Travelin’ Playlist Essentials – Carefree Highway

????????If there were a Travel Disaster Songs playlist, no doubt Gordon Lightfoot’s most famous tune, “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” would be a first-ballot no-brainer. That list will have to wait for another time. Fortunately, in addition to singing about shipwrecks, Lightfoot has also penned a song or two about the joys (or perhaps melancholy) of travel.

“Carefree Highway” was one of the Canadian songsmith’s biggest hits, and it helped fill out his solid 1974 LP Sundown. That album opens with another vagabond song, “Somewhere U.S.A.,” but that number falls a little short both in comparison to “Carefree Highway” and as an album opener in general. It’s a mellow, bittersweet song with a pleasant melody, but its lyrics have not aged well, especially when Lightfoot croons “I would gladly offer you my love / In this hotel in Somewhere, U.S.A.” That’s not as ’70s-cheesy as “We made love in my Chevy van,” but it’s in the ballpark, at least in this writer’s opinion.

“Carefree Highway,” on the other hand, brims with the kind of satisfaction that comes with driving for driving’s sake, getting the heck out of Dodge, flying down the road unabated by stoplights. Often misheard as “every highway,” its lyrics wistfully pine for this “old flame,” which in fact is a stretch of Arizona State Highway 74, whose fanciful name Lightfoot noted and filed away for future reference. This song also has him singing about a woman – her name is Ann – but now he’s trying to forget her, or at the very least clear his mind. According to Lightfoot’s own liner notes from one of his collections,

There was a real Ann…It’s one of those situations where you meet that one woman who knocks you out and then leaves you standing there and says she’s on her way. I heard from her after a Massey Hall concert many years later; she stopped by to say hello. I don’t think she knew that she is the one the song was about, and I wasn’t about to tell her.

As for Lightfoot’s discovery of the curiously-named stretch of road, blogger John Woestendiek at Ohmidog.com did a little research on that for a 2010 post. He unearthed an item from the Carefree Times blog written by Nancy Westmoreland, who had personally quizzed Lightfoot about it. Per Westmoreland,

The story goes that he was on the band’s bus, traveling for an engagement at the Gammage Auditorium, when he saw the large marquee freeway sign along Interstate 17. He actually had the bus driver pull over so he could get out and snap a close-up photo of the huge off-ramp sign. When he arrived home, he had the picture blown up and placed on his living room wall. He wrote the song while on the bus, and it became one of his biggest hits, exposing millions around the world to the Carefree Highway.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Town of Carefree, Arizona. It’s 3,363 residents get to brag not only about its pleasant-sounding name, but for having the highest number of restaurants per capita in the state, the Western Hemisphere’s third-largest sundial, and being home to a defunct movie studio in which parts of films such as Zabriskie Point and Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure were shot. Visit and you might take a stroll down Ho Hum Drive, Nonchalant Avenue, Rocking Chair Road, Never Mind Trail, Lazy Burro Road, and even Easy Street.

Just let Mr. Lightfoot tell you how to get there.

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Super Bowl Geography

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Which places have hosted the most Super Bowls? The fewest? Which teams have traveled the farthest to play in it? It’s time to take a look at the numbers behind the biggest traveling roadshow of them all.

This Sunday, Super Bowl XLIX will be the, yes, 49th such game played. Commencing following the 1966 season as the AFL-NFL Championship Game, it has always been played on “neutral” sites and generally in warm-weather cities in the U.S., or in domed stadiums in cold weather cities. Last year’s Super Bowl, between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos in the New York area, is considered the first played outdoors in a cold weather city.

How does the Super Bowl travel? Let’s break it down.

