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.

On Dead Famous People in Los Angeles, California

August 12th, 2014

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I said to my friend M_____, who lives in California. “Death is terrifying to me until I visit a cemetery. And then it just seems quiet.”

We were standing over Frank Zappa when I said this. Well, over who we thought was Frank Zappa, according to a web site I found on my phone. Frank Zappa, you see, has no marker. So you have to work your way over from a nearby tree, and some nearby graves.

George C. Scott doesn’t have a marker either. He’s on the other side of the cemetery, next to Carroll O’Connor. It’s less surprising that he doesn’t have a marker. I mean, the man didn’t want his Oscar either. But maybe being buried under a big blank tombstone next to Carroll O’Connor and Walter Matthau has the same effect as refusing an Oscar. Basically, at the end of the day, it’s exactly the same as winning an Oscar. Death is an equalizer, too.

All the colors in the cemetery, which is behind a skyscraper and is hard to find amidst the parking meters and the fire hydrants, are sort of the same. Brown, green, darker green. Stone, grass, leaves, a bench, a brick, a vine. There is Natalie Wood, with her married name and an Orthodox cross. Fanny Brice and her children. Peggy Lee is by a fountain. Louis Jourdan has a marker, and he’s still alive. Truman Capote has humble little yellow flowers, not nearly fabulous enough. Dean Martin has red roses, as you’d imagine, left just a few hours before.

But with Marilyn’s grave, her little shelf in the wall, all you see is fuchsia. The flowers, the lipstick marks on the outside. Apparently Hugh Heffner has bought the drawer next to her, so he can leer at her without her consent into eternity. But Marilyn’s flowers. Nothing in that green patch in that concrete block of Los Angeles on a cloudy day. Nothing is like those flowers. A pink bunch and a red bunch and a peach-y bunch, maybe from the day before. Even a little wilted, they are right on cue. Ready for their closeup, blaring into the heat of the day.

Art Street, Milan

June 22nd, 2014

The Don Gallery

In Milan, I follow the advice of a slick travel magazine and ring a doorbell in a neighborhood that’s covered in street art. It’s a gamble and the first time I try, I don’t get an answer. I do this just to see if it works, if the press is a liar like everyone says.

After a few minutes, an embarrassed shuffle of my feet, a fleeing thought about a potential language barrier, a little girl with long blond hair comes to the gate. She’s holding a jump rope and and is wearing a pastel t-shirt that’s a staple at grownup stores that have fashionable kids’ lines.

Boungiorno?” I ask. Little kids who speak languages other than English always strike me as freakish alien supergeniuses. Like their eyes could bore holes in concrete, too.

“Hello,” she says back with an accent and a grin. She runs back to the house and shouts “PAPAAAAAAA!”

Just behind her, a guy with a mustache is strolling around the driveway behind the gate strumming a guitar. He smiles and waves and doesn’t let me in, but holds up a finger, the universal symbol for, “Hold on a sec.” He’s not Papa.

Papa does show up, though, an instant later. He’s wearing loafers and a blue denim shirt that matches his eyes. He’s tanned like it’s September even though it’s only May and he lets me in when I ask if the gallery is open.

“It’s open,” he says in English. “Only it’s not a gallery right now. It’s a house. It’s my house.”

He introduces his daughters — there’s another tiny blonde alien racing around just inside the door clutching another jump rope — and the guitar guy, whose name is Antonio. He nods, keeps playing.

He escorts me into his living room, and then his office, and the stuff on the walls is outrageous. A Shepard Fairey, a Space Invader, a Banksy, a Ron English sculpture. All of it just sitting there in a house behind a gate in a residential neighborhood in Milan by the crappy train station — not even the good train station.

When I tell him I’m from New York, he says, “Ah, but you have much better street art than this.”

Probably. But not in my living room.

He gives me a tour, points to the Fairey and says, “This is your Shepard Fairey, of course.” Mine, though. Mine meaning American, mine meaning New Yorker, mine meaning I have borne through the door of this house/gallery some idea of authenticity, and that’s a hilarious.

I don’t know anything about anything. I just like to look at pretty things. Cathedrals. Paintings. Italian men with tans and very blue eyes.

I circle the room slowly, trying to get a handle on where I am and what I’m doing, and the little girls watch me the whole time, keeping just enough distance, still holding their jump ropes. Antonio continues his song. After a few minutes, the silence gets awkward and I say goodbye. When I tell him that I heard about the gallery in a magazine, he says, “Yes, well. We did some PR. We had a party.”

So I guess that’s why I’m here. Because at some point there was a party.

I step back out onto the street feeling strangely accomplished. About street art that’s not on the street. That’s curated into the living room of a white-painted Milan apartment — the first private space in this city that I’ve ever seen. Until this moment, for me, Milan is all squares and churches and arches full of visitors, all train stations and expensive hotels. It is men on Vespas in business suits, jetting off to places I’ve never been, and darting behind doorways where I can’t go.

This glimpse behind the gate, I am not so sure about. A gallery or a house, indoors or out, it is maybe the real Milan or maybe not. Maybe it’s a party that happened a long time before I arrived.

Wallace Fountains: Paris, Marseille, New Orleans

June 21st, 2014

The Wallace Fountains are everywhere in Paris. Designed to bring water to every citizen of the city, from the richest to the poorest, they’re so much a part of the Parisian landscape that after a few days town, you stop really seeing them. They sort of blend with the boulevards and the green parks, the onion-domed advertising columns that are painted the same color. Take them away, though, and Paris is not Paris. They exist in a number of French cities besides Paris, and in handful around the globe, from Amman to Macau. Here are three that I’ve seen in Paris, Marseille (where the caryatid has been splashed with neon paint), and New Orleans. The latter isn’t painted that same gleaming, bulletproof green that you see in Paris, but has more of a coppery finish.

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Budapest: The Baths

March 18th, 2014

I.

I soak to the bone in water so hot that my toes turn purple. The bathtub, along with the rest of the hotel is new — or newly renovated, anyway — so it bleats bright under the bathroom’s covered LED lamps. Every day, they leave me a brand new roll of toilet paper, even though I’ve barely used the original. It’s totally confusing.

I think of boiling myself like a Massachusetts lobster, taking away the chill by any means necessary. I’m always too small for bathtubs, never long enough to rest my head, so I’m always either freezing or drowning. This one holds so much water that I float, almost.

II.

There is no 16 bus that goes to the top of the hill, so the options are to walk or to take the funicular. The funicular is expensive and stupid and in whipping wind and rain, the walk does not seem bearable. Or more, the walk seems like it would push me off the edge, me and my camera phone and my little shoes, which are soaked through, a bad choice.

I skip the recommended cafe. I skip the art museum. I move ahead in the guidebook to the church, which will offer shelter. The Catholic girl notes that a church would, of all places, be the much-needed shelter in an impromptu city storm. The result of an instantly answered prayer.

Please God, give me shelter. Boom, have an ornate Hungarian church on a hill.

I’m so cold that I cannot appreciate the church, its interiors painted in funhouse colors, a blue dome like the sky. On a sunnier day, maybe I could feel more. Could feel the centuries of faith and comforting routine seeping through the walls. Could feel my feet. Instead, I take a pew just to stop moving, to leaf through my guidebook and figure out what I’ve missed.

I wonder, for the thousandth time, why I came to Buda, land across the river, when Pest was treating me so well. To see. To leave no stone unturned. All the usual stupid travel things.

Standing on the corner by the car tunnel, waiting for a bus that I don’t initially realize is not coming, I chatter in the cold. I am on my second umbrella in two hours, the first one a cheap model that disintegrates in my hands, that turns into a flapping flag of fabric and a silver spider with eight broken legs. I’m furious and underdressed for my own life, which makes me even more furious.

I stand under a leafless tree with a British couple who don’t know any more about the bus schedule than I do. When we finally get on a bus, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. We all sigh in relief when it rumbles, smooth on its wheels, across the bridge, toward home.

III.

The hotel is right at the end of the bridge. All I need is to get across the bridge.

By the time I reach the hotel, I cannot feel my fingers either. I wonder if I will freeze to death before I get to the door, while I am running around the long ring road that used to serve as its driveway. If I will be discovered sprawled out on a Budapest sidewalk in front, my snot frozen solid. It would be poetic. Almost literally dying in the gutter.

I make it to the curling wrought-iron gate and slip through, giving the doorman a smile so he thinks I’m staying. He humors me, tosses one back, even though he knows I’m not.

You can always tell a really nice hotel from the carpets, how your feet make no noise. The ones at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace render me silent — one of the few things to do so. I smile again at the woman at the front desk. She doesn’t buy it either.

In the bathroom I use the moisturizer — there’s moisturizer — and realize, when I look in the mirror, why the front desk lady is under no illusion that I’m staying. My hair is frizzed out straight like I have spent the afternoon testing the voracity of the city’s electrical sockets with my fingers. I tame it all down, pretend that I’m civilized, even with my pant legs soaked through, my ankles exposed like I have never seen a weather report before.

On the other side of the carpets of silence, I take a table and order an $8 pot of white blossom tea, which comes with a tiny glass of water, two little vanilla cakes, and — god bless it — a miniature madeline. Two different waiters offer me newspapers, but I refuse, too absorbed in the conversation happening at the next table.

One guy dominates. He has a European-but-educated-in-England accent and a Hitler Youth haircut and the topics of the day meander from the excessive loudness of New York City restaurants to Beyonce to his annoying co-worker who sends incoherent emails in English. A fawning American girl interjects every once in a while. She has a lot to say about New York — none of it good. The two others at a the table, both European, barely get a word in.

I am comforted when they hail a taxi to another hotel. So they’re impostors, too.

I drink two full pots of tea. I am relieved when the waitress asks if I want more water. Because after the first pot, I very much want more water, and I am unsure of the protocol surrounding these things. Asking for something free seems a little gauche, especially after I’ve used the moisturizer. I drink what amounts to eight cups of tea, never letting the white porcelain cup leave my hands the entire time, greedy for the warmth. Out in the lobby, someone plays semi-standard lounge fare on the piano — the themes from Love Story and the Godfather. The room around me is swathed in gauzy orange and green and decorated with “art glass” and chandeliers. For a brief, beautiful instant, I consider staying for dinner, but I can’t. I have drunk enough so that I could float away. Be bloated forever.

I head back out into the cold. It’s dark now. The rain has stopped, but the wind persists.

On Searching for Franz Liszt in Budapest and Not Finding Him

March 14th, 2014

At the Liszt Museum, in the music academy, they don’t have anything I want. Well, anything except the pianos, which sit in the middle of finely-wallpapered rooms, silent and with their keys covered.

Even like this, they radiate magic, all warm grainy wood and faintly yellow keys. There’s one, tiny and in the corner and sized for a child, with hammers that strike lengths of glass instead of strings, so it makes a kind of sparkling noise, fit for a winter ballet. Another is bigger than my bed and made by an American craftsman in Boston. Liszt played it late in life and it still works, but I can hear it only on the audio guide, a solo so beautiful that it stops my slow transverse around the room. I stare out a window, watch people bustle on the street below, toward Oktogon, toward the House of Terror. I listen to the whole song.

They put a whole song, a sonata, on an audioguide. That’s the kind of museum this is.

There are portraits, and he was handsome, so I appreciate this, too. The ones of him as a young man show him to be ravishing and long-nosed, his hair grown long and shaggy as befits a rockstar of any generation. But he was first. Women fought over locks of his hair and flew into hysterics when he played. There’s one story of a girl at the stage door who picked up the discarded stump of his cigar and wore it in a locket.

There is none of this in the room. Nothing about the affairs. With George Sand and the married Comtesse, with whom he had three illegitimate children. There is a whole corner dedicated what this museum declares as his actual primary devotion — Catholicism. There are prayer books, his small alter, an embroidered bleeding heart that he wore inside his coat. That the latter thing, smaller than my palm and made with great care, was given to him by a female admirer is mentioned only in passing.

For romance, to find the romantic inside this actual king of the romantics, I will retreat elsewhere. To recordings. To Google searches. To somewhere other than a second-floor apartment on Budapest’s main street, an apartment inside an academy. The heart of Franz Liszt, it seems, cannot be contained by that.