A Hand on My Butt

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Still in London, working hard to balance the rapidly-changing weather with our desire to avoid indoor spaces.

A hand on my butt

While I’m on my remembering-weird-hotel-experiences streak, I should point out that it’s not just the actual buildings that are memorable; sometimes the staff turn an otherwise ordinary stay into an event to remember.

What got me thinking about the people we’ve met in hotels was the fantastic proprietor of our B&B in Shetland. She was half of what we loved about the island (and we loved Shetland a LOT). She knows everything about the islands, and will happily tell you all about the people, the history, the birds, or whatever you’re interested in. She’s retired from the Coast Guard, and in her spare time decorates fancy cakes for weddings & birthdays, as well as training Coast Guard scuba divers.

And if you ask nicely, she’ll give you a wee dram of Scotch to go with your breakfast porridge. Like I said, we adored her.

Anyway. One morning, for reasons that I can’t remember (must’ve been the porridge—er, the Scotch), I started reminiscing about a particular hotel we stayed in while we were in Vietnam. We were there for a month, and all the female members of the staff felt compelled to pat me on the rear end. It happened a lot.

It was a little surprising at first, but then it happened in the market, as well, and I decided it was just some kind of greeting between women that I was unfamiliar with. I didn’t respond in kind, because—you know, in hindsight, I have no idea why I didn’t. Maybe because I just have no interest in patting anyone on the butt? Maybe because life was happening all around me and I was just trying to stay vertical in the firehose of sensory experience that is Vietnam? I dunno. Maybe I’m just not very friendly.

But! Lynne, our delightful Shetland host, had a potential explanation. She speculated (based on her own experiences in that part of the world) that the roundness of my butt was intriguing to women whose butts are not so round.

Okay, I can’t actually speak to the validity of that theory, except to say that my butt is definitely round. But as theories go, it’s entertaining enough that I think we’ll keep it.

In South Korea, we had a much more awkward moment. More awkward than the front desk clerk patting me on the butt? Well, actually, yes.

During our time in Seoul, we spent a solid two and a half months in one hotel. We had a pretty reliable routine, and the housekeepers quickly figured out what time we generally left the room, and we almost never crossed paths with them. One day, though, we headed out, and realized we’d forgotten something, so we went back. The door was open, and the housekeeper had started working, then gone back to the next room to finish something.

When she saw us, she was clearly flustered and distressed that we’d come in before she finished. She backed away, bowing deeply, over and over again. I felt so bad; I kept saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” but I’m not sure she understood. I wanted to hug her (I didn’t want to pat her on the butt, though).

Our most awkward hotel staff moment, though, and one I’ll never forget, was in India.

One of the Airbnbs that we stayed in was a large family home, several rooms of which had been converted to lovely en-suite rooms. It was a great experience—we got to see what daily life was like in an upper middle class Indian home. The most noticeable thing was the staff—there were maybe ten staff people living on the property, taking care of the three family members who still lived there.

Bala, who did all the cooking and laundry, was a particular presence—she made us some truly delicious breakfasts, and did all of our washing by hand. My mother-in-law was with us, and she came down with a terrible cold; Bala took special care of her. She was a sweetheart, even if we had no language in common.

We gave her a tip when we left—I don’t remember how much, exactly. Maybe thirty dollars?

She got down on her hands and knees and kissed my feet.

I don’t have any illusion that the people I interact with in hotels will remember me. They have tourists streaming in and out every day (at least, they did pre-Covid). But I hope that I can be open to allowing them to touch me. Without the people, a hotel is just another building.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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Sometimes a Holiday Inn Is a Great Idea

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: London, walking our feet off.

Sometimes a Holiday Inn is a great idea

Years ago, we had a friend who went to Japan and stayed in a Holiday Inn. I judged him so hard. Why would anyone travel all that way just to stay in a room that could be anywhere in the world? Didn’t he want to get off the beaten path and see what Japan was really all about? Didn’t he want to have a truly authentic experience?

