Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

When it comes to travel, the people make the place.

“The people make the place,” I told my nephew J.J. during our two-week trip to Greece last summer. He seemed to grasp this intuitively, loving Athens for the warmth of its inhabitants as much as the magnificence of the Acropolis. Yet I felt compelled to voice the thought anyway, because it encapsulates a travel and life philosophy I hoped he might adopt.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly all of my 46 years, and I have a long and dynamic list of things I love about the physical place, including: jogging the length of the Mall, strolling through the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, singing along to the likes of Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap, taking in any of the Smithsonian museums, having a lazy brunch somewhere on 8th Street and then wandering around Eastern Market, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the Air Force Memorial, or driving 90 minutes west to hike Old Rag. It’s all familiar, in the best possible way.

But I also have a long-running list of beefs about this area, such as: traffic, soulless sprawl, politics, short-timing posers (you know the archetype: a windbag who isn’t actually from here and kicks off every conversation with, “What do you do?” as a way to gauge whether you’re worth talking to), short tempers, total inability to deal with more than three flakes of snow, and a ridiculously high cost of living. It’s all familiar, in the worst possible way. But even when the D.C. area serves up its very worst, it still has the greatest concentration of what matters to me most: my family and friends. Without those relationships, this place, while full of beauty, culture and history, would feel empty to me.

I take the same view when traveling: the way the people make me feel when I visit a place matters as much to me as the surroundings, if not more. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do the people enhance the enchantment of stunning scenery as they do on Crete. I wrote that Cretans are so genuinely friendly they make Athenians seem aloof, and it’s true. But of the people we encountered on Crete, my two favorites weren’t even from Greece, much less Crete. They were a pair of New Yorkers, Jennifer and Scott, who happened to be relaxing at our hotel’s seaside pool when I settled into an empty chaise lounge right next to them.

Jennifer said a friendly “hello” immediately, a scary opener to an introvert like me, who doesn’t always relish small talk with strangers. But after nearly two weeks in the company of an 18 year-old, I felt a bit starved for peer conversation and engaged without hesitation. It soon proved to be one of my better decisions. When I explained that I was traveling with my nephew, she wanted to know all about J.J. and listened intently as I gushed about how lucky I feel to be his aunt. Then we got to talking about the market near the hotel and discovered we both love to go to little local stores like that and shop for regular stuff, like toothpaste.

“I just like to see how it’s different,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Me too!”

Scott heard this, shook his head, and chuckled. We were off to the races.

Jennifer and I soon learned we also share a love of  handwritten letters and beautiful paper. When I write a letter by hand, I choose the writing surface carefully, the thoughts I place on it even more carefully, and the recipient most carefully of all. It takes time and effort, making it one of my favorite and most heartfelt ways to express affection. I cranked out letters weekly until the early 2000s, when the digital age nudged most of my correspondents, and me, in the direction of emails and texts. Jennifer bucked that tide. For her entire adult life, she’s been writing letters, notes and postcards to let people know that she cares about them, that she cherishes their connection.

In 1988, while traveling with Scott in Malaysia, Jennifer wrote a thank-you note on a postcard of New York for the kindly rickshaw driver who’d taken them on a tour through a town called Melaka. The impact of that note rippled beyond the driver, who saved it, and extended all the way to Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer who encountered both driver and postcard nearly twenty years later. Rolf relays the story, and its significance, beautifully:

Early in 1988, a newlywed couple from the States was traveling in Malaysia. While in the ethnically diverse, historical treasure-trove of a town called Malacca (Melaka), they hired the services of a 60-year-old rickshaw driver named Peter Ong. Thanks to a simple act of thoughtfulness on their part, Peter remembers them still today.

I met Peter myself in late 2007, when he also offered his rickshaw services to me. Pulling out a handful of postcards from previous customers, he seemed particularly happy with one from New York and invited me to check out the back, which read:

Dear Mr. Ong,

You’ve been a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide through Melaka. You were kind and thoughtful (thanks for the bag of bananas!).

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

The card was dated January 30, 1988, and friction had so worn the front cover that New York’s skyscrapers seemed to be chain smoking. Though I didn’t take Peter up on his offer—I needed to stay on foot to get the pictures I was after—we did talk for several minutes while waiting under an awning for a rain shower to pass. I learned that Peter was born in January 1928, that he’d been driving a rickshaw for 40 years, and that he had seven grown kids living in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

Months later I would google Scott and Jennifer and see their 1987 wedding announcement in the New York Times. Other than what I read there—he was a doctor and she a nurse—I know nothing about them. Except, I suppose, that their tangible thoughtfulness is still remembered two decades later by a man in Malacca, and has probably helped that man grow his business.

