Archive for March 6, 2012

London

I love London. I love Great Britain. In certain states of mind I would rather be in Britain than anywhere else. As a writer, the country and culture is so dense with material that it is impossible not to  have an artistic expression of some kind. I have heard London described as being  ‘in the moment’, I agree with that sentiment, something special is happening in England, you can feel it in the air. You can’t walk down the street without being confronted with some historical monument, famous personages home, finding a fantastic ruin under renovation or fashion trend that is out of this world ahead of itself. My favorite part of London is Camden Town at the heart of everything quintessentially British and quirky. Two of my novels end with characters sitting at the bar of the Worlds End pub on Camden High Street.

It’s said the pubs basement  is haunted by the former husbands of ‘Mother Damnable s’, a Kentish woman whose bad luck with husbands dying young was notorious. The pub is also the largest in the world with one of the best rock venues in the city attached to the rear. Just approaching the front door is an experience. The stone front step upon which the wooden door rests has been hollowed away out by the millions of feet that have trod over  to enter since it was built in the 1700’s. The swirling lathe interior is crusty yellow with  age after 300 years of  of smoking . Every surface has been polished with elbow grease and glass bottoms. There is no better place to sit than at the cut glass windows fronting the high street to watch the world go by. When I go to London this is one of the first places I go to get ‘into the groove’ .

I have made things easy for myself. Over my many visits London I’ve befriended a London cabbie  we use exclusively.   ‘Ginger’, so named because of his red hair, is on call every time we pop in. He knows exactly what we want and where we want to go. A London cabbie is a specialist in the ways and means of this two thousand year old mish mash of parks, lanes, alleyways and one way streets that have never seen the hand of a city planner, instead the city grew around the cart trails and  by ways laid down by the original inhabitants over the two millennium of occupation.

Cabbies possess  ‘the knowledge’. Gingy can always find the most interesting routes through traffic and always makes the trip from Heathrow airport entertaining. I have learned more about London from my driver than any guidebook has ever printed. Our route from Heathrow to Camden Town leads us a merry chase through parks, down lane ways and around monuments. OK, it’s true, I do get special treatment in certain quarters when people find out that I’m a novelist with books in the market and writing about travel. Trust me, there may be no money in writing novels or travel writing , but the people you meet make up for the shortfall in income. Ginger turns the meter off and gives me a flat rate.

There is no way I could justify not staying in London for at least a few days so we booked our favorite room at the Holiday Inn overlooking the romantic iron bridge above the Camden Locks and settled in. You might notice this bridge in the background of many news reports coming out of London. This is because the CBS News building is right next door and the Camden Locks make a great ‘location shot’ for visiting reporters. There are so many things I love about this area that I hardly know where to start when I arrive. The first thing I want to do  is visit the hugely entertaining Camden Market and get something to eat. Camden has to be he most incredible ‘everything’ street market in the world.

There is nothing like it. It’s steps away from the hotel I stay in. After the  plain food of Finland I head straight for the kiosks, there are three massive food courts on either side of the high street market. I like the combination dishes where three choices of anything heaped up generously into a tin take away plate is had for three pounds. Small and enterprising restauranteurs fill the market with delicious smells of everything from Thai to Mexican, Turkish to Indian. If Belgian waffles float your boat, you can get that too. The competition between vendors is fierce and they have taken to hiring smiling young ladies who entice you over to their kiosk with offers of samples . Sitting in a Camden Market retro scooter seat with a curry in hand must be one of the top culinary treasures of any major city.

If you want the lifestyle, culture and trends of England all in one place, Camden Town is where to come. There is a fantastic selection of merchandise available to pick through from all over Britain . My favorite thing  is the high street itself. There is an eclectic mix of stores, restaurants, cafe’s and pubs strung out from Camden Market to Belushi’s comedy club. The side streets are jammed with kiosks and small shops. Hyde Park is within easy walking distance if you want a few moments away from the hustle and bustle. A trip to the London Zoo may suit you, I get a kick out of joining the locals in their everyday affairs. if you like to sit and people watch there are coffee and sandwich shops ‘three to a block’ along the high street, everyone from Starbucks and Nero’s to Pret a’ Porte’ and everything in between.

Going to the big museums and galleries is like a pilgrimage to me. I always visit at least a few. You’re going to choose the ones that appeal to you the best. They are all free by the way. The great London Underground ties everything together so that sites are easily accessed by ‘the tube’. I love the British Museum, The National Gallery,  the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert. I like pictures , curio’s and antiques. Want to see the best of what a world class gallery has to offer? Then you must go to London, no one does it better. London’s perpetually quirky nature may bring out the eccentric in you. I began to collect metal cookie tins from Marks and Spencer. If you do visit a ‘Marks and Sparks’ be sure to find the cheese section and try a slice of ‘Cornish Cruncher for 90 pence’, it’s positively delightful.  It always seems to early to leave London, but leave we must.

