Tag Archives: Personal

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!

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My Year in Review: 2018

At the stroke of midnight 2018 will be gone forever, and there will be no time left to improve upon it or add to its legacy. Except not really. In Houston, Texas it will still be 2018 for 6 whole hours- which is enough time to read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, persuade the neighborhood kids to whitewash your fence, make muffins with that special someone (and making muffins only takes 10 seconds, right?), annex the Sudetenland, and still have a few minutes to spare to get unceremoniously killed by a tortoise dropped from the talons of an eagle. But no one’s that productive of course. If it weren’t the last six hours of the year it wouldn’t even occur to you to do all those things. Take any six hour period from an average day and you’ll probably see me slouched in my computer chair, tearfully stuffing Jaffa Cakes into my gob and praying for a swift heart attack. And let us not forget- when the clock strikes twelve it will have already been 2019 for six hours in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. At the same time everyone here will be counting down the last 10 seconds of the year against a backdrop of spilled beer, horrible music, and none-too-furtive muffin-making, the sun will be rising quietly over the Tian Shan mountains. I don’t know what the Kyrgyzstani translation for “New Year, New Me!” is, but I imagine that when they look up at the first clear sky of the year the novelty is already wearing off. Maybe they think about how each year seems to go by quicker than the last, or how today feels an awful lot like yesterday. Or maybe they think nothing at all.

After all, what is a year really? I guess I tend to think of a year as being its events. I think of it in terms of the decisions I made, for better or for worse. But once those events are over- and a fresh calendar is stapled to the wall- do they really mean anything? I’m so often given to reflecting on a year as a whole, and assessing the decisions therein. I don’t think events can ever really be lost, because even though they may have concluded, the consequences inform our present circumstances. For instance, my decision to eat that tube of Pringles two weeks ago had the consequence of me suffering an ulcer the size of Fort Worth. Mouth ulcers pass, but the event still exists in the present. If I continue to engorge myself on junk food, I’m not going to be able to see me ol’ gigglestick when I’m in the shower (it’s already disappearing from view). Maybe- just maybe– time is like a flat circle, and the past, present, and future all exist within the same space. Everything that’s going to happen has already happened, and everything that’s happened will happen again ad infinitum. The beginning and the end meet each other like a serpent of myth that bites its own tail. It will always be 2018 while simultaneously not being 2018. Or maybe I’ve lost it.

So what have I done with 2018? What decisions did I make? And what will last? In preparation for this piece I took a look back at My Year in Review: 2017. It definitely reads like a story, as though it is a single journal entry in a diary of my life. I find that idea very appealing- it would be great to look back in 50 years at 50 Year in Review posts, assuming I’m still writing when I’m 76. I love preserving memories in as much detail as possible, so for what it is worth, here’s my story of 2018.

When I think of 2018 I think of temping, dog-sitting, and solo travel. I worked in the recycling department of a warehouse where we dismantled outdated computer hardware. It was my first job working with tools, so I did a lot of new things. My most vivid memory is unloading a truck full of scrap metal. It was June, aggressively hot outside, and at the back of the truck were a load of metal doors that had been stripped from old server bays, each bay bigger than a fridge. There had to be about 300 in total, too tightly stacked for the forklift to get under. So we asked the truck driver to park as close to the skip as possible, and just like a conveyor line, me and two other guys launched these doors one by one into the skip as if we were throwing javelins. I’ve never had to call upon my upper body muscles like that. By the end I felt as if my arms would fall off. Someone came along and said “It’s the Tale of the Never-Ending Doors!” which is how I always think of it.

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Throughout the year I’ve used the money I’ve made from temp jobs like this to go traveling by myself. My first experience of solo travel was a week-long trip to Hungary, where my confidence in myself grew immeasurably. I discovered I love being in my own company, and that I want to spend all my time seeing new places and cultures. I tried to do as much as possible, going to thermal bathhouses every day, touring museums, going to concerts, taking a dinner-cruise, and even visiting a nightclub!

