It’s like deja-vu all over again*

To those of you who are my Facebook friends, the below blog may sound familiar.

This not because I’m plagiarising, however – because good librarians don’t do that – but rather, because it’s been cobbled together from an assortment of my previous social media postings. You can look forward to more of this in the future as well.

On the surface, this type of shameless… repurposing… may strike you as an act of desperation from a creative well wrung dry, or perhaps just bone laziness.

But if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

Because I’m recycling. That’s right, recycling. And recycling’s great. Everyone loves recyclers. In fact, if you don’t assiduously separate your glass and paper waste from your ordinary trash each week, you’re basically the devil and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get pelted to death with carefully rinsed-out PET containers by Greens voters in yoga pants.

Essentially, then, I’m a sustainability crusader – an eco-warrior – a type of inspiring Boadicea-David Suzuki hybrid armed, not with a sword, but ready access to the “Ctrl C” and “Ctrl V” keys. Or something. Whatever.

Anyway, I wrote the below back when I was looking for a flat-sitter for my US trip. But that’s all in the past now, because I have not just a flat-sitter, but a fully-fledged flatmate. And he’s great – he even brushes the cat and repairs household objects I didn’t realise were broken. But that’s another story to be told another time. For now, let’s just wallow in the past a bit. With cat photos, of course.

2015-02-23 23.37.39May 2015

I’m meeting with a lady interested in flat/cat-sitting for me. It’s all going well – her references are impeccable, she’s used to looking after pets, and the absence of a TV doesn’t faze her – until we get to the inevitable awkward topic.

“So, you’re an animal person,” I begin, attempting a subtle segue. “How do you feel about, say, slugs?”

“Slugs?” she repeats blankly.

“Yes, slugs,” I say. “You don’t get squeamish or anything, do you? It’s just that the house has this…” I search for the right word… “… idiosyncrasy, I suppose. Basically, in the middle of the night, all of these giant slugs appear – I’m not quite sure where from. I think they crawl up through the floorboards or the cracks in the walls or something – it’s a bit like a science fiction film.” I sense she does not find this comparison reassuring. “They don’t, like, attack you or anything,” I hasten to add. And they’re gone by morning. You just need to turn on a light if you’re going to the bathroom so you don’t step on them. And keep an eye on your water glass.”

She stares at me to see if I’m joking. I’m not.

“I don’t think you mentioned this in the ad,” she finally manages.

She’s correct. I didn’t. I had toyed with “charming inner west terrace infested with mutant nocturnal slugs” as a headline, but had eventually decided against it as I didn’t think it necessarily highlighted the house’s best features. “Do you know that slugs are actually a more evolved form than snails?” I instead say brightly. “They’ve basically gone beyond the need for a shell. I read this fascinating book about gastropods recently, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.” They’re remarkable creatures…”

I don’t mention their radulas – long tubes inside their throats lined with rows of overlapping fangs which act like cheese graters and periodically replenish themselves. My instincts tell me that she would not find this information quirky or endearing.

“They don’t crawl over your face while you’re asleep, do they?” she asks with a visible shudder.

“No. Never. Absolutely not,” I say adamantly, although I have never actually considered it before and suppose it is theoretically possible.

“And how big are they exactly?”

I reach for my phone to show her a photo taken a few nights back, then decide against it, as the slug pictured is slimy and gelatinous, covered with gleaming, livery spots and about twice the size of one of those cigars that Castro was so fond of. It also seems to have red eyes (although I suspect this is just the flash) and if you look closely, you can almost see the edge of its first layer of fangs.

“Not that big, relatively speaking,” I say, without explaining relative to what. “Unfortunately I don’t have a photo to allay your fears with.”

“So you just kill them when you see them, then?” she asks.

“No,” I say, somewhat surprised by this kneejerk homicidal response in a self-professed lover of all creatures. “They’re gone by morning and don’t do any real harm. The only way you know they’ve even been there is all the silvery trails left on the rug. It’s quite pretty – fairy-like almost… Of course, if I see them on my herbs, it’s a different matter. I tend to use the forced relocation method then.” (By this, I mean that I take them across the road to repatriate them in the middle of the night when the neighbours are asleep.)

“Or you can freeze them, of course. That’s meant to be the most humane method. You just put them in a plastic takeaway container in the freezer for a few hours and apparently they just drift off peacefully…”

I realise belatedly that I sound like a psychopath. She also seems to have formed this impression.

So I don’t end up going with her – and I’m not sure she’s that disappointed, to be honest. And I find an excellent house-sitter just a few days later, and have no doubt at all that the delicate ecological balance in my home will remain undisturbed, and both Fina and all other creatures who inhabit it, will be in very safe hands while I’m away.

*Yogi Berra can take credit for this witticism.
*This pithy remark has been attributed to Yogi Berra.
*Legend has it that Yogi Berra coined this pithy aside.

Posted in Cats | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Eating New Orleans

I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to get to know a place is through its food, a convenient philosophy under which snacking becomes legitimate research and gluttony is elevated to the highest form of academic rigour. In keeping with this, in New Orleans I exhibit a scholastic zeal which would put a Harvard Professor to shame. Some days I study almost continually, burning the candle at both ends, because I am nothing if not thorough in my methods. It’s quite draining, if I’m honest. But when the getting of wisdom is at stake, you can’t afford to cut corners.

Shrimp po-boy

Shrimp po-boy

And so I eat. I eat remoulade and crawfish etouffe and fresh corn on the cob. I eat okra and red beans with rice. I eat gumbo and jumbalaya, despite the fact that I am a vegetarian and both dishes feature liberal quantities of smoked sausage. But when in Rome (or New Orleans)… I eat blackened catfish and fried green tomatoes. I eat bananas foster and bread pudding with whiskey. It ain’t healthy, that’s for sure – in fact, most of what I eat should probably be packaged up with a skull and crossbones symbol. My stomach is permanently bloated and my skin feels thick and oily. But it’s all novel and flavoursome, and of course, infinitely edifying. And so I keep eating.

I eat biscuits, as understood by Americans rather than Australians. In Australia, a biscuit is what Americans would call a cookie, but in New Orleans, biscuits are like hot, crumbly scones. Instead of having them for afternoon tea with jam and cream as we would be inclined to do, in New Orleans they simply plonk them on the plate with whatever they happen to be serving, whether it be sweet or savoury, whatever the time of day. I eat biscuits with scrambled eggs, soup, sauted vegies, even pancakes. This blanket approach is genius. I don’t know why we don’t adopt it.

Po-boys are another local specialty, the name a contraction of “poor boy”, because they were originally eaten by labourers and the down-at-heel. They are basically sandwiches on crunchy French bread dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and pickles. Oysters, shrimp, catfish and sausage are traditional fillings. I approach the first with great cynicism: there seems something not only wasteful, but heretical, about frying up oysters with their delicate briny piquancy, smothering them with condiments and cramming them into a roll. I’m almost relieved when it doesn’t win me over. The oysters seem small, grey and slimy, with a faint aluminium taste, and when my teeth cleave through the batter and the liquid centres explode hot onto my palate, I can’t help thinking unpleasant thoughts about tiny ruptured spleens and people sneezing inside my mouth.

The sides are also somewhat unconventional. The menu informs me it comes with chips. “Would you like fries with that?” the waitress asks when I place my order. Somewhat taken aback, I decline, wondering why on earth I would need fries when there’s chips already. I understand when it arrives some ten minutes later, sidled up on the plate beside a neat pile of crenelated crisps.

?

