August 26, 2008

Photo Essay: Billy Idol @ Hammerstein

I once stood in the rain for four hours to get into a Billy Idol show. No, I wasn't a hormonal teenager, I was a grown woman looking to make up for a concert-less childhood. And Billy's semi-acoustic performance at The Bottom Line was worth feeling like a drowned rat.

Since then, I've tried to see Billy every time he performs in New York City. Up until tonight, I've always gone alone, never having thought to invite someone to come with me. But for tonight's concert, I decided to share the sweaty, fist-pumping crowd crunch with Michelle and Edith.

Billy was a little more cabaret tonight than he normally is, but I prefer his melodic side. That meant, however, that he didn't move around as much as he normally does, which forced me to stand on my tippy toes just to see and get some shots. It was like trying to capture wildlife on film through a forest of trees. My field of vision was constantly blocked by limbs waving back and forth.

A little less platinum than usual, Billy unabashedly let his shirts hang open to show off his glistening abs that won't quit.

Steve Stevens still looks amazing too.

At the end of the show, Billy was inviting us all out to the pub afterwards.

But I pursued Billy once after a show, at the stage door of The Bottom Line. A whole crowd of us chased him to his getaway vehicle. He wasn't interested in being caught.

Anyway, I'll be chasing Billy all the way to the Sunset Strip, lucky enough to see him in concert at the House of Blues while I'm in LA for a conference.

"More more more!"

August 24, 2008

Last Moments of Summer in the City

I haven't been around NYC a whole lot this summer, so as the season draws to a close, I'm trying to get as much local tourism done as possible before it's too late.

One of the things on my list was to check out the Brownstoner Brooklyn Flea Market, which held promise of bourbon cupcakes, antiques and local artisan jewelry. It's only open Sundays, so I dragged myself to Fort Greene today in the hot sun, wrapping my hair into a bun to prevent sweat from making me have to wash it later. I stumbled across a fossil shop that really messed with my space time continuum, wiping the sweat from my brow and thinking I was back in the Atlas Mountains. After admiring some beautiful earrings and tables made out of bowling alley wood, I didn't buy anything to take home with me, but I did nibble on free samples of brownies and cookies and shortbread and other tasty bits, and paid $1 for a tiny lemon creme cupcake from Kumquat, who didn't have any bourbon cupcakes for sale today. Despite starting with dessert, I also got an amazing pork taco from one of the Red Hook park vendors that sets up shop at the flea market.

Since I was already in Brooklyn, a borough I get to visit rarely, with my appetite already whet for Red Hook, I decided to hop on the G train to Smith-9th Sts and walk over to Red Hook in search of the old trolley cars I'd spotted from the water taxi on my Gowanus cruise. When I got there, I realized they weren't as hidden as I thought they were, so my zest for urban exploration was a little disappointed at how easy they were to get to. Nestled neatly behind the Fairway, on top of some old tracks by a waterside walkway, barriered only slightly by the police, these old cars are barely graffitied, falling apart slowly while families gnaw on popsicles from the neighboring supermarket.

But they're beautiful, and a reminder of how remote Red Hook really is, despite all the new shuttle busses and free water taxi's to the recently-opened IKEA. I'd like to go back and check out the Waterfront Museum, or even see the circus that sometimes performs there.

My feet hurt from all the walking today, especially from the bewilderment experienced in Red Hook without numbered streets, trying to find the waterfront and needing to find a dark bar in which to hide from the sun, use the restroom and have a beer. But I'm glad I actually got out of my apartment and crossed something off the list, as summer slips away and I anticipate two more trips out of town before the autumnal equinox.

Next stop: Coney Island.

August 11, 2008

The Only Place I Think Of With Regret

I don't know how I can leave San Diego and avoid regret. When I was here the first time earlier this year, there was a whole list of things I had wanted to do that we just couldn't cram in. Now that I've gotten to do a couple of those things on this trip, I just keep thinking about all of the stuff that's still on the list, and the items that have been added to it since arriving this weekend.

And now I'm sitting in the San Diego airport, waiting for a delayed flight back to NYC, regretting having changed my flight from the redeye to a more reasonable noon flight. Maybe I should've gone to the desert like I'd originally planned...Or hangliding...Or Mexico...

I'm in no rush to get back to the East Coast, but the changes in time zones over the last few weeks have really upset my system, and I'm getting no sleep after waking up (sans alarm!) at 6 a.m. or earlier every day. Last night I could barely keep my eyes open or my yawning mouth shut, and I had to take a nap just to make it through a party that ran from 8-11 p.m. Weak. So when I woke up at 6 this morning, I called JetBlue and bought the last seat on the earlier flight (in a genius flight-changing service called "same day confirmed"), which now might be severely delayed because of storms in New York. I guess a day sitting on the floor at the airport gate on my laptop is less tiring than driving to the desert. But my aching bones are mad at me.

cheese plate custardDespite having to work early in the morning, late in the afternoon and evening, I did have a good day yesterday. I didn't want to regret not visiting some of the great places we discovered on our last trip, so I had a nice leisurely solo breakfast at Cafe Chloe, whose atmosphere is both California and French, and whose details always delight me, right down to the liquid soap they use in the bathroom. I had the savory custard of the day - a chanterelle and fava concoction so smooth you could spread it on the brown bread toast points that surrounded it. With a pungent cheese plate and some tupelo honey on the side, I didn't need to go exploring anywhere exotic that moment. I just ate. And smiled.

Cabrillo tidepools

I had a bit of free time in midday so I visited Point Loma, a San Diego lighthousepeninsula which houses a military reserve and the Cabrillo National Monument, a national park which also features the harbor's historic first lighthouse. Even if you don't care much about visiting statues of European explorers or poking your head into the tower of a lighthouse, Point Loma is a great place to visit to see beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and the entire San Diego shoreline, skyline and the mountains in the distance. You can also drive down to the tidepools to watch and listen to the ocean waves crashing into the rocks, too tumultuous for surfing or swimming, but picturesque nevertheless.

Apparently it's also a nature preserve with lots of birds, insects, snakes and rodents, but all I saw was a squirrel.

The lighthouse is small and modest, more house than light, and definitely would be dwarfed by the Fire Island lighthouse I recently climbed. But it's still in many ways a beacon, and rises high above the city and above the lighthouse at the tip of the Point which subsequently replaced it.

It's rare that I fall in love with a place. I always want to discover new places, sacrificing revisiting the stops I've enjoyed in the past. But I can't get my mind off coming back to San Diego, maybe next month, definitely next year. But at what point does a city or a town or a hamlet become more than just a great vacation spot, and instead a place you'd actually want to live? How would I find a job there? Would someone want to marry me there? Would I make any friends? Where would I live?

Don't get me wrong. I love New York. It makes a great base camp for all my wild excursions, both near the city and far away. But NYC isn't doing much for me right now, except sucking all my money out of my paychecks and making me kind of fat. Maybe rather than gallavanting all over the country (and the world) to try to find something to fill the holes inside of me, I need to just find one place that can fill the most holes. I thought for a long time that that place was New York. But somehow, the older I get, and the more alone I am, I think maybe New York is boring even more holes into my core.

August 09, 2008

Coastal Romance for the Single Travelling Girl

My Morocco trip set me up well for enjoying California. I was already in a wistful, romantic mood of the Arabian nights sort, so I was happy to once again drive down palm tree-lined streets (though these do not seem to bear juicy dates as the Moroccan ones do).

The more I go to LA, the more I like it. At first I was turned off by how old-new it is: rather than olde time images of the Gold Rush and cowboys and wagons and such, it's full of mid-20th Century, falling down 50s commercial design oldness, with peeling paint and a few lightbulbs having gone out. It's all donut shops and bowling alleys and motels and car washes and atomic cocktail fonts, which I've become a little obsessed with after being initially turned off by it.

I guess I originally expected LA to be more modern, more glamorous, like Miami or even New York or London or something. But it's a city that's not a city, a sprawl of canyons and shrubbery and beaches and cars, oh my, the cars. With the traffic there, it's no wonder they need so many motels and car washes.

I don't always drive when I'm there, but I rented a car this time to get myself around for work and to have a way to get myself down to San Diego for more work. Immediately from picking the crappy compact up from the airport, I was happy I did, because I stumbled upon the holy grail of road food: Randy's Donuts (the building with the big donut on the roof) and Louis' burger joint next door which has been previously untrackable on the internet despite my blog-related efforts. A colossal cheeseburger and jelly donut later, and I was ready for El-A.

I felt comfortable enough this trip, and brave I suppose, to venture outside of my beloved Sunset Strip for meals, so I dragged Kevin to Mario Batali's Pizzeria Mozza, which, after an hour wait and a Jaclyn Smith celebrity sighting, was totally worth the wait. I also ventured to BLD for brunch on Friday for a bruleed grapefruit and blueberry ricotta pancakes which were pretty colossal in their own right.

Despite being on the go all the time in LA, because you're stuck in traffic most of the time, you feel pretty sedentary. I was happy to take a long, scenic drive down to San Diego today, on the Pacific Coast Highway and a stretch of the Historic Highway 101, through darling beach towns and past breathtaking waves breaking on the shore and breaking my heart for having to go back to the East Coast. After seeing Huntington Beach through my windshield, and spotting two horses taking a dip in the water in Laguna Beach, I almost drove my car into the ocean to become one with the sea. I was brought to tears at every pass.

Of course, my drive was so scenic that it took me about six hours (as opposed to the predicted 3.5-4). But I was sailing down the Freeway in the late afternoon with my spirits high, just in time to veer off into Old Town San Diego, which I'd only seen at night during my spring vacation here. It's actually pretty awesome - because it's a state park, they've done their best to try to restore or recreate the original "town," walking through which has a similar feeling to a ghost town only most of the buildings are a museum/shop combo. You can actually find great Mexican art (and food!) there, with great handiwork - not from Taiwan. I bought a little Christmas tree ornament from the tinsmith (resisting every cute little box, mirror, candleholder, lantern and figurine) and some nice hammered silver earrings from another shop, somewhat satisfying my desire for handmade jewelry that I didn't seem to find in Fes.

After a quick stop in the Catholic church (whose mission-style architecture reminded me of the kasbahs), I wandered down the more commercial row of souvenir shops and restaurants on San Diego Avenue, resisted a $32 trolley tour, and got back in my car to go get some food at El Indio, a Guy Fieri-recommended Mexican diner nearby. Their tortilla chips are to die for (and available for sale by the bag), and the slow-cooked pork in my carnitas was about the softest I'd ever eaten. Too bad they don't serve margaritas there...I'm still dying for one.

On my way to my downtown hotel, I took a detour and ended up on Harbor Drive where all the tourist cruise ships dock, as well as a historic aircraft carrier and a bunch of boats that look like pirate ships. The sun had begun to set so I wandered down the scenic walkway towards the sun, breathing in the sea air and trying to avoid being clobbered by the many pedicabs whizzing by. I found myself at the most romantic place in the harbor: right by the statue rendition of the famous World War II portrait of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square. There were couples around me everywhere recreating the portrait beneath the larger-than life statue, for posed photos or just for the heck of it. I sat on the grass alone, watching the sun go down behind lazy sailboats and excited children running past, during quite possibly the most romantic sunset I've ever seen.

There is so much I wanted to do during my last San Diego trip, so I'm trying to cram it all into this one, but I think I'm just going to have to come back for like a week. I am here for work, after all, which means an early morning tomorrow and possibly a late evening. And hopefully more romance, even if it's only in my own head.

August 07, 2008

Photo Essay: Arabian Nights

front row seats

these women made the most startling sound ever


Hanging On to the Past

It was kind of sad to say goodbye to everybody in our group in Morocco. I didn’t love everyone on the trip, but there were some I did, and it was so nice to hang out with new people. I wish I’d had the chance to make a meaningful connection with someone as I did in Death Valley, but maybe that would have happened had I been traveling alone. And maybe that’ll happen if I maintain correspondence with some of them after we’ve all returned to our respective homes.

The loneliness wasn’t terrible in Morocco. I had plenty of attention from men everywhere, both the good and the bad kind, and I was so far from my own life that I could be distracted for a while from the NYC pressures of dating and being alone. Of course, I couldn’t get away from my life completely. As much as Morocco was an escape, seeing it reminded me that things aren’t always so different elsewhere, even on a different continent, across an ocean, and on land that used to be under the Mediterranean Sea (well, at least in the Devonian period). Occasionally I would stumble across something so unforeign to me it would throw me for a loop. I still remember vividly hearing the chorus of the cicadas at one of our coffee stops, baffling me with a sound that was so familiar from my childhood in Upstate New York, in a setting that looked something like Southern California or the Mexican border, mixed with the sound of sheep bahhh-ing in the distance and tons of birds chirping everywhere. I was equally baffled to see and hear so many familiar birds, including egrets and tons of storks with their huge nests occupying chimneys and turrets unapologetically.

And there were cats everywhere - skinny, underfed cats who meowed for food, rubbed against your legs and then bit them, in case there were some meat to spare. I think they were all strays, but as one of our local guides said, "they belong to everyone." There are lots of dogs, too, but they are all wild and remain untouched by the locals as they are seen as dirty and too much maintenance. We saw a cute one and almost reached down to pet it, until it sat down and began to claw at itself, stirring up an entire swarm of huge bugs living in its fur. It was one of the few times I wanted to cry during my trip.

I hope I can hold a piece of this trip with me for a while, now that I’m back. My health problems have already returned with a vengeance after subsiding nearly entirely in the desert. While perched on top of a sand dune waiting for the sun to set, our camel man brushed away the grains beneath me to make me a nice little seat, and then started tossing the brick-colored sand on top of my feet, ankles, shins and up to my knees till I pointed at my skinned knee, still open and aching from my fall off a curb our first day in Rabat. Stopping just short of my wound, he said, “We call this ‘sandshower,’ very good for reumatique,” and I wondered if he knew how much pain I’m always in. In hot desert temperatures in excess of 48ºC (over 115ºF!), with my legs packed in an even hotter sand pack, I felt magically recovered and cocooned. I think the only way I can keep that feeling is to pick another desert to visit.

So my skinned knee will eventually heal (though it’s taking a long time), but I think the one thing I’ll definitely retain is my French, which now I’ve got back after having studied it for five years, twenty years ago. I’d forgotten how much I’d loved it, and now I wonder why I never continued it in college, why I never hung out at La Maison on campus and only spoke French on a weekend in Montreal (poorly) and when trying to seduce Kevin Reynolds on a night out at the Hour Glass.

People keep asking me if I had fun on my trip, and the truth is, I wasn’t trying to have fun – I was trying to have a thought-provoking, mind-opening escapist experience – but speaking French was fun. And taking pictures was fun. And riding a camel in the desert was fun. And now I think I may have missed my calling.

August 06, 2008

A Good Porking

Morocco is a Muslim country so of course there's no pork served. No bacon or sausage for breakfast, only hard-boiled eggs, tomato, cheese, and chocolate croissants. I was only there for ten days, but somehow I went through major withdrawal and have gone, ahem, hog-wild with the pork upon my return.

Maybe that's the source of my stomach sickness, which I managed to avoid while in Morocco. Was it the pepperoni on the pizza at Uno's? The pepperoni on the pizza at Nick's? The spicy pork salami at Gottino last night? The bacon at Marshall Stack tonight?

I actually really enjoyed the bacon-free food in Morocco, from the authentic tagines and couscous to the Arabian specialties at McDonald's, like the delicious "Chicken Mythic" (which didn't make me feel very mystical but was yummy nevertheless). Eventually I got sick of tourist food, which was typically chicken couscous and beef tagine, but when I got to try something a little different - like the kefta kebab tagine with an egg cracked on top, or the chicken and almond pastilla topped with powdered sugar - I relished the opportunity.

eggy tagine pastilla
The staples in Morocco were very good too. They have amazing orange groves that produce the most delicious juice you've ever tasted, which was a nice reliable component of our daily breakfast, and a nice refreshing option at the outdoor markets. The locally-produced wine (mostly from Meknes, but also a bit from wineries north of Casablanca) is the perfect nightcap, whether sipped while watching the sun set on a rooftop bar or in the hotel lobby to wash down some spicy snails.

sardines donut
The bread was always the same too, though very often baked by each restaurant rather than imported. At one of our coffee stops, we got to order our own custom sandwich, where I ordered sardines with tomatoes and onion, served on a weird Arabic wedding paper plate that went perfectly with a bottle of Fanta Orange.

Sometimes the best foods were the most unexpected, like the freshly-fried doughnuts we stumbled upon at the port in Casablanca, recommended by our local tour guide and sold for only 3DH apiece (though extremely hard to stop at just one, wiping the apricot jam from your chin and brushing the granulated sugar from your hands on your pants).

I easily get accustomed to food habits, so I find myself missing Moroccan food here in New York as much as I'm trying to make up for the food I was missing while I was in Morocco. I guess my constitution is kind of confused. Either I need to stay in one place for a while, or I just need to get used to travelling more.

In any case, it's time for some mint tea to settle my stomach.

Everybody's Got Something to Sell

There are a lot of things I don't understand about Morocco. I understand why a camel man would take my picture and hand-walk me up a sand dune, so that he could try to sell me his fossil wares after and work out a nice gratuity (though I only gave him 5DH). But why would a woman living in a tent, who makes her own rugs and has two beautiful daughters to care for, allow 40 desert tourists into her home and serve them mint tea?

I almost felt guilty for taking her picture, especially since none of us actually spoke to her (though I managed a "Shokrun" and a "Merci beaucoup" on my way out). But the tour director, who received a warm greeting of eight kisses, four on each side, from her said it was OK so I snapped away. Life is hard for these Berber women, and it's hard not to throw money at the children, who scamper around you and stick their hands in your back pockets and purses (of course not mine). But our handsome local tour guide Ali advised us not to give them coins or sweets because "they should be in school," echoing the disdain I felt at American tourists throwing change at Mexican children from our train to Tecate.

The children are everywhere in Morocco, and they're smart. They hide behind rocks at popular tourist stops and scenic overlooks and event sometimes hold adorable baby animals in their arms to attract attention (and photographs, for which they expect payment).

On the contrary, the Berber women don't like to be photographed, and will tell you so by waving their arms, turning away and covering their faces (even more) with scarves. I was appalled when some of my fellow travellers boasted that they snuck photos of the old women sitting on the ground in the souk in Rissani. They're not National Geographic photojournalists. Those photos won't help or educate anybody. And yet they didn't pay the women anything. It just doesn't seem fair to take something from someone who doesn't have anything.

I think there's an inclination for tourists to treat locals - who live simple lives and don't speak a Western language - like animals in a petting zoo, cooing and gawking like we do at the donkeys in the donkey park, or the camels at the sand dunes. But even when I took a photo of a camel sitting on a cliff above the Tinerhir Oasis - who craned its neck and posed and flirted with the lens like a real supermodel - I gave the camel owner 3 DH, one DH for each picture I snapped.

donkey park Tinerhir Oasis prickly pears
Everywhere you go in Morocco, everybody's got to get paid. They've got something to sell - fossils, prickly pears, or even their own image. Everyone's got a family at home to take care of, and everyone thinks you're a rich tourist (especially if you can afford to go there - which is not really true since everything was so cheap there). In Marrakech, which is nicer (and newer) than the other big cities we went to, the main tourist attraction - Djemma El Fna ("La Place"), a big market in the center of town - is where all the people who have something to sell converge. Snakecharmers, henna artists, and even little boys who box for money. Walking through it is like being dragged through the middle of Times Square on New Year's Eve, your eyes blinded by bright white lights reflecting off the smoke that fills the air (especially with Stand #31 on fire). And the shopping is equally chaotic, and surprisingly like Chinatown - lots of fake designer bags, cheap scarves and shawls, plastic sandals and bootleg CDs.

La PlaceYou can't blame anyone for making a living, but in the end, it's kind of hard being constantly sold to. And a little scary when women chase after you with syringes of brown henna ink and men jump in front of you and rattle off a greeting in every language you're likely to speak: "Hello!" "Bonjour!" "Buenas Dias!" "Shalom!" I tried to speak French as much as I could, and that certainly helped the bargaining process (except with the photogs, who insisted on a fixed price for crappy photo prints). I got a great price on the caleche ride back from the market to our hotel, the lovely and luxe Hotel El Andalous, and somehow I (mistakenly?) got free argan oil, Moroccan all-spice, and a weird lipstick rock from the Berber pharmacy.

In the end, I wondered if the locals found my French condescending. They already assume tourists are French, and given the imperialistic relationship that the French had with Morocco, I don't think that's a good thing.

August 05, 2008

It's All Just Empty Everywhere

I'm not feeling very popular right now. After 12 days out of touch and out of the country, I had no personal voicemails, no text messages, and barely any emails outside of the innumerable newsletter subscriptions I have.

MohammedBut while in Morocco, I felt pretty popular. Starting with the seedy city of Casablanca, where Arab men as young as 14 or 15 practice making disgusting comments at you, I got constant attention from men. I wasn't looking for anything, relishing the relief of dating pressure by virtue of just being away from New York, but men everywhere leered at me, both repulsively and somewhat flatteringly when they were really hot.

Even when I felt protected standing by our Fes tour guide Mohammed's side, I realized Mohammed was kind of hitting on me, asking my origin (Italian?) and telling me he'd like to see me in a kaftan with pointy, gold-embroidered slippers and a henna tattoo - that then I would be "#1 wife."

Both he and the young man at the poterie commented on my fair skin and dark Poterieeyes, and it all felt very complimentary until my ceramics salesman let his hand creep below my waistline while I got my picture taken with him. He was very cute, so I didn't stop him, but I kind of thought that Muslim men must take out their pent-up sexual aggression on American women who pass through, that they must easily sexually objectify us because, well, we kind of put ourselves "out there" for it.

So I have no real sense if flirtation can really exist in Morocco, or in any other Muslim country. Normally, if I would see a cute boy, I would smile, bat my lashes at him, say something as cute as he is, and start the romantic dance. But in Morocco, it feels dangerous, like being too friendly will land you face-down on the back of a camel, headed for the mountains while your tour guide counts the Dirhams he received for you.

I knew that the men there would like me, given my experience in London with North Africans, but I thought somehow being American would turn them off. The shopkeeper in the hotel gift shop stopped me and asked me in French if I was Arabian or Moroccan. I acted cute and replied "Americaine, pas Francaise, pas Quebecoise" and was a bit flattered to think that I looked a bit Middle Eastern to him, but then I realized he probably was just flirting with me. He didn't seem to mind my American roots and stared into my eyes too long and grabbed at my hands.

There were no single and young and cute guys on the bus tour with us, which was probably for the best, but I was constantly surrounded by hot, swarthy passers-by so it was easy to get confused and wonder where to put that energy.

In fact, I got flattered in Fes when a Moroccan photographer was following our group through the souk and the mosque taking our pictures, many of me, until I heard Mohammed explain that the papparazzo would probably come to our hotel that night or in the morning to try to sell us the pictures. Worse yet, if he couldn't sell the prints to us, he would sell them to the Berber men. Yuck.

Out in the desert, everything felt better, less complicated. My body shed itself of all pain, inflammation, aches and breaks, and my mind cleared itself of heartaches and loneliness. But at our hotel in Erfoud, a Moroccan man asked me if I was a "gazelle," and our driver (also Mohammed) had to translate for me that I was being asked if I was an unmarried woman. A quick "yes" and I jumped on the bus to escape any further inquiry into my availability. But a short bus ride later into Rissani, and I couldn't wait for our local tour guide, Ali, to ask me if I was married, if I lived alone, if I would stay and live among the Berbers.

I know it's impossible to think that I could make a life with a half Berber 29-year-old who speaks eight languages and is finishing his PhD while taking care of his aging mother, but it's a nice fantasy. And for a moment, as I tried to insinuate myself into each of his conversations, I thought I might prefer to never come back to the United States.

Being a gazelle in Morocco certainly has its advantages, especially when trying to negotiate a good price for a horse-and-buggy ride back to your hotel from an insane outdoor market in Marrakech or making sure that your camel man takes care of you during a trip up-and-down some sunset sand dunes.

But it's all as transparent and meaningless as it is in New York. Ali asked me to stay in the desert, but he didn't mean with him and he didn't mean forever. He was probably no more sincere than the Casablanca hoodlums that muttered lewd obscenities in Arabic at us and then called us "bitch" when we didn't respond.