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Sydney is a stunning city. Put it together with its surrounding burbs and you have yourself one phenomenal place. Palms, date palms, pine trees, eucalyptus and giant wide-canopy trees that look as though they belong in the African bush compete with beaches, wharfs, quays, marinas stocked with all manner of yachts and boats which in turn sit next to tall, gleaming skyscrapers, iconic architecture, fantastic bridges, fashionable shops and pricey restaurants, multi-million dollar homes, wide open verdant parks, statues of Queen Victoria, and all surrounded by red-tiled rooftops on homes, Asians and other ethnic groups, beaches, monorails, subways, trains, cars, buses, too many CCTVs and beautiful and homeless people all situated on numerous hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean and blessed with sub-tropical weather. Moving out just a bit from Sydney proper, into the harbor, spectacular cliff formations create part of the coast, interspersed with suburbs, white sand beaches and secluded coves harboring the rich and probably deliberately not famous.

I can’t quite place a finger on it, but Sydney reminds me of an amalgamation. It is London mixed with New York and San Francisco, a healthy bit of San Diego and Honolulu thrown in, a tad of Las Vegas, perhaps a smidgen of Capetown, a dash of Dalmatia, the Georgetown part of Washington, DC, a bit of Budapest, a touch of Tallinn, a bit of Tokyo (and it’s not just the people), perhaps some Istanbul all topped off by Moscow, the only place in this list I’ve never been too and am not qualified to speak of.

To experience Sydney, in my own unique way, I have myself a walkabout on several sun-drenched, wind-swept and brilliantly blue-sky days during my stay and I find myself drawn, on more than one occasion, to the Sydney Opera House, it’s most iconic piece of architecture, a symbol as recognizable as the Twin Towers were, Big Ben, Notre Dame, the White House, the Kremlin, Taj Mahal, the Dome of the Rock, the Great Wall of China, the Sphinx or the Finnish Parliament. Well, maybe not that last. Anyone in the civilized world could look at a picture of it and say, with authority, “Yup, that’s Sydney.” Unless of course you gave the picture to any teenager or an individual from, say, Texarkana.

The Sydney Opera House sits at a point in Circular Quay, which, despite their funny accents, the Australians pronounce as “key” the way the French do (I took Spanish in high school). Construction on the Circular Quay was begun in 1956 and on the Opera House in 1959. It was abandoned in 1973. Oh sorry, I must have read that wrong. It was inaugurated in 1973 by no less than Herself, Queen Elizabeth, Queen of Australia. But its construction was plagued by fantastic delays and disputes which at one point saw the resignation of the winning architect, Dane (as in Danish and not to be confused with dame) Jorn Utzon, who left Australia in 1966 and never returned to see his completed work. Nor will he considering he died in November of 2008.

Arizona, which alternatively bills itself as just Arizona and Arizona Restaurants and Bars is itself located in Miranda, a bedroom community of Sydney, and probably about 12 miles outside of the city proper. It, in turn, is a franchise, not a part of the original half dozen created by Peter, Joanne and John. Of course when I hear the word Miranda, I automatically think Miranda Rights, an arrested suspect’s right to hear his rights read to him. The nifty little tie-in here is that Miranda Rights came about because of a case brought against the state of Arizona in 1966 by one Ernesto Miranda who was arrested and not read his rights because cops didn’t read rights before his lawyer successfully sued my state.

Arizona is located in a mall, the Westfield Shopping Town to be exact which, happily for me, is located right off of the train station which I take to get there. It prominently occupies a corner, its plate glass sidewalk to ceiling windows revealing an interior stuffed to the gills with Arizona or at least Southwestern memorabilia. License plates from just about every state in the Union fill up the lower portion of the plate glass windows to about three feet high and there are some which appear to have been issued about the time license plates were required. The newest Arizona one I find, however, is from September of 1988, EDK 536. If you happen to be the owner you’re in big trouble with the Motor Vehicle Division as these are property of the State.

Inside, the first thing I notice is the lack of music. About nine or ten other patrons are present and the main dining room, which is separate from the bar area a few steps up and another entrance to the mall, is open and airy. Seventeen foot black ceilings and wood plank flooring cover the top and bottom and wooden and wicker tables, chairs and booths seat probably 140 patrons or so comfortably.

The walls are liberally decorated with things from Arizona and the Southwest including old photographs of random individuals in western towns, old photographs of Indians, paintings of Indians, saddles, Indian dream catchers, chaps, very old snow shoes, a guitar, more paintings of Indians, Indian feathers, what appear to be tongs for picking things out of the fire, and old stock certificates.

These get my attention and I take a closer gaze at them. One is from the Arkansas and Arizona Copper Company, 100 shares, and is dated March 12, 1924. Another is from the Arizona Victory Copper Mine Corporation, 1,000 shares, dated August 27, 1925. Yet another is from the Cash Entry Mining Company of Oatman, Arizona, and is blank. No number of shares, no date, no nothing. I promise myself I’ll look up the Cash Entry Mining Company of Oatman.

My personal favorite, however, is what appears to be a genuine certificate issued by the office of the Territorial Auditor, with a wax seal to prove it. It thus reads:

Territory of Arizona

Office of the Territorial Auditor

Articles of Incorporation of

Norwegian Consolidated Mining Company

It was filed on August 18, 1902 with the Territorial Auditor and duly signed. What amazes me is that those industrious and productive Norwegians were looking, even then, for gold so far away from home when they were sitting on a black gold mine at home.

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So it is that I find myself in Torhout, a little town of about 20,000 souls, not too far off of Tombstone’s high of 15,000, on a cloudy and intermittently rainy day in late August in what should be the summer though the temperature hovers around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. As I stumble out of the train station I find, to my delight, that I have scored rather well in finding a hotel – it is a mere quarter mile from the station and I managed to arrange that feat without bothering to look at maps on the internet. This is not par for the course as I usually stray way off the course and end up in the nether reaches of town.

After the kindly innkeeper at the Hotel De Beiaard, Johan, allows me to take my room far earlier than the standard check-in time, I take a quick shower and stock of my Spartan but utilitarian room before heading out into the town, such that it is, to lose myself in its narrow and twisting cobblestone streets, getting wonderfully lost before popping back out in the center to my utter delight.

That actually doesn’t happen as the town really is just too small for getting lost in, but I do determine to strike out and engage in some recon and find Tombstone before it opens at the hour of 7:00 pm. This I accomplish with my non-existent navigational skills though it takes me about an hour to walk there and back. Since I am fresh off of an overnight on a plane in cattle class, this does my body, not to mention my mind, good.

Torhout itself appears to be a careful admixture of neatly coifed streets and buildings from then and now. Though I know little of its history, it is at least 1,000 years old if not older as St. Rimbert is listed as a famous monk who lived in Torhout and died in 888. The town web site notes that Philippe d’Alsace granted Torhout “the privileges of town” in 1183 and from that year on, the town needed a town hall. The present town hall dates from 1713 and dominates the postage-stamp sized town square whilst nearby stands St. Peter’s Church, restored after World War II and built according to the ground plan of 1080. Its clock tower chimes every half hour with a delightful melody of bells for a handful of minutes. Unfortunately for me, it is closed this morning, not due to renovation but something unknown. I vow to check back later.

Speaking of a closed church, many offices and not too few restaurants are closed here between the hours of 2:00 pm and around 4:30 pm. I double check to make sure I’m not in Spain by mistake and then chalk it up to the laidback lifestyle of the countryside and/or the dominance of a more or less socialist mindset emanating out of Brussels. Oddly, before two and after 4:30 it seems as though the streets are uncommonly quiet. In a town of similar size, say, Nogales, Arizona, the streets would hustle and bustle at all hours.

Closed shops and restaurants aside, I do note that more people and cars seem to be out between those hours, though what they are doing and where they are going I do not know. I also begin to notice many statues of horses, here and there, in different media, along with an unusual number of cyclists and not just people on bicycles but honest to goodness cyclists decked out in the latest cycling gear. This can’t owe itself simply to the two professional bicycle shops I note near my hotel so I gather the folks here have a healthy fixation on, well, health. It probably comes from eating too many cheese and ham sandwiches or too many Belgian chocolates and waffles.

The town is laid out in what I think is typical European fashion with a very small town square and streets emanating out from there. It also seems to be typical in that it has lots of little shops and business, including a funeral parlor, coin-operated launderette and the New Age shop selling all manner of crystals. I notice two real estate offices though one does not list prices of properties, while the other does. Fixated with housing prices in general, I note that one little red brick place near the center of Bruges is listed at €165,000 for a 110 square meter joint (just shy of 1,200 square feet) and has 3 slaapkamers, which sounds like something from Dr. Seuss. Actually, since I know that kamer is the Flemish word for room, I gather that means it has three sleeping rooms.

