Travel

Your Vacation In Iceland

Congratulations! You’ve just purchased your airline tickets and are committed to a vacation in the truly remarkable country of Iceland. What can you expect?

IT IS COLD. Iceland is called Iceland for a reason. If it were Sunland or Warmistan you could be forgiven for being upset at the absence of heat you will undoubtedly experience. There’s no false marketing here. The country is called Iceland precisely so that there are no surprises. In the Icelandic summer, which I understand is about a week in August or something, the temperatures may even reach 70 degrees for a few hours. Do your weather homework and pack accordingly.

IT IS PERFECT FOR AMERICAN TOURISTS. Americans are generally terrible tourists which is why I pretend I’m not American when I travel. No matter where they are they tend to assume everyone speaks English. They point at things and say, “What’s in that sandwich, is that ham?” or “Hey, buddy, do you know where I can find a Citibank ATM?” and they are flummoxed when people shrug their shoulders and say “Je ne comprende pas, je ne parle pas l’anglais.” But that doesn’t happen in Iceland because everyone speaks English. Everyone. And they speak it better than most of the kids I come across in New York. Even a guy working a gas station, seven teeth, filthy hands, looks like he was recently beaten: “Will there be anything else, sir? No? That will be six thousand eight hundred Kroner please.”

IT’S GOING TO SUCK CASH FROM YOUR WALLET. Even after the collapse of their economy Iceland is ridiculously expensive. That’s because Iceland is a giant volcanic rock covered in moss. Only 0.07% of their land is arable. As a result, practically everything is imported with the exception of fish and horses. Plus it’s an enormous welfare state. One Icelander hotel manager told me she’d be much better off financially if she was an unemployed single mom. How does the government foot entitlements like that? They tax the living crap out of absolutely everything. The tax on alcohol is amazing – it rakes in more than their gas tax. Bottle of crappy, horrible, lousy, awful Gallo white wine that you’d get for around $12 in the States? It’s $53. Cheers!
IT’S CLIMATOLOGIC ATTENTION-DEFICIT PARADISE. The weather changes every few minutes. It snowed. Then it was sunny. Then it rained. Then it was cloudy. Then there was hail. Then it was sunny. Then it snowed. And it was sunny. Then cloudy. Then we went to bed and heard the world’s most incredible windstorm. And it apparently rained after that because the car was wet. You will most likely never be bored with the weather.
YOU’LL THINK YOU’RE ON A STAR TREK SET. Hot sulfuric steam comes out of the ground. There are pools of boiling blue mud. There are geysers. There are bizarre lavascapes formed by eruptions of the past. Endless fields of rock. Sub-arctic plants. Black sand beaches. There are giant fissures in the earth’s crust that let you totally visualize the tectonic plates underneath you. And it’s freaking empty. Assuming you’re traveling on your own and not in a tour bus you’ll soon come to realize that you are the only representatives for humanity in the area and if your car breaks down you’re probably going to die.
IT’S A DRIVING PARADISE. Since only about 318,000 people live there the roads are often empty once you’re out of the main city of Reykjavik. And it’s hard to get lost because the main road is a circle around the island. If you get lost, just ask someone “Where’s Route 1?” and they’ll say, “It’s right over there,” and then you’re back on your way. Naturally in a country so small, the police presence is limited. I saw one Lögreglan the whole time I was there and he was just going about his business. I drove as fast as I wanted mainly because I was an ignorant tourist who had no idea how dangerous that was to do.
IT’S AN OUTDOORSMAN’S PARADISE. Do you like fishing? You are surrounded by a giant ocean filled with them. And rivers and streams and ponds and puddles. All the snow sports are accounted for, of course, and even if it isn’t snowing where you are you simply hop in a car and three minutes later you’re on top of a mountain and it’s winter wonderland. There are tall rocks everywhere to climb. And mountains, of course. And hiking trails everywhere. And majestic glaciers galore. I did not realize you could simply drive up to a glacier, but you can. Driving, driving, driving, GLACIER. The particular glacier I drove up to, Svínafellsjökull, had a plaque dedicated to two Germans who vanished in it so I opted not to try walking on it. Or rather, my wife told me I couldn’t.
IT’S GREAT FOR KIDS. What kid doesn’t love a boiling pool of blue mud, natural steam vents or a spewing geyser? And exotic animals! Kids have to love adorable (and edible) puffins. And gorgeous (and edible) whales. And they’re sure to love the fact that the only affordable meal consists of Iceland’s (totally delicious and edible) gas station hot dogs. Just exercise some caution because unlike America where we put up fences and walls and barriers and 300 signs telling you how to not injure yourself, Iceland puts an ankle-high piece of string around a pool of mud with a little sign telling you it’s 250 degrees.
MANY ICELANDERS HAVE EMBRACED AMERICAN OVERWEIGHTNESS. Based on a chance encounter with an attractive Icelandic woman 20 years ago, and because of the singer Björk, I assumed Icelandic women were svelte and pixie-like. This is not the case at all. Many are some degree of overweight. Perhaps it’s because gas station hot dogs are the only affordable food. Or because they’re stuck indoors for seven months because of the weather, surfing the Internet for pictures of what the sun looks like. I have to say my wife found the men to be more attractive.
THEY LOVE SITTING IN WATER. Even tiny towns have community swimming pools, often heated by a pipe that goes way down into the earth and taps an endless supply of incredible, pollution-free heat. These are year-round social centers where people just sit outside in hot tubs and talk about stuff with their friends and neighbors. They sit and chat as the snow falls, turns to rain, sun comes out, hail falls, etc. I imagine they ask each other things like “What are you going to do for the week that is considered summer?”
YOU WILL GET BORED OF AWESOME WATERFALLS. The country is completely littered with amazing waterfalls. At first you’ll be screaming, “Look at that!” and “Oh my God!” and “Wow!” Several days later you’ll be so jaded that you won’t even bother letting other folks there’s some spectacular waterfall off in the distance. Every time you see a waterfall, you’ll fantasize about swimming under it. Then you’ll remember that the water is always a few degrees short of freezing and you’ll fantasize about drinking it instead.
I love Iceland. Also, I am declaring bankruptcy.

