Passports Four, Five and Six


“It’s like your whole life’s in there,” a friend remarked once about my fourth passport, flipping through the many stamps on its worn pages with a twinge of jealousy. At the time I was flattered. After all, I had traveled so much on it—mostly through my previous work—that I got new pages sewn in, for free, at the U.S. embassy in China. There are few more tempting grounds for self-aggrandizement than this. Imagine the comfort it affords, for example, walking home alone from bars on nights when the other guy went home with the girl. Your amusing anecdotes may have won the aggregate favor of tonight’s party guests—so the consolation goes—but have you ever had to get extra pages sewn into your passport?

Besides, my fourth passport covered ten of the most pivotal years of my life. Pimples to paychecks, make-outs to marriage, dormitories to domiciles—years 16 through 26 presented an agreeable progression, not unlike our own species’ passage from Lascaux to Lautrec. Each stamp was a geological age in my emotional maturity. I went to those places, I saw those things, I overcame—a resplendent Caesar triumphing over the shadows of my earlier, more puerile, selves.

Like I said, my friend’s comment buttered my ego nicely. Who doesn’t want to be known as a rough-and-tumble world traveler? It was only later, however, that the implications began to be downright unsettling.

For starters, my fifth passport was destroyed by fire. Not a house fire, nothing so tragic as that. I did it myself. Under my own volition. It came in the mail when I ordered it after my fourth expired on my 26th birthday, and I received it, held it in my hands for a few moments, and then threw it into the microwave, upon which it immediately burst into acrid flames.

As impulsive as this may seem, I was acting out a bit of advice from a friend who I now realize is some sort of anarcho-libertarian. All new U.S. passports since 2006 have a RFID chip inserted into the cover, he told me, which broadcasts the holder’s biographical information and current location to electronic readers in customs queues in airports around the world. First issued under the second Bush administration (that old conspiratorialist bugaboo), he told me hackers—and governments—have the ability to steal your information from these mindlessly broadcasting chips and put them to nefarious use. For privacy’s sake, he urged me, you should destroy the RFID chip with a quick hammer blow, a bout in the washing machine or, his personal favorite, a 3-second go-around in the microwave. At the time it sounded sensible. Nobody would know the difference, he said. You can’t see the damage, he said. It’s not illegal, he said. He certainly never mentioned the possibility of flames.

Clearly I did not think this through.

After the fact, with a melted RFID chip and a charred passport stashed away in a shoebox under my bed, I discovered the State Department website warns that tampering with passports is a federal offense subject to 30 years in prison, right up there with treason and insurrection. I thought of draft dodgers, anarchists, wild-eyed and frothing, men and women without reason who trample on social norms and believe in aliens. These were people who believed the moon landings were staged. They would tell you to your face that the CIA created AIDS to kill black people. My God! I was not one of these people! I was not ready to join their ranks! Relent! Relent!

But the facts were there under my bed. What kind of man would destroy his passport with fire? What noxious fumes exhaled by a fevered mind would lead to such symbolic violence?

As though in confirmation of my fears, the website noted that damaged passports had to be brought in person to a local post office for an interview before a reapplication could be granted.

Surely this was meant to check the mental wellness of the applicant, to ascertain his or her political views, to judge their proclivity for violence against the state. Why else the need for an interview?

Perhaps they would ask me vaguely ominous nonsensical questions like, “You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm. How do you react?” or “You’ve got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar. What do you do?” The horror! My twitching eyes and dilating pupils would be all they would need.

I had diarrhea the day the interview came. The nervous kind.

They ushered me into the conventionally small room beloved by bureaucracy everywhere, with a single table, four chairs, and a dangling light fixture of middling quality overhead. Everything was grey except the door, which was off-white. You could hear the sound of air circulating in vents. I waited in silence for some moments.

The door opened and a Chinese postal employee with slick hair came in. He was followed by a big Anglo-Saxon man in a black suit and crisp white Oxford-collared dress shirt. I could smell the starch—oddly menacing, intrusive.

