Ode to a Traveler

John Desmond Ott

My friend John, pictured above, would have been 44 today. Join me after the jump to learn about the influence he had on my life, in a re-posting of something I wrote a month after his death in 2008.

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On Meaningful Road Trips

Me & Louis

In January 2004, Fabulous Cousin and I rented a car in Rome and drove to the east coast through the Apennines. They were breathtaking, with snowy caps and tiny mountainside villages and long tunnels and vertigo cliffs. We arrived in Pescara and drove north along the coast for a while. At one point we got out of the car and walked across the beach to the edge of an angry, stormy Adriatic. I love winter beaches.

We ambled our way blindly up to Città S. Angelo, where our great-grandfather was born. Two dogs followed us through the city walls to a town sitting precariously on the top of a hill. Down every side street there are sweeping views of the Adriatic on one side and mountains on the other. Continue reading

Meat Lamp

Meat Lamp

Leo and Vincenzo have sold my favorite house in Rome and are moving to a rental apartment in Trastevere. We’re not discussing it right now, I’m in too fragile a state about it.

Anyway, I was in their kitchen the other night and noticed an entire prosciutto hanging from the ceiling where a lamp used to be. They bought it at a prosciutto sale, which from what I gather works like a Barney’s Warehouse Sale, but for meat.

Happy Monday!

Walk With Me to the Bar at the End of the World

Almost every day, I walk down the best street in the whole wide world to pick up some cigs and/or a tramezzino, which is a triangle-cut white bread sandwich half with no crusts filled with a slice of prosciutto and formaggio, or artichoke and hot dog, or salami and hard boiled egg, or mushroom and cicoria. They may sound weird, but they’re good. They’re the perfect little snack.

At any rate, this walk I take is always a joy. I will never, ever tire of it, not even as the traffic on this once-quiet street increases as more drivers find it takes them away from congested via Casilina. I love every inch of it, and I have finally remembered to take my camera with me so I can capture all the little details that endear it to me so. Will you join me after the jump, for a morning walk to the bar at the end of the world?

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East Coast Road Trip – Heading to Florida for the Winter

I break from my Eurotrash ways to give my gentle readers, and the citizens of Florida, the following announcement:

My most adorable pocket-sized parents have closed up their house on the Jersey Shore and are heading on down to Florida for the winter, to my aunt and uncle’s spacious, beautiful home in Odessa. Over the course of the next several months, my father and my uncle will play golf, watch golfers come down the fairway of the course out back, talk about golf, and run errands together like Frick and Frack. My mother and my aunt will drink coffee and smoke cigarettes by the pool, and make each other cry with laughter.

This year’s trip has been marked by the newest addition to the family, and one which I believe was purchased with their annual southern foray in mind – a freakin’ CONVERTIBLE. My mom hasn’t been this excited about a car since back during the Johnson Administration, when she found out my dad had an MG convertible.

Their winters in Florida hilariously include a stay in Naples, within walking distance of all their New Jersey friends. They, too, make each other cry with laughter, but over long dinners after having watched the sun set into the Gulf together.

And now, without further ado, a chatty email from my mother about Florida Road Trip 2007.


When we drive into a new state we stop at the information center and pick up the coupon books for hotels for the state. It has always worked well. On I-95 there are nothing but hotels, so when we start to get tired I open the book, find a hotel, call them, ask them a few questions – like do you have any rooms (they always do), and wifi, etc. You can’t make a reservation, so I just tell them we will be there in about 10-15 minutes. Perfect.

Well, this time, the one with wifi, free breakfast, newspaper, smoking room, was an Econo-Lodge. The coupon said the room was $32.00!!!! And it was, but worth $16.00. Ha ha ha. It was clean. It was neat. However, I had to ask for a coffee pot… don’t all rooms have a coffee pot these days?? Then I had to ask for the secret code to get onto wifi. I was handed a secret card from a secret box in the office, with the secret code.

I just could not go back and ask for an ashtray. I used a cup with water in it. It is a hoot. I suspect the operative word here is “Econo”.

