenhagen with its centuries-long history, interacting with its residents, trying to speak Danish and navigate streets like "Østerbrogade" and "Jagtvej" and "Dronninglundjev"..!  Here we have "Cactus Avenue" and "Bell Avenue" and "43rd Avenue" . . all so compelling...

A Cultural Norm

I remember one time in Frankfurt, Germany, I found a double-decker McDonald's and could hardly believe it. I had never seen a two-storey fast food joint before. But it got weirder. I walked in to find that they served beer ~ to practically anyone (I think over age 14). French fries are called pommes frites ("pom-fritz") in Europe. Just because. So I ordered a standard Big Mac and fries pommes frites and marveled that I could have just as easily ordered beer or wine here at a McDonald's instead of a Coke. (Wine with a Big Mac - ugh..) I had no idea what the plentiful trays full of petite 3-prong plastic forks were for. When I asked the girl behind the counter for ketchup rather than what (I soon learned) is the customary pomme frites condiment of choice [mayonnaise] she looked at me as though I was truly insane. Things did not improve when I slithered upstairs (everything is narrow in Europe) for my faux feast Americana, digging into my burger and fries with gusto. No joke - all the other hipster kids and their parents literally stared at me with unmistakable expressions of horror or concern. That's when I realized what those little forkettes are for. One does not consume one's pomme frites with one's fingers — such behavior is considered barbaric .. even rude. Ever wonder why Americans routinely end up stomping on European cultural norms? It's because those Europeans call french fries "pomme frites" and use little pinky-forks to slather `em in mayonnaise, that's why.

Micky-D's  ~  Frankfurt, Germany
 McD's (Frankfurt)

Oblivious to distant customs as I may be, I am still fascinated by those differences. And since I was just 18 at the time —( my first time in Europe AND with * zero * cultural guidance )— I have since become acutely sensitive to these matters, worrying a bit too much whether I should "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands". This curiosity about global 'otherness' is what sent me on a quest to learn about living in Antarctica a year and a half ago (blog post 2015·01 & book review). Some years back, I came this close to leading a training initiative in Singapore which required regular trips abroad. Ah, but in Singapore you can get arrested for stepping off the plane with gum in your pocket! (Seriously) Spitting in the street is also illegal and can result in your immediate arrest. Not that I'm given to spitting in streets much, but I probably dodged doing hard time in some dingy Far East prison due to that gum situation.

It is illegal to step on money in Thailand. In Australia, it is illegal to name any animal you plan to eat.  :-\  I wonder how that is enforced? "Hey! Michael heard you call your cow 'Maisy'! Drop your shovel and get on the ground, arms behind your head - NOW!" But really, things can get infinitely worse in other countries. In San Salvador and Bulgaria, for instance, drunk drivers can be punished by death before a firing squad! [Holy cats!] A friend of mine is currently considering a stunning invitation to an international position in Dubai! I am so happy for her, but wonder about Middle Eastern cultural expectations... If it were me going instead, I would probably end up getting chopped into tasty morsels and fed to a camel for insulting some Sheikh. You just can't joke in the elevator of the Burj Khalifa about certain things, you know? And I probably would... Probably best to just keep to the States for the time being.

If I learn about a new place — or sometimes just for kicks out-of-the-blue — I will jump online and access some world map and start clicking down into some outrageous location I have never even imagined before, like the intersection between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Actually, they don't really touch even though it looks like they do on most maps. They're about 20 miles (32km) apart, separated by the virtually impassable Altai mountain range. People still live around there, though, in towns like Arshaty and Lasite Xiang. I wonder what that's like?

