The highs and lows and ups and downs of travel. I guess most Australians think of travel as a noble pursuit and we are conditioned somewhat to believe that a traveled person is a knowledgeable person and so on. People resign themselves to crappy jobs because they are saving money to travel, parents take their kids out of school to travel.
I am traveling for research purposes so I feel justified in all kinds of things but it does get me down all the hidden costs. For instance, the travel sim which I wisely procured months ago I just discovered does not fit an iPhone, despite the fact that the cover of its booklet features something that looks shockingly like an iPhone and despite the fact the booklet urges users to upgrade their phones etc. I suppose I should have checked before I left but I didn’t because that goes in the known unknown category for me – who would have thought there were different sizes of sim, or that the makers of the travel sim available at Australia Post wouldn’t bother packaging their product with a warning: does not fit iPhone 4 (or whatever kind of iPhone I have). So now I have to try and find another phone that will take this sim, I suppose. I am just annoyed at having to write, and think about, the word ‘sim’.
Another drag is replacing my suitcase. A few months ago Mia very ingeniously put wheels on an existing old suitcase to make something that looked very groovy. She always said it would only be properly usable once it was packed, and had weight in it to give it gravity. It was half-full for some time and it worked. What we didn’t consider was that full weight was going to push the wheels out sideways. This is a hassle and makes it precarious. Not only do I have to buy a new one, I have to get rid of the old one, and although I try hard not to get sentimental about inanimate objects, I am, often. Also, the other side of the traveling drag is always spending more money than you intend to, and getting into credit card debt etc while you’re doing it. If I was supersmart I might just be able to make this trip come out relatively even at the end, particularly considering the work I do on the way which I’m going to be paid for. But that’s just not going to happen, I would say, because of all the extra mobile phones and suitcases that are going to be left in my wake.
Fortunately, there’s an upside, which is that Tel Aviv is a freakin’ incredible city, and so far so great. I have done two site visits today, which were very productive indeed, and which inspired me so much I have already begun writing a new version of the conference paper for Baltimore. Aside from the work-related thing, the people are friendly (I met a man probably 10-15 years older than me in the street; he first asked me a question in Hebrew to which I could only say ‘sorry’ then later on my perambulations I ran into him again and we talked briefly about where I was from, what season it was there, and so on. He had a John Lennon t-shirt on and I didn’t catch his name and he obviously had my number because he recommended I go to Jaffa and the flea markets) and speak at least a little English. I had a sandwich from a café down the road and it was extraordinarily good. There was a little plastic container in the bag which I had assumed was something lame like dressing (the thing was pretty oily as it was – but that was fine) but in fact it was two big green olives. I was so pleased. It was only 26 shekels too which is AU$6.50 – not bad at all for something so substantial.
When I say ‘down the road’ I should explain that I am based for the day in an apartment on Dizengoff, a very trendlicious street. Because I was getting into TA at 3 am, I emailed my host Adam a few days ago and said – what time can I come by, because I don’t want to drag my suitcase around all day. He obviously didn’t want to deal with me in the morning (I wasn’t, by the way, proposing to come around at 3, but maybe wait at the airport for a few hours and then come by at a decent hour) so he said I should come to this apartment which he manages for relatives and which is temporarily empty. Magic! It’s pretty great, although being on the 4th floor takes some getting used to (walking up the stairs-wise).
Yesterday was exceptional, and last night was particularly strange in some disappointing yet interesting ways, and some just very fascinating ways. I did do some fieldwork (the reason, after all, that I am here) for a couple of hours but it was just too hot to go out. Of course, I did procrastinate (in my defence, I had barely slept the previous 24 hours) until midday which, if Tel Aviv is like the rest of the world, is about the hottest part of the day. The other issue is the humidity. Actually, that’s the main issue because it’s not incredibly hot (31 today apparently).
As I mentioned Adam, my host who I found through AirBnB (a budget internet service whereby people stay in people’s spare rooms, etc) allowed me to hang out in his relatives’ apartment for the day. In the evening, I went to his house – where I assumed I would be thereafter staying – and he told me that in fact the Diezengoff apartment was vacant till the end of the week, till I wanted it. I decided I did want it. It’s closer to the places I want to study and it’s in a pleasant part of town. The only bummer was that I had lugged all my, well, luggage to Adam’s house and up three flights of stairs. But I guess he didn’t want to make this proposition without meeting me and/or gauging the situation. And ultimately I think it was a happy outcome (thus far).
Adam’s apartment was exotically adorned with unusual archaic pictures – what I took to be cartoons from fifty years ago and strange wood or lino cuts. Quickly it was revealed that this was in fact art he and a friend had created for a book they hoped to publish. In the interim they are publishing the art and accompanying stories online. There was one which particularly intrigued me which he said he would give me a copy of. I hope this happens. We talked for a while about my reasons for being in Tel Aviv and so on; he had some very interesting looking architecture-urban books which were unfortunately all in Hebrew (unfortunately for me, I mean). We discussed one particular author, Sharon Rotbard, who he thought would have some interesting ideas relevant to my research. I later discovered all of Rotburg’s work is in Hebrew too.
He then made a very generous offer to take me to a theatre event, to which he could get free tickets via his mother; a performance of the play Requiem which he said was an Israeli classic and which had toured constantly since its opening and was a vehicle for its central actor. I warned him that I may still be subject to jetlag but was nonetheless very happy to take this opportunity to do something cultural with what was 90% bound to be a fairly mundane stay in Tel Aviv.
The play is based on three stories by Chekhov, interwoven imaginatively, all with themes of death, but it was comedic in the main. English translation was provided by subtitles projected above the stage. I started to nod off about half an hour in. I managed to control myself and then the blackouts came fairly frequently. I had some odd hallucinations: at one point a huge white flower – perhaps a lily – unfolded on stage, at another point a big black genii appeared to advertise a cleaning product sorrowfully. I went completely to sleep in the last five minutes, so I have no idea what happened (Adam helpfully pointed out that the play could be found on youtube). I was very disappointed that I missed something that was so obviously enjoyable, but it was completely out of my control.
In the morning I visited two more internal reserves, neither of which were particularly spectacular, but I dutifully photographed and otherwise documented them. I then did some laundry at the only coin Laundromat I had seen, on Remez. For some reason I thought I would be sneaky and not buy the washing powder (2 shekels for 2 cups) but instead went to the supermarket over the road and bought a packet of washing powder for 16 shekels. Smart stuff. Now I have washing powder to lug around the world along with everything else. I also have a large container of brown sugar – I decided I’d have porridge in the mornings.
