You can never go back

I had a morning meeting with a client I had done some work for recently. Gwen accompanied me into Shinjuku, where the office is, and went off on her merry way. My meeting went OK, I suppose, but I felt awkward. Three Japanese women speaking in a level of 敬語 that I found both embarrassing (I’m nobody special, and not deserving of that level of speech) and impossible to match. My own Japanese tends inevitably towards the casual, and it’s always a last-minute catch for me to tack on a not-too-casual verb ending in these situations. On top of that, I was particularly tongue-tied, refusing to drop into English but having a hard time even living up to my usually modest ability to express myself in Japanese.

After the meeting, which lasted about an hour, I reconnected with Gwen at Alta. She had discovered 世界堂, an excellent art-supply shop, and Okadaya, a hobby-supply store with a narrower but deeper selection than Tokyu Hands, focusing particularly on textiles.

Bryan had suggested we go to lunch at a place he likes, 文琳, which has a cheap-ish lunch special he descibes as “kaiseki Chinese.” Indeed, it was quite good, with little bijoux tidbits of this and that, just enough to enjoy the taste of each thing.

After that, I told Gwen that I wanted to walk along Yamate-dori back to my old neighborhood, 東中野. It was going to be a long, ugly walk, and kudos to her for putting up with it. When I was living in Tokyo in 88-90, the city was in the beginning stages of a project to widen Yamate-dori and build an underground expressway beneath it. Because Japan apparently has weak eminent-domain laws, the city began buying up properties all along the street as they became available, tearing them down, and barricading the spaces where they had been–I’d seen evidence of this on previous trips. Well, it seems that they’ve acquired all the extra margin they need, because Yamate-dori has been widened, and the center is completely occupied by construction equipment doing the prep work to install the underground expressway. I wanted to see for myself how much things had changed, and how much was under construction. So we walked. And walked. And walked, and then walked some more. With only brief interruptions, that center construction strip covered Yamate-dori as far as the eye could see. Cranes rising into the air every hundred feet or so. Mind-boggling.

We came across a new train station that would have taken us directly to my old train station; Gwen was getting pretty tired of all this walking, but said she could hold out if we’d be there in another 15 minutes. Which, I estimated, we would. So we walked on. And pretty soon, sure enough, we found ourselves at 中野坂上駅, not the station I had planned on going to, but one I had used every weekday for about a year. It’s at a major intersection, of 山手通り and 青梅街道. I didn’t recognize anything. Nothing at all was familiar. The shock was physical. The area had been spruced up, with new buildings, a terraced grassy 待ち合わせ spot. We continued along a bit, working our way into the back streets of the neighborhood. Some buildings I recognized, some were clearly new. Gwen asked me if I wanted to place a bet on whether my old building still stood. I didn’t, but it did (though its address had changed, because the house next door, occupied by a crazy geriatric couple, had been torn down and replaced by two houses).

We wandered around the old ‘hood a little more, taking in the 商店街. We came across what had once been an improvised sort of restaurant operated out of a yurt with a few stools outdoors. The restaurant was still there, but it now occupied the lower two floors of a 9-story building. Pao. We decided to eat there. It wasn’t in a yurt, and in fact the interior was quite nice, but it retained some of its old yurty funkiness. Most of the seating was low, carpeted platforms, with pillows and knee-high tables. We took one. Gwen decided that she wanted our next dining room to be just like it. The menu was Afghan oriented, but about half the dishes we wound up getting seemed more Italian. It was all good, though. Gwen had a cocktail of Cassis and Oolong tea, which was actually pretty good, and we split a mango tart for dessert, which was excellent. When we got up to pay, I mentioned to the woman at the register (who had probably been there all along) that I lived in the neighborhood 15 years ago, and remember when the place was a yurt. She said with a smile ‘things have changed.’


日光. This was our other getaway destination, and I decided we should make a day-trip of it. Headed out early, and took to the 特急 from Asakusa. Had a little time before boarding, so we stopped in a nearby coffee shop, where the waitress was visibly shocked that I could speak and read Japanese–that was kind of fun. The area gets so many tourists that the ratio of Japanese-speaking white people to all white people must be much lower than in other parts of town. Anyhow, the trip out was uneventful, and once there, we walked up the main drag to the shrine area. Nikko’s three shrines and temples are probably what the town is best known for (along with its national park, and its monkeys), and that’s what we were there for. It’s hard to do justice, in words or pictures, to these places. Unlike most of Japan’s religious buildings, these are covered in ornament. As a f’rinstance: part of 東照宮 is surrounded by a wall in 87 sections. Each section contains three panels. Each panel contains an elaborately carved and colorfully painted scene showing birds: the top, birds in the air, the middle, birds on the ground, and the bottom, bids in the water. Each panel different. It’s like that everywhere you look: no opportunity to decorate, illustrate, illuminate, exalt, inspire, or awe is overlooked. As one of our guidebooks put it, Nikko is “17th-century Disneyland.”

After about 5 hours of this, my eyeballs hurt. We started heading back, stopping for a bite on the way down to the station.

Back to Harajuku

We headed back to Omotesando for a little unfinished business. Went down to the antique mall below the Hanae Mori building, which is kind of a trip. Stopped by the ridiculous Oriental Bazaar and the sublime Kiddyland, which wound up being a rather lengthy diversion. The plethora–nay, cornucopia–of diverse キッティちゃん products was endlessly entertaining. Dolls of Hello Kitty wearing an eggplant costume. Dolls of Helly Kitty wearing a cat costume. Think about that.

Stopped at 平禄 (which used to be 元禄–not sure why the name changed), a conveyor-belt sushi place. This turned out to be the only occasion we ate sushi on the whole trip, and a 回り寿司 place inevitably isn’t going to be the best, but it wasn’t bad, and it’s a fun experience. It’s also kind of amazing how quickly you can mow through a dozen or so plates of sushi when you can continuously grab them as they roll by.

Next, to the 太田記念年美術館. But before we could get there, we stopped at a miniscule shop around the corner from it. Gwen had been interested in picking up a new handbag that was cool, funky, and unobtainable in the USA, and here she found what she was looking for: a long, skinny purse made of lenticular plastic that blinks obverse and reverse sides of 平仮名 flashcards, all themed around 鉄腕アトム.

Then on to the museum, where they were having a special 北斎 exhibit. The Ota Museum is a sort of oasis of stereotypical Japanese-ness. You take your shoes off when you walk in; you crouch on tatami to view some of the artwork. The place is dimly lit, silent, refined, sedate; it has a rock garden indoors. The fact that it is tucked away in the midst of Japan’s poppiest pop-culture is part of the fun.

Roppongi Hills

Tantalized by the view of Roppongi Hills the other day, Gwen and I resolved to go back and explore it a little. We got there bright and early, before most of the stores had opened. We didn’t cover the whole complex, but we did wander through much of the four-floor shopping mall (tenanted mostly by international luxury brands that you could find in any city where there’s wealth). The space had a random feeling, with nooks and crannies, catwalks and alcoves, breaking it up into weird little bits. A glass roof, also broken up into little bits, with an incredibly complex system of mechanized gondolas riding on tracks to carry window-washers across it. Among other things, Gwen’s office designs signage for places like this, and so we took an interest in the very elaborate bilingual infographics for the place, with information maps showing exploded isomorphic views of the four levels, wayfinding graphics embedded in the floors, etc.

