they grew up in the 50s and 60s and have a million stories from high school in pasadena, california. surfing, playing in bluegrass bands like the smooothies, the heady early days of the rose parade, smoking in the mountains, seeing steve martin with an arrow through his head at the ice house. when all four egenes siblings (that’s my dad john, jane the youngest, aunt lonnie and uncle tim) get together under one roof, a lot of eating, drinking, swearing, arguing and laughing usually ensues. normal family things, and things i treasure, for they are rare and wonderful.
it doesn’t feel right to start writing about aunt jane and uncle dave without putting on a record, like rubber soul or django & jimmie. my family is musical: jane a professional violinist and teacher, dave an excellent guitarist, my dad a music lecturer and general music savant. i have meddled in music throughout my life, but was never as cool as my dad and his siblings; never cool enough to have a bluegrass band in high school.
my earliest memories of jane and dave are foggy visions of their house in albuquerque, clad in houseplants and mosaic coffee tables and home-knit throws, and a great big grandfather clock that struck resounding echoes on the hour – and still does.
tonight i stick joni mitchell’s blue on the turntable and wonder if they are gonna hate it that i’m about to write about them. probably, because they are nothing if not counter-culturalists and hippies in a way, as a slacker and member of generation x, i always envied. gen-x’ers wanted to care about causes but we were too busy not giving a shit about the man to bother doing anything.
friday at 3pm in santa maria novella railway station in florence. they appear off the rome high-speed service, dave with his signature lumbering six-foot-five, white-haired lanky figure and jane with her wave of pulled-back dark hair fronted by grey streaks in the exact same place my greys are coming in. hugs are brisk and conversation is immediate and easy despite a year apart.
we are spending six days in florence for what has become an annual international trip together. jane and dave started travelling later in their adult life; they are american baby boomers discovering the world as semi-retirees and they have definitely got the travel bug. watching them figure out the italian public transportation system on their own for the first time, for example, was truly beautiful.
the joy of intergenerational travel (what a terrible term) is not something i’d ever thought about. when we are travelling together, it isn’t like a ‘family trip’ where i imagine bickering and bad meals and complaining. we have pretty similar interests (wine, food, culture, chillaxing), and that makes it easy. but i find myself seeing the world through their eyes, and hopefully they are seeing it some through mine.
one thing that happens is that i slow down. being with them makes it pretty obvious just how fast i take life. i walk at a london pace, quite literally, and a gentle stroll through the piazza della repubblica now becomes a moment of wonderment, as opposed to something you just get past or through. queries about what a building corner’s embellishment is call me to question, wonder, then google a lot of things i probably would not notice. musings on just what, exactly, makes this particular pomodoro pasta so much better than any before it create amazement in the everyday, and confusion with a waiter causes questions in my mind about whether the term ‘marinara’ has a different meaning in the united states than it does in italy. now i’m thinking about things.
these interactions also lead to mindful questioning in a way that maybe my generation never would. we are slackers, we are jaded, we think we know, and a lot of the times we do know. if i may generalise, baby boomers wonder at things, and it is a joy for a member of my grunge generation to experience that purity of questioning.
on tuesday evening, our final night in florence, we crack open the last bottle of chianti classico we bought on saturday’s tour of tuscan wine country. three plastic chairs are perched on a narrow, high patio at our airbnb on the 7th floor of a suburban florentine building. before us, the arno river carving a rust-coloured ribbon through red-tiled roofs and the moon and saturn raising a ruckus over the duomo’s cupola, pinkened by the just-set sun.
dave lights up a cuban and talks about his father and fishing and high-school buddies; jane rolls her eyes having heard these stories a million times before. they got married young in LA city hall (or was it pasadena? because i am a slacker, i fail to remember these details, but i’m sure they will correct me, with the clarity of memory they maintain).
cigar smoke wafts over us in the heat of the italian june evening and we savour this moment, for it is the stuff of life.
this weekend, i have been enjoying a few days in ireland’s west with an old friend over visiting from boston. in addition to trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to recreate the types of travel adventures i got into on my very first forays abroad to ireland in my early twenties, we did get down to the business of seeing some real stuff. driving a portion of the newly-dubbed wild atlantic way was a particular highlight. this series of connected small roads dips up and down through the irish landscape, which goes from craggy and ethereal in the western reaches of connemara, to soft and ancient further south into county clare. in theory, the aim of our drive was the stoic cliffs of moher – a must on any itinerary to this part of the world – though sadly the irish weather being what it is, the cliffs were completely shrouded in a fog blown up onto the crown of hag’s head by a wind that several times threatened to steal my woolly cap away into the crashing, foamy atlantic.
