Monday, September 26, 2011

Gay Cincinatti - The Early 1980's

That evening my roommate was determined to show me gay Cincinnati. His mother said several times that she did not want my roommate to drive the car when he had been drinking. I insisted that this would not happen. I lied.

We visited several bars that night. At one point, walking to one bar, it began to snow very lightly. Growing up in California this was new to me. Now living in Chicago, it was a snow not worth mentioning, a late October snow by my present standards, and easily ignored. However, in that time and place it gave a pleasant holiday glaze to the evening.

The bars were average. Particularly when compared to the hedonistic, drug fueled gay bar and club scene ubiquitous in San Francisco in the early 1980's. Accustomed to either new wave kids in bright, inventive fashion or thickly muscled, sweaty, shirtless men in tight levis, a smaller cities bars were given a high bar to jump.

After a couple of hours of flirting and playing the fool, we returned to Ludlow and went to bed after the long day.

A Quick Visit - An Awesome House

Our first order of business is to drop in on one of my roommate's best friends and his partner. I had slept with the partner when he stayed with us on a job related trip to San Francisco. As it was the 1980's, this situation was not as awkward as one might think. Rumor was, that in the past, my roommate had also slept with him, however not with his best friend.

We pulled up to their home, a turn of the century mansion on a corner lot. The large' immaculate green lawn surrounding the house sloped gently to the street. In the side yard a large fountain held court. The elegant and stately appearance of their home was not confined to the exterior. Inside, on either side of the entry, were twin parlors. Each held a massive piano in scale with the generous proportions of the two rooms. The wood floors were layered with oriental rugs. In the rear of the house, adjacent to the kitchen, was a conservatory. Used as a media room, it's ceiling was composed of stained glass panels edging the leaded opaque glass making up it's center.

Upon meeting the friend, he immediately insisted we stand back to back as there had been an ongoing, long distance conversation regarding which if the two of us was, well, shorter. This started because I was able to fit perfectly into a pair of overalls he had forgotten and left behind in our San Francisco flat prior to my residence there. We called it a draw. I did not return the overalls.

We had only a short time to spend with then as they were boarding a flight to Mexico City for their annual holiday visit there in just a couple of hours. In a celebratory mood, they opened a bottle of champagne. It was 10 o'clock in the morning. He and my roommate chatted and giggled together like 15 year old girls. The giggling continued as we drove them to the airport. Dropping them off, after declining the offer of yet more alcohol, we returned to Ludlow and got some much needed rest.

Christmas in Cinncinatti

It is the early 1980's, the holiday season and I am living in San Francisco. At the first of the year I will become a victim of downsizing, although that term was not coined at that time. Due to a merger our department had become "superfluous" and had been "deleted". My roommate at the time, and dear friend to this day, is going to visit his family  in Ludlow, Kentucky. It's a small town just across the river from Cincinnati. Since, depending on the job I may eventually land, it could be some time before I have another opportunity to take a paid vacation, and I would have a free place to stay, I decide to join him for the week leading up to Christmas. I plan to return Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with my family in the sprawling suburbs of the East Bay.

My roommate's sister and brother in law, who will be flying out a couple of days later, drive us to the airport. This Christmas trip is something of a pilgrimage for them. My roommate's father is quite ill and in a steep decline.

We arrive at the airport, check our bags and stop at one of the restaurants there for a celebratory dinner of crab and white wine. We then make our way to the gate and arrive at the plane...three minutes after they have closed the door. After pulling out our diva personas; long before the slang term "diva" was coined; at the desk we are booked on the next flight out. This will have us arriving quite early in the morning. We go to a bar and get drunk waiting for our replacement flight.

Thankfully, between the late hour and the alcohol, I sleep through the majority of the flight and have most of my wits about me as we land. My roommate's mother picks us up and drives us the short distance to her home giving me my first look at the Cincinnati skyline across the river.

