The new adventures of Stephen


Way back in 2006, I began this blog. The purpose at the time was to provide an easy way for friends and family to keep up with my whereabouts and experiences, as I was just about to embark on (what would turn out to be) a 2.5 year travel adventure spanning 4 continents. And since moving to New York 5 years ago, I have continued (though at times infrequently) to keep up the blog, writing about all manner of item in addition to travel. That said, I think everyone would agree that the most interesting writing and insights come while on the road. And I have not exactly been stagnant on the travel front, even while being most definitely rooted in New York and a return to professional (read: paid) life and work. In the past 5 years, I have travelled to Puerto Rico, Spain, France, Germany, England, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Morocco, Switzerland, Canada and several destinations inside the contiguous United States. I have on several occasions been absent more than a month, but have not come close to repeating the sheer scope of my earlier trip, and had no plans to do so until recently.

But then last February, thanks to a friend, I came across an opportunity for a round-the-world airfare that was a staggeringly good deal. I decided that even though this was not in my plans, letting a chance like this pass by would be stupid, so I took it. In case you have never heard of them, RTW fares are something that all the major flight groups offer (you can find their planning websites here, here, and here), and they allow you to get a pretty good deal on these special trips, with certain rules and restrictions. Basically, you have to go (more or less) in one direction around the globe; You have one year to complete all flights; You can usually change times and dates of any particular flight for free but not the routing.

So, coming up on October 1st, I am heading out. In order, I will pass through Columbia, Venezuela, The US (Los Angeles), Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, South Africa, and Brazil before returning to New York. The planning and timing is still a bit in the air (pun intended), but I will take between 3 and 5 months to make the entire trip. Since I am not independently wealthy, I will continue to work while on this trip. One of the great advantages in what I do is that I only need my laptop and a good internet connection to get my work done. I will of course be on a reduced schedule, but I will probably still end up working about half the time I normally would. In some places (Australia), I will try to rent an apartment and stay for a few weeks, in others (South Korea) I will pass through, do a bit of tourism, and continue on my way. And in the few places I already know from previous travels (India, Brazil, Los Angeles), I will mainly visit with old friends and (probably) not see much that is new.

I don’t feel especially prepared for my trip, there is tons of planning to do and I have very little idea where I will go yet in each place. I pulled this start date out of thin air back in February, and it seemed so very far in the future at that time, I thought I would have plenty of time to have it all figured out by now. But then, the road has a way of pointing me in the direction of things I should see and do, and because it is all new there is really no “wrong” way to learn and explore. Still, if any of you have any specific experience in the places I am going, by all means send me your tips!

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Short, mundane list of pros and cons – Europe/USA


Now that I am back from my trip, I may try to spend a little more time blogging on a regular basis (but am making no promises). I had such a wonderful time on my trip, and my friends in Amsterdam are all suggesting I move there. I have to admit it is tempting. As such, I started compiling a list of little pros and cons to each, in no particular order. If you have items to add to the list please do so in the comments, I would love to hear them.

1. Fruit – Europe wins hands down. The fruits and veggies may LOOK better in the US, but as with so many things here, it is style over substance. European produce tastes way better than all but the most expensive and rare organic stuff you find here.

2. Warm water and plumbing - USA, by a mile. For the life of me, I can’t understand what is so technically difficult for Europeans to grasp about mixing hot and cold water in a steady way. Whether it is Holland or France or the UK, you would think it was a secret as hard as splitting the atom. Here in the US, when I set the temp to something between freezing cold and boiling hot, it stays where I put it. There, you are never in a steady state, but only on your way to scalding or freezing, which gives you a window of a few seconds to wash before injury.

3. Socializing without stressing – Point Europe. In the US (NYC at least), it often feels that we are scheduled for small windows to do any socializing, whereas in Europe (continental at least), things seem to take their own amount of organic time, and people do not seem so over-scheduled. A dinner or picnic (when was the last time I had a picnic in New York?) with friends can last several hours, and people are genuinely relaxing. Here it often feels as if people are checking something off a list, and in a hurry to get to the next thing.

4. Laundry – 
USA, definitely. Maybe related to the technical difficulties above, Laundry seems easier to accomplish here, and cheaper (whether doing it yourself or sending it out). Although the amount of machine drying we do may reduce the useful life of our clothes.