I also took a weekend trip to Ireland to see my friends George and Elizabeth. We barbecued sausages at their lakeside cottage and followed in the steps of faeries. When I left the warehouse, I decided last-minute to take another solo trip- this time to New Orleans in the USA. I stayed there for a week, drinking Hurricanes, making excursions to the bayou, and sitting front-row at a raunchy striptease burlesque.

When the week was over, I took a train south to Houston. The month I spent living in Texas was among the happiest periods of my life. When I look back on it I think of going down to the park in the morning to eat brisket tacos at the food trucks. I think of J. Cole and the podcast Sh*t Town playing as we drive down the freeway. I think of evenings sitting on the floor playing Super Mario Strikers while necking martinis. I think of all the snuggles with our puppy Adelaide, and the time she tried to hide in my lap when her parents told her off for being sassy. I think of Brandless and Netflix. I think of the time we tried on our wedding suits, or the time we were grilling brats on the deck and it started raining. Watching all the thunderstorms outside the window at night.

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In September Aaron and Anne-Marie got married in Wisconsin. Their wedding was my favorite memory of the year. I got to be a groomsman and I even gave a speech at the rehearsal dinner- though I was somewhat inebriated so I don’t remember much of what I said. Something sappy probably. Aaron was the definition of a debonair gentleman and didn’t seem nervous at all. Anne-Marie was the most beautiful girl I have ever seen, holding herself with such an elegant sense of poise and posture. The two slow-danced to “Clouds” by Letters and Lights, and I was happy.

In 2018 I also managed to write a novel and almost finish a second one. I’m on the last two chapters of the second one at the moment. In December I went back to work at the pub I was at before my time at the warehouse. My year came full circle in that way. It was hectic during the Christmas period, but I made new friendships. I also made garlic bread and stuffing balls, when asked. One time I cut my finger open on a cracked ceramic bowl that fell from a shelf and blood sprayed everywhere. My friend Dan said it looked like a horror movie, with the amount of blood covering the floor. I knew instantly that it was the deepest cut I had ever had.

So that’s the story of my year. On the whole it’s been good, but I’ve yet to exercise control over my emotions. I started the year on 40mg antidepressant tablets, tried going down to 20mg, but by the end decided to go back up to 40mg. I learned that my journey is far from over and that progress isn’t always linear. My overall feeling is that it was good- but only reaching the heights of fucking fantastic in isolated spikes. And really, that ain’t too bad.

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 #7

As I stated in my previous post, I was anxious not to waste any time in this city overflowing with creative inspiration. When traveling solo- especially staying in a city for five days- you have to make your own fun. Even in a place as rich and exciting as New Orleans- you have to investigate what’s on offer and do a little research about how best to spend your time there.

I woke on my second day in the Big Easy from a peaceful sleep undisturbed by Bourbon Street belchers, Halloweeny pranksters, or glass-shattering Creole orgasms. Saturday, August 4th. The only day of my trip I had anything booked. A swamp tour in the afternoon and some raunchy nightlife entertainment in the evening. However, the spaces in between these engagements grew suddenly large in my mind.

I had time to fill, and I sure as heck wasn’t gonna spend it in my hotel room chipping away at the “Sith Triumvirate Raid” on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes. My tour didn’t start until noon, and with three hours to kill I decided to go for a walk. I had heard that the 19th century Creole mansions of Esplanade Avenue were a hidden treasure. I set off with my camera, relishing the opportunity to photograph this scenic, quiet part of the city.

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I’d barely walked three blocks however, when it started raining. And when it rains in the Big Easy, oh boy does it pour. I placed my camera back in my bag and continued walking. I reached Esplanade and caught a glimpse of the colorful mansions through the steel threads that poured from the sky. It wasn’t what I had planned. I love rain for its ambience and its poetry, but this time I was bummed out. What a lousy morning, I said to myself. I kept going down the deserted street, maintaining a watchful eye on the truck that had slowly driven past me twice, my mind recalling all sorts of sinister things from my days binge-watching Crime Investigation Australia.

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I turned right on Decatur Street and headed back into the Quarter. I was looking for a place called Crescent Park, and at the time I wasn’t sure where I was in relation to the Mississippi River. Hopefully when I reached this green place the rain will have stopped and I could have some photographs to show for my excursion. The rain didn’t let up, however. If anything, it only got more furious. I stood for a while on a street corner, under shelter, reviewing my map. The edges of the roads were beginning to flood, and the rain was so violent that every pedestrian stopped walking and took shelter. It was like Antony Hopkins had told us to “freeze all motor functions” while he tried to fix this rain glitch in our simulation. The proprietors of the stores we stood outside- a mix of souvenir shopkeepers and Italian bakers- came out to join us, standing with hands on hips.

My eye caught sight of a café across the road and I made a snap decision to sit down and have a drink while I waited for the rain to die down. I think it was called The Market Café. It had an outdoor patio that was covered. People sat eating brunch at bistro tables while a live Jazz band attempted to drown out the thumping of the rain. A waiter smiled at me as I approached. He sat me down at one of the tables and asked what I wanted.

This is one of those situations where I ought to be less self-conscious and more assertive. I’ve been told I care too much what people think, and that I should stop apologizing for myself everywhere I go. I asked the waiter if I could just sit here and have a drink. His expression instantly became hostile and he stared at me. I asked if that was okay.

“Can I just get a drink and sit here?” I said.

“It’s a restaurant,” he said, like I was stupid. He frowned at me as if I had insulted him.

“I mean, I can go if you don’t do that,” I said, half-rising from my chair.

“It’s raining,” he said. And then, through gritted teeth, “What do you want to drink?”

I got a Coke. When he brought it to me, I smiled at him and said thanks- a peace offering to make up for my awkwardness. Still wearing his angry expression, he ignored me and placed the cola on my table without a word. I got out my map and checked how far I was from the park. City parks are good for solo travelers. City parks, botanical gardens, museums, and art galleries are the solo traveler’s best friends; they offer a sanctuary free from social pressure and expectation. They are places of contemplation and self-reflection, which is what traveling solo is all about. They are the opposite of amusement parks, which I think would be kind of depressing to attend unaccompanied. After paying for my thankless business, I braved the deluge again and set off north.

Eventually, I found the perfect solution to my current situation and the thing that made this whole walk not feel like such a waste of fucking time- a covered flea market. I’d heard about this place before. French Market. It spans six blocks, and it’s the oldest market of its kind in the United States. In fact, it predates even the arrival of the European settlers, the site having been used as a Native American trading post centuries ago.

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I love flea markets. I passed several vendors selling traditional Cajun dishes- if you’re hankering for a hushpuppy, a basket of gator bites, or perhaps some fresh crawfish, this is the spot for you. I took a seat on one of the stools and asked for some fried green tomatoes. I wasn’t hungry enough yet for lunch, and I had always wanted to try this Alabaman specialty. I figured it was a rite of passage for my journey into American regional foods.

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To be honest, I didn’t really care for them. They’re just deep fried tomatoes with none of the sweetness that comes with the red variety I’m more familiar with. I made an effort to finish them, saying to myself: for the blog, Michael. For the blog.

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I continued to wander north throughout the market. There were all kinds of handcrafted trinkets and goods. And a lot of interesting jewelry and other crafts. I don’t wear jewelry myself, but I’m fascinated by gemstones. There’s just something so incomparably wondrous about the rapture of staring into a sapphire, ruby, or emerald. I stopped to admire a collection of bracelets and necklaces. I decided to get one as a graduation present for the woman I call my sister- Anne-Marie- who had just recently gotten her Masters in Behavior Analysis. Not only had she graduated from the top school in the nation for that field, but she was also now a published author, having submitted an article to one of the most prestigious academic journals in said field. Anne-Marie conducts groundbreaking research into human behavior (with a specific focus on children with autism) and teachers and parents travel to watch her speak and learn from her breakthroughs. It’s very exciting stuff, and I figured she might like something nice to accessorize with during the many speeches and conferences that surely await her in the future. The bracelet I picked out was lined with rich blue gemstones, and it’s one of the colors she wears well. It’s a color I associate with her; it’s kind and warm but there’s also an oceanic depth to it that connotes knowledge and wisdom.

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I continued through the market and crossed the road, finding myself at a set of train tracks. The park ought to be right here, I thought to myself. But there were no trees or gazeboes in sight. Just boxcars and warehouses. I kept going north, staying as close to the Mississippi as I could, but walled off from its familiar splendor by the railyard. I came to a long stretch of grass lined with pylons. There was no one around whatsoever. A sign told me I was in Crescent Park. But all I could see was a lawn, a few bushes, and industrial buildings all around. Warehouses, factories, power substations. So I turned around and made back for the hotel. It wasn’t the start I hoped for on this action-packed Saturday I had in mind- but that was okay, because the best was yet to come…

The Crescent City Diaries #1

Right now I’m sat in bed drinking coffee and scarfing down the complimentary croissants Dominique brings to my room. There’s a pitter-patter of rain on the exterior corridor and a leak that drops down from the vent above my bed. I’m wondering how to describe New Orleans.

I’m here for a week before I get the train down to Houston to reunite with my American roommates before they get married. Flying to the USA ain’t cheap, and I’m not sure how many opportunities like this remain in my lifetime. So I decided to follow up my April solo trip to Budapest with another city I’ve always wanted to see- Louisiana’s New Orleans.

I’ve been lucky over the years to visit several interesting and beautiful cities in this country. My favorites are Savannah, GA, Galveston, TX, San Francisco, CA, and Kansas City, MO. Each of these cities inflame my creativity. They are all places I’d like to return to, just to do some writing, photography, people-watching, and to connect with local artists.

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After spending a few days in the Big Easy however, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no place even remotely like it. I’m not saying it’s the best or the most beautiful, and I’m not sure I could live here- but nothing comes close to approaching the sheer uniqueness of New Orleans. It is without a doubt the strangest place I have ever visited. It’s flamboyant, vibrant, expressive, surreal, crazy, and outrageously decadent. But reducing the city to a mere string of adjectives would be to do it a great disservice.

I’m still thinking of how best to sum up this city on the basis of my visit. I want to get as close as possible to the heartbeat of the Big Easy and its people; I want to refine it as best as I can and say “This! This is what makes it tick!”. So I’m going to do a series of short blog posts, that will be like diary entries chronicling my search for these nascent truths. I think that’s the best way to do it, to give a running narration of my impressions as they are in flux.

The first New Orleanian I met was Leroy- the night shift receptionist on the hotel’s front desk. He was slouched back in his chair, his tie hanging loose, in a pose I immediately started to think quintessentially representative of the French Quarter. He asked what brought me to the Big Easy and I said I just always wanted to see it. He chuckled and said “You just wanted to join the party, yes boss.”

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That’s it. It’s one big never-ending party. It’s a city that probably shouldn’t exist, that perseveres in the wake of relentless tragedy, and which will probably be underwater by the end of the century. And the response is fascinating. The party only gets louder and more wild. The roads of the French Quarter are covered in potholes, and the whole place seems in a constant state of repair. It’s like a big ocean liner slowly sinking, and the response, as I said, of its occupants, is to get out the trombones and the saxophanes. The city will keep the party going until it’s vanquished forever, and I can’t help but think there is a poetry to that; I’m inclined to believe that the city’s artistry is in some way related to its expiry date.

It’s a place that’s stranger still for someone like me that’s shy and socially anxious. It’s a place that’s bursting with color and overflowing with artistic talent. Everyone here is dancing to a beat of some kind. And I never know quite how to act when I’m at a party. I’m the guy that stands in the corner watching the other guy take home the girl I didn’t have the courage to talk to. So I’m unsure of what to do with myself in a place like Bourbon Street- a location so rowdy and bizarre that it makes the Mos Eisley cantina look like a data entry office floor in Swindon.

The hotel I’m at has a lot of character. It’s old and wooden and rickety. It’s not neat and fancy. But it gets endless personality from its creaky floorboards and Creole-style courtyard. The walls aren’t soundproof at all. At about 3am on my first night I woke up due to some Bourbon Street revelers congregated in the courtyard below. Their conversation died down, and I heard a woman say “Wait…what’s that?”

Then she started screaming hysterically. I was bolt upright at this point. She screamed in such a way that you can only associate it with visceral trauma. It was a scream that was in response to something witnessed. I didn’t know what, but I honestly expected to hear gunshots. My heart stopped and- it seems silly to admit this now- I was honestly weighing up where to hide. However no mad gunman emerged. The silence was followed by raucous laughter, and I heard a guy outside my door say “Are y’all going around as ghosts?”

The woman said “Oh my God, I HATE you.”

More laughter. New Orleans has a thing for the freakish and the macabre. I’m guessing these folks were returning from one of the popular haunted tours. I’m not even trying to be dramatic, but it took a while for my breathing to cool down. Before I was able to get back to sleep, an altogether different sound entered my room. Moaning. It came from the room beneath me. The woman’s moans grew louder, so loud that the cause was unmistakable. Whoever she was, she didn’t give a dang who was listening. The sound of her pleasure was so emphatic that I couldn’t have been given a clearer impression of her lovemaking session unless I was taking part. I kid you not, this lasted for 30 minutes. I checked my phone to see how long I was being kept awake. I was so close to this raunchy liaison that I felt embarrassed. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that I should perhaps leave. I was hearing something I wasn’t supposed to.

But that might just be my Church of England upbringing. I then started to add this experience to my impression of the French Quarter as a place. Carefree. Passionate. Wild. Uninhibited. Like I said, it’s one big party here. Everyone just lets it out and lays bare their desires. And so the lovemaking just stands alongside the trumpets of the jazz bands, the singing of the buskers, the gyrating legs and hips of the burlesque dancers, the painters’ brush strokes, the museum curators’ stories, the poetry slams, the mime artists, and all the rest of it. It really is no different. So I said to myself, “Welcome to New Orleans!” and drifted off to sleep.

Reassessing My 2018 Resolutions

With my Hungarian series concluded, I’d like to write a post reflecting on how 2018 has gone so far. In my New Year’s Resolution post I outlined some targets I wanted to hit: finish writing 2 novels and develop my sense of self-sufficiency. I’m continually searching for creative and mental satisfaction- they have always seemed like the twin pillars upon which my life is built. One’s about actualizing what isn’t here and the other’s about repairing what is. Succeed in both and I guess I’m whole. As long as I stay inspired and stress-free, I’ll keep the black tentacles of depression at bay.

As I look back on the Spring of this year, I can’t help but feel it’s the importance I place on these two targets that’s part of the problem. My tendency to perceive a year in my life as having a narrative. As the weeks go by I’ve felt the weight of the pressure I’ve put on myself grow heavier. I’ve been stressed. And when I say I’m stressed, I don’t mean that my life is stressful; I’m not referring to exterior stressors like inflated gas bills, vindictive ex-spouses, or inheritance feuds. My stress comes from within. It’s derived from my own sense of failure in relation to my progress. I’ve attached a great importance to 2018 as being a year in which I can look back upon as having some kind of legacy. So far I have mixed feelings about the whole business, and therefore mixed feelings about 2018.

I am making progress. My dissatisfaction is with the pace of my progress. I’m hungry for results. As it stands, my novel is at about 50,000 words, with about another 15-20k to go. I just can’t help but think that I should have finished the darned thing a couple months ago. The issue is not that the novel is going slow (since I have all the chapters mapped out), but that I’ve been struggling to allocate time for it. Things were a lot easier when I worked at the pub. My new job at the warehouse brings in more money, but it’s at the expense of my writing time. It means that I have to go hard on my weekends, and so my sense of rhythm is lost during the week. It’s a stop-and-start writing experience at the moment, as opposed to something that flows from one day into the next. I should be doing a better job of getting some writing done in the evenings after work. That’s the discipline I’m trying to strengthen. I always get some done- usually for the blog- but not as much as I could. I end up getting distracted by things like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes or the Ricky Gervais Show.

Reading is another thing that stresses me out a lot. I haven’t been getting as much reading done recently because I’m worrying about the blog and the novel. But reading and writing have a natural synergy, and when one is neglected the other suffers. I think a lot of my worries relate to speed to be honest. Not so much the absence of progress as the rate of it. Wishing there were more hours in the day.

I’m confident of finishing the current novel and the next one by the end of 2018, and I do think that my reading will pick up too. But will I be happy and fulfilled by the end of the year? Will something still feel missing in my life? Reading and writing are tangible, measurable goals. But the more abstract resolution I made about improving my mental health is harder to assess. I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety recently, and I’ve been disappointed that it can still crush me like it did when things were really bad (the pre-medication era). I thought I was getting better at keeping my emotions in check and not collapsing under the pressure of a mood swing, but lately I have felt exceedingly weak.

But it’s not all been bad. Sure, I’ve had the odd panic attack, and I’ve been frustrated with my writing efficiency. However other stressors have gone away. Socially and creatively, it’s been a very good Spring. I’ve been inspired, I’ve traveled, and I’ve felt more capable and relaxed in social situations. I’ve gotten out more, I’ve interacted with more people, and I’ve tried new things. I’ve experienced a wonderful harmony between being sociable and being independent. I’ve taken the train to London to watch Chelsea games with my friend from Winchester, I’ve flown to Ireland to see Elizabeth & George, and I’ve reconnected with a school buddy at work that I previously didn’t get to see that much. It’s been nice to hang out with different friends from different places, and feel like my relationships with them are in good health. And yet I feel like I’ve grown as an individual. I’ve taken the time to prioritize myself and my own needs. I have been extremely comfortable in my own company, and it’s an awesome feeling. Going to Hungary turned out to be a massive success, and I loved that I could enjoy being a lone wolf like that.

And my new job, though physically demanding and long hours, is exactly the kind of challenge I need. I need to have my freedom taken away and to be pushed to the limits of my energy in order to become the best writer I can be. Through struggle comes growth, right? I have this belief that the more my conditions for writing are handicapped, the better at the craft I will become. If I was free all the time, with nothing to distract me from writing, I don’t think I would be a very good writer. My hope is that ultimately I will be able to balance my writing life with my work life more effectively, and feel that I am at maximum exuberance. I want to make every hour of my free time count, and not let it drift away into nothingness as it has in the past.

In conclusion, my year thus far has been mixed. There’s a lot I’m happy with and a lot I’m unhappy with. My plan now is focusing on balancing all the things that are important, and not letting any one aspect of my life start to rot.

Exploring Szentendre Part 1

When I came to Budapest, I knew that I wanted to make at least one excursion outside the city. I’d already taken the train to the Roman ruins of Acquincum, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to see the countryside. I wanted a taste of the hinterlands, where life was slow and you could smell fresh horse manure wafting from the pastures.

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Szentendre was the perfect choice for a day’s trip out of Budapest. It’s a little Baroque village north of the capital, on what’s known as the Danube Bend- where the river meanders a little north and then sharply south, cushioned on either side by rolling hills. The name is derived from its association with Saint Andrew (Sankt Andrae in Medieval Latin and Szent Endre in Magyar).

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Already confident with using the HEV, I hopped aboard at Margit Hid with an instant black coffee in one hand and my cell phone opened to Tinder in the other. As I sat caffeinating myself and messaging a local girl named Marsci about hanging out and learning some Hungarian, the train rattled through Óbuda; we passed the site of Acquincum and I was now further than I had been before. I looked out the window at these big tenement blocks, no doubt constructed during the Soviet era. The facades had been painted over with bright colors, and it seemed to me to be some kind of reclamation. Those big Soviet buildings always seem so bleak, but nonetheless fascinating, and seeing them infused with some brightness made me happy.

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The apartment buildings gave way to trees, I looked down to read Marsci’s latest message, and before I knew it I was out in the gorgeous countryside I had for so long dreamt of seeing. Even inside the metro things were changing. There were fewer passengers, and those that remained seemed less stressed. A couple of middle-aged men got on, both of them carrying fishing poles, and I felt that I was crossing a barrier into the real Hungary. Even the weather had changed. It had been a little overcast in Budapest, but out here the clouds parted and the green valleys and fields were bathed in glorious sunshine.

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When I got off the HEV, I was a little disorientated as to where I was in relation to both the river and the rest of the town. This part of Szentendre didn’t look very touristy or Baroque. Everything was modern and functional. I decided to pick a direction and start walking. I had a vague sense of what was north, and crossed a busy road and went down a narrow footpath through the trees. When I emerged, I found the Szentendre you see in the postcards. Old, slightly run-down buildings and stone walls. A big church whose bell was ringing. Cobblestone streets. You could hear the running water of a brook and you could hear the birds. I realized, being out in the country like this, just how much sound is muffled and diluted by the city. There were plenty of people here enjoying the atmosphere, including large groups of schoolchildren. This seemed to be a big thing in Hungary. Everywhere I went- from Acquincum to Margitsziget to the House of Terror- there were school field trips.

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I wandered up Kossuth Lajos utca and hopped into the first museum I saw- the Ferenczy Museum. From the outside it looked to be an old building in keeping with the Renaissance vibe of the town- but on the inside it was super modern. As I stepped into the lobby, I wondered if this really was a museum. Perhaps the museum was in another wing of the building, I thought, and it shared floor space with a brokerage firm. There was no one else there, I had seen no one entering or leaving, and I approached a desk off to the side. The friendly woman there told me I was in fact in the right place, and gave me a map of the town. She circled three museums I ought to see, all of which I could access with the ticket I bought here. Pretty sweet deal I thought.

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The first exhibit I saw- and the one I fell in love with- was A csalók is álmodnak (Swinders Dream Too) by Éva Magyarósi. I was eager to find a contemporary Hungarian artist- someone young, someone actively working on their craft, and someone that produced something edgy and visceral. Éva Magyarósi ticked all those boxes, and the walls were full of TV screens that showed her animations. I put on the attached headphones and fell into the surreal, fantastic worlds she created. I can’t really compare her work with anything else, but there was something otherworldly about it that reminded me of the Franco-Czech animated film The Fantastic Planet (1973), as well as the work of Wayne Barlowe. The short films were an intriguing blend of poetry, pencil drawings, and animation, exploring themes of loneliness and femininity. The fact that it was Magyarósi’s voice reading the poems aloud really enhanced the feeling that I was being given direct access to her soul. My understanding of the Hungarian tongue can be charitably described as limited, but just by the tone of her voice I had a feel for the subject. I asked the curator if they had any of Éva Magyarósi’s books on sale but they didn’t. I’m still dying to get my hands on a copy of her work in book form.

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I took some photos and left, following the map to Fő tér. I stopped at many souvenir shops along the way. I wanted something authentic and handcrafted to buy as a birthday present for my friend Elizabeth. I told the storekeeper of one such shop the situation, and enquired about some traditional Hungarian scarves. She asked for Elizabeth’s hair and eye color. Brown and brown. She recommended red or green. I chose red, because Elizabeth is UW-Madison Badger. I asked if the material was Hungarian and the storekeeper said yes, then demonstrated for me the various ways Elizabeth could wear it. The scarf was adorned with flowers, and I had a good feeling my friend would like it. She likes scarves and she lives in Ireland, so I figured she would get some good use out of it. As I made the payment, I ended up chatting with the two storekeepers about some of the things I had learned about Hungary thus far. I name-dropped Ferenc Puskas again, and the man smiled. I asked if in Magyar, he would be called Puskas Ferenc. They confirmed this was true, and said they were impressed I knew about surnames coming first when speaking in Hungarian.

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I bade them farewell and decided to take one of the many narrow alleyways toward the river. So far, my day was off to a good start. I had tended to my artsy fartsy concerns- now I had to satisfy my belly…

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