Her home is well kept and modest, as is the town of Ludlow. The town's one claim to fame is that Adrian Belew, a somewhat noted new wave musician, lived there and attended the same high school as my roommate and his sister. As soon as we are inside she insists on doing our laundry. Being a very fastidious traveler, my clothes are all fresh washed and pressed. My roommate is somewhat less fussy. He opens his suitcase and hands her everything therein. To pack for this trip he had opened a suitcase on his bed, picked up all the clothes and shoes that were strewn about his room and dumped them in it. This resulted in the tangled mess he presented to his mother that morning. That he did not end up in Ohio with mismatched socks or shoes is still a wonder to me. I point out that the only thing I have with me that is "dirty" are the jeans I wore on the plane, which I still have on. "Give them to her or she will never shut up" advises my roommate. I changed my pants and handed over the jeans. 

A Short Turkish Trot

The most vivid memory I have of crossing the border into Turkey is of a soldier on patrol on a short rampart. He strode back and forth carrying a rifle with bayonet attached, a knife in a sheath on his hip. I had never seen anyone so heavily armed. I found it somewhat unsettling. We went through the border crossing procedures and started up a hill. Upon reaching the crest the silhouette of the low lying city appeared. It was dominated by the great domes of the mosques, their minarets piercing the afternoon sky.

Most of the city seemed no taller than two floors. The ground floor was generally given over to shops, cafes and coffeehouses. The upper floor appeared to be used for residences. Wooden latticework screens shielded the windows of the upper stories from the hot sun. Vendors sold food cooked on low grills along the sidewalks.

The region was experiencing the beginning of one of the most severe heat waves in years. I recall seeing a young Turkish man crossing the street in a skin tight black satin short sleeve shirt, unbuttoned to a point low on his chest, his legs encased in equally tight black pants. I remember thinking, "At least it's short sleeve and unbuttoned." My mother mused "I guess they're used to the heat here."

We made our way to a mosque. Within it's thick walls the air felt comfortable in comparison to the torrid conditions outside. We removed our shoes and entered. Prayer rugs covered much of the floors. On them men knelt and bowed towards the east. The days heat rose from the floor and worshipers to be gathered and trapped in the dome high above our heads.

We returned outside, put our shoes back on, and after refreshing ourselves at a small cafe with cold cokes and pastries, continued to the bazaar. We were not aware, but were soon to find out, that bargaining in the bazaar is not only commonplace but expected. We were schooled in this by a shopkeeper. I had decided to buy some scarfs as gifts for friends at home. The shopkeeper wrote down prices, which seemed reasonable, but as I attempted to pay he crossed out those figures and changed them to slightly higher ones. This clued us in. After a bit of the apparently customary haggling, a price was agreed upon. We paid and left, purchase in hand.

We returned to the van, gratified by our short Turkish adventure and headed for the sand, blue sea, occasionally stunning Greek God men, olive groves and antiquity of Greece. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bulgaria - In the Way to Greece

To get to Greece required that we travel through Bulgaria. To traverse the country would require an overnight stay. A campground was found and we pulled in for the night. There was a small, ancient church within walking distance of the campground. It's venerable walls were decorated with equally venerable, highly stylized murals bearing a distinctly Near Eastern influence. As we surveyed the paintings a group of men beckoned my father over. They attempted to trade U.S. currency for
Bulgarian money at a much higher rate then that offered by banks. My father smelled trouble and declined. Again, the dollar was viewed as "hard" currency. As in Romania and Yugoslavia, Bulgarian money had no value outside the borders of the country.

We returned to the campground for dinner. After dinner, with dishes washed and hand laundry done and hung up to dry, my parents called us together to discuss the next day's travel plans.

A map was laid out in front of us. Showing us the routes my parents informed us that there were two ways to get to Greece, our next destination. We could either cross the border directly from Bulgaria into Greece, or, by taking a very slight detour, we could spend the next afternoon in the Turkish border city of Edirne. A vote was taken and the Turkish detour was approved unanimously. 