Gene’s Po-Boy

The shrimp po-boy is more successful. I buy it from a grimy-looking diner imaginatively named “Gene’s Po-Boy” where the waitresses wear pink uniforms and take orders over the noisy sputter of a deep fat fryer. I get it take away, or “to go”, and eat it at my kitchen table to a backdrop of knobbly candle stubs and battered paintwork which seems oddly appropriate. It’s pretty industrial-looking – over a foot long, pasty and crumpled, wrapped in opalescent greaseproof paper and disgorging fragile ringlets of fried shrimp. Nonetheless, it seems one of the most delectable things I have ever eaten. Perversely, it’s almost exactly like a McDonald’s chicken burger, something I hadn’t realised I’d been craving until that moment – the combination of thick mayonnaise, dense lily pads of shredded lettuce and prawns which taste like tiny tender morsels of chicken. The bread is perhaps a touch stale but still I devour the whole delicious yard-stick of it, assiduously collecting every last entrail of lettuce and crisp crumb of salty batter. This is not the last po-boy I have, needless to say.

11250925_10153366866523060_1146301037799119905_n

Beignet at Café Du Monde

I eat beignets. The place to go for them is Café Du Monde near the French Markets. Beignets are in fact the only food they serve, which makes ordering a simple affair. For $2.80, you get three of them – heavy, fried doughnuty chunks laden down with oil. They come served with about half a pack of icing sugar tipped unceremoniously over the top, so that you have to trawl about for them in the messes of powdery whiteness – a bit like unearthing bodies after an avalanche. When I finally disinter them, my first instinct is to look at them censoriously while internally deploring the American diet, and tell myself that no civilised person could possibly get through all that compressed cholesterol single-handedly – or single-mouthedly. I take a bite. They are warm and dense and soft and chewy and smell like cinnamon and grease. I take another bite, then keep on going, then before I know it have dispatched the whole plate and am contemplating ordering another.

Pralines are another popular treat, as well as a hotly divisive topic of debate. Their pronunciation in particular tends to polarise discussion: while locals opt for the more genteel-sounding ‘prah-leen’, other Americans and ignorant plebs like myself tend to go for ‘PRAY-leens’. (Don’t even go down the ‘PE-can’/’pe-CAHN’ praline road. That way barn-burnings lie.) Pralines taste like condensed milk, like soft caramel, and can be either chewy and elastic or delicate and bone-brittle, breaking into sickly-sweet powdery shards. If you find yourself craving a sugar fix in the afternoon, simply walk down any main street of the tourist district – Royal or Chartres or Decatur for instance – and sample a fragment in every shop that sells them. By the time you’ve reached the end of the street, you’ll have consumed a good three or four pralines in total and will find yourself well and truly sated.

One thing to note, however, is that while delicious, they don’t tend to look that great, and unless you’ve encountered one freshly baked, lured in by the rich, sugary aroma, it’s unlikely you’ll be tempted to give them a go. I bring a good dozen or so individually wrapped pralines home in my suitcase, thinking they’ll make perfect little souvenirs. When I hand them over to uniformly reluctant-looking friends, I realise they resemble nothing so much as smushed manhole covers or glossy toffee-coloured cowpats and will so remain largely uneaten – a shame given how good they are.

But then everything’s good really, especially the stuff that’s the worst for you, and I don’t even come near to sampling the full spectrum of it. “Did you have a mimosa with brunch?” a friend asks when I return. I confess that I didn’t, a shocking oversight. “What about a Sazerac while you were in a jazz bar?” Once again, I have to admit that I didn’t. In fact, I realise that I had forgotten about drinks altogether, sticking to my usual flat whites in the morning and red wines at night, and entirely neglecting hurricanes and mint juleps and the infinitely classy daiquiri slushies

Clearly I have no other option but to go back then – all for the pursuit of knowledge of course. Socrates would have it no other way.

Posted in travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Impressions of New Orleans

I admit that sometimes I’m a little slow. Not slow in the sense that the children in New Jersey are slow (at least according to this street sign, 20150522_105512which may have been the highlight of my final week in the US.) But slow in a temporal sense. Unrushed. Plodding. Leaden-footed. Which is why tonight I’m writing my observations of New Orleans, despite having left there some three weeks ago. I imagine little has changed over the time though…

In New Orleans, the days are thick and humid with those flat, grey deceptive skies which make you think it’s not that hot until you realise you’re lathered in sweat 5 metres from your doorstep at 9am. Nights are balmy with air laden with the fragrance of gardenias and jasmine.

The defining character of the city is a type of battered, dilapidated charm. If it were a person, it would be a nattily-dressed tubercular trumpet-player with a diamond in his tooth swearing that you’re the very finest woman he’s ever damn laid eyes on, then asking if you can lend him $5. You’d give it to him too.

In New Orleans, “Ma’am” and “baby” are equally polite forms of address. This is in marked contrast to Australia, where the only situations in which you would call a stranger “baby” would be if you were a male chauvinist pig or were soliciting on the street.

Houses are narrow and bony-shouldered; painted lavender, candy pink, baby blue, buttercup, turquoise, mint green, terracotta. Presumably there is some type of civic law against monochrome. Even the freshly painted houses have a fetching air of shabbiness, offset by gaudy touches of flamboyance and theatricality. Many of them have gargoyles or gilt lions out the front, jaws bared, claws unfurled, snarling vampishly at passers-by. 20150514_090758Each day I walk by a mansion with an elaborate stucco fountain filled with a fleet of canary-yellow rubber ducks: ducks in sunglasses, tuxedos, Hawaiian shirts – naked ducks – bobbing cocky and gay amongst the crisp green pondweed.

Nature is ornamented as well. In the pallid sunlight, skeins of bright, metallic beads glint among the treetops, flung from the floats during carnival and left hanging from the branches like adders. The state flower of Louisiana is the magnolia, and these too have a surreal, larger-than-life quality – possibly because they are about four times as large as those back home. Huge and creamy, they float like cake boxes half ajar, lodged in the branches of a tree. On sultry days, they unleash a lush, blowsy scent, conjuring up images of women in crinolines, laughing gaily with white necks bared as they sip mint juleps on the porch. And then there are the gnarled cypresses and oaks with their sheaths of 20150512_145625Spanish moss, like shawls draped around the shoulders of faded ballerinas. There’s something about them – their spectral, gothic charm – which captivates me, and again seems quintessentially New Orleans, because if ever there was a city where life and death coexist comfortably side by side, then this would be it.

Little wonder then, that in New Orleans they bury above ground. I am told this piece of information by a surprising number and variety of people, including tour guides, bartenders, people begging for money and morning dog walkers. It seems to be a point of pride with them. The official reason for this tradition is that because the earth is so soft and muddy, if you attempted to inter a coffin in it, come a few days, it would just 20150510_122305push it right back up again. (Notice how I’ve slipped inevitably into a kind of Louisiana cadence there?) I guess it makes things easier for the vampires too.

I also learn that, like the Victorians, 19th century Creoles were tremendously concerned about being buried alive, hence the common practice of tying a length of rope attached to a bell to either the toe or index finger of a corpse. If one were to find themselves the unfortunate victim of live burial, then, summoning a watchman (employed for that express purpose, somewhat disturbingly) was a relatively simple task. Interestingly, this is where the phrase “saved by the bell” originated.

Belief in voodoo, zombies and ghosts is also commonplace in New Orleans – or is at least purported to be. On a whim, I visit the Voodoo Museum, a series of narrow, poky parlours bathed in a swampy reddish light presumably meant to create a hellish, subterranean atmosphere yet overall more suggestive of a Whitechapel brothel. The rooms are occupied by alligator and skull-headed effigies, many of whom wear top hats and waistcoats, lending them a general air of dapperness, at odds with their toothy rictuses and bulging 20150512_114020eyeballs. At their feet lie sacred piles of cigarettes, stale chocolate bars, lipsticks, feathers, rhinestones– cornucopias of tack. There is a hollow tree stump where you can write a wish on a piece of paper, place it within and knock nine times. (I’m not sure what happens if you lose count – nine seems an ambitious number to me.) Out front there is a gift shop selling voodoo dolls, love potions, gris-gris and kitchenware featuring famous voodoo queens. I don’t buy anything, because I have enough coasters already and there’s no-one I really want to curse at that particular point in time. Predictably, I think of a good three or four people as soon as I get home.

