Month: May 2011

This traveler’s education

I have just returned from a weekend in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

I live in (near) Provo, Utah.

That’s nearly a full day of travel, by air, in each direction.

That’s right.

A weekend.

I flew up there on Friday, returned on Sunday. (Well, the 757 flew, I was merely along for the ride).

The occasion of this semi-insane travel schedule was what my sister in-law had termed her Big Fat Romanian Baptism. This because it was the occasion of her second-born’s christening.

I don’t consider myself to be a sophisticated world traveler by any stretch of the imagination. While I’ve made it to a few foreign lands, I spend most of my time on the couch in my home zip code. But when I do put my feet in motion and get my travel on, I do so with hopes of seeing new and interesting things and learning a thing or five.

The trip that I’ve just finished has been very stimulating to the thinky parts in my head. Usually those parts are consumed with mundane thoughts of kerning, point sizes, DPIs, variable scope and whether or not I left the keys in the car. But the past few days really got me thinking about myself, my history, the world, people, faith and whether or not the TSA dude left my wife in the full-body scan machine just a bit too long.

The following, potentially very-boring-to-you observations, come to me as I enjoy a frosty IPA and the quiet company of my amazing wife, Mrs. A, whose own personal journey through life amazes and humbles me on a regular basis.


My wife is from Romania. She immigrated to the United States about a dozen years ago and earned her citizenship. Her parents are still in Romania, but her sister and brother in-law chose Canada as their refuge from Romania. But that’s not really the beginning of the story for me when it comes to immigration. That story begins with my dad.

Most of us who live in these United States have a story of immigration somewhere behind us. That’s not unique. Experience has taught me that my story is very similar to perhaps tens of thousands of others. But my story is my story, important to me, and a part of the person I am today and will be tomorrow.

My dad was unique in a couple of ways. One is that he was 60 years old when I was born. (My mom was many decades younger then he, but that’s another book). And my dad was a child of German immigrants. He used to joke that he was born on the ship on the way over. That wasn’t technically true — he was born in Wisconsin. But he was born very soon after his parents arrived.

Dad was born in 1907. Life was just a little bit different in those days. But the part that is important to my story is that in those days there was no real effort made to integrate and assimilate immigrants. There was no language education. He went to school for a short time, but couldn’t understand what they were saying, so he simply stopped going.

Due to the severe abuse administered by his mother, dad ran from home about the time he turned 13. He simply walked away from the house and struck out on his own.

Nobody went looking for him. Life was simply too hard I guess. One less mouth to feed and worry about was a relief.

My dad became a hobo. He rode the rails, stealing rides on freight trains, living by his wits, drinking Sterno fuel in the winter to stay warm, doing odd jobs here and there. He told me that he only stole on very desperate occasions — he tried hard to find work to earn a dime.

During the years he picked up the language from the other men and boys on the trains. That was his language training. And he would tell me it’s how he learned to read people and understand them. He saw all types of men down on their luck and not finding their way. And it was his perception that in most cases these were good people who tried and failed. They weren’t bad, evil or criminal at their core. They had just been knocked down by cruel circumstance. Even by his death at age 87, he would have been considered illiterate. He could read bits and pieces, but wasn’t a reader. His skills with mathematics were impressive, however. He would amaze me with his ability to add and subtract a series of numbers in his head. His education was totally from the trial-and-error lessons of living and getting by. And a strong desire to improve himself. And his life.

When he retired he was the plant foreman at a paper company, earning a very good salary. Even during the Great Depression, he never lost his job. He credited the fact that he was a hard worker, who always did what he was asked to do, for saving him during that time of national hardship.

My growing-up years were totally framed by what it was to be an immigrant. I knew from my hard-working, honest and soft-spoken dad that being an immigrant is hard, hard, hard. Everything is foreign. People look like people, houses look like houses, food looks like food. But each is a different experience. There are subtle ways that locals assume, that foreigners must learn. Like a handshake when greeting someone versus a kiss on both cheeks. Like eating cheese with pancakes for breakfast, versus eggs and bacon. Like eating organ meats versus steaks from the best of the cow’s muscle.

The list of differences encountered when trying to integrate into a culture is long. The items on the list comprise everything from minor breezes to major craters in the road. Sometimes the differences and discoveries that an immigrant encounters are fun and exciting. More often they are difficult, humiliating and scary. And even after many years, they feel like outsiders looking in, not quite embraced by the place they want to call home.

So when I gathered with my Romanian relatives in Canada, I knew I’d be exposed to new and different customs. Particularly because at its heart was a religious ceremony and rite that is very foreign to my background. But it was more than that. So much more.