  • The Miami area and New Orleans are tied for hosting the most Super Bowls, ten of them each.
  • In Miami, five were in the old Orange Bowl, and five more in Sun Life (nee Joe Robbie) Stadium.
  • In New Orleans, seven games were held in the Superdome. Before that was built, three Super Bowls were played in Tulane Stadium.
  • Second on that list is the greater Los Angeles area, now without an NFL team for 20 years. Five championship games have been held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and two more (including Super Bowl I) at the Memorial Coliseum. The Raiders played in the Coliseum for 11 seasons.
  • The “San Francisco Bay Area” will hold its second Super Bowl in 2016, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Its previous was in 1985 in Stanford. Levi’s is the new home for the 49ers, though it’s farther (45 miles) from the city of San Francisco than is Oakland (12 miles).
  • The first Super Bowl in a cold weather city was in 1982, at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. The game wouldn’t go north again for another decade, when it was held at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis. In the last decade, three Super Bowls have been in cold weather towns: Detroit (2006), Indianapolis (2012), and East Rutherford, NJ (2014). It will return to Minneapolis in 2018 at the Vikings’ new indoor stadium.
  • Jacksonville, Florida is the smallest metropolitan area to host the big game. Although it is the largest city proper in Florida with about 850,000 residents, its metro area is 1.5 million (Tampa’s is 2.8 million, Miami 6.4 million). Yes, Virginia, if Green Bay ever hosted the Super Bowl it would be the smallest metro area by a large margin as only 350,000 people live in the area. (Its stadium seats more than 81,000, third most in the NFL.)
  • Houston has hosted two Super Bowls. The first, in 1974, was at Rice Stadium, the first ballpark with no AFL or NFL tenant to host the game. The Oilers played at Rice in the mid-60s before moving to the Astrodome.
  • Florida dominates all states with fifteen total Super Bowls. That’s ten in the Miami area, four in Tampa, and one in Jacksonville.
  • Reflecting our country’s population migration to the South and West, California is second overall with eleven. Los Angeles has seven, San Diego three, and the Bay Area one.
  • Louisiana is third with ten, all in the Big Easy. After that it’s Arizona with three (all in the Phoenix area, including Sunday’s game) and Texas with three (Houston two, Dallas area with one).
  • The other states that make up the remaining seven: Michigan (2), Georgia (2), Minnesota (1), Indiana (1), and New Jersey (1).
  • Top-twenty metro areas that are home to NFL teams that have NOT hosted a Super Bowl are Chicago (#3 ranked by population / Bears), Washington-Baltimore (#4 / Redskins and Ravens), Boston (#6 / Patriots), Philadelphia (#7 / Eagles), Seattle (#13 / Seahawks), Cleveland (#16 / Browns), Denver (#17 / Broncos).
  • St. Louis is the 21st-largest metro area and home of the Rams. The city lured the Rams from Los Angeles in 1995 with a new, domed stadium. I just find it interesting it never finagled one Super Bowl out of the deal.
  • The New England Patriots travel 2,336 nautical miles this week from their home in Foxboro, Mass. to Glendale, Arizona for Super Bowl 49. That’s pretty far, but the farthest one team has had to travel was in Super Bowls XXIII and XXIX. San Francisco traveled 2,580 miles each time to play the game in Miami Gardens, Florida.
  • The Los Angeles Rams, meanwhile, had to hit the road for a mere 12.3 miles to play Super Bowl XIV in Pasadena. That’s the shortest distance traveled by one team. They still lost to Pittsburgh, which traveled 2,124 miles. The Steelers must have slept well on the plane.

Bonus Trivia – The most travel-y named teams (and an explanation).

8. (Three-way tie.) Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers. Before cars and planes, this was the way to cross the continent.

7. (Five-way tie.) Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks. All flying the friendly skies.

6. Green Bay Packers. Sounds like they’re headed somewhere.

5. (Three-way tie.) Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins. No love lost between white and red men, but probably plenty of miles gained chasing each other around.

4. San Francisco 49ers. Named for the people who flocked there looking for gold; in other words, the original Bay Area gentrifiers.

3. (Tie.) Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Because y’arrrrrrr, ’tis pirate’s life to sail the seas!

2. Minnesota Vikings. They came from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.

1. New York Jets. The team named for the most comfortable and efficient way to get around is one of the NFL’s most turbulent and rudderless. So it’s nice to see the Jets finish first at something.

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You Look Like You Could Use A Brief Post About Budapest

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The flooded Danube, Budapest, June 2013.

As you may have heard, Budapest was once two cities cut by the Danube River. Buda lies in the hillside and is a bit more “suburban.” Pest is the commercial center, flatter but with more activity, home of that big Parliament dome you see in pictures. In 1873 the two towns said “well, why don’t we join up?” and merged to become Budapest. I suppose an American analog would be if Minneapolis and St. Paul became Minnepaul, though there is far more distance between those two cities. Buda is a five-to-ten minute walk over the Margaret Bridge from Pest, and a tram also zips across the bridge.

I stayed on the Buda side two June nights in 2013, at a time when the city was flooded with tourists. It was also flooded, period – the Danube had broached embankments and seeped onto sidewalks and roadways. On the train I took to Bratislava, things got worse as I saw ravaged farmland and soaked countryside; reports I’d heard said Prague was worse. By comparison the flooding in Budapest, while serious, wasn’t critical. Some businesses were closed, including a couple of well-known baths in Buda I’d wanted to visit. I instead went to the more tourist-thronged Széchenyi Baths in Pest. They’re gorgeous and live up to their hype, but I quickly realized something: I find it silly to pay money to sit in a series of baths with hundreds of strangers. I mean, I love aquatics, but I need to move. Just as I can’t lie around on a beach for longer than five minutes without needing to swim, I find the practice of sitting in a small pool and, well, bathing to be a colossal bore. It dawned on me that baths like Széchenyi were likely built in days when not everyone had a bathtub in their home. Today, I can take a ten minute shower and feel about as relaxed, and without some random couple chilling out next to me, or their kids splashing around. But anyway, that’s my opinion, you might enjoy the baths, and their architecture is something to admire.