Romania, Translvania & All That Jazz

Crossing the border from Yugoslavia to Romania was like, well, leaving one country and entering another. Although all countries bear distinct and unique characteristics, in many border areas these transitions are gradual and subtle. Between Yugoslavia and Romania it was as if someone had painted a line in the middle of the road. The ragged feel of Yugoslavia was immediately replaced by an almost intimidating level of cleanliness and order. Neat, tidy houses lined the roadway. The trees which  also lined the road had been painted white to the exact same height on each trunk and the grass around them trimmed to a evenness whose precision bordered on obsession.

It was a campground night. My sisters and I went off to do hand laundry. Washing machines were rare, dryers even rarer. While my mother began to put dinner together, a tall, muscular, extraordinarily handsome young Romanian boy approached my parents. He was perhaps in his late teens or early twenties. He wore the extremely short basketball style shorts and tank top popular among U.S. youth at the time. Hearing my parents speaking English to one another he asked "Are you American?" When my parents answered yes he looked about and after assuring himself that there was no one around to hear the conversation, began to talk to my parents about life in Romania behind the Iron Curtain. What he stressed most was that the people were not to interact with or speak to foreigners, particularly Americans. He also mentioned how much Romanians desired American and Western European goods.
 We experienced this later in the trip when stepping out of our car in a city. The people were pawing us, offering to buy our clothes off of our backs. As he departed, he said he would stop by the next day with fresh picked berries.

True to his word, he returned the following morning with a country style jar filled with berries. My mother later said that she liked the jar more than the berries. When my parents asked how much he replied "Three American dollars." My father took the bills out of his wallet. The young man lifted up the corner of the napkin lying in the bottom of the basket he was carrying and my father slipped the bills underneath it out of sight.

During this period in Eastern European Iron Curtain countries, their currency was valueless outside of their borders. When traveling you needed to take notice of how much you carried as you were preparing to depart the country since exchanging it for another currency was not possible., Some countries, Poland, Hungary, the former Chekoslovakia, required tourists to exchange a certain amount per person per day as a way to get "hard" currency into their economies. Certain state run tourist shops would give you a discount based on proof of how much you had exchanged while visiting.

Before departing, the young man asked where we planned to go while in Romania. When my mother replied Transylvania, he was insistent that we should go to the Black Sea instead as it was a much more scenic and beautiful region. We were unsuccessful in translating "Gothic Horror" into Romanian

Transylvania appears much as it does in horror films, mountainous and rugged. On the day of our visit to Castle Bran, we were greeted by heavy black clouds, hard rain and nearly constant thunder and lightening. The storms intensified the atmosphere of the already rather macabre proceedings. We all returned to the car dripping wet. My mother, dripping wet and happy at having fulfilled her desire to visit "Dracula's Castle".

We found a meadow to park in that night. We could see a gypsy wagon on a hillside in the distance. The next morning found me and my sisters picking wild berries with local women in their kerchiefs, hand knit cardigans and ankle length skirts.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chakor Pass

Traveling in a camper van we were somewhat self sufficient within our vehicle. Our routine, to this point, had been to pull to the side of the road one night to eat dinner and sleep, not unusual at that time when traveling in Europe. Then, in order to clean up and resupply ourselves, stay in a campground the next night. Sleeping, 2 adults, 1 teenager (me) and 2 tween girls in the van was cramped but doable as our family runs a little on the small side. I top out today at 5 foot 5.

Chakor Pass, we soon discovered, was a 2 lane gravel roadway that twisted and turned through some of the most visually stunning and rugged territory I have ever encountered. The narrow roadway hugged the edges of mountains that on one side rose straight up and on the oppisite side led straight down., Once you commited to the pass you had to follow it thorugh to the end. There were no turnoffs or any way to turn back.

At times the road skirted the border with Albania. Albania, at the time, was the most politically and socially isolated European state. Where the borders met, signs had been erected depicting a camera in a red circle with a slash through it indicating that picture taking was not allowed at these points. I found myself wondering who would stop to take a pictrue of the mountainside or modest farmhouse just across the border. Given the narrowness of the road how would they manage to do that and, with this in mind, who felt these signs were necessary considering the effort that must have been excerted carting them up there and installing them.