Next Day

Today we traveled from Dillon, SC to Myrtle Beach, and on to Charleston. The road between Dillon and Myrtle Beach was about 67 miles, a four-lane highway separated by a large grassy median. Nice tall scrubby pine trees lined the road. So few cars on it that for miles we were the only car on it, besides lots of road kill.

Some observations along the 67 deserted miles:

Every so often a rusty single- or double-wide could be seen from the road. My heart ached. Sometimes a nice red brick home. Then all of a sudden we saw a school. A school?? Where in the world would the kids have come from? Once or twice we stopped at a traffic light, which I found amusing as there was no apparent reason for the light.

There was actually a Wal-Mart we passed, and the parking lot was packed. Out in the middle of nowhere. Can you imagine needing bread or milk? Talk about a trip to the store! Every so often against a tree along this road there hung handmade baskets, each with a pretty red bow. No one was there selling them, and I do not know who you would pay if you wanted one.

But the sun was shining and the temperature was 80, and all was right with the world.

We are staying right in downtown Charleston. We do not have to drive to anything. It is an old hotel that was purchased by Best Western. The room is large and very pretty. I did not have to ask for the “secret code” for the wifi, and there is a coffee pot in the room as well as in the lobby 24/7.

Nice furnishings, very clean, and in a charming old hotel setting. Tonight we looked out our window and saw a restaurant with southern cooking – so we ventured there for dinner. Ribs, slaw, baked beans, chicken, salad. Daddy best be getting some pasta by tomorrow, however. As he says, he is going into semolina shock.

We took a walk toward the ocean, which is just two blocks down, after dinner. Those two blocks are where the “Market Place” is. Lots and lots of stalls under roof. By the time we finished dinner and took this stroll, the vendors were packing up. Ah but yes, tomorrow is another day.

We are going for a horse drawn tour in the afternoon. Or maybe a trolley tour. Who knows? Daddy is afraid the horses will stink in the heat and I might puke. He is so considerate. LOL.

After the tour, we think we will be able to tell if we like Charleston or Savannah better. We are both leaning towards Savannah. But will wait until the tour is done.

In Rome With Miss Expatria – Monday Morning Coffee Stories

Gentlest reader Jeremy’s first trip to Europe was to visit me in Rome in the spring of 2004. He is now spoiled for life, as you will read below. Jeremy is a union man, a grip in the film industry, a musician, an artist and, at 2.30 in the morning in a dive bar in Brooklyn, the devil.

Read his observations, and a LOT of food descriptions, below. I know it’s only Monday morning, but you might want to start to think about lunch – and dinner.


C wakes me up and we make our grocery list and head down to the supermarket. We pick up a ton of stuff. The cheese aisle in the supermarket makes me want to pass out, as does the wine aisle. Yeah, there’s a wine aisle – just like there ought to be. We buy six bottles of vino rosso and lots of other goodies.

After the supermarket we have a leisurely breakfast of: fresh pecorino romano and gorgonzola cheeses, hard salami, fresh bread and red wine. It’s 1pm. That rocks.

I then venture a bit further into Rome than the day before and just wander for hours. It’s totally cool. I see the Pantheon. Holy crap. How the hell did they build that thing? Unreal. I take a lot more photographs, have a beer at a pub and have the most delicious cappuccino flavored gelato I’ve ever tasted. I also learn the difference between how to say “good evening,” and “have a good evening.” I feel smart.

Had one of the best cappuccinos of my entire life at the TRAIN STATION of all places! I could’ve had a gallon of them.

Then, it’s off to Giovanni’s for dinner and an Italian TV show called Music Farm.

Music Farm is hilarious. It’s like Survivor crossed with American Idol starring a panel of Italian pop music has-beens. They all perform super melodramatic songs – poorly. The host takes comments from the guest panel – which includes people who have already been kicked off the show as well as other contestants parents, girlfriends, dogs, etc. It’s amazingly bad, and funny. The gay mafia assembled at Giovanni’s all sing along, yell insults at the TV, give singers the finger, classic. Afterwards we finish off all of the wine and then watch our favorite parts of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. You heard me.

Notes on Italian Music:

Ana Oxa – Vincenzo loves her. No one else does.

Loredana Berte – Everyone likes her because she’s a total bitch with balls of steel who dresses like Mohammad Ali.

