I've been meaning to promote a new healthy obsession of mine, even if the relation to my broader work for Pelting Out seems tenuous. I'm a big fan of Atlas Obscura. If you're not familiar with what they do, you should poke around their catalog of over 10,000 places across the globe. The unique locales and stories they collect are right up my alley. In addition to the website, AO has plans for world domination. Or at least hopes of opening compelling "Societies" in various cities. Such as NYC...where they began. LA. Chicago. You get the idea. Thankfully, Seattle's also launched an Obscura Society. And I'm starting a new gig with them as a Field Agent, developing local events that will offer some unique insights into Seattle's quirky awesomeness. Stay tuned for details related to my first events in early 2017...a walking tour of Seattle musical influences in the '90s...a dichotomous tour of the Klondike Gold Rush influence on Pioneer Square and the site of the Alaska-Yukon Expedition originally meant to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that rush. The history I've found in putting these ideas together fascinates me. Odds are it might have the same effect upon you.
I've been somewhat remiss in posting here the last few weeks. Grand plans delayed not derailed...in part because of my AO thinking...along with the prep work needed to head out on my current trip. My current struggles with the in-flight WiFi over Wisconsin are just part of the journey to NYC. I've got equal parts research and running lined up. Running-wise, I'm doing the TCSNYC Marathon on Sunday. Research-wise, I'm also neck deep in plans for a few busy days of interviewing and exploring. Check back for some shared fruits of those labors. I promise.
Here's hoping your own gig also currently fills you with great promise.
PEN America yesterday released a chilling, illuminating report on the increasingly difficult environment foreign journalists face when reporting from present-day China. When I was there precisely five years ago, I wasn't working as a journalist or trying to post anything to a blog or Facebook or Twitter or a newsy site in any form. Nonetheless, I couldn't access any of those sites or the like given the "Great Firewall" the Chinese government relies upon. According to PEN America's study, it's since gotten a helluva lot worse for people trying to pursue and publish stories. What better time for me to offer a taste of what I was pursuing then, as I continue to research and write about it from a safe distance.
After spending close to a week in Beijing, I traveled with my group of 40 foreigners to Shanghai. We were officially there to see the Chinese part of the global fur trade. We spent our days being spoon-fed locations that surely were allowed for only with government approval. One particular excursion from our temporary base in Shanghai gave me a chance for some off the leash wandering. We were taken by tour bus to a small coastal city named Yuyao. It would have been indistinguishable from the other sprawling population centers radiating out from Shanghai, had it not been for the existence of a major fur garment manufacturing facility plopped amidst the maze-like residential "hutongs" and rapidly gentrifying blocks of factories. What we saw inside that facility and the adjacent "wholesale mall" of retailers was unlike anything I saw up close in China. In my book Pelting Out, you will learn much more about what I saw and learned there. For now, here's a few pics to whet your appetite.
After some touring as a group within the factory, our group was encouraged to go shopping within the connected mall. I used this open time to wander into the nearby neighborhood. This wasn't approved...or formally discouraged...yet it didn't take long for me to feel unwelcome. A few blocks of shops radiated out from the China Fur Market, getting shabbier as the distance from the center grew. Soon the fur goods shops ended and what I came to recognize (not by experience, I assure you) as sex worker shops began. These mini-brothels all had the same sliding glass patio doors behind which stood women ready to greet visitors. The doors would open with that signature "swoosh," that is the universal sound of a sliding door running along its track. When the workers caught sight of me...a pale Westerner with my Canon camera slung over over my shoulder...the sliding chorus was all I could hear over the neighborhood traffic. Not long after, I garnered a few curious men tailing behind me. I could sense I'd ventured a bit too far into the unguided, so I turned back toward the security of the business-lined blocks. Along the way, I noticed fur garment patterns nailed to plywood outlines laid out in every available area. There weren't any customers. And there definitely weren't any other Westerners.
Luckily nothing unwelcome or unkind happened to me while exploring around China in pursuit of my chosen subject. According to PEN America's reporting, however, way too many other writers haven't been so fortunate while trying to work there. Here's hoping everyone working in a safe locale this Friday evening raises their voices and glasses to those in China and elsewhere endeavoring to tell stories that matter. Wherever you're exploring, I look forward to sharing new stories with y'all next week.
July and August were notable for me as travel months, in what I'm calling the "Stretch Run" of my adventures in this particular trade. Along the way, I felt exhausted and honored by the pursuit of eight States worth of stories. As I quickly write this, I'm in the airport embarking upon my first visit to Denmark and a return roadtrip to southern Sweden. So much to process, there is (or certainly will be) an extended time to do so later. Nonetheless, I feel the cherished gift of time to say a few quick words before hitting that road again.
As has often been my refrain, I'm looking for origin stories. Going back to Sweden will help with that. New places excite me, and that's surely the role that Denmark's been cast to play on this trip. I hope to bring back a multitude of images to offer up as evidence of those two countries...and whatever unfolds along the continuum of influences and interests.
Please check back in a few weeks for the fresh stuff.
