How much to tip your ambulance driver and other advice when traveling with COVID

After two years of successfully evading the virus, it finally caught me 4,000 miles away from home.

Driving between sublime places like Florence, Siena, and Lucca, you can catch a glimpse of the mundane side of Tuscany. The strip malls, the car dealerships. The industrial parks with empty loading docks. The barren fields with crumbling structures festooned with graffiti. The red tiled roofs of homes that dot the side of the highway. Details that never make it into brochures or into the stories you’ll share with your friends when you get back home.

I, on the other hand, was desperately trying to memorize it all. Making note of landmarks and highway signs, as they zoomed by the window of my ambulance.

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What’s in a Name?

The origins of Greece’s most iconic ports of call

For many cruisers, a voyage to Greece is highlighted by phenomenal beaches and legendary ruins. But this extraordinary country, with its strong cultural and historical identity, is the birthplace of mythological deities that continue to fascinate. Sweeping tales, from Pandora’s infamous box to Icarus’ ill-fated flight, were born in the early days of Greek civilization and have been passed down through the generations and remain prominent today—not only in Greece, but around the world. As you explore this wondrous country, you will inevitably encounter remnants of those stories and icons in the art and architecture, as well as in the names of its cities, from Athens to Crete.

Below find a few of my favorite cities and the origin stories of their names.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Perfect Gift

A historian’s delight, Athens is home to such magnificent wonders as the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Temple of Athena Nike. Its name, of course, is a tribute to the city’s patron goddess, Athena—but according to legend, this was not the city’s original name. Athens was once known as Cecropia, named after its king, Cecrops, an odd creature, thought to be half-man half-snake. Athena was chosen as the patron deity of the city, giving rise to celebrations and festivals, and eventually its name was changed in her honor.

A Nymph’s Island

Legendary Corfu is a lush and romantic island, written about by Homer in his famous Odyssey. The island’s history is full of battles, indicative of Corfu’s turbulent position that lasted until modern times with unification with modern Greece in 1864. While the rest of the world knows this magical island as Corfu, locals refer to it as Kerkyra, named after the daughter of river god Aesop. Legend states that Kerkyra, an irresistible nymph whose beauty seduced Poseidon, birthed the first inhabitants of the island.

Guardians of Greece

The name Crete in Greek means mighty, strong and powerful—named after the first guardians of the island, the Curetes. The capital city of Greece’s largest island, Heraklion, however, has Roman roots, derived from the ancient Roman port of Heracleum. There are fascinating places to visit here, including the Palace of Knossos, a center of Minoan power that dates back to 2000 BCE and revered as the location of the mythic Minotaur’s Labyrinth.

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

The Sun’s Grandson

Steeped in Greek mythological history, Mykonos was named after Apollo’s grandson, Mykons. Today, this island is one of Greece’s most adored destinations due to its picture-perfect postcard setting and the gateway to the archeological dig at Delos. In fact, the history of Mykonos is very much connected to the history of the neighboring Delos. It is there that, according to mythology, Hercules defeated the Giants and, having killed them, he threw them in the sea where they petrified and turned into huge rocks, forming the island of Mykonos.

A Name Fit for a Colossus

Renowned as the site of the former Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Rhodes was home to the Knights of St. John from the 12th to 16th centuries. But why that name? In mythology, the name of the island derives from the nymph Rhodos who bore seven sons to the sun god Helios.

Your Call

If your voyage across the Eastern Mediterranean includes calls on Grecian ports, revel in the picturesque Cycladic architecture, the seemingly endless beaches and the opportunity to walk in the mythical footsteps of gods and heroes. Greece really does offer something for everyone, mortal or Minotaur.

Resurgens

“We’ve come too far, we’ve made too much progress and we’re not going back. We are going forward.” – Congressman John Lewis, August 22, 2018 at the renaming ceremony of Freedom Parkway as the John Lewis Freedom Parkway.

Most of my belongings were still in boxes and I was using Google Maps to find the Publix Supermarket that was only three blocks away when I read they were renaming Freedom Parkway. How could I find my way around this town if the names of streets keep changing? But a few sentences later I learned it was to honor John Lewis and then it seemed too small of a gesture. Only the parkway? Mayor Bottoms should have renamed the whole dang city Lewislanta. Imagine the perseverance of this man to skirt death on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge fighting for the right to vote, to then be elected to the House of Representatives two decades later.

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Welcome to Atlanta

Listen to this post on Spotify.

