My great-grandparents would be disappointed in me.
In the early 1900s, they all left Poland for the United States. Each of them took a different route across the Atlantic Ocean, but they all traveled thousands of miles to start a new life in my hometown of Pittsburgh. They wanted their children and future generations to have unlimited opportunities for religious, educational, and occupational freedom. Their travels were long and arduous, and it took them weeks to get to their final destination. My great-grandfather Stanislaus had by far the coolest route to America: He took a train across Germany into Belgium, where he set foot in Antwerp-Central…when it was new. The architectural masterpiece opened in 1905.
If my ancestors could open a door and view their families in 2022, I believe they would be proud of many of their great-grandchildren and great-great-grandkids. We all lead modest lives, but we’re much better off than they were 115 years ago. Some of us have even completed our bachelor’s and master’s degrees (I got a bachelor’s! I know–crazy). An education beyond high school was not a possibility for my family until the 1960s.
But there’s a family secret that my ancestors are aware of from afar. I know what they are saying about me from beyond: “That Larry…he’s so open-minded, so adaptable to his surroundings. Yet, he never went anywhere. It’s a shame. I hope he gets a chance to see at least some of the world one day. I remember when he was younger–so eager to learn about the world, but too afraid to leave home and actually see it for himself.”
I somewhat agree, but there’s more to the story. This is another one of my tales, where my middle-aged self seeks perspective in the midst of assessing life at my odometer reading of 46.67 years old. It’s my lost journey–and in pure Larry fashion, I believe the journey is not lost after all.
WELCOME TO SLOP STREET
My father’s dad “Mej” was my oldest grandparent. Mej was born in 1908. In his early years, he lived on the South Side slopes, where indoor plumbing was not an option for many homes above the flats (the sewer lines weren’t completed there until 1923). When Mej told stories of his birth home, he called the street, “Slop Street”, because of the mud and the continuous stench of excrement in the air. I remember my dad relaying this famous tidbit from Mej about Slop Street:
“If you had to s***, you’d grab a pot, take a s*** in it, and throw it out the window.”
My other grandparents didn’t share any “fun” stories like that when I was around them, but I know none of them had any money. Both of my grandmothers were homemakers, and both of my grandfathers had modest jobs. My mom’s parents never owned a home, and my dad’s parents acquired their home after living with my grandma’s parents for 35 years. My father never left Pennsylvania until he joined the Navy, and when she was younger, my mother’s only venture outside of the Pittsburgh area was when she visited family in eastern Ohio. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe the furthest grandpa Mej went beyond the city limits of Pittsburgh was 15 miles. He lived until 79! I didn’t come from a very adventurous family, but at an early age, I recognized there were billions of people living many different lives beyond my simple life in the South Hilltop neighborhoods.
LISTEN AND LEARN
When I used to watch Sesame Street in the late 1970s, I noticed that Maria and Luis would speak to one another, but they sometimes used a different language than the English I knew. I also noticed that Linda couldn’t hear, and she used sign language to communicate. I began to wonder how many people in the world were like Maria, Luis, and Linda, and I started to take interest in the world outside of my family.
I liked sports growing up (I still do), and I watched The Olympics every time they came around. The TV stations would display the national flag of each athlete, provide maps to show where they were in the world, and most importantly, interviewed many of them–through a translator. Soon after experiencing the Sarajevo and Los Angeles games, I began to read kid books about the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Mexico. Other countries were also explored through the pages of my libraries, and I really enjoyed social studies class in my elementary school years.
When The Weather Channel started out on cable TV in the U.S., they did not continuously fill up their time slots with weather-related programming–they simply provided weather observations and forecasts at all times, and I couldn’t get enough of it. My mother thought there was something wrong with me. For hours, I would listen to the meteorologists talk about the different parts of the country and provide endless amounts of data and maps. I learned the locations of all the states and major cities, what states had to worry about tornadoes and hurricanes, and where the oceans and major bodies of water were in the U.S. Most importantly, I learned where I was on the map, and how large North America was in relation to me.
As I got into my teens, my dad gave me a complementary North American road atlas from his car insurance agent. When my dad’s friend was finished with his latest National Geographic magazine, he would give it to me to read. I barely went anywhere, and yet, I went everywhere in the world.