Small towns in the vast, too-often-flown-over middle of America rarely trend in a good way on the internet. But all things "Dyersville, Iowa" and "Field of Dreams"-y scored a major traffic bump over the weekend. Due to this past weekend's event staged there at the cornfield ballpark made famous by the movie. I've shown my sentimental proclivities with respect to that flick before. Hence my visit to that picturesque movie site. Twice (since 2012). If you've never gone the distance...well it's sure purdy there. Click through if you'd like to see a few examples.
In the winter, the charms are a bit harder to pinpoint. But they nonetheless exist.
Buried lead...I hope to visit Dyersville one evening this July. Maybe the lights will be on. That and an ample lineup of stars (not the movie or even sporty kind) would truly complete the series.
I'm heading to Washington D.C. tomorrow. Mostly for fun with family, but with enough compelling work mixed in to (hopefully) make it time well spent. Included will be a tour of the U.S. Capitol on Tax Day - the luck of our draw thanks to our U.S. Representative's office. Doubly serendipitous will be our touring while the cherry blossoms are (supposedly) at their peak. I embrace looking like a tourist, especially when traveling with an eager 9-year-old. Check back for some pics from the tourist-y side of that trip, if you're so inclined.
In the interest of filling in the margins on my prior trip, the following few details caught my eye in Finland and Sweden. That trip was such a success that I've already booked a return to that general global neighborhood this fall (Denmark along with parts of southeastern Sweden constitutes that itinerary). To my profound surprise, I located precious parts of ancestry's backstory in Sweden. And so much more. It will take me much more time to unpack all of what I saw there. Until then, here's an unannotated peek at Helsinki, rural Sweden and Amsterdam (click through to see the full dozen pics).
Much closer to home, I want to give a proper shout out to Walter Kirn and my neighborhood bookstore (Ravenna Third Place Books) for an excellent author event a few days ago. Kirn's latest book, Blood Will Out, unfolds as a hybrid of many genres. True Crime, Memoir, Narrative Nonfiction. I will admit to a prior blind spot for his work - Up In The Air stands as the most recognizable, thanks to the film adaptation. Not anymore, though. I'm hooked like a river carp by the tale he tells here.
River carp...hmmm...we called them "suckers" back in Sconnie. Come to think of it, this is the time of year when the rallying cry of "the suckers are running" meant the next few weeks could be spent breaking curfews while doing all sorts of carousing out in the muck. We'd gather some spears, an armload of gunney sacks, a case or a few of cheap-as-sin beer, some fearless friends, and head to the creek (or "crick" as it should be pronounced).
The partly submerged lead being...I recommend Kirn's book. It's already in my bag for D.C. Here's hoping that even if you don't get a Spring Break, you also find time for some high quality escape via a well-packaged story. Rock on.
Snow in Helsinki, snow in Stockholm. Rather than feel diminished in my ability to travel freely, I see this greeting as a blessing. In Helsinki, the only downside was the humbling tumble I took out for my 3rd morning run in a row. Apparently, salt is for herring - not for roads & walkways - in Finland. Here in Stockholm, I let an early walk through the medieval charm of Old Town with the flurries and fresh few inches of the white stuff falling suffice. That and a massive hotel breakfast has me prepped to get out driving Sweden's highways and byways.
I'd welcome the chance to sit down with everyone and recount some of my Finnish interactions. Another time, perhaps. I'll offer a few random examples, though. Like how I've decided to become an at least temporary "fish-itarian" following the plate piled to heaping with "authentic Finnish meatballs" at the Sea Horse restaurant (ravitola, in Finnish). Overwhelming, to say the least. Haunting, more likely. I'm still approximately 30% meatball and I think I've hit my lifetime quota. And I'd love to paint a fuller picture of the hilarious, stone-cold awesome college student/taxi driver in suit and tie who drove me to airport yesterday. If I get a absentee vote for the future President of Finland, I've found my candidate. Plus his "pro tips" sent by email last night for my return trip to Helsinki were spot on, given where I'd already been trolling on both sides of the proverbial tracks. Anyone who says the Finns are reserved to a fault hasn't been making the effort needed to find the (at least anecdotal) truth.
I'll get that return to Finland later in the week - a few final days and interviews before heading back to the States. My more immediate plan is to drive today from Stockholm to Gothenburg (Goteborg in Swedish, with a few extra marks added to their trademarked vowels, and pronounced "You-tee-bor-ee-ah" with the last two syllables largely swallowed). In a perfect world, I'd get to drink from the cultural firehose here, there and everywhere. I have to call my shots, though.
The buried lead must be mentioned. I'm both looking for parts of the larger story intertwined with my current book project, and digging at my ancestral roots where they might be partially unearthed. Fortunate doesn't begin to describe my current state of affairs. Inspired hits closer to the mark.
Before I can get there, however, there's the small matter of testing the sort of snow tires come equipped on Swedish rental cars. Wish me luck, as I do the same for you.