How To Book A Hotel Room In Iceland

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Go to the hotel’s website. It was designed in the late 1990s but it should have room rate information somewhere.
The room rate information will be in Icelandic Króna (ISK). Is 20,000 ISK expensive? Who knows? You’ll have to leave the web page and go to Google Finance. Use the currency converter to find out.
Return to the hotel’s web page armed with the knowledge of the room rate.
There is no way to reserve a room online.
Send an email to the hotel’s reservation desk asking if there is a room available on the date you’ll be there.
Wait 2-3 days.
Call the hotel.
The hotel does not answer the phone. After 20 rings you are hung up on.
Call the hotel.
The hotel does not answer the phone. After 20 rings you are hung up on.
Send an email to the hotel’s reservation desk reminding them that you sent an email asking if there is a room available on the date you’ll be there.
Receive an email telling you a room is indeed available, please email your credit card information to them.
Respond to the email by telling them you do not feel comfortable sending credit card information over an email.
Receive an email saying to call tomorrow between 4am-9am your time.
Call the hotel close to 9am.
The hotel does not answer the phone. After 20 rings you are hung up on.
Send an email saying you would like to confirm the room with a credit card but no one picked up the phone.
Wait one day.
Call the hotel.
The hotel does not answer the phone. After 20 rings you are hung up on.
Send an email saying you will fax the credit card information instead. Ask if they take American Express.
Wait two days.
Receive an email saying the fax machine is broken. Suggests calling between 4a-7a and 1p-5p your time.
Call the hotel.
Woman answers! Provide credit card information. Receive confirmation via email.

I Am An Expert On France

In case you were unaware, French highways become parking lots during the summer. Especially in the south of France. Especially on Saturdays when people are departing from or arriving to the vacation houses they’ve rented. I learned that fact this summer, having spent countless hours in various traffic jams. Just sitting. Sitting, sitting, sitting and watching people pee fearlessly and without shame on the side of the road in front of 12,000 cars with families inside.
That experience coupled with my other previous visits to France make me an expert. I am an expert on France.
My hope is that the next time I appear on CNN or Fox News, I will not be slugged as “humorist” or “author” but rather “France Expert” or “Expert on France” even. As an expert, I could weigh in on a variety of topics. Hopefully better than I weighed in on celebrities when I appeared on Showbiz Tonight because in that instance, sadly for the girl who booked me on the show, I didn’t know shit about the celebrities. But I do know about France. Par exemple:
Frenchmen have incredible self-esteem. Amazing, baffling, often unwarranted self-esteem rivaling that of many Los Angeleans. A gangly, cross-eyed, lisping Frenchman with razor burn and soiled pants will still have no problem trying to seduce your wife in front of your very eyes, and for that I admire Frenchmen greatly. In my youth I viewed my concave chest and poor posture as detrimental to the acquisition of female companionship. Not in France. In France I would have slouched up to the most beautiful woman in the room, whipped off my demi-glace stained t-shirt, pushed her boyfriend aside and offered her the chance to make sweet love in the nearest utility closet.
As an expert on France, I know France isn’t so crazy about being at the office. Public sector employees can work no more than 35 hours a week. It’s the law. It’s absurd, impractical and unsustainable, but it’s the law and if you dare try and change it they will come down on you with a fury like you’ve never seen and go on strike. And strike they do, because if there’s one thing French people like more than cheese, Bordeaux and your wife, it’s going on strike. In fact, they’re on strike as I write this because some imbecile had the brilliant idea to change the retirement age from 60 to 62 because the system is bankrupt.
Because of my status as an expert on France I knew that when my tire valve broke on a Friday afternoon at 4:58pm I was utterly screwed. I knew at that very moment that anyone who was capable of fixing my broken tire valve was closing up his shop. Or, more likely, had already called it a day around 2:30pm. Even worse, I knew that those people would certainly not be opening their store on Saturday. And especially not on Sunday. And my problem would inevitably have to wait until Monday – unless I was willing to sit down with a phone and the PagesJeunes and start calling every tire-valve related business in a 150-mile radius. In fact, we did find one gentleman open on Saturday, which was incroyable. Or, it was incroyable until we learned that his grandfather was Polish. No doubt it was that tiny smattering of non-French DNA in him which was responsible for his working on a weekend.
Incidentally, you may be wondering how my tire valve broke. Well, I used a gonflage machine at a gas station that was supposed to put air into my tires but instead opted to break my tire valve (for the low price of 60¢). Vive les gonfleurs de France!
As an expert on France, I know why so many stores don’t post their business hours on the door. It’s because they just don’t know. Maybe they’ll be there in the morning. Maybe not. Who can say? You’ll just have to stop by and see. And when you do stop by and see that they’re closed you get mad and shake your head. But it doesn’t matter because as an expert on France I know that absolutely no one there cares.
Having driven a lot in France I have learned that should you require some modicum of courtesy – someone letting you cut in, perhaps – you are doomed. French drivers would run over a classroom’s-worth of schoolchildren rather than let you pull out in front of them. No mercy. And, as your expertise in all things francaise grows you come to realize that the only way to get from Point A to Point B is to do what they do, which is to disregard the rear and side-view mirrors and simply go where you have to go and accept the consequence which is inevitably an angry French person shaking his or her fist at you. I lost count of the number of French people who shook their fists at me but if I were to arm them all with maracas it would have been a hell of a concert.
French food and wine is spectacular. I’m an expert. I know this. Their devotion to quality is unparalleled. Fantastic food can be found in the dingiest brasseries, bistros and cafés. A simple sandwich purchased at a gas station makes a mockery of American casual dining. They care about ingredients. They care about quality and taste. They don’t want you to pasteurize their cheese. There is no lo-cal version. High fructose corn syrup? Non! They use sugar. They don’t give a crap about sodium, trans-fat, cholesterol or carbs. It’s just better. French shrimp? Incredible. Tastes like shrimp. In comparison American shrimp tastes like packing peanuts. Their foods are fatty, salty, unhealthy… and absolutely delicious as a result. And unlike Americans they don’t eat twelve pounds of it at once so French people are, by and large, not very large.
Anyone who has spent enough time in the States knows we’re a service culture. We might score badly in education, foreign policy and per-capita energy consumption but we are awesome at service. And that’s why Americans, spoiled by the 60-second “greet times” mandated in chain restaurants like TGI Fridays, are often flabbergasted at the French concept of service. In my opinion as an expert, the French love food so much that they want you to savor it all day- which explains why the waiter disappears for hours at a time. But that’s only if you can get the food. At 12:30pm a friend of mine ordered room service from the “24 hour room service” menu at a posh Parisian hotel. An hour later they called to tell him his order had been lost. He tried to re-order but was interrupted: I’m sorry sir, the kitchen is closed. An adorable young hostess turned us away because it was “already” 1:15pm. Mind you, we were a normal-sized party of four, the restaurant was half-empty and it was lunch time. When they do seat you, acquiring a menu can take a quarter of an hour. Waiters will chat up a table for 20 minutes before taking a smoke break. Crap service is a by-product of France not being tip-oriented. The waiter’s getting paid the same regardless of how quickly he brings your frites. And anyway, he assumes that you have a 2-3 hour lunch break that you’re trying to milk.
As an expert on France I can tell you that the image of the obnoxious, arrogant Frenchman is unwarranted. Except in Paris. Everyone in France, including the Parisians, hates the Parisians. Fortunately car tags let you know who the Parisians are so you needn’t guess. One glance at the département from which they hail and you’ll know whether to immediately shake your fist at them or to wait a few seconds before doing so. In my travels throughout the country I’ve encountered very few of the typical stereotypes conjured up when Americans talk about the French. Most French folks outside of Paris are quite pleasant – you might even encounter one if you happen to find a store that is open. They’re grateful when you speak the language, or in my case speak the language like a six-year old. In Normandy they’re still appreciative that we swung by on D-Day some 66 years ago.
As an American expert on France, I know they get a lot of flak for throwing their hands up in 1940 and letting the Wehrmacht sail on in (“cheese-eating surrender monkeys” as Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons famously put it). But traveling around France has helped me put that into perspective: In every town – from the tiniest one-bakery village to the biggest metropolitan centers you’ll find a World War I monument. We Americans, having strolled into that conflict at the very end, tend to forget or never knew that much of the Great War was fought on French soil and that France suffered immeasurably as a result. Actually, it is measurable if you look at the names of all the dead on the monuments. When you’re in a village that’s a croissant’s throw in length by a baguette wide and you find a monument covered in scores of names of the young men that little place sacrificed, you start to understand the scale of their losses in World War I. So, when the Germans came goose-stepping and Heil-Hitlering 22 years later, a country that had already sacrificed generations of their able-bodied men was being asked to do it all over again. The lack of enthusiasm should be understandable, in my opinion. And my opinion is very valuable, in my opinion, because as I’ve established I am an expert. In my opinion.
Sure, there is plenty to criticize about France. They’re not nearly as germ-phobic as I’d like them to be. They handle money and food at the same time, and will lay your baguette on the counter. The bathrooms can be frightful. Administratively, they have some pretty insane policies in dire need of fixing particularly with regard to immigration, unemployment and entitlements. Their socialized healthcare system is pretty darn good and beyond generous – you can be prescribed a lovely visit to a spa. Of course it’s been running at a deficit for 25 years now despite the hefty taxes that subsidize it.
When a problem does get really bad, inevitably someone stands up and proposes fixing it. That prompts everyone else to go on strike until said person throws his or her hands up and sits down. Attempt to reform the educational system? Furious protest. Try and change the crazy 35-hour work-week law? Furious protest. Allow businesses to fire new employees who aren’t working out? Furious protest. In France, there is nothing they won’t protest furiously. In fact, they’re in the streets today because they want to retire at 60 and not 62, damn you! I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that this strike will probably be resolved by everyone deciding to kick the can down the road and deal with it another time.
I’m an expert on France because I love France. For all its flaws, they really have done the place up quite nicely. It’s gorgeous. And if you like castles, they have castles up the wazoo. So don’t put off a visit to France. And I’d say you should go sooner rather than later, because at some point they won’t be able to kick the can down the road anymore, and the party will truly be over and I’ll have to become an expert in something else. Like Yonkers.

