Category Archives: Travel

What I’ve Been Reading – February 2019

Three books I’ve read in the last few weeks. Let’s do this.


 

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

5

Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Country: Colombia

Where I Got It: Quarter Price Books- Houston, Texas

Premise: A ninety year old man decides to celebrate his birthday by giving himself “a night of wild love with a 14 year old virgin”. However, she awakens a tender side in him that he didn’t think he had. For the first time in his long life, he discovers love.

My Favorite Quote: “I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac.”

Review: Technically, this book can be counted as one of my celebrated banned book readings. In Iran the book was censored for seemingly promoting prostitution, before being released under the title “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” which I think is hilarious, especially as the title had already been sanitized ever so slightly for the English version. The original Spanish title “Memoria de mis putas tristes” more accurately translates to “Memories of My Sad Whores”, which is a lot less sentimental. The publishers for the English editions decided to change “sad” to “melancholy” because they thought it was more poetic and less derogatory. “Sad Whores” sounds like an insult, whereas “Melancholy Whores” evokes sympathy. It should also be noted that in Spanish, “puta” can also translate to “bitch”, so it’s a lot more cutting and mean-spirited than the English word “whore”.

Anyway, when it was released as “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” in Iran, the book sold out within 3 weeks. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Culture shat out and pulled it from bookstores after receiving complaints from Islamic conservatives. The institution of religion is a recurring villain in the history of free speech, and therefore too the history of banned books. It’s one thing when American Christians complain about And Tango Makes Three for having two male penguins fall in love, because we can swat their homophobia back down with a rolled-up newspaper. But in Iran, religion has a stranglehold on the population, and you can’t risk standing up for free speech and rational thought in case you get executed. It makes me sad, because I think about all the people over there that have these wonderful books denied to them.

But what of the book itself? Overall I liked it. It’s my second Marquez novel, and I do get the sense when reading his work that I’m experiencing a rare kind of genius. In fact, I was more in love with the writing than the story itself. The main character is miserable and unlikable, but you do end up feeling sympathetic towards him because he undergoes a fascinating catharsis. This is best seen in the quote I included above, where he begins to look inward and be honest about his decisions and his behavior. He’s this bitter loner that prefers the company of literature and music to fellow human beings. He’s never slept with a woman he hasn’t paid for. He’s referred to throughout the novel for his horrifically ugly looks, a curse that he embraces to the point that his ugliness is reflected in his behavior too. I even wondered if he might have psychopathic traits, since he’s aware that he’s mean and pretentious and yet seems to do his utmost to own these qualities.

He falls in love with a 14 year old prostitute, but it’s not really a sexual or conventional love. He treats her like a work of art and idealizes her to the point that he goes out of his way to avoid knowing the real her. He doesn’t want to know her real name and he doesn’t like hearing her speak, because he fears that such knowledge would shatter this perfect, angelic image he has of her. So yes, in its own way this novel is a beautiful and touching love story- but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

If you’re looking for a better review, check out Brittany Reads’ video here.

 

 

The Beautiful Summer

4

Author: Cesare Pavese

Country: Italy

Where I Got It: Waterstones- Bristol, England

Premise: A curious yet prudish girl falls in with a group of painters and models whose Bohemian lifestyle challenges her innocent worldview.

My Favorite Quote: “Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.”

Review: I bought this novel from a section of books being marketed as “Summer Reads”. This fact, in conjunction with the blurb and the beautiful cover, gave me the impression I was in for a passionate romance set against an atmospheric Mediterranean backdrop. However, this novel isn’t quite what it appears. There is a love story at work, but it’s no whirlwind romance. The plot itself is tissue-thin. For the most part, it’s about the protagonist Ginia and her feelings. This isn’t a book with an emphasis on its events- there are no real twists, there’s no suspense, no dramatic scenes. It can’t even be called a slow boil, because that assumes the events are building towards something important. Instead, everything feels hazy and vague; the book is mainly concerned with evoking a certain mindset- summer days drifting into each other- leaving you with an impression of a particular period of time in the characters’ lives. It’s an extremely sensual book, and it reminds me a lot of Maggie Cassidy by Jack Kerouac. It’s all about the vivid sensations of that summer and what it means to our protagonist. A lot of very similar events repeat themselves- the characters go on endless walks, they go to the café, they go to the painter’s studio. And when I said that the book was sensual, I’m referring to the patchwork of emotions Ginia feels that are wrapped up in these places, objects, characters, and trivial events. It’s not a very atmospheric or descriptive book. Most of the scenes take place inside shabby apartments.

The minimalist narrative is mostly concerned with Ginia’s feelings toward two characters: Amelia- a carefree model with an overactive libido, and Guido- a young and enigmatic painter. Amelia represents the Bohemian lifestyle that Ginia is curious about. I actually thought that Ginia’s relationship with her was the most interesting part of the book. Amelia is a few years older, is more street-smart, more confident. She’s unlike anyone Ginia has ever met. And Ginia herself has mixed feelings towards her friend. She both admonishes her reckless behavior and seems desperate to win her approval. I like that her feelings are confused and complicated and contradictory. There’s a subtle implication that Ginia might be bisexual, but not know it yet. Amelia on the other hand, is openly bisexual, and in her own free-spirited, polyamorous way, in love with Ginia. As for Guido, he represents Ginia’s experience of first love. I also think that this relationship is very interesting too; they enter a vague and noncommittal affair that, by its inevitable conclusion, has challenged and reshaped the protagonist’s concept of love.