Giorgia – Christine loves her. We all hate her – especially me and Vincenzo.

Scisma – We all think they are cool as can be.

Any male vocalist – We all pretty much hate all of them.

Everyone sleeps in on Saturday. While C gets ready I go next door and have some coffees and catch up the journal. I return to Marco cooking up ingredients for one (!) of tonight’s pasta dishes, which smells so good I think I might pass out.

After MUCH procrastination C and I go to what she describes as the “Dinkins-era NYC grocery.” She seems to be dead-on. Our shopping list: five bottles of wine, two bottles of milk. Yeah.

O.K., dinner:

Gio brings some appetizers – cheese in a spicy jelly sauce, an egg fritatta cut into small pieces, baby octopus marinated in whiskey, onion and garlic. Yeah, you read that right.

Vin brings marinated mushrooms that his mother grows, picks, prepares and preserves at her country house in southern Italy. They are unbelievable. Vin smiles and giggles, happy that we all like them so much.

Then it’s time to eat what Marco has been preparing all day. Two pasta dishes: The first is a baked macaroni with mozzarella, gorgonzola and parmesan cheese! The second is penne in a béchamel cream sauce with baby zucchini, mushrooms, etc. Both are unreal and sinful.

Then, out come the pastries that C and I bought that afternoon. The one I choose is called a chocolate ‘bomb’ which is so rich and delicious that I almost pass out. Note: chocolate + red wine = perfect combo.

After all of the pastries have been devoured Viola brings out a gigantic cold pastry dessert that she made for us. It’s a chocolate and ricotta mixture surrounded by lady fingers soaked in Amaretto. Are you kidding me? Though we can barely sit up straight, let alone form sentences, from being so full – we dig in. Viola is disappointed in it. We are NOT.

Jeremy Party Happiness, the following evening:

Vincenzo lives right on what (1000’s of years ago) was the Roman Aqueduct in an apartment that C refers to as a “total pile.” We arrive to kisses all around. I am immediately handed a glass of wine and we go sit on the terrace. The table is all set up and looks great. We then sit down for appetizers: rolled crepes with spinach inside and cheese on top. Also, marinated green tomatoes that V’s mom jarred ! Amazing – tangy goodness with breadsticks on the side. We also drink wine that his mom MADE!

Then, Vin (who wears his apron all night) brings out the first course: pasta (that he made from scratch) with meat sauce. Earlier he had shown me a table covered in home-made pasta that he had prepared that day just for the party. The pasta totally kills, and Vin jokes that he is serving “American portions” in my honor.

We sit and catch our breath for a few minutes and then V brings out plates of roasted veggies surrounded by little meatballs made from his mom’s recipe. Not surprisingly, they are as delish as everything else. 3/4 of the way through the meat course I need to rest. I then rally, and finish them off. I comment that I am hallucinating from eating so much.

After what seems like a very short break, V brings out a dessert cake that you can smell from like six feet away! We groan, but dig in. It’s a moist white custard-filled cake with chocolate on top and it RULES. Afterwards I feel that I may expire, but don’t seem to care.

Just when you think it’s over, V (still donning his apron) brings out a plate of hunks of dark chocolate and a bottle of after dinner liquor. Giovanni pours out cups for all of us and without asking or thinking, C and I dig in. The stuff is so strong that it about stops both of our hearts! We both cough and laugh, and everyone begins razzing us for being wimps. We then pour both of cups into Gio’s glass and he gulps it down for the rest of the night. That guy is tough.

Next night: I head down to Marco’s shop and meet C. We go to the seafood place near her old neighborhood in a place that everyone refers to as “piazza del dogshit.” It’s full of gigantic old mansions that are amazing and beautiful. The restaurant is really cool and packed with nicely dressed older folks. And us.

We start with spaghetti with cockles in olive oil – EXCELLENT! We are drinking white wine tonight because you’re not allowed to drink red with seafood. No cheese either! The food rules are pretty serious, and you could seriously offend someone by doing the wrong thing. C orders me the mixed seafood plate for secondi, she has calamari and prawns.