The Limited Worldview of Cheap Cereal

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Price Chopper’s Fruit Whirls is their store-brand answer to Fruit Loops. They look and taste the same, sure, and they cost much less. But the educational value of the back panel is questionable.
“Languages from around the world” indeed, if by “world” you mean, well, Europe and her colonies.
Where’s the Bantu?

Yelp: Loews Hotel Vogue

Montréal is a great city, filled with tons of naked women dancing. Usually naked women dancing are pushed off into some corner of a city – such as Boston’s Combat Zone, or New York’s Times Square before Giuliani Disneyfied the area. But not Montréal. There, you can step out of a high-end clothing store, walk eight feet, and enter an establishment where you can fondle a stranger’s breasts in exchange for money – if you’re so inclined.
I also learned that Montréal hates Toronto.
As for lodging, I have reviewed Loews Hotel Vogue on Yelp.

“It Was Twenty Years Ago Today”

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In 2005 my wife dragged me, kicking and screaming, to China. I did not want to go because I had a picture in my head that I was quite comfortable with and didn’t feel like challenging it. But, since my wife is almost invariably right it turned out to be one of the most amazing trips of my life. I still talk about the asparagus. Best asparagus ever. No doubt it was farmed in melamine-tainted soil with carcinogenic fertilizers – but it was truly delicious.
My experiences in China taught me many things – and I wrote about it here. The trip opened my eyes to the fact that China is not communist as much as it’s totalitarian capitalist. I saw Ferarris and BMWs and other expensive cars you’re not supposed to have in Marx’s ludicrous class-free fantasy land. I saw a modernity that I’d never expected to see. Sure, over a billion live in squalor, but 300 million more – a number that’s close to the total number of us here in the U.S. – live middle and upper-middle class lives. They go to bars and restaurants, hang out with friends, drive cars, and have jobs that don’t involve wearing comrade overalls. In many ways they’re like us, with the exception that the government is ominous, ever-present and really creepy.
One of the most popular things I’ve ever written came from the trip. Sad really. I spend so much time trying to be high-brow, yet I write about poo and it becomes the star of the show.
China introduced me to fantastic and bizarre culinary and cultural experiences. Like sucking down dumplings as twelve people stood around me, waiting to take my seat. And eating a bird’s nest. But one of the most enriching experiences came from talking to people. They live on the other side of the world, have a totally different perspective on life, and have ingrained opinions on our culture and lifestyle – just as we do about theirs.
Naturally, they’re guarded. Their lives can be dramatically altered at the whim of the state. For that reason, most of the people I met steered clear of politics. Some people were clearly brainwashed – like the ones peddling Mao’s Little Red Book and selling cutesy Mao watches. The man killed millions upon millions of his own people – on purpose and through failed policy – yet to lots of folks he’s like Bono.
Other people simply chose the path of least resistance. They had good lives, especially when compared to the life of a peasant in the countryside. They didn’t want to muck that up. You don’t ask questions, you accept the rules that are laid down, you sacrifice what you’re asked to sacrifice, and all’s well.
But there are others. The ones who see through the propaganda, the censorship and the whitewashing. They’re not content to live in a land of awesome asparagus. They see their government for what it is: a big, uncaring, scary, all-powerful machine that is perfectly willing to gun down thousands of people for the crime of wanting something better.
I met one of those people on the trip. In the safety and security of his car he was able to let his guard down and as we talked I got a sense that he was a dissenter. Unlike other people who had recited the party line to me on various topics, he had opinions and asked me questions about my country and politics. As we went past the giant portrait of Mao over the gates of Tiananmen I asked him what he thought about Mao, Tiananmen, the Party and the night in 1989 when students did the unthinkable by gathering in protest. Something that scared the living bejeezus out of their government.
He shook his head, and recalled that night. He was there. Hope and change weren’t marketing buzzwords, they were ripples emanating from that square and rocking the very foundation of the Chinese government. He was there when that excitement turned into terror as gunfire ripped people apart, and he was among the panicked crowds that fled down side streets, lucky to avoid the bullets and batons his government used to silence dissent.
He lost friends that night. And he was full of anger about it, as he should have been. I took away from our conversation two things: One, he was a man who, just like you and I would, seethed from the injustice perpetrated on his fellow citizens. And two, he was afraid that his government would succeed in making it all a distant memory.
The leaders of the People’s Republic would really, really like us all to forget that night, twenty years ago today. They do every Orwellian thing they can to pretend it was a non-event, that thousands didn’t die, and that parents weren’t awakened by soldiers dumping the bodies of their children on the doorstep.
It was an ugly, ugly night. They’d like to forget it all happened. All you have to do to strike a blow against tyranny is to not let them.
My friend would thank you. Quietly, of course.

Europe Dispatch: The Very Long Drive – A Summary

FRANCE
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The further you get from Paris, the more pleasant the French become. Regardless, they still manage to retain the classic Gallic qualities of doing what they please and really not caring what you think. This is admirable in some respects, but infuriating when you expected the store to be open during its posted business hours.
Any visit to France leaves you wondering how they have an economy. Case in point: They close most businesses from 12:00pm to 2:30pm for lunch. At 1:15pm we go to a restaurant with plenty of seats. The hostess says “I won’t seat you” and walks away. We find another restaurant where the waitress grudgingly agrees to seat us after declaring half the menu off limits.
The first person to introduce baguette-length bags to France will make millions. The current system is to wrap a tiny paper square around the mid-section of your three-foot stick of bread and lay it on the counter.
The first person to introduce the concept of not handling money and food at the same time may not make millions but will endear themselves to germ freaks.
France makes some of the ugliest cars in the world. Whoever designed the Renault Megane should be exiled.
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You have to love a country so cultured that you can find $275 bottles of wine sitting on the supermarket shelves. The best my local New York supermarket can do is a $3.99 bottle of Chateau Diana “wine product.”
The French enjoy amazing food yet they are not fat. This is because they have learned that eating lots of food makes you fat. This is something that I hope Americans will one day figure out.
MONACO
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A very small, silly monarchy that resembles Las Disney Vegas World because it feels fake, gaudy, and has huge crowds of slobbering tourists.
Citizens have one of the highest standards of living in the world, thanks in no small part to its status as a tax haven, not to mention the casino that lets Russian oligarchs launder their billions.
ITALY
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Italians travel in packs of twenty and drive like they’re fleeing a volcano.
SWITZERLAND
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All Swiss people do is hike the gorgeous countryside in shorts whilst remaining neutral.
LIECHTENSTEIN
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A country so small and army-less that my son’s pre-school class could invade and occupy it between song circle and snack time. Its prince once threatened to sell the country to Bill Gates.
AUSTRIA
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An absolutely picturesque country that gave us Schwarzenegger, Freud and Hitler.
GERMANY
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The Autobahn. There is no greater automotive bliss than being able to drive 110/mph without worrying that a toothless Massachusetts State Trooper will walk out into the middle of the highway and flag you down.
Germans know what the left hand lane is for and will actually get out of the way of faster cars. This is because in Germany, as in many European countries, drivers licenses are earned rather than handed out with Happy Meals.
For some reason German cab drivers lock the back windows closed and drive with minimal air conditioning.
Germans tend to speak excellent English, they have great beers and anyone over 80 could have run a death camp.
POLAND
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Once people in Poland realize you’re not Polish they start speaking to you in German. Once they realize you’re not German they continue speaking to you in German in the hopes that you’ll pick it up.
Rusting cars, the dreaded Fiat Maluch, tour buses and newly-moneyed meatheads in shiny BMWs – all trying to overtake slow-moving tractors and wheat combines on narrow, collapsing, communist-era roads lined with thick trees every five feet. Excellent combination.

France Dispatch – Unfortunate Names

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If you don’t like the taste, you can’t say they didn’t warn you.

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One of the shit many beautiful whore hilltop villages.

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This compliments their lack of a leash law quite nicely.

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If this is what the French start the kids on, it pretty much explains everything.

France Dispatch – Internet Inderdit!

