Travel Movie Review: Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s “Before” series (beginning with 1995’s Before Sunrise, continuing with 2004’s Before Sunset, and now extended to the present day with this year’s Before Midnight) is not everyone’s cup of tea. Each movie follows rambling intellectual conversations/flirtations between Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy) and American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) as they walk endlessly through gorgeously shot European locations (Vienna, Paris, and now Kardamili, a village in the southern Peloponnese). These are not action-packed movies. You have to be willing to listen and be patient and get absorbed into the atmosphere. Nothing really happens.

Except that so much happens. You get to know the characters, who feel to me like complete, real people who I can easily imagine living day-to-day in the time between the movies. They get to know each other, discover the things they love about each other, and bump up against the things they don’t understand about each other. And, most important,  you get to see some absolutely beautiful scenery (cinematography by Lee Daniel in the first two and Christos Voudouris in the latest) and see glimpses of places in the way that you could only hope to see them if you visited yourself–the perfect golden light, the smallest and cobblestone-iest of streets, the kinds of charming encounters you’d actually want to have with a homeless poet or a wandering fortune teller (instead of persistent and annoying beggars and touts).

This leads me to my sole complaint about Before Midnight. The two previous films both made me swoon for the characters and the cities they strolled through; the settings always felt like the third main character. Large chunks of this movie, however, take place at a writers’ retreat (shot at the villa of the late writer Patrick Leigh Fermor) and inside a hotel room. There are good reasons these choices, but they give the viewer less of a chance to enjoy the destination itself. We get some hilly landscapes behind the couple as they drive and walk around, a slice of a quaint town, and a brief scene inside a Byzantine chapel. Otherwise, this chapter of the story focuses more on people (including Jesse and Celine’s first extended interactions with people besides themselves) and less on location.

Which doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s an intelligently written and deeply true-feeling movie. But it does mean that there’s less for the traveler’s eye to enjoy. If you already love these characters and want to know what’s happening to them next, it’s a must-see. But if you just want to devour some European-destination eye-candy, rewatch the first two. And if you can do that and not need to see the latest installment, well, you’re made of tougher stuff than me.


A Very Tiny Voyage to: American Science and Surplus

My dog’s favorite thing in the whole world is to run around like a fool chasing other dogs. Luckily, we live close to a giant park, so we go and do that after work every day. Unfortunately, now it gets dark at 4:30 and she becomes more or less invisible. I bought her a light-up dog collar, which was a piece of crap and broke after about ten minutes of playing with her buddy Bertram. With the determination of the perpetually strapped and moderately handy, I resolved to build my own, better, stronger, faster. Well, maybe not faster.

American Science and Surplus is basically the best place on the planet. It has a little bit of every kind of useful/fun/stupid/crazy thing you could want. Robot parts? Check! Pocket microscope? Check! Russian gas mask? Check! Fiber optic mohawk? Check!

So I set off on the Blue Line after work. Having been either broke, antisocial, living in a mostly inaccessible neighborhood, or a combination of all three for pretty much my entire seven-year stint in Chicago, I haven’t spent much time on the train lines I haven’t lived on (Brown and Red). And Chicago being deceptively large and varied, going to a different neighborhood can often feel like going to a whole new city.  hile I had been to AS&S before, I had never taken public transit to get there, so I dutifully looked it up on a map and plotted my route. As I do not have a smartphone, I made myself a little post-it with the address and some vague intersection notes.

The Jefferson Park stop is in the middle of the highway, which is fairly unpleasant as a train rider. It makes the station smoggy and incredibly noisy. Plus you end up being really far away (relatively) from any of the actual places you might be going to, whereas at most other stations you can step off the platform and a few feet away are a ton of businesses who want to make your trip nicer. However, there is a certain benefit to the Schadenfreude of moving faster than the cars on the highway.

The walk from the train station involved a creepy underpass. Chicago uses highways to keep the “right sort” of people on one side or the other, so they slice through the middle of things quite often. You end up with a lot of places that look something like this:

Yep, there’s a creepy hobo totally ready to jump out and shiv you.

While the walk in general was fairly desolate, I did pass some interesting shops. I don’t currently have need of a pot large enough to boil a teenage runaway, but perhaps someday I will, in which case I know where to go.