When Peter Ong holds up his postcard, then, he is not just showing us New York; he is reminding us that in travel, even when we give in small ways in a town through which we are so briefly passing, it matters.

I read the blog post while sitting next to Jennifer, its insightful last lines completing the lesson I hoped to impart to my nephew. I told J.J. the story over dinner that night.

“Are you serious?” he said, his face a study in astonishment. “That’s pretty damned amazing.” J.J. had liked Jennifer and Scott –they were the rare adults who managed to show interest in him without being nosy –and I could tell the story raised their stock in his eyes exponentially.

I pulled up Rolf’s blog post on my phone, read the final paragraph aloud, and said, “Remember what I said about how the people make the place?” J.J. nodded. “Well, those people who make a place special won’t know they did that for you unless you tell them. So whenever you can, find a way to let them know they made a difference.”

I resolved to redouble my own efforts in that department. After Jennifer and I became friends on Facebook, we cemented the connection by going old-school and exchanging home addresses. Since July, a trip to the mailbox holds the prospect of not just another $5 coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond but also one of Jennifer’s wonderful notes. Any time one arrives, I’m transported to Crete for a few happy moments and reminded that friendship borne out of travel is an incomparable souvenir.

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…


Let’s all climb into the way way back machine and take a trip to…1989

Today my friend Rama posted a picture of a handwritten letter on Facebook and wrote that there’s nothing more personal than that.  I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve saved just about every letter I’ve ever received, because the effort of writing words on paper has always signified to me a special kind of relationship. In cases where the relationship has faded out altogether, the letters themselves are like old friends: warm, comfortable and worth visiting even if you haven’t seen them in a while.

With that in mind I trudged down to the basement and grabbed the first box of letters I found. I had never bothered to organize these missives– I regarded the mere preservation of them as a major accomplishment–so I scanned the contents in an effort to do some correspondence carbon dating. They all seemed to hail from 1989, my first year at UVA.

What surprised me most about these blasts from my pre-Facebook past was the sheer number of letter-writing pals I had. In those days, we didn’t spend seconds dashing off 140-character thought burps; we spent hours writing page after page of thoughtful prose, often signing off with, “Well, I just talked to you on the phone so now you already know all of this, but since I wrote it, I’m sending it anyway.” It amazes me that so many of my friends and I took the time to do it.

The best opening line in a letter came from my friend Shelly. She and I had spent the previous summer coaching the Fox Hunt Swim Team in Springfield, Virginia, right down the street from my parents’ house. She wrote: “Hi, Karen! WOW! What a major scoop that was! I cannot believe it! Definitely a shocker! Never did I think you’d see him again after we drooled all summer!” As I read it from the comfort of the chair in my bedroom tonight, I actually yelled, “WHAT MAJOR SCOOP?! WHAT SHOCKER?!?! AND WHO THE HECK IS ‘HIM’?” For the life of me I can’t remember. Shelly’s letter doesn’t offer any clues, either, forcing me to conclude the whole episode was a waste of perfectly good drool.

I also got a huge kick out of the letters I found from my siblings. As often as the four of us fought when we were growing up, it’s hard to believe we survived to college age. Yet once each of us made that transition, it was like we’d been released after doing years of hard time: we were elated to enjoy life on the outside but found ourselves missing the old inmates.

A letter my older sister Lynne wrote on notebook paper on September 21, 1989, ended with “Love, Lynne,” a two-word phrase that I don’t recall having been uttered during the 15 years we shared a room. And then there was this P.S.: “Sorry about the fine quality stationary, but as you can probably tell, I wrote this during class.”  Just as my father always suspected.

A gem from my brother dated October 6, 1989, yields further proof of my theory about the journey to college creating distance and bridging it all at once. He was a freshman in high school at the time he wrote it, and on the back of the envelope he scrawled: “Don’t believe I wrote to you, do you?” I did not believe it, or the fact that his letter had footnotes. Four of them. Footnotes, ladies and gentlemen. In handwritten correspondence from an adolescent. 

My oldest sister Suzi, who had tended to stay above the fray when we were kids and remained there after she went to college, sent tons of cards with warm thoughts and usually some goodies.

The last letter I pulled out of the box came from my mother’s mother,who lived in Philadelphia. Apparently I sent her a grandmother’s day card. (While I don’t specifically recall doing so, it sounds about right because I’m the kind of person who will miss your birthday but remember to send you heartfelt Arbor Day greetings.)

