Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Greetings from: Luxembourg (again)

We end where we begin: in Luxembourg. Probably not a moment too soon: Matthew and I are now loaded down with at least fifty pounds worth of new purchases.

We have dinner in a Laotian restaurant -- an odd cuisine to find in Luxembourg. Even more odd: as we come in, a muscular man wearing an Armani t-shirt is singing Thai karaoke. He says that Thai is his sixth language, and that’s he’s working on a seventh: Japanese. He also says, essentially, that he’s learned these languages in order to impress the girls of those countries, which is honest enough, I suppose. His comrade-in-arms, if not in tongues, has the build of a fireman. The polyglot laughs and jokes with the owner of the restaurant. He’s brought his own bootleg karaoke CDs. He has sets of harmonicas that he plays, blues-style, to a few songs. We applaud when appropriate.

This song, he tells us, is about a guy who brings his girlfriend to a certain part of the city. The next time he sees his girlfriend, though, she’s with another guy. So it’s a very fast, very angry song. Too fast for him to sing along.

The owner speaks to us in French. He moved to Luxembourg from Paris, and finds the Grand Duchy somewhat dull.

Well, yes, I can see how that’s possible.

But Luxembourg is what it is. Our Armani-clad friend says that the country is too conservative. Luxembourg has the highest income per capita in Europe, he says, but many people don’t know anything beyond their own borders. He’s going back to Thailand and Laos in a few months.

What’s your line of work? we ask. He’s an electrical engineer.

The evening pulls forth -- we have a plane to catch tomorrow. And how is it, that we’re in a Laotian restaurant run by a former Parisian, speaking English to a man who can sing Thai karaoke. The screens now show hideously cheesy videos, replete with ruffle-clad dancers and a singer who stands with the dignity of a former Miss Universe winner. The two men speaking French next to us switch to English when they address the two blonde ladies at the far table. And for this meal, sipping our fresh coconut juice, it seems as if Luxembourg has become a microcosm of the larger world.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Greetings from: BRUGES

The expectations game is an extraordinarily bad one to play while on vacation, but when armed with foreknowledge of a place, it becomes impossible not to play it. Today’s contestant: Bruges. It already has two strikes going against it: 1) we’ve heard it’s extremely touristy (it has little industry of its own outside of tourism; blame the French); 2) Matthew has read that most of the buildings are more recent constructions, rather than the more authentic medieval buildings of Ghent.

And so, even as we wander about Bruges, we’re not so taken with it. At the open air ‘antiques’ market, one vendor has a large map of the city all done in lace. The souvenir shops themselves offer your initials in lace, as if trying to personalize the experience. We do see one actual lace maker at her work, but she has a small dish for tips next to her as she manipulates the pins and the string, and it reminds me of Colonial Williamsburg more than anything. The canal cruises are 1€ more expensive than in Ghent, the boats are more crowded, and they don’t even give you a free beer!

We meander along the canal the rings the city, and I get the sense that this is an interrupted city. There’s an old seminary for sale. A monastery that’s been turned into a hostel (of sorts). An abandoned apartment building with everything ripped out of it except for the light fixtures and some vinyl cling-on decorations for a kid’s room. It would be a sad sight, if it weren’t the life cycle of any city you could name.

Eventually we come to a small street fair. More Flemish rock, but on a more intimate scale. The band -- who seem to be aging bikers in their spare time -- perform hard rock classics. The rest of the street has become a huge garage sale, with all the junk that you expect from garage sales. It’s like the antique market that we passed earlier, except with pretensions or the ridiculous prices. They don’t trying to pass off their crap by claiming its authenticity.

Greetings from: GHENT

When I was young, I always wanted to live in a castle. I imagined a moat, a drawbridge, a livery -- the works. Having not been born into European nobility, however, my chances were extremely slim. Maybe this is why I was so captivated by Ghent: there’s Gravenstein Castle right in the town center. It’s a museum now, and I’m not sure how excited I’d be to live in a museum, but it does bring back all of the childhood dreams.

We arrive in Ghent in the middle of its summer festival, and what should be an easy stroll becomes a maze of concert tents and tourists. Music reverberates off the old stones. People sing along to famous Flemish rock songs, but no one dances. But it’s early in the afternoon still, and who knows what happens after people get a few beers into them.

In the Bloemenmarkt, I had a cone of lily-flavored ice cream (having once eaten sautéed tiger lily buds, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect), but the taste was pleasingly floral, sweet. Belgians sure do love their sweets. Waffles studded with pebbles of sugar and then doused in chocolate or whipped cream; crepes dressed in the same finery. They even have yogurt that proudly displays its sucre content. I haven’t yet taken a good look at Belgian teeth to determine the extent of their dental issues. Along with canal, street food stalls fill the air with the smell of spiced, sizzling meats.

It seems as if the fair threatens to overwhelm little Ghent. But it’s stood for centuries already; some bad free-jazz trios aren’t going to bring it down now. Matthew and I take a canal cruise that, theoretically, should inform us of the city’s history, but the boat’s speaker on our side has gone out, and we sit next to the motor, which drowns out whatever the cruise operator might be saying, however perfunctorily. No matter: we sluice through the water and cautiously sip the free Duvel beer that came with the 6€ boat trip fee. The castle seems temptingly within reach.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Greetings from: the Eurostar from LONDON to BRUSSELS

A cabal of four Australian young men sits across from us, fully iPodded, all legs and earpieces, feeling the full vigor of their youth. The South Asian, nearest to the aisle and directly across from me, reads from a large paperback, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. Another, a gangly, brown-haired man who seems too young to be going bald so quickly, records the world passing outside the window with his camera, as if this were the only way to keep the world from passing through his fingers entirely.

My ears fill and pop—the compression and decompression as we pass in and out of tunnels. The English countryside rocks back and forth.


Belgium has always been the butt of jokes. When I went on my European tour with my parents oh-so-many years ago, a Frenchman (of course) told me this joke:

Why does Belgium have so few birds?

Because they can’t fly like this. (He flaps one arm and holds his nose with his other.)

On that tour, the tour bus drove through Belgium, but didn’t stop. So now, 25 years later, I finally get to experience Brussels. My judgment: why must everyone pick on poor Brussels? The old city center is cute—touristy, yes, but you could say the same about St. Mark’s Square in Venice. And in St. Mark’s, you don’t get a gaggle of male Australian tourists, one dressed in an USA-themed Morphsuit (though that’s something I’d like to see).

Plus, it’s difficult to bad-mouth a city that has a chocolate shop on every street corner. Maybe outside of the historic center you begin to see fewer murals and more graffiti, but from my brief exposure so far, I’d have to say that I feel about Brussels the way I felt about Brussels sprouts: people keep telling me how awful they are, but until you try it for yourself, you never know how you’ll feel about it.


Brussels, at night, takes on a different character, as all cities do. The Foire has just started: a mile-long carnival along the Rue du Midi, which smells of fried food. You can hear screams synchronize with the lights of the rides spinning them into disorientation. This is the first shift of the night: the bar-goers, the club-goers. The young sit outside, chat and smoke, and families make their way back home, pushing strollers, herding along children who, they hope, will fall asleep immediately.

