New York, New York, New York

So… I’ve actually been away from New York for a few months now, but it takes a while for the shock to wear off.

…and it’s impossible to cover NYC in a single blog post. I was there for an entire year, for one thing, and can’t possibly fit everything in. For another, it’s like taking a picture of a chameleon. It’s not that it’s particularly hard, it’s just that any picture you get is going to be wrong. The place can be Brooklyn home-brew made by a guy in a baseball cap. It can be the boho-chick cruising in the Lower East Side for The Pert and Lacy Vintage Find. It can be Wall Street rushing with tourists and suits, or the subtle, thrilling ahem of Trinity Church’s bell. It can be the always-endearing smell of smog in the Bronx. It can also be the drunk guy who asks you for directions and then heads in the direction opposite from the way you pointed.

Trinity Church 20140709-004
Trinity Church, in case that wasn’t clear
New York Stock Exchange Financial District NYC '14-052
NYSE, from an angle that makes it look fat…
Hard Rock Cafe-Times Square
Hard Rock Cafe

Or maybe it’s running in Central Park. Dumplings around the Bowery. Shopping in Chinatown. Chess by Union Square. Bar-hopping in the Village. Weird conversations with complete strangers at the Met. The variety is fantastic, but part of the reason there’s so much variety is because New York is schizo. It’s a technical term: schizo. NYC is just plain huge, and if you can manage to cram one and a half million people from different cultures and backgrounds on an 34 square mile island without getting anything interesting out of them, then you deserve that particular hell. Of course there’s also the M&M in Time Square, Broadway, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central, JFK, the MOMA, stuff like that. You know, tourist-bait.

Another reason I get along with New Yorkers: they loathe tourists. I even hate tourists when I’m a tourist. So when I say I don’t think New Yorkers are rude, you should probably take that with enough salt to give you a heart attack right here and now. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve got a fellow ‘ugly american’ standing in the middle of a crowded street — full of people with actual places to go — to take a yet another crappy picture of yet another monochrome skyscraper, you are totally entitled to bitchslap their ass.

WTC 1 20140709-005WTC 1 20140709-023

The Statue of Liberty '14-061

If they ask you how to get to the Statue of Liberty… well, it’s a matter of taste. I like to point south and say something like “It’s real big. You can’t miss it.” And the Bull? “It’s somewhere around Wall Street, right?” Or I bob my head up and down and pretend that I speak nothing but Spanish.* And don’t bother holding out hope for the occasional nice person. Basically there are people like me, and then there are the ‘mystical givers-of-direction.’ E.g. “on Tuesday take 2nd avenue down to 27th street and turn widddershins-wise three times, if an Edible Bouquet truck appears, knock on the basement door in 7/8 time, and a leprechaun will pop up to guide you into the secret compartment of the thrift shop. Or not. But only try it on a Tuesday. Otherwise you’ll be stuck in the land of Left New York.” There’s something about New York encourages this kind of superstitious mode of navigation, though I’m not sure exactly what it is.

Perhaps you’ve gathered by now that I have no tolerance for people who can’t read maps. None. The one good thing about the subway system (which is otherwise terrible and prone to delays and/or explosions) is that there are maps posted everywhere, in multiple languages. All you need to do is find a subway station, and the entirety of New York is yours for low, low price of $2.50. Read:

NYC '13 Elizabeth II Sept 11 Garden NYC '13 Financial District 100_9246NYC '13 Central Park 100_9178 NYC '13 Central Park 100_9180

Of course, I understand that if you’re a tourist, you might not even ride the metaphorical Ganges that is the subway. I wouldn’t. Not if I was there to have a good time.

B&W NYC '14 -042
The idea was to remove the never-emptied trash cans to prevent rats. Because that was a great idea.
Trash opposite the Trash is a problem sign. Seems to be working (sarcasm)
Trash opposite ‘the Trash is a problem’ sign. Seems to be working </sarcasm>

…and tourists… they don’t really understand what they’re seeing is just Manhattan. Manhattan is not New York. Most people never see New York. Mostly because everyone is still too scared to go to Brooklyn. Which is odd, because it’s already becoming the new Queens — that is, boring and gentrified — and I found everyone from Brooklyn to be really nice. It’s the ones from the Bronx you need to watch out for. Seriously. That wasn’t just a joke that fell flat. They’re scary.

I learned a couple of really interesting things from my time in New York: a) you can wear almost anything as long as you wear it with heels and while driving a Mercedes, and b) there’s actually no free WiFi in many parts of the East Village. And I have a lot of pictures. Enough to bore several future generations

.West Side Architecture New Years 2014-2015 IMG_0690
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*I’m pretty white, as white girls go, but I’m told that that if I speak Spanish rapidly enough and messily enough I can pass for Puerto Rican.

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EDIT: Also deserving of another mention. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is easily my favorite New York Thing. My dear old mum feels very strongly that I should tell the entire internet that admission is still free. Essentially. It’s actually pay-what-you-want and the suggested $25 ‘admission donation’ is just that, a suggestion. This means, of course, that if you tend to hang out with embarrassing people (as I do,) they will use a nickel to pay for the entire party.

Amsterdam

paraphenalia amsterdam-h-0520
Just to get it out of the way: I’ve never tried pot. And the reason I’ve never even thought of smoking marijuana has more to do with the fact that the smell of it makes me feel like I’m riding  an angry bull, which is jumping on a trampoline, on a capsizing ship sailing through the middle of a hurricane, than the fact that it’s totally illegal here in the US (sorry Colorado, California, but you can’t just magic away federal law. Nice idea, but no.) …and realistically, it’s not like I need to spend money on an addictive consumer good. I have coffee for that.

Honestly, I spent most of the day looking at graffiti:

…which in Amsterdam is generally very artistic

Graffiti amsterdam-c-4061 Graffiti amsterdam-c-4062 Graffiti amsterdam-c-4063 Graffiti amsterdam-d-0365-ns Graffiti amsterdam-h-0502

…not trashy at all. I bring all of this up only because, apparently, for certain people in my age group this is the only attraction that Amsterdam had to offer.  They completely ignored the cute Dutch guys and the wind turbines.   I mean come on, wind turbines!Leaving Port amsterdam-c-4150 crop

It’s not like I’m one of those people who gets off on old, moldy buildings either.  For a city to have a history is nice; but  it’s like a sexy woman with a degree. Pretty cool, and maybe more important, but honestly, no one cares. I go into all this excruciating detail of course because I get off the ship (yeah, it was a cruise ship, tres bourgeoisie, get over it) and my dad asks someone at some generic help desk where the Nieuwe Kerk — literally, the New Church — is.
 
The guy blinks, very slowly. He blinks again.  He looks at my dad like he’s a little bit special* and says “There is nothing new in Amsterdam.” Which sounds like Euro-historic snobbery, but it’s also basically true. I mean really, there’s the old kerk built in 1305, and the “new” Kerk. Which was only re-built in 1645.  After it burned down, which, you know, tended to happen to decrepit old buildings a lot in the days before flame-retardant materials and things like plumbing.

St Nicolaaskerk amsterdam-d-0325-ns crop
St Nicolaaskerk
St Antonia amsterdam-eileen-0102
St Antonia

So that was the first five minutes in Amsterdam. We walked along the harbor. Got lost. Found the canals (not that hard, there’s practically nothing else in the old section of Amsterdam). We missed most of the flashy stuff like the flower market, and the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum, the annual cheese-bowling fest and, much to certain people’s chagrin, the sex museum. We also elected to skip getting the cannabis T-shirts.  So we saw another church, and a (oh my god) pissoir, which was like a little scratch and sniff of the middle ages.

houseboat plants bike langern trees canals amsterdam-c-3939
The canals + houseboat
houseboats canals amsterdam-c-4023
More canals
houseboats canals amsterdam-c-4025
…and oh look… more canals (feel free to imagine Sean Astin narrating)
guy amsterdam-c-3707 crop
Yeah that’s him

Then we met this drunk English guy who used a lot of old Dutch words to explain how much he didn’t like the Dutch.  No one at the time thought to ask him why he was in Amsterdam. Saw some of the shops.Popped in and out of several more churches  and then we went back to the ship for lunch. I told you it was all very bourgeoisie.

 

So yeah, I spent a total of maybe six hours in Amsterdam. Walking very, very slowly.

It’s actually been several years since I was there. But I still had the pictures and I wanted to post this in honor of Still Omgang on the 15th (I think it falls on the 15th anyway). It’s a protestant procession which commemorates a miracle which involved a miracle where a guy at death’s door received the final sacraments and vomited the host up. And the miracle here is not that the guy lived or anything silly like that, but that the host was thrown into the fire (because seriously it freaks people out if something gross happens to the host, if you drop it or crumble it or say a bad word in front of it you have start the whole church service over and all that) and it came out unburned and as body-of-christy as the day it was first baked.

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*Which he most definitely is. My father is very special. But there’s also definitely a Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam:

De Nieuwe Kerk  church (bathroom) amsterdam-h-0443De Nieuwe Kerk amsterdam-c-3766

Lisbon cubed

Explorer's Monument Left Side lisbon-d-0578

Lisboa is as nice a town in Iberia as you’d care to meet, but just like the only thing you remember about that brilliant topologist who donates kidneys in his spare time is how he clogged your toilet with spent Indian food, there’s only one thing I’m going remember about Lisboa:

You see, I was not traveling alone.  I was with my mother and grandmother, so the first thing we have to do is go for a tour of the local bathrooms. Because, you know, there are no lavatories in America and we’ve only recently invented fire. That’s ok though, honest, because I don’t feel thoroughly acquainted with a place until I have to use the toilets.1

So we waddle past Praça do Município (city hall), down the Rua da Prata (Portuguese for ‘giant tourist trap’) and turn off at the first likely looking café:

Cafe S. Nicolau, Lisbon, Portugal
Cafe S. Nicolau, Lisbon, Portuga

Like polite people we buy some coffee. At least I think it was coffee. They called it coffee, that was the important thing. So we’ve got the coffee and are now customers in word and deed. We go downstairs to use the toilets near the stockroom. Now, truthfully lower level bathrooms aren’t really unusual in Europe; the fact that it feels like a set from  Young Frankenstein can’t be helped.

After assembling downstairs — chaining ourselves together with a rope, because none of us have money, phones or the slightest ability to return to the place we’re staying at if we get separated– we find the bathrooms. My mom and I let my pint-sized grandmother go first because her bladder to height ratio is the largest.  So I’m there in this little hall, chatting with my mom and we start hearing these strange noises. It sounds like a constipated motorcycle engine. There’s kind of a rhythm to it. Our first thought is that someone in one of the two bathrooms is.. how shall we put it… suffering from some sort of internal instability?

It gets louder. Much louder. I hear a crash from the stockroom. A dish breaks. We then realize the source of the noise is not one, but two people. A minute later the stockroom door opens, a rosy-cheeked, slightly out of breath portuguese gal walks out, trying to avoid eye contact with the four people now waiting for the toilets. For the record it is very difficult to grind against four individuals in a tiny hall without looking at them. A short while later another employee walks out. He looks to be in similarly fine health. By the time my grandmother comes out, my mom and I both look like we’re having seizures we’re laughing so hard. Unfortunately, my mother and I both lose our minds in the gutter so often we’ve taken to leaving them there, and my grandmother thought we were making it all up.

Pastel De Nata (portuguese egg custard pastry)
Pastel De Nata

So we get upstairs, back to the un-coffee, funny tartlet portuguese pastries and of course the very annoyed proprietor. We talked to some customers upstairs and it turns out they heard too and it wasn’t just us. The owner’s calling the employees various names some in english for the sake of the patrons, others in portuguese, which, based on the tone he was using, I think I’m glad I didn’t understand.

As you can imagine, we do not stay to finish our coffee. This was my introduction to the fair city of Lisboa.

Big Clock(lisbon)
Big Clock

After our crash course on portuguese culture, we escaped various vendors, tourists and street musicians (pics here), stared at the big clock and generally enjoyed the city. Lisboa is kind of like an old supermodel; you know she’s maybe seen better days, but she’s still light years ahead of your average person shopping at Walmart. There’s still a lot of marble,which is as clean as five hundred year old marble can be reasonably expected to be, and the architecture is cool. ( Note: I’m an architecture nerd, my computer is full of pictures of spandrels and artistic manhole covers and shots of ‘exotic’ paving materials. I did not have time to geek out when I was there, which is fortunate for.. well.. pretty much everyone in the universe).

We actually did stop to see Praça do Município (aka City Hall) with its cute little Portuguese flag and a square or two and some other stuff, and  then caught a tram to see the Explorer’s Monument ( Padrão dos Descobrimentos pictures).  After London’s fantastic Tube, Lisboa’s public transit system requires some adjustment. It’s actually fine, once you actually y’know find the stop. For someone coming from a culture where everything is over-communicated and writ large, in technicolor, it just takes a bit of time to adjust to the teeny tiny signs, which are almost always in portuguese… and tourist information/post office, which is only open three days a week (yes I am being hyperbolic, and no I’m not sorry). Which is fine, I don’t feel entitled or anything, I come here, I don’t know the language and all I want to do is spend money on the “natives”. If they don’t want to help that’s fine with me.

Jerónimos Monastery  Exterior
Jerónimos Monastery

The best touristy thing we did was easily the Jerónimos Monastery. It really is beautiful, it’s a great example of Manueline architecture  and it’s important in Portuguese history or something like that.  It’s like one of these little restaurants that has some sort of   “Vasco de Gama ate here” placard hanging up near the entrance.

The history was probably fascinating, but I wouldn’t know: all the signs were in Portuguese.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (information in portuguese)
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

All kidding aside, it’s a lovely city, it’s got friendly people, they’re not into obnoxious siestas and it’s on one of the most gorgeous stretches of ocean I’ve ever seen. I just wish I could pronounce the names of the streets.

 

 

 

 


1.You can tell a lot about a cultured from their toilets. If you want Cyndi to write a post about every funny bathroom story she has, beg her in the comments.

And: If the name of this post sounds familiar, it’s because I stole it from a great short story by William Tenn, from this book.

Louisiana IS foreign country

I was going to wait to post until I had pictures and stories from far off lands, but then I realized, a lot of people, even my fellow Americans might find some of these places interesting, if not exactly exotic.

As anyone from either coast will tell you, New York resembles San Francisco about as much as I resemble Barack Obama, which is to say: not at all. And if you think the West and East coasts are absolute opposites, then you haven’t been to Texas. Texas has created its own spacetime vortex in an effort to coexist with the rest of the United States (and they’re still working out some bugs.)  One reason for all this is because the US is so freakishly huge. Another is that we’re just ornery and conflicted.

gilroy, garlic capital of the world.
Garlic capital of the world, in case you didn’t see the sign

I have to admit though, we generally have more in common than we think. However, for all our similarities (e.g. we usually speak english, we accept the Federal government — in theory, and we think Laos is somewhere in South America), it’s quite possible to be a well-travelled citizen and yet have no idea what goes on in the next state. Yeah, you can drink municipal tap water in your home state, but it tastes like crawdads in Louisiana. The dialect of American English that Bostonians speak sounds a little bit like Gaelic. Use “hella” in Florida and everyone looks at you like you’re riding a yak through the city streets. Culture shock abounds, and you don’t even need a passport.

A flaming fish at McIhenny's Tabasco Factory on Avery Island.
A flaming fish at McIhenny’s Tabasco Factory on Avery Island. Because.. like.. who doesn’t love a flaming fish?

On the other hand, it means if you want to meet the natives you don’t actually have to have a blind date with your friendly neighborhood TSA officer. True, maybe you don’t care about a palace made out of corn or the world’s biggest ball of twine, but we’ve got a lot of space here, and we might as well use it.

After a while you’ll get used to the natives, you’ll start to grok the peculiarities of Dixie, acquire a taste for the oddities of California. ..and maybe just maybe, you won’t look like a tourist (though that does require not wearing your crappiest sweaters and a fanny pack).

The City of Neon Lights, Las Vegas Overview

It should say something about me that I was actually more excited to see the Hoover Dam than Las Vegas. I don’t know what.. but it should say something.

The best way to get to Las Vegas is by plane. If you come by car — which, if you’re coming in from the east, requires driving through hundreds of miles of gritty, sunburnt desert — you’ll be ready to put up with anything as long as it’s in the shady air conditioning. And you will, believe me, you will. Not that I speak from personal experience of course.

I’ve been to Las Vegas twice now. The first time as a little kid, more than a decade ago when Las Vegas was trying to appear family friendly. There were dolphins to pet, lion cubs to ogle, klingons to scare the crap out of you and medieval jousts to keep the more bloodthirsty of us occupied. I’m sure of course, that I was unaware of a lot of things that were going on in the Las Vegas of 2000  that eight year olds should be unaware of. Occasionally I saw a few things I probably shouldn’t have, but I don’t think was scarred for life. At least I wasn’t, and then I went back. The center of the Las Vegas Strip still looks pretty much the same:

Around a decade after my first encounter with the rhinestone in Nevada’s crown, I drove through the Chihuahuan and Mojave deserts. Very different.  I was traveling with my family and since we were going through we decided to see Las Vegas, basically just because it was there.

In hindsight, Circus Circus was nowhere near as cool as it seemed when I was nine or eight. Figures. I’m not really sure what part of Las Vegas appeals to people in my demographic (i.e mousy little white girls) But.. for a prude who doesn’t gamble –and wasn’t even able to legally drink, don’t get me started on that — Las Vegas is  a garish, tastelessly flashy, desert hell. This is not to say that it wasn’t fascinating. It’s cool to see how companies can manage to efficiently extract money from people relatively painlessly. It’s also pretty interesting to try to figure out what allows Las Vegas, a city with no obvious natural resources and little else going for it, to continue existing.

Las Vegas begins to make sense when you realize that pretty much everything exists in its local form to make money. Of course this is a statement so obvious that it’s stupid, but it’s one that is strangely difficult to keep in mind.  No one who is trying to sell you something wants you to think about how much you’re actually spending. There are all sorts of little things that make Las Vegas seem different. The tiny, relatively uncomfortable rooms  are designed to encourage you to be out gambling or.. whatever. There’s the omnipresent cheap food. The food is weird at first, especially since you’re out in the desert and everything has to travel into the city, but  it makes perfect sense because the large profits from gambling essentially subsidize the  in-casino restaurants; meals are their loss leader. Maybe if you’re not concerned about how much it costs to eat out, you might spend more gambling, but I have no way to verify this.

In short: Las Vegas is pure tourist trap, it’s what every little charming New England village and quaintly dilapidated town in the Florida keys is afraid of becoming. Well plus some lights, and hookers, and traffic. People go there to pig out, ogle and generally make fools of themselves. This is actually pretty intelligent; the nice thing about traveling is that if you act like a complete and utter idiot it is no big deal, because you’re most likely never going to see anyone again. And if you do, you can pretend you forgot. Not that I know any of this from personal experience either.

So we went to all the really  famous places:

We unanimously decided to go to the Rio (pictures here.) Mostly because it was kinda out of the way. Also, to put it kindly, if not too eloquently, we expected it to be a bust. The Rio is probably designed with a younger, more active crowd in mind. If you liked Mardi Gras but just couldn’t get a handle on the weird french stuff, you might like the Rio.

Continue reading “The City of Neon Lights, Las Vegas Overview”

The Rio and Caesar’s Palace (Las Vegas)

Map of the Strip
Map of the Strip

I’d probably better let the pictures speak for themselves.

The Rio:

Inside the Rio Hotel
Inside the Rio Hotel
The Rio - deeper into the rabbit hole
The tacky decor and Chippendales that I promised

The next day we went to Caesar’s Palace to ogle like true touristas: 

Entrance to Caesar's Palace
Entrance to Caesar’s Palace
Horse Statue - Caesar's Palace
Somewhat self-evidently, a statue of a horse
Caryatid Caesar's Palace
Caryatid Caesar’s Palace
Another Caryatid Caesar's Palace
Another Picture of the Caryatid Caesar’s Palace
Statue Caesar's Palace
Another Lobby Statue, Caesar’s Palace