Monthly Archives: August 2010

Saying goodbye to the Blue Man Group.

Free breakfast and lunch, unbelievable discounts on hotel reservations across the country, and a seven-minute commute (did I mention that’s walking?) could all easily vie for the top thing I loved about working as a breakfast server for an international hotel chain this summer. But despite the daily wonder of eggs made to order and $29 stays, what I found myself loving most were the people.

Unlike in a more traditional restaurant setting where you have only a few returning customers to establish a relationship with, my hotel this summer catered to a more corporate crowd – the sort of business travelers who are here to stay for weeks at a time. Thus, three breakfasts into the first week and you already know who eats the Denver omelet, who opts for the cold breakfast option, and who’s most likely to crack a corny joke (“Good morning, Miss America!” etc). Whether it was the group of forty military men from Florida I got to know my first two weeks on the job or the individual travelers who returned throughout the summer, I loved feeling my familiarity with the hotel’s key client base grow.

What also grew steadily throughout the summer was my collection of business cards I’ve held onto since the Italian restaurant in Wellington, little squares of paper that represent a larger web of connection. It’s the funniest thing when one minute, you’re both laughing about the spot of bolognese on their suit jacket and the next minute they’re handing you a card that reads CEO or president or director – certainly a humbling moment. Cards from this summer were again diverse – from the president of a technology company from Kentucky (“Land Between the Lakes, KY Lake and Lake Barkley – Please write about us!” reads a note on the back of the card), a PhD-holding research member from a Pentagon-based institute in northern Virginia, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force nicknamed “Sparky” who did his very best to recruit me, and – my favorite – a French Canadian couple who owns a McDonald’s in Montreal. And yes, the business card is an enticing picture of a BigMac that just so happens to entitle me to savourez gratuitement (“enjoy free”).

But none can compare to the group of about ten or twelve men who arrived at the end of July on behalf of a large government contracting company. With a five-week stay ahead of them, I got to know them better than any other – if not their names, at least their personalities and breakfast preferences. The second week in, they all came down for breakfast early Monday morning wearing the same royal blue shirt, the logo of the company they represent embroidered over the front pocket. They’d be heading over to JFCOM that day – the US military’s Joint Forces Command Center – and apparently, they needed to look the part. We had a good laugh about their new resemblance to the Blue Man Group, although I thought they seemed more like a flock of school children on a field trip, sitting there eating their yogurts and bacon in matching blue. “How’d I miss the memo?” I lamented laughably, “I feel so left out in my black.” They assured me there were extras in the car.

I got used to seeing their contingent of blue in the dining room every morning, but soon enough five weeks had come and gone and it was time to wish them farewell. At the end of the fifth week, I was to have the weekend off so I made a point of thanking several of them for a great few weeks, making a fuss over their looming departure. A few minutes later, two of my favorites walked back into the hotel, carrying a plastic-wrapped folded blue shirt, no less.

“For me?” I asked.

“You are now an honorary member of our company,” a man named Rick said, handing me the shirt. “You have to wear this with pride, you know. It’s not the kind of thing you do the laundry in.”

“Take it to London with you,” the other man instructed.

Of course, I assured them. Part of me was exaggerating, but part of me was incredibly touched. I’ll never see them again, that much is for sure, but I was struck again by the power of connection, no matter how temporary.

I walked home that day – all seven minutes of it – feeling like all is right in the world, like every stage of my life matters, whether I’m roadtripping around New Zealand or staying put in my own backyard for the summer. That afternoon I started to pack for London, dragging out my old duffel bag and oversized backpack, laying out twice the amount of clothes I actually have room for. Space is limited and there’s much that won’t make the cut, but I’m tempted to tuck that bright blue shirt in there somewhere as a reminder of all those wishing me well.

After all, you never know when you’ll need an oversized button-down the color of a blueberry.

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the magic of multimedia.