Many of the buildings, both residential and professional, have an almost Scandinavian design to them, incorporating lots of neat brick, wood and glass and tin metal roofs, all done up in earth tone colors with plenty of angles. I don’t know who is influencing who but it could be a delightful little place of retire to.

* * *

Shortly past the proscribed hour of 7:00 pm, I try to make a dramatic entrance into the Tombstone Country and Western Saloon as the web site identifies it. My best attempt at a saunter fails miserably as I am not wearing my cowboy boots, my legs are not bowed and besides, the door is already wide open. Looking around at the five or so patrons in the joint, I fix my eyes on the bartender behind the bar and announce with as cold and steely a stare as I can muster up that “I’m looking for Judge Nicholas P. Earp.”

Now, to those of you who know anything about the history of the United States’ West, you know that Nicholas Earp is, first of all, dead having passed to the great beyond in 1907. He did, however, manage to live to the ripe old age of 94, passing on long-life genes to his famous son, Wyatt, who would nearly accomplish this same feat despite his famous life in shoot-outs. Wyatt died at age 80.

At any rate, your man behind the bar does, indeed, call himself Nicholas P. Earp, though his real name is Geat Dupont which you should recognize as a very famous name in and of itself though I do not know if he is any relation to Pete.

In his late 30’s or early 40’s Nicholas stands at about 5’ 10’’ with a medium build and slight paunch. He has a pleasant face adorned with dark hair and a full-blown goatee and mustache and wears a broad and black cowboy hat and tan cowboy boots. His jeans are black, as is his shirt which says “Tombstone” on the back with the association logo (more in a moment), and his smile is as wide as the Grand Canyon. The twinkle in his eye tells me that he is enjoying himself immensely.

But before I really get into describing this little bastion of the Arizona West in Belgium, I should explain a bit more about the “association” mentioned above. As it turns out, Tombstone is, indeed, a saloon, but legally it is an association, more akin to a club or non-profit group though this one with a liquor license. It has members, each of whom pays dues and has their photo pinned to a wall in the saloon and each of whom has a nickname as is the case of Geat, which is Nicholas P. Earp. New members are recruited by word of mouth.

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Beach and Sofia,

It is nearing 11:45 pm and I have just cleared customs and finally found my ride to the hotel. Toni, my hotel driver from the airport, asks me where I’m from. When I tell him Arizona, he lights up like a proverbial Christmas tree. “I going to Arizona this summer!” he excitedly stammers in his best broken English and then adds with a touch of apprehensiveness, “Only if my visa application is approved by US Embassy.” I’ve been traveling now for 36 hours including three stops and four planes. I am bloody tired but when he mentions my home state, I perk up. I congratulate him on having an opportunity to visit my state and then say a quick prayer that the Embassy will, indeed, give him the required visa. Being an Eastern European, he still, like all other citizens here, must go through the visa and interview process. If he doesn’t actually get the visa, he will be out the non-refundable $100 it costs just to apply. In addition to this, the Embassy web site adds helpfully in a Pythonesque way: “Please NOTE: You must have DS-156, DS-157, DS-158 (if required), your yellow receipt from Unionbank, and correct photograph, or you will be turned away and you will need to make a new appointment.” And of course you will then be shot on site too.

Toni is going to Arizona on a type of work program – he’ll be working for four months at the prestigious Biltmore Hotel in Scottsdale – and to say that he is looking forward to it would be putting it mildly. He is ecstatic and tells me, in so many words, that it has always been his dream to go to the States. He tells me that while most Bulgarians don’t like the United States, he does. I like him instantly.

I ask him what he thinks of Arizona. “It is hot and dry” is all he can think of and contributes that he likes hot weather. He then asks where he should go and I launch into my list of regular visitation spots – the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Flagstaff, Tombstone, etc. – and then ask him if he likes mountains. He doesn’t. Oh well, at least he’ll like the heat. He does know that the Biltmore is referred to as the “jewel in the desert” but I refrain from asking him if he knows that it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That might be a bit too much too soon. He then asks me if I know where or how he can get a second job. This is a chance to make some serious coin.

I arrive at the hotel a mere 15 minutes later. The cute young lass at the reception counter too, has a side relationship with Arizona. One of her best friends, she tells me, is from Phoenix. Being from Tucson, under normal circumstances I would offer my condolences, but I think this a bit too much for her to comprehend so I ask her what she thinks of my state. “Dry but less humid than Florida,” is her crisp reply. Clearly, she is at the front desk for a reason. She’s also been to Florida I find out. “Anything else” I inquire? She doesn’t really know much else and I leave it at that. I very much want to find someone who will ask me if cowboys and Indians still roam the deserts shooting it out under the full moon in between saguaros.

Sunny Beach is not. Sunny that is. In fact, it is raining and very cloudy when we pull up to it on a mid-Friday afternoon and start searching for a hotel. Oh well. It is the end of the season, this being late September I would suspect that it might be somewhat deserted. In fact, however, there are still many tourists milling about, even in the rain and once settled we find them.

Sunny Beach is not the name of an incorporated town. I actually have no idea what the legal name is, though Sunny Beach is the name of the resort that has sprung up in this location, no matter what the legal niceties. It consists of approximately 10,000 hotels and restaurants along a strand of nice white sandy beach, St. Vlas to the north, though also becoming a resort and Nessebar to the south, which my standard issue CIA map spells as Nesebür, its old town still pretty much preserved.

There aren’t really 10,000 hotels and restaurants, but it certainly seems that way. And in addition to these establishments, there are a plentitude of other services all catering to the Brits, Scandinavians, Germans and others who make Sunny Beach a temporary home from May through September. For instance, there is the Wild West shooting gallery. Or the Arizona watch shop selling expensive watches for less than $5. Or the men holding snakes, iguanas, and crocodiles inviting you to pet them. Or the many bric-a-brac clothing stores selling all manner of T-shirts printed with the “My brother went to Sunny Beach an all he got me was this lousy t-shirt,” and “Vodka: Connecting People,” and so on. Many of the locals describe Sunny Beach as like Las Vegas and my guess is they haven’t been there. And after a recon along the boardwalk in the cold and rain sans umbrella, in between what tourists are out tonight, we make our way to the Arizona Steak House.

The interior is warm and inviting and the sign outside screams, in big, yellow letters Arizona Steak-House in a funky font. There is also a sign enticing passersby to come in stating “We Are The Right Place For Carnivores, But We Offer Vegetarian Options As Well! Die Fleisch Fresser Sind Bei Uns Zu Hause!” as well as “Lovely Chargrilled Steaks: Big Bigger Massive.” The patio is covered but owing to the coolness of the early evening, no one is sitting there. A few fake wooden saguaro cacti, about five feet tall, run along the wall to the back while the windows hold a frosted etching along the bottom of what appears to be Monument Valley with yet more saguaro cacti, a natural and geographical impossibility. For the uninitiated the saguaro cactus does not grow in Monument Valley only in the Sonoran Desert. An active grill is out on the patio and it sends welcoming aromas to hungry passers-by.

Inside, there is room for about 120 people and tonight, it is packed. While the inside contains no signs of the genuine Arizona, it is nevertheless a friendly atmosphere with waiters and waitresses spinning about in a lively fashion. The pictures that do adorn the walls are your run of the mill advertisements for alcoholic beverages though I do note more than one of New York City. Yellow and blue are the dominant themes inside and Lyubo insists that the royal blue is just not in line with his thinking of colors representing Arizona. A single glass display case offers Arizona souvenirs including T-shirts, lighters, coffee cups, baseball caps, and key rings all emblazoned with the Arizona logo and five television sets blast the latest European sports.

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Toronto and

Like many Americans, I had been to Canada before, but unlike those Americans who have ventured here, I couldn’t remember everywhere I had been or when or sometimes even why. I knew, for instance, that it had been at least or aboot 16 years since my last visit, and I knew that I had been to Ottawa, Victoria and Windsor, at least once, but I was sure I had been to one or two more places and maybe to Ottawa several times. This had nothing to do with Canadian beer and everything to do with a surfeit of travel over many years. I was absolutely certain, however, that I had never been to Toronto.

When I arrived in Toronto, my cell phone chirped indicating I had a message. The message was from a friend of one of my neighbors who operates a bar called Hemingway’s in downtown Toronto. Both, in turn, have summer residences in Sun Valley, Idaho which is right next door to Ketchum, Idaho, where Earnest blew his head off. This in and of itself has only tangential relations to Arizona and Canada but the thing which made it a tad odd was that on the plane, I had just finished reading Michael Palin’s novel Hemingway’s Chair.

