I’m currently three weeks out from my next trip, a European vacation over a year in the planning, a journey I shall refer to a “Dan and Ian Wander Europe.” Works better if you picture it to the tune of “Troy and Abed in the Morning.” You know that one, right? Anyway…
There are two reasons I wanted to go back to mainland Europe for my next big trip. First of all, as discussed in my last post, as much as I love what I’ve seen of Asia, I grew weary of the assumptions of sex tourism. Second, I haven’t been to mainland Europe since high school. Every year from grade 10 to 12, as part of my high school’s travel club (yes, that was a thing at my high school), I’d spend spring break on the Mediterranean. Italy, Greece and Turkey primarily. They were all great trips, including my first time on a cruise ship…
And in many ways I blew it.
To begin. I’ve long been a little bit obsessive-compulsive, and until I was twenty was a horrifically picky eater. These two things fed into each other. I distrusted sauce (except ketchup and mustard), and could not allow sauce from one food to touch another. Now I live for sauces, but at the time it was quite the problem. The relevant problem is that instead of eating local food in Greece (I now love Greek food), Italy (who doesn’t love pasta?) or Turkey (eh, why not), I sought out the local McDonald’s experiences.
I regret that.
I did not have the best impression of Paris when I first saw it in 1994. It rained a lot, for one, and for two everything was being renovated. I didn’t drink wine (unlike most of the group) and honestly believed Eurodisney to be the best part of our stay in France.
I regret that.
Every year, I got a little older, but the club had to open its doors to the junior high school a little faster. Which meant I routinely roomed with 14 years olds. Have you met a 14 year old? They’re terrible. Some were okay, some I couldn’t stand by the trip’s end, but you can’t always pick your companions.
And so I looked forward to this chance to revisit some places I once loved, like Rome and Florence, places I’ve been meaning to give another look, like Paris, a few places I’ve never seen like Venice, Zurich and Bruges, and a couple of stops at my favourite city on Earth, good old London. And this time around I’ve got a partner in crime to keep life interesting.
I look forward to telling you all about it. Hope you stick around for the journey.
Let’s be real. The last subtitle this post needed was “Secret of the Ooze.” Creates some interesting and unnecessary visuals.
I also considered making today’s post a blow-by-blow account of removing a rubber tube from your own kidney, but I think I could best summarize the experience with “Try not to put yourself in a position where you need to.”
So let’s return, as promised, to tales of international prostitutes and my attempts to flee from them.
It’s very rare that I get stopped by customs when returning to Canada. Very rare that I get suspected of any crime, really. When I moved into my current home, we only got one copy of the front door key. The key clearly read “Do not copy.” Despite this, a locksmith agreed to make me several copies even though I couldn’t produce a single piece of evidence that I was the legitimate owner of the property I claimed this key belonged to. Clearly I have a very trustworthy face, which means I have missed out on a very lucrative life of crime.
With one exception.
I am unlikely to ever be able to smuggle anything out of Southeast Asia. Because people hear that a white male of my age group is going to Thailand, Vietnam, anything in that area, and they assume “sex tourist.” The less charitable amongst them will add in an assumption about “ladyboys.” Given that I made two trips to that part of the world within two years, it’s actually become a bit of a nuisance. Especially given the time Canada Customs spent nearly an hour searching my luggage and computer for proof that I was a sex criminal. But this isn’t about that. This isn’t about Canadians who leapt to unwanted conclusions based on stereotypes about the region. This is about locals who came to that same conclusion when they saw a white dude roaming around their country.
Japan Night one in Tokyo, and I’m slightly overwhelmed by this amazing new city and most certainly hungry. It’s around 10:00 PM, but this place makes most large cities look tiny, surely there’s some place with English on the menus where I can grab a bite, right? I’m strolling down the street that leads to my hotel, when I slow to check out the sign for a restaurant. A matronly woman, maybe 40-45, gestures towards the doorway in a welcoming fashion. Now, I’m from a far less condensed city. I see restaurant signs outside a door, I tend not to assume it’s also a high-rise apartment building. Also, if a see a matronly woman gesturing at said restaurant, I assume she’s saying “Come inside and have some food, weary traveler,” not “Come inside and have some sex for money, white boy.”
