restored taftsville bridge, vermont

rediscovering new england (trip report, part 3)

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.

restored taftsville bridge, vermont
perfect autumn holiday! taftsville covered bridge, vermont

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 common
boston common on a perfect autumn day.

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.


leaf peeping along vermont's route 100
leaf peeping along vermont’s route 100

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.

the lincoln inn, woodstock, vt
autumn anniversary treat: the lincoln inn

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.


notre-dame basilica of montreal
notre-dame basilica of montreal

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.

vices et versa montreal
vices et versa – fab montreal beer pub.

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.

montreal tower
an honest view: montreal’s mid-century architecture.

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.

jean-talon market montreal
beautiful produce at the jean-talon market.

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

a cold day at salisbury beach.
a cold day at salisbury beach.

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.

brown's seafood shack
lobster tanks at brown’s.

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.

halloween decor in salem.
best halloween decor i’ve ever seen.

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.

read part 1: rediscovering my home of enchantment
read part 2: rediscovering the lone start state

texas state capitol

rediscovering the lone star state (trip report, part 2)

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.

JW Eaves
my grandad – j.w. eaves – in his ubiquitous cowboy hat

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.

downtown houston traffic & storm
downtown houston traffic and impending storm.

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.

biscuits and gravy
biscuits and gravy with heart-healthy turkey sausages.

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.

downtown austin at night
downtown austin at night

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.

texas state capitol
texas state capitol – a rosé affair

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.

this astoundingly artistic photo of an oil tanker train (not pictured) could've cost us our flight.
this artistic photo of an oil tanker train (not pictured) almost cost us our 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.

what do you do when…?

i have been thinking about how to start this blog entry since last week, when the incident happened. i suppose it is best to begin by telling you a bit of back story about the day. it was thursday and husby had taken a vacation day from work, so we were out flaneuring, as we’ve come to refer to our lolling walks-slash-drinks around prague.

we’d been wanting to go to two brew pubs, thanks to the recommendations of prague beerophile, evan rail, and our boozy buddy (and prague post food writer), fiona gaze. both pubs, zlý časy (a.k.a. “bad times”) and zubatý pes (a.k.a. “the toothy dog”) are located in an area of prague called vršovice (roughly “vr sho vitsuh” – try saying that ten times fast), which is nowhere near where we live or where bill works. so, this was the perfect chance for us to check out a new area of the city. Continue reading “what do you do when…?”

a bitch of a thing

Photo by Florin Draghicicross-cultural specialists like to focus on overcoming things. for instance, overcoming communication barriers. overcoming language difficulties and overcoming religious differences. and most of all, they like to focus on overcoming culture shock. having studied this soft science for five years, i know it inside out and upside down. i know the five phases of cultural adjustment by heart and i’ve written about them. i have been through it more than once and i know the symptoms of culture shock – or what i prefer to term cultural readjustment syndrome -so well i could recognize it in my sleep.

so what i am going to do now is give myself permission to wallow, because, right now, i am just not strong enough to overcome anything, and i know i am not the only person out there going through this. Continue reading “a bitch of a thing”