in fact, the rough weather gave the drive a spiritual quality that encouraged old friends to dig deep in memories and erstwhile conversations whilst the rain not so much pounded but rather gently tousled our little hire car.
i am admittedly a sucker for connemara. i love its rough rocky edges where corners give way to rounded bulbous mountains blanketed in purple gorse and ponies with long manes look away at you as if waiting for the next round of uninvited visitors to pass through.
but county clare has charms that may be even more difficult to pin down. sure, it is home to some of ireland’s most famous landscapes, including the aforementioned cliffs of moher, as well as the faeryland-like burren, a karst rockscape broken up by streaming grikes that fill up like rivers with all manner of strange herbs and flowers come summer.
the coast along clare is sometimes oddly low, given that it rises into a 120-metre pinnacle at hag’s head. you feel like the land just sort of…stops…and the sea begins, sometimes after a small beach of rocks or grass tufts covering bits of sand and seaweed. in my imagination, the world starts and ends here.
this morning, a wistful farewell for two old friends, and then i’m on the road solo in pat (the moniker we’ve given the shitty little white skoda i’ve hired). today is sunny, the sort of elusive cold, bright, clear day that only presents itself once in a very long while during an irish winter. there’s no wind; i make perfect time down the n18, and then the m18. few cars are about, and i find myself closer to shannon airport than i want to be for so early in the day.
a small brown sign beckons me to knappogue castle (don’t even ask me how to pronounce that, i’ve no idea), and so i find myself navigating a tiny laneway buttressed by giant damp hedges and the odd thatch cottage. i’m aiming for knappogue, but a few kilometres find me in the village of quin, a one-street affair with side-by-side pubs – the abbey tavern and the monks well – both named for the imposing quin abbey, which juts into my lefthand view as pat and i coast through the village.
the abbey is striking – perhaps moreso today than usually, as its pointy roofends and tall crumbling bell tower make a stark grey punctuation mark on the the blue sky and patch of soggy emerald in the middle of town.
i’m the only person at quin abbey, apart from an older gentleman i pass leaving with his dog on my way down the path to the gate. normally the abbey is open, but as it’s monday morning in mid-february, there are no visitors. quin abbey was a franciscan friary founded in the early 15th century by the macnamara family (the most powerful clan in this part of ireland at that time) on the site of an earlier anglo-norman fortress. parts of an accompanying church, apparently built a bit earlier around 1350, are located a little ways up the path.
all of the macnamara chieftans are buried here, including the last of them, john ‘fireball’ macnamara, a notorious character who was as the stories go prone to duels and an excellent marksman and swordsman, with a pair of duelling pistols he named bas gan sagart, or ‘death without a priest’.
knappogue castle, it turned out, was closed for the season, and so i set off happily for the final few minutes’ drive to shannon airport and, now, a flight back to london. after an airport guinness (or several), of course.
my favourite film of all time is lost in translation, sofia coppola’s alternative rock-infused slow burn starring bill murray, scarlett johannson and the neon streets of tokyo.
lost in translation released in august 2003, a pivotal summer of my life for many reasons, and i guess it soaked in pretty deeply, as i must’ve seen it at least three times in the cinema alone. and twice a year since, always accompanied by a whole bottle of wine.
the following summer, 2004, i went to china for the first time (another pivotal life moment). with hot humid wind in my hair as a late-night taxi hurtled through nanjing traffic, and kevin shields and jesus and mary chain’s dizzying guitars a running soundtrack in my head. the smear of neon characters across a half-rolled-down window. the scent of cooking oil and chilli, and garbage, in the air. i was once and for all hooked.
the feeling of being so totally removed from yourself that suddenly everything makes sense, and you can never go back from that.
until a month ago, i’d never been to japan. i guess i was saving it up as, genuinely, one of those destinations that i might never return from. i think i found japan less romantic and more approachable than i’d been expecting. it’s the type of place that makes an easy in to asia: you still get the smear of neon characters across your window, but the scent of garbage in the air is lessened (nay, non-existent). after so many years in china, the japanese seemed accommodating to a westerner and rarely was there a linguistic struggle, even when the language barrier was there. people weren’t surprised to see me – a novelty i’ve come to expect in other parts of east asia.