A drum-shaped glass-covered tower lead up to an art museum and gift shop. We bypassed the museum and scoped out the gift shop, which sold an extensive line of relentlessly designy Roppongi Hills-branded items (one of which I actually wound up buying as a souvenir for a friend), a lot of art books, and various other designy accessories.

There’s a piazza that’s apparently used as a performance space next to the drum, and meticoulous garden and pond next to that; a mama duck with ducklings completed the picture. As beautiful as the garden is, it can’t help but have a very contrived feeling, snuggled in among all that obvious artifice. Japanese gardens have always been exercises in concealed artifice, though, so perhaps it’s not so objectionable.

Having had our fill of Roppongi Hills, we headed over to the 明治屋 grocery in Hiroooo, where we mostly ogled but wound up buying a couple of carrots to eat as a snack. Fat, perfectly conical carrots of a type never seen in the USA. We took these to the nearby 有栖川公園, a small oasis of green crisscrossed with little trails, clearings, benches, etc. A major hangout for ravens–sometimes you feel like you’re in a Hitchcock movie there. I don’t call ’em crows, even though everyone else does. “Crow” suggests a farcical trashpicking bird. These birds are bigger (they could make off with a poodle) and seem distinctly malevolent–and signs in the park warn to be on guard against them attacking.

After a nice stroll through this park, a sit-down and a snack, we decided to make our way over to Julia’s to say Hi. I knew exactly where her office was, and tried to take a shortcut to get there. Mistake. I was going down a street that went through Roppongi Hills: it had existed before, but apparently had been diverted, as it took us to a completely different neighborhood. When I found myself at a train station that I had never heard of, the intersection of two subway lines that hadn’t even existed when I lived in Tokyo, I felt very weirded out.

That wound up being an enjoyable enough diversion–we laughed at a store that sells nothing but canine apparel, and stopped in nifty bookshop. Made our way to Julia’s, visited for a bit, and headed on. That night we took Bryan and his wife out to dinner at one of Bryan’s favorite local joints, 笹吟, known for its extensive selection of sake and good food. I’ve never been much of a sake drinker, but the good stuff is, well, good. I sampled widely and enjoyed it.

Yoyogi Park

Somehow, we wound up back in Harajuku

We stopped at a Lawson Station and fortified ourselves with nigiri. Hung out and watched the world go by some more.

We started working our way back home, and paused to check out the コスプレー族. Quite a scene–probably about 40 kids in various anime/lolita/EGL/EGA (they all sort of run together) outfits, many of their own creation, and probably as many tourists taking pictures of them. They all seemed quite happy to be the center of attention and to pose for pictures. I noticed a couple of white kids among their ranks.

代々木公園. That’s the place to be in Tokyo on a Sunday, and that’s where we went next. The park is sort of like Barton Springs on a good weekend: a bunch of people hanging out, clustered in little groups, doing their own thing. Except it’s about 20 times as big, it’s free, and there’s no swimming. Despite a large, sternly worded sign at one entrance to the park forbidding any kind of musical performance whatsoever (probably dating back to the Battle of the World’s Worst Bands days), I saw a knot of bluegrass musicians (including a guy who had dragged his upright bass to the park), one of martial artists doing their thing, a couple guitarists sitting under a tree trading licks, and so on. I happened on not one but two separate groups of poi spinners (the second of which had a damn good DJ with a huge table set up). I said Hi to both groups and wanted to rush back to the apartment to grab my own poi and rejoin them. We wound up continuing to take a leisurely walk through the park, though, going past a large homeless encampment–one of several in the park. Gwen observed that some of the dwellings would pass for regular homes in Mexico, and indeed we saw one that seemed to be made of 1×2 sticks, carefully measured and nailed together square with a peaked roof, with blue plastic tarp stretched taut and neatly over the whole thing. We saw a guy sweeping clear the packed dirt in front of his tent. All the camps in the park were about as orderly as you can imagine a homeless camp being (this is Japan), and Bryan likened them to the Hoovervilles of the 30s, an apt comparison in a lot of ways.

We made our way back to the apartment, I grabbed my poi, and headed back to one group of twirlers, hanging out with them for a little bit, and then going back to the other group I had introduced myself, and hung out with them for a little while. Found out that one of them has a friend in common, Vance.

Hanging out in the park made me regret not having spent more time there when I lived there, it was so much fun. When I lived in Japan, I had a somewhat pessimistic view of the quality of life enjoyed by the average person in Tokyo; being in the park, surrounded by so many people doing their own thing, gave me a much more optimistic view.

For better or worse, I had to take my leave at about 6:00 PM and head back, because Bryan and I had a dinner with a prospective client that night. The dinner was at an interesting basement izakaya, with narrow twisty-windy corridors that led to a private room for us. Bryan had a friend in the company, who was present at the meeting but said almost nothing. Instead it was a marketing guy (who had attended Stanford and spoke very good English) and the CTO (who was certainly competent in English when discussing his subject). It was a bit odd that the whole thing went off in English–I’m not sure how that happened, but since everyone at the table (except Gwen) was to some extent J/E bilingual, I guess the choice of language becomes somewhat arbitrary. Although my own Japanese speaking ability is bad enough that it does nothing to promote my image as a capable translator, I still would have felt more comfortable somehow if things had been a little more in Japanese. We briefly discussed the nitty-gritty of the company’s key product, a computer technology that genuinely is interesting, and perhaps I was able to convince them that I know my stuff by asking intelligent questions and understanding their answers.

People-watching in Harajuku

Saturday is a people-watching day around 原宿 and 表参道, so that’s where we spent most of it. We started off at Spiral Gallery, which always has something interesting on display, but more than that, is just an interesting place to be. The building itself has always been the main attraction to me. The exhibition on display when we were there was clothing by a Turkish designer, which Gwen was very interested in. Then we went to the museum shop upstairs. Calling it a museum shop is kind of an understatement, since it is sort of a super-sleek lifestyle-supply boutique. Various skin-care potions, tableware bits and household accessories, stationery, etc. I bought some postcards that are too nice to send, and will be framed instead. Given sufficient funds, I think Gwen would have cleaned those guys out. Instead, she contented herself with some paper.

We stopped by the nearby Anderson bakery, bought various airy goodies, and perched ourselves on the rails along Omotesando to snack and watch the world go by. We then headed into La Foret, which is the department store of the young, alternative, and well-heeled. Many small boutiques, each catering to a specific look. Several EGL shops, one cyberwear shop called Fötus, many retro-70s shops, etc.

