Archive for July, 2009

Best laid plans…

I have made it, somewhat to my own surprise, to San Antonio.

It’s been an exhausting time of it. Since I decided to skip Houston, I had to leave Baton Rouge on a 12:30am bus, making Greyhound even more of an appealing prospect than usual. However, I hadn’t slept that well the previous night and soon after I had said goodbye to TheRoadVirus and friends I found myself in that dim twilight world between sleep and sleeplessness. I needed to sleep, but couldn’t, and if I did, I might miss my stop and end up in Dallas. And nobody wants to end up in Dallas.

Well, maybe Debbie.

But I soon learned I couldn’t rely on the driver. We had a lay-by stop scheduled about an hour in, and as we pulled up and the bus regurgitated its tired cargo, the driver informed us we had 35 minutes. Staying on the bus was about as appealing as something not very appealing, so I wandered in to the generic Food Mart. In fact, that was its name – ‘Food Mart’. There was a little cafĂ© area with chairs and tables, and that translated to a bed well enough for me. I set my alarm for 30 minutes hence and put my head down in what seemed like the most luxurious four-poster imaginable.

Twenty-nine minutes later I saw my alarm was about to go off, and looked up. The place was eerily empty. Not auspicious. The man at the counter was looking at me rather worriedly.
‘You bus?’ he asked.
‘Yes?’
He was not impressed by this answer, and impressed upon me the impression that unless I pressed myself, I would soon find myself in rather pressing circumstances. I ran out the door to find the bus pulling out on to the freeway. Thankfully, the driver saw me and stopped. I stumbled aboard.

‘You said thirty-five minutes!’ I accused in a kind of incredulous gasp, trying to ignore the fact that I would have been in clear view of him when he left the shop.
‘How long were we?’
‘Thirty!’ I said. The driver, however, was implacable.
‘You wanna go back?’

The remainder of the trip was spent in similar conditions; trying not to fall asleep so much that I’d overshoot, yet desperate for some rest. I made it, however, and met up with TK at San Antonio station as planned. I didn’t really get a chance to see the city as we drove through it, but after we got home and had a revitalizing deli sandwich (the healthiest thing I’ve eaten in days), we started planning the evening – or rather, I sat back and munched away whilst TK and his lovely fiance discussed the options. It was going to be impossible not to grab an hour or two rest, though, so at three in the afternoon I said I’d turn in for a while, and that I’d be up at five.

And indeed I was up at five. I mean, a five. It was just that it was the kind of five that would draw a rather arch comment from Professor McGonagall, and probably a detention. Ten points from Flippyndor, etc. There was a very nice and understanding note on the door from my hosts, though.

Anyway, it’s 6:13am, and I should probably go do something productive. I must see something of San An today, if only so I have more to write about than my somnambulist adventures.

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End of part one

So, it’s two in the morning and I’m sitting in my underwear in a flat in Baton Rouge.

Look, it’s really hot, okay?

Anyways, just before I set out, I took another look at my route (check out the mileage!), and decided that there were some fairly clear demarcations to be observed. Five, in fact. This is the end of the first.

Time for some reflection.

Thus far, America has been close to my expectations in many ways. Ideas I had about its scenery, demeanor, passions and fears have shown themselves to be much similar to what I’ve seen. But there has been a capacity to surprise as well. The underlying sense I get, irrespective of who I talk to or what views they may hold, is actually one of constant, low-level crisis. Everything seems to be a bit of a battleground here, some more serious than others. But whether it’s sports teams or states rights, it’s a zero-sum world. All or nothing. My side, your side. And God help you if you switch sides, because everything is always about to go catastrophically wrong, and so much is at stake.

In a way, I love it. I love that people over here have ideas and causes and commitments. The currency of enthusiasm has seemed long devalued back home, and whilst that might arguably lead to a more level-headed approach to things, there’s a sense that politics and beliefs and aims are something that happens to other people, which is why we get neo-nazi white supremacists elected to the European Parliament. The Britain I know is not one where one in ten people want to sink immigrant boats with the immigrants still in them, but when turnout is at 33% due to apathy, the zealots are going to get a bigger slice. At least that’s not a problem here.

Anyway, enough of politics. It extends beyond that. Almost every American I’ve talked to has some kind of passion or raison d’etre in their life, and that’s tremendously… well, gratifying. Maybe I’ve talked to a really unrepresentative sample in the UK, or here, but back home so many people just don’t seem to care. The contrast is noticeable.

Elsewhere, there’s been a much bigger emphasis on food than I had expected. Perhaps I should have seen that coming (it’s a joke!), but the tradition of the diner is something interesting to me. I will gladly confess that up until about 2000, England had really bad food. We’re better now, honest. But because we never really established a culinary tradition outside of the greasy back-ends of chip butties and Very Questionable Pies, we didn’t develop the idea of ‘quality’ everyday food. America did. I’ve eaten at a tonne of diners now, and whilst there is a certain (if often only slight) processed, mass-produced feel to even the most gourmet fare, it’s undeniably tasty stuff, and you sure get a lot of it. In the Mariatta Diner, Atlanta, $13 bought me a chicken and spaghetti dish where the ethos apparently involved taking a whole chicken and pounding it flat, then frying it. Twice. It was so much that I had to take half of it home in a polystyrene box, which I have learnt is a common thing over here, and did I mention it came with a complimentary bowl of soup and a weird little feta-cheese-puff-pasty-parcel-with-spinach-I’m-not-quite-sure-what-it-was?

A lot of bang for your collective buck, that’s for sure. And of course, in the south they take things like this seriously. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Twenty-pound steaks on fire off a 2000C grill. I watched french fries sizzle in the pan near a bucketful of liquid cheese. All those calories will be lost in time, like fat in oil. Time to eat.

You better have got that reference.

Anyway, what else… people are friendly. I heard folks say down here that people in, say, Philadelphia, are jerks. And it’s true I’m sadly missing New England and I won’t get to sample the legendary philanthropic delights of Boston etc., but I gotta say I think we’re operating on a different standard. People are much more ready to talk here. I mean, unlike in England, you can make an observation without fear that you’re going to be glared at, run away from and or punched. It means I’ve talked to a bunch of strangers whilst travelling, and gleaned a whole heap of interesting anecdotes, information and other titbits that I only wish I had the time to transcribe in full. For each story I’ve told you, I’ve missed a dozen others. Someday we shall sit around the campfire and talk as men.

However, I’ve gone on far too long now. 45 minutes have passed since I started the post, and I promised you all some media. So, I hope you, uh, enjoy these little moments I’ve tried to capture and not had a chance to show you before. Here’s the link to the hi-res album, where you can find more.

The first leg of my trip is over.

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Houston, we have a problem

Houston, we need to talk. You’re full of fat people and spaceships and I just don’t think it’s working out. I mean, you’re a city, and I’m a guy… it just feels like you can’t ever give me your full attention, you know what I mean? I think we should see other people.

That is to say, I am cutting Houston from my schedule. A bunch of reasons mean that I really can’t be bothered with the hassle it’ll cause, and I’m also having a great time with TheRoadVirus and co. here in Baton Rouge, so although I shall still wind up in San Antonio on the designated day, Houston will sadly have to go without.

I didn’t say every post would be interesting =(

When the jazzman testifies

Let me write more of New Orleans.

Specifically, I’d like to tell you more about last night. As I said, I tripped into town in the company of two other India House tenants. We avoided the commercial side of The Big Easy to start with, swinging into Frenchman street via Jackson Square. This is the more authentic, relaxed area of the city, with the gorgeously decrepit houses listing gently in the damp night air. Iron lattice adorns every balcony, the houses are brightly coloured in peeling paints, and the shuttered windows are always missing a couple of slats. The streets are always full of reflections, as the water never has anywhere to go. You pick your way carefully.

The immistakable echo of distant live music decided our bearing for us, and minutes later we were tapping away at the exuberant street corner band whose video clip I will upload when possible (don’t worry, I paid). The night drains the moisture from your body, though, and we were driven by necessity to another bar where a middle-aged blues band with a classic sound, scratchboard and all, held the audience in thrall. It was good – great, even – but our feet were itchy to see more of the city, and a night in New Orleans without at least a glancing visit to Bourbon Street is a wasted night.

Bourbon Street is legendary. And rightly so. It is jammed with partygoers, tourists, hawkers, dealers, theives, pimps, posers, gangsters and drunks. Neon bounces off the walls, the pools of unidentifiable providence that lick around the cobbles, and the glitzy attire of feathers, beads and sequins. This is one of the few areas in the USA (I’m given to understand) where street drinking is a-ok, and the result is pure mayhem. For some revellers, the street is the bar, and there’s no way they’re going to stay in no punk establishment. For others, well… let’s be honest, the commercialisation of the area is comprehensive, and there’s an awful lot of awful places. However, we found a diamond in the rough; a real oasis of classy amidst the bawling and the baulking.

It was a place called Friztle’s, an ostensibly German-run bar with a stage for a swinging jazz band – a blind pianist, a youthful trombonist, a tubby drummer, a placid bassist and a roguish trumpeteer. The music was brilliant, just brilliant. I couldn’t stop my hands, fingers, toes, head – well, my entire being – from tapping, clicking, stamping and swaying to the syncopations and cross-rhythms. I ordered a couple of drinks, and between them they saw me very much a man unafraid to be possessed by the musical elements. However, I still noticed that the lead trumpet and singer – easily 60 – had a sort of distance in his eyes. The cool sangfroid of professionalism? A weary disinterest? I didn’t want to believe that a man who could do such amazing things had grown tired of his own magic. It troubled me.

Back in Atlanta, I had been talking to Sara on a train when a beyond-middle-age black man sat near us turned to me.
‘You English?’ he said in a thick southern drawl. He then handed me a card. Veteran Care Services, United States Marines Corp. I turned it over in my hands. It’s easy to make jokes about the USA being gung-ho when you’re sat at home. Too easy, really. The man in front of me was the kind of guy who really paid the bill. He ticked off a list of locations on his hand – places he had been posted. The Philippines, France, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea… on and on. I handed the card back wordlessly, but he didn’t need a prompt. ‘And you know what? I come back to th’ South… and nothin’s changed.’
‘Nothing?’ I asked.
‘Nothin’. Nothin’ here ever changes.’
He sat back in his seat and suddenly it was our stop. I didn’t get the chance to ask him what he meant.

His words returned as I tried to figure out the eyes of the man in front of me. And then suddenly a new song came around, and it was about an old street in New Orleans, and that was where the pupils came to life. And maybe it sounds silly, but I swear I could feel it this time around, the passion, the love of this place. I couldn’t presume to speculate and my conversation with him was about music, but I do wonder if, after Katrina, after all the ups and downs of the city’s chequered history, whether the jazzman in front of me wanted things to change – or not.

Playing up a storm

Everyone knows. Everyone in the street bears the marks of Katrina. The streets themselves hum with it. This city was treated with contempt and left to drown. People thought it was the end of the Big Easy. I remember watching the news.

But not so.

I love this city more than anywhere I’ve yet been, and already I know my only regret is going to be that I didn’t see enough of it. Even writing this (on a tiny EEE PC donated by a nice Australian girl), I can feel the time burning down. But I have to write!

I arrived yesterday, crossing the huge causeway over the Ponchatraine, so vast that, unlike the English channel, you can’t see the other side. We had driven a long way, through three states, over miles of elevated wetlands road and straight through the middle of a vicious Mississippi thunderstorm. I could dedicate a post to the trip alone, but I shall have to settle for thanking Jon and his family profusely.

The place we rolled up to, India House, was somewhere I immediately felt at home. Open only to students and foreign travellers, the hostel is a bohemian, carefree oasis of communal lounging and pheremones. As I trundled up the steps a man strumming away on a guitar bid me hello with all the sincerity of an old friend. The House is literally one of the coolest places I have ever been.

I had a definite objective. It was seven thirty pm and I had nightlife to sample. I ran into a Londoner, Rich, and the aforementioned sheila, Bree. They took me under their wing and we set off on foot into the French Quarter.

If you’ve not been, it’s everything you’ve heard and more. Not three minutes into the achingly beautiful streets and we’re listening to an energetic street band playing superbly. I have videos of a lot of this stuff btw, but that will have to wait until I have more time.

I could write about the French Quarter for a long time. It is absolutely unique, like nowhere I’ve been before. Men and women stand on balconies showering the throbbing street below with bead necklaces whilst live music pulses, swings, and blasts through the stifling night air. The place frequently smells awful, there are about a hundred strip clubs, you can’t move without ramming into someone else and everyone seems either crazy, drunk, lost, or all three.

It’s marvellous.

We checked out a few places and saw some good acts, but eventually found an awesome place with a traditional live jazz band of astonishing skill. In the interval, I approached the trombonist(?). I was stunned to find that he had only played with the group once before. I asked him how he did it.

‘This music… this music is a language, you know?’ he said, eyes shining and drink flailing in his hand. ‘If you speak it, it doesn’t matter, you can just play. I know some songs that Charlie doesn’t know, he knows some that I don’t know, but it’s a language, that’s the only way I can describe it!’ He swung past me to get back to the stage and then winked over his shoulder with a grin. ‘Plus, it’s a great way to meet cute girls, yeah?’

I later found out he had been there two years with no job, and didn’t often get a cut of the jar. He just plays every night for the love of music and free drinks. Some people seem to be able to find completely different ways of living.

I could go on. There’s so much to say! But I need to go. I just don’t have enough time, and I want to get to cafe du monde for a beignet.

This is CNN

Hello all.

Phew, what a day yesterday. As I said, JonXP and I headed into Atlanta downtown, which is to say we traveled from one city to another, slightly bigger city, via a city. We took the rudimentary-but-gets-the-job-done rail system in, and found ourselves at Five Points, the central station. Just outside is the entrance to the Underground, which is really pretty cool. In the Civil War, Atlanta was burned to the ground by the famous Union General Sherman, as forever immortalized by Gone With The Wind. When the time came to rebuild, instead of clearing out the rubble that was left, they built right over it. The space below the street is now a shopping centre with a lot of the original brickwork still on show. Very interesting, but hellishly difficult to photograph.

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From there we traveled on to the CNN International Headquarters, which actually proved to be absolutely fascinating. The tour wasn’t much in the way of content, but what was there was pretty great. After ascending on the world’s longest freestanding escalator into a giant globe, we walked along a little corridor at the back of the studio where a show was going out live that very minute (re: Obama’s healthcare speech). It’s highly surreal to see the back of the anchorman as the autocue scrolls away in front, with the weatherman away to the side. Also, you know how you always see the people on computers in the office behind the anchors, and everyone thinks it’s a fake? Well, it’s not. In fact, I got to see possibly the most Unbearable Person On Earth at one of the desks. A tubby early-thirties chap with long frizzy dark blonde hair and an excruciatingly fastidious manner. Really quite something.

Anyway, after this we visited the Coke museum, but decided not to go in, and then trundled over to Little Five Points, which is a small bohemian enclave lurking a little way from the centre of town, smoking a spliff and trying not to draw attention to itself. Very cool place, reminded me a lot of those weird little areas in London that somehow house thirty different tattoo parlours on one street.

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Everywhere has ‘tobacco accessories’ on sale, which is exactly what you think it is. Some of them are really very inventive. We then went to Vortex, which is the skull-adorned place from the previous post. Inside, the objective as I understand it is to eat the food before it eats you, though the decor does its best to distract.

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After heading home and sloughing off the city from myself, I headed out once again and joined up with Sara Lynn and Aneurhythmia for the night. We went to a nice place out on the fringes of town, where I could get a good glass of white wine, and then headed to Aneurhythmia’s place for smash bros. and lounging around, and also somewhere to crash. This morning I met Sara’s cat, who is teething, and had the ubiquitous ‘biscuits’, which turned out to be scones. All very tasty. After a brief jaunt in the park, though, it was time to come back here to Jon’s place.

And now we’re off again, to eat copious amounts of barbecue.

Tomorrow is an all-day drive to New Orleans, where I’m staying for the first time in hostel accommodation, so it’ll be a while until you next hear from me. But news shall follow!

‘Til next time.

Rainy days in Georgia

Hello all,

JonXP – whose daughter calls me ‘Fwippy’, by the way – took me on a grand tour of the sights of Atlanta today. However, I am off out to sample the nightlife with Aneurhythmia and Sara Lynn, so I’ve no time to stop and post today. I’ll make up for it tomorrow. In the meantime, have some photos:

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Write-up tomorrow!

– Fwippy


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