“It was the only card that I got,” she wrote. While basking in the glow of the idea that I might have held #1 grandchild status even if just for a moment, I kept reading. “I’m enclosing a little something for you. You can have a treat on me.” That also sounded right. Mom’s mom never had much money to spare, but when she did, her first thought was to give it to her loved ones. (Her second thought was to buy them Tastycakes, and it’s hard to say which we appreciated more.)

The second to last line of her letter was the one that really did me in. “Good luck in everything you do,” she wrote. It’s almost as if she knew I would need it,  what with that thing I’m doing and all.

When my grandmother wrote, “Good luck with everything you do,” she might have meant “Good luck with everything. And that ‘do.”



Long, Not-So-Lost, Friends

I found Mr. C.!

It took me less than two weeks to do it, proving that you can accomplish nearly anything if you’re willing to dedicate all of your resources to the task.

It wasn’t easy to come up with $0.95 to buy an address report, especially since I had to commit to a monthly service for $6.95 to get the $0.95 deal and then remember to cancel it the next day.  But when something’s important enough, you make these kinds of Herculean efforts.

Once I got Mr. C’s address, I started writing a letter, with an actual pen on actual paper.

I wanted to keep it chatty and light, a bit of a challenge given some of the events of the past few years.  I figured I’d go with something like: “Dear Mr. C, How are you? Not much new here in the past eight years, just the garden variety ‘get married, tear down your house, start building a new one, realize you’re in a disastrous marriage, make a hasty exit 10 months into it, wacky hijinks ensue’ sort of thing. Oh, and I’ve started wearing my hair curly. That about covers it.”  I filled three pages with my scrawl and then plopped the letter in the mail.

Mr. C responded in record time and via email, a route he chose either to save time or (more likely) as a polite way of saying, “Your handwriting is so bad that I deciphered only two words in your letter: ‘Mr.’ and ‘C.’  Do not ever pick up a pen again.”

He wasn’t bent out of shape about my eight-year disappearance, nor did he dwell on the story of my marriage (perhaps because he couldn’t read it).  Instead, he thanked me for finding him –he’d intentionally omitted his return address because he didn’t want me to feel pressured to respond – and he picked right up where we’d left off, as your great friends do.

Days after I got Mr. C’s note, I learned via a Facebook status update, complete with a photo that made the words of the update superfluous, that my friend “J” had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was in the middle of chemo.

J, her husband and I had become friends in law school some fifteen years earlier, bonded by the common adversity of working full-time and going to law school at night.  We were part of a close-knit group of 15 or so similarly situated students.

As sometimes happens in a group like that, a personal conflict whose origins I don’t remember arose in 2003 or so and splintered the group.  A nucleus remained that included me, but not J and her husband.  I never quite understood what happened or why—I thought it was better in some ways not to know – but I missed them.  From time to time I thought about contacting them but wasn’t sure if an overture would be welcome.

I rekindled my friendship with J very timidly about a year ago, after Facebook kept pointing out in its helpful way that perhaps I might know J and would want to be friends with her. Well duh, Facebook.

The fact that the update J posted last week came as a complete shock to me tells you that, other than using the passive channels of social networking, I’d done nothing to close the gap in our relationship.

Few things make a person regret inaction faster or more deeply than a cancer diagnosis.

Since I couldn’t do anything about the past, I acted on the now. I reached out to the law school group, they mobilized, and we came up with a care package for Team J.  Last Sunday I set out for their house, intending simply to leave the loot outside the front door.  The last thing J and her family needed was a lapsed friend bursting on to the scene, unannounced.

Sunday brought surprisingly balmy temps for early February, the kind that make you walk around without a coat, drive around with the windows down, or, in the case of J and her husband, leave your front door wide open.  I hadn’t counted on that.

If I executed my original plan, I might get busted in the act.  The only thing weirder than a derelict pal randomly showing up at your door is a derelict pal fleeing it, so I didn’t think I should risk it.

Instead, I summoned up a little courage, rang the doorbell, and braced myself for a reaction ranging from chilly politeness to “Honey, call an exterminator! FAST!”

What I didn’t expect was for J’s husband to give me an immediate, warm welcome, or for J herself to come rushing up, break into an exuberant grin, and envelop me in a hug so fierce that it left me wordless.  The tears that sprang to my eyes and appeared in hers closed the span of years in seconds.

These recent experiences with Mr. C, J and her husband remind me that the essence of friendship really is just showing up, and that, though I should have done it years ago, sometimes late is better than never.