The hotel I stayed in was a grand Budapest hotel, indeed. (Hey, I like clicks as much as the next blogger.) Okay, so it wasn’t four-star, but it did have an Olympic-sized outdoor pool. And free breakfast. The pool wasn’t always available as local youth swim teams had dibs on it, but I got some good swimming in, more than at the baths, anyway. I paid around $50 per night for a double at the Budapest Csaszar Hotel, which is roughly the same price I found for the first week in June 2015 on Booking.com, in case you’re interested.

As for the rest of the city, although it was smothered with tourists, Budapest had a calm and friendly vibe about it. It’s a very walkable city, and the trams and subway are efficient for longer journeys. I only stayed two nights and didn’t mingle much, but the people I spoke to were friendly and helpful. The sheer volume of people out and about was definitely a shock after my two placid nights in Szeged, my lone night in cobblestoned Timișoara, and my distinctly Serbian experience at a kafana in Belgrade. Fair or not, Budapest felt like Disney World by comparison. But that would soon change, as my next stop would be the smaller Slovakian capital of Bratislava, where things would be so quiet I’d start pulling my hair out.

 

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The Negro Motorist Green Book Helped Black Travelers Navigate Jim Crow

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For most travelers…there are hotels of all sizes and classes, waiting and competing for their patronage…

For some travelers, however, the facilities of many of these places are not available, even though they may have the price, and any traveler to whom they are not available, is thereby faced with many and sometimes difficult problems.

The Green Book helps solve your travel problems.

So wrote Wendell Alston of Esso Standard Oil in his foreward to the 1949 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book. Published from the 1930s through the 1960s by Victor H. Green of New York, the Negro Motorist Green Book (also distinctly colored green) was a travel guide for the American black during the final stages of the perilous Jim Crow era, which happened to coincide with increased mobility among African-Americans. The guidebook was sponsored by Esso and the Ford Motor Company and sold at Esso stations, and it offered a road map through the mine field of segregated America, especially – but not exclusively – the American South.

The Green Book (sometimes called Negro Traveler’s Green Book) provided information on businesses that would cater to blacks – hotels, camp sites, restaurants, night clubs, drug stores, beauty salons and barber shops, gas and service stations. By extension, it served to steer blacks away from the kinds of businesses and people that might cause them what it referred to as “difficulties” and “embarrassments,” but what its readers surely knew could quickly snowball into humiliation, violence, imprisonment, even death.

Businesses weren’t the only entities practicing discrimination; scattered across the U.S. were thousands of “sundown towns,” cities which barred the presence of blacks (and sometimes other minorities) after sundown. Again, this bold means of segregation was not limited to the South. Sundown towns flourished from sea to shining sea, in places like California, Illinois, New York, and New Hampshire. Naturally a town that would expel blacks after sunset is a town most blacks wouldn’t have wanted to enter at high noon, either.

In its time the Green Book was one of those items about which those “in the know” (read: blacks) knew about and bought, but which was invisible to anyone else. Today it is a forgotten artifact from an otherwise well-documented era of struggle and hostility. Road trips have long been romanticized as part of the American experience, but as with most things during the Jim Crow era, the experience was nowhere near as liberating for blacks.

The Green Book’s usefulness was reflected in its growth. Originally covering only greater New York City, the guide expanded over the years, eventually covering most of North America and parts of the Caribbean. At its peak it sold 15,000 copies a year, no small feat for a travel guide with such restricted retail opportunities. (Esso, its main distributor, was unique in its time for hiring black marketing representatives, and even franchising stations to blacks.)

The Negro Motorist Green Book held an odd distinction, a guide book whose publishers hoped for its eventual obsolescence. As Green wrote,

there will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go as we please, and without embarrassment.

That happened in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act.

1940 Negro Motorist Green Book (.pdf)

1956 Negro Motorist Green Book

 

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The Joys And Quirks Of Dane County Regional Airport

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If you travel enough you’ve probably seen all manner of airports. There are the behemoths, like New York’s Kennedy, London’s Heathrow, or Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson that function as cities unto themselves and take up God knows how many acres of real estate. On the other end of the spectrum are the tiny ones, sometimes with one gate, that seem like glorified Greyhound stations. The day I flew out of Santorini, the tiny Greek island, I was reminded of the final scene of Casablanca. Not because Nazis were chasing me, but because the airport seemed not to have changed since the dawn of commercial aviation. In between there are the cookie-cutter international airports, serving big cities like Minneapolis, Cleveland, or Dallas. They’re spiffed up with J. Crews and Chipotles, have moving walkways and flat panel TVs featuring blow-dried CNN anchors casually mentioning some plane crash or terrorism event to their co-hosts. These often are the airports you connect through on your way to somewhere, where everything looks the same except the souvenir magnets, newspapers, and sports jerseys for sale.