The second shift of the night comes when the bars have closed, and the darkness masks the motives of those still moving about. The full moon peeks in and out from behind clouds. There are still groups of young men roaming, and sometimes they break into song, thinking the night will swallow their voices, when it amplifies them. As you walk, you don’t feel unsafe, but you don’t let down your guard, either. Daytime tourists visit the Mannekin Pis and Jeanneke Pis, but nighttime tourists can smell the actual piss -- or see it produced.

No matter: by morning, Brussels will wipe itself clean. The shadows cast by street lamps will peel off the Palais and the Grand Place, making them clean and white again, and the man-shaped mirrors in the shop of the Magritte Museum will reflect something other than the faces of the night-dwellers who pass by, wondering how they ended up here.

Greetings from: SISSINGHURST

People say -- and I have no idea who these people are, other than vague shadows who appear only to spout generalizations -- that relationships are all about compromise. And to whatever extent that’s true, let’s look at it in travel terms: Matthew certainly has spent his fair amount of time waiting inside, outside, and in the general vicinity of music stores; and today, he has a chance to visit Sissinghurst. (On the way there, he tells people that he’s wanted to visit since he was a child. This surprises me. I haven’t wanted to go anywhere since I was a kid except to sleep.) The cab driver explained: the hurst part of Sissinghurst and Staplehurst (the nearest train stop) is an old word for a clearing of trees. Who, then, I wanted to ask, was this Mr. Sissing to name the town after himself?

I’m sure Matthew will wax eloquent about the gardens on his own, but suffice it to say: there were a lot of plants, second only to the number of tourists. Any attempts at scenic, panoramic photographs will result in shaped hedges blighted with elderly tourists, doddering along the pathways. In a few years, of course, that’ll be me, and I’ll have earned the right to say: Screw your shot, I’m going to see what I want to see.

Greetings from: LONDON

Maybe I was too hard on children in my last post. They can also be wonderful, but this comes when they’re older, in my opinion. Case in point: my cousin’s children, 10 and 11, have fully-formed personalities, rather than these little explosions of energy. They’re in their final week in school, in their final week in London (my cousin, married to a Greek Cypriot, is moving to Cyprus), so we don’t see them much of the children, but what we do see of them, we like. S___, the older sister, is gregarious and open-hearted; on the day we arrive, she brings over a friend, Reya, to play. R___, it seems, is more interior, imaginative. His father compares him to me (R___ having just written a poem about the London Eye.) When the scallops Matthew and I prepare for the evening turns out very spicy, R___ describes it as an army in his mouth, shooting hot bullets into his tongue. R___ doesn’t say much at first, but when he gets going, the words come in a deluge.

Matthew and I have been to London before, so we can skip the usual tourist stops (Tower of London, British Museum, Tate Modern, London Eye, Millennium Bridge, Buckingham Palace) and go straight for the shopping. Alas, Matthew’s rather disappointed that he can’t find a nice sports coat at Austin Reed like he did on our last visit two years ago, and when the salesperson suggests Aquascutum across the street (more suited for slender guys like us), we come across a depleted stock. You should have come earlier in the sale, the Mick Jagger-like salesman says. I can barely plan a trip across the street, much less plan a trip to coincide with a certain sale.

What I can manage, however: high tea. This time, at the Wolseley, which is attended by an army of servers, all of whom move about with such crisp efficiency that it seems they have wheels on their feet. High tea is always deceptive: when it comes out on its cute three-tiered tray, you have to remind yourself that tea wasn’t meant to be a meal -- a few finger sandwiches, a sprinkling of pastries. It’s a placeholder meal until dinner comes. But in the stomach, tea interacts with cucumber sandwiches in a strange way: the bread expands to fill up available space, like spray foam, so by the end, you barely manage to cram the last piece of scone into your tea-hole.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Greetings from: DURHAM

I know that people have traveled with young children, and I know that people have blogged about traveling with young children, but for the life of me, I still can’t figure out how people travel with young children.

In Durham, we were fortunate enough stay with friends of Matthew, a lovely couple, with three young boys, who are themselves lovely. But with the boys, however, the levels of rambunctiousness increase seismically: disaster begets disaster, attention demands more attention, and it’s a wonder that mothers don’t go Medea every day.

As we walked to the Durham Cathedral and tour the old town, my head continually whipped back and forth, trying to keep track of all three boys at once: one ran far ahead down the cobblestone path; behind us, another contemplated a walking stick; and a third clung to my leg like the cutest lamprey ever. The boy looking at the stick then chased after the one running ahead, and I wondered: was I this energetic when I was young? How many circles of Hell did I conjure into being?

I hesitate to say that children will cramp “my style,” because this assumes I have a style of travel outside of sitting at cafes and stopping into CD stores. But there’s that extra consideration of making the trip worthwhile not only for yourself, but for your child. And it’s more than a matter of keeping them ‘entertained’ while you do your adult things -- it’s the balance of keeping everyone’s needs met.

My parents, for example, took me on a European tour when I was nine, and while I don’t remember much of the trip, I wonder now how much they had to concern themselves about me. (As I recall, they needn’t have worried; on the tour bus, I found a Canadian boy about my age, and we got along smashingly.)

Matthew’s friend, who’s doing a year’s sabbatical at Durham University, fobbed off her children onto her husband for a few minutes and snuck us into the faculty lounge at Durham Castle. Inside, a wedding was setting up: the wait staff wheeled in kegs of beer and polished glasses; a young man in a kilt made out with a young woman in a flapper dress; flower girls in diaphanous dresses flitted about on the lawn. But the faculty lounge was blessedly quiet, full of old, dark wood and sealed away, it seemed, from the world. There was a sign-up sheet where you could mark where you took a bottle of soda or a pour of gin.

I know why the room (by extension, travel) exists: everyone needs an escape.

Greetings from: NEWCASTLE

For us, Newcastle is a waypoint -- a few hours to kill before we head up to Durham. As we exited the bus from the port, a chipper information guide gave us a route through the town. “It’s a nice bit of time,” she said.

At what point do all ancient keeps, castles and crumbling fort walls begin to look alike? As we travel from one former medieval city to another, I begin to gloss over their individual histories: which cathedral was destroyed when? And by whom? Was this city sacked or merely fallen into disrepair? I enjoy the scenery on an aesthetic level (rib-like arches, stained glass windows) and a conceptual level (how many conquered peoples did it take to build that?), but much of the awe that seems to overtake other tourists regularly escapes me. I’ve been more parsimonious with my photo-taking (you’d think that a digital camera, with its instant gratification, would lead to more pictures, but that’s not the case with me).

It’s not merely the tourist view of history, either; young Newcastletons sit on the medieval walls, dipping their fingers into bags of crisps and drinking lagers. A young couple snog as if they’ve only just discovered their lips. They’ve been exposed to this history so long they no longer realize that it’s there, except when tourists come to gawk and clog the sidewalks, reading historical plaques and signs.