The people-watching was excellent. Gwen mostly remarked on the shoes that women were wearing: mostly painful-looking high heels, especially mules: many women had toes that looked like they were on the verge of being pinched off, were wobbling on the heels, or were generally having trouble walking. The platforms that were so plentiful a few years ago had become scarce, although we did see a few shops (one in La Foret, one on the outskirts of Shibuya) that still specialized in them. Gwen stopped in one on 竹下通り where she picked out a pair of platform sandals (when we asked for a business card, we were given something that had been run off on cheap paper stock on a cheap inkjet printer). Lots of other goofiness on that street, which is home to much trendsetting in Tokyo. We found a store up a flight of stairs, with the sign Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling Federation, housing various punk and goth accessories. We were most taken with a line of gruesome teddy bears that all had bloody fangs. We also stopped in the completely outrageous Takenoko, a shop tucked off to the side that goes on and on with rooms full of sparkly costumes. Some of these are the sort of thing that ビジャルー系 band members wear, others are sort of like fantasy stripper outfits, though perhaps a bit more discreet. (Pictures of the shop: 1, 2, 3). This place has been there as long as I can remember, but somehow I had never been inside. I was surprised to discover that, as elaborate as many of the costumes looked, they were pretty cheap. Despite that, neither Gwen nor I bought anything there, though Gwen was tempted by a sheer green top.

On towards evening, we moved on to Shibuya. Gwen had heard of Tokyu Hands before, and was interested in checking it out, so we did. It’s a department store specifically for hobbyists of all stripes; it also has housewares, some sporting goods, office supplies, etc. Gwen was intrigued by the sofa section, because all the couches were low enough that she could sit on them comfortably with her feet flat on the floor. She was also generally impressed by the assortment of stuff throughout the store, which is divided into something like 18 levels, each with a different focus.


Another epic day of schlepping. We started off in 浅草, home of the famous 浅草寺 and the perhaps more famous 仲店通り. The area is sprucing itself up just a smidge, and I was surprised to see a couple of rickshaw drivers (runners? what do you call these guys?) in traditional garb soliciting business from tourists. On Nakamise-dori, I bought the smallest 招き猫 imaginable for Jenny, as per her request. The crush surrounding the temple was, as always, pretty amazing. Many schoolgroups, tour groups, etc. This sort of thing becomes completely self-perpetuating: I think the real reason everybody goes there is because everybody goes there. This is the counterpoint to Yogi Berra’s old saying. We wound up getting a little off the beaten path, wandering down some of the dowdier 商店街 in the area, where Gwen picked up a pair of clogs for her niece. We made our way over to a supermarket, and picked up a few おにぎり. We plopped down near the temple to have our snack. I showed Gwen the ingenious way nigiri are packaged, so the nori doesn’t get soggy from contact with the rice, and the correct way to unwrap them. She was instantly hooked.

I checked a map, and saw we were walking distance from かっぱ橋, the commercial kitchen supply district, so we wandered over there. Gwen was keen on seeing the plastic food, but really, the overwhelming volume and selection of everything in Kappabashi is what makes the place fun. Where else can you find a store with ten different kinds of ramen strainers? We stopped in several knife stores, and eventually Gwen found a big carbon-steel chef’s knife to get as a gift for Heather, the friend who had made our wedding cake.

Next stop, 銀座. We went to 鳩居堂, the pricey but super-deluxe paper store. Again, quite a crush of people. Gwen spent a lot of time scoping out possible gifts to send home, and we wound up dropping a good chunk of change on exquisite paper products there. Examined the calligraphy supplies upstairs. Smelled the incense that pervades the store.

Then it was time to get along to 六本木, where another client, Julia (well, former client, as she hasn’t had any work for me in years, but she’s still a friend–but I digress), has her offices. This is very near the new Roppongi Hills development, of which I had read, but had not seen. We didn’t have time to explore it right then, but were sufficiently impressed by its sprawling bigness: the tower is, well, pretty darned tall, and the complex covers several city blocks.

We made our way to Julia’s, made introductions, hooked up with another friend of Julia’s, and made our way to Baggio, a little Italian place nearby where Julia’s a regular. Very tasty meal–a sort of Japanese take on Italian food.

Hakone, Day 2

Breakfast the next day came a little earlier than we were ready for, and was almost as lavish as dinner. Nine courses. Usually I’m not so keen on Japanese breakfasts, but I enjoyed this anyhow. After that, I went down to the rotenburo, and then (after the switch) Gwen did too. And then it was time to check out (they had some kind of crazy 10:00 AM check-out rule).

We toddled back to the train station and again put our packs in a coin locker. Since Hakone is a touristy town, we were tourists, and it seemed the touristy thing to do, we took the 早雲山ケーブルカー to its terminus, where Gwen wanted to transfer to the even more touristy ropeway. That turned out to be quite spendy–it would have been about ¥4600 for the two of us to take the round trip, and we were low on cash with no ATMs in sight. So I nixed that, and we climbed 早雲山 on foot instead. It was a very challenging trail: steep, muddy, and not very well cleared. And we weren’t exactly in our hiking boots and lederhosen. There was actually a network of trails up in the mountain, with one segment closed due to volcanic gas emissions (which looked like big campfires from down below). We hiked about an hour up to the first checkpoint, where we met some middle-aged women (who did have proper hiking boots and lederhosen) having coffee. We chatted briefly, considered our options, and decided that we were tired enough to head back. It was a little disappointing that nowhere along the trail did we get to a clearing: there must have been very dramatic views from up there. So we made our way down, meeting a Japanese guy who had lived in Houston for four years on the way, and took the funicular back to the rinky-dink switchback three-car train, back to the Odakyu line back to Tokyo.

One thing that really impresses me about Japan, apart from the extensiveness of its public-transportation network, is its integration. Tokyo is served by three different networks (JR東, 都営, and the former 営団, recently rechristened メトロ ). Along with at least a half-dozen private rail lines that feed the outlying areas. These all interconnect, and you can buy tickets that connect through multiple networks. This is no joke: one could buy one ticket that would take you on the ropeway, transfer to the funicular, transfer to the Hakone-tozan line, and transfer to the Odakyu line.

Once back, we hung out in 渋谷, the neighborhood that inspired Blade Runner. Gwen got sucked into Copo, a crowded little shop selling wacky hosiery. Japan is way out ahead of the curve in terms of hosiery configurations. Here in the USA, women are bogged down with the antiquated notion that either something covers your foot or it doesn’t. Not the young women of Japan: there, you can have a sock that covers just your toes, with a sling around the heel. Or covers the bottom of your foot, but not the top, except for a little wraparound to hold it on. Or covers the instep but not the toe or heel. Or is like a stirrup. Gwen wound up getting examples of several of these variations. We also looked around in Three Minute Happiness, a ¥100 shop full of fun stuff. I discovered that another one of my favorite restaurants, Negishi, had opened a branch in Shibuya, and although the beef-oriented menu didn’t have a lot to offer Gwen, she humored me and we ate there.

Hakone, Day 1

Gwen wanted to get outside of Tokyo a little, and one of the destinations she really had in mind was 箱根, a popular tourist area with lots of hot springs. Bright and early we headed out. Got on the 小田急線, taking the 急行 as far as 小田原, then changing to a 各停 to 湯本, then changing to the tiny three-car 箱根登山 train that took us to its terminus, å¼·ç¾…, by way of several switchbacks along its steep route (first time I’ve ever been on a train that made switchbacks).

