Category Archives: Uncategorized

Hostels that Don’t Make You Feel Regretful in the Morning

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The kick-ass kitchen table–home to fabulous communal dinners–at the Gallery Hostel in Porto.

For my recent travel story for the Star Tribune, I divulge five of my favorite grown-up hostels—the kind of hostels you would want to stay in even if you’re over 25, have your partner (or your parents) in tow, or generally believe that there’s a very good reason that “hostel” sounds like “hostile.”

Before I fell back in love with hostels, my relationship with them had hit a definite low point.

While traveling in the South of France a year and a half ago, I met up with my musician friend Sy in Toulouse, a city neither of us had ever been. Her email told me to meet her at La Petite Auberge de Saint-Sernin, a hostel near the Basilica of Saint Sernin, the oldest Roman church of its kind in the world.

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Basilica of Saint Sernin

But I had already made a halfhearted vow to swear off hostels, the way you might break off an exciting yet dubious romance that too often leaves you feeling regretful in the morning. And after years of enjoying the intimate conviviality and communal joie de vivre so particular to many hostels––as well as earning bragging rights to a few horror stories––I was throwing in the towel. Specifically, the thin, battered, postage-stamp size rental towel that costs around two euros at most hostel reception desks.

But Sy had already checked in, and I had agreed to join her. Upon arriving in the tiny, non-nonsense reception area, I found the hostel was cozy––if by cozy you as mean comfortably cramped as my old Brooklyn living room, with standard bunk beds stacked in a tiny co-ed room. A sleep-deprived Sy recounted her story of the drunk, foul-mouthed Russian metal band who had decamped in the room the night before. Between the yelling, the mess, the terrible proximity of the ensuite bathroom to the beds, and a particularly obnoxious lower-bunk assignation between the drummer and an equally drunk female visitor from another room, the night had been sheer hell.

Thankfully, they had departed. Tonight would be better, Sy promised.

And it was––at least for us. Yet as the hours trudged towards dawn, we heard a soft knock at the door and a plaintive request: was there a free bed in the room? The voice was young, American, female, and desperate in the peculiar way that a sleepless night in a hostel can make one desperate.

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In the morning, Sy and I shuddered to hear the woman’s story. Let’s just say this: if penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it might have been called “The Case of the Young Male Traveler who Mistook Someone Else’s Backpack for a Toilet.”

I hadn’t had a hostel experience like this since I stayed in an Athens hostel where the condition of the showers intimated that I would actually be filthier post-shower. The man passed out drunk, face down, in front of my room looked like he had braved the shower himself.

When Sy and I left Toulouse and hopped on a train to lovely little Albi to see the Toulouse Lautrec Museum, we resolutely stayed in a hotel with a pretty little courtyard. It was conspicuously free of rock bands, Russian or otherwise. That night I vowed: no more hostels. Nada. Fin. Finito. Finished.

But then I found myself in Stockholm one February evening, balking at the price of a gloomy 2-star hotel whose grim décor resembled a Soviet version of IKEA. So, to save myself hundred of krona, I gave myself a one-time out and checked into a surprisingly cheap hostel with a sweet little café. And then I wound up spending a couple of weeks in Portugal. Did you know that Portugal is basically the world capital of amazing hostels? I’m talking phenomenally wonderful places that could take your mother to.

If you read the Star Tribune story, I talk about staying at Gallery Hostel in Porto and Home Hostel in Lisbon. Two other Porto hostels where I stayed and ate pretty fabulous multi-course communal dinners were Tattva Design Hostel and Yes! Hostel. Thanks to the amazing Christian from Hamburg for the latter recommendation.

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The library/computer room at Gallery Hostel.

 

Do Border Walls Work? And Are They Humane?

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Photo: Flickr

In an age of epic walls, the Walls of Constantinople were the envy of the medieval era. Built during antiquity by emperor Constantine the Great to defend the Roman Empire’s new home, the legendary walls successfully defended the city from foreign invaders for nearly a thousand years, until the Ottoman Empire’s devastating 1453 siege. Constantinople, along with the Eastern Roman Empire, was suddenly no more–-and the city of Istanbul was born.