A continuous curtain of water battered my car for the first thirty minutes I was in the great state of Georgia. Coming from Southern California where it never rains, it seemed like an unnecessary show of force. Okay, I get it, you have water here. A few minutes before I was attacked by extremist clouds, I photographed a bright blue billboard with an anatomically correct peach that offered an official welcome from Nathan Deal, who was not the owner of a car dealership or host of a game show, but the governor. This sign was strategically placed over a highway rest stop that I thankfully had the foresight to patronize, otherwise, I would’ve had a repeat of what will forever be known in my house as the ‘Arizona incident.’ Five days ago, when I left my home in Los Angeles, I got caught in an epic, two-hour traffic jam somewhere near Flagstaff. And, while surrounded by a sea of idling cars on historic Route 66, I was left with no choice but to open my car door and hover my pants-less body over the steaming hot pavement until I heard drops turn to a cascade and then back to drops.

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Portal to Hope

I spent the Christmas holidays strolling through SoHo, hailing cabs on Broadway and taking in the elaborate window displays down 5th Avenue. It was the eve of the New Year and the new decade, and I was feeling hopeful about what 2020 would bring. I was also feeling particularly proud of myself for having cleverly paired my New York trip with a quick jaunt to Bermuda. Culminating my vacation with my feet covered in pink sand was the gift I was most eager to unwrap.

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First Post-Pandemic Flight

After two shots of the Pfizer vaccine, I boarded a flight from D.C. to Miami, breaking my 18-month abstinence from airport travel. While I hoped to find a new utopia of conscientious flyers, the cynic in me anticipated that getting to my gate was going to be like that final scene in World War Z where Brad Pitt’s character attempts to walk by the zombies without getting chewed on. However, neither scenario proved true.

TL;DR Everything’s the same, except the snacks are worse.

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Cherry Blossom Bloom in DC and Beyond

Since moving to the nation’s capital in the summer of 2020, the only constant has been the inconsistency. Adding to the long list of things that were not supposed to happen was the cherry bloom.

Spring came unseasonably early for the infamous cherry blossoms of Washington D.C.

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The Art of the Baltic: Cruising Northern Europe

There is nothing that I long for more than to look toward the horizon and see a legendary castle illuminated by a golden sun. From the Scandinavian architectural treasures of Denmark and Finland, to the awe-inspiring art of Russia and Germany, the glorious countries that encircle the Baltic Sea are the epicenter of beauty, elegance, and splendor…and just the journey we can all use.

Thinking about a voyage to Northern Europe in 2022? Here are a few of my favorite ports:

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Amor al Arte

The world’s great masters are not exclusive to Europe. From Brazil we have Tunga, best known for his fascinating sculptures about the human body. From Chile, Roberto Matta is a seminal figure in 20th century abstract expressionist and surrealist art. From Colombia we have beloved Fernando Botero who created his own exaggerated style of Boterismo, and from Mexico the foremost muralist Diego Rivera. These are only a few of the influential and brilliant artists that hail from across Latin America. This region is also home to artistic movements grounded in heritage, history and tradition—and deserve to be exalted.   

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Inauguration Interruptus

Last spring, when I was making my pros and cons list of moving to D.C., high on the positive side was that I would witness historic events, like Presidential inaugurations.

Well.

Now I know how Tokyo residents felt when the Summer Olympic Games were postponed last summer. I suppose we all have to wait four years now.

Even without a coveted spot on the National Mall, I can still witness history, just by walking down the sidewalk (until reaching the security checkpoint). It is an incredible sight to see National Guard troops marching where vendors would have been selling Biden/Harris souvenirs and completely empty streets that, ahead of an inauguration, would have been bustling with tourists.

Officially, Inauguration Day commences at noon on Jan. 20 on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Instead of a traditional inaugural parade, President Biden will catch a Secret Service Uber straight to the White House. A “virtual parade” will begin at approximately 3 p.m., but I’m still not clear what that even means. In the evening, instead of the traditional glitzy inaugural balls, there will be a primetime television program called “Celebrating America” hosted by Tom Hanks. That airs at 8:30 p.m., because 8 p.m. was too early and 9 p.m. was too late.

Visit the website of the Presidential Inauguration Committee for more information.


Useless travel advice

When traveling, I try to remember important information about the places I visit. However, after a friend called me to ask for my advice on a certain vacation spot, I’ve discovered that the information I have amassed over the years is absolutely no good to anyone.

Seriously. Useless.

Here’s a sampling of my most inappropriate recommendations to date:

Hey, I’ll be in Denver a few days. Anything I should do?

There’s a mall on 16th Street called…the 16th Street Mall. And the airport has the highest quality public bathroom toilet paper that has ever touched my vagina. You’ll be very high the entire time you’re there, so everything will be interesting. If you did Denver right, you’ll come out of your fog while sitting at a roulette table in Black Hawk.

Is Seattle a cool place?