Posted in travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

She stoops to conquer: Finding my feet in New Orleans

For the last week I have been in New Orleans. I am trying very hard to say “New OR-leans” rather than “New Or- LEANS”, which comes more instinctively to me. I haven’t even bothered with “N’awlins” or “Nola”, because this would just sound naff and stupid.

20150510_113039As in New York, I feel I’ve done a lot and am still trying to pull it all into a coherent picture. I’ve visited the French Quarter, the Garden District, Lafaytette Cemetery, Aubadon Park, City Park, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Treme, the NOMA sculpture garden, Oak Alley Planation, the Voodoo Museum and the Bayou, where I held a tiny ‘gator. (I’ve adopted this last contraction for the sake of concision as much as local colour. “Alligator” is such a mouthful and he was an appealing little critter, like a mini velociraptor: five years old, so quite mature really, but still only the length of a ruler; light and agile with damp, pliant, elastic skin and claws like pine-nuts.) I have ridden a street car, sat by the Mississippi, watched a steamboat pull out, drunk wine on wrought-iron terraces, attended a southern cookery class and eaten po-boys, remoulade, gumbo, jambalaya, beignets, pralines and biscuits (oh, so many biscuits). I have heard a lot of jazz.

20150514_104144-1-1Somewhat predictably, my favourite place is the French Quarter, which is exactly what I hoped New Orleans would be: a honeycombed maze of gleaming shopfronts, restaurants with balconies overlooking the streets, gas lamps which flicker even during the day and hanging baskets of geraniums and petunias. It’s unashamedly touristy but all the better for it. Antiques shops, chocolate shops, jewellery shops, tacky gift shops, perfumiers and visitors’ centres nestle comfortably side by side. The streets all have that close, cosy, alley-like feel to them, and while they’re not actually cobbled, they manage to give the impression of being so. Patient horses clip-clop by, pulling covered wagons of tourists. Their manes (the horses’, that is) are threaded with plastic flowers, their heads bowed, their elongated faces sweet and stoic. It’s like walking through a historical film set, everything bathed in a golden glow and almost heart-wrenchingly quaint and rusticated.

It’s fun to watch the people too. Buxom women trip by in poodle skirts, cat-eye sunglasses and red lipstick. Buskers and beggars are everywhere. People carry plastic tumblers of beer 20150509_154324in the streets – conservative-looking couples from Kansas as well as crowds of stumbling frat boys – and think nothing of raising their glass to any passing policeman in a cheery “good evening” or “good morning officer” . It’s like one big never-ending music festival. Once it hits 4pm, on every street corner you see a long-haired tour guide in jeans and a black top hat regaling his gawping audience with lurid tales of murder, spectres, zombies and bad gris-gris: if you’re leading a ghost tour, looking like you’re off to a Marilyn Manson concert is apparently mandatory. The smell of caramel, garbage, greasy beignets, urine and the faint, muddy tang of the river hangs over everything.

I have chosen the place where I’m staying because it looked pleasantly ramshackle and bohemian in the photos and was advertised as being in the French Quarter. “It ain’t fancy”, the first line of the ad said, but I was prepared to take my chances.

20150513_210904The street is pretty and picturesque in a shabby, paint-peeling, down-at-heel kind of way, but it’s clear even to me that it’s on the wrong side of the tracks. There’re an awful lot of abandoned tyres lying around, for one thing, and vacant lots are common. Street signs typically hang askew and are covered with graffiti. There are lots of cars cruising about with loud, thumping music. And there are lots of people hanging out on stoops.

Please note that in normal circumstances I have no objection to hanging out on stoops: in fact, one of the chief pleasures of my daily routine at home is enjoying a cup of coffee on the back doorstep in the morning sun with the cat winding companionably around my ankles and occasionally sinking her teeth into my shins. But while I am a fervent advocate of the manifold delights of steps and stoops, the stoop you are sitting on should be your own.

20150513_210938This sentiment is shared by the woman who owns the house that I’m staying in. I’ve never met her, but she leaves detailed instructions to help me settle in. Wine is a prominent theme in these instructions. She explicitly mentions that the food and cosmetics in the house should not be touched, however, guests should feel free to help themselves to booze. Several half empty bottles of wine are left in the fridge for this apparent purpose, which I feel is an extremely friendly and hospitable gesture and quite makes up for the fact that there is no extra toilet paper or bathmat, and the only towel provided looks like it’s been half-consumed by moths. I also like how she describes the kitchen as being “terrific for hanging out and drinking wine in”. If we ever meet, I’m sure we’d get on famously.

Returning to stoops, however, the other theme that comes through in the instructions is the importance of not allowing the neighbours to congregate on the stoop. This is reiterated some three or four times and usually in alarming-looking capital letters. My favourite paragraph (disturbingly included under the heading “Staying Safe”) goes like this: “If you ever see anybody hanging out on the front stoop, please tell them “you can’t sit here”. I once tried to be nice about it and it escalated into SOMETHING I DIDN’T WANT. So, be territorial about the house and parking spots please.” I find this both tantalising and mildly discomfiting.

I come to appreciate the importance of the stoop issue at around 5pm on the first day. I am drinking wine in the kitchen, as per my host’s instructions, when an almighty clamour starts up outside. For a while I try to ignore it, not being sure what is acceptable round there, but it soon reaches a level so extreme – almost as if the walls are being pelted endlessly with rocks – that I have to clamp my hands over my ears and consider taking cover in the wardrobe.

I tentatively open the door to see what all the commotion is – or rather, try to open it, but am unable to because three large black men are wedged against it. Another three people sit on the step below them, and a good half-dozen or so more sprawl on the footpath or lean against the house, all hollering, jeering, smoking, eating and creating a general racket. This isn’t just a congregation on the stoop – it’s an entire Billy Graham crusade.

I admit I feel vulnerable and intimidated. For a start, there is no back door so I am 20150513_091024physically barricaded in the house. I don’t know the town at all and have no idea what to do if I get into any trouble. I am also acutely aware of being a woman alone in a tiny house and of this being patently obvious to anyone outside.

I remember my host’s instructions: be firm, stand your ground, stake your territory. I am not someone who thrives on confrontation and my usual instinct would be to just retreat, try to ignore it and hope it stops. I wonder if there is some other approach I can take. Some local councils in Sydney have instituted the practice of playing uncool music in public spaces at night to deter groups of teenagers from loitering – piping Bing Crosby show tunes or “What a Wonderful World” into train station toilets, for instance. Possibly this would be a less confrontational method. Or possibly it would just get me stabbed (some would say justifiably).

But I’m no coward (I hope). And if I don’t summon up the backbone to say something now, I might have to put up with another six days of this cacophony – and I’m not sure I can take that.

Bracing myself, I push against the door with my full weight, take a deep breath and draw on the full measure of my power and stature as a children’s librarian: “Guys, I’m sorry, but you can’t sit there, OK?”, I say in a loud, clear voice. The use of the word “guys” is a calculated risk: I am a little concerned that it might sound patronisingly “ole’ buddy-ish”, or that the women in the group might see it as a slight against their femininity, but decide to stick with it on the grounds that it creates an atmosphere of friendliness and amelioration without making me come across as a pushover. Possibly I am overthinking my choice of vocabulary. I try to sound assertive rather than apologetic or pleading. I also try not to talk like an English nanny or an amateur thespian as I sense this might be enraging. “You can’t sit there,” I say again firmly.

The noise abruptly stops. A woman on the lower steps gets up and heaves herself around to look at me. She is about three times my weight. She isn’t smiling. “Oh, Ah’m sorry – you don’t want us all to sit here?” she says, her tone brash and challenging rather than apologetic, making me suspect that some uncomplimentary remark about my mama is forthcoming.