As I get off of the plane at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, I am reminded, albeit slightly, that our northern neighbor is foreign and is a country something which Stuart Smiley and evil businessman J.R. Hacker question. French signs and announcements over the PA system in French assault my eyes and ears and another Canadian Bacon scene seeps back into my mind the one where Dan Aykroyd playing a Canadian highway patrolman stops John Candy and his bunch of fanatical Americans for the simple crime of not having the derisive sayings about Canada on their truck spray-painted in both English and French. Aykroyd asks Candy what is wrong with the picture, pointing to the truck and when Candy gropes and fails to come up with the answer, Aykroyd pipes in:

Highway Patrolman: Le Quebecois.

Boomer: Huh?

Highway Patrolman: You know. Wine drinkers. Pea soup eaters. French Canadians!

And it is this French language thing that I find mildly confusing and disturbing.

Quebec is one of the ten provinces of Canada, which has an additional three territories (more on Canada in general later) and the provincial capital of Quebec is the eponymous Quebec City. Quebec is the home of the French-speaking community of Canada and is itself, at the provincial level, French and only French. English is not a second language here. The majority of Quebec’s 7.6 million residents are French speakers if that drives home the point. At one time a part of New France, a territory ruled by France, Quebec became a part of the Canadian Federation on July 1, 1867 which happens to be Canada’s Independence Day so that now when a Canadian tells you he or she knows that July 4 is American Independence Day, you can return the favor. And whilst postage stamps became bilingual in 1927 and banknotes in 1936, it was not until 1969 that the parliament adopted the Official Languages Act which generally established the equality of the two languages throughout Canada but especially in government.

The Arizona B-Bar & Grill sits in an industrial complex right off of runway 11 across from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Actually, I’m not entirely sure if it is runway 11 but it is awfully close to some runway or another. The hotel I choose to rest my weary head in, a brand name hotel which will go unmentioned for a variety of reasons, is actually in the line of runway whatever and has, on its property, one of those metal poles with a flashing beacon at the top about 50 feet in the air, which gives way gradually moving in the direction of the runway to other beacons at lesser heights, all flashing, warning pilots that the runway, and human establishments, are near. While it is momentarily exhilarating to watch planes, engines roaring, come in out of the fog a mere 200 feet above my head as I stand outside, I do have nightmares that night of having a Boeing or Airbus land in my king-size bed.

The industrial complex that Arizona resides in is a low, flat, non-descript building right off a major thoroughfare transporting to and fro the airport with a handful of other shops, including Coffee Time and Hemingway’s Cigar and Fine Gifts shop, in what is beginning to be a strange association with Papa at least for this trip. A galactic sized Coors Light inflatable beer can is tethered down above the neon sign announcing Arizona and the “O” in the logo is an oval of sunburst with what appears to be a raptor of some sort, wings spread. The entire complex sits next to The Landing Strip and I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what that establishment is all about.

Thinking that this must cater to the airport/convention crowd, I am surprised to find out, upon sauntering in at the – what seems to me to be the early hour of 5:30 pm – that the place is almost packed. I had no idea that Toronto hotels near the airport do such brisk business. After all, being Canada’s largest city with the CN Tower among other things to look at, I would have thought that conventioneers might want to convention inside the city instead of on the periphery right next to the airport. Nevertheless as I glance around I am struck by how big it was. It could seat at least 300 people.

The duty manager sits me down in a booth for two against the wall and I immediately ask him why the owners decided on creating an Arizona-themed restaurant right outside of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. After fumbling for a moment, he comes up with a variety of lines including “it’s cool,” “it’s Tex-Mex,” and “it’s southwest.” I don’t resent that and take my place among the convention-going hoi polloi.

My initial observations confirm to me that a) this is a sports bar, b) it caters to the airport crowd and c) the owner or owners have created a place with the word Arizona in the title but most probably have not been to said state. 80% of the patrons are male (which may have something to do with The Landing Strip next door), 100% of the wait staff are stunningly good-looking females and the barmen are, well, men. The joint is open and expansive and fills several rooms. There is the main dining room, with bar pride of place in the center, and then there are three more rooms off on the sides, each with billiards tables and bars of their own. These, in turn, actually have names: The Phoenix Room, the Cactus Room and the Oasis Room. In the main dining room are another two glass-encased rooms, one with its own billiards tables, which my waitress, Sara, tells me used to be for smoking until smoking was banned by the city council in its infinite wisdom.

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San Salvador,
El Salvador

I made my first trip to El Salvador on January 17, 1990. I was told to buy a plane ticket from Washington, DC, where I was living and working, to Miami and then to meet three men, between 20 and 40 years my senior, at the ticket counter for an airline whose name now escapes me. There, our happy group of four would obtain four plane tickets to El Salvador in a manner which I was not told. I was not given a description of what these men looked like, but was assured that I would find them, or, more to the point, they would find me. All very cloak and daggers.

Between that cold wintry day in early January and the latter part of 1994, I made at least ten trips to El Salvador, but have now forgotten the exact times and dates. Suffice it to say that I had a jolly good time running around El Salvador in those early ‘90s working to keep the United States of America safe from the Communists.

Those three gentlemen from that first visit, by the way, were a trip in and of themselves. One was an ex-Marine turned Baptist preacher. Chuck was his name. He had the flattest flattop and was built like a solid little tank. Worryingly, for a Baptist preacher at least, he was also a chain smoker and we would spend several late evenings during that week we were down there on the balcony of his hotel room listening to gunfire not more than 100 yards away from us as there was internal strife going on in the country at that time (which is putting it mildly). He would simply smile, sip his Coke, and remark that “It just doesn’t get any better than this!” He also insisted, as we drove the streets of San Salvador in our van, of keeping the sliding door open, his foot holding it open. His reasoning was that if someone lobbed a grenade into the van, we could make a very quick exit, something I agreed with, without prompting. I assumed this was a holdover trait from his Marine days in Vietnam.

The other two, John and Bruce, had had years of experience living and working in Central America, in farming, citrus in particular. I’m not quite sure what their roles were in my being there, but never having been there before, I felt pretty safe around these three given their experience in the arena and once on the ground, we started meeting people of importance. People wearing dark sunglasses and carrying guns.

Actually those were the body guards of the important people we met, who happened to be in government at a critical time in El Salvador’s history. They looked like most bodyguards and in any case, other people were trying to seriously hurt, or prosecute with extreme prejudice as the US military likes to say these days, the people I was there to meet. One of those was Ricardo Valdivieso, as previously mentioned, who at the time was the Deputy Foreign Minister. And it is at his family’s ranch, at Santa Leticia, that my present story begins.

Large sliding windows, ceiling to floor, have been rolled back giving the indoor and outdoor spaces a certain fluidity. The low track light, hanging from red-stained planks of wood and trestle beams, gives off a cool feeling of Nuevo riche, which, for this location, it must be. Indoors, where we will take refuge once the downpour begins about 45 minutes after ordering our first beer, the modish scene continues. The bar, an oval affair, has numerous padded stools circling it like sentries complete with a bronze foot railing while four 52 inch flat screen plasma TVs hold sway over the supplicants seated at them. Booths covered in cool black leather and a handful of tables seat patrons who have the opportunity to watch real live cooks in action at the back of the restaurant which has an open kitchen and advertises 100% pure Angus beef. The white textured stucco walls are decorated with black and white photos of famous people including politicians and movie stars, and as one moves toward the toilets, one is greeted by a black and white photo of a befuddled and bemused Woody Allen. Not what one expects in a restaurant billed as a former Arizona capital but charming nonetheless.

Wait staff are dressed sharply neck to toe in black, and look very much like Keanu Reeves and his cohorts in The Matrix only their getup includes a Pepsi logo affixed to the upper left sleeve. I wonder why the Wachowski brothers didn’t think of that. A salad bar takes pride of place in the center of the joint and track lighting in the main dining room adds to the classiness of it all. One web site offers its recommendation, noting enthusiastically “Tucosn (sic) Steak House ofrece un excelente ambiente para disfrutar de amigos, familia o negocios. Los platos americanos casuales son la fortaleza de este establecimiento, no así sus carnes.” Sorry, you’ll have to translate it yourself.

Our waitress, the delightfully named Esmeralda, tells me that Took-son, as she pronounces it like everybody else, is part of a chain of restaurants based in Argentina, also named Tucson, and when I ask her if she knows where Tucson is located, she giggles in a charmingly girlish manner and tells Jorge, who is translating, the story about the chain being based in Argentina for a second time. I press her (though not literally) for further information and then tell her that Tucson is an actual city in Arizona. Fortunately, she knows that Arizona is a state in los Estados Unidos but she has no idea that the Grand Canyon is located there. I can’t blame her really; the setting she works in does not give away the slightest hint of my state.