My plate consists of: calamari, prawns, 2 small grey fish, 1 small, flat white fish and 1 small red fish – all with heads still attached. We don’t what they are, but they are all delicious, as are the prawns. Salty, buttery and totally great.

The best of the night however are the calamari! Soooooo fresh, and cooked absolutely perfectly. EASILY the best I’ve EVER EVER had. We agree, they are unbelievable. We joke about ordering another plate of them. Then, we order another plate of them. Oh yeah.


For the first hour or so of the day it rains off and on. Each time it starts, we duck in somewhere. We go to this little wine bar that C knows and have Prosecco – a dry, sparkling white wine that is absolutely delicious! I had never had it or heard of it, but I really like it. All white wine should be like this. The rain persists and we hang out under and overpass and watch the little old men with their umbrellas. We then decide to give up and go to lunch early to stay out of the rain. Hopefully it will pass by the afternoon.

So, we go to Cucina Casalinga and take a table under the awning so we can still be outside. We have a fish appetizer that’s a lot like sardines and is crispy and delish. C has pasta in a black ink and cuddle fish sauce which is totally rich and amazing. I get the seafood platter which consists of fried prawns and calamari. The calamari is great, but the prawns are absolutely ridiculous. We pass out numerous times while sharing these delicacies. They are so good in fact that, once again, we order up another plate of them along with another carafe of vino rosso.

So, lunch lasts for well over 2 hours – such luxury, this is how it should be. Plus, our evil plan has worked perfectly, and the sun is now shining brightly. We still plenty of time so we decide to wander more. More photos, more photos. Venice is so beautiful, it’s hard to believe it’s real.

A Late Night in Istanbul

Got your coffee? Good. It’s time for Monday Morning Coffee Stories!

Once again, dearest cousin and gentlest reader Mike, known to me as Jason and to his sister as Pig, regales us with an early morning (or late-night) tale. Read on!


I always assumed that closing the hotel bar down in Istanbul meant the night was over. Turns out that isn’t always the case.

I was having a few rounds of nightcaps after a tremendous Turkish dinner with a number of friends in the hotel bar not far from the Ataturk Airport in the Bakirkoy District of Istanbul. Since it was my first day in Istanbul I wasn’t quite ready to call it a night, even though we had closed down the bar at 2AM. Luckily one of my friends had been there for a few days of early sightseeing and told us that he knew about a place around the corner that had extended hours for the local restaurant workers and residents. (It’s always good to have someone that doesn’t mind abusing his liver in your group.)

So the eight of us got up and walked out into the balmy night. There were two couples, one from Boston and one from Minneapolis, one Republican gun nut from Memphis, one thick-necked New Yorker who now lives on Long Island, a California surfer type and me. The cool breeze off of the Marmara Sea seemed to push us to our destination not far from the Cinar Hotel and the conversation about the sightseeing for the next day took up the five minute walk to the bar.

If you haven’t been to Istanbul, you have to understand that when you walk into most bars it could be assumed that everyone there was training for the next Olympic chain smoking competition. I have been to bars throughout Europe and Asia and nothing had prepared me for the amount of heavy cigarette smoke that was waiting like a 2 x 4 as I entered that bar. Luckily, I was already a little hazy from the Devil’s Milk (Raki and water) I had been drinking since dinner. Raki is the Turkish equivalent of Sambuca. The locals mix it with purified water which gives it a nice finish and also turns the water milky white, thus the name Devil’s Milk.

So, the eight of us had staked out the end of the bar next to a partially open window and resumed curing all of the world’s ills in the still-busy bar. We were trying to stay as inconspicuous as a pack of Americans in Turkey can be and had all agreed that if asked we were all Canadian. Everyone loves Canadians. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Americans, or more specifically, our government. Mercifully, most people I have had the opportunity to meet abroad can make the distinction, but you can never be sure. So as we sat and stood and had some drinks I realized a group of pretty big guys on the opposite side of the bar had noticed our presence. They looked like they were straight out of central casting for Big Turkish Guys. They all had tufts of what looked like bear skin rugs sticking out of the tops of their shirts, they all had big bushy mustaches that would have made the early Politburo proud and every one of them had hands that looked like they could crush a bowling ball.

