Monday, December 31, 2012

Making friends in Rio

Rio de Janeiro is laid out similarly to San Francisco in neighborhoods sandwiched between high hills, except everything in Rio is on a grander scale. The hills are higher, the neighborhoods are more spread out, there are more people everywhere, the extremes between poverty and wealth seem more pronounced. Going from one neighborhood to another takes longer, and what we should've figured out our first day here, but didn't catch on until the third, is that the best way to tour the city is by picking a neighborhood and sticking to it.

Another way to think about Rio is as a movable feast, the party crawls each night of the week from one neighborhood to another. Marcelle and Davog lent us a couple of guidebooks, and one of them--a guidebook for party-goers--has very specific suggestions on where to go each night of the week for music, dancing, or chilling out, and each location is rated based on whether it's favored by singles or couples and how easy it is to hook up there. We've spent two nights in Lapa, once on a happening but fairly low-key Wednesday night, and the second time on the full-on Saturday night. At midnight things were just starting to heat up, people were streaming in, the clubs packed and long lines of people waiting to get in. Davog had recommended a dive bar with great samba just off the main strip, and it just so happened that there was a Beatles-themed club next door, with a Brazilian cover band working through Abbey Road. We hung out at the samba bar and listened, and then danced a little bit with the crowd, but also each of us alternated in running upstairs to the Beatles club to get snippets of "Something" and the medley. Around one thirty in the morning, we decided to start making our way toward the apartment, but walking out onto the main strip got sucked into the crowd of happy drunks. Bands played on every other corner, and New Orleans-style, the party extended up from the street to the second-floor balconies and windows full of half naked men and women drinking and dancing. My feet were troubling me but no matter--we danced, rather than walked, on our way toward our neighborhood, Gloria.

Yesterday, we dedicated ourselves to hitting some of the main tourist attractions in the city. We visited Museu da República, a 19th Century palace that was used as a seat of Brazil's government during the short-lived republican period, and where much beloved president Getúlio Vargas committed suicide in 1954 shortly before the control of the country was taken over by the military. The room where he slept and where he'd killed himself is perfectly preserved and on display on the third floor of the museum, and is quite interesting, but most of the exposition is signed only in Portuguese.

After briefly touring the museum, Dave and I settled on a park bench outside and read a few Wikipedia articles on Brazil's history. Brazil's transition from colony to independence seems to have been without a precedent, with Portuguese court escaping for a while from Portugal, running from Napoleon all the way to Rio, which afforded the colony an unprecedented status of becoming the imperial center for a while. We read until our eyes started to get heavy from history overload and, meantime, the park bench where we had sat down was all but requisitioned by a small crowd of the local elderly who were gathering for some sort of a concert or a game event. We left as people were arriving and bringing more chairs and benches that they set up right in front of the bench where we had unwittingly sat down.

Our next destination was one of the most touristy places in the book, the Sugarloaf mountain. There are two popular mountains in Rio that all the guidebooks recommend to visit, the Corcovado with the statue of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf, without the statue but with a cool cable car ride to get to the top. The cable car station was within reasonable walking distance from where we were. It was six p.m. when we got there, and it was nine-thirty p.m by the time when we finally got down from it. In the middle, there were about three and a quarter hours of standing in lines and fifteen minutes of sightseeing and taking photographs. The views from the top were undoubtedly cool, but maybe even cooler was the sight of helicopters taking off from a pad halfway up the mountain, and also seeing the airplanes turn around and go in for landing at the domestic airport located on the other side of a long beach from the mountain. It's rare to have an opportunity to see an airplane from the top down.

After we finally were released from the mountain, we found a lovely dinner spot in a nearby neighborhood called Urca. The restaurant, Garota Urca ("an Urca girl"), was packed, with younger people hanging out outside drinking beer, and older and hungrier people eating inside. After a short wait, we got a table, and then saw a couple in their eighties looking for a seat. Dave wanted to give them our seats, and we ended up sharing a table with them and chatting away all night. Maria and Osman spoke English far better than we could pronounce the few Portuguese words we'd picked up. They had traveled to fifty countries around the world in their fifty-nine years of marriage. They had three kids, one of whom was a conductor of an orchestra in Recife, and another managed the local yacht club. Maria was a pianist herself--retired, but playing the piano at the local church on Sundays, and Osman was a doctor, a nutritionist--which was undoubtedly why they were at this restaurant on a warm Sunday night eating chocolate ice cream. They wanted no other food or drink, they said (although Maria ended up drinking beer and snacking on shrimp dumplings), but chocolate ice cream. The craziest part of this lovely experience was that Maria and Osman insisted on paying our bill at the end of the meal (Dave and I shared a half tuna and onion, half banana, cheese, and cinnamon pizza). They wouldn't take no for an answer, and we had no choice but to concede. We did ask them for their mailing address so that we know where to send souvenirs back from San Francisco.

On our way home to Marcelle and Davog's it started to rain--our first rain outside of the Amazon. We went to the bus stop, but ended up getting a cab. This we also figured out by day three--cabs are relatively inexpensive and much faster than any other means of transportation in Rio.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

On the importance of proper footwear

Yesterday was our first full day in Rio and altogether we did about five or six hours of walking. Some of this was at a super slow pace, like when we visited Instituto Moreira Salles and the Botanical Gardens, at other times we walked rather briskly, like the one time we had to run for the bus, or when we rushed to get to the Gardens an hour before they closed. Later, we walked from the Botanical Gardens neighborhood to Leblon, then crossed into Ipanema, then took the metro back to the Center and partied in Lapa. For no explicable reason, yesterday was also the day when I decided to skip socks and to try wearing my flats barefoot. Within a couple of hours, I got blisters all around the rim of the shoe, and by the time we were leaving the Botanical Garden, I could hardly walk. Fortunately, every convenience store in Rio seems to sell flip-flops (especially Havaianas, the popular local brand), and so I ended up buying my second pair of flip-flops on this trip.

I lack the proper savvy when it comes to wearing flip-flops. The trick seems no less difficult to pull off than wearing high heels. The native Californians seem to have it down and could probably upstage Brazilians in a flip flop wearing contest--I've seen people in San Francisco wear flip flops through near-freezing rain and on hikes in the mountains. That's just not me. Until Rio, one pair lasted me for about eight years--the only place I usually wear flip flops is in hotel bathrooms. Within an hour, somewhere between Leblon and Ipanema, I slipped and stabbed my big toe with what seemed to be a piece of my own toe nail. With some surprise, Dave and I watched as blood pooled all over my brand new snowy white (!!) flip flop. Luckily, Rio seems to be as well supplied with drugstores as it is with flip flop shops (and actually sometimes these are one and the same store--which makes sense, seeing just how precarious of a proposition this footwear is). All we had to do was to cross the street and walk into the nearest drugstore, where we were immediately provided with antiseptic and band aids, and even a sink to wash off the blood. The whole transaction cost us four reals, or about two dollars--the cheapest thing we've bought in Rio yet.