A couple of months ago, I posted a blog titled “Sunset in the Suburbs.” It told the story of a particularly striking sunset here in the suburbs of Suffolk, Virginia – a sunset that got me thinking about how I view the world around me. I began to recall the sunsets I’d seen throughout my travels thus far and, moreover, the stories behind them. I was drawn to the way the sun seems to have no prejudice towards what exactly it’s illuminating. You can see a great sunset anywhere.

So when I got the idea for a new media project, I turned to the subject of suburban sunsets for my first theme. When my mom hosted an event last Saturday, the videographer took one of the songs I’d performed there live and used it for the opening of the event’s DVD. Seeing the artistic shots he’d taken before the event started set to my music was a bit of an epiphany.

Any fledgling travel writer is constantly looking for their niche, their unique angle and story to tell, and for me, I’ve been searching for a way to incorporate my other loves into my writing – namely, music and photography. Seeing the DVD with a song I’d written playing over the film, I got the idea to do the same with places I’ve travelled to – with the mind of a travel writer, to tell a story with original photographs and music I’ve written. Videos like this one by World Hum’s Eva Holland have inspired me – even if I don’t plan on winning an Oscar for Best Documentary anytime soon, one perk of owning a Mac is at least being able to take advantage of the relative ease of programs like iMovie and GarageBand.

But without further ado, the video:

“Sunset in the Suburbs”

Home’s not known for catching me off-guard

It’s those far-off places that move my heart

It took a sunset in the suburbs

To open up my eyes to the idea

That there is beauty in between the lines

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when life hands you lemons…don’t forget your license.

My humble entrepreneurial beginnings...

Last week, 7-year old Julie Murphy made national headlines when Multnomah County, Oregon health inspectors arrived at a local arts fair, asking to see a temporary restaurant license for the lemonade stand Julie and her mother had set up. The cost of a license? $120.

With each cup going for fifty cents, it doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out how much Julie would need to sell to break even, let alone make a profit in her humble venture. It’s math I know well, from my own years as an experienced purveyor of such refreshments.

Hopes were high for my first lemonade stand. I was around nine or ten and Fourth of July was just around the corner. Sketches I drew up showed a highly advanced design, a four-sided affair with a lifting counter in the back for an exit and shelves underneath for storage. A banner would hang from two posts on the front like a medieval market stall, painted in vibrant shades of yellow and red to catch the attention of passersby.

But my first life lesson in disappointment and the (dis)illusions of grandeur came when my dad arrived home from work a few days later with my stand in the back of his truck. Gone were the side counters. Gone were the banners and bunting. What was there instead was a simple wooden construction, a desk really, that he had built from unpainted sheets of plywood. Nursing my bruised imagination, I carried on.

Independence Day arrived and so did my cousins. We loaded up the golfcart with Mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies and a cooler filled with Country Time lemonade – don’t let our claim of “freshly squeezed” on the posters fool you – and headed to the street corner. With a well-trafficked highway bordering our backyard and a national holiday on our hands, success wasn’t hard to come by. After all, what kind of person could drive past four adorable girls, waving excitedly and smiling like the business owners we all thought we were? On those hot summer days, nothing rivalled the sweet sound of quarters being dropped into the coin trays of my little beige cash box.

So you can imagine my heartbreak at reading the story of the bust on Julie Murphy’s lemonade stand. Photos online show her basic arrangement of a hand-written poster taped to a card table, large red and white water cooler dispensing a Kool-Aid lemonade mix, and a fold-out soccer chair so like the plastic lawn chair we also used. Could you picture anything more harmless, anything more innocent? The health inspectors couldn’t, apparently. “We still need to put the public’s health first,” said Jon Kawaguchi, the county’s environmental health supervisor.

And while TV hosts and anchors on every program from morning talk shows to the nightly news lamented this case of bureaucracy at its worst – and Portland residents begin planning a “Lemonade Revolt” for late August to protest the situation –  I find myself thinking mostly of the loss of this childhood tradition so dear to my own heart. Although the chairman of Multnomah County later apologized to Julie and asked the inspectors to stand down, you can’t help but wonder what this will do (or won’t do) to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in children, when the threat of health inspector crack-downs and clipboard-waving officials looms just around the cul-de-sac?