Small villages were nestled in the valleys between the mountains. Each so isolated from the next the the architecture and dress varied slightly from one to the other. Electrical power seemed nonexistent. The local people traveled between the villages using goat carts. The area was largely muslim. Women sat along the back edge of the carts, feet dangling as they bounced along. Being in the company of women, their veils were down as they chatted and gossiped with one another. However, when a car approached, they would pull up their veils and avert their faces.

The other mode of travel was by bus. We soon discerned that, if you encountered one, it was your responsiblity, not the buses, to back up to a point where the bus could pass you. This occsiaonlly left you inches away from the precipitous drop at the edge of the roadway.

As late afternnoon approched, it became apparent that this would be a night we would be locking all the doors and sleeping in the car. The challenge became finding a place big enough to pull over. We came upon a meadow alongside the road with enough room to accomadate the van and stopped for the night. The night became inky black. The only illumination was provided by the moon and the multitude of stars visible though the crisp, clean, clear air of these high mountains.

The following morning my mother rose early, as was her custom on this trip, and explored the area where we had stopped. She returned to the car and roused us telling me and my sisters to put on our shoes and follow her. She led us to a small stream and had us wash our hands and faces in it to experience the icy cold snow fed water. We returned to the car, refreshed by the cool water of the stream and resumed our travel through the pass.

Late that afternoon we arrived in Pec. We watched the local people, the men in long colorful tunics and the momen in vibriant traditional harem pants, going about their daily business as we strolled through the city.

Behind the Iron Curtain - 1973 - Yugoslavia

It is the summer of 1973 and I am traveling with my family through Europe. Both my parents being, at that point, teachers, we had all summer to explore. My parents have purchased a VW camper van and we are driving, they, 2 younger sisters and myself, an older brother stayed at home, sans itinerary, for three months.

We had our list of "must sees". Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Venice, Athens. To this list my mother, being a Gothic horror fan, had added the region of Transylvania in Romania. This was to include a visit to Castle Bran, a reputed castle of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula.

Between us and Romania stands Yugoslavia. At this time the countries that have reemerged since, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro were all united as Yugoslavia under the leadership of Marshall Tito. As we neared what was then Titograd, we encountered a series of modular apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city. The hexagon shape of the prefab units made them resemble beehives. My mother was aghast, ourselves living in a suburban ranch style home on a 1/4 acre lot. I, being an ardent socialist even at that age, considered them a remarkably efficient and relatively inexpensive way to house your population. The stacks of units included setbacks giving some of them access to small outdoor spaces.

The city itself seemed dark, even dingy, as many Eastern European cities did at that time. Photos of Tito were prominently displayed in every shop and restaurant. In the country, the roads were littered and fields and yards looked ragged and unkempt. It seemed, at the time, that the whole country suffered from fatigue.

We reached the city of Split, renown for it's well preserved Roman ruins. We visited the flea market there where I purchased a heavy, antique wool and horsehair vest with beautiful, intricate embroidery along it's hem executed in a tiny chainstich. Today, it is displayed on a vintage dressmakers dummy in our living room. It remains, after all these years, one of my favorite possessions. After Split, our next destination was the city of Pec. After consulting a map, we decide to travel there via a route called Chakor Pass. We begin an arduous, sometimes terrifying and incredibly fascinating 2 day adventure.

Montreal - Our Last Night

Our final night we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner in the old town. We dressed in the best we had with us and took the short walk there. After perusing several menus we chose a spot and sat at one of the outdoor tables as the night was warm and comfortable, as sometimes September nights can be.

There was a convention in town so a number of business dinners were taking place in the old town that night. With the advent of casual office attire, many men look uncomfortable when forced into the unfamiliar confines of a suit and tie. This feeling was evident in many of the men in the area that evening. They appeared like young boys tugging at their collars and shifting their shoulders inside jackets that no longer fit well as they were purchased several years, and pounds, ago.