As we quaff beers, Jorge, who went to university in Texas but has never been to Arizona, tells me that it has lots of desert and the Grand Canyon and casinos, though this last impression he mentions in the form of a question. I inform him that, yes, indeed, we do have casinos, but they are located on the Indian reservations. He has confused our casinos with Las Vegas specifically and Nevada in general and hesitatingly asks if Las Vegas is in Arizona. (On another night out here, Roberto, the archeologist and surfer, and his wife Patty will tell me that their vision of Arizona includes sun, desert and cactus).

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I find myself in the early evening hours of a normal weekday parked on a wooden bench at a table in a dimly-lit restaurant. The setting is unhurried, almost lethargic and I am surrounded by all manner of what the owner must think an Arizona saloon must have looked like back in the days of Wyatt Earp. 

A tall, wooden Kelly-green saguaro cactus serves as a coat and hat hanger, assuming folks still wear hats these days, and a large floor to ceiling mirror, which covers the back wall. These are the first sights that catch my eye. Another wall in the main room carries a panorama of a horse round-up but it is the largest wall in the main room that gives me pause to think that the owner, or at least the painter, probably has never been to Arizona; it is colorful and beautiful and it too is another sweeping vista. Like the Arizona Steak House in Sunny Beach, Bulgaria, it is also an impossible combination of Monument Valley meets Saguaro National Forest and contains an unattainable blend of giant saguaro cacti scattered about the floor of a gorgeous Monument Valley. 

Nevertheless the owner and painter have teamed up to provide their version of Arizona in the Baltic and another two walls in the non-smoking room are occupied by a sweeping painting of cowboy campfires and more horse round-ups. They are at least colorful though I doubt an old-time saloon of the 1800s would have had such paintings.

Besides the walls, however, wooden fence posts draped with ropes and the ever-required and ubiquitous sombrero hat are here and there. The restaurant itself is spacious enough with two large dining rooms, probably enough to seat probably 120 comfortably, and space for another twenty or so patrons at the bar. The bar, a requirement in this type of restaurant and town, is fully stocked and well-tended. With a wooden counter, it holds various libations in what appears to be a wooden bookcase, including the Laphroaig whisky I have recently become enamored with.

The tables and chairs range from wooden ones, almost reminiscent of a picnic, to Victorian high-back with a floral pattern, the former being in the no-smoking section with the latter in the smoking section. Tall bar tables with stools are situated near the bar and two distinct raised platforms, near the two windows framing the front door, contain seats and tables in the Victorian style. The windows, in turn, are framed by red velvet drapes. I’m not sure if this is for patrons to see or to be seen. The remaining non-painted walls are done up in red wallpaper with a small floral pattern from mid-way up while the bottom half is either wood paneling or stone. The ceiling lamps give off low-light providing the whole interior a feeling of a somewhat seedy saloon or perhaps the famed Bird Cage theater of Tombstone. I’m anxious to meet the owner or owners and find out what possessed them to create this atmosphere.

Estonia is a land of extremes when it comes to brilliance of daylight in the summer and the shroud of inky darkness in the winter. At the height of summer, on St. John’s Day, the sun spreads and shares its light and warmth for almost the entire 24-hour period, barely setting and then, just below the edge of the horizon, for a wee three or four hours before peaking up at the bright hour of about 3:30 a.m. There have been many occasions in such instances when, seeing the first light of sun without looking at my watch, I have decided that this must be a splendid time to go out for a jog…until I have noticed that it is still 4:00 a.m. There is just something about the sheer abundance of daylight in summer and the robustness of it that affects my body in a way which tells my gray matter that I don’t need any more sleep.

Of course, in the winter, the opposite is in play. It is already bleeding cold. The ground is most probably covered in snow and below that, ice. The dead will not be given a proper burial until well into springtime. The arctic north has provided another blast of frozen air and, worse yet, the sun just doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It barely peaks above the horizon, its trajectory running just above it, to what seems like about six inches by the naked eye, floating over the country for a mere six or so hours before dropping back down, leaving the county, once more for eighteen hours, in ponderous black. And this goes on for months.

But it is those lovely summer months with a plentitude of sunshine which help it attract a sizeable chunk of money from tourism. 

13th century Old Town Tallinn thrums with tourists for about three months which is equivalent to the length of time that Estonia has relatively good weather. One can run into a virtual phalanx of tourists down nearly every street in the Old Town representing seemingly every country on the planet, following a perky guide holding an umbrella high above his or her head, tourists following happily along like lemmings, clicking furiously with their cameras for the very dear life of them. Some even have little name tags so they don’t get lost – my favorite, however, were a brace I saw with little orange stickers affixed to their shirts sporting the number 22 on the silhouetted background of a cruise ship, third grade style I suspect. I’m not sure where they checked in their dignity.

Regardless, the tourists have provided some of Estonia’s 9 to 10% annual growth rates in the early years of this century and they are dutifully rewarded, especially by Tallinn’s Old Town. And Tallinn’s Old Town is a fine place to get lost in, though one would only be lost for a short while, given its size and the inspiring towers of her churches which serve as beacons. With its jumble of cobblestone streets and many fashionable shops of both the new and old kind, all placed behind the façades of honest to goodness thirteen, fourteenth and fifteenth century buildings, it is the height of the newly hip and unfortunately, the new place for a stag party of the English type.

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Pecs and

Later in the evening, I meet up with two of my Budapest cousins, Peter and Endre, also brothers. Peter is in banking and Endre in IT and for a spell, Endre lived and worked in Macedonia when I was living there, him working for Matav, the Hungarian Telecommunications company after it purchased Macedonian Telecommunications. They’re both married and have children and Endre has traveled throughout the States, including Arizona.

We head to the Columbus Pub, a boat permanently moored on the Danube River, which, like many others, caters to tourists and locals alike. From its outdoor decks, one has a spectacular view of the Danube and Buda Castle and its environs. Lit up at night it is, by itself, one of the sights that makes Budapest worth visiting. An imposing baroque structure originally built between 1247 and 1265, but destroyed and rebuilt several times since, Buda Castle sits high atop one of Buda’s many hills overlooking the plains of Pest, most probably waiting for Turks to invade. Oh wait that can’t be right. The Turks invaded Budapest in 1526 after the Battle of Mohacs and were finally kicked out 160 years later in 1686.

Peter, who has never been to the States, believes Arizona to have lots of desert and a few big cities including Phoenix which he knows from the Phoenix Suns. He knows it is close to Mexico and knows about some famous road running through it, what is it, um, er, “Route 66?” I helpfully add. Clearly, I have more to do in the education of my relations.

Endre visited the United States and Arizona with his wife some years ago and they visited Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon, and tooled around Flagstaff and Meteor Crater before making their way down toward the middle of the state and the border with California. This he identifies with a question, asking if there is a city in Arizona with a bridge from England. Ah, yes, he has identified Lake Havasu City though they ventured there during Spring Break which did nothing to endear them to it.

We discuss myriad other subjects including globalization, tourism, President Bush’s recent visit and Hungary’s future. They are not political animals though they obviously follow what happens on the homefront. Hungarians, they believe, are very focused on Hungary and trying to make the adjustment to a capitalist future. They haven’t got a lot of extra time to be focused on much else as globalization keeps everyone on their toes.

Apparently I have scored well.

It is about oh beer thirty anyway and time for lunch so instead of my traditional recon through the city, I begin immediately at the Arizona Ranch. Though I haven’t yet gotten a handle on what it is really called. One outdoor sign clearly identifies it as the Arizona Ranch, whilst another in the patio identifies it as the Fregatt Arizona Pub. I must look up that word. The owner – Mr. Ferenc Scheffer – is not in and I inquire as to when he will be. I then take a seat in the outdoor patio and take stock of my surroundings. Whatever his reasons for creating an Arizona-themed restaurant clearly Ferenc has done his homework or maybe he has even been to Arizona.

Upon entering, I am greeted by Roy Orbison. Well, not actually the man, since he’s dead but his music. The entire restaurant occupies the bottom floor of a two-storey building. It is painted yellow with a pitched roof decked out with terra-cotta tiles. I’ve no idea what is in the upper stories of this building but Arizona Ranch clearly occupies a large part of the downstairs, which consists of an indoor seating area, back outdoors courtyard patio and small wooden deck in the front on Király Street, which is the main walking street – the place to see and be seen – in Pecs.

