New York, New York

It’s election day in America and I’m about to go spend the day at MoMA. People seem a little anxious; here on the east coast they’ve just been through Sandy and New York City is only just beginning to get back to normal. Last night it was very loud on the Lower East Side when I woke up in the middle of the night, but it was kind of soothing since my first couple of nights were so quiet. Even though I’ve never been here before I knew it was unnatural.

I’ve had an amazing few days in New York. I might write about Georgia and the conference later, but ‘I’m in a New York state of mind’ right now. On Sunday I went along with the woman I’m staying with (who is awesome) to help clean up an artist’s studio in Brooklyn that had been flooded. It was devastating. She works with wood so there was a lot of warping, and mould. The water was brown and stinky so we had to wash and dry out everything. She’d been working on it for a couple of days and by the end of Sunday the studio was beginning to look like a studio again, with the help of many people. Her equipment was ruined, though. So sad. She wasn’t the only one in the building, either. Or, of course, in the suburb.

Anyway, I was glad I was able to do something, since I arrived just after the superstorm. I started my tourism proper yesterday by:

1. eating a cream cheese bagel where Harry met Sally
2. walking from LES to Times Square and buying MAC lipsticks (thanks to my friend Kate Middleton, who has made me determined to be a ‘lipstick-wearing person’)
3. ate at a Seinfeld-style diner and overheard many post-Sandy catch-up conversations
4. did an aerial yoga class
5. caught the subway, a bus and a yellow cab
6. saw Argo at the gorgeous Village East Cinema
7. went to The Strand bookstore (amazing)
8. celeb-spotted Jeff Daniels in dark glasses

Being in New York is not really like the abstract, piecemeal idea I had of New York. Yes, I relate almost everything to something in the cultural memory bank, but I never had a grasp on the grandeur of the place; actually being among those tall buildings. Also, the city belies stereotypes (so far) just as Paris did for me, in that the people seem very friendly: saying hello, smiling, talking, having a joke. I would say that the stereotype about New Yorkers always being in a rush, however, would be true. I don’t understand why there aren’t more traffic accidents! But it’s like a game you have to learn. As soon as you understand the logic of when to cross the road and how to react to a bike zooming past you, you can just fit right in.

Gerard and I were discussing the city the other night on the phone (he was here for a few weeks in 2010) and we agreed that there’s something surreal about it. When you’re in Manhattan it feels as though you’re apart from the world, almost like the island were floating a little above. Gerard said it’s a bit like one giant movie set, and I’d agree. The feeling doesn’t seem to be simply related to seeing the streets in films, but then maybe it is. Who knows how that accumulation of pop culture might affect your reactions? The film Metropolis was one of the first to enter my head when I arrived coming over the Williamsburg bridge. Then I’ve had flashes of Woody Allen (of course), the Nolan Batman films, Ghostbusters (especially with all the military vehicles in the street due to the relief efforts), King Kong and more. 

So on my list still is art deco (including the Empire State Building), seeing this David Hyde Pierce-directed play featuring Sigourney Weaver (and as my sister suggested, I should combing this activity with a trip to Dana Barrett’s apartment building in Ghostbusters), lots of art, and maybe some comedy…

Abstract extracts from my travel journal: June to August 2011

This is cross-posted from Southerly, where I’ve been blogging in December.

This post is partly a peek into my process. If you read more of my writing you may notice thoughts, imagery, themes popping up that originated from this trip and my recordings. But I like to think these carefully chosen ‘abstract extracts’ – deliberately taken out of context – form a little narrative of their own.

Paris

Cars and motorbikes honk, a man vomits into the bin and hobbles away. We are halfway around the world, we desperately need showers and we are happy.

…the best part of the day, I think, was all the stairs and the things they led to.

Notre Dame chimeras. Tongues out, biting, depressed, smirking, scratching, hiding, leaping… you become so intrigued by the possible personalities of the artisans.

Can you imagine anyone embarking on a project that might take 200 years to complete?

Poor prisoners slept on straw, slightly richer ones had rough beds and slept two a-piece. Wealthy or famous prisoners had a writing desk and bed, and a few other comforts, even if they were going to the guillotine.

In Louveciennes. Meat wrapped in string. Like roast beef but better. They call it bird without a head (or something) though Jacques didn’t know why. Started with a P.

Cinémathèque. A donkey suit worn by Catherine Deneuve. A starfish of Man Ray’s. Edison peepy thing. A turban worn by Mae West.

The catacombs. Close air, quiet, the dead elegantly, artfully and respectfully arranged. Being so far underground – the womb and the tomb. Like crossing over for a moment. Then on the surface again (back above the trains and sewage) it’s bright, loud and you can see the skulls in the heads of passersby.

The smells: sewage, smoke, aftershave, electricity, baking.

In Montmartre, Gerard looked up at a window on a quiet street and an old lady waved to him.

London

Globe Theatre. My stomach was clenched so badly during the whole sequence when Hero is shamed.

Edinburgh

Having a day where like:
my skin is bad
I’m tired
I’m not getting enough work done
there aren’t enough bloody toilets in any city
there are too many people
I want a dog
I keep saying tomorrow
I don’t feel well

Benromach: fiery – hint of smoke. Perfect for this mood.

A few things about Edinburgh:
uneven floors
all sorts of lighting, making us look like ghosts or leather
pierced people, dogs
green + stone
authentic tiny pubs

I’ve been to the castle before. For some reason I love the Prison of War exhibition: the doors etched with initials and different types of ships (and some kind of spotted animal – a dog?), the hammocks, plastic bread and cheese. I also like the cells where the misbehaving army men were kept. They created all sorts of punishment for them, including lifting a heavy iron ball from one box, putting it in another, taking one back to the first, etc.

An idyllic childhood is associated with its own breed of pain: that everything afterwards comes as a shock.

Scottish Highlands

Wanted to sit all day in one glen we stopped in, and think.

Secret, slippery steps to the ruins of a castle, on private property. A castle that inspired the romantics. Dripping, dank, pebbly, dangerous. On one side: the sea, ships, sundown. On the other: trees growing out of rock, the sleepy town of Oman. Giggles, flexed calves, camaraderie. Sharing memories of grandparents, and sensations (smell, taste, touch). It’s late.

Driving: green, rich forest. Stones along driveways. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’. Black-and-white-faced sheep, houses with turrets, churches, whisky and fudge stores.

Little old graveyards, yellow and purple flowers.

Glen Ogle: the valley of death.

Rannoch Moor – 58 square miles of nothing. Largest uninhabited land in Europe (so romantic).

Eighteen warm-blooded reptiles. 1100 sightings from this boat on sonar. He’s seen 10 in person.

1500 bodies buried (killed in 35 minutes).

Edinburgh again

Thinking about the scientific process of making whisky. Something clear that you can learn, master and adapt – unlike reading and writing about/applying postmodern theory. I come across concepts that enthral me: Levinas on sensibility, Jameson on pastiche, but then it all becomes a big mash in my head. When I go to write (and speaking about it is even worse) the right things don’t surface or connect. The connections are there, I know they are. Articulation is a problem, one that makes my head (and to an extent, my heart) feel very heavy.

Jolly Judge looks cosy and inviting. Roof beams from a 300 y/o sailing ship. Half a pint of dark beer: McEwans. Toilets smell like peat smoke.

The Scott Monument: largest single monument of a writer anywhere in the world.

The Museum of Childhood. Porcelain faces, miniature representations of life in dollhouses, a doll made out of a shoe for a slum child, marionettes, children’s stories (and stories by clever 12-year-olds), meccano sets, baby dolls, teddy bears (roughened by age and love).

London again

Michael Cunningham, Guardian book club. ‘I am sentimental and optimistic.’ ‘Every novelist all engaged in this doomed, collective effort to write the whole world.’ ‘…depressive, always have been. So the whole notion of facing down hopelessness and having the courage to live is something I feel I bring…’ ‘…trying to write or trace some human truth large or small.’ Virginia Woolf felt she failed after every novel… not capturing everything. ‘We are all potentially epic figures in our own stories.’

Chain pubs, McDonalds and Starbucks on every corner.

Bethlem. Olivia Gillow: paintings of a fellow patient’s OCD handwashing. Vonn Stropp: compulsive painter, though it’s ‘painful’. He has adopted 123 names by deep poll and has three birth dates. Cynthia Pell: sad and painful drawings. Was at Bexley in the ’70s. Committed suicide. Imma Maddox: weaving, printmaking, schizophrenia. 17th century alms boxes.

Victorian-era building
funnel chandeliers, clown faces
tall mirrors, cherubs, booths
drinking a bramble
after the pictures by crazy (sane)
people and ephemera from the
hospitals

Ministry of Sound. Noise warnings, people like people anywhere, dancing, looking across at G and loving him for getting drunk enough to enjoy it (‘it’s just not my thing’ he said earlier in the day). It’s not really mine, either: but then, everything is my thing sometimes.

Forests as a metaphor for the imagination – the surrealists.

Rothko’s paintings seem as though they could swallow you whole. Then I started to see them as doorways.

Bar Soho. Camden Town. Bloody Mary. The coughing. Is it just the London air? A deep, dry, tickly cough. Pulls on my stomach. The tube tonight: no air. London bathrooms down stairs. Sweaty.

Spaciousness: physical and textual geographical references can be found in the Bloomsbury Group’s work.

Gloucestershire (& surrounds)

Golden Glory Ale.

Went to a 1500-circa house today, creaky lovely oak floors.

Antiques and willows.

I get overwhelmed, tired, I can’t keep up like some people can. I don’t think I’d have admitted this a few years ago. But anyway, other things about here: the birds, the garden – tiered, full of luscious berries, peas, other veg – the pups, Sapphire and Grouse. The lunches of cold meats, olives, cheeses, scotch eggs, cold pork pies, bread, ryvitas and seed crackers. English mustard!

Objective – pah!
No one is objective.

World drops away…

Queen Victoria never revisited Bath after her ankle was insulted by an 11-year-old.

We’ve only had two, maybe three, alcohol-free days in our trip so far.

Things I’ve noticed I say a lot in broad company:
‘Oh well.’
‘Well there you go.’

I touched the sulphurous, greeny water today at the baths before I read the sign. G said I might turn into a mutant.

Bucharest

A great big medieval (or slightly later?) palace with a statue of Vlad the Impaler was being uncovered and restored in the city centre. Gravestones were piled up on the grounds.

Art Deco… one particular one with most of a facade intact and a rotting roof with the sky poking through. It could have been rotting or it could have been burnt.

Brasov to Budapest

An old man told me ‘I love you’ several times, offered to buy me wine, with ‘no obligation’ and pulled at my bra. At first I was polite, well, at first-first I pretended not to understand. When he pulled my bra I said ‘no touch!’ Then a Canadian girl asked if I had any girly things and we had a nice chat.

We had a long D&M conversation about life before realising, humorously, we are on the same train line as those characters – Jesse and Celine – in Before Sunrise.

Budapest

The particular golden, honey-like light bathing buildings (neo-classical) and faces at twilight.

We took the old railway to one of the world’s oldest zoos. The coypu came out of the water and scrubbed itself with little hands like a little person.

Paprika. Palinka.

The history in this part of the world – so recent – is not just dark, but incredibly complex.

Prague and Kutná Hora

Busy. Huge crowds, noisy douchebags sucking at beer cans, old men spitting in the gutter.

St Nicholas Church. My first proper taste of a decadent, baroque interior.

The Sedlec Ossuary. The bone sculptures/arrangements – a chandelier, chalice, coat of arms – don’t seem strange, just bright and artful. The smell, when we walked in, reminded us both of the catacombs. So that really was human bones I’d been smelling there. A not-quite earthy smell, maybe a bit like dust and lemon.

Still tied, for me, inevitably with Kafka.

At Kutná Hora our guide, Jana, spoke seven or eight languages.

She told us about having to go to confession as a six-year-old girl, prior to the communist regime (which the Czechs often refer to as the ‘communistic era’ or the ‘communistic time’). She and her little friends would stand around going ‘what’s really bad?’ ‘what’s a sin?’ as at six, of course, they had nothing to confess.

A folktale about the medieval girl haunting the narrow, curly, sloping lane we walked on, as her rich father locked her in the walls so he’d never lose her to marriage and have to pay out a dowry. She floats above the lane in white and only attacks men.