But Newcastle has something that the Netherlands doesn’t have: charity shops. In the Amnesty International bookstore, I pick up a Javier Marias novel, and in another shop, I get a CD that, upon closer inspection, was smeared with maple syrup and rather scratched. But it was cheap, and a quick rinse cleared off the syrup. I’m not sure it’ll play or not, but I’ll just chalk that up as a donation to mental illness abatement.
I’m a giver, I know.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Greetings from: the Amsterdam to Newcastle ferry

I now completely understand what David Foster Wallace was writing about in his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The appeal and horrors of a cruise ship. The Amsterdam-Newcastle ferry was only overnight, but it had the trappings of a full cruise, including a casino (tended to by two bored-looking dealers), a sports bar-cum-discotheque, a buffet restaurant, and on-board entertainment. And while I can see the appeal of having every whim catered to, I understand the horror of being trapped on the ship for an extended amount of time. After three hours, I was bored out of my skull. The Tribute to ABBA put on by the ship’s ‘Showteam’ killed a short bit of time (one of the male dancers looked disturbingly encephalitic (many of the middle-aged women watching the Showteam with us mouthed the words to every song; fans of Mamma Mia! I assume (also: what is it about Europeans and ABBA?))), but the rest of the time was spent walking up and down corridors, in and out of bars, rolling and listing with the ship. The North Sea was much too cold to stay out on deck to watch, but from our porthole, we could see the distant lights of other ships and unexploded oil rigs. The ferry’s onboard voice soothed us in three different languages.

Greetings from: LEIDEN

Our last day in the Netherlands. Given the yesterday’s bicycle fiasco, we decide to take it easy. Leiden: nearby, tiny, walkable. (This is not to say, of course, that we’ve discovered a part of Holland that is not walkable.) As we cross canals and wander the twisty streets, I wonder how much of travel should only be smaller towns, like Leiden. The word “charming” gets thrown about quite a bit when you read travel guides, and while large cities have their attributes, ‘charming’ is generally not among them.

On this, our pre-determined leisure day, we enjoy a morning of Dutch pancakes (mine with bacon), some tulip bulb shopping (stay tuned to Matthew’s gardening blog in the spring), and then an afternoon sitting next to the canals of Leiden, sipping tea and having snacks. The snack-based culinary drive of Holland suits me: I’m all about the little bites, nibbling on whatever’s at hand. Perhaps this is how the Dutch stay freakishly thin and tall: snacking. (Argentine restaurants also seem to be big; they’re the Dutch equivalent of sushi bars in New York City.)

Maybe small things are the way to go: small Indonesian dishes, small sandwiches, small bowls of tapenade and pesto to spread onto chunks of brown bread, small towns that let you catch your breath as small white-billed ducks pass beneath you and swim towards the crusts you throw into the canals.

Greetings from: UTRECHT

Our itinerary for the day: some Utrecht, then a leisurely ride to a castle about 11 km away, then maybe a medieval witch-city if we’re up to it. If a bike ride was good the previous day, then another bike ride would be twice a good the next day, right?

In theory, this would be correct. In practice, however, we hadn’t counted on two things: first, that the day would be much sunnier than previously. And, all things considered, this wasn’t much of a problem: we simply had to stay hydrated.

The second problem proved much more vexing: on the road to Vleuten, I got a flat. It’s a terrible sound, that slow hiss that comes from a broken stem. At first, I thought it may have been the sound of the traffic beneath me (I was crossing a bridge). But as the sound continued, I knew it was my back tire slowly deflating and collapsing to the ground, accompanied by my will to live.

So then: the long walk back to the Utrecht train station from which we had rented our bikes in the bright, bright Dutch sunshine.

Greetings from: DELFT

The Dutch football team comes home today to their second-place parade. They’re to float by along the Herengracht, which is the canal right outside our hotel. Even at 10 in the morning, people stake out their spots with orange towels and streamers. So to avoid the Orange fever, Matthew and I retreat to someplace a little more blue and white. Delft, for instance.

We pull into the Hague first, and in the basement of the train station, the bike rental guy becomes annoyed with our touristy ways (“You need the deposit in cash? You don’t take credit cards?”). Despite some confusion, we exit, saddled with two perfectly functional bikes. Our cheaper bikes only have pedal brakes, which makes me feel like I’m in sixth-grade. I never realized how onerous pedal brakes are, especially when one initially tries to get momentum going. I wobbled across the bike lane and into the paths of oncoming trams.

Once in Delft, it feels as if we step into a Vermeer painting, although Vermeer wisely left out The Body Shoppe in his cityscapes. It seems, thus far, that the non-Amsterdam cities have all the charm and history of Amsterdam, and none of the sleaze. Inside of sweet marijuana smoke blowing out of every doorway, you have delicately-glazed ceramics and antique tiles -- an addiction just as costly. In the Turkish shoarma shops we pass, the TVs show the chaos in Amsterdam itself. From the air, the mass of people look like a terrible choice of orange shag carpet, separated by brown-green stripes.

On the way back from Delft, we get lost in the tangle of bike paths heading to the Hague. Instead of the direct route we took earlier, we on side paths, past a grid of vacation houses bursting with garden colors. We dart through the suburbs of Rijkwid, past a shopping mall the size of a football stadium, and arrive back at the Hague, late enough so that the foreign dignitaries and government bureaucrats have loosened their ties, taken off their jackets to lounge at sidewalk cafes, ordering beer after beer after beer. The Hague seems like the grown-up version of Amsterdam -- a little stodgier, a little more world-weary. But not without its own wicked sense of humor: at the World Peace Flame (near the Peace Palace), we noticed that someone had broken off the US representative of the “rocks of the world” display, and that Serbia and Montenegro had been removed entirely.

And if we had missed the party in Amsterdam, the remnants still remain: long beer cans crowding the base of trees, wine and champagne bottles like budding streetlights, the road paved with flattened aluminum cans, cheers in Dutch that sound like We’re number two! We’re number two!

Greetings from: AMSTERDAM

Comedown day.  If the Dutch had won the World Cup, Amsterdam would be overflowing.  The canals would be dyed orange, vuvuzuelas would blow clear and free, love and peace and harmony would flow through the cobbled streets, and bikes would actually let pedestrians have the right of way.  Alas. 

Matthew and I watched the final in the window of The Queen’s Head, a gay bar.  The crowd swelled and ebbed -- with each approach to the Spanish strike zone, the energy rose, and after each deflected goal, everyone deflated.  I’ve heard that the Dutch are the tallest people in Europe (“freakishly tall” was the description), and standing behind them in the street, I’d have to agree. 

Today, both the BBC and CNN replay the Spanish goal on an endless loop -- the football equivalent to looking at your ex-‘s pictures after a bad break-up.  Plastic signs declaring Bertje! and Oranje! lie in the streets.  Outside of the numerous coffeeshops, the smell of people smoking their sadness away wafts out. 

So, in the spirit of Amsterdam, I decide to try a space cake.  Inside Homegrown fantasy, the salesman -- a dread-locked Indonesian young man – measures out grams of the good stuff (and mediocre stuff, I assume) with clipped efficiency.  When I let him know that I’m a newbie, he’s good-humored about it.  “You may feel a little woozy,” he says.  At the next table, a British gent orders a big spliff.  I might have enjoyed the experience more if the space cake came with some slagroom (whipped cream) because it was dry and crumbly.  But, I suppose flavor and consistency aren’t the cakes’ selling points.

I’m pretty mellow by nature, so I can’t tell how much more mellow I was supposed to feel.  No wooziness, no paranoia, no thrill of the forbidden.  (Another contributing factor:  my table partner kept taking forkfuls of my cake.)  In any case, I simply feel asleep, dreaming of the same goal over and over again.