The food was excellent and the waiters charming and efficient. One was telling his table about the lovely old building across the street. He described the wealthy woman who owned it as resembling Cruella De Ville. As we all broke into laughter he tried to explain that he meant the comparison in a good way. I have thought about this several times since then and have never come up with a way to make a comparison to Ms De Ville a compliment.

After dinner we strolled through Old Montreal one final time, discussing the sights that we had seen and also the ones we had not, giving us an incentive to return.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Montreal - Ain't no Mountain High Enough!

Monday morning came on dark and wet. The weather channel radar suggested that the rain would end and so we left our room with the goal of conquering Mt. Royal. The clerk at the desk provided us with a map and info about transportation and the location of the foottrail if we wanted to hike to the summit. He seemed to suggest that the hike would be a walk in the park. We later discovered that the park had a steep vertical grade.

We ate a light breakfast while watching a workman dismantle the coffee shops deck as the seasonal closure of St Catherines Street had come to an end.

After a metro trip and 2 buses we thought we were well on our way. It is an unfortunate oversight on the part of Montreal that there are no signs or indications that the bus has arrived at the summit and you should get off if that is your destination. We figured this out when we found ourselves at the base of Mt Royal on the opposite side from where we had started. We managed to find our way around the mountain's base and located the stairs pictured on our map that would start us up to the summit on foot and began our assent.

The trail, as I mentioned, had a steep grade. The skies had begun to clear and the day began to warm up. However, the Olmsted landscaping, he also designed New York's Central Park, kept us shaded and cool.  We reached a small pond with restrooms, which were welcomed, and picnic tables. We ate the lunch we had brought with us and continued on. We soon came upon a large expanse of lawn peppered with modern sculptures. After exploiting this photo op we found an arrow sign pointing to the summit.

A large plaza with a stone balanstrate along the mountain's edge greeted us. It afforded a panoramic view of the city below. Modern, muscular highrises shared the streets with smaller buildings whose copper clad mansard roofs wore the bluegreen patina of age. My friend remarked "This is more that I thought it would be. I thought we might find a wooden platform reached by stairs."

After we departed, a short walk found us at one of the bus stops we had rode past earlier in the day. As we waited for the bus that would return us to the metro station and more familiar environs my friend noted "There appear to be two ways to get to the summit. We took both."


Montreal - On Sunday We Went to Church

Sunday we decided we would investigate the historic architecture of the financial district and visit the cathredral,which we were informed was a "must see" destination.

As we left the hotel that morning, we asked the desk staff for recomendations for breakfast. As it was prime Sunday breakfast hour, the resturant that they suggested was running at capacity but we were seated quickly and placed our orders. When our meals arrived they were accompanied by mounds of fresh fruit. There were fruit slices over the straws in our drinks. Strawberries, slices of melon and pineapple and apples cut to resemble curling ribbon almost buried the traditional eggs, toast and potatoes. Waddling out of the resturant and full of vitamin C we boarded the metro to head to the business district.

During the ride we noticed a very handsome and well built Canadian lad texting. My friend murmered "Oh baby, text me in French." I suggested that his text probably read "There are 2 stupid Americans on the train" in French of course.

The older buildings of the financial district were beautifully ornamented and also showed the French influence evident in many of the older portions of the city. As it was Sunday, the streets were quiet and almost deserted. Our footsteps echoed in the urban canyons as we wandered admiring the architecture of the area.

The cathedral is a jewel box of stained glass, carved wood and soaring organ pipes. The windows, depicting scenes from Canadian history in rich lush colors, look medeival in their design and inspiration. There is also a smaller chapel with a ultra modern motif, but it pales in comparison to it's larger cousin.