But there does exist another type of airport: I don’t have a name for it. We could give it a name, like Pemberton. It’s the airport that serves a smallish city, big enough to be served by multiple airlines, but small enough not to have, or need, airline clubs or moving walkways or a monorail. Yet the airport stays competitively modern, clean, and efficient. I have vague memories of the airports in McAllen, Texas, and Orange County, California being like that. But the one I’m most familiar with is Dane County Regional Airport, the airport in Madison, Wisconsin – the town where I grew up.

Dane County Regional started as an army airfield in World War II, and even as recently as the 80s would more likely fall under the “glorified Greyhound station” category. Madisonians old enough to remember could probably tell you about its once-tiny, dark terminal building featuring chairs that had coin operated TVs affixed to them. In 1986, and again in 2006, the airport was modernized to approximate what might be just one terminal in an airport like Cleveland’s – if that. Today it stands as one long terminal with 13 gates, served by six (mostly regional) airlines.

And it’s an absolute pleasure. Being dropped off or picked up is a cinch. Before dropping me off, my dad always asks “which airline are you?” as if I can’t walk the 40 or so feet separating Delta from United. If you need to park, it’s dirt cheap, with a daily rate of $8 out in the elements or $10 in what we call a “ramp” (that’s a parking garage if you don’t speak Wisconsin). Checking in can be a little slow, only because there’s no need to rush. I generally breeze through security in about five minutes.

As I said, the terminal lacks a posh airline club because, well, the terminal is a posh airline club. There are comfy, soft chairs with ottomans, coin-operated massage chairs (I never see these in use), and if that’s not enough for you, a live masseuse. Some cell phone charging stations have chargers for four different inputs – I repeat, they have their own cords. Relaxing music that’s not quite muzak – bossa nova, soft jazz – plays on the PA system. There are a couple of small business centers if you want to get some quiet work done. The restrooms are almost always clean and only heavily trafficked after a plane empties. The gates have simple, art deco desks that look like they were built for a Saturday Night Live sketch. Often the planes board 10 minutes before takeoff, because they’re tiny Embraers and there’s no queue on the runway. Yet still the agents bother with the whole Group 1, Group 2 protocol. It’s funny.

There is more to do than put your feet up, however. Dane County Regional features a few food options, including a Quizno’s, a fresh market selling sandwiches, veggies, yogurt, and the like, a cafe, and a branch of Madison’s favorite brew pub, the Great Dane. Down the hall a ways is “The Wurst German Bar,” selling Usinger’s (of Milwaukee) bratwursts, among other fare. And you won’t get gouged like at other airports; for a brat and a bag of potato chips I paid around $8 or $9.

There is also the requisite souvenir shop/newsstand selling comical trinkets. This, I noticed, is where Madison’s cognitive dissonance over its relationship with alcohol is glaring. If taverns were stars, and beer were the caustic flaming gases at their centers, then Madison would be a galaxy in its own right. That’s an elaborate way of saying people drink a lot there, and have a lot of options and opportunities to do so. I’m not judging – I love alcohol. If I’m cremated, I’ll burn for days. But whenever I’m in Madison, and someone flips on the local news, I see the usual somber-faced accounts of drunk driving arrests and campus parties gone haywire and how 90% of the state is obese with failing livers. Then they tease the prep basketball results and cut to a commercial (usually for a local tavern) and the whole thing repeats itself in the next newscast. Yet at the airport souvenir shop, I saw t-shirts that joked “Drink Wisconsinbly” and battered-looking shot glasses that boasted “I got a little smashed in Madison.” Of course I got a chuckle out of them, not so much for the copy writing that went into them, but the fact that airport souvenir shops are like little Chambers of Commerce. They sell things meant to attract tourism to their locales. Madison at once celebrates and self-flagellates over its tavern culture.

In any case, I bought something holier than a silly t-shirt. I got cheese curds. For the uninitiated, cheese curds are a fresher (not aged), squeakier version of cheese that are a delicacy in Wisconsin and surrounding areas. (They’re making their presence felt in New York bars, in deep-fried form.) I hesitated before making my purchase, telling the cashier that my flight was delayed a couple of hours and I wasn’t sure if they’d survive so long at room temperature. “They stay fresh 14-18 hours unrefrigerated,” she informed me, in an attempt either to persuade or dissuade me, I’m not sure.