Just about the time I thought we should leave, one of them sauntered over to our group. My expression must have changed because my friend who was extolling the virtues of the designated hitter stopped mid-sentence to see what was coming his way. The giant approached and, in broken English, asked “Do you like Georgy Booosh?” Being the geo-political geniuses we all were, we shook our heads no. Then, the wife of the couple from Boston spits out the following in the thickest New England accent you could imagine, “Like em? We all hate the cheatin’ no-good bastaad.”

At this point the bar got real silent and then, everyone cheered. I expected to see a band come out of the back room and balloons drop from the ceiling. It seemed like we had somehow spoken the secret code to get the party started. Turns out everyone there had been pretty subdued when we walked in out of politeness and they had not wanted to scare us off. The somewhat tipsy fellow was a Kurd from Iraq with some deep-seeded resentment of both Bush Senior (whom he said abandoned them after Gulf War I) and his child. His name was an unrepeatable slur of vowels and consonants strung together with liquor and peanuts. I think the pronunciation changed three times and after the third attempt I just called him Ed. He thought that was pretty funny.

So Ed and I discussed soccer, what it was like being a pilot (me, not him), life in northern Iraq and the sights to see in his new home city Istanbul. Even though I think we both understood about a quarter of what each other was saying, it was an awesome night with the occasional song, lots of unfiltered cigarette smoke and shots of various sweet libations that went down hard but stayed down easy.

Four in the morning is early or late, depending on your disposition at the time. For me, it was very late. The walk back to the hotel was the safest early morning walk I have ever had thanks to our newly found Kurdish bodyguards. We kept them amused with a stirring rendition of Frank Sinatra’s Summer Wind. We exchanged goodbyes at the hotel security gate and they went on their way. We could hear their laughs echo through the deserted streets as we walked into the hotel lobby. It was a great start to a wonderful time in Istanbul.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a fellow travel addict who’s always looking for cheap flights.  Make sure to check out the deals on Spirit Airline, Indian Airlines, Northwest Airline and Sarah Palin’s favorite, Alaskan Airlines!

Baby Go to Rio!

I’m a little late today, so Monday Morning Coffee Stories will be promoted today to Monday Lunchtime stories. And this time, were taking it to the next level – with video!

Champion hug-giver and gentlest reader Ben headed to Brazil with the guys – and they have the footage to prove it. I felt like I was one of the gang while watching their tale unfold.

Check it out for yourself!

Monday Morning Coffee Stories

Ugh. Monday. I have a HUGE deadline today, and so I haven’t gotten around to editing down anything my gentle readers have so graciously sent in to be included here.

Therefore, without further ado, I present to you a simple, boring story of my most recent return to Rome.

I’ll get it together tomorrow!


My mobile hotel

“Will I be alone?” I asked the night train steward in Italian as he checked my ticket in Nice. No, I was to expect two other women who would board the train in Imperia. Oh well, at least I had two hours to myself in the cabin with the window open and the view all to myself. Then the Italian women would board, freak out about the chilly air from outside, and we’d all sleep in stifling heat so as not to catch pneumonia.

Imperia came and went. I stuck my head out of the cabin and did the international shrug of WTF. The steward came down the hallway and gave me his guess, which was that they boarded in another car and would be here presently.

Twenty minutes later, he delivered the good news: they had not boarded, and I could go to sleep in peace. OK! See you in the morning somewhere in Umbria, when you wake me with my tea and newspaper!

Marco was waiting on the platform, and promptly whisked me off to our traditional post-trip bar date across from the Colosseum. Latte macchiato and tramezzini for me; cappuccino and pastry for him. And cigarettes, and gossip, and always, always laughter.

We spent the rest of the day doing absolutely nothing at his house. Dinner was at Luca and Alfio’s, and Carla was there as well – one of two women I know in Rome. We ate on their rooftop terrace, all summer foods – tepid frittata, chicken salad, prosciutto and melon, grapes, and a tiramisu made my Luca that accompanied a 15-minute, intense discussion of the proper use of marscapone cheese in the recipe.

And wine, and cigarettes, and gossip, and always, always laughter.

