Saturday, January 01, 2011

2011 Year of Crab and Key Lime Pie

Two sharply contrasting experiences to end 2010 and begin 2011. Last night—New Year's Eve—without any forethought or intention on our part, K and I ended up at Joe's Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach, in the midst of a wedding party and surrounded by people in expensive-looking glittery clothes. K's step-sister is getting married on the 2nd, and we arrived in Miami on the evening of the 30th, for my first visit to Florida. Although I've been living in the US for years now, New York City has skewed my perceptions, and I realized when I stepped off the plane in Fort Lauderdale: oh, this is what America really looks like. Of course, I quickly realized that probably half of the people in the airport were actually Canadians. Even though I was genuinely enjoying a few days of blizzard-induced snow and slush in New York, I have to admit that the weather here is really perfect: sunny, not too warm, a little breezy. A bit like a PEI summer. The final few hours of the year were a choppily-edited montage of highways, high-rise condos, artificial islands, pedestrian malls, cruise ships, traffic, and parking meters, as well as crab claws, creamed spinach, wine, key lime pie, golden plastic hats and tassled noisemakers, and conversations with wedding-goers employing diverse accents.

Today—New Year's Day—we got bagels and tea from the shop next to our hotel and walked across the South Dixie Highway to the campus of the University of Miami, which is mostly deserted for the holidays. Next to the lake in the center of campus we found a perfect spot to begin the new year: sitting at a canopy-covered swinging picnic table, watching the ducks swim and the fish jump, hearing the fountain spray and the palm trees rustle, feeling the warm sun and cool breeze, receiving the tropical wifi signal and updating the quiet, peaceful blog. It really is a serene place to be at the moment, with no one around but us and the ducks, the purported crocodiles (as advertised on a sign next to the water), a few mosquitoes, and a very vocal black cat who may have sensed our lox spread.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Innisfree, originally uploaded by Corey Frost.
Then it was cold and rainy again. Plus, it was Good Friday, which for us meant that all the museums were closed, and nobody was even serving alcohol. We were able to get a hot seawater and seaweed bath, however, which is a good way to celebrate a birthday. We also drove around Lough Gill and had a longing look across the water at this little islet, the Lake Isle of Innisfree, the same one from Yeats' famous poem. It seemed peaceful, bee-loud, full of clay and wattles, and wet. The next day we drove back to Dublin (in occasional drizzling rain) and flew home.

Slieve League, originally uploaded by Corey Frost.
The next day was actually beautiful: we explored Derry a bit in the morning, then we drove to Donegal, snapping sheep along the way. We went for a short hike at Slieve League to see some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. From the path we could see across the bay to Sligo and Benbulben, the mountain at the foot of which we would eventually lodge.

County Antrim, originally uploaded by Corey Frost.

The next day was not quite so stormy. We packed a lot in: an early morning visit to the Giant's Causeway, a tour of Dunluce Castle, and a stop at this marvelous little temple on the edge of a cliff facing north towards Scotland (which we could see at certain points). By the end of the day we were in Derry, and the sun had come out, but it was bitter cold and windy still. We strolled along the walls of the old city wearing tuques we'd just bought for a pound each.

Northern Ireland in the rain/sleet/snow, originally uploaded by Corey Frost.

We drove north in the rain, remembering to drive on the left, and spent a night in Belfast. Took a stroll around Queens University in the rain. Saw the political murals in West Belfast in the rain. Driving up the coast into County Antrim, it was raining. Raining hard. And blowing, and occasionally hailing. The cliffs were being pulled down by the wind and rain, leaving the narrow seaside roads littered with rocks and turf. At one point as we were negotiating the debris a wave crashed against the low stone guardrail and sent a deluge of seawater over our car. It was like being in a cold salty car-wash. At a convenience store we asked the clerk if she knew whether it would clear up tomorrow, and she said it was supposed to snow. Soon after that, we headed over the inland mountains and in no time we were driving through a snowstorm.

The Parapluies of Newgrange, originally uploaded by Corey Frost.