Shekels are worth about 25c. It took me around a day to realise that all the coinage I kept being given was actual shekels, not whatever the cent equivalent of a shekel= dollar idea. I should have paid more attention, and for a while I kicked myself a little, and then later I realized that one reason why I got the impression that there were shekelcents (apart from the fact I’d never encountered a currency before that didn’t have a cent/penny element) was that in the shops some things are actually sold as (for instance) 15 shekels 99; that old trick. I imagine that if, for instance, you bought 100 cans of beans at 3 shekels 99 you might get the 100th one free, but as far as I can tell otherwise there’s no constructive or valid point to that absence of the mythical shekelcent.
In the afternoon, I decided to do something that might either be the smartest thing I did, or the stupidest thing I could do. I bought a bicycle. I took a train to Herzliya which is an outer suburb of some sort (that was all a big process, too, particularly as I got confused with the relevance of all the English numbers the woman who sold me the ticket was throwing at me – one was the ticket price, one was the platform for the train, and one was the time it came. I thought I was being charged 27 shekels for a return ticket but in fact it was only 8 shekels and it only went one way… don’t ask).
Once in Herzliya I walked and walked and finally found the shop I was looking for. I had done some research on this previously, and a few days in Tel Aviv had convinced me this was what was required to get around between my sites without taxis or hire cars (in some cases, hire cars might be useful, but essentially you keep having to go back to the car and then drive on; a bike gives you a better sense of the place and makes the movement easier).
They spent a lot of time at the shop showing me how to fold and unfold the bike. It was really hard to get my head around it; I’ve always had this problem with a sequence of tasks, ever since textiles in the first year of primary school. There were three employees trying to show me, and me not really getting any of it. They gave me the instruction booklet and sent me on my way (in a taxi, unfortunately, because they couldn’t sell me a bag to put it on the plane with, so they gave me the cardboard box, which I will now have at least until Ireland if not longer).
In the morning I utilized my new bicycle purchase to make a quick trip to a ‘green’ of the original Geddes design which Neal Payton talks about in the article he wrote which first roused my interest in internal reserves in Tel Aviv. The square in question is not an internal reserve at all, it has small roads all around it and it is clearly very successful and well-used. There is also a kiosk in it which serves coffee and small biscuits. It has an air raid shelter and an electricity substation, too.
When I left Australia – in fact some months before I left – I took the advice of many and bought myself a ‘travel sim’ from Australia Post. This is a sim card for your phone that ostensibly allows cheaper phone calls across the world, particularly the US. I didn’t take it out of its package or do anything with it at all until I got to Tel Aviv, mainly because I wanted to have use of my phone in Australia up to the last minute, and also because I just never trust these things and put them to the back of my mind.
What a surprise I got when I found myself with a huge sim and a tiny place to put it in my iPhone. The iPhone takes what is called a ‘microsim’, that is, a bit of gold connector chip stuff on a piece of plastic about half the size of a regular sim. I went online straight away and found out that not only was the iPhone microsim the way of the future, there will never (this is what they say) be a prepaid microsim ever. However – I can’t remember how I got to this stage in my research – there was another way.
I must say, once I had done it – going by the admittedly slightly vague instructions online which were for different-looking sims from different companies – I felt a glorious sense of achievement. I sat there at the table in the Dizengoff apartment whittling down this piece of plastic with my new swiss army knife (I knew that thing would come in handy, though I hadn’t for some reason considered this) and it worked perfectly. Except it didn’t: while I could see it was accepting the sim, there was another problem. It still didn’t work. I got online (how did travelers ever do anything before 1995?) and irately asked the folks at Travelsim what the hell was going on. Guess what: I had to contact my provider and get them to unlock my phone. This felt wrong, and what if they refused? After all, it’s still really their phone. I had to send instructions to Mia, who had to call Telstra, who said it would take 24 hours. Drag! In the meantime I figured something else out. I had wifi in the apartment, and I had skype on my computer, and I could at a pinch call people on their phones and talk to them. Well, I tried it once with an important contact who couldn’t hear me at all (that felt bad) but I later realized this was more to do with the strength of the signal than anything. It’s 2011, 150 years since the invention of the telephone, and long-distance communications abound everywhere, yet something as simple as making a phone call is a very, very complex thing because in the everyday sense we’re detached from the mechanicals of it.
This was the day I had to shift accommodation from Dizengoff to Nakhmani. That was fine; I had to get a taxi with my case and my bicycle box (I left the bicycle itself back at the apartment because I was planning to meet Nahoum Cohen, author of a new book on the Geddes plan, just near there). Adam advised me on how to get back to Dizengoff by bus, a process which worried me considerably until I was actually on the bus and I realized how incredibly simple and easy it was. So simple and easy in fact we were where we were meant to be before I knew it and I missed a stop, but that’s OK.
Nahoum was very interesting and gave me a copy of his book Urban Conservation as well as a promise to send the pdf of his new book, An Urban Miracle. We spoke for an hour or so and he showed me on the map where all of the Geddes ‘greens’ were in the original plan. He was dismissive of the street design outside the Geddes plan and I can see why; it loses the human scale outside the original plan.
I had some discussion with Adam about his Nakhmani apartment. I said I did not feel he should have to withdraw from the apartment altogether and if he wanted to stay he should. He decided to leave on the Friday night (he went to his parents’ place) but said he would come back on the Saturday.
Finally, I got in touch with one of my first Tel Aviv contacts, Irit Solzi, of the Movement for Israel Urbanism. My phone still not working, I was able to utilize Adam’s superior wifi to make a skype call. Her husband got on the call to tell me the best way to get to their home by bicycle, and it was quite a hike – he said it would take me about an hour, and they were expecting me in an hour, having invited me for what they were calling breakfast (at 11 am).
In fact, a lot of the route traversed was places I was fairly familiar with, though I did take a couple of wrong turns trying to fit together my comfort zones. I left a little later than I anticipated – probably 10.30 – but I got there at 11.30, and they were very impressed that I had made the trip so successfully (so was I). It didn’t hurt that it was a Saturday morning and therefore there were absolutely no people around (as Mia said, not having seen it, like Sunday in Australia in the 1950s, and she was right, though I would extend that up to at least the 1970s).
Irit and her husband Nakhman live in a beautiful two-storey apartment on the 7th or something like that floor of a high-rise building which, she said, until recently had a beautiful sea view until three more towers were built closer to the sea. They and their son Barak (I almost told him this was my dog’s name but it didn’t quite fit the conversation) who is a soldier, presumably a draftee, in a Simpsons t-shirt had put together a fine breakfast including an omelette with red peppers in it, some French cheese (Irit and Nakhman had just returned from Paris where they had been helping their daughter find a place to live) bread (including a small loaf which Barak told me was like eating a brick) and olives, and of course plenty of coffee. And what I wanted most by the time I got there, lots of iced water.
