I was looking for seedy. Or, sketchy. At least something real.
Don't get me wrong, the Wynn Las Vegas is a gorgeous hotel, way above par for Las Vegas and most anywhere. The spacious, well-appointed rooms seem right out of Beverly Hills. Marble bathrooms, silken sheets. The best minibar you can find and mood lighting and automatic shades covering floor-to-ceiling windows offering spectacular views.
Of Las Vegas.
The Wynn infomercial has beautiful women guests visiting exotic Asian restaurants, ponds and spas that litter the property. But this is a man's place. At least, the Las Vegas I know.
I notice it on the United flight out of Dulles. Ten to one men to women. No kids. This is not family vacation, if you get my drift.
I'm on business at an annual restaurant finance conference at the Wynn. The men are well-dressed. Blue blazers and tasteful, conservative patterns. Women stand out like peacocks with their bright jackets or scarves. There are about three of them in this group of 2,000. Okay, more like five percent of this finance and major restaurant conference. But still -- a tiny, brightly colored minority. Like a few rescue flares scattered across the vast, dark Pacific.
The Wynn is plush and comfortable. I have a great conversation at The Parasol Bar with a restaurant leader I didn't know before. Hailing from Utica, NY, he reminds me what a hero Steve Wynn, an upstate New York native, is for creating all this. Luxury. More luxury. Signifying luxury. Parasols ... get it?
The casino beeps and chimes all day, but it's plush and luxurious. Russian voices, Chinese everywhere. They are wide-eyed and flocking here. They are not the women in the infomercial.
The conference is fun and productive. The attendees seem happy.
A cell phone blings. "Honey ... you will not BELIEVE! I'm having dinner with WOLFGANG PUCK!"
At the end of Day Two I am jonesing for something real. Something not camera-ready. It's Las Vegas -- seedy would be OK. Simple would be a relief.
I drive at a snail's pace north on Las Vegas Blvd. -- you think I-66 is bad? I'm thinking I won't find the scruffy northern end of town that still is reputed to be gritty and real, carrying the spirit of old Western towns. Pool, beer, cigarette smoke -- has it all become fuel for a glistening tower?
I turn corners and circle around without direction. About to give up. Then, like a blinking red light, the Stateside Lounge butts in to the left. Ugly neon dressing up a dark, foreboding façade. A truck or two out front. It looks promising. I park.
Smoky, dark, with a few people at a quiet bar, I feel hope.
No sooner do I sit down than "Joyce" has introduced herself and her companion Joey and bought me a draft Bud. ($2.25)
I meet the owner of the bar, Dottie, and the regulars plus Dottie's visiting sister from Missouri, Lavinia.
"This is a neighborhood bar," Joyce says. "We're like family." They are still looking at me like I might be a cop.
Then, a little later, "We like you. You're family now." Ummm ... OK!
They're headed to a pool night at another bar. Unlike them I don't carry a personal cue. I successfully decline but enjoy watching their excitement. They are 60-somethings. A guy with a long, white pony tail that touches his belt.
Who is going to drive to the pool night? Who will drive back? This is a long debate. Lavinia heads back to Missouri Monday. I'm learning a lot about this posse.
After two-and-a-half beers it's time to hit the road. Ashley the bartender slaps down a hand-written receipt marked "food." Perfect.
I drive around the northeast perimeter of the city looking for a motel. Just a bed and bath. Shivering, I stand in lines. The independent, the Comfort Inn. I drive on Lamb Blvd. and Craig St., Pecos. So many empty boulevards...but no empty rooms.
"You'll have to drive south to Prim to find a room," one clerk says. "Prim"? In this state? I laugh even as I wonder where the heck I will stay.
It's getting late, getting cold. "Sorry, nothing but smoking rooms left." Hmmm.
My rental car is clean. Having found real fun and real people, maybe I'll experience the very real compact back seat as my manger. I pull my Italian suit jackets and running tights out of my suitcase. Every last thread will be used to keep warm tonight. As the mercury hits 35, I realize my shoes will stay on. It's 10:00 and I'm fading out in the Ford Focus backseat motel.
Was it a dream, was it real?
What happens in Las Vegas ...
I admit it. I had gelato for breakfast today.
Is that disgusting? Was it vile?
Actually it was luscious. Worse, it was normal.
You see, it's Rome. Rome in July.