The little deck out front can seat 24 patrons and is itself covered with a white awning and several additional white umbrellas. The perimeter is surrounded by small potted juniper bushes spaced between small pots of flowers and tables and chairs are spaced about the wooden deck. Small flags are grouped together along the wall and above the tables and include the EU, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Georgia, Croatia and one or two others I don’t recognize. Strangely there are no US or Arizona flags. I’ll take this up with Ferenc later on.

The back courtyard patio where I take my seat, on the other hand, is a very satisfying place to sit and drink it all in. But before getting to it, one must pass through a small entryway, about 30 feet long, hosting a handful of tables and chairs. Here patrons are met by four pictures painted on wood, all depicting, in the artists’ mind, Arizona landscapes. One is non-descript with a very brown scene of desert sans vegetation while another contains what must be two monuments from Monument Valley – with a saguaro cactus. The other two have what appear to be vague cacti and are a bit more abstract. Where do artists come up with ideas?

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Luxembourg City
and Contern,

The scene before me is vast and frightening. About a dozen Indian warriors on horseback, all gunning for war, are charging toward me. They are in an open desert with mountains behind them, what could be the Chiricahua Mountain range. Saguaros and prickly pear cactus dot the landscape along with low scrub brush and the entire panorama is framed by an open blue sky with a smattering of white puffy clouds. This vista greets me as I step into the diner area of the Arizona Bar and occupies the entire back wall of the diner, stretching from one end to the other, about six feet high and 30 feet long. It is realistic enough and I begin to wonder if the owner might have some fixation with American Indians, in their pre-reservation state, still raiding white settlements in Arizona collecting scalps.

The back room of the restaurant can seat about 70 or so and it is half-full by the time I saunter in for lunch around 12:30 pm. The half-full crowd in turn is about three quarters male giving me the distinct impression that this is a male prevue. This is somewhat confirmed by the sound of billiards from the room below, in the basement, which filters up through a cut-out in the floor surrounded by railing. This I assume to be so that light from the two skylights can filter somewhat down to the four pool tables below and negating the idea that it might be a cave-like atmosphere down there. A 42-inch flat screen Philips plasma TV is currently turned to the Sailing Channel, which, when added to the frosty temperature outside, lends to the whole eclectic atmosphere of the establishment.

I order from the daily menu what seems to me to be a very middle-Europe dish – veal, potatoes and carrots bathed in a mushroom and onion sauce – and continue with my observations agreeing with my earlier thought that the owner feels very strongly about Native American Indians. More framed posters of Indians cover the yellow painted walls including two of what appear to be Indian weavings or rugs. These have the words “WEINBERG SPIRITRUG” imprinted below which in turns reminds me of the joke about the Jewish cowboy.

The ceiling, like its counterpart in the bar area, is white tiles, the kind you might encounter in an elementary school classroom and an atrium-like glassed box at the front of the diner contains more Indian artifacts. These appear to have been placed in it, museum-like, with some thought, including several headdresses, moccasins, Indian shields, bows and arrows and a spear, a colorful carpet and several potted plants, including a philodendron, which would like very out of place in a southwestern desert setting, all placed on a dirt floor.

I scan through my menu and determine that the fare has absolutely nothing to do with Arizona, as everything is in French or Luxembourgish such is my inability to recognize their local language. There is quiche and not too few Italian dishes not to mention sandwiches but it is utterly bereft of Arizona. Of course I’m not sure how the locals would react to a sizzling plate of fajitas garnished with habañeros.

In between gulps of another Bofferding I note that the even the sounds uttered by humans are spelled differently in Luxembourgish, similar to what I found out about animals and the noises they make back in Estonia. A beer coaster for the same beer pictures a young couple with their fingers to their mouths saying “Chuuut!” The tag line below insinuates that Bofferding’s is Luxembourg’s best kept secret stating (and you don’t even need to know the language to figure this one out), “Dee secret vu Lëtzebuerg.” Their web site, which I visit later, informs me that I must have been reading Luxembourgish as the banner states, “Pchhhh! Le Secret du Luxembourg.” Must be French.

The country of Luxembourg, to the unknowing, sits in the middle of Europe – but not in the heart of Europe which, as you’ll recall, is reserved for Belgium – with three neighboring states bordering her – Belgium to the West, France to the South and Germany to the North and East. Although it achieved independence in 1815, its history begins with the construction of Luxembourg Castle in 963 but like many countries in Europe, the Romans thought it a fine place to establish a military post many years before.

This is likely because the site of Luxembourg Castle and much of the city itself is basically a series of large rock outcroppings and battlements looking down over 230 feet into valleys through which flow the Alzette and Pétrusse Rivers. From various points on the other side of these valleys and gorges, Luxembourg City looks like something from Lord of the Rings with its Gothic and Renaissance buildings holding sway over the landscape. In the valleys and gorges below, more of the city has grown up though looking down on it could give one vertigo. It is a most fetching site.

Luxembourg City is also known for its casemates which are basically heavily fortified structures though often vaulted chambers in a fortress, which have been built up over many years by the many different occupiers of this land which includes Burgundians, Spaniards, Austrians, French, Prussians and Germans. Because of this, its history is complex and varied though today, Luxembourgers are having the last laugh with their high incomes, which you will read about shortly.

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New Zealand

The Arizona Bar and Grill is located at the corner of Grey and Featherston streets in the central business district of Wellington. Its location is perfect for an eating establishment catering to moneyed people and it is put together in a smart fashion with lots of plate glass forming the outer walls and space for outdoor seating a few feet from its main doors. Their logo is a frosted glass circle, a profile of an Indian chief, with the words Arizona Bar & Grill around the circumference.

Since we’ve already been to and through Arizona in Australia, you know the story behind Arizona in the Antipodes though Arizona in New Zealand adds this from their web site about its history and offers: “The first Arizona was opened in September 1989 in Sydney, Australia. Peter Hofbauer, a successful Restaurateur, created the original concept, with the help of American Chefs and Managers. Arizona was influenced by well-established trends from America and adapted to fit the lifestyle of Australians and New Zealanders.

Our Spirit at Arizona is one of fun, affordability and a great sense of style. The combination of a unique atmosphere, unusual cuisine and talented staff maintain our theme.

"American Southwest" has become familiar not only in the food scene. The three states, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona make up the "Southwest" which exudes wild romance, adding a rich source of inspiration to "Arizona". The "Southwest" has a colourful history, dating back to the days of Cowboys and Indians, which are now reflected in our fine food, music and relaxed atmosphere, fun and great place to bring the family on the weekend, to the Wild West calling atmosphere on the Friday nights.”

And I’ve always said that California is not southwest, but a region unto its own.

As I watch the game, I note the interior. It is airy and inviting with plenty of natural light and a fine, wide bar and open kitchen. There are no booths, but wooden tables and chairs, all done in a clean, modern style, offer seating for probably 80 or so with another few wooden benches, serving as bar tables, standing in for lack of stools at the bar. A handful of signs for a local beer, Tui, are here and there, along with a few framed pictures of Indians. Coffee comes in mugs with the saguaro cactus painted on it and plates are colorful in their yellow with blue trim and the word Arizona painted on them. I take several of them home. The State flag of Texas sits framed, on a wall. Chris, my bartender with a soul patch underneath his lower lip, apologizes for the flag and admits they must correct it. He’s been to the States but never to Arizona – the nearest he got was Nevada.

A website by an independent thirsty traveler notes the ambiance and amicability of Arizona: “Enjoy good simple food and a beer at Arizona. Centrally located in Wellington CBD and surrounded by high rises it seems that during the business week over the lunch period and after 5pm they empty out and into Arizona. Friday nights are especially popular with crowds meeting at the outside tables to unwind and let the busy working week wash away.

Two life size American Indian chief statues welcome you into Arizona and the floor to ceiling windows on three sides of the restaurant/bar give patrons are great vista of the busy city outside – check out the corporate movers and shakers as they stroll along Featherston Street or stylish Grey Street. And because Arizona is adjacent to the InterContinental Wellington, you may even catch a glimpse of a visiting dignitary, sporting idol or movie star.

On arrival, diners will be shown to a table and service is prompt with drinks and meal orders selected from a concise menu. Or go directly to the bar but because this area is quite snug drinks are best taken outside into the paved and sheltered seating area. On cooler days huge gas heaters create the heat of Arizona but when the sun is shining this area is a sun trap and a delightful spot to share a beer and a chat. Arizona serves the full range of Monteiths ales as well as a wide selection of local and imported beers.”

Wellington is only so big so looking for a quick day trip out, my eyes fall upon the Hutt Valley which sounds good. Besides, Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt are Sister Cities with Mesa and Tempe respectively. Bonus points territory once again.