5. Service – 
USA is definitely way better, but we also pay through the nose for it.

6. Health Care – 
This isn’t mundane at all, is it? Europe wins hands down. It is cheaper, better quality in most situations (with better overall outcomes), and universal.

There are, of course, tons of others. These just come to mind because they were subjects and experiences that came up in the course of my trip last week. Feel free to add your own down below, this could get interesting…

Amsterdam Pride


I have been treated to a really fantastic first gay pride weekend here in Amsterdam. My friend Huw invited me to join him on his friend’s boat for an unparalleled view of the parade, which (this being Amsterdam after all) is completely on boats, making their way through the canals. After the parade, we met up with Xavier and several new friends for a night of drinks and dancing which ended at about 5am this morning. We grabbed a few hours worth of shut-eye and then had a relaxing picnic in the park with a group of about 17, including just about everyone I know here. One of the things I have found to be so great about Amsterdam is how much more seems to happen in groups here, and how open-hearted and friendly everyone seems to be. My friends have been trying to convince me that I ought to move here, and I have to admit to be very tempted indeed by the treatment I have been receiving. Amsterdam is really one of my favorite cities anywhere.

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Amsterdam by Boat


I am in Amsterdam at the moment for a week’s vacation and having a fantastic time. Everyone is so friendly and warm, I always feel more welcome here than just about any other city I know. Yesterday, my friends Stijn and Alexa invited me for a a little tour of Amsterdam on their boat. I have taken a couple of official boats tours before, but they could really not compare to this. Stijn really knows the inns and outs of the canals having lived here for so long, and we had a lazy day of great conversation, snacks, drinks, sunshine and a little swimming. About halfway through we picked up Huw for lunch and then made our way back to the docks, where we said our goodbyes to Stijn and Alexa and took the tram to the center to check out the Drag Queen Olympics, which are part of the Gay Pride celebrations in Amsterdam this weekend.


What Gaza makes me feel


I have been following with horror the current violence in Gaza and Israel. The last several days have been awful. I feel like one of those people passing a horrible accident by the side of the road, unable to look away. And the constant barrage of gruesome images and endless articles and postings from my friends on Facebook has been as illuminating as it has been wrenching. I occupy a bit of a minority perspective in this matter, I believe, due to my upbringing, my significant travel and time spent living in foreign countries, and my status as part of both gay and Jewish minorities. In no particular order, here are the various and sometimes conflicting feelings I have about this entire tragic mess.

1. Where are they supposed to go?

With the relentless bombing of Gaza, the question that keeps popping up for me, is one that of course gets no answer: Where the hell are these people supposed to go to get out of the nightmare they are living in? Israel has blockaded them on all sides except for where Egypt has blockaded them. They are quite literally prisoners and sitting ducks, which makes these bombings and attacks especially cruel and inhumane. They have nowhere at all open to them. If you were locked up in a prison for life, for the crime of existing, you wouldn’t have much to lose either and would employ all manner of action to try to escape, including attacking the jailor.

2. Antisemitism and its excuses are increasing.

It makes me sick to watch this conflict exacerbate anti jewish feeling all over. There is no excuse for antisemitism, but many people around the world are using their hatred of Israel as an excuse to reveal or incite antisemitic feeling. Even among supposedly intellectual friends of mine, I can see them slip sometimes and use the word Jew when they purportedly mean Israeli. I have even noticed otherwise rational friends of mine refer to the situation in Gaza as “Final Solution”. To my mind that really cheapens what happened in the Holocaust, and invites even more antisemitism into the world. I watch them scream bloody murder about what Israel is doing, but remain completely silent about antisemitic violence. Israel exacerbates this tension by claiming to represent all Jews, when in fact they only represent Israelis. And even so, Israeli society is not monolithic. Guess what? There are thousands upon thousands of Israelis who don’t support what their government is doing, just as there were and are multitudes in this country opposed to many of our military (and other) interventions around the world. Vilifying an entire people for the sins of their government is wrong.