Well, I’ve learned a thing or two since then. I’ve been off the beaten path. Things can get weird and creepy when you stray off that path. The generator might be leaking fumes into your room. There’s shit on the duvet. You might freeze to death, or sweat to death, or just spend the whole night hoping whatever creature is scrabbling around on the thatched roof stays outside. The staff might be surprised that you want a towel. You’ll bumble around in the noontime dark because you were instructed (in very stern capital letters) to KEEP THE CURTAINS CLOSED AT ALL TIMES TO KEEP THE DUST OUT. There might be water buffalo peering in your window, or warthogs, or a man with a blowtorch. The pool might be empty (actually, if I’m there, the pool will most likely be empty, so if you want a hotel with a pool, you shouldn’t travel with me). 

You might have to take a Xanax to get to sleep.

I think it was Ethiopia that broke us (and if you read last week’s email, you may be surprised that it wasn’t India). 

At our hotel in Addis Ababa, we had a huge room, but the closet was a flimsy plywood DIY project propped up in one corner. I tried not to look too closely. There were no windows, but one dingy glass door opened directly onto the tiny enclosed courtyard at the center of the building. Again, I tried not to look too closely, but the sound of the generator was worrisome.

The bathroom was also huge, but the fittings all looked as if they’d been scavenged from yard sales, or maybe the detritus from a demolition site. The counter had the sort of grubby, sticky feel of a poorly finished preschool snack table, but taller—it came up to my chest.

There was a huge jacuzzi tub for two, complete with padded seats.

The piece de resistance, though, was the shower. We still refer to it as the disco shower. It was, like the tub, big enough for two people. The walls were lined with various jets and nozzles, and multicolored lights that blinked and flashed. There was even a remote control. It was seriously a disco shower.

But there was no water.

Okay, maybe I exaggerate. There was a thin trickle of water. Eventually someone came to our room and removed the main shower head, so that I could wash my hair. Lee doesn’t have hair, but he does like to get wet when he showers. After about four days, he gave up and booked us into the Hilton.

In the year and a half since we were in Ethiopia, I’ve learned to love a western chain hotel. They may not be glamorous, but they’re usually functional. We know whom to call if there’s a problem. There’s a basic level of cleanliness. Some are a little older or shabbier than others, but they’re usually predictable in a way that can be comforting when everything beyond the front doors is discombobulating. 

We’re not usually looking for a five star experience, but sometimes familiarity is the greatest luxury I know of.

So if you want to get off the beaten path on your next vacation, feel free. Or don’t—whichever you prefer. I won’t judge. 

In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be at the Marriott.

From my writer’s notebook:

In a desperation move, the Brooklyn Museum is planning to deaccession (sell) a dozen paintings. The funds raised will be used to care for the rest of their collection.

The idea of selling off art for any reason other than purchasing new art has long been taboo in the museum world, but Covid has changed everything. Museums all over the world have been struggling under shutdowns and visitor capacity limits. Many now find themselves in dire financial straits; I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a museum director to decide which of their precious masterpieces has to go on the auction block.

What caught my attention about this particular sale is that one of the most significant pieces is by Lucas Cranach the Elder, an important Old Master of the German Renaissance.

Teaser: a Cranach painting has a significant role in the book I’m currently writing.

The saddest thing, in my opinion, about museums being forced to auction off their holdings is that there’s no guarantee that these important works will remain accessible by the public. If some random billionaire wants to buy a masterpiece and hang it in his basement for all eternity, there’s nothing anyone else can do about it.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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Confession

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: London, which is making me very happy, but slightly nervous. We’re staying outside as much as possible. I guess I’ll be needing some rain boots.

Confession

I did a bad thing once. Okay, I’ve done more than one bad thing (some of which I’ll never tell), but this one—well, what would you have done?

We had been in India for a month and a half. We arrived in Udaipur late in the day, just at dusk. We had booked a room in a haveli, a historical mansion, that had been renovated into a hotel. I was excited—atmosphere, authenticity, charm.

It was raining. The streets were slick with mud. Our room was tiny, with twin beds and a view onto a dirty wall. Lee knew, instinctively, that the wheels were coming off my little wagon, and fast. He took charge, and chose a restaurant for dinner. It served one thing only: dal baati, an Udaipur specialty. This involves a server wearing a white glove, using his hand to crumble a buttery ball of bread onto your plate, then dishing out dal to accompany it. It was so good. We both still talk about what a surprising delight that meal was, even though we were the only customers on a chilly, damp evening.

And then we went back to our cold, dim little box of a room. We went to bed, hopeful that a new day would bring warmth and adventures and (for me, at least) a more positive attitude.