This was a day of great events and adventure, and I got to see a bunch of things it simply never would have occurred to me to seek out but which were really extraordinary. A long time ago my mother had suggested that if I was going to go to Israel I should seek out her friend Gail who lives in Jerusalem, and who might show me around. I had no special interest in Jerusalem (my only interest in Israel was Tel Aviv and Patrick Geddes’ plan for it, as it manifested on the ground today). But Jane assured me Gail was very nice and also it seemed silly to go so far and then not go a little further for the sake of experience so on Sunday I ventured to the bus station (my initial intention had been to go on the train by Gail, by email, warned me against it as being too slow and archaic – it takes 2 ½ hours by train, and an hour by bus). The Tel Aviv bus station is a pretty zany place – it’s floors and floors of a cross between a shopping mall and a flea market, and then on the 6th floor there are the buses – I’m still not sure how they achieved that. Somehow – who knows how, probably something to do with the fact that my computer still has Melbourne time on it and I’m perennially doing sums and I wake up every morning at about 4 – I contrived to get to the bus station an hour early. I saw that the bus was signed as leaving at 10, and I thought ‘can I really trust a bus company that thinks it’s an hour earlier than it is?’ and then I realized it was only an hour earlier than I thought it was, and I guess other questions needed to be asked then, but instead I just got on the bus. They had sold too many tickets, so I and about five others stood in the aisles. I noticed that there were a huge amount of soldiers on the bus (you barely think of them as soldiers, they’re all 19) and while I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to stand up for me, I would expect them to stand up for ladies, but no, ladies stood too.
So I was there at Jerusalem bus station not an hour early to meet Gail because for some reason it was late getting in – there was a traffic jam, if you want the consequence of the reason but I suppose not the real reason – but about ¾ of an hour early. I wish I had a rollicking adventure as a result but actually I just read a novel I had picked up as a 3 for $10 deal in Camberwell a few weeks before, it was actually quite good, Start from Here by Sean French. Then Gail showed up and took me to lunch where she works, at the Hebrew University. I must say that quite apart from Gail’s generosity in showing me around Jerusalem her perspective on the city where she lives and the problems it has was fascinating. She and her husband came to Israel (from the US) in the late 1970s and ended up in Jerusalem soon afterwards. Jerusalem has, of course, a violent recent history and a swathe of ethnic problems – why call them ethnic problems, what I really mean is religious problems, or I suppose problems caused by religious intolerance. Which really just boils down to: problems caused by religion. Gail talked to me of how there is one route within Jerusalem which she necessarily drives on a relatively regular basis, which takes her through an orthodox neighbourhood wherein she fears that, for instance, if her car broke down and she had to get out of it, she would be attacked by local people as immodest (for, for instance, having bare shoulders). This is just varieties of Judaism. There are also of course Arab neighbourhoods, etc, which are also on occasion sites of violence.
After we left the Hebrew University we visited the old city. In the last decade or so the southern (? I’ll have to check that, perhaps it was just my askew orienting of myself) section of the city, a slum area Gail says, was demolished and instead an upmarket mall built, including some rebuilt houses which – curiously and not unattractively – retain all the numbering on the bricks which was used to reassemble them. There are restaurants and car parking. From there you can enter the old city some of which has also been rebuilt – in various ways – and some of which is extremely authentic.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is quite something. Gail had a guide book which described it as dank and malodorous (or words to that effect) but in fact there was some 19th century skylights and other lighting, and it was bustling. It is however notoriously never cleaned or fixed up because so many religious groups lay claim to it that to fix a bit of it is to make a territorial move.
There are I think the four final stations of the cross within the church of the holy sepulchre, though to a nonbeliever like me it all seems a little too convenient – for instance, Christ was crucified on a hill just inside the door of the church – some hill – which you get to by some narrow stairs, at the foot of which is a stone replacing the stone which he ostensibly was anointed, after death. The ‘real’ stone was accidentally smashed and a new one bunged in a couple of centuries ago. People are slobbering all over it. They are kissing the thing and then wiping their saliva off as if they don’t know whether to get frisky with the stone or stay respectful; ‘I just want to make you happy, stone slab.’ Then there is his tomb, which is in the next room and has a big queue of people dying to get in there. I don’t think you could really call it his tomb if you don’t think he’s dead; it’s not like saying here’s his bed but he never slept in it; it’s like saying here’s his dinner but he never ate it, maybe not quite that either – how about this was his favourite book but he never read it?
A little way away is the Western Wall with all the notes in it. Even though the idea is that one must be reverent to the wall and no cameras, women must be covered etc (Gail actually put a note in the wall, and to do so she had to wear a shawl) I am sure some people have gone down there with one of those pincer-on-a-stick arrangements to put their notes in; there are notes higher than anyone is ever likely to be. I also saw men leaning, weeping into the wall which is I suppose understandable if you think it’s a hotline to the lord’s presence but at the same time, you would surely be mindful of getting on god’s nerves if, as is apparently suggested, things that happen at the WW are more profound than things that just happen in the day to day between humans and God.
Then we went to the Burnt House. This was a hoot. I read about the Burnt House somewhere – on a bit of handout literature or maybe a plaque – the site of an archelogical discovery, the foundations of a house probably burnt down by the romans and in which was found not only a bunch of kitchen items but also a spear and a young woman’s arm (well, the bones from it).
It cost 25 shekels to go to the Burnt House. I didn’t realise this would not only be the house, but also a multimedia extravaganza, one of those things you are glad you saw only because otherwise you’d wonder for a long time what it was. Then once you saw it you weren’t really likely to be glad you saw it because it was kind of stupid. It began with some footage on a television screen mainly about the calamities befalling people in Jerusalem a couple of thousand years ago, with visuals clearly taken from a 1960s sword n’ sandal. Then the most interesting bit – for less than 20 seconds – footage of the liberation of Jerusalem in ’67. Then a big screen came down and some dubbed (into English) actors played out a hypothetical about how the family who lived in the house might have died. The acting was poor, and the dubbing was too, and the subtext was why can’t we all just get along, and zealots are bad. As I said to Gail later one ludicrous element of the whole thing (there were tons) was that the playlet unfolded in a wide-screen backdrop of a large room, yet the room was apparently in the house whose foundations we were sitting in front of, and even if all those rooms were combined and the ‘room’ we were seeing was an upstairs room taking the width of the whole house, doesn’t matter, it was still way too big. Anyway, long story slightly shorter than it might be, the Burnt House thing was weird and silly.