My trip to Upper Hutt, population 37,000, is accomplished via Wellington’s efficient, if not entirely large, electric train system. It takes 45 minutes to get there by train, 20 by car. Magnificent views are afforded me, and other riders, as we hug the coastline of Wellington Harbour before turning north and into the Hutt Valley.

We crisscross the Hutt Valley several times along the way, its floor ranging in width from about a quarter mile across to probably seven or eight. The hills hemming in this valley are covered in the 25% forest left and/or now cultivated by thinking people, and little hamlets and neighborhoods dot both the valley floor and the hills around me.

Once in Upper Hutt I decide, like always, to have a walkabout and I look for main street which, as it turns out, is Main Street. It’s a satisfying little affair with shops and businesses and restaurants and at least five real estate agencies in a half-mile stretch. I take a gander at prices and am confused by the term “RV” and something along the lines of “buyer will entertain at anything above X” where both RV and X are dollar figures. Having dabbled in real estate over the years, I pop my head in and enquire. As it turns out, RV is the government’s appraised value and X is the asking price. The prices run the gamut from starters to expensive though I never saw a McMansion in all my travels and only one Hummer.

I continue walking through neighborhoods and stumble upon neat little green parks, wide residential streets, and neatly trimmed lawns and hedges holding back equally neat and tidy homes. I also stumble upon what may have been at one time a rebel community of US citizens: a whole neighborhood with street names such as Utah, Indiana, California, Kansas, Kentucky, Wyoming, Toledo, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore, Memphis and Tacoma. No Arizona, however. The whole of the Hutt Valley and all of its little hamlets and neighborhoods are both a bedroom community to Wellington and an escape of their own. National Parks, wildlife preserves and numerous biking, walking and rafting opportunities await both locals and Welly residents alike (I found out they refer to the capital as that). It all makes for another pleasant place to live.

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This morning is historic. It is March 26, 2007 and two men, who have been at each other’s throats, figuratively and possibly literally, for the past 30 some years and have never met are meeting this day, in Belfast, mere miles from where I rest at night. Dr. Ian Paisley, in one corner and representing the Loyalists, or Unionists, those wanting to maintain Northern Ireland’s union with the United Kingdom, is sitting down with Gerry Adams, in the other corner, leader of Sinn Fein, the Republicans as they are known, those wanting Northern Ireland to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Even though I have been involved, professionally and personally, in lands where ethnic differences are rife and the stuff of wars and legend, the whole Northern Ireland conundrum seems to me like a dispute about which side of the egg to break first, the big one or the little one. I mean, they’re all ethnically Irish, right? Now that statement will probably get me into major troubles.

Regardless of the forced smiles and grudging recognition going on at Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament, this morning is cloudy and cold and gray and threatening and I like it the moment I look at the window at the Irish weather. This is just what Europe should be like, despite the fact that it is now officially spring and after stocking up on a healthy breakfast at the hotel, I’m off to Arizona while Paisley and Adams duke it out, all patently false smiles before the world’s press.

Having accomplished my recon homework the day before, it’s a quick trip up Botanic Avenue and Bedford Street to the city center and Belfast City Hall, right around the corner from Arizona. I promise myself I’ll have a look at this magnificent piece of Baroque Revival architecture once I’ve fueled up on excellent java which I immediately order upon my arrival, an Americano Grande, for bloody two pounds sterling, about a four dollar US coffee at the current exchange rates.

The Arizona Espresso Company on Chichester Street, which is the name of a famous man in Belfast, is a rectangle inside. A floor to ceiling plate glass storefront allows patrons to gaze out and pedestrians to peer in, a voyeuristic delight for both I’m certain. Recessed track lighting in the white ceiling, together with the natural light filtering in, gives the place a bright and airy feeling and a type of clean aesthetic seems to fill the space. The wood parquet flooring goes nicely with the burgundy and white walls, painted white in the upper half and burgundy in the lower half, and tables, booths and comfortable couches, all done in burgundy leather over wood give the place an easy sense of style. Though the black and white photos of scenes of Thai people do not convey a sense of Arizona (I know it’s Thai because I recognize Thai writing in one – I don’t speak Thai, though, mind you).

The menu offers food and drink, including coffees, teas, milkshakes, soft drinks, and bagels, salads, panini, croissants, desserts and pastries, none of which have any Arizona theme in them. I ask the barista what she knows of Arizona and though she knows it is in the United States, she believes it is in the South. While I enlighten her I also ask if I might take a menu home as a souvenir and she says she must ask the owner, who, fortunately for me, is standing next to her.

David is a jolly and rotund soul, probably in his late ‘30s, with a big smile and deep Irish accent. It’s a bit hard for me to follow him and I have to keep repeating “sorry?” to get the story right but he tells me that he came up with the idea for naming his coffee houses after my state after he saw the Arizona Bar and Grill on Gresham Street, long since closed, and thought about it. Arizona, after all, comes first, alphabetically, and many of the Italian and European continental names were already taken by other establishments. Besides, he tells me, Belfast is a strong community of small businesses and has a history of bombs going off meaning that multi-nationals took their sweet time in coming here so he needed to fill the gap with something a bit more unique.

His view on the lack of multi-nationals is verified by one website review I encounter on the establishments: “Until recently, Belfast’s buoyant independent coffee scene has benefited from the lack of multi-nationals. However, the cream rises to the top and, with two branches in pedestrian-heavy thoroughfares, this locally owned chain continues to attract its share of the lucrative mocha market. All the food is freshly prepared on site, with paninis, bagels, salads and croissants setting the continental scene along with the extensive hot and iced coffee selection. Italian sweets, dreamy milkshakes and comfy seats make Arizona a pleasurable pit stop.”

David has been to the States but not Arizona and vows he must go there someday. He believes the openness of his establishment, combined with the lighting and presence of burgundy, give off hints of perhaps Arizona coloration in the desert at certain times, and for that, I can’t blame him though I might suggest ditching the Thai photographs in favor of say, Ansel Adams black and white prints of Arizona.

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South Africa

Cape Town is a handsome city. Situated on the coast of Table Bay, the most striking feature is, of course, Table Mountain which looms large over the city and for that matter, the surrounding countryside. But at approaching three million including the surrounding suburbs, Cape Town’s Central Business District is hemmed in by geography, most notably the mountains and the sea, creating a bowl, if you will, which is what the locals call it and so will I. And the CBD is an attractively simple area which is where I choose to stay.

On my first day in Cape Town, after an 11 and ½ hour flight from London in cattle class, I am blessed with the ability of being able to check into my hotel at a relatively early hour. Like first times in many cities (or second as is the case here), I just simply start walking after a quick glimpse at the map and decide to head to the waterfront. This is accomplished without looking at the map and the signage that the city planners have thoughtfully placed about which may also have something to do with the fact that Cape Town will host the FIFA World Cup in 2010 (soccer to my American readers), which in turn might also explain the frantic amount of road construction.

Within 45 minutes I find myself at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, bristling with people, locals and tourists and their money. Being a formerly British possession and a member of the Commonwealth, you will no doubt recognize the redoubtable Victoria and statues of her abound here along with roads and streets and other things named after her. Alfred, for those a bit confused, was not her long-suffering husband; one can only imagine, anyway, what it must have been like to be married to arguably one of the most famous queens in relatively modern history and never get mentioned. Instead, Alfred was her second son and mentioned here because he “tipped the first load of stone into the sea to initiate construction of Cape Town's harbour,” according to the Waterfront web site. For those wanting to know, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha was her long-suffering husband. But you knew that back in Bulgaria, right?

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront looks strikingly similar to Darling Harbour in Sydney and restaurants abound with ample outdoor seating and compete with souvenir shops which in turn are overwhelmed by a rather large indoor mall hosting all manner of mall-type shops. All of this is wrapped in a harbor hosting all manner of water-borne craft, pitting old, working-horse fishing vessels, such as the dilapidated Donna Maria Ligia, next to many million dollar yachts, catamarans, and scores of millions of dollars ocean-going vessels like the Nassau-based Explorer. I also note a clutch of seals alternately sunning themselves on a moored wood plank platform and frolicking in the harbor. It seems odd to see them up close and personal outnumbered by men and machines but they probably like the attention. Seals rock, dude.

I soon find myself beneath a mileage sign post, similar to what I’ve found in other countries, this one marked in kilometers. Sponsored by Rotary International (I told you they wanted to attract Rotarian conventions), I am delighted with a short education in distance. The South Pole is 6,131 kilometers from where I stand. If you’ll recall from my foray into Wellington, that was indeed the closest I have ever come to the South Pole. Sydney, another place I have recently returned from, is 12,202 kilometers hence, San Francisco is 16,690 kilometers away and Tucson is 15,372 kilometers from Cape Town. Actually I don’t know how far Tucson is and there was no sign for it. I just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.