Instituto Moreira Salles, by the way, was a very cool museum. It was founded by Walter Moreira Salles, a wealthy Brazilian banker who died in 2001, and is presently managed by one of his sons and other members of the family. Apparently, branches of this institution are located in several Brazilian cities. The one we visited yesterday housed an exhibit of drawings, sculpture, and films by a prominent South African artist, William Kentridge. The exhibit was very well translated to English, and as I started reading descriptions of some of his artworks, I quickly realized that a lot of them are owned by the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. In fact, Kentridge had a show there as recently as 2009--but of course we had to come to Rio to see it. Much of his art comments on Apartheid and the work of the Truth Commission; he also seems to reflect more generally on the issues of the environment, loss, change, and the task of art itself. In his animation videos, he quite deftly manages to combine drama with humor, and so his art seemed very accessible and thought-provoking. My guess is that Salvador Dali was one of his major inspirations, and also possibly Soviet animation techniques--at least, there are definitely interesting overlaps between his animations and some older, hand-drawn Soviet cartoons.

For more details on what we're doing in Rio, check out Dave's blog.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Arraial do Cabo

Arraial do Cabo is a beach-side municipality about one hundred seventy kilometers east of Rio, still a part of the State of Rio de Janeiro, or RJ, a place where the big city folk go away for the holidays, the New Years and the Carnival, surrendering Rio's beaches to people coming from far and away. ("Arraial," by the way, in Portuguese sounds something like "Ah-high-ahl," the two "rr"s giving a sound that has absolutely no roll in it.) It's located on a picturesque arrow-shaped peninsula, sandwiched between two long beaches on either side. The point of the arrow is a mountain, and there are more beaches located around the point of the arrow, some of these accessible only by boat. Several competing companies in town provide boat beach tours. The boat drops you off on each beach for about thirty minutes, then picks you up and takes right to the next beach.

(On Wikipedia, Arraial has a stub page in Volapük, not to speak of an extensive article in Portuguese, but the English page is there merely to inform us that the town's population was 26,390 in 2005 and that "n 1960 a documentary film was made directed by Mário Carneiro and Paulo Cesar Saraceni about the local fishing industry.")

We came to Arraial by bus, normally a three and a half hour ride that turned into six hours for us due to heavy traffic--all the people clearing out of Rio for the holidays. It was a pleasant enough ride in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus that made enough stops for us to replenish our fruit, nut, and cookie supplies. Otherwise, we alternated between napping, blogging, and reading. The first thing I did when we got off the bus was to buy flip flops (I'd been getting away walking around in my tennis shoes, but here that wouldn't be right). Then we bought ourselves a tapioca-coconut treat drenched in sweetened condensed milk and marched to drop off bags at our hotel. It was hot but felt fresher than in Rio. The town's two big beaches were visible from a high spot in front of our hotel, and they beckoned to us with their fine white sand.

Dave had made arrangements with a diving company for the morning dives, but the night dive was proving tricky to arrange. He'd hoped to finalize it in person, but the six hour ride complicated matters. For one reason or another, all the dive shops in town (and we saw many), refused to take him on a night dive. Some claimed that he didn't have the right certification, others said that they only offered a night dive as a part of a training course, and one said something that google translated as "our captain is very strict." So, no night dive, but a lovely walk on the beach, watching the sun descend and night spill into fog, and the moon come out, full and bright, between the clouds. We dipped our toes into the water: it was cold. Not freezing, like in the Pacific Ocean around San Francisco, but cold enough for us to turn us off on swimming that night, no matter how hot we'd been by day. Anyway, the air had cooled significantly, and walking around in not much more than my bathing suit and my new flip flops I felt almost, if not quite, ready to shiver.

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant and in the morning the breakfast spread was so good that I took note of the name of the chef--Marcelo Poppe. Apparently, he'd studied with the chef at a restaurant in Hotel Copacabana, and his specialty seems to be cakes. The breakfast featured no less than eight or nine different varieties of cakes, including a savory meat pie. There were mini donuts and other types of pastries, including pão de queijo that I'm growing to love. There was fruit and fruit juices, and more kept coming throughout the morning. After I dropped Dave off at the dive shop, I briefly walked through the town and returned to the breakfast table. The way the cakes were laid out on the center table seemed like an expression of somebody's childhood fantasy. I tore myself away from it when the time was nearing check out, and I still wanted to swim in the Atlantic.

I didn't linger on the beach. I went into the ocean, allowed myself to be bounced around by the waves (the waves were towering over my head and the undercurrent was quite strong), and then returned to the hotel to take a shower and check out. I whiled away the rest of the morning and early afternoon in the hotel bar, writing, planning out a couple of stories I want to write when I get back to San Francisco. The hotel bar stayed closed until 2 pm or so, when the first weekend customer asked for a shot of rum and a couple of bottles of beer. The hotel staff spent a couple of hours working, on and off, on building a giant tent that would shade all of the bar area. It was a Friday, and that night every room in this hotel was booked. The staff was clearly preparing for a giant party that would last through the weekend and then on until the New Year's day.

We're readying to celebrate New Year's, too, but in Rio. After Dave came back from his diving excursion (he'll post pictures and stories on his blog here), we returned to the bus station and three and a half hours later disembarked back in Rio. It was still sweltering hot here, but not as hot as the day before. On the bus ride back we passed a huge crowd somewhere in the vicinity of downtown--something that looked like a festival or a giant demonstration. No idea what that was, but we're starting to picture what New Years might be like.

Friday, December 28, 2012

First day in Rio

Two days ago when we arrived to Rio the weather was sweltering hot. It was at least ten degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the jungle, and almost as humid. Typically, Dave revels in hot weather while I become sluggish and moody, but after the Amazon it seems like we can be Okay anywhere. (I know that this feeling might be short-lived, but I'm riding it while it lasts.) We met our lovely Airbnb hosts Marcelle and Davog, and after some puttering about their apartment went out and spent the second half of the day exploring Rio on foot. We didn't have much luck that day finding anything our guidebook and our friends recommended, and everything we did find was already closed. No matter--getting lost is quickly becoming an art in today's world where google maps chart every major metropolis the world over. We enjoyed meandering about the downtown neighborhoods of Rio, some in greater states of disrepair than others, occasionally stopping to replenish our energy with traditional pão de queijo--a cheese pie, some dried banana, cookies, and nuts. When we reached the top of the hill of Santa Teresa neighborhood, Dave took a power nap on a bench that stood there seemingly for that exact purpose. Little did he know that a few hours later we'd be climbing back to the top of this same hill, lost again on our way home.

We wanted to find the music scene we'd heard about and also a nice place for dinner, but as it turns out, Rio is a huge city (yes, yes, this should've been clear before we set out) and google is not an entirely reliable source of information in Rio (especially since we can hardly read Portuguese). Eventually we had some pizza--but it was a sardine pizza, quite good!--and a couple of drinks in a random place in Lapa. There was music there, but the band stopped playing five minutes after we ordered. It was simply that kind of night. So we occupied ourselves with people watching and making more plans, none of which came to transpire because shortly after leaving the bar, we made another wrong turn and found ourselves hiking up the same mountain we came down a few hours before. And did I mention that Rio was sweltering hot?

Finally, we made it back to Marcelle and Davog's place, took showers, and fell asleep. I woke up around 5 am from the heat. Our hosts have a hammock on the balcony next to our room, and I stepped out there to see if being outside made any difference. It didn't. Air-conditioning isn't very common in average houses in Brazil, and the overhead fan wasn't doing much damage. Dave blissfully slept. I washed my face and lay down again--to read on my Kindle. Eventually, I dozed off and slept on-and-off until 7 am. When we met our hosts for breakfast, they'd already picked up the morning paper with the weather report: apparently, Dave slept through the hottest recorded night in Rio. The temperature reached at 42 Celsius or 107.6 Fahrenheit. It felt like an achievement to not only experience this but to do so with pleasure. And we did--we are--having fun with it all.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

O Rio, Rio

Thanks to two early Soviet authors, Ilyia Ilf and Evgenij Petrov, probably every Russian over thirty years old has dreamed of setting foot in Rio de Janeiro. The dream is not a particularly specific one--to a Russian raised behind the Iron Curtain, Rio stood for everything exciting and beautiful that existed in the world completely inaccessible to Soviet citizens. The plot of Ilf and Petrov's great satirical novel, The Twelve Chairs (1927), is predicated on the main character's dream to escape USSR for Rio. Here's a clip from 1976 Soviet movie where great Andrei Mironov terribly overacts and sings an ode to Rio: "O Rio, Rio, there's sun and music all around--there's everything one needs for happiness, except... me--I'm not there."

In the 1920s, when Ilf and Petrov's character Ostap Bender dreamed of going there, Rio was a rapidly expanding city - then still the capital of Brazil. The swamps were drained, the population increasing rapidly, great theatres, hippodromes, and hotels were built--the famous Hotel Copacabana opened in 1923. Advertisements for the city must have circulated in all the European newspapers and made it all the way to Soviet Russia--"perhaps I trusted the brochures and pamphlets too much," sings Mironov, impersonating Bender. The lyrics are from the 1970s, but the 1920s novel is the close source material. Rio was the ultimate destination, a combination of a Wild West spirit and Euro-style luxury. Ostap, a Quixotic character of sorts, never got to Rio. Today we are a million miles removed from the era of the Iron Curtain. None of this is at all relevant to our contemporary experience of Rio, and yet I find that it still needs to be mentioned and remembered. The Ostap Bender Rio connection.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Four days on the Amazon

After a night in Manaus, Dave and I spent four days and three nights in the Amazon. Dave did a lot of research ahead of time to find the right tour company to take us into the jungle. Many of the companies seemed to offer very similar packages, and Dave was frustrated trying to differentiate between them. Finally, he settled on Gero Amazon Tours because our guidebook credited Gero for giving back to the community and for being very conscientious about the environment. When we got to Manaus, one of the guides picked us up from the airport and drove us to our hotel--we were booked to spend one night in town before heading out into the jungle. One of the first things we learned about the operation was the Gero was a man, the owner of the business, and that currently he was away from the area, visiting his parents. Later, it came out that he went to visit his mother in another part of the Amazon--in the process of getting his business off the ground, he hadn't seen his mother in over twelve years.

In the morning of our first jungle day, we got picked up at the hotel and driven to the port of Manaus on the Rio Negro. From there, we took a boat to the "meeting of the waters," the place where two great rivers, one that originates in the mountains of Peru and another that originates in Columbia, come together to form one great Amazon. The rivers are so different in their current, depth, temperature, and consistency that they flow side by side for six kilometers before the waters mix together. The line in the water is very clear, it's like stepping from a shaded area--the dark Rio Negro--into the light, the mud-colored Solimões river. Solimões carries more sediment than Rio Negro, and therefore supports more biodiversity within its waters and in the surrounding jungle. From this cross-over point, the boat took us upstream on the Solimões, to a small village of about hundred familes. There we boarded a bus, and our guides drove us for about an hour down a paved two-lane road--an Amazon highway--before at some point turning onto a dirt road for another twenty or so minutes. The dirt of the dirt road was of bright red color--thick clay, and the scenery was mostly family houses surrounded by plantations and farms (not at all the jungle the way we'd imagined it). Most of the houses in this area stood on stilts because in the high season the river rises about 12-14 feet. In the river itself we also saw houseboats--houses built on top of giant logs. These logs, we learned, are quite expensive and anyhow, cutting down big trees in the Amazon can now lead to very large fines and/or jail sentences. The farms that we passed varied from multi-hectar banana plantations to cattle farms to patches of land with overgrown fruit trees. The level of income seemed to vary significantly. On the way, our guides delivered passengers they had picked up in the village--a woman with kids and groceries, another single woman, coming back from work in the village or on the plantation.

At the end of the long bus ride we reached another river port, this one even smaller than the one before--it took us a few days to realize that it was a different river that, perhaps, connects to the greater Amazon in high season, but not necessarily. From that point on, another twenty-minute speedboat ride deposited us at the lodge at the end of what the guides called "a lake," but to us looked like a thin water channel hidden in the grass. There are two seasons in the Amazon, the wet and the dry. It started to rain bigtime on the day of our arrival, but the water had been rising steadily for a few weeks already. It reaches the high point at the end of June and beginning of July. Then it slowly starts to dry up, and in October-November, the guides told us that they had to walk for about a mile down the clay path at the bottom of the lake to get to the lodge.

Altogether our trip to the lodge took about four hours (no walking required). We were about 100 kilometers south of Manaus. We arrived to the lodge two days before Christmas. Gero was away--for the first time since the lodge had been built--and everything the guides did had a slightly improvised quality to it. Not because they didn't know what they were doing--all of them grew up on the Amazon, and some even came from this very same lakeside community--but because they regarded Christmas as their biggest holiday of the year and were preparing to party. Gero's absence clearly shook them out of their routine and added looseness to everyone's mood. Christmas was the guides' favorite holiday of the year, and they were ready to party.

It took us a few trips up and down the river to understand something about the spirit of this lakeside community. At first, focused on trying to spot all the toucans, hawks, vultures, and colibri flying around, caimans hiding in the grass, and in the muddy water dolphins, piranhas, and flying fish, we hardly even paid attention to the houses that stood high up on the shores, each on stilts, each with a motor boat or two pushed into the mud at the makeshift dock down below. Returning after an evening dolphin-spotting trip, we noticed that some of the houses had Christmas lights lit up. A few months before, the government had connected this community to the power grid by running a line from one of the central villages. Before that, some of the houses--although not all--used generators for power. They had electric light, fridges, TVs, satellite dishes, cell phones (although cell phones don't work in the jungle, but they still use them to store pictures and videos), but no computers yet because no Internet, and no power tools of any significance that we noticed. (Of course, these will come in short order).

The shores of this lake seemed to be populated by various members of the same family--or maybe a few several families. Our guide pointed out two churches standing on opposite shores, one Catholic, one Protestant, both looking quite new. There's a small school for the little kids and Gero and the guides are planning to build a bigger school for the community this year. To get to school, the bigger kids right now have to take the boat to a village about 30-40 minutes away, and they only can get there when the water's high enough (approximately January to September).

On the second day (or was it still the first day?), trying to hide from thunder and lightning that hit us in the middle of another monkey or sloth-spotting expedition, we took cover in a "jungle bar"--a floating house, whose owner runs a bar and something of a general store for the village. Our guide led us in the purchase of beer and proceeded to play a few rounds of pool with the bar owner and a couple of other guys whiling away the rainy hour. The general store carried corn chips, baby powder, deodorant, products of feminine hygiene, jars of Spam, breakfast rolls, frozen hot dogs, instant coffee, tape, raisers, band-aids, and in addition to beer also sweet wine and rum. In the corner of the room stood a TV set covered that day by a cloth, but on Christmas day--on what became an obligatory stop-over at the jungle bar for our guide--we saw it uncovered and playing a DVD track that seemed to go along with the music.

Christmas in Brazil is celebrated by a big family dinner on Christmas Eve and a public show or a party (in Rio) on Christmas day. (The Christmas Day spectacular in Manaus was, oddly enough, produced by an Orlando, FL-based entertainment company, Hardrive productions). Because the guides were partying--and our guide, the charismatic Lucivaldo, best of all--we got invited to an after-dinner Christmas Eve party at another local bar, in the middle of what is quickly becoming a new village--right next to the new school and the Catholic church. The family who runs this bar was also celebrating the birthday of their mother, grandmother, and probably a great-grandmother, who turned sixty-six. The centerpiece of the party was a giant red and white Christmas/birthday cake and crazy dancing to the music off a CD that contained about five or so tracks, repeated on a loop. An hour before midnight, the family members started to toast the matriarch, and it immediately became clear that to reach the age of sixty-six is a very significant event in this community. Lucivaldo told us that she was among the five or six oldest women here. She was crying the whole time as she was receiving congratulations, any several of her family members broke down in tears in the middle of their speeches.

It's hard to remember in retrospect what we'd expected coming to the Amazon. Probably, the endless jungle. The crazy cool and scary animals. The great river, as big as the sea. The tribal people living deep in the jungle and drinking ayahuasca. There's lots to say about all of that, and in much greater detail than I'm able to do at the moment. It's clear that the Amazon is changing rapidly and unstoppably. After leaving the jungle, in Manaus airport, we met a man who works for an American company that's drilling for oil in the Amazon. On the other hand, the guides who grew up in the area, told us that as of seven or so years ago, the new government created stricter laws targeted against people who were messing with the old growth jungle, and not only did the government establish the laws, but they also started to follow through and prosecuting people on the environmental charges. Yes, we spotted as many empty beer cans and plastic bottles on the sides of the river as caiman and sloths and monkeys put together, but Lucivaldo told us that every year in the dry season he and Gero's other guides survey the grounds and pick up all the metal and plastic that they can find. It was weird to me, by the end of the third day, how much at home I felt in the jungle--and that despite the heat and humidity, and the rain and the constantly damp clothes, and the mosquitoes, ants who found their way to pieces of candy and chocolate at the bottom of my purse, and the potentially dangerous animals. The Amazon felt not altogether different from the Russian countryside where I spent my summers growing up. But this is a topic for another time.

For Dave's experience of the Amazon and Brazil, please read his blog here: He's got more stories to tell and he's also got photos!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

From SF to Manaus

Travel day yesterday. We crossed a couple of continents and landed, after a brief stop in Panama City, in Manaus, the city that advertizes itself as--and probably is--the gateway to the Amazon. The city largely owes its existence to the rubber boom at the end of the 19th Century, when the industrialization of production of rubber created immense fortunes, and also when a lot of local population was displaced and forced to work on the plantations. We didn't know any of these things yesterday and are learning everything as we go along.

Little things strike me as we travel. The airport in Panama City resembled nothing more than a Los Angeles Grayhound station: everything about the airport, for example, the bathrooms, is similar to a US airport (all the toilets and the sinks, for example, are likely made by same company), but slightly shabbier. In front of the gate, we were surrounded by families with dozens of children, all munching homemade snacks and sipping soda. Possibly because most of our travel is to Europe, we expect the foreignness (in practical terms) to start right away as soon as we cross the border; here, even if the announcements were made in Spanish first and English second, the sense of being abroad was for me largely lacking. We didn't leave the airport in Panama City, of course.

The airport in Manaus is more like a giant warehouse (and still nicer than Pulkovo, that cramped and smoked through gateway to St. Petersburg)--not particularly fancy, but functional. It took us less than fifteen minutes to get our passports stamped and receive our luggage. Then we battled with the ATM machine to receive local currency in the amount that we need (more than it was willing to give us). A guide from the company that will take us to the Amazon today met us at the airport and delivered to the hotel--an unexpected and lovely bonus.

As soon as we got to the hotel, and after spending another half hour checking email, we went out. It had gotten dark early, but it was still balmy. The presence of the forest is felt everywhere in the city. We walked the straightest way possible through downtown to Teatro Amazonas--the main attraction, a salmon pink neo-baroque theatre built by the rubber barons. There was a show in progress on the theatre's magnificent staircase--a rehearsal of a Christmas spectacular. A bunch of bored kids in angel wings danced to the right and to the left, and wiped off sweat from their foreheads after every move. We satisfied ourselves with enough feelings of strangeness and foreignness for one day by getting funky-flavored ice creams (acai was one flavor I tried) and returned to the hotel.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Litcrawl Reading

It's Litquake week in San Francisco -- 850 authors reading at 163 events all around town. And Saturday is Litcrawl, a reading extravaganza that happens in three phases from 6 to 9:30 pm. If you aren't local and thinking when's the best time to visit San Francisco, the weekend of Litcrawl is always a good choice. The city goes mad for literature!

This year, I'll be reading at an event hosted by my friend, a wonderful writer Peg Alford Pursell. The reading is called "Tzara's Hat" and is inspired by Dada art. A few weeks ago, Peg has gathered all the readers in her home for a live writing session. Each of us came up with a word that we wrote down on a scrap of paper, and then we went around pulling these words from a hat and writing for three to five minutes on each word. The idea was to come up with a complete piece of flash fiction in that time--a piece of fiction that included each of these words in the order pulled from the hat. We would then revise these flashes before the actual reading.

I know writing from prompts is popular among poets and among some (experimental) groups of fiction writers. I have not had much experience with it in my own writing--when I started, I would set out prompts for myself, but they were vague (write something funny!) and I never held myself very strictly to the formality of it. This exercise turned out to be a lot of fun--in an odd way, the story ideas I came up with were based on memories from deep within my subconsciousness, experiences and feelings I had not thought of in many years. I enjoyed this exercise very much.

We'll be reading from 6 to 7 pm on Saturday, October 13, at Four Barrel, a coffee shop at 375 Valencia Street. More details are here, on the Litcrawl site. Please come and hear us read these stories, and be as surprised as we were when we shared first drafts with one another about how different these stories turned out and how wonderfully they represent each writer's strengths and interests. Here's a hint: our list of words included "popcorn" and "alien" :)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods

One great book I read during this trip was Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods. Published by innovative & Other Stories Press in London, UK, this is a wise and humorous send-up of contemporary corporate culture. The plot--the top layer of meaning--has to do with an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman Joe, who, unable to sell a single Encyclopedia, starts a business capitalizing on his erotic fantasy. He imagines having sex with women stuck leaning out of the window and whose upper body is invisible to him. He conceives of "lightning rods," a contraption that he installs in office buildings to provide top salesmen necessary "release"--and hires women to service these contraptions accordingly. It's a naughty book, a book fully aware of the feminist critique of the masculine gaze that disassembles a woman into discrete body parts (breasts, buttocks, legs, vagina), accepts this property of the gaze for granted and pushes it to its practical limits. Men are constantly thinking of sex--why not provide them with a practical option to satisfy their desires, as a part of Sexual Harassment policy, no less? DeWitt pokes fun at the legalese and euphemistic language of corporate America, lightheartedly picks at the commonplace understanding of male sexuality, and touches at issues of power and domination and the nature of personal and professional success.

Lightning Rods was written in the late 1990s and it took more than a decade for it to find the right publisher. Finally, New Directions in the US and & Other Stories in the UK took up the book. & Other Stories is a two-year old innovative press that aims to publish primarily works in translation but also a few English-language originals. I've heard about it for the first time from my friend Yvette, who became a member of their team of readers. The press aims to bring out four books a year and asks readers to subscribe like they would to a magazine. I joined after examining the titles they already brought out--and a couple of weeks after I subscribed one of their books, Deborah Levy's Swimming Home, was longlisted, and then shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I haven't read this one yet, but I definitely look forward to reading more books from their exciting catalog.

Friday, September 21, 2012

How to Survive in a Walled City

1. Survey your premises. Know where all the gates are.
2. Know the gate nearest to you at all times.
3. In addition to the gates, there must be hidden passages, underground tunnels, ways of scaling the walls. Rats find a way in.
4. Get out of town at the earliest opportunity.
5. A walled city is much better looking from the top of the nearby hill. The last time this city was bombed only twenty years ago.
6. Many people find a walled city a curious tourist destination. They might form a crowd and obstruct your way out by day. Get out into the wilderness in the early morning and don't come back until the cruise ships have moved on.
7. If you're starting to feel aggressive toward your neighbors, escape to the nearest hill to get some fresh air. Buy a cactus. Anything green will help soothe your nerves.
8. If you're feeling claustrophobic in the middle of the night, it's Ok to take a walk to the nearest gate to make sure it's still open. It's Ok to smuggle ice cream from the outside. Nobody will demand that you pay tax to cross the draw bridge.
9. Practice diving and swimming. The sea is close enough. Know your terrain. Can you jump from the wall and survive?
10. Leave at your earliest convenience. Move on. Anywhere with less walls will do.

Monday, September 17, 2012


--Post inspired by Diocletian, the only Roman emperor who, as the legend goes, retired of his own volition, returned to his native province here in Split, and spent the last years of his life tending a vegetable garden.

Remember grade school? For me, every quarter used to start with copying down a schedule of classes for each day, and in addition to that I also created "regimes" for my extracurricular activities. Wake up at 7 am, read for an hour, then go to school, then after school come home and play guitar for an hour, draw or play with my brother, do homework, then read for an hour before sleep. These regimes were invariably proven bogus on the very first day I tried to execute them. No matter what I'd set out to do, and for how long, once I actually got into an activity, it was impossible to stop by the clock, and if I'd happened on a good book, I could read all night without stopping at all.

These regimes were never, ever effective. They aggravated me immensely. Even if reading was the next thing on the list--and I lived to read--I couldn't pick up a book knowing that it would be but a short hour before I would have to put it down. The discreet time unit, and the knowledge that the end would come sooner rather than later, made reading impossible. I couldn't get fully immersed into the world of the book if I had to keep looking at the clock all the time. Without the clock, I lost all track of time. "Do you know how late it is?" I can still remember my grandmother's disturbed expression when she got up in the middle of the night and found me still awake. If I tried to curb my reading after an hour, it was all pointless. I could reread one page ten times without getting much out of it, my mind preoccupied with the unfairness of it all. Why couldn't people just be left alone, and sit on couches and read all day long?

Oddly enough, the habit of making these regimes stuck. I'm still at it. Every half a year or a year or so, I start outlining the schedule of my new life. Long trips usually serve as inspiration -- sometimes I draft a new routine on the flight back. You'd think that over the years my regimes should've gotten better or more realistic, but no such thing. On paper, I can get up at 7 am, go to bed at midnight, and fit in between everything from work and writing to studying German and French, going to the gym, going out with friends, and taking a casual dinner with Dave -- all in one day. Energized after two weeks away, I imagine that I could do all of it with a smile on my face and never get tired.

We're traveling across south-east Europe this week. We've visited four countries in as many days, and today alone crossed two borders. Dave pre-planned most of the trip, and all we need to do now is to stick as closely to the plan as possible. Check into hotels, check out, eat breakfast, lunch, dinner (or dinner at 2 pm and supper at 8 pm to accommodate my parents' mealtimes), pick up and drop off car, get on a bus tomorrow within a certain window of hours, and then continue on with the plan in the next town. There's a huge comfort in having this time-table to follow -- no matter how intense it is, and no matter that if we can't get everything in we end up cutting into sleep time to accomplish more. Part of the comfort for me is that Dave did all the prep work here. It's the difference between being given a schedule of classes to copy and having to design a regime for myself. But even then it's only a comfort for a couple of days or so. Then the schedule begins to oppress. I want to skip the bus, forget about seeing all the amazing and fascinating sights that we're seeing, and spend an entire day at a hotel and read. To forget about all the schedules in the world. This is clearly the beginning of a vacation, the first third. By the end of the two weeks, no doubt, I'll be drafting another regime, dreaming up another lifetime of pursuits and accomplishments.

Friday, September 14, 2012

It's London time, baby!

We leave home, as always, in a rush. Dave has checked off everything on his list; I obsess about little things that don't matter. The new odd smell in our hallway: where did that come from? It smells as if our next-door neighbors who used to smoke pot now switched to smoking rat tails.

We catch our taxi driver on Duboce Street an hour and a half before departure. He senses our stress level right away and takes off with a "yee-haw!" Swerving in and around rush hour traffic, he makes noises of a jockey priming his horse to win by a head. For now, Dave and I are both still plugged in, checking our email, the latest news. Deaths at the US embassy in Lybia, anti-American protests all over the Muslim countries. Have you heard what Romney said? How will this play out for the November election?

Arrive to the airport with minutes to spare. The trunk of the taxi cab won't open. The driver rams into the trunk with enough force to roll the car down the street, but the trunk remains closed. He hands me the key, asking me to keep it turned in the lock, while Dave pushes the trunk, and the driver is inside the cab, tugging at the lever. Then Dave tugs at the lever and the driver pushes the trunk. I'm thinking--what power tools could we use here? Suddenly the trunk pops open.

The routine of travel: a succession of mini-dramas. Tension is built into the time-tables and the temporary ceding of agency. What will be done to us next? How will we react--and will our reactions escalate or diminish the incident, will they affect the rest of the trip? How we cope with the vagaries of travel is determined by our character, and not even our individual characters, but of this joint entity that we represent--a traveling duo. Travel as performance art, and we're students of the genre.

It's a vacation!
We're the very last in line to check in to London. While I worry that we might miss our flight, my parents whom we're meeting in Zagreb, miss theirs. They finally arrive to Zagreb sans mom's luggage, which will now have to travel on and catch up with us (hopefully) in Ljubljana.

Dave and I spend the afternoon in London. A long layover allows us to take Heathrow Express to Paddington, and from there we go to Southwark, roam for an hour through the galleries at the Tate Modern museum, and explore--why not?--the embankment outside with the gorgeous view of the Millennium Footbridge across the Thames, St. Paul's cathedral, London Bridge, and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. We end up at the Borough Market, where we buy sweets and a fish pie to share. Then we return to the airport and, finally, after a short delay, fly to Zagreb.

Transformed Visions: Dave sleeps at the Tate Modern in London

My parents stayed up to wait for us at the hotel. As they tell the story of their missed flight, they're laughing. Why are they laughing? It couldn't have been a pleasant experience. But we're all safe, and together, the experience of being together heightened by our surroundings: a country and a city we've never been to before, and although its history is tied in to the geopolitical events that place me on the other side of the globe from my parents, none of us have any particular reason to be here.

"I was in Zagreb twenty years ago," my dad reminds us.

"Did the place change since then?"

"I can't remember. I remember only the man on the horse--he's still out there, on the square."

Dave and I have already glimpsed the statue from the cab, and perhaps tomorrow we'll get a chance to study it closer. Meantime, it's a comfort to be finally going to bed (it's been a thirty-something-hour day for Dave and me) and to fall asleep knowing that my parents are sleeping in the next room.

For Dave's reflections on our travel experiences, read Dave's blog.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Where Does the Sea Flow

Last year, a young Russian filmmaker, Vitaly Saltykov made a movie based on one of my short stories, and now this movie has made it to the short list of Manhattan Short Film Festival. Here's an interview with the director, where he talks about the filming process and the actors, one of whom is a star of Russian screen, Oksana Akinshina. The movie is making something of a news in Russia because it turned out to be the first Russian film to be selected for this festival. It's also notable as one of the few Russian films made with private, not state, funds.

(I'm credited in the movie and in the interview as Olga Grenetz, because that's how I'm published in Russia)

The movie has to do with a mother-daughter relationship. The girl is a precocious child, and the young mother is having a hard time relating to her. The movie differs from my story in one aspect: according to the movie, the daughter was conceived as a child of rape, while in the short story I had chosen to present two short scenes in medias res, without any background about the characters. It has been a fascinatingif not an entirely comfortableexperience to see how the story evolved in adaptation, but watching the completed film, I admire Vitaly's vision and wisdom that it took to create a fully independent work of art.

Here's the trailer with English subtitles:

Manhattan Short Film Festival will take place from September 28 until October 7, 2012 on three hundred screens around the world. In California, it will play in Fresno, Modesto, Point Arena, and Redding. Look up the venues closest to you here. And here's the webpage for the movie. The story, by the way, is one of the few stories I'd written in Russian, and haven't yet reworked in English. It's a part of my second Russian-language collection published by Limbus Press in 2010, The Keys From the Lost House.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Narrative Tumblr

At Narrative Magazine, we've started a new Tumblr site -- a great new way to rediscover stories, photo galleries, comics, and other media from our archives, and also a platform where we can engage with and comment on current events. Lately, most of my blogging energy has been going into collaborating on this project and magazine's other social media efforts. Check it out!

More travel blogging to come soon -- Dave and I are heading to Croatia end of September :)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

H. Porter Abbott's The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative

Because I have to return this book to the library today and don't want to forget. Abbott introduces a useful term with no precise definition, narrativity.

Narrativity: A disputed term, used here to mean the degree to which a text generates the impression that it is a narrative. Prince coined the term "narrativehood" to refer to the bare minimum required for a narrative to be recognized as a narrative.
Also, this:

Do we need more than one event for there to be narrativity?
She ate lunch. Then she drove the car to work.
In this instance, the additional event does not help a great deal. . . . Narrativity is a matter of degree that does not correlate to the number of devices, qualities, or, for that matter, words that are employed in the narrative.
Brooding, she ate lunch. Then she drove the car to work.
The addition of that one simple word, "brooding," does much to augment narrativity -- that is, the feeling that now we are reading a story. And this may simply be because the word itself is more common to narrative than it is to ordinary discourse. Or it may be because the word gives depth to the character.

Another useful distinction that Abbott makes is between levels of interpretation. He defines three: 1) intentional readings -- that is, trying to recreate the work of the implied author. "The novelist Paul Auster put it simply: 'In a work of fiction, one assumes there is a conscious mind behind the words on the page.'" 2) symptomatic readings -- what does a text tell us about the implied author and the world in which he lived that the author didn't specifically mean to be in the text. A frame different from that with the intention of the implied author; a symptomatic reading can take psychological, feminist, cultural materialist, or any other theoretical lens. 3) adaptive readings. Probably a lot of this happens in writing workshops. I really admire that Abbott highlights the validity of this process -- this is what happens to any attentive and passionate reader. "There is a line one can cross in doing interpretation, on the other side of which one is no longer supporting a reading from an analysis of the evidence but creating a reading by adaptation. But since some degree of creation is a part of all interpretation, finding this line puts us in yet another gray area."

Lovely book. As always, with theoretical texts, I make the mistake of trying to read from the beginning to the end. Ran out of time and got only to Chapter 10. Now have to give this one back to the library -- I think next on my agenda is Umberto Eco's Interpretation and Overinterpretation.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Letter from a Reader

Today I got a letter from Elea Carey, an editor at A River & Sound Review, a magazine that published my story The Third Place. The story had to do with one gesture of compassion and empathy that one train passenger extended to another. Elea wrote:

"I was taking the train from Reno to SF (Emeryville, actually). To get time alone with no wifi, no kids, no sick father, and no dogs to walk was a total blessing. I was enjoying it by writing an extra long and detailed journal entry when, just as we came out of a tunnel near Donner Pass, the woman in the seat behind me burst into tears. The train car got very quiet but no one moved to do anything. I sat for a moment, then I closed my computer and went back to her  and said, "Tell me about it.""

Small gestures count a great deal, I think. And they take a great deal of courage.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bus ride to Arizona

On Wednesday night it became clear that my gamble failed. Instead of going down, the prices for the last-minute airfare to Phoenix kept climbing. One way tickets were now being sold for over $650. I had promised Dave that I would join him for the weekend part of this trip, and would visit with him his aunt and his childhood friend. Dave and I have been together for fifteen years, our relationship lasting in a large part because we know how to have a good time together. But lately I've been so focused on my work and writing that I've been putting in fifteen-hour days, including weekends. To pry me away from my books and the computer is becoming increasingly difficult. Dave goes to an annual conference in Scottsdale, and after the conference he takes time to hang out with Bill and Jen and their kids, and with aunt Linda and uncle Stan. I have met Bill and Jen twice, briefly, at our wedding and then at theirs. Linda and Stan used to come to San Francisco to visit Stan's son Brad, but last year Brad moved away to Las Vegas, and I see Linda and Stan once a year, during annual family Thanksgiving in New York. I promised Dave I would go on the trip, but procrastinated on buying the tickets. Dave didn't insist; he probably thought I was trying to bail. After all, I do have an endless reading list.

Things got more intense when my friend Toni, who lives in London, emailed that she is in San Francisco for a couple of days, and wants to have lunch together. I asked her to have breakfast together instead, and we met Thursday morning at cafe Tartine. Dave texted me to say that it was official: the prices for Friday morning flight weren't going down. He was surprised and pleased, I think, when I told him I would take the bus. I did some research, and the price was right: $110 to Phoenix, but everything else about the trip seemed outrageous. I would have to leave San Francisco Thursday night, and would arrive to Phoenix after a 17,5 hour ride at 3:30 pm on Friday. I laughed when I looked at the itinerary on the screen, and then realized: I could do it. Why not? I could read on the bus, and using my new fancy Asus EeeePad, I could even write on the bus. Yes, sleeping on the bus wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world, but I've done it often enough in college, going between Rochester, NY and NYC, and I have to say that airplane seats aren't all that much more comfortable. The only thing that stopped me from considering the option was that nobody I know in San Francisco ever takes the bus anywhere. Flights to Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix are generally cheap enough, and road trips on the West Coast do take a long time. Things are more spread out. There are mountains to cross.

So, on Thursday morning, I packed my overnight bag, and ran out to meet Toni for breakfast. It was raining in San Francisco, which was annoying because I had to wear boots and pack sandals for the desert. I also had to take my umbrella, which as of that morning, has come undone in three places and was almost but not entirely useless. I ran five long blocks to cafe Tartine, where Toni was already waiting for me. The place was packed, as usual, and they didn't have the one thing Toni wanted on the menu. We got pastries, and talked about everything we could talk about in 45 minutes. She was telling me about visiting her mother and sister in Hungary, and also that her husband Eric and she are planning a big neighborhood party in London for the Queen's anniversary of fifty years being a queen. Eric and Toni are planning a gigantic potluck for the neighbors and lots of games and charades for the kids. She invited me to visit, and I would love to, but, but, but.

As I ran out of the cafe, I realized I left behind my umbrella. I looked for it for a couple of minutes, but somebody must've grabbed it. I happily let it go. The rain had all but stopped, and I didn't need a broken umbrella with me in Arizona. At 10:30 am, not much later than usual, I was at work, where the first order of business was to pay for my Greyhound ticket online. I did, and texted Dave, and soon Dave replied that he bought the return tickets -- by air, arriving to San Francisco at 1 am Monday morning, but first class. Gambling on airfare results in the oddest itineraries. Work went very well after this. I cleared my inbox from 60 down to 30 messages, no small feat after a week of not much progress. At 6:30 pm, I went to a reading -- a monthly reading series, InsideStoryTime, organized by James Warner, Yanina Gotsulsky, and Ransom Stephens, where they feature five or six different writers each month. Yanina was reading a part from her novel, an event I didn't want to miss. I've known her for three years, and haven't heard her read before. She selected a very dramatic chapter, in which her protagonist meets the man of her dreams, count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy :) The setting is a train car between Moscow and Leningrad in the late 1980s, which makes the scene all the more bold and fascinating -- and also seemed all the more relevant because of my current predicament. Yanina's reading reminded me that in the 1980s in the Soviet Union one couldn't just hop on a train (or a bus) and travel to another city. One had to have a reason for travel, special travel papers, and on arrival had to register either with the hotel, or if visiting relatives, with the local police department. I think that's how it was. These rules still apply to the foreigners visiting Russia today.

After the reading, I walked to the bus station. It was no longer raining, and the evening was quite warm. I walked through the touristy Union Square, where young people had flocked from all over the Bay Area to start celebrating St. Patty's day early. I crossed Market Street into SOMA, where people with badges on their chests were getting out from some after-conference parties and looking for more parties. This was the most physically challenging part of the trip, navigating through crowds of slow-moving people with two overpacked bags on my shoulders. One tipsy man, not watching where he was going, barely avoided collision and exclaimed, "Oh, shit!" It's a character trait really, not "Oh, sorry!" or "Excuse me," but -- "Oh, shit!"

I don't know when the current Greyhound terminal in San Francisco was constructed -- and aren't they building a new one? -- but it looked shiny and new. A small, enclosed waiting room in front of a large parking lot for buses. I seem to remember taking a bus to Los Angeles several years ago from a different terminal -- a grungy, run-down place that seemed to have not been renovated since the 1960s. This was different. I had an e-ticket, and so was able to get in line immediately after a very brisk security bag search. The line consisted primarily of Japanese and Indian students going to LA, hardly anybody older than me. The kids sat on the floor waiting to get on board. Direct bus routes from San Francisco go to Northern California, Los Angeles, and outside of California only to Las Vegas and Reno. I didn't see neither Portland nor Seattle on the board. Nor, for that matter, Phoenix or Tucson -- to get to Arizona, I had to go to LA first. Which was fine by me. I slept for most of that ride, disturbed only by the stops the bus was making: San Jose, Gilroy, etc, etc -- I remember the stops, but was too sleepy to register the names of the towns.

We arrived to Los Angeles at 6 am, and my transfer to Phoenix was at 7 am. The bus station in Los Angeles is larger than San Francisco, includes a cafe on premises (in San Francisco there were only vending machines, where I bought a bottle of water). I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, and then read, waiting for the bus to arrive. The crowd at the bus station in Los Angeles was very different. A lot of Mexicans, white men wearing cowboy hats, elderly couples, single parents with unhappy teenage kids. The bus took off half-empty, but started filling up as we made the first stops on the outskirts of LA. Soon, the driver announced that 51 out of 55 seats were full. Greyhound was in demand! The sun rose as we left the urban area behind, and for the last three hours I've been watching the landscape change slowly. Well-irrigated green fields and pastures have disappeared, slowly giving way to low-lying shrubs. At some point, I noticed mountains on my left -- a wall of sharply outlined reddish-brown rock -- and later, mountains on the right as well. The road we're on doesn't have much of a slope, but I can see two parallel lines of mountains intersecting ahead of us. An illusion of perspective, or are we actually going to cross a mountain range to get to Arizona? The landscape is all sand and intermittent brush, but no cacti yet. And the sky is blue. It was foggy in LA, almost as humid as in San Francisco, and it might have even drizzled while I slept. But there isn't much humidity in the air now. I wish I had a map or a 3G phone with me now, to be able to pinpoint the geography of where I am. This is my version of the American dream, I guess: for a $110, you get on the bus, and you go wherever you like. Why haven't I thought of this before? Why don't I travel to Arizona every, well, every other weekend?

It's good to know that Dave is going to be there when I get off the bus in Phoenix.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lit mags and Adam Bellow

I spent a few hours today going through my pile of literary magazines today, taking stock, purging and reorganizing. I've been collecting the magazines for a few years, since I started submitting my own stories and especially since I got the gig reading submissions for All-Story Zoetrope. I subscribe to about 4-5 magazines a year, playing the field and rotating my subscriptions each year. I also buy individual issues once in a while, like the pretty Noon Annual or the charismatic The Fabulist. I try not to get more than I can read, and end up reading about a quarter of the magazines that I get.

The task of looking at old magazines turned into a fun social activity when my friends Genine and Amber came over and sat with me on the floor and flipped through the pages. We ordered Chinese and had dinner together, after which everyone turned drowsy. When my friends left, I thought of cleaning up, but actually ended up reading some stuff. A few stories, and an essay that had only tangential relationship to literature: Adam Bellow's "On Conservative Intellectuals," published in World Affairs in the Summer of 2008. I think I'd picked up this magazine at a Slavic conference I went to a few years ago. What grabbed my attention about this essay is that it started like a story, with a funeral (William F. Buckley's); that the writer is an editor; and that the writer is Saul Bellow's son. I'm not sure I understood the point he was making in the article: he seems to be uncomfortable with the direction of the contemporary conservative movement (which he distinguishes from the Republican party here), but is unapologetic about his place in it. Anyway, I'm coming to this debate in the middle and have only a vague idea what he is to apologize for, and what I liked most about this essay was a metaphor he used about the media stream of the 90s: "Metaphorically speaking, the Berlin Wall had been replaced by the Jersey Turnpike--and eight lane superhighway filled with trucks zooming past in both directions, variously labeled "Gulf War," "Bosnia," "O.J. Simpson," "Princess Di," "Titanic," with no particular distinction made between them. For in the postmodern world, all media events are created equal." This is not a particularly fresh metaphor--the information superhighway--but he delivers it with a lot of punch and conviction.

No overarching conclusion from this flurry of activity today, but a sense of nagging sadness. I ended up mixing the stacks of magazines I've read with the ones I haven't read and packed them away again in such a way that I won't be able to remember which is which.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Years in Sydney

As the afternoon settles in, the level of excitement rises. Couples with picnic baskets and tents are heading for the ferry. An organized market at the back of the church yard closes first. There are still plenty of customers, but the girl who sells laser-etched greeting cards needs to get across the bridge to the apartment party her friends are hosting. It makes sense to close out the year on the positive note. She sold more cards today than in any week of October. One more card with the outline of the Harbour bridge, and she's done. Jewelry and designer clothing boutiques make their best sales of the year and close swiftly, encouraging the dawdling window-shoppers to move downstream to bottle-shops and convenience stores. A flower shop has a line around the corner. A boutique shop selling outrageously priced novelty jewelry--necklaces of orange and green ostrich feathers moulded from Tupperware-quality plastic--is one of the last ones to close, and what a mob scene inside. Nobody can quite afford it and everybody is on the verge of buying. Everybody is drunk with anticipation of getting drunk later.

The bottle shops are the last to close. Wine, champagne, miniature bottles of whiskey and bourbon, everything goes on New Years night. Even if we're planning to spend the night at a pub, it doesn't hurt to plan ahead and bring extra champagne. At 5 pm, all museums, stores, and cafes are finally closed for the night. Things are getting really serious now. We were walking at a fairly leisurly pace before, but now we're suddenly aware of the clock ticking. We look for the right bus, which never comes, then we look for any bus, then we look for a taxi going the right direction, then we look for any taxi going in any direction. Everyone else is going the same way we are. We panic and feel silly for panicking. The expectations are high--we want to have a good time!--but why should our good time depend on making it to a restaurant? Yes, we've made a reservation, but surely we are not letting down the restaurant much by not showing up. It's New Years, and hoards of hungry customers are roaming the city. No, no, if we are set on making this dinner, it's because we've made these plans, and somehow our ability to have a good time for the night has gotten hinged on going through with our plans. But how sour and unhappy with ourselves must we be to not have fun in Sydney on New Years, surrounded by all of these happy people having a good time? Everywhere we look is a party already. It's a tense moment, but of course we get a cab. From here on the evening is smooth sailing, our panic itself and the relief adding to the good time. It's clear now that the stakes were higher than we consciously knew them to be; and this was hardly even about the dinner and the restaurant. Something about our ability to make and execute decisions jointly and with respect to each other's wants and expectations. But of course, it was always going to work out. Events in the future having a rippling effect on the past. And we were always already going to have a good time on New Years. We are both devoted to the idea.

We eat fish for dinner and then settle in at the pub, Lord Nelson, on Kent street, and so British in style, it'd be easy to forget we're in Australia if not for the weather. The warm breeze comes in from the open doors and windows. Bats are waking up and shrieking in the setting sun. When the 9 pm fireworks hit, the bar empties, and people start climbing up the hill for better viewing spots. Elsewhere around the harbour, groups have been picnicking since noon waiting for the fireworks. Everyone has a decision to make, old friends or new friends, private or public, on the land or on the sea, north or south, sitting or standing. No, the apocalypse isn't coming, or at least not so fast, but if we want a moment to mark the passage of time, why not choose this night? Our new friend Adam is celebrating his 30th birthday at the Lord Nelson. He ditched all of his firework-loving old friends, and he and a woman he's just starting to date, Rachel, are camped out at the pub for the night, getting trashed and making brand new friends. Our diving buddy Danny shows up to celebrate with us. Quickly this New Years becomes about building a transitory community with strangers. What attracts us to meeting other people? What brings us out into the world? Is it too little of something (dissatisfaction, loneliness) or too much of something else (curiosity, love)? Why do we write, blog? Everything is happening all at once, and the more whiskey we drink, the faster the time moves. The fireworks fire like clockwork, one round each on the hour, then half hour. Finally, we get out of the bar and start climbing the hill. It's happening.

Our champagne bottles (which we bought just in case, an attempt to over-determine our good time) get confiscated--of course. The observatory hill, our chosen viewing location, is an alcohol-free zone. "You can pick it up later," a guard tells Dave with a wink. But of course we can't. We go back to Lord Nelson. Rachel, Adam, Danny, a couple from Sweden, a couple from Germany, Lev from LA, and rounds of shots, beers, whiskey. At 2 am we close down the bar and walk back to the train. Everything in the city is super orderly. There is evidence that some streets and alleys in The Rocks, the historical downtown, had been completely packed, people standing neck to neck. The streets are still busy, but there's very little trash on the ground, and cleanup is starting already.

My friend John who drives a cab in Sydney and was working on New Years night reports picking up a Japanese couple in the center of the city three minutes before New Years. They wanted to be driven to the airport. Why? Had they seen the 9 pm fireworks and had enough? Had they become completely overwhelmed by the crowds? Hanging out downtown, they must've wanted to see the fireworks, but what made them abandon the idea at the last possible minute? Did they suddenly decide that they've had enough fun for one night, that actually seeing the fireworks wasn't that exciting? Was the experience for them all about the people, watching the crowd, being with the crowd, knowing that they're in the middle of the crowd? Perhaps they knew themselves so well that they could admit to themselves and to each other that watching the fireworks was just another excuse, another silly reason people make up as an excuse to come out and gather together and be with other people. So they got what they wanted and then they didn't actually need to see the fireworks. They made another good choice by getting into John's cab: he knew them even better than they knew themselves, and made sure to drive them past the harbour so they could get a glimpse of the fireworks anyway. It's a spectacular show, and everyone should see it especially if they're in Sydney on New Year's night, having a good time. They must've enjoyed the show immensely, and all the more for knowing they've made all the right decisions that night.

Dave blogs about our New Years here: