Pure Michigan: Still the Best

A few years ago, the tourism board of Michigan changed its slogan from “Say Yes to Michigan!” (the exclamation point was crucial) to “Pure Michigan.” Yes! was hokey, but Pure is way too much in the other direction. You could put together a medley of Pottery Barn, Lexus, Ann Taylor, and Pure Michigan commercials and not be sure which was which (except that to my knowledge, Tim Allen only narrates one of those). Still, it seems to be a successful campaign, and I’m all for boosting the economy of my beloved home state. Also, it ain’t a lie: this place is beautiful.

View from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, post 9.

I spent this past weekend up north, in the small town I remember so well from summer vacations with my family. This time, I was up there for a friend’s wedding. My closest friends came in from around the country (and a couple of us crossed international waters) to witness the wedding of two of the best people we know. Despite all predictions to the contrary, the weather was lovely, and everything about the ceremony and reception was heartfelt and beautiful.

With the bride and groom

With the bride and groom

We spent some time on the beach, and we went up to the bluffs to take in the view of Lake Michigan shimmering into the horizon. I have been around the world and seen a lot of amazing views, but I can tell you this is still in the top five. It’s good to be here.

Sunset on Lake Michigan

Sunset on Lake Michigan

Image 1.

A Happy New Year in Singapore

When I landed in Singapore, I realized I’d had it mixed up with Hong Kong in my mind. I pictured Singapore as a concrete jungle packed with skyscrapers, but actually the tall buildings part of the city is contained to a small part of the waterfront. The rest of the city is made up of the small shophouses of the colonial era and the large department stores of the modern age. I met up with my friend Emily and she took me on a walking tour of the Geylang Serai neighborhood (she plotted out the walk just for me–isn’t that sweet?). We walked when it was dry, and ducked into eateries each time the rain started up again. A lot of the rowhouses are a bright pastel, and we found a little alley with some houses in vibrant colors too.

Rowhouses of Singapore

Rowhouses of Singapore

singapore

We stopped in the Katong Antique House and looked at some Peranakan artifacts. The Peranakan are descendents of Chinese and Malay in Indonesia and Singapore; they have a particular style of dress and set of customs found only here.

singapore

That night, I joined up with my friend Mindy for more delicious street food and a quick walk around the Bugis neighborhood, which was pulsing with people shopping for the holiday and eating with their friends. We met up with Mindy’s husband Alan and went to the 70th floor of the Swissotel. We sat in the bar and admired the view through the rain-streaked windows while a singer serenaded us. Mindy and Alan generously treated me to a drink in this fancy place, and given my location, what could I choose but a Singapore Sling?

Oranges for luck at the Chinese New Year--with Alan and Mindy

Oranges for luck at the Chinese New Year–with Alan and Mindy

On the eve of Chinese New Year, everyone has a family dinner. Many people travel long distances to make it home in time, and there are rituals to start the year off right. I was honored to be invited to dinner with Alan’s family. After they showed me Chinatown, Alan and Mindy took me to his mom’s high-rise apartment.

Auspicious phrases!

Auspicious phrases!

The dinner started with the stirring of the big fish dish. Alan’s sister sprinkled ingredients signifying certain things over the dish, and then we all used our chopsticks to stir the dish in the center of the table, while shouting out auspicious phrases. By the end, we were just yelling good things in whatever language came handy–“Success! Good relationships!” I added “good studies” for Mindy (she’s working on her PhD), and she added “safe travels” for me. Alan’s mom gave me two oranges–a traditional gift I’d meant to bring for her–and even a red packet! It was a great evening.

Colorful new year

Colorful new year

The next day, I met up with Emily at her great-aunt’s house. On the first day of the new year, you visit around to various family members, and Emily invited me along for this stop on her circuit. I was graciously received by a couple dozen relatives, given more red packets, and plied with so much food. This time I remembered to bring two oranges, which was a great success. I watched three generations play round after round of blackjack, which just about everyone was betting on. I talked with Emily’s teenaged cousins and elderly great-aunts, and I was glad I wore red, the lucky color of the day, because I could tell it made a good impression.

Emily and me

Emily and me

On my last day in Singapore, I saw a lion dance outside the converted shophouse apartment I was staying in, and then took the train to the Gardens by the Bay. I knew last year I wanted to check this place out, and I was lucky: it rained pretty much the whole weekend I was in Singapore, but for the few hours I was at the gardens, it was all sunshine. The supertrees were pleasingly imposing in person, and I liked the mini-gardens surrounding the central hub, which were all devoted to different styles–Malay, Chinese, colonial.