Perhaps the lesson we can all draw from this is that when life hands you lemons…don’t forget your license.

Join the Lemonade Revolt!

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at the heart of the country: day five on the north island.

Welcome to Paeroa.

Day five was winding down. I was back on the road after Rotorua and all that stood between me and the Coromandel Peninsula was a little town with a big name – Paeroa, New Zealand.

Anyone who’s spent any time in New Zealand has probably had the chance to taste the country’s national soft drink, L&P – short for Lemon and Paeroa. As I wondered the aisles of a Pak’n’Save supermarket with my friend Ryan and his girlfriend on my first night in New Zealand, we loaded the cart (or trolley) with all sorts of traditional Kiwiana food items – Tip Top Hokey Pokey ice cream, a jar of Marmite and a two-litre of L&P, no less. I drank it at dinner – spaghetti that Ryan had made the grave mistake of making with Wattie’s ketchup – and found it a cross between Sprite and ginger ale. Partially because of a “When-in-Rome” mentality and partially because of a genuine liking, I was hooked.

Now, almost a year later, it was time to pay a trip to Mecca.

This visit to Paeroa brought with it certain expectations. It was the very moment I learned of a retro seven-meter L&P bottle in Paeroa that the decision to drive around the North Island – rather than bus or fly or hitch it – was made. This was something that couldn’t be missed. As sad as it sounds, an oversized soda bottle did indeed wield that much weight in my mind.

Hence you can imagine my disappointment arriving in town a few minutes past 4 o’clock and realizing the iSite – and more importantly, the town’s gift shop – had just closed. I stared through the darkened windows with that first thought of, “Where do I go from here?” but soon I turned away and left the cheesy souvenirs to collect dust without any help of mine.

New...

...and old.

Hence you can imagine my disappointment arriving in town a few minutes past 4 o’clock and realizing the iSite – and more importantly, the town’s gift shop – had just closed. I stared through the darkened windows with that first thought of, “Where do I go from here?” but soon I turned away and left the cheesy souvenirs to collect dust without any help of mine.

I turned to the streets of this modest town of 4,000 and to the cafes and restaurants that each bore the L&P logo like a badge of honor: Tui Coffee Lounge, Coachman’s Cafe, Cosy Kitchen, and the Big Cafe & Bakery. At Criterion Dairy I bought a can of L&P and drank it down Main Street, passing places like Midway Takeaways Burger Bar, where a group of high-schoolers gathered and I wondered if kids here grow up drinking L&P like water.

In Ohinemure Park trash cans are shaped like lemons and tile mosaics in the concrete sidewalk form fizzy bubbles. Storefront signs read the beverage’s motto “World Famous in New Zealand” like an unofficial regional anthem. And although the soft drink is no longer manufactured in Paeroa and has been moved – like so much else – to Auckland, it’s clear that just as one sign proclaims, L&P truly is the Pride of Paeroa.

At the time I was reading Duncan Fallowell’s Going as Far as I Can: The Ultimate Travel Book, in which he relates driving towards the electric blue waters of Lake Tekapo on the South Island:

“Firstly, ahead of you on the road, above the car bonnet, a sliver of electric blue appears. As you advance the sliver expands, and you realise it’s water. Slowly a blue lake is rising in front of you, rising up as it were out of the floor of a stage, and even on an overcast day like today, the blues of its waters are radiant, seemingly lit from beneath, the blue light pouring upwards out of the lake, as though you have come upon the mythic source of blueness itself. By chance I’ve driven into the throbbing, absolute heart of the nation. That’s what it feels like, this huge lake of living light which has risen up before me. And the heart of the nation is blue” (156).

These lines stuck with me, the idea that a country could appeal to our senses in such a way. The thought came to me that late afternoon in Paeroa that maybe more than minerals and water spring forth from the hills that surround the town – here, perhaps, is another clue to understanding the heart of New Zealand.

And the heart of the country tastes like Lemon and Paeroa.

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