3. What is Israel’s possible endgame? What are they thinking?

I cannot, for the life of me, understand what Israel’s long term strategic plan is here. What do they possibly think the outcome is going to be, and how could they possibly think this can turn out well for them? The only possibilities I can think of are: a. They know this will amount to nothing but they are simply trying to show “strength” by killing a bunch of people in response to feeble rocket attacks. b. They really are under the delusion that they can dislodge Hamas and stop rockets by doing what they are doing, or even more ridiculously that there will be some Palestinian uprising that will remove Hamas. Or c. As I have heard the rather ugly euphemism thrown about recently, they are simply “mowing the grass“.

4. No acknowledgment of the other side’s people as anything more than the inhuman “other”.

This is something I see on all sides and it drives me crazy: The total dehumanization and demonization of the other. The need of people on either side to make total monsters of the other. I have news for you all out there: We are all the innocent victims and we are all the monsters. Yes, there are some particularly hateful actors out there (Netanyahu, Hamas, right wing settlers and brigades), but let’s not condemn entire populations to simple vilification despite our very human craving for a clear battle of good vs evil.

5. Stop questioning my “loyalty”, and stop trying to force me into some formulaic tribalism.

I am sick to death of some of my fellow Jews or Americans questioning my loyalty or accusing me of being self-loathing. I believe ALL human life is of equal worth, and that violence only begets more violence. It blows my mind how so many thoughtful and otherwise highly progressive fellow Jews can have such a total blind spot when the subject at hand is Israel. I have a full right to criticize the horrible, deathly actions of the State of Israel or any state actor without being self-loathing. Being Jewish is not the same thing as being Israeli, and I certainly did not vote for their current government.

6. Hamas is horrible all right. So how does that make bombing innocent people acceptable?

I don’t think the above question needs much further elucidation. You can accept that Hamas is terrible and does terrible things without a corollary that allows indiscriminate bombing of children.

7. I’m sick of the game of comparing wounds and existential threats.

It all sucks, ok? I was in a facebook debate the other day when a woman who lives in Israel told a sad story about her fear of the rockets, and the attacks she had to live under. And it shut down the thread, because no one wants to be the asshole that minimizes anyone’s trauma anywhere. Every rocket attack that scares Israeli children, every horrible antisemitic beating in Europe, every twitter hashtag or internet post comparing Israel or Jews to Hitler, every sneak attack that kills an innocent or non-innocent for that matter, these are all horrible and unacceptable. But these do not excuse what Israel is doing in Gaza, not by a mile. Israel has overwhelming military superiority here, and has a responsibility (at least) to be proportional and measured in its response. Instead, Israel is conducting genocide, intentionally or not.

8. Try peace.

In more than one of the multitude of discussions I have had on this subject, I have heard from defenders of Israel patting themselves on the back for how humane they are in setting up field hospitals to treat victims of their bombing or attacks with Israeli doctors and medicine, rather than just letting them die. Pardon me, how about not setting up the conditions where you need to treat them in hospitals in the first place?

Israel, for various historical reasons, sees itself as both strong and weak at the same time. And I honestly don’t know what they think is realistically going to happen in the occupied territories or Israel proper, if they are in total denial or unable to see any way out. put it rather perfectly in their discussion of the situation Israel finds itself in: “Arabs will eventually outnumber Jews in Israel-Palestine, if they don’t already. For Israel, which sees itself as both Jewish and democratic, this poses an existential crisis. If Arabs outnumber Jews and are allowed to vote, then it’s the end of a Jewish state. But if Arabs outnumber Jews and aren’t allowed to vote, then Israel is no longer a democracy.”  

So poisoned are relations on all sides, so heavy is the mistrust, that there is no risk-free way forward. And a common retort in many of these discussions is “what would you do?”. Since I have no control at all, but we are playing this fantasy, here is what I would like to see: Given the facts on the ground as I understand them, it seems to me the only reasonable way forward with a chance of long term success is for there to be one state, in the combined occupied territories and Israel proper, with every person living there given equal citizenship and voting rights. This will mean that Israel will lose its status as a Jewish state, but will not lose its status as a democratic one. It will take years of work on all sides to undo the damage and mistrust, but if countries like South Africa can make this transition, why not Israel?