New York

When I first started to travel to New York City in the 1970’s I didn’t know what the big deal was. Manhattan is quite small really and ‘the boroughs’ seem so far away, but then it starts to grow on you, and like every other New Yorker you become fixated on knowing your way around. Any good New Yorker can tell you exactly what the cross streets are of any location you can mention and which train will take you where you want to go. The ‘L’ is the best one for going up and down Manhattan . It seems geography is an obsession for every good Manhattanite. They pride themselves on local knowledge of the best dry cleaners and deli’s in town.

I am most familiar with Park Avenue from ‘The Battery’ downtown to 85th Street ‘uptown’ where the Guggenheim sits across from Central Park. The route takes me on a winding route through all my favorite haunts, Chinatown, Little Italy, Washington Square, The Flat Iron Building, SoHo, Bryant Park, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, East Village, Time Square and Grand Central. I like to stop and talk to the street vendors, poke in and have a coffee or doughnut. I’ll use any excuse to try and open a conversation. Contrary to most reports, New Yorkers are as friendly as people anywhere and willing to ‘shoot the breeze’ if you have something to say.

I am a true bug-a-phobe. The bed bug infestation of tourist hotels in Manhattan and the prospect of bringing them home has me staying in White Plains , Westchester County rather than risk Manhattan. I take the train in, it’s inexpensive, takes about thirty minutes, gives me a very pleasant tour of the small towns along the way and how the traditional American architecture has preserved the revolutionary spirit of the state. Above all I get piece of mind. I hate bugs. sorry. The train takes us all the way through Manhattan from the north side , crossing into Harlem at 125th Street and proceeding south to Grand Central.

I like to walk in the great cities I visit, I take comfortable shoes when I travel. I find you see a lot more from ground level rather than atop a tour bus or rapid transit. From Grand Central, after coffee in one of the many great cafe’s they have on the track level below ground, I head off towards the New York Public Library next to Bryant Park at Park and Avenue of the America’s. Today’s Manhattan is a very different place from when I first visited in the late 1970’s. The sidewalks are clean of litter and you’ll rarely be confronted by any panhandlers or street veterans these days.

The police are out in force. Watching the police briefings in the early morning is like watching an army unit getting ready to stake out higher ground. I feel very safe walking in in Manhattan these days. Time square has been designated a National Park. Gone are the skeazy days of hookers and peep show parlours. Come at night for the full effect of the neon lights. The sidewalks are now littered with pretzel vendors and knick knack stalls selling memories.

My irregular route from uptown takes me through Chelsea past the Empire State building. There’s a great McDonald’s across the street from the ESB with window seating, it’s a good place to take a break before heading off again. Walking downtown towards Greenwich Village through Union Square is really a slice of New York life. There is an admixture of residential life with little green grocers and coffee shops amidst the high towers of commerce that dominate the skyline. As I go along I stray between the connecting streets of 5th Avenue and Broadway. I may rest again in the park at the foot of the Flat Iron Building. If I’m lucky there will be a farmers market or other passing venue,  there is always something happening in the public areas of Manhattan.

My destination of choice is the wonders of Washington Square surrounded by the campus of New York University. The fountains and the young crowd are delightful any time of year. Street musicians move piano’s into the park, performers bring entire stages including external props, all for donation. It’s the perfect place to spend a quintessentially New York afternoon. Aside from airfare and accommodation, we spend very little money when we travel. We eat in local restaurants seving basic food at the prices locals pay. We accept that travel is growing more expensive and try to squeeze as much out of our budget as possible. This usually means that we frequent grocery stores more often than restaurants, just like we did when we traveled Europe in the 70’s and lived on prosciutto, cheese , bread and wine.

Pat and I travel for the sights, highlights and the experience of ‘being there’. We try our best to stay off the tourist trail and find the special little things that make our trip unique to us alone. New York is the end of a spectacular month on the road. We successfully fulfilled the dream of a lifetime and circumnavigated the planet in one trip. We brought back a few cheap souvenirs but whats really important is that we gorged ourselves with fantastic memories, enough  to last the rest of our lives. Our conversation quiver is replete with stories about the time we traveled around the world in thirty days.

this uncertain plumeria

mounted the garden wall

with the feigned ardour

of a jaded lover

who had stayed long past

his appointed hour

in the arms of

a heart no longer his

with interest waning

his mind adrift

in a dream about what lay beyond

bougainvillaea and wisteria vine

holding him back

from spilling over

to keep the secrets held therein

that ancient paradise

wooden doors  faded and splintered

brave bolts resisted entry

so long that many had forgotten

a spell was cast to hold him prisoner

clattered echo’s in the lane

brought forth a shower of raining blossoms

his call for freedom went unheeded

the wind conspired

so did the season

blossoms fell onto the ground

strode upon and passed over

eaten by  cattle grazing the shady lanes

a scattering of  notes cascading from  behind

the garden wall

went unnoticed

a delicate disarray

inside the maze of silence

where an uncertain plumeria tree

dreamed of freedom

simplicity

Posted: March 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

there’s a mist upon the meadow

i have kissed the mouth of autumn

honey mixed with sweet and bitter

i go with no regret

my guard down i am open

my blood walks

where i will never follow

tremulous moonlight calls out

once again my eyes are open

the world becomes transparent

my heart is like a river

flowing to the sea

i don’t covet what i knew

instead i live

in simplicity

my hands are folded

as i await

what must surely come

with the new dawn

a winters day

and the twilight

of a warm spring

i will remain

in my simplicity

i will be rememebred

until i am forgotten

There is a dangerous element to travel. What if you like where you are so much that the thought of returning to where you come from begins to seem untenable? I have to admit that I have become addicted to sunshine and warm weather. It may be hotter than Hades sometimes, the humidity may be tracking off the charts but, did you look at the weather ‘back home’? It’s mid winter where I came from, dark and gloomy day after day. Today there is a ninety degree differance in temperature between ‘that place’ and here where my heart has come to rest.

Recently we have been discussing the psychological effects of ‘being away so long’. Would shorter periods of absence be easier for us  so that the siren song of the tropical heat didn’t lull us into a state of perpetual bliss?  I wanted to set my heart and soul free, and did, but now that part of me doesn’t want to go back into the box  called ‘home’ where birds don’t fly in the driving snow and it isn’t eighty five degree’s at seven o’clock in the morning making me sweat over my morning coffee.  The fact that we remove ourselves not only physically but spiritually from our traditional homelands more often and for longer periods is having a profound effect on us overall. When we travel, we immerse ourselves in the local environment, head to toe, like diving into a deep pool, not expecting to surface. This is the issue, I am experiencing a classic form of dissonance.

It’s not ‘tropo’ I am experiencing. I have not become the new culture I live in so that I do not resemble who I was. I have not taken on a new skin, quite the opposite. As a foreigner in an antipodal culture we realize just how different we are. Being away for extended stretches has led me to the luxurious gateway of self evaluation and  subjective analysis of my own culture  that would not be possible if you were unable to gain this outsiders perspective . I have developed a preference to this  alien existence  that has had the effect of sublimating the old, is that a bad thing? I have found that living in a place where I am unbound by the daily noise has led me to greater introspection and the patience to complete whole thoughts without interruption. Is this one of the dangers of traveling away so long? Solitude within a maelstrom, is an interesting state for a busy mind.

I live in a city of some fifteen million souls ebbing and flowing through the streets like the tide. I do not hear them, I do not see them, I am invisible in a sense. Of course I am not, my point is that while we do not understand the language being spoken or read the alphabet soup of advertisements so we are completely free to travel along our own path without interruption unless we choose to stop , order a drink, a meal and otherwise engage. It is a catharsis  when the driving force of civilization has no effect on you. That is the key concept. I would imagine that this incredible lightness of being may reflect back on some individuals psyche as being an empty void , perhaps induce a state of loneliness.

We are never completely by ourselves in our lives are we? Conversely, if you’re at all like me, and have had quite enough of  western economic life, you may find this  liberating. If you want to experiment with this idea, try turning off the TV and radio for a week, read no newspapers and plug your ears when you go out so that the world is little more than a muffled blah blah blah. For stimulation  talk to your partner, yourself, read more or  begin to write a book . This is what travel does for me, the process of engaging the emptiness allows my mind to grow. The geography and weather are decadent features of the overall fantasy that I have chosen as props to stimulate my thinking. But, and here’s the dangerous part, now I like how I think to such a degree that I feel a nagging frustration creep in whenever thoughts of ”going back’ intrude into my state of restful being.

You’re thinking, “I’ve spent a lifetime developing who I am, why should I change now?” That’s a fair question, let me answer it this way. Is the state of mind induced by travel, ‘change’ by definition  or can it be interpreted as ‘growth’. Nothing dictates that you  have to change, but life itself dictates that everything must change. That is the true and unassailable nature of the universe. Perhaps there is more ‘you’ waiting to be discovered somewhere  in the world. This has been my personal experience, and therein lies the rub. I have grown to appreciate this attitude of flux that has only been made possible by removing myself from the definitions of a singular existence. I seek new experiences and revel in the ones I have recently acquired.

I have come to the conclusion that we live a finite existence. I design my life with the actions  I take. This is my interpretation of the cosmic reality. Still, the universe has  built in imperfections that shift with  constant motion. We live in a primordial state of wonder, no matter what your belief system. I have decided to wander away this latter half of my life, this is my choice. There are always going to be inconsistencies between what you want and what you want to have, there is no perfection. The act of ‘acting out’ can be seen as living dangerously, but by all means do so. Life and living  are worth dreaming about, they are also worth fighting for. Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true. Home is a relative term , only you can decide where to leave your heart.