Tourists teem around the beautiful Trevi fountain, bobbing and weaving for new Facebook photos in front of the magic white sculpture. Cheese! The sun blazes toward noon. A fruit stand offers tasty-looking watermelon. But it is no match, no competition at all for a scoop of Noccio, or walnut. Gelato, that is. Like heaven in your mouth. Not accidentally -- no, especially -- before noon.
In Rome, you see, "Live a little!" takes on new definitions. Even sober Rick Steves, the PBS travel host, recommends diving in head first, with a backflip or two -- not sticking one's toes in the water -- to truly experience this thriving, throbbing, delight of a city.
If it were a cake, it would be a 15-layer meringue, raspberry-chocolate Tiramisu swirl with sparklers on top. And peaks of whipped cream. That would be layer #1.
Rome tickles the mind and thrills the senses with its breathtaking beauty and its open, free spirit.
Audrey Hepburn, playing Princess Ann in William Wyler's Roman Holiday, discovered this. "Ann, the crown princess of an unspecified country, has started a widely publicized tour of several European capitals. In Rome she becomes frustrated with her tightly scheduled life. Her doctor gives her a sedative to calm her down and help her sleep, but she secretly leaves her country's embassy to experience Rome on her own," says Wikipedia.
Severely dazed, Ann is discovered late at night sleeping on a city bench. American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), not recognizing her, tries to send her home, but she is too confused. When she regains her faculties in his apartment on the couch, she realizes she has broken free of her schedule, cuts her hair short, and remains incognito for several days with Joe and the journos, who plan to publish their exclusive scoop, but end up giving Ann all the photos and staying mum. Quaint, huh? It's cute.
Hepburn, symbolizing the potential freedom of a young woman abroad when the movie was made in the early 50s, won an Oscar for her delightful and prescient performance.
But whereas Princess Ann had no cash due to her escape, now you might pay $6.00 for a Coke in a tourist-oriented caffè with plastic table cloths. But who cares, when you have just heard the most beautiful Gregorian chants in a basilica dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs, for free? The church, near the Piazza della Repubblica, is off the beaten track, far from the gelato stands and lines of the faithful at St. Peter's or the Vatican.
A church volunteer offers me a shawl to cover my bare arms as I tiptoe in. "Zip your bag!" he warns. It's hard to imagine pickpockets in this peaceful, graceful church, but I obey and drape the soft, sweet-smelling scarf on my shoulders as the humble music caresses the air. The heart slows as one is wrapped in this serene beauty, designed by Michelangelo on a break from his more prestigious, more famous work at St. Peter's.
It's not that this Roman Holiday is gelato-for-breakfast only. The Keats-Shelley House, the Da Vinci Museum, the Pantheon, the majestic Forum and the Jewish museum (bring Kleenex) all offer excellent experiences. I visited the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums. The Last Judgement and The Creation of Adam will practically knock you to the ground with their artistic power.
For that excursion, I bought a flowery blouse and a bouncy skirt, and practically skipped there, like it was the first day of school. They said no shorts would be allowed. It turned out to be a myth, but the purchases were a great start to my "I hate to shop" Roman shopping spree.
I HATE to shop. Five minutes in a mall has me light-headed and looking for the exit. But in Rome, each day offers an opportunity to partake in the local sartorial delights and help the struggling European economy. The fate of the Euro affects us all, remember?
And who wouldn't want to support a city in which at every step one finds art, ancient history, and friendly Romans, who seem to be universally happy and solicitous.
At my hotel, the wonderful, well-located Comfort Hotel Bolivar, part of the Choice Hotel group, I ask the handsome desk clerk how he is doing. "I would prefer to go out into the town with you," he says plaintively. Translation: "I'm fine, thanks."
You see, there is a vivacious, bubbly, smiling spirit shining through the people, the beauty, the monuments to history and of course the Houses of God in Rome that wraps you in its arms and gives you a delicious embrace.
You want to say out loud, "Ask not why you would visit Rome, but why ever would you leave?" Besides paying for this blessed privilege, there is no good excuse.
Dear United Airlines ... found La Dolce Vita ... must change return flight ...
One can dream.
But if it's true that into every life a little rain must fall, then -- if there is any justice -- so too should a little Roman Holiday.
CASABLANCA, Morocco -- As a slightly subversive Ingrid Bergman once provoked the lounge pianist Sam to play "As Time Goes By" at Rick's Café in the movie Casablanca, so rebels the restored version of the Café in modern day Casablanca, a somewhat scruffy metropolis, in real-life 2012.