At Gora, we stowed our packs in a coin locker at the station and walked our way back to the 彫刻の森. This was a lot of fun. A lot of the sculpture frankly left me cold, but plenty of it was wonderful. There was an extensive Picasso pavilion, but my reaction to most of the pieces in it was ‘this is the work of a man who knows he has the world by the balls.’ In other words, not his best work.

We hiked back up to Gora (not far) and started looking for lodgings. We had my preferred Japan guidebook, Gateway to Japan, which recommended a couple of lodgings. One, we couldn’t find. I was sure we were looking in the roughly right place, but it just wasn’t there. The second was 箱根太陽山荘, part of a government operated network of 国民宿舎. We found that place, and it looked quite nice, but there was some excavation going on and nobody seemed to be around. Eventually the little old lady who ran the place saw Gwen and me standing around looking confused; she came out and told us they were closed for just that day because of construction. I asked if she could recommend anything else in the area in our price range. She went inside and made some calls, and recommended a place called さつき園, not far away. She gave me a little map showing all the inns in the area, and we made our way there quickly enough. Satsuki-en was located up a very steep hill, and when we got there, the little old couple that ran the place seemed surprised to see us, surprised that we wanted to stay there, and surprised that I could manage Japanese. But we checked in, had some tea, and got oriented to the place’s somewhat Byzantine bathing schedules. I then trotted back to the station to retrieve our bags. On the way, I walked by a construction site–or what would be, if anything were actually being constructed there. An extensive building had been torn down, and the construction-information signboard indicated that construction was to begin in…1994. I checked the address, and it turned out to be the place we had been looking for. No wonder.

After getting settled in at the hotel, Gwen and I both went down to the baths. This place has a confusing system: they have two “regular” baths, one each for men and women. Which one is which depends on the time of day: they hang signs by each indicating who should enter (and not a simple ç”·/女 that someone with limited kanji ability could figure out–no, they use 殿方/婦人). They also have a much nicer 露天風呂, which is reserved for men during certain hours, women during other hours.

After bathing, it was about time for dinner. They brought up this lavish 12-course meal. We both ate at least a little of everything. Pickles, sukiyaki, tofu, roasted fish, sashimi, shumai, etc. I later talked with Bryan about this, and he had been puzzled by the outlandish ryokan spread when he first encountered it too. His wife had explained that the thinking behind it is that certainly you’ll like something in all of that (actually, we liked pretty much all of it). I suspect there’s also an intention to create a sense of excess and luxury.


Tokyo is very much a city of special-purpose neighborhoods. We decided to make this day the day of paper. Gwen’s got a bit of a paper fetish. I vaguely recalled that 日本橋 was the paper neighorhood, and so we hopped on the train and went there.

Well, strike one for my memory. I should have checked more carefully beforehand (now I’m not sure which neighborhood I was looking for, but I know I’d been there before). We did find a small shop that specialized in 書道 supplies; I asked one of the clerks if there were other shops in the neighborhood that sold paper, and she gave me directions that seemed clear enough, but didn’t lead me anywhere I recognized.

So we gave up on that and headed for 神保町, the book neighborhood. We spent hours exploring the mind-blowing used-bookstore mall, 神保町古書センター, eight stories of used booksellers, many specializing one one thing or another (children’s books, new-age books, ephemera, girlie books, etc).

We stopped 大屋書房 in an antique bookstore that I had somehow never visited and found some amazing books, including many that seemed to be basically clip-art books over a century old. Some of these were in color, and clearly beyond anything we could afford. But Gwen found one in black and white going for ¥8000 that sorely tempted her. She put it back and decided to think about it while we went to 三省堂, the huge bookstore for new books, just around the corner. She picked up a Japanese phrase book by that denizen of the Tokyo demimonde, Boye de Menthe. We left, went to a nearby Starbucks (hey, Starbucks is probably the only place in Japan that is no-smoking), and Gwen though some more on that antique book. We went back the store, and after some internal debate, she bought it. While she was at the register, I found a boxed volume in the shape of a brick. It was an ancient Japanese-English dictionary. Again, much too expensive to contemplate, and apparently even older than the first edition of the Green Goddess (which probably wasn’t even green back then). I marvelled briefly and carefully put it away.

Somehow from here we made our way to 人形町, where Gwen appropriately ate a 人形焼き, and from there, we somehow made it back to Nihonbashi, and ran across the very paper store that the woman at the calligraphy store was directing me to. 小津和紙. Quite a store. Gwen spent a lot of time marvelling at the 千代紙, and picked out quite a few samples to get as gifts for the folks back home.

As long as we were out and about and near a station that could get us there easily, I suggested we go to 秋葉原, the mecca for electronics. We hit some Mac specialty shops, and while I was tickled at the used-Mac market (especially for cubes, which have a notoriously dedicated following in Japan), I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t see more wacky peripherals such as I’ve seen mentioned on the various gadget-tracking blogs. There was very little for sale there that couldn’t be found at Fry’s, I figured. The rabbit’s-warren of specialty parts stalls right by the station is still there, and still a zoo. Each merchant has his own schtick. One guy sells potentiometers, the next guy sells knobs for potentiometers, and the guy across the alley sells miniature security cameras. There’s probably someone in there hawking NOS Soviet vacuum tubes. If an electronics geek wanted to build his own NORAD replica, this would be a good place to start.

At this point, we were seriously beat, and we headed towards Shibuya and home, taking the 山手線 from exactly halfway across the loop. I decided we deserved a treat, and so I steered us a little off our trajectory to one of my favorite places in Tokyo, Raj Mahal, an Indian restaurant overlooking the teardrop 交番. Raj Mahal always has Bollywood song-and-dance numbers going on two TVs, the decor is gaudy, and the food is good. On this visit, I had the impression they’d put up their prices somewhat, but I didn’t mind: we ate well and plentifully, and enjoyed just relaxing there.

A day of something resembling work

One of Bryan’s requirements (really, just about the only one) for us staying in his office was that we be out of the office during working hours. So we had to clear out by 9:00 AM every day, and this was the first day to do so. Gwen headed out with me

Another one of my clients, Aki of Digitized Information, has its offices very close to Bryan’s. I had been there before, but not in a long time, and I was unsure of the way there. But I had (I thought) the address, and should have been able to figure it out from that.

Well, no. As it turns out, I had his address slightly wrong. I navigated to where my mistaken address should have been–between the Brazilian and Bulgarian embassies–and discovered it wasn’t there. On a lark, I opened up the laptop I had borrowed from Drew, and discovered there were two open wifi nodes. I hit the diginfo web page, got the correct address, found a neighborhood map, and navigated to the office. I spent the rest of the day working on a job I had brought with me.

After stopping by the office and meeting the people there, Gwen made her way to 清水観音堂 in 上野. That evening, we all got together at a nearby 居酒屋 called 亘. For the 二次会, Aki dragged us to some microscopic カラオケ pub in 下北沢. This joint could maybe accommodate 12 people, and the six of us in our party were crammed into one corner. Aki, it turns out, is quite a good singer, at least with all the reverb and effects that the karaoke machines lay on. Gwen and I declined to sing, but were fascinated by the enormous selection of songs available (four pages of Beatles selections), the little wireless pad that song requests are punched into, and the porn-flick production values in the karaoke videos. We escaped around 11:30 and made our way home. Didn’t manage to get back to Shimokita (as it’s known to its friends) for the rest of the trip, which I kind of regret, as I enjoy that neighborhood.

IJET-15, Day 2

I somehow managed not to sit in on any of sessions during the first round on Sunday, chatting with fellow translators instead. 木村博子, the sole representative from Norway, gave me a small packet of sweet Norwegian smoked goat cheese. To think she schlepped all those little cheese packets all the way from Norway…As a traveller, I’m resolutely opposed to any check-in luggage, and fripperies like gift cheese would never make it anywhere near my packing list. Still, I appreciated the gift of the cheese, which was unusual and tasty.

I (along with a lot of my peers) was very keen on attending a discussion of the recently completed fifth edition of the Green Goddess, the J-E dictionary that is a standard reference for many translators. This included a retrospective look at the earlier editions, including the first edition, which apparently resembled a brick, with thousands of relatively small pages. This was evidently the first edition where a lot of Japanese-competent native English speakers were involved, and they helped cull out many of the goofier glosses that had apparently survived since very early editions (the spotting of which is a minor sport for translators).

Had lunch with a gaggle of JAT doers, Pai Hwong and Paul Flynn among them. Wound up sitting with Paul and discussing the JAT website–he wants to do there some of the same things that I want to do with the Honyaku website.

After lunch, I sat in briefly on another talk about TM, specifically Trados and Wordfast, but since neither really works on the Mac, it was of limited practical use to me. One of these days, I can imagine TM really being useful to me.

Also of little immediate use–but pretty darned interesting anyhow–was the last session I attended on Japanese regional dialects. The presenter really seemed to know his stuff, pointing out that certain phonetic changes are common features in Japanese, but appear in different situations in different dialects. The talk was mostly oriented towards interpreters who might need to cope with unexpected regionalisms from time to time, but would be interesting to anyone curious about the language.

After the last session, things just kind of ended unceremoniously with everyone drifting away. Not that I’m big on ceremony, but it would have been nice if there were a more organized way to say goodbye to everyone. I’m sure there must have been some kind of 二次会, but I wasn’t in the right place at the right time to get in on it.

Gwen stayed in Tokyo for the day, exploring the neighborhood. I headed back that way and we had a low-key evening. I discovered that someone in Bryan’s building had an intermittently available open wifi node, and so I was able to get my e-mail. I also was able to check on something that someone had mentioned to me the day before: that my site was down. Sheesh. This wound up being an ongoing irritatation for the next two weeks, not to mention a bit of an embarrassment: I have a bit of a reputation (deserved or otherwise) as being technically competent with this whole Intarweb thing. Being at a conference with colleagues, handing out business cards with my URL, having my Honyaku page being chatted about, and having my website go offline right then really made me wince.

IJET-15, Day 1

Saturday and Sunday were the days of the conference. It was starting at 9:00 AM, so we had to be out the door and heading towards the 東横線 by about 8:00. Not that this was hard to manage: aside from our circadian rhythms being almost perfectly out of phase with the local time, Tokyo is in the wrong time zone: the sun was up at 4:30 AM, and Bryan’s office gets plenty of light. So we were awake pretty early.

Once at the station, I vaguely recalled that 桜木町 was the stop for the Pacifico, but to my consternation, the Toyoko-sen didn’t stop there anymore–instead it had a stop at みなとみらい. Which also sounded like the right area, based on my memory, but not what I expected. Off we went. Turns out that the Toyoko-sen’s route had in fact been diverted recently, and my guess was correct. As Tom explained over lunch (at a wacky little Chinese place), 東急 had built backwards from the new station, which is underground, up to the point where the new segment would intersect the old, and in one night after the trains stopped running, ripped up the section of old rail over the juncture, relaid it to connect to the new segment, made a couple of test runs, and continued with service as usual the next morning. Quite an audacious feat of engineering–something that was a recurring observation through this trip.

Gwen was not in on the conference, but would be attending the schmoozefest that night, so she came in to Yokohama with me and lit out on her own. She managed to find her way around well enough.

Sessions attended that day: the opening plenary “state of the industry” session, and on a new publishing venture launched by some of my fellow translators. I checked in on one about translation memory, but wound up leaving that to catch up with friends. Richard Sadowsky observed that when we had first gotten to know each other at a much earlier IJET–perhaps IJET-3 in 富士吉田(?), he had commented that he and I seemed to be the youngest translators there, but that was no longer true. He’s right: Richard has aged quite a bit since then.

Gwen made her way back to the conference site, and everyone shuffled downstairs to the dinner, a really lavish buffet with free beer and wine. Gwen and I were still kind of looped from jet lag, and made a relatively early departure.

Harajuku-Shinjuku meandering

Friday the weather had mercifully cleared (in fact, we didn’t really get rained on at all for the rest of the trip), and we relocated to Bryan’s office, which would be our base of operations for the rest of the trip.

There were some last-minute details about the conference that I had been meaning to check online–I wanted to refresh my memory of which train station to exit, for example. Though I had set up an account with a local ISP, GOL, I was unable to log on for some reason. Very infuriating.

I took Gwen to Harajuku. It’s my favorite part of town. We wandered around aimlessly. I was a bit disoriented by the changes in the neighborhood: where there had once been a couple of sidewalk cafes on 表参道 there were now gleaming retail showrooms. And the Aoyama Apartments, the first Western-style apartment building in Tokyo, were demolished. This wasn’t a surprise–the death knell had sounded on them a long time ago, but it was still a shame that a bit of Tokyo history was gone. For the most part, the backstreets (though they had no doubt seen many small businesses come and go) looked about the same. We walked past Jenny’s old apartment, and it still stood, though there was a little novelty shop wedged in front of it now. Nearby was an excellent stationery store that I remembered, with an incredible selection of postcards and desk-stuff on the ground floor, and a lot of art books downstairs.

We kind of wandered via a route that I’d never be able to reproduce through 千駄ヶ谷 up to 新宿. We wandered around there some more, taking in both the busy-but-civilized part and the sleazy 歌舞伎町 Quite a lot of walking that day.

Japan trip: depature

I hadn’t been to Japan since 2000; Gwen had never been. But this year’s IJET conference was going to be in Yokohama, it was coming shortly after our marriage, so the trip would serve as a honeymoon, and, well, Lost in Translation just made me really nostalgic for Tokyo. And although the trip would be expensive, I really felt that I needed to try to drum up some business in Japan, since that’s where most of the J-E translation demand is. So we decided quite some time ago that we’d go. Gwen negotiated a lengthy vacation from her job. We got tickets at a pretty good rate through JTB (though flying on AA instead of JAL–a bit of a letdown).