Possibly the best thing about AS&S is that it has a sense of humor. The signs are a lot like they used to be at your favorite indie record store, back when those were still a thing that people did on a Saturday afternoon.

If you doubted you were at AS&S then check out our LEGS.  Yeah...we sell legs now... Legs!!!


If you live in the Chicago or Milwaukee areas, you should definitely check out their stores:

5316 N. Milwaukee Ave.
(at Central Ave, N of Foster)
Chicago, IL 60630

Geneva/West Chicago
33W361 Rt 38 (Roosevelt Rd)
(1/4 mile East of Kirk Rd)
Geneva/West Chicago, IL 60185

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
6901 W Oklahoma Ave
Milwaukee, WI 53219

If you’re not nearby, fear not!  You can order from their website:

Field Trip Day!

Remember how exciting it was to go on a field trip when you were in elementary school? Instead of memorizing boring old multiplication tables and spelling lists, you got to pile on a bus and drive into the city to see a submarine or a dinosaur skeleton or maybe out into the country to pet goats or see an old mill (OK, actually the old mill was really dull, but you get my point). Now there are two new(-ish) things you can download to your pocket that help replicate the field trip experience for you.

First off is the Field Trip app from Google. Field Trip uses your location data to tell you about the cool stuff all around you, compiled from a range of sources like Arcadia Press and Eater and probably a bunch of others I haven’t run across yet. I’ve only had the opportunity to use it locally so far, where it’s pointed out a lot of Korean cultural and historical facts in my own neighborhood and a bunch of restaurants in the Loop. It’s not really made for the day-to-day wanderings around my own city, but I’m excited to give it a try the next time I go out of town, because if there’s any source I trust to provide me with way too many random facts about the world around me, it’s Google.

There’s also the Field Trip podcast (completely unrelated), in which your two intrepid guides go out into the world to learn about science as it is lived. Each episode features an interview or two at labs of various sorts, whether it’s a coffee roaster or the garage of a self-described tinkerer. The hosts are enthusiastic without being obnoxious and knowledgeable while still speaking layman’s language, and they do an excellent job of interpreting the somewhat complicated visuals involved in their stories for the listening audience. Based on their descriptions, I could easily picture the process of grinding glass into a parabola for a telescope. Plus, I have to admit, I love their little theme song, which reminds me of the educational public television shows from the 80s.

OK, does everybody have their buddy? Great. Let’s go.

Across Continents and Decades: Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar

Early in his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux, one of the great modern chroniclers of the road, asks of the thirty-three years that have passed since his last trip overland through Europe and Asia, “Had my long-ago itinerary changed as much as me?” His first journey over this route, from London, through Europe, across the Middle East, crisscrossing Asia, and back across the length of Russia, was captured in The Great Railway Bazaar. More than three decades later, Theroux decided to answer the question by recreating the trip in a world that had radically changed politically, structurally, and culturally.

Theroux, while occasionally irritable (especially in the first book–he mellows with age), is mostly a curious and educated guide on these trips. He writes with great detail about the people he meets, their appearances, their lives, and steers clear of the condescension you might find in a less road-worn writer. Theroux has lived and worked and traveled all over the world, and he isn’t so naive as to think of a place as simple or one-dimensional, even if it might at first appear that way through the window of a passing train. He finds much to admire and appreciate in the people he meets on the road, but he is also honest about the difficulties of traveling, the problems inherent in being a well-off Western man in poor countries, and some of the culture clashes and anti-American/British (Theroux is American but lives in the UK) sentiment he runs into as well. Neither of these books, despite their moments of transcendental beauty and eye-opening encounters, gloss over the fact that food is sometimes awful, people sometimes try to take advantage of foreigners, and long days on the road are sometimes dull. And he visits not only glamorous places like Istanbul and Kyoto but also spots usually overlooked on a tourist’s map–the freezing eastern Russian port town of Nakhodka or the call center farms of Bangalore populated by young Indians with fake American names and accents–giving a fuller picture of the world that people live in, not just the world people visit.

Either of these books makes for excellent reading on its own, but the best way to read them is as a set. I picked up Ghost Train at a bookstore having never read any Theroux before, got a few pages in, and then realized I should really read Railway Bazaar first. I’d recommend that approach–both books, in order, in quick succession, so you can compare and contrast the changes in, as the author himself points out, both the countries traveled through and the man who travels through them. It’s something I always think about when revisiting a place: What did I do last time I was here? What did I think? Who was I then? What’s different now?