Rick's lights up as the city lumbers. Classically decorated with beautiful ceramic tiles, teak and palm fronds jutting into a riad's vaulted ceiling, Rick's sparkles amid the city's soot.
What launched Rick's Café?
Capt. Renault: I've often speculated why you don't return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator's wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It's the romantic in me.
Rick: It's a combination of all three.
Renault: And what in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Casablanca is abustling, dusty business capital. There is little tourism, little fanfair.
This comes as relief after spicy Marrakesh, which draws Europeans, wealthy Emerati, rich Congolese -- and battalions of local hustlers hoping to earn a few dollars in the informal tourist trade. Even a confident explorer eschewing tour groups and chaperoned safaris may experience irritation and pangs of fear when constantly approached by those who wish to be of help in some way -- for money, bien sûr.
While Marrakesh is colorful and dramatic with its souks and bustling nightlife, Casablanca is a relief with its business focus and nonchalance.
A cappuccino costs a dollar in Casablanca; two in Marrakesh. Wifi and alcohol are everywhere in Marrakesh, harder to find in the capital to the north. Both cities are visibly Islamic, a bit of a surprise on the Atlantic Ocean a stone's throw from Europe, especially in this once grande ville where French bread, café au lait and Gauloise can be found on every block, more common than minarets.
Blessed with enough rain to produce luscious fruits and vegetables, striking geography that includes the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains, and the gorgeous North Atlantic, Morocco is a promising and interesting stop in Western North Africa after doing business in the Middle East and capitals like Cairo and Tunis.
But make no mistake: women are second class, the country is poor, and even a Hollywood fable known to all can't change the fact that the country has a long way to go to sit comfortably in the Second World, not to mention the First.
Corruption in this strategic outpost at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Africa is allegedly widespread.
Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
Employee of Rick's: [hands Renault money] Your winnings, sir.
Renault: Oh, thank you, very much. Everybody out at once!
On a long walk from a downtown hotel to the train station, an American in Casablanca paid 7 Dirhams, or less than 90 cents, for a café au lait at a regular café occupied solely by men, the typical clientele. It was far enough off the tourist track that the waiter looked anxiously at her -- either surprised to see a woman sit with the men, or simply hoping that they both spoke enough French to get the deal done. The café au lait was delicious. The waiter looked relieved.
Creature comforts abound for those who can afford it. The beautiful Hyatt at $300 a night offers cold Heinekens at about $9. The bar is elegant and friendly -- recalling the glamour of times gone by, and the Wifi is the best in Morocco -- even better, it's free.
But trying to blend in with the regular Tareks, Daouds, and Hashims of this country -- or even their upper-class brethren -- reveals a landscape of challenges.
With per capita income of about $5,100, ranking Morocco ahead of Guatemala and Syria but behind Armenia, Georgia and Swaziland, Moroccans still look to Mother France for ideas and most foreign investment. A recent visit to Casablanca including investors and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault once again declared the nations' joint commitment to amitié and future prosperity.
This arrangement isn't so bad for France. While Morocco imports over $6 billion in French goods annually, France imports $4.2 billion of Moroccan goods in return. The Hexagon thus runs close to a 50% trade surplus with its old colonial ami.
To mark the occasion of the new vows of friendship last week, the government popped champagne corks as the first-ever commuter tram (manufactured in France) started running in the capital. It is suddenly the most sophisticated public transport system in Africa. Even the popular, western-educated King Mohammed VI, whose portrait perches in many shops, was there to wave and take a spin to recognize this success of French-Moroccan cooperation.
Before she came down with a stomach virus last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also supposed to be in Morocco for meetings with foreign ministers regarding Syria. Watching local women camouflaged under veils and occupying few high-ranking positions in the government and private sectors, one is reminded of the critical work Sec. Clinton has done across the globe to lift women to greater levels of education, equality and influence.
No matter how much she has done for women and America, the Secretary -- and perhaps future President -- needs to do more. The future of women worldwide -- and the related peaceful coexistence between the Muslim and Western worlds, depends on it.
Rick: If that plane leaves the ground and you're not on it, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have it before...we'd...we'd lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you ...
Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now. Here's looking at you, kid.
Here's looking at you, Madame Secretary, and a country with a gin-joint named Rick's.