I had wanted to check out Newgrange, a passage tomb built by the ancient Irish well before the Egyptians built the pyramids. It is a grassy mound, essentially, on a hill-top, and not as large or geometrical as the pyramids, but quite large. It was built with a tunnel (passage) going part-way inside, with spiral carvings now covered in places by graffiti from the last few centuries. Quite amazing, yet it was hard to feel anything but frozen on a day as cold and rainy as this one was. Here's Karen walking very rapidly around the circumference of the mound, after which we appreciated the over-priced hot chocolate in the gift shop. One quasi-mystical attraction of this mound, however, is that the passage is constructed in such a way that every year on the winter solstice the light of the sun, as it comes over the distant hills at sunrise, shines directly through the passage to the back of the innermost chamber. For many centuries the entrance had been partially blocked and it wouldn't have been possible to see this, and yet local villagers mentioned rumors about it. It wasn't until the 1960s, when the tunnel had been excavated and repaired, that the chief archeologist went to the site by himself on a chilly but clear December morning and stood in the chamber and was the first person in over a millennium to witness the tunnel light up in the way it had been designed to do.

North Americans studying North America in Ireland

Having several important things to say about the critical reception of beatsploitation films from 1959 and 1960, I found myself in Dublin in late March, giving a talk at the 2010 Biennial Conference of the European Association of American Studies. I appeared on a panel called "Remediating the Beats" to make the point that while "beatnik" movies, by and large, ridiculed and vilified the beat lifestyle in sensationalistic and paranoia-inducing ways, it is still interesting to read them as a strand of criticism of beat culture. As I hope my paper demonstrated. With that off my chest, I found Karen (who was also presenting a paper at the conference), rented a car, and headed off into the rolling, soggy Irish countryside for a brief vacation to celebrate her 30th b-day.

Beach sunset in Tel Aviv

DSC00396, originally uploaded by Corey Frost.

Beat heaven, originally uploaded by Corey Frost.

This is inside the Church of the Beatitudes, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, on the mount where Jesus supposedly gave a sermon about who is blessed and how. The blue circle in the middle of the dome is ringed with fishes.

I dosen't love you English., originally uploaded by Corey Frost.

Golan Heights, originally uploaded by Corey Frost.

Karen's uncle Avi kindly took us for a drive around the Sea of Galilee—including up the hillsides on the east side, a little piece of occupied territory called the Golan Heights. On the other side of the valley in this picture is Jordan, and a bit farther up the valley is Syria. We saw old Syrian machine-gun and mortar bunkers looking down on the Galilee, as well as abandoned Arab villages. Now the plateau is covered with Israeli onion farms.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2010 Year of Herring

I slept through the beginning of this decade. On December 30 of 2009, Karen and I, in the company of my parents, flew from New York to Tel Aviv, arriving about nine hours before the end of the year. We rented a car and drove to Holon, where Karen's grandmother lives. None of us had slept much on the overnight flight, so there wasn't much hope that we would all be able to stay awake into 2010. We watched some fireworks from the balcony of the apartment, we were well fed with hummus and ktsitsot by one of the world's most hospitable hosts (Tamar, Karen's grandmother), and then we nodded off one by one.

But I woke up on the first day of 2010 (Shana Tova!) feeling more rested than I have in months, if somewhat disconnected from routine: it was 8 am and sunny and 18 degrees C in Tel Aviv, but 1 am and dark and frigid in New York. We had another generous schmeer of Israeli foods for breakfast, including fluffy challah and some delicious pickled herring. And soon, we'll be met by Karen's mother who will take us sight-seeing in Jaffa (Yafo). It's my parents' first ever visit to Israel, so there are a lot of sights to see. It's been four years since my last visit here. Between studying maps and studying to improve my Hebrew, I'll try to post occasional updates.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

January in Iceland

Karen and I just spent a week driving the famous Ring Road in Iceland, circumnavigating the island via involuted fjords and precarious passes. I was a bit worried about the timing of our visit. Tourism is huge in the summer, but in the winter things are scaled back considerably. Iceland lies just below the Arctic circle, so in the winter the days are extremely short and the weather is snowy and unpredictable. I thought driving a tiny Toyota Yaris, which was the most affordable car to rent, might make the long, empty, mountainous, snowy roads a bit daunting. I thought we might be spending lots of time cold, bored, in the dark, and possibly hungry. And since Iceland is perhaps the most expensive country in Europe, I thought we would end up paying extravagant amounts for the privilege. Not the ingredients of an ideal vacation.