Greetings from: the train from Luxembourg to Amsterdam

There are a good number of cyclists on the train.  As they board, they struggle with their bikes, wrestling to get them into an upright position.  They’re dark-tanned (or perhaps just Spanish) and stride down the aisles with lean, muscular legs.  I’m also continually blinded by people wearing bright orange outfits.  I’m cheering on the Netherlands in the World Cup Finals too, but there’s a reason why hunters use that color to keep from getting shot. 

An elderly woman sits across from us.  She does things that seem inscrutable:  cutting advertisements with a pair of tiny scissors; making notations in a date book no larger than the size of her palm; scrutinizing a brochure for youth hostels, bringing the paper close to her face, even as her glasses lie on the table in front of her.  She wears pearls and a gold necklace with a cross, and her dress is the color of Delft tiles.  She continually busies herself as I nap. 
Meanwhile, the green parts of Belgium stream by; you could also be fooled into thinking the country were nothing but foliage.  Foliage and graffiti, actually.


A minor kerfuffle:  Matthew and I sit in a glassed-off compartment.  The first Brussels-Amsterdam train was canceled, and the one an hour later is packed.  We first share the compartment with a couple with a toddler daughter -- perfectly fine.  When the couple disembarked at Antwerp, however, we were then joined by a Frenchwoman, who did a suitcase-block of one of the seats.  

An African-American woman (Tanya) and her husband tried to enter, but there was a misunderstanding as to how many people were coming in, who had arrived first, and what the etiquette was for ‘saving seats.’ 
“We’re two people,” Tanya says.

“We’re two too,” the other woman replies. 

“I think you’re very ill-mannered,” Tanya says.

“I think you’re ill-mannered,” the other woman replies.

“Why are you still talking to me?”

“I’m going to ignore you now.”

Peace has been restored.  Tanya writes a book proposal on her laptop:  A Guide to Hating Your Government.  It’s a “satire” of some sort, with a surfeit of “scare quotes.” 

I preferred the toddler, drool and all. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Greetings from: CLERVAUX

My troubles in Luxembourg begins with my inability to make simple metric calculations.  For instance, at the farmer's market in the Place d'Armes, I asked for 375g of German speck, expecting a handful of slices and ending up with a solid block of pig.  It smells delicious but the small butter knife which the hotel lent me is insufficient to but through the tough, cured deliciousness.  (I later compounded this problem when, for dinner, I ordered a 300g hamburger and watched Germany beat Uruguay for third-place in the World Cup.)

Next, as Matthew and I bought our tickets for the northern town of Clervaux, I couldn't believe the ticket agent when he told me it would cost €3.  "How much?" I asked.  The clerk, clearly annoyed, held up three fingers.  If I were traveling on New Jersey Transit, €3 wouldn't have gotten me further than one stop, and Clervaux is nearly at the Luxembourg-Belgium border.  The town itself is rather sleepy -- when we arrived, the shops were closed for a two-hour siesta.  But I don't blame them:  the sun scorched everything in its path.  We sat under an awning for lunch and angled ourselves to avoid any contact whatsoever with sunlight.  When we couldn't bear it any longer, we each ordered a café glacé -- three scoops of ice cream, warm coffee, and whipped cream -- to stave off heatstroke.  It worked.

Our main purpose in going to Clervaux, though, was to hear the monks at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Maurice recite vespers.  Let your mind wander back to 1990:  the Berlin Wall falls; Margaret Thatcher resigns; Nelson Mandela is released from prison; and Iraq invades Kuwait.  Elsewhere in the world, a little-known German-Romanian band named Enigma releases their debut album MCMXC a.D, and their single, "Sadeness, Pt. 1," which mixes Gregorian chants with techno beats, becomes a worldwide smash and finds a special place in the heart of a certain high school sophomore Aurora, Colorado.

On our way to the abbey, however, we got lost.  We walked along a road up a hill and found, instead of an abbey, a daycare center.  A helpful young woman pointed out that the abbey was on the other hill, and that if we were going by foot, we had just missed the turn-off for the trail about a hundred yards back.  Thus, we began our walk through the woods -- pine needles underfoot, the smell of cow patties in the air.  Small markers indicated that this was a bike path of some sort; judging by the steep incline, it was the masochist's path.  Oh, it can't be that much further, I thought.  There's not that much hill left.  At best, it was another 100 meters of vertical ascent. 

Yeah, that conversion issue again.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Greetings from: the Old City

On the plane to Luxembourg, we met a young Luxembourgois named Chris, who advised us:  you can see all of the Old City in an hour and a half, if you don't stop in anywhere.  He also suggested a bar, Scott's, to which I nodded as if excited, but since I don't drink, it was mostly for show.  As it turns out, our tour of the Old City took significantly longer than and hour and a half, but that's not because we didn't stop anywhere.  Old City sounds better than "commercial shopping district"; it sounds more quaint.  More romantic.  And if there's any doubt to the romanticism of the city, I bore witness to these five examples: 

#1:  As I sat, sipping a chocolate milkshake at the Chocolate Company, right across from the Palais Grand-Ducal, I watched a young woman of about 14, chat up the Royal Guard, who looked to be maybe 18.  There's none of that British-style, Beefeater stone-face here; the guard stared straight ahead, but he was clearly speaking back to her.  As he did his formal march, a stately fifteen paces to his left, she followed along on the other side.  There's something about a man in uniform.  After that procession, however, he continued to march in the hot afternoon sun, beret poised sharply on his forehead, and the young lady, sensing a lost cause, moved on. 

#2:  Matthew and I went down into the Bock casemates, the cavernous underground military fortifications.  We traipsed up and down stone spiral staircases, with steps so narrow that my size 9½ sneaker threatened to slip right off.  As the story goes (from the casemate brochure), the first count of Luxembourg married a woman named Mélusine, who requested that he never see her on a certain night of the week.  He, of course, couldn't resist his curiosity, and when he peeked in on her one evening, he saw that she had a fish's tail.  She sensed him spying on her, and she dived into the Alzette River, never to return. 

#3:  Around the corner from the Palais, we ran into a bachelorette party.  The friends all wore pink t-shirts with the bride's face, and around her face, appliqué letters announced that she was the "star of the evening."  Her face, of course, was in a star.  The bride herself wore a chef's toque and wheeled a cart with a banner of (I assume) her fiancé's face.  She approached me:  I'm getting married, she said.  Will you buy something from me?  Her cart had bottles and baskets.  This might be a local tradition, I guessed.  How about a cookie? she suggested, and I asked, How much?  She replied, As much as you want to give.  Her fiancé's face, above the cart, grimaced, his tongue lolling out.  I gave her €1.5 for a cookie, and she said, They're special.  Indeed they were:  they were in the shape of a penis.  Would you like some sperm? one of her friends asked, and I said, Of course!  She sprayed whipped cream on the tip, but too much, and it splattered on the ground in a white blotch.  She controlled the amount better the second time, and one of her friends photographed me as I fellated the cookie.  The cart moved on, down the street, and I noticed the bride-to-be had a plastic ball-and-chain clamped around her ankle. 