Throughout history, societies have continually erected walls to keep people out–or in. Most of these efforts have ultimately been failures. It’s the same story even in Hollywood films: in the 1979 film King Kong, terrified villagers build a giant wall to keep out the iconic beast. Their efforts proved so wildly unsuccessful that not only did Kong kidnap Dwan (then unknown ingénue Jessica Lange) but also maul the Empire State building.

For my latest CNBC story, I interviewed several experts in conflict resolution, migration and refugee studies to get the lowdown on the world’s most controversial border walls, from Israel’s West Bank Wall to the many walls currently being erected across Europe.

The consensus? Walls are dangerous. And they simply don’t work.

I’m With the Band: 29 Days With a Texas High School Marching Band

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Courtesy of Flickr

I have known band teachers to be a particular breed of chain-smoking, middle-aged men with terrible posture, potbellies, and a certain endearing sweetness outdone only by their ability to silence a whole section of clarinets with a withering gaze. So when I walk in the Lyndon Baines Johnson High School band room, the first thing that strikes me about Don Haynes, LBJ’s head band director, is that he has a really good haircut. He also looks like he jogs ten miles and lifts weights every morning, and dresses with purpose rather than embarrassment. Yet the haircut really gets me, because I played in public school bands for over a decade toward the end of the last century, and in all of those years I never saw a band director with a decent haircut.

The band room is a familiar clutter of old musical scores, black horn cases, 1970s-era posters and a peculiar but inoffensive smell that is a cross between a tuba mouthpiece and moist plywood. Under cavernous ceilings, the band practices “Sonoran Desert Holiday” by Ron Nelson.

Don suddenly stops the brass. “Just think about what you played. Was that beautiful?” he asks.

“No way,” a trumpet player calls out, and a slight laugh ripples through the band.

“I want you to think about the Cleveland Symphony Brass. I want to express your spirit in music the way Shakespeare did in his writing,” Don says.

They begin. I am not sure if the piece evokes feelings of being on a holiday in a desert in Sonora, but they sound pretty good. Suddenly I realize that this is one of the only times that I have ever, in an American public school, heard someone ask very seriously, “Was that beautiful?”

Anyone who has ever played in band knows that when you shove fifty to a hundred kids in a cramped room and give them instruments, the potential for chaos is limitless. Yet these kids are focused, attentive even. Perhaps it is because Don exudes more warmth and charm in an hour than some college professors display in a whole semester of lectures. What is the magical equation that makes kids care very much about something — even something that requires long hours and that dreaded word, practice? Even when the bell rings, no one bolts.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It’s 4:00 in the Walmart-sized school parking lot when the band members, along with the color guard, move into their places on the asphalt as if satellite radar directs them. BJ Allen, a twenty-three-year old fresh from a two year stint as University of Texas drum major, and Travis Ancelet, the assistant director, direct the half time show run-through from the high metal podium cemented to one side of the parking lot. In their impeccable shirt and ties and wraparound sunglasses, they look like FBI agents supervising a massive bust.

Travis is the second in command around here, which translates into the fact that he has been at LBJ for ten years to Don’s twenty-six. The first day I meet him he jokes that he hasn’t had a date in four months because a being band director is like one endless weekend date. By his easy laugh I think he might be kidding, and then I wonder if there are cute band directors all over the country who are sacrificing their social lives for the demands of high school football schedules. He is the kind of guy who, if he asked for your phone number, you would be flattered. He is the kind of guy who wouldn’t ask for your phone number.

Some Misconceptions

I played in the Wind Ensemble in high school, and once a year, at Homecoming, we were forced to march. There was great resistance. Everyone whined as the put on the scratchy orange wool “Go Tigers!” sweaters that smelled like cheese curls left in a locker in 1977. I remember marching on the field with the all enthusiasm and precision of a chain gang. But that was in Minneapolis, where many high schools lack the spectacle of color guards and baton twirlers.

LBJ used to have a twirler-in-residence. I ask Travis Ancelet why this glamorous position is no longer.

“It wasn’t a problem with the twirlers, it was a problem with their mothers.” He laughs and shakes his head painfully, and I imagine a long line of overbearing mothers who secretly dream of wearing short skirts and throwing weightless silver sticks into the air.

“They wanted to live vicariously through their daughters,” he sighs. “And they wouldn’t let us forget it.”

One of my other misconceptions about marching band is that the culmination of the year is a long dull bus trip to a competition in some place like Des Moines, where you bravely play for a bunch of nearly deaf judges in the parking lot of some second-rate amusement park. That was my experience, anyway, and while the illicit fun of trying to order Mai-Tais in the HoJo tiki lounge was memorable, it seems a childish field trip compared to, say, the LBJ band’s recent two-week excursion to London and Paris.

Bill Cox, a tall, genial father in a spotless baseball cap that he seems to wear at all times, tells me that it took them several years to earn money for the trip, which resulted in nearly 300 kids dispersed on 8 planes to London.

I ask how on earth they raised the money.

Bill tells me they “do everything: silent auctions, raffles, and picking up trash from the stadium after the University of Texas Home football games.”

“Wow,” I say, “Kids are willing to pick up trash?”

“Ha. Not just the kids,” he grins. “We’re out there too on Sunday mornings, getting on our hands and knees.”

This, then, is the last misconception I have about marching band. That instead of being just an after-school “activity” that might rack up extracurricular points on a college application, that this is a dirty, sweaty, joint effort that requires a lot of grunt work and a great deal of patience.

“I know it’s a cliché,” Don Haynes sighs in his office, where the walls are choked with old pictures of the bands he has directed in his 26 years at LBJ. “But we really are a family. The band has a life of its own.”

While it seems natural that many students use the word “family” to describe the band, it is the parents who surprise me more. The parent Booster Club is an official tax-exempt organization with its own constitution; the members seem nearly as tight-knit as the band itself. Take, for instance, Gail Capers, whom I met while she was working at the ticket table for the Capitol City Marching Festival.

Gail moved to Austin not too long before her son, Mark, now a senior, enrolled at LBJ. She was wistful about the fact that this was Mark’s last year in the band — and thus her last year. “Band gave me a change to meet other parents. It gave me a chance to feel like I was doing something positive… I’ve had a ball. This is my senior year and I’m really sad it’s going to end.”

Flickr photo by Howard Jefferson

The Tailgate Party

It is late on a Thursday afternoon before the LBJ vs. Johnston football game, and in the long shadows of the school a core group of parents makes dinner for the entire band, color guard, cheerleaders and football team. The precise number of hamburgers that Bill Cox and Jose Villareal flip in the steam of charcoal and the late afternoon sun is staggering.

“What’s the special occasion for the food?” I ask.

“We do this every week,” Jose laughs, tapping his spatula against the massive grill donated by Home Depot.

In the last rays of the sun, everyone eats together in the grass, and on the steps. A couple of football players toss a ball back and forth. In the distance, three cheerleaders practice a jump, their skirts making a purple blur against the oncoming dusk.

Are the kids glad that parents are here? I talk with Deborah Steadman, another band parent. “Kids this age would rather have their friends think they were hatched from an egg than that they have parents,” she says.

Jose interjects, “True. Yet even though your kid says he doesn’t want you here, if you don’t come, they say, Dad, where were you?”

Later, at the football game, I help haul the percussion equipment on the field. The scoreboard flashes silver against the dark Texas sky and I realize it is late, I am tired, and somehow I am at a high school football game, hauling an eighty pound xylophone onto wet grass.

“Do you ever get tired of this?” I whisper to Raoul Calderon, a lean man with a wry sense of humor.

He shrugs. “Family life has to revolve around something, right? You have the whole week. How bad is it to spend one day with other parents, enjoying the weather, the game if we win…. This brings you back to high school.”

“And let’s face it,” another mother nods. “High school’s the time of your life.”

At halftime, the color guard’s rifles are white as salt as they soar up and are caught again. In the last strains of “Sonoran Desert Holiday,” the male cheerleaders pick up the female cheerleaders and throw them weightlessly into the air. They wear bright white shirts, which read, on the front, “While you’re sitting in the stands…”

On they back, they read, “I’ll be picking up your girlfriend.”

Some things really don’t ever change.

The Pit Crew

At the next football game, one of the parents gives me a shirt in thanks for helping haul the stationary percussion — “everything that’s a real bitch to move,” he explains — at the halftime show. The shirt, which many of the parents wear, is a bright purple polo that proclaims on the back: The One. The Only. The LBJ Parent Pit Crew. Tonight is the first time I have ever worn article of clothing with the word “parent” on it. Whatever anxiety this instills in me I temporarily ignore.