I'm here to report that we did not end up in any ditches (although at many moments I thought we might), we were never too cold (although we sometimes had to face a ferocious wind that nearly knocked us off our feet), and we were never bored (we spent too much time on the move). Furthermore, even though the sun was rising at 10:40 and setting only 6 hours later, we were surprised by how long dawn and dusk lasted. The sky started to glow a faint, otherworldly grey by around 8:30, and in the evening it continued like that until nearly 6, so our daylight hours were longer than we expected. The weather was not cooperative: we missed out on our plans to go hiking on a glacier because of an early-morning snowstorm that made the highway nearly impassable (at least for a little car like ours), and our much-anticipated visit to Myvatn, a famous lake in the North, was curtailed by strong winds that made it a struggle just to get out of the car. Pretty much everywhere we went, the restaurants, stores, museums, tourist information centres, hotels, and volcano tours were closed. Luckily, the outdoor geo-thermally-heated swimming pools were not. Outside Reykjavik and Akureyri (Iceland's considerably smaller second city), we basically had to live off what we could buy in convenience stores: instant soup, crackers, dried salted cod, and skyr, a delicious Icelandic yogurt. But wherever we stayed, we had the place to ourselves, and although we felt like tourists we definitely did not feel like part of a horde of tourists. Because of the snow and ice, our highway speed was sometimes only 35 kmph, and going up mountain passes sometimes necessitated driving in 1st gear, so you can imagine that driving around the entire country took quite a few hours on the road. But it turned out to be the best thing we could have done, I think, because we saw so much amazing landscape and were never stuck in a tiny village waiting for a tour or a bus.

Despite the difficulties, our week in Iceland was saved from being a vacation fiasco by three marvelous things: first, the mountains and glaciers and fjords we saw along our journey were magnificent, especially during the prolonged sunrises and sunsets when the sun peeked over the horizon and turned everything a sublime pink. Second, nearly every evening we were able to end the day with a soak in a hot tub under the stars, in the company of friendly English-speaking locals, so that we went to bed feeling clean, thoroughly warm, and mineralized. And finally, after much anticipation and doubt caused by cloudy skies, on our last evening in the north of the country we were able to see one of the main things we had come to see: the Aurora Borealis, shimmering just beyond the mountains, in all its colourful, kinetic splendour.

A constant refrain of our trip (along with "you're not going to believe how much this banana costs") was "it's not going to look like much in the photo." Much of what we saw - the full moon glowing on a vast frozen lava field, the eerie blue of the early dawn, the aquamarine bubble that preceded the eruption of a geysir, the steam rising off a sulphurous blue lagoon, the cascades of ice at a huge waterfall, and the northern lights themselves - just couldn't be photographed. The results would have been indistinguishable from a dark blur or a white blur. But below are a few illustrative shots.

Much of our trip looked like this in the early morning. This particular shot was taken the morning after my birthday, when we were trying to get to our glacier-climbing appointment. This was when the snowplow was still ahead of us - we followed it for a while, but then it turned around and our only guides were the two ruts created by an SUV going in the opposite direction, and the ubiquitous yellow sticks on the side of the road.

After the sun came up and the sky cleared a bit, the road looked more like this. But we still missed our glacier trip. The guide we had been supposed to meet said later on the phone that it would not have been a particularly interesting hike anyway, as it would have been basically a whiteout on the glacier.

All over the country, even in the worst weather, we saw these Icelandic horses huddled together in the snow.

This lagoon on the southeast coast was filled with little icebergs calved from the Vatnajokull glacier.

On one of the fjords of the east coast.

On our second night on the road we stayed in the village of Hofn, which means simply harbour.

All up the east coast we saw herds of reindeer. They were bought to Iceland from Scandinavia in the 18th century, but now they roam wild.

This was the rescue hut on the summit of a pass that we had to laboriously climb and cautiously descend without the benefit of guardrails.

This was around 11 am on our fourth morning on the road, after a night spent at the highest farm in Iceland.

A greenhouse in the mid-afternoon, as the sky started to dim.

At long last (it felt) we returned to Reykjavik. We hadn't thought much of it the night we arrived, but after spending our last day there we decided it was rather charming.