Sorry about all these ‘then wes’ but then we went up to City Hall and I met Gail’s husband Brian, who showed me the new additions to City Hall and the way old buildings had been pressed into service and new buildings put alongside them. Most of Jerusalem – very few exceptions, I saw a couple – is built of the same stone; it’s amazing to think that there’s so much of this stone, still. The stone is the reason, I think, that the City Hall blends together pretty well despite being a number of buildings of so many different heritages and styles. Brian and Gail and I took the new tramline a few stops to visit the market (the building of the tram, aka the light rail, has apparently been a complete nuisance to every Jerusalemite for the last ten years – disruptive and annoying – now it’s massively popular. Perhaps people feel a sense of ownership after having been inconvenienced by it for so long. Also, at the moment there’s no ticket scheme in place, so it’s free.) The market we went to was very lively and colourful, though there was precisely nothing that I wanted. We had a coffee.
Gail took me back to the bus terminal in her car, and on the way she drove me past a small encampment where the parents of a kidnapped Israeli soldier were keeping a vigil outside the prime minister’s house. We also saw the legacy of some of the housing protest encampments and – Gail said this was a new thing and a novelty – manoeuvres being undertaken by orthodox soldiers.
I got back on the bus and came back to Tel Aviv. Jerusalem had been as hot as Tel Aviv but much more bearable for me because not as humid. As soon as I got back to Tel Aviv I knew it, it was sultry and I walked back to Nakhmani very weary but… I don’t know how to end this diary entry truthfully without sounding like a story from the early days of high school.
The last day of my Tel Aviv sojourn. I had big plans and they fell to dust when I got to Rothschild and then took a wrong turn, something I had been doing all week – it’s a mental block and something to do with my orientation or lack of it. I was planning on visiting Jaffa and the flea market. I was about 3 km in the other direction before I realized what I had done. I resolved to press on though and returned a different way, always assuming I was heading to Jaffa. By the time I was at a point at which I had to get back to Nakhmani and get ready to go to the airport, I finally found myself on the map – I was probably about ten minutes from Jaffa. But I wasn’t going to get there, I had to return.
Adam called me a taxi. We’d had a discussion the previous day about the possibility of me taking a taxi to the nearest railway station and then getting a train to the airport. The one thing that really decided me against this was a vision of having to put all my stuff through the metal detectors at the station, which would be such a drag. Also the strain of not knowing if I was at the right platform and so on. Also the heat. So there were three things.
And I was doubly glad I didn’t get the train because it would have reduced my time at the airport and I needed that time to be given all sorts of stupid runaround by security staff who kept us all waiting for too long in a long queue (except they would periodically go through the queue and pluck out the people who really had a plane to catch soon, and get them through the system; defeats the whole purpose really). I suppose if I hadn’t been waiting in a queue for over an hour to get my things x-rayed I would have found it more amusing the elderlyish American couple who were being given a hard time because when they were asked the standard questions – has anyone given you a gift – the woman had said yes. The gift in question was unlikely to be an explosive, as it was a necklace made out of bits of shell or perhaps teeth, but then what do I know about explosives. That they owned up to having accepted a gift was enough for them to get if not the full monty then a fair bit of monty, and the man made it worse by somehow getting one of their enormous bags – suitcase sized bags – past the x-ray machine without putting it through. How or why he did this are both mysteries to me. The fact that somehow he could do it is also, it just occurred to me, not a little problematic, too – how many people got their luggage through without it being x-rayed? Anyway, he was ordered in no uncertain terms by the teenage (they all were) security officer to take his bag and put it through the x-ray machine, and he did and came back with just his bag and none of the others, and junior sargeant said where is your bag sir, and the man said ‘you have it’ and then his wife said something like, ‘oh my goodness you’ve left it over there’ and the Unattended Luggage was just sitting over in some other part of the security area.
Look, if I was going to bomb a plane which I wouldn’t, I would find another way to do it; I guess that’s the main thing, it’s a deterrent. But it still seems a little ridiculous the way all this is run. I had my passport checked by two young women, one of whom was an Instructor (said her badge) and the other of which – much taller, though that’s irrelevant – the Instructee. They laughed over my passport in Hebrew and said something that sounded like either ‘good week’ or ‘good wig’. I wonder if they were just saying that in my 7 year old passport photo I looked like I was wearing a wig. Shorty actually apologised for speaking to her colleague in Hebrew (kind of showed a guilty conscience, I would say) I mean it is their language.
So, all in all I was very glad I got to the airport early, because I had a lot of crapola to endure before I got on the plane, which is where I am as I write these words. Actually being on the plane is crapola too, as it is packed and my feet are killing me. I usually take my shoes off on the plane in this case I couldn’t because I didn’t have anywhere to put them (or for that matter my carry-on luggage). I could be wrong but I think at least one maybe more of the toilets are broken (the aisle’s full of people) and it’s still really warm, for some reason, even though we are now flying over Germany (wish they’d open a window). I’m pretty sure that the minute I encounter some proper European September weather my hands will return to their normal size and I will lose this eczema which has been plaguing me for the last couple of days and got particularly worse today, probably because of the stress of the security and flying and not being able to find Jaffa and having swollen, throbbing feet. No wonder we all love to travel.
Dublin is most unusual, particularly O’Connell St, the huge long wide central street, which is filled constantly with people shuffling up and down. I don’t know what they are doing or where they are going…
Howth is a long way to come from Melbourne to be somewhere a lot like Williamstown. I am writing this istting at a street café called Il Panorama that boasts Australian and Italian maps on the windows. They serve lamingtons, but I have yet to try one, as they seem entirely unwilling to acknowledge that I am here. All day I have heard Australians chattering amongst themselves – there seems to be Australians everywhere. I suppose this is a good thing. I almost spoke with two women who were trying to glean some details of one of the staff at the Castle Hotel which I was checking out of this morning. I almost did that thing I hated people doing to me: asked them ‘where you from?’
This morning I picked up a car from Thrifty. So far today I have not gone anywhere I could not have gone by train or bus, so perhaps I made a mistake doing this, but it seemed empowering at the time. Well, the ¾ of an hour spent waiting in a queue (one of those Irish queues where anyone can but in at any time if they happen to) didn’t feel that empowering. It seems it was ‘one of those mornings’ where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong and so on, and indeed when I finally got to the counter I witnessed one of the staff bending double under the counter to briefly cry.
Actually, the reason I booked a car was that the plan initially was to go to Cork but Cork ultimately proved too difficult and I kept finding more places to visit in Dublin, so this was how it ended up. I had to move out of the Castle Hotel anyway and that suited me as the person in the next room was dying of lung cancer, or at least, if it was a hospital and not a hotel and someone had asked me ‘what’s the person in the next room got?’ that would be my prognosis. Instead apparently he was on holiday. The Castle Hotel was OK but a bit gloomy even though it was very clean. I still can’t quite work out how it worked – it seemed to be about four or five four-storey buildings joined together, and then behind that a whole extra array of rooms, joined together with corridors so twisty and turny that it was impossible to tell after a while which direction you’d gone in. I was still taking wrong turnings four days into my stay there. I have booked myself into a hotel in Dun Laoghaire, probably mainly because I know how to say it. This is for one night only because tomorrow I am going to Belfast, and then onto the ferry, to Liverpool. In Liverpool I will spend a day at Port Sunlight and a day in the archives looking at Charles Reilly’s stuff, i.e. I am not going to see much Liverpool. I don’t care too much about that I have to say. Then the following day (Wed) I am going to London.