One of the things I’ve noticed in my two weeks sans internet is how unimportant the internet really is. The sheer inconvenience of having to get in a car and drive 20 miles to a crummy fast food joint just to leech off their free WiFi changed the priority of email checking and web browsing for me. Add to that the grim realization that when I made the trek I discovered I had only five minutes of battery left (sneaky kids) and I pretty much gave up on surfing the interweb.
Being web-free for such a long time has allowed me to focus on the more important things – which in France are family, baguettes, non-pasteurized cheese and copious amounts of wine.
That said, it’s nice to be able to actually connect and see what’s going on in the world. I didn’t see a shred of the Olympics. I had no idea Obama chose a career politician as his sidekick for his agenda of change. I didn’t know Russia was being thuggy again. And I didn’t realize planes were crashing, which prompted us to drive 1100km across Europe even though statistically we were being ridiculous.
I also missed seeing my interview in Vanity Fair.

Poland Dispatch: Unfortunate Products

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DINK 50 MOTOR SCOOTER
You can get around town quite easily with a bicycle because town is as small as Angelina Jolie is creepy. But, should you wish to get around town even faster or simply desire to come across as a wee bit more macho you can ride around town on your Dink.
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USDA POLICE T-SHIRT
The concept of the United States Department of Agriculture having a police force is brilliant. Once the TV-viewing public has burned out on the tired menagerie of police and forensic shows there’s a fertile crop of USDA Police shows ripe for the picking – USDA: Bovine Testing Unit, USDA: Pig Sty Detectives and USDA: Improperly Housed Chicken Task Force.
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PABLO ESCOBAR WILL NEVER DIE T-SHIRT
I didn’t have the Polish linguistic panache necessary to tell him his shirt was officially outdated as of December 1993.
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SUNLASSES
Poland is an economy on the rise, but in the meantime most people don’t have the money for costly American or Western European goods. That means China comes in to fill the gap with cheap products that are even cheaper (and presumably more dangerous) than the cheap Chinese products you find in the US. This includes barbecues that are as thin as tin foil, baseball bats that break when you swing them, and cheap sunlasses.

F.A.Q.: Why Is Your Playground On Top Of A Cemetery?

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Why on earth did you put a playground on top of a cemetery?
You know, we hear that a lot. And the answer will surprise you. When you’re thinking about building a playground for kids, your first inclination might be “let’s not build this on a 200-year old cemetery.” But in our case, we thought differently.
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What the hell were you thinking when you decided to build a playground on top of a cemetery?
Good question. When we designed our playground we knew it would have all the normal accoutrements of any children’s play space: slides, play houses, a sandbox and toys. But we wanted to offer something most playgrounds don’t offer: a chance for kids to come face-to-face with the prospect of mortality while they’re playing with sand.
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What thought process goes into building a children’s playground on top of a cemetery?
It’s not as easy as you would think. When you’re building a playground on a normal piece of land that doesn’t have dead bodies in it you don’t have any obstacles in your way. In our case though, we were building a playground on top of a very old cemetery. We didn’t want to remove the grave stones because we felt it was important to respect the graves we were putting a playground on top of. So we built around them.
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Do you realize you built a children’s playground on top of a cemetery?
Oh lord yes! We have lots of people remind us of that. And there are numerous instances when people visiting Rhinebeck see the playground and decide to let the kids out of the car for a stretch. We like to watch the faces of the parents because you can see the very moment they realize that we built a playground on top of a cemetery. You can almost read their minds.

Consumer Reportage: Car Booster Seat and Restraint Comparison

For the purposes of this test we outfitted two cars. One car with the Graco TurboBooster car seat, the other with plastic restraints. To ensure the best possible uniformity in testing we used a pair of identical twins separated from their mother by eye-opening legal precedent.
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PORTABILITY
At only eight pounds, the Graco TurboBooster car seat is lightweight and fairly easy to carry, but even that is no match for the minimal weight and size of plastic restraints.
PROTECTION
The Graco TurboBooster routinely scores quite well in crash tests and its reinforced sides offer additional protection. Plastic restraints lack additional protection but are excellent at keeping children firmly in place if you use enough of them.
The TurboBooster complies with all Federal safety standards. Plastic restraints are not subject to the same standards, but are made from high-tensile nylon fibers.
INSTALLATION
The Graco TurboBooster incorporates the car’s seatbelt. Installation involves nothing more than running the seatbelt through the Graco’s belt cuff and across the child’s shoulder.
Plastic restraints are a more involved installation, particularly if you have an active child who does not like to be physically attached to the car. Unlike traditional car seats, plastic restraints offer multiple options for creatively installing your child.
EXSTALLATION
The Graco TurboBooster is easily removed by unlocking the seatbelt and removing it from the belt cuff.
Plastic restraints can be removed with pruning shears.
GRACO TURBOBOOSTER
Pros: Price, brand reputation, general acceptance.
Cons: Cumbersome if you have septuplets.
PLASTIC RESTRAINTS
Pros: Cheapest option, portable, disposable.
Cons: Meddling parents will form advocacy groups.
CONSUMER REPORTAGE OPINION
The Graco TurboBooster is top of its class as far as traditional booster seats go, but there’s no denying that plastic restraints offer their own benefits, especially with hyperactive children. In the end, what you use depends primarily on your travel plans and window tinting.

Next Week: A comprehensive review of toys that flame.
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Poland Dispatch: Unfortunate Products

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The T.F.C. children’s backpack is so roomy your child will be able empty the entire contents of his locker into it after he’s been expelled.
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Ironically, it brings folks together.
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Let folks know VD is still in fashion. Even if it means going home, and dying, alone.