Sunday started slowly, with Marco repotting some plants and our making a plan to resurrect a vine that is dying outside his front door. Massimo the neighbor came in to use the washing machine on the terrace, chatting amiably as he dragged his laundry through the living room.

Marco left by 1PM with Andrea to do something or another, I didn’t pay attention. I kept the doors and windows open and it kept the place cool, with a constant, delicious breeze. I finished the book I started on the train, then washed my hair in the garden sink on the terrace, using ice cold water from the hose and my olive oil shampoo. Made my famous-among-me lists of all sorts of ideas, plans and other assorted ephemera.

Marco and Andrea returned; we were off to Luca and Alfio’s for another rooftop dinner. Cold pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta, seafood salad, ice cream with marinated cherries courtesy of Luca’s father in Verona.

Andrea brought some seriousness to the festivities; we discussed la Berlusca, Ratzi, Catholicism in general, and other grown-up topics – unusual for this crowd. But as I expected, eventually we got around to everyone trying on a scarf (including Tomas, the cat), Luca and Alfio hilariously imitating a Polish woman they had recently met, and all of us running around the roof and craning our necks trying to find Orion in the starry sky.

This morning I will work on a most annoying project for a well-paying client, and then head out to the Internet point to send off the work. It will be such a rush to venture out from this tranquil spot; we’re in Rome, to be sure, but all I can see is the aqueduct this house is built into, and the neighbor’s olive trees and garden across the street; all I can hear are birds and the old lady upstairs readying her pasta pot for lunch.

 View from Marco's

I’m home.


Morning in Beijing

Hello, gentle readers! Wake up, it’s Monday! Rise and shine!

Miss Expatria would like to introduce to you a new feature of the blog – Monday Morning Coffee Stories. There’s no use in rushing into the business of the day, is there?

Every Monday, a delightful, entertaining story based on a travel experience will appear in this space. Transport yourself away from your desk, and come fly with Miss Expatria to the four corners of the world!

We’re kicking off this new feature with a Miss Expatria fan near and dear to our hearts – Mike Hamilton. Mike is a pilot with United Airlines – and he literally has seen it all. Today, he tells us about a morning he spent in Beijing.

Join us, won’t you?


Four AM in Beijing is 3PM in Chicago. This is the unfortunate reality I had to cope with one early spring morning.

It was my first trip to China, and it was apparent there was no way I was going to get back to sleep. I couldn’t have been more awake and, seeing as how I didn’t have to leave until three that afternoon, I figured I should make the most of the morning and do a little exploring – after all, I did fly halfway around the world. It would be a shame if all I saw in China were the cricket match highlights on Sky Sports.

So, after a quick shower I ventured into the hall and gave a light knock on the other pilots’ rooms to see if anyone was up for an early sightseeing tour. Unfortunately there were no takers; they were all either asleep or choosing to ignore the knock on the door. For fear of a sexual harassment charge, I didn’t even attempt to see if any of the flight attendants were awake.

I got down to the lobby and found the bleary-eyed concierge. I asked what there is to do in Beijing early in the morning. He paused and said that I should check out the flag raising in Tiananmen Square at dawn. It sounded interesting, so I jumped into a cab with my pointy-talkie sheet and showed the driver Tiananmen Square. He gave me a nod and off we went.

About halfway there I began to rethink this little jaunt, as I cruised down the mostly empty streets of a pre-dawn Beijing in a subcompact cab that smelled like fish and diesel. Venturing out by myself in a country that I have never been to without any hope of being able to decipher the language, before the sun was up, probably wasn’t the most travel-savvy decision I have ever made. I kept going though; in for a penny and all – plus, I had already paid the driver and I wasn’t about to try and negotiate a refund. I figured some people are just meant to be a warning to others and, in this case, it might as well be me. I could imagine them telling the story for years to come to crews going through training, about the idiot pilot who never returned from his pre-dawn walkabout. Hell, they might actually name the course after me.

The cabbie dropped me off at the northwest corner of the square. They block the street that runs in front of the Tiananmen Gate before dawn. The first thing that struck me was the crispness and clarity of the air. For those of you who haven’t been to Beijing, the first thing you will notice is the fog of pollution that lingers in the air on most days. It is a kind of brown malaise that just sits there unless there is a breeze blowing. This morning the stars were sharp and the air had a crisp, spring zip to it.

The second thing that struck me was the amount of people milling about in the pre-dawn darkness. I was relieved that it wasn’t just a bunch of homeless people and me, like you would normally find in most big cities. There were a number of tour groups, walking in shadowed packs behind enthusiastic tour guides carrying poles with pennants of different shapes and sizes.

I looked for a tour group I might be able to blend in with, but it seemed that most of the groups were school children or Asian. A six-foot tall American might stand out a little. In fact, it was still dark enough that I don’t think anyone noticed the solo American stumbling around trying to not stand out.

I noticed the people were all heading to a roped-off section of the square, so I walked over and stood on the periphery of the accumulating throng. I was amazed at the number of people filling in around me. There had to be thousands of people. Fortunately I had a bit of a height advantage, so I had a clear view of the Tiananmen Gate and flagpole that was now becoming visible and silhouetted against the now-brightening horizon.

For such a large group, it was very quiet. When the Military Honor Guard came marching out of the Gate, replete with rifles and a huge folded flag, I can still remember the echo of their boots at the gate and then the sharp sound of their heels striking the ground as they crossed the street to the flagpole.

They took their places around the pole, all standing at rigid attention, waiting for the precise moment for the flag to be lifted to its proper place. Then, just as the sun began to crest the horizon, the Chinese National Anthem, “March of the Volunteers” began and the flag was expertly lifted and unfurled to the top of the pole.

Once the anthem ended, the soldiers quickly went into their formation and marched back through the gate. The street opened to traffic and it seemed like every bike in Beijing filled the street in a matter of moments. The square immediately transformed from an atmosphere of quiet reverence to the hustle and bustle of tourists and people on their way to work. There also were a number of brightly colored kites in the air, and groups started to snap pictures to remember the moment.

It was just about then that people around me started to notice the lone white guy standing amid the masses. Next thing I knew, I was posing with one family after another in front of the People’s Heroes Monument, Great Hall of the People and the tomb of Mao Zedong.

The people were all very friendly and some seemed excited to be meeting a Westerner. I did have the chance to talk to a local that spoke English, and he explained that many of these people were in from the countryside for their chance to see the capitol. Many of them had never met a Westerner in person, and it was a bit of a novelty. I still wonder how many family albums feature me with a goofy smile.

The square itself is a perfect representation of the dichotomy that is China. This all occurred a few months before China was awarded the Olympics; I had the feeling everywhere I went that they really wanted to share their culture with the world at large.

There were three girls about the age of ten that wanted to practice their English with me; there were the mostly-toothless farmer and his wife standing on either side of me while someone took our picture with a camera right out of the ‘60s; there were hundreds of people flying kites and all the while, along the sidewalks around the square, military units from the barracks in the neighborhoods around the square did their morning drills. It was a fun atmosphere – with the understanding that as long as no one got out of line, it would be OK.

Happiness with restraint.

I spent a few hours wandering the square before the gates to the Forbidden City opened to the public. Everything there is of immense proportion: the monuments, flower displays and buildings all are larger than life. The whole experience is something I would highly recommend to anyone spending some time in Beijing. You can easily see the flag raising, get some coffee, check out the traditional and modern architecture, look around the neighborhoods surrounding the Forbidden City and spend a few hours poking around the awe inspiring City itself.

Make sure you also make time to go to the Buddhist temple on top of Jingshan Park. It is a magnificent view of the Forbidden City and once was accessible only to the royal family through the Gate of Divine Might from the palace grounds. You can walk along the moat that surrounds the palace from the Tiananmen Gate to the park itself.

The park is a peaceful, wooded oasis in the middle of the city. There are usually older men using big, mop-like pens writing Chinese script on the limestone with water. The script is beautiful and slowly fades away as the water evaporates. There are families walking along the park paths, and the temple at the crest of the hill is crowded – but reverently quiet. The view from the top of the hill is spectacular and gives you a nice panoramic view of all of Beijing. The amazing thing is the entire hill is constructed from the excavated earth that was dug up in making the moat around the palace. Everything associated with the palace and square is on a scale that boggles the mind.