#4:  For dinner, we ate at Chiggeri, on the curve of Rue du Nord.  The road had been blocked off, and as we ate, we watched car after car drive approach the barricade, then have to do a five-point turn to go back downhill.  One brave soul drove down in reverse.  The maitre d' looked like a football hooligan:  muscular, with a shaved head except for a center strip of black hair -- a cranial lane divider.  When a group of young ladies came to dine, all the male wait staff immediately stood up straight and lined up across the road, their hands behind their backs, ready to be of service at any moment. 

#5:  In the Place D'Armes, the 'Summer in the City' festival was in full swing.  The restaurant sidewalk tables were all full, including the ones serving McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Chi-Chi's.  We'd seen a classical quartet play earlier, and now that the sun had set (9:30 again), the Harmonie Orchestra Hesperange had taken the stage.  They were a mixed aged orchestra; the flautists seemed particularly young, while the horn players and percussionists were older men.  We arrived just in time; they played a medley of ABBA hits, "Dancing Queen" leading into "Lay All Your Love on Me," and ending with "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)."  Matthew and I sat on a bench, next to a woman eating a nectarine.  She put a plastic bottle of San Pellegrino to demarcate her personal space.  At the table next to us, a couple shared a platter of fruits de mer on a bed of ice.  Children danced in the square; other children stood on stage and pretend to conduct.  Matthew and I were sticky from exertion -- summer clinging to our skin -- but he still put his arm around my shoulder. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Greetings from: LUXEMBOURG CITY

The first day of travel is always rough going:  merry travelers suffer from cramped airline seats, creeping effects of jetlag, and, for those visiting northern climes, the sun not setting until almost 9 in the evening.  From the plane, sunset seemed to last forever, as if the plane were chasing the afterglow.  And, after it had lost the chase, sunrise broke over the horizon.  I, however, was too busy trying to cram myself into a comfortable position.  If I get some sleep, I told myself, I'll be awake and alert for Luxembourg.  Iceland Express, however, had other plans.  Its crew was scrupulously polite -- I hesitate to call them 'elfin' for fear of stereotyping -- but even the men were pale and waif-like.  It was a flight of Lord of the Rings extras:  Eymer, Gunner, Orli...

Tiny little Luxembourg and tiny little Luxembourg airport.  Several major carriers had landed there, but those planes were all twin-prop puddlejumpers.  I'd wager that the Grand Duke would bristle at hearing his fair airport being called 'regional,' but there you have it.  The bus from the airport took us through the banking district of Luxembourg -- modern glass-and-steel contraptions, men and women in gray suits having lunch in the warm afternoon sun. 

"We're the only ones wearing shorts," Matthew said.

"We're ugly Americans," I replied.  "It's sort of our uniform."

After checking into our hotel (just around the corner from the train station), we took a walk into the gorge that bisects the city.  As a matter of fact, we were not the only ones wearing shorts, but this perhaps speaks more to the monoculture of worldwide fashion:  if shorts could sag, they sagged, and if they could go beyond the knee, it might as well eat up most of the calf. 

After seven in the evening, even though the sun is still at 3/4 power, the city rolls down its shutters.  The 'ladies' of the cabarets stand outside their places of employment, smoke cigarettes, gossip, and make half-hearted efforts to lure in customers.  In the spirit of adventure, I ordered a random meal for dinner:  matjes served with an odd Dutch word that begins with g and has approximately 12 letters, 10 of them consonants.  As it turns out:  raw herring on pickled beets.

We walked the residential streets of the city until the sun set around 9, looking for a place that served glace.  There were plenty of bars open (cafes in the local parlance), and people sat at sidewalk tables or in walled-off terraces, which made the city seem almost awake.  But no ice cream.  Instead, there were snack bars, mostly of Mediterranean descent, and men who stood behind the register with gyro slicers in hand.  Cars were parked willy-nilly on the street, and we picked out the brands that don't exist in the US:  Opel, Daihatsu, Skoda, Peugeot.  National flags dangled from people's windows, especially those teams which have long since disappeared from competition.  It's an act of defiance against the Dutch, I believe, who go to the finals on Sunday.  We are here, they seem to say, and the sun rises and sets on our say-so; never mind what the clock may read.  

Thursday, April 8, 2010

a death in the family

My aunt died last night.  This was Fourth Aunt on my mother's side, the aunt to whom I refer to as my "French aunt," because while most of my extended family made a bee-line for the US after fleeing Vietnam, Fourth Uncle and his family went instead to France.  And while her death wasn't a complete surprise -- she had been treated for cancer in the last year -- it's suddenness still caught everyone by surprise.

Because of the distance, I'm not as familiar with my Fourth Aunt and Uncle, as I am with the rest of my mother's relations.  In fact, I'd only met her three times, and each time, it was a navigation between three languages:  English, French and Vietnamese.  My French is poor, my Vietnamese even poorer, but during our last interaction, when she and my uncle came to visit the US, we managed to cobble together a conversation about French books and French authors. They gave Matthew and me a gift of a bottle of Sauternes (half drunk) and tins of foie gras (which we kept in our kitchen cabinet until they went bad and leaked oil). 

I received the news by email last night, but I didn't learn about her death until this afternoon.  Or, slightly rephrased, I received an email last night, but didn't understand it until today.  When I first saw the email, I thought it was a piece of spam that had somehow found its way into my work account at school.  The subject line read:  Tata Loan, and my initial reaction was to ask, "What's this about a car loan?"  Of course, I had thought "Tata" referred to the Indian car line, and since I had just spoken with my mother the night before about swapping cars, this is where my mind immediately went.  I didn't know Tata had already introduced its line of cars into the US, I thought.  But when I opened the email, it became apparent that the subject line referred to my aunt, Loan, and that I had missed the connection.

When people read, they oftentimes sub-vocalize.  But for Vietnamese, I have to go all the way to full vocalization.  As I attempt to read Vietnamese, I twist each word around on my tongue until to approaches something appropriate to the context.  I practice the different modulations of vowels until the word matches something familiar.  Thus, reading Vietnamese is a laborious process.  From my conversation with my mother the other night (the same conversation in which we discussed cars), she told me that Tata (a familial Vietnamese word for "aunt") had developed complications, which made her coughing up blood.  I thought this email was related to that conversation.  I put it aside.

I've got a small collection of notes my mother has sent me.  Handwritten notes, on scraps of translucent paper or long, oblong Post-Its featuring the mascot of the school my father used to teach out, Kunsmiller Middle School.  She writes them in Vietnamese, and half the time, I try to parse them, and the other half, I don't even bother.  I wonder if sometimes she mistakes me for my brother (as she sometimes does on the phone), who is more fluent than I am.  But these notes are usually included with birthday or Christmas checks, or when I've forgotten to balance my checkbook and have overdrawn again. 

But this afternoon, my cousin (from Sixth Aunt) called Matthew to tell him that Tata Loan had indeed died, and that was the content of the above email.  An odd transmission route of information:  I should have known earlier -- late last night, as a matter of fact -- but my inability to read meant that I had become the last person to know.  Even Matthew knew before I did, if only by a few seconds.  He had that stricken look, as if bad news intensifies geometrically as its passed from person to person.