i loved japan, though, as much as i expected to. the zaniness of it, the organised chaos, the fashion and, oh god, the food. a bowl of ramen in the shadow of himeji castle, and a +10 sake and coal-grilled meat in a smoky izakaya are something every traveller should experience once in a lifetime.
i don’t want to leave.
then don’t. stay here with me. we’ll start a jazz band.
yesterday, my new passport arrived. along with it was enclosed the old one, holes punched in the cover. that one was issued in 2005, and by late 2008, i had taken so many trips that i had to apply to the us embassy in dublin, where i was working on my masters degree, for additional pages.
seeing these two passports side-by-side, one with crisp, forlornly empty pages and one battered and filled with faded colours and shapes, handwriting and splotchy dates, has made me, well, a bit nostalgic. so, in honour of that dusty old passport, i though i’d recall ten of my favourite travel memories from the past decade.
10. being wind-battered atop the mingsha dune
the setting is gansu province, which is north and west in china. it’s largely desert and it’s beautiful. the little oasis town of dunhuang sits right on the edge of the taklamakan desert, which has sand dunes that – according to my travel companion at the time, who’d lived in egypt – were huge by comparison. we trekked to the top – a feat unto itself – where views of dune upon dune stretched as far as my eyes would take me. it was windy. real windy. sand was blowing everywhere and my hair was straight out on one end. somehow – the locals call it magic – the oasis below never gets covered in sand, despite all this wind.
9. battling banshees on a windy connemara night
my first solo trip was to ireland and it wasn’t my choice. well, the trip was my choice but the solo part, not so much. my would-be travel companion had failed to apply for his passport in time and only told me two days before (thanks ben! 😉 ).
it was saint patrick’s day and i’d found the only village in ireland that didn’t have some sort of parade (leenane – it remains to this day one of my favourite places). i was alone in my hostel save for a curly-haired canadian and a huge group of scuba divers from a college in dublin, all of whom play integral parts in a semi-fictional book i have been off-and-on penning pretty much since then.
paddy’s day was freezing, rainy and extremely windy and the hostel was out on the edge of ireland’s only fjord, killary. the divers arranged a minivan into the village pub, and after we were all suitably locked, myself and two new pals (one of which remains a dear friend to this day) took a creepy walk through the late-night. just as the wind picked up a particularly shuddersome howl across the barren connemara hills, the irish among us gave a chilling description of banshees – or mythical celtic fairies whose wails were an omen of death.
8. almost getting stranded on putuoshan (and the night ferry)
in 2006, i was resident in eastern china and working as an english teacher. some english teacher friends of mine and i (all of us foreigners) decided to take a little weekend trip from our town (anji) to putuoshan, an island off the zhejiang coast known for its buddhist monasteries. the crossing from ningbo wasn’t particularly smooth sailing, but we got to the island and spent the day exploring its 12.5 kilometres from end-to-end before heading back to ningbo, where we’d a hotel booked for the night. or so we thought.
during the day, the wind had picked up, making the crossing impassable for the small passenger ferry we’d come across on. instead, we were rerouted to zhoushan, a larger island nearby. fine, we thought. we’ll just grab a bus across the bridge to ningbo.
then, as things tend to happen in china, it all went terribly wrong. no, it turns out, there were no more buses to ningbo that night and, no, there was no passenger ferry. as panic started to set in, one of our lot called a student of hers who she knew to be from the area. a car was arranged for us to a port some ways out of the main town, and tickets were bought (not by us) for a huge, slow, night ferry to ningbo – the kind that carries cars and lorries.
the passage was slow and the four of us sat on the outdoor deck, watching ships in the night, wondering where exactly we were lost in the east china sea.
7. fearing for my life on the roads of montreal
last year, bill and i went to montreal in a car we hired in boston. if you have ever driven in montreal, you know what i am talking about. and if you haven’t, well, let’s just say you should keep an eye out for buses coming up the wrong lanes on huge, scary bridges.