“It’s really noisy,” I say, hoping this is a reasonable justification to give. Maybe there is some other reason that would have worked better: an ancient territorial claim to the stoop for instance, or an invocation of some sort of civic bylaw about gatherings without a permit – but I stick with the querulous-sounding, “It’s really noisy”. And with that, they all get up and shuffle off, presumably to another stoop somewhere.

I go to bed oddly elated that night, but spend most of the night wide-awake and tense, expecting some type of retaliation: screamed threats, kids rattling the windows or really insulting handwritten poems pushed under the door. Nothing happens though and I eventually go to sleep.

Variations of this encounter are repeated several times more over the next few days. I come to think of it as the ritual “clearing of the stoop”. It is still intimidating, but becomes less so over time, and eventually it tapers off then stops altogether.

20150514_090423In the meantime, I nod and say “hey” to everyone I walk by on the street, and they nod back in return. The children call me “ma’am”, and on Sunday, all wish me a happy Mother’s Day. At the corner, a young man in a singlet sits slumped on a battered, rust-coloured couch pushed up against a rubble-filled dumpster. He is always there, whatever time of the day or night I pass. Each time, he wishes me a “good day”, his manner exquisitely polite, almost courtly.

I come to notice corn growing in the vacant lots and the screeching of roosters and chickens in the morning. I notice gaudy metallic beads strung defiantly on chainwire fences and the fragile beauty of fairy lights entwined in security grilles. I notice cracked mirrors arranged into mosaics on the footpath; a humble raising of the chin against greyness and ugliness. I could relate this to a broader theme about the character of the people here, their bravery and resilience and spirit in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but I’m not sure I know enough about it and suspect I would just be drawing a neat narrative arc for the sake of it. I notice that sometimes the tyres in the streets are painted like rainbows.

20150511_194703

Posted in travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Postscript to “On the benefits of being incapable of following a map”

A follow-on from my previous post:

So I didn’t meet the love of my life in the taxi rank, share a cab with a famous jazz musician or get showered with money upon leaving the airport. This was disappointing, as over the last few weeks I’d been making a conscious effort to moderate my expectations to better fit with reality and had genuinely thought I’d nailed it this time – but apparently not.

The cab driver I ended up with was a woman of around 50 with an affable moon-face, the sort of generous lap you could comfortably berth three toddlers in and a tendency to chuckle merrily despite the fact that nothing amusing (and in most cases, nothing at all) had been said. Obviously she had a rich interior life. The dashboard of her cab was decorated with Hawaiian leis, American flags and plastic turkeys with hinged necks that bobbled drunkenly as she drove. She seemed to have patriotic tendencies.

She asked me where I was from. I said Sydney and explained that this was my first time in New Orleans and that I’d always wanted to visit. “You’ll have a good time; there’s lots to do,” she said with sudden glumness, not elaborating in any way.

I asked if she was a local. She told me proudly that she was New Orleans born and bred and knew the city like the back of her hand. I gave her the address of a café, “The Ruby Slipper”, that I’d decided to relocate to as it was about five blocks from my accommodation. More importantly, however, the name seemed to serendipitously allude to The Wizard of Oz which I’d recently been discussing with a friend. (Yes, this is the sort of calculated and logical decision-making process I use.) I added that it was apparently somewhere in the French Quarter.

“Wheeer-yah?” she repeated incredulously, her jaw hinging open in astonishment. It seemed she had never, ever heard of the French Quarter before in her entire life.

I was unable to give more precise directions, not having been born and bred in the city, but said that I believed it was quite famous. Imagine getting into a taxi in Sydney, asking the driver to take you to the Opera House and being met with a blank and bewildered stare: this would be the equivalent experience.

She made me put the address into her GPS then spent a good 13 minutes studying the map, perplexed, crinkle-browed and breaking into occasional chuckles for no explicable reason. It was not reassuring.

After a number of false starts (five), we finally got to the general vicinity of where I wanted to be, but unfortunately she seemed constitutionally incapable of finding the exact street. While I’m certainly no master navigator, as my previous post will attest, her level of disorientation was something else altogether – you almost had to tip your hat at it. Not only did she get her lefts and rights and norths and souths confused, but on several occasions, she attempted to drive directly up into the air. The trip culminated with her insistently circling the same block (some ten or twelve times, please note), shaking her head in bafflement, chuckling and periodically exclaiming, “Oh lawdy!” (I know not why).

“There – that’s the street! You want to turn down that street!” I would cry out in an increasingly desperate tone each time she stolidly drove by the street I wanted,  but to no discernible effect. It was apparently all too strange and overwhelming for her. She was like a pilgrim just arrived in the new world. I found myself wanting to scalp her.

Finally I got fed up. We were near a café which looked nice and quiet and had the advantage of not being in a cab with a steadily-increasing meter. (I was starting to suspect my seemingly disingenuous driver was in fact a brilliant strategist and profiteer.)

20150509_115026[1]

Who Dat Cafe

“You know what, this is fine. I’m sure this is close – I’ll get out here,” I said, and did so, thrusting a handful of bills at her and subsequently giving her a tip directly inverse to her competence. (I didn’t worry too much about this though: I actually felt quite sorry for her, having decided she was blind, as this was the only possible explanation that made any sense.)

I immediately secured a table with an umbrella on the footpath where my suitcase could comfortably beach itself without obstructing passing foot traffic or major trade routes. The wait-staff were tattooed and straggly-haired in that familiar Newtown-y way, and the food was really good. I had shrimp remoulade and biscuits (the American kind) then a small cup of coffee roughly the volume of an oil tanker, and I wrote in my journal and eavesdropped on the conversations of the people around me, and all in all, spent an extremely pleasurable 2 hours. In fact, I resolved to come back another day to sample the fresh apple fritters and peanut butter and chocolate brownies. (The cafe was the Who Dat Coffee Cafe on Burgundy St, just in case you’re interested. Given my fondness for red wine, the street name is of course again tremendously significant.)

It eventually got late enough for me to me to set off for my accommodation, so I fixed up my cheque (note the fluent use of America idiom here) then heaved my unwieldy suitcase into the street, feeling like one of those Dorothea Lange portraits of refugees during the Great Depression, forced to leave their farm in Kansas and dragging all their worldly possessions behind them in a handcart. The walk was slightly longer than I’d anticipated – a good 50 minutes or so – and where the pavements weren’t buckled and broken, there were road works and elaborate detours and copious amounts of gravel. But on the way I passed “The Ruby Slipper”, the café I’d intended to go to – and you know what? – it was awful; some type of chain restaurant, touristy and crowded and loud and clanging with no room at all to store a suitcase roughly the dimensions of a small blue whale.
So it all turned out for the best then, just as I knew it would: not only did I have a great Louisiana breakfast, but I got a good story.

20150513_190131[1]

‘Smile': graffiti on Touro Street

Posted in travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the benefits of being incapable of following a map

I am writing this sitting in the airport at New Orleans. It is not a particularly interesting place, and the city, which I’m sure is extremely interesting, is only a short cab ride away. (NB. I am now saying “cab” rather than “taxi” as I am a seasoned traveler.) However, I have once again done a stupid thing, which I thought was extremely clever and thrifty at the time, and booked a 7am flight from New Jersey. Which entailed getting to the airport at 5am. Which entailed leaving the flat at an hour so early that there weren’t even any rappers on the street. Which entailed spending over $90 on a cab because none of the shuttle buses ran at that time and public transport would have involved leaving the flat the day before and making 3 separate changes with an hour’s wait between each.