A few minutes ago, I tried to read my mother's original email:  Các con, Tata Loan mới mất cách đây chùng 2 tiếng đồng hồ tại Bordeaux.

Các con: All my children. 
Tata Loan: now a proper name, rather than an offer. 
mới mất cách đây:  was just lost
chùng 2 tiếng đồng hồ tại Bordeaux:  around 2 o'clock, in Bordeaux. 

The letter contines, but I can't read it.  Not because I can't, but because I can't. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Reading: Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Two African-American ladies in the audience cheered and applauded when Thiong'o mentioned Marcus Garvey.  Old radicals, I imagine.  Righteous.  We post-colonialists need to stick together. 

Ngugi wa Thiong'o reads more like a poet than a prose writer.  He selected a number of shorter excerpts from his memoir and linked them with reminisces and digressions.  He reminded me of an old English professor, delivering a lecture, but the deeper he goes into the material, the more he recalls scenes from his own life that coalesce off the page.  When a questioner asked about his reaction to the death of South African poet Dennis Brutus, Thiong'o recalled a story in which he and his wife were travelling with Brutus.  Thiong'o's wife went through without a problem, but Thiong'o and Brutus were held back.  Thiong'o was soon released, but as time passed, they began to worry about Brutus.  Eventually, they saw Brutus walking towards them, waving a sheet of paper.  "Look," Brutus said.  "I wrote a poem."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reading: Adam Haslett and Sam Lipsyte

Two hot young writers reading from their hot new novels.  I'm feeling not so hot at all, on the tail end of a cold.  For my "welcome back taste buds" meal:  pho. 

The audience seemed particularly keen on process questions:  how long did it take you to write your novel?  (5 years)  What's the difference between writing a novel and writing short stories?  (Length)  Is your work fiction or non-fiction.  (Fiction).  I wondered if the young woman who asked that last question had accidentally stumbled into the reading.  Adam, incidentally, is repped by Ira Silverberg, with whom I have a secret love affair.   

It occurred to me that many of the questioners -- most likely many of the attendees -- were aspiring writers themselves.  There were a handful of the older Philly literati who were drawn to this reading perhaps from Adam's appearance on the Today Show Book Club, but also a large number of late 20s/early 30s hipsters.  Also:  the occasional homo.  And my signing friend, Matt, who brought his son.

But when it came to question and answer time, one gentleman in the front kept needling Sam about studying with Gordon Lish.  What's the one piece of take home advice you learned from Lish or that you teach to your students at Columbia?  Both Sam and Adam gave the same approximate advice:  listen to your sentences.  Later, he had asked another Lish-related question:  what's the one piece of advice from Lish that you've had to forget or ignore?  And Sam, after relating the oft-told tale of Lish stopping students, mid-sentence, to tell them why they were fraudulent, said, "I've had to learn to let go of the fear."  The questioner revealed that he, too, had gotten a Master's in creative writing.

I think all young writers want the one-line answer to make writing seem that much easier.  The one piece of advice that makes everything snap into place. The truth of the matter is, however...

My post-reading, "welcome back taste buds" dessert:  star fruit and tart lime gelato from Capogiro.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Reading: John Banville

Nothing will keep me from readings:  not 4" of snow on the ground, not a boyfriend sick in bed with the stomach flu, not a $14 entrance fee (mitigated by half using the "I'm a student" feint), not sheer laziness (most of the time).  These things will, however, make me late.  By about 15 minutes.  

Banville has a very even, very steady voice.  You can imagine him doing his own book on tape, though you might have to adjust the volume up.  he reminds me of a professor whom you wish would use a microphone, but would lean forward to hear anyway.  There was a microphone here, however, so I could sit back at my leisure.  What is it about an Irish accent that makes a voice so compelling?  Banville's work is already lyrical in itself, so that slight inflection makes the words sing even stronger.  He kept running his right hand against the corner of the podium, as if scratching his palm against the wood. 

During the Q&A, he established his position on the literary arts:  there's verse, there's prose, and there's poetry; the last can be found in both of the former.  And, with the skill of a Olympic badminton player, he batted away repeated questions about the work of Hermann Broch gently, even as the questioner continued trying to inject.  "How many others have read Hermann Broch?" he asked.  One man raised his hand.  "Great," Banville said, with faux exasperation, "another one." 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

new distractions!

So, while this blog has devolved into an unwieldly mish-mosh (horror movie reviews, infrequent travelogues, reading attendances, sporadic book and potential boyfriend reviews), I've decided to make a (somewhat) fresh start with a new project wherein I live my life, sequentially, through the Criterion Collection.  So all the classy movies go there.  All the trash goes here.

All hail trash.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Jentel, Final Day

My last day was almost as warm as the first, though it only reached 47° and the sky is overcast.  Plus:  snow?  A small flurry of it, with tiny flakes that seem impossible, given the temperature.

Yesterday, after our final run through Sheridan, our resident handyman, Scott, took us on a tour of the Wyoming environs -- into his friend's pheasant ranch and along the snow-covered polo fields. So, in the spirit of exploration, I finally ventured into the hilly 1000 acres behind Jentel.  Despite being completely out-of-shape and huffing like a madman before I had crested my first hill, I will say this in my defense:  pulling your leg out of a shin-deep pile of snow takes quite a bit of effort.

I heard there are these things?  And they're called snowshoes?  And they distribute your weight across the snow so you don't sink into it?  In my eternal laziness, I found deer tracks and promptly trekked through them, letting the pre-compacted snow carry my weight.

But at least the snow wasn't treacherous.  Most of the non-snow parts of the hill were slick with mud and patties of cow dung (plus little jellybean-sized pellets of unidentifiable excrement).  So if my ascent was marked by snow of indeterminate depth, my descent was marked by skidding along the mud, using innocent scrub and brush to slow my slide.

Also:  even though walking over what looks like a frozen-over creek may seem like a perfect shortcut to save you -- oh, let's say forty feet or so of walking -- that water's really, really cold.  And when the ice crackles under your feet, it only gets colder.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Jentel, Day 25

Holy frijoles!  It's a whopping -5° today.  One of the visual artists, a lady of hearty Swedish stock, keeps cross-country skis outside of her studio, and a group of residents went snowshoeing yesterday.  I... slept through it.  Of the 1000 acres here on the ranch, I have explored about .5 acres.  But I will say that I've successfully completed one section (14K words) of the novel, even though I realize it's misshapen and ungainly.  Nonetheless, it's one more done section than when I arrived. 

So, I give you the Big Horn mountains at dawn:

Monday, February 8, 2010

Jentel, Day 23

Coming uncomfortably close to the end of my stay here in Wyoming.  Current WCPD ratio:  I'm no longer counting.  It hurts too much.  Instead, I bring you:  The Ballad of Grey Kitty


Yes, I know you're only here for a month.
And I've seen you every day at the door.
I squawk when you're carrying a cup,
because it's milk for me, I'm sure.

Yes, I know I'm forbidden to come in.
But the snow outside will cover my prints.
And if I should fall asleep in your chair,
it'd be enough to melt a heart of flint.

Yes, I know you sometimes stare at me
instead of trying to write your stupid book.
But when I purr and stretch and curl up,
how can anyone resist my pathetic look?

I've been here longer than anyone can recall.
Waiting patiently outside the front door. 
I know you'll be leaving in just a few days,
But I'll make you come back soon for more.