You must be thinking of Portland. Just kidding! Seattle is for cool kids. Make sure you pack plenty of graphic t-shirts and colorful sneakers to match beanies of every color. The true mystery of Seattle isn’t where the mystery soda machine went (Google this later), but it’s that somehow, every store you walk into has an amazing soundtrack. From the Jimmy John’s to the CB2 to any of the 133 Starbucks, everywhere you go, your favorite songs mysteriously blare throughout the establishment. Except in Pike Place.

You lived in Atlanta for a while, do you think I’ll enjoy my visit?

Everything, and I mean everything, is legal in Atlanta. Las Vegas, NV has more restrictions than the capital of the Dirty South. Gun powder in your drank? Coming right up. Walking on the highway? Casual. Outright stealing? As long as you’re white and polite. Dance party in an abandoned, underground rail station? Who needs ventilation?!

Should I plan a family vacation to D.C.?

If by family you mean you, your husband and the twink you share, then yes. Otherwise, there’s nothing for straight people to do in this town.

Where should I stay in Boston?

It doesn’t matter. Everywhere you go, you end up at the same place. It’s like being inside an M.C. Escher drawing, while on some amazing ‘shrooms. Their “T” is the Cadillac of public transportation, but you haven’t lived until you’ve been a passenger in a cab that drives on the sidewalk. Cabbies will do this for five bucks extra. Oh, and don’t stand next to or touch the statue of John Harvard. If you inhale deep enough you can smell why.

San Francisco is so nice this time of year…

San Francisco is nice any time of year. But what is really suspicious to me are the locals. Everyone there is too nice. Like they are up to something. So, if you haven’t been, you should go, seriously, it’s beautiful. Just don’t talk to people. They are aliens. Also, of note, the homeless and vagrant population tend to not be so nice and may, on occasion, toss cups of their urine in your direction.

This year, I’m staying close to home. I’m thinking Houston for a weekend. I have a few friends there and they’re always talking it up.

Houston smells in a way that can cause you to contract cancer through your nose. It’s like getting shot-gunned by 30 chain smokers inside an elevator at the Excalibur in Vegas. Yet, the Margarita’s are amazing. Ah-ma-zing. You’ll need to drink them continuously to soothe the burning sensation in your throat.

I dream of traveling to Hawaii.

Go to Maui, for sure. It’s like walking around in a postcard. From the trees to the weather to the birds, everything is perfect. And it gets really old after a while. “Is that another rainbow? Geez. These gays and their agenda have gone too far.” It is worth it to endure this torture only to have the world’s best hummus at Athens Greek Restaurant in Lahaina. Yes, you heard right. Eat Greek food in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I know I live 15 minutes away from Miami Beach, but I want the experience of driving a few hours to bathe in the same beach, but a little more north.

Then head to Jupiter, FL. It’s a beach town very, very far from South Beach (a whole 90 minutes up I-95). It is also very, very far from New Jersey (a whole 17 hours down I-95). Making it the perfect place to hide former witnesses from the Gambino crime family trials. There is one fine dining Italian restaurant where dinner for two costs about $200. A price I gladly paid to be seated by Bartolomeo “Bobby Glasses” Vernace’s widow.

I’ve never been to New York City.

Fear not. People that actually live in NYC have seen less of the city than you. My first piece of advice is that unless you have drank water in Cancun, you do not have the proper intestinal bacteria balance to eat a hot dog from a vendor, a cheese pizza from a bodega or a slice of cheesecake from a diner. Continuing on the food theme, stay away from the Pig & Whistle. And, most importantly, you will never get tickets from Tickets for the show you want to see.

Shakespeare in Paris

I think every writer has a Parisian fantasy that revolves around Shakespeare and Company. Opposite of Notre-Dame in the heart of Paris, there is no greater setting. Adding to the romance, this is the bookstore where James Baldwin hung out, where William Burroughs researched medical books for Naked Lunch, where Anaïs Nin drank Bordeaux straight out of the bottle, where Ernest Hemingway often showed up drunk, and where Allen Ginsberg howled naked.

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Falling for Georgia Fall

Pumpkin and cinnamon are my least favorite flavors, so I never had a taste for fall…until I got lost in a field of sunflowers, rolled a wheelbarrow full of pumpkins and stood over a waterfall — all in one 70-degree day.

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Smithsonian: African American History and Culture

The same way you can’t not notice this building, you can’t not be moved by the collection. The National Museum of African American History and Culture feels like a sacred space. A Sunday school dedicated to celebrating the richness and diversity, as well as educating and preserving the hard truths, of the African American experience.

