I’ll be reading at the Q-Boro Literary Crawl in Forest Hills this Thursday, 4/28 at Red Pipe Café on 71-60 Austin Street! I’m on the Queens Book Festival stage and will be the first reader on the 2nd leg, starting around 8:15pm. Come and join us for a night of readings, performances, food and drink specials, and an after-party! Tickets are currently $10 and can be found here—prices go up day of. All the proceeds go towards the 2016 Queens Book Festival, happening this summer.
Back in New York now after a long 14 hour flight from Shanghai. I’m feeling a bit of a sense of culture shock now that I’m back—where are the crowds? And the e-bikes? There’s so much diversity here! The roads in Brooklyn are potholed something awful and the single or double family homes around Jamaica are so much different from the skyscrapers and traditional housing of Shanghai. And here, you get a “Hey, beautiful,” instead of “Why aren’t you wearing a jacket? Aren’t you cold?!” (I prefer the latter, though.) It’s pretty warm here, too, and the magnolia trees are blooming! Two springs in one year—not bad. I can’t wait to start biking around.
But leaving Shanghai was pretty surreal and happened far too quickly. About three days before I left, I went to Suzhou for the day. SK and I peered down into wells and into a shop where a mechanized press printed sheet after sheet of material (is this how it works in the U.S. too?) We stumbled upon the bird and flower market where adorable ceramic flower pots and cacti in the shape of tiny rabbits were being sold, as well as turtles, pigeons, and puppies. On Pingjiang Rd, there were ice cream cones of different colors. Then it was time for the literary festival! It was lovely meeting Don and Lieve—Lieve was such a good storyteller that I barely had to say anything but it was a pleasure to listen to her. Afterwards, I read “Westward, Ever Westward” then had dinner with SK and Lieve before rushing off to the train station. Due to the traffic, we would’ve missed the train if it hadn’t been delayed an extra 10 minutes.
As part of the residency, all of us artists have to leave a “trace” that is then put in Swatch’s virtual museum online and may be shown in one of their galleries. I really liked the end result of my trace, titled “Smoke Signals.” Here’s what I wrote about my trace and some photos!
Using joss paper as a medium, Smoke Signals reflects and complicates the Chinese tradition of burning joss paper as money for ancestors in the afterlife. The joss paper is one that my family always uses but instead of putting it to its traditional use, I inscribe the last two lines of a poem I wrote referring to the use and significance of it upon Chinese culture. Within the center is a Chinese translation of the poem, almost invisible except in certain lights. In this way, this work comments upon the hidden messages within this tradition—paper as smoke signals and currency, the invisibility of the Chinese text—as well as reflecting the poem’s message in a physical form, using traditional materials in a non-traditional format.
Anyway, I’m really glad I did this residency—it was definitely a productive experience. I participated in one art show and two readings, wrote at least 5 short stories and a few smaller works, and met some amazing artists of all types from around the world. I’ll really miss a lot of my fellow residents—it was pretty hard saying goodbye when those I knew for three months left and only got harder with artists I’d known for longer. I know I’ll come back to China in the future—after living in China for almost two years in the last five years, I feel as though it’s my second home—but the artists I know will be scattered around the world. I suppose that gives me more of an excuse to travel, though! See you all someday in the near future!
For all those interested, I’ll be moderating the last event called “On the Wings of the Dragon” at The Bookworm Literary Festival in Suzhou this weekend. The focus is actually on Lieve Joris’ work–she’s one of Europe’s leading non-fiction writers and will be talking about her journeys between Africa and China. 6:30pm on March 26th at The Bookworm in Suzhou! Afterwards, I might do a short reading at the Festival Party. If you’re in the area, come check it out!
I only just got back from visiting relatives in other, more mountainous areas of China. It was rainy but I still managed to go hiking around a few mountains (so green and lush! Palm trees and tall grasses and along the way, fields of rapeseed flowers glowing yellow in the gloom.) I also ate tons of delicious food, from homemade dumplings to hotpot to sweet&sour fish to clam noodle soup. It was a pretty great time although I’m saving my more complicated thoughts from the trip for an essay but here are a few photos.
It’s Chinese New Year’s eve and it feels strange not being with family. On the street, the locals are burning paper money within chalk outlines, a circle with an opening. The smell of incense fills the air around the Jade Buddha temple and there are gates being set up, like the ones you tap your card on to get through to the metro station. Three cats sleep in a park near a building that references butterflies but I haven’t seen one around.
I walked along Suzhou Creek, past where I once saw a man with a monkey on a leash, without a destination in mind. On a street with the same name as my family’s Chinese hometown, an old complex lies half demolished amidst other buildings which have yet to be demolished—posters still on the walls where there are walls, empty frames of buildings when the walls are gone. Piles of rubble and bricks and plastic bags. Stray cats live here as well. But today was one of those days where you’re a bit in love with the world just for being there.
My reading+talk last month went well thanks to Josh at the consulate and his thoughtful questions and all the people who came despite the rain and listened to me and asked questions (shout-out to the Swatch crew and the current Hangzhou Fulbrighters!) Was happily surprised by those who came up to me afterwards with recommendations!
Happy year of the monkey! We’re making dumplings tonight : ]
Oh and here’s my annual list of books I read (only 46 this year but I blame it on being in China):
1. We Are Not Ourselves- Matthew Thomas
2. Bed- Tao Lin (didn’t finish)
3. Land of Love and Drowning- Tiphanie Yanique
4. Almost Famous Women- Megan Mayhew Bergman
5. J- Howard Jacobson
6. One Story Collected- 2014 Literary Debutantes
7. There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories- Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
8. Get in Trouble- Kelly Link
9. Young Woman in a Garden- Delia Sherman
10. Flings- Justin Taylor
11. We Have Always Lived in the Castle- Shirley Jackson
12. The Wilds- Julia Elliott
13. American Innovations- Rivka Galchen
14. Dept. of Speculation- Jenny Offill
15. Binary Star- Sarah Gerard
16. The Wallcreeper- Nell Zink
17. Maud’s Line- Margaret Verble
18. Wilberforce- H.S. Cross
19. Hausfrau- Jill Alexander Essbaum
20. The Miracle Girl- Andrew Roe
21. Make Your Home Among Strangers- Jennine Capo Crucet
22. Oh! You Pretty Things- Shanna Mahin
23. Come Along with Me- Shirley Jackson
24. Hangsaman- Shirley Jackson
25. The Lake- Banana Yoshimoto
26. Bark- Lorrie Moore
27. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China- Evan Osnos (NF)
28. You Never Can Tell- George Bernard Shaw
29. Monstress- Lysley Tenorio
30. Gutshot- Amelia Gray
31. Ruby- Cynthia Bond
32. Everything I Never Told You- Celeste Ng
33. The Memory Palace- Mira Bartok (NF)
34. Taipei- Tao Lin
35. Man V. Nature- Diane Cook
36. The Edge Becomes The Center- DW Gibson (NF)
37. Howl’s Moving Castle- Diana Wynne Jones (re-read)
38. Wind, Sand, & Stars- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (NF)
39. Station Eleven- Emily St. John Mandel
40. A Canticle for Leibowitz- Jr. Walter M. Miller
41. The Three Body Problem- Ciuxin Liu
42. Crazy Rich Asians- Kevin Kwan
43. How the Light Gets in- M.J. Hyland
44. One Day- David Nicholls
45. Fates & Furies- Lauren Groff
46. Brothers- Yu Hua
Just a quick update to let everyone know that I’ll be reading at the Shanghai American Center tomorrow at 6:30pm! It’s near the Jing’an Temple subway stop. Here are the details. Everyone is welcome!
While walking down the street with friends, a truck’s side-view mirror hits my shoulder like a punch. It takes a second to register. The truck stops. I stop. The truck driver and I look at each other. I shrug and he slowly drives away.
A tiny kitten sits calmly on the sidewalk. When it sees me looking at it, it comes over and instead of rubbing itself against my legs, it climbs atop my sneaker and sits there, its entire body smaller than my foot.
A dog, beautiful, golden, tries to fit an egg into its mouth. The egg is slightly cracked. The dog gently rolls it around, laps at it.
On some days, people have the audacity to tell you who you are. Don’t judge me, one says, but then she lists all the ways in which she is judging me. According to her, I am neither Chinese nor American. I want to ask: then what am I? Alien? No one has the right to take away someone’s identity.
I’ve noticed that discussions about identity and racism happen most frequently amongst Americans. After all, the U.S. is constantly struggling with its own ideas of nationalism, identity, culture with its immigrant population (we are, after all, all immigrants there.) Funny how citizens of other countries don’t always have it at the forefront of their minds. Funny how much I have to think about what it means to grow up as a minority, within the country where people who look like me are the majority but have never experienced the microaggressions I’ve experienced.
I had originally thought that my collection would dwell mostly on the Chinese-American experience in China but somehow mostly thought of my interactions with mainland Chinese. But now I see that my interactions with the expat community are just as rich in terms of story material. But somehow more fraught, more tense. There’s a superiority here, a deeply embedded belligerence at times.
A lot of thinking to be done. But in the meantime, I’ve written pieces about fake mountains and factories, amusement parks and the ocean. I’m working on a video. Sometimes I go to parties with cloud women on top of the futuristic towers of Pudong and sometimes I take walks all the way down to West Bund or through the French Concession. Earlier this month, a pop-up art exhibit where I collaborated with Robert Gabris on a small piece. Sometimes, we talk about “shower dumplings” (aka soup dumplings) and sometimes, we go out for dinner at Ippudo or for Korean bibimbap or for the most amazing Chongqing style grilled catfish (like a fish hotpot!) Sometimes we watch hush hush documentaries about the journey of a young patriot here in China whose feelings about his government change throughout the years. One time, we took a bus out to the watertown of Zhujiajiao and wandered for hours and made up the dialogue in a silent screening at a cafe of Casablanca. It feels weird that so many artists I started out with have left–a lot of goodbyes have been said.
Today, I waited in line for a fried beef bun. Because of the air pollution, I wore a mask that became wet inside from my breath. Tomorrow is Christmas, according to the others here, even though we Americans celebrate it on the 25th. Happy holidays, whenever you celebrate it! P.S. I forgot to mention, I’ve got a reading and talk at the Shanghai-American Center on Jan. 21st at 6:30pm! Here’s the link.
In the Huangpu river, the body of a woman floating. Face-down, black and white checked shirt, mini skirt, her hand still clutching a metallic silver handbag. Lights of the police boat flashing red and white and blue. This is the first body outside of a funeral. The way you feel upon seeing a body: disbelief, shock. Pudong is clouded so you can’t even see the tallest towers. It all feels surreal, a different sort of universe. The lights of Pudong are dark, it is midnight, and what you have seen haunts you like a ghost.
On the first island, off a boat that rocked from side to side as though in a blender, we took a bus whose destination we didn’t know. From its final stop at the bus station, we walked through a tunnel and a farm, past baby goats and an army storage space that looked as though it were a storage house for farm machinery rather than for the locked plastic boxes they contained. The floors were unswept, the door left open. Some wood left in a room. A soldier found us and told A, “Let me see your photos.” A showed him and he said “Next one. Next one.” as though there were some secrets to be found through the lens of the camera that he didn’t already know.
Towards the beach, signs for bicycle rentals with only a phone number listed. No addresses. And a travel information building long left derelict, the window panes all smashed in so there was glass in piles on the ground, both inside and outside. And glass bottles too, as though they had forgotten to take out the recycling.
On the second floor of what used to be a restaurant, the remnants of a fire, blackened floors and damaged ceiling. A pack of dogs that barked at us then hid under the floorboards, unhappy at being disturbed. But someone had been feeding them—there was an ebike parked by the curving stairs, the railing unhinged and sagging, and food bowls scattered about.
The beach had an admission fee and a closed merry-go-round as well as an area where, during the high season, there would be shao kao, in an adjacent area with murals by local fishermen. Somehow the murals were all somewhat alike as though they’d all seen some Picasso paintings then tried to imitate them but using the sea as an inspiration. We didn’t go to the beach then but later, found another path further east, through a hole in the fence. It led us to two huge many-hued rocks on the beach, one topped with a pagoda. By the water, the rock was purple and covered with barnacles but further up, striations of pink and yellow and green. It was low tide and the sand was finer than what we have in New York.
Chongqing style grilled fish for dinner at 78 rmb and razor clams stir fried with scallions and garlic. At the hotel, our towels were tiny like washclothes and the water never quite got warm.
A leisurely ferry to another island, passing ones named Splendid Green Island and Flower Bird island. There are perched atop the hills spanning one island, neighbors with the buildings climbing up the slopes. The colors shifted dreamily, turquoise water, pale pink and blue sky without a sun. Along the way, packages get delivered to and from our ferry: dried noodles open to the air, boxes of eggs, engines and long cables go out and in return, a couple of bags of oysters, boxes of assorted goods, and even a three-wheeled cart, all rolled up a plank to go onto the boat.
By our dock, an entryway leads to machinery that take mussels still clinging to the rope to a finished, cooked state to perhaps be packaged for sale. Steam envelops the rooms and shards of mussel shells litter the floor. There are plastic baskets filled with live crabs but when I ask for a seafood restaurant recommendation, I am just told, “Walk forward. All the restaurants sell seafood.” Yet in the evening, at the restaurants, there are barely any crabs left.
Over the mountains that remind me of Jiufen, stairs past patios going up the mountains and tombs on the hills. There are terraces covered in the pink of dried shrimp and tiny crabs, some people calmly raking wavy lines through it all and laughing at us when we kneeled down to take photos. Following the road up, we are followed by a group of men who ask us where we come from. At first, I find it intimidating but once we answer their questions, they point us down the correct path, away from the army base, past the small temple, to the abandoned fishing village.
They are clustered all down the hill to where the waves crash upon the dock. Their windows are empty eyes from two story buildings, colorful mosaics on the fronts and sides in shades of pink and green. Vines tangle around the sides and into the doorways. Most of the buildings hold no furniture, only the remnants of sunken roofs and broken glass. The leaves of the vines are green shading to red and the village is silent but for the waves.
Between houses are wild chrysanthemums and many of the steps are covered with overgrown plants. Wild fig trees. But there are gardens here still being tended. Wilted bok choy and cabbage. We see the occasional gardener—I spoke to one and she said she lived in an adjacent village. It isn’t totally abandoned, there are a few houses with signs of life. A man lives in one of the houses, a banner hanging outside to perhaps inform the tourists from trespassing. He says that the village has been abandoned for 20 years due to inconvenience—no connection to a major road, hard for schoolchildren to get to school, the army base up top.
And on our last day, a walk to another island, past people mending fishing nets and dock workers. A group of men and one woman wave us over, offer us freshly caught and steamed crabs and we eat them standing up, spitting the shells onto the street the way they do, everything in one big pile to be swept away afterwards. Over the bridge to find that a pharmacy can only be found three towns over in Da Wang where there are murals painted on the walls and buses, even. Nets line the one highway we walk on, up and down the mountains—we kept thinking the dock from which to catch the ferry back to Shanghai was an hour’s walk away only to find it required another hour after that. There were so many small fishing docks there and out in the harbor, the mussel farms buoyed up by big styrofoam cylinders stretched out far far into the ocean.
Finally, the correct dock, standing alone without a town surrounding it. No other buildings, only mountain alongside. This last island was the wildest, I think, but we also walked alongside the ocean, a steep drop down. On the ferry ride back, a Shanghainese man talked to me about his love of travel, how he loves, too, the undiscovered places and not those that have been “opened” to the public with ticket prices and overcrowding and fake historic villages. “My friends think I’m crazy,” he says, “They don’t go out and travel and try to discover natural places the way I do.” It’s true that the travel mentality is different here and he gives me a few recommendations, writing them down in Chinese in my notebook. He tells me he finds most Chinese close-minded when it comes to travel, only going where everyone else has gone. And 6.5 hours later from when we reached the dock, we’re back home where everything feels so much more comfortable than it had before.
*I tried to put up photos but looks like my internet connection isn’t on my side. Sorry, maybe later.*
Traboules, I was told, were what we should look at. So, we’d see a sign, an open door or a lion’s head, and we’d walk through, peer at the courtyard around us. We’d cross the bridge over to Presqu’île for dinner, with its narrow alleys and stair-ed walkways bringing you higher and higher above the rest of the city. We bicycled around the city and one evening, went to the best restaurant called Le Comptoir du Vin where we feasted on a salad that was not called a salad but came with beautifully crisp roasted potatoes, blue cheese, and prosciutto draped on top as well as pork in a crème sauce. We wandered through Parc Tete D’Or by foot and by bicycle—their zoo was delightful, with a leopard crashing about in the undergrowth of his lair and deer that wanted to befriend us. At the Velodrome, there was a race happening and we also ran into an outdoor concert of xylophones (or were they glockenspiels?) and stayed for their last song.
There were Roman ruins galore and free admission for some reason at the museum by the ruins in Fourvière. The basilica there was beautiful, full of shining colored mosaics on the walls.We rode to the Confluence, where the Rhône and the Saône meet, past buildings that looked as though they belonged to the future, past a tributary of the river on which some contestants seemed to be battling it out with inflatable rafts and obstacles, to the little spit of land that led straight into the water. Then we slid down this structure by the museum there that all the kids were sliding down, including young mothers with small babies. It left your pants and hands white. There were croissants every day and in the end, we were sad to leave.
Gaudi and even more Gaudi. Sagrada Familia, of course, with a trip up the tower to see the Glory facade but there wasn’t much of a view from the top. A shame that there was graffiti inside the narrow circular stairwell, so that certain windowed areas had to be encased in glass. There was Park Güell and Casa Vicens, Casa Batlló and La Pedrera. For the last few, we rode bicycles through the neighborhoods around the houses, down one-way alleys that opened up to little hidden squares where the community gathered with kids playing and the occasional market.
The first few days, we were unimpressed by Barcelona’s architecture—we’d stayed in El Pablenou, very near Parc de la Ciutadella, which was dominated by rather dreary high-rises although Born and El Raval had more interesting buildings. The restaurants around the area reminded me of Mexico and Costa Rica, dingy little storefronts with a host of tables outside on the sidewalk. A menu mostly of sandwiches and platters with eggs or french fries. We went to the beach our first day—the water was cool but we got acclimated to it enough to swim for a bit before we walked down the boardwalk and watched a bunch of shiny tanned men working out on the public pull-up bars. Fascinating to see a whole routine being done on the beach. A vegetable paella for dinner with a surprisingly delicious pasta bolognese as a starter (yes, a rather weird combination but it was all tasty!) Another day, we went to Mercado de La Boqueria with its huge assortment of vendors—fresh juices (although a bit watered down, I thought!) and fruits, cones of jamon Iberico, tons of seafood, spices…I realized after the fact that I didn’t take a single photo of the market but it’s a crowded one. At least I have one photo of my jamon!
The Mercé Festival was also happening during the time we were in Barcelona. We tried to see the human pyramid event but the alleyways all around the square were mostly all blocked and the crowds just kept carrying us away from the square—we weren’t the only ones who A) were very confused about the correct direction and B) just didn’t make it. What was a bit frustrating though were the amount of strollers. When going down a narrow, crowded alley, it’s hard not to get a bit annoyed with those tourists who had brought strollers to try to see the event. We did get to see the closing fireworks show at Plaça d’Espanya which was quite fun with the magic fountain, the music, and the fireworks. We’d actually gone to Montjuïc during the day, up to the castle and found ourselves watching the Catalan Folk Festival featuring performers from Estonia, Romania, Colombia, and elsewhere while eating freshly fried churros. The castle was more of a fort but did have a lovely view over the shipping container yards and the ocean and a soundtrack of some very chatty seagulls. We decided to walk down rather than take the funicular and found ourselves in the gardens, meandering down little paths that showed us musical steps and fountains.
Another day, we took the train out to Montserrat and then the cable car up for about 20 euros combined. These are very different mountains from Chamonix, bulbous and finger shaped, but seemed quite great for the climbers we saw everywhere since the rock was so rough and had so many nooks and crannies. We took the long route starting from the monastery to Sant Miquel to Sant Joan then eventually to Sant Jeroni. Most of the trek was very pleasant and fairly easy with large, well-marked paths and then steps up the exposed mountainside to Sant Jeroni although the path back from Sant Jeroni back to Montserrat was mostly steep and narrow stairs (which is probably why the map indicated that it was one way! But there were a few people coming the wrong way up, maybe because they didn’t want to trek all the way to Sant Joan first.)
Geneva & Saint Genis-Pouilly
Pizza with a drink on the waterfront in Geneva costs 20 swiss francs so instead, we go for hot chocolate and people-watch on the square. The water fountains are actual fountains—lions gushing water from their mouths or faucets so that you have to bend your head down to drink. All over are signs for watches and cars. Later, A tells us that employees at the UN and the other major organizations in Geneva can receive a 40% discount on BMWs. The tram takes us all the way out to the French border where we find that the reception desk at CERN is closed. Thankfully, the gas station attendant across the street takes pity on us and lets us use the phone.
A & S live in an identity-confused little town with both quaint old French houses in white and brown and big apartment blocks like The Boat. In the dark, we walk down a backyard trail that leads to the town and milk the tin cow, a machine that sells milk and bottles for the milk 24 hours a day. A says it is the only thing open 24 hours. We pass the pommist’s window. He only sells pommes, so both regular pommes (apples) and pomme de terre (potatos.) Unfortunately, we never get a chance to meet him. Saint Genis-Pouilly is a 3 boulangerie town which is quite good since they take turns with their days off. On our last hike in the area, ijl and I had walked to Thoiry, a purported 1 boulangerie town and of course, it was closed. But a friendly lady had directed us to the tea room by the train station that also sold pastries & sandwiches. So what made it not a boulangerie? Perhaps the seating area. Most boulangeries we’d seen in France were all to-go establishments (or takeaway as it’s called in Britain.)
The next morning, we took the Y bus all the way to the airport but didn’t realize that the bus only collected its fare in coins. Luckily, the bus driver told us not to worry about it. From the airport, we booked our easyjet bus ride to Chamonix and half an hour later, we were two of three passengers on the bus. The day had started out rainy but by the time we reached Chamonix, only a light drizzle was left. The mountains rose up all around us, on one side, snow-capped Mont Blanc but the cable car up on that side was closed due to weather. Instead, we took the cable car up to Planpraz and hiked the TMB trail from there, always with a view of Mont Blanc although its tip was covered with clouds.
The trail changed as we walked it, from Planpraz and spiraling around eventually to Brevent, from scrub and grass to pure rock. A marmot peeked out from the rocks around Brevent. Crows soared overhead. Tiny flowers dotted the trail. There was a deep blue lake whose surface sunlight glimmered off of. And then the descent down from rock to meadow to forest, a curving trail filled with rocks. In the forest, an abundance of different varieties of mushrooms, the first we saw a huge red toadstool that looked as though it belonged in a fairy tale. We ran down the narrow trail, slipping and sliding on the rocks, the ground giving way beneath our feet and arrived back in town by 6. Our bus back was late to arrive but we were the only passengers.
The day after dawned rainy but A took ijl and I to Annecy for its lake and cute medieval town center complete with canals and castle. We had Breton crepes by the canal served in a very swiss restaurant and watched the swans swimming. By the time we’d wandered around the entire historical area, the clouds drifted away, except for one that hung out in the middle of the mountains that were suddenly unveiled.
Then a quick tour of CERN and into Geneva for a dinner of thai food, sitting by the lighthouse at the edge of a dock on Lake Geneva, haunted by the soft quacking of the ducks.
To the Jura the next morning with our early hike to Thoiry. The path was steeply uphill although we were led astray by a fake path that cut past beehives and into meadows were cows had left their mark. We had originally planned to get up to Le Reculet, the 2nd highest peak in the Jura but realized we’d misjudged timing and effort when we reached Le Tiocan and started up a path that was all rock and incredibly steep. Not the most pleasant climb so we cut our losses and headed into Geneva to catch our train to Lyon.
Hey guys! I’m actually in Shanghai right now after getting in late last night. It’s the October national holiday here so everything’s pretty 热闹 (exciting and lively!) with tons of people crowding the Bund and Chinese flags everywhere—in hair, in the sky, in windows. Early this morning, I saw a bunch of photographers following an old man with a giant Chinese flag kite and wondered if he was famous but nah, I think it’s just because he has a flag kite. I do love the kite-flying here though.
In London, bees are allowed inside pastry display cases to taste the wares. Would you like a bee with your cinnamon roll? Here, take three. D names the birds for us in Regents Park—wood pigeons, coots, moorhens.We climb up to sit in front of bronze lions in Trafalgar Square but cannot climb onto their slick backs. The double decker buses make you feel as though you’re running over just about everyone. B+D bring us to Chinatown for bubble tea and jianbing as though we were in China and not London after a more traditional meal of fish and chips where I decide I like ijl’s haddock better than my cod and the tartar sauce is surprisingly sweet. And a nighttime view of Big Ben and Parliament. And clouds with a heartbeat within Covent Garden.
The next day, by the London Eye, the most aggressive street performer ever with a bullhorn and a request not to leave until after the finale. And a 5 pound charge, of course. We explore the British Museum and Tate Modern, always free. Cranes crown the skyline of London—I count fifteen then stop because there are still more. After walking over Tower Bridge and past the Tower of London, touts on Brick Lane beckoned us for dinner, ask if we’re hungry. The true answer is yes. The correct answer is probably no. But we say yes anyway and we’re led into, not the restaurant we said yes to, but to another, connected through passageways between dining room and down the stairs where we listen to bankers discussing their salaries which, surprisingly, are lower than we’d expected unless we heard wrong. We get thalis, one vegetarian and one not. The chicken tikka is the best, in my opinion, along with the lamb curry. Ijl likes the tikka masala which is different from ones I’ve had in the states but maybe too creamy for my taste.
Then there’s brunch with B+D the next morning and a walk along Little Venice, small canals lined with houseboats. Most carry sticks and broken panels of wood, perhaps to heat the boats during the winter? Atop some are full gardens and bicycles lying upon their sides. Then Portobello Road Market with a crush of people buying pina coladas in pineapples and supposedly, antiques as well. And a quick ride to St. Pancras Station for our Eurostar train to Paris.
We stay in an adorable studio on Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement, a street that curves around a plaza so it is easily recognizable on a map. Our first night, we get crepes at Les Embruns, made of buckwheat, and the crème brulee I get is full of vanilla flavor but the sugar top isn’t crispy the way I like. In the morning, a market starts up with antiques vendors in the plaza and fruit & vegetable sellers on the streets. I get a pint of tiny Charlotte strawberries to go with our chocolate croissants, sweet and just right for 1.5 euros. We start out late but wander through the gardens by the Louvre up to the Grand Palais where they’re holding a fine art & design fair. Pay our 10 euros and enter the glass canopied venue with stalls and stalls of furniture, glass, jewelry, and other forms of art from around the world.
It’s a stormy day but thankfully, our host lent us an umbrella of rainbows to take with us to see the cathedral at Notre Dame. Along the way, there are gold covered statues atop buildings and bridges, ornate in a way you don’t see in the U.S., like the temples in Thailand covered with gold leaf. The cathedral is beautiful, of course, but crowded. It’ll be a pattern here in Europe, these beautiful, crowded cathedrals and basilicas. We take the bridge over to the smaller island on the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, for ice cream at Berthillon where the flavors are so vibrant, it seems more like gelato than ice cream. What flavors? Pear & mango & ground peach.
For dinner, Le Trumilou for duck confit & chicken in a tarragon sauce. A bottle of red wine. I order the charcuterie for my appetizer which turns out to be a bit of a mistake—all patés, one of which has a very jelly-like texture. The duck confit comes with potatoes that are perfect, so crispy and smelling of herbs. We leave the umbrella by accident and ijl has to go back to get it. And we learn that Brooklyn has followed us to Paris.
And then there is the Louvre. We take the lesser known entrance by the subway & mall yet there’s still a long line that snakes through the mall. I ask a Chinese tourist in Mandarin whether it’s the line to buy tickets. Funny how it feels more natural to ask a Chinese tourist than a local but my high school French is pretty lacking. We spend hours at the Louvre, watch other tourists take photos of the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, see the tablet with the code of Hammurabi engraved upon it, go through the sculpture gardens for cherubs force-feeding goats in exquisite detail. Wander through its foundations as a fortress and go through its ostentatious rooms of Napoleon III and Louis XIV. In the Islamic art section, there are models of art for the blind that you can touch. Museums make me want to touch everything because you’re not allowed to touch anything.
We take out bikes through the Velib bike share system and ride them all the way to the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower only has one area open with a long line and when we get to the front, we’re told that it was only for the lift. The cashier on the other side for the stairs had only just opened while we were waiting but our cashier takes pity on us and lets them know that we’re coming through. The stairs aren’t too difficult actually; we take them up to the 2nd floor before we take the lift up. On the way, we see the lift with its pseudo elevator beneath it holding a fake conductor on the side. Very odd. We are on the topmost level of the Eiffel Tower as twilight blends into night. The wind howls on one side so we go around to the other, pointing out the landmarks we’d seen.
In the morning, we bike around the Sorbonne and get macarons at Pierre Hermé. I lose my sunglasses while leaping over a curb (we ride dangerously) but otherwise, the bicycling is wonderful compared to NYC. There are bike lanes everywhere and drivers notice bicyclists. Better than taking the subway which, although the trains seemed quick and efficient, the stations smelled of urine. Then it’s off to Geneva!