And to think Mark Strand once gave me a C! Big smothering snowflakes falling tonight.

If there's anything worse than doggerel, it's "cat"terel.  Ugh.  Forgive me:  it's late, and I just watched a hideous Syfy horror movie with Antonio Sabato, Jr.  I know it's not an excuse, but it should at least be a mitigating circumstance.  

Friday, February 5, 2010

Jentel, Day 20

Another Thursday, another disruption.  Current WCPD ratio:  677. 

On the plus side, I'm becoming a local celebrity.  Very local, small "c" celebrity.  At the coffee shop, an interviewer from KOTA-TV asked for some on-camera opinions about personal finances.  Sure, ask the out-of-towner who just barely woke up and is downloading cheesy dance music videos on YouTube! 

First, speak and spell into the microphone.  Don't look at the camera or the red dot which indicates, right now, that your image and words are being preserved for all eternity. 

Do I keep my receipts?  Not if they're incriminating.
What's my worst financial habit?  Crazed orgies of spending.  
My greatest financial achievement?  That I haven't yet declared bankruptcy.

None of this, of course, counts as breaking news. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jentel, Day 19

Since it's now seven in the morning, and the new day (for me) officially begins at six, this means we've moved onto Day 19.  A tad over a week left in the residency.  Current WCPD ratio:  683.  I've seen plenty of sunsets from my window, but this is probably the first sunrise I've seen.  I like how the blue of everything slowly gains contrast.  The mountains far in the back turn pink.

Normally, I've gone to bed at this time, but last night, the Jentel residents gave our presentation to the community.  Jentel Presents!  With a name like that, I feel we should have worn top hats and sported canes.  Alas, no:  we each just wore a fake red rose.  Some wrapped it around their wrists; others held their like a laser pointer.  I used mine as a boutonniere.  The presentation was sparsely attended -- this is, after all, still February in Wyoming -- but I preferred looking around the Sheridan Public Library before the reading.  Upstairs, on the second floor, are the study rooms.  I saw what looked like a tutoring session in one.  But, more importantly, there was a display all about space travel and exploration ringing the second floor.  And, most importantly of all, in the display cases were actions figures and sundry memorabilia devoted to Star Trek, Star Wars, and, strangely enough, Independence Day.  I never knew they made model figurines of the alien baddies of ID4.  Now I know.  The providers of the toys action figures had their names prominently featured in the cases.  Mark of pride or mark of shame?  You make the call.  Also:  a Lego model of the Space Shuttle.

After the reading, we re-convened at the Pony Bar & Grill, where they proudly serve microbrews and frou-frou drinks such as the Woo-Woo.  I, sadly, partook in none of them, but I did have a steak.  My first Wyoming steak!  Driving from Sheridan to Jentel and vice versa, the fields are dotted with tasty, tasty cattle with some horses thrown in for local color.  But this was my first chance to partake of a slice of cattle.  Good?  Yes.  Mindblowing?  Not quite.  The 12+ ounces of cow did, however, make me feel very sleepy after dinner, and I took a nap until 3 in the morning.  Hence, I have steak to thank for the pink streaks of clouds, the mountains that have now darkened to salmon, the purpling foothills, the mysterious half-covered footprints in the snow.

And a final note:  what's up with those bizarre comments on my previous post?  It's like they came from random word generators.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jentel, Day 16

After two and a half nights of dithering, I've finally gotten back on track -- I think.  Current WCPD ratio:  660. 

Thursdays are always disruptive.  First off, the residents gather at nine in the morning for a meeting and to head into town for provisions.  Given that most mornings, I'm just crawling into bed around five (sometimes as early as three or as late as seven), waking at nine proves difficult.  And even when I plan ahead and go to sleep early (as I did on Wednesday), I was woken by strange, fragmented dreams which I can no longer remember and couldn't go back to sleep.  Instead, I lay in bed, listening to music and watching the light from behind my curtains grow brighter and brighter.  

And while I was able to tap out a few words in Java Moon (a "wellness meeting" took place at the next table:  a group of 5 women and 1 man talking about pounds they've lost, goals for the future, attempts to promote wellness at work), after our shopping excursion (during which I bought primarily tea and cookies), I took a nap.  Not so that I could work furiously later that night, but so that I could be plenty alert for a hootenanny later the evening.  

The Occidental Hotel, in the town of Buffalo about twenty miles away, hosts a "jam session" every Thursday night, where local musicians sit down together and strum and sing and pluck.  This night was somewhat different, however, because they were featuring a charity auction for a musical scholarship.  So while we managed to hear a few strains of some country classics -- all of which are foreign to me -- we were instead treated to hearing Wyoming's Auctioneer of the Year (a man of about seventy, I assume) calling out bids on all kinds of sundry goods.  He had a pleasant tone, joking with the locals in-between the tongue-twisting number calls.  "He rises at the crack of noon," he said of one hunter who offered his services and land for tracking down (on separate occasions) an antelope, a wild turkey, and a jackalope.  "It's more fun than hunting rats." 

Meanwhile, we Jentel folks sat near the door, ate burgers and drank beer.  (For me, I had a bison burger with the patty actually in the shape of a bison and a cherry cream soda.)  In the lobby of the Occidental are photographs of the famous folks who had stayed there, including a brawny-looking Ernest Hemingway.  The second floor of the Occidental is purported to be haunted, but the real specter is the rugged Victoriana that I attribute to hotels of the Wild West.  

After the auction, people re-gathered for a group rendition of "Faded Love."  The entire audience mouthed different words at different times -- the verse they particularly loved, the chorus, the cry break.  Meanwhile, I got a moment to appreciate how much they appreciated the arts, whether it was the paintings they had made and sold, the illustrated poetry broadsides auctioned off, or the music they sang and were now going to deliver to a student.  A $150 pan of cinnamon buns seemed a small price to pay. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jentel, Day 13

Revelations made while at Jentel:

• Wyoming weather, much like Colorado, switches at will; snow one day, sun the next.

• with a dishwasher, kitchen clean-up is less a chore, more a game of Tetris.

• turkey vultures, from afar, look like big dogs.

• Steve Madden boots were probably not designed for use in actual snow and/or mud.

• SyFy shows the most god-awful made-for-cable horror movies ever, but I'll still watch them, enraptured.

• water softeners makes your post-shower skin feel like it has a sheen of oil on it. 

• one can mark time by measuring the amount of snow that has filled the bootprint since the last time you went to the restroom.

• this shit won't write itself; and yet, shit remains exceedingly easy to write.

Current WCPD ration:  615.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Jentel, Day 11

Current word count per day ratio (WCPD): 567.

Sheridan, the closest town to Jentel, is still a good 20 minute drive, mostly along a winding road up and down the Wyoming hills. The whole gang ventures out every Thursday to provision up for the week, but today, we smaller group of 4 headed into town to enjoy civilization, other people, and blazing high-speed Internet. The Internet came courtesy of Java Moon, the independent coffee shop on Main Street of downtown Sheridan, and when we arrived at noon, almost all the tables were occupied by the lunch crowd. There seem to be a large number of entrepreneurs in the area, because I always see someone sporting a business plan in a manila folder or a start-your-own business book. Laptops open with bar graphs and metrics mapped out one after another. Men huddled conspiratorially, smiling their way to a prosperous future. And while my companions used their quick Internet -- quick in comparison to the satellite-based Internet Jentel employs -- I watched Dionne Warwick sing "Walk On By" on YouTube again and again.

