I ran an errand

What I did: flew to Florida to get a car and drove it home to Bedhead Hills, New York.

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What I did beforehand: JetBlue from LaGuardia–just one of New York City’s three perfectly terrible airports.

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Who went with me: the Bacon Provider.

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What I wore: James jeans and orange Pumas.

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Why I went: there are things you will do for some people that you might not be willing to do for anyone else.

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Where I sat: five hours driving, five hours navigating, repeat.

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Things that were delicious: we stopped for barbecue near Savannah, Georgia.
Things that were sad: when we were 100 miles from anywhere, deep in South Carolina, I looked at one of the three oil gauges to see the needle in the red. The car has separate gauges for oil level, oil temperature, and oil pressure. The gauge indicating badness, we determined, was the oil level gauge. A quick check using the dipstick contradicted the gauge. But it also revealed that a rather large hole had opened in a hose. 
Things that were funny: we tried two kinds of tape but neither stuck. 

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Things that were awesome: we stopped at the almost-halfway point, in North Carolina, at K. & B.’s. They hosted a little kid birthday party that day, and already had other houseguests, and did not hesitate to say we could stay the night. They even waited to start dinner until they knew we’d be in time. Good thing I brought homemade gifts.
What it is: 1200 miles in two days.

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Who should see it: people who love to drive and don’t mind going without cup-holders.

What I saw on the way home:

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Budapest #3: The Synagogue, The Elgin Marbles, and the China Syndrome

Let me tell you straight off, we did not make it into the synagogue in Budapest. Yes, it was on the short list of things we were told we had to do. Yes, we went and found it twice. But on the day we found it and had actually set aside the morning to see the inside of it, we arrived after several hundred other people had the idea to see the inside of it, and got there before us, and stood, in a great scrum, with their shit together a bit more ours.
Crowd outside the synagogue, Budapest

When I was in high school a friend and I went to London to visit another friend whose family had moved there. We dutifully tried to do every touristy thing imaginable, as if filling out a Bingo card, including two whole days at the Victoria and Albert Museum looking at spoons and armor, and getting on the wrong train to what ended up being my favorite museum in London (the Imperial War Museum) and being heckled by a crusty old guy who cackled about us being from Shepherd’s Bush. But try as we might we never made it to see the Elgin Marbles, and it became the thing we giggled about the most. Nothing’s more hilarious to teenaged girls than an inside joke.
I also never saw The China Syndrome. The China Syndrome came out in 1979, starring Jane Fonda, who I thought was generally ok in movies, and Jack Lemmon, who I thought was pretty awesome, and I think it was playing at the Esquire Theater, or maybe the Shady Oak, and though I made a big show of saying that I was going to see it, reasoning that it was a movie I might have actually wanted to see, checking the movie times and everything, I used the excuse to go get stoned with someone. I no longer remember who it was. Back then, I did not make up weird specific lies about what I was up to, usually, because I had very good grades and reasonably nice friends and my mother’s attitude was we could do what we wanted as long as we stayed out of trouble, which really meant, fundamentally, that we didn’t get caught. Probably, there was a family thing that I was avoiding going to by inventing the seeing of a movie I never intended to see.
The time I didn’t see The China Syndrome was not the only time I smoked pot in high school, but I have no memory of how I obtained it on any occasion. It seems unlikely I would have known who to get it from. Also, no way would I have spent money on it when there were sweaters to buy. Anyway, The China Syndrome came to stand for lying to your parents so you could go do dumb stuff.
To this day I have not seen The China Syndrome. I did not even know what it was about until I looked it up.
When we meant to go to the big synagogue in Budapest, but didn’t, it was not an Elgin Marbles thing (just not getting around to it), or a China Syndrome thing (saying we would when we never intended to). We had a morning plan and it was seeing the synagogue. We also had an afternoon plan, so the collapse of the morning plan meant immediate implementation of the afternoon plan.

On the tram


Our consolation for missing the synagogue was taking the tram up to the yellow bridge, known as Margit Híd. The people who put streetcars in cities back in the day knew what they were doing; the people of Budapest who have fought to keep their clunky old electric trams know what they are doing.  The afternoon plan, now the primary plan was to walk back over to the Buda side of Budapest to find the Tomb of Gül Baba, an Ottoman dervish and Islamic poet who died in 1541. It is said to be the northernmost Muslim holy place and the oldest historic landmark in all of Budapest. Hungary has been overrun many times in its history, and the Turks had their turn under Suleiman I back in the 1500s.
It is marked not by a fading sign in Hungarian but with one of those man-sized bronze statues they have of all the great men of Hungary, all over the city. There he is: Gül Baba standing at the entrance, on a smallish plinth, and there, just around the bend, the backdrop: a closed and padlocked gate, flanked with an old Budweiser sign and a smaller one for the now-closed café. 
I heard the crow before I saw him

This quiet hilltop was guarded by a single crow, solemnly serving in his uniform of a dark gray jacket and black, black wings, and he cawed and bobbed in genuinely surprise at our arrival.

