When my wife, Catharine, and I were traveling around Europe for six months in 1974 — back when touring Europe was literally cheaper than staying home — we took a ferry from Naples to the Isle of Capri early one sunny morning and settled into seats on deck.
On the ferry was an English-speaking tout trying to line up customers for Capri tours, approaching all the deck passengers who looked to be tourists and showing off booklets of pictures that highlighted the sights of Capri.
One of his key selling points was a restaurant lunch that featured “spaghetti with clams — or anything you want!”
This would have been forgettable except that his voice carried across the deck and by the time he reached us, we had heard him say “You can have spaghetti with clams — or anything you want!” several dozen times.
While we didn’t sign up for the tour, the “spaghetti with clams” phrase became deeply embedded in our memory, and to this day, whenever one of us makes spaghetti with clam sauce (which we do a lot) and the other asks what’s for dinner, the reply is invariably “spaghetti with clams — or anything you want!”
The phrase has even taken on a broader meaning for us, a shorthand way of saying to each other: If you don’t want this thing, then how about something else?
I thought of this while reading an interesting piece in Medium, the provocative online platform, about random sentences the writer had heard that had stuck with him through life.
Like “spaghetti with clams,” these almost certainly weren’t the most consequential phrases he had ever heard. But they tapped into something meaningful, so he had remembered them for decades, even from childhood.
Here are some of the other memorable phrases, all related to travel, that have stuck with me through the years — until they’ve created their own mythology in my mind and even overshadowed the things one is supposed to have remembered (like, for the most part, the Isle of Capri itself):
“No! Want Cheepchunks!”
When my son, Grael, and daughter, Lia, were age five and two, respectively, our family set out on a six-week roundtrip cross-country drive from California to visit relatives and friends in the Midwest and East.
Catharine had bought a children’s non-breakable tape player and a few kids’ tapes to help keep them occupied. One of them was “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” featuring the distinctive speeded-up voices of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore crooning Uptown Girl, Beat It, and various other popular tunes of the day.
There were no earphones, so we all listened to the Chipmunks — all the way across the deserts, the Rockies, the Great Plains, over the Mississippi, and on to the Atlantic.
The first thousand times we heard Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, the songs seemed kind of catchy. It was the next 5,000 that just about did the occupants of the front seat in.
Catharine would gently, and then not so gently, suggest playing some of the other tapes. “No! Want Cheepchunks!” Lia would always insist, while Grael happily played deejay.
And so it came to pass that in the parking lot of a Connecticut mall, while Catharine was buying some Advil in a drugstore for her nagging headache, that I came oh-so-close to tossing the Chipmunks — and the entire tape player — into a dumpster.
Fortunately I did not, and Lia and I have remained on excellent terms over the years — while her anguished cry, “No! Want Cheepchunks!” has taken its place in our family folklore.
“Jackals, Jackals Everywhere!”
While touring the island of Cyprus with some other travel scribes several years ago, I was in a museum watching a documentary on the history of Cyprus, which focused a lot on the innumerable times the island had been invaded and occupied for centuries.
The documentary was low-budget and a bit cheesy, and at one point some shadowy jackals appeared on screen to represent an invading force, most likely the Ottoman Turks.
For some reason, Jenna, the magazine editor sitting next to me, and I started cracking up over this depiction, and during the rest of the trip we bonded over the phrase “Jackals, Jackals Everywhere!”
Over the next several years, she assigned me a number of pieces for her magazine, and while our ensuing emails were mostly business-oriented, we never failed to mention “Jackals.” Each time, it served as a reminder of how much we had enjoyed that trip and becoming friends before becoming business associates.
“The Guy in the Pink Cowboy Hat”
Well before Grael and Lia came along, I was a kid myself taking long driving trips around the country with my parents and sister.
On one trip from Indiana to California, we stopped at a number of roadside attractions, state and national parks, rest areas, and mini-theme parks, and at almost every stop, or so it seemed, we found ourselves within sight of The Guy in the Pink Cowboy Hat.
He was clearly traveling at about the same pace we were and shared our general interests, but we would probably never have recognized him from one place to the next without his distinctive headgear.
Sometimes he would be a few feet away from us or sometimes we would just catch a glimpse as he moseyed over a hillside. But there he was, forging his own trek out West but also becoming very much a part of ours.
And then, one, day, he was gone. Maybe he had taken another road. Maybe he had reached home. Maybe at some point he just went faster than us. Or maybe he started to think, “What’s with that family from Indiana who’s always following me?”
For my sister and me, he became a leitmotif for the trip, our shadowy friend who we kind of looked forward to seeing and were disappointed when he went away, much like what happens with real friends sometimes.
My sister, however, told me some years ago that she doesn’t remember The Guy in the Pink Cowboy Hat, which got me to wondering — was he all just a figure of my imagination?
Nope. He had just made more of an impression on me, a part of my own permanent folklore if no one else’s.
“Take It Upstairs!”
One phrase my sister and I both remember well (and shudder to think about) was “Take It Upstairs!”
Shortly after receiving my driver’s license as a teenager, I found myself driving my mother and sister into New York City — a far cry from the small town in Indiana where I grew up. Normally, my father would have been driving, but he was already in New York and we were to rendezvous with him later.
It would prove to be a real test of my nerves, and I came perilously close to failing.
As I recall, I almost turned the wrong way into a one-way street with five lanes of traffic heading our way. But that wasn’t the really scary part.
That came when we entered the parking garage of the hotel where we were staying. The ramp into the aging garage was dark and narrow and our Chevrolet was an extremely tight fit. We wanted to pull off ASAP into the nearest available space, but there was none.
A growling man with a New York brusqueness took no mercy, shouting “Take it upstairs!”
And so we took it upstairs — past one level and then another and another, navigating hairpin turns, precariously backing up when necessary when encountering cars coming down, trying not to wreck the car and wishing we could just get out of there alive. We were in full panic mode until finally finding a parking space at the top.
Welcome to New York!
To this day, as my sister puts it, “Take it upstairs!” represents any terrifying thing that emerges from an unknown, unexpected situation. And it’s emblazoned on my brain as well.
“Not Dead, Just Resting”
This one, based on a recently spotted sign, doesn’t have deep roots in the psyche, and probably wouldn’t have even made an impression when I was younger.
But as Catharine and I, like all baby boomers, move into that marvelous fraternity/sorority of “seniorhood” — I still haven’t figured out what to call it — and find ourselves attached to park benches a bit longer than before, “Not Dead, Just Resting,” has struck a chord that I suspect will become one of our new favorite mantras.
For a long time to come.