50 Before 50: City #5 Strasbourg, France

50 Before 50: City #5 Strasbourg, France

I feel like maybe I’ve solved a riddle that U2 posed in their opus Joshua Tree album in 1987. I was 12, and I remember my mother and I listening to that album (on cassette) in my room on her birthday. I think I had bought her the album because she asked for it, or was it me who really wanted it and passed it off as a ‘gift’? Memories are strange things. 

It’s a haunting ballad-quasi-gospel-like song about a quest from the“highest mountains” to“fields” to “city walls” in search of…love?…spirituality?…of whatever you want it to mean? Bono is fruitlessly searching for something, though we never really know who or what. Although he grapples with and struggles to maintain faith, he ultimately puts his trust in “the kingdom to come” (or, the “future” in general) despite, as the song says, still not finding what he is looking for. A passionate musical manifestation of a conjoined spiritual and physical journey. Ugh. Love you, Bono. 

It turns out that maybe what I’ve been looking for is Strasbourg, France. 

Right on the border of France and Germany in the Alsace region of France, Strasbourg is an uber-modern city of less than 300,000 people and has, throughout history, struggled with a bit of an identity crisis. In fact the latin term for Alcase’s name is Alsatia, meaning “lawless place” or “a place under no jurisdiction”, which is how it was seen for centuries. From around 320 AD to 1260 AD, Strasbourg was ruled by a bishop. Alors, the locals rebelled in 1262 in the Battle of Hausbergen and turned Strasbourg into an independent city. Conquered in 1681 by Louis XIV, the city became French until the Franco-Prussian war when in became German again in 1871. Then French again in 1918 after WW1. German again from 1940-1944 during WW2. After the end of WW2, it became French again, and has stayed that way ever since. It is now the capital of not only the Alsace region, but the Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine regions as well.

It reminds me a bit of Texas, whose state motto is “Texas. It’s a whole other country.” Texas, though part of the United States, likes to think of itself as a kind of independent enigma. Neither purely German or French, Strasbourg has, over the years, blended both cultures cuisines, customs, beverages, into a most beguiling and charming independent identity. The street signs and menus are in both French and German (menus are often in English as well). It has its own blended dialect, Alsacian, which is a mash-up of German and French. The people are proud and pragmatic and extremely welcoming, and identify more with being Alsacian, rather than strictly French or German, thank you very much.  

The town is the definition of adorable. Supremely walkable, it is uber bicycle and pedestrian friendly, as well as boasting a swanky Tram system to boot. The pace is not as fast or dizzying as Paris; the energy is more mellow and less frenetic. The language is French, the feel is Parisian/Venice, with some canals and some dozen bridges around the city, the architecture Germanesque. It seems the kind of place you can build a life, as well as make a living. Yes, I spotted a couple of Starbucks, but they are no match for the local cafes, where you can get a croissant, coffee, and orange juice for 3.90 Euro. And, because of it’s roots, is both beer and wine heaven. Grabbing dinner my first night in town, all I knew was that I wanted a glass of white wine. The waiter cocked an eyebrow. “Vous avez un preference?” Me: “Non. Vous choisissez.” He nodded, smiled, then brought me a fantastic glass of a local Alsatian wine that was light and perfect. 

The Jetson-like train station sits on the west side of town waiting to whisk you off to any number of domestic or international destinations for a weekend. On the TGV (fast train), you can get to Paris in 2 hours flat. Only 11 hours by train to Budapest. Strasbourg is a seriously underrated international hub, at least by western standards. 

I am lucky enough to have family living about an hour away in Germany who, thanks to a German holiday, were able to come in for the day for lunch and to walk around town. Magda had lived in Strasbourg for about 5 years at one time, so she knew where to go for a scenic lunch on the water. I followed Magda’s lead, ordering a local drink called a Monaco (grenadine, lemonade and beer) and a local alsatian pasta called spaetzle with mushrooms. Maybe it was the light rain, (which quickly cleared up), maybe it was the picture-perfect outdoor setting, maybe it was laughing with Krissy and Magda, maybe it was the beer, but it all added up to the best meal and half-day in Strasbourg. 

Since my train to Paris didn’t leave until after 6pm, the morning of departure I decided to take a quick 20 minute tram ride to the Parc l’Orangerie. Idyllic for strolling, biking, picnicking, it is a great way to fill a morning and is way more manageable (for me) than New York’s Central Park. There was a cute swan couple and their babies, a lake, a waterfall, a central fountain. All the parc necessities. This one even has a bowling alley. And it’s right across the street from the European Parliament building, which is gorgeous and worth a visit as well. The parc comes with its own fun history. Here’s what Monument Tracker  had to say: 

“It was between 1804 in 1807, that architect Valentin Boudhors oversaw the building of the Pavillon Josephine, in the middle of the park laid out in 1692 in classical French style. The building was meant to house the remaining 140 orange trees brought over by CountJean-Régnier III of Hanau-Lichtenberg to decorate the famous gardens to his chateau in Bouxwiller, but which had been confiscated by the Revolution in 1793. The new building was named after the Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, in memory of her trips to Strasbourg. The building suffered extensive damage in a fire in 1968, but was rebuilt to the same design soon after. The two sphinxes standing at the entrance come from the gardens of château Klinglin of Illkirch, which was refitted in the 18th century.”

Currently, there are only 3 orange trees left.  Sigh. 

A couple other Strasbourgian highlights:

*the Cathedral is not to be missed. It sits at the center of town and is a great starting/stopping/meeting point. If you are ever in Strasbourg, plan to be at the Cathedral (inside to be exact) at 12:30pm, when the most amazing astronomical clock you’ve ever seen does its thing. This third and current incarnation was designed by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgue and inaugurated in 1842. Read more about this marvel here: Strasbourg Astronomical Clock

*I had a moment at Place de la Republique. I only knew it as my Tram transfer point, until I hopped off to realize that the National and University Library, the National Theatre of Strasbourg and the Opera house were all on the same roundabout! I about cried I was so happy. Not to mention the center of Place de la Republique is a gorgeous little parc perfect for napping or eating or, ah, canoodling. It was just past 1pm and was searching for a place to have some lunch when I came upon the Opera house which, because this is Europe, had tables set up on the entranceway steps right outside serving very decent mid-day delectables. I was enjoying my new favorite summertime drink (a Monaco – thank you, Magda) and waiting for my quiche of the day when a group of about 30 musicians descended on the little green patch in front of the Opera house and began setting up instruments and arranging themselves in semi-circle all stealth-like, like some musical guerrilla operation. I had a bite of quiche on my fork en route when they busted out with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” If you know me a bit, you know that I lived in and will always hold a torch for New York. So stunned at the alchemy of events, I dropped my fork and grabbed my phone to video a quick 3D snapshot of the event. It felt auspicious and right that this was my last meal in this petite and enchanting city. For now. Sometimes you get moments that are spun so serendipitously that for a breath, you can feel the underlying benevolence and connected consciousness flowing through all of us. The arc of the universe truly is to goodness, though skies might be blighted by clouds at times. These moments give me a glimpse of hope and arm full of goosebumps.

Below are just a sliver of the photos I took.

50 Before 50: City #4 Orquevaux, France

50 Before 50: City #4 Orquevaux, France

Nestled in gorgeous countryside of the Champagne region of France, the little hamlet of Orquevaux, once a bustling village centered around the iron industry, has been in slow decline over the past century, as villagers left seeking bigger cities and more opportunities. Orquevaux itself boasts not a single restaurant, bar, or shop. The closest town is Chaumont, a good 25 minutes away.

So why, exactly, I am I, a self-proclaimed city-dweller, here? Because when life makes it possible for you to spend two weeks doing nothing but writing & eating & living with other artists in a chateau…you say yes and figure out the details later.

The Chateau D’Orquevaux is one of three standout structures in this village of around 76 people. The other landmarks are a small castle (more on that in a minute) and a church, whose 7pm bells signal us to dinner, because of course. Situated at the top of a slight hill, the front porch overlooks acres of lush green pastures with cows and sheep and goats within eyesight. This is where I walk down the middle of the street singing Belle’s opening number in Beauty and the Beast. As you will see by the pictures, the setting is as enchanting as it looks.

The Chateau and surrounding grounds were completed by 1897 and full of historical significance:

*one of the owners and the mayor of the town of Orquevaux in 1941 was Guy de Saint Exupery, part of the Saint Exupery family which included Antoine de Saint Exupery, who, anyone who took some basic French could probably tell you, wrote Le Petit Prince.