My thinking was that an early flight would give me an extra full day in New Orleans. There were flights available at 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, please note – basically, an almost staggering variety of times – which, at only $20 or so more, would have allowed me to wake up at a respectable hour, enjoy a leisurely bagel and coffee, and take just one subway then a shuttle bus at a fraction of the cost. But no, my plan was clearly much better (and I’m really looking forward to my 6am return flight in a week’s time.)

In the meantime, it is now 9.20 and unfortunately I can’t get into my accommodation until 12.30. I’m also hampered by an extremely large, unwieldy suitcase it just isn’t practicable to drag around. (No, it is not possible to simply drop it off at the place. Yes, I have explored that option, but thank you very much for the helpful suggestion.) Thus, I have been reduced to filling in time in any sedentary way I can for the next 3 hours – hence the protracted stay at the airport. Shortly I will decamp to a strategically chosen café as close to my accommodation as possible, where I will stretch out the consumption of a latte and pastry for as long as the waitstaff will tolerate without getting snooty and making me feel like an unwanted spinster aunt. But for now, I wait.

I am an eternal optimist, however, and am hoping that what seems like poor planning/rampant stupidity in my current situation (numb-fingered and shivering thanks to sub-arctic air-conditioning, haggard and bleary-eyed after 2 hours sleep, craving a bagel), might just turn out to have a positive side to it.

I think I have mentioned that I am very bad at following maps. I’ll spend a good half-hour or so assiduously unfolding the thing to its full size (roughly the dimensions of a giant’s pillow slip) then rotating it around so that the streets align with the general direction I’m facing (NB. impossible to do on Google Maps ). Then, once I’ve pondered over it furrow-browed for another hour or so till I’m satisfied that I’ve got my bearings, I’ll set out confidently towards my destination, which Google Maps assures me is only one tantalising block away – only to find myself 10 minutes later in the middle of a Kansas cornfield or staring in bafflement at the Bering Strait.

Because of a general inability to accurately locate north, I never did find Tom’s Diner in Brooklyn, the subject of the Suzanne Vega song. Or the Alice in Wonderland Statue in Central Park. And I almost missed the Chrysler Building, which, you know, is kind of hard to miss. But conversely, I have learnt that on those rare occasions when I do successfully interpret the map and arrive at the place I intend to, much of the time it turns out to be a real disappointment.

2015-05-06 18.57.23

William, the Met mascot

When I got to the Met, I made a point of seeking out William, the museum mascot, who I envisaged with a heft and stature befitting a turquoise-coloured, Ancient Egyptian god. After navigating through a bewildering succession of conjoined rooms, I finally located William, who turned out to be the size of a guinea pig and resembled a child’s money box more than a deity: sure, he was appealing and cute and I kind of wanted to pet him, but it was still a let-down. Katz’s Diner, the site of the famous “I’ll have what she’s having scene” in When Harry Met Sally, was a crowded, clamorous, neon-lit rectangle filled with formica tables, waiters with all the affability of nightclub bouncers and a crush of brassy-voiced tourists queued up for pastrami sandwiches. God knows why I thought it was a good idea to go there. I don’t even particularly like the film. Even the Taj Mahal (NB. this is not in New York) which was splendid and sublime and commendably marbly and all, carried with it a sense of deflation because I found it exactly where I expected it to be, waiting obediently, tamed and diminished. Possibly some things have more power as imaginative landmarks than they do as real locations or objects. Or maybe I’m just hard to please. Whatever the case, if I had happened across the Taj while dawdling along the banks of the Ganges one day (yes, I admit this is a somewhat unlikely scenario), then I have no doubt that it would have thoroughly blown my mind.

Clearly, then, wandering is the best approach to take when exploring a new city. It has less of a transactional nature to it; that feeling that the city owes you a particular experience because you have invested your time and money in visiting it. It also doesn’t carry with it that sense of obligation or necessity, and subsequently, that sense of failure if you don’t find the place you’ve set out for – because, let’s face it, while it’s meant to be a holiday, there is perversely an awful lot of pressure when you’re travelling. This is largely from the expectations of others, from the shame of feeling like you’ve frittered away your time when you have to confess that, no, you didn’t see A, B or C, which all the guidebooks say you should, and don’t really have an equivalent experience to put in its place.

As any good flaneur will testify, wandering is intrinsically far more pleasurable, liberating and exciting. You can go where the fancy takes you; straying down little alleyways, spying something intriguing in the distance and heading towards it, following the crowd or distant music or simply a person with an interesting face, and more often than not, chancing upon wonderful things – chocolate shops and cafes and parks like hidden ring boxes – which carry with them the genuine thrill of discovery…

20150507_152223-1[1]One day, in a quagmire of existential despair brought about by an hour of bootless searching for Tom’s Diner (NB. bootless as I was wearing sandals, which were more appropriate for the weather), I turned into Prospect Park. Freed from the burden of a destination, I strolled along whichever path appealed to me. Three young Jewish men walked ahead of me. They were orthodox, with thick black beards (the type a sparrow could comfortably nest in), sombre black coats over white shirts and broad-brimmed hats. They each carried a shopping bag with the packings of a picnic and one strummed a guitar as he walked. It was as though the Beatles had joined the cast of Fiddler on the Roof for the afternoon. I started to follow them, enchanted by the lovely, carefree spirit of it. (Stalking admittedly, though can it really be considered that, if it’s a lone woman following three grown men?) They spread out a rug on the outskirts of a busy lawn, rid themselves of their heavy coats, untucked their shirttails and sprawled out. A huge tub of bright pink gelato emerged from a plastic bag – it must have been a good 4 litres at least – and was set reverently in the centre of the rug with three silver spoons. Nearby, barelegged children called and ran in a circle, people dozed beneath trees or sun-baked and dogs flopped in the shade. Spring and greenness infused everything.

Prospect Park

Prospect Park

I left the men to their picnic and continued through the park. The trees were tall and leafy on either side and the lampposts like something from Narnia. Sunlight slanted in dappled veils through the branches. Birds twittered and flit across my path. They looked subtly different to those in Australia: neat and well-groomed and designed to an entirely different colour scheme; an autumnal palette of chestnuts, grays, moss greens and deep apricots. I passed lakes and stone bridges and wildflowers. Shy crofts of violets made me smile in delight. A whole flooded hillside of them was almost too much wonderment to take.

A trickle of music wound through the trees and I followed it, feeling like a character in a fairytale. I half expected to find Orpheus strumming a lute or an old woman with a spindle. Instead, I found myself at a carousel encased in a wooden rotunda. I couldn’t help thinking of Holden Caulfield and “old Phoebes” and smiling. A triumphant version of “Top of the World” was playing, with cymbals clashing and victorious drums. Coloured lights whirled while the painted horses slid up and down in slow ceremony. It was like a benediction…

I find, too, that often while meandering about in this way, you come upon places that you had intended to visit later. The New York Public Library. The JFK memorial. The Strand Bookstore. Strawberry Fields. All of these were places I chanced upon while seeking other destinations and appreciated all the more as a result, their unexpected discovery prompting a feeling of childlike delight – grace even – rather than the relieved, good-girl feeling you get as you dutifully cross off another item on your must-see list.

Strawberry Fields, in particular, I would not have been so struck by if I had concertedly set out to find it and done so. It’s really just another group of shaded lawns, fairly common in Central Park, a paved gray courtyard encircled with wrought iron benches and the “Imagine” mosaic so modest and unprepossessing that you would miss it if you weren’t standing on top of it. It was the way I arrived at it that again imbued it with that magical sensation of serendipity.