I found out about the KHMER EMPIRE this way, centralized in Cambodia, which itself is enclosed by Thailand, Laos, and Veit Nam. (Check out this Wikipedia report on the 'Khmer people') Whole Dominions have come and gone, some ruling in unquestionable power for centuries, and most people probably don't have a * clue * about any of this ...including me. I had never heard of anything like a 'Khmer' or their dynasties, yet entire civilizations have lived and died under their rule. (Don't look at me like that; I bet you didn't know any of this either) And so it goes for vast epochs of earth's history. The older I get, the more I come to understand how much that I simply do not have a clue about! And I find this incredibly fascinating! Armchair explorers can, today, click their way right around the world diving into history, culture, maps, and even the stories of individual people from pretty much any era. And when maps are not enough, you can drag that little yellow street-view dude onto most main roads in Google Maps and actually tour the area as if you were driving, cycling, or hiking through in real life!

A map of downtown Singapore
 Singapore map
It looks much different from street-view
 Marina Bay Sands (street view)
The Marina Bay Sands Hotel (MBS)
 Marina Bay Sands
MBS rooftop pool
 MBS Pool

You don't see this every day (unless you frequent Singapore, which I totally do not): three straddling hotels joined across the top by what amounts to a luxury cruise ship, complete with palm trees and a wrap-around infinity pool. This is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, another amazing place I will likely never visit in real life, but may thoroughly explore through maps, street-views, and countless pictures posted online — all free for the viewing!  :-)

Not long ago, an acquaintance of mine sent a photo of herself and a bunch of friends just hanging out in a Greek restaurant where they live, in Budapest. That's in the Eastern European country of Hungary. A Greek restaurant in Budapest... ~ Blew ~ My ~ Mind ~ But in all fairness, I suppose sending her a snapshot of some friends and I hanging at a Macayo's, a Mexican restaurant here in Phoenix, Arizona, just a hundred miles north of the real Mexican border, she might be just as charmed by the regional, near-authentic setting we likewise take for granted.

My middle daughter and her husband will be staying in Biloxi, Mississippi, while he receives training in the science of meteorology. (Way Cool) Once she told me where they will be living for the remainder of 2016, I checked it out on Google Maps since I seriously doubt I will be passing through Biloxi anytime soon. It's pretty slick to be able to see a slice of their 'new life together' neighborhood in this way ~ just one mile away from the Gulf of Mexico!


But back to my first point: I must say that Kraków actually looks like a pretty happenin' place . . .

And so does Denmark . . .

So does Venice, and Paris, and Tokyo, and Rome, and Edinburgh, Rio de Janeiro, Honolulu, Tahiti and Moscow, Alaska and New Zealand — you can even visit the Moon and Mars at your leisure these days! But there is something missing, obviously. You have to actually physically go to unexplored places to experience the real feel of the culture, the air, the sights and smells and sounds... the people... and this is where photos just flat fail. Take a street view of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (below, left). The thing is half a mile tall, but the street-view image just does not sell it, not like visiting Dubai in person . . .

 The Burj Khalifa
 The Burj Khalifa

Someday, perhaps, I might visit my colleague in Dubai, or who knows, maybe even my friend in Budapest! We could dine in that wonderful looking Greek restaurant, then make a leisurely visit to Lake Balaton and Castle Szigliget. ( I have no idea if these places are as great as they sound; I just dig their names! ) It seems absolutely crazy to me that driving the same distance as I live from Mexico (150 miles by road / 240 km) over there would land us in Vienna, Austria! And she actually prefers Austria over Switzerland, so that would work out well for both of us, I should think.  :-)  We might even make it over to Salzburg to check out some of Mozart's celebrated heritage sights. I will have to brush up on my German, though ~ Deutsch zu üben!  Until then, I always have the opportunity to 'travel' through the Internet — or I could just zip on up Sedona-way and hang out in Tlaquepaque for a spell ("Tah-LOCK-ah-PA-key" ~ named, no doubt, by the same guys who christened Albuquerque). According to their bizarrely narrated, ambitious little promo video, Tlaquepaque literally is “The Best of Everything”. ~ · Who knew? · ~ That's really quite an accomplishment. And here I was pining for Europe... — Maybe I should just skip it all and go on a day-hike through Oak Creek Canyon, and be thankful for my current proximity to such dynamic geography . . .

 Spaceman Spiff

(     Tombo visits Paris     )

(2016)  12