The first man sat down in front of me and shuffled some papers around. He didn’t even say hello.

“Your passport was—burned,” he said at last. The last word was elongated, mouthed with a peculiar emphasis. I noted the use of passive tense. Ironic? Sneering? It was impossible to tell.


They both exchanged an inscrutable glance. The postal worker marked something down on a pad of paper before him.

“Is there anything else you wish to say?”

Was there? Should there be? What magic word was I to utter to dispel all suspicion from my person—I, who held the proverbial smoking passport there in my trembling hand on the table? Surely, to them, I already appeared crazed. Surely, to them, the jewels of sweat inch-worming down my face were signs of suppressed guilt, not merely the body’s natural coolant mechanism employed against the devastating heat of the room. But no verbal deliverance could be sought; no utterance could clothe my nakedness against the uniform eye of the State and her institutions. Had I ever thought to displease her? Had I thought myself obdurate enough to grabble with her will? The worm of diarrhea twitched again.

“No. I have nothing else to say.”

The Anglo-Saxon man shifted on his feet, the barbaric blood of his pagan ancestors no doubt baying for violence in his druidic veins.

I felt fear. Real fear, hot in the blood vessels beneath my skin.

Suddenly the Chinese man pushed his chair back from the table. The metal legs grated loudly against the linoleum, etching white trails into their speckled grey-and-black surface. He looked over my shoulder at a vanishing point somewhere outside of space and time.

“Goddamn, I just can’t do this anymore,” he said. He swept a hand through his gelled hair and held it there with a kind of desperation. “Trent,” he said, presumably to the Anglo-Saxon man, “I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore.”

Was this a kind of ruse, some kind of elaborate theater intended to break my resolve? To expose my chattering insanity in the cruelest way possible—through machinations and mind games? I didn’t understand. What were they playing at?

He looked at me searchingly. “You don’t mind if I smoke? Of course not. ”

He had answered the question already, so I said nothing. He flicked out a pack of Kent from inside his postal uniform and slipped one between his lips. He lit it and took a long drag.

The diarrhea kept twitching deep within, but there was a new sensation dawning now, slowly of course, but with an unfolding inevitability. It was a sensation of—what? Kinship, perhaps. A sort of fellow-feeling, one that was alive with shared bitterness. It was a bit like biting into a steak at a restaurant and realizing, with a grimace, that the meat was rotten—and seeing the same grimace on the face of a man across the way, steak-knife in one hand, the first bite still bursting with corruption in his mouth.

“I hate my job,” he said, to nobody in particular.

And then he said, “Supervisors don’t give us smoke breaks.”

Later he said, “It’s been a long week.”

The possibility that I had been wrong about everything broke across my mental landscape for the first time.

Trent and I watched him smoke in silence, the whole thing, probably five or ten minutes. You could still hear the air ventilation, enough sound to fill in the blank edges of your perception.  The Chinese man kept his eyes closed. Trent stood with his arms behind his back and maintained a face that was unreadable, blank—a void onto which one could paint a thousand different possibilities. It was remarkable only in its absence of expression.

In the silence, I realized they were both essentially sad and pathetic characters, mere cogs, like myself. What I had mistaken for cold menace was in fact indifference—but a brutalizing indifference, the leveling indifference of procedures, memos, and bureaucratic seals.

After a while, the Chinese man pressed the butt into the table, rotating his wrist to grind out the last bit of life left in the coal. He brushed the detritus onto his hand and then deposited it into his breast pocket.

“Sorry, Trent,” he said again to the Anglo-Saxon man. And then to me he said, “Thanks for that.”

He looked at some papers before him, stamped two of them, signed another and then got up. Without looking at me he said, “Ok, we’re done here. You’ll get your next passport in four to six weeks.”

And then both he and Trent walked out the door.

My bowels unclenched in the gastrointestinal equivalent of a hallelujah. I had no idea what had just happened in the particular, but in the general sense, I knew I was home free.

