Mar 30, 2006

ROME, Italy – The Eternal City is all fragrant and peach-colored in spring. The chaos here invigorates me. Jaywalking four lanes of traffic with a suitcase: yes! Meeting for dinner at 9.30pm: si, certo! Being elbowed by grannies intent on the best market produce: fantastico!

The only struggle is work. Nothing about this climate and culture encourages it...

But the first morning – nagged by a friend – I venture out to the telefonini (cellphone) store, waving the "brick" (as my antique Motorola is oft vilified. "What's in your suitcase," mates snigger, "just the charger?").

My Italian vocabulary clunks into gear, but I manage to convey: "I have only a passport, because I left my codice fiscale in America. Sono stupida."

"Un momento," the clerk responds, then hacks into the Finance Ministry's website and prints my tax code.

"Come Grande Fratello (like Big Brother)," I joke. His expression is polite, but blank.

Not a fan of Orwell, clearly. Or even reality TV.


Friends assure me that the codice fiscale is not equivalent to the sacred American Social Security number, on which identities rise and fall like haute couture hemlines. Still I'm unnerved as much as pleased.


Bolstered by bureaucratic success – so rare in the fallout radius of Byzantium – I head to the local farmers' market. Testaccio is a working-class neighborhood where tourists remain a novelty, especially Italophones smiling in the spring sunshine. No one minds my small, sniffly epiphanies over the crimson tomatoes and fragrant tangerines.

I buy cheese, pesto and tortellini from one welcoming vendor, bread from another, then wine and water, followed by vegetables, a silk scarf. Giddy with power, I knock off more complex errands. I meander in the middle of the street – because I can.

Again, I'm home. And not.

Whatever. I'm content.

Mar 29, 2006

LONDON – I wedged onto the Underground at rush hour, bolting Bath-London for a media-luvvie cocktail party. Standing room only – and not much of it; sod's law.

A savvy traveler had cracked the window, gusting stale tunnel-air through the carriage. My long hair flowed in the breeze, caressing the bald chap sardined in front of me. I couldn't maneuver my arms enough to knot a bun.

This oddly intimate moment stretched three minutes, five ... then six. Someone had to break the twitchy silence.

"In a lot of places, you'd have to pay good money for this," I observed.

Guffaws all around. "Hey, at least he can remember what it's like to have hair," a friend teased.

"Always happy to oblige."


Imagine this scene exported elsewhere. In New York, someone would be pepper-sprayed. In Japan, we could be engaged already. And in extreme Islamic regions, I might face a ritual stoning for indecent exposure and sexual assault.

All this made a few awkward jokes a mild price for fresh-ish air.


The Journobiz party was tame in comparison: several hundred journalists indulging their chattering-class tendencies over free plonk. Amusingly, the second person I met was Chris Alden, the British-Cypriot journalist who briefly filled The Athens News post I fled.

Well, to be accurate, I rejected a permanent-job offer after ten months of visa limbo. Ultimately, this chain of events led to the export of two feral cats from Greece and the adoption of two more in the Northwest, so the sum of the world's happiness is much greater than before. No bad result, really.

Mar 28, 2006

WILTSHIRE, England – "So I have this old German car," my colleague announces, as we lug my suitcase towards the sedan. We've only just met after a long correspondence. Nonetheless, I plan to spend a night on Sascha's farm near Bath.

"I'm not so excited about things Teutonic since the Inappropriate Beau ran off with that backpacker," I kid.

Her broad smile doesn't shrink, but she replies, "you know I'm German."

No. Erm. Uh. Doh. I seemingly brought Northwest salmon to England – hostess gifts – and left my manners home.

But Sascha's more than gracious. "I apologize on behalf of all German women," she jokes. "But you're better off, I think. We'll find you a nice European man now."

Everyone has dating suggestions. In fact, they know the perfect bloke: witty, warm and well-traveled. He just happens to be inconveniently in another country ... or continent.

Occupational hazard.

No need to rush anyway. Piano, piano. Siga, siga. Lentement. Slowly, in a word.


Sascha's arranged a private tour of Berkeley Castle (yes, that Berkeley, as in the Californian university and various bits of Virginia). The family rents out the grand old pile now, hosting fairs, conferences, weddings and the like.