The tomb is an octagonal little stone building with one door and one window and a domed roof. We were alone there, walking slowly over broken pavement and weeds. Two dogs were having at it, loudly, in a hidden yard, below, their barks piercing the quiet sunshine. A car struggling to get up the narrow, rutted street, bottomed out, scraping violently on the cobblestones. Having been alerted to its presence, we took this to be the right way back down the hill.

Budapest #1

We’ve been here in Budapest a couple of days and so far we’ve been delighted by things small and not small. The perfect spring weather helps. 

Today, we started with hotel breakfast, where they did not manage to burn the bacon to my liking but it was still delicious. After that, we went for a walk in search of maybe a hat or sunglasses but found ourselves walking one of those streets that shows up in the guidebook as “where you should go shopping” but we would only describe it as “where you should never go under any circumstances unless maybe you wanted to make video footage of terrible restaurant barkers.” Bleh. Tourist traps! But then, we wandered over to the Central Market Hall where they sell, you know, like, real traditional Hungarian cured meats, and the spices, and wines, and all the fruits and the vegetables, like Budapest’s version of the Pike Place Market. It was gorgeous and full of Hungarians. 

Központi Vásárcsarnok


After that, we crossed one of the many scenic and lovely bridges over the Danube to the Buda side of the city, and on an impulse headed up the hill to the citadel. This park is full of crumbling steps and dilapidated railings and increasingly stunning views and an uneven path up to the fortress at the top and I would recommend the climb to anyone just coming to the city and seeking a way to see it all, because you get to see it from above. After that we walked down the other side to Bartók street and chose a random café for lunch and it was great and then, after admiringly watching those yellow streetcar/tram things going by we took one back over to the Pest side where our hotel was and could not figure out how to actually pay for the trip.

BARTÓK BÉLA ÚT

After that, we needed a rest but then after that we went and had high tea and then we got dressed because we had bought opera tickets.

It was the Janáček opera Jenůfa and if you don’t want spoilers about the plot of this opera skip the next paragraph.
If you don’t mind spoilers, I will start off by telling you that I always Google the plot of operas before I see them so I know what I’m getting myself into. I am a good audience member in that I laugh at the funny parts and cry at the sad parts and mostly I need to know in advance when I need to be prepared to be sad or happy or whatever. So let me just say (here come the spoilers) that this is an opera about a dead baby. And it did make me cry, twice, but briefly. I am also a bad audience member in that I get bored easily at the opera, and I’m not what I would consider an actually educated opera fan but I have gone to a bunch of them over the years and I usually enjoy them if they are not too long. I don’t mind extremely sad operas or even the ones where people take a long time dying on stage and singing their guts out at each other (looking at you Tristan and Isolde). 

Anyway, the old opera house in Budapest is glorious and seems gently well-preserved in a not-kept-wrapped-in-plastic-to-preserve-the-freshness kind of way. It’s extravagantly gorgeous, with painted ceilings and a lot of marble and gold leaf, but not gargantuan like the Met in New York. And our tickets were the nicest seats in the house, in a little box on the dress circle, and were about $50 each, which doesn’t even buy cheap seats in New York.
Most of the guidebooks to Budapest will recommend seeing the opera house, because it is very beautiful and special, and, yes, it is those things, but it is also an opera house and you are supposed to see an opera there.

Operaház

So if you go to Budapest, you should not go to the opera house and take a freaking guided tour. You should put on your dress or a tie or both and go to the freaking opera. The tickets will be much less than New York, the opera will be good, you can read the supertitles in English, the sparking wine at intermission will be more than adequate, and then, at the very end, when you are clapping and watching the many singers and principals and the orchestra and the conductor and all the many members of the audience sharing this experience, you can reflect, as I did, upon the many, many hours of musical education and practice that went into this one night happening. And you, like me, might be really grateful that there were people ready to teach all those musicians to sing and/or play, way back like 30-40 years ago.