Not quite, as it turns out. My sixth passport was a long time in coming.



The rest of this piece can be found in this week’s issue of the Curator. 

Not Home for the Holidays

I wanted to travel to Pennsylvania to be with my family this Christmas. My family always swaddles the holiday thick with traditions, and I missed those. On Christmas Eve, my mom crushes candy canes for homemade peppermint stick ice cream. That night, my dad sometimes builds a fire on the far side of their pond. The family creaks through frosty grass and takes seats around the fire, reading Luke’s gospel and imagining what it would have been like to “keep watch over… flocks at night.”  They attempt “Away in a Manger,” starting too low, their voices by the end sounding like chairs rasping across a floor. On Christmas morning, they always have cinnamon rolls and coffee while opening stocking stuffers. They open presents, and then eat waffles.

I wanted to be in Florida with my in-laws for the new year, which is tradition, too. This year, we had a new niece down there we hadn’t met yet. We kept browsing for cheap tickets.

I have spent several Christmases marooned in Chicago. This year, with gas prices and unemployment both so high, I suspect that more people were separated from their families over the holidays.  Indeed, Laura Donovan wrote about this trend in her article “A Very Skype-y Thanksgiving.” Some probably considered themselves plucked from the fires of dysfunction.  Googling “not going home for the holidays,” an abundance of articles about surviving holidays at home cropped up. Others no doubt felt exiled and, even as adults, a tad homesick. It still just feels like Christmas is where Mom is. There’s no way around it.

How can we exiles handle the distance?

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I spent a lot of time Grinching. I didn’t buy a Christmas tree. Not even an artificial or Charlie Brown tree. No wreaths or greenery or cranberry popcorn chains. No sharp fir smell in our apartment. No special candles or Advent calendars. No Christmas music. This was partly because I’m a teacher and it was the end-of-semester crunch. But also, it was a classic disappointment pirouette: one begins the pirouette by caring deeply, and then feels a slight turn when disappointment hits, and then concludes the circle by resenting the very thing once held so dear. To wit: “I would love to be home for Christmas,” “I can’t go home,” “Christmas is lame.”

Eventually, I began to take heart, though. Christmas, I realized, isn’t primarily about family. Christmas is a holiday in the root sense of the word.  Paraphrasing the OED here, the old English root, háligdæg, always meant consecrated day or religious festival, and the definition that meant “vacation” or “a day off” was always tied to the concept of the day’s holiness. The Immortal and Invisible becoming flesh and dwelling among us: this is what Christians consecrate on this day.

I began to realize that family togetherness can symbolize the incarnation for Christians. We reenact some aspects of the holy drama when we dwell with one another. Family togetherness is not the whole point of Christmas, so I could be of good cheer because of that, because it meant I could still consecrate the day in a whole and full-hearted way. Family togetherness is, however, a great symbol for Christ coming to his own, so enjoying and remembering family was still something I wished to pursue somehow.

Even though family togetherness–mingled voices, rumpled Christmas-morning hair, arms touching while sitting four on a couch–couldn’t happen on Christmas, I discovered a few ways to enjoy presence despite that.

If it was the incarnation that was really moving me to celebrate Christmas, I wanted to remember Christ’s birth in a way that involved both flesh and spirit.

First of all, I wanted to sing. “Music is about as physical as it gets,” Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies. “Your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it sometimes lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.” Music can use the body to bring about the mind and spirit’s change, so instead of Grinching, I went to our church’s Christmas service and belted out carols. I sang “Joy to the World” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” while cooking. I hummed along with Neil Young’s version of “What Child Is This?” on Christmas at the Ranch, one of the few Christmas albums we own.

I didn’t go out and buy a Christmas tree (I think in Chicago they cost about as much as my month’s rent), but I did inspire sense of sight and smell by lighting a Christmas candle, displaying Christmas cards, and arranging some ornaments on a bookshelf. It was enough to remind me of the season’s purpose, so it worked.