6. a first trip up the eiffel tower (and maybe the last)
i will be honest and say i didn’t love my eiffel tower experience. i waited quite a long time to pop my paris cherry and, when bill finally swept me off to france, it was an amazing time (much better than i ever expected paris to be). but the eiffel tower? ehhhhhh. we sprang for the tickets all the way to the top, which if you’ve ever been up there, you’ll know is basically like a horrible, circular corrugated steel room with high-up windows like some sort of terrorist boat, where people shuffle along, the tallest straining for views out the manholes like hungry giraffes. the tower’s better from the bottom, but then again, you will never have that first trip up, or that first eiffel tower smooch.
5. wine tasting in central otago
counted among my most relaxing travel memories was a 2012 drive through the south island of new zealand in springtime. buds were starting to bloom in central otago, where several lazy afternoons were spent straining for the last rays of spring sun on winery patios, gazing at the aptly-named remarkables mountains over endless glasses of lush pinot noir. can i go back now?
4. moving to prague, sight unseen
my feelings about living in prague are pretty well-documented on this blog. prague did not turn out to be ‘my place’ in this world, but it is not 13 months of my life i regret, either. quite the opposite. sometimes living somewhere you really don’t get on with can be the most instructive of experiences, and if anything you walk away knowing what you don’t want out of life.
but those first few weeks in prague were ecstatic. the feeling of moving sight-unseen to a new place – one you’ve literally never set foot in nor eyes on – is exhilarating beyond belief. you are there for the good and the bad, no matter the outcome, it’s a commitment and an undertaking.
3. fleeing belfast’s egg hostel
oh god. this story is such an ‘in joke’ but it still represents one of my most-favourite-ever-top-of-the-heap-hilarious travel experiences. i was living in dublin. my friend ken had come to visit and we hired a car for a bit of a driving trip. it was great! we saw snow and tractors and connemara hills and giggled in hostels about snoring frenchmen.
then we got to belfast. before i continue, i should say that i have patched things up with belfast – we quite get on now (thanks kristen!), but if left to this one experience i’d never have returned. in fact, i wrote an entire post about it at the time, which may or may not be worth a read, but will at any rate explain the in-joke subhead here.
2. drunk driving a police car through rural zhejiang
my favourite party story is this one and i will tell it to you now, but if you ever want to hear it properly, stop reading and buy me a beer and i will give you the goods as they should be told in person.
it was late spring 2006 and i was very new to living in china. my chinese colleague was friends with a local, well-to-do family who desperately wanted to hire me to basically au pair for their daughter over the summer to improve her english. as is the chinese way, they threw me a banquet at their home to ‘show their friendship’ (aka try to woo me). my colleague – a chinese english teacher – and her boyfriend – a local policeman – came along. as is custom in these situations, there was a lot (a LOT) of toasting. mostly this was bubbly lager out of shot-glass sized cups. and there was a buttload of food. in my inexperience, i was sipping on beer in between toasts. if you ever find yourself in this situation in china here is some advice: do not drink UNLESS you are being toasted.
well, i got full on beer. quite full on beer bubbles, actually. but shots of 3% lager on top of mountains of rural chinese fare was never going to get me dead drunk. what it did do, though, was get everyone else wildly intoxicated. the wife/mom was reeling around and, when i refused a toast, she drunkenly tried to beckon me into the toilet to vomit so i could go on with another round. i didn’t vomit but i did keep drinking. somehow.
by the end of the night, my colleague’s boyfriend was pretty much dead to the world. but his cop car was out front and my colleague had come on her scooter and didn’t know how to drive a car. so here we had a dilemma: we couldn’t get three people home on a scooter and the policeman couldn’t sit up straight.
hey, guess what! i can drive! so in we got, with my colleague promising to direct me home from the passenger’s seat while the policeman conked out in the back seat. but not before turning on the cruiser’s lights.
home i drove us, gently intoxicated, red and blues flashing down the dark chinese back roads, wondering how i’d ever, ever top this memory. mostly i still haven’t.