Traveling With Children

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Air travel is rarely a fun or relaxing experience – and when kids are involved it’s like poking your eyes out with a fork while jackbooted thugs step on your groin and Hitler pours acid on your herb garden. Here are some helpful tips to keep you sane this holiday season:
Avoid hassles at security checkpoints by not naming your child Jihad or referring to airline staff as infidels.
Be prepared for delays and other inconveniences by packing extra food, diapers, wipes, lotions, balms, bottles, formula, bibs, spoons, toys, pacifiers, socks, onesies, pants, tops, blankets, dolls, games and whatever other items you’ll need to survive.
Remember the three-second rule: Whatever toy you bring will be boring in three seconds, so divide the flight’s duration by three seconds and you’ll know how many toys to carry on.
Children under two years of age can be carried on the lap for free. But they don’t specify whose lap, so take advantage of that.
Clowns, when not frightening children and adults, can entertain those with undeveloped humor palates for minutes at a time – so bring one. Many airlines offer unpublicized Clown-panion rates. Just keep asking the representative about them until you get transferred or disconnected.
Empty flights mean more space for you and the kids, so fly to places no one goes to anymore like New Orleans.
Schedule flights around your child’s naptime so that your child will sleep on the flight – or the floor of the airport when your flight is delayed two hours.
If you are very wealthy, consider purchasing a second “kiddie” jet and outfitting it with primary colors and DVDs that make your child smarter.
If you already have a foreign woman who does not speak English raising your children for you, have her sit with the children while you sit twenty rows behind because of a ticketing “error.”
Consider flying an airline like JetBlue, which offers TVs in every seat, as opposed to Delta, which offers you a searing pain in your right knee when the guy in front reclines.
Make sure your children do not exceed the height and width requirements for overhead compartments. Stowing children overhead frees up precious legroom for you and gives them a fun play space that contains their various, annoying sounds.
Kill time by inventing fun games like “What’s over at 17F?” and “Go stand outside the cockpit.”
Many doctors are adamantly against the dangerous practice of drugging children with Benadryl and other medicines, but they don’t have to fly with your kids.
Unless the trip is urgent consider waiting 14 years, when your child will be at a more manageable age.