Greetings from the Kebab Klub, Marino where I am presently sheltering from rain en route to hand delivering some survey requests to houses around a site I am interested in. I have a strong feeling that I am very likely to get the place wrong entirely, because it is one of those formula pattern designs where the streets cross a circle and for all I know it is quite possible to have two corners of the same street. I have already come to understand that a street can surround a park in Marino as well as go through it, as well as not be called a street but a park. This does not bode well. I am of course as per Tel Aviv consistently heading off in the wrong direction to places with such blithe assurance I sometimes wonder if perhaps I am not a bee at heart. It would make sense. The sun is always in the wrong place for me.
(Soon after: this prediction was absolutely correct, and not helped by the fact that Brian Road, which was the marker I was hoping for, was the one road with no street sign). Now I am in Bram(‘?)s Café also in Marino just sheltering from the rain/filling in the time before I hit the road again with not much to do now until the evening and Belfast/Liverpool. Bram Stoker was, according to the menu at Bram(‘?)s, born across the road from the café, though there is no decore indication of any further acknowledgement of Stoker’s oeuvre. Instead, the walls are covered with scenic images of old Dublin and pictures of James Joyce, etc. And that I suppose is all fine.
It’s 2pm and the rain is pretty diagonal. I have a bag of things I need to get rid of, including the bag, by this evening. It mainly contains plums, but there is also an apple and a banana. And now it is completely, utterly bucketing down. I am shortly going to huddle in the doorway of the Marino library to see if they’ve left their wifi on, and whether perchance I can thereby discover whether there’s a gallery or a museum or something open where I can while away my time. It’s annoying to have to while away one’s time when there is so much more work that could be done, though I suppose I should be grateful I have managed alright to this point in Dublin with very little rain indeed, and I certainly was lucky to accidentally wander into this place, open on a Sunday which seems rare around the suburbs. I will even forgive them for the coffee which I suspect is instant, though they have a coffee machine. I am not sure what to make yet of the member of the waiting staff who just made a mobile phone call while seated at a table with her hand over her mouth deliberately distorting her voice presumably so no-one could understand what she was saying. Of course the loud voice distortion is what made me notice she was making a phone call.
A few hours later – by the way the doorway of the Marino library did work for wifi but then it started raining! Now I am in a café known for some reason as Lynams Hotel. I have to pick up my luggage and head to Connolly Station in a second.
My feelings then on Dublin: I find it depressing. It’s full of people yelling and pushing each other. I suppose much of my Dublin time has been spent in the centre of the city which is also full of European tourists whose guttural languages I can’t pick. There are little accidental bits I occasionally happened upon which were very attractive, but they are far between. I will admit to being a bit enthralled on discovering that part of the station platform I was on (Lansdowne St) actually went over a canal. What these canals are for (drainage?) is hard to fathom.
Later that evening was spent getting to Belfast and then getting a ferry to Liverpool. It was one of those things. I read and slept in the children’s play area (I was a ‘foot passenger’, a bit like a foot soldier maybe, it means I didn’t have a cabin because I didn’t see too much difference between sharing a cabin with three strangers and sharing some other kind of public open space with more strangers) as there were no children on board as far as I could see.
The hotel I am checked into, at Edge Hill, I chose solely on the grounds that it was close to Port Sunlight (as its advertising stated). It is not. In fact, it is close to what looks like a total bombsite and a long main street of boarded up shops and miserable people. A lot of the husks of houses have for sale signs on them, which is about the only optimism I can see.
Nothing in a foreign land beats a family connection. For all I know there are lesser degrees of separation between myself and other Dutch people than is true of the De Wits, the Brouwers and the Peeks, but I am a distant speck on the horizon of familial relation to those people by dint of being married to a Schoen from Zijlen, a suburb of Utrecht, and I’m very happy about that, not just for itself, but in the last week because I had an opportunity to spend time with Jan and Jenny de Wit and their clan. Jan’s mother is Mia’s father’s cousin, and both the mothers in that equation are fortunately still alive and well. Jan and Jenny were ideal hosts to me – just as they were to Mia five or so years ago – and they not only made me feel at home from the moment I arrived from the Newcastle ferry, they were consistently generous and accommodating for the six days I was lucky enough to stay with them. If you think this sounds obsequious, you weren’t there, were you.
Knowing my interest in urban history, Jan was keen to make sure I saw a number of important elements of the region in which they live (they are in Loosdrecht, which is near Hilversum) and even indulged me to the extent of driving me to Nagele, the ‘most modern town in Europe’ circa 1950. He also made sure I saw some Dudok classics, such as the immense and immaculate 1931 Hilversum Town Hall: a sight to behold (I won’t bother describing it, just put in some pics)
as well as a Dudok school and even a delightful little kiosk which is now being used as a rather fancy billboard for a local real estate agent. He also took me to Ouderwater (check) where his and John Schoen’s mothers came from; I was weighed to make sure I wasn’t a witch (this is an Ouderwater specialty. Apparently, some important noble was so disgusted by the underhand weighing practices of surrounding towns he declared only Ouderwater was to be the official weighing station. I tried to toy with the official who quizzed me as to how I had arrived in the Netherlands – she presumably expected me to say that I ‘flew’ which was her cue to ask if it was on a broomstick – not that I was being a smartarse, I just didn’t know it was an inquisition. But anyway, I have the certificate to say I am not a witch. Jan and I also went to the rope museum: Ouderwater was a centre for ropery for centuries, with a family business half a millennium old still on the edge of town. Jan and I were there with two deaf people, so since his English is very good, and theirs irrelevant since they were deaf, we were able to watch explanatory videos in English. There was a very nice film from the 1950s about the process of hemp harvesting and preparation, and another more recent one about the current process. The woman in charge of the museum gave the game away somewhat by admitting (off her own bat) that 90% of the rope they made now was from plastic. But Jan and the deaf man were able to participate in the creation of their very own piece of rope from hemp on a 19th century (I think) machine. I was sort of amazed that rope could be so interesting. One of the things about Ouderwater was that it was at the heart of a network of waterways. Hemp is grown in water but that’s not really the point: the point is that you could ship your rope all over the place quickly from there, so manufacture could be efficiently and economically based there.
Jan is, frankly, obsessed by his own boat. He has been sailing for I think seven years and he clearly loves it deeply. So many places we went to in his Volvo he would say as an afterthought ‘we have been here in our boat’ I finally had to say, are there any places you haven’t been in your boat? And he laughed, so I guess the answer – in that particular region anyway – is no. But I saw his boat – at time of writing it is docked in a small harbour and won’t see much action until after winter – and it is something I can see someone getting a bit obsessed about.