After lunch on the outdoor deck of one of the resturants on the main square in the old town, we visited a 19th century shopping arcade. One of the vendors suggested that since the following day was Monday and most museums and state run historical sites would be closed, that we should take in the view from Mt Royal, the highest point in the city.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Monteral - An Aside

No trip to Montreal should be considered complete without ogling the handsome and virile looking members of the local Police force. As we admired them, in their uniforms which seemed a trifle more snug than absolutely necessary, we constantly wanted to ask "Exactly what crime would I have to commit that would compel you to pat me down?"

Montreal - The Olympic Stadium and Botanical Gardens

Saturday dawned bright, warm and with a clear blue sky. Now, least you think all we did was drink alchohol and watch naked men dance, after breakfast we headed off to the Olympic Stadium and Botanical Gardens.

The Stadium, with it's soaring observation tower, is monumental enough that it can be seen from many, if not most, parts of the city. A short distance up a hill are the Botanical Gardens.

They are divided into themed areas. Traditional English and Asian gardens. Another area exhibiting plants native to harsh, cold, rocky terrain. Looking for the restrooms I came upon a hidden courtyard filled with a large variety of Bonsai trees. A tram runs along the road connecting the various displays to carry visitors from one area to another.

We had lunch in another courtyard area, this one with a fountain in it's center, across from the greenhouses. After lunch, upon entering the greenhouses, we found ourselves in a world of foliage so lush it seemed to have the ability to absorb the sounds and voices of the people around us.

After our visit to the gardens, we headed back to St Catherine Street to check out some of the shops we had seen on our earlier visits. We ended the afternoon, shopping bags in hand, at the rooftop deck of one of the bars on the street. As it was Saturday afternoon with pleasant temperatures and a sunny,  clear blue sky the deck was busy and crowded. We found a table, ordered drinks and relaxed as the beautiful afternoon waned.

Montreal - Old Town and Beyond

Our first stop was a church. The oldest in  Montreal. It had been built, burned, rebuilt and modified a number of times over the centuries. A wall in a side hallway told in detail the history of it's various incarnations. After our visit to the church, we wandered though the old city. It's narrow streets and broad plaza all showed the influence of it's French origins. Perhaps inspired by this we stopped at a creperie for lunch and then headed back to the hotel.

Our room was spare but spacious, comfortable and we were to discover, ideally located for our activities over the next few days. A metro hub station was 2 blocks away and there was a wide choice of restaurants, not to mention gay bars, in the area.

We soon discovered St Catherine Street strung with banners depicting red roses and closed to car traffic with it's, as I mentioned earlier, restaurants, shops, clubs and bars, their decks extending across the sidewalks into the street. We were to do much of our eating, and most of our drinking, there during our stay.

Friday night after dinner, we decided to explore some of the gay establishments in the neighborhood. After brief stays at a couple of places we wandered into one of the areas stripper bars.

We found ourselves in a nicely appointed room with tables, chairs and a stage with a pole. Pretty much what one would expect. A rather young, barechested man was cavorting onstage. He left and another man came onstage, tattooed and thickly muscled. After a few moments of suggestive movements, he did a back flip much to the delight of the crowd. He also left the stage with his pants zipped up and intact. We were soon to discover that each entertainers first dance was an appetiser - we were about to experience the main course. Apparently, there are no laws prohibiting completely nude male dancing in Montreal. As some dancers, all appeared to be well under thirty and with better than average physiques, took their turns on the stage, others worked the room, while two, inexplicably, played a game of barechested pool. A tall blond came to our table to suggest a "private dance". We politely declined. It was then I noticed that even when completely naked, the dancers still wore their watches. We decided it was probably to ensure the "private dances" did not exceed their allotted time limit.

As we strode down the street towards our hotel, my friend noticed a sign reading "Campus" spelled out in rainbow letters over a door that led to a steep flight of stairs.; He suggested that we add it to our agenda for the next evening. The next night we found, up the flight of stairs, another stripper bar. It was somewhat seedier than the first but some of the same dancers seemed to work at both places. At this venue, however, they did not wear their watches.