I bought them, shoved them in my bag, took a seat in a big, comfortable chair, and put my feet up. I was in no hurry.

 

 

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Elevation In Steel Town

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Pittsburgh looks like a giant playset. Its skyscraping downtown is surrounded by the bluffs of the Allegheny Plateau, into, out of, through, and astride which you will see all manner of transportation. Auto viaducts are embedded in these bluffs, with bridges connecting their massive gaps. Tunnels burrow through them. Long, gut-busting staircases are built into them. Light rails zip about the foot of their walls en route to downtown, crossing locomotive tracks still in use. The mighty rivers that cut these ridges, the Allegheny and Monongahela, still see plenty of boats in their docks as they rush to form the Ohio. Bridge after bridge connects the downtown peninsula (?) with its outlying communities.

And then there are the funiculars. These two inclined railroads were built in the 1870s for commuting laborers from the Mount Washington neighborhood at the top of the hill to their jobs in the industrial areas below. Today they are curiosities from another era, when its mills and furnaces made Pittsburgh synonymous with the steel it produced. For $5 round trip, you can ride the Monongahela or Duquesne Incline up to Mount Washington, take in the views, get food at a bar like Redbeard’s (as I did), and climb in the car to get cranked back down all of its 635 feet. Try not to think about how it was built in 1870 when you’re in the car.

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My one-night stay in Pittsburgh marked one of those times I stayed in a city without entering its downtown. But the neighborhood in which my brother and I booked our hotel, called South Side, was more than a consolation prize. I loved it. This once-industrial part of town looked to me like it never missed a beat between coal-infused urban blight and raging gentrification. Clearly the end where our Hyatt House lay had been cleared out and was rebuilt in less-than-charming style with your typical chains like Urban Outfitters and Cheesecake Factory, as well as a pioneering American Eagle corporate office. But walking westward down Carson Street revealed a quaint, well-preserved main drag you might see in a Hollywood movie, lined with plenty of bars, restaurants, churches, bars, dry cleaners, florists, and more bars. (Seriously, Pittsburgh has a lot of taverns. And this is coming from someone who grew up in a Shangri-la of bars.) Rowhouses dotted cobbled side streets, broken up by retrofitted warehouses and factories turned into things like organic bike wholesalers and artisanal graphic design firms and pickled kale distributors.

I found Pittsburgh to be one of the most beautiful and unique-looking cities in North America that I had seen. Unfortunately my brother and I stayed less than 24 hours, otherwise we’d have explored more. But I liked what I saw.

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Nine Reasons Why You Like Summer Better Than Winter (And Spring Better Than Fall)

summer-camp3For those of you North Americans who don’t live in tropical or Mediterranean-style climates, we’re about to exit the time of year when people bitch about the cold and transition into the time of year when people bitch about the heat. Oh sure, there will be a two-week grace period where it’s 72 degrees, dry, and mostly sunny with a breeze. Then it’ll be hot and humid and everyone will forget all about how cold they were just weeks ago. That’ll go on for a while, then the 72-degree two week transition period kicks in again before brutal cold returns. Summer and winter are polar opposites and responsible for more griping than all the politicians in Washington.

Believe it or not, two of the seasons are objectively better than the other two, even if some of you don’t care to admit it. Spring and summer are superior to fall and winter. Oh sure, some of you will deny this, claiming you like hot cocoa by a fireplace, a new-fallen snow on a Christmas Eve, and crawling under the covers to warm up. We’ll get to those canards, but let’s start from the top.

1. Spring is the season of rebirth; autumn is the season of death. Yeah, yeah, leaves changing colors, apple cider, pumpkins, and a light sweater. Heck, even I can’t turn down a crisp October afternoon playing or watching football. Fall can be very charming at its absolute best. The thing is, spring at its most mediocre – warm rain, the smell of mud, the longer days –  still beats autumn’s best by a long shot. Meanwhile, autumn at its worst looks a hell of a lot like Old Man Winter. And most importantly: spring only gets brighter and warmer with each day, while fall only gets nastier. Now that we’ve gotten the transitional season out of the way…

2. Stripping down is better than bundling up. In the summer, you can throw on a pair of flip flops and run to the deli to pick up a gallon of milk in a couple of minutes. Wintertime means shoes or boots, socks, long pants, a jacket, gloves, a hat, a scarf, and God knows what else. By the time you have everything on you’re tired and forgot what you got all dressed up for. This of course goes double (or half) for recreational activities – a day at the beach takes a lot less planning than a day at the ski lodge. And speaking of recreation…

3. Summer recreation beats winter reaction hands down. Swimming, sunbathing, beach volleyball, outdoor barbecues, outdoor festivals. Sounds like a lot of fun, no? More fun than skiing, ice skating, snow shoeing, ice fishing, sledding, snowman-building, and other activities generally related to staving off madness? I thought so.