Sleeping like a baby


I had been thinking about getting a new mattress for some time. My old one (purchased about 4 years ago) was not terrible, but it was just a bit too soft. Sometimes I would wake up with a slightly sore lower back, and I had long been wondering what it would be like to sleep on a memory foam mattress. I had been researching on and off for some time, but with no great burning motivation, especially since they all seemed so outrageously expensive (literally thousands of dollars). Then a few weeks ago, I came across an article talking about Tuft & Needle. I read through their site and a bunch of their reviews. I love how they break down the scam that is the mattress industry and its pricing models. They really are about the worst business around, much like the used car sector. I decided to go ahead and take the plunge, ordering up a 10 inch full size mattress (for only $450!). Here is the experience I have had so far:

1. It took about 10 days or so longer than they said it would to arrive (I was out of town when it did anyway, so no big deal).

2. I was surprised by how small the box was (the mattress had been compressed and rolled).

3. It was pretty easy to setup, and was pretty cool to see it self-inflate after I broke the plastic seal.

4. Although my previous full size mattress fit easily within my frame, this mattress pushes right up against the edges, leading me to believe that it is slightly larger than full (or that “full” is not quite so standard a definition).

5. The stitching at the end of the cover was not quite as neat as the website pictures (but hey, it is covered with sheets, I don’t really care that much)

And that leads us to number 6, the most important part of the whole experience: SLEEP. I have to admit to having been worried about heat retention, body molding/sinking, and foam smell — all things I had heard about during my research on memory foam mattresses. But I am pleased to report that none of these have been an issue at all, and most importantly, I sleep like a baby. It is (so far, after a week) an extremely pleasant mattress to sleep on. I highly recommend them.

Goodbye Geneva


It has been really lovely staying here with Jonathan and Michael in their gorgeous home, catching up with Jonathan and getting to know Michael. In a few hours, I will board a flight back to New York. Although I have only been gone 12 days, somehow this time felt a bit longer than that. Perhaps that is because I packed so much activity into that time between work and play. In any event, I am looking forward to being home (for a while, anyway), and the bloom of Spring in NYC.

Heidi in France


Since Geneva is so close to France, Jonathan took me to a little town in the French Alps today, a place called Chamonix. The weather was perfect, the drive there beautiful. The town itself was not so stunning in architecture, but was in a beautiful setting with mountains all around. We had a walk around and then I ordered some heavy but yummy Swiss dish called a croute, which was kind of like a baked monte cristo with chicken and artichokes. Along with the white wine, I was feeling pretty good for the rest of our walk around the town.

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From Geneva weekend

Swiss Napa


Today we went on a little trip around the local wine country. We had an excellent lunch followed by some very nice wine tasting in beautiful surroundings. Apparently Swiss wines are known locally to be quite good but are not well known abroad because they are almost completely consumed domestically. So I bought a couple of bottles to take back with me to the US.  At one of the wineries in particular we had a very good salesperson. She spent a lot of time talking about how to really bring out the flavor in the wine, how to roll it around the mouth, what foods each one would go with  best. She clearly loves what she does and is very good at it. I especially liked that she dispensed with the flowery flavor words (chocolate, raspberry, etc) in favor of the experience of how to make the flavor penetrate, and then to allow one’s own judgment about likes or dislikes.
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From Geneva weekend

Geneva anew


Today I took a great, self-guided tour (wandering, really) around Geneva. I started near the UNAIDS office where my friend works, and walked through the Botanical Gardens, along the lake into the heart of old Geneva. There I visited the St Pierre cathedral, followed by the extensive ruins excavated beneath. It is amazing how many times that site has been built on over the millennia. After that I visited the Museum of the Reformation, which I highly recommend if you are coming to Geneva. One really can’t separate the history of Geneva from the history of the Protestant Reformation. Geneva has been described at the Rome of Protestantism, and certainly after visiting this museum, one understands why. In particular it was fascinating to see how intertwined so many of the facts of the day were which allowed Protestantism to thrive, such as the (then fairly new) existence and use of the printing press. In the space of only a few years, Geneva took in so many religious refugees that the population of the city doubled, and the architecture of Geneva became one of much taller buildings (still needing to be inside the city walls for protection, the only place to go was up). After the museum, I headed down to the restaurant at the Bains des Paquis, a jetty that sticks out into the lake. There I met Michael for a quick bite, before heading over to the station to get a train back to Versoix. I was impressed how easy it was to find everything and get around and use the trains. That rumor about Swiss efficiency seems to be true. The weather could not have been more beautiful today, about 70 and sunny. You can check out the pics from the day below…