The Pit Boss

It has taken me several weeks of hanging out with the pit crew to figure out who, if anyone, is the boss. Finally I ask.

“That would definitely be Randy,” says Bill.

Randy Baden, a compact, muscular sort of guy who looks like he would destroy you at arm-wrestling and then buy you dinner afterwards, is the father of a senior in the band and has been around long enough that he claims to possess “an accurate mental map of where every piece of percussion equipment goes in the pit.” Like all of the other parents I met while working with the pit crew, his child does not actually play percussion. At first this seems inconceivable to me: there are American parents who don’t mind volunteering nights and weekends helping someone else’s children lug a bunch of heavy metal stuff though fields in all kinds of inclement weather?

Randy explains to me that he actually enjoys this. “There is a great camaraderie among parents who help out with the band and the equipment,” he muses.

And Randy knows equipment: he’s the one who goes to pick up the Uhaul trucks that the band rents for each away football game and competition, which means that for the past several years he’s been the one to transport the cumbersome equipment all over Austin and beyond. When I ask how he decided to volunteer, he explodes with laughter.

“Volunteer?” he says. “I never volunteered. The torch was passed to me, and I accidentally accepted it.”

Apparently, a few years back there was a father of a band senior couldn’t make it to pick up the truck one day, and Randy stepped in to pick up the slack. That was four years ago and now Randy’s daughter is a senior. “And soon some innocent parent is going to start helping out, and I’m going to hand them the keys just the same way they were handed to me. The torch will be passed on again,” Randy tells me.

Back in the Pit Crew

After making it to the final rounds of the Westlake Marching Competition, one of Austin’s major fall band events, the Jaguars are psyched for the region competition. Tonight the kids wear their full marching regalia: sparkly purple sashes, regal caps with plumes, patent leather shoes and crisp white shirts that look less and less crisp the longer rain pours from the unrelenting sky.

I ask Gordon Bennett, an LBJ pit crewmember in a rain slicker that is doing him no good, if it took a lot of dedication to work in these kinds of conditions.

“That’s one word for stupidity,” he says.

Thirty minutes before the band is supposed to march on the field, I go with the pit crew and the percussion section to wait at the gates of the stadium. Ken and Deborah and I joke about the weather and tread lightly around politics; a snare drummer jokes that his shoulder are about to detach from his body. The rain courses over our faces, we are lost in the middle of a vast parking lot, and suddenly I am having fun.

I feel like I’ve given up some anxiety — the need to be productive, the need to have a constant purpose — and that I can stand here in the rain with these kids and their parents and just enjoy waiting around. To be in the marching band in any capacity, you have to be willing to wait around, to kill time, to put the group ahead of yourself. You can’t rely on a schedule or weather or getting exactly what you want. In the pit crew you move on instinct, by the moment: which drummer needs what, where, when. As Ken puts it: “The pit crew does not deal in reality. Not in truth, nor in facts. We deal in rumors, innuendo, and speculation.”

As the band marches on the field with rapt expressions, I lug the chimes out to the track. My heart beats fast and I clench my hands. I worry: Lauren in the color guard will drop her rifle. I worry: Dan will drop his trumpet mouthpiece; my chimes will get stuck in the mud.

But none of this happens. One boy loses his shoe and yet they keep on going. There is something indescribably lovely about watching two hundred and fifty kids play an overture through a river of mud. There is something in their gestures and facial expressions that says a lot about how beauty happens when you least expect it. I think of when Don asked them in the band room, “Is that beautiful?” and I want to say yes, yes it is.

After the competition, we huddle by the stadium fence to hear the judges announce their official ratings. The Jaguar Band receives a “1,” which means, technically, “Outstanding;” a “1” at the regions qualifies any band for State.

As we clap and scream, a parent from another school glances at my Pit Crew shirt.

“Congratulations,” she says.

I hesitate for a moment, wanting to say that I am not part of the band, that I am not part of anything like this. But before I can say this I smile and hear myself saying “Thank you” as I brush the rain off my face.