Other Vacationers

Some of the other vacationers
We had been here just long enough that we’d grown restless from eating in the hotel for breakfast and dinner, and last night made plans to try the bigger resort next door. Our hotel is a small, quiet, boutique affair on a broad crescent of Caribbean beach, where all the neighboring properties seem larger and louder. Some are teeming with tourists, their stew of folks from all over seasoned with drawling, boisterous, hard-drinking Americans, like that one who tells the waiter, “It don’t matter,” and then makes him explain every item on the menu, because she, “don’t want nothing fishy.”
At the encouragement of several members of hotel staff and cab drivers, we walked down to the community Thursday fish fry, in the park. Nothing is especially cheap on this island, and when we bought two bottles of local beer, it came in big, milky plastic cups and was $10. There were many food vendors, so I guessed the best was the one with the longest line. Even the grilled corn was going to be $3 an ear. We lined up and drank our beer.
“Hey, it’s Missouri!” shouts the big pink fellow ahead of us in line for conch fritters.
He elbows his wife. She’s distractedly humping the air, dancing to the reggaeton blasting from the stage. Her eyes don’t focus on his face, but she peels her lips away from her teeth in a grimace of recognition. Is that a drunken smile? “You know,” she continues, speaking upward into the direction of the other couple in line with them, “Those Canadians are traveling with their kids.”
“Who wants to pay for all that!?” hoots her husband with a vote of support.
She jabs him back with an elbow of agreement, missing his belly and tipping not imperceptibly off balance.
Our hotel is full of people traveling with their kids. There was the tiny gent at dinner the other night in tiny navy topsiders without socks and tiny pressed khakis and a tiny white polo shirt and tiny suspenders. I was really looking forward to seeing him entertain himself with a parent’s pocket full of tiny cars, or a bunch of stickers and a new coloring book, but, no, his mom hauled out an iPad and set him up watching the glowing screen like a zombie, and the parents spoke in hushed tones in Russian without even glancing at him in his stupor. Do they even give out crayons in restaurants anymore?
Then there is what I call the Chas Tenenbaum family: with the nerdy dad in white tube socks and tightly belted, high-waisted khaki pants, the trim looker of a dark blond wife an obvious emblem of his financial success, and his matched set of curly-black-haired boys, the spitting images of dad, never out of arm’s reach, despite being on the verge of properly rambunctious Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sort of ready-for-adventure age.
Contrast these to the French Canadians we hear thundering in circles upstairs whose arrival in the restaurant is announced by their three squealing miniature ruffians. They appear to be five year old brother and sister twins, with a bonus 4 year old brother who can’t quite always keep up but will fling himself forward and over and around and through in every effort to. The father doesn’t stop talking, and the mother doesn’t even glance down to see them kick off and deposit their shoes under her chair at breakfast so they can run tight laps on the patio, tagging each other with wadded napkins clasped in their unsupervised and undisciplined fingers screaming in their own unintelligible blend of French and English. Their breakfast ended in tears as the youngest slipped the room key into a crack in the table and couldn’t get it out.
It’s not just families with small children here. There are a number of older couples, and I am as charmed by the careful escort of the frail wife to the water as I was the young mother with sleeping infant on her chest under a beach umbrella. There is a moment at the water’s edge, where the surf rolls in and out and the footing is rough and loose, where a couple of the unsteadier guests have needed an arm to hold and a word of encouragement.
The day before yesterday, Chas Tenenbaum and the boys took a football to the sand and stood not far enough apart in a triangle tossing it. None of them seemed to have ever tossed a football before, and the younger boy missed every catch. The mother puttered about the loungers and joined them, making a square. The figure formed by the bodies constantly reformed as the ball dropped, the only sound that carried to me was the mother’s apologies.
And then yesterday, at the beach, the Chas Tenenbaums commandeered a stand-up paddleboard as a family and were taking turns balancing on it, mom at the tail and dad at the nose. When the dad took his turn on the thing, the little one pressed on the board near his mother, at the nose, insisting, “I’ll stabilize it.”
“No,” the father shouted. “Get off.”
Soon enough, he lost his balance and fell in again. The parents dragged the board back to its spot on the sand and retreated to their lounge chairs, and the kids swam, bobbing in the swells. In the end, there was just the younger boy left, only his nose and forehead visible, floating purposelessly in the water. Finally, a moment of entertaining himself.

On our way to dinner, we saw the older couple with the fragile wife, trying to take selfies in the pastel light of a beach sunset. She was unhesitant in asking me to take a picture of them, with her iPhone. It’s still one of my favorite things to do: take pictures of strangers for them. We promised her a full report on the restaurant next door.

