The Gold Coast: The Millionth Time

August 16th, 2015

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The thing about Australia’s Gold Coast is that I have seen it before. Or I have not.

A long strip of city sprawling along the crooked edge of the ocean. One main drag. Shops selling fringed t-shirts. A Footlocker. Places where you can get tattoos and noodles and cheap haircuts. Motels, all ramshackle and neon, cooler than they realize. Two-story houses that open up onto the bright beach, onto sparkling ocean, and farther down, the skyscrapers. And also hospitality’s new guard, the rounded, shining double towers of Peppers Broadbeach, where I’m staying in a room with a wraparound balcony and an ice maker, perched at the top of the beachy universe.

There are little pockets of places where the enterprising youths see the coolness and run after it. There is street art, cafes serving banana bread and avocado on toast with lemon, a weekend market — the Miami Marketta, which sounds like it might be in Florida — where you can get tempura buns and barbecue and shop for pillows made out of turkish rugs.

At Burleigh Heads, a knobby, high jut of rock at the Gold Coast’s southern tip, I watch surfers bob on the waves while the sun sets. They’re all kids, skinny-limbed in their wet suits, long hair tangled with saltwater, leashed to their boards like unwieldy puppies. And there is so much ocean that you can almost sense the curve of the earth, feel the water swelling and trying to overtake the land.

This is anywhere, a bay with neon sun. It’s Waimea or Sorrento or Agios Gordos on Corfu, a bite out of land where water rushes in, a blinding line of white backed by the green of trees. There are the same tangle of shops selling sunblock and towels on Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, the same skyscrapers on Atlantic City. Only not at all.

It is only here that I will take a bus and hold a koala bear in my arms as though she were an unsquirming, fuzzy human baby. Where I will spend days on end caffeinated out of my wits because in this place, there are, magically, no bad cups of coffee. It is only here that I will see one of the oddest things I have ever seen, a thing that sends me furiously googling and asking eager questions of anyone who will listen — squinting hotel staff, waiters in restaurants: a manta ray skipping out of the roiling waves, a dark, shining pancake, two feet above the surface of the water. I will see this beach as all beaches and as none, as a place with knobby, alien trees, a place where people gleefully eat something called sea bug meat, where there is no real winter, where the forested hinterlands, minutes from the coast, shelter wallabys and all other manner of creatures that jump on their powerful hind legs. Where it is all new, every grain of sand, and at the same time, it is all halfway familiar, a whole new kind of anywhere.

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Travel generously provided by Visit Queensland.

Queensland, Australia: The Beach on the Other Side

August 14th, 2015

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Whitehaven Beach is without footprints. Without debris. Without cigarette butts or the shattered styrofoam of drinking cups. It is without the lazy, slicked-up bodies of sunbathers parked for the day, for the week. It is without sounds, save the wind and the whisper of ice-white sand blowing overitself in rivulets like a horizontal waterfall. There was one thing — a cuttlefish bone half-buried, yellow-white and half-filled with sand, the exact size, shape, and color of an endive. In fact, that’s what I thought it was when I first saw it, only the appearence of an endive on a beach on a remote Australian island where the flow of people and things, of anything foreign to the terrain, is strictly controlled, seemed dubious. A little sci-fi. As though you’d be just as likely to see a fire hydrant or a bike helmet planted in the middle of the beach, the sand falling into its metal-plastic man-made crevices.

But Whitehaven Beach is, somehow, like the surface of another planet, the silicate sand so pure under your feet that it squeaks when you walk across it. It is illegal to beach comb, illegal to take anything with you — including the sand itself — when you leave. Boats can only get so close, so visitors wishing to stay for a precious few hours, or maybe a night or two camping on its shores, must tumble shoeless down the metal steps into waist-high waves, hauling their bags, their camera phones and purses, over their heads.

I arrived seasick under cloudy skies with my hair sticking up in every direction and a flannel shirt thrown over my bathing suit, unsure how to regard winter in Australia. The landscape was summer paradise — green trees, white sand, blue water — but the air and the clouds and the choppy seas weren’t so sure. Maybe I was cold. Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe I needed sunblock. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I was going to keep lunch down. Maybe I wasn’t. The beach, you see, is near a place called God’s Washing Machine, where the currents spin into whirlpools that are strong enough to knock boats off course, if they haven’t already been discombobulated by waves as tall as houses.