From this refocused core, I wanted to let my family know that I wished I could be with them. I called them and Skyped with them. I sent them some Orange-flavored coffee from Chicago’s own Orange restaurant and they drank some for Christmas breakfast. I gave them some homemade cranberry applesauce and it became a side-dish for their Christmas dinner. I like the idea that something of substance was there with them, something to sustain the flesh.

It also seemed to make sense that I would be present with the people who were here, either with other people who are in Chicago this Christmas, or just with my husband. For Christmas breakfast, we made crepes. For Christmas dinner, we created the best homemade pizzas imaginable. It was an unconventional Christmas dinner, but why not?  It’s my husband’s favorite meal, and making even classier varieties than usual made the day special.

I wanted to be in Pennsylvania for Christmas. I wanted to be in Florida for New Year’s Day. A few days before Christmas, my in-laws told us to go ahead and buy tickets, even if we couldn’t find a great deal. I got to hear my six-month old niece laugh, and all season long it felt good truly to be where I was, and truly to remember the presence of God, who has come so close.

The Hunt for the Real Autumn

Each year around this time, without fail, New York City is abuzz with the residents’ autumnal alacrity, having had had quite enough of the sweaty summer season. Enthusiastic praise is given first to the colors, then to the smells, eventually the tastes, and finally to the sensation of a crisp breeze wafting through city streets. With warm smiles anticipating the romance of a fairy tale, friends look at me with shining eyes and ask, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

Immediately, suspicion wells up within me. “Where are you from?” I ask, already knowing the answer to be one of three American states.

“California,” the majority of them say, though a few hail from Texas or Tennessee.

“That figures,” I mutter, sometimes under my breath, sometimes loud enough to be certain I’ve been heard. My response is always followed with the question: What is that supposed to mean?

It means this: I grew up in New England. What’s that supposed to mean, you ask? It means that generally, when it comes to autumn anywhere else, I’m emphatically not impressed. The mediocre color splotches available in Central Park plummet far below the standards of “fall foliage;” I’ve never even seen a pumpkin in the concrete jungle; and on the rare and coincidental occasion that I’ve caught a whiff of anything remotely resembling freshly-baked-pie-goodness, it has rapidly been followed by the smell of two-week-old-baked-goodness-tossed-in-the-garbage-pail, which – in case this part wasn’t clear – spoils the mood entirely.

Oh, yes, I love fall. But expecting me to love it anywhere except New England (with the possible exception of the real England) is like expecting a second-grader to like an uninspired apple over the sugary bliss of the candy kind; the very thought embodies futility.

Fortunately, New England isn’t far from New York City, and you need not burrow deeply into the northernmost parts of the region to experience some of that fairy-tale-fall that has warmed my heart for so many years. If you’re in the neighborhood, and you are up for a far-north frolicking or just a day-long getaway, here are a few spots to visit to make your autumnal adventures far more magical than any other place America has to offer. (With apologies to the rest of America.)

Gillette Castle, East Haddam, CT – Perched high above the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle, originally known as Seven Sisters, was the residence of actor William Gillette, famous for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. One only has to spend a few seconds on the property to understand why Gillette fell in love with it. From the garden, the view stretches for miles, trees splashed in every color of autumn clustered close together and running along both sides of the Connecticut River all the way to the horizon. For a bird’s-eye view of the fall season, there are few options superior and none quite as convenient. An added bonus is the mysterious nature of a castle fashioned with secret passages, spy-holes, and even its own personal underground railway. Pack a picnic lunch to eat amidst the leaves fallen on the grounds below the castle, or make a night of it camping at the foot of the mountain.

Northeast Kingdom, VT – The furthest of the fun times, the scenic drive alone merits mention, let alone all the quaint comforts of cozy New England offered in the Northeast Kingdom.Unlike some of the more densely populated parts of southern New England, the Northeast Kingdom boasts full-length hayrides through the grassy plains of the least commercialized farmlands in the region, foliage paddles along on the Clyde River, harvest fairs, hiking through the crisp forests of the Burke Mountains, and the New England autumn signature Great Vermont Corn Maze. To satisfy your taste buds, stop off for some quality unfiltered ale samplings at the Trout River Brewery in Lyndonville or hit up the Cow Palace in Derby for their famous elk burgers. (For those overly-zealous carnivores, you can even “meet the meat” in the backyard, posing for pictures with someone’s future lunch if the elk are unsuspecting enough to approach you. No sudden movements, people.) Best of all, at least for earth-conscious New Yorkers, it doesn’t get greener than the Northeast Kingdom, and thanks to a geotourism program being developed in conjunction with National Geographic, your presence there will actually help to sustain the region’s natural environment.

Hudson Highland/Fjord, Cold Spring, NY– Okay. Technically, it’s not New England, but lest my regional snobbery paint me to be too exclusive for my own good, let it be known that upstate New York offers most of the same nostalgic delicacies as the rest of New England. The Hudson Highland and Hudson Fjord provide an all-encompassing experience of autumn’s natural beauty, only a couple of hours north of the suffocating faux-fall of New York City. Offering views from far above the Hudson River as well as the unique experience of a glacier-carved valley between the highland mountains, few sites in the northeast have such a robust selection of scenery. After a sojourn across the Bear Mountain Bridge, visit some of the town’s antique structures, go kayaking along the river (don’t forget your wetsuit), picnic at Little Stony Point State Park, or, if you’ve had quite enough of nature, visit Main Street for the best small-town shopping along the Hudson.

Natural Bridge State Park, North Adams, MA – Home to the only naturally formed white marble “bridge” in North America, the park offers, amidst a kaleidoscope of colors, a 13,000 year old bedrock marble bridge formed by eons of glacial movements. Visit Hudson’s Cave, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in An American Notebook, or just watch the Hudson Brook bubble through the park’s naturally formed gorge. For nearby nature adventures in North Adams, visit the stunning Berkshire Mountain trails, two other state parks, and vibrant local waterfalls. If town tourism is your fancy, make sure to check out Mass MoCA for a healthy dose of contemporary visual and performing arts.

Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, CT – What would autumn be without apples? Whether you pick your own or buy from the fresh piles inside, Lyman Orchards boasts some of the finest fall fruit in the country. Running the ninth-oldest family-operated business in American, the Lymans remain dedicated to preserving their land and homegrown produce for generations to come. After lunch on the beautiful patio deck overlooking the orchards, get lost in the yellow glow of the unique sunflower maze, stay traditional with the classic corn maze out front, or tromp through the pumpkin patch and find yourself the perfect piece for jack-o-lanterns, rich pumpkin bread, sugary pie, and roasted seeds. Don’t forget your golf clubs!

For a list of the best places to see foliage throughout the season, check out Yankee Foliage’s peak map.

No matter what your New England autumn adventure looks like, be assured that when you return to your humble home, you will scoff heartily at the question, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

“Oh, yes,” you’ll say. “I do love the fall. And I guess this is pretty nice, too.”

Rick Steves, Travel Guru

If you’ve ever been browsing PBS during random afternoon hours or late at night, you might have come across an awkward khaki-pantsed northwesterner with a Minnesotan accent stumbling through basic phrases in Finnish whilst trying to buy a herring in Helsinki. This man is Rick Steves. His program is Rick Steves’ Europe, and to the elation of millions, it is now on Hulu.

This may sound like paltry news to some, but I take it as a sign of a fascinating monopoly on a very large tourism industry. Or at the very least, a sign of Rick Steves’ rapid rise to geek-chic popularity.

Rick Steves’ Europe is a travel program centered on a philosophy of traveling “through the back door.” Steves has traveled to Europe and beyond for 30 years, providing readers and audiences with something other than large tour groups, stuff-your-face cruises, and the out-of-reach extravagancies that you usually find on the nostalgically opulent Travel Channel.

Steves’ philosophy is that “globe-trotting destroys ethnocentricity,” and he makes no bones about it: his efforts in educating you as a traveler are intended not only to give you a better travel experience, but also to build a better reputation for the U.S. in the minds of the rest of the world.

It is this philosophy that has popularized Rick Steves – not his glitzy production value (there isn’t any), nor his jaw-dropping excursions (he’s never been on one), and definitely not his fashionable appearance (he wears the same thing for his entire trip: khaki pants and a button-up short sleeve shirt, usually with a very plain backpack slung over one shoulder).

No, Rick Steves has built an empire on being awkward. Or rather, he has built an empire on being okay with being awkward, especially in foreign countries.

Why is all of this important? Because his guidebooks often sell out to preorders before making it to the shelves. His is by far the best-selling travel guidebook in America.

This is saying something. A few years ago, it seemed like the best options for traversing Europe were to a) backpack it, staying in grimy hostiles, showing up in places where you had little idea of how to see the sites, or b) join a massive tour group.

For those wanting to take a European vacation that was thrifty and adventurous, yet broadened your cultural horizons, there were few books or television shows that could show you the way.

If you purchased your standard travel guide, it came along with a healthy speculation of what was being recommended, always making you wonder if someone was getting a kickback at your expense. But Steves’ has eliminated this concern. He has no endorsements, and he declines the extravagant event invitations offered to him by tourism boards. He is interested in traveling as most people must travel: on a strict budget. As he states in his philosophy:

“In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you came to see. Europe is a cultural carnival, and, time after time, you’ll find that its best acts are free and the best seats are the cheap ones.

A tight budget forces you to travel close to the ground, meeting and communicating with the people, not relying on service with a purchased smile… Simply enjoy the local-style alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants.”

Steves encourages lodging with the grandma who happens to have a spare room and plenty of fresh scones as opposed to the lavish hotel with a bellboy who is eager for his tip. And he tells you where that grandma lives and gives you her phone number.

Instead of leaving you to pay for guided tours that might inevitably end in various gift shops, Rick Steves provides informational tours for you via downloadable MP3s. In Rome, for example, he has designed a “night walk” that includes large amounts of history and the best gelato places in town.

Steves has written an excellent book called Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler to give you a wider perspective before diving into the overwhelming amount of history you can encounter in Europe.

He emphasizes the art of picnicking in France to save money, and lets you know the name of the bartender at a hidden pub/bicycle shop in Ireland.

As evidenced by a number of awkward exchanges on his TV show, all of this comes at Rick’s expense, as he puts himself out there. He knows that to reap to biggest benefits from traveling, you must “become a temporary local,” and that often means going outside your comfort zone. But he emphasizes doing this with a polite yet curious attitude, not a snooping loud one.

What is remarkable is that Rick knows one language: English. After 30 years of traveling around Europe, he has made a point of learning how to creatively communicate with locals for the sake of his audience.

So, what does all of Steves’ awkward fame mean? It seems backward to equate a lack of coolness to a better cultural perspective, but then again, that might not be so far off the mark. Steves is transforming what it means to have a good vacation. He values cultural engagement more than comfortable hotels. He values history and education more than making the funniest face next to the Buckingham Palace Guard. He makes the Ugly American a nerd.

Steves’ philosophy is restoring a spirit of courtesy and politeness to what has become the image of American tourists: generally, a bully. He humanizes that which is foreign through a willingness to be uncomfortable. He’s endlessly curious about what shaped him, about his cultural roots.

What he has done with his books and programs is taken these values, very wisely assumed that they mattered to millions of other Americans, and monopolized a portion of the travel industry through the application of this very hopeful philosophy.

His approach intelligently upholds a respect for the truest desire of his audience: to understand themselves and others more fully by traveling. He has created a wiser consumer by assuming that his audience values being culturally savvy. In my mind, that makes good business sense.

Steves’ competitors are surely taking notice of his uncomfortable savoir-faire. Let’s see if the rest of the travel industry is willing to get a little awkward along with him.