Stellenbosch is the other half of my time in South Africa and the prime reason for me being here in the first place: the Arizona Spur is located here. Of course being the wine capital of South Africa doesn’t hurt.

The Arizona Spur has a very central location on Bird Street in the center of Stellenbosch. Housed in a handsome white-plastered building on the corner, it is undergoing some renovations when I arrive and signs are plastered on its windows advising “We are building you a bigger and better Spur! We apologize for any inconvenience.” I want to tell them that as an Arizona restaurant they really should replace it with our own typical Arizona apologies in such situations: Pardon our dust!

The Arizona Spur is a part of the Spur family of restaurants in South Africa as well as throughout Southern Africa as well. According to the company’s web site “Spur Steak Ranches has played an integral part in South African family life for over 37 years. Spur founder and executive chairman Allen Ambor first established the company’s reputation for tasty, nutritious, value for money meals when he invested R4 000 to open the Golden Spur in Newlands, Cape Town in 1967… From these early beginnings, Spur has grown into an internationally recognised brand comprising 200 South African and 24 international outlets.” It’s a franchise operation and each outlet is independently owned. The oddest thing, at least to me, is that there are an additional 70 Spurs with US names, including (brace yourself):

Montana Spur, Nebraska Spur, Toledo Spur, Yellowstone Spur, Sonora Spur, Buffalo Bay Spur, Laguna Spur, Tacoma Spur, Shenandoah Spur, Arapaho Spur, Calgary Spur, California Spur, Chicago Spur, Denver Spur, El Paso Spur, Houston Spur, Idaho Spur, Missouri Spur, Ohio Spur, Oklahoma Spur, Sacramento Spur, Santa Cruz Spur, Santa Rosa Spur, Sausalito Spur, Savannah Spur, Wichita Spur, Arkansas Spur, Big Bear Spur, Detroit Spur, Laramie Spur, Oregon Spur, Tulsa Spur, Atlanta Spur, Augusta Spur, Carson City Spur, Cheyenne Spur, Daytona Spur, Georgia Spur, Grand Rapids Spur, Kansas Spur, Miami Spur, Nevada Spur, Omaha Spur, Salt Lake City Spur, Twin Falls Spur, Alabama Spur, Indiana Spur, Milwaukee Spur, Oak Creek Spur, Tennessee Spur, Las Vegas Spur, Minnesota Spur, Santa Fe Spur, Tahoe Spur, Tampa Bay Spur, Alamo Spur, Cincinnati Spur, Iowa Spur, Malibu Spur, Michigan Spur, Pasadena Spur, Reno Spur, San Diego Spur, San Francisco Spur, Santa Ana Spur, Saratoga Spur, Tallahassee Spur, Texas Spur, Topeka Spur, Utah Spur, Yukon Spur.

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Westminster Abbey is probably the church for the Protestant world. Of course while Protestants don’t have a central point of reference, like the Catholics have the Vatican, we do have our soaring and grand cathedrals here and there. And Westminster surely must be one of the most important, such is its history, size and grandeur.

It is in this setting that I discover myself sitting next to an attractive middle-aged Estonian woman. She is the cultural attaché at the Estonian Embassy in London and upon hearing that I am from Arizona she warmly tells me that she has traveled Arizona. I ask her where and her first answer is Cottonwood. It is a delightful surprise to me to be sitting next to an Estonian in Westminster Abbey who has been to such a charming little hamlet as Cottonwood. Located in the north central Verde Valley of Arizona, it is the gateway to northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Nestled between the high plains of the Mogollon rim country and the plump and rolling foothills that gradually morph into the Coconino Forest of northern Arizona, it is quintessential small-town Arizona with a bevy of wholesome and sturdy hospitality.

She quickly enlightens me about her other impressions of Arizona including the Grand Canyon, which she describes as indescribable (perhaps ineffable would be better), the clear mountain air of Flagstaff and Phoenix such that it is. I proudly tell her that I am from further south, Tucson, and she brightens up immensely. “Oh, Tuk-son!” she exclaims in her delightful Estonian accent. She hasn’t been there but has heard much of our old pueblo.

I am at Westminster Abbey to hear the choir of Westminster Abbey perform “Passio” by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who happens to be a favorite of mine (I dare you to name another Estonian composer). This is Holy Week leading up to Easter and I am on one of my typical runs through London, on my way back from the Balkans, visiting Eerik Marmei, an Estonian friend posted at the Estonian Embassy. You’ve already read about Eerik and Estonia.

The performance is an exceptionally rare treat for me as I usually don’t do this type of thing – normally I attend rock concerts. Add to the mix that I have a front row seat, and am dressed to the nines in a suit, and sitting in such an outstanding setting and I have myself one agreeable evening.

As Eerik and I are ushered to the front row, we both notice, to our unmitigated horror that my seat, next to Eerik’s, is identified as Mrs. Marmei. This frightens us both not to mention the usher. No mind – I quickly cover it up with my overcoat. Over 600 people occupy this sublime church and hushed tones quickly invade the cathedral’s immense space once the ambassador is seated. Sitting in this historic place gives one a sense of just how small one is in the grand scheme of things and this is brought home by the fact that my right foot is placed squarely on the grave of one General W. Hargrave, who apparently died in 1750. Rest in peace, dear general. You are not forgotten.

The performance is superb and includes a 31-member choir of men and boys, representing all nationalities, or so it seems, of the former British Empire, including Asians, Blacks and some very, very white lads. Clad in flowing red robes, they are accompanied by six additional signers, one representing Jesus, one Pontius Pilate, and four who sing various parts of John the Evangelist. The entire piece is set to John 18:1-40 and John 19:1-30, leading to the crucifixion of Christ. I can’t help but notice the two Orthodox icons prominently placed on the pillars behind the man singing the part of Jesus and the one signing the part of Pilate. They are a potent reminder of where I have just come from, the Orthodox Balkans, and lend to the surreal atmosphere of the place.

In the space of a little more than an hour, however, the magnificent piece of moving music is finished. After what seems an eternity after the last note is played and last words sung, the conductor, James O’Donnell, finally turns around and we are allowed to clap (before the evening began, a representative of the Abbey, also dressed in flowing robes, politely implored us not to clap until it was over and to please, please, make sure our cellular phones were switched off). It is a fitting end to a cold, blustery and wet April day in London and a wonderful juxtaposition with our next stop, the Arizona Bar and Restaurant in Camden Town.

A maze of Tube stations and 35 minutes later and we pop out in Camden Town, London, United Kingdom. It appears to be the same Camden Town that Charles Dickens moved to in 1822 which he described as “shabby, dingy, damp and mean a neighborhood as one would desire to see.” 185 years has not done much to change the place apparently. As we make our way to our destination, we are greeted by signs for Brazilian football “shown every week” and another, more disturbing sign posted on the window at one pub advising us that there have been “164 drug arrests in this area in the last three months.” Did I mention that it is dark outside now?

Before I describe my own initial observations about the actual restaurant, however, let me borrow from a few web pages. The first is from a British website for food and drink in fashionable European cities. It makes the convivial statement about the Arizona Bar and Restaurant as only the British can do:

“Located in trendy ‘place of the moment’ Camden, Arizona has kept its patrons fed and watered for a decade. Hmmmm... Arizona? You're thinking dry, lonely, still dessert (sic) in America - well, after visiting Camden's Arizona your thought processes will go completely in the opposite direction! Arizona is busy, funky, lively, good value and they have a plentiful supply of both food and beverage refreshments to insure you don't dehydrate. Not only do they have the best darn Tex-Mex food this side’a’Texas, but (bless their cotton sox) they serve a Sunday Roast to rival Momma’s. Just when you think Camden's greatest nosh-up can't get any livelier, at 11pm, they clear the tables and you can boogie the night away. Not for the faint hearted.”

Noting only a handful of customer reviews (three to be exact), I note one complaining about the peas, not a dish one normally associates with Arizona: “Very enjoyable food, but when peas are mentioned as the shared focus of the Jerk Chicken dish then more than 12 peas would be required.” I’m not sure what to think about a patron who actually takes time to count the number of peas on his plate and note that this could serve as the basis for a Monty Python sketch.

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go back to the contents


My flight from Budapest to Kyiv is delayed. This mildly irks me as I only have a handful of days planned there and want to begin as soon as I arrive. The delay is not terribly long – about 45 minutes, but once we have boarded and are taxiing down the taxi way, we are delayed, once again. This because a woman who appears to be in her 40’s but is trying to look like she is in her 20s with bleached blond hair and large dark sunglasses has just jumped out of her seat and headed to the back of the plane.