4. Summertime holidays are more fun. Summer (or more generally, summertime) brings us Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. (And Bastille Day if you’re French.) In other words, holidays to let loose, fire up the grill, crack open a cold one, and celebrate the good life. Wintertime brings us Thanksgiving (awkward family dinners of dry, bland poultry), Christmas/Hannukah (read: weeks of crowded shopping malls and bad TV specials), New Year’s Eve (Amateur Night at the bars), Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day (can’t do much with these EXCEPT fly somewhere warm), Valentine’s Day (corporate-invented consumerism), Mardi Gras (Amateur Night, Part II) and St. Patrick’s Day (Amateur Night, Part III). There’s a reason summer has such a dearth of holidays: they’re not necessary. And for those of you who romanticize Christmas with images of gentle snow, reindeer, and lights, remember that Jesus was born in a desert town which in December has an average high of 57 and average low of 45. Average number of December days with snow in Bethlehem: One.

5. Summer inspires songs about fun. Winter inspires songs about depression and death. “Summertime” by Sam Cooke, “In The Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, “The Summer Wind” by Frank Sinatra, “Hot Fun In The Summertime” by Sly & The Family Stone, “All Summer Long” by Kid Rock, “Summer In The City” by Lovin’ Spoonful, “The Boys Of Summer” by Don Henley, and every Beach Boys song….in other words, Fun! Fun! Fun! Even the melancholy songs of summer, “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama, and “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran, are at least a little whimsical.

Winter gives us “Snowblind” by Black Sabbath, “Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon & Garfunkel, “In The Wintertime” by the Steve Miller Band, “Winter” by the Rolling Stones, and these three songs I’ve never heard and don’t want to: “While I Shovel The Snow” by the Walkmen, “Tenth Avenue Freezout” by Bruce Springsteen, and a Frank Zappa tune titled – I’m not making this up –  “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.” That’s to say nothing of every obnoxious Christmas carol ad nauseum. Shoot me now.

Or, if you prefer poetry to pop music, consider that Robert Frost couldn’t resist mining winter for all its soul-crushing morbidity. He probably hated his surname and decided to take it out on future high school English students.

William Shakespeare took the high road and eloquently compared his beloved to a summer’s day.

6. Research shows that hot, humid conditions reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, while below freezing temperatures may cause dementia and kidney failure. Okay, I made that one up. I would, however, like to point out that warmth and moisture are definitely better for your skin, sinuses, and yes ladies, your hair. You cannot seriously prefer static electricity and dandruff to a few curls. A little sweat is good for you – it cools you off. It’s sexy! I can see I’m getting nowhere with this, so I’ll move on.

(Rest assured that if you still prefer to freeze, you can do so during summer by stepping indoors and into the Arctic blast of any air conditioner. Wait – I better shut up, I’m doing damage to my own arguments…)

7. We’re healthier in the summer. We exercise more, eat less, and eat healthier. In the winter we’re sedentary, gluttonous, and alcoholic. Don’t ask me to back this up with data; you know it’s true.

8. But what about hot cocoa by a crackling fire? Let beer be your hot cocoa, and the sun be your crackling fire.

9. If you still don’t believe me, ask yourself: which images do you prefer?

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shoveling

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Donna Summer in 1979 At The American Music Awards

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I thought so.

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Travelin’ Playlist Essentials: Rukumbine

rukumbine

I don’t know if all grade school music classes are this way, but in public school in the Midwest where I grew up, the majority of our musical education consisted of 20-30 students standing on risers and singing songs, led by our teacher who accompanied the tunes on piano. Only gym class, with its hurtling projectiles and sweaty exertion, stood as a stranger contrast to the otherwise rote academic schedule. We’d file onto the risers, the teacher would talk to us about a song and perhaps play it once solo, and then we’d all sing together with the lyrics printed for us on paper or scrawled on a dry erase board.

My fourth grade teacher elevated this technique to a level that proved memorable for me. She went out of her way to select songs the students might actually enjoy singing, to keep us, or perhaps her, interested. So we sang catchy show tunes from the musical Oliver! or contemporary soft-rock hits like “That’s What Friends Are For” (this being the mid-80s). We crooned the words of campy TV themes to The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo, in a curious medley of Hanna-Barbera cartoon hits. Perhaps most bizarre was her selection of a song from Return of the Jedi. “Ewok Celebration” was a victory song sung near the end of the film by a race of teddy bear-like aliens, after their successful defense of their habitat against the evil Empire. The song moved in a staccato tribal dance tempo, and its lyrics, which we dutifully learned and sang, were written in whatever primitive language the furry creatures spoke. While other students were learning about Gershwin and Beethoven, we were celebrating the intergalactic equivalent of the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan. This went beyond the classroom, as we had periodic evening concerts in the school gymnasium, wherein parents would sit and listen to their nine- and ten-year-olds bellow such lyrics as G’noop dock fling oh ah!