It didn’t, really. When we went downstairs early the next morning, we discovered that the staff stored their motorbikes and bedrolls under the stairs. They hung their laundry on the roof—right next to where our al fresco breakfast was served. We hunched over cups of hot tea to keep warm. Then went to the outdoor market and bought cheap sweatshirts, to ward off the weather. We wandered around the narrow, chaotic streets, dodging cows and motorbikes and rickshaws and giant mud puddles. There are parts of Udaipur that are lovely—The lake! The palace!—but Princess requires a certain base level of comfort, to be able to appreciate her surroundings.

That night, as usual, Lee fell asleep before I had even gotten in bed. When I turned back my covers, there was a small brown stain on the white duvet cover.

What did I do? Well, what would you do?

I did the sniff test.

It was—you see where this is going, don’t you?—It was shit. A literal shit stain on the bed covers. And my friends, if it’s fresh enough for an aromatic ID, it’s too fresh for sleeping with.

So I woke Lee up. It seemed the only thing to do. Misery loves company, right?

Me (in hysterical tones, rapidly approaching shriek): There’s shit on my duvet!

Lee (barely awake): What, that little brown stain? I think it’s just a rust spot. I saw it last night on my bed.

Me: Oh! My! God! You slept with shit last night?

Lee: No, of course not. It’s just a rust stain. Go to sleep.

Me: It’s shit! Excrement!

Lee: How do you know?

Me: I smelled it! (Hysteria is getting out of hand at this point.)

Lee: Why in the world did you do that?

Me: Why did you NOT?

Lee: Well, call down to the front desk and get clean sheets, if you want.

Me: They’ll think we did it!

Lee: Tell them it was here when we arrived.

Me: But you slept with it last night! Either it was already there, and we ignored it, which is disgusting, or we caused it, which is even more disgusting! What are we going to do??

Lee: Well, I don’t know what you’re gonna do, but I’m going back to sleep. If you want me to deal with it, it’ll have to wait till morning.

He promptly did exactly that.

And that’s when things got ugly. What did I do? I switched the duvet covers.

I’m not proud. The only thing I can say in my own defense is that he had already ignored it once, and he really does have an unreasonable ability to sleep through anything. At least I flipped it over, so the stain was on top.

To my surprise, he didn’t leave me over that incident. He didn’t even complain.

And that, my friends, is true love.

From my writer’s notebook:

In 2010, a seventy-year-old French handyman showed up at the Paris office of the Picasso estate, asking to have a stash of paintings authenticated. The suitcase he was carrying turned out to contain 271 works by Picasso. He claimed they were a gift from the artist, forty years before, and that he’d stored them in his garage in southern France ever since.

The paintings and drawings were apparently in pristine condition, and were fully catalogued. He claimed to have done the cataloguing himself.

Now, back when Lee and I owned a house, we hired a lot of handymen, and they were all perfectly nice, but I never met one whose side gig was art historian. I’m just saying . . .

The trial took ten years, but Monsieur Handyman and his wife were convicted last November of receiving and concealing stolen artwork. The lawyer for the Picasso family speculated that art merchants had used Monsieur “in the same way that traffickers would a drug mule“ (New York Times).

That ‘drug mule’ is now eighty years old. How in the world does a person wind up in a situation like that?

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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Living History, Part Two

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: The Shetland Isles, Scotland

Living History

One day in Seoul, we were waiting for the elevator in our hotel. When it opened, we joined two little old ladies (and I do mean both little and old). Our room was on the twenty-ninth floor (it was a multi-use building, with offices and apartments on the lower floors), so I had a couple of minutes to study them. One was holding a large package wrapped in brown paper; the shape suggested a framed wall hanging. The other had a ladder.

These two woman had to be eighty years old, but there they were, in the elevator of a big-city high rise, getting ready for a little DIY decorating.

I did some quick math. The Korean War started in 1950. That was seventy years ago. If those two women are eighty years old in 2020, they would’ve been ten years old at the beginning of the war, thirteen when it ended.

Now, I did some reading about the Korean War when we were there. South Korea (technically the ROK) was pretty much flattened, and the economy was completely devastated. For decades afterward, there was widespread hardship, famine, and deprivation. The hard work that powered the economic recovery (South Korea now has one of the world’s biggest economies) is difficult to comprehend.