So there’s some interesting stuff going on in this novel, even if it’s not a page-turner. However the excellent character development is hampered by the abysmal quality of the book’s translation. There are some sentences here that just flat-out don’t make sense. The very first paragraph begins in the first person and never returns to it; the paragraph ends in the third person and continues that way for the rest of the book. There are also several British colloquial terms that just don’t seem right given the 1930s Italian setting. This book has been described as “unreadable” by some readers. I do think there is something worthwhile in these pages though. In many ways it’s a fascinating look at first love, jealousy, sexuality, and art, and I’d love to see it get a modern translation. I also think the characters are intriguing enough that their struggles could easily be loosely adapted to some kind of stage or film production. Or perhaps an HBO miniseries? Something that captures the essence of what Pavese intended but fleshed out and expanded upon.

 

 

Seeing Red

2

Author: Lina Meruane

Country: Chile

Where I Got ItWorld of Books

Premise: A Chilean novelist in New York has to adjust to a new life after her eyes hemorrhage, leaving her all but completely blind.

My Favorite Quote: “My memory’s visual laws dictated the landscape to me. Screeching seagulls rose up over the esplanade, leaving a sedentary pelican run aground; they flew up along the sunset and then dove down, they drowned in eddies while the tide rose with the moon to cover the black beach. The moon was lost behind the trees; you could tell it was there, barely, from its shine.”

Review: I’ve been trying my darndest to read as many foreign writers as possible. It’s no problem finding the works of giants like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I’ve found it difficult to find English translations of contemporary authors from non-English-speaking countries. I am especially interested in modern- that is to say, 21st century- writers from foreign countries. I want to know who is writing right now. I want authors whose careers are ongoing, whose portrait photos on the back cover aren’t in black and white. I’m also especially keen to read women writers that write about women’s issues through a youthful, contemporary lens. Kinda like Elena Ferrante I guess. Anyway, if you have any suggestions for female, non-English novelists younger than 40-ish, please let me know in the comments!

One resource that’s been great for discovering foreign authors is the website Culture Trip. They do these awesome power rankings. I found one that was like “Top 10 Chilean Novels You Should Read” or something like that. This book popped up by Lina Meruane. Seeing Red; the title evoked promises of violence and darkness. Rage, even. That was the vibe I got. Pure rage. A woman loses her eyesight and takes it out on the world. And that’s sort of how the book goes, although it’s a subtle kind of rage. Once her eyesight is doomed, a new woman emerges- one that shocks those that know her. She’s cynical, sardonic, jealous, sexual, angry, and above all- raw.

It’s a short book that’s essentially a fictionalized memoir of the author’s own experience of blindness. In that sense, it can be seen as plotless. It follows the events after the hemorrhage and covers largely the narrator’s senses, how these remaining senses are used to relearn how she navigates the world, and how all of this informs her dark thoughts. It’s not a book full of twists and turns. It’s short at 157 pages, but it took me longer to read than I expected because there are no paragraphs, not even for dialogue. The entire novel is like one long block of text, without indentations, without any blank spaces with which to breathe. It made me think of it as being akin to a monologue. I wouldn’t say I was absolutely engrossed in what I was reading, but the writing itself left me breathless. It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s a visceral and poetic weave of long sentences and sharp, abruptly-short declarative statements that manage to capture a sense of inner monologue with the sense of verisimilar everyday speech. It’s a rapturous blend where everything feels like it’s in the right place, where every sentence is in order, where each word has been given careful consideration for its lyrical and phonetic qualities. I have to say it’s an excellent translation by Megan McDowell, who’s made a career out of using her own talent to spotlight the talent of others.

If you like introspection, monologues, and the beauty of language, this is the book for you! If you’re squeamish about eyes, maybe give it a miss…

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Snow Day 2

Last year we had an ass-ton of snow one weekend in March and I decided to go outside to take some photos. I couldn’t really walk anywhere picturesque, so I decided to take some wintry shots of the places I grew up. I was feeling kind of nostalgic I guess, because I ended up calling in on my childhood friend Artie and engaging him in a conversation of old memories. A lot of my conversations with Artie take place in the past tense. We’re the kind of people that enjoy telling the same old stories over and over again. When I see him and my other school buddies, I often feel like the youngest version of myself. That’s not to say that Artie and I are trapped in our school days like a pair of McDonald’s All Americans in rocking chairs- I just mean that when I’m around the people I grew up with, I tend to retain parts of myself that I’d otherwise dispense with in other situations. For instance, I’ll make the kind of jokes that appealed to my adolescent self, speaking a lot of gibberish and putting on silly voices. I’ve always found that the past has a stronger pull than I’d like. I often feel the urge to escape it, perhaps just to prove that I can more than anything else. Finding new ways of being myself has the irresistible sensation of conquering the unconquerable- the past.

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And the past has been looming over me bigger than ever of late. Snow puts me in a reflective mood, even though it almost never happens in the town in which I live. Last Friday, on the first day of February, snow fell on our little town again. It put me in mind of last year’s snow day, and so once more I resolved to go out and make use of this novelty with my dSLR in hand. This time however, I had an agreement to meet some folks at the pub where I work. I didn’t want to photograph the same neighborhoods I did on last year’s snow day, so I took the extra-long route, zig-zagging across town and taking my time with things that interested me.

I also tried to think about the things I looked at. When I got to work on last year’s Snow Day post, I realized that I didn’t like the idea of uploading my photos without some words to accompany them. A blog post feels kind of naked without text. So I decided to intersperse the pictures with random stories from my childhood. The post felt a little too messy for my liking and I wasn’t sure it was my best work. I decided to forget about it. And yet, despite my dissatisfaction with the post, it turned out to be one of the most popular pieces of content I published last year. I figured the spike in traffic directed toward my website either had to be from former classmates curious to see if I’d slagged them off, or misguided foreigners hoping for National Geographic-esque stills of a rustic idyll.

