Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Press Play and Go...

With today’s technology, any traveler can bring 1000’s of songs along, and it takes up less space than a half deck of cards. Today, who needs to choose what songs to bring? Just dump it all on your ipod and don’t even think twice. Amazing.

You’d think that I’d think this was the ultimate in progress and convenience, but in reality, I’m not that excited by it at all.

Travel and music today are so different from what they were two decades ago. Back in the 80’s and 90’s when I traveled by bus, train or in the air, the music I would take with me was selected thoughtfully and carefully. The music player of choice was a Sony Walkman, coming in at a super-slim 1.5 inches thick, and together with a good supply of extra batteries, a case of 5 or 6 cassette tapes each holding 60 to 90 minutes of music, I was set. It took up valuable space in my carry-on or backpack, but for longer travels, music was more essential than, say, a map to get around, snacks, or your underwear. Really! It sounds exaggerated, but likely you can more easily remember music from decades back than you can what your underwear looked like at the same time.

Step back a couple of generations of technology, back to the late 80’s, before we could even dream of something like an ipod. I would spend many hours carefully scanning my record selection to see what would be an appropriate fit for my upcoming trip. Wasn’t putting music on cassettes the best?

The enjoyment of music from those days comes from having spent many hours controlling your music station with the precision of a conductor of an orchestra. Recording music was nearly a science or well-practiced art! Taking the record from its cardboard sleeve, edges in palm, gently placing it on the turn-table, putting the needle down in precisely the right groove, and quickly moving your hands down to the tape deck to press record at the exact fraction of a second after the previous song was done, and before the next song would start. Just to note: a successful attempt to tape an individual song from a Pink Floyd album took years and years of practice, and when actually achieved, it gave you a standing among your tape-making friends that would be more meaningful than any silly old straight A-plus report card. YOU would have been considered the gold medalist of the Olympics of tape recording.

Of course there were always ‘incidents’ - you accidentally bumped the record player with your elbow causing the record to skip, which you could never allow on your tape masterpiece, so you have to start all over again. Then there were those brain-numbing decisions and calculations over what song to end the side with, and gosh-darn it all, is it going to fit before you hear that ‘click’ of the tape coming to an end? Ahhh, precious moments, good times.

What this meant though, likely due to the effort it would take to actually fill up a 60 or 90 minute tape, was that your music was there with a clear and well thought out order, rather than being random, or ‘shuffled’. I swear some of my tapes were absolute classics – masterpieces never to be rivaled, and if there was ever a Smithsonian Museum dedicated to tape collections, I’m sure I would have been honored within!

So back in the Spring/Summer of 1995, still in the days of tape collections, I spent time working as a graphic designer in Kiel, Germany. My entire trip to Europe (6 weeks of working, 4 weeks of traveling, 6 custom tape creations in all) all started with a song – a song that would eventually define my whole journey. Let’s back up a bit. It was a beautiful early spring day in March of 1995 – I was driving alone, and a familiar Stone Temple Pilots song came on the radio. I cranked it up, and for some reason, this one line stayed in my head. Now if you know me and my misinterpretations of lyrics, you know that I’ve goofed up more than my fair share. This time, the words I heard were ‘leaving on a southern train.’ I’ve never actually looked up the words to see if I’m even close to understanding what they’re singing, but when I heard those words (whatever they happen to be) it instantly brought me back to 5 years before, traveling through Europe, sitting on a train day after day, exploring Europe with my friend Jamie, for the first time. I just couldn’t get it out of my head, and I couldn’t get the idea of being back in Europe out of my head either.

It took a bunch of letters (this was pre-email), a few phone calls and a desperate pleading at my current job for a leave of absence, but eventually I found myself sitting in the northern lands of Germany, living in a flat with 8 students who spoke as much English as I did German (an amount, if it could be physical, could be measured in a very small cup), working as a designer in the center of a small but charming German town. All because of one great song heard on a beautiful early spring day.