Poland Dispatch: A Country Wedding

I’d always considered my wife’s home village to be “rural” because there aren’t many people in it, the police station is only open on Tuesday, and I can walk the length of it in under six minutes. By virtue of having been there several times and having attended town gatherings and New Year’s Eve parties I can say that I’ve likely met or crossed paths with every single person there who isn’t holed up in their domicile.
So, when my wife’s family told me we were going to a wedding “in the middle of nowhere” it tested the limits of my imagination. We’re five hours from any major city. Two hours from a small city. We’re 35 kilometers from a large town. There are ostriches running around. Aside from a trek to the mid-Atlantic, I had a hard time imagining we could get more rural.
“You’ll see,” they said.
There were no hotels where we were going so we’d be staying at the bride’s farm house, I was told. And though I’ve been to weddings for Tomek & Ania, Gocha & Fabian, Tomek & Ola, Maciek & Aga, Piotr & Monika and my own, I was told that this particular Polish wedding would be “different.”
I was intrigued.
So, in the wee hours of Saturday morning we hopped in a hired van and drove. And drove. And drove. We drove for six and a half hours. The terrain changed from pine forests and wheat fields to apple trees. Because of all the apple trees I assumed we were in Apple Country. This was later confirmed by my brother-in-law.
“This area is known for their apples,” he said.
The paved road ended, turning into a black dirt road that we followed until it became a tan dirt road. No one was exactly sure where we were going, as the house was described as being near somewhere. Eventually we sighted a mother and young girl stringing up some balloons: we’d found the party farm. The driveway was half a kilometer long, running through recently harvested fields of wheat. It brought us into a courtyard with farm buildings in various stages of disrepair. There were free-range chickens, turkeys, pigeons, cats and dogs. A calf on a short tether mooed to a cow hidden behind a wall. Roosters meandered about, crowing, even though it was mid-afternoon. I’d always believed they only cock-a-doodled in the morning. I was apparently wrong. The pigeons sat atop a coop I’d mistaken for an outhouse and cooed.
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An older man, father of the bride, appeared and greeted everyone. He fetched his wife who in short order had set up a table outdoors and was serving us coffee, cakes and home-made sausages. I declined the sausages citing the fact that I was sitting in view of a cow that might actually be related to them. Plus there were flies everywhere, on account of the whole place smelling like manure.
Amidst all the rustic beauty, a lady leered at us.
The lady looked like Bette Davis, but crazier. She stood wide-eyed and silent, fixating on one or two folks before shuffling off to take a new position and acquire new targets. She was like a ninja, a crazy ninja, appearing and disappearing as if by magic. We later came to learn that the death of her mother many years ago had thrown her over the edge. She’d mostly stopped talking after that and had taken to wandering around and unintentionally frightening people. “Don’t make eye contact,” I was told, “And if she hits you, don’t be surprised. She hits people if she decides she doesn’t like them.”
I’d been there all of ten minutes and I was afraid.
The brother of the bride appeared and I went to shake his hand. He surprised me with a shriveled right arm. I later came to learn he was very much in love with my wife, despite being related to her, and had plans to steal her away from me later in the evening when I would presumably be distracted by vodka. I admire his tenacity and strength, as far as not letting a physical handicap get in the way of his self esteem, but I question his ethical judgment in trying to woo his married, twice-childed cousin.
We sat outside and drank our coffee next to the dilapidated remains of the original farm homestead. It was over a hundred years old but had been abandoned since the new farmhouse was built behind it. It was slowly being dismembered and burned. Father of the bride gave us a quick tour. “Five of us slept here,” he said – standing in a room the size of an office cubicle. I made a mental note to never again complain about New York apartments. Everything was covered in chicken poop or cobwebs, but you could make out a very intricate pattern on the walls – a paint job that must have taken ages to do in the days before Home Depot and Do-It-Yourself stencil kits. It seemed a shame to let it all go to pot, but until they finished burning it piece by piece the old house was only used to store the family’s main source of income: red peppers. Judging from the scattered feed, feathers and poop, chickens hid out here when it got cold.
The new house was less aesthetically charming, but much nicer. No cobwebs. No poop. Unbroken windows. It was completely square in the minimalist Soviet style. There was one bathroom. The bathtub had a hot water heater hanging over it. The hot water heater was electric as evidenced by the cord that dangled precariously across the tub and plugged into the power outlet above the tub that any decent building inspector would have demanded be removed.
Wedding guests began to arrive, and slowly the house and courtyard began to fill with family and friends – many of whom needed to get clean and dressed after their long drives. A queue for the bathroom soon formed and in no time the dangerous hot water heater was unable to keep up with demand. Rather than stand in line so I could squat in a worn tub and drizzle freezing water on myself I opted for a military shower: a rubdown with baby wipes. It was quick, they were room temperature, and they had the added benefit of making me smell like an adorable baby’s bottom.
At the appropriate time we all headed for the church. It’s Polish tradition to block the path of the bride and groom with whatever it takes to block the path: rope, bicycles, children, bulldozer, fire engine – I’ve seen it all. The procession stops, the bride and groom get out of the car, you offer congratulations and then they give you a bottle of vodka (or candies, for kids) and you get out of the way. This is a sweet tradition but it makes going anywhere take twelve times as long – especially if the whole village has heard about your wedding.
The church we finally arrived at was an inexplicably large entity considering we were not near any conceivable population center. It seemed akin to building a Wal-Mart in Antarctica. The cathedral’s simple exterior belied its absolutely gorgeous interior. The pulpit was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – designed to look like the bow of a ship, despite the fact the Baltic is 500 miles away.
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Every aspect of the wedding service was captured by the videographer who expertly stood between the audience and the action. He blocked the view of the signing of the wedding contract, blocked the view of the couple exchanging rings, blocked the view of the couple taking communion. The service he dutifully blocked was interrupted by a momentary loss of power, but the organist recovered nicely. The videographer continued to stand in the way and in due course the couple exchanged their vows behind him and then headed to the reception – my favorite part of any wedding.
Polish weddings are two or three day affairs, depending. Close friends and relatives often have a Friday night “glass breaking” party, so-named because glass gets broken. The wedding ceremony is on Saturday and then the party officially starts. It lets up Sunday morning when folks take a nap, but it resumes Sunday afternoon. By Sunday evening folks are on their way home – often dreadfully fatigued and poisoned by alcohol.