NO RISK = NO REWARD
As I mentioned 68 times in this blog of mine, I was an immature idiot when I was younger, especially before age 23. I could have entered the military to see the world, but I felt my free-spirited self would not do good in a structured environment. My friend John just retired from active duty after 20 years in the Army, and he probably set foot in at least 15 countries during his tenure. I could have taken a travel job to see the world, but I felt this type of traveling would involve too much stress and a lot less fun. Going to London to visit some corporate outfit, sell them a product that I didn’t care about, and then abruptly come back home sounds like hell. I’d rather spend a few weeks in the U.K., take in some local pubs, visit the White Cliffs of Dover, see the south coast, and attend some soccer games. Not Anfield, Old Trafford, and The Emirates, I’d rather see places like The Den, Loftus Road, and Craven Cottage. Perhaps I’d find the time to golf in Scotland, even though I don’t golf anymore!
Something I learned over time is that I’ve gained/lost the most from my life when some type of risk was involved. For years, I went to university part-time while working full-time. When I quit work and took out extra loans to finish my degree three years early, that was a BIG risk. After 18 months together, my girlfriend decided she was moving out of town to pursue her Doctorate degree. She was to be away for at least two years, and I decided to follow her. Now, we’ve been together for 18 YEARS (married for 13 years). When the pandemic hit, I resigned my job to stay home with our son. Apparently, my son excelled with me at home compared to other families. Yeah, we lost money, but my son never fell behind in school. We made the best of an unprecedented situation.
The armed forces would’ve hated my attitude and moderate values, but once they found out I could read a map and decipher radar, I would have been an asset instead of an ass. Well, I still would have been an ass.
THE WORKING STIFF
This past month, we took a family vacation with friends to Topsail Island, North Carolina, which is 600 miles from our home, and the first week-long vacation I have taken in 28 years. Yes–TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS. Why so long? Well, I never had money, and when I started a new job (which was the case MANY times over the years), I never had adequate paid time off. In the past several years, I burned many vacation days when our son was sick and couldn’t go to daycare/school. Now that our boy is getting older, we hope to at least take a trip to the beach once a year until he starts to become embarrassed of us. He absolutely loves the ocean, and I’m a big fan of hanging out at the beach in the hot sun.
I never had a passport, and I’ve never needed one. I hate cold weather, so I’m not missing Canada. Mexico seems so violent. I don’t understand how something can be deemed, “vacation”, when you are forced to stay on resort property for your own safety. The same goes for many countries in the Caribbean; why fly thousands of miles (and spend thousands of dollars) to be corralled on a resort beach when I could do the exact same thing in the U.S. for a lot less! I’ve only set foot in 12 U.S. states (and Washington, D.C.), and honestly, I am fine with this. When I look at a U.S. map, I only have the desire to see eight other states (Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Montana, Colorado, and Vermont). Personally, the entire middle of the country seems like a complete bore to me. The furthest west I’ve been is to Cincinnati, Ohio, and I’m fine with that.
Now that I am going to take up a heightened interest in traveling with my son, I suppose I’ll take some monetary risks–and some employment risks, to visit places with my boy. For many years, I’ve been working hard to do what’s right for him, and maybe it’s time to occasionally step back and get away from Pittsburgh with my family. Voluntarily stepping away from work for ten consecutive days felt amazing, and we created some wonderful family memories in the process.
THE QUIET AMERICAN
When I hear other Americans talk to me about their overseas adventures, they usually mention the same locations, and they all sound so “touristy”. London, Paris, Rome, countries in the Caribbean Sea, cruise ships going to the Caribbean Sea, Dublin, and Munich come to mind from my past conversations. These are the places I assume I’ll find the most, “Ugly Americans” outside of the U.S.: The uncultured Americans that demand people to assimilate to their ways of life, even though they are visiting another part of the world that isn’t America.
Because of the Ugly American, I would probably hate guided tours of another country. Having the potential to be around closed-minded people for two or three consecutive weeks would not amount to an enjoyable vacation getaway. I would prefer to blaze my own trail through a foreign land. I would enjoy the company of family and friends, but if I had to, I feel I could pensively navigate the world on my own.
I’m proud of where I’m from, but the rest of the world doesn’t need to know this. In some places around Europe, I would blend right in, as long as I refrained from speaking. In other areas of the world, it would be obvious that I am visiting from another country. The world doesn’t have to be limited to the bookings from a travel agency, an auto club, or the websites/apps offering cheap flights and hotels. Our adventures can be limitless–we just have to be culturally aware of the world…and have money to spend!!!
IF I HAD SIX MONTHS TO TRAVEL, WHERE WOULD I GO? WOULD YOU FOLLOW ME?
Maybe one day, I’ll get my passport, get some money, get six months of time off from…life, and get my sterilized American microbiome fit for different soil. Where would I begin my journey around the world?