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Fall in Love with Boston in 23 Hours

In the late nineties I cashed in a savings bond gifted to me by my godmother and used the $80 to pay for my first-ever flight. The trip was full of firsts: the first time I saw snow on the ground; the first time I got kicked out of a bar; the first time I saw the lights be turned on in a club to signal the end of the night. It was a thrill ride from the moment my cab drove on the sidewalk to when I stumbled into a comedy show headlined by Wendy Liebman to the simplest of delights of buying tulips at a corner shop.

After two decades, I returned to Boston. And in the span of a day, I rekindled my love for the City on a Hill. If you can spare 23 hours here, she may be able to charm you as well.

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Taku Glacier Flight

“How much do you weigh?”

To be safe, I added a couple of dozen pounds or so to the real number. This is an answer I often lie about in the opposite direction, but because it was being used to calculate the flight-worthiness of a seaplane holding six people currently indulging night after night on a cruise vacation, I was content with bulking up.

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Twists and Turns in Tenerife: Canary Islands Wine Tour

Good company, good wine, good welcome,

Can make good people.

(Henry VIII, 1.4.6-7)

I boarded a small van with a group of strangers. We exchanged pleasantries and discovered that we were all in Tenerife for different reasons, some for pleasure others for business and me for a little of both. But it was our shared love of wine that was the reason for our paths crossing on this impromptu tour.

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Driving in Miami: Survival of the Fittest

Public transportation in Miami is lackluster to say the least. And with long distances between points of interest, your best bet is to rent a car. I compiled a few tips on how to drive like a local, whether you’re landing in MIA or FLL.

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Leather at First Sight: Shopping in Florence

Illustration by Explore Magazine

We were about to start our dinner when the notion of love at first sight was brought up. Our group went around the kitchen and shared their views, which ranged from a resounding rejection of the entire theory to a sweet and serendipitous how-we-met story.

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Penguins on Parade: Making Friends at the Georgia Aquarium

Listen to Penguins on Parade:

On Christmas Day in 2013 I was wheeled out of the Georgia Aquarium by two very nice people. One was a man named Met, as in I “met” you today, the day your back spasmed so intensely that it numbed your leg and rendered you  paraplegic. The other was a woman named Halle who insisted on offering me an entrance voucher for a future visit, as I had only seen two exhibitions before my visit was cut short.

Between winces, I let her know that I had no plans to return. Ever. And she nodded her head and smiled even though I was being unreasonable.

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Whoosh You Were Here in Madeira

Spread appeared in Explore Magazine

It was a familiar sensation. The feeling of complete surrender, the incessant giggling, and the particular sound that skating over pavement makes. It wasn’t until my toboggan reached the bottom of the five-kilometer hill that I remembered why. I had recreated my favorite childhood pastime (to the detriment of my mother’s nerves): riding a skateboard while being towed by a friend on a bicycle.

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Lines in the Sand: Flight Over Nazca

Cover photo: PBS

While Macchu Pichu is the more obvious attraction in Peru (and rightly so), I’ve always leaned toward forgoing the trek to the city in the clouds for an actual flight above the World Heritage-listed rectangles, triangles and swirls. And no, my fascination with this site does not involve a belief in the popular lore that these shapes somehow relate to alien life. I think it’s more amazing that human beings were able to accomplish this extraordinary feat.

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Sink Your Toes in the Pink Sand Beaches of Bermuda

Bermuda conjures up images of beautiful homes with its unique white roofs, crystal clear waters, iconic shorts and, of course, the pink sands that make their beaches more idyllic than your average tropical paradise. These pretty-in-pink beaches are all found along the island’s south shore between Horseshoe Bay Beach (my personal favorite) and Warwick Long Bay Beach. But what gives the sand its rosy hue? It’s the result from the blending of crushed shells, coral and calcium carbonate called red foraminifera.

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Hello Humpback: Whale-watching in Sitka, Alaska

Traveling to Alaska for many is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, yet I’ve been lucky enough to keep finding my way back. On my last adventure, I took a small boat out to Sitka Bay where I met the acquaintance of a very handsome humpback whale…unfortunately he had awful breath.

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L.A.’s Lushest Library: The Huntington Gardens

Approximately 11.5 miles northeast of Los Angeles is one of my most favorite places in Southern California: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Encompassing 207 acres of land in the San Gabriel Valley, it is an Olympic feat to see it all in one day.

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UNESCO’s Lesser-known Treasures

On your travels throughout the Mediterranean, you will undoubtedly come across a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Italy alone is home to the most places with that designation at 58, and Spain and France are close behind with 49 and 48, respectively. The icons, like the historic center of Rome, the works of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, and the Acropolis in Athens only begin to scratch the surface of the treasures this region holds. Below are four destinations where you can explore UNESCO Sites that may not be as well-known as their aforementioned siblings, but are awe-inspiring nonetheless and play an equally important role in preserving our shared history.

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