1. falling in love on the streets of dublin
i always said i was going to move to ireland and find a sexy irishman to marry, but i never thought it would really happen. then i met bill and, on our third date, after seeing the somewhat racy nora, about the life of nora barnacle, we were walking the wet, dark streets of dublin talking about pubs and life and some other stuff that is all pretty much a blur. and then he quoted james joyce and kissed me at the top of o’connell street and my heart left my chest, never to return.
i have to thank my dear dirty passport, for this fine memory and all the ones that followed would never have happened without it.
in the first two parts of this series, i have revealed a few things. in part 1, we learned that megan had another life as a horse trainer. in part 2, she revealed the dirty secret that she is part texan.
here is the revelation for part 3: many years ago, i was a resident of boston and worked at the museum of fine arts. what is the reason for my extended residence in beantown? well, that is another story for another time, and probably one i’ll need a beer to tell you about. so you can buy me a beer if you want to hear it.
nevermind. the purpose of this post: trip recap!
new england was, in fact, the actual reason for our trip to america this year. the, if you will, holiday portion of the trip.
we landed in boston pretty late, but luckily it is a compact little city and easy to get around on the T (boston’s subway system). it being, perhaps surprisingly, one of the more expensive cities in the US for accommodation, we’d opted to book a few airbnb properties rather than overpay for a mediocre hotel.
the thing about new england is, it is small. and it fills up! and i had not planned properly! i would urge you, if planning a trip to that part of the world, to book accommodation well in advance. especially if you are going to be there during prime leaf peeping and baseball season, such as we were.
our airbnb property – a dark little studio in the up-and-coming jamaica plain neighbourhood with a very odd shower-in-the-entryway setup – was not the best one i’ve stayed in, but considering the savings and last-minute booking, we were pretty pleased. it was just a short hop 10-15 minutes into downtown boston on the T.
boston was, as i remembered it, incredible. people were friendlier than i remember them being, perhaps owing to the fact that years ago, it was my first foray into big city life. it was also more compact, more maneuverable than i remember. and the bars were fantastic. we spent three days hopping from beer pub to beer pub, sampling the finest ales of the region, interspersed here and there with some art (museum of fine arts, which has had an incredible upgrade since the days when i used to spend my lunch hour staring at mummies and early 19th century furniture) and lots of ambling. boston is a great city for flaneuring.
october 2nd marked bill’s and my fourth wedding anniversary, so we hired a car and got down to the business of serious leaf peeping, a peculiar term americans have for driving around and gawking at autumn colour. a stop on the way out of town at walden pond, where henry david thoreau wrote his eponymous dissertation on a life removed from modern trappings, proved a lovely walk and entry into the wilds of new england.
we made our way further north and onto route 100, the classic north-south thoroughfare through vermont that provides incredible leaf peeping as it winds along riversides and over covered bridges in between perfectly groomed, steepled new england towns.
arriving at our lodging for the night was like stepping into an autumn dream. sat on a perfect patch of grass overlooking the ottauquechee river, the lincoln inn is a white clapboard house with gables galore and perfect windows for peeping out onto leafy landscaped countryside. the proprietress knew it was our anniversary and greeted us by name, and we enjoyed a tasty (if perhaps overpriced) dinner and lots (and lots) of red wine.
some of my friends think i have a ‘thing’ about canada. i don’t, really. i have several canadian friends who i count among the nicest, most open-minded and interesting people i know. but sometimes…in mixed company…when i’ve had a few drinks…i like to make the odd joke about canada. it’s more because the jokes are right there, and canada makes a fun and easy target for a bit of ribbing.
the honest truth is, though, i’ve spent no time in canada at all.
it was an object of much amusement for my best friend that, when bill and i first started dating, he had a copy of lonely planet’s canada book set and ready for an adventure. we’ve always wanted to go and see what the fuss is about, particularly montreal, which i’ve been assured on a number of occasions and by a number of people i really trust, is one of the coolest cities, like, ever.
it’s not far from boston – about 5-6 hours if you drive straight through – and there are a number of overland border crossings where you pass across your passports as if you were at a drive-up bank. no trouble at all.
but here’s where i admit that montreal did not wow me. this is not to say that we had a bad time, because we had a really good time! mostly thanks to the genius of one, jane atkin, prior resident and connoisseur of great food and great beer, who gave me amazing suggestions.
these two things were, in my mind, montreal’s two greatest strengths. it is a foodie town and it is a beer-lover’s town. it is also an ugly, mid-century north american city with a lot of heinous towers and huge wide roads – not at all what i imagined would be a quaint, cobblestoned former french colony. also, montrealers seemed to frown a lot, which has not been my experience with most canadians. but i digress, as i am at risk of stereotyping and generalising.
the good things? wow, the food scene! also, practically every restaurant we went to had a BYO policy, and there is plenty of great, cheap french wine to be found in the shops. also, the shops! some of the most beautifully arranged grocers with such colourful and diverse arrays of produce and bread, gleaming under perfect soft lighting. a farmer’s market, right in the metro station! and so many good beer bars we came away happy and a little bloated.
i would also like to very briefly gripe about the road system in quebec, because it is awful. they have their own style of road signage that conforms to no international standard i’ve ever come across and is, frankly, impossible to understand. they also sent buses down the left lane of one three-lane side of a very scary, very narrow, very high bridge, only separated from oncoming traffic by tiny orange cones. seriously what the fuck.
i came away with the feeling montreal, like some of the best cities in the world (for example, dublin!) is a place to live, but for me not a place that can really be understood during a three-day visit.
back to boston
we took a different route back to boston, through new hampshire this time (another state for bill to tick off having visited) and met up with an old friend of mine for coffee on the way. once again, my late-minute planning had struck a hard place, there being essentially nothing in boston for our price range. so i decided, hey, let’s pick somewhere on the north shore of massachusetts and enjoy some rocky coast! we ended up in salisbury beach with a bit of an airbnb horror story, but not one i’ll relay here (again, buy me a coffee if you want to hear it) because i don’t want to put off future airbnbers and this was a once-off.
around the corner from our apartment was one of the most famous clam shacks in new england: brown’s. this particular clam shack is like a kind of grimy old wonderful clapboard restaurant situated right on the marshes of salisbury beach – something straight out of 1960s new england holidayville. there are huge tanks of lobsters right there in the main front room and pretty much everything you order comes out deep fried. they also have a BYO policy, so we picked up some delicious craft ales at the local petrol station (i love america for some things, and being able to buy amazing booze in a petrol station is one of them) and tucked into clams, scallops and chips, oh my.
the final couple of days in boston were spent flaneuring, sampling ales, doing a bit of necessary america shopping and eating a lot of dunkin donuts breakfast bagel sandwiches. we met bill’s old college buddy from dublin in the infamous L street tavern, known for being featured in the film good will hunting. south boston, which was once one of the city’s roughest areas and full of working class irish, is now more gentrified, but the L street still draws in a local crew of punters, who that evening were having a rousting time watching what else, but baseball? (spoiler: the boston red sox won the world series a few weeks after we were there, so it was a big year for them).
we also took a day trip to salem, a town north of boston that is widely known as the setting for the salem witch trials of 1692. it was also once one of the most prosperous towns in the new world and a huge shipping port. it also has the house of the seven gables, which inspired nathaniel hawthorne’s gothic novel by the same name. but around this time of year, it tends to go a little nuts for halloween, with loads of witchy and ghosty decoration and plenty of autumn leaves.
conclusions? i am not sure i came to any real conclusions. perhaps the main one is that, while i love america, i am still so happy to not live there and that shall continue for the foreseeable future. oh, and america has some of the best beer in the world right now, but more on that to come over on brew travel.
texas and i go way back. i have a few dirty little secrets, and one of them is that i spent ‘the best years of my life’ (aka high school, also not the best years of my life to date) in west texas (aka bush country). actually, lubbock (or low-buck as i sometimes like to call it) was not all bad, in that i came away with some very good friends and a full cultural immersion in the ways of texas. there is also good music there.
to be fair, texas runs in my blood. my grandfather was born in a tiny east texas village called groveton. in the 2000 census, groveton had a population of 1,107, so one can only imagine what it was like in the 1930s, when at the age of 16, my granddad walked in overalls and bare feet, to the nearest “big” town, lufkin (a thriving metropolis of just over 35k in 2000), and eventually got work on the then-thriving oil fields of east texas.
i believe it’s precisely because of my grandfather, who fed me barbecue ribs and cornbread and deep-fried catfish growing up, never lost his drawl and always wore a twelve-gallon stetson, that i’ve always felt strangely at home in texas.
this year’s stop in texas was to be a brief but brimming one. a short flight on my favourite american carrier, southwest airlines, brought me from albuquerque to houston, where i picked up a car hire and battled insane houston traffic (always insane) and a random monsoon downpour before retrieving bill, who’d spent the week working at his company’s houston office.