Unfortunately, I’ll have to start out at some crappy airport. Beginning in the spring, I’ll fly from Pittsburgh to New York, and catch a flight to Reykjavik. I’d like to stay there for at least a week before I would have to fly into…Paris (yuck). I hope to escape Paris quickly via train, and I would head to Copenhagen for my next adventure. Maybe I’d check out Malmo across the Great Belt, and possibly take a two-day trip up to Oslo while I’m close by.
After a few weeks along the North Sea, I’ll make my way to Prague. Then, off to Vienna, where the original rock stars played to packed houses in the 1700s. Heading west, I’d like to stop in Lucerne. I’m hoping to see the Swiss Alps without staying at the pricey resorts.
Monaco is too expensive for me (although if I was in my twenties, I would’ve made an effort), so off to Spain. A week in Barcelona, a few days in Valencia, and then a week in Madrid. Across the Strait of Gibraltar into Morocco, where a week’s stay in Casablanca awaits me. Next, I’ll take a quick flight to Tunis, when I’ll hang out on the beach again (and I don’t care!) for another week.
Now, I am close to Italy. Do I go to Italy next? No. I go to Malta. No Italy for me, unless it’s somewhere like Florence, Verona, or Turin. So, my next stop after Malta is the Greek Isles, right? Nope, I’m hiding out in Cyprus for a few weeks. If I can’t find a flight out of Nicosia going east, then I will have to go to either Rome or Athens to get one…although Istanbul could be an option. What’s my next destination? Dubai.
When famous clairvoyant Edgar Cayce claimed that he saw a lost, futuristic society in one of his trance-like states, he (and others) believed he saw the lost city of Atlantis. I believe he saw Dubai. Dubai is the real-life metropolis that the people of the early 1900s envisioned for the 21st Century. Since Dubai was built up from essentially nothing in 1980, there are no old buildings from the past. The architecture is all modern, which makes it so different from other large cities–and I’d like to see it with my own eyes.
ARE YOU TIRED YET? ARE YOU READY TO GO HOME? I AM NOT. THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO SEE.
I won’t stay too long in Dubai. I hear it’s expensive. Since I’m close to Baku, I’ll catch a flight there, and stay for a week. Back down to Dubai, and then off to Tokyo and Seoul. I’m not big on Japanese and Korean culture, but I’d like to see what 37 million people smashed into a city is all about. It sounds terrible and fascinating. You know what isn’t terrible? Korean cuisine. I could eat Korean barbeque all day. All week. For a month straight.
Next is Australia and New Zealand for a few weeks. I don’t even care what I experience in Australia, as long as I don’t get bit or kicked by anything too large. If I’m lucky, I’ll see an “Aussie Rules” match, and playfully call a woman, “princess” with a poor Aussie accent at a local bar. Since New Zealand hates outsiders (tourists and land “developers”), I would probably love it there. Nobody would bother me if I sat around Matauri Bay and watched oystercatchers on the beach.
Then I’ll get a flight to Bora-Bora and loaf for a few weeks, taking in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean around me–unless I can find a roundtrip flight to Easter Island for a few days. It’s not too far away. After taking up space in the South Pacific, I will need to find a way to get to either Quito or Lima. I’d like to hang around the beaches of Ecuador and Peru for a couple of weeks, and possibly check out Machu Picchu. The altitude will probably hurt me more than the steady amounts of empanadas and Chupe I’ll be consuming by the coastline.
My final destination would be the Galapagos Islands, where unique birds and other creatures exist hundreds of miles away from the rest of the world. Like New Zealand, I would probably enjoy the solitude and detachment from humankind here. Don’t get me wrong–I love people. But I also hate people.
THE JOURNEY WITHIN ME
I grew up a lot from the time when I was a dumb city kid. My feelings of angst in my days of youth have been replaced with an appreciation for love and kindness. I understand moments of chaos, violence, and pain can still reach me and affect my life, but I hope to surround myself with positive people, who will help create many more wonderful moments for me.
I don’t have to travel the world to find love and kindness. I found most of what I’m looking for right here in Pittsburgh. I’ve enjoyed many moments of love in the past, not far from where I was born. Now as a dad, I’m doing my best to raise my little knucklehead, stubborn kid in the northern suburbs. His journey is more important than mine. Hopefully, he’ll have the outward journey I never had.
Being corralled in Pittsburgh for most of my life isn’t as horrible as it sounds. Life could be worse.
I could be living on Slop Street.