The Skeptic’s Guide to Finding Cheap Airline Tickets: How Much Are You Willing To Suffer, And At What Price?

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Flickr Photo credit: Kai-Ming

I fly often, and I usually book––and pay for––my own tickets. So after years of scouring the internets for cheap airline tickets, I’ve made countless rookie mistakes*––and also scored some amazing deals.**

My new story, An Insider’s Guide: Finding Cheap Airline Tickets, could plausibly have an alternate title:

How Much are You Willing to Suffer, and At What Price?

Sometimes buying plane tickets comes down to this essential equation: how much you’re willing to suffer in order to save money, or how much you’re willing to pay to avoid suffering.

If you ended up suffering in a middle seat for which you paid an exorbitant price, it used to be your travel agent’s fault. No longer: thanks to the glories of digital technology, all of the self-recrimination and buyer’s remorse can be yours alone.

But First, A Little History on Online Tickets

Back in 1978, when the government deregulated the commercial airline industry, fares became subject to market forces and put travel agents in serious competition. In 1995, Alaska Airlines became the first North American airline to begin selling tickets online, and the explosion of online travel sites quickly followed suit. Expedia, among the first of online booking engines, launched in 1996. But times have changed since the birth of Priceline and Expedia: the online travel marketplace has more competing players than ever, and it pays to explore search engines and online tools beyond your go-to travel website.

Essentially, don’t look for the cheapest ticket. Really. Look for the cheapest ticket that’s a good value: in other words, for which you will suffer the least.

A cheap flight might no longer be good value after factoring a long layover plus the need to take a taxi during rush hour between New York’s JFK and LGA airports (about $40, with tip) or between London Heathrow and London Gatwick to make a connection. If this kind of minor disaster sounds farfetched, it’s a not-uncommon scenario to which many bargain hunters have fallen prey. Adjust your expectations––the cheapest flight isn’t always the best flight for you––and know the difference between cost and value. Know much you are willing to endure to save 20 bucks–-or 200.

*Rookie Mistake #1:

Showing up at the Madrid airport after booking on Air Europa, which is a basically decent budget European airline, but has a weird policy: if you book last minute (say, the day or two before) you might receive an email telling you that a customer service agent will call you to confirm your flight. This was the case last November, when I was heading back from Spain to a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner in Amsterdam. When I still hadn’t received confirmation the morning of the flight, I became a bit concerned, so I called the customer service number. I couldn’t get anyone at customer service that was willing to deal with my extremely mediocre Spanish, and nobody would speak English, French or Italian to me at the number.

So I hung up and took the Cercanias train to Barajas airport, feeling confident I could resolve the situation at the Air Europa counter. After all, I had a bonafide reservation—I just lacked the confirmation, right?

Not so. When I arrived at the counter, the agent looked at me blankly and told me that my reservation was not confirmed and I could not fly. I tried to buy another ticket on the spot, but the price they quoted was ridiculous. She suggested, with an impressively straight face, that I fly Easyjet. Since I can’t bring myself to spend more than 100 Euros on an Easyjet ticket—it seemed as ludicrous as spending thirty bucks on a Subway sandwich––I declined, booked the nicest airport hotel that I could find, and decided to enjoy the pool and spa instead of waiting in the airport for hours to be crammed onto a crowded Easyjet flight that cost more than a last minute first class TGV seat from Amsterdam to Paris (including lunch with wine). And it turned out that watching the Real Madrid game with a bunch of Madrileños at the Irish pub near the hotel proved much more fun than waiting around the airport.

Rookie mistake, I thought—except what would I have done differently, other than simply not booking on Air Europa? I learned from this that until you have a confirmation, it’s probably not worth heading to the airport.

There are plenty of other colossal booking mistakes I’ve made, but I don’t want to scare you. Remember to read the fine print, and if you’re booking with an airline or third-party site you’re not familiar with, read consumer reviews online. If there are legions of customers complaining about unconfirmed reservations (Air Europa, I’m talking to you!) you might want to think twice.