But that’s just background, and today’s installment of Travelin’ Playlist Essentials does not come from George Lucas’ space opera. Obviously, my teacher’s musical selections proved memorable, and Ewoks aside, there was no song that stuck in my brain better than a random Caribbean ditty called “Rukumbine.”

For this tune, our teacher provided us with lyrics written in pidgin English, and we sang them in a lively Jamaican creole fashion:

Train top a bridge jus-a run like a breeze
An’ a gal underneat’ it a wash her chemise
Oh Rookoombine eena Santa Fe,
Rookoombine eena Santa Fe,
Oh, rookoombine.

Went Kingston town
Just to have me look around’
But instead look aroun’
Oh, me spent every poun’.

Went yesterday
Just to buy conga drum
But instead of de drum,
Look, me drink up de rum.

She explained to us details like that a “chemise” was a shirt, Santa Fe was a town in Jamaica, and that the “Rookoombine” (spellings, among other details of the song, vary) was a train that supposedly took one there. The song’s catchy melody and other-worldly lyrics stuck with me beyond childhood. Ewoks I knew all about: Their forested moon home of Endor, their primitive weapons and attire, their singular hero Wicket W. Warrick. In fact it was about time we’d covered that in school, and I’d have aced any exam on the subject. But Jamaica – where and what in the hell was Jamaica?

For many years I never heard the song or any reference to it again. My musical interests expanded, including the requisite foray into Bob Marley’s venerable greatest hits compilation. My knowledge of Jamaica and the Caribbean grew as well. But not once did I hear the song on the radio, referenced in pop culture, or even its title ever spoken again. I’d begun to wonder how it ever wound up in a public school music class repertoire. Was my teacher the daughter of missionaries or members of the foreign service stationed in Kingston? Did she date a Rastafarian who played traditional folk songs on guitar for her? Perhaps the song was minstrelsy – written by whites for the soul purpose of inclusion in cheap songbooks, sandwiched between “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.”

But in the age of the internet search, few memories stay clouded long when one chooses to investigate. And so I found on iTunes a brassy, rollicking version of the song. Its title was not spelled as I remembered it, and depending on the album, it was credited either to Shenley Duffus (sometimes referred to as “Chandley Dussus”) or Bobby Aitken. Stranger still was the fact that the songs verses were nothing like I recalled. Gone were references to chemises and “Kingston town.” In their place were a salutation to “Mother Cuba” and not-so-subtle sexual verse:

Me seh the higher the hill
The greener the grass
The younger the gal
Is the sweeter she kiss

This ska version of the song seemed to have less to do with a train, as in the next verse a girl is picking an “ackee” fruit from a tree and a boy is washing khakis. Finally the song references an engine running on fire and coal, almost as an afterthought. At first I thought the song had made the rounds in Cuba as well as Jamaica. That would also explain the reference to Santa Fe; Jamaica was originally settled by the Spanish before the British took control, but I so far can find no reference to a Santa Fe on that island. There is, on the other hand, a Santa Fe town in Cuba, and a Santa Fe neighborhood in Havana. However, Duffus was Jamaican-born and bred, so I’m not sure why he’d take a Cuban angle on a traditional Jamaican folk song.

There are a few message boards discussing the song and parsing its lyrics, and it’s been suggested more than once that “rukumbine” is pidgin for “recombine,” meaning reuniting in sexual congress. I have not seen this confirmed by anyone, and it has been repeated so many times I wonder if it’s just an internet theory posing as truth.

In his dissertation, Mento, Jamaica’s original music: Development, tourism and the nationalist frame, Daniel Neely seems to have shed more light on the song than an army of internet keyboard jockeys could. Neely says that “Rukumbine” is a “nonsense word, sometimes having sexual overtones,” and that it was often used interchangeably in Jamaica with the more explicit “Soldering” to refer to intercourse. Neely identifies Rukumbine as a melodic style that may have first been laid on wax as far back as 1925, but the song of that title was first arranged and published in the early 1950s (in Tom Murray’s book Folk Songs of Jamaica). He identifies Duffus’ 1963 ska version (of the form, but also it seems the song), with backup by the Skatalites, among other versions. That recording may have been wrongly credited to Bobby Aitken by Treasure Isle Records at some point. According to the Jamaica Journal, the song was lyrically sanitized and performed in the ’50s by a traveling harmony group called the Frats Quintet.