I would love to speak Finnish. Just enough to get by and to listen in on the conversations around me while I'm here. There's something so freaking adorable about a language where they pronounce every vowel, even when they spill over the edges of the page in 20-30-letter bunches. Like you let your arm dangle over the edge of the keyboard and just didn't bother to go back and correct it. I joke as a defense mechanism because I've got nothing in the way of Finnish now that I'm here in Helsinki. I haven't even tried out my pathetic new-car-smell smattering of Swedish (learned from an earnest but utterly unprepared instructor at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle's Scandinavian heartland, Ballard). Not that I need it. Everyone - and I mean everyone - here speaks English. Embarrassingly well. I'll embarrass myself with my "lite svenska" in a few days time when I head to Sweden.
My best example of the above set-up thus far - and bear in mind I've been here less than a day - came last night at the checkout in the market across from my hotel. Every newly arrived American should go into a market where none of the labels are in English when they're shopping for...well, I wasn't really sure what I was gathering. Which was my first mistake. But then I began grabbing funny seeming lumps of carbohydrates and pulled perfectly-shaped, random pieces of fruit apart to add to my basket. My biggest and certainly most impressive bad choice was what I thought was a liter of sparking water flavored with blueberries that may instead be weak Finnish soda pop. All I know for certain about that product comes from the approximately 58% left in the bottle when I excitedly opened it standing in the center of my teeny hotel room/closet too soon after my return. I get ahead of myself, though.
So I went to the checkout and threw my barrel-full of bad choices on the conveyor and said what I thought might be seen as a colloquially cool "Hello, I am a clueless American" greeting in internet-prompted Finnish to the checker. I might have worked because she began speaking to me in those undecipherable long strains of consonants. I, of course, offered my best animated, moronic nodding in reply. Thankfully, I managed to pull my one thus far useful Finnish phrase out of my Palin ("en puhu suomea" - loosely translated to "me no speak-y the Finnish"). To which she gave me the universal sign for, "Duh..." and sweetly explained that I needed to weigh my genetically-modified apples and - what is that, half a banana? - so that I can put a sticker on them. Somehow I had missed that sign amidst everything else that I couldn't possibly decipher in the store. She took mercy on me and did so. With a smile. But not before dropping the banana(s) on the floor on her way back to the checkout. Karma is a bitch, but with a delightful sense of humor.
We finished up, I handed her a bundle of tattered Euros before trying to cram my purchases into the whisper-thin, pack-of-gum-sized bags they had for earth-ruiners like me who did not bring their own. Lesson(s) learned, I scampered back to my hotel room and began dismantling these indecipherable treats. Before getting a few so-so hours of sleep.
The one benefit of maintaining a running schedule that a serial killer would look at and say, "man, that's a bit too much commitment for me" is that waking up on four hours of rack time is child's play. If I'm lucky when I get out there for my run in a few, I'll see that checkout girl coming home from one of impressive number of bars I'd noticed while out meandering yesterday on my way to a love-at-first-sight connection with Helsinki. If so, I'm sure she'll want to introduce me to all her friends.
More later. Stay caffeinated.
I've really enjoyed all that's gone into prepping for my most next research trip beginning today. Finland. Sweden. A long-enough layover on the way home through Amsterdam to maybe see a few sights. All together, less than two weeks on the road. But I hope to pursue a bundle of angles - some new, and others as old as my ancestral roots in the 19th Century - across a stretch of places I've never visited...yet always dreamed of experiencing first-hand. Will I have time to post some fresh pics and thoughts on this often neglected (but not yet forgotten) blog? I certainly plan to. You may want to check me out on Twitter for the more regular and immediate offerings. Nonetheless, I aim to be a good world citizen, and duly give some back story along the way to new insights and experiences. My next post(s) will come from Helsinki, if not in transit along the way.
To begin by acknowledging what's coming along with me, I'm fully hooked by Phil Klay's collection of stories Redeployment. I've also devoured the first half of Peter Stark's nonfiction page-turner Astoria - focused upon John Jacob Astor and his crazy venture to reach the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th Century. Bundled with Lorrie Moore's new collection of stories (Bark), I certainly have more engaging material than I'll have time on the road for reading. Better to be prepared than scavenging for something other than packages of rye crisps with ad copy in English, in my humble opinion.
May your own travels be safe. Even if they only employ the mind and spirit. Either way, always bring along an extra sweater as the ides of March approach.
I got back just over a week ago from Idaho. Filled my saddlebags with some fine specimens. On the road research in a new realm always fires me up, and the Gem State did not disappoint. Contrary to the often salty reputation ascribed to politics and other pursuits there, I found Idahoans to be almost invariably friendly and interesting. Without going into the details at this time, I'll offer a few summary pics - from the State Capitol to the southeastern hinterlands where I got scandalously lost and back. Now that I've got the proper pronunciation of Boise under my belt ("BOY-see" not the obvious outsider stumble of "boy-zee" I'd been using for decades) I'm prepped for a return. Hopefully sometime in the near term. And with better directions when I go barreling down dirt highways with a rental car that earned its stripes nonetheless marvelously well.