I was walking aimlessly through the park when I heard the nearby strains of a guitar and someone sin20150508_160522[1]ging “I’ve just seen a face”. This is a wonderful song, so I headed towards it. (NB. Contrary to the impression given in this post, I do occasionally engage in pursuits other than hunting down distant musicians.) I rounded a corner to see a sign, “Strawberry Fields”, which elicited that shivery frisson of recognition where you think, “Oh, I know this place, I meant to come here.” There was a busker in the middle of the courtyard playing Beatles songs, and people were having their photos taken on the mosaic, doing peace signs, twirling daisies plucked for that express purpose, pretending to strum guitars. A little girl in a colourful sundress was drawing flowers and rainbows with chalk on the pavement. It was a lovely scene, and while a part of me still wishes that “Strawberry Fields” was not a geographical location (because, let’s be honest, it’s more resonant as a symbol of dreamy escape from the flatness and busyness of life), if it has to exist in the world of Google and smart phones, then I’m glad I found it in this drifting, roundabout way rather than through the diligent following of a guidebook. The obvious conclusion to draw is that no matter what you do, sooner or later you will find yourself somewhere you are meant to be. And I think John Lennon would probably agree with that.

Anyway, I am now going to leave the airport. I have no doubt that my procrastination will have had some positive effect. I will stand beside a famous jazz musician at the cab rank, or possibly some dashing and rich New Orleans gentleman who will invite me out to dinner at some quaint little Creole restaurant, fall in love on the spot and propose. Or I will not get into a cab with a driver who will rob and stab me. Or I will be the millionth person to leave the terminal. A cloud of balloons will be released upon my exit. A glamorous woman in a sequined gown with teeth like gleaming refrigerators will hug me and a truck packed full of hundred dollar bills will pull up at the kerb, making me feeling slightly less embittered about the cab fare from Brooklyn. Or maybe I’ll just get a driver who’ll know a really great cafe where I can idle away the next few hours – somewhere cool and shady with a table on a cobblestone pavement and a friendly cat winding around my ankles – and by coincidence, just around the corner from where I’m staying. Who knows? But I’m sure it will all work out brilliantly.

Posted in travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On Crossing Brooklyn Bridge (with considerably different sentiments to Walt Whitman)

A preface first of all: if you think you may have seen this post before, it’s because you have. It has a bit of a schizophrenic history: I posted it, then repented and deleted it, then repented deleting it, because sure, it’s snarly and angry and not particularly nice, but it also documents a legitimate stage in my journey (as pretentious as it sounds to call a holiday that). And I’ve since apologised to the person expressly named in it, who didn’t seem to particularly begrudge my having written it, so perhaps it wasn’t as excessive as I’d originally feared. And to be honest, although it’s out of character, I’m kind of happy with it as a piece of writing, dammit – and it’s not like I write so frequently that I can afford to delete perfectly decent posts willy-nilly. Anyway, it’s back. For now. With some reservation. Sorry.

***

I write this post with a warning: it contains what is for me, a copious amount of swearing. By this I mean I use the f-word once. It is also not about New York. Well, actually, it is indirectly about New York – it does mention the Brooklyn Bridge – but it’s more one of those tedious, whingey, vitriolic confessional pieces that I’ve managed to avoid writing up until now, possibly because of, I don’t know, basic human dignity or something. But all good things must come to an end.

Anyway, if you’re reading this hoping for an update on my travels or pretty pictures of tourist sites and squirrels and such, then you should probably stop now. Also if you’re an ex-boyfriend (not that there’s a horde of them out there) or a person whom I actually know in real life but would usually maintain some semblance of professionalism or habitual polite reserve with. (My boss, for instance.) Really, that would be best. So stop now, OK?

I have recently come to the realisation that the person I have been dating for the past 2 months is a coward and a f*#kwit. (NB. If you’re under the age of 12 or have a literary or moral objection to obscenities, please substitute “cad” for the last word in this sentence. This will also produce a pleasing alliterative effect. ) I could be more fulsome in my description of him, but would no doubt regret it in future, so let’s just leave it at that. (But Steve, if you’re still reading this – and your terminal self-absorption makes me suspect that you probably are – then this one’s for you, OK, from one “writer” to another :) :) :) . You might want to unsubscribe now.)

I am one of those people who sorts through their feelings by walking. I had to purge myself of this admittedly brief relationship, so felt an immediate, compelling need to go for a long walk: it is no coincidence that the words “exercise” and “exorcise” are almost identical. I’ve been doing a lot of walking here, typically a good 10-12 hours a day with short breaks for the subway, coffee and food, but most of it is that meandering, exploratory style of walking, more conducive to brooding than catharsis. I needed to stride purposefully to a destination.

The Brooklyn Bridge would have been ideal – there would have been something pleasingly symbolic about crossing from one side to the other, shedding the past in runnels. It also would have been satisfying to stop halfway and toss something representative of the “relationship” into the depths of the harbour. The only problem was that my ex-boyfriend (though the noun might be an over-statement) never actually gave me anything to cast off. I guess he bought me dinner a few times and there might conceivably have been some last vestiges of those meals inside me somewhere. Perhaps I could have just vomited over the edge or something. That would have worked well on a number of levels.

Unfortunately, however, I had to abandon this idea (the whole bridge thing rather than just the vomiting, which objectively would have been disgusting) as I had already done the walk on my second day here.

For Walt Whitman, crossing the harbour was a transcendental experience which gave him a profound understanding of his place in time and the universe. My own experience was considerably different.

20150504_170717It was around 4pm on a hot Spring afternoon and the bridge was choked with people. The walkway is only around 3 metres wide and divided into halves, with one side for cyclists and one for pedestrians. New Yorkers are reputed to walk notoriously fast, which works for me, who gets easily frustrated by slow walkers, but most of this crowd were tourists. They would saunter casually along (she says disapprovingly) and every few seconds would stop to take photos of themselves against the backdrop of Manhattan and the harbour. I suppose this is excusable, but some of them also had those long, retractable “selfie” sticks which never fail to incite a sneering sort of hatred in me and an earnest desire for the deaths of the people using them.

If I could make one observation about New Yorkers, it would be that they take their cycling seriously. The bikes barrelled by at an alarming speed and these guys were intense. (NB. The bulk of them were guys rather than dolls, to throw in a gratuitous Broadway reference). Some had sirens attached to their bikes, which shrieked continuously and ear-splittingly. “Out of the way!” and “Yo, off the path dude,” they would scream with what seemed real fury, and if someone was slow in acquiescing or didn’t move far enough to the side, they would whoosh by them close enough to brush the hairs on their skin or make a pointed show of missing their foot by millimetres. One cyclist curtly clipped the bare arm of a bewildered French girl with his handlebars, grazing the skin and drawing blood. This struck me as a tad excessive, but seemed to meet with general approval from the other cyclists, so perhaps the bitch deserved to be cut.

It took about 30 minutes to cross from one side to the other, even at the enervating snail’s pace I was necessarily reduced to. I spent most of that time trying not to encroach into people’s photos, avoiding deoculation by selfie stick, and overtaking, or fuming at my inability to overtake, dawdlers. It was a horrible, claustrophobic experience. I felt like I was trapped in a queue for the Boxing Day sales and barely even glanced at the view. It was about as restful as cycling with a siren must be.

In retrospect, then, it would probably not have satisfied my cathartic needs.

And so I wrote this post instead: to adopt a dated American expression – neat, huh?

I end by wishing the previously mentioned member of the opposite sex, whom I am not going to grace with the dignity or importance of any other descriptors than that, a dismissive and infinitely serene, f#@k you.

Dammit, that was twice.

20150504_181305

Posted in travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Early observations of New York

20150505_201043I am writing this sitting on the fire escape. I have always wanted a fire escape. Something about the seedy threadbare romance of them appeals to me, conjuring up images of elegantly impecunious young women in wilted evening gowns and discarded heels, blurry-headed and smiling in the early hours of the morning after too much champagne, dancing and general gaiety. The metal handrails have been entwined with delicate strings of fairy lights which glimmer as the evening fades in. I am eating a slice of pizza and drinking a bottle of red wine while ruefully lamenting my taste in men. This seems a very New York thing to do. In the distance, the sky melts to a peach-tinged, tissue paper softness against the sharp black silhouettes of distant apartments. I feel like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Any second I expect I’ll pick up a ukele and start strumming “Moon River”.