Summarizing his journeys, Theroux writes, “Travel gives you glimpses of the past and the future, your own and other people’s.” When you leave a place, it keeps moving and growing, and you do too, separately. Bringing yourself and the place together again makes for a natural point to reflect and take the measure of both and come to understand the world, ugly or beautiful, difficult or welcoming, dull or awe-inducing, a little better.

Kopi: A Traveler’s Cafe

I recently found myself up in the clean, boutique-y, stroller-packed neighborhood of Andersonville in my fair city of Chicago, at a place I haven’t been in many years and had thus forgotten about: Kopi, a Traveler’s Cafe. It seemed a little too fitting to wind up there while simultaneously trying to come up with an idea for one more post this week, so here we are.

The decor is reminiscent of a bazaar in some fantastic cross between Southeast Asia (the name, Kopi, is the Indonesian word for coffee), North Africa, and Central America. At the front window there is a raised seating area where the cool kids sit cross-legged on pillows at low tables. The rest of the tables, all painted with different designs, are small and packed closely together, ideal for sharing stories about your last trip or planning the next one. Throughout the cafe, pictures and crafts hang from the walls: Buddhas and dragons and chains of beads and strands of prayer flags. In the back, there is a small shop full of long, flowing dresses and brightly printed scarves. The whole space smells faintly of incense, and it feels like it’s only because of city ordinances that no one is smoking hookah. In other words, it brings to life the brainspace of a well-meaning if not entirely reality-based globetrotting hippie sort of person.

The menu reflects this as well: plenty of vegetarian options, lots of cheap choices including eggs, sandwiches, and salads, and an extensive tea list.

About the menu I can’t say much more, as I didn’t eat anything. (Look, this review was a spur of the moment decision, OK?) I did have a cup of creamy, fragrant, and surprisingly spicy Indian tea, which was perfect for the crisp fall day.

I sat and chatted with a fellow travel-mad friend and occasionally gazed longingly at the huge shelf full of Lonely Planet books and cursed my new job and consequent lack of an autumn trip this year. For right now, an afternoon in another neighborhood, in a space that tries and somewhat succeeds at being a haven apart from typical city bustle, is all I can manage.

Getting Up to Speed

Richard Linklater has already proved his travel-film-maker bona fides with the winding-European-streetscape porn of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (and the forthcoming Before Midnight squeeeee! ok back to critical review). Now he’s created a new Hulu-exclusive historical travel series, Up to Speed, with our tour guide, the energetic and passionate Speed Levitch. Levitch is a for-real tour guide (apparently featured in the movie The Cruise, which I haven’t seen) who, for the purposes of this series, wanders around various American cities, interviewing forgotten monuments. Yes, monuments. It’s not exactly Rick Steves. It’s aggressively weird. I guess we shouldn’t expect any less from the Austin auteur. Levitch uses phrases like “standing on Shiva’s dance floor of creation and destruction” when talking about how San Francisco is impacted by earthquakes and ends the Chicago episode by jamming with a motley crew of musicians in an alley singing the old union anthem “Solidarity Forever.”

In each episode, Levitch focuses on one aspect of a city’s history, explaining how it shaped the city and its people, looking at the artifacts left behind, and talking about how it influences the city into the present day. It’s a very specific lens through which to view a city, and something a little different than the current travel-show vogue of landing a place and devouring the largest food item you can find there.

That said, the show confuses me a little bit. Levitch’s style of dress and speech (loud patterns, big hair, aging-hippie lilt), and the strange conceit of talking to buildings, some of them with pretty broad accents, makes it feel like a children’s show. And I think the idea of a children’s history/travel show is one whose time has come! Carmen Sandiego forever, baby. But this is not a children’s show. Both Levitch and the monuments curse with some regularity (bleeping out the sturdier swears), and there are references to things like fascism and the anarchist movement without providing enough context for kids to understand. Which makes me think this show must be aimed at adults, but the kind of adults who enjoy childlike things. Which is fine, I guess, as far as that goes, but isn’t something that I personally want a steady diet of. Up to Speed is something that I’d turn to on a lazy Sunday morning when I just want to stay in bed and be entertained, but it’s not going to be mandatory viewing each week.