** Amazing Deal #1

My sister and I scored some open jaw tickets on Air Canada from Chicago to Madrid and London back to Chicago. They were 400 bucks, which seemed insane, even ten years ago. Then we arrived at the Toronto airport on our layover and suspected why. The airport was nearly deserted––more post-apocalyptic zombie film set than international terminal––and the passengers who milled around were all wearing face masks. Except us. Because we were so psyched to land our $400 tickets to Madrid that catching a pandemic flu was hardly on our minds. Pandemic or no pandemic, I know I probably won’t ever find a ticket like that again.

 

 

 

The Quintessential American Road Trip

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This is an actual tumbleweed. We spotted it rolling down the street in the desert wind.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune gave me one of my favorite assignments last month: to explore the Quintessential American Road Trip. Since I had racked up the majority of  the 100,000 plus miles I put on my first car, a much-loved Toyota Corolla, while criss-crossing the country repeatedly between Minneapolis,  Los Angeles, New York City, Austin, TX, and Chicago––for university, for work, for love, for relocation and just for kicks––I had sizable road trip repertoire from which to draw. Route 66 won out: my sister and I attempted to drive it completely spontaneously without an actual route map (or a smart phone). In keeping with the true pre-Interstate era spirit of the road–– a road that before it became Route 66,  started off life as the Lincoln Highway out of Chicago––we got lost. And got lost again. And again. Here’s the story.

It’s not a classic American road trip if you don’t get at least a tiny bit lost.

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My sister and I on a road trip through Nevada a couple of years ago We aren’t actually lost here, but we are clearly unaware in this photo that we are about to get a flat tire.

 

Unconventional Ways to Inspire Greatness

For my latest CNBC story on unconventional ways to build leadership skills, I spoke to management gurus, improv comedy artists, mindfulness experts, a business school leader, a CEO or two, and the co-founder of Amsterdam’s Boom Chicago. (Note to homesick expats missing American or British comedy: it’s hands-down the best place on the European continent to experience comedy in English.)

I also (finally) read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People––a leadership and personal growth bestseller by Dr. Stephen Covey that I had been meaning to read forever––as well as Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book I’d seen at the library as a kid and figured I’d never pick up.

If you want to be a great leader, here are a few essential tips I learned:

Develop a principle-centered approach. Be proactive. Connect with others through laughter. Real change comes from shifting your paradigm. Practice a martial art––it’s great for discipline and focus. Learn a language other than English. Read the classic leadership texts. Read the classics in general. Get out of your comfort zone. Shake things up by getting feedback from disparate outside perspectives. Meditate. Be mindful. Find a mentor. Mentor someone else.

 

Drinking Pinot Noir at the Airport

PaulGiamettiIn Alexander Payne’s inimitable comedy Sideways––you know, the thinking man’s predecessor to The Hangover that featured wine instead of shots and Sandra Oh instead of Mike Tyson and his tiger––Paul Giametti’s character wouldn’t even stoop to drinking Merlot in California’s Central Coast wine region. In fact, Giametti’s Academy Award-winning performance singlehandedly killed Merlot sales (at least temporarily) with the following line: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f*$king Merlot!”

In the film, he favors Pinot Noir. Unsurprisingly, Pinot Noir sales skyrocketed, especially in California. Blame it on Hollywood, perhaps, but Merlot is just not that cool anymore.

If the producers ever make Sideways II, or The Other Side-Ways, they’ll probably send Lance and Miles on a far flung trip to Tuscany where their wine escapade will involve Italian mafia. There maybe be a cameo where Berlusconi tries to bunga bunga with Sandra Oh. More importantly, there will be an essential scene where Lance convinces Miles to kick off the trip with a toast at the San Francisco airport, and Miles says, “I don’t drink wine at f*#king airports.”

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Don’t try this at the airport. Especially the Minneapolis one. Minnesotans value temperance, or at least moderation.

Quite sensibly, Lance will attempt to reason with him. “Dude, when’s the last time you drank wine at the airport? You don’t have to drink crap wine anymore–they actually have wine bars at airports now.”

USA Today sent me across the country to check out some of America’s newest, and most fetching, airport wine bars. Here’s the story. My personal favorite? It’s Surdyk’s Flights in the Minneapolis airport––but, of course, I’m biased, since Minneapolis is my original hometown and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport is where I took my first flight as a child, back in the 1980s when they still served hot meals on domestic flights. And complimentary wine––although I doubt it was Pinot Noir.  Or even Merlot.