I am once again humbled and reminded of my dad after spending a few hours with some amazing people. My sister in-law and brother in-law have a story similar to my wife’s. They left a very repressive and corrupt system in Romania to find something better. The goal was simple: a place that gave them options to build something better for themselves. They expected to work hard and contribute, and they’ve done that by a great measure.

I met a man who is from Ukraine. Like my wife and her sister, he, too, was raised under Communism. His wife is from Romania. He knows several languages and spoke to me in English, seemingly without any effort. He had lived in Montreal but has recently moved to Toronto. Mind you, that’s AFTER leaving his home in Ukraine and changing countries.

This man, 40 years old and with a newborn, told me that he wasn’t happy with Montreal so he looked around and thought he’d try something else.

I complain when the traffic is backed up, when my job frustrates me or when the gas bill is higher than I expect. But here’s a guy who left his home, traveled to a foreign country where they didn’t even speak his language, and he started anew.

And then after several years of getting grounded in a new culture, he decided he wanted to change direction so he made another change. He remained in Canada, but left a society that is based on the French language, to one that primarily speaks English.

And smart! This guy was so fascinating! Very smart, friendly, conversational, approachable. Within a few minutes of meeting him and experiencing his open acceptance of me into the circle of friends, I was feeling like my little trip through life was but a trifle. It would seem logical, and understandable, if he had been timid, reserved, halting and unsure. But nothing could be further from the truth. Even in a secondary language, he was like a long lost friend.

After the formal religious ceremony, where he and his wife were the godparents, we went to a fine restaurant for dinner and dancing. He continued to make conversation with many people there and was interested in everyone’s story and experience and lives.

I met another man at the party who drives a cross-country semi truck. He, also, is from Romania and imigrated to Canada. He drives a truck from Canada to California. A hard job for any driver. But except for a slight accent, you might not know that he, too, was an immigrant.

I hope you “get” the importance here. Think about deciding one day that you’ve “had it” with whatever is going on in your own country. And not just the day-to-day frustrations of life. I’m talking about problems that are too much to live with. You must first take that mental step to determine that leaving is the answer. Then, of all the corners of the world, where? Once that is decided, then the steps required must be investigated, documented and followed.

The language you know: cast aside. The people you know, your friends, your family, the routine of your day-to-day life: gone, but for a chance! Just a chance, at something better. No guarantee that life will be better. No guarantee of success. To the odds makers in fact, everything is against you. And what are you after? Freedom. Options. Choices. Hope. Things the fortunate often take for granted.

And unlike the immigrants of my father’s generation that came to the States during a mass influx and with great fanfare, these folks are quietly showing up, taking their place and adding to the color, interest and strength of wherever they settle.

Could you do it? Would you do it? I don’t know if I could. I don’t know how bad it would need to get for me to consider it.

In some respect is makes me proud to be an American. But it’s less about being an American and more about my respect and admiration for people who DO something. They undertake incredible efforts to achieve the best life can offer them.



Almost any comedian who has been in front of at least one audience has some riff on air travel, airports and the absurdities that take place when one travels.

But in my most lofty opinion, those who devise airports, security processes and rules about how to behave in public, should spend an hour at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport in Montreal. I felt like I was cast in a science fiction movie with a substantial special effects budget. All that was missing was a shiny polyester jumpsuit to adorn my body.

What could make the experience so noteworthy?

For starters it was quiet. The airport is large and modern. And quiet like a library. And I’m not referring to a quiet like that in the kid’s wing of your local library. I’m thinking of something more like a university, academic facility. One of those old joints, with many feet of rocks and mortar making up the walls. That kind of quiet. Even though I tend towards exaggeration in my daily life, I am being dead serious when I tell you that my wife and I spoke to each other in hushed tones. It was quiet and, whether due to some Eau du Pinetree Mist that they pumped into the place or not, we wanted to keep it that way.

And clean, clean, clean. There weren’t fingerprints all over the surfaces (perhaps due in part to the fact that the people were so well-behaved that they weren’t pawing at the walls like they do in a Chicago or Detroit airport). The floors had no dust bunnies scurrying around. There were not any stacks of leftover reading materials nor sticky cups from fast food emporiums. It was just clean.

And the people. You could not have found a more orderly and considerate group of people if you had showed up at Emily Post’s for dinner. Young and old it didn’t matter. People waited their turn, they didn’t complain, they didn’t get all pissy because they had to take their shoes off. They just followed the rules, quietly and efficiently and even with the occasional smile. Americans, we’re a bunch of pompous arses. We are. You shan’t convince me otherwise.

