What I Did On My Christmas Vacation
Northward, Huh?

a rough attempt at a travel journal
by Roger MacBride Allen

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Note: Clicking on "Start of Current Journal Entry" should jump you to the first entry since I last updated the online version of this file, so you jump past older entries you have already read. At any given time, there will likely be several entries after the current entry start-point.

Brasilia, Brazil: December 18, 1996. Eleanore and I are off to the States for a visit home at Christmas. If all goes well, we should make set off on Saturday, December 21, traveling through the night via Sao Paulo, Atlanta, and San Francisco, en route to our first port of call, Carmel, California. We'll visit there with her parents before traveling with them back to their home in Fresno, California. My plan is to try and keep updating this file during the trip, uploading the current version whenever I can get near a computer with an Internet connection. I might not be able to get on that often, and I might have to resort to fairly rough-and-ready hook-ups and text editors, but we'll see how it goes.

I'm looking forward to this trip with the usual mix of excitement and apprehension over such weighty matters as how many pairs of socks to pack. (The answer might be none: I'm planning to do a sock-and-underwear run as soon as possible. My current sock and underwear supply is looking pretty ratty after two years in the tropics, and it would let me travel lighter.)

Travel, especially extended travel over long distances, can be something of a nuisance, as well as an adventure. Sometimes I worry a bit too much about the nuisance, and enjoy the adventure too little. Here's hoping I do better this time. If all goes as expected, I'll be on the road until about January 18, 1997, and wind up getting to lots of very different places. But, on the other hand, things rarely go as expected, which is what makes travel journals entertaining. So stop in here from time to time and check the state of play.

Brasilia, Brazil: December 21, 1996. Well, that goes to show how much I know. I figured nothing else much could happen before we left. Instead, we seem to have this second cat, provisionally named Jasper, weight: 410 grams, or about 15 ounces. Size: about that of a mid-sized hot dog (with bun), or a large ham sandwich when curled up. At a guess, he is four weeks old. His mother was a cat who hung around the ground level of our apartment building. It seems that one of the janitors got tired of having the cat around, and so scooped up Momcat plus three out of four kittens, and dumped them at the edge of town. This splendidly kind janitor accidently left one kitten (one very loud kitten) behind. We heard the little dude yawping and decided to investigate. Being a pair of old softies, my wife Eleanore and I found ourselves taking the teeny thing upstairs "just to him some milk. That was three days ago, and the kitten is still there. The problem is, we aren't. I am writing this entry from seat 3A of Varig's flight 279 to Sao Paulo. We have friends coming in to take care of our existing cat,the Woozle, and we couldn't find anyone to take on Jasper, so we're stuck. It was leave Jasper at our apartment or let the poor little dude die. (Our decision to keep him was made easier by his being very cute, very brave, and very affectionate. He's particularly fond of curling up on one's shoulder and sleeping there.)

The problems don't end with schedule problems, however. Eleanore is allergic to cats, and I've had to give Woozle a bath once a week. One cat is bad enough, but two cats may well be more than Eleanore's nose can take. We'll see when Eleanore gets back. (The plan is for her to return to Brasilia before me.)

Woozle, for what it is worth, is fascinated by Jasper, and alternates between very gentle, almost maternal, behavior, and treating the kitten as a sort of superior type of squeak toy. He hasn't hurt Jasper, and Jasper tolerates the rough-housing quite well, so things should be all right.

December 21, 1996: Sao Paulo, Brasil. Here we are now, in the next airline along on this little saga. Sao Paulo is quite a place. This one city by itself has one-half the population of all Canada. Just as New Yory City is in New York State, the city of Sao Paulo is in the state of the same name. All by itself, Sao Paulo State represents one of the largest economies in South America. And we, despite a five-hour layover, won't get to see any of it. By the time we go to where the bus to the city leaves from, waited on the next departure, and took the bus in, it would be time to come back to the airport. So instead of dining at one of the many spectacular restaurants in the huge and strange city, we are at a snackbar at the airport, a spot by the name of Padelho Multi Doces Caseiros Ltda. Loosely translated, that means "It Would Be Wise to Chew Very Thoroughly Before Attempting To Swallow." (All right, maybe it doesn't mean that -- but after that meal, I can tell you that it should.

One feature of Brazilian life has been on repeated display today as we ran about doing our last-minute errands. Brazil is the land of no change. Not change in the sense of not being the same -- but change in the sense of being able to break a twenty. No one here can break a twenty real-- in part for the very good reason that there is no such thing. The real is worth about 95 cents American at the moment. (The word "real" is pronounced "HEY-al." The plural is spelled "reais" and prounounced "HEY-ice." There are one real, five real, ten real, fifty real, and one hundred real notes -- but no twenty -- and no one ever has change for a ten, and rarely for a five. This means that once you're stuck with a fifty real note, you're dead. It can take days to find someone able to break that big a note. Nor is it just the big notes. Eleanore and I once went to a street vendor who was selling every item on his cart for the same price -- one real each. Judging by all the empty soda bottles in the return bins by his cart, he had done good business that day. We bought two sodas and a bag of potato chips. Total: R$3.00. I gave him a five. He could not -- or at least would not -- give me the R$2.00 change. We had to scramble through all our pockets for small coins and a crumbled one real note in order to pay him.

In an utterly typical transaction, I recently bought R$44.55 worth of groceries at the local hypermarket -- a place with at least thirty cash registers, and covering several acres. I handed over a fifty -- and had to wait ten or fifteen minutes for the runner to come from the central office, get the fifty, and then come back with my $4.45 in change. Those who do arithmetic without thinking will notice the flaw there. The change was a realshort -- but by that time, the runner was already over the horizon, and I figured R$1.00 was a small price to pay for getting the hell out of there. This sort of thing is far from rare. Try as you might to be prepared, t here are times when you simply don't have small bills, and yet need to buy something. It is wisest at such time to factor in enough time for the merchant to send someone across the street to the store across the way, in hopes of finding someone with enough cash on hand to give two fiver for a ten.

No one in this country has change. There is -- or at least used to be -- a good reason for this: hyperinflation. Brazil has gone through four currencies since 1985, the first three of which inflated away to almost nothing at all. The current currency, the real, is inflating at "only" about fifteen percent a year. If inflation got anywhere near that point in the U.S., the President would have to get his resume in order. Down here, fifteen or eighteen percent inflation is considered "almost" zero. The last currency hit a monthly inflation rate of forty percent, which works out to a yearly rate of about 4000 percent! It also comes to a daily inflation rate of four percent.

And that means no change, for two reasons. One, the value of coins inflates away to almost nothing in the space of a few months. If what cost five cents in June costs five dollars in January, no one is going to bother keeping nickels on hand. Second, the money in the till is losing its value as well. Put a dollar's worth of change in the till Monday morning, and by nightfall it's only worth 98 cents. By Tuesday morning, it's worth 96 cents. By the end of the week, it might only be worth 75 or 80 cents. In lieu of change, many stores kept jar full of gum and candy by the register, so customers could take their change that would hold its value until morning. In some stores, there were people whose full-time job was to change prices. Other stores simply posted prices in U.S. dollars and did the conversion -- based on that hour's exchange rate -- at the check-out.

The most rational thing to do with money in a hyper-inflationary situation is to get rid of it: to buy something, to exchange it for a more stable currency, or even to run up a debt before you get the money, so you can pay it off later with money that has lost value since you took on the debt. (People did this with checks all the time, for example, writing checks on Friday and Saturday against checks that would not be deposited until Monday. For some reason, Brazilian merchants will accept checks for anything from anyone without any ID, even though the bad-check rate is astronomically high.)

In short, in order to dodge inflation, people invested a great deal of time and effort playing games with money. At least people who could afford to do played them. The very poor clearly couldn't move in and out of dollars in order to hedge against inflation. For this reason, hyperinflation hit the poor the hardest. Many upper-class people learned how to flip money around so adeptly that they actually made a profit out of inflation.

In any event, since change was worthless, the whole nation got into the habit of not having change. Today, in post-inflation Brazil, not having change is one of the many subtle relics of the bad old days. There are many such imbedded in the everyday life of Brazil. Shopping carts have hook-and-chaing arrangements on their front ends, so several carts can be strung together at once. (That way, you can buy more at once, and use up all your cash before it evaporates.) Buses have a live conductor to collect fares. (If the fare changes constantly, you can't adjust the farebox often enough to keep up, so you don't have a farebox. Instead you have someone whose job it is simply to know how much the bus ride cost today. Those dishes of gum and candy are still there by many a cash-register. Stores, even small ones, have to have enough staff on hand so that someone is available to run for change.

Such contrivances are plainly inefficienet and unwieldly. They aren't needed these days, and yet they remain in place because people are used to them, and because, for example, people developed their shopping habits during the years of inflation. They'll stay around until present-day incovenience outweighs old hands -- and they'll stay until the Brazilian people are absolutely certain that hyperinflation -- a condition that was the normal state of affairs for much of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s -- is not coming back. Things are looking up at the moment, but given the track record of Brazilian currencies, it could be a long wait.

In the meantime, I'm still stuck with this fifty. You wouldn't happen to have five tens, would you?

Atlanta, Georgia: December 22, 1996, 8:40 am. We have now made our first port of call here in the United States, and celebrated by purchasing such typical Southern delicacies as bagels and the Sunday New York Times. We're busily noting hair and clothing styles that have changed, reveling in feeling cold air instead of 90-degree heat (which is just not right in December). I am also reminded that Americans are also much bigger, on average, than Brazilians. Suddenly I am no longer abnormally huge. We're also enjoying the chance to deal with courtesy, competent, confident help behind the counter, instead of excessively deferential staff who don't actually know their jobs.

It's also a bit startling to be reminded just how different the color palette for people is back here. In the U.S., there's black and white and Asian, with very little admixture (though we won't see many Asians until we hit San Francisco.) The people in Brazil come in a vastly wider number of colors, with a lot more shades in the middle, and skin color not corresponding anywhere near as much to facial shape or bone structure.

We also could not help noticing that people here at the Atlanta airport aren't color-coded by job. There is, of course, terrible racism in the United States, but at least you can't automatically tell how menial a person's job is by the color of his skin. (I am ashamed to say that I once saw a dark-skinned black Brazilian driving a car and did a double-take. After living there for a year or more, I had learned that people with that shade of skin could not afford cars. They can barely afford food. In Brazil, people dark-skinned enough to be considered black by American standards are on the absolute bottom rung by any standard you could name -- income level, life expectency, access to health care, literacy -- and the gap is wider and deeper than the gap in the United States. It is also just about absolute. Middle- and upper-class Brazilian blacks do not,for all intents and purposes, exist. It's wonderful to see well-fed, well-dressed, prosperous, healthy-looking black people again.

It's nice to be home.

Jet-Lagged in a Tree-house: Carmel, California, December 24, 1996 Well, the rest of yesterday was interesting, and most of it was even fun. After a perfectly fine flight from Atlanta, we had a somewhat bumpy approach and landing at San Francisco -- with the result that I managed to be somewhat emphatically airsick literally thirty seconds before touchdown. Disgusting, but no big deal, and it wasn't too bad a clean-up. We boarded our first aircraft in Brasilia at 5:30 pmBrazil time, and arrived in San Fransisco at abut 11:30 am. From there we went straight to Union Square to admire the Christmans decoraions, boggle at the prices at Neiman-Marcus, and take a look at the strange artwork on sale at Gump's. Then it was time to hurry over to my brother-in-law Carl's apartment, near Golden Gate Park. Carl has just learned he has been accepted into the Foreign Service, and will start training in January. This, of course, led to a lot of shop talk between Eleanore and Carl. A crowd of other relatives materialized, and we all had a terrific take-out Thai food lunch. Then Carl, Eleanore, their parents and myself packed outselves into the minivan, and it was off to collect a friend of Carl's before driving on to Carmel, California, and the property Eleanore's family owns there. There are two houses on the property, and Eleanore and I slept in the main house that night, and went to bed early by California standards, but about three in the morning by Brazil standards. It had been a very long day.

The next morning, December 23, after a leisurely breakfast, we transferred our belongings to the other house -- an actual and authentic tree-house, built in and around and through a redwood tree, with several other trees growing up through the frame of the house. The place has running water, heat, electricity, and phone service, but also is a trifle on the eccentric side. You have to go through the shower-stall to go from one lowr-level room to another, for example. Then it was off to Point Lobos Park to admire the sea-otters and seals and sea lions lolloping on the shore and in the surf. We also saw whales spouting off toward the horizon -- or at least we saw spouts. I suppose that doesn't count as actually seeing a whale. After running a few errands in the town of Carmel, and feeding the rather aggressive geese in the pond at the center of town, it was back home in order to get ready to go out for a swell dinner at a restaurant a bit further down in the coast in the opposite direction, in the Big Sur area. Then back to the tree-house, where Eleanore and I slept. The next morning, today, December 24, we got up, packed up, bought some produce, and headed for Fresno, home town to Eleanore's family. We are in the minivan, headed that way, as I close out this entry.

Fresno, California: December 26, 1996. We arrived at Eleanore's parents' home in late afternoon, and more or less immedidately dove into a flurry of wrappping presents and cooking. Eleanore and I had done most of our shopping via mail-order from Brazil, and so we weren't absolutely sure everything had shown up until we were here. It was a relief to see all the right shipping boxes waiting for us.

Carl's girlfriend Joan, Joan's brother Paul, and their mother, Fran, were due to arrive about the same time we did, but there was a flaw. The plan had been for Carl to call as we were leaving Carmel, said call serving as the cue to depart, but Joan's phone got knocked off the hook, and no one there noticed for a while. Carl figured out what must have happened, and gave up trying to call because we had to get moving. The long and the short of it is that Joan's family got moving a little late, but got here just the same.

Eleanore and I got delegated to go shopping, which we gladly did, as it had been a while since either of us had seen the inside of a proper supermarket. (There are huge grocery stores called "hypermarkets" in Brazil, but they don't have much selection. There's several acres of sales space, but instead of twenty each of ten thousand items, there are five hundred each of two thousand items -- and a lot of those items are junk.) But, of course, it went beyond seeing lots of stuff. There ws also just the fun of remembering products we had more or less forgotten existed: English muffins and fresh mushrooms, for example. Seeing fruit and vegetables that were actually fresh, and didn't have flies buzzing over them and a slight crusting of dirt was also a real novelty.

Back to the house with a huge collection of groceries, and more rushed cooking and wrapping and so on. Joan, Paul, and Fran arrived at about 8:00 pm, and we sat down to a terrific meal -- artichokes as appetizers, salmon steak as main course, and Carl's terrific chocolate mousse for dessert. By the time dinner got done, Eleanore and I (still half on Brazil time) were pretty close to exhausted, as were a number of the locals -- everyone had had a long day. There was a certain amount of juggling to do in order to get everyone a bed. Eleanore and I shoved the living room couches into a pretty comfortable bed -- though we sank so far down into the cushions that we almost vanished from sight. And so we slept.

The next morning, Christmas Day, my eyes snapped awake far earlier than they had any business doing (another relic of being on Brazil time). The rest of the household started to appear about eight am. Eleanore's father, David, is a doctor, and he had snuck out of the house about 6:30 am to do early morning rounds at a local hospital, and of course we had to wait for him. I took advantage of the chance to call my brother's house in Chapel Hill and wish all there a merry Christmas. David arrived back at about 9:10, and it was about 9:30 or so before we all got down to the serious business of opening presents.

December 27, 1996: Salt Lake City, Utah. I'm starting to fall a bit behind in my journal-keeping. Let's see if I can get caught up. Going back two days to Christmas, I'd have to say that Carl and Joan were the big winners when it came to getting gifts, mostly because it was possible to shop for them, because their lives are changing. In a funny way, Carl and Joan are easy to shop because of travel, while Eleanore and I are hard to shop for -- because of travel. Carl is heading into the Foreign Service and a lot of moving and traveling, and thus anything small and portable will come in handy. As he and Joan have been living togetether and now must break up their household (though not, it must be emphasized, their romance), Joan, for example, suddenly needed replacements for the kitchenware Carl was taking along. Eleanore and I got a lot of great presents, but we don't make it easy. Anything for us must be something we can fit back in our luggage or in the mail to Brazil. The fact that we are returning in nine months and thus must pack up whatever-it-is all over again just makes it that much trickier. Books and music do quite well under such circumstances, and we got a lot of both. The short form is that everyone gave and received really very nice gifts.

My favorite gift was at the same time my most frustrating one. My most recent book, Utopia, was published in November. No one back at the publisher or the packager remembered to send me copies. Up until the moment I opened the copy I found under the tree, I had never laid eyes on a copy of my own book.

After the big gift exchange, we sat down to a huge breakfast of eggs and home-made coffee cake. Having eaten enough that we could barely move, most of us then decided to go for a walk before returning home to start to work cooking the full turkey dinner we then had for dinner. People read the books they had gotten and played with their presents and napped in between bouts of cooking. Then it was time for the big dinner, which went very well indeed.

Joan, Fran, and Paul had to leave shortly after dinner, and the rest of us saw them off as they left. Eleanore and I moved to the fold-out couch that Fran had had the night before, and slept there. The next day, December 26, I once again woke up earlier than called for, and the rest of the crew gradually emerged. Eleanore and Carl and I had all received gift certificates for Tower Records that were burning holes in our pockets, and there were several other favorite stores of Eleanore's that she wanted to visit, and Eleanore and I had a bit of a shopping list when we got to the States. So off we went to the stores. Things required a certain amount of juggling, as the Foxes were holding an open house, but we got to nearly every place we wanted, and Liz and I even managed to sneak off long enough to see the latest Star Trek movie. We got back to the house and joined the rest of the family who were already at work setting out the food for the party.

It was a very pleasant party, with David's quartet playing for the gathering and lots of good food and good conversation. The first of the guests arrived a little after five, and the last of them left about 9:30, at which point I treated myself to a special indulgence -- two ears of fresh corn on the cob. I had purchased them on Christmas Eve, and it was a real treat to have them. There is corn on the cob in Brazil, but it is more or less universally dreadful. The corn I had last night was not the world's greatest (how could it be, this far out of season) but it was lightyears ahead of the Brazilian product.

And so, for Eleanore and myself, to bed. Before turning in, we got all packed and ready to step out the door this morning. We left the house about 6:10 am, with Carl, Liz, and David coming along, and off we went to the airport. We caught the 7:00am flight to Salt Lake City, and made a somewhat tight connection to New York City. We're on that flight as I write this entry. We should get in about 4:30, which will just give us time to get to our hotel, unpack, and change before heading off to see Show Boat tonight.

New York, New York: December 29, 1996. I'm typing this entry on the train as we leave New York after a terrific whirlwind visit. It was touch and go, but on Dec 27, a day that started in Fresno, California, we did indeed finish off at the Gershwin Theater, seats C7 and C5, watching a terrific production of Show Boat. Getting from JFK Airport to our hotel went about as smoothly as could be expected, but still it was a bit nerve-wracking to be stuck in traffic while the minutes ticked by. However, the airport bus got us to Grand Central, and the hotel shuttle bus got us to the Park Central in good order, and we just had time for a quick shower and a change of clothes before walking the six blocks to the theater.

Show Boat certainly is a terrific show full of great songs, and the performances were all first-rate. Still and all, there was something of a museum quality about the whole thing. It was lively and full of energy, but I would almost call it a reproduction, rather than a revival. I had never seem a full-blown production of it before, and one thing that struck me was that the whole issue of race relations was far less emphasized than I had expected. Aside from opening number, the famous miscegenation-accusation scene, and, I suppose, the song Old Man River, there is very little on the subject in the first act -- and nothing at all in the second act. the There was really very little in the first act about race relations, and nothing at all in the second. What struck me was that no character in the play, black or white, every actually protested against the obvious injustice, let alone act against it. The plotting was rather episoidic, and often rather thin. Show Boat was the first modern American musical, and you could see that the form was not utterly perfected the first time out of the gate. But for all of that, it was a great time, and a delight to see.

After the show, we found a Chinese restaurant that was open and treated ourselves to a few properly spicy dishes. (Brazilians seem to like their Chinese food bland.) By that time, Eleanore and I were both just plain tuckered out. The next morning, December 28th, we were up and out by about nine a.m. for breakfast at the Carnegie Deli, where I am about ninety-nine percent sure I saw the actor Daniel Stern go past at on his was to a table at the rear, two small boys in tow. The other highlight of our Carnegie breakfast was hearing our hard-boiled tough-old-broad, made-in-Brooklyn waitress using one of her two or three phrases in Japanese to see if the two vacationing Office Ladies next to us were ready for their check. Internationalism rules. (I must add that I noticed a number of stores and shops with Brazilian flags up. We heard a few snatches of Portuguese here and there as we walked about. Our friends to the south are indeed starting to make their presence known.

We grabbed a cab to the Guggenheim Museum, but found out that the exhibit Eleanore wanted to see -- works by Max Becker -- were at the galley's Soho location. So we walked down to the Netropolitan Museum of Art, and caught several of the the special exhibits there. I'd have to say the British miniature portraits and the Nefertiti exhibits were my favorites. We stuck our noses into the Christian Dior exhibition, but it was utterly mobbed. Indeed, by the time we were ready to be on our way, the whole museum was getting extremely crowded. The morale of the story: try and find ways to get there on Tuesdays, outside the tourist season.

Upon leaving the museum, we took a cab back down to the theater district and the matinee of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, starring Nathan Lane. He was brilliant, absolutely hilarious. Whatever reservations I might had had about revivals after Show Boat utterly vanished once Forum kicked off. It was hilarious from start to finish, tightly paced, sharply done, quick and smart and bawdy. If you have any chance at all, go see it -- while Nathan Lane is in it. He is going to be replaced by Whoopi Goldberg in February. That seems like a bit of suicidally odd casting for a role originated by Zero Mostel, a role that, for example,calls for a lot of ogling of show girls. I don't know how they'll pull it off. But if they do manage to make Whoopi work in the role, it will be an acto of show business genius, or miracle -- because it sure won't be a case of show business logic.

After the show, we walked, by gradual stages, over to the corner of Second Avenue and E. 70th, pausing to wander into this or that shop on the way, and hacking our way through the incredible crowds in and around Rockefeller Center. It was amazing how many people were bustling around. The crowds in Times Square and Rockefeller Center were so large they almost seemed to link up.

We got to Second and 70th and went up to my friend Jim's apartment. Jim is on a high floor with a southern view of the city, and it is just a spectacular sight. We had a good dinner with Jim at a restaurant near his house. We had discussed going to a late movie, but by ten, when we were back at Jim's apartment to go over the movie listings, Eleanore was coming close to dozing off. We took that as a sign from above and decide to cancel the movie and grab a cab back to our hotel. Eleanore went straight to bed, but I was feeling restless, and walked down Seventh Avenue and Broadway through the bustling crowds. I had heard some complaints that Time Square has been turned into a theme park, and I can understand the complaint -- but on the other hand, it is the crowds, the people, the energy that make Time Square what it is supposed to be, and they were all there. Everyone was there, and they were all having a fun and exciting time. I couldn't help but notice one street vendor already had Happy New Year hats for sale. But, after a quick exploration, it was time for me to get to bed as well. The next day was going to be a busy one.

January 5, 1997: Bethesda, Maryland. The problem with keeping this sort of record is that it is often hard to live a series of events sufficiently interesting to merit a journal, while still finding time to write about what happens. That's certainly the case here. I am now nearly a week behind, and will have to struggle a bit to get caught up. But, for the time being, I think I'd better just upload what I have so far before I get any further behind.

January 5, 1997, 11:47 pm: Bethesda, Maryland.As I am now a bit more than a bit behind on this journal, I will do the next few days date by date.

December 29, 1996. Eleanore and I got up about eight and packed up for the next leg of the journey. After a bit of struggle, we got packed out and checked out of the hotel and hailed a cab to Penn Station, where we bought tickets for Washington and checked our luggage. As we were running about an hour late, thanks to rather long lines for pretty much every transaction, we splurged on yet another cab, and rode it to Lori and Larry's apartment, Lori being Eleanore's second cousin (unless they are first cousins once removed -- I don't have it quite straight. The four of us visited in their apartment for a bit before heading over to a classic New York Greek-run diner, where we had a first-rate diner-style breakfast and caught up on family gossip and stories. Larry had to head off to work, but ELeanore, Lori and I went back to their apartment for a bit, and then the three of us walked over to the Strand bookstore and rummaged around the shelves there. The Strand is the great-grandmother of all used book stores, and it was a bit disheartening to see my brand-new book UTOPIA on the shelves there -- thus making it the first store in which I ever saw my book. Nor did it help matters that Forbidden Planet, the big science-fiction store didn't have UTOPIA -- or, indeed, any of my books.

We said our goodbyes to Lori outside Forbidden Planet, and then caught the subway back to Penn Station. (No trip to New York is complete without a ride on the subway.) We collected a copy of the Sunday New York Times, collected our bags, and got onto the train for Washington, closing out a terrific -- if brief --visit to New York. Both of us felt that the city had changed quite a bit for the better since we had last been there. Everything from Times Square to the subway seemed cleaner, better-cared-for, more pleasant to be in. It was as if a residue of grime and crud had been sandblasted off Manhattan, so that the city beneath it was made visible again. New York still has its warts -- it wouldn't be New York without them -- but even so, the place has made quite a comeback.

After a reasonably comfortable train ride (considering the holiday crowds) Eleanore and I arrived at Union Station, Washington D.C., at about 5:30, and immediately got aboard the Metro (Washington's subway system) for the ride out to Bethesda, where my parents, Tom and Scottie Allen, met us. By 6:30 pm we were in my parents' living room, burrowing through our luggage for our gifts to them, and admiring their gifts to us. We had diiner, and all sat up and talked for a while, but, with one thing and another, Eleanore and I were a bit tired, so we turned in early. It didn't take long for us to get to sleep.

Baltimore, Maryland: January 6, 1997. I am continuing to try and catch up with what's happened so far. So far we are up to:

December 30, 1996. After the long day's travel from New York, we treated ourselves to sleeping a bit late our first day in the Washington area. Unfortunately, it was also the day some sort of flu bug decided to pay me a visit. I was the last one down that morning, with bagels already being munched and the bustling well underway. One thing on the shopping list for Eleanore and myself was a powerful room air-cleaner that might help Eleanore with her cat alleries. I also wanted at least to see my new book actually in a bookstore. So, despite my feeling a bit queasy, off we went on a shopping expedition, which also included a visit to a fancy kitchen-gizmo shop, where we got some good knives and measuring spoons and so on. We had to try two stores before we found the air cleaner we were after, and while Borders's Books did indeed have my book, they did not have it on the shelf, but on a high storage rack such that a customer wishing to purchase it would require a trapeeze or a ladder in order to get at it. A kindly clerk got the book down for me and put several copies out on good display, but still, it was a trifle disheartening.

I was feeling progressively worse, my stomach very queasy, and when we got back I took a long nap. While I ws asleep, Dad and Eleanore went off to the video store and checked out two movies. The rest of the group had dinner, but, with an unsettled stomach, I gave eating a miss. Unfortunately, the film we watched that evening was Eat Drink Man Woman, a sweet and pleasant Taiwanese film -- and one about a gourmet chef who cooks throughout. The film started with some rather graphic cooking imagery -- the chef catching a carp, chopping its head off, skinning and gutting it, catching and killing a chicken, plucking it and turning the carcase inside out (God knows what recipe calls for that) and other such stomach-settling images. However, beyond that, it was a sweet, jumbled, leisurely film about a big complicated family, and we all liked it. I went up to bed as soon as it was over, but the rest of the gang stayed up for a while.