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I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed on both accounts if that’s why y’all are here for round two. Nailsea is no chocolate box. Which is not to say that my hometown is especially ugly or anything, but it’s not a community that’s developed with a sense of touristic charm in mind. For the most part it’s functional rather than aesthetic, having been established around the industries of coal mining and glass manufacture. Now it exists as a sort of de facto suburb for commuters to the city. I imagine that it’s one of thousands of such quiet communities across the U.K, where little much of note happens except the odd headline regarding sleeping cows getting tipped over by dastardly youths or beige-cardiganed OAP’s farting themselves to death while reading Gardener’s World. But in a way I feel like these towns are more real than the likes of Polperro and Lyme Regis, which have always seemed like fantasies to me.

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As I went in search of inspiration last Friday, I ended up thinking about my own feelings toward my hometown. During my adolescence I developed a real hatred for it. It’s only fairly recently in my life that this deep-seated loathing towards Nailsea has subsided. Growing up, I attached a lot of the problems I had in my life to the environment I was in. I hated my hometown because it reminded me of everything I wanted to forget. For the longest time I saw it as a cage that reinforced my own failures in life. I dwelled so much on my experiences of being bullied, my romantic shortcomings, and my general sense of not belonging, that I believed wholeheartedly that I couldn’t flourish here. So I traveled. Other places seemed marvelous to me, because with them came the idea that I could be whomever I wanted. Other places were fantasies to me. As soon as I was 16 I vowed to leave Nailsea and never come back. Nailsea was the past, and as I said earlier, I wanted conquer it. I wanted to completely expunge it from my memory and create a life with no trace to the community in which I was raised. But you can’t ever really defeat the past.

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First I went to college in the nearby city of Bristol for two years. That in itself was interesting, because I found myself in an urban environment for the first time. It was bustling, cosmopolitan, and multicultural. I tried out new styles of clothing, often opting for the things that looked as different as possible from what everyone back home wore. I tried new types of music. I plunged headfirst into new ideas, reading from old philosophers, watching foreign films, going to the theatre on a semi-regular basis. But I still wasn’t happy. In fact, I was deeply unhappy during my time at City of Bristol College. I spent every break I had hiding in the library listening to my iPod and eating lunch in the bathrooms so that I wouldn’t be seen eating alone. Bristol, I decided, just wasn’t far enough.

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At the age of 18 I moved to Winchester, which is about two hours away from here to the south-east. This had to be my time, I thought to myself. I’m in a new place studying something I’m passionate about, surrounded presumably by more likeminded people. Perhaps I was just unlucky. Perhaps I was just born in the wrong place. But as it turned out, I was even less happy in Winchester. What I was sure would be the time of my life ended up being some of the worst years I had experienced yet. It was during this period of my life that I started to think something might be seriously wrong with me. I had grown even more reclusive and isolated than I had been in Nailsea or Bristol. Winchester, I decided, just wasn’t far enough.

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So I hopped on a plane and moved 4000 miles to the USA, in Making a Murderer’s very own creepy pine forest Wisconsin. I loved it. I loved it so much that I’ve gone back to the US for the past 5 years in a row. But I learned a few things while I was out there. As much as I enjoyed my time in this new place, I found that it was largely down to the specific friends I made- Aaron and Anne-Marie. I also learned that my problems were too deep-seated to be fixed by a change in environment. I learned that I ought to have been looking inward, instead of far away. Sure, it sucked the first time I came home from living in the USA, but that’s no different to going somewhere nice on vacation and having to return to the hum-drum of normal life. Everyone can relate to that. It was only when I started going to the US every year (and got the medicinal therapy I needed) that I let go of my hatred for Nailsea.

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Now I don’t really feel anything toward it. It makes no sense to imbue the physical streets with the shades of memories good or bad. I’ve separated my memories and feelings from the town itself. As I trundled through the snow last Friday, I felt kind of numb to everything. Now it’s just a place, and I think nothing of it for better or worse. In fact, in recent years I’ve even been surprised at the ease with which I walk around town now. I go out more often and talk with more people than I used to.

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I’d left the house too late on Friday to capture the snow at its brightest and puffiest. Now the midday sun was melting it into gray slosh. Everything was wet and disgusting, but I decided to keep taking photos anyway, because the imperfection of these muddy remnants reminded me of the imperfection of real life. And Nailsea is nothing if not thoroughly real.

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I passed a grocery store that operates out of an old house that seems more akin to a Victorian toyshop. I’ve never been in there, although I have a vague memory of sitting in the car outside and staring through the windows as my mom went in to buy something. I passed the hill that leads to my old house where I used to ride my bike and feel a mixture of fear and excitement at the gradient. I passed the fish and chip shop we’d sometimes stop at growing up, where I’d always feel a pleasure at the heat of the food through the paper in which it was wrapped. It felt like a present waiting to be unwrapped. I passed the road on which my childhood nemesis used to live- a support teacher I routinely clashed with and who once said I lacked any empathy. I was a hyperactive little shit that just couldn’t sit still back in those days, a fact that often surprises those of my friends so accustomed to the docile creature I’ve grown into.

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I finished my little walk in the snow at the pub where I now work. It’s a nice place and I feel pretty comfortable there. One of the best things about working in a kitchen is all the free food you get given. Whenever the chefs make too much, I’m often treated to spare chips or something. One time they made too much garlic bread, and I got treated to a couple slices. It was glorious.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for this year’s Snow Day post. Maybe it’ll snow again next year and I can make it a trilogy!

Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry

I visited Budapest last April, and I came back with several works of Hungarian fiction in my luggage. The first author I tried from my pile was the great Tibor Déry, who lived and died in the nation’s capital.

You would be absolutely right to classify his book Niki: The Story of a Dog as both a fable and a satire. The qualities at the core of each of those genres are easily discernable to the reader as being at the core of this novel too. And even though I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but flinch upon hearing it. Not because the assessment is incorrect- but because to label the novel as both a fable and a satire seems to negate its identity as a “proper novel”. A fable has connotations of fairy tales, folklore, or grandmotherish bedtime stories based on instilling moral virtues. A satire seems to imply an agenda of sorts- more often than not political in nature- whose importance overshadows that of the novel’s other qualities. And by other qualities I mean the sensuous literary aesthetics that are characteristic of novels. A novel, as a genre, is very much its own beast. And all I’m trying to say is that Niki’s “sensuous literary aesthetics” are not insignificant. This isn’t just a satirical fable wearing the skin of a novel; it is a proper novel in its own right. But why is that worth pointing out? Because I think that if the cashier in Írók Boltja had referred to Niki as a fable or a satire, I would have had second thoughts about buying it. They’re labels that- one way or the other- color the reader’s preconceptions of the book. I may have doubted the depth of the novel’s character development or the pleasure to be had in its plot. But upon reading it I am pleased to say that the book is indeed very readable and enjoyable. It’s emotive. It’s full of wit and charm and heartache. It is a fable. It is a satire. But it’s also, in a very straightforward way, simply the story of a dog.

And this, in my opinion, is the book’s greatest strength. There is true genius in creating a work of art that can be experienced on different levels. Niki is equally effective as both a political satire and a story. In short, the book is about an unwanted pup that falls into the hands of Mr and Mrs Ancsa, an old couple still mourning the loss of their son in WW2. The setting is Budapest, Hungary, in the years after the war. At first things look promising; Mr Ancsa accepts a new job in the capital and is enthusiastic at the idea of playing his part in creating a better society. He’s a firm believer in Communism and a longtime member of the party. But after he is detained by the Communist Party for seemingly no reason, the initial hope that came with Hungary’s Soviet liberation fast becomes a nightmare. The gradual erosion of the family’s optimistic idealism is reflective of the wider population as the Soviet stranglehold tightens. The process is slow and quiet, and as the country’s would-be saviors are revealed to be nothing more than new Nazis, lofty utopian concepts are extinguished. The novel does an excellent job of illustrating how the hollowness of these utopian ideals results in a kind of societal degradation. Budapest becomes a toxic environment. Neighbors are suspicious and cold. I love how the novel focuses on the minutiae of everyday life. It explores the subtler effects of Soviet oppression, examining not the imprisoned or the persecuted, but those left behind. As the public grows more and more desperate, alienated, and paranoid, their worst qualities emerge. People are isolated and miserable. And through all of this- with her husband missing and her community abandoning her- Mrs Ancsa finds strength in her canine companion.

At its heart the novel is about the story of Niki and how she and the old woman depend on each other. It really is quite moving in some passages. I felt extremely invested in this old woman and her dog. I got emotional reading it- even volatile. The book keeps insisting that it is purely the story of a dog and nothing more. Obviously this isn’t true, and it’s amusing how the book never goes too in-depth into its political commentary. Every time it touches on politics, the narration yanks things back to focus on the dog. This is intentional; the novel is layered, but as I said above, it is genuinely the story of a dog. The behavior of the dog is captured in exquisite, very intricate scientific detail. There were so many times during my reading of the novel that Niki reminded me of the little collie that I dog-sit when I’m living in Houston, TX. I’ve written a couple blog posts about my roommate’s Border Collie mix Adelaide, and the fictional fox terrier Niki bears a striking resemblance to her. Everything about Déry’s descriptions of the pup rings true to me. The novel presents so many fascinating ways of looking at a dog’s behavior. Every scene brought back memories of my time with Adelaide. What struck me most were the beautiful passages that recount Niki’s tendency to jump up at people in joyous greeting. That’s exactly like my Adelaide. It felt like Déry was describing my roommate’s dog. I treasured those poetic extracts that so perfectly tied the dog’s spirit to her springy back-legs. Here’s my favorite quote: “It was as if her muscular, quivering little body were constantly being launched and relaunched in the air on the springs of gaiety. She would bound like a ball on to any object she coveted, her muscles regulated like the parts of some finely adjusted mechanism and her heart full of a tigerish boldness.”

In conclusion, Tibor Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog was a fantastic introduction into the rich world of Hungarian Literature. I am so glad I picked it up while I was in Budapest, and I will definitely continue my foray into this nation’s great body of books. I thoroughly recommend this book to all my friends and subscribers. If you prefer thrillers, then perhaps this isn’t for you. It’s not a fast-paced book. But if you have an interest in dogs or European history, then this is most assuredly the novel for you. And it will satisfy you no matter which angle you are coming from; it’s philosophically incisive, but not without good-humored, big-hearted warmth.

The Crescent City Diaries #15

As the airboat approached the docks at Jean Lafitte, our tour guide gave us some parting advice. “Listen up y’all: Bourbon Street sucks. Where y’all wanna go is Frenchman Street. It’s much better. Go to a place called Dat Dog, and get the alligator sausage po’boy topped with crawfish étouffée.”

I had already been recommended Frenchman as a happening kind of place the day before, and with my stomach grumbling as the minibus crossed back over the Mississippi, I knew that my course was set. When I arrived, I found that the street was exceedingly quiet. Sleepy– that’s the word I’m looking for. There were no buskers, no beggars, and no orators narrating tall tales of vampire-BDSM to throngs of drunken tourists. And I realized, as I searched in desperation through increasingly-aggressive slants of UV-radiation, that there were benefits to such noise. Opportunities are made abundantly clear to the solo-traveler via the whims of crowds. I didn’t see much on offer on this famous street, but perhaps I didn’t know quite where to look. I ended up going way past my intended destination and finding myself in a deserted residential neighborhood. I walked back the way I had come and found that Dat Dog was in fact near to where I had started on Frenchman.

Dat Dog was exactly the kind of place I sought after, but which I had struggled to find during my stay in the Big Easy. It was quirky, inexpensive, and it served good food. It was the kind of place perfect for a solo traveler on a budget. And I realized that the best way to find local favorites was to talk to locals. Shocking revelation, I know. Too often I had ended up at restaurants way above my price range (and scruffy demeanor), because that’s what happens when you rely on guide books and Google reviews. As I annihilated the alligator hot dog before me, I made a note to inform my future solo travels: ask locals for their recommendations more often.

With just an afternoon left with which to enjoy the city, I decided to make another attempt to get to the zoo. I tried the same streetcar stop I had waited at to no avail the day before. A trolley came along and I asked the operator if he were bound for Audubon Park. No, was the answer. I had to get the St Charles Streetcar, which was green. This, I should also note, seems to be the most historic of the city’s trolleys. To get it was a bucket list item in and of itself. So I set off at a brisk pace and saw that a green streetcar was escaping west. I attempted to chase it, but it always seemed one block ahead of me. I was reliant on the unrealistic expectation of it stopping for a long while, perhaps as some granny made her way down the aisle and tripped on the last step. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

It was hot, and after walking several blocks I had to admit the madness of my plan. At this rate I was going to end up walking the whole way, which could be a good hour or two. Remembering that fancy hotels often had taxis waiting outside, I sought out one of those big-ass skyscraper hotels. The driver was absorbed in his phone (no doubt he had just found out you can farm Bastila Shan shards and was using up his bonus energy), so I tapped on the window to get his attention.

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Within 15 minutes I was at the zoo. I love animals, but seeing them in enclosures just doesn’t capture the wonder of doing so in the wild. And just that morning I had seen a dozen wild alligators up close. I’ve never been crazy for zoos to be honest. I figured it was more of a family environment, and I’d enjoy it more if I was a kid- or if I had kids. It wasn’t overly busy; it was late afternoon by this point. I liked the Sun Bear, because I got a good view of him, and he was majestic. I waited for the orangutan, but he never showed. A guy told me that earlier the ape had been running around with a cardboard box on his head. I moved on, making a concerted effort to stop at every enclosure and read the plaques. I had to get as much out of it as I could, and justify coming all the way out here.

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When I reached the giant anteater, I was joined by a little girl and her grandma coming the opposite way. The grandma glanced at the animal, but carried on walking. I studied it for a while longer. I couldn’t tell if the little kid realized her grandma had gone off when she asked over her shoulder: “What animal is that one?”

It would be rude to ignore her right? So I answered.

“It’s an anteater,” I said, speaking in a slow, clear voice, and masking my British accent. I wanted to say it right- the burden of education had been thrust upon my shoulders- so I put emphasis on each syllable, as if anteater were two words and not one. The girl stared up at me, and I detected a tremble of fear or awkwardness in her face. Maybe she didn’t know what to say, I don’t know. Maybe I look dangerous? I offered her an encouraging smile. The girl stared at me with wide eyes as if debating whether it was right to talk back or not. Then she abruptly ran away.

At that point I hurried in the other direction, as though I had committed a crime of sorts. I felt awkward, as though looking scary was enough to convict me of something. I imagined the grandma chasing after me through the bamboo forest, pepper-spray in hand.

The zoo goes in a loop, and as I reached the halfway point, I could really feel the humidity getting to me. I was ready to go. I can’t remember ever feeling that overwhelmed by humidity. It was certainly the hottest day of my trip. I passed by a little waterpark for kids within the zoo and lamented that there weren’t such facilities for adults. Perhaps the zoo was a bad idea, I thought to myself. I don’t make much sense here, sensitive, introspective solo-traveler that I am. I should have stuck to the solemnity of museums and art galleries. I’ll come back when I’m in company and enjoy the zoo as it’s meant to be enjoyed; via the energy of social intercourse.

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As I exited the zoo I thought about how best to get back to the French Quarter. I could walk, but I’d probably succumb to the elements before I made it halfway through the Garden District. I was already feeling massively dehydrated and my feet hurt. Walking also ran the risk of getting picked off by serial killers and gangbangers. I couldn’t call a taxi because I don’t have a U.S sim card. My phone was also out of battery, so I got my map out and realized the nearest streetcar stop was on the other side of Audubon Park, which is huge. So I started walking, wondering what time I’d make it back.

The park seemed to go on forever. It was mostly deserted, but I did pass the odd shirtless maniac braving the heat to go for a run. When I reached the end of the park I saw this shelter, designed it seemed, for those like me struggling in the humidity. An intense relief washed over me at the sight of a bubbler. I was going to make it after all. After drinking my body weight in fresh water and pissing it out like a racehorse watching looping footage of Victoria Falls, I found the stop and hopped aboard the famous green streetcar. I recovered very quickly. The Garden District passed me by as a series of historic mansions and ever-so-sylvan family neighborhoods. I read the fiction of Sylvia Brownrigg, enjoying the slow ride. With my last day in New Orleans all but complete, my thoughts turned to Texas, and the long train ride that awaited me the following morning.

The Crescent City Diaries #14 – Bayou Redux

For my last day in New Orleans I booked myself a second swamp tour. I debated making an excursion to one of Louisiana’s many historic plantation homes, but ultimately decided I’d rather bask in the state’s natural beauty one last time. Oak Alley would have made for a great photo-op, but there’s a real sense of rapture I feel when I’m in the bayou. It’s an utterly unique biome, distinguished by an aesthetic that is nakedly brutal. It’s an environment that’s violent and unforgiving, and yet its cruelty is affixed with so much emergent beauty. It’s not comfy or easy real estate; it’s swelteringly hot, it floods, it endures hurricanes and cyclones every year, it’s crawling with innumerable blood-sucking and disease-carrying insects, and the sheer variety of other jungle horrors make its overflowing alligator population about as bothersome as a line of indecisive pensioners in front of you at the post office. Sure, the alligators are there in abundance- but no one takes them too seriously. If you fall victim to one, it’s more or less your own fault, so there’s no safety-talk regarding a potential encounter.

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Nothing underscored this mindset better than my tour guide- a bearded Cajun who had lived in the swamps of southern Louisiana his entire life. My guide delighted in the company of alligators, and said that he took any opportunity he could get to wrestle and play with them. This hobby sometimes left him with serious injuries, and he pulled down his t-shirt to show us his most recent scar. An alligator had bitten him in the neck, which had to be fixed up with 72 stitches. This experience didn’t put him off in the slightest, however.

“We Cajuns do stupid shit out here,” he said, showing us some other scars on his forearms.

The only thing we had to watch out for, he told us, were snakes. Just like my previous swamp tour, we were instructed not to reach up into the trees because snakes are known to leap from the branches like they’re reenacting The Last Crusade.

“I’ll do anything with a gator- I’ll swim with them, I’ll have me some fun with them. But I ain’t goin’ nowhere near a snake. If a snake gets in here y’all are gonna call me Fat Jesus- because I’ll be running over the water.”

The bayou is home to all kinds of snakes- snakes that swim, snakes that climb trees, snakes with lethal dosages of venom, and snakes that constrict. I shared the man’s fear; whenever I come to the USA, snakes are the only thing I really worry about encountering. I think it’s the stealthy nature of them, and the idea of a lightning-quick bite being enough to send me to the ground, unceremoniously foaming out the mouth as my unfulfilled dreams flash before my closing eyes. Sorry- it’s hard to resist indulging in such narcissistic morbid curiosities- especially when imagining the local papers of my small English hometown sharing headlines of badger culls and flower shows with “LOCAL BOY GOES MISSING IN SWAMP. COTTONMOUTH BELIEVED TO BE AT FAULT”. Man, what a story! I’m half-tempted to plunge myself into the murky waters just to make it happen. But like all dark fantasies, it passes and you find yourself physically recoiling, as if the imagined threat had actually been there in front of you. I’ve actually had recurring nightmares about snakes before I ever stepped foot in the bayou. What’s weird is that in every dream I have, the snakes get decapitated by a meat cleaver. Either I’m doing it in self-defense, or I’m hopelessly begging someone else not to do it, or I’m doing it to an innocent snake while in a trancelike state, unable to control my actions. There’s always the same mixture of pleasure and disgust when it happens, and I wake up with a shudder.

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Anyway that’s enough of that. What was great about this swamp tour was that it was completely different from my other one. The first one was near a private lake, more inland, surrounded by dense tropical woodlands, and we were on a larger boat that carried a good thirty people. The first tour was much more family-friendly as well. My second tour, by contrast, was on a high-speed airboat carrying only five people, as well as a guide with a much more liberal vocabulary. The setting too was different. I was south of NOLA this time, not east. I felt closer to the shore. The environment was that of sprawling wetlands, miles upon miles of low-lying swamplands whose freshwater canals drift seamlessly into the ocean. You could see for miles in all directions, and the boat was super-fast, which was very refreshing given the temperature.

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“Where are we?” I asked when I arrived at the dock.

“We are in the town of Jean Lafitte,” the man at the desk replied. “You know, like the pirate.”

I stared at him blankly.

It took us a while to reach the bayou itself. Once we got there, the guide took us at a slow speed through a natural tunnel in the trees. The trees were so tightly packed that I wondered if we could even fit into this canal. It was like going into a cave. And once inside the bayou, we were completely shadowed by a thick canopy about an arm’s reach above us. This was the part of the tour in which we had to be wary of snakes. Spiders too. The guide pointed out the gargantuan webs that went from tree to tree, and I spotted several spiders that looked big enough to down a small bird.

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We saw some alligators hanging about on land and decided to dock next to them.

“I don’t know about y’all I’mma have me some fun,” the guide said. He tied the boat to a cypress knee and hopped out. Two alligators approached him and he beckoned them closer. After feeding one a few marshmallows, he literally grabbed it by the tail and pushed it away. “Go on, git!” he said. It was the other gator’s turn. The other one approached, and after feeding it, the guide patted it on the snout affectionately.

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Then we were off again. We left the bayou and found ourselves in more wetlands. The guide called out for an alligator he named “Hops” and within a few minutes the creature approached the airboat. Tempting him with a marshmallow on a stick, the guide was able to get the alligator to climb on the boat. The woman in front of me recoiled. When the gator went for the marshmallow, he ended up biting off half the plastic stick as well, before cheekily diving back into the water.

“SHIT-ASS!” the guide hollered at it. “You broke my dang stick! Enjoy shitting that one out later. Heh heh.”

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Further on in the tour we got to ask a few questions. I asked the guy if he had ever been hand-fishing.

“Aw hell no!” he exclaimed. “No way. That there is what we call really redneck. You might get that in northern Louisiana, but not down here. You’d get your arm chewed off by a snapping turtle. Yessir. That’s some redneck shit.”

I was interested in the idea of there being different classes of “redneck” or “hillbilly” within the South. I’m already aware of the difference between the Catholic, French-speaking Cajuns of the south-Louisiana swamps and the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon “twangy-voiced” population of the northern half of the state.

The guide explained to the rest of the boat that hand-fishing, or “noodling” was the practice of getting a catfish to try to swallow your arm and pulling it out of the water. I’d read about it years ago, and had written a short story about it at university. I could have sworn it was a Louisiana thing. Perhaps it’s a northern Louisiana thing.

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The guide then revealed that he looked after baby alligators that wouldn’t otherwise make it in the wild. After raising them for a few years, he released them back into the swamps. He retrieved one from a cooler or something, and we each got to take it in turns holding the little guy.

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It was an amazing day. I had gotten to see at least a dozen gators, and as we sped back towards the dock, I felt pleased with my decision to go on another swamp tour. As I said at the beginning, it was either this or a plantation home. I’ve seen some awesome plantation homes in Tennessee and South Carolina. They’re great and all that, but there’s something really special about the bayou as a place. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get to see it again. It’s a voyage to an alien world. And unlike the moon, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, or Antarctica, this strange land is teeming with exotic life. I think my decision to go back- and the “magical feeling” I get when I’m there- is down to how far removed from my background it is. It’s almost certainly the most wild place I have ever been to. It’s the kind of faraway place that hitherto only really existed in nature documentaries, observed from the comfort of my couch with a bowl of Neapolitan to hand. To be in such a wild place is breathtaking and surreal. If I think about it, upward of 99% of my life has been spent in the comfort of metropolitan areas. Even in the small town I grew up in, my bedroom views showed asphalt, brick, and concrete in all directions. I was raised in the bosom of central heating, imported goods, and soft cushions. Getting the chance to see an environment untouched by the infrastructure of human civilization was a real treat- and something I’ll endeavor to try again as often as I can.

The Crescent City Diaries #13 – Shrunken Heads & Sugar Factories

My fourth day in the Big Easy began with a steamboat tour of the Mississippi. I’d seen the large crowds waiting in line for the Steamboat Natchez several times during my walks around the French Quarter, but for whatever reason I wasn’t tempted to join in the fun implicit in the vessel’s authentic steam calliope, whose merry tunes follow you all around Jackson Square. It was on the day before, after my return from City Park, that I decided I needed to book more tours and activities, and so I took a chance on the steamboat. I’m glad I did. The ticket was a very reasonable price and I paid extra to get a buffet lunch onboard. By noon, August 6th, I was chomping down on several helpings of fried chicken inside the Natchez’s historic dining hall.

Not wanting to miss anything, I went up to the deck soon after finishing my food. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m obsessed with the industrial aesthetic. And New Orleans has warehouses, cranes, shipping containers, and tugboats for days. We passed by the immense Domino Sugar Factory in Chalmette and I marveled at its crude grandeur. It was spectacular. When the Natchez turned around I went back to the dining hall where the jazz band started playing. This was good shit, some real Nucky Thompson shit, that they had going on down here. I was thoroughly entertained.

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My aim for the afternoon was to go to the zoo. I’m not particularly crazy about zoos, but it seemed like one of the city’s main attractions. Clouds gathered, and as I stood at one of the stops on Canal Street hoping to find the right streetcar, I began to question the whole idea. I abandoned it abruptly, and headed back to the Quarter. I wandered north a little and ended up at the strangest place I encountered on my entire trip: Dauphine Street’s “Museum of Death”. An apocalyptic bang precipitated an orgy of rainfall, and I staggered into the building with my hair about my face. I asked the guy at the desk what the rules were about taking photos. He answered in an overly-calm monotone that were I to take any photos, I would be “thrown out onto the street”. I thought that such an image was a little unnecessary, but he nonetheless answered my question. No photos. So I therefore have nothing to show you from this part of my day. I asked him if his museum would give me nightmares and he replied with “That’s a risk you gotta take”.

I entered through this curtain that made me think of houses of mirrors you would see at carnivals. The museum itself is a lot like the Black Museum from the fourth season of Black Mirror (minus the cyberpunk technology). The displays included graphic crime scene photos, prison shivs, the underwear of executed death row inmates, letters and poems written by serial killers, death masks, mortician apparatus, mummified remains, human skeletons, hair recovered from a crime scene, Jack Ruby’s business card, Manson family photographs, 9/11 stuff, and a Kevorkian “suicide device”. At the back there’s a “Theater of Death” which has gory autopsy footage on loop. At this point I wondered if the whole thing wasn’t a little fetishistic, and had to double-check that no one in the back row was furiously beating their meat. The last exhibit was devoted to tribes in Papua New Guinea that engage in cannibalism and headhunting. I admit to finding this rather interesting, and there were several shields and spears on display. There was also a good number of shrunken heads from the Amazon rainforest, which, upon leaving, I decided to ask the guy at the desk about. The man was delighted that I had a question. He told me that genuine shrunken heads are very expensive, and that if I see one in a shop window, it’s probably a fake. What the tribes do is take off the skin and put hot coals or something inside to keep the shape. It was strange to think that this little head on a shelf had once been a human being, that he or she had once laughed, cried, stubbed a toe, farted loudly, fallen ill, dreamt, kissed, fucked, felt awkward, gotten lost, held regrets, and expressed their thoughts in a way entirely their own.

Outside it was still hammering down with rain. I followed the sound of jazz towards Bourbon Street. There’s something about the synergy of jazz and rainy sidewalks that seems so natural. I passed a fancy, upscale restaurant with a bar area at the front. Without really knowing why, I turned around, doubled-back, and entered it. I sat down and asked for a Hurricane. The bartender was a pretty blonde named Ashleigh. I was her first customer of the day. We ended up chatting for over an hour and she told me all about her passion for Lord Byron’s poetry and a road trip to Ohio she was about to take with her dog. It felt nice to make a friend and have an extended conversation with someone new and interesting. It’s what I always want from a solo trip to a foreign city but can rarely find. People are more interesting to me than landmarks and exhibits. Given my taste for Hurricanes, she recommended I try a cocktail called the Planter’s Punch, which I also liked a great deal.

My final stop for the day was just around the corner from my hotel- the Historic Voodoo Museum. I wanted to learn more about voodoo culture, especially all the stuff about zombies. It was an interesting museum full of beautiful voodoo art pieces- however it is pretty small. The whole thing is two small rooms, but what there is, is excellent. I stepped back onto the street to find that the rain was dying down, and headed back to my hotel. It had been a great day, and I knew that the French Quarter would be a part of me forever.

The Crescent City Diaries #12

My first stop in City Park was the New Orleans Museum of Art. The temperature in NOLA had been steadily increasing since my arrival, and at this moment I felt like I was getting a taste of Louisiana’s tropical climate for the first time. I had barely been in City Park five minutes and already I could feel myself longing for the air con of the museum ahead.

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Like most of the museums in New Orleans, the Museum of Art is big enough without being too big. It’s not one of those labyrinthine monstrosities like the Louvre or the Victoria & Albert, where you have to prioritize what exhibits you like best. How long you spend here more or less depends on your interest in the pieces themselves. I decided to take my time and try to think about the pieces I found most striking. My interest in art has massively increased this year. I’m Pinteresting the shit out of my favorite Renoir paintings, I’m watching Youtube videos on the meaning of Edward Hopper’s work, and my appreciation for modern art forms has grown exponentially. My favorite exhibit in the museum was that devoted to the Storyville Photographs, a haunting series of portraits taken by John Bellocq in the 1910s of the city’s famous red light district. In many of the Storyville Photographs, the faces of the nude prostitutes have been scraped out, and in others, the women are wearing masks. It remains a mystery why exactly the faces were obscured, and whether it was Bellocq himself or someone else.

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Upon leaving the museum, I walked the short distance across the canal bridge to my next stop: the Sydney & Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. I liked the sculptures on show here; there was something twisted and macabre about them that made me think that each one revealed some kind of repressed trauma on the part of its creator. The giant spiders looked like Castlevania bosses before the textures had been added in. There was one statue of a man smiling as birds pecked away at his skin, eating him alive. I saw what looked like a torii gate with a Japanese guy hanging upside down which disturbed me to no end. And the horse skeleton fashioned out of gnarled branches was suitably reminiscent of the zombified horse the Night King rides upon. Even though I’m more interested in paintings than sculptures, I couldn’t help but feel that the latter was the more powerful medium. If I wanted to convey something that would ignite a discussion, I think I would hire a sculptor before a painter. I think the way sculptures are right there in front of us, existing among us, instead of hanging on a wall, makes them really striking and expressive. It seems less passive and more demanding of one’s attention.

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I left the garden and went south, feeling now quite parched. I ended up at the Morning Call coffeehouse where I got myself a Powerade and some shaved ice. I then continued south, going past the bandstand and over another canal bridge to the Historic Oak Grove. There I walked in solitude beneath a canopy of Spanish Moss, admiring the dramatic, spiderlike growths of the live oaks. I stopped briefly at Goldfish Island before crossing the canal and going north again.

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My next destination was the New Orleans Botanical Gardens. The gardens here are lovely, with sections that reflect both the English desire to illuminate the wild beauty of nature and the French philosophy of ordering it into geometric symmetry. There were fountains, statues of lovers fondling each other in bushes, bamboo groves, and a greenhouse full of cacti. The garden was awesome, and as I stood before the range of bright flower-heads, I thought to myself that even the most beautiful painting would fall short of the splendor of nature. Gardens are an interesting form of art, for the reason that they are neither wholly natural nor wholly man-made. A garden is the intersection between the floral world and the human mind. They represent the unique ego of our species, which attempts to remake the world according to our desires. Even the English gardening style, which celebrates the randomness of nature, is built around framing certain aspects of it according to the vision of the gardener.

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At this point I had grown tired. I wanted to see more of City Park but I wasn’t sure what else to do. I was very hungry and couldn’t see any restaurants in the vicinity. I knew that the park continued northwards, stretching all the way from Mid-Town to Lake Pontchartrain, but I didn’t see anyone heading that way, nor any clear path there. The green fields and live oaks just seemed to go on forever. Unsure, I walked north, abandoning the sidewalk and continuing across the grass. The ground beneath my foot was hard and dusty and I got stones in my sandals. I reached an empty, quiet road through the park that went past a deserted stadium. I kept going, hoping to stumble across another attraction, but there was nothing in sight. I was moving away from the touristy areas. Eventually I said screw it and headed back to the museum, where I stumbled upon the Zemurray Trail that loops around Big Lake toward the streetcar stop. It was at that moment I thought to myself: Big Lake? City Park? Who named these places, an accounting intern dying of boredom?

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While on the streetcar I identified a spot for lunch on Canal Street. The Palace Café is a famous restaurant in a three-story, high-ceilinged building. I went up to the second floor and got my lunch at the bar. The service was impeccable and the Shrimp Tchefuncte I ordered was delicious- but a little pricey. Whenever I enter an upscale place like this I feel both curious and uneasy. The bar specializes in rum and the shelves of rum go all the way around the wall. It’s amazing. As I ate my bread pudding for dessert, a middle-aged man that seemed a little tipsy came over and sat down a few stools adjacent to me. He asked the bartender for his recommendation. The bartender served him a glass of highly expensive rum. The man said he was a “scotch guy”, and never really drank rum, but that this rum was the best he ever had. They then had a lively conversation about how rum was making a huge comeback in the world of spirits. The man then told the bartender that he was from Baltimore, and asked if he had seen The Wire. He said that the city was undergoing some redevelopment, and that he was involved in buying up cheap real estate in the ghetto which was in the process of skyrocketing in value. I listened with keen interest, before finally paying my bill and leaving the opulence of the Palace Café behind.

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