I am staying in an apartment in Flatbush, a suburb in Brooklyn. From what I can gather, Flatbush is the equivalent of Sydney’s Marrickville – on the fringes of the gentrified suburbs, the population primarily African-American and Carribean with lots of hip young folk starting to move in because it’s affordable and close to where they want to be. I kind of like it, now that I’ve stopped worrying about being mugged.

It was all the rapping on the sidewalks that had me concerned to begin with. (NB. rapping, with a double p, not raping.) While I can appreciate that rap is essentially just a more urbanised – or perhaps ghettoised – form of contemporary poetry, it does seem to be overly reliant on a particular, very rarefied vocabulary: to whit, “nigger”, “bitch” and “mother*&ker”. (Or possibly “mothaf*&kah”. I’m not 100% certain. The professor from the Brooklyn Academy of Linguistics whom I consulted is yet to confirm which is the more politically-correct form.)

But as I said, now that I’ve adjusted to the rapping, I’m feeling quite at home. I’ve been in America for four days now, and feel I’ve done a lot already. I leave the apartment before 8 each morning and come back around 8 at night, spending pretty much the whole time in between walking. This is good, given the food that I’m eating: at some point, pastry and bagels became a staple.

20150503_120657

In Greenwich Village (the name appealed)

So what have I done? (And bear in mind that this is just a very brief recap.) On the first day I walked around Greenwich Village, Soho, NohoNolita, Tribeca and China Town . As I said, I walk a lot. On the second day I went to the Guggenheim. I had intended to go to the Met but this was closed for a private function. (NB. This will be a recurring theme.) I then  ate at the famed Oyster Bar  at Grand Central Station (apparently those in the know say “Grand Central Terminal” which is technically correct, but you know, it doesn’t have the same ring to it, so I’m going to stick with the plebs’ version). Then I went to the Chrysler Building, the New York Public Library (reading room closed) then walked across Brooklyn Bridge and explored Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo. On the third day I went to Prospect Park, the Frick Collection then wandered down Madison Avenue. I had a picnic lunch in Central Park, then because I can’t read a map, spent several hours walking determinedly away from the very things I wanted to see. I then went to Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (closed for a private function), then explored Park Slope. On the fourth day I wandered around the Met. And on the fifth day I created all the creatures that move upon the earth. As I said, I’ve been busy.

At this stage, I’m not going to write about the places I’ve been, because, to quote the movie Airplane (keeping with the travel theme here, people), that’s “just what they’ll be expecting us to do”. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have that much to say of any significance. (I thought I’d developed an original perspective on the Frick, but then I watched the 12 minute documentary where the staff introduces the collection, and they basically said everything I’d been thinking and had thought was so profound and insightful: it’s great to receive affirmation that you are unique.) Also, it’s too much work. I tend to get a bit overloaded with detail and if I had to write about all of those places, well, I’d have some sort of melt-down. But if you’re genuinely interested, ask me when I get back and I’m happy to tell you over coffee or something. Don’t ask to see my photos though, because they either suck or are non-existent. (Sorry.)

In the meantime, here are a few initial observations on my time in New York thus far:

  • The best thing about New York is the fires escapes. I am not being dismissive here; I am genuinely passionate about them. I may write a whole separate post on them later (look forward to that one!) and when I get back, will insist that my landlady gets one built immediately as an urgent safety measure. (Never mind that I live on the ground floor of a two storey building.)
  • There are lots of sirens. In fact, the sirens are almost constant, which could create the impression that you are in a hotbed of crime and lawlessness. This is not the case. I have not yet been shot once, which ran against all my expectations. (NB. I have been stabbed a few times, but you know, I asked for it.) The sirens sound different to ours. While ours sound frankly alarming, American sirens sound like the keening of a massive, grief-stricken dog. Possibly they changed the sound because people heard the other with such monotonous regularity that they became immune to it. Or possibly a marketing executive decided they needed something fresh and funky. I don’t know. I’m only speculating.
  • Flying once again in the face of expectations, Americans are actually really nice and friendly. I ask for directions constantly (NB. This is because I am almost always lost as a result of my phone not working and a general ineptitude when it comes to reading maps and pretty much everything else generally) and not once has anyone refused to assist or shot me. Instead, they are uniformly helpful and well-intentioned, and even if their information is totally and utterly wrong, they supply it with a smile, a “Have a good day, now” and a heartening absence of handgun activity. When I think of the occasions I’ve had to ask directions in Sydney, I can only conclude that Americans are far nicer than we are.
  • 20150503_125558New York in Spring is one giant, delightful garden. The trees in the streets are laden with pink and white blossoms – and I mean laden. If nature were capable of hyperbole, than these trees would be A-grade offenders. The blossoms are creamy and lush and dense and fulsome and while you’re looking at them, your heart swells impossibly with joy and you can forget everything else. At the gentlest breeze, clouds of filmy petals float into the air and settle on the sidewalk like snow. Colourful bulbs are everywhere as well – tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, lupins – in all the front gardens and window boxes, in planters outside hotels and in terracotta pots on the stairways of apartment blocks. Red tulips are particularly popular; impossibly big, bobbing on their stems like air balloons tethered by green ropes. It is as if Amsterdam has temporarily docked on the grey footpaths of the city.20150503_124820
  • Everyone knows about Central Park and Prospect Park, but they are just the beginning. At the cross-sections of city streets, tucked away like folded green handkerchiefs are tiny, higgledy-piggledy parks, criss-crossed by footpaths and lined with wooden benches. They are filled with people, separate but gathered together, reading the paper, drinking coffee, just enjoying the sunshine. They are immaculately tended, valued and cared for; beating green hearts of the community. I love that.
  • Bagels, pretzels and hot dogs really are available everywhere. The cinnamon and raison bagels at the café near me are excellent. I have them with cream cheese, even though it doesn’t really go, because that is a very New York thing to do.
  • The names of places are frequently absurd, but no-one seems to question it, because, I don’t know, it might make them look like a hick or something. But seriously – Noho? What sort of name is that? Flatiron? And Dumbo? (Just for your information, it stands for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass – but who actually knew that?) And Alphabet City? That’s like something from the Wizard of Oz. You expect a series of hamlets populated by people whose names all begin with the same letter. (“Good morning, I’m Abraham Atkins and this is my neighbour, Andrew Adams. May I also introduce my cat, Abigail?” Actually, this would explain Alan Alda. Also Buffalo Bill, though he may not have been from New York.) Why do people just take these names in their stride rather than saying, “You know what? That’s a weird thing to call a place!”
  • There are squirrels (!) That is all.
  • 20150505_161942I am in love with brownstones. They are so beautifully elegant, but homey at the same time, with their broad slopes of steps and squat comfortable curves. Sometimes when I see them, I feel almost overcome with joy and delight (NB. similar to with the blossoms). Fire escapes also elicit this response. Sometimes I wish I was younger so I could try on a different life. That life would involve living in a brownstone with a fire escape.
  • I apparently look like I have money. This is reassuring, as I don’t. I think it’s because I strike the right tone. If anyone wants some pointers on how to do this, my advice is to keep your spine absolutely rigid at all times (think an umbrella stand or a Christian 20150505_191151fundamentalist) and try to speak as if you’re Julie Andrews after a long and exhausting tea party. People will then offer you samples of extremely expensive skin care serums in Madison Avenue Boutiques. These will cost between $300 and $400 apiece. In order to avoid purchasing these products, you will have to draw on a recent shopping experience at Kiehls and explain that you only use skincare products that harness the anti-aging properties of glaciers. When the shop assistant regretfully informs you that said creams do not harness these properties, you will be able to decline purchase gracefully rather than looking like a cheapskate.
  • Dandelions look different in America. Their yellow is more intense and they’re tougher, bawdier – possibly because they’ve been reared in the ghetto.
  • Did I mention the fire escapes?
Posted in travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A quick and belated update

So, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted. A long time. Sorry about that. Elaborate explanations are boring, so I won’t bother with any – let’s just assume that I was holed up in a cabin in the alps writing my magnum opus, or had my right arm crushed by a piano, or was hideously savaged by a bear and have spent the last four years undergoing radical reconstructive surgery. Or something. I dunno. You decide.