We climb onto the roof; the wind presses my hips against the battlements, rain washes my face. In 1643, Cromwell battered down a wall here with a cannon mounted on the church steeple. After the battle, the Berkeleys moved home again, on the condition that they never rebuild the breached fortifications. "It would take an act of Parliament to restore that," muses Castle Director David Price.

"Over there are some hills, which you can't see because of the clouds. And there's the Cotswolds, which you can't see either," he chuckles.

Then, being British, he apologizes for the weather.

I don't care. I love that we're sliding atop a castle. Coiffures and couture can recover, at least, in my price bracket they can.

Weather: that's what I miss most about England. I was forever exposed to the elements – primarily rain – in unsuitable clothing. Because most Oxford cyclists stubbornly wear street-garb, rather than miracle-fiber, sweat-wicking, water-resistant goon suits. No helmets, no lights, dark towpath ... good times.

Once my narrowboat neighbor Steve was biking home after several pints and a World Cup broadcast. He whanged into a mooring pin and landed – upright, still in the saddle – chest-deep in the canal. The local curmudgeon threw open his shutters. The pinched 12-watt interior bulb illuminated Steve in the water: gobsmacked, but considerably more sober.

"Oh, it's you. I thought someone was trying to break into my boat," J. observed, then simply shut the window.


I'm still car-free, but precipitation is much easier to avoid in Seattle (yes, even in Seattle. Despite the damp reputation, the city ranks 44th in the US for rainfall, behind New Orleans, Miami, New York and Boston). The grocery store's open 24-hours, so I can wait out most squalls. I have a "carpet commute" to the old home office. And assignments are more likely to take me overseas than across town.

Why do I feel so much loss?


Sascha and I drip-dry in a sleepy cafe, sharing soup and scones. We chatter like old friends the entire evening: as we slog across muddy fields in wellies to feed the ponies, as we pick daffodils crushed by the afternoon rain, as we make salad and jacket potatoes in the farmhouse kitchen.

"It's a simple life, a bit quiet, but good," she says. I nod. At the moment, I'd trade a lot for Sascha's idyll; there's nothing like a six-week trip to sharpen nostalgia – for homes past and present and imaginary.


Nonetheless I leave the next day. After all, that's what travel writers do best.

But first I breathe deep, scuff my shoes in the thick soil. There'll always be England. And with a little help from my friends – German friends even – I can return and remoisturize.

Mar 27, 2006

OXFORD, England – 
Lisa and I career through North London, tracing spider veins on the A-Z road atlas. Halal butchers flash past, then pawnbrokers, greengrocers, news agents, sari shops, row after row of higgly-piggly red-brick terrace houses.

Two up, two down. The floor plan's almost always the same. Unless someone's opted for an attic conversion or wedged a chip shop downstairs.

Familiar, comforting suburbs give way to green and pleasant land. The rhythm of this road is embedded in me. Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, was north on my personal compass for nearly ten years. I miss it, though a return seems improbable: like most journalists, I prefer to be a small fish in a bigger pond.

Mind you, the Headington shark makes a minnow of me ... and most.

Bill Heine, a fellow Yank and Radio Oxford presenter, commissioned a 25-foot plexiglass sculpture. In 1986, he lowered the headless form through his roof, as if Jaws plunged from the watery British skies and shattered the slates.

"The shark was to express ... a sense of impotence and anger and desperation," he told reporters. "It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki."

Only in Oxford would decapitated, displaced megafauna convey the "make love, not war" message.

Mar 26, 2006

LONDON – My worlds collide in the Great Court of the British Museum, designed by Sir Norman Foster.

Visitors swirl throughout the vast museum (some five million annually), pooling in the cool blue-white courtyard. A glazed canopy soars above the square and its scrubbed facades, which create Europe's largest enclosed space.

Great meeting point, then...

Yet Anna and I – after some glamorous mooching and loitering – do indeed find Amy. And the pair instantly start chattering and giggling and generally behaving just as one hopes, when introducing two dear people.

The Inappropriate Beau would have made for a flush of best friends, but no ... he had to run off with a German backpacker. Twit.

I only say this because we are – first and foremost – buddies. And teasing is pretty much his default mode, as noted previously.

