Monday, June 6, 2011

"Leave a Little Room in the Suitcase"

A few years ago I saw a movie about a "perfect beach" and the unique community that lived there.  The beach was on a small island in Southeast Asia, and was kept secret by those who were lucky to find it. 
A small group of young adults from different parts of the world subsisted there, keeping a low profile, and enjoying the paradise-like location. 
The protagonist was American, there were some complicated French characters, and an English woman in charge, as I remember it.
My favorite characters were the Swedish guys who just loved to fish.

The movie had it's moments, but I'm not sure it was worth the time, except for one particular scene.
Now and then someone would have a reason to go back to civilization for supplies or medical reasons, and the community had a routine where everyone would line up and take their turn asking the lucky (or unlucky) traveler to bring them something back.
Oner person wanted batteries for their radio,
another needed toothpaste and such,
and then there was the guy who was crazy about the game of Cricket and just wanted the sports page.

The critics weren't all that impressed with the film, and I'm glad I caught it on cable, and not by buying a theater ticket.  But that one "shopping list" scene where everyone got to request one item was all too familiar to me.

You see, 20+ years ago I worked at a radio station in Nome, Alaska,
and we had a similar ritual.
In Alaskan bush communities, they have a term: "going outside".
If you're leaving town to visit a large city, or one of the "lower 48" (states, that is), then you're "going outside". 
This term does also apply to stepping out the front door, and in winter it's a very big deal to "go outside" when it's fifty-below zero fahrenheit.
When you live in a little remote town near the Arctic Circle "going outside" to civilization is an even bigger deal... and it has another component: shopping.

Within our small team of staff members at the radio station, it was no secret if you were making a trip to Anchorage or Seattle, and many would approach you with money and a scribbled note describing what they wanted you to buy them with that money.
Coffee, tea, spices, and medicines were often requested.
tools or kitchen items that weren't available in our little town were also commonly listed.  The easier it was to find in the city, the better chance they'd get what they wanted.
The smaller the item, the better chance you'd be able to fit it into your suitcase.
One time when another staffer was "going outside",
I requested the B-52's latest album...on cassette (hey, it was the 80's).  Another time I obtained a bright orange soccer ball through the same channel.  Orange soccer balls are much easier to retrieve from snow banks.

No promises were made, aside from the guarantee that you'd do your best, within the time and travel constraints ahead, to locate and acquire the items requested.
But whatever the likelihood, it was a standard operating procedure to leave a little room in the suitcase anytime you "went outside".

Two days ago I had a fun conversation with Sean Jamieson - owner of The Gondola Company in Coronado about this routine, and we both had to laugh because it's almost exactly what Southern California gondoliers do whenever one of them makes a trip to Venice.
There are some things you can't just stuff into your suitcase - like an oar, or a sandolo, but if a gondolier is likely to be buying shirts for himself, it's not too much trouble to ask him the favor of picking up a few for you too. 
It goes without saying that you'll gladly return the favor when you make a trip of your own to La Serenissima. 

As far as ettiquette goes, here are a few pointers to consider:
- It's considered "bad form" to ask for too much - a few light items like striped shirts or a forcola da prova are acceptable.  Twenty shirts? Well, that's a bigger favor, which ought to be treated as such.

- Heavier items like a forcola da poppa, or brass seahorses are a bit much.  If your friend is already bringing back cavalli of his own, and you want a smaller, lighter pair, you might get away with that because he's already going to the place where they make or sell the brass horses. 
But in general, the heavier the item, the bigger the favor.

- details of the item or items requested should be spelled out on paper or via e-mail.  Make it as easy as possible for your friend.

- Specify sizes, colors, and provide any other details you can.

- If your friend wants money before the trip, determine what your requested items will cost, and give a bit more.

- Try not to look like too much of an opportunist (even though you are).

- Fussing over the change, whether it's coins or dollars, is "bad form". 
In fact you might consider offering to pay a little extra for the hassle of shoppong and transportation.
- When your gondolier friend returns home, don't be waiting on his doorstep, willing to help him unpack so you can get your precious shirt.

- If you calculated incorrectly, or the exchange rate went up and the price was higher, pay the extra and apologize for any inconvenience.

- If your friend comes back empty-handed, be understanding and don't let it affect your friendship (providing you get your money back, of course).

Of course you could just go without telling anyone.
Most folks won't be too upset, but we all have a few close friends who might be irritated, and will likely know ahead of time. 
After all, it's awfully hard to make such a trip without telling anyone.

In Alaska, if you "went outside", you either told people, and did the shopping, or kept it a secret and apologized to everyone upon return and (hoped you'd be included next time someone else made the trip).

As I write this, I'm expecting a new white marinera from a friend who was kind enough to include me in his shopping in Venice last week,
a friend who was willing to "leave a little room in the suitcase".


Gondola Sean said...

Sorry Greg,
I spent your money pasta and vino.

Gondola Greg said...

...and "magic beans" too?