After we went to the modern 1950s town of Nagele (it rhymes with the way an Australian would say ‘sparkler’) we went to Urk, which is 10km away. Nagele is a new town on the second of the big new lands that were (and I suppose are, constantly) drained and are below sea level; Urk, however, has the odd distinction of being an old town in the Nieuwe Ladnt (check) because it was a fishing island; now it’s just a point on the edge of a big land mass, but not ‘just’, because it’s also very beautiful and olde worlde, I know that’s a flippant way to describe something and I don’t mean it’s kitsch; it’s very pleasant, let’s leave it at that. At the sea edge there is a small square with a statue of a miserable waiting woman, and a list of all the names on plaques around the square of the men who died while fishing. Many of them were clearly intergenerational members of the same family. Jan told me – and we saw it to be true in the case of at least two people – that the men of Urk generally wore an earring in one ear, so they could be identified as Urk men if they were to drown. Quite extraordinary.
Another thing we did – this time it was Jan, Jenny and me – was go to the museum of mechanical musical instruments. This is in an old church in Utrecht, and it has an astonishing array of machines. Many of them were either home entertainment units with large metal discs which played tunes via punched holes which plucked a comb of wire teeth; some were even hand-cranked portables, which I suppose you could take out with you on a picnic and play tunes for fun much like you can now with an iPod and speakers, only the iPod has seventy million tunes and hand-cranky probably only had about seven. But just to put things in perspective, the version of Word I’m writing this in doesn’t recognize the word ‘iPod’ as a word.
The museum has two parts. Upstairs you can wander and look at various pieces. My gripe then – being, as usual, impatient and lacking the bigger picture – was that I wanted to know what the things sounded like. Well, the downstairs part did just that. This is where you get a 1-hour guided tour of various functional examples of the museum’s specialties. First, we got some wind-up machines – forerunners to the gramophone, really. Then we got some toys – these were excellent, particularly the little rabbit which came out of a cabbage (to a quiet tune), looked around, dropped its ears back and took fright and hid. I bought a postcard featuring this rabbit and a number of others which makes me assume they have more in the museum. It was so good! The next thing if I remember rightly was player pianos. This reminded me of when I was a child and my grandparents lived next door to a couple of a similar age (to my grandparents) who had a player piano, which was great fun. Only these player pianos were mega and sick. One was a grand piano, with a piano roll that was not created mechanically by someone punching holes in paper like they were playing Battleships, but an actual ‘recording’ of a famed pianist, who played the tune on a recording instrument. The result was then more natural.
From this, we went to the mechanical organs. These were huge and powerful, and in fact some of the silly people there were putting their fingers in their ears, it was so long since they’d heard loud music. They were elaborately carved and magnificent.
I imagine the young man who took us on this tour did it all day long, but he still made it all seem very fresh and thrilling, like he was discovering stuff too, which I bet he wasn’t. That’s a talent in itself. But I was very pleased to have seen all this.
The upshot of it was (I know I sound like a travelogue) I could have spent another week in the Netherlands and still not seen half of what I wanted to see. As it was on the Friday I ‘had’ to meet with an academic contact, which entailed taking two trains to central Amsterdam and finding my way around – I was exceptionally proud of myself being able to do this – but it did also seem like a bit of a waste of a day, which I could otherwise have spent being driven around by Jan some more (!!!) and also riding bikes with Edwin. But you can’t have everything. And it’s good to leave wanting more. Probably.
I had two action-packed days in Sweden, almost entirely in Gavle. The first thing about Gavle is knowing how to pronounce ‘Gavle’; most seem to favour ‘Yayful’ though some jokey shop names, etc in the place itself refer to ‘Gefle’, I have no idea what that’s about.
It is a town that in some ways reminds me a bit of Ballarat, except the buildings have a few more storeys. It’s a university town (so is Ballarat) though the university – a former army barracks – is closer to Gavle ‘centrum’ than the university in Ballarat is (to Ballarat).
I stayed in the Gavle Hotell (I spent too long wondering if a ‘Hotell’ was different from a hotel. I decided it wasn’t.) The Gavle Hotell has one serious flaw, which is that its wifi is terrible. Otherwise, it’s a great place, which does an amazing breakfast on a Sunday morning. On a Monday morning (i.e. this morning as I write this) it does the leftovers from the breakfast the day before, which at first I thought was a sign of bad things to come – i.e. it’s all downhill from Sunday – but then I decided Monday was just a dip, because Sunday in Gavle is pretty unhappening, with the shops open for almost no time at all and so on.
My Sunday in Gavle was happening because I visited Satra, which is the place I came a long way to see and it didn’t let me down. A marvelous 60s-70s suburb of greenery, road-pedestrial separation, green open space and so on. I had a long walk in there and really loved it. The next day, I had a brief meeting with relevant (and very, very pleasant) people at Gavle University who told me that some parts of Satra were perceived as ‘bad’, I don’t know why, they didn’t know why (I think because it’s rental) and some parts were perceived as good (bungalows, owner-occupiers). It’s good to see the same old crap replicates wherever you are in the world. Apart from the wifi I’d recommend Gavle to anyone.
 Admittedly I had the lowest of low expectations. I got the cheapest cabin (you have to get a cabin – unlike the ferry Belfast-Liverpool where you can sleep in the children’s play area) which I was (and perhaps in truth still am, though I haven’t seen them – if they do show up that’s a bad omen, they were too busy drinkin’ and yellin’ to even put bags in the cabin) to share with two others. But the two others, as indicated within those brackets, are nowhere to be seen, just like my Newcastle – Amsterdam ferry. And in addition (1) I made a wonderful music video for New Estate, which I am trying to upload to YouTube as I type but probably won’t be able to, but still it’s great – film of people, birds, land, buoys and water as the ferry sailed out of Stockholm and (2) the complimentary Viking Buffet – surely either a government requirement or a company precaution but otherwise created to make sure people don’t get stunningly drunk on the boat – is mega. The pickled cabbage, the spelt salad, the beetroot – even the kidney beans, which I suspect were/are just kidney beans out of a can, were grouse. The whole thing rocked! Well, the ‘starters’ particularly. When I got to the ‘warm dishes’ really the only thing I could/would eat were the potatoes, the rest was baby pig’s heads etc. So I just went back to the starters and got more salad. It was/is rad. And complimentary!!!