December 31, 1996. I still wasn't feeling a hundred percent in the morning, but I was able to eat, and I did have a bit more energy, which was a good thing, considering the schedule for the latter part of the day. Once again, we got up in a rather leisurely manner, and spent most of the morning pottering about, reading books we had received as gifts, and catching up on family business. We dressed for the evening at about three or so, and headed off to the National Gallery to see the exhibit of works by the French artist La Tour. It was a good exhibit, and we were glad to see it, but both for Eleanore and myself, part of the treat was getting to see the National Gallery itself, and the splendid buildings on the Mall. It is a beautiful place. From the Gallery we headed off toward the Ellipse behind the White House to see the National Christmas Tree. Dad told us that the poor sports at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had succeeded in ending the cruel explotation of the deer (standing in for reindeer) who stood around in a pen eating. I would assume the deer in question are now standing around in some other pen eating, so I don't see how much difference it makes. The National Tree was lit up -- well, like a Christmas Tree, with a wildly complicated series of blinking and flashing and throbbing lights. Trees from all the States, Territories, D.C. and other small bits of the United States lined the walk around the main tree, some decorated with classy slick ornaments, others with folksy home-spun decorations.

From the Christmas Tree it was off to an early dinner before the theater. We found ourselves a bit lost in the New Year's Eve shuffle, with all the restaurants gearing up for a big midnight blowout. Some weren't even open, and the one we found that was open clearly had its attention on midnight. We were seated right next to the bandstand, and were serenaded for about twenty minutes by sound checks and level adjustments. We were served a wholly mediocre (if not downright bad) meal by a staff that would have done Faulty Towers proud (Faulty Towers being a fictious but terrible hotel, with bad restaurant attached). We even drew a waiter who might have been the character Manual from Faulty Towers. After a bit of a struggle, we actually got them to surrender the bill (why are waiters always so reluctant to hand over the bill?) and got to Arena Stage in good time for the 8:00 pm curtain of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, a complicated and charming play that takes place in two timelines at once, each taking place in the same house -- a hundred plus years apart. We see one scene of (more or less) what really happened in the 1800s, and then see one scene of the somewhat bumbling contemporary scholars theorizing about it. Fun and interesting, but the end sort of unravelled instead of coming together. Stoppard is always worth watching -- and listening to -- but this was really the first time I had seen something of his that take all the loose ends and tie them into a tidy and clever ending.

After the show, Eleanore and I dropped Mom and Dad off at the Gallery Place Metro station, and then drove across the river to Arlington, Virginia. Eleanore's cousin Lydia and her husband Jed were throwing a party, and of course we wanted to see them. However, first we had to negotiate the tangled-spaghetti roads of Arlington. Every road we traveled on to get there changed its name at least once as we drove. After more or less the standard number of false starts and wrong turns, we finally got to where we were going, with the party already going full-tilt It was a major blow-out, with an incredibly loud and heavily amplifed two-man band shaking the rafters. A lot of members of Eleanore's extended family were there, and we had the usual sort of shouting-in-the-ear conversations one usually has at parties. The band stopped long enough for everyone to watch Times Square -- where we had been about forty-eight hours before -- as the ball dropped, the year started, and all hell broke loose. We drank champagne and struggled to remember the words to Aulde Lang Syne, and then got back to the serious business of being at a party. I had a nice chat with Jed, made somewhat unusual by his being in their outdoor hot-tub as we talked, while I was there in my go-to-the-theater coat and tie. Finally, at about 1:30 am, it was time to go, and we made our way back to Bethesda by a route that took us almost past the door of the house we had lived in before moving to Brazil. Strange indeed to think of how large a circle we were closing.

Evanston, Illinois: January 7, 1996. Back to trying to report things day-by-day until I get caught up.

January 1, 1997. For once, a relatively quiet day. The big event was a trip to visit Eleanore's cousin Fontaine and her family, as Fontaine had not been able to attend the party the night before. We met cousin Hari's fiancee, and had a good visit chatting about the family and getting a tour of the renovations to the house and so on. After a nice visit there, we returned home to my parents' house in time to greet my old high-school friend Amy Kaplan. Amy has long since been more or less adopted into the family, and dinner with her was a big event. She had just moved house the day before, so it meant a lot for her to break away from all the things that need doing when you move to come and visit. After dinner, my parents, Amy, Eleanore and myself watched the other movie we had rented, The Brothers McMullen , another family saga about a fairly goofy trio of very Irish brothers who lived just outside New York City. It is one of those movies that got made on the director's credit card plus next month's grocery money, and the non-existence of the budget certainly showed in lots of places in lots of ways, but that was, in a way, a large part of its charm. We could watch the three brother stumble their way through their love-lives at the same time we saw all the funny little mistakes and budget-cutting tricks the director had made. The next day was a school day, and Amy, a second-grade teacher, had to leave before the movie was over (but she had seen it already). We stopped the film long enough to say our goodbyes, finished watching it, and then Dad and I drove to the video place and got both movies back -- for once, before there were any late penalties to pay. Then back home, and then to bed.

January 2, 1997. Another day of errands, meetings, visits, and so on. My mother drove Eleanore and I down to an optician's shop in Washington, where Eleanore got her new prescription. From there we took the subway to Dupont Circle and did the bookshops for an hour or so before catching a cab to the State Department and our luncheon date. The timing for the lunch was a bit awkward, as ny sister was coming in from Chicago at the same moment, but Eleanore and I had to leave it to my parents to collect her, as the time she was arriving was just about the one and only time we wuold have to see Seneca Johnson (who had been the maid of honor at our wedding). I had had a chance to see Seneca since, but Eleanore and Seneca had literally not laid eyes on each other since the day Eleanore and I were married. Furthermore, Seneca had likewise gotten married to Eric, and neither Eleanore or myself had ever seen him. So off we went to lunch with them. Seneca and Eric are both Foreign Service officers, though they are posted to Washington at the moment. We met up with them at State, after roaming the hallways and circling the building, inside and out, for a bit longer than was strictly called for. We both immediately liked Eric, but, unfortunately, he was coming down with the flu, which limited our lunch options somewhat. Still, we made the best of it, and the four of us had a good visit. Seneca and Eric had recently purchased a home, and gave Eleanore and myself a few good pointers on the subject, as the two of us hope to be buying soon.

After we finished lunch and said our farewells, we took the subway back to Bethesda, where my father picked us up at the station and drove us back home, to where Connie and Mom were waiting for us. It was wonderful to see my sister again, and it meant a lot to both of us that she had made the trip out to see us. We exchanged gifts with Connie, and spent the rest of the afternoon getting caught up with her. Eleanore had one major victory, in that she managed to get her ticket back to Brazil changed from Friday to Saturday, which gave her an extra day to see everyone. But it was soon time to head out to the theater once again. The theater is in Northern Virginia, completely cut off from the outside world by a perfect rats-nest of exits and bypasses and off-ramps. We got well and truly lost once again the moment we crossed the river -- lost enough that we actually crossed it again, by accident, and a third time to get back.

I should explain a bit about the theater itself, I suppose. Chris Henley, a friend of mine from way back in the third grade(!) is now the Artistic Director of the Washington Shakespeare Company, a very professional, if very low-budget, theater company that had was just moving into its own building at the time Eleanore and I left Washington. My parents, Connie, Eleanore and I met up with Chris's parents and two friends of my parents at the WSC theater to see Cymbeline, which is very much one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays. While the production took a few more liberties than I liked, it was unquestionably well-acted and energetic, and managed to take a complicated and even confused storyline and make it work. I was quite impressed. Chris is very much at the heart of building a theater, and a theatrical company. He and his company deserve success, and they seem to be getting it.

After the show, we all went to the Brickskeller, a ramshackle old place near Dupont Circle famous for serving hundreds of different kinds of beer. I hadn't been there in years, and it had not changed one bit. After a very pleasant evening, we all said our good-nights and went home to bed.

January 3, 1997. We treated ourselves to a fairly leisurely morning. Dad had to work, but Eleanore, Connie, Mom and I decided to take in the film The Crucible. The night before, I had been the least enthused about Cymbeline , but I found that I was the one who liked The Crucible the most. The others seemed to feel that it was over the top, but I found it gripping and intense. There were moments that seemed to date it, not so much to the Salem witch trials, but to the 1950s and McCarthyism. The play on which the film was based was a cautionary tale, and some of the warnings it offered spoke more to the 50's than the 90's -- though God knows we all still have to keep an eye on ourselves.

In the evening, Eleanore and I went to sit in on the monthly poker game that some friends of mine hold. I had been in on establishing the monthly game some years ago, and the group has been very steady and very loyal over the years. Most of the people at the table have some sort of connection to the science fiction scene in the Washington area, but what matters at that table is poker and fun. When you have played with the same people for years on end, the game of poker changes into something else. There's the old saying that you're playing against your opponent, and not her cards, and that becomes truer every time we play together. The psychology of the other players -- and their knowledge of your psychology -- becomes every bit as important as the cards on the table. As I was down four bucks at the end of the night, and Eleanore a bit more, it would seem that I have not learned that lesson as well as I might have.

One of the things that seems to happen whenever I visit a relative is that I get called upon -- or volunteer -- to tweak up their computer system. I did a fair amount of such tweaking at my in-laws place, and my father's system -- particularly his hook-up to the Internet -- was somewhat muddled up. I had been struggling to get a few things tidied up while visiting, which was difficult to do in between the mad social whirl and my father's quite busy work schedule. I therefore took advantage of everyone being asleep and stayed up until 3:30 am tweaking Dad's system up to the point where he could get on line and get his email without a struggle. I was not impressed with Microsoft's internet products from an ease-of-configuration standpoint. Getting them set up was like untangling linguini.

January 4, 1997. And off we go again. Eleanore and I took the subway back down to Dupont Circle again and met up with Heather Strand for breakfast at the Kramerbooks/Afterwords bookstore and cafe. Heather used to work at the computer center at the embassy in Brasilia, but she returned to the United States in September. She promptly landed a job with a company that sends teams around the world to install new software at U.S. Embassies and consulates. After an incredibly filling breakfast, and a quick stop at a drug store, it was time to get back to Bethesda, with Heather in tow, for a big lunch with Connie, my parents, Eleanore, Heather, my cousind Glenn Riling, his wife Beverly, and their two kids, Geoffery and Jennifer. However, Eleanore and I had all of an hour to seem them, as we had to get Eleanore to the airport for her multi-flight trip back to Brazil. Our hellos seemed to merge right into our goodbyes as we left in my parents' car, Heather coming along for the ride so we could drop her at the subway at the airport.

They are rebuilding National Airport, and it had changed almost beyond recognition since the last time I was there -- with the predictable result that we managed to drive right through the airport without finding where we were going. That in turn necessitated yet another adventure in Northern-Virginia navigation as we were dumped back out onto the parkway and I had to drive miles in the wrong direction before I found a place we could turn around. Northern Virginia is not exactly linear. However, on the second try, we got there, and saw Heather to the subway before Eleanore and I made the rather confused and over-long trek to the Delta terminal. We were very early, and her flight was a bit late, so we had some time in hand, which suited us both quite well. We had not had much time by ourselves, or much peace and quiet, in the previous few days, and we got a chance to say a calmer goodbye that we might have expected. I must admit, however, that I started missing her awfully fast, once she did head down the jetway. Nor was she likely to enjoy the next twenty hours, once she started flying. It's a long, long, trip back to Brasilia.

Once I had said my goodbyes to Eleanore, I drove back to Bethesda, arriving just a few minutes too late to catch Glenn's family as they departed. That night Amy joined Connie, my parents and myself as we went into downtown Bethesda to grab a bite to eat and see a movie. However, it sems that Bethesda has turned in a yuppie theme-park, with gimmick bars and restaurants everywhere. We tried to get in at the latest and greatest brew-pub, but the place was too damned crowded, and we headed straight for the movie theater, which was one of those places with waitress service and beer-and-pizza type food on sale, so we got our beer anyway. The film was Barbra Streisand's The Mirror Has Two Faces, and Dad, who was the only one who didn't want to see it, was the only one who was right. It was awful, one of the worst big-studio films I have ever seen. Bad dialog, bad camera work, bad acting, bad everything. Streisand's ego was in all the scenes, even the ones she herself was not in. Every frame of the film was there to make her look good, and she seemed to think that the best way to do this was to make sure everyone else in the film was an editor, and that they laughed too long at her jokes, and were implausibly struck by how wonderful she looked, and so on. There were shots where boom-mikes bobbled into view, where the camera shot over the top of the set, where the dialog was babbled so fast it was utterly incoherent. God-awful. But we all had a good time hating it.

January 5, 1997. Connie had to head back to Chicago via train. Plan A had been for me to travel with Connie on the train, but there were no seats available. Therefore I decided to fly out to Chicago the day after Connie left. It took a few calls to the airlines, but after a bit of effort, I got a flight at a reasonable cost. Before Connie left, there was one last Christmas shopping trip that needed doing. Mom and Dad had wanted to get Connie a new book-bag for graduate school, (she is studying speech pathology) but they wanted her to pick it out for herself, and this was her big chance. After we all wandered in and out of a few stores, she settled on a very nice leather backpack. I managed to sneak into an auto-parts store and get some touch-up paint for our Jeep down in Brazil. I even snuck into yet another bookstore, and actually saw my book there on the shelf, on sale. The four of us had lunch at a bagel joint on Rockville Pike, and then saw Connie off at the Rockville train station. On the way back, we managed to check off a couple of errands that had been floating over our heads. My parents got a replacement pair of binoculars, and I got an upgrade kit for my scanner software back in Brazil. Back home again, we treated ourselves to a quiet evening of nothing more exciting than my making a start on getting my various purchases organized and packed up for mailing to Brazil, and me packed up for my own trip to Chicago the next day.

January 6, 1997. Another complicated day. The plan was for me to join my parents at the National Press Club luncheon, then for them to drive me direct to Baltimore Washington International Airport for the trip to Chicago. This worked out, but got more complicated. Dad had to meet with his partner, Norman Polmar, to do some inserts for the reprinted edition of their latest work, Spy Book, an encyclopedia of espionage. That meant he had to head off early by car and meet us at the Press Club (and, I might add, the reception for Eleanore and my wedding was held at the Press Club) in time for lunch, while Mom and I took the subway. That part worked out all right, but it turned out that Dad and Norman needed more time. Dad couldn't join us for the trip to the airport. Instead he gave us the keys to the car and described where he had parked the car. After the luncheon speech, by Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN (and a very interesting talk it was) we said farewell to Dad, and then set off in search of the car. Either Dad had gotten the directions a bit muddled, or else we had misunderstood them, but the upshot was that Mom and I wandered around the streets surrounding the Press Club for about a half hour before we finally found the car and took off.

Even with that delay, we got to BWI in good time. Mom dropped me off, I waded through a long line to get my ticket, had a quite pleasant chat with a young man who ran track at his college on the flight, and was collected at the airport by my brother-in-law, Jim Witte. He and I did a quick bit of catching up with each other on the ride from O'Hare Airport to Evanston. We had tried to make my arrival a surprise for the younger set, but I'm afraid we weren't quite able to fool them. Aaron, Victoria, and Jonathan were very happy to see me, but not at all astonished. I hadn't seen any of them in about a year, and just getting to see them again was one of the best parts of the trip. We played a game or two of pick-up sticks, and I admired the beanie-baby stuffed animals and the real-animal gerbils, and just generally hung out with the kids.

After they all got shuffled off to bed, Jim put me to work fiddling with his computer. I got the faster modem to work, and the sound board to run, and cleaned some other garbage off the system, and then went to bed.

January 7, 1997. Today was a bad-news day. Just after Connie and I returned from getting the kids to school, we got a phone call from Mom, who had just heard from our sister-in-law Edie that Edie's father had died the night before. Mom was already making plans to head down to Chapel Hill, where my brother Chris and Edie, his wife, live. Mom wanted to look after their children while Chris and Edie went to the funeral in Florida. The logistics of the trip were complicated by the fact that Chris and Edie's kids -- Benton, Meredith, and baby Anna -- are in various stages of catching and recovering from chicken pox. That pretty much means they couldn't travel to the funeral. Not only would the trip be uncomfortable for them, but there would be several other small children and at least one pregnant woman at the funeral, and the risk of infecting someone would be quite high. I had planned to head down for a visit with Chris and Edie's family tomorrow, the day I got back from Chicago, but obviously we had to cancel that trip, at least until other more pressing problems are sorted out. As I write this, all plans are very much up in the air, and we'll just have to see.

Once the kids were off to school, and Connie was off to her classes, and Jim was off to teach his (he is a sociology professor), I was pretty much on my own. I spent a large part of today getting caught up on this journal. I took the dog, Susie Fudd, for a nice long walk in the freezing cold weather (the first real cold I've been in this trip) and generally spent a quiet day -- followed by a very noisy evening and dinner, once the kids got home from school. Tomorrow, back to Bethesda.

National Airport, just outside Washington, D.C.: January 10, 1997. Here I am, in yet another airport, waiting for yet another flight. Let's go back and cover the last couple of days, which were reasonably quiet.

January 8, 1997 I woke up and joined the general bustling-around of everyone getting ready for school. I had taken Susie Fudd, their basset hound, for two walks the first day I was there, and I took her for a one last quick jaunt before leaving. I had played homework monitor for Aaron's pre-algebra the night before, and I did the same job for Jonathan's beginning addition and practice at telling time in the morning. I got myself packed up in reasonable good order, and said farewell to Aaron as he walked off to his school, and to Connie as Jim drove her off to her classes. He came back to collect Jonathan, Victoria, and myself. We drove them to their school, and walked them across the playground. Victoria had ignored my advice the day before, and had failed to try licking the flagpole in the 10-degree Fahrenheit weather, but theay rushed inside so far I didn't even get a chance to urge her to try it again.

