Thursday, October 22, 2009

Roadtrip Ruminations

The last few weeks the gift of a book tour offered me the opportunity to explore a bit o' the Midwest, up close and personal. When possible, I drove back roads. I traveled light (relatively speaking), enjoyed tossing random items in and out of my car, met friendly new people, wore my seatbelt like a good little citizen, and, when possible, sought out the local diner.

[POINT OF REFERENCE:  in my book, "local diner" includes Waffle House. File that where you will.]

Two days ago I boarded an airplane for vacation. Let me rephrase. Two days ago, I schlepped, bounced and careened my body and stuff down a narrow aisle until I reached my middle seat, whereupon I set about wedging all the aforementioned into my miniscule allocated areas. I wore my seatbelt like a good lttle citizen, and, when possble, tried to rearrange my arms without breaking a seatmate's ribs.

These combined recent adventures brought a few random traveling observations to my attention. I find myself talking about them, dwelling on them and wondering what on earth we will come up with next. (Somebody smack me.)

--A SURPRISE encounter that falls under the heading, SAY WHAT?!

I'll preface by saying (admitting, confessing?) that I don't drink coffee. Never have. Don't like the stuff. Sit next to me on an airplane with garlic breath and I won't mind. I like garlic. I will, in fact, suddenly crave spaghetti. But sit next to me with coffee breath and I shall spend the next several hours breathing through my mouth so I don't have to smell your blaaaachy coffee.
I drink tea. Hot, cold, spicy, loose-leaf, latted... No sugar. I drink iced tea all year round. Lots of it. So imagine my surprise (and annoyance) when a gal in a cute little coffee shop in Oconomowoc Wisconsin told me iced tea season was over. "Do you sell iced coffee all winter?" Yes, they did.

I tried to explain that tea is IN now and that tea shops are springing up all over the place, incuding this kiosk-y one at O'Hare airport.  Even tea accessories are on the rise. Tea is GOOD for you, I said. They didn't care, nor did they offer to steep hot tea and give me a glass of ice--which apparently is out of season there too.
Ya know, try telling a beer drinker that cold beer is out of season, especially in WISCONSIN! HEL-LO!
--This next observation arrived in a great little diner in Albuquerque New Mexico: two nongender (well, gender neutral--you know what I mean) bathrooms. It's not that I haven't seen gender neutral potties before, and when I have I always think SO SMART! But the sign on this particular door caught my attention. Check it out.

When I exited, a gentleman waiting on the waiting bench just outside the doors (handy) nearly knocked me over getting into my vacated room--even though the other restroom was available. And even though I knew better, my initial kneejerk and instinctive reaction was that I'd entered the wrong sex bathroom. We don't have gender neutral bathrooms in my hometown suburb, so this "we go both ways" thing is still new to me. But I rechecked both signs, and nope, I was good to go. (Actually, I'd already gone, but again, you know what I mean.) However, after studying the details, I discovered the other restroom did not proclaim the "urinal included" on its sign. Which made me wonder: was that guy a severe creature of habit too, i.e. "Where resideth the urinal, so I must goeth"?

--In a family restaurant in Woodstock Illinois, the bread basket set me to pondering. (I notice Panera's is doing this same quirky "thing" with the cookies and muffins.) When the waitress brought the bread basket to the table, rather than arriving wafting of yeast and yummy, a mound of individually prepackaged items showed up. Now, I get the sensibilities of such packaging, especially during flu season. But this is simply not inviting. It looks more like hospital food.

When I travel, there's a reason I seek out the good old diners, family-owned cafes and independent coffee shops. They radiate "Belly up, sojourner. Come sit a spell, wet your whistle and break bread with us." But seriously, when local fare boils down to "Come sit (or stand at the urinal if you choose the room on the left), wet your whistle on our terms only, and break open the cellophane on our bread," something is lost in translation.