So, back to the music and back to the journey. I didn’t work the whole time I was away. I left some weeks at the end of my visit to travel through some countries in southern Europe. The day I was leaving Kiel – I hoped on the train (heading south of course), claimed my seat, placed my backpack above along with all of my contents, with the exception of a baguette, cheese, a swiss-army knife, a well-worn book, and of course my cassette player, holding a tape collection named something like ‘Evan’s Fantastic Journey to Europe Summer 1995’. Note: anyone who’s made various mixed tapes before knows that for the collection to be complete, it had to have something of a obvious and redundant title. First song up – you bet, by The Stone Temple Pilots. I sat back, cranked up the dial, pressed ‘play,’ and just smiled and soaked it in.

So do I make custom tapes today? Unfortunately, no. I do make custom play lists for my ipod, but the fun and magic of taking hours to make the perfect playlist is nearly gone. But the redundant titles are still there!

So, for those of you who know the tape-making days well, what do you do now?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Good grapes, it's the new year!

So much can be learned when you're traveling, and I'm always the first to support the ritual of picking a place to travel to, getting a ticket to fly there, then go. Sometimes though, you learn cool worldly things right in your own back yard.

We've started hanging out with my wife's family as a tradition on new year's eve (Noche Vieja, meaning Old Night in Spanish). My brother-in-law, nearly as Ukrainian as I am, is married to a wonderful and spunky girl from Venezuela. She's an amazing cook, and not only did she bring along a lot of family recipes with her, she also brought along much of her family! This includes her mother and two sisters.

Last year for New Year's we were gathering at one of the sister's houses, and just as we were about to do our count down to midnight, two most interesting items appeared - the first was an empty suitcase, and the second was a large bowl of freshly washed grapes. Very intrigued, I could easily see what role a bowl of grapes could play at any social gathering, but the suitcase I have to say seemed, well, odd. I had to ask, and so I did. Turns out these items are crucial components that come from traditions based in their homeland in Venezuela, and both have relevance near midnight. What she did with the suitcase was fascinating to someone like me who starts to get excited every time I even see my suitcase in the basement - just after midnight, in the cold of the night, she took it outside, made a complete walk around the block (I'm not sure how far back 'wheeled luggage' goes in these customs, but I wasn't about to interrupt the ceremony) and then she quickly came back into the house. As explained to me, this is a custom to bring good luck and plentiful travels for the year to come. I guess if there's also other people outside doing the same thing together, it's a chance to celebrate together. I'm not sure if you get different results with different sizes of suitcases, but just in case, if it was me participating in this custom, I'd be out there with a full size piece rather than just a carry-on, just hoping it would bring me a trip to somewhere far away and exotic, rather than a trip to somewhere 100 kilometers away.

Then came the grapes. Each person was to grab a dozen, and wait. As soon as it was 12 seconds to midnight, the task was to quickly pop in a grape (one grape per chime of the clock) while making a wish. You have 12 grapes, 12 wishes to make, all in 12 seconds! I'd like to think, after maybe making it through 5 grapes, 3.5 wishes, and nearly choking, that maybe with practice I could keep up with them and someday achieve 12 solid wishes that have a little more depth than 'I hope I don't choke!" I was very glad to hear that these two customs are never ever combined.

Fast forward to this year. Same people together at New Year's, this time at my brother-in-law's house. At about 11:30, a half hour to the turn of a new year and decade, I remembered the traditions of the previous year and asked how the travel thing worked out. Turns out, instead of a year filled with glorious and unrestricted travel, more money was put on the mortgage. I thought this was very sad, especially as her ritual of the previous year was done in minus 30 degree weather. That's pretty cold for any Canadian, but think about it being someone who's immigrated from a country far warmer than ours only a few years ago. I decided to not ask about any of the 12 wishes she had made while popping in grapes, as I knew it would probably remind her of how sad my performance was in that area.

It also turned out that she didn't bring her suitcase along this year, but I was happy to see that the grapes were washed and ready, and so was I. 12 hilarious seconds of adults and kids frantically making wishes and swallowing grapes whole, and a tradition I can see myself continuing, no matter where I am, or who's company I'm in.

Next year, the grapes are on me.