Whatever its origins or lyrics, “Rukumbine” is an infectious song, something to cue on your flight to the warm waters of the Caribbean.

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Peace And Tranquility In Szeged

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I stayed two days in Szeged, Hungary, and loved it for what it was: A relaxing, charming college town with a lot of outdoor recreation. Everywhere I explored those two days in June, people were out biking, running, swimming, sunning, or just eating ice cream in the square. After the rush of having to get to Istanbul, then Belgrade, and then Timișoara, in Szeged I could slow done and just be. I didn’t feel the pressure to see touristy sights or do anything elaborately planned. Instead, I did just as the locals did: I ran in the park, I had coffee in the square and people-watched, I crossed its river bridge time and again and enjoyed the scenery of this lively college town. I was on a break from my own vacation.

I’d arrived by an old beater of a train from Romania, but had clearly stepped into a more modern version of Old Europe once I set foot in Szeged. A sleek tram pulled up and I hopped on and took it to the center of town, with some help from an English-speaking local. As in previous countries, the only words I’d really master in Hungary were thank you (köszönöm) and hello (Szervusz). The latter is pronounced more or less like “service,” which means every where I went and said hello it felt like I was rudely demanding service.

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City Hall.

I stayed in the Aquarius Vendégház guesthouse, where the owners folded bath towels into swan shapes but otherwise seemed intent to stay out of my way. It was a quiet, clean place, with no breakfast but adjacent to a restaurant and bar where I know I had one of those amazing Eastern European meals, but for the life of me I cannot remember its details.

The town is divided by the river Tisza, with my hotel on one side and just about everything else on the other. Trams and buses crossed the river bridge, but walker that I am I hoofed it back and forth several times in an effort to stretch my legs, which had been bent sitting on trains, planes, and automobiles the past few days.

All in all it felt like one of those towns you read about in quality-of-life articles online. Culture, architecture, orderliness, health, safety, nature, education, all seemed there for the enjoyment of everyone. I’m not sure if that’s really true, but it sure felt that way.

By far my favorite sight was Szeged Vasútállomás train station, a different station from the one at which I arrived. I don’t have the words to do it justice, so here are two pictures to close out this post:

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Timișoara

I had simply assumed that I’d be able to reach Timișoara, in Romania, by train from Belgrade. I was mistaken. When I went to the Belgrade train station to inquire about tickets, the not-very-polite teller scoffed, “Timișoara?” Then she wagged her finger and said, “No trains to Timișoara.” I asked how I might get there, but I knew there would be no expansion on the scope of her assistance. She shrugged and went back to chatting with her co-worker.

Luckily, the staff at Hostel 40 Garden Park, where I was staying, were able to help. On my Eastern European trip, Hostel 40 was the only true “hostel” I’d stayed in. I had a private room but used a shared bathrooms, and some of the rooms were dormitory-style. It was recommended by a local, and because there is a bit of a value gap in Belgrade-area hotels (at least from what I could glean in travel guides before I went), Hostel 40 seemed to be the best deal. And it was indeed a great deal. The people were nice, fellow guests invited me to a kafana, and now the owner was arranging for my transportation to Romania.

It turned out to be a minibus, and I was its first passenger. I erroneously assumed I’d have the bus more or less to myself, but we then spent another 90 minutes picking up other passengers at various points in Belgrade until the bus was packed. Then it was a six-hour slog to Timișoara, which included a stop at a highway oasis, a long wait at passport control at the Romanian border, and a drop off at the airport. Apparently half our passengers had booked cheap flights out of Timișoara. Cheap enough to warrant a long bus ride, anyway. I was the second-to-last drop off, and it took the better part of the day to travel 100 miles.

As for Timișoara, I wish I’d stayed longer than 24 hours. It’s a beautiful city, proudly Orthodox but with tinges of Latinization here and there, reminding one of Italy. Cobblestone streets unfold into sweeping piazzas, where seemingly everyone in town is out and having a beer or dinner outside. The people themselves look more Mediterranean, not at all obviously Eastern European, as Serbians clearly are. In fact, recent foreign investment from Italian companies has resulted in some migration. But more historically, the Romanian language is a Romance island in a Slavic sea and shares much in common with Italian.

My hotel was situated a block off of Victory Square, birthplace of the 1989 revolution. The square is bookended by the National Opera and a stunning and dignified Orthodox Cathedral, pictured above. In between are beautifully landscaped gardens and hedges and laid back cafes, perfect for a morning brew or an evening stroll.

Unfortunately, I didn’t spend enough time here to settle in and get a read on the people or culture. I simply passed through, but Timișoara is memorable enough that I’d love to go back and spend a week or two absorbing it. I encourage anyone with any information or memories to share to leave a comment.

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