You know everyone in continental Europe (so, like, 8 or 9 people out of uberbazillion) have said that I came at the wrong time, ‘if you’d been here a few weeks earlier…’ I see their point, but the weather’s been great – if anything, a little too warm – things like the ferries have not been bonkers, and while I think I made little errors anyone could’ve – like, for instance, booking to fly to Stockholm on the first day of a week long school break – who could have known? – I’m nevertheless chuffed at how the Europe stuff has turned out. Sure, I wake up every night in a state of panic over money and so on, and the TV is dreadful, and I never get to go to anything touristy (that’s a plus and a minus) (and not entirely true – for instance, Jan and Jenny took me to the musical machine museum) but on the whole, I can’t complain. I will complain – if only to myself – yet, truthfully I can’t. I do, but I have no basis for it. Anyway, I shouldn’t speak/write too soon, as there are quite a few wretchedly drunk fools stumbling around and a few raised voices etc, amongst monstrously large people, so it could all go pear shaped as they already are, pretty soon. We shall see.
Four hours later: doing my typical ‘bit’ of waking at 1 am, I find that the place is a lot more like the hotel in The Shining and the sinking Titanic than any last days of Sodom. The pokies twinkle, crazy radio-styled blether goes on in empty café rooms, a few teens and middle aged men with insane hairstyles wander around (I am aware none of these things happened in the Shining hotel or on the Titanic, but that’s what it’s like when there are no people, trust me, and that’s most of the time).
A couple of days ago in Gävle I finally found a copy of Game of Thrones. This is a book I semi-planned to take away with me as an airplane time killer but as it came closer to the time to leave all I could find were its sequels. It is the absolute antithesis (??) of the kind of thing I would normally read but ‘everyone’ (i.e. the one or two podcasts I enjoy from the US) is saying the tv adaptation of the novel series of which this is the first is the best tv of 2011, and by implication the novels are extraordinary too. OK. So in this Gävle bookshop there was an English section and there was Game of Thrones. I’m about 40 pages in so far and I am (1) irritated by the blah conservative schlock of the imagery/setting/slightly misspelled names and words to make an ‘alternaverse’/forsoothery of the whole thing that I am set to give up. But overridingly I think the major problem is that I have no capacity to follow any of this huge range of characters, introduced in the first few pages. There must be forty of them already and I can’t remember any of their names (no, wait, one’s called Jon) let alone have the slightest idea who they are or why I should care. They are apparently being introduced in vignettes; I have no idea whether this is setting up a story or what. The main thing is, I just can’t follow it, and when you’re holding up a massive paperback which you have to pinch top and bottom or the cover will tear away from the spine, it just seems daunting. And I’ve never liked fantasy novels. Perhaps I didn’t know that as this might be the first I have read, outside Tolkien-Narnia stuff. (But you know, I wasn’t expecting fine lit, I was just expecting a gripping read with goodies and baddies, and so far it’s just dithery rubbish). Look, at the end of the day, millions have loved this so I owe it to the people to stick with it.
Next morning (18 Oct)
I am up at 7ish then emerging from my cabin it suddenly becomes 8ish, which I take to mean Finland is in the next timezone along from Sweden but this information hadn’t penetrated my mobile phone (which I am presently using to tell the time as I dropped my watch on the floor of my room in the Hotell Gavle yesterday morning and the strap broke). News has filtered through from Melbourne that my publisher Martin has had a brain haemmorhage but that it was the ‘best haemmorhage ever’ and he is expected to make a full recovery in the next month. In a manner of speaking, this is news I didn’t need to have at this point, because by the time I get back it’ll all be back to normal, ‘how have you been’ ‘I had a brain haemmorhage but it’s ok now’. I don’t know, he told me a few months ago he had an all-day meeting or something and it turned out to be meditation to quit smoking, so maybe a ‘brain haemmorhage’ is something similar.
While I’m thinking about it I will not discuss in terms of a regional stereotype anything like the tendency of Scandinavians to barge into a lift without looking to see who’s coming out, to throw their weight around generally while walking etc. I don’t think it’s constructive. There were a number of uncouth individuals on this ferry though.
Have been in Helsinki two days now and it’s the first time in a long time I have been in a place that really does feel quite a bit like a place I could conceivably live in, for a period of time. I know what a dumb thing this might be to say but it really reminds me of Hobart. It begins with an H and it is on water, and it has trams, which Hobart used to have.
I have only seen a little of it so far (and I only will ever have time, on this trip, to see a little of it) but I am very impressed. On Tuesday, for instance, I had the pleasure of seeing an art piece performed in what I gather is called the Bärenpark, on the next block from where I’m staying. It entailed a man with a paper bag over his head wandering around the park and a group of probably 8 or 9 others running past him shouting noises. Yesterday, I went to the Post Office Museum (and also to the conference which is my reason for being here).
I always knew Finnish was an amazing looking language but I now realise I didn’t know the half of it. It is incredible. It is to my ears and eyes entirely incomprehensible. Whereas in Swedish you can look through some words and some sentences almost make sense to an English speaker, Finnish is just another world. It’s not a problem, because everybody in Finland can switch to apparently perfect English with ease.
What has amazed me in both the Netherlands and Sweden (it hasn’t happened in Finland yet but I know it could any minute) is when people have addressed me in their native language and I have had to say ‘I’m sorry, I only speak English’ and they have apologised for speaking to me in their own language. That is almost sad. But it is really more touching than anything. And while I suppose it is not a compliment for someone to say ‘I’m sorry, I thought you were Dutch’ nor is it an insult.
One more thing. I don’t understand the Finns’ attitude to the Swedes, either the Swedes in Sweden or the Swedes in their midst. I know there are two national languages: Finnish and Swedish. Every street sign is in both languages, and so on. I know the Swedes owned Finland for a considerable period and (I was told at dinner last night – all the Australians from the conference went out together) that period is not looked on fondly by Finns. I was also told at dinner last night, or actually shortly after it, that there is 5% of the population who only speak Swedish and refuse to speak Finnish. What’s that about? And why is it OK? Is it OK? I’m lost. It seems like some kind of nationalist politics of a century ago turned on its head. If someone had told me 5% of the population were shot a hundred years ago for only speaking Swedish, I’d have believed that. But not that there is this rump of recalcitrants who must cost a fortune every year being catered to in signage, education, publications and other areas where duplication of services and/or translation has to be undertaken. I’m flummoxed.
I’m sure if I actually spoke to a Finnish person about this I’d get the lowdown straight away, and I’d just be shown to be a complete dunderhead on this issue. I have certainly been critical enough of people who come to Australia and make wry assumptions about it without really taking the time to find out. I suppose I shall take the time to find out, somehow, today.
 Though I do give them a thumbs down for hiding away in their website the insistence that passengers show up 2 hours before departure. I only saw this a few hours before I ‘had’ to be there and I raced into Stockholm on a very expensive train that got there with time to spare, rather than a much cheaper one that got in 5 mins before the 2 hour mark. Of course – how predictable – at 2 hours before departure the check in windows weren’t even open.