In fact, humor seems to be the only connecting thread among the company I keep. W.H. Auden said it best: "Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh."

Mar 24, 2006

LONDON – Sun and spring veiled the city, increasing its loveliness. London's never endeared itself; ten years ago, I was painfully broke one dreary autumn in Camden and I just can't forgive The Big Smoke.

Grudge aside, I do appreciate the wry humor, bright lights and dear friends there. And today London's playing a seductive, nostalgic tune, all splayed under the syruping golden light. How I've missed England! How happy I am to return!

And how locked out of the flat I am!

I retire to The Queens, a crusty pub in Crouch End, to await the end of Anna's shift. My head dangles like a deflated balloon. Straight off the redeye, I want only to sleep.

A pint of real ale is the next best thing to a nap, obviously. Plus a helping of chunky-cut chips. I surreptitiously charge my UK mobile – not that the Swedish server cares – and grin round the room.

Forget the rowing couple, the chain-smoking geezer, the fact I'm stuck down the pub for five hours; I'm happy to be home.

Well, home of a sort.

Last trip, I realized that England will always be part of me, but I'm no longer part of it. This exile stung in October 2005. Six months later, I am a happy magpie, feathering my nest as I please: Jeeves without Jordan, Henny's without Henman, ginger snaps sans Ginger Spice.

The balancing act isn't easy. Nor am I perfectly adroit (Wilma floundered past entirely: was I busy stargazing in Arizona or snowbathing in Quebec? Exactly how does a journalist miss a bottlenose whale in the Thames, given the brave new world of Google Alerts?).

But I can still recover enough of what I need.

Never mind the bollocks. Or the gaps.

Mar 23, 2006

WASHINGTON DC – My heart plummeted, as I boarded the redeye to London. That too-good-to-be-true cheap ticket? Smack in the center of five seats. However, one of my companions was a sex researcher, which really softened the sting. Life should always imitate bad punchlines.

To be fair, she wasn't a Kinsey-esque hands-on sexpert. Soft-spoken and wry, the PhD-candidate concentrates on community centers for GLBT teens. Still, we filled the night with enthusiastic chatter about critical theory, until another seatmate complained: "You are the only ones in the row speaking."

Her accent was Germanic. So I had a lively internal struggle -- rebellion and backpacker-bitterness versus common courtesy, which, of course, won. But I didn't hesitate to wake her repeatedly to reach the toilet.

"So sorry," I smiled. "But hydration is important. Blot clots kill more frequently than plane crashes, you know."

Mar 22, 2006

SEATTLE, Washington – Gattogate is especially urgent, because a writer friend is subletting my flat, as I scarper around Europe. Despite her deep affection for felines, Jenn might not appreciate the 7am insistence on cuddles and kibble. I certainly don't.

Her most recent book is Baby Not On Board, a sarky "celebration of life without kids," published under her lighter-project-pseudonym. She also just finished a masters degree in creative writing and whupped an over-exalted Canadian author in a short-story contest (final results pending, but we drank many a toast to "beating Maggie". Even if the laurels sprout no further in this competition, I'm fiercely, fiercely proud).

But here's the trouble with reunions: we chattered, we celebrated, we quaffed troppo vino. Together we rebuffed the Belligerent Boy in the pub, who kept shouting: "I'm just so MAD! But what would you ladies like to hear on the jukebox?"

Um. The Clash? And you not ranting, perhaps?

We had all the sly conversations that men pray don't occur. A piercing where? And then what? No, no, no, don't pitch that article there; think bigger!

Packing for a six-week trip was a low priority.

Mar 20, 2006

SEATTLE, Washington – Wild thumps assault the door. I jolt awake, terrified. My eyes – pitiably weak without contacts – roam the dark room. What continent am I on? Where will I die?

The old mirror. The tatty cornplant. Big piles of books. Oh yes. Home.

And the cats: source of joy, font of insomnia.

At night, Jake the Tabby and Molly Alleycat besiege my bedroom. They want in. I want seven short hours when I don't serve as a pillow.

He locks his claws under the door and rattles the warped wood until the ineffective latch pops. When I swaddle the doorjamb, he hurls his body at the loose knob.

I could, of course, lock them in the vast walk-in closet. Jake, the willful beast, pogoes atop the metal file cabinet, but several rooms muffle the booming. Still, it pains me to constrain them during prowling hours.


I enlist my neighbors, Andy and Polly. This kindly, clever couple have two kids. Surely given our experience, superior computing power and opposable thumbs, we'll outwit two tiny gatti.

"Big pans of water," she suggests, pressing shallow baking trays on me.

"Polly, I'll blunder into the moat too."

Andy disappears into the basement and emerges with a long crib wall. I ducktape one end and prop the other with two stacks of books. Jake's raspeberry-colored nose presses against the oak spindles, perplexed.

I sleep like a baby. For six whole nights.

Then Molly learns to waft over the barrier. Jake follows suit.

"You have a brain the size of a walnut," I shout. "You won't win."

Problem is, I'm not so sure anymore.

Mar 14, 2006

I'm trying to hold a sensible conversation about hydraulic engineering the morning after a mild heartbreak. The hard hat helps: at least I look the part, here on the barnacled bottom of North America's busiest lock.

Except I'm distracted. Lack of sleep and food does that. I jot down statistics about saltwater monitoring and the smolt shoots (giant water canons that speed along the salmon fingerlings). I climb inside the filling culvert, the very guts of the sea gate. But this speculative project – with photographer Marcus Donner – just doesn't spark.

Until the eleventh hour. "Once we had a whale swim into the lock," the director suddenly recalls, as we're departing. "That's probably about the strangest thing we've dealt with, aside from the beavers."

Big comedy double-take: Beavers? In downtown Seattle?

"Some live in Fremont," he continues. "But they're too lazy to make a lodge. They just have dens."

Crikey. Even the wildlife is bone-idle in fauxhemian Fremont, the gentrifying neighborhood to our east. But the lazy, lodgeless beavers make me smile. A story begins to crystallize. And I realize I'm hungry – for new tales and adventures and, yes, even for lunch.


My travel writer friend Edward volunteers to meet me in Zagreb. What a relief. Road trips are better shared: two weeks alone in inland Croatia held scant appeal.

When smaller and fiercer and blonder, I was sometimes sad to be an only child. My father invented a sib for me: outspoken Ed.

Three decades later I met him in Jordan. And now, as a befits a big brother, he is "saving Castleman's sorry ass in Croatia".


In the junk mail folder, I discover a safari assignment. I'll fly to Jo'burg two days after my birthday in June.

The Inappropriate Beau had vetoed a three-day excursion from Sicily to Tunisia. "C'mon, don't you want just a taste of Africa?" I cajoled. To be so close...

Now a safari is small consolation for a beau, however inappropriate. But isn't this plot twist just savory?

Mar 13, 2006

"Don't blog about your relationship," my father warned. "You'll just wind up embarrassed."

Good call, Pops. But we children listen so rarely... preferring to wreck on the shoals of empirical evidence.

The Moffatts sang it. And the Beatles. Even pelvis-swinging Elvis drawled Arthur Crudup's lyrics:

Mama she done told me,
Papa done told me too.
"[Girl], that [man] you're foolin' with,
[He] ain't no good for you.

But that's all right, that's all right.
That's all right now, mama, anyway you do.
I'm leaving town baby.
I'm leaving town for sure."

Indeed, in six days, I depart for six weeks in Europe, da sola. The Inappropriate Beau hoped we might travel as friends, but that requires compromises and close quarters unsustainable mid-melodrama.

Relief, rather than rage, is my dominant emotion. Much as I adored – adore – IB, we slide more easily into sibling camaraderie than deathless romance. However unfortunate the timing, the breakup was inevitable: no future unfolded before us.

Still, I'm embarrassed, as papa done predicted. What red-blooded American woman likes to be usurped? By a German backpacker? Publicly?

Yet Road Remedies emerged from the chrysalis of IB's departure – and now has a life of its own, however fluttering. And why write, if not to scrape down to the universal truths? Otherwise it's all just pretty phrases: ribbons and swags of rhetoric.

As a pompous young editor, I once threatened to have T-shirts printed for the staff: "The Daily: we spoonfeed you the world".

Eleven years later, I have no urge to be the sugar sweetening that medicine – or that placebo, as the case may be.

Mar 12, 2006

"Why is the beau so inappropriate, aside from a penchant for muscle cars?" a colleague asked recently.

Because he's my high school sweetheart, for starters. We grew up a half mile apart on Samish Island, an hour's drive north. Now we live a half mile apart on 57th Street in Seattle, when not respectively gadding about the globe.

He's one of my best friends, who's heard every fleeting grouse and boast and fear, including the conviction that a flea bomb could ignite the furnace.

IB reads Excellence, the magazine for Porsche owners. I walk, cycle or curse our inept public transport. He's prompt. My clock's stuck on Mediterranean time.

He despises fiction; I can't devour enough. He's allergic to garlic and onions, the foundation of 90% of my vegetarian recipes. The man's acrophobic, I rockclimb.

His third decade mainly unfolded in Skagit Valley, working what jobs came to hand: at a nature conservancy, tool-and-die design firm, Shell oil refinery ("I was Homer Simpson!"). I ricocheted around European cities, clawing together a media career.

He's inappropriate because his parents vote Republican and mine once tried to start a commune. Because he never appears in public without his Seattle Mariner's baseball cap, while I scruff about in secondhand cashmere and Alfani pink tweed. Because his living room contains a partially-built bicycle; mine a legless coffee table, which I pass off as Asian-fusion minimalism.

He's scared of sponges and plunging stocks. I'm scared of eating kitty kibble when I'm 64, thanks to a measly freelance pension.

All that, of course, could be overcome: like the Osmonds, we might play the "little bit country, little bit rock n' roll" angle.

Except he finally merits the name in earnest:

IB has taken up with the German backpacker.

Mar 8, 2006

My publisher began screeching for the Rome Adventure Guide manuscript – not unreasonably (I've spun through all his goodwill and extensions now). Seven clients vie for itinerary-time in Europe this spring. Deadlines stack like jets circling a closed runway.

The last few weeks have been a Gordian knot of trip-planning, 15-hour workdays, and trying to decipher the Inappropriate Beau's infrequent and increasingly distant emails.

Something's rotten in the state of New Zealand. But what?

"You're just exhausted," friends cluck and soothe. "Don't confront him, silly. You'll be fine once you're together."

But my skin crawls. I'm lackluster about our European jaunt. Each evening, I jog to Shilshole Bay and gaze at pewter Puget Sound. The anxiety doesn't ride into the sunset.

Frommer's suggests I stretch my six-week trip to ten, covering Romania and perhaps Slovenia for a new guidebook. I.B. – who plans to noodle around Europe for four months – begs off the extra time together: he's visiting hostel-buddies in Holland and Germany in May.

Germany being the home of his traveling companion. Female traveling companion.


Oh dear.

Not promising.


A college friend supplies distraction: a game-launch at the Science Fiction Museum. I've partied with Mardi Gras royalty and media luvvies of late; why not infiltrate the Experience Music Project, that bastard brainchild of Architect Frank Gehry and Microsoft Cofounder Paul Allen?

The complex litters the base of Seattle's Space Needle. Said to resemble Jimi Hendrix's smashed guitar, the structure looks more "like something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died," according to Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for The New York Times.

Inside, gamers and programmers mingle. The food is plentiful, the bar open, the music rocks (AC/DShe).

"So this German backpacker has me worried," I begin over strawberries, cheese and Chardonnay.

"Excuse me, are you Jason Ocampo?" A man steams into our conversation. "I watch you on Gamespot all the time. Wow! What an honor. I'm a huge fan!"

Surprised, I turn to my friend: "Jase, have you got groupies now?"

"Well ... They have us on-camera a lot now. I get recognized sometimes."

"But you're a writer!"

The interloper chips in, unhelpfully: "Oh, I never read the news. Too much work. But I love to watch it."

Great. My beau and job prospects are waning in tandem. Despite a handful of modeling and acting stints, I've resisted the siren lure of broadcast journalism. Wordsmithing drew me to this career; I can't imagine suffering its slings and arrows for anything less.

Perhaps I am too curmudgeonly, though. Why struggle in a garret? I could bleach my teeth, infill my Kirk-Douglassy chin dimple and become a podcast princess ...

No ... that's just the stress talking.

Everything will be just fine, I'm sure.