We left on Wednesday the 19th and arrived in the evening of the 20th after an uneventful flight. A typhoon was in the area, and Tokyo was getting heavy rain. After a bit of misdirection, getting very wet in the process, we made our way to the 多摩旅館, an inn in 高田馬場 run by a fellow translator who I vaguely knew from my days in Japan; although we would be crashing at a friend’s place for most of the trip, we needed a place where we could sleep in to get over the initial shock of jet lag. That was pleasant, and there was an Indian restaurant I had never tried, Malabar, just a few doors away. It has been my ongoing project to eat at all the Indian restaurants in Tokyo, so after we checked in and got settled a bit, we had dinner there and ate quite well. I learned that Takadanobaba has become a haven for Burmese refugees, and there are a lot of hole-in-the-wall Burmese restaurants there where the menus are available only in Burmese–no Japanese, no English.

The Bad Trip

The following story recounts a trip that Jenny and I took in 1998

I have a rich cousin who always has a July 4th party for a few hundred of his closest friends at his farm on the Illinois/Wisconsin border. It’s always a ball, I haven’t been there in a few years, Jenny had never been there and was up for a road trip, so we decided to drive up from our home in Austin, Texas. This was in a 1987 Thunderbird with 150,000 miles on it. We’ll call it the “blue bird” because it’s blue.

My dad had a 1964 Thunderbird, which is an incredibly cool car, that he was thinking of getting rid of. He’s had it for about 15 years, but never really did anything with it–he just got it to have as a toy. We’ll call it the “black bird” because it’s black. He said we could have it if we wanted it. We did. We thought we would each drive one of the birds back to Austin, and then sell the blue bird.

We decide to bring our cat, Squeaker. We know that most cats don’t like car travel, but Squeaker is so laid-back, we figured that she’d be OK. Well, she’s not such a great traveller, we learned.

On the trip up, we take only back roads. State highways and some US highways–no interstates. We take our time and spend one night on Lake Greerson in Arkansas, the next somewhere near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. When we get into Cape Girardeau on day 3 of the trip, the fuel line seems to blow. We get the car towed into a shop pretty quickly, and it turns out that the fuel filter had been installed wrong, and the line just popped open. Easily remedied–we were back on our way quickly.

Up in Chicago, my dad is having some work done on the black bird, and it is taking longer than expected, so we decide at first to forget about it and drive home in the blue bird. Then on the 6th–which was to be our last day in town–the blue bird dies. First the automatic shifting starts acting really strange, and then after we stop, it just won’t start. Starter motor won’t even turn. Have it towed again to a nearby Ford dealer. They look it over and pronounce it almost too dangerous to drive, but they do manage to get it started. On my dad’s advice, I drive it home. It makes it OK, although the top gear won’t engage. At this point, we are feeling pretty dubious about driving the blue bird back to Texas, so we decide to wait until the black bird is ready, and just drive that instead. My dad offers to find some way to dispose of the blue bird for us.

Now our troubles really begin.

The black bird isn’t ready until the evening of the 7th, so we head out in darkness, taking the most direct interstate route we can. Despite the work done on it, it still has problems. The most obvious is a bad exhaust gasket, so the car is really loud. The handling is also amazingly bad, and occasionally, the front end starts rattling to the point where the car is almost uncontrollable.

Around St Louis, the headlights start going out intermittently. I discover I can bring them back on by tapping the brites on and off, but pretty soon this is a constant dance. We stop for the night just west of St Louis at a “Pear Tree Inn.”

The next morning, we drive to a nearby service station and have them put the car on the lift. He says our ball joints are worn out, which accounts for the rattling, but replacements are not readily available. I forget to even ask about the headlights. He shoots the ball joints full of grease to stabilize them and wishes us good luck. The grease does help, at least for a while.

Once we’ve made it most of the way across Missouri, almost to Joplin, the right-rear tire flats. This is not a big surprise-all the tires are antiques, and are pretty chewed up. What *is* a surprise is that my lug wrench doesn’t fit the lug nuts on this wheel. There is a small business near the road. I go in there, ask the proprietor for help, and he calls a nearby mechanic with a wrecker, Jim. Jim comes out with the correct lug wrench, and we change the tire. Of course the spare is flat, so we get that filled as quickly as possible, go to Jim’s shop, and put a new tire on the flatted wheel. He points out a nearby auto-parts store, and I get a new lug wrench.

And a good thing it is. Shortly after crossing into Oklahoma, the left-rear tire starts coming apart. It doesn’t flat, exactly, the treads just start coming off the carcass. So I change that. The heat was unbelievable–I later learned the high that day was 108°F. I wished I was dead. Squeaker is going insane in the heat, too. Mewling disconsolately, drooling horribly, refusing any of our cooling-off tricks, even refusing to drink water while in the car. Mind you, this is a black car without AC, and while driving, we were keeping the windows rolled most of the way up, lest Squeaker try to make a break for it.

We make it to Tulsa, spend the night at a cruddy Motel 6, have dinner nearby at a legitimate Mexican restaurant. Once stopped, the car overheats. The next morning, we go to a nearby Wal-Mart, and I have all the old tires changed out (and the coolant topped off). On the advice of a trucker, we decide to take US 75, which is more direct than the interstates. The new tires are a big improvement, but as soon as we get a little ways away from Tulsa, the front end starts rattling and knocking horribly. Jenny and I both think a bearing has seized. Jenny hitches a ride into the nearby town of Okmulgee, and lines up a tow. This takes about 2 hours. At the shop in Okmulgee, the mechanic can’t see anything really wrong with the bearings, so he just repacks them and the car seems OK.

We get on the road again, and now it sounds like the belts are loose–they’re squealing. At the next town, Atoka, I pull over and have a mechanic look at the belts, and fill up the tank. He says the belts are OK but dry, so he squirts some “belt dressing” on them. That seems to help. I later realize it was coolant dripping on them the day before that must have caused the squeal.

The road running through Atoka–US 75–is heavily used as an alternative to I-35, and is currently being widened, so traffic was at a crawl. The heat is still off the charts. All of this is bad for the car. By the time we reach the adjacent, even tinier town of Tushka, the car is blowing white smoke out the rear. A lot of it. A cop pulls us over almost immediately after the smoke starts pouring out and says “I can’t let you drive that like that–people can’t see through that smoke.” When I turn off the car, it knocks and rattles for about a minute, and gives a couple of lusty backfires. It is leaking oil from the back of the engine block, and then the gas tank starts leaking too, just for good measure. The cop thinks we’ve thrown a rod. But he is incredibly helpful–he pretty much puts himself at our disposal. He lines up a tow, and tries to arrange for us to get a rental car. It turns out no rental cars are to be had in Atoka. So we investigate Greyhound. There is a Greyhound station in town, and we catch the ancient, deaf, batty agent right before he pulls away. Then we learn we need to pay in cash–more than we’re carrying. So the cop ferries Jenny to an ATM. Then we learn that Greyhound does not allow pets on board, and at this point, we start feeling just a mite discouraged. It turns out that the cop has a bunch of cats, and he volunteers to take care of Squeaker until we can pick her up. This guy was a hero five times over.

At this point, we meet the wrecker driver back at the black bird. He thinks it isn’t a thrown rod, but a bad rear main gasket, which joins the engine block to the transmission. He gets the engine to start right up, but we all agree that the car is not fit to be driven to Austin.