So perhaps it makes a certain amount of sense that those two little old ladies were lugging their own ladder around in the elevator. I mean, if you spent your youth surviving a war and rebuilding a country, brick by brick, investing your own blood-sweat-tears, how hard can it be to hang a picture on the wall?

I find that kind of math fascinating. I did it in Berlin, as well. We were on the city bus at rush hour one day, surrounded by people going to work—men, women, old, young, wearing everything from business suits to coveralls. At some point, I saw a man who looked a little older than Lee, wearing a suit that reminded me of all those years when Lee dressed up in a suit and wing tips to go to court.

That was when I started doing math. Being in Berlin, we had been learning about the Stasi, and the former German Democratic Republic (what I knew, growing up, as East Germany). The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, in the fall of my senior year of college. I remember that, vividly. Lee, who is a few years older than I am, had graduated from law school and was in the early years of his career.

So if the man in the suit was, say, five years older than Lee, he would’ve been maybe thirty-three when the Wall came down.

It would be entirely plausible that he might have been a practicing lawyer in 1989, working as a prosecutor for the East German government. It would be equally plausible that the man in coveralls sitting across from him had been a dissident, or political prisoner, or maybe just an angry young man with a penchant for bootlegged rock music.

I sat on the bus, thinking about that math, and wondering about those lives. What would it be like to live through a change like the fall of the Berlin Wall? What are the chances that your neighbor, in 2020, is the judge who sentenced you to an East German prison? Do you now live peaceably in a united, democratic Germany? What happened to all those old resentments?

Math. It brings history to life.

From my writer’s notebook:

There’s a Ninja museum in Iga, Japan. A couple of weeks ago, the museum closed at its normal time, 5:30 pm. A few minutes later, thieves entered, broke down the office door, and walked out with the safe, which weighed over three hundred pounds. They got away with almost ten thousand dollars. Start to finish, under three minutes.

Ninja museum.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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Living History, Part One

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands, off the coast of Scotland.

Living History

We’ve spent this week tromping around the sights known as ‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.’ Before you all flame me for touristing during a pandemic, please understand that it’s basically us and the sheep—that’s the whole reason we came to Orkney. We were looking for nature and isolation, and boy, have we found them.

The day we arrived, we wandered around the remains of a ruined palace, smack in the middle of the little town where we’re staying; the original palace was built in the 1100s. The ‘renovations’ date from the early 1600s. At some point, when I was sort of beside myself with happiness, Lee looked at me and said, “You’re imagining people here, aren’t you?”

Well, yes. Of course I am. Aren’t you?

We figured this out—this difference in the way we see the world—in Berlin, when we first started traveling. I went on a walking tour, and the guide mentioned a friend of his, who creates these amazing photographs. He layers current photos of significant locations in Berlin over old photos of the same spots, and suddenly you can see what the streets around you looked like a hundred years ago. Or in 1945. It was one of the most satisfying things I’d ever seen. It was like this thing that my brain has been doing for as long as I can remember suddenly seemed normal.

Lee says it’s like I have virtual reality playing in my head.

Apparently this doesn’t happen in his head. He looks at a tumble-down cottage in the woods and sees a tumble-down cottage in the woods. And standing stones? Rocks. He sees rocks, in a field.

It’s not a lack of imagination, or curiosity—he has plenty of those things. It’s just that for him, his brain is firmly grounded in the present.

I am at my happiest, my most inspired, my most complete, when I am in a place where the present rests lightly on the landscape, where the outlines of the past give shape and texture to the environment. That’s what grounds me. It’s how I know where I am.

From my writer’s notebook:

Yesterday we wandered around the edges of a bay called Scapa Flow. It’s where the British Navy was headquartered during both world wars. The second time around, when German U-boats were terrorizing the Atlantic, the British had to basically close off one side of the bay, to keep the fleet safe. Today, the waters on the far side of the barriers are littered with wreckage. We crossed the causeway at low tide, and saw the huge, rusting hulks of ships poking up out of the water. It’s eerie. Later, while we were waiting for the bus, I was poking around on the pebbly beach, and realized I was seeing bits of detritus that didn’t really look modern—there’s just a look, you know?

That got my brain spinning—what kinds of artifacts have washed up on those shores in the last 75 years? What might a beachcomber find, when the shoreline is dotted with sunken warships? What kind of stories could that flotsam and jetsam tell?

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
https://bookwoman.com/ to subscribe.

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