What Sun-Faded Signs Don’t Say

They stood together, angled to enclose me like a pair of blonde parentheses. “We feel like we know how great you’re doing because we see you on Facebook,” said one.
“I look at all your pictures,” said the other.
I wanted to tell them the verb people use for that is “creeping,” as in, “I creep on all your pictures.” I didn’t. I wanted to tell the other one that what people see on Facebook is only the good stuff. Facebook is for graduations, job promotions, new babies, softball tournaments. Facebook is not for rehab, dropping out of school, cancer scares, incompetent bosses. It’s like a roster of all the delicious desserts you’ve gotten to eat, and none of the disappointing frozen dinners.
By way of being honest with old friends, I said, “My constant presence on social media is a reflection of my loneliness and isolation.”
This elicited light laughter. It wasn’t unsympathetic laughter. It was appreciative, and only a little uncomfortable.

My husband and I had come a long way, back from New York, for the wedding of a mutual friend. Since we moved from Seattle, our friend had bought a farm, moved her business there, and rescued a bunch of animals. Now she was getting married, having planned a big wedding, marrying her best friend of a number of years. It was a circus-themed affair, and because of who it was, we weren’t scared away by a circus-themed wedding. Maybe somewhat hesitant, but we were going anyway.
Getting to Vashon Island had included a ferry ride from West Seattle. Our morning had been gobbled up settling a monetary crisis for another friend, but we had thought we had enough time to park, walk on the ferry and be met by the shuttle bus. The Washington State Ferry system is a glorious relic of the days when government was big and had an important role in getting people and goods from place to place. People voted for that, and paid for it with their taxes. The white and green-trimmed ferries are huge, with several decks for cars and trucks and other decks for passengers. There is never enough parking at the smaller, neighborhood ferry terminals, but we followed the lead of other cars parked on the street. Though the neat, small clapboard houses near Fauntleroy Dock look just like the rest of West Seattle, the streets are painted with special striping, and the street signs erupt with multiple placards of all sizes and colors, facing the street in erratic angles. The signs we could see and read described the many times that parking was not allowed, during the week, overnight, but we felt we’d found legal parking for the day.

After a short wait in the small terminal, we bought two $5.20 tickets and walked on. We climbed the stairs to the front of the ferry to spend our short crossing as we knew we had always loved to: in the wind and sun.  It was so much as it had always been, engines thrumming, waves slapping, gulls circling that we had not so much a sense of nostalgia but one of stasis, that Seattle was unchanged and unchanging.
The gloss on our feeling of expertise dulled when we walked off the ferry and saw no shuttles anywhere. We wandered around for a bit, and the Bacon Provider called for a cab. Vashon Island isn’t really the kind of a place with cabs per se. There was just a guy you could call, his name was on the Internet, and he’d send someone to get you. Our driver refused to charge us the agreed-upon $25 fare, accepting only $15, but taking the $20 offered her anyway.
So we were late to the wedding, though we didn’t feel late, but we missed the ceremony in the mossy, wooded grove of giant Douglas firs where the beloved old dog was buried, and missed the entrance of the bride on horseback. So be it. We were greeted first by one old friend, and then another. People were happy to see us, asked after the kids. It was easy and pleasant.

The farm is wooded and lush, presided over by tall firs and carpeted in moss and ferns. There is a trim house and neat barn and the circus-themed decorations were joyous rather than jarring. There were too many people to catch up with and not enough time. I spoke to the pair of blondes, toured the property with another friend. Someone mentioned a small nugget of real gossip, but then explained to me, in a whisper, “Another time, over a beer.” It was as close as I came to a real conversation, and it ended as soon as it started.

After the trapeze act finished, the dancing began with a samba dancer wearing a tiny costume consisting of three green sequins working the room. Then, the whole barn crowd from our Seattle years reassembled outside for a group photo. After the photo, one of the blondes confronted me again, this time with the question, “So do you miss Seattle?”
Looking away I said, “Almost every day.”
“What do you miss the most?” she pressed.
I did not answer her.
Later, when we got off the ferry, our rental car was still there, but it had a parking ticket on it. Apparently one of the illegible, sun-faded signs said, “No Parking Weekends or Holidays.” The ticket was $47. We saw it and both laughed: cheap parking by New York City standards.

I am packing for a trip


I have a new suitcase, which was just the right size in the store and grew to monstrous dimensions on the way home. I have tried to take only what I will really need; this includes a sun hat and a flashlight, which were recommended, and some books, which were my idea. My suitcase is not full. The dog Captain is worried about what I am doing and gets in the shot.

I am not a runner, so I am leaving my running shoes at home. There are some things I know I will miss, like the New York Times, my own pillows, and the jokes my children tell me. I do not know if I will miss these shoes.