Well, we caught the bus, made it home in one piece (although without our pet), somewhat poorer and wiser for the experience. A week later we drove back to retrieve Squeaker. About 6 weeks later, the Ford dealership called to say the car was ready. With great trepidation, we went up there to retrieve it, and when we arrived, the thing I had secretly been hoping to happen did happen: the dealership owner bought the car from me.

New York Trip

Note: Click on thumbnail pictures in this document to pop up larger versions. Click on the large version to close it.

New York. It’s a hell of a town, I hear, but I hadn’t really found out for myself. I’d only been there for a short visit when I was 15, traveling with my mom. So that doesn’t really count. I have a number of friends in NYC: an old high-school friend, a friend who moved there from Austin, a fire-equipment customer, and some net.friends.

And then there was 9-11.

Things changed in a fundamental way on 9-11. It was a historic moment, and I felt an obligation to myself to go to the place where it happened, to get a sense of what things were like there. I wanted to be able to look back 50 years after the event and remember what the city was like in the days after the disaster. It would be nice to be able to remember what the city was like before the disaster too, but I can’t wind the clock back. If only I could. If only I could.

About two weeks after the event, I decided to go, and made travel arrangements. I would up arriving in New York on October 13, for a four-night trip.

My fire-friend Dori had offered me a place to crash (perhaps an infelicitous choice of words, considering), and I took her up on that. She and her boyfriend Jeffrey have a funky loft (as opposed to one of those homogeneous, corporate lofts, right?) in Brooklyn, a few blocks away from the Williamsburg Bridge and the Marcy stop on the J-M-Z lines. This proved to be a pretty convenient launchpad for my little adventures.

Saturday, 13 Oct 2001

I departed at a ridiculous hour on the morning of Saturday, October 13. My flight was at 6:45 AM. I wanted at least an hour to allow for formalities at the airport, and the blue-van people wanted at least an hour to deliver me there. They told me to expect a pickup between 4:15 and 4:30. Yes, in the AM. Ugh.

There were heavy storms and severe winds overnight, and that morning I awoke to total blackness. The power was out. The blue van pulled up slightly before 4:15, and the driver asked me why I didn’t put my porch light on. Anyhow, rather than taking an hour, it took about 15 minutes to deliver me and one other passenger to the airport. So there I am, at about 4:30, with over two hours to kill in a deserted airport. I found a seat and tried to get comfortable. I think I dozed. Eventually the ticket counter opened. I got my ticket, went through security, which wasn’t that big a deal, and procured coffee. The line for coffee was much longer than the security line. A reassuring sign of normality in these troubled times.

The airline, I flew, Vanguard, is one I hadn’t even heard of before I started researching the trip. They had the cheapest fares, and their routing and layovers weren’t completely insane (their hub is in Kansas City). One new twist was the random baggage checks. After getting past security, and right before boarding the flight, they called quite a few passengers to have their carry-ons hand-checked.

In KC, I noted that the airport had a screwed-up system where there was a separate security checkpoint every two or three gates. Very inefficient. Dumb. Since there was one line at each mini-cluster of gates, if that line backed up (and it did), you just had to wait. At any rate, my connecting gate was in the same mini-cluster of gates, so I didn’t have to leave the secured area. Though I would have, if I needed to use the can. Dumb.


When I saw the Chrysler Building, I got a happy feeling: I really felt like I was in NYC.

On to La Guardia. I was kind of surprised at how small LGA seems. I caught a cab into Brooklyn, to Dori’s, where I was warmly received by her and her boyfriend Jeffrey. They have a loft on the 9th floor of a big old industrial building, populated with artists and craftsmen. We went with their neighbor Ashley to the neighborhood eatery, Right Bank, for mimosas and (in my case) eggs benedict. A couple of the people in the building were having open-houses to show off their art, and we stopped by one. His loft was crammed to the gills with art and stuff. There’s no other word for it. It was quite cozy. Some of the art was pretty neat, some I confess I didn’t really get.

Dori’s loft is also pretty well accoutered with stuff, and is very funky.





Dori’s & Jeffrey’s loft

The Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan at sunset, from Dori’s roof

Anyhow, we hung around the loft for the rest of the afternoon, until that evening, when we went to a party, Dori being one of the principal instigators. This party was fantastic. The title of the party was Lost Vegas. Imagine: rat roulette, with a rat on a sort of roulette wheel. Hissing cockroach races. Human roulette (this involved a big wheel, at least 8′ across, with a padded top. Players would go down a slide onto the spinning wheel and land on a number). There was a shotgun wedding chapel outside, an Elvis wedding chapel inside, and various other whimsical gambling machines. On the outside there was a canopied area where a guy on a keyboard would accompany karaoke singers. Inside there was a live band, which did lounge covers of Devo hits (while wearing flowerpot hats), among other things. Dori, in her role as a pimp, pressed me and about 8 other guys into service for her “Rent A Boy” operation. We were to take a dollar (or some other amount of money) in exchange for providing whatever service we were comfortable providing for 15 minutes (or some other length of time). Business was, uhh, slow for me, but some guys brought in ten bucks or so.

I encouraged Carlos, a friend from Austin now living in Brooklyn, to come to the party, and eventually he did, after repeated confirmation by cellphone. He apparently enjoyed himself, as he wound up staying later than me–and I stayed until about 3:00 AM.

Sunday, 14 Oct 2001

Bright and early in the morning, I awoke. Yes, really. Dori & Jeffrey’s loft has a huge picture window with an eastern exposure. Besides, I had things to do, places to go, people to meet. As Carlos has been wont to say, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

I had made prior arrangements with a net.friend, Lisa, to get together and wander around. I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge, reaching the Manhattan side around 11:30 AM. I called Lisa to advise her of my impending arrival, and embarrassingly woke her with my call (not sure whether it was embarrassing for me or for her, but I definitely sensed some embarrassment somewhere). After some negotiation, we found a yuppified quasi-healthy type place on Spring St. to have brunch. Pretty good. We then proceeded to walk all over lower Manhattan. We walked through Soho, and Noho, the Financial District, Battery Park, the Fulton St fish market, and probably a few other places I’m overlooking. We got as close to the site of the WTC as we could, which was not very close: the police had set up barricades around a three-block (or so) perimeter. There was a pretty good crowd of people, both locals and tourists, making the same pilgrimage. Whenever we’d get to an intersection, we’d look down the canyon between the buildings to see what we could. There wasn’t much to see, which is the point, I guess. Once in a while, I could see the wrecked exteriors of buildings still standing. But the thing is, I’m not well acquainted with NYC, so the absence of the towers didn’t convey the visceral shock to me that it would to someone who saw them every day. There were a lot of memorials around the WTC site, a few “have you seen this person?” flyers. Some representatives from some Christian organization passing out glossy booklets putatively about the tragedy. I was intrigued to see a mobile cellphone tower deployed in the financial district, with diesel generators right there, rumbling away.

At one point in our perambulations, somewhere on Avenue A, I think, we saw a tall guy with lots of hair and an all-silver leather outfit. Very Van-Halen circa 1986. We also stuck out heads in a fascinating shop specializing in animal bones, bugs in plexiglas, taxidermied animals, that sort of thing. Yum. There were lots of other shops we passed by that seemed like they’d probably be fun to stop in, but I was happy to keep moving and see more stuff.


At some other point, we discovered a Japanese grocery, Sunrise Mart. What a treat! It was where the local Japanese-abroad shopped, and I found a 9-pack of yukimi daifuku. Score! For those poor benighted souls among you, yukimi daifuku are a Japanese snack consisting of little ice-cream balls wrapped in sheets of mochi. Mochi is a sort of dough made of rice. I love these things.

Anyhow, I loved seeing everything this way, but my feet were taking a pounding. I told Lisa “If we found a place with seats, I would avail myself of one.” We went to Two Boots Video to pick up a couple of Woody Allen flicks (we went looking for What’s Up Tiger Lily?, but that was out of stock, so we got Sweet and Lowdown and Small Time Crooks instead). Then to an Indian restaurant and bar where we sat on a little couch in the front window and had some wine. Sunday night was supposed to be a fire-practice, but things were a little up in the air. I called Dori to get the latest scoop, and she told me to meet at a bar near Lisa’s called Whiskey Ward. On our way there, Lisa and I stopped for a slice at Two Boots Pizza (Two Boots seems to have a mini-empire in the neighborhood). Then we went to the bar, where I had a chance to meet the usual suspects in the NYC firedancing community. That was fun. Presumably we were going to find a practice venue, but once everyone was installed at the bar, they proved difficult to dislodge. This may not have been an entirely bad thing, considering how whipped I was. So Lisa and I decided to watch Sweet and Lowdown instead. I enjoyed it. Headed back to Dori’s to go to bed.

Monday, 15 Oct 2001

Another day, another little adventure. I took the train with Dori into midtown Manhattan. Got off the F line on 42nd St. Wandered around for a while and walked over to the Empire State Building. Although I’ve always loved the Chrysler Building’s art-deco style, the Empire State is no slouch in that area either. The lobby is ornamented by big brass disks with various designs.




Some architectural details from the Empire State Building

What with the way things are now, most of the entrances to the building were blocked, with three uniformed guys standing around to keep an eye on things, and there were security checkpoints at those that were open. A guy checking IDs outside the door, who gave only a cursory glance at my driver’s license (evidently he hadn’t seen any Al-Qaeda membership cards), and a metal detector and x-ray checkpoint inside, which was manned by guys who were giving more than cursory treatment. I suppose it’s possible their boss told them to be hardasses, but I suspect they were internally motivated to take their jobs seriously.

Once inside, I walked around the lobby, but couldn’t go to the observation deck, which was closed at that hour for some reason. I then had breakfast at the “Big Apple Diner”, directly adjoining the lobby. Kind of odd–I had a Spanish omelette, which was served with french fries. How…multicultural. And some really bad coffee.


Monday’s breakfast

From there, I wandered around Times Square a bit, and was suitably impressed by all the wall-sized curvy TV screens, the hustle, etc. But I really wanted to go to the Guggenheim, so I lit out for points north. I walked through Central Park, which is really pretty and really big. I mean, you can look at a map of Manhattan, and there’s Central Park, centrally located, and using up a lot of prime real estate, so you can tell, intellectually, “Gee, that park must be pretty big,” but you don’t feel it in your bones until you traverse it on foot. And I never knew there was a zoo in the park, but there is. At one point, I just had to take a break because my feet were killing me. It gave me a chance to take some notes for this diary.





Some views right next to central park, at 5th & 76th

Eventually I closed on my objective for the early part of the day: the Guggenheim. Have you ever had the experience of knowing some famous work of art through books and postcards, and then coming upon it in person? I remember having that feeling very strongly when I first saw Sunday on the Grande Jette and Nighthawks. Anyhow, that’s the feeling I got when I first caught sight of the Guggenheim building itself. It really is that special.

There was a security check to get in.


Coming upon the Guggenheim

Unfortunately, when I was there, the main ramp was closed: a new exhibit of Brazilian art was being installed, and it looks like quite a show, to judge from what I saw. The pictures here don’t reflect it properly, but the entire main spiral was painted a very dark blue.

I did get to view the permanent collection in the smaller annex, and that was certainly worthwhile. They had a number of Modiglianis, which are notable for their very elongated forms, and I mused that if you morphed a Modigliani person with a Botero person, you’d wind up with a normal-looking figure.

There were also a number of Mondrians on exhibit other than the ones I’d seen before, and it struck me, when I took my glasses off, that he might have meant for us to look at the some of his works with blurred vision. With my glasses on, all I really noticed was the strong lines. With them off, I noticed the overall patterns of color, which were much more organic. But of course, at least half the fun of the museum is the museum itself. I was especially tickled by the miniature reproductions of modernist chairs in the gift shop. I guess those would be for the world’s best-appointed dollhouse…?







Views from inside the Guggenheim

Setting up the Brazil exhibit

At this point, my legs were pretty shot. I got on the bus and headed south. There was a crazy bum sitting across from me, having a fairly intense discussion with himself. What struck me as especially interesting was that he wasn’t vocalizing–he was just mouthing the words, which seems to indicate that he was sane enough to keep his voice down, but not sane enough to keep the voices out of his head. It’s as if at some level, he knows he’s crazy, and can kind of keep things together.


I love New York!


Library lion, with friends

I got off the bus around 42nd Street and went over to Bryant Park, next door to the library. This was perfect. The weather was perfect, there were chairs and little tables scattered all over the grass. I pulled one of the former up to one of the latter and wrote postcards to the folks back home.

I came upon this amazing deli somewhere near Time Square. That little red lantern you see is typical of cheap Japanese restaurants and basically says “Restaurant”. I have no idea what the Hebrew text says, but basically, this signage says it all. If there’s a reason to love New York, this is it.






Views around Bryant Park

After a pleasant couple hours in the park (or so) spent writing and reading, I caught the F train into lower Manhattan. Lisa and I were going to have dinner and go to a show (about which more below). I had some extra time, so I wandered around. I already had a glimmering of familiarity with this part of town, having criss-crossed it repeatedly yesterday. Walked past Katz’s Deli, site of the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally. Came upon a Belgian Frites shop. I’m not sure what the fascination with Belgian Frites, which are simply big helpings of french fries with some kind of fancy dipping sauce, but these shops are all over the place. Evidently there was a big Belgian-cuisine push a few years back, and while I’m sure fries are not the pinnacle of Belgium’s culinary arts, apparently they’re what stuck. That and Stella Artois beer, which seems to be very popular around town.

One thing that struck me as I wandered around was that there are evidently some drivers in NYC who think they can clear a block-long traffic jam by simply laying on their horn for, oh, 15 seconds. It never seems to work, and I can’t imagine it actually makes them feel better. Quite the contrary, it adds to the overall din, and makes everyone else feel worse, I’d imagine.

Anyhow. Hooked up with Lisa and we headed out to an Indian joint to eat. Not sure what it was called. It was on the street for Indian joints, though. There they were, all in a row, one after the other. I’m not sure why the Indian restaurant operators all chose to cluster like that.

After dinner, which was pretty good, we wandered around and went into Shakespeare & Co Books, where I picked up Fruits a picