Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Questions of Travel

I just finished Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop's 1965 collection of poems. It's a gorgeous book, with pieces on her time in Brazil and elsewhere. I particularly loved the first three poems in the book, "Arrival at Santos," "Brazil, January 1, 1502" and "Questions of Travel," so even if you don't read the whole book, do yourself a favor and at least take in those three pieces. I've chosen to reprint "Questions of Travel" here because the book draws its title from it and because it seems to be the piece with the widest base. In addition to being a meticulous poem, I think it really takes the heart of travel and tears it out in a beautiful way.

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
—For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
—Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
—A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
—Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there...No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"

Thursday, March 11, 2010

And All That Jazz (March 19, 2009)

Yesterday morning was a leisurely one, and we barely left bed, let alone the hotel room, until 11am. We started the day with a walk along the river before lunch at Central Grocery. Turns out that I like Muffuletta a lot for the first quarter of a sandwich, and then not very much for the second quarter. Roger, it turns out, doesn't like olives or salami, so it's really not his bag. We both really liked the bread, though, and the Zapp's potato chips that we had with it.

After walking around a tiny bit more, we hopped on a streetcar and headed to the New Orleans Museum of Art, which was smaller than we expected and overly airconditioned for a girl in a sundress. They devoted their entire third floor to art of Africa, Asia and the Americas, almost a third of their collection, and that was impressive to me, and I thought their contemporary art section was well-stocked, considering how not well-stocked their other forms were. I really should have liked the museum much more than I did, and I'm willing to believe that if I had a sweater, I would have. Roger's really the art person in this relationship, so we'd have to ask his opinion for a really good small review. Unfortunately, he's asleep. He sleeps a lot.

The museum also has a fantastic sculpture garden, which is enormous and filled with lizards and free and overall a great time. My two favorites were one of oversized glass bead necklaces in a tree, and one by Allison Saar called "Travelin' Light." It was warm and lovely, and we had a great time there. Such a great time, in fact, that they closed us into it, and the guard missed us on his rounds to clear out the place. We walked into the main entrance just as he was about to leave. Roger said, "Wouldn't it have been cool to get locked in over night?" and I said, "It would have been until all the lizards banded together to eat us."

We took the streetcar back and hung around the hotel for a little while longer (it's getting near the end of the trip and we're tired), before heading out to Preservation Hall, which I thought was endlessly cool, and which Roger noted was filled with white people who, like ourselves, probably know nothing about jazz. In any event, it's a grungy little hall that was packed for the first two rounds, and emptied out on the third (Roger and I stood outside for the first, inside for the second, and sat for the third), which was nothing at all like what I was expecting, but fun nonetheless. We saw Carl LeBlanc and the Essential N.O. Jazz Band, who were fantastic and personable. LeBlanc apparently went to Columbia, so between sets, he took some photos with a group of kids who were there from the school and chatted him up. Although there were really only white people there, and I'm sure that all of them were tourists, it was great to be in a place with such a wide variety of ages, from college students to senior citizens. I'm really no good at judging music (or anything, really, except books), but it seemed like everyone there was having a great time, and I'm all about that.

After that, we strolled around Bourbon Street again, eating a Lucky Dog, which is, I swear, the food of the gods (if a little pricey for a hot dog) and drinking some cheap beer. We rolled into a Voo Doo shop, which the 13-year-old in me it totally digging, and then headed back in for the night.

Today: the National Voo Doo Museum and the St. Louis Cemetery 1.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Big Easy (March 18, 2009)

Given the spontaneous nature of this trip, we had no plans for our first day in our destination, so we decided to take things as they came and planned a long, long walk. We started our day at the Cafe du Monde, which serves only coffee and beignets, which makes the perfect breakfast for a day of walking, because the coffee was fantastic (I didn't even use sugar until the beignets ran out) and came in a to-go cup when you ordered the large, and the beignets were covered in half a box of confectioner's sugar. The service was slow, but if I was more laid-back, I would have thought, Isn't it wonderful to sit here and relax while we wait for our server to take our order?, and the waitress did apologize profusely and tell us that it was a "very busy morning, Spring Break."

After that, we decided to walk along Magazine Street to the Garden District. We ended up walking straight past the Garden District, about two and a half miles from the French Quarter, to Casamento's, a good little hole in the wall, with awesome tile floors and really, really delicious oyster loaf. The kitchen is wide open, and you walk through it to get to the bathrooms, which I really appreciated, and the staff was ultra friendly. The walk along Magazine Street, although it left us with very sore legs (and me with a hurt ankle), was enjoyable, and we saw a lot of nice houses and many antique shops. I almost bought a fur stole, and now I'm a little sad that I didn't.

My biggest disappointment while we were walking was that we weren't seeing the Garden District (for some reason, I'd imagined a bunch of houses around a quad, and on Magazine Street, there are mostly just a lot of little shops), and this was alleviated when Roger and I walked over to St. Charles Street, and took the St. Charles Street Trolley, basically the highlight of our lives. Not only did we not have to walk two and a half miles back on our hurting feet, we actually got to see some lovely houses and those gorgeous trees with the Spanish moss hanging off them (what are those called?), which made me much happier than the shops on Magazine Street. And, the streetcar had open windows and there was a lovely breeze. It was great. When we arrived back in the French Quarter, we did a little bit of shopping (best shop: Fleur de Paris, a little hat shop that had tons of adorable cocktail hats for about $500 each) and Roger thought we should cut across a little alley way on our way over to the riverfront.

This was the greatest thing ever, because that little alley way was
Pirate Alley, one time home of - WILLIAM FAULKNER! Little did I know that though we missed Rowan Oaks (in case you couldn't tell, this was pretty much an enormous disaster to me), we would be able to see the apartment where he wrote his first novel. Apparently, you can sometimes smell Faulkner's pipe smoke in the bookstore, because the house is haunted. I also looked around the back parlor, which said private, because I think the bookstore owner lives there. It's an epic apartment. For an epic trip. This has been the highlight of my trip so far (the National Civil Rights Museum comes in with a very close second). I don't know what the highlight of Roger's trip has been, because he's still asleep.

We went back to the hotel and rested for a while, and then decided not to eat dinner to save money. We went instead to Gumbo Shop for bread pudding. It was pretty good, but I guess their gumbo was probably better. I really love gumbo. After that, we decided to get drinks on Bourbon Street, which is definitely like a big Disney World frat party. I had a mango daiquiri, which was fantastic and had a fair amount of alcohol in it, and Roger had a Blue Moon, and it was great to be able to enjoy them outside, where it was warm, and filled with people dressed up for St. Patrick's Day. Then, while we were walking around doing not a whole lot of anything, we heard sirens, and suddenly (spontaneously?) we saw this line of dragsters that we'd seen driving around all day. Each time we saw them, it got a little more surreal, and this last time, with the police closing off the street, really topped it. Turns out they were opening the St. Patrick's Day parade, where lots of people stood on floats and handed out green beads. Roger commented that most of the debutantes were heavier, something that interested me, as well. I'm interested in Southern culture in the same way I'm interested in all things exotic. Overall, it was a good time, and we even got some beads. (Did you know that the original beads thrown in the 1920s were glass? You can buy necklaces made out of them now, and they're quite lovely.)

A good day, overall. Today, the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Faulkner House

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sur La Route (March 15, 2009)

I realized that it's been almost exactly one year since I went on my first long-distance roadtrip, and so I'm posting my notes from that this week. It was a trip to New Orleans with stopovers in Memphis and Washington, and we had a blast, so I think it warrants reposting.

March 15, 2009 -
Roger and I drove 18 hours yesterday, through ten states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee) yesterday, and finally arrived in Memphis at 2am (1am Memphis time). The drive was exhausting, yet exhilarating (Roger), and taught us the value of new American cities (Kristin). Our first interesting sight was a horse-drawn buggy with Amish people somewhere in Pennsylvania, a few miles away from the Roadside America. We didn't stop at Roadside America, or at the World's Largest Big Mac, because it turns out that Memphis is actually 18.5 hours away, not 14, so we were in a bit of a rush. I think I'd like to do the drive again, maybe with Rowan Oak as a destination (because it's closed on Monday, which is tomorrow, when we pass it, and I'm a little heartbroken), and taking some more time to make the drive and see more than just fields on the little highways we took.

Passing Cincinnati was my personal first experience with a really new-looking city, and I liked it a bit. It was interesting to me to see that, compared with New York and Philadelphia and all the other really old or really run-down cities I've seen. It seemed full of possibilities and so far, this trip has really made me consider the idea of getting the hell out of New York and out of the New York centric publishing world. We stopped at Big R's Barbeque in La Grange, KY. We wouldn't recommend the restaurant, and we should have gone to Cracker Barrel instead (Roger), but the town was really sweet, and had the added bonus of having a train run directly along Main Street, which was awesome to see. (I should note that Roger, my travelblogue partner, and, if you're really thick, lover, has fallen asleep, thus ruining my latest blog experiment, partner-blogging, and meaning that from here on out, this is more of a Small Review than a Joint TravelBlogue, from my perspective.) Again, we were four hours behind schedule, and rushed out of town to get back in the car. The rest of the trip to Memphis was uneventful, and eventually, dark. Roger and I bickered about music (we listened to Lily Allen's It's Not Me, It's You four times yesterday, and Lady Gaga's album twice, and when I drove, I wanted to change the XM radio over and over, or just listen to 50s on 5), bad habits (my sniffling all the time instead of blowing my nose and his chewing on his fingers) and driving (neither one of us is very good at it), and finally arrived safely at Kings Court Motel early this morning. The hotel itself has a great location, and is totally clean, so I'm deeply impressed.

Today we slept late (7:45am for me, 9:30am for Roger) and spent the morning at Graceland, which was bizarre. I think Roger and I both agreed that Elvis had really, really poor decorating tastes, although we loved his pool room, which featured folded cloth all over. We thought that the cleaning, if done up in wax print, might look nice in a library. We ate lunch at Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, which was really very good. It's unassuming and delicious, and we would never have stumbled upon it if we hadn't read about it earlier today. I'd recommend getting the potato salad instead of fries. (Just FYI, we're eating dinner at Dyer's. Deep fried burgers? Hell yes. Oh my god, worst vegetarian ever.) After that, we checked out the National Civil Rights Museum. It was an excellently planned museum, located inside the Lorraine Hotel, and in the boarding house across the street. It was accessible, but very thorough, with a variety of interactive exhibits. I was impressed with an exhibit giving evidence and arguments for three different investigations and conclusions in the murder of Dr. King, with the instructions to "decide for yourself." Our only complaint (Roger is awake now, and telling me his hands are asleep and feel like jelly) was that it only covers black rights, which is hugely important, but not necessarily the only civil rights struggle that could have been covered.

Tomorrow, we take New Orleans.

Gus's World Famous Chicken