The flight attendants initially and gently try to coax her back to her seat but she refuses and instead promptly plops herself down in one of the flight attendants seats. This in turn generates a phone call to the front of the plane where the flight attendant there informs the pilot who abruptly stops the plane dead in its tracks. And there we sit. I’m worried that this will turn into a lengthy delay.

A visit from the first officer to the woman finally gets her to occupy the back row though I keep hearing what sounds like the word “policia” between the two. And the plane takes off about 15 minutes later. In the US the pilot would have gone straight back to the jetway and police would have boarded the plane and shot her where she sat. There are worse ways to begin a trip, and once we do eventually land, a group of people, Ukrainians I suspect, break out clapping in a charmingly simple way. This warms my heart and the woman, who the flight attendants think is on drugs, has become happily quiet though I do see her laughing to herself in the customs line. I often laugh to myself in the customs line.

The customs line, in turn, is a bit confusing and I see many foreigners either staring blankly or struggling mightily with their Customs Declarations forms. Having been here before, I simply ignore it but many of those coming in must be awfully confused by its requirements. For instance, Section 3.1 requires entering visitors to declare “The amount of national currency of Ukraine and other currency in cash, currency values, quantity of jewelry made of precious metals and stones in any form and condition.” I’m not quite sure why anyone coming into Ukraine from abroad would already be carrying Ukrainian currency. Section 3.2 through 3.9 is even more pedantic in its requirements, demanding that visitors check off little yes and no boxes to the left of each item declaring whether or not they are carrying: “3.2 Any weapons, ammunition, explosives;” “3.3 Drugs and psychotropic substances;” “3.4 Antiques and works of art;” “3.5 Printings and other mediums;” “3.6 Poisonous and drastic substances, and medicines;” “3.7 Radioactive materials;” “3.8 Flora and fauna objects, their parts and items produced from it;” “3.9 High-frequency radio-electronic devices and means of communications.” I’m not quite certain what drastic substances are, though I sure it doesn’t include my after shave extra soothing balm.

So after breezing through customs I finally find my man with the rental company and we make our way to his late-model Lada, a Russian car. It coughs and wheezes through Kyiv’s wide highways and I note that the gas tank empty light keeps blinking. He has a small plaque with depictions of saints on the dashboard, for protection I assume, and a horseshoe good luck charm dangling from his mirror, just to cover all his bases, I assume. Not a word is said through our 40 minute trip and that’s just as well. I studied Spanish in high school.

We pass block after block of seemingly endless Soviet-style apartment buildings, both from then and now as evidenced by large cranes. They come in all colors from battleship gray to burnt brick to nouveau-blue, for the more modern ones at least. They must house tens or hundreds of thousands of souls. I will be told that people continue to move into Kyiv from the countryside seeking fortune, or at least a job.

The hills of the center of Kyiv fairly burst into view on my right as we cross the Dnipro River. I can see the shinning golden domes of St. Michaels, St. Sofia, and the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra off in the distance and I feel more at ease. I had made three trips to Kyiv before, four years prior, and was quite familiar with the center of the city. It’s good to be back.

One of my favorite features about the Arizona BBQ is the Very Big American Breakfast and the Bottomless Cup of Coffee. This is why it is very popular with the expatriate community. You can get two eggs, with bacon, ham or sausage, toast and hash browns, or a Denver omelet with hash browns and toast or French toast, or pancakes or, well, you get the idea.

The Arizona BBQ is situated in the Podil area of Kyiv along the Dnipro River on Naberezhno-Khreshatyska Street which I realize is an incomprehensible mouthful. Don’t worry, there won’t be a test. It has been very thoughtfully put together by its owners who opened it in 1996 which must have been a blessing to those expatriates living here at the time and an entirely new experience to the locals. Probably the best way to describe it is this: think T.G.I. Friday’s.

Housed in what appears to be one big continuous building holding several small shops, patrons are greeted by one big neon sign above the entry way which itself is covered in ivy. You’ll have to be able to remember your Ukrainian from high school in order to read the Cyrillic letters to know that you’ve reached the Arizona BBQ. However, since you didn’t study Ukrainian, but instead studied Russian, you’ll be just a tad confused. The Arizona BBQ has a sign outdoors with the word Arizona written in Cyrillic but in Ukrainian which would look like this: APIЗOНA. It kinda looks like Arizona in Latin right? In Russian, which you’ll remember of course from high school, it would look like this: APИЗOHA. But I already warned you that Ukrainian is what is spoken here so don’t make the mistake I did when I thought it should look like the latter. Nick quickly disabused me of that idea. The sign outdoors also says restaurant after Arizona but it looks like this in Cyrillic: PECTOPAH. They did not, however, transliterate barbeque and it looks just like this: BARBEQUE.

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go back to the contents


A full-grown rhinoceros can weigh up to 8,000 pounds, has two very large and sharp horns on its head and can charge at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. The fastest human can run at speeds of up to 26 per hour. Yours truly can do a respectable seven and a half minute mile, whilst jogging, but I don’t recall what I can do in a full sprint or for how long I can sustain it. Add to that mix a full sprint through African bush and I’m really at a loss.

All of this occurs to me in a flash as I find myself chasing rhinos in the Rhodes Matobo National Game Park. Lovemore, my guide for the day and now yours, has been a professional guide and tracker for about ten years now including a six month stint in the Kalahari with the bushmen who you might recall were made famous in The Gods Must be Crazy. He’s alternately squatting in the bush and high grasses, putting his finger to his lips as a sign for me to be quiet, and then running, not quite at full sprint, toward the rhinos with me pathetically trying to keep up, holding on to my camera swinging dangerously around my neck, struggling with my sunglasses, which I keep putting on and taking off, hanging them from my t-shirt collar, adjusting my fanny pack, which is jingling up and down against my left thigh, and juggling my notebook which I keep switching from hand to hand. Add to this scene the five foot tall grasses which he passes effortlessly over only to have them swat me in the face and brambles, or whatever they are, tearing at my ankles and shins giving me bloody scratches all in 95 plus degree heat, sweating profusely under a scorching African sun and you have yourself one comical moment. And then I’m thinking about the sanity of chasing rhinos in the open just to get some snaps.

I’ve opted for a day tour of the Matobo National Park, a 2,000 square kilometer sprawl about 50 kilometers from Bulawayo. It is where Cecil John Rhodes is buried as well as a national game park (reserve not hunting) and I start the day with Lovemore on the non-game side. Lovemore is a freelancer and works with the tour outfit I have chosen, on occasion. Today, however, his only guest is me, the other two chaps scheduled to go on this day tour delayed on their train from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, the opposite of which I will take this evening.

Lovemore is in his mid to late twenties, I’m guessing, and I expect him to be proficient in all things flora, fauna and the history of the place. But pretty soon we’re discussing imports and exports, balance of payments, the World Bank, currency boards and currency devaluations, the IMF, inflation, and general world politics in addition to the digestive systems of giraffes, rhinos, the extraction of coal, gas, gold and diamonds and big business in general on a global scale. He is both intense and one of the most articulate and knowledgeable individuals I have met in a long time and it is an absolute pleasure to converse with him.

The Arizona Spur Bulawayo is much like the Arizona Spur Stellenbosch. It is open with the kitchen in the back and open to the front though they’re using red tile here instead of blue. The same salad bar, booths, flooring, lighting and wall motifs exist here and there, though there are also signs indicating distances to various other Spurs around the region. The Grand Canyon Spur for instance, in Windhoek, Namibia, is 1,560 km away. Look for that in a future book.

A children’s jungle gym is indoors, something Stellenbosch did not have, and my waitress, a lovely lass with soft facial features and very dark skin, has no idea about Arizona. I ask her, “Do you know where Arizona is?” and she responds, “This is Arizona!” Well, yes, technically true, but I enlighten her and she is pleasantly surprised that I am from the United States. Actually, I’ve only been in Zimbabwe a few hours and am getting the impression that the folks here are extremely friendly and warm. Several wait staff, and the manager, continue asking me if I am doing well, if I need anything more, constantly smiling and checking in on me. What I’d like to tell them is that I could use more clarification on the cash/payments system.

The Financial Times, which I read on the plane earlier, had an op-ed article worrying about Zimbabwe’s hyper-inflation and how Zimbabwe is in danger of becoming a chaotic, failed state. It was attempting to exhort Zimbabwe’s neighbors, primarily economic giant South Africa, to flex its muscle and demand accountability from the government. And hyperinflation is in vogue here.

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