The downtown of Sheridan plays up its frontier trappings: boot stores, a Wild West mall, and, best of all, King's Saddlery, a shop that specializes in rope and riding equipment. The helpful ladies at the counter showed me the correct placement of a cowboy hat (down low on the forehead, just above the eyebrows) and how it should feel (tight, to prevent it from blowing off). My hat size: 6 1/4 to 6 1/2, depending on the manufacturer. Further back, the store sold a glitter-spray for horse manes and a mega-sized Furminator, made especially for livestock. Or, in my case, for one of my cats.

Across an alleyway, King's Saddlery continues into a warehouse-sized building that specializes in rope. Rope of all sizes, of all materials, wound up on huge spools and tended to by genuine-looking cowboys. And just past the rope depot, to the left, is what can only be described as a Saddle Museum. I learned the difference between the Sheridan-style floral leatherworking (tight florets, a single connecting vine weaving through the flowers, concentrated design) and California-style floral leatherworking (larger flowers and more space between them, open design pattern). Usually when I think of the smell of old leather, I imagine English Leather aftershave -- I attribute that to my father's moustache-trimming days -- but inside the museum, the scent had an oily tone to it. The tannins were weathered, but not musty or smoky. For a town that's known for its polo as much as its rodeo, there was something joyously authentic about seeing rows upon rows of saddles, with their attendant spurs driven, prong-deep, into the wood of the staircase.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jentel, Day 9

The first week of the residency was so warm that I thought to myself, "This will be a piece of cake." All those dire predictions about winter in Wyoming were off the mark, I told myself. I wasted precious luggage space packing heavy coats when I could have gone with more shoes.

Today: the snow. I can't tell if the snow is actually falling, since the sharp wind makes everything whip horizontal in the air and run in serpentines along the ground. I'm not cold in the studio -- far from it -- but the run from the house to the writers' studio (and from the writer's studio to the artists' studio, where the bathroom and microwave oven are) seem fraught with peril. Cold, white peril. Sort of like Massachusetts.

Here, the snow doesn't accumulate as much as it re-deposits. I can imagine myself getting trapped in the studio as the snow piles against the door and blocks my exit. But -- I have snacks, I have a source of hot water, and I have two teabags left. That'll last me... 3 hours? I could perhaps crush some Oreos and create a chocolatey sludge soup but can feel the enamel on my teeth peeling off already.

After a week at the residency, I've had to drastically scale back my expectation of what I would get done in a month. Though I've never been one to whom the words "overly ambitious" could be applied -- look at how often I update this poor, neglected blog -- finishing a novel was probably too far-reaching. I've gotten into the bad habit of looking at my work and averaging how much I've achieved over my stay thus far. Sort of the like obsessive word counters of NaNoWriMo, but with much, much less ambition. (My average: about 500 words a day.)

Incidentally, why does the new version of Microsoft Word even have an auto word count feature? It's going to drive me nuts. But it's okay for now. When those 500 words consist of nothing but variations on "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," then I'll start revising.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jentel, Day 6

So this is where the magic happens: my writing studio!

We chose both our sleeping quarters and our studios at random -- sort of like a key party, but without the swinging. It doesn't matter much for the writers, however: there are only two writing studios. Mine (named Sunset for what I assume to be a west-facing view; I'm really bad with cardinal directions, folks) faces the mountains, and at the moment, the sun is setting, with some low-lying clouds just above the peaks, glowing the sort of pinkish-orange that keeps pastel makers in business. From my window, as well, I see the occasional barn cat (named Grey Kitty) and overly energetic dog bounce by in the snow.

The visual artists get all the perks, of course; each of their studios is outfitted with a bed, and their studio complex has a bathroom and kitchenette. We writers have to trek out into the Wyoming tundra just to pee, and while the recliner is comfortable... come on, a bed! (Of course, if I had a bed, I'd get absolutely nothing done.) I keep my studio at a toasty 65 degrees, and there's an industrial-sized Thermos for me to replenish my tea.

Strangely, though, both of the writing studios have been invaded by flies. Big black flies, the size of pennies. When I walk into my studio first thing in the afternoon, little black corpses litter the floor, and I use the handy Dustbuster to suck them away. Perhaps they're attracted to the Oreo and Mint Milano crumbs that ring the area around my desk chair. Maybe it's the beef jerky. Maybe the growing pile of used tea bags. But it's a war of attrition. I dread the day when I have to empty the Dustbuster.

The other writer, a poet, and I cross paths in the studio rarely, mostly because I prefer the late nights. When I walk out of the house towards my studio, the stars seem preternaturally bright. Huge things in the sky, and so wonderfully crisp. I'd stand and stare at them, but nighttime bring the promise of hypothermia. The melted snow puddles during the day become ice hazards at night, and it's a mad dash from one door to the other.

I think my period of adjustment has now passed, and despite the promise of terrible, made-for-cable horror movies on the SyFy channel, I'm being semi-productive.

Ah, look. The sun has gone down behind the peaks and the clouds have gone from pastels to charcoals.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Residency-a-logue: Jentel, Day 4

I know, I know, I'm already three days behind in talking about my residency experience. But, as a wise old friend (Cruce Stark) told me, it usually takes about a week to adjust to your new settings and to get the creative juices flowing. But, with January in full effect on the cold Wyoming plains, those juices have become viscous and are in danger of freezing.

I suppose the desolation is good for the concentration. Even better: spotty satellite Internet, which means no streaming movies, no YouTube, and no World of Warcraft. There aren't any nearby coffee shops into which I can just pop. No cell phone reception. There is, however, satellite television, but I've limited my media consumption to CNN coverage of the Haitian earthquake, the occasional horror movie, and episodes of Robot Chicken and the Venture Brothers.

But desolation does have a certain beauty. Jentel, nestled as it in near the Big Horn mountains, is located down a dirt road, past cattle and horses and wild turkeys. The mountain range stretches in the distance, in defiance of the brown, flat land all around it. If I really wanted, I could hike up the large hills that are part of the 1000 acres attached to Jentel, but I'm not sure my boots could handle it. The snow pack stands at maybe only 4 inches, and it's mostly frozen solid, crunching underfoot.

So far, I'm getting along swimmingly with the other five residents (four visual arts & one writer; or, four women & one man). We're taking turns cooking -- this isn't your mother's cushy, hand-delivered meal residency. We've leaned more towards the vegetarian fare lately, but tonight black bean and chorizo soup is on the menu. My turn to cook comes in 2 days.

As for productivity, it hasn't quite hit me yet. I've been dithering, rearranging the papers on my desk or editing previously written sections of my novel or engaging in research, all while listening to the entire output of Saint Etienne. But I'm ready to push past it the procrastination, I think.

Late at night (or early in the morning, depending on your point-of-view), when I'm returning to the house from my studio, the stars hang large in the sky, and I hear coyotes far in the distance. I use a flashlight to guide my way, trying to find the non-snow path for my delicate, fuzzy slippers. The darkness seems entirely complete.