I was incorrect.
She took me by the arm, but when we broke left away from the restaurant and headed for an elevator, I realised what was happening. I quickly made some panicked excuses and pulled away while she quoted some (probably quite reasonable) prices, found out the restaurant we’d passed wasn’t even open, and moved swiftly for my hotel, deciding I wasn’t even hungry anymore. Fortunately from there I only had to worry about strip club promoters. Well, “worry” likely isn’t the word I want.
Vietnam It’s 5:00 AM, partway through an Asian holiday known as “Dan and Sean’s Excellent Adventure.” Well, that’s what I call it, anyway. Sean may or may not have branded it differently. Sean and I are about to catch a bus into Cambodia, and I’m in search of an ATM to get cash for the border. The wee hours of the morning are about as close to quiet as Ho Chi Minh City gets. The constant stream of honking motorcycles dies down to a trickle, many of which aren’t even honking at things. Shops and restaurants are just starting to open. As I emerged from the alley our hostel was in, looking for signs of a cash machine (the directions the guy at the desk gave me were unclear but I was far too tired and awkward to ask for clarification), a scooter suddenly emerged from goddamn nowhere, pulling to a complete stop right in front of me. There were two people on the scooter: a driver and the girl behind him.
“Hello,” says the girl, a half-second after the scooter stopped. This all happened in an instant, mind you: just ZOOM. SCREECH! “Hello.”
“Uh… hi,” I manage, then I swiftly turn away, attempting to convey lack of interest and deciding to move my search away from the side streets. No sooner do I round the corner than it happens again.
ZOOM. SCREECH! “Hello.”
Same scooter? Different scooter? I DON’T KNOW. Didn’t stop to find out. I like to think I avoided yelping in alarm. I am pretty sure I flinched pretty hard. And that’s where I abandoned my search for an ATM. Well, I certainly wasn’t going to ask the prostitute and her scooter-pimp where I could find money, that is sending entirely the wrong message.
Cambodia Later, that same trip. It’s Christmas in Siem Reap and Sean and I have been joined by two of his friends from Hong Kong. We’re partying on pub street, a hub of cheap bars catering to visitors to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. After many, many beers and shots we decide it’s time for karaoke. One of the ladies thinks she knows a place, but it quickly proves to no longer exist. So we choose to hire out a tuk-tuk (somewhere between a cab and a rickshaw) to take us to a karaoke bar. Sean attempts to indicate what we’re looking for by repeating the word “karaoke” while waving his fist near his mouth as though he were holding a microphone. Well, that’s what he wanted it to look like, anyway.
Maybe the story would have played out the same regardless, but that was an unfortunate choice of gestures.
The tuk-tuk we picked pulls away from pub street, heading towards the city centre… past a bar that really looked like it was advertising karaoke… onto a highway… and as we get further and further from what we’d come to know as downtown Siem Reap (possibly inaccurate, I don’t really know) we began to grow concerned. Sure enough, when we pulled off the road, it was into what was very clearly a brothel.
It’s possible the brothel offered karaoke as well, it looked like it might, but that was not the point. We swiftly and insistently demanded to be taken back to pub street.
Now, I wasn’t even alone this time. I was accompanied by two women and a gay man. How could we possibly have looked like I need to visit a brothel? HOW. Okay, in fairness it wouldn’t have taken much effort to learn that nobody in this foursome had any intentions of sleeping with each other, but still. But still, dear readers.
Also we still totally had to pay for the tuk-tuk. That just seems wrong, but there it was.
We interrupt our previous tale of my repeated efforts to dodge prostitutes worldwide for an update on my ongoing war against the decaying flesh coffin known as “my body.”
You may think it’s an odd attitude to have, war with your own physical self. But we all are, gentle readers. We all are. We live in an age where thin, or at least lean and muscular, are considered most attractive, yet our bodies are still hardwired from millennia of evolution to store as much fat as possible in case nobody’s able to kill a mammoth next week. Oh, but store too much and you’re killing yourself faster than a cocaine addiction. We’re most physically prepared to reproduce in our early 20s but most of us aren’t mentally ready until we’re in our 30s. To paraphrase C. Montgomery Burns, our bodies started the war with their thinning hair and expanding waistlines, and now they want to call “no contest” because they’re losing?
But I digress.
My usual issues with my flesh body, in addition to being heavier and balder than I care for and utterly refusing to react to healthy food and exercise as anything other than low-grade torture, typically have to do with little things. Refusal to shake a cough between November and March. Persistent floaters in my vision that apparently I just get to live with forever now. Refusing to fall asleep when I want to but then even more stubbornly refusing to wake up when I have to.
A bloody hour I spent trying to wake up this morning, while my subconscious flooded my dreams with conspiracies and cabals, sinister agents out to ensure I stayed asleep as long as possible while a noble few tried to see out the prophecy that I would arise at ten and… something something. The exact motivations are a little blurry.
My motivation? I had to hit the hospital and have a centimeter-long stone removed from my right kidney. Well it had shifted slightly out of the kidney but the point remains. This is my flesh body’s current favourite strike against me: every 16-20 months, it fires a tiny rock out of my kidney in order to cause excruciating pain, pain described as on par with childbirth. Sensible, they’re both about trying to squeeze things through holes way too small.
After stone one, I did some research. Certain foods exacerbate stones? Away with them. Raspberries? Easy enough. Granny’s raspberry bushes are a distant and bittersweet memory anyway. Chocolate and almonds? Fine. Chocolate covered almonds weren’t the healthiest snack anyway, shouldn’t be too bad to who am I kidding I miss them so much!
The stones returned. And got bigger.
So I drank more water. Less cola, more water, how can that be a bad idea?
The stones returned. And got bigger.
But today, on stone four, they finally shot themselves in the proverbial foot. Stone four was too big to pass on its own. So was stone three, I admit, but it was able to give it more of a go. I was able to detect stone four before it could cause the usual night of extreme agony and nausea, and then was able to have it extracted before it had its chance. As such, stone four was the least traumatic of its kin.
And now the real work begins. The examination of the stone by medical professionals, hopefully ending with some clue as to how I can stop stone five (already in progress over on the other side) before we have to do this dance again come summer of next year.
And before you say “eat less cheese,” you’d best have your doctorate in urology ready for review because do not come between me and cheese, I will cut you.
Next time we return to the Surprise Scooter Prostitutes of Vietnam. Promise.
It’s always risky, setting foot outside your front door. Now there are risks to travel that I will always be immune to. I don’t have to worry about someone drugging my drink at a bar, I’m unlikely to be kidnapped and sold into prostitution (there isn’t enough of a market for 30-something dudes of gravity to sustain the necessary infrastructure for a slave ring), and I’m never going to transport your drugs for you. However there is one little annoying pattern that I seem to be stuck with, and while it’s a far, far smaller concern than those single women may face abroad, it does wear on a person after a time.
This January a small but dedicated group of friends accompanied my young apprentice Patrick to Las Vegas for his 22nd birthday. Many, many good times followed, but there was just one little hiccup. Our flight was at the crack of bloody dawn and everyone was sick. A nasty flu had hit our little band of miscreants’ New Year’s Eve party and none of us on the trip made it out clean. It didn’t overly hold us back, but the fact of the matter is that most of the stuff you’re going to want to do in Vegas happens after dark, and if you had to be up for your flight before dawn while fighting a nasty cough you are going to be tired as balls. This sadly lasted for the first two days. Come Saturday night, following our official Fancy Dinner, all of us except one were just too wiped out to go clubbing. We struggled to persevere, not wanting to bail on Patrick on a Saturday night in Vegas, but when we returned to our hotel to hit the local club, our resident night owl suggested we go back to our rooms, change and meet back at the club in a half hour.
“Half an hour?” I said. “It’s already past 11!” I said. “That’s way too much time,” I said. I tried to warn them.
Momentum conquers all, and sure enough four out of seven of us collapsed in their rooms rather than return downstairs. Patrick and I decided clubbing just wasn’t in the cards that night, and opted to simply have a drink at the bar and call it a night. Well, after watching the pilot of Arrow. I mean, I was tired, but he asked, and I’m never too tired to make people watch Arrow if the chance arises.
As we sipped our drinks, a woman took a stool next to us at the bar. While there’d been many lovely ladies roaming around that weekend, finding one that wasn’t part of a group was a rarity, so when she started chatting with us we happily chatted right back.
You see, something I’m trying to work on is the way I tend to treat any unusual opportunity that crosses my path like a potential trap, always reluctant to embrace it and instead searching for the catch. Some people I know would say it’s important to stop thinking like that. The problem is there is always a god damn catch. And being able to spot it kept me out of a pyramid scheme some eight or nine years back and helped me duck a scam “job offer” just this week, so I stand by a certain degree of suspicion.
Sure enough, as the conversation continued, she managed to turn everything into sexual innuendo. We were in theatre? Oh, so we liked to role-play. I write comedies because I like to make people laugh? Well, she loves laughers but prefers groaners. It became clear. We were being cruised by a prostitute. A relatively high-end prostitute, compared to the scary hookers that lurked outside my old condo, but still. We made our exit as gracefully as we could.
A friend said this is a happy story. It’s not a story about how we looked like sad sacks in need of a night of rented companionship, it’s about how upon seeing us, she assumed that we were men of means, men who’d be able to afford her services. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t (the same friend was openly disappointed that neither of us were interested in her… proposed business arrangement, despite years of me saying in clear and definite terms I will never wish to sleep with a prostitute, ever, so he’s clearly not right about everything), but it’s a nice way to view the story. I’d rather she’d been thinking “He looks like he can spare three hundred dollars” than “He’s white and in Asia, must be a sex tourist.”
Which happens an annoying amount. As we’ll discuss in part two.
Join me tomorrow for “visiting Asia does not mean I’m a sex tourist, damn it.”
And after some computer malfunction shenanigans, we are back!
In a little over a month I’m going to be on a stage, talking to a crowd (hopefully) about writing. Creating a story and characters and all of that. And as of now I have no idea what I’m going to say. I mean, there’ll be three of us, so I should only have to cover 15 minutes tops, but still. I suppose I could talk about the various stages I go through as a writer. Let’s review them together, shall we?
Stage one: “Didn’t I use to be a writer?” I have written or co-written 30 plays, ranging from “They tell me it’s great” to “This had better never see the light of day.” And each time I finish one, I inevitably start to worry that it was my last. I’ll have no ideas, no plans, and the notion that I managed to write down all those words in the last script just starts seeming insane. A fluke. Surely I can’t do that again.
Stage two: Inspiration And then an idea will hit. It could come from anywhere. Dreams. Conversations. Watching something and thinking “I could do that better.” Usually not the last one because if someone else had the idea first, using it myself just seems icky.
In this stage, the very basics of the idea begin to form. The skeletal structure of the story, just enough to fill a thirty-second elevator pitch (examples from my past work: “Muppet Show murder mystery,” or “Man seeks romantic advice from the Devil”). The core characters will start to take shape. Maybe a few patches of dialogue. I’ll mull the idea over, talk about it with close friends, colleagues or anyone who gets in my radius when I’m “chatty drunk” at a party. Some ideas never clear this stage, and I’m probably better off for that, but if the idea is clicking, I’ll commit to it. Then it gets tricky.
Stage three: Actual work Now I have to take this rough idea and turn it into a functioning story. This is where I finally figure out what the story is about. Now that doesn’t mean the plot: plot is just what happens during the story. What is the central theme? For example, the Dark Knight is about order vs. chaos. Inception is about letting go, or on another level storytelling itself. The Hurt Locker is about how you can lose yourself in the thrill of danger. Most of my recent plays are about getting out of your own way and letting yourself try to be happy. I don’t know, maybe I think if I write it down enough times I’ll actually learn to do it.
And yes, you also need a plot. Supporting cast. How will this resolve? Will the protagonist learn a lesson and triumph, or either fail to learn the lesson or learn it too late and fail? I prefer the former, a good friend and colleague prefers the latter, but neither is inherently better. Depends on execution. Which brings us to…
Stage four: Write it down Depending on how long I ponce around talking about that play I’m going to write (do be careful: anyone can TALK about writing something, and it’s easy to get stuck on that step, but you have to move past that eventually) this is the longest part. When the idea’s really clicking, and the characters are well realized in my head, the characters basically write themselves. Sadly, they don’t write themselves in any useful fashion. Creating swaths of dialogue in my head is easy; actually writing it down is much harder and more time-consuming. But with time and focus (each their own brand of tricky), I eventually crank out a first draft. Now we enter the panic stage.
Stage five: Showing it to people Is the script any good? I don’t know. I never know. First drafts have been called excellent or the worst thing I’ve ever done, and until that moment I couldn’t have guessed which would be which. Everything seems good while I’m writing it, at least for the most part, so I need someone to tell me what is and isn’t working. And the act of giving my script to someone to read is a weird two-step process: first I’m incredibly nervous to show it to anyone (on account of it might be terrible), but as soon as I’ve sent it to them I almost immediately switch to desperate to hear what they thought. From there, the editing begins.
Stage six:Draft upon draft This one’s pretty simple, really. Get feedback, find out what needs fixing, then fix it. Repeat. I prefer to gather people for workshops, in which we read the script aloud and then people give me their thoughts. It does take a certain amount of guts to go through this process, but until you can hear people say they didn’t like something about your story without wigging out you’ll never improve.
Stage seven: editing forever Art is never finished, merely abandoned. There will always be something that could be improved. I’ve come up with ways to polish a play while in the middle of a performace. Not an ideal time, because it’s too late to chage anything this time around and dwelling on it can make you miss your cue, but the point is the more you grow and evolve as a writer the more flaws you’ll see in your past work. Scripts I used to be incredibly proud of now embarrass me a little, but come on. I was 21.
There’s always going to be the drive to improve. The need to perfect a story. Because the better it is, the better the odds are that I can use it to trick people into liking me.
Look, I never said my creative process was easy or sane. But it seems to work.
Now I talk a lot about travel in the “About me” section and intro post of the blog. That’s because I talk a lot about travel in general, even when it’s been a year and a half since my last proper trip. Like now. Fortunately for me I have plenty of travel tales built up over the years; unfortunately for me it’s tricky to bring those up and not sound pretentious. Start a story with “Back when I lived in Australia as a child” and even I want to smack me. It’s a challenge.
Still, as we get our sea legs here at Tales From Parts Unknown, it seems like a good idea to hit on the various topics I plan to be talking about, if nothing else as an intro to both you, the audience, and to me, the guy who’s gradually figuring this out. Today: the five cities I could visit over and over, and what I think it is I love about them.
Honourable mention: Sydney I love Australia. I do. Despite their giant monster spiders and tiny actually deadly spiders, despite some scarring experiences in their grade school system, I love it. If you can get past the continent’s thick layer of murderous nature, there’s a lot of beauty there. But I’d be hard pressed to name a favourite city, having spent the most time in Canberra and Darwin and having little fondness for either. So, Sydney, I guess.
5. Tokyo I’ve only been to Tokyo the once, and it’s all I’ve seen of Japan, but I fell in love with it pretty quickly. It’s massive: any time I found an observation deck (almost once per day) I would stare out at the city and couldn’t see the edge of it. It’s… different. Even when I found myself lost in a residential area, the places where “exotic foreign city” really does break down into “place where people live and work,” there was still a fascinating otherness about it. Being immersed in a different culture. At night it was bright and colourful and weird and amazing. It had some of the best sushi I’ve ever eaten. I could spend every night in the Harajuku district. It was a fascinating enough city to be lost in that I didn’t even mind some of the things that normally make me anxious about foreign countries: my inability to blend in (making me a target for strip club proprietors and surprisingly matronly prostitutes) and my idiot brain’s inability to grasp any foreign language. Nine years of French lessons and at my peak I could barely get by in French, what possible chance could I have had in Japanese. But if I stuck to restaurants with pictures on the menu or English on their signage, I did okay. Tokyo was an experience, no matter what I was doing, and that’s what I look for.
I was 15 the first time I went to Florence. Having spent most of my life up to that point in North America… 1980s North America… the idea of actually making your city nice to look at was novel to me. It’s not really something we do around here. But Florence is pretty. It’s filled with Renaissance art and is home to my first time I remember tasting chocolate gelato. And it was brilliant. Maybe my fondness for Florence is entirely situational. My two trips there in high school ended up being two really great days. How much of that is the city and how much was the day itself? I don’t know, but hope to find out when I return there in May. Although a lot of that is going to be coloured by trying to keep Ian from getting arrested for re-enacting Assassin’s Creed 2 all over everything. Which, let’s be real, is also going to be pretty great.
3. Las Vegas Okay, this one’s probably entirely situational, but in this case that’s the point. I’ve been to Las Vegas three times: once when I was six (I doubt I got the most out of it), once for my brithday and most recently for my young apprentice Patrick’s birthday. Unlike any of the other cities on this list, I probably would not have as good a time if I went by myself. On my own, I’d have an oversized drink or two, half-heartedly play blackjack for twenty minutes, watch a Cirque show (probably Zumanity again don’t you dare judge me) and end up bored as often as not. With people? Correction, with the right people? It’s a gateway to good times. The sheer weight of the ridiculous, tacky oppulence makes having fun almost compulsory. Don’t believe me? Go to the Venetian. Look around. Look at the pool. Look at this hallway, for pity’s sake.
That isn’t even in the main part of the hotel. It leads to one restaurant and goes past the pool. And it is the fanciest hallway I have seen built after the French Revolution. In another section they have not only built a canal but they’ve developed lighting that almost precisely recreates sunlight. It’s the uncanny valley of light and hurts my eyes a bit and the whole room kind of wigged me out but I appreciate the effort. In summary, this building shouldn’t exist without a king or pharaoh forcing peasants to build it and I love it and want to party in it forever. With the right group, anything is possible and everything is awesome. It’s an expensive weekend but hell of worth it just for the experience. Unless you go with the wrong people, in which case you’re going to have some free drinks while losing your rent money on the slot machines. I assume. Fortunately I only go with fun people.
I feel this one needs no explanation. New York is a city that lives up to its own hype. Manhattan reinvents itself every other block: it’s Times Square, then it’s a jewellery district, then it’s Hell’s Kitchen. Times Square’s parade of giant advertising billboards is so tacky it becomes a thing of beauty. There’s great food (including sandwiches the size of my head), Broadway theatre, Central Park, basically anything you could look for. I really don’t know what more I can tell you that every book, movie, comic and TV show set in New York hasn’t already said except that they ain’t making it up.
1.London “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Samuel Johnson.
Take everything I just said about New York. Say it again, then add hundreds of years of history. In place of Times Square, Leicester Square. In place of Broadway, the West End. Plus Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, great ghost walks, more Jack the Ripper tours than have a right to exist, and it’s less than a day’s travel from Stonehenge, Bath, and the Doctor Who Experience. London’s got everything you could want. Well, everything I could want, anyway, and that is the entire foundation of this list.
Next time, something about theatre, and the wonderful, horrifying process of having someone read something you wrote.
So, hi. Welcome to my new little corner of the interwebs. My name’s Dan, and I’ll be your host here at Tales From Parts Unknown. I’m a Canadian playwright with a penchant to roam the planet, here to entertain you with travel tales, theatre stories and the occasional rant about Green Lantern, Green Arrow or Doctor Who. Sorry in advance, I can barely control it at this point.
Check back soon (and often) for stories of adventures past and present, the upcoming saga of “Dan and Ian Go to Italian Prison (probably)” and some insights into the warped and fractured landscape that is my writing process.