I’ve started blogging again because I’m about to go on holidays to America (tomorrow) and this seemed the best way of letting people know what I’m doing while I’m there. But in the meantime, it seems necessary to update my readers on what I’ve been up to since I last posted. (I’m sure that both of them have spent the entire duration poised in anxious anticipation.) And 3.47am on a Friday morning seemed the perfect time to do it.

In a nutshell then:

  • I’m no longer a teacher. Or a bookseller. Or work in publishing. Or do whatever the hell it was I was doing the last time I wrote – god knows it seemed to change with monotonous regularity. For the past two-and-a-half years I’ve been working as a children’s librarian, which means I spend my entire life clad in figure-hugging plaid skirts and cardigans, biting sexily on a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles – in fact, as you read these very words, I am trying to wrest my hair into a bun and practicing my most forbidding shush. I genuinely love my job: expect many riveting accounts of preschool storytimes and circulation desk duties in the future.
  • I’m no longer living with Richard, or “R”, which was the cunning pseudonym I chose for him back then. (Yes, I was a veritable cryptographer in those days.) I’m currently experiencing a blissful reprieve in between flatmates: I kind of hope that an unknown rich uncle dies and leaves me a fortune so I never have to find another.
  • I still read voluminously (nb. I am unfortunately unable to use the word “voraciously” else I would be viciously pilloried by a friend who objects to the word in this context on the grounds that it is shockingly over-utilised by those whose professedly ravenous reading habits should have furnished them with a more extensive vocabulary.) While fiction is still my genre of choice, I am trying to read more non-fiction this year in a futile bid to make myself less frivolous. (Yeah, good luck with that one, she says dryly…)
  • I still procrastinate constantly. I also still drink way too much coffee and red wine, though am getting better at managing the latter. (The former needs no redress – it would only rob me of me of my gay, vital edge and beguiling air of thinly reined-in hysteria.)
  • Most importantly, however, I still have Fina: to quote Basil Fawlty, “Hooray – the cat lives! Long live the cat!”
Fina on suitcase

“I claim this suitcase for the cat empire.”

Posted in travel | Leave a comment

The peculiarly deceptive tendencies of ordinary household objects

The cat was strangely uncommunicative this morning. I was chattering away in my usual inane fashion (I think I was talking about apartheid, from memory) and she wasn’t saying a thing. I mean, she’s not exactly chatty most mornings, but she normally at least acknowledges my presence: heaving up her head and blinking in her slow, disdainful, lion-like way; flicking her tail in annoyance if my voice is making it particularly hard for her to sleep; charging my shins if I make a comment she vehemently disagrees with: that dogs are quite nice for instance, or that I don’t think Quentin Tarantino is a particularly good director. Today though, not a thing. I was starting to get concerned.

‘So, I noticed the mynah birds were out on the deck this morning,’ I said with deliberate casualness. (The mynah birds are her arch enemies.) ‘Must have been the seed I put out for them.’ 

Nothing. I tried again. ‘I was watching Reservoir Dogs yesterday – what a load of rubbish!’

Still nothing.  I tried once more. ‘Speaking of dogs, I saw a new Alsation has moved in next door. A big one. Vicious looking.  Ex-police I’d say. Very sharp teeth.’ (This was a lie but I was getting desperate.)

She didn’t even look up.  I could only conclude that she was dead or in a coma. I hoped she hadn’t been trying to read Umberto Eco again. I’d warned her about that. I leant over to have a closer look…

The cat chose that moment to saunter in from the back yard. And it was then I realised that I had been talking to a pair of brown shoes for the past hour.

‘Bad cat!’ I cried angrily. ‘I’ve told you before about disguising yourself as ordinary domestic objects!’ The cat said nothing. Nor did the shoes.

I phoned Richard in annoyance. ‘Will you please stop leaving your shoes all around the house?’ I snapped.

‘Can I call you back? Now’s not a good…’ he began.  I cut him off.

‘It takes ten measly seconds to pick them up and put them in the bedroom. I don’t understand why that poses such an insurmountable challenge!’

‘I’m actually in a meeting with the managing…’

 ‘It’s untidy and slovenly. What would the real estate agent think if he stopped by for a surprise inspection?’

‘I’d be more worried about him seeing the cat,’ he muttered. This was the wrong thing to say.

 ‘What are your trying to imply?!’ I exploded, ‘That the real estate agent has better eyesight than me? That I’m completely blind?

There was a long pause. ‘Oh no, you haven’t been talking to the feather duster again have you?’ he said sympathetically.

‘Of course I haven’t been talking to the feather duster – I’m not a complete idiot! I’m just very upset about this shoe thing and I don’t think you’re taking it seriously enough. It’s an occupational health and safety hazard!’

‘Look, it’s not that big an issue. Shoes can be moved.’ 

‘Exactly – they can be moved. So in future, when you take your shoes off will you please move them to the wardrobe,’ I finished triumphantly, and hung up.

Of course, it wasn’t really the shoes that were the issue. It was my eyesight, which has never been particularly good (too many evenings spent reading under the covers as a child), and lately seems to be deteriorating rapidly. I now need my glasses to see the computer at work or to read a book, the 30cm between my face and the page constituting a ‘long distance’. And Fina’s ability to blend in with the furnishings doesn’t really help things.

I’ve always loved her beautiful camouflage coat – along with her sarcastic sense of humour, it’s one of her best qualities: a dappled tawny colour with flecks of russet, gold and black, it exactly mimics the effects of sunlight on the forest floor. It would be perfect if she were hiding out in the Amazon or fighting in Nam.  But, you know, she isn’t.  In hindsight, I probably should have chosen a more conspicuous cat.

I also should have thought more carefully about how I decorated the house. The brown sofa cushions were an error, as was the fawn throw-rug. The cat-sized teracotta pot on the patio was also a mistake. And the green armchair. And the bright yellow safety vest hanging from the door.  

Because it isn’t Fina; it’s just my eyes: even if her coat was pure white like a gleaming patch of snow, or the warm glowing marmalade of sunlight caught in a jar, I’d still be mistaking scarves and shovels and pot plants and refrigerators for her.

And when I think about it, there are advantages to being a few vitreous millimetres away from legal blindness:  without my glasses, I occupy a pretty, Monet-style world of blurred pastels and gentle contours. It’s curiously restful, like looking out through a window washed with rain, or drifting about underwater: the real world seems much too harsh, angular and sharp-edged in comparison.  Mine is a magical world of metamorphosis: ‘What a gorgeous dog!’ I’ll coo, my brain mysteriously filling in the details, so that where my friend sees only a burly man with a gym bag under his arm, I’ll see him cradling a wriggling, bright-eyed puppy.  ‘Look at that beautiful white bird!’ I’ll exclaim, while others see only a plastic bag tangled in the branches of a tree.  In my world, an overflowing garbage bin is a gypsy dancer with a rose between her teeth.  An ordinary mail box a long-necked jungle creature wandering lost in the suburbs.  A child’s red balloon in the distance the most brilliant sunset ever.  And the cat my constant faithful companion…

Haiku: Looking Out of the Back Bedroom Window Without My Glasses by Wendy Cope

What’s that amazing
new lemon-yellow flower?
Oh yes, a football.

Posted in Cats | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments