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They say…Never Visit Boston in the Winter!

Man, oh, man. I did not know what winter was until this past weekend! Despite the fact that I lived in St. Etienne for a year, through heat, fair weather, then five months of blustering snow, I have no memories of feeling as cold and miserable as I’ve felt for the past few days. Part of that is due, I’d imagine, to the fact that visiting somewhere generally entails a fair amount of walking and walking generally entails a fair amount of being outside. Over in France, I spent a little bit of time outside in that awful weather – most notably when I ran 20 miles in shorts and a tank top while it snowed down on me – but I was always able to go back to my sweet, little enclave where I could warm myself and drink copious amounts of wine until I passed out. Being a visitor, though, motivates me to be out, out, out as much as possible. When researching this trip to Boston, I read some iteration of “Avoid visiting during the winter” over and over. The timing couldn’t be helped since we came here for a conference. Sadly, the most famous tourist attraction in Boston, the Freedom Trail, is a series of  landmarks along a 2.5 mile-long paved, brick road. In some cases, we must persevere, and persevere we did. I managed to see many outdoor attractions while in Boston, but you better believe I mixed in some indoor oases along the way! Here are some highlights.

I’m a runner – former marathoner…PR of 4:24 a few years ago in Eugene. But for some reason, I don’t usually have good runs when I travel. Possibly, I like to look around too much, and it inhibits my concentration on running. In any event, I ran twice while in Boston – once on on the Esplanade along the Charles River and again down Broadway to Castle Island in Southie. The Esplanade is a fantastic path, much like the Willamette River trail in Eugene, but shorter. The views are not as majestic, but I

imagine that failing was in part due to the iciness of the river, its banks, and THE WORLD IN GENERAL! I don’t think anyone will be sitting on these chairs chatting anytime soon.

Nobody is trying to sit here

My run to Castle Island was also cool. I never encountered a problem crossing streets – even on Saturday, the traffic wasn’t too crazy – and about 2 miles from our apartment, Castle Island awaited. It is a circle of land, essentially, with a lake in the middle and a running path around it. The lake is one of the most popular swimming spots in Boston, a fact I didn’t want to think about as the temperature dropped ten degrees once I got on the water. It’s also part of the Boston HarborWalk, a path that circles the city along all of its waterways. You can read more about Castle Island here: http://www.bostonharborwalk.com/placestogo/location.php?nid=6&sid=44.

After all of that being outside, you can bet that I tried to get inside at every opportunity. I did that by visiting the Boston Public Library, Harvard’s Natural History Museum, and eating a lot! The Boston Public Library is an amazing place to visit, as there is art all over. John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint an entire gallery in the Library, part of which is seen below and is pretty beautomous.

John Singer Sargent MuralThe library is filled with art, and of course books, in addition to being super beautiful, people actually visit the library to read as well! While I was visiting, I also saw the current exhibition, which was about historic maps of the Northeast. I saw a Ptolemic map that was 500 years old! Pretty awesome. I definitely suggest a visit to the BPL – http://www.bpl.org/central/walkmckim.htm – if you’re in Boston, particularly during inclement weather!

In addition to going to Modern Pastry, we ate a lot! After we saw the Celtics almost beat the Pacer’s (and Kris Humphries have the game of his life) in the Garden, I had a mean craving for Belgian waffles. Some BU graduates predicted the future and anticipated this need of mine, and opened Saus, a purveyor of: Belgian waffles, Poutine, beer and fries in cones with, you guessed it, sauce! I was really craving Off the Waffle, a delicious breakfast spot in Eugene (if you’re ever in Eugene, GO THERE!), and Saus, given its convenient location and delicious offerings, definitely satisfied my craving, even though the waffle didn’t come topped with goat cheese, basil and bacon. Saus is positioned by all of the bars downtown, Irish pubs where people wait in line to get in (odd, no?) and I’m sure by 1 AM the place would have been overflowing with drunks, but when we went, around 10 on a Saturday night, there was a small crowd…enough people to make it fun but not so many that we couldn’t sit. Yes to Saus.

We also went on the hunt for a Lobster Roll. After doing tons of Yelpsearch (research on Yelp) and comparing the looks of places in person, we decided to go to Neptune Oyster. All the bad things you’ve read about Neptune Oyster are true: it’s tiny (maybe can seat 45 people), it’s busy all the time, the staff are get-down-to-business, the wait time is long and it’s pricey. Reading all of those things, and some bad reviews about the food – a few but not many – normally would dissuade me from going to a place like this. I usually hate going to “tourist traps” given that I live in a city that is famous for them. But, man, despite all that, I would wholeheartedly recommend going to Neptune Oyster. First, they allow you to put your name of a list and they take your phone number so you can disappear for a while. Here’s a hint, don’t show up starving in case there is a 2 hour wait. As a tiny group of 2, our wait was 45 minutes, just long enough for us to run up the street and see the Paul Revere House. If you’re walking the Freedom Trail, like we were, it’s super easy to squeeze this in. Put your name down as soon as you get into North End, then go see the various sites on the trail that are in the vicinity.

When the host called us, we were about 4 minutes away, and he was super cool about holding the table while we ran over. Sure, the place has some tourists – we were sandwiched between them, and we were them ourselves – but there were lots of locals and regulars there too. And then the lobster roll. THE LOBSTER ROLL. It’s available hot with butter or cold with mayo. Super straightforward. AND IT’S DELICIOUS. Normally, we would never order the same thing at a restaurant, in order to get a smattering of as much food as possible. But we both got the hot lobster roll and it was sooooooooo good. Barry and the Lobster

We also went to Sportello, a diner-type restaurant in our little neighborhood run by Barbara Lynch, of Menton and No. 9 Park fame. Like the losers that we are, we ended up in the bar downstairs – called, “Drink” I think – wondering if we were in Sportello or not. The bartender had a ripe laugh, as we ordered some Cava and got directed upstairs. Sportello is mostly a pasta place and again, it was super delicious. Gnocchi, Burrata, Tagliatelle, everything was good. But the standout here, believe it or not, was the dip served with bread at the beginning of the meal. It really reminded me of my heart attack soup – olive oil and sea salt that I put in a bowl, and then just soak bread in – but this had whipped goat cheese (!!!) and peach jam (!!!) in addition to the olive oil and sea salt. Yes please! It was delicious and our server kept them coming.

So, even though we’re not supposed to visit Boston in the winter, Barry and I did, and we survived! It was cold – to be sure, and by Tuesday, we were ready to escape. But, there are enough indoor diversions (barely) and boots for sale to make it possible to make it through a visit.

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A cannoli is 3 dollars but add 50 cents for pistachios!