i’ll have to be honest here in saying houston is not my favourite place. i have spent a fair bit of time there – although never as a resident – and to me, it’s the epitome of a big, ugly american sprawling city. it’s polluted, traffic-heavy and full of concrete flyovers and ugly, late-century architecture. but, i have a couple of houstonian friends that’d be quick to defend their city. it is gaining a reputation as a foodie destination (lots of african and southeast asian immigrants equals stellar eats) and bill had a great number of delicious craft brews at cute beer bars, so it can’t be all bad. nonetheless, i was glad to get on the road to austin with houston in the rearview.
it just so happened that my dad, a brilliant musician who now lives in new zealand, had been touring around the southwest for a few weeks with singer-songwriter donna dean and would be in austin that very night whilst attending a folk music conference.
we had booked in to the habitat suites, an eco-friendly hotel located in a converted apartment complex next to a dead mall in north austin. it sounds bad but it was outstanding. the rooms are all suites with a living area, kitchenette and huge beds. there was a complimentary hot breakfast every morning (with one of my favourite southern staples: biscuits and gravy. for the brits in the audience, this is like a savoury, fluffy scone covered in a cream-based sauce made from sausage drippings. a delightful heart attack on a plate.), and the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. it’s also a stone’s throw to austin’s new light rail – convenient for getting downtown to see live music and have dinner.
we met my dad in the car park (he was staying at a motel on the other side of the dead mall) and, being the rock stars we are, opted to grab a taxi downtown for dinner and live music.
in an effort to sample as many american classics as possible on this trip, i wanted barbecue for dinner, so we made for stubb’s, a legendary barbecue joint and music club. the food here is super southern – we were heaped with plates of barbecue ribs and brisket, fried okra, macaroni and cheese and fried green tomatoes, all washed down with some serious local austin ales. stuffed to the gills, we toddled outside and – this being austin – straight into a street festival with – literally – live music tents on every corner along the legendary nightlife strip, 6th street. oh, and all for free.
austin is said to have more live music venues per capita than any other city in the u.s. and, walking around here, it’s not a difficult statistic to believe. from each passing door or bar pours a different genre of music almost every night of the week.
our speed was a little slower, so we ducked into the chicago house, a craft beer bar just off 6th street that opened earlier this year. like almost everywhere in the u.s., the craft beer scene has exploded here and i was surprised at the number of texas-produced beers on the menu. the place was fairly dead, especially for a saturday evening, but i imagine if the festival hadn’t been going on outside it would’ve been bumper-to-bumper (in a good way).
having said a bittersweet goodbye to my dad, the next morning we made for the texas state capitol – something i wanted to take the chance to revisit (and photograph) while we had the chance. built with local red granite that gives it a groovy pinkish hue, at the time of its construction in 1885, it was said to be the 7th largest building in the world. whether or not that’s true, it is an impressive structure, especially the central atrium and dome, and it’s free to visit.
after a quick scoff at the george w. bush portrait and a refuel at my favourite austin coffeehouse – mozart’s – which has a huge deck overlooking lake austin – we were back on the road to houston, where we’d return our car and hop a plane to boston.
the thing is, no matter how well travelled you are, if your information is 10 years old, it may not be the most reliable. my memory said that it was a 2.5-hour drive from austin to houston. i’d done the drive a million times (not really a million). and, sure, we’d hit rain and traffic on the way over, so it’d be quick enough. no problem to have a lunch pitstop. a few pictures of a passing oil tanker train? why not!
needless to say, this is not a tactic i’d recommend. an hour and a half before our departure time, we were still in the car on the houston freeway. houston freeways are long, and no matter that i was driving like a bat out of hell, we were simply not going to make this flight.
an hour before the departure time, we barrelled into the avis return centre and came to a screeching halt in front of a man with a clipboard who took one look at us and knew. ‘how late are you?’ was the first thing he said to us.
‘our flight’s in less than an hour,’ we panted, watching the terminal shuttle pull away as we scrambled to get our suitcases out of the back.
‘hop in, i’ll drive you.’ so, he drove us straight up to the departure terminal (we tipped him heartily) in that brave little ford fiesta that did most of the work to get us there in the first place. when we finally got to the gate – sweaty and out of breath – we were told the plane had been delayed. hashtag typical.
if you are out there, kind avis employee, i swear, you saved us about $400 in change fees. we owe you a drink.