Jim and I made a panic stop at Office Depot to return an Christmas-present upgrade chip for his computer (it didn't fit) and then off to the subway, where I said my goodbyes to Jim and more or less bumbled my way onto the right train. One very kindly woman suggested a wildly complicated route to O'Hare Airport that would have seen me more or less circling Chicago via train and bus. Then an equally well-intentioned but much better informed young man told me I was in exactly the right place for exactly the right train, which he himself was going to take. He and I got into conversation during the ride, and he said that he'd like to find a job that would let him go oversees. Very much to my own surprise, I found myself suggesting that he consider the Foreign Service. I'll freely admit that being a Foreign Service wife (and yes, I mean wife, not husband or spouse) is not my cup of tea, it has something to be said for it, if one is young and smart and wants to see the world. Maybe nothing will come of our little chat on the subway, or maybe I made a casual suggestion that will change his life. Who knows?

I drew a window seat, and had a spectacular view of Lake Michigan and the frozen landscape on either side of it as we took off from O'Hare. The flight back to BWI was quite uneventful, outside of a bit of turbulence, and the it turned out that the airport shuttle bus I was on had me for its only customer, so the driver, Robert, and I spent the ride back to Bethesda telling each other our life stories. It's beem my experience that people who drive for a living either love to talk or hate it. The trick is in drawing the right sort, depending on what mood you're in.

Dad hadn't gotten back by the time I got home, but he phoned in and we arranged to meet up and go catch a flick. As it turned out, we were fated to see to see what turned out to be yet another awful movies. Before we left Brazil, I had seen a few things here and there about all the good movies coming out, and had vowed to spend my entire vacation in movie theaters. It seemed as if I was managing to do that, at the price of seeing some real stinkers. This time out it was Mars Attacks , a wacky idea that should have been fun, but turned out to have one joke (killer Martians shoot their guns at dumb people) no plot, and not much of a ending. It was, quite literally, based on a series of bubble-gum cards, and I suspect that the bubble-gum cards were more tightly plotted.

January 9, 1997 I spent a fair amount of the day just getting fiddling little things dones, the sort of stuff that just stacks up after a while, and the sorts of thing that you mean to do early on that get put off on this sort of trip. I wrote a bunch of letters, I got a hotel room lined up for my forthcoming trip to London, got a little caught up on laundry, and did some backing-up on computer stuff. Dad was out at meeting again, but once again we decided to try and catch a movie. (It is something of a tradition between Dad and myself to get together and go see the movies Mom would not want to see, whenever she is out of town.) First, though, we were both in need of a haircut, so we walked into central Bethesda, and each of us got a trim. The news was on in the barbershop, and there were big reports about a plane crash outside Detroit. We had planned to have dinner at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant, and as soon as we got to it, I phoned Eleanore in Brasilia to let her know I was not on that flight. (I knew Eleanore would have known that I was flying to London via Detroit, but that she probably wouldn't be sure of the date or the airline.) Dad and I had a really first-class meal, and then it was off to the movies. After the stinkers we had seen recently, we were both nervous, but This time we got lucky with Ransom. It is a longish movie, but tightly plotted and full of surprise twists and turns, none of which I will reveal here. I will say that Mel Gibson was good, but Gary Sinise was better. One of the supporting characters, the lead FBI agent on the case, was played by one of those superb character actors you've seen before but can't quite place. Whoever he was, he was terrific. We walked home again after the film, and I set to work writing more letters. I sent a fax or two, and started getting ready for my trip to London.

I suppose it is time I said a bit about why the heck I am going to London, especially just for a few days, after all the time on the road (and in the air) I have put in already. It seems a bit over the top, even to me. There are three big reasons I am going. The first reason is just an extension of what has driven most of this trip -- the huge, gaping absence of anything to do in Brasilia, along with, needless to say, the huge distances from our families. When Eleanore and/or myself manage to get out of Brasilia for any length of time, we struggle to squeeze in as much activity, and as much family, as we possibly can. We don't get many chances to bust loose, so we tend to bust all the way loose when we can. If all goes well, we will get to see Carnival in Rio, but aside from that, it is likely to be quite a long spell indeed before we get to see anything more exciting than the termite mounds in the vacant lot across from the embassy.

The second reason is that I have a lot a friends in London, and it'll be nice to see them all. The third reason, of course, is London itself. He who is tired of London is tired of life. It is a wonderful place, everything that a city should be -- everything that Brasilia is not.

January 10, 1997 Anyway. I got up this morning at about 6:30 for no apparent reason, and had breakfast with Dad. He left about 8:30, off to meeting at the National Geographic. It occurs to me that there's been sort of a family count-down in progress since Eleanore left. We started with quite a full house, but one by one we've all left. I saw Eleanore, Connie (myself for a day or two, and returning), Mom, and then Dad go off elsewhere. By now, Dad has returned to a very empty house that was quite full a few days ago.

After getting the last of the fiddling details, and checking for the zillionth time to make sure I had the big three -- passports, tickets, and money -- I headed off toward the subway on foot (Mom is still at my brother's house in North Carolina, and has the car) for the subway, with a slight detour to Stronsider's Hardware, where I picked up a British plug adaptor for my laptop's power supply, along with a few other odds and ends for use in Brasilia. (I'll bet I'm the only guy who bought hummingbird food in January in Bethesda, Maryland). Then off to the subway, and thus back once again to National Airport.

As I write this, I am quite literally up in the air, headed for Detroit, where, for some reason, my flight to London starts from. I am not, however, on the right flight to Detroit, as that flight was canceled in between the time I checked in for it and the time I got back to the gate. There was a mechanical problem with the aircraft. I expect that everyone is a bit skittish after the crash yesterday. These things happen now and again when you fly, and I've been quite lucky about connections and schedules so far.

Later, somewhere over Michigan and points east and north... (I had to quit writing when they asked for all electronic devices to be switched off, etc.) Well, that was exciting, and then whacking dull. The Washington-Detroit leg of the flight, on the later flight I grabbed in lieu of the canceled one, ran so late that I had all of forty minutes to get through about a half mile of terminal corridor and get re-ticketed for the later flight to London. I managed all that with a bit of time to spare, then sat for well over an hour and a half waiting for baggage to get loaded and for the plane to get de-iced. At long last all was ready, and we are finally in the air and on the way. My next report should be from London, or thereabouts.

London, England: January 13, 1997. Here's an account of the last few days:

January 11, 1997. There are tolerable and godawful flights across the Atlantic, but vanishingly few good flights, especially in coach. My flight rated somewhere well along toward the godawful end of the scale. I was trapped in a window seat, the way to the aisle quite effectively blocked by a man with a very strong sense of personal territory and the ability to sleep soundly on aircraft. I am just about six feet tall, with long legs and size fourteen feet (I believe that's size 46 metric). It is therefore nearly impossible to fold myself into any sort of comfortable position in a coach-size airplane seat. I did doze off somewhat, but just fitfully. I did, however, manage to sleep through breakfast. We landed about two hours late, and after prying myself out of my seat before rigor mortis set in for good and all, I sloped through the passport and customs formalties and caught the express train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Station. There I made my first purchase in London, and it was something that I expect will elicit low moans from my wife: eight new-to-me episodes of The Goon Show, a deranged 1950s BBC radio comedy show. From Victoria I took the Underground to Piccadilly Circus and checked into the shabby-but-cheap Regent Palace Hotel. (I was expecting no bath or shower in the room, but I wasn't expecting the showers down the hall to be locked. You have to call the front desk, and a maid appears at the door of your room. She escorts you down the hall to the shower, unlocks it for you, and issues you a towel. Offputting.)

Thanks to my flight being late, I I just barely had time to unpack before it was time to charge out to meet up with my old chum, Mandy Slater. (The third of my three Star Wars novels is dedicated to her.) We had a good late lunch and exchanged Christmas gifts (I gave her the new Bare Naked Ladies CD (and no, there are no real naked ladies involved -- the band name is a joke. She gave me a Wallace and Gromit calender, which pleased me no end.) We did a couple of the local bookshops, and then Mandy traveled with me back to Piccadilly Circus. We pottered about in the record shops for a bit, but then Mandy had to be going, and I was pretty much dead on my feet. I managed to say up until about 9:30 -- trying to stay up as late as I could, trying to break the back of my jet lag. I was alseep as soon as my head hit the pillow -- and then woke up again at 11:30 pm (which would be 5:30 am back on the U.S. east coast) and could not get back to sleep until about 3:30 am. Unfortunately, there was a fire alarm at 5:30 am. By the time the alarm bell managed to wake me and I had gotten dressed and staggered down the hall, the all-clear had been sounded (a false alarm, apparently) other people were already coming back in. I went back to bed, and finally got some more or less uninterupted sleep.

January 12, 1997. Once I was asleep, I was really asleep, and barely woke up in time to catch the end of breakfast at 10:30. After a leisurely (if not altogether appetizing) meal of greasy undercooked bacon, eggs, and sausage) I went out to visit Jim Young, a diplomat at the U.S. embassy. Jim, as it happens, lives in the same apartment building (or block of flats, as they would call it here) as Eleanore, and has the flat directly over hers. It was strange to look out his kitchen window and see the same view as I had had out Eleanore's window from the desk I had done my writing on.

Jim is a U.S. diplomat, but his is also a science-fiction writer, and we have a number of mutual friends in both worlds. We spent a good hour or so swapping gossip and talking literary and government shop. I left from Jim's and headed directly for dinner with Mandy and her boyfriend Stephen Jones at their house in Wembley, in North London. Stephen is a good-sized fish in the horror fiction pond, which is of course a near neighbor to the science fictin pond. Mandy, to stretch my imagery a bit too far, swims in both. It was a genuine pleasure to spend the afternoon and evening talking with people who quite spoke my language, literally and figuratively. One of the problems with being in Brasilia is the sense of being disconnected, of not knowing what is going on. Getting caught up on the doings of the writing world (or at least my little part of it) was a definite morale booster.

Back to Piccadilly after a long, leisurely dinner. I strolled about for a bit, with no real goal in mind, and then back to my surreal hotel. I went to the lobby payphones and put in a call to the Gardner family. They lived in Brasilia up until last year, and have now popped up in Yorkshire. I wasn't able to make the trip north to see them, but at least we managed to get caught up on the phone. Back up to my room, where I watched the movie The Big Easy on TV and even got some actual writing done on the book I'm supposed to be writing. Then off to sleep, though once again the time-zone change kept me up for a while.

January 13, 1997. Wandered as far as the nearest Dillon's Bookshop and collected a book or two, then back to the hotel restaurant for another leaden-but-filling breakfast. I dawdled about until one pm, which is when the hal-price theater ticket booth opens. However, there were no tickets there for the show I wanted, so I went over to the theather and bought two of the full-price articles there. Then off for a long walk with a mission. I walked down to Pall Mall, took in Waterloo Place, and then walked along Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square, (stopping in the National Gallery bookshop) then past St. Martin's in the Field and Charing Cross and along the Strand to Fleet Street, until I reached my goal: Twining's Tea Shop. Twining has does business from this one location since 1706, if memory serves. Eleanore had told me to go there, and on place else, to get her some proper tea. I walked on a bit further past the tea shop, and wandered about the Inns of Court before heading back -- stopping at a few more bookshops on the way. I got back to my hotel in good time to freshen up a bit before meeting Louise Rickett for dinner. Louise is with the British Foreign Office, and was posted to Brasilia until last summer. Eleanore and I became good friends with her. She looked great, and had a very pleasant dinner together before stepping across the street to see Talking Heads, a sort-of play by Alan Bennet -- though "performance piece" might be a more accurate way to describe what we saw. Bennet wrote six monologues for television some years ago, and two of them were being presented -- Soldiering On and Bed Among The Lentils . The two pieces were quite independent of each other, one presented by one actress before the interval, and the second by another actress after the interval. (Maggie Smith performed the second piece.)

Both were well-written and well-acted, but I do think their origins as pieces for television showed up a weakness or two. On television the monologist could indeed be presented as talking heads in close-up and in various tight shots. Stage action consisted of very little more than the character walking on and off stage two or three times to indicate the passage of time. Basically each woman stood or sat and talked to the audience in front of an extremely simple set.

To my mind, both monologues also exhibited the odd pleasure the English seem to derive from Being Doomed. Each monologues concerned itself with the fact that the speaking character's life was falling apart, more or less without the character really understanding that to be the case. Things started out not-all-that-well for both characters, and ended up rather bad, with the clear suggestion that the gentle -- and not-so-gentle -- decline would continue. Life was presented as little more than the process of things gradually crumbling to bits. I said as much to Louise, and she asked me how an American playwright would have written the pieces. After a moment's thought, and only half-faecetiously, I told her that the American version would have ended either with the character triumphing over adversity, or else blowing her brains out -- and of course, at least one, and probably both, of the monologues would have included mention of a homosexual love affair. Louise and I had coffee after the show, and then said our goodbyes. I returned to the hotel, and so to bed.

January 14, 1997. Got myself up and out in relatively good order in time for a meeting with my British literary agent, Leslie Gardner, whom I had never met before. While there was no immediate business to transact, it was extremely useful to sit down with her, discuss the book I am working on now and the books I would like to do next, and just generally get to know each other. Leslie and I had never met before, but after our meeting I felt quite confident about working with her in the future.

Back to the hotel to get out of my going-to-a-meeting clothes and back into my rumpled-tourist clothes. Then I took the tube over to Oxford Circus, and walked along Oxford Street, and down North Audley Street to the American Embassy, better known to myself as The Fortress of Arrogance, or FoA. I had of course met up with Eleanore many times when she worked at the FoA, and it had been two years or so since I had last been in that neck of the woods. I wanted to see what was the same, and what different, in that neck of the woods. Most things were pretty much the same, though one or two stores had come and gone, and the utterly ghastly burger joint, American Burger, had turned itself into the American Bistro Cafe, with American Burger (or AmHam as we called it) quite literally kicked upstairs to the upper floor.) The only restaurant name I saw in London that maded less sense was one in Piccadilly -- Alabama Pizza Pasta. I never knew that Alabama was famous for Italian food.) In any event, I got over to the FoA, and, sure enough, it was still there. I was just about to head off when Barbara Stevenson, a secretary at the Embassy, came out of the building, spotted me, and called to me. She was feeling a bit under the weather and was headed home early, but we went to one of the coffee shops on North Audley and visted for a bit before she went on her way.

After we said our farewells, I went on to Selfridges to pick up some Leonidas coffee creams for Seneca Johnson (she had more or less lived on then while posted to London. I probably won't have a chance to deliver them myself whilst in Washington, but I can leave at my parents and she she can come collect them. Once I was done at Selfridges, I took the tube from Bond Street to Tottenham Court Road, poked my head in at Forbidden Planet, one of the big science fiction stores in London, then wandered up Tottenham Court Road and down Charing Cross over to Leicester Square. Mandy and Stephen were meeting up with some of their friends to go to a sneak preview of Mars Attacks (it hasn't opened in London yet) and I had a chance for one last visit with them before I had to be on my way.

I took the Tube from Leicester Square to Finchley Road station, and walked from there to the home of Tracy and Jonathan Potter. Tracy and Eleanore wree in the same choir together when Eleanore was posted to London. Tracy and Jonathan were just barely engaged when Eleanore left London, but they are now not only married, but have a three-month-old daughter, Katherine. Tracy and Eleanore became good friends during Eleanore's time in London, but I never really got the chance to know her very well, I had never met Jonathan before -- and I was not even aware of Katherine's existence before I phoned in to Tracy. It was a good get-to-know-you sort of dinner. Tracy gave me a cassette tape of the present-day version of the choir Eleanore was in, and I took a couple of photos of the brand-new family. After dinner I walked down Finchley Road to the Swiss Cottage Tube station, once again noting what had changed and what had stayed the same. The ironmonger's (hardware store) seemed to have vanished, one take-away deli had turned into a cafe, and a failed restaurant had turned into a smart spot, but that was about it. I caught the tube back to Piccadilly Circus, did last wander around Leicester Square and Piccadilly, then back to my hotel. I asked for a 7:30 wake-up call and went to bed in hopes of a good night's sleep as I was flying out the next morning -- or so I thought.

January 15, 1997. I got my wake-up call, gradually scraped myself out of bed, packed, went down to have one last deadly breakfast, got the bags out my room, checked out, and staggered out to say my farewells to London. I took the Tube to Victoria Station, wandered about in a luggage-laden circle or two until I found the right track and ticket booth for Gatwick, then caught the 10:15 shuttle train to Gatwick. I struck up a conversation with Marian, a nice grandmotherly American lady who turned out to be a fellow passenger on the same flight. As it turned out, we would have a lot of chance to get to know each other. We found the right spot to check in, got our seat assignments, and then were told not to pass through passport control "just yet" as there might be a slight delay before the flight was ready. It was about four pm before we discovered that they had canceled the flight altogether.

They assembled the whole herd of passengers, got us onto shuttle buses, and drove us to a hotel in Brighton. Brighton? Brighton. I had called my parents once it looked like the flight was in bad shape, and I called them again from Brighton to tell them I would be at least twenty-four hours late. I had deliberately left my ticket to Brazil at their house, so I couldn't lose it. I asked them to call the airlines and push back my Brazil departure by twenty-four hours as well. Then I dumped my hand luggage in my room (the airline had kept our hand-luggage) and went for a walk along the English Channel. I went down onto the shore, scrabbled down the rock-shingle beach and dipped a desert-booted toe and my hand into the Channel, collected a souvenier rock or two, and the walked on whatever it is they call it instead of the boardwalk toward the Palace Pier. I found myself laughing out loud. At the moment I was supposed to be arriving in Detroit, I was strolling along the sea at Brighton -- and Brighton's seaside pattern (reading from ocean to shore) was water, beach, cabanas, sidewalk, road, sidewalk, wall-of-hotels was exactly the same as I had seen in Rio de Janerio a few months before. Aside from being exactly alike the two were, of course, totally different from each other. A wonderful mass of incongruities.

I had seen the English Channel piers in any number of movies and television shows, and here they were, as big as life and just like in the movies. I walked the length of the pier, and then went back to the hotel for a set meal with my fellow refugees, a collection of thrown-together travelers as random as anything Chaucer wrote about.

I said my goodnights and went up to my room to rinse out my one set of underwear and socks, and enjoy the luxury of taking a shower without having to call down to the front desk for permission. I hung my socks and undies over the radiator, flip on the telly and, for no good reason, watch the incredibly bad movie Judge Dredd. What the devil could they have been thinking of? Lurid sets, over-the-top acting, semi-cheesy special effects and lots of explosions do not a movie make. Bedtime.

January 16, 1997. A long day (and one not yet over) that I ought to be able to sum up very quickly. I got my wakeup call, packed my few belongings, took one last look at Brighton, and bundled onto the bus with the rest of the refugees. We got to the airport in good order check in again, and I sure I'm not the only one who could not believe it when the departures board actually showed Northwest Flight 33 assigned to a gate and scheduled to leave on time. I herded onto the plane with the rest of yesterday's passengers, mixed in with today's assembly (and two days of passengers still wasn't enough to fill up the plane) and we actually took off. It was an eight-hour flight, with the reading lights not working at all, and the video system not working well, but I found myself seated nexted to a a charming Indian woman, and conversation made the time pass more quickly. We reached Detroit, waited longer than we should have for our luggage, and then it was time to walk the half mile or so from one end of the terminal to the other. My flight to Washington was allegedly on time, and I phoned in to my parents to let them know what continent I was on,, and to confirm that they had managed to change my tickets for Brazil. They had. However, it turns out they have concert tickets for tonight, so they won't be able to pick me up. No big deal. And naturally, my flight was delayed by an hour or so for no good reason. And here I am, in the air between Detroit and Washington as I bring this journal up to date, and even up to the minute. It's 9:10 Eastern time on Thursday, January 16 1997, and I'm beat.

Bethesda, Maryland: January 16, 1997. The flight from Detroit to DC got in late, naturally. Luggage vanished for 45 minutes. Northwest personnel clearly didn't care. Did not get home to my parents' house until 11:30 p.m. They had just come in the door from their concert. We said ours hellos and visited for a bit, then I showered (without having to clear it with the front desk), staggered up to bed, and fell asleep.

Sao Paulo, Brazil: January 19, 1997, 10:06 a.m. Nearly there. And rest assured that the only "there" I am interested in at this point is home, which means (a) where Eleanore is and (b) I can unpack my suitcases altogether and put them away. Home is where I can stop worrying about visas, passports, flight schedules, reservations, baggage claim checks, and carrying enough double-A batteries to keep my palmtop computer going. At the moment, the place meeting that description is, God help me, Brasilia. My father said yesterday that there were only two places on Earth that he had been but had no desire to go again. One of them was Resolute Bay in Artic Canada, and the other was Brasilia. And this from a man who traveled by train between Irkutz and Ulan Bator, who lived for months on end on a diet of horse-meat and fermented mare's milk in Mongolia, who went to part of Western China that were so hot the heels melted off his shoes. But, for all of that, I want to go Brasilia. And they won't let me. At least not for a while. My flight got in here at 8:00 am, and those clever little weasels at Varig put me on the "connecting" flight to Brasilia at 2:00 p.m., arriving 3:30 p.m. What joy, especially after an all-night flight, to wait eight hours for a ninety-minute flight. No chance at an earlier flight either. At least it gives me a chance to get this journal up to date.

January 17, 1997. Didn't sleep all that late, considering. Spent a fair part of the morning trying to get my Epson laptop computer ready to hand over to Carl. Which leads me to a not-so-brief digression on The Adventure of The Dropped Laptop:

The Epson laptop is a good machine, but is sort of my third-tier backup. I expect to need once I am back in the States, but until then it is pretty much a surplus machine. I had loaned it to Heather, who brought it back to the U.S. when she moved from Brasilia. As she is now working with a company that installs computer software, she doesn't need it. I think it was Eleanore who suggested I slip it to Carl, for purposes of sending and receiving email to and from Joan -- and a good idea it was too. Unfortunately, I decided to bring the computer to take the thing with me to London, where I not only didn't really need it, but also dropped it. After being dropped, its hard drive made much more noise, and started having problems saving data. The data problems became apparent as I started setting up the machine for Carl. If I handed it over to him with the original hard drive, I was just about guaranteeing that it would crash on him, probably at a bad moment. Nor would it be much good to me, back in the States come fall. After a few phone calls, I tracked down a replacement drive in Rockville, about a twenty-minute drive from my parents.

Dad had to go to Staples, and I tagged along with him, and finally swallowed hard and bought myself a copy of Windows 95. I don't like Win95, but there are certain projects I need to do, and they will more or less require it. Back to my parents for lunch, then off to Rockville for the replacement hard drive and a few other odds and ends. Back home again, and then it was merely a simple matter of hooking up my ZIP drive to the Epson, running the ZIP drive install program, copying the entire contents of the Epson's hard drive to a ZIP disk, creating a DOS boot disk for the Epson, opening up the Epson, unscrewing and unplugging the various connections to the old drive, installing the new drive, telling the Epson's setup program about the sector, track, LZ and disk size parameters for the new drive, running FDISK on the new drive, formating it, and copying the entire contents of the old drive off the ZIP drive to the new drive -- followed by a bit of tweaking and tidying up of the drive's contents, and reassembly of the computer. The old drive held 120 megs of info. The new one hold 540 megs (it was the smallest drive I could find). As there was only 80 megs worth of stuff on the old drive, no prob fitting it all on the new one. Problem solved.

In the midst of doing the above, who should call in but Carl Fox himself. My parents and I arrange to meet him for dinner in Friendship Heights (a neighborhood in Washington) and then head off to see the new Woody Allen movie, Everyone Says I Love You . After being slowed up by a phone call that came in just as we were heading out the door, we got to the restaurant just a bit late, to find Carl had beaten us there. The four of us had a great dinner, with Carl catching us up on the start of his courses at the Foreign Service Institute, and Dad getting us up to date on his forthcoming trip (and I am not making this up) to a locale off the coast of New Zealand, where he will cover a high-tech search for the semi-mythical giant squid for the National Geographic.

Then it was off to see the movie, which is a light-hearted and very engaging bit of cheery fluff. Woody Allen wrote a musical, but then cast a collection of actors who can't sing all that well -- or at all. (And Allen himself very definitely fits into the second category. Oddly enough, it worked, thanks in large part to a troupe of Broadway pros who blow the doors off two or three big production numbers. But even the somewhat reedy voices of the main leads worked, adding an odd touch of autheticity to the implausible goings-on. Good fun.

We said our farewells to Carl and went back home. I really should have stayed up and gotten started on my packing, but I was just too damn beat, and went straight up to bed, setting the alarm for 6:00 a.m.

January 18, 1997. I woke up before the alarm, but lolled in bed until the alarm went off. The day was more or less taken up completely with getting ready to go -- and packing was really the least part of it. With Dad's permission, I had used his computer for various things, and I had to clean all my files off it. I had to type up notes for Carl to get him squared away on the Epson. I had to pack up the three or four boxes of stuff (books, mostly) that I was mailing back to Brazil. I had to get two or three other things ready to get into the mail. I had to weed out all the various bits and bobs and gifts and purchases we won't need until we get back from Brazil in August, and put them out of the way. The suitcase packing came right at the end, and was the easy part. Mom, Dad and I left for National Airport later than planned, but still in plenty of time.

The new traffic patterns at National threw Dad off us, just as they had thrown me off, and he made exactly the same wrong turn I had two weeks before, and suddenly found himself driving right through the airport, just as I had. Even with all of that, we got to the gate in good time. We said our goodbyes -- rather calm goodbyes, all things considered -- and I got onto a very empty flight to Atlanta. From Atlanta, I tried to call a series of old chums I had being meaning to catch up with, and instead had a series of nice chats with their answering machines. Then onto yet another big silver bird for the very crowded flight back to Darkest Brazil.

January 19, 1997. After the standard meal of rubber chicken and the usual fitful snatches of sort-of sleep, our flight got in. The international arrivals hall at Sao Paulo was a madhouse, packed to the gills, with seemingly every Brazilian struggling to get at least one mid-sized appliance through customs. I might add that I thought I had two big suitcases until I saw the behemoths the locals were lugging. There also seemed to be a lot of skin-tight spandex in the airport this morning, much -- but not all -- of it on women who can get away with it. The most startling sight so far was the woman with the jet-black skin-tight spandex top and the skin-tight dark-orange spandex shorts. What really made her something to see was the fact that she was about eight months pregnant. She looked a bit like a cross-holiday ornament -- an Easter egg done up in Halloween colors.

Anyway, that gets us just about up to date. Two or three more hours of hurry-up-and-wait, one last flight, and the end will be in sight. Barring flight delays, plane crashes, etc, my next entry should be from HOME.

Brasilia, Brazil: January 20, 1997. And home it is. One last flight, seated next to an American engineer from GTE who was here to look into bidding on licenses for Brazil's next-generation celluar phone service. Good luck to him, says I.

My usual rule is to eat whatever I am offerd while traveling, but this time I was headed home, and therefore passed on the chicken-substitute dinner, which was more or less identical to the chicken substitute dinner I had been served on my flight the evening before. Eleanore was there to meet my jet-lagged self at the airport, and she drove me home. She's fine, the cats are fine, I slept in my own (government-issue) bed last night, and the trip is over and done.

I had no idea this journal would run this long when I started it. I must admit that one reason I did it was to document my impression from previous trips that I seem to do a lot. Now, I suppose, it's time to settle into not doing much at all, as that is the basis of life in Brasilia. But I'll certainly have a month of events, adventures, visits with friends -- and far too many rides on airplanes -- to think back on.
And now, back to my regular life, at least for a while.

Roger MacBride Allen, January 20, 1997 Brasilia, Brazil

Most recent revision: 8:13 p.m., January 20, 1997

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