I’ve been eating cannolis for forever…when people at Brocato’s express reticence about taking cannoli to go, I always tell them that I used to take one home on a Sunday night and eat it for breakfast on my way to high school the next morning. The sugar would soak into the shell, making it soft, sure, but also, extra sweet and delicious. So, I had to come to the North End while I was in Boston to get a cannoli at one of two places, either Mike’s Pastry or Modern Pastry. A million years ago, I had a cannoli at Mike’s and remember not being too much of a fan. Many people who know Boston recommended that I go to Modern instead, so after a freezing cold day walking around snow-covered Boston, I found myself wandering towards Hanover Street in order to get something warm and sit for a while. Before I got my dessert, I thought it would be prudent to eat lunch first. So I went to a sweet little shop called Bread + Butter and had the most delicious baguette stuffed with Brie cheese, caramelized onions, grilled pear and fig jam. Then I stumbled down Hanover and into Modern Pastry.

The shop is tiny and a long line extends from the counter to the door. There are small tables pushed against an exposed brick wall and, much like Brocato’s, the chairs were filled with both locals and tourists. I stuck with the classics. I ordered a traditional ricotta cannoli dipped in pistachio nuts, and then had to get two chunks of Torrone: one plain and one chocolate hazelnut. For good measure, I added a pignoli cookie and a pistachio macaroon. A nice, warm cappuccino brought my total to $19.50 – thank goodness I had a 20. The Modern location on Hanover is cash only.

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I had to shuffle a bit to go back-and-forth from my table, which I had reserved by placing my hat and gloves on the top, and the counter where people were crowded around the one register waiting for their boxes and their drinks. Listening to the refrain of, “who’s next? ” definitely transported me back to the shop in New Orleans. The stern but friendly customer service is a requirement in a place that fills up very quickly like this. My server quickly made my cappuccino and delivered it with a nice sprinkling of cocoa on top.

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When I got to my table, I immediately began to devour the cannoli. The ricotta wasn’t as sweet as the ricotta filling that I’m used to back home. But it also didn’t taste as cheesy. It seems like it had been mixed into more of a cream cheese like texture, with faint and subtle hints of ricotta and sweetness. I didn’t venture out and try any of the other fillings, nor did I try a different type of shell – mostly because I had run out of money. So before I dug into my cappuccino, I started nibbling on the chocolate hazelnut Torrone. I’ve only ever had the Ferrara brand Torrone, and I have to say that this store-made, fresh Torrone is IN-credible. It is dense, sweet, rich and delicious. The almonds, which are suspended in the nougat provide a delicious, savory crunch. I will have to bring some back, especially because they offer a variety of different flavors: chocolate hazelnut, peanut butter, caramel and others that I don’t even remember.

I didn’t even get to scratch the surface of what was available at Modern Pastry; there was just too much stuff. But, after I ate, I did get to watch two young tourists pick apart a rumcake and try and figure out what it was made out of. The girl said it, “it sure is very rummy.” This exchange made me laugh because it made me think of how I felt when I first started eating all the delicious things of Brocato’s. Before I left the little shop, I wandered around the small space looking at the price tags that were hand written, the water fountain screwed into the brick wall, and all of the delicious imported goods that they sold on the shelves. My favorite part was noticing, before I walked out, that just like someone had done for Brocato’s, an artist drew and colored a portrait of Modern Pastry, as it appears from outside. Very sweet.

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I went into the shop with very low expectations. Knowing how much work goes into producing all of these items makes me very skeptical that anyone else in the country would be willing to take so much time and energy to make them. It’s wonderful to see people making products from scratch, in their own little shop, and serving them every day. The fact that the goods were delicious makes it even more wonderful. The macaroons were some of the best I’ve ever had, and the Torrone was out of this world.

I had spent the previous part of the day walking around Boston Commons and spent the rest of the day taking the harbor walk back to South Boston. While walking to the grocery store on Broadway before I went back to our apartment, I stumbled upon the bar that I snuck into when I visited my friend here at Boston University 15 years ago. We were stupid, college freshman, only 18, and looking for an adventure in Southie. I only recognized the bar because of the Dropkick Murphy’s and free Ireland mural on the wall outside of the building. I can’t believe I randomly ended up staying right down the block.

After taking a few hours to warm up, and listening to Barry tell me about his experiences at the Sloan conference, we girded ourselves against the cold and headed back to North End to go to the Improv Asylum for their Friday night show. It was a mixture of improv and sketch comedy, and it is way more professional than the improv that we have in New Orleans. That being said it also has less room for crazy antics and random asides. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. But I will say, Improv Asylum was hilarious.

Today, off for a run to the end of South Boston, then to the Athenaeum for a talk at noon, then the public library, and if I can handle it I might walk down Newbury Street. Then we’ll head to the Garden tonight for a game – Boston versus Indiana.

Visiting Boston: our first meal at the original Lucca in North End

Barry and I are here in Boston, Mass. So that he can attend the uber-nerdy Sloan Conference put on by MIT. After a long day of flying that followed a long night of packing, we descended through snowy skies onto the tarmac at Boston’s Logan airport. Traveling into the city on public transportation is so easy compared to what we experience in New Orleans! We snagged a 7-day Charlie card for unlimited rides on the T – a steal at only 18 bucks – and jumped on the free silver line bus to South Station. Our little Air BnB apartment is located on the western edge of South Boston…not to be confused with South End across the Fort Point Channel…and is conveniently near a T stop and Broadway Ave., where, according to our host, we will see Bostonians engaging in some serious Sunday Funday shenanigans. We declined to mention that in New Orleans, Sunday Funday started last week…

Once we arrived and installed ourselves we took one of those naps where you don’t really sleep…just lay, hoping to get rest…and then girded ourselves against the cold before heading up to North End for our big fancy meal in Boston. On the way, we were flanked by lots of loud ladies heading to TD Garden for the Justin Timberlake. I was a little jealous and amused to see that the majority of his fans that we encountered were basically our age – I feel less ashamed. 😘

Anyway, we took the advice of Barry’s Bostonian coworker and came to the original Lucca in North End. The restaurant is modern and spacious, with high ceilings, low lighting and small tables squeezed in. I’ve read other reviewers who dislike the tight fit because it leads to a loud atmosphere, but I viewed it as a bonus. Being so close to the tables near us always makes me feel like Barry and I need to lean in closer and be more intentional in our conversating…in my mind, it increases the romance. We sat by the front windows, my back to them and Barry facing them. Despite the freezing temps, I was warm throughout the meal and also had a great view of a botoxed babe trying to bag a daddy. Barry’s face would periodically illuminate as snow flurries dusted down. So far so good, Lucca.

As others have said, the wine list at Lucca is deep, whether you’d like on glass, a half bottle or more. As is my custom, I started with a kir royale and then we moved on to a delicious, crisp Pinot Bianco, the provenance of which I can’t remember.

After the pork trotter incident at MoPho, we were very careful about ordering. A super interesting gnocchi dish was ruled out after we dissected our feelings about pork belly (not a favorite, usually palatable, but not so soon after the trotter…) and felt comfortable after reading about oxtail. The oxtail starter, pictured here

20140228-092906.jpg was delicious. The key to a good oxtail is a nice, long braise in order to develop texture and get some tenderness from it. This oxtail was served with firm Romano beans, radish, and a delicious jus, topped with a nice surprise – salsa fresca. There could have been a bit more of the salsa because it added a really nice kick to the dish, but overall it was still a winner.

We asked our waitress if it was possible to order entrees in appetizer size – we would have gotten 4 or 5 of those instead of one app and two entrees – but she said it was impossible. I don’t totally believe her given that I read about someone doing just that, but whatever. Our waitress was not really interested in anything but perfunctory service… So we ordered the scallops with pea purée and the orrichiette with Italian sausage and broccoli rabe, with a slight breath of truffle oil highlighting every bite. Both entrees were HUGE and could have definitely been appetizer sized. The huge size of the entrees is the only reason I can justify their prices – 26 for the pasta and 34 for the scallops. I will say this…the orrichiette was delicious, in a comfort food type of way. It reminded me of the Mac and cheese place by Laura’s apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was the type of thing to eat on the couch while hungover. I don’t know where the sausage is from…if they make it in house or not, but it was exactly what Italian sausage should be. Moist, a hint of sweet, onion, garlic and fennel. Overall, the pasta dish was delicious but not so refined.

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The scallop entrée, on the other hand was more refined but the flavors were a bit muddled and the scallops were slightly overcooked. The various components – mortadella, black pepper creme fraiche, roasted fingerling potatoes – never fully meshed to create cohesion. I won’t say it was bad, because it wasn’t, but it did seem to be suffering from an identity crisis and, for 34 bucks, I fully expect great things, both in conception and preparation, and I think we got neither with this one…I didn’t take a pic of the scallops, but I did snap one of the tira misu that I had to try…it was too late to run across the street to Modern Pastry so we ordered one piece at Lucca and, like the entrees, the tira mi su was huge! It was also delicious, light and layered with hazelnut marscapone, a twist I found to be absolutely interesting and delicious. It was plated in a bed of citrus coulis, a twist I wasn’t so crazy about, but I appreciated the experimentation anyway!

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Overall, Lucca was delicious, and while I think prices may be a little higher than other North End locales, the experience is also a bit more upscale and thoughtful. It’s hard to eat anywhere when you’ve been eating in New Orleans for thirty years, but I will say that Lucca is a great introduction to Boston. On the way home, we wandered across JFK avenue back to the T at Haymarket and, along the way, we danced underneath spinning disco balls that were hanging above the sidewalk. Weird, but cool. I like. On the agenda today: walking/running/wandering/flanerie around the esplanade, Boston Common, the library and elsewhere while Barry is at Sloan.

Serena in the Morning

            Serena got up to go to school every weekday morning at 6:15. Before she went to the bathroom, brushed her teeth or hair, or ate breakfast, she pulled her blanket up to the head of the bed and smoothed it like cake batter in a flat pan. She collected the pillows from the bay window – fourteen if you counted them all – and arranged them on top of the checked cotton candy pink and cloud white comforter. Recently, the mere act of making her bed fatigued her so much that she would select the smallest pillow – a white square encased in lace with a small pocket stitched in the front for fallen teeth to be retrieved by a fairy – and take a nap at the foot of the bed, like a family dog.

            From that side of her bed, she couldn’t see the tape dispenser lined up next to the stapler next to the paperclip tray next to her six sharpened pencils and four ballpoint pens. She only saw the softness of the pillows she never slept on and the white curves of her headboard. To avoid attention, her quiet reprieve could last no longer than four or five minutes. Lolling out of her nap, she usually played out the minutes leading up to her departure for school.

            Even in her mental mapping, the hallway that led to the bathroom suffocated her. As she walked toward the shower, the smiling stares of her half-brothers and half-sister and aunts and uncles and cousins and other relations, as close or more distant, gripped her with teasing judgment. She knew the bathroom was close when she crossed over the four inches of hallway that smelled like a spring meadow. Serena had already endured fifteen springs, twelve or thirteen of which she could remember. Yet she could never match the smell of the cubed deodorizer to anything she had ever smelled during the springtime, other than those four inches of hallway.

            At 6:27 one Tuesday morning in October, Serena’s bed was made, her pillows standing sentry over the checkered comforter. (Her bed resembled a bouncy castle.) As she packed her school bag and printed a report on Of Mice and Men that she hadn’t had time to proofread, her mother skunked past her door. Moments later, the refrigerator door opened and closed and the stove click-click-clicked. Serena gathered her towel from the day before, despite its lingering wetness and possibilities of bacterial infection and, with the stealthy but vulnerable quiet of a hungry street cat, stalked past the meadow and into the tiled expanse of the bathroom.

            In the kitchen, her mother removed the tea kettle from the stove before it started steaming, eager not to wake her husband. Serena heard what sounded like a coroner scooping out a drowned person’s intestines – scoop and plop and scoop and plop – and as she turned the hot water knob, tried to picture yogurt or pancake batter instead. Given that it was Tuesday, she would not wash her hair. Since cooler, crisper air invaded the thinning trees and crowded streets, a wash twice a week was enough for her long brown locks.

            While the water pelletted her timid breasts and concave stomach, she coaxed the white bar of Ivory soap into a lather, and smoothed it first onto her stubbly legs. The onset of winter likewise meant a release from shaving, at least until swim practice resumed in the spring. Serena turned so that her back received the dull massage from the shower head, and she rubbed the soap into her shoulders with her right hand while her left arm cradled her head against the wall. She brought her hand to her face and only rinsed when the soap dripped down her cheeks into her mouth. Picturing the digital clock at attention next to her pencils, she replaced the bar into the cup and reached to the sink for her toothbrush.

            As if she were challenging her immune system to an internal duel, she turned the hot water knob until the shower was beating her with cold fistfuls of water with which she brushed her teeth. Her ears filled with water, blocking out the autopsy taking place down the hall. Serena opened her eyes for the first time since entering the shower as the foamy toothpaste refuse dropped from her mouth like pudding and diluted into the drain.

            Out of the shower, she smeared a hand across the mirror and revealed her sagging shoulders. Her towel hung limply from the door hook. Serena untied her dry hair and the dense heat plastered it to her back. When she was younger, she was afraid that her sticky legs would never part if she stood with her thighs touching in the bathroom humidity, that her arms would glue themselves to her sides, so she would stand with the door open and her legs and arms spread like an athlete preparing for callisthenic training. Her mom saw her chubby nine-year-old and wondered aloud, without looking into the bathroom at her daughter, “Where did my skinny Minnie go?” Serena aligned her body, wrapped the towel around her and in between her legs and shut the bathroom door.

            At fifteen, she didn’t have to worry about her legs touching anymore when she stood upright. The mirror’s film receded completely, and Serena moved her face close to the glass, searching for blemishes in need of removal. She’d begun biting her nails, partially to prevent herself from digging to deep into blackheads and pimples and damaging her skin. But, in the heat of the bathroom, the more offensive discrepancies released pus with a gentle push. Next to the plastic-wrapped cotton tampons that she had stopped needing for six months now sat a box of tissues. Serena grabbed one and blotted the blood that peeked from her pore.

            Back in her bedroom, she dressed in the clothes her mom had ironed the night before – a pink button-up and black corduroy pants for the cool weather. While she was in the shower, her mom had laid out some accessory suggestions on her desk – a nude headband, her pearl bracelet, even pink rubber bands for her braces. The headband held her hair back neatly, and Serena guided the matted clumps into a braid. Her face felt swollen from the heat, and was prominently unadorned as she grabbed the Alternative Spring Break brochure from her desk, herded it, along with her pencil case, into the small front pocket of her book bag and trundled down the hallway.

            “Good morning, sweetheart.” The bodies had been put away, and one half of a slice of whole wheat toast sat next to two egg whites on a blue and white plate. Serena’s mom was still wearing her pajamas – tiny gray yoga pants that swathed her legs into looking twice the size of their nude appearance. The pine cabinets shone through the spaces between her mother’s body, the wide gap between her thighs, the negative space between her head and shoulders where a thicker neck should have been. Her top was the largest thing on her, an old, worn t-shirt from a 10K she ran in 1987. “That headband looks great! You don’t want to wear your hair down today?” Serena eyed the other half of the toast in the garbage.

            “No, I have play rehearsal tonight, and you know they’ll just twist it back anyway to put that wig on. No use fixing it up.”

            “Oh, well, don’t you have class with Andrew today?” Andrew was a boy that kissed Serena on the cheek at her 8th grade graduation.

            “Andrew’s seen my hair in a braid before.” She stood at the counter and dwarfed her mother.

            “Went with the blue bands still?”

            She was trying to chew the bread with her molars to avoid getting crumbs stuck in her braces in the front. Gulping, she said, “I just didn’t have time this morning. And the meeting about spring break is before homeroom, so I’m already running late. I need to be there so I don‘t get stuck pouring foundations in Arkansas again. I‘ve been practicing my Spanish for Nicaragua.” The eggs congealed, and shivered with the movement of the plate like the toothpaste refuse before it hit the ground and slimed down the drain. “I think that’s how they’ll pick who goes where.” The crunching of the toast reverberated in the tall-ceilinged kitchen. Her mother looked up from the counter. 
            “Oh, you said you ran out of deodorant, right? Did you see the stick I left on your shelf?” 

            “Mom, I didn’t run out. I can’t use it. It all irritates my skin. You know that.”

            “No, no, this new kind I got…It’s supposed to be hypo-allergenic. And it doesn’t have aluminum. I talked to Dr. Fishman.”

            “You called Dr. Fishman?”

            “Sure.”

            “Mom, he’s a gynecologist.”
            “He said you shouldn’t be reacting this way to deodorant.”

            “Mom, what does he know about skin reactions? He’s not a dermatologist.”

            “He is a doctor, Serena. He’s gone to medical school. I think he knows what he’s talking about.”
            “I don’t know why we’re still talking about this. You know I have an appointment with a dermatologist on Monday.”

            “That dermatologist isn’t going to be happy about your face either. But anyway, Dr. Fishman said you’re fine. Just put the deodorant on.”

            “I won’t put it on. I can’t have another rash. I can’t walk around school scratching my armpits just so that I smell like a sea breeze.”

            “He said that your reactions aren’t normal.” Serena paused, put down her book bag, and slowly unbuttoned her shirt. “What are you doing?”

            “I’m showing you something Dr. Fishman doesn’t normally see.” She took her shirt off and raised her arms. Brown splotches ran for five inches in either direction from Serena’s underarms, where curly brown hairs once crowded in the brown nook, but now expanded and stretched. “They have finally healed. Finally. It took four weeks. I’ve cut all my fingernails so I can’t dig in, even though they itch so bad. And now they are finally healed.”

            “So, you’ve stopped shaving your underarms now?” A car horn beeped. Serena’s arms collapsed to her sides and she rebuttoned her shirt, revealing a wrinkle just below the shoulder. “Is that militant Mel, coming to save the day?” Serena smoothed the front of her shirt like she had smoothed down her comforter an hour before, and removed her headband. “I won’t let you out of this house until you put that deodorant on. You have to at least try it! Dr. Fishman recommended it.” Serena placed the ends of the headbands just above her ears like a doctor would place foam electrode pads on a patient to monitor or stimulate their brain or heart or muscles.  She pushed the band back, finalizing her staid appearance.

            Her book bag had four textbooks, her one-and-a-half inch binder, her pencil case, the brochure, a pair of tweezers and a half of a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. She picked it up from the ground and flipped it onto her back. It floated there, like a hot air balloon, threatening to take off and take her with it. Her face softened, as though a masseuse had just begun hot rock treatment on her back. “Do not leave this house,” her mother said. “I will bring you to school after you put your deodorant on.” Serena turned away from her mother and towards the front door. As her stepfather padded out of the hallway, her mother grabbed her long braid.

            “Good morning,” he yawned. Startled, her mother loosened her grip.

            “Morning,” Serena chirped, as she escaped toward the door.

            “What’s for breakfast,” she heard him ask as she shut the door and skipped down the walk to Mel’s car, a rusty Japanese box covered in her parents’ bumper stickers.

            Serena tried the door handle three times before it creaked open. As they drove away, she saw her mother peering from behind the curtains, like a cat in the window, not wanting to be outside, but wanting to see it nonetheless. Whether she was looking at Serena, Mel or the car, Serena couldn’t tell. Mel didn’t notice, and Serena didn’t tell her.

            

Inaugural Poet

That the US has an official poet for each inauguration is pretty amazing. It turns out that Robert Frost was the first inaugural poet, for JFK. Frost was 87 years old when he was asked to produce a poem for Kennedy’s inauguration! You can read about how Frost came to be included here, on poets.org. It’s actually a pretty sweet story. Apparently, the two shared banter about Kennedy being young and Frost being old, so when Frost responded by telegram to Kennedy’s request, he said, “IF YOU CAN BEAR AT YOUR AGE THE HONOR OF BEING MADE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, I OUGHT TO BE ABLE AT MY AGE TO BEAR THE HONOR OF TAKING SOME PART IN YOUR INAUGURATION.”

He finished the telegram saying, “I MAY NOT BE EQUAL TO IT BUT I CAN ACCEPT IT FOR MY CAUSE—THE ARTS, POETRY, NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME TAKEN INTO THE AFFAIRS OF STATESMEN.” As an ambassadorial endeavor on behalf of the arts, Frost championed poetry through the inauguration, by being present. In the current age, words come very cheaply. They are all over the internet, for free. We are lampooned by them on billboards and advertisements, read through them at work as we stare at a computer screen. Why would would read poetry? And if we read it, why would we ever pay for it?

When I read poems, I want them to be to my mind like swimming is for  my body. Whether a difficult swim where I struggle to breathe, or a good one where all body parts are on point, and I sail through 1500 meters, I leave the pool feeling massaged. My skin thins, and the tension from the water meets with my organs, cups them, allows them to move into and against the pool water. Words from poems do the same for my brain, for my vision, for the way I look out onto the world.

So, that only three poets since Frost have been included in presidential inaugurations is a bit sad, simply because inclusion is recognition, and allows more ambassadorialism for the arts. Nevertheless, Obama’s choice this year is a Cuban-conceived, Spanish-born gay American engineer/poet, Richard Blanco. Ever a politician, this selection seems to encompass so many issues for which Obama stumps, and harkens back to his victory speech in November: “I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

Blanco can take Frost’s sentiments many step forwards. As not just an ambassador for the arts, Blanco can represent so much about that mythical America, the land of poor looking for economic success, the land of gays looking for acceptance, the country where a poet has to do something else to earn money, because being an incredible poet is just not enough. To me, Blanco does represent something sad about us, about families that may not accept their gay children, whether or not their rights are recognized by the state. He represents the ever-present need to negotiate for acceptance, the requirement that we all have to stifle our honest feelings and thoughts, that if we don’t, we can risk alienation, ostracizing, loneliness, estrangement from the very people we are supposed to love the most. He represents the possibility of openness, of honesty, that if you are your true self, you can find acceptance and happiness and success, however you define it.

The New York Times has a brief article about him today. You can read it below or click on the title to get to the NYT site.

Poet’s Kinship With the President

By

WASHINGTON — From the moment Barack Obama burst onto the political scene, the poet Richard Blanco, a son of Cuban exiles, says he felt “a spiritual connection” with the man who would become the nation’s 44th president.

Like Mr. Obama, who chronicled his multicultural upbringing in a best-selling autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” Mr. Blanco has been on a quest for personal identity through the written word. He said his affinity for Mr. Obama springs from his own feeling of straddling different worlds; he is Latino and gay (and worked as a civil engineer while pursuing poetry). His poems are laden with longing for the sights and smells of the land his parents left behind.

Now Mr. Obama is about to pluck Mr. Blanco out of the relatively obscure and quiet world of poetry and put him on display before the entire world. On Wednesday the president’s inaugural planners will announce that Mr. Blanco is to be the 2013 inaugural poet, joining the ranks of notables like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.

“Since the beginning of the campaign, I totally related to his life story and the way he speaks of his family, and of course his multicultural background,” Mr. Blanco said in a telephone interview from the rural village of Bethel, Me., where he lives with his partner. “There has always been a spiritual connection in that sense. I feel in some ways that when I’m writing about my family, I’m writing about him.”

Mr. Blanco must now compose an original poem for the president’s ceremonial swearing-in on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 21. (Mr. Obama will take the official oath at the White House on Jan. 20, as required by the Constitution.) Addie Whisenant, the inaugural committee’s spokeswoman, said Mr. Obama picked Mr. Blanco because the poet’s “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.”

Friends of Mr. Blanco’s, and fellow poets, say the president could not have found a more perfect fit.

“I think he was chosen because his America is very similar to the president’s America,” said Liz Balmaseda, who met Mr. Blanco in the mid-1990s when he was just emerging as a poet, and she was working as a columnist for The Miami Herald. “You don’t have to be an exile, you don’t have to be Latino or gay to get the yearning in Richard’s poetry.”

Mr. Blanco, 44, was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain and raised and educated in Miami, where his mother was a bank teller, his father a bookkeeper, and his grandmother — “abuela” in his poems — was a looming, powerful presence. Family folklore has it that he was named for Richard M. Nixon, his father’s favorite president, who took a strong stand against Fidel Castro.

The Blanco home was a modest place where pork was served on Thanksgiving (in his first published poem, “América,” Mr. Blanco writes that he insisted one year on having turkey), and Latin music played on holidays and birthdays. Theirs was a world dominated by food and family, where “mango,” as Mr. Blanco writes in another poem, “Mango, Number 61,” “was abuela and I hunched over the counter covered with the Spanish newspaper, devouring the dissected flesh of the fruit slithering like molten gold through our fingers.”

Like many immigrant families, Mr. Blanco’s parents wanted a better life for their son. “The business was survival,” he said. He was instructed that he had three career choices: doctor, lawyer or engineer. He was “a whiz at math,” he said, so he chose engineering, suppressing his creative side (and his homosexuality) to win the approval of his grandmother, who thought he was too feminine.

As an engineer, Mr. Blanco helped design bridges, road improvements and an architectural site plan for City Hall in South Miami. But in his mid-20s, he said, he began asking himself questions about “identity and cultural negotiations and who am I, where do I belong, what is this stuff about Cuba my parents keep talking about?” Suddenly he felt “a deep need” to write.

Mr. Blanco decided to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts and creative writing, taking courses at night at Florida International University, where he had earned his engineering degree. His mentor there, Campbell McGrath (who also happens to be a childhood friend of Elizabeth Alexander, Mr. Obama’s first inaugural poet), said Mr. Blanco’s facility with numbers and structural design shines through in his writing.

“Richard was always a complete engineer within poetry,” Professor McGrath said. “If you said it needs a little work here or there, a whole transfiguration of a poem emerged. He understood revision not to be just a touch-up job but a complete reimagining, a reworking. I know that’s connected to his engineering skill.”

Mr. Blanco’s first collection, “City of a Hundred Fires,” which grew out of his graduate thesis, won the 1997 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, a prestigious literary award for a first full-length book of poetry, and was published the next year by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Soon he was flooded with teaching offers; he taught for a time at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, and Georgetown University and American University in Washington while continuing his engineering work. Only recently did he give up engineering to write full time.

While “City of a Hundred Fires” and Mr. Blanco’s second book, “Directions to the Beach of the Dead” (University of Arizona Press, 2005) explore his Cuban heritage, Mr. Blanco’s most recent collection, “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” published last year, incorporates his life as a gay man in the very conservative Cuban culture.

“It’s trying to understand how I fit between negotiating the world, between being mainstream gay and being Cuban gay,” he said.

Now Mr. Blanco, who is also at work on a memoir, is focused on an entirely new and, colleagues say, exceedingly difficult endeavor: composing what is known in his trade as an “occasional poem,” written to commemorate a specific event. After learning of his selection on Dec. 12 — he has kept it a secret even from his mother — he began drafting three poems; the Obama team will pick one for him to read at the inaugural ceremony.

“The challenge,” he said, “is how to be me in the poem, to have a voice that’s still intimate but yet can encompass a multitude of what America is.”

Mr. Blanco will be the nation’s fifth inaugural poet; the practice was begun by John F. Kennedy, picked up by Bill Clinton and continued by Mr. Obama. Cynics might say that in picking a Latino gay poet, Mr. Obama is covering his political bases; some gay people objected to his selection of the Rev. Rick Warren, an opponent of same-sex marriage, to deliver the invocation at his 2009 inauguration.

But Mr. Blanco says Mr. Obama’s inaugural theme, “Our People, Our Future,” resonates with him. He wants to write, he said, about “the salt-of-the-earth sense that I think all Americans have, of hard work, we can work it out together, that incredible American spirit that after 200-plus years is still there.”

A Stink in Mid-City

Back in Oregon, we composted everything we could. Our landlord provided a compost bin in the yard which fed our garden off the back deck. While I did not garden myself – the story about growing one tomato in two years is forthcoming – my landlord’s son used the compost. Had we thought about it a bit more, we likely could have given compost away to friends who did garden regularly, but that pile is still steaming regardless.

Now I have come back to New Orleans to a house without even a recycling bin. Yikes! Again, unlike Oregon, the city didn’t provide recycling as normal sanitation servicing until recently, nor does it provide yard waste pick-up as a separate service. In any event, we have been stockpiling recyclables in the kitchen as we wait for our recycling bin to arrive. We’ve also been collecting all of our kitchen waste in a plastic bin, as I am doing a bit of research on how to build my own compost pile in the yard.

First, I found a pretty straightforward resource on the internet (always a shock to find answers with Google…) through the University of Illinois’ Ag program: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/homecompost/. The most interesting thing I learned from this site, I’m embarrassed to say, is the sheer amount of science that goes into creating a great compost pile. Layering? Turning? Heat and Water? I thought you could just add worms and relax! Knowing that I will have to turn the pile definitely will help guide me when I am determining how to build the structure that will support the pile. Our container in Eugene was difficult to turn, so I think my pile will have to have one large open face so that I can approach it from the front to pick and turn.

Then I read some interesting stuff about yard waste. According to Illinois’ site, yard waste takes up 20% of landfill space in the United States! Considering that recyclables are another large part of that space, it definitely makes me wonder (and lots of other people I’m sure) just how much we could shrink landfills by not adding yard waste or recyclable materials. Or not using paper napkins…

Another interesting tidbit I found has to do with composting in New Orleans. As you may know, New Orleans is a food-lovers paradise. To us, the holy trinity is a set of vegetables: onion, green bell pepper and celery. Even the most Catholic of stodgy aunts or grandmas down here would agree! So imagine how much pre-consumer food waste restaurants all over the city create. So, NOLA Green Roots has a service where they collect this waste and use it in a compost pile! What an amazing idea! http://nolagreenroots.com/classifieds/our-programs/compost-program/.

As a service industry employee myself, I see first-hand the sheer size of waste that leaves businesses headed toward the landfill instead of a more appropriate disposal future. One of my goals has been to have recycling service available at the shop, but having the service is not the solution in itself. As anyone who has worked with “green” projects must know, the real battle is educating people about why  to recycle, first and foremost (because, that’s right, some people don’t even see a reason!). The second step is then to educate staff on how to recycle. It’s definitely a two-step battle!

In any event, this compost pile will be dedicated to a lot of friends that have inspired me to be more conscious about my waste. At the top of this list is my friend Neal. He is an elementary school French teacher from Toronto, Canada, but we met in St. Etienne when we were both teaching English. He and his wife Melinda (also an ex-English teacher) know live in her hometown of Vancouver, Canada, on the 7th floor of a condo building. They have no yard to speak of, only a balcony.

Well, Neal has the small starts of a compost pile on his balcony. But, he hasn’t stopped there. He has one in his classroom as well, where he teaches students – in French and English – about composting and waste. Last year, I went to visit, and he showed me all of his riches, and then took me down to Burger Heaven, a restaurant around the block from his condo. We didn’t eat; instead, he showed me his vegetable garden. Burger Heaven had a slab of unused garden space, a kind of raised bed overgrown with weeds. Neal rolled up and asked the manager if he could use the space to create a vegetable garden. When we walked down there last August, he showed me sunflowers and we munched on bitter arugula and meaty green beans! I walked away with a poem in my head, “The Vegetable Garden at Burger Heaven.”

So, when it’s rainy or the stink is rising, and I have no interest in turning that pile, I will most definitely think of Neal, and raise a turning pick to him and his work. Updates on the composting will follow!

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What does it take for me to throw something away? The Black T-shirt…

I am a hoarder – not in a gross way, but in a definite way. I collect things, and I hope that when people look at everything in my house, they see all of the creativity I imagine is in my brain – the suitcase strap as a belt, the thrift store dresses, the old window with photos on the cracked panes – instead of just seeing trash. But, I do have a problem, in that I collect stuff for free or for cheap, and then have a hard time getting rid of it. What will it take for me to throw something away?

This week, the something is a black V-neck t-shirt with a single square pocket from Old Navy. The t-shirt was cheap, no more than 8 dollars, and if I had to put a date on it, I bought it in 2007 or 2008, sometime before I went to Cuba. I know this for a fact because there are photos of me in Cuba wearing, not the black t-shirt but the green one I bought of the same style on the same shopping trip. The green one was stained by something – I can’t remember what, but it was dark and unremovable. I wore it to exercise after the stain appeared (unless it was winter, when I hid the stain under a sweater) and only unloaded it when I was stripping my luggage of excess weight on the move from Eugene back home last December.

This black t-shirt is a staple of my wardrobe. Despite my active sweat glands, you will never see my sweat. No matter the outfit – jeans, skirts, even dresses – the black t-shirt finds a way to fit in. It is not classy, it is not particularly well-made, but there are no holes, no strings coming undone and it is not yet see-through. But, it no longer retains its shape as well as it once did…it’s been so long, I can’t even remember its original shape!

The black t-shirt has been on an adventure these last five months. Because of its color, I often wore it 6 or 7 times before washing it in Bamako whereas my other clothes required a wash after only 2 or 3 wears. It masked my sweat all over Bamako, and even managed to stay black amidst all of the red dust. When it was too dirty to wear but laundry day was days away, I would use it as a head-wrap to soak up the sweat from walking around the city or sitting on sotramas. Yes, that black t-shirt did its work in Bamako.

But I didn’t let him rest once I got to Europe, oh no. I wore him less often, but trotted him out when I was feeling too fat for a more form-fitting top, or wanted to wear something loud on the bottom. His crowning achievement, though, was covering me on the night train from Granada to Barcelona, hiding my sweat on the hike through Park Guell and through El Gotico, then serving as my wash rag as I undressed and took a bath with a bar of soap and a water bottle in a stall at Sants train station before I caught my night bus to Paris. Perfumed by the bar of Dove, he scented my backpack like fresh flowers, and then was my facecloth in our apartment in Paris. He didn’t see a washing machine for two months, yet performed beautifully when I needed him.

I retrieved him from the dryer just this afternoon. Does he go in the drawer? On a hanger? I’ve paid about 1 dollar per year for this shirt…is it time we parted ways? The Malian in me says, No way! This shirt has years of service left to give! The American is shocked that I even took the shirt overseas. The hoarder – probably my true self – just wants to hang the shirt in the closet and forget about it, hoping that one day it will either top a great outfit or disappear altogether.

How many holes have to appear in a piece of clothing for you to throw it away? How decrepit must it  become? Can we keep clothes purely for sentimental value, and if so, is there a limit to how many?

Coming Home: The End of Bamakomerlinadaris

Five months is not a long time, but it’s the longest I’ve ever been away from my hometown, New Orleans. Rather than invest in things, I consistently invest in travel, and I always say I do this in order to learn something about myself, my roots, my relationships and my home. Throughout these past five months, I’ve have been challenged by quite a bit, but by far, the people I’ve encountered have been challenged by much more. I’ve seen a few different sides of our common world, all heavily influenced by traditions and cultural heritage colliding with consumerism and globalization.

Coming home is never easy. On the one hand, I long for what it means: comfort, knowing how to do things, understanding language, friends and family, food, a sense of belonging. On the other, it means: a departure from adventure, a sense of giving up, routine. On this particular journey, I was thrilled to come home, to restart my life where I left it, prepare for the end of graduate school and the possibilities that are now on the horizon.

When I worked in study abroad, I talked to students quite a bit about how to successfully reenter their home culture. Old friends may not be particularly interested in the experiences they’d had on their study abroad adventure, or may not have the tools needed to understand. The returning student may become fatigued by having to explain and reexplain everything about the foreign culture in order for their stories to be understood. In many cases, they miss the routines they created for themselves while abroad, the friends, the challenges, and everything at home seems to be illogical or unnatural.

To combat this malaise upon return, we would encourage students to prepare for it in advance, think about it before coming home. We also told them to try not to assign value judgements to one location or the other; rather, they should consider each place as having its own set of advantages and disadvantages. One is likely not better than the other; they are just different. Furthermore, they should have a plan in action to hit the ground running when they get home. Idle time will just create an overactive mind, and overthinking is a recipe for disaster!

As wise as my advice was (and is) for these students, I still grapple with doing it on my own, no matter if I’m coming home from a long trip abroad or a brief term in Oregon. On this particular return, I have been dealing with the effects of leaving Mali for 2 months now and am trying not to question my decision to move to Europe for two months. I have been admonishing myself for what I consider to be my utter self-indulgence, but luckily, B continues to assure me that I needed the time alone to process what happened in Bamako.

A key piece of advice for these returned students is to bring their new self home. Undoubtedly, being abroad changed them a bit, superficially, sure – after 5 months in London, they may dress in dark clothes and boots every day! – but on a deeper level as well. It is fundamental to a smooth transition to identify ways that you’ve changed, and let those changes come back too, even if it creates a bit of confusion among old groups of friends and family. Denying those new portions of oneself can only cheapen the study abroad experience and create a sense of disillusionment about the value of the time spent abroad.

One thing that I hoped to maintain here at home was a sense of wonderment about the world around me. I always paid attention to small things, cracks in the sidewalk and sounds on the street. But while abroad, I became proficient at documenting them, whether through this blog, a photo, a facebook or twitter update, a poem or a few lines written down in whatever book I am reading.

For me, it’s paramount that I find new ways to love NOLA. I love it in a million ways already, but like a spouse of 20 years, you start to dream of straying. New Orleans will always be my Betty Draper, temperamental but beautiful. Here are my first few days of noticing her beauty since I’ve been back…

Velib: Bikesharing in Paris

When I lived St. Etienne from September through June 2004-05, I didn’t realize until, oh, February, that Pizza’RV, if you sound it out, sounded like “Pizza-arrive” (ah-reeve) which in French basically means, “The pizza’s coming!” Pizza R.V., I always wondered. What does that mean? Since then, I have worked on my skills in figuring out cutsie French phrases. My favorites are aprem, short for apres-midi or afternoon, and “A plus” written A+. Love those!

But, today, we discovered a new great one: Velib. Velib is the bike-sharing service in Paris. Essentially, clients sign up for a subscription – a day, a week, a month or a year. The subscription comes with a small fee (1 euro 70 for a 24-hour period, 30 euro for the year) and with it, you have the right to take bikes and use them throughout the city, picking up and dropping off at stations that are literally located every few blocks. The first 30 minutes of each rental are free, and after the 30 minute mark, you begin to pay a euro per half-hour. Because of the multitude of stations, though, you can pick up and drop off bikes easily, and never pay for the rental!

Velib, by the way, comes from combining velo (bike) with liberté (freedom). The bikes are definitely not feeling the freedom, since they are alternatively locked up, being abused by riders or being stolen and shipped off to other countries to be sold on the black market. But, for us, there is definitely a sense of freedom when you can get all over the city on a beautiful day without having to go underground a single time!

Today we subscribed for the first time to Velib. At first, we had a hard time finding bikes. We are staying near Gare du Nord but up the hill on the east side of Sacré Coeur. It seems like people aren’t super interested in chucking the bikes up the hill, so we had to hustle around to find two. I ended up checking one out and then raced on the bike to secure a second while Emily shuffled up to meet me. Once we were fully equipped, we rode all the way from Montmartre, down to Les Halles where I almost was walloped by a driver – on purpose…turns out meany bike-hating drivers are everywhere – over to the Sorbonne, around the Pantheon to Rue Mouffetard, back up to the river, along the river to the Champs Elysée, to Bois de Boulogne.

Exhausted yet? We were!

The great thing about having to change bikes every 25-30 minutes is that you get a built-in break, and they were all welcome! We also did not ride the entire time. Somewhere along that itinerary, we managed to drink an entire bottle of wine, eat some bad Chinese take-out and delicious pastries, run into someone I knew in Bamako (small world!?!?) and do some window shopping. After dinner, not to far from Bois de Boulogne, we struggled in the rain to find 2 bikes home, but that was definitely part of the adventure.

Initially, we were riding past places I’ve never seen, such as Parc Monceau, but eventually we got into familiar territory. We ended up riding through the red-light district, down Boulevard Clichy past the Moulin Rouge and Folie Pigalle…a different kind of pretty! We managed to skirt the intense uphills, although Paris is surprisingly hilly. I remember getting ready to run the Paris Marathon in ’05. Standing at the end of the Champs Elysée under the Arc de Triomphe, a 6-foot tall mustachioed Parisian tried to convince me that, even though we were getting ready to run 40 kilometers, at least the beginning was downhill. I argued til I was blue in the face that Paris was completely flat.

Because I couldn’t see over the crowds, he stood behind me, wrapped his arms around my stomach and lifted me up. Sure enough, the street descended toward the Louvre. Paris is hilly, and my thighs can attest to it! It’s also much better on bike than in a footrace, except for the mustachioed beginnings… 🙂

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Granada to Paris on Foot

Last fall, I took a course on the Geography of Tourism, and each student gave a presentation about travel they did, a place they went and applied theoretical principals from the course to their experiences. I cheated a bit, and did a presentation on New Orleans. (Using Prezi which I love. The presentation can be viewed here, although it might be kind of confusing without the context of the course. Or coherence usually found in the work of graduate students.) Anyway, most of the presentations were run-of-the-mill stories, recounting semesters spent abroad, or spring breaks on cruise ships. One guy’s presentation, though, has truly stuck with me.

He travels by hitchhiking. He has done 4 or 5 trips, some entire summers long, through the US, Canada and Europe, all hitchhiking, all solo. Impressive. He embodies some of the qualities that I’ve only learned to pick up during these 2 months of solitude traveling, such as openness to others and being ok being alone. I used to think I loved traveling alone, and in the right circumstances, I would (even in these circumstances, I did for a good 6 out of the 8 weeks…). But this kid really looked at his hitchhiking adventures as a mix of time spent alone, with a part of the world that most people don’t see – behind truck stops, between mile markers, etc. – and befriending others as they truck him to and from his next destination.

For a million reasons, this type of travel would not work for me. First, I’m scared. Of everything. The dark? Scared. The light? Also scared. Vampires? Yep. People? Yep. I have an unnatural fear of a lot of things, and so sitting alone on the side of the highway waiting – hoping, praying – that someone will come pick me up to bring me somewhere (???) – I just couldn’t do it. Second, I feel like I would be putting myself in danger. I often attract very forward men, the kind that don’t hesitate to demonstrate their interest, ask me to come home with them within a few moments of meeting, and so probably, putting myself on an interstate would attract them in spades.

Long story long, when I tried to decide how to go from Granada to Paris, hitchhiking was out of the question. Instead, I did something I haven’t done for ten years – traveled over land! Even at 22, I preferred renting cars and driving myself places to taking trains or buses. But for the sake of saving money, I sucked it up and took a night train from Granada to Barcelona, followed the very next night with a night bus from Barcelona to Paris. In between, I managed to stalk around Barcelona for about 9 hours, seeing some sights. Whoa.

The trip was not as exhausting as I had imagined it would be. I was so ready to leave Granada, and had been going on walk after walk, scaling mountains, etc., that by the time I started packing Wednesday morning, I was already falling asleep. My exhaustion was evident: when packing, I accidentally kicked over a bottle of red wine with such force that it shattered to pieces. Miraculously, none of the wine tainted anything of mine – for good, at least – and the only item I had to clean it up was a pillowcase from Bamako that somehow ended up on my pillow. The room reeked of vinegar (not sure why?) for the remainder of the morning, which probably affected the quality of my packing job…

Anxious about walking around with all my shit, I stuffed almost EVERYTHING into my large pack. I could get by with a quarter of the stuff I have, but it was so expensive to send an additional bag home with Barry that I am carting around about 60 pounds of luggage (50 of them completely unnecessary) like a scarlet A pinned to my shirt. After sneaking up on the roof to take one last picture – this time a selfie with the Alhambra in the background – I made it to the train station a little sweaty and excited but tired. I read about 30 pages of Poisonwood Bible before I conked out at around 11 PM. I awoke – quite literally – at 9:29 the next morning; the train pulled into Barcelona at 9:30.

Utterly relaxed and well-rested but a tad disoriented, I located the left luggage space, conveniently close to where I exited the train. The left luggage lockers at the Barca train station are amazing. ALL of my luggage – a ginormous backpack, a computer bag and a  duffel – all fit into the large 5 euro locker. I assumed I would have to rent at least 2 lockers, but lucked out. I could have probably stuffed even more in there! I snuck into the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face then I was off to…Barcelona…I guess. I kind of had a list of things to do, but not really, so I just started walking, ran into a Miro statue in front of a bull-fighting ring – so Spain – and stumbled upon Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, a kebab/curry/mango lassi purveyor, the Cathedral, El Gotico and everything else there ever was to see or do in Barcelona. I then gave my metro day pass to an incredibly good-looking Turk who spoke English with a French accent.

Sufficiently exhausted, I went to the bathroom with a bar of soap and a liter of water and proceeded to take a shower in one of the stalls. Boy, it’s been a while since I’ve done that. After changing my undergarments and wearing a scarf as a dress – since all my other clothes were still in the locker – I lucked out as the bathroom remained empty long enough to dip my scorched feet in the sink and rub some of the city grit off them. If you’re reading this, and ended up in the bathroom after me, Sorry!!! Then I got my shit, packed it on my back and headed for the bus.

The ride to Paris, unfortunately, was less comfortable than the ride to Barca, but still manageable (and 75 euro cheaper than the train). I got stuck sitting next to some American kid who didn’t want to talk to me – I think he thought I was French – and stunk. I think he watched Before Sunrise a few too many times and was taking all of his cues from Ethan Hawke – although I think Ethan Hawke didn’t stink this bad. I had a window seat, though, and although my legs weren’t long enough for my feet to touch the ground (surprise!), I managed to sleep until we stopped for dinner at about 11, then stopped to pass the border at about 2, then stopped again to be searched by the douane at about 6.

France really has their racial profiling down pat. 3 Algerians were taken off the bus at the border for not having visas, and then every single brown person’s bags were searched at that 6 AM stop. Mine weren’t, probably because of how disgusting and bulgy they were and how silly I looked – brown tights, purple shorts, pink shirt, red hoodie…at least I changed out of the scarf – but it was evident whose bags they were searching. Silly France, seeing no color or race.

Ultimately, I made it to Paris. I bought my metro ticket, made change for some cranky guys because the ticket machine wouldn’t accept bills (annoying, for sure)  and got to the apartment. The more of my shit I carry around, the less of a burden it feels like which is a total relief. I have been eating too much cheese, chocolate and macaroons. Paris is far more expensive than I remember and I hope to make it out remotely solvent. Two nights on public transportation should help me achieve that goal.

While I didn’t exactly walk from Granada to Paris, my feet were awfully tired at the end of the trip. One more wayward walk, and it’s to Gare du Nord on Wednesday morning. Thank goodness I won’t have to do that one alone.

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