At the reception hall guests enjoy a glass of sparkling wine (can’t call it Champagne, because Russians made it) before the doors open and everyone starts jockeying for their seats. Every table has a selection of cakes, meats, breads, fish, cheese and fruits. Hot soup is served. Amidst the slurping, bottles of vodka are placed on the tables. Shot glasses are filled and eventually a boisterous toast is made to the bride and groom. The party starts and the musicians fire up the band. The band, in this case, had planted themselves right next to me. I had a saxophone in my ear for a good twenty minutes before they saw fit to wander elsewhere.
The bride and groom sat underneath an electric Virgin Mary that pulsated colors. In all my Polish weddings it was the first time I noticed any religious symbols at the actual reception. The new couple drank from shot glasses that were symbolically tied together with a string.
The crowd ran the gamut from young to old. One by one I found myself being introduced to them. A short, cheerful, red-faced man led me to a small keg that rested on a table of cured meats, pâté and pig tails. It was his treasured moonshine – homemade vodka – and I was being invited or possibly ordered to have some. It tasted like really good tequila, and evaporated on my tongue as it was pure alcohol. When I told him I liked it he immediately filled my glass again, without asking. Aware that I’d be on all fours in minutes at that rate, I excused myself to use the bathroom where one roll of paper towels had been supplied for all 220 guests.
All Polish weddings have bands and they all tend to play the same songs. There’s a lot of dancing and after a few numbers the band inevitably sings a little ditty which translates to “And now we go for another vodka” at which point everyone leaves the dance floor and heads to their respective shot glass.
This band was a little different though. Los Diablos Emeritos played the classics, sure, but this was the hinterlands and they weren’t afraid to be a wee bit bawdy. Even with the many kids in the audience. Every so often a word would capture my attention, causing me to ask for a full translation.
“Did he just sing old woman and ass?” I’d ask.
“Yes. The old woman has a cork in her ass.”
At midnight it was officially my wife’s birthday – a fact that did not go unnoticed by lead singer Robek. He singled her out with an interactive song about what kind of man she preferred. The correct answer, in defiance of the fact her American husband was sitting there, was “Polish.” The song was about as politically incorrect as one can get. After Robek sang lyrics like “Would you like an Asian man, with his tiny little pee-pee?” he’d thrust the microphone in her face and wait for the obligatory “No!” which would then propel him to the next cringe-worthy verse. It was a no-holds-barred juggernaut of country comedy that had at pretty much everyone: Russians, blacks, French, Arabs, English. Oddly, and for the first time ever, no one was picking on the Americans.
As an American in the Polish outback who spoke vaguely understandable Polish – especially when lubricated – I was more of a novelty than usual. People wanted to say hello and have a drink with me. And, of course, it’s rude to decline. When Barbra from Ukraine wraps her arm around you and demands you drink with her, you drink with her. And when she comes back three minutes later to do it all over again, you do it all over again. This presented a problem.
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There were 220 guests. If even a fraction of them wanted to do a shot of vodka with me, I would be dead in very little time. In order to survive, I began pouring water in my shot glass – an egregious violation of Polish drinking protocol, mind you, but I was willing to risk being shamed in order to preserve some level of consciousness. I am simply not in the same drinking league, nor would I want to be. This kind of lifestyle – hard drinking, heavy smoking, pepper farming – takes its toll on your body. People I thought were 60 were 40. They live a tough, strenuous life. On the other hand, they really seem to be enjoying it. In comparison American weddings seem half-hearted and boring – everyone bitching about the line at the open bar while trying to determine what hors d’oeuvres they’re allergic to.
My sneaky water shots kept me alive and impressed Barbra from Ukraine – who I strongly believe could out-drink a small garrison of Romans.
I began to fade at 4am, though I clearly was in the minority. Sadly, I’d been outlasted by countless grandmothers and grandfathers, Barbra from Ukraine, and men half my size who’d been up at dawn the day before slaughtering pigs. But I was done. I crawled into the van and was back at the farm house by 5 – just in time for the roosters and cows to start up. The party made its way back to the farmhouse and raged until 11am Sunday, at which point folks broke for a little nap.
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After folks had a handful of hours of rest the party resumed. Attire was casual – a good thing, as my suit was in a pile on the floor. Back at the reception hall folks sat back down at the tables and prepared, amazingly, to drink again. Yesterday’s leftovers were served, and new bottles of cold vodka placed on every table. It was mere moments before someone was holding their shot glass up and waiting for me to do the same. I sheepishly declined – I’d slept long and well compared to everyone else and actually felt really good. I didn’t want to ruin it.
I rejected numerous offers to add more vodka to my system, eventually procuring a can of beer as a prop. It made it easier to turn down vodka shots when I pointed to it. “Not right now,” I’d say, “I’m having a beer.”
Eventually I had a few cans of beer. Inhibitions fell to the wayside. From there it was a slippery slope. Soon I found myself accepting vodka shots in the interest of international friendship. As I stood in the men’s room – which had run out of its one roll of paper towels the previous day – I looked in the mirror and saw a fatigued, red-eyed man staring back. Then it occurred to me: These people are trying to kill me.
Nevertheless, as night fell I wasn’t in as bad shape as many of the others. Certainly in no position to operate heavy farm machinery but a far cry from those folks whose bodies had simply turned off. I meandered about, striking up conversations with people who confused me.
“We live in New York,” I said in response to one man’s question.
“Oh. My wife died sixteen years ago,” he said.
At 8:30pm on Sunday the party was officially over. A drunk pepper farmer offered me an overly energetic goodbye five times until I finally broke free. Barbra from Ukraine gave me a warm hug and slurred niceties. The distant cousin with the withered arm – who’d apparently spent the morning trying to seduce my wife as I slept – said it was nice to have met me. We wished the bride and groom well then clambered back into the van for the trip home. As we pulled onto the road my brothers-in-law began to sing boisterously, but fears they were going to bellow for the entire trip dissipated twenty seconds later when they simultaneously passed out. Only then did I realize the folly of my ways. Everyone else, exhausted and drunk, would be sleeping the six-hour ride home. I was a well-rested teetotaler by comparison and would subsequently be forced to stare into the dark abyss of the Polish countryside at night, left to contemplate the crime of having lead Barbra from Ukraine to believe I could keep up with her.