 I may not be sincere with this statement as I hate this phrase. But as I type these words I am watching children have their picture taken hugging a massive smurf, and it is distracting and unpleasant. I saw a woman with a baby push some other children out of the way so her baby could slap the smurf’s nose. The person in the costume is a consummate professional. And what is amazing is the children totally love the smurf, I don’t know if they’ve seen one before, probably, but they hug it like it’s going to protect them from a murderous blade.
I haven’t diarised for about three weeks now, since shortly after Mia and I arrived in the USA from different directions but the same place and time, roughly. Fortunately (???) though I have done a lot of filming and photographing, so details of my activities will not be lost to posterity, except insofar as, posterity won’t give a loose root. I am writing this on the train from Philadelphia to New York; I have a crazy notion, to go to Ithaca for basically one day and then come back to NY en route to leaving the US altogether. So far it’s all working out well but surely something has to go terribly wrong, I just can’t imagine what it’s going to be.
This morning I traveled by train from Baltimore to Philadelphia, where I had my only really crucial event of the day, a 12 o’clock appointment which I arrived half an hour early for (thanks Amtrak) and so I amused myself by trying to photograph or film squirrels on my phone, I wasn’t very successful. There were squirrels everywhere. There was one amazing moment where three were chasing each other around on the surface of a tree, I didn’t get to film that of course. The thing with squirrels is that they aren’t scared of you if you’re moving, only if you stop and look at them. They are pretty frantic generally speaking. I enjoy them. I almost wonder if they play. I guess that’s anthropomorphism.
The above was written three days ago and as with so much of this trip it seems like about 3 months in itself. So many changing landscapes. I went from Philadelphia to NY, then got a taxi (disgruntled, I don’t know why, it wasn’t like he wasn’t getting a fair bit of money for going not very far) to the Port Authority Bus Terminal where the angriest bus company employee in the world sold me a round trip ticket to Ithaca. The bust to Ithaca was fine, got in around 9, the bus driver was even kind enough to drop me off outside the hotel (like so many of this stuff I thought there was a reasonable possibility he was hoping for a tip, but by this stage I was past caring about these unreadable situations, though on reflection I suppose no-one in America objects to being offered money particularly as a sugar coating on doing their actual job). (Has anyone in this country ever proposed just paying people in the service industries properly for doing their jobs? Would the employees themselves object to this notion because every time they kiss someone’s ass they are possibly going to get written into their wills?). Ithaca was delightful as everyone said (Ara’s flatmate Andy told me a joke, ‘Ithaca is gorges’, which I then saw on a sticker on the hotel cleaner’s trolley – it’s funny because, there’s like, this hill; in fact I heard someone refer to having been on ‘the hill’, that’s where the university is for some unfathomable reason). I was going to ride the Brompton up the hill and back, or at least probably push it up the hard bits and ride it down the easy bits, then I realized the easy bits are too easy, that is, steep and I’d probably end up crushed against some delightful wooden four storey college frat house. So I took the bus, driven by a friendly hillbilly, who even took the time to explain where it was I was going on campus (Olin library). The Olin library – Kroch wing, to be precise – was great, the librarian who signed me in exceptionally friendly and self-deprecating, as were the other staff members, I spent quite a bit of the afternoon with a little bald man who kept falling asleep at his table and waking up with a start when his snores got too loud. I had a lot of stuff to get through, and I got through about 70% of it which felt OK. You can’t do everything.
In the evening I went to the Moosewood Restaurant, which was a must-do in Ithaca I’d say. It was less exhiliarating or amazing than I had expected – the food was fine – I had two cocktails (bloody marys) which were very strong and pretty good. I ate a lot because I was looking for something special, even had dessert which might almost have been the first time I did so on this trip. Overall, pretty good. I also bought some kompucha (sp?) which smelt very scarey but actually tasted pretty good.
The next day I had to get up super early and return to NY, to do some work at Columbia held over from our earlier visit. I was anticipating disaster, eg for instance I figured there’d be trouble with getting into Columbia (the earlier attempt to gain access to the library was chronically ridiculous, with four different people giving me four different advices, all of them it turned out wrong. This time I managed to barge through somehow, getting a pass to enter the library by knowing the name of the muggins who had pulled my stuff from the archives, and got a pass, and then the security guard was on the phone anyway so I could easily have just walked through, but that’s always the way isn’t it – I suppose part of the reason you don’t call attention to yourself is that you carry yourself confidently). Once in, I got what I needed quickly and efficiently, then was left to fritter the remainder of my time away in any way I pleased, and in this case I pleased to visit Zabar’s and a comic shop (though the comic shop was a real let down). I also got swept up in the excitement of the Macy’s thanksgiving day parade balloon inflation, which was happening near the planetarium; thousands of people and kids were wandering around trying to guess what these stupid huge balloons were going to be when they were blown up (except a big goose who was already blown up, as was Spongebob). Spiderman was not only in a crazy sprawled position, he also had the Duracell bunny behind him so from a particular angle he seemed to have bunny ears. One item was unrecognizable but a man behind me with a voice just like Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, but with an epic lisp, said ‘I think that’s Bob the Builder’s female friend, though I’m not certain, having only seen that program once.’ Then I went and got my bags from the only firm in NY that will hold luggage in storage (Schwartz’s; when someone else gets it together enough to offer competition, how low will their prices drop? Meanwhile, they must be coining it in – it cost me $18 for two bags). I could have gone to a movie or something but I figured I needed to sort out getting to my hotel (Days Inn, JFK) and taking it easy from hereon in.
The user reviews for the Days Inn were amazingly caustic but compared to the terrible one-star Days Inn experience I had in Manchester last month, this one was a palace, a palace with a school bus parking lot/snow plough storage space over the road, a carpark out the back, a freeway down the street and an airport in the other direction. The TV was hazy and nothing was on (once, American tv used to be interesting to me, but I don’t now recall how) but otherwise it was fine. I took a shuttle bus to JFK obscenely early this morning and now have about five hours to fill in before I leave. I had been anticipating major delays, security crapola, big queues, some hassle about checking two bags – all of these I have had in spades up till now. But so far – and of course I have to say so far – nothing.
There were about five of us in the queue to check in, behind me was a small (6?) child sitting on his/her bags (I thought it was a boy, but I think its mother referred to it as a girl at one stage) on a trolley. They were not long in the queue before the child said, ‘Mommy, I’m waiting!’ The mother – who had a patterned headscarf right round her head – used this as an entrée into a conversation about how much she loved the child, I was surprised given what I knew about the child that this was ‘very, very much’. The child (and, secretly, I) wanted to know why, to which the response was: ‘Because you’re so good, you’re so patient, and I love you very much.’
Quietly I had cause to reflect how tolerant and wise all this traveling has made me.