Just before driving to the airport, we spent a couple of hours at the famous Blue Lagoon spa, where a geothermal plant produces this amazingly blue hot water laced with silica mud. The water is quite salty and it was very windy that day, so it was like swimming in a stormy ocean, if the ocean were heated to 39 degrees Celsius. Surreal.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

And the rest of the trip passed uneventfully...

In case you (that being the hypothetical "you", the implied reader, the "you" who would be reading this if people actually read blogs) were concerned by the dangling narrative, in case you thought that our journey ended in tragedy somewhere between Jericho and JFK, let me conclude. Conclude and continue. I write this in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, New York, the neighbourhood I've been calling home lately, and the rest of the trip passed not uneventfully - there were many events, some worthy of semi-fictionalized elaboration - but at least without lasting negative repercussions.

So much happened on that short trip that I failed to report to you - including a lot of my favourite occurences. That is good. It is good that I did not tell you about all of those good things, because it means I have some stories up my sleeve. And this summer I am working on expanding the sequel to my first book (it will be a re-issue including several new stories and conclusions to some of the original stories, and it will be called My Own Devices: Airport Version).

So rather than try to recap what the rest of the trip was like, suffice it to say that we spent a few more days in Israel, mostly in and around Jerusalem, and then one sunny warm afternoon we took a cab to Ben Gurion airport and left for Turkey, which turned out to be shockingly cold. I spent my 34th birthday there, in Cappadocia, tramping amid the fairy chimneys and sleeping in a cave. It was actually I think one of the best birthdays I have ever spent, although a true evaluation of that claim would require a lot of careful nostalgia. But how does this sound: I woke up on my birthday in one of my favourite places to wake up, on a train, in a bunk, and the first thing I saw through the window of the train was snow falling on vast fields and distant mountains. I had not before then seen any snow in Turkey, and if it weren't for the Orhan Pamuk novel Snow I don't suppose I would have even realized that snow was a possibility in Turkey. Waking up in a berth on a train on your birthday is great enough, but waking up on a train that is taking you through the snow-covered countryside toward Ankara, knowing that by the end of the day you will be in fabled Cappadocia, land of underground cities and marvelous miniature mountains made of tuff, well, that's altogether stupendous. Add to that a rock-hewn monastery (featuring ecclesiastical cave paintings and a gang of friendly puppies), a kitten named Pamuk - which incidentally means Cotton - who liked to climb on my back as I examined the carpets and kilims, one of the most amazing meals I've ever had, with excellent Cappadocian wine and piles of baklava, and a hotel room carved into the side of a hill, and you can perhaps understand my approbation.

Here is Goreme, a little Cappadocian town carved in porous volcanic stone. If you want to see a lot more pictures than the ones I have posted here, is where you'll find them. Try searching for cjfkhw.

We did have some problems in Turkey. Istanbul is an enchanting place - the Hagia Sofia was breathtaking, the Grand Bazaar was beautiful and bizarre, and I found the ferry ride at sunset across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia irresistably romantic. This is all very Orientalist of course, but the city also has an unmistakeably cosmopolitain flair to it. It must be an exciting place to live if you can avoid the tourist neighbourhoods (which we did not). Young Turks really are cool, I think, with their long noses and blasé smiles. The drawback is that Istanbul knows it is alluring and it is surprisingly expensive and, especially in the off-season I think, a small army of sidewalk salesmen are determined that no foreigner will leave the country without a hand-dyed all-wool antique Turkish carpet. We almost got ripped off by a tour organizer who tried to imply that it was our fault that a blizzard had spelled cancellation for our spelunking expedition (we managed to get a refund). But I did get ripped off by a cabbie who was skilled at leger-de-main and indirection, and who managed to trade my 20 New Turkish Lira bill for a worthless 250,000 Old Turkish Lira bill right under my nose (it was dark). I was angry at first, but later I silently thanked him for the souvenir, which is, after all, 250,000 smackeroos.

There is much more to the story than that, of course, and more to the story of Shivta and Petra, and Amman, and Bethlehem and the Wall, and the West Bank, but you will have to read the book. The next time I write here it will be about a very different place.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dead, Red, Black, Mediterranean, Marmara

After a full day in Jerusalem and a visit to Bethlehem, a visit to Jericho, a brief repose in Tel Aviv, and a flight to Istanbul.

Here I am floating (a couple of weeks ago) in the salty embrace of the lowest body of water in the world.

And here is (part of) the former largest church in Christendom, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Long Walk Across a Short Bridge

Another rambling, narrative-lite post written hastily from a rented terminal is in order, I think. I'm in a graffiti-covered Byzantine stone grotto of an internet cafe in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, around the corner from the souq where real people buy sneakers and gadgets and spices by the shovelful. The keyboard is cluttered with Hebrew, Arabic, and Roman letters, and my fingers are a bit numb because it's cold here. We just returned from a postcard-buying trip along the Via Dolorosa and through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where there was a boisterous candle-lighting session going on (it's Sunday night).

Today we ended our short visit to Jordan, although it did not end the way we wanted it to. At seven this morning we got a taxi from Amman to the King Hussein / Allenby Bridge, which connects Jordan with the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The plan was to go to Jericho (possibly the oldest city in the world), look around, get a bus or shared taxi to Bethelehem, and eventually return to Jerusalem by night. These places are all quite close together, at least by North American standards, but travel in the West Bank is far from a sure thing these days, and our plans were changed for us. A few days ago when we entered Jordan at Aqaba on the Red Sea, we made a point of asking whether we would be able to cross back at the Allenby Bridge. It has been hard to get reliable info on things like that because 1) the rules seem to change often, sometimes on the spot, and 2) a lot of people seem to think they know the rules but their views are coloured by political prejudices and paranoia. In other words, many (not all) of the Israeli Jews we talked to told us we couldn't pass through the West Bank, while the Palestinians and Jordanians we talked to mostly told us it was no problem. Some Israeli soldiers we talked to at the Egyptian border said it was fine. And the people at the Aqaba crossing, whom presumably should know, told us, "Sure. Why not?" So did the very friendly and helpful hotel owner / tour operator Fayez in Amman. Nevertheless, when we got to the border, the laconic mustachioed Jordanian border guard would not let us out of his country because Karen had entered Jordan on her Israeli passport, and he said that Israelis could not use that crossing. As an American it would have been no problem for her to go through, nor for me as a Canadian, but Israelis are given a hard time, for obvious reasons. So instead we had to take another taxi for another hour-long drive to the north, to the next crossing which connects directly with Israel. The crossing took a couple of hours, for no good reason. From there we took a bus (filled about 80% with rifle-toting soldiers) which went through the West Bank anyway, and right by Jericho, although we were not able to get out there. So here we are in Jerusalem, and tomorrow or the next day I will make another attempt at visiting Bethelehem at least.

In the Negev I was attacked by a goose, and was embarassingly winded and shaken by the time I had fought it off.

I have to correct an earlier post in which I said that I had been to all of Israel's ports after visiting Akko, Haifa, and Jaffa. I had forgotten about Eilat, which is on a different sea, and which we visited on Thursday. NOW I've seen them all. Eilat was really the least interesting to me, I have to say, although Israelis seem to love it: lots of expensive hotels, some mediocre beaches, shopping malls, and less-than-sensibly-dressed people on vacation busily convincing themselves that they're having a ball.

A favourite conversational tactic in Jordan is to inquire as to which country the interlocuter hails from, and once a reply is given, to respond with "You're welcome." (As in, "Welcome to Jordan", but sounding more like the phrase used after "Thank you".) During one conversation in a taxi in Wadi Musa, virtually everything we said and every question we answered was greeted with this response. It made me feel, in fact, very welcome, although a bit unnerved. I think that Jordan earns a nomination at least for Friendliest, Most Helpful Country I've Visited. However, when we finally exited from the border on the Israeli side this afternoon, we met a man who didn't just give us a free ride to the nearest town; he also, upon realizing that we had no Israeli money with us, insisted on putting 100 shekels in Karen's hand.

At the Amman Archeological Museum, between the Ummayad jewelry and the Dead Sea Scrolls, we saw a bronze Nabatean coin that looked remarkably like the coin that Karen paid a Bedouin 5 dinar for in Petra (somewhat gullibly, I thought at the time), which went a fair way towards convincing me that the small round green-black nubbin we got is, in fact, a Nabatean coin found in the desert.

Also: I have live footage on digital video cassette of the birth of a calf next to an irrigation ditch in the Galilee, if anyone is interested.