Lots of writing happening chez moi since returning from Turkey a few weeks ago. Here’s the first of it, over at Matador Trips:
Lots of writing happening chez moi since returning from Turkey a few weeks ago. Here’s the first of it, over at Matador Trips:
~ I wrote this back in May, on my tumblr, and thought I’d share. ~
My first reaction to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed was, “Can we go home now?”
On September 11, 2001, I was twenty years old. I’d been living in New York for a little under a year. When I said “home”, I meant south Louisiana, Terrebonne Parish.
I was a college dropout. I had an asshole boyfriend I lived with in dull Upper Manhattan, where you had to spend half an hour on the Nine train just to eat food at a restaurant with a correctly spelled name. I’d spent a year temping, hopping from cube farm to reception desk, Midtown to Financial District, law firm to dotcom to corporate HQ. I was still vaguely intent on doing something in The Theatre after college.
George W. Bush was the President: a fact that vaguely disappointed me though I didn’t consider myself a political person back then. (Confession: I didn’t vote in the 2000 election.) The Taliban existed in a haze of undergraduate Othering, their existence learned of in an issue of Newsweek sometime in the Clinton administration. I had probably never heard the words “Al Qaeda”. Osama bin Laden was a string of nonsense syllables, sort of like Muammar Ghaddafi or Yasser Arafat, except I’d actually heard of those guys.
These are some words that did not exist yet in 2001: jegging, google, housing bubble, post-Katrina.
Britney Spears was a fresh-faced supposedly virginal pop star. Rudy Giuliani was that asshole who closed the nightclubs and thought he could personally decide what was appropriate to hang in New York City’s art museums. Hillary Clinton was mostly a former first lady, though the existence of her non-vicarious political career was starting to sink in. Michael Bloomberg was just a really rich dude – in fact, most New Yorkers who did not work in finance had probably never even heard of Michael Bloomberg.
These are some things sane people thought were unthinkable in America in 2001: torture being sanctioned by the government, a black man becoming the next President, people paying money to download digital media.
All New Yorkers could agree that Jennifer Lopez was still just Jenny From The Block. The Cosmopolitan was the most awesome beverage since the Iced Mocha Frappucino. Mark Zuckerberg was a nerdy high school kid who had not yet invented Facebook. Cell phones had tiny monochromatic screens and like three ringtones you could choose from. Actually, ringtone might be another word that did not exist in 2001. People still used fax machines with a straight face in 2001.
The economy was relatively awesome. People had jobs and maybe even health insurance. Geopolitically, we were still living in the Bill Clinton afterglow: communism was over and America was a good guy on a white horse who helped out small countries like Somalia and Kosovo (but not Rwanda!).
In other words, it was a really long time ago.
The last ten years is one of those big rubber snakes with a spring inside that is just NEVER going to fit back into that dumb can of mixed nuts. Even if we collectively surrender our iPhones, admit that skinny jeans look stupid on everyone, and call a do-over on that whole stupid Ralph Nader thing.
Shit, do y’all remember when Ralph Fucking Nader was, like, the biggest political controversy going? We were naïve children back then, for sure.
In a certain way, The War On Terror – as coined by George W. Bush – is probably doomed as a way of thinking about America’s relationship with the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world. Bin Laden’s death is partly to blame for that, though I’d like to think that the Arab Spring will play a role as well. And hopefully this will be the end of our military presence in Afghanistan, put the last nail in the coffin that is Guantanamo, and keep us out of Iran. Maybe it will even keep people like Sarah Palin out of public office and delegitimize Glenn Beck.
But I still can’t go home again.
I’m thirty years old. I know what it means to take to the streets in protest.
I stopped dying my hair and started wearing makeup (OK, just mascara, but still). I liked boys and then I liked girls and now I’m pretty sure I still like both, but honestly I prefer not to think about it at all anymore. College came back and then was finished; I have an inexplicable degree in anthropology and an even more inexplicable career in television.
I can watch Oscar-winning British costume dramas on my laptop via the internet, but it’s a capital offense to attempt to bring more than three ounces of shampoo on a plane. The president is a black guy. I’m writing this blog post from a café with free wifi and fair trade single-origin coffee in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was in 2001 was mainly known for its race riots.
I don’t recognize girls, now women, from my childhood on Facebook because they all have different last names now. Not only does the Nine no longer exist, but a whole alphabet of other subway lines lived and died in the decade since I last used it to rent a video tape from Kim’s on the Upper West Side. Yesterday I torrented the new Kanye West album to put on my iPhone. This is a language I would not have understood a decade ago.
Can we go home now? No.
Sam The Disgruntled Brit is camped out in front of the hostel’s huge TV already, watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy for probably the 20th time in his short life. Most of the backpackers are appalled that I pick a different village each day, hop on a chicken bus (sadly no chickens yet, just lots of crying babies and potatoes), and go tramping around the Sacred Valley alone.
Backpacker kids come in two flavors. The ones who travel to escape reality by drinking and watching videos indoors all day, and the ones who travel to escape reality by treating tourism like their job: a different guided tour every day, on the bus by 9, back at home base by 6, a dozen sights “done” and checked off the list. Both types of traveller are working out the concept of responsibility, but from different ends. Nobody seems capable of having any sort of experience without brandishing a camera like a charm against feeling anything.
After a breakfast of flat Andean rolls with butter and jam, tea, and fruit juice that reminds me of the Orange Drank they used to serve at jesus camp, I have to the get hell out of this grand experiment on responsibility.
I have a few errands to take care of. I discover that the bus to Lima takes 22 hours, and there are multiple departures daily. I can leave whenever, and I have my choice of a fully reclining or only partially reclining seat. Laundry is dropped off, including the quick drying tech towel that hasn’t been the same since jungly Machu Picchu Pueblo. The English language book exchange on Calle Heladeros is shut for the feast of Corpus Christi. I hope old Señor Vendalibros is enjoying the holiday somewhere far from his musty little shop.
Errands seen to, or at least attempted, I head for my favorite part of the city, Plaza San Blas. There’s a festival atmosphere in the plaza this morning. A full brass band is pumping out the cumbia hits while neighborhood girls in their high-heeled best cluster around, smoking, dancing, taking photos for facebook. The craft vendors have taken the morning off as well and have been replaced by a wide campesina in frothing skirts selling chicha morada and bowls of chicken soup.
The music and the holiday from school have riled up the little boys of San Blas. They’re play fighting with sticks, climbing the fountain, and using an empty soda bottle as a soccer ball. The No Moleste El Jardin signs might as well be in Vietnamese.
The cumbia rhythms are drowned out now by a traditional march. A religious procession arrives from the main square, led by mestizas in pink satin dresses and white top hats, brandishing decorated staffs. They’ve brought their own accompaniment, now overruled again by the Home Team’s cumbia. It’s a battle of the elaborately uniformed brass bands. The Home Team’s trombone section is hard at work. Can the Visitors match up? I don’t know, but there’s plenty of beer to go around.
Adding to the din, cell phone conversations are shouted, and sellers of sweets and cold drinks refuse to let their sales pitches go unheard. I’m pretty sure the words to this song are, “Gaseosas! Coca Cola! Gaseosas Frias! Heladinas! Heladinas con flancitas! Coca Cola!”
The Home Team’s trumpet line sways to the beat. The Visitors slump on the church steps, hopeless to match the men in the red coats. A toddler wails. I agree, this is a lot of action for what was supposed to be a lazy morning. Even now, a man in a gold sash beckons to the visiting musicians, motioning them into place behind the pink mestizas. He turns to the red-jacketed Home Team, inviting them to join the parade.
Moments later, they’re all on their way back to the main square and the cathedral, lazy morning turning into afternoon.
Feeling thirsty as you wander the streets of the eternal city? Here are five ways to drink like the locals.
Water is water, right? It might all be H2O, but Rome has elevated water into a cultural statement. The aqueducts that supplied the city in classical antiquity were among the most important contributions to human culture until twentieth century inventions like electric lightbulbs and the internet. To this day, street corner fountains surge with water that is safe for visitors to drink – making it both the cheapest beverage and one of the best ways to get in touch with your inner ancient Roman.
It’s too late for coffee, too early for wine, and the novelty of Rome’s water fountains has worn off. What you want is chinotto. This southern Italian soda is flavored with a bitter citrus fruit of the same name. The resulting drink is complex and earthy, with very little sweetness. The flavor isn’t for everyone, but acquiring a taste for complicated chinotto will give you an insight into the Italian palate that can’t be found in local specialties you’re already familiar with from home.
Aperitivo is a big deal in Milan, and possibly the best excuse for an impromptu prosecco tasting in Venice. But don’t worry: it’s also popular down south in Rome. The typical drink is spritz, a sort of champagne cocktail made with Aperol bitters and a little soda water, served over ice in either a white wine glass or a tumbler. It’s also possible to make a spritz with Campari or Negroni (in Italy this is called a Negroni spagliato, which translates to a “wrong Negroni”), which are great options if you want to try the cocktail in the USA, where Aperol can be difficult to come by.
While the spritz is a somewhat recent import from the north, Romans have been drinking wine since at least the eighth century BC, when southern Italy was colonized by the Greeks. In typical Italian fashion, the wine lists of casual bars and enotecas are dominated by local products. The nearby growing region of Lazio produces simple fruit-forward wines which are wallet friendly and almost unknown outside Italy. Lazio is most famous for white wines like Frascati and Marino, though red wines – dominated by Sangiovese – are also popular. If you’re on a serious budget, ask for vino da tavola, or “table wine”. This is of a lower technical classification than the regionally controlled varieties (which would include Frascati or Sangiovese), meant for local consumption.
Not only is it the most popular Italian beer internationally, Peroni is also the beer of choice in the eternal city. It isn’t one of the world’s great beers, and honestly if your time is limited it would be better to stick with wine. But go out of on the town and you’ll find Romans sucking this locally owned brew down like the nectar of the gods. Sometimes doing as the Romans do means getting wasted on mediocre beer. And that’s OK.
Don’t shop in Midtown on December weekends.
The sidewalks are jam packed with the kind of tourists that inspire people to refer to themselves as “travelers”. After you fight the crowds that line up just to look at the holiday themed windows (I kid you not) and make your way into the stores, it turns out the shelves are bare.
Instead, check out SoHo, the Village, or Brooklyn.
Whether we’re talking about H&M or Gucci, most of the brands with flagship stores on Fifth Avenue have another branch downtown. Most of these are either on lower Broadway in SoHo or tucked away on the quiet streets of the West Village. You could also break out of the chain store mindset and check out some of the city’s many independently owned shops clustered in the East Village, Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Fort Greene, or Park Slope.
Don’t wait in line to ice skate in Rockefeller Center.
The line is miserably long, and the rink is tiny. Frankly, it’s just not worth it.
Instead, head to Wollman Rink in Central Park.
When Manhattanites want to have outdoorsy fun, they head to Central Park. Wollman Rink, located near the southeast entrance to the park at 59th Street and 6th Avenue, is where city kids have hockey practice and learn to turn triple axels. Lines are all but nonexistent, and it’s even a smidge cheaper ($16 for an adult ticket compared to $19 at Rock Center).
Don’t spend New Year’s Eve watching the ball drop.
I know I’ve said a lot of things are crowded, but this is the mother of all crowded things. It’s also inevitably freezing cold out, and there’s nowhere to go to the bathroom. All for… what? Watching a ball drop from the top of a building? What does this even mean, anyway?
Instead, party with the locals.
If you’re planning a trip to New York for New Year’s Eve, the first thing you should do after you book your flight and find a place to stay is figure out what you want to do for the big night. There are a lot of options, but anything good is going to require a little advance planning. All the concert venues around town will have shows, nightclubs throw lavish parties, and many bars will have some kind of event planned – often a cabaret or lineup of local bands, with food and midnight champagne included, for a reasonable cover charge.
Another idea, if none of those are fabulous enough, would be to RSVP for one of the many semi-private parties thrown by Brooklyn art collectives. The best way to find out about these are to get on the collectives’ mailing lists (Try Rubulad or Winkel & Balktick), or to subscribe to the granddaddy of the email lists for the New York art scene – the Nonsense List. Some parties have ticket prices while others are free, but you won’t be able to get in without at least having your name on the list.
Don’t pay an arm and a leg for a crappy Times Square hotel.
A reasonably safe, vermin-free hotel in Midtown will cost you more than $200 a night between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. And you’ll be forced to contend with the outrageous crowds I’ve mentioned above, no matter how interested you are in getting off the beaten track.
Instead, try AirBnB.
With AirBnB, you could have an entire apartment in Harlem or Brooklyn for the price of a tiny room in Times Square. Even if your budget can handle the Midtown hotel room, with AirBnB you can stay in any neighborhood that looks interesting and live like a New Yorker.
Don’t be afraid to do kitschy holiday stuff.
It would be a shame to come all the way to New York and feel like everything is “too touristy”. The reality is that New Yorkers aren’t a bunch of grinches – we like to have cheesy holiday fun, too. You just have to do it in a way that isn’t so stressful.
Instead, buy tickets to see the Rockettes with pride.
Check out the department stores’ holiday window decorations early Sunday morning before the shoppers are out. Go see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and then hop the subway down to Brooklyn to see a holiday themed burlesque performance. Or if you’re feeling classy, get tickets to New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, followed by lunch at the Russian Tea Room. Go to Santa Con. Hole up against the cold in a bar and drink gluhwein or a local craft beer. Celebrate Hanukkah with the lighting of the city’s largest Menorah. Sing Christmas carols at St. John The Divine. It might be a little crowded, but the nights are long, the wind is cold, and another year is almost over. Isn’t that something to celebrate?
Yes, of course I ate guinea pig in Peru.
Before I talk about whether guinea pig – locally known as cuy – is good eating or not, I should talk a little bit about Peruvian pizza.
It is horrible.
I thought pizza was one of those things that’s pretty much impossible to mess up. I mean, even bad pizza, even frozen pizza, is secretly kind of good – I even enjoyed the Domino’s pizza with “Chinese” toppings I had in New Delhi. And if I’ve ever heard of a situation where pizza could go wrong, it was international chain pizza halfway around the world from its natural setting, topped with items not found in Italy, the USA, or even China.
But Peruvian pizza gives a whole new meaning to the word “ick.” I don’t know where they missed the memo on this – it’s flat dough baked crispy with some sort of sauce, lots of cheese, and pretty much any topping you can think of, from pineapple to clams. How can you fuck it up? Peru can fuck it up.
OK, now that we have that squared away. Cuy Pizza.
After two previous run-ins with horrid Peruvian pies, I found myself in a quaint little gourmet restaurant in San Blas, my favorite neighborhood in Cusco. A gigantic wood-burning oven filled about a third of the space. Maybe this pizza would be different – maybe this time I would only be burned by glorious melty cheese, and not my hopes and dreams. Looking over the menu, my eye caught the word “cuy” on the list of custom pizzas.
I had been meaning to try guinea pig during my trip, but every time I’d seen it available it was extremely expensive and needed to be ordered a day in advance. One cannot simply drop into a Peruvian restaurant and order cuy, the way one can order beef or chicken. Because it’s a tourist gimmick. As far as I can tell, locals only eat cuy at certain holidays; it reminded me a little bit of the Alligator Sauce Picante I’m familiar with from Louisiana. Alligator is not an everyday food – it’s a tourist food and a food to be sampled once every few years at a quirky little festival somewhere in the remote reaches of the swamp.
But I’m a food and travel writer. How can I come to Peru and pass up the most famous local delicacy, simply because it’s expensive and touristy? Macchu Picchu was expensive and touristy, and I loved it. Cuy pizza seemed like a good compromise – if it was as horrible as it had the potential to be, I’d only be out $5. So I ordered it.
The oven was fired up, and soon my guinea pig pizza arrived. It looked somewhat like actual pizza. The crust was cooked through and had a bit of char. The cheese was clearly of the shredded variety, and it was actually melted on the pizza. All good signs. And it was liberally decorated with little bites of meat which looked to have been fried in their own fat. Nice.
The cuy itself tasted, honestly, like pretty much any meat that had been fried up to the point of deliciousness. Reminiscent of rabbit, or maybe of the nutria I once ate in gumbo (long story). But definitely good. And it worked on the pizza – it was something I could see being offered at Motorino or Keste, if those restaurants had access to food-grade guinea pig.
So, guinea pig. Enjoyed. What bizarre animal should I try next? Let me know in the comments.
*This post originally appeared on my bestie Valerie Whitney’s blog, Brooklyn Nom.*
“I know we agreed it was a bad idea, but guess what?”
Without giving me a chance to respond, Kyle answers her own question. “I bought a TV. Lina’s roommate is moving to Bushwick and selling it. I got a great deal! I couldn’t not buy it!”
It’s as if she thinks I’d make her take it back. But I’m in the midst of research for a swashbuckling period screenplay. I’ve lost patience with the insect-sized cast of Lawrence of Arabia marching across a desert rendered five inches tall by my laptop’s screen. I want a big TV.
Within minutes we’re online looking for a way to get the thing home from Lina’s apartment over on Bergen Street. It’s one of the last summer weekends, and there is only one rental car nearby: A BMW.
Kyle and I throw on flip flops and run out into the heat. Her hair is in a ponytail. I’m not wearing a bra. We are renting a sports car to transport a used television three blocks to our derelict walk-up apartment in the hood.
The deal is that Kyle gets to drive to Lina’s, while I get to drive home. We roll down the windows, pop the sun roof, and blare the radio. The Muppets’ rendition of “Mah Na Mah Na” is on. We’re okay with that. Two corner bodegas, a dollar store, and Adjua’s African Braiding Salon stream by – and then we’re there.
Kyle parks our sweet ride opposite a basketball court and we dash across Bergen Street. I press the buzzer. “Hey, Lina, we’re here! I have cash,” Kyle hollers over the intercom. Lina buzzes us in and we fly up the stairs of her tenement building. It’s as if slowing down might cause us to change our minds.
Just as quickly we’re back outside with our new behemoth. Teenagers loitering on the basketball court stare at the three white girls – one of whom is not wearing shoes – trying despite sweaty palms to wedge a forty-six inch television into the back seat of a Beemer.
The door clicks shut. I look to Kyle expectantly: this will be my first time operating such an illustrious vehicle. As she digs for the keys in her mirrored Rajasthani handbag, Lina touches the back pocket of her cutoffs. She looks up at both of us.
“I left my keys upstairs.”
We eat tacos on the stoop, waiting for Lina’s friend Omar to come over with a spare set. Neighbors spin Jamaican ska records, and the beat wafts down the block with the smells of their barbecue. The kids on the basketball court alternate staring at the car, then us, then back to the car. We stare back, pretending this is just another Brooklyn afternoon.
It’s fair to say that I’ve been living under a rock for the last few months. Work is intense – fourteen hour days in the production office on a freshman network drama. In my “spare time” I’m either working on my screenplay or churning out assignments for Matador U. When I’m not writing, I’m mostly sleeping. Needless to say, keeping up with the New York City pizza scene has fallen by the wayside.
But apparently there have been molto developments, of late.
First Di Fara got shut down by the health department, for obvious reasons (if eating totally unsanitary pizza is wrong, I don’t want to be right). Now it’s apparently back open? I dunno, the whole thing happened while I was emailing production reports to studio bigwigs.
And then there’s the big one – GRIMALDI’S IS CLOSING DOWN. HOLY SHIT, Y’ALL, GRIMALDI’S IS CLOSING DOWN. This is big. This is like the death of CBGB’s, or when they stopped having awesome concerts at McCarren Park Pool so they could turn it back into a pool (yay? boo? still undecided there).
Yes, if you read the link you’ll notice it’s from August of last year. Honestly I figured they’d worked out their problems with the landlord – after all, this is the city that brought the Second Avenue Deli back from the dead. If we can’t deal with a little back rent, can we really call ourselves a truly world-class metropolis?
The upshot is that, due to disputes with the landlord, Grimaldi’s Pizza owner Frank Ciolli is closing the original location and moving next door.
This might not sound like a big deal, except that there is one thing you have to know about what makes Grimaldi’s pizza the best in the city. The coal-burning oven. The current Grimaldi space has one, grandfathered in after the city stopped issuing permits for them due to environmental concerns. The new location presumably doesn’t. Thus, even if the people who currently own Grimaldi’s open an identical pizzeria next door to their original location, and serve the exact same kind of pizza made in the exact same way (sans coal), it’s not going to be Grimaldi’s pizza at all. It just won’t. Grimaldi’s is doomed!
Enter Patsy Grimaldi, the guy who originally opened Grimaldi’s Pizzeria back in 1990 and later sold the business to Ciolli. He and his wife have decided to rent the Grimaldi’s space – including its grandfathered-in coal oven – and open a new pizzeria, Juliana’s.
So now we’ll have two pizzerias run by NYC pizza royalty right next door to each other, each claiming the Grimaldi’s pedigree.
God, this city is fucked up, isn’t it? It’s almost enough to make you want to open a hot dog stand that also sells fresh squeezed fruit drinks.
Sorry for the lack of posting over the last couple days. I was busy making my kitchen look like this:
After an overnight train from Mumbai, I arrived in the provincial city of Margao just as the poky train to Canacona was boarding. Canacona is the end of the line for travelers headed for beach towns like Palolem in the deep south of Goa. Since this was the last train of the day and the ride takes only an hour, I bought a seat in the lowest class. 35 rupee ticket in hand, I piled in and took the last seat on a wooden bench, pack on my lap, between an elderly couple on their way to Gokarna and a young woman nursing a newborn.
Leaving Margao, we were soon deep in the countryside. All the cheesy water parks and mini-golf courses in Florida are modeled on Goa. Our bright blue train moved through rolling hills covered in jungle. We passed gurgling streams, water buffalo wading in flooded rice paddies, groves of coconut palms, and thatched huts.
In Canacona, I met my first tout. All the guidebooks to India go on and on about touts. They’re seemingly idle guys who wait around outside train stations and tourist sites offering various services. They will guide you through ruins, find you a hotel room, carry your bags, and most of them also drive rickshaws. The archetypal western attitude towards this – if Lonely Planet is any indication – is abject horror.
Why that is, I don’t know, because they seem handy enough to me. I got off the train. I needed a rickshaw. Dude walked up to me and asked if I needed a rickshaw. I said yeah. We dickered over the price a little, agreed, and then drove off: transaction complete.
We took a narrow road out of town, stopping along the way to pick up a more passengers: two aunties who were either fisherwomen or straight from the fish market, I wasn’t sure. But they got in with their baskets of fish and we bumped our way into the jungle.
We passed gangs of kids playing cricket with hand-carved bats under palm trees, roaside shacks selling everything from laundry soap to local beer, coconut orchards, more rice paddies, and dropped off the aunties just outside the tourist mecca of Palolem. We got stuck in a traffic jam. A traffic jam of cows. After several minutes waiting for the cows to graze their way out of the road, we sped past them and into the coastal village of Agonda, my destination for the next week and a half.
- Inspired by BootsNAll’s 30 Days Of Indie Travel Project. Today’s prompt is TRANSIT. -