The shop owner hired these dancers (and musicians out of frame) to do the lion dance outside the shop. The kids dig it.

The shop owner hired these dancers (and musicians out of frame) to do the lion dance outside the shop. The kids dig it.

Supertrees!

Supertrees!

For being a small island, there’s a lot to do and see in Singapore; I didn’t even get up to the pool at Marina Bay Sands, or out to Pulau Semakau or the Southern Ridges, as I’d planned. I know I keep saying it about everywhere I’ve been on this trip, but it’s true: I’ll have to come back.

Marina Bay at night

Marina Bay at night (pretend it’s blurry because of the rain and not my lack of camera skill)

The Least Stinky Fish: The Top 5 Ways to Be a Great Guest

Benjamin Franklin, founding father, scientist, author, diplomat, and turkey advocate, once said, “Fish and visitors stink after three days.” As usual, he gets it exactly right with this pithy pull quote. Whether you’re visiting friends or family, after three days of living in close quarters, sharing every meal, waiting impatiently for the bathroom, staying up later than usual, and all while trying to maintain your friendship, it’s very easy for the visit to feel less like a welcome break and more of a drag on both of you.

I’m stretching this principle to its breaking point this weekend, as I’m staying three full days and four nights with my friend Mike in Boston. So how can I make sure that when I get on the airplane to head back home, both of us will be planning our next get together and not crossing each other’s names out of our address books? I’m sure you will not be surprised to find that I have a list, dearest fellow travelers, and I’m sharing it with you!

The Least Stinky Fish: The Top 5 Ways to Be a Great Guest

1. Set expectations ahead of time. This hearkens back to my advice on hosting couch surfers; if you both know what you’re getting into, you’ll both have a lot more fun. Don’t think that just because you’re family or friends with your hosts, you don’t need to set expectations — sometimes they’re the ones you most need to have these conversations with, to make sure you’re all on the same page and feelings don’t get hurt. For example, I wrote Mike last week to say how excited I was to visit, and to warn him that my knee and ankle injuries have resurfaced, with two unfortunate results: 1) I am now the least fashionable person ever, as I dress in bright white walking shoes no matter my outfit, and 2) I walk slower than a sloth on a lazy summer day. Mike was sorry to hear about my injury, of course, and no doubt he will regret being seen with me and the Great White Sneakers, but he was happy to know this vital piece of information enough ahead of time to reconsider how we should get to the various places we’re going.

2. No matter how short the trip, set aside some down time. Don’t wait until you’re halfway through your second marathon day of museums, hikes, street food, wacky local mode of transportation, tourist attractions, and shopping to realize you need to sitdownrighthisinstantoryouwillpassout — plan for it. Sure, your schedule will be different than when you’re at home, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need time to rest when you’re away, same as you do at home. (Younger folks than I, I promise this is not an old person talking, just someone who knows what traveling while exhausted feels like — not good.) You don’t always have to crash back at the house, either; find a nice park and take a nap or stake out a corner of a local café to re-energize.

3. Pick up the tab. Not on everything, mind you, but it’s a great reciprocal gesture to pick up the tab somewhere along the way. Don’t bankrupt yourself, but do what you can, whether that’s a whole meal, or a round of drinks, or even an ice cream cone. Of course your loved one is happy to see you, but they are putting aside their normal life and opening up their home in order to do that, so show them your appreciation by paying for some food or drink during your visit.

4. Research where you’re going, even just a little. Trips based on visiting friends or family are inherently different from trips based on visiting new places; your purpose is different, so the way you prepare and the way you spend your time while there is different. I’m not going to be doing a Great Sites of Boston tour this weekend — I’ll be doing a Hang Out in Parks and Have Drinks tour with Mike. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see some of this city. So I’m checking out a guidebook from the library, I’ve poked around on some websites, and I’ve asked Mike what he might want to sightsee. So far we are going to the Mapparium and taking a swan boat ride.

5. Plan for some solo time. This is sort of similar to #2, but it’s specifically designed to separate you from your host for at least a couple hours. One of the stinkiest things about visitors, I suspect Mr. Franklin would agree, is their tendency to stick to your side for the duration of their visit. Nothing smells good when it’s been that close to you for that long. You’ll both enjoy your visit a lot more if you set aside some time to do your own thing — write some postcards, buy some souvenirs, go to that one tourist attraction your host can’t bear to visit one more time. This gives your host time to tend to their daily lives and needs as well, and the end result is that you appreciate each other all the more when you are hanging out.

So voila! Those are the top five ways to plan a trip to a friend’s or family member’s house so that not only do you have a great time, but your host does too — and best of all, you get invited back.