Poland Dispatch: Renaissance Festival vs. Borne Sulinowo Military Festival

Renaissance
Festival
Borne
Sulinowo Military Festival
CELEBRATES
Glorious era when
Bubonic plague killed millions.
Glorious era when
Teutonic plague killed millions.
DRESS CODE
16th Century finery,
armor made by a lonely teen, swords that don’t cut.
20th Century battle
dress, face paint, guns that don’t shoot.
DEMOGRAPHIC
Frail
young men who would not have qualified for knighthood, cleavage-bearing
women with bad English accents, ponytailed men who wear knee-high boots
outside of Renaissance festivals.
Frail
young men who would not have qualified for Special Forces, hot women
in camo with
Polish accents, grown
men in Waffen SS officer uniforms who presumably don’t wear them anywhere
else.
LOCALE
Random cow pastures.
Borne Sulinowo, Poland.
WEAPONRY
Claymore,
Ninja sword, flimsy bow, sad flail made from duct tape and string.
Claymore,
Schmeisser MP-40, PanzerFaust anti-tank projectile, plastic pistol
TOUGHEST VEHICLE
Arabian
Horse.
Soviet
T-55 Tank.
POPULAR COLOR
Burgundy,
Gold
Camouflage
(Woodland), Camouflage (Desert)

POPULAR FOODSTUFF

Undercooked poultry
legs.
Meal, Ready to Eat.
SADDEST SOUVENIR
Dreamcatcher.
Rusted German
helmet with bullet hole in head.

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Poland Dispatch: Village Gossip

The village has a brand new gathering spot courtesy of the mayor. What was once the ruins of the old cinema were leveled to make way for an outdoor stage, dance area, and a ring of picnic tables. The tables are sheltered by an awning that anyone over 5’6″ runs the risk of smashing their face into if they’re drunk, which they are, as that’s why you go to the village gathering spot in the first place.
The mayor’s daughter informed us that her father had stomach stapling surgery.
Marta disappeared twelve years ago leaving behind an infant daughter. The village rumor mill kicked into action and it had long been assumed she was a prostitute who’d wound up in jail. She has returned and feels the need to introduce herself as Marta, who is neither a prostitute nor ex-convict.
The cinderblock store & bar at the end of the driveway is closed. Bad news for my son who liked to get lollipops there, worse news for the drunk old men who used to sit outside on tree stumps.
Mirek got Beata knocked up. Beata tried to knock out Mirek’s mom. As a result the happy couple now resides in the cinderblock store & bar at the end of the driveway.
The Polish economy is visibly improving. People have money to paint their houses, and if they can avoid buying the dreadful Fiat Maluch they do so.
In a growing economy many folks are still unaware of how exactly the stock market works, so Krzystof just bets with friends on whether it will go up or down.
Janusz became the talk of folks for kilometers around when he bought a Porsche Cayenne. Unfortunately, being known as the village rich guy means that the village mechanic wants $1,000 to fix a light bulb.
The Fire Chief is not afraid to use his half-pinky finger for comedic purposes.

Lithuania Dispatch: Comment Riot Timeline

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July 24
Author posts dispatch from Lithuania on his moderately trafficked humor site.
July 25
Parts of article are translated and appear on Lithuania’s website.
Comment frenzy ensues among Lithuanians with an impressive grasp of English.
July 26
Level-headed Lithuanians with better understanding of cultural commentary try to defuse situation but are out-shouted by more reactionary Lithuanians.
Author is told he has a wood tongue, whatever that means.
Crowds form outside the Radisson hotel in Vilnius. Turkish consulate is set on fire because it’s conveniently located next door.
Lithuanian police fail to disperse crowd or enforce traffic laws.
Mayor of Vilnius issues statement: “Best beer? Svyturus, of course. Aciu.”
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July 27
Author delivers public address from the window of his hotel room. Attempt to tell crowd his great-grandfather was Lithuanian fails when he is pelted with delicious, meat-filled potato zeppelins.
UN peacekeepers arrive, do nothing.
Author’s Polish wife explains that outsider humor is subject to sensitivities ingrained in Baltic and Eastern European cultures – a result of historically annoying neighbors Russia and Germany.
Ambassador to Denmark shrugs shoulders and sighs. “It happens,” he says.
Author attempts to sneak out of hotel by donning a man-purse. He is discovered and chased from Vilnius by a mob of gorgeous, well-dressed women bearing antiquated pitchforks.
July 28
Manhunt fails to find author because they are looking for an obese rat with wood tongue, whatever that means.
Author is smuggled across the border by partisans in a hay-filled mule cart.
July 29
A grim-faced President George W. Bush appears on national television. “Great. Now everyone hates us,” he says.
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