I was grateful, finally, to have my feet down on the strange sand after two hours of bobbing all the way there from my home base on Hamilton Island. Hamilton seemed the opposite of Whitehaven Beach, a place up to its ears in a raucous swarm of humanity, of kids screaming in shallow swimming pools and neon-crowed cockatoos stealing the half-empty sugar packets right off your saucer.

After all that, after dropping my bag on the sand — leaving it to be pecked at by a flock of crows who were fascinated by its shining buckles — all I wanted was to walk. To feel solid earth under my feet, although the ground on Whitehaven Beach shifts and displaces with every step. I wanted to walk until I fell off the edge of the earth. That’s what I thought. Because that’s how the beach looks when you’re standing on it, like the runway to another dimension, a bright half-moon of sand fringed with trees that seems like you could reach the very end on foot until you try to do it. I only made it about halfway and I was alone, my footprints disappearing in the wind, reburied, as soon as I put them down.

That’s when the sun came out. And I thought, let the boat leave me here. Let me be lost. Let my family wonder what happened on a beach on the opposite side of the earth where there is no wifi, no cell phone service, no way to post your selfies. Let me be fully left behind to blow away, a pile of dust as fine and clean as the sand.

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Travel generously provided by Visit Queensland.

Chicago Winter Mosaic

January 20th, 2015

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In the end, Chicago overwhelms me. But not until the end.

Not until I have to sit in this pub on Michigan Avenue with a raspberry beer that’s not very raspberry-ish, the bartender’s words, and a turkey sandwich and a bowl of chicken soup. Not until I stare up at a monitor watching a college basketball game with teams and players I don’t recognize. That’s when it settles. The sense of being stuck dead in the middle of America, sitting at the bar with all of its baggage.

Jazz. The blues. The World Fair. Both of them. The fire. The White City. The serial killer. The coal dust. The skyscrapers. The Gehry amphitheater. Chandeliers hung with enormous garnets like bloody teardrops. The tallest skyscraper that has a new name now. The bean. Tiffany glass and mosaics and chase lights. Theater marquis bigger than ones in New York. Italian restaurants lit up in neon. “Postmodernism” perched on the top of a building with giant green wings. Blue-period Picasso. Sunday in the Park hung on a wall with its two frames, the one Surat painted in dots and the actual wooden one, which is just white. And the little French gift shop while I buy an $8 bar of soap and a tin pillbox from the 1920s. Ice skating in the park with kids half my age, wobbling on my feet. Palmer House brownies under the sprawling Valentine ceiling and going into the vault to see the stacks of Limoges, all the sets complete, gold around the rims of the glasses, all of it commissioned for a party for General Grant.

It knows me, Chicago. All the rooms a little overheated, everyone in sweaters and jeans. There are no heels, no one tottering in narrow skits. Just people laced up to their necks in down and bulky scarves and fur-trimmed hoods. Every menu has a version of chicken soup and hot chocolate. Every hotel has heat lamps. Every car has the vents fully open, blasting warm air. I want New York to be like this too, a little stuffy, the warmth pouring, the wagons circled. A cottony headache all the time.

I walk everywhere that I can bear to walk. North of the ice-covered river past the rock and roll corn cobs. To the building called the Medinah that was built as a theater but is now a Bloomingdales, where the faux-Islamic onion-bulb roof remains intact, along with all the colored glass windows that you can see up close when you go into the second-floor ladies room. Past the weirdly posh Forever 21 and into the Aqua Tower where I sit in the lobby of the hotel by the modern fireplace, a long, long wall of gas-jet flame. Paper lantern fixtures. A wall of something that looks like exaggerated gold chain mail. And I sit in a pink chair shaped like a bubble and listen to a woman talk in a loud voice about a parents mutiny in her son’s boy scout troop.

She said. “He said to me, ‘I have been auditing this troop and your performance. And you’re capable, but there’s a lot of untapped opportunity here.’”

Then I crash, the moment at the bar. In my sweater. Sweating in my sweater. The second city feels bigger, noisier, more jammed than the first. As heavy as the layers of my coat, my scarf, my gloves, the shirt under my shirt under my sweater. Chicago deep-dished, scooped me out. I write in my journal the line, “This might not make any sense, but…” And then I stop. I can’t think of a way to finish the sentence. I drop my pen. The city has swallowed me whole. I try to stop my brain, from following the trails of history. The freed slaves. The native traders. The kids looking for a city in which to come of age. The gangsters that they don’t talk about on a lot of the tours. The socialites. The step before New York, or maybe the step after. I have seen almost nothing. A few blocks, the center of the center. Any more, on this trip, I couldn’t have borne. I would need a subway, a car, a plan. I would need, I would want, a second time.

New Orleans, a While Later

November 22nd, 2014

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New Orleans is the dream city of wrought iron and powdered sugar. Of sandwiches as long as my arm and kids playing the trumpet in the street at 10:00 pm while people stream out of the bars, away from the bands they paid to see, to drop dollar bills in a box. Bourbon Street smells like vomit in broad daylight and the famous cemeteries are crumbling and shattered as the bones beneath them.

We see the Preservation Hall Jazz band in the front row that’s even closer than the front row, because we’re on the spindly chairs by the piano and the band has to walk around us to get to their places. And I am in this blue dress that I fancy makes me look like a vintage 1940s princess, and even if I don’t, there is no one to tell me that I don’t, because this is vacation in the dream city and I cannot hear bad words about anything.

And mostly I just feel like I have dressed the part because the room is a step back in time. It is what places in New York pay millions to replicate — a kind of weathered, low-lit perfection that makes people want to eat and dance. I have to move my hurricane so the saxophone player doesn’t kick it over. The piano player says, “Hello, ladies.”

I smile the whole time, the smile that I can’t see but that people have told me about — dreamy, elsewhere, perched on the edge of my seat.

A_____ makes me walk out onto Bourbon after “just to see it” and the horror is real. Fights everywhere and crowds. We don’t stay long. Later in the trip, I will walk around the neighborhoods and take photos of people’s houses like a creep, but I want to take them all home with me, or put my home into one of them, even though I have no idea how I would sort this out. How I could split my life in half, buy another one and set up shop in this other place where it’s always warm and where the food would make me gain weight in a month. Where I would have no job and no friends but I would have a house with rainbow-painted gingerbread and two front doors and the kitchen way in the back and strings of lights in the trees. I would have everything and nothing in the dream city, the real city.

Where to Live in Paris, France

October 31st, 2014

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In the Paris apartment, up the long winding staircase on the 5th floor — the 4th floor in Paris, as it were — I shower, or maybe I just bathe, in the cramped tub, taking turns between water and lather because you can’t do both at the same time. Otherwise you’ll drop the shower nozzle — the telephone shower, as we call it — and get water everywhere. I have had more comfortable bathing situations, no exaggeration, in parts of the developing world.

But this is Paris, and all I can remember as this is happening, is the warning at the beginning of Rick Steves Paris 2006 where he says something to the effect of: If you’re ready to travel, you have to accept that showers are not always hot, cups of coffee are not always the size of your big American face, and that beds are not always comfortable.

Well, let me go further. The showers in Paris are not always showers. Sometimes they’re just a faucet and a basin and a hot water tank that’s smaller than a mini-keg of Stella.

I rinse off my jetlag and wash my hair upside-down and the water pools around my ankles, blue-black with the dye from my new jeans. I leave my bracelet on because if I take it off, they may not re-admit me to the festival and that would be hundreds of dollars down the drain. And I would miss St. Vincent.

But for all the bathroom’s hazards, its soup bowl of a sink and slippery tiles, the apartment itself looks like the set of Last Tango in Paris. Plaster ceiling moldings and hardwood floors and fireplaces in two rooms. A brass doorbell. A wrought-iron window grate. Books on a shelf — Paul Auster, the same novel I brought to read on the plane. Collages with flowers. A kitchen smaller than the bathroom, and no trash can, and a view over the street below and the long row of buildings just like it, a march of wrought-iron and blue roof tiles and cream-colored stucco.

The heat is just little electric space heaters that cost a fortune to run and don’t heat the space very well anyway. And there’s no insulation. No soundproofing so the neighbor’s argument is your argument. The crying baby upstairs is your baby, your headache, your sleepless night.

My apartment in Paris, when I lived here, was just like this. Drafty, up a long flight of beautiful stairs, a nest above the city where I turned up the expensive heat as high as it would go and huddled under blankets in January and read news from home using the excellent free wifi. Where I got really good at taking 7-minute showers. It was all love and discomfort. I kept a bowl of clementines on the table and ate mache salads every night with balsamic and kiwi and whatever weird thing I found at the market — maybe the clementines. I don’t think I’ve even seen mache in New York. If I found it, I would buy it.

And the rental apartment of this vacation, this non-living situation, which looked so perfect in the photos, actually is perfect. What I had not realized, before I walked in the door. Before I twisted the complicated double-pronged key in the sticky lock — all Paris apartments of a certain age have a double-pronged key and a sticky lock — is that it would not be such a surprise or such an adventure. It would be perfectly typical — a thing that has not changed. That is what it is — sheltering and imperfect and sure of what it is.

In Chiang Mai, a Simple Illustration of Market Price

October 26th, 2014

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In Thailand, we get caught in a storm in the night market in Chiang Mai. A market like no other market I have ever seen, with technicolor fruits, and men peddling lottery tickets covered in hundreds of rows of hand-written numbers. Boys playing music in the middle of the street. Waffles on a stick. Cut paper and carved wood. Birds in cages. Necklaces on little stands. I try to haggle with a woman over a $4 shirt and fail. I buy it anyway.

And then the clouds shed everything they’ve got — fast and out of nowhere. One thunderclap. And everyone is running for their cars and cowering under the plastic-roofed booths as the owners scramble to cover things up, to poke at the tarps with broom handles to knock off excess water. Electrical plugs sit in puddles. A woman with an exquisitely groomed puppy in a backpack like a baby stands in the farthest corner of a booth and looks up in dismay. We expect it to be quick, but it’s not. Rain is never quick when you need it to be.

One woman, though, hunched and ancient, her face lined as a riverbed, knows what’s what. She totters from one booth to the next with armfuls of plastic ponchos, asking 200 bhat for each. People crowd around her. She wears a poncho of her own, printed with little turtles. She smiles a snaggle-toothed smile and hands them out, collecting cash by the fistful and dropping into a pouch around her neck.

When she comes to us, D___ tries to negotiate. Because that’s what you do in Thailand, right? He asks her to consider 100 bhat and she all but falls over laughing before waving a finger in his face and shaking her head.

“I mean, we don’t exactly have any leverage here,” I say as water splashes up at my ankles. “Supply and demand pricing and all.”

We have to wait for her to come around a second time before we get our ponchos. Once we’re snug inside them, plastic and damp and humid on the inside as a science experiment, we walk. A gutter empties rainwater directly onto the seat of a nice-looking motorcycle. Tuk-tuks lower their plastic sides. People are heading home and so do we.

Later, shivering in the back of the van, our ponchos balled up on the floor, we lament how we would have liked to have seen more of the market, to see it as its realest self. But then, maybe we just did.

The Bahamas on Paper

October 19th, 2014

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Copied from my journal, dated October 25, 2013:

“The whole space between here and the airport seems crumbling and stuccoed and has a mild whiff of dark-tinted illegality about it. It’s cloudy and the seas are rough and very blue. I wish I was staying at the Atlantis and my hair is already inflated to four times its normal size.”

In Paris on a cold autumn day…

October 13th, 2014

La Grisette

A photo I took. And still kind of like. This is a sculpture called La Grisette and it’s in the 11eme, near the Canal Saint-Martin. It’s meant to depict the working-class French girls of the 19th century who were so named for the gray color of their dresses. They worked as seamstresses, and later, in factories, and there was always a whiff of sexual mystery about them. (Maybe they were prostitutes? Maybe they weren’t? There was work, and work, after all, but in an era when employment opportunities for women were strictly limited, and the idea of women working was somewhat scandalous in and of itself, the lines were blurry.) Mimi and Musetta in La Boheme were both grisettes, as was Fantine in Les Miserables.

I took this on a very gray day in November a few years ago. A day that seemed very appropriate indeed for this very gray girl.

Time Travel, Washington, D.C.

September 29th, 2014

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On a sunny, humid day in Washington, D.C., there is a block with a short-stack mishmash of old buildings and new ones, and none of the gleaming white grecian-style marble of the rest of the city. Here, there is a building with a Chinese restaurant on the first floor called Wok and Roll. There is no striving for the ideal polis in this part of the city, the bright sandblasted surfaces that you see near Capitol Hill, so bright that you need sunglasses.

We’re on our way to what A_____ tells us a hipster coffee shop, because no one in our party operates properly without coffee. There is a gate, carved in ornate angles, that tells us this is Chinatown.

Wok and Roll occupies the first floor of what used to be the Surratt Boarding House, the “conspirator house” where John Wilkes Booth planned the abduction and murder of Abraham Lincoln. The boarding house’s proprietress became the first woman put to death in United States History. A plaque on the side of the building tells us this, and it’s a small plaque.

We squint at the top floors, realizing that it’s the same structure, but that the building has been modified at some point. (Wikipedia says 1925.) The door moved. The ground floor became commercial space. But the roof line is the same, the windows on the top floors. It is the same shell that housed history, even ugly history, a shell shed and picked up again by another generation, bent to its purposes. It feels right to stop, to snap photos by ourselves on an empty sidewalk of a shuttered Chinese restaurant.

We find our hipster coffee shop a few blocks beyond it on the opposite side of the street, all exposed brick and bold sans-serif fonts, in another buidling that was something else and has turned into something else. I get an iced latte and granola, grateful for the air conditioning, for modernity above and inside ancient and less-ancient things.

Lights On, Shoreditch

September 1st, 2014

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London, autumn.

I stay at the Ace Hotel Shoreditch on the night after Alex Calderwood, the brains behind the entire hotel chain, dies at the property.

At the time of his death, Calderwood is a young man. Months later, it will quietly come out that he died of a mixture of alcohol and drugs.

I know none of this when we check in, when the staff can’t find the reservation, then finds it, then loses it again, all within the course of five minutes. A manager hovers behind his employees, watching the work. It’s all a little tense.

In the room, there is a complimentary bottle of champagne — the first of two that that the hotel will leave us over the course of the weekend. Later, a staff member will barge into the room without knocking with an armful of silverware.

I have dinner that evening in the downstairs restaurant with my friend V__, who lives in town. The decor is all wood and gold and geometric. The waiters wear sweatshirts and smile a lot. It’s adorable. Even jetlagged, I feel amazing. I feel that buzzy, far-from-home sense of exhaustion and excitement that only seems to come along with a flight from New York to London. My friend N_____ calls this just-landed, unacclimated space “the dizzy hours.” Plus, it’s autumn and London has that slantways orange side light. The Christmas decorations are up early. The Shard is done. You can’t complain about bad food anymore. Everything cool is British. For me, it’s the second best city in the world, sorry Paris.

Dinner is fine and they burn my steak, but I’ve never had a steak cooked exactly how I wanted anywhere but New York, so I can’t even be mad. It’s part of the traveler’s experience, the thing that makes the place the thing. Like I always say: It’ll go in the blog.

After, we could go out or we could stay, so we stay because the bar is new and the hotel is new and everyone there is noisy and pretty and it’s like a fashion show sliding between a series of small and large rooms — one with bookshelves, one with a DJ setup, one with a bar, maybe two with a bar, all of it painted in this off-blue-avocado-abandoned-mental-hospital color that matches the color of the air, of the entire night. The idea of leaving, of being elsewhere in Shoreditch, is almost silly.

We drink. There is a carafe of wine at dinner, then another drink, then an Old Fashioned, then espresso martinis. The latter have a foamy head and a star anise floating on top of each one, and they take ages to arrive. When they arrive, they arrive twice. The bar has made a mistake and the waitress shrugs. “You might as well drink them, because we made them.”

So we drink them.

Then we start chatting with a bunch of fashion photographers. I don’t remember how this started or how it ended thanks to the martinis, which go down like a double bomb of sedative and stimulant in the same gulp — more treacherous than any tequila shot. One of them tells me about the shoot he has to set up the next morning — McQueen. Another one is hitting on V___, who has told him several times that she’s married.

I think it ends — I think — because it has to. Because I have lost count of how many I drank. I remember V__ getting a cab, the headlights blaring through the homey little plants by the entrance. I remember regarding the size of the bill with a shrug and not being able to make the conversion in my head from pounds to dollars and not caring. Everything seems cheaper that way anyway. Best to worry about it in the morning.

And then I stagger upstairs. At least I don’t have to go far, but then, it’s all a nightmare of drunkennes paired with jittery, espresso-induced insomnia. I watch the ceiling of the room spin for three hours. I shove laptops under blankets in order to block the tiny flashing lights. I try to focus on the fire alarm, pray that it will be the one thing that will stop moving. I cry, only a little, over my own basic stupidity.

Over the rest of the weekend, I will see a Jez Butterworth play. I will eat Italian food. I will visit a book shop. I will walk the Columbia Road Flower Market. All of it with the pall of half-sickness hanging green around my head. I can do anything, anything, but sleep.