I had my “papers” checked more in this airport than in any of my other travels. But it was done so quickly and efficiently (aided in most cases by the use of a handheld scanner, much like a grocery store’s pricing gun) that I barely noticed. Well, okay, I noticed because it was so unusually fast and thorough. Yet it never created a slowdown in traffic. Everyone kept moving along. And I actually had the sense that if Boogie Mann was on the loose, he wouldn’t make it past one of these capable security trolls with the scanning pistola.

And that still blows my mind. It’s a big airport. There were a lot of people. But because they were so well-behaved and because the layout of the facility and the systems were so well-planned, it never felt crowded.

Oh, the things we could learn! Now, I don’t want their socialized, wait-for-a-year-to-fix-my-heart-attack style of medical care, nor the Imperial Gallon nor the Quebecois bias. But these people from the land of the walleye fish and maple syrup surely have things to offer.


Like I said earlier, it has been a year since I’ve visited the angry airways. Wow, a lot has changed in a year.

A year ago I was hip and stylin’ with my Acer Aspire netbook. It’s a few years old now (I was a very early adopter), but what a nice little gadget to have when travelling. When I bought it I was thinking iPhone or netbook. I figured I’d rather have a real computer with larger screen. For travel it would be nice to watch a movie, read an ebook or do actual computer work. It has been great.

But this past weekend the preponderance of the devices was tablets. They were everywhere. And I see one huge marketing problem for the tech companies. The tablets are so small that you can’t see a logo or defining detail to know WHAT tablet device someone is using. I don’t know if I was looking at hardware from the evil fruit monger or from the boys Hewlett and Packard or from the child labor camp in downtown Slobovia. Someone should get right on that gap. I see the cool dude with the retro shades tableting away, and I want one! I just don’t know what it is.

But even though I like new tech, and I had thought of tablets in passing, after seeing them in the hands of creatures loosely characterized as humans, I am having thoughts anew.

I like the size and format. They’re thin and lightweight. But what struck me was that on all but the newest ones I saw, I could see every place the user commonly touched and dragged. The screen looked like a sandpaper test zone. I still think I’d like to take one for a spin, but unless they come down to under a hundred bucks or so, I think I’ll keep walking.

There was another type of technology that I had higher hopes for. That was the telephonic flight updates from Delta. My wife is signed up to get the updates. So throughout our journey, at seemingly the most peculiar times, the phone would ring and a message from Delta would be delivered.

The concept is, I think, a good one. If you’re a busy traveler it would be handy to know about changes in departure times, gates or the color of the blankets to be offered on an upcoming flight. And this programmer’s logic would lead me to believe that such updates would be the absolutest mostest currentest information. I don’t expect the gate printed on my boarding pass, half a day before my connection time, to be correct very often. But if Delta’s Cray in the sky calls the ringy-dingy little box in my wife’s purse, I’m thinking it’s got the details right! But once again I am proved incorrect. Wrong, in fact. It is perplexing and, to me, angering, that the phone message has the wrong gate information. In fact, the irony is ever more ironic in that we got the call while sitting in the gate area for the flight we were being called about. We sat there, like dumb lambs, looking at our aircraft and observing the sign by the door to said aircraft which clearly displayed our flight information. At the same time we listened to the little Delta lady telling us our connection was waiting for us at a totally different location.

Technology is just amazing.

As a concept.


I like to travel. And I enjoy the planning and time just before a trip. And, except for depressing trips back home to Michigan, I usually have a grand time on the trip itself. But I surely do look forward to being home. Especially when I settle in to the seat on that last flight. I park my keister, make sure my seatbelt is fastened and my seat is in the full, upright position and I contemplate being home.

And home is freshly appreciated for the familiarity of it. No matter the warmth of my travel lodgings, nor the plushness of the hotels, my own hot shower and my own bed close the book on a chapter of travel.

And it’s in those unique periods of exhaustion that I rest and contemplate the marvel that is travel. I appreciate that I live in a country where travel is free. And even though our post-9/11 travel troubles continue to enflame my nerves, we are still free to roam hither and yon.

And I appreciate how easy the travel is. I mean, a hundred years ago the experience would have been far different. The time and money required would have been greater by many multiples. In fact, the difficulties in times past made such travel, in a practical sense, impossible.

Of course I fully appreciate that 100 years from now people will look back on episodes like my recent foray to the north lands and chuckle at my naiveté because that future traveler will simply wink and nod and be at any position in time. But life is what it is, and for that I am grateful.

Once again my status-quo has been challenged and I have peeked outside the cocoon. I’ve gotten to know new family members better, met some interesting new people, seen some new customs and methods. I appreciate the world in a deeper way as I do my humble home and my lifestyle and culture.



That’s what travel is about for me. The new and different. Sometimes better, sometimes not. But the seeing, considering and taking in the lessons, that is what scratches the itch inside my soul.