*Albert de Vandeul, who lived in the Chateau and Orquevaux most of his life, died in 1911 (in Paris). He was the last remaining descendant of the French philosopher Denis Diderot. In fact, the Chateau had housed some unpublished works from Diderot for almost 150 years and finally published in 1951.

*During WW2, the chateau was commandeered by the Germans to serve as a headquarters

*The “petite castle” (now an adorable B&B) is, as the name suggests, a small castle-like dwelling that was built along with the Chateau to accommodate Vandeul’s mistress. Oh la la. Having started binge-watching Versaille (a fantastic series on Netflix which centers around Louis XIV and his many political and personal dramas, such as his many mistresses), I can only imagine that conversation between Monsieur et Madame de Vandeul. “Monsieur, but what is that cute little castle on that nearby hill over there?” “It is nothing, cherie. *pause* Never go there.” Ah, l’amour.

So, what’s going on with the Chateau now? Enter Ziggy, an Israli-born New York artist in his own right. Long story short, his father bought the property in 2002. It eventually fell into disrepair and was vacant until around 2016-2017 when Ziggy took it over, fixed it up, and turned it into an artist residency hosting some 10-15 painters, writers, and composers per month. This is the stuff of Ziggy’s dreams, and it is glorious. The residency fee covers accommodation and most meals. It is a perfect and magical place to come and let yourself steep in creation while maintaining daily connection with other artists. There are trail walks, bonfire nights, trips in Charmont, a studio hop night (where you tour each artist’s studio space to see what they’ve been working on), a poetry night (original or just share a piece of writing you love), and other happenings.

A couple of my favorite things were the trip to the thrift store in Charmont and the studio hop. I love a good thrift store, and the one in Charmont did not disappoint. There was already a small traffic jam of cars when we arrived shortly after 2 pm. Down a short gravel road (as all good thrift stores should be), this place was huge and it had everything. I spent most of my time in the clothing section where I scored a much needed jacket and 3 shirts for a whopping 7 ½ Euros. I had to put a few items back lest I run out of space in my suitcase. I regret that I didn’t look in the housewares or furniture sections, though if I lived nearby I would 100 percent be furnishing my house from this place. Amazing antique wood furniture from someone’s forgotten attic going for 30-50 Euro. Incroyable. The studio hop/concert night was a blast. After a week and a half of dedicated work time, all the artists open up their studio spaces and the group walks from studio to studio, with the artist telling us about their work. From graphite sketches to large oil paintings to full landscapes painted on pennies (“small is badass”), the quality and variety was astounding to see. I took part at the end by sharing an original poem. Since we were blessed with a few composers/singers in the group, we were treated to an amazing mini-concert after dinner. Since Ziggy’s aim is to resuscitate the artistic heartbeat of this little gem, he invited about 10 or so people from the town to join us. It was very much like a modern Downton Abbey evening come to life, minus gowns and tailcoats.

Artists need, above all, time to work. Time to fail. Time to process. Time to experiment. Time to grow. That, along with being surrounded by other creatives, is what is so nurturing about a residency. The daily pain au chocolates didn’t hurt either. I come away with about 5 poems in good shape and a couple others that need some work, as well as 2 blogs and the almost 80% completion of a project I am ecstatic about and looking forward to finishing up over the next 6-9 months. Would I return for another 2 weeks? No. Would I return for a whole month? Absolument oui.

Alors, on that note, since it’s not so much what I’ve seen, but what I’ve been up to here, I end this post before leaving tomorrow with a couple of poems that I wrote while here, as well as some luscious pictures! Au revoir and a la prochaine fois!! xo

POEMS

Marquise de Montespan Considers Leaving Versaille

Rules

 

Viva la France! Paris, Je t’aime…

50 Before 50: Bonus city: Paris

If you know me even just a little bit, you know that I’m obsessed with basically only 2 things: Prince and Paris. So, while Paris is not a new-to-me city, I couldn’t not acknowledge it in my 50 Before 50 quest, as I will tack on two new cities while in France.

Where to start with my beloved Paris? It’s funny because Paris is far from perfect, as will be explained, but, for me, at least, the charms outweigh the petty inconveniences. To fill you in briefly on my current trip, I arrived in Paris on 5/31 and departed on 6/3 by train for a very small hamlet of a town a few hours away called D’Orquevaux, for an artists residency where we live and eat in a real chateau built in the 1700s. Much more on this in a separate post.

While in Paris, I decided to stay in possibly my favorite neighborhood anywhere: Montmartre. It’s the artisan/hippie/bohemian/red light district of Paris and is full of fun and funk. Home to Picasso, van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Monet, and countless others, it’s sort of the artistic heartbeat of the city.

It also has one of my favorite monuments ever: the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur. The Sacred Heart Basilica. Sitting at the top of a small, but very steep hill, the Sacre Coeur dominates the northern skyline of Paris. Built as a place of worship for the Catholics, it is, according to most lists, the second most visited attraction in Paris, after the Eiffel Tower. Architecturally, it’s a mash up of a few different styles, such as Roman and Byzantine; it’s a striking and gorgeous structure. But my favorite story involving the Sacre Coeur takes place during the second world war. According to historians, a total of 13 bombs were dropped in the vicinity of the Sacre Coeur, but the the building itself was never hit. In a fascinating article entitled “Dark Days in Paris, the City of Light”, author Gene Santoro explains how, once Hitler began losing the war, he ordered the destruction of the Sacre Coeur, because of its beauty and cultural significance to Paris and France. It was to be a blow to one of the jewels of the city, as well as to the proud, French morale. After 13 tries, the only damage done to the Sacre Coeur was some broken stained glass windows. Viva la France.

Because the spot is indeed touristy, there are the obligatory swindlers hanging out ready to separate you from your euros . I stopped for a few minutes as a small crowd was gathered around a man who was working that ancient hustle known as ‘three cups and a ball’, where he shows you as he places the ball under one of the cups and then moves the cups around quickly so that you will lose track of which cup the ball is under. A woman watches, bets, and wins to cheers. Another person watches, and again, wins. If you pay close attention, it is doable. But then, ah, le scandale…the hustler, getting a little tired of losing money, starts his sly cheating. Here’s how the next few rounds go down. Would-be better approaches and watches. Once the hustler has gone through the moving of the cups sufficiently, the better, confident in their bet, goes for the wallet or purse. It is during this time the hustler, trying not to attract attention, quickly and slyly slides the middle cup out and around of the other cups, creating a new line up. The would-be better has not seen this, points to what they believe to be the winning cup (which it was), and the hustler quickly takes the money, reveals the now empty, losing cup, which provokes jeers and light scorn towards the hustler. A few of us throw up our voices and hands in indignation, but the hustler is unruffled. After a few rounds, there’s nothing left to do but shrug and move along. Viva la France.

One new thing I did was attend a show at the Moulin Rouge, a world famous cabaret which opened in 1889. A variety act type show with splashes of vaudeville, burlesque, Cirque du Soleil and circus, I highly recommend it. Since I was flying seule, I was seated at a table for 6. There was one gentleman who apparently had someone bail on him and a group of 3 women of a certain age from California. Talking with them, I learned that one of the ladies had never left the USA before this trip. The fact that she was now here made me ecstatic, as I am a big believer in travel as a necessary means to learn about the world, our fellow humans, and ourselves. The world is so vast and wonderous, how on earth can we not want to explore at least some of it beyond our own towns?

But back to the topless ladies on stage…I mean, this is the Moulin Rouge. Truth be told, there is absolutely no narrative flow to this variety show, but that doesn’t really matter. Half the fun is wondering what kind of act is coming up next. I call this type of show a primarily “shine and strut” show where the focus is on spectacle (in this case, lavish)  rather than heavy emotional impact, but there are a few moments that really awed. I think my favorite act was the roller-skating duo. Think of those jaw-dropping ice-skating sequences when the gentleman dangles the woman from a wrist and ankle as she whirls inches from the ground or when the woman’s feet are perched behind the gentleman’s neck, her head inches from the floor and his hands simply extended by his side, not securing her. Now imagine all of this done on a circular platform of about 7 feet in diameter.

Close behind this is the contortionist of unbelievable flexibility and the woman who swam with snakes. Yes, there is a big water tank hidden below the stage that is revealed, used, and then disappears. Something for everyone.

Still buzzing from the energy of the show, I hurried down into the metro stop and towards the platform just as a man had situated himself in a tiny corner with his back to passers by in order to, um, relieve himself. I chuckled, shrugged, and kept moving. Viva la France.

Coming Up: 50 Before 50: #4 – D’Orquevaux, France and #5 – Strasbourg, France

 

 

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“The Awakening” by Rodin

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Rodin museum

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“The Thinker” Rodin

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Inside Saint Sulpice

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This is as close as you can get to Notre Dame right now.

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Organ in Sacre Coeur

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Sacre Coeur

50 Before 50: City #3 Chiang Rai

Subtitle: Two Temples and a Mystery

Temple Number One: Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple)

Located in Northern Thailand, the city of Chiang Rai is about a three-hour trip from Chiang Mai and home to a couple of temples that warrant a day trip. Wat Rong Khun and Wat Rong Suea Ten, known as the White Temple and Blue Temple respectively, are typically at the top of any ‘must visit’ list if you’re near Chaing Rai, and for good reason.

Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) is maybe, because of its stark white color, one of the most recognizable Buddhist-style temples in Thailand, and like any good religious shrine should be, is steeped in symbolism. Constructed with plaster, the white color is meant to refer to the purity of the Buddha.

What you can’t tell from far away and in pictures is this: that the temple shimmers like a jewel.

My friend and I gasp a little as we walk towards the temple, taking in this new effect. Like a huge, temple-shaped diamond, the temple gleams more with our every step. Getting closer, we see the trick. Tiny, hand-cut pieces of glass all over the outside. The pieces of glass are said to represent the Buddha’s wisdom and teachings, which I love. That the designer of the temple, a famous Thai visual artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat, used a transparent, reflective surface to represent the Buddha’s teaching is such a staggering genius use of metaphor that I am still working on it. Doesn’t Buddha basically say, “look deep inside, clean your soul up, find the love in yourself and others, and reflect that love out through your thoughts, words, and deeds”? I’m oversimplifying, of course, but I still maintain the artist is a genius.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. To get to the temple, (which is just beyond the “Gates of Heaven”;  more on that later), you must first cross a bridge aptly named the “bridge of rebirth” which spans over a small, man-make lake. Before you start to cross over the water, there is a place where both sides of the bridge are lined with human hands reaching up towards this sky. This is said to represent desire and human suffering. In other words: hell. You have to cross a symbolic hell to enter heaven. 

The journey over the bridge is an artistic representation and manifestation of the human journey through the spiritual traps of temptation, greed, and desire and from life, to death, to rebirth into a non-suffering existence.

The only non-white structure at Wat Rong Khun is the restrooms building, which our lovely guide, in preparation for our visit, calls the “golden toilet.” She loves to tell us to make sure we see and tell our friends about the “golden toilet.”

The restroom building, down to the toilets, is pained a gold color and just as intricately and ornately detailed as the other buildings. You might ask: why gold? I would then ask you what do humans often chase at their own physical and emotional peril?

Yep. Money. Gold.

According to the guide and the temple’s website, the golden toilet building is representative of man’s quest for fortune, fame, and other worldly desires. It’s also said to represent the body, whist the white temple represents the mind.

I’m telling you. Genius. And jaw-droppingly stunning to look at. As someone who lives for metaphors manifest in real life, I am particularly enchanted with this temple.

Before entering a temple or mosque, it is customary (and required) to take off one’s shoes. While the practice is predominately for hygienic purposes, it’s also symbolic and transcendent. Taking off and leaving dirty and soiled shoes outside can be looked at and thought of as removing (get it? Yay symbolic metaphor) and detaching oneself from earthly burdens before entering a space of worship and spiritual contemplation.

I had initially encountered this practice while visiting the temples of Little India in Singapore a couple of years ago. The first couple times taking off and leaving my shoes had felt a bit awkward, as I am a big proponent of shoes in public places, but I instantly realized its equalizing and tranquilizing effects. Bare feet literally put everyone on the same footing, and it immediately humbles one in what is meant to be and should be a humbling place. I start to wonder what might happen if churches required worshippers to go sans shoes in front of the cross? For me, it is hard to be anything other than reflective, present, and more gentle when the flesh of my foot soles is touching the ground. Is it coincidental that both Buddha and Jesus are depicted without shoes?

The other thing I find equalizing, humbling, and fascinating is the fact that the only seating in Buddhist or Hindu temples is in the form of benches or chairs up against the walls. No pews. The reason to go is worship, right? So the Hindus and Buddhists take it straight to the ground. You bow or sit on the floor.

In the White Temple, I watch mesmerized as a gentleman in a wheelchair is wheeled up towards the large Buddha in the front by who I am assuming is a family member. Maybe a son or nephew? The older gentleman is gingerly helped out of his chair. He then takes his time to steady himself, his arms and legs wobbling slightly and his body bending with age like human crescent moon. He eventually kneels down on one knee, bowing his head. The younger man helping him stands back a half step, resting one hand on the wheelchair to steady it, and patiently waits. Although there is a veil of light chatter fluttering around, this man is completely absorbed in his act of devotion. I feel slightly voyeuristic watching him, but the whole process is one of the purest acts I had seen in a long time.

Temple Number Two: Wat Rong Suea Ten (the Blue Temple)

Ever since this place started popping up on all the copious travel-inspired Instagram pages I follow, I knew I wanted (needed) to see it. Also located in Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Suea Ten is (yet another) gorgeous and ostentatious Buddhist temple in fabulous golds and vibrant cobalt blues inside and out.

While white represents purity, blue represents wisdom. Blue also conjures up the notions of sky and heaven, the limits of which are not known. As is the case in many temples, the colorful walls depict scenes tracing the spiritual and physical journey of the Buddha.

The large white Buddha at the back of the temple is pictured seated, with his right hand palm up to the ether, resting on his knee, which is left fingers touch the ground. The hands represent trying to strike balance between surrendering to wild and unbridled universe (palm up) while grounding oneself to a personal, spiritual center (fingers on the ground).

Virtually every Buddhist temple I visit has two ornate statues of a serpent on either side of the temple entrance standing guard, and the Blue Temple’s serpents are as impressive as the temple itself. The two Naga, meaning “snake” or “serpent” in Sanskrit, are thought to be semi-divine protectors of the temple.

Have I mentioned how much I love metaphors and symbolism?

And a Mystery: the Jim Thompson house in Bangkok

Off a tip from a friend, I visit the Jim Thompson house in Bangkok, and I am not disappointed. I had not heard of Thompson before, but the website boasted gorgeous pictures of his house-turned museum and collected objects d’art, so I was intrigued. Though his most famous moniker is the “Thai Silk King” after basically being responsible for turning the rest of the world on to gorgeous hand-spun Thai silk in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he was also a WWII veteran, a CIA operative, an architect, and successful businessman. 

At the time of his disappearance, he was the most famous American in Thailand.  

His bed, the dresser, kitchen ware and other knickknacks are still displayed in his gorgeous, handcrafted house. The place definitely has a supernatural vibe about it, and it isn’t until our tour guide is telling us about a couple of specific items still hanging on the wall that I learn about the mystery surrounding his disappearance.

Still hanging on the wall of his bedroom right above his desk are two framed horoscopes from the ’50s. Pointing them out, the guide explains that good luck is predicted in one of the horoscopes for the year 1959, which is the year Thompson had moved into the house. The other horoscope predicts back luck for him in his 61st year. No need to google; I’ll tell you. Born in the year of the Horse in 1906, on Sunday, March 26th, 1967, in his 61st year of life, Thompson takes a walk while visiting friends in Malaysia and is never seen or heard from again, nor is any body ever found.

The mystery has never been solved, though many theories have been floated, as Lary Wallace outlines in his great piece in the Paris Review called Silk Thread: The Strange Mystery of Jim Thompson.  Did Thompson get lost and run out of food and water? Extremely unlikely. He was a war veteran and ex-CIA operative. Dude had skills. Mauled by animals? Kidnapped? Possible, but no remains, not even bones, were ever found. Kidnapped? Maybe. Assassinated by the US government? While there is no proof of involvement on the part of the US or Thai governments, Thompson was an extremely vocal critic of the Vietnam war,  putting him on the US government’s naughty list, and he wasn’t exactly popular with the Thai government either. Only Thompson and the jungle know for sure what happened that warm and humid day over a half century ago.

 

Next Up: Cities #4 and #5 – Marfa and Alpine, TX  – May 2019

 

 

White Temple source: https://www.renown-travel.com/temples/symbolism.html

Blue Temple source: http://www.thenotsoinnocentsabroad.com/blog/wat-rong-suea-ten-the-blue-temple

50 Before 50: City #2: Chiang Mai, oh Mai

50 Before 50: City #2 Chiang Mai 

img_5008Subtitle: How I Became Obsessed with Mango Sticky Rice and Rotis While Planning Entire Days Around Food and Animals

Before we continue with this project, I should point out that each post is going to feel different in structure. Some posts might be steeped in current and ancient historical facts along with some narrative. Some might be a “what to do when you visit” lists,  if the city calls for it. Some might be jaded social commentary laced with existential crisis. Some might be letters to my pet Chihuahua, Elphaba. Who knows. As Bowie said, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”

This post is going to be 45% food, 45% animals, and 10% anecdotes on foot massages. If you have never taken a vacation that revolves around food, animals, and massages, please do so at your earliest convenience.

But first, after the crazy existence that is Bangkok, let’s take a breather and get settled in Chiang Mai. While Bangkok practically begs you to burn the candle at both ends and debauch yourself, Chiang Mai is an extremely polite Thai side-eyeing going, “Dude. Relax. You’re in Thailand.” The city is tooted by many as a sort of hippyish-but-happening spiritual enclave especially popular with backpackers and digital nomads, and I can see why.  Not only is the core of the city itself is supremely walkable and way less intimidating than Bangkok, it is spilling over with great places to eat and dive bars to entertain on the cheap. Besides the over half dozen awesome cafes perfect for working, I found a used book store run by an Irish expat, a few yoga studios, and a Prince-themed bar named Purple Rain, so, it’s pretty much my perfect city. It’s also a great base for some amazing day trips.

Spoiler: Elephants and hedgehogs ahead!

After the entertaining, but long, overnight train from Bangkok, I arrive in Chiang Mai as the sun is rising. Even at this hour, the bus station is bustling and the whole city seems to have a nice “quiet bustle” as my friend Rozanne and I decide to term it. There is enough going on for a city girl like me to keep from going stir crazy, but allows, in fact, demands you to take a day or two to do nothing but walk and eat. Old Town (the ‘downtown’ area in the shape of a square of about 1.5km x 1.5 km)  is a maze of tiny, winding roads and alleyways that let you get lost without ever feeling lost. In fact, sometimes it’s the wrong turns that yield the greatest treasures. It was mindless meandering like that that led my friends, Rozanne and Gabe, and I to a dive bar named “Fat Elvis”, which had a pool table and open karaoke starting in 15 minutes. Fast forward one hour to Rozanne singing “These Boots Are Made For Walking” with me singing a timid, but willing, back up. 

Before Thailand, I had never seen a place where so much eating and living happens on the sidewalks. You’ve most likely eaten outside before, maybe even at a ‘sidewalk cafe’ of sorts. Imagine these ‘sidewalk cafes’ every ten feet serving delicious food made right in front of you out of a makeshift set up of a burner and pan or grill. Then you sit at mismatched plastic tables and chairs right on the sidewalk. Oh, and this all happens within INCHES of cars and scooters zooming by. The sharing and experiencing of mealtimes is big here, and it is wonderful.  And, oh, the night markets. I have a friend who says he still dreams about the night markets in Chiang Mai, and I totally get it.

I arrive with 5 days of flying solo until my friend, Rozanne, joins me and within 36 hours, my time starts slipping into a nice routine of late breakfast/coffee, followed by a couple hours of wandering around the town in different directions, popping into whatever temples I happened to pass. By late afternoon, I make my way back to the hotel to rest/read/work for an hour or so, but really I am just killing time until the night markets open up.

Jammed with unique and homemade and local wares to buy, as well as a variety of foods from corn on the cob to fried squid on a stick, the night markets are an experience unto their own. Although the biggest market of the week in Chiang Mai is held every Sunday night and involves shutting down a big chunk of main streets in the middle of Old Town, you can find a market any night of the week. Besides being entertaining and cheap, it’s a time for the neighbors to some out and socialize. It’s a beautiful ritual, and one that I think other societies (lookin’ at you, ‘Merica) could learn from.

Walking around these nightly neighborhood gatherings, I was struck with the realization that I knew not one of my neighbor’s names back home. It is said that socializing and connecting with others is vital to good mental and physical health. Humans are a social species. We need each other for emotional and physical survival. My mother and her man, Ralph, are lucky to have a core group of a dozen or so friends that get together regularly, and I think that is fabulous.

Maybe it’s time for more block parties where cell phones are banned. The sooner we figure out that. not only are we all in this together, but that we need each other, the better.

But back to food and the sticky rice addiction that would begin to define my days.

Yes, I had street side mango sticky rice in Bangkok, but the best is at Kat’s Korner in Chiang Mai. I swear they put something in it. This is where I would really try to use the fanciest words in the English language to describe it or maybe an Italian hand gesture related to food, but instead, just imagine the best sex you’ve ever had.

This mango sticky rice is better.

The mango needs no explaining or embellishment. But the sticky rice. Oh, the sticky rice. It’s a warm, white sweet rice made with sugar and coconut milk. It’s then paired with mango and most often served and typically consumed as a dessert, but I really think this is doing the dish a disservice. The mango sticky rice is an all day treat. Need a little bite to eat with your morning coffee? Mango sticky rice! Missed lunch and need a 3pm pick me up? Mango sticky rice! Gluttonusly full with pants bursting after a huge serving of Pad Thai? Must have mango sticky rice!

I tell another friend, Gabe, who happened to be traveling through, to meet Rozanne and I for dinner at Kat’s Korner the night he arrives. I do not disclose that this dish is the sole purpose for my third visit in six days. There’s no preparing for life-changing moments. They just have to be experienced.

“Oh my god,” he says, through the first bite, eyes bugging out cartoon-like. “That is [insert your favorite superlative here]”

The point is not what he says. The point is how the mango sticky rice makes you feel: like you know there must be a magical realm beyond this physical plane because there is no way a mere mortal crafted this morsel of divine-ness and in no way does humanity deserve mango sticky rice or dolphins, but exist they do.

Editor’s Note: the author may or may not have returned home to discover she gained weight from said sticky rice and beer, despite walking 5 miles a day. This revelation was followed with an ensuing meltdown and phone call to her mother.

Let’s let the mango sticky rice settle as we move on to our first animals: guinea pigs and hedgehogs!

I did not know how much the world needed a cafe where you can eat waffles and play with hedgehogs and guinea pigs until I learned about Harinezumi Cafe. In case it matters, yes, harinezumi means “hedgehog” in Japanese. For about $9, you can get a big waffle with fruit plus coffee AND unlimited play time with your own hedgehog and a pen of guinea pigs. One of our hedgehogs was named “Salt and Pepper,” which I decided to take as a nod to the 90’s rap group, not it’s white and black coloring.

A few notes: you can’t really snuggle hedgehogs. You can, however, wear thick gloves to pick them up as they try to curl up into a little ball in your hand, seeing as they’re nocturnal and you’re totally interrupting their beauty sleep. They might look at you with their adorable little face with its long, pinocchio-like nose like, “dude. I was having a killer dream.” You also get to feed them dead worms with chopsticks, which, to be honest, is more stressful than fun.

The cafe also has around a dozen guinea pigs, summoned out of their cozy den by thumping and russling a bunch of leafy greens. Like a parade of fluffy, skittish but inquiring soldiers, the guinea pigs marched one by one over a small ramp from their beds to a play area in the middle, for maximum carousing for them and gawking for us humans.

If you have a couple hours to fill, it was a delightful way to spend the morning. Now, back to food.

The roti is, for lack of a better compound noun, handmade heaven. A pan-fried bread of Muslim origin, watching the process of a roti being made is part of, I think, what makes it so delicious. You will not find a roti in any restaurant. This dessert is only available, like many of Thailand’s culinary treasures, by traveling food stand. The set up is minimal. You just need a bucket for the golf-ball sized single servings of the dough, a pan, and supply of a few other ingredients. One serving at a time, as orders are placed, a small ball of dough is gently thrown down and hand tossed  until it resembles an uncooked pizza crust. The dough is then delicately placed in the heated pan. Add butter as the dough is slowly cooking. Offerings for the main ingredient are limited: typically egg or banana. For me, it’s banana. The banana is sliced and placed on the dough. Then, after a couple more minutes, the sides are folded up to make a neat square. This square is then turned over and cooked just a smidge more, until ever-so-slightly brown. Remove from pan, cut twice in each direction to make 9 equal squares. Top with a drizzle of Nutella and condensed sweet milk. Prepare to be ruined for life.

The best way to work of those calories? Play with elephants!

Easily one of the highlights of the trip was, after thorough vetting to make sure the place was ethical, a day spent and Happy Elephant Home. City streets faded into lush green landscapes as we make our way about 90 minutes into the mountains. Happy Elephant Home is sanctuary to four adult elephants, and super-friendly 3 year-old elephant.

The day starts with getting up close and personal with them while feeding them bananas and sugar cane. One of the adult elephants, Liam, is practically blind in the right eye, but gentle as a feather. Our guide explains that the reason Liam is blind in the right side is because he used to be a riding elephant, and, since most people are right handed, the handler/rider struck him on the right side, to make him move, near his eye, which eventually caused blindness. I think of my three-legged rescue chihuahua back home and how she had arrived at the shelter needing an amputation of her front right leg because of mistreatment by a human. I feed Liam some more sugar cane and slowly pet his thick, prickly trunk as he munches, hoping desperately that at 45 years old, he has found some peace and contentment. His good eye is piercing and aware, though still laced with a twinge of residual sadness. I try to infuse every stroke of his trunk with kindness and tenderness.

Nearby, the three-year old is brazenly, but playfully, fishing food out of the buckets of the unsuspecting, managing to pluck out the sugar cane and throw unripe bananas to the ground in the most adorable tantrum. Truly, a soul inhabits animals as it does humans.

The last ten percent of this blog is two short anecdotes about two different reflexology foot massage experiences I had while in Chiang Mai, one at a luxury spa, the other on the side of the road at a street market, because, when in Rome.

Reflexology is a method of bodywork dating back to ancient Egypt and China that involves applying moderate pressure to specific points on the feet thought to correspond to certain organs and systems (respiratory, endocrine, etc) in the body. Think of a reflexology session like a really intense foot rub. It’s not entirely relaxing, but can be revealing.

Anecdote one takes place in a wonderful spa during a private reflexology foot massage session. Calming, otherworldly music is playing and the lights are low. I am lying flat on a supremely comfortable futon-like cushion. An eye mask drowns out any remaining light. Again, though reflexology massages are not ‘gentle’ persay, they are generally thought to be enjoyable. So, it comes as a surprise to the massage therapist when, as she is targeting a certain point in the ball of my right foot, I wince. She backs off, then presses again. And again, I wince. She then says, with a bit of concern, “you heart is hurting.”

*A google search of “reflexology foot images”  later does, indeed, confirm that she had been applying pressure to the area of the right foot that is said to correspond to the heart.

I resist the urge to laugh out loud., mainly because this did not surprise me at all. If you know me well, you might be aware of my checkered and complicated cardiological past. I didn’t have the Thai to communicate “yes, I’ve had two open heart surgeries and have some mitral valve regurgitation,” so I just smile and nod slightly, hoping I’m not causing her too much alarm.

Anecdote two takes place post-dinner during the Sunday night market. Rozanne, Gabe, and I have just finished dinner and some shopping at the market when we decide to get massages. After settling back into the comfortable lounge chair, I am about to close my eyes and access my own inner garden of peace when, two minutes in, the lady starting my massage eyes me and my midsection and says “You baby?” Feeling the faintest of hotness encroaching on my cheeks, I glance at my stomach. Ok, so, maybe I have the tiniest of food babies?

As a woman, it’s scaring enough to be mistaken as pregnant when one is not, it’s a whole other hellscape to have it happen in front of a cute guy.

This is where I quit mango sticky rice cold turkey. Thank you and good night.

Coming Soon: City #3: Chiang Rai and the White and Blue Temples

 

Bangkok: the first 48 hours

City #1 of 50 before 50: Bangkok

It is said that, after a crime is committed, the first 48 hours are the most critical in terms of trying to solve the case. This feels apt. I feel like if anything nefarious is going to happen in Bangkok, it will be within my first 48 hours there.

img_4525Hour 0

The sun is setting amongst some clouds as I exit the airport to find my Grab car (Grab is like Lyft/Uber for Thailand). My stomach rumbles slightly, not from want of food, but as it always does whenever I first get to a new place and realize that I cannot speak a word of the language. Not only that, but, while Thai is a gorgeous language to look at, I have not even a grasp of how to pronounce anything. At least with the romance languages, I may not know what I am saying, but my American mouth and brain can at least may any attempt at sounding out a word, no matter how much I butcher it. 

It takes about 50 minutes for a $14 dollar ride to my hotel. The highways give way to narrower, noisier, busier streets spilling over with people, motor cycles, pink taxis (I love this) and tuk-tuks, which is the Thai version of a pedicab, but motorized.

It turns out that I’m staying on the Bourbon Street of Bangkok. That is to say the noisiest and one of the most touristy streets in the city. I both love and hate this. While I love that Khao San road is fairly central and within walking distance of many attractions, it’s also one long block of bars, restaurants, clubs, massage places, and souvenir shops. In other words, it’s backpacker mecca and likes to party until 3am, as I found out the first night while falling to sleep to the melodic thrum of a deep and never-ending bass beat.

Hour 3

Khao San Road is filthy, seedy, unkempt, and completely alive with flesh and neon and noise and vices just waiting to bubble up. It’s amazing. It’s a huge, crazy, nonstop block party – like Mardi Gras in New Orleans without floats and beads . Restaurant vendors call out, trying to entice foreign customers, sometimes shoving handmade boards in faces advertising beer, buckets of liquor and laughing gas. Makeshift food stands, which are little more than portable, rusted-out barbeque stands also clog the street with all kinds of made-as-you-wait pad thais, fried rice dishes, coconut ice creams and satays (meats on a stick).

I wander the street a couple of minutes before I hear an acoustic version of a Lady Gaga song wafting from a place whose ceiling is adorned with upside down umbrellas and falling twinkle lights. This will do for my first night. After procuring a local beer and spring rolls, I engage in one of my favorite activities: people watching.

There are the twenty-something backpackers straight from the airport sporting the standard-issues oversized backpack on their backs. There are the Chinese and Japanese with the selfie sticks. There are the empty-nest Western couples in khaki shorts and tropical prints, the kind of couples I imagine who decided to come to Thailand, at the suggestion of a therapist perhaps, to “spice things up” and “have an adventure.” There are the chain-smoking Europeans. Bangkok welcomes all, but it does not let you relax. You don’t come to Bangkok to relax. It puts every kind of vice and desire and freedom at your curious fingertips and let’s you decide your fate. It’s a 3D technicolored “choose your own adventure” book come to life.

Hour 17

The next morning, I walk the little over 1 mile to the Grand Palace, one of the “must dos.” Built in 1792, it was the private residence of the kings of Siam and Thailand until 1925, as well as the administrative center of the monarchy.

Situated on the riverfront of the Bangkok river, the compound stretches on forever and consists of a number of buildings, sprawling and picturesque courtyards made for the IG and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is noted as the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. Eye-popping and humbling, I spent a good 2 hours imaging a past life where I was the daughter of the king of Siam frolicking in the bonsai trees in the garden and drinking from petit, golden goblets. I was addressed as “Princess” and drifted to sleep in an insanely ornate four-poster bed. Who knows, maybe Anna Leonowens was even my governess.

The opulence and grandeur of the buildings when viewed from afar is hard to describe, but I noticed that, as I got up close to some of the mosaic-like hand-constructed structures, the effect was changed.  I call it the Monet effect. Monet was a French impressionist painter. When viewed from a distance, his paintings are dreamy and romantic images of people and landscapes. Up close, the paintings sometimes look like a muddle of harried brush strokes. Only up close could I detect and appreciate the flaws of the imperfectly cut tiles and not-quite-symmetrical patterns. The flaws have always been and will always be there, but that doesn’t make the structure any less beautiful. 

Early evening finds me back near my hotel where I grab a Singha beer and some fried rice before retiring early to sleep off some jet lag. I manage to drift in and out of sleep through the massive street party going on outside until it stops around 2:30 and I fall like a lead weight into a deep sleep.

Hour 30

There is a vast difference between the motorcycle culture of the US and the motorcycle culture here in Thailand. Sure, motorcycles are obviously modes of transport, but in the US, bikes are also considered a kind of status symbol and identity. In Thailand, motorcycles are 100% practicality and 0% testosterone. Their mission is simple: to get through the clogged traffic fast and with laser-like precision. The humble Thais would probably look at a pimped out American Harley and laugh in amusement. Practicality and simplicity rule when it comes to motorcycles here.

Grab is like the Uber and Favor of Thailand combined where you can hail a car or a bike, as well as order food to be delivered. I had used a Grab car to get from the airport (swift and easy), but I had not noticed the “Bike” option.

Since my destination was only a few miles away (not too far, but too far for me to walk in the heat), I opted for the “Bike” option and was soon whizzing through Bangkok on the back of a small Honda scooter. And these guys are good. Expertly adept at weaving in and out, these guys are the quickest way to get anywhere. They treat lanes more as a suggestion than rule, sometimes, and love to weave through cars stopped at a light so that they are in the front and among the first to hit the gas.

I summon a bike and, within minutes, am happily zipping in and out of chaotic traffic though the city. There seems to be an unwritten traffic agreement between motorcycles and cars here: if you’re in a car, just drive normally; the motorcycle will find the spaces to weave in and out. Like water flowing around rocks, the motorcycles will rush around you, but will keep flowing. Just drive. 

Sorry, mom and dad, but if you’re flying solo, this is the best, quickest and most economical way to get around. It’s a way to feel a little bit cooler without going full biker chick. And speaking of biker chicks, some of the women here opt to ride side-saddle, perching one and a half butt cheeks on the seat behind the driver and barely bothering to hang on (in fact, they are usually holding something in one hand) as the driver zips along. And just when I thought that was badass, along comes a family of four on the same bike – 2 adults sandwiching 2 kids my nephew and nieces ages. All without helmets. This is just the way it is here.

But there’s more. Soon, along comes the motorcycle carrying a dog whose two front paws are perched on the handlebars right next to the driver, standing up on their hind legs. And loving every wind-swept moment. 

While I might never be cool enough to ride side-saddle, there is sometime deliciously and soulfully free about riding on the back of a motorcycle in a foreign city driven by a guy whose name you do not know and speaks two words of English. 

Hours 30 – 47 in bullet points

  • Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho – the Mona Lisa of Bangkok – a gigantic golden statue of the Buddha resting on his right side, and said to have been his posture as he awaited death and about to enter the parinirvana (the “death after nirvanah”). Though this is a must see while in Bangkok, it is touristy. In a related note: I loath selfie sticks in public places.
  • Squids, scorpions and other assorted bugs on sticks
  • Full-sized crocodile being cooked rotisserie style and sliced like turkey
  • Monks in a tuk-tuk
  • Western dude in tank top on Khao San Road slyly tucking a bill into the top of a waitress as she sets down a yardstick-type device full of beer in front of him. She hurries to bow slightly enthusiastically a couple of times. I come to a full dead stop slack-jawed vacillating wildly between rage and befuddled amusement.

Hour 48

After a dinner of street satay and mango sticky rice, I follow the sounds of some live music and find myself in a second story bar overlooking Khao San Road. The drummer dangles a cigarette out of his mouth as he drums along to tunes like “Wonderwall” and “Take Me Home, Country Road.” It’s not long before a gent approaches asking if he can sit at empty place next to me. I motion for him to go right ahead.

His face appears to be Thai, though as soon as he speaks, it’s clear he was not raised Thailand. Turns out Colin is, indeed, of Thai background, but is also a full quarter Scottish and grew up in Scotland, which means it takes a few minutes to adjust to his charming brogue accent. He’s plays and teaches football (“real football, not American football”) and has a tattoo of the Thai flag on the back of his neck. We chat lightly for a bit. I learn he’s very anti-Brexit and just took a new job in Bangkok. He comes to the bar once a week for the music and sports a Rod Steward tee-shirt. A detail I don’t pick up on until the band starts playing “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” and he jumps up, yelling, “Ah, fuck yeah, Rod Stewart! He’s my favorite!”

And thus, with local Singha beer in hand, ends my first 48 hours in Bangkok.

Next: City # 2 – Ayutthaya

 

 

 

2019: The start of 50 before 50

It’s a new year, which means it’s time for a new New Year’s Day (or eve) trip!

After a strong start to a new tradition in 2015 (Costa Rica) and 2016 (Singapore/Bali), 2017 snuck up on me before I could plan. But, we’re back, along with a new personal/writing/travel goal. But more on that in a second.

It’s about 5:30pm on New Year’s Eve, and I’m currently sitting in ABAI waiting to board a flight to LAX where I will board two more flights and end up in BANGKOK. I have zero regret about any “missed” New Year’s eve’s plans. Typically, these trips start on New Year’s day, but the price was right, so I packed.

If you follow me even a little, you know that I like to travel as much as my jobs and wallet let me. As much as I seem to be a homebody at home in Austin, which I kinda am (trying to get better at that), I am just as eager to go visit new places, learn about new cultures, and meet new people.

The past few months have conjured up a goal that will help me continue exploring: Vising 50 new cities by the time I turn 50 in a scant 6 years and 2 months.

It feels ambitious, but doable. The cities will be domestic and international, because, if you don’t really know much about different parts of your own country, how can we start to bridge the enormous riffs between all humans that is in dire need of attention?

Right now, my goals are simple: travel, meet people, learn about them (and myself)

And the adventure starts now: January 2019: THAILAND: Bangkok and Chiang Mai

 

So a 43 year-old Walks Into a Music Festival

 

IMG_3847Confession: I’m a bit of a music festival neophyte. Despite living in Palm Springs for 5 years during the blossoming of Coachella and Stagecoach, I never went. I was living there in 2008 when Prince played his now infamous cover of Creep by Radiohead, and no, I have never forgiven myself for not going that year.

Fast forward to 2018. Prince is no longer in human form, and I’ve already seen the Revolution once, but the second I hear they are headed to ACL in Austin, I buy a 3 day pass. I’m also excited to see Janelle Monae, Shakey Graves, Elle King, and Metallica, but for me, the coup de gras is the Revolution.

Saturday: I’ve spent the whole day working. Suddenly is it 5:30. I’m tired and dehydrated, but I make myself change clothes, put on some sensible shoes, and hop on Lyft, because no way am I dealing with parking and traffic.

Dropped off a short walk from the entrance, I can already hear the music. A sweaty, swirling mess of people are scurrying in and out. It takes about 10 seconds to wonder if this was a good idea. But then the piercing rays of a descending sun slap me in the face with beautiful pinks and oranges. I press on.

Airports and any kind of festivals or sporting events are some of my favorite places to people watch. The glitter-covered bosoms and long, braided hair are amusing, though it’s comforting to be of the age where I dress for comfort (a second-hand summer jumpsuit and knock off Converse from Target).

Upon entering, a fuzzy nausea and annoyance start to bubble up. I’m not a big crowd person, and I’m really not a crowd-that-has-been-drinking-for-hours person. But fate had decided to put a Wine bar right inside the entrance, so I quickly down a glass of overpriced Tempranillo and start to feel better. After a huge slice of local pizza, I am actually starting to have fun.

I had timed my arrival to try to catch most, if not all, of Elle King’s set. With the pizza scarfed and a second glass of wine in hand, I amble my way toward the crowd, opting to hang at the back. I bless the two ginormous monitors set up on either side of the stage so I could see her and the band ‘up close’ without actually having to be ‘up close.’

Since my friends aren’t expected to arrive for another hour, I settle into my go to solo activity for airports and large crowds: people watching. And ACL proved to be top-notch. I don’t people watch to judge, but simply out of wonderment and love of seeing people expressing themselves, or not, through clothing. I have always viewed fashion as mean of soul expression, and ACL does not disappoint. Body, face, and hair glitter: check. Faux-leather platform sandals/boots: check. Wings, flower-crowns, and even Prince leggings: check, check, check. I suddenly envision my nieces about a decade from now getting ready with equal parts giddiness (because I will obviously encourage them to have fun with fashion) and a bit of horror that they will indeed be teen girls doing teen girl things.

My friends arrive just as my second glass of wine runs out and the band St. Vincent is taking to another of the 5 stages. We don’t really know the songs, but the band is high-energy with some songs made to make you want to shake and yell it all out, in a good way. Near us is a small group of girls doing just that. With space enough to run around and jump and skip and scream along with the band, they, in that moment, embody the purest form of what I believe we are all here to find and claim as our birthright: absolute fucking joy manifest. They make the whole space around them vibrate with a wonderful peace.

Metallica is the closing act. We stay near the back of the crowd, but the monitors and speakers again helped to make the experience better for those of us in our post-mosh pit age. Again, the fun is less about the actual concert and more about what is happening around us. Noise levels are such that we can converse without too much trouble. We catch up, we take pictures. We just enjoy being in this moment on this night.

A short while later, I hop into the passenger side of a shared Lyft. A conversation quickly reveals that the the couple in the backseat is here from out of town specifically for the festival for the first time. As we’re all chatting about the festival in general, I at one point say how stoked I am to see the Revolution (Prince’s old band) the next day.

The driver immediately gets excited. “I kind of met Prince once” he exclaims. He then tells a fantastic anecdote about briefly encountering Prince in Vegas one time and accidentally stepping on his foot, not yet knowing it was Prince. I squeal in delight at this story and my fortuitous encounter with this driver.

Sometimes, the event, such as a festival, itself, is not the point. Sometimes the point is in the smaller details and moments. The sunset picture I snap at just the right time as I entered. The glass of wine mixed with pizza mixed with the slight waft of weed. Bodies becoming joy. The shared story from a stranger about a personal hero that made my night. The simply being. 

A Tale of Two Shows: on seeing Kinky Boots and Drunk Shakespeare in NYC

 

Ever since my soul and flesh slammed into New York City (which is another story involving a blizzard of the century), I have loved her fiercely. She a magical beast that you can lose yourself in and reinvent yourself as many times as you wish, so a visit with NYC never fails to make me giddy. I recently had the chance to spend a few days in New York City, and, against my usual modus operandi, I did almost no planning, which is sometimes the best kind of planning. The only thing on my must-do list was to see a Broadway show, because that is the one non-negotiable with any of my trips to NYC. I decided to let NYC plan the rest, and so I ended up attending two vastly different, but both masterful, shows on the same day: Kinky Books, a fully-realized musical production with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper playing in the gorgeously ornate Hirschfeld Theatre, and Drunk Shakespeare, a froliking kind-of interactive and improv happening involving a cast of 6 wearing their own street clothes that takes place in a small library on the 4th floor of a nondescript building. How the stars aligned for me to experience both is not the point, the point is that I was struck how both shows were expert examples of the absolute importance of theatre on both personal and social levels.

For the spectator, theatre allows us to indulge our imaginations and escape for a short while. The same is true of movies and books, of course, but there is something special about being transported merely through sets, costumes and actors. Kinky Boots is the quintessential Broadway musical experience. Stepping into a theatre is, for me, like stepping into another world. I never feel as disconnected (in a good way) from the outside world as I do when I’m sitting on that red velvet chair. It’s like my own personal magic carpet.

Theatre is storytelling at its heart and allows us to experience other times, places, and cultures that we may have not otherwise been, or will ever be, exposed to. By bearing witness to others’ triumphs and struggles and ways of life, we expand our world references and can increase our capacity to relate and empathize.  It can also help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Kinky Boots is set in the conservative town of Northampton, England, where our protagonist, Charlie, inherits his father’s failing shoe factory. Although the last thing Charlie wanted was to inherit his father’s business, he now feels loyal to the workers and responsible for keeping the factory running. The only problem is, how? Through circumstance, enter Lola, a black drag queen entertainer from London who challenges Charlie and the town to expand their minds and their world. Charlie and Lola team up to start manufacturing a new kinky boot of, as Lola says, “2 ½ feet of irresistible, tubular sex” instead of an outdated, stodgy men’s shoe.

The road to success is not easy for Lola or Charlie: Lola initially experiences physical and verbal assaults from one of the factory workers and Charlie splits with his fiancee, who can’t, bless her cold, corporate heart, figure out why Charlie wants to a) stay in Northampton and b) save his father’s factory. Everything rests on Charlie, Lola, and the workers having a new line of shoes ready in time for the a fashion show in Milan. But, while Milan is important to the story in that it does, indeed, save the shop, the real heart of the show beats around Charlie and Lola, and what we learn by watching them interact with each other and the town. It is through watching these different struggles and situations play out that theatre becomes relatable and teachable and, in the case of Kinky Boots, at times wonderfully witty and hilarious.

Peppered with fantastic music and lyrics by the iconic Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots challenges our thoughts about what love and self-love really means, having the courage to be true to ourselves, friendship, sacrifices, our sometimes soul-crushing fears, and ugly preconceived prejudices about strangers, and the real notion of what being a family means.

From the inspirational song “Take What You Got” about taking the risks worth taking to the hilarious “The Sex Is In the Heel” about the re-uh-vamping of Price & Co’s shoes to the tear-inducing “Soul of a Man” ballad co-sung by Charlie and Lola about their fathers, with whom they both had strained relationships, to the funny and adorable “History Of Wrong Guys” sung by Lauren, Charlie’s loyal, longtime friend/factory worker, upon realizing her long-heald crush on Charlie. (spoiler, of course they end up together) The showstopper, though, is the final song: a feel-good, motivational power ballad that finally busts the heart. “Raise You Up/Just Be” is a 6 minute plus booster shot of encouragement, self-acceptance, and inclusion that we all need right now. In fact, the cast breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and gets the audience on their feet to take part in the feel-good fun, eliciting my favorite of emotions, happy tears through laughter. And, yes, it is the bigoted and narrow-minded macho factory work who had previously given Lola (and Charlie) hell that unties the workers in the end to save the factory, having learned some necessary lessons along the way. This is the kind of show that is as entertaining as it is food for thought.

Since I was letting New York plan the day, I had not predetermined what I was going to do after Kinky Boots. Good thing, too. It was about 4:25 as I exited in my usual post-musical high, and I immediately knew I needed another hit of theatre. I quickly made my way through the crowd at Times Square towards the TKTS booth, which sells day off theatre tickets at 40-50 percent discounts. Though musicals are my weakness, I’m definitely not opposed to other theatre experiences, so I chose the off-Broadway Drunk Shakespeare at 8pm. And then New York, and theatre, get even more magical. I go to pay for the ticket and am told that it’s cash only for that particular show. My ticket is $36. “Oh no,” I say, crestfallen, “I only have 29 dollars on me.” The man looks, smiles and winks, saying, “That’s ok, I’ll make it work, babe.” Say what you want about New York City, it can deliver small miracles and mercies faster than lightning. Ticket in hand, I practically skip the 4 blocks down to Carmine’s (the touristy but just oh so fun pre-theatre Italian joint I first experienced in 1998). I secure a seat at the bar and pass the time with a glass of wine, food, and chatting with the bartender.

But back to another reason I believe in theatre: it’s ability to be absolutely contemporary in its content and be able to create what Brene Brown calls “collective effervescence”, best described as that warm-fuzzy feeling one gets by simply being part of a group experiencing something great, like a concert, or the second show I ended up seeing, Drunk Shakespeare. Maybe my standards aren’t as high as they should be, but I loved this show as soon I showed up to the address and the only signage was written in red paint on the wall on the first floor of the building: “Drunk Shakespeare” and an arrow pointing up. Two flights of stairs brings you to the “theatre”, which has a small gathering place/lobby with a bar. Behind a curtain is the performance space, a small theatre-in-the-round creation that holds maybe 75 people, made up to resemble a ‘library’ in that the walls are lined from floor to ceiling with books. I literally gasp at the adorableness of the space. Then I get handed a light shot of some kind of bourbon, and I again gush. To make a long story short, the show is called Drunk Shakespeare because it involves one member of the troupe, in full view of the audience as the show is starting, taking a few shots of tequila. They also choose one audience member to take one shot along with the actor, to verify that said actor is, in fact, drinking alcohol. Like I said, it’s an interactive experience, and a side-splitting hilarious one at that. This show, while loosely following the plot of Macbeth, does not (save for a few of the great original lines/soliloquies from the Bard himself) use the original language, but instead is largely improved and infused with (a lot) of tangential audience participation, contemporary rhetoric, cultural references and witty, on-point social commentary. This can also be a secondary aim of theatre as it was in Shakespeare’s time – to “hold the mirror up to nature” as he says – to show us who we are as individuals and as a collective society. Theatre, used in this way, is a tool of education, not just entertainment, and I love the ‘escape’ of a Broadway musical as much as I cherish a lush, immersive experience such as Drunk Shakespeare.

It’s been proven by studies from the University of Arkansas that live theatre increases a person’s social perspectives, tolerance and vocabulary! So the next time you’re scrambling for a gift idea, try grabbing a couple of seats at a local production of anything! I promise you won’t regret it! Theatre can make us a happier, more peaceful, and smarter society!

5 Reasons to Drop Everything and Take Tango lessons in Buenos Aires (August 2015)

12540667_10153188890541682_6245849521189604133_n5 Reasons To Drop Everything and Go Take Tango Lessons in Buenos Aires

There are only two reasons a reasonably sane person would book an international trip to a foreign city where they don’t speak the language and know no one in order to spend a eight days studying and practicing a dance they have never even tried. A woman in love, or a woman recently out of love. I’ll leave it to you to guess which one I was. Let me rewind…

Late July in Austin, Texas. It’s oppressively hot and I’ve spent the past 6 months, yet again, trying to work against timing, against my instincts, and being the damned butterfly fluttering around like a lunatic, instead of being the still flower. And because timing always (always) wins, I finally took a step back and exhaled until my lungs were blissfully empty and cried until my eyes were clear.

A couple of days later, I’m reading about a package trip to Buenos Aires (which translates to “Good Air”) that is billed as a mash up of a couple of ‘self-help’ seminars and a few private tango lessons. Although I have done enough self-help work for a couple of lifetimes, the details of the trip are intriguing. And the timing is perfect (irony of ironies) – I would return with 24 hours to rest before fall semester began. For a myriad of reasons, I knew I needed to get the hell out of dodge, and I gleefully accepted this little slice of divine manifestation with zeal. I knew without a doubt this was the perfect kind of trip at the perfect time.

Problem #1: I don’t speak Spanish. Oh well. When in doubt, point at the menu, right?

Problem #2: I don’t know the first thing about tango. But, that’s what the classes are for, right?

A mere sixteen days later I’m boarding a 10 hour flight from Atlanta with a newly purchased Lonely Planet guide in hand. My heart is still heavy, but my head is ready for the adventure, even if only for the distraction for the next 10 days.

And then, right on cue, I meet Alejandro, the tango teacher. *

*spoiler alert: nothing happens, but keep reading.

And so, in no particular order, I present five reasons why you should drop everything and take tango lessons in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of the dance an inspiration for a short-lived Broadway musical in the mid-nineties called Forever Tango.

  1. “Tango es sexual”

No translation needed.

I’m sitting in a very old apartment in Buenos Aires surrounded by portenos (the term for people who are from Buenos Aires), foreigners and a few other Americans. We’re here to talk about the connection between tango and sex, though I’m wondering why a whole seminar is needed. To me, the connection is perfectly obvious. Tango can be a way to have very real, safe physical contact with another person whose name you may not even know. The dance is a fleeting, but no less real, moment of satisfaction. The close embrace of the tango demands flesh on flesh contact brings you back to your body and the supreme simplicity of connection without words.

Make no mistake, tango is sexual, sensual, and brings every emotion to the surface. It is not danced with the feet, but with the heart. Twenty minutes into my first tango lesson, I realize I’ve developed a crush on Alejandro. Or, more precisely, I’ve developed a crush on the whole process, the dance, and life again.

  1. Tango is an exercise in patience

“Wait…” Alejandro must have said this to me a hundred times, mid-step, as I tried to figure out where he was going to lead me before he had finished the step. “Don’t be in a rush, Aimee. Just be in the step.” I bust out laughing. “Oh, Ale, you don’t know who you’re saying that to.”

But his point is dead accurate about tango and life. The dance is made up of two individuals, and cannot be rushed by either partner, or everyone will lose their balance. Having spent much of the past decade in a swirl of “rushing” to find the guy, literally rushing from job to job, or spontaneously moving cross country a few times, I have spent  the past couple of years trying to slow the hell down. “There is a step between the step'” says Alejandro, “don’t forget.”

Right then it clicked. I had been thinking of tango in terms of step 1, step 2, an abrupt jump from point A to B kinda thing, but tango, like life, demands more graceful, fluid motions. Tango also depends on using this patience to suspend any notions of anticipations, or better yet, get rid of anticipation altogether. Any time I tried to anticipate where Alejandro was going to lead me next, he never failed to feel the subtle shift in my weight. “Do you know where I’m going,” he smiled. “…no. I was trying to guess.” He nodded. “Exactly. Don’t do that. Don’t try to anticipate. Just be with me in the moment, and let me show you.”

Anything you say, Ale. Anything. You. Say.

We start dancing again, and this time, I don’t concentrate on the steps, but instead, think about gliding, wave-like, through the dance, and resign myself to the unknown. I think about being, not only in the moment, but in each second. Somewhere mid-song, Alejandro starts humming, and then singing along (in Spanish) to the passionate, mesmerizingly soulful song in Spanish, and suddenly I’m dizzy and wondering what kind of favor I did in a past life to deserve to live through this completely surreal moment.

The song ends. Damnit. “Eso, Aimee! Muy Bien!” he beams.

Yes, I think. Everything is muy bien. Everything is going to be muy bien. For the first time in a long while, I feel okay with being patient and living in the emotional quicksand known as the “unknown”, as it pertains to love. I am, and I think my family would attest, fairly patient and flexible when it comes to life in general, but not when it comes to love (or food). I’ve longed for a relationship for a long time, and become increasingly riddled with anxiety as the calendar pages continue to fade away. But tango has reminded me to slow the hell down and enjoy the ride a bit more.

  1. “Tango is improvisation”

Says Alejandro. “You mean, there’s not a routine,” I blanch. He firmly shakes his head. “There are a few basic steps, yes, but the dance is improvised.” It’s my first lesson, and I’m suddenly very aware that in about 20 seconds I’m going to be on my feet in my newly purchased tango shoes and torso to torso with this very handsome Argentine whose accent is to die for trying to learn a dance I’ve never done in my life.

My comfort zone has long since been left behind, but the swirling culmination of the experience of a new country, new language (which I don’t speak) and learning a new dance has me a bit flustered and I’m feeling a bit queasy. But then I remember the first rule of improv comedy: say yes to anything that is thrown at you, and do something with it. So, vamos. Life is, is it not, one long improvisation?

Alejandro first plays a few different pieces of tango music, from the 20’s, the 50’s and the 60’s, and while all of the music is beautiful and haunting. Tango is not just a music. It’s a feeling and a way of approaching life.

I think back to my first few hours in Buenos Aires. Walking for the first time down Defensia, I was startled when I stepped upon a piece of sidewalk that was no longer rooted down, and had to regain my balance mid-stride. Not two minutes later, the same thing happened. This time. I was annoyed. The third time it happened, I laughed. I get it, I thought, I just have to go with it.

A similar thing happened later in the week when I approached a subway station, only to find that service on that line had been suspended. The pre-tango Aimee would have done some serious brooding, but the post-tango Aimee just laughed, sashayed herself to the next subway line a few blocks away, and found a new route home.

The first hour-long lesson passes in a blur. Before I know it, it’s time to go, and I’m already looking forward to tomorrow’s lesson. Alejandro and I exchange a goodbye kiss on the cheek (cultural thing), and I float out of the studio to the subway.

By the time I resurface out of the subway at Plaza de Mayo, I no longer feel like the same person who boarded the plane three days ago. I hum to myself as I bound up the stairs into the night; I smile at everyone I pass. I feel more myself than I have in months. The sun has set and the air is crisp and sweet. The first thing I see is the Casa Rosada bathed in a warm, pink and utterly romantic glow. I stop dead in my tracks at the absolute perfection of the moment. So I did the only natural thing possible when you’ve just taken tango lessons in Buenos Aires and find yourself standing at Eva Peron’s old abode at twilight. I slung my satin tango shoe bag over my shoulder, threw my arms open, and sang “Hello, Buenos Aires” (from the musical Evita) while improv dancing and skipping over and around the tons of huge, gaping holes in the sidewalk.

  1. Tango is about balance

One of the most interesting things about tango is the seemingly drastic difference between the music/lyrics and the dance. While the music is searingly passionate and often includes bitter, violent lyrics, the dance is smooth, sexy, and, I can attest, can instantly put a smile on your face.

As Alejandro is addressing posture during my second lesson, he says “Tango is about connecting with another person, while still maintaining your own balance. If you don’t connect with the other person, the dance won’t work. If you don’t maintain your own balance, the dance won’t work.”

I know, right? Talk about a metaphor. And there’s more:

“When two people are truly connected, dancing together, there is no ‘follower’ or ‘leader’, but two people sharing the responsibility of the dance,” says Ale.

I feel a familiar pre-cry pang welling up in that back of my throat. That’s all I’m looking for, Ale, I wanted to wail. Mercifully, a second later he turned on the music, and two seconds later, he was teaching me how to pivot, and, just like that, I was ricocheted from despair back to joy in, literally, a single step.

By the end of the third lesson, I was hooked. I felt re-connected to myself, and had fallen in love with life again. Ok, so having a seriously good-looking Argentinian teacher and going for a glass of Malbec and tiramisu after each lesson didn’t hurt. In the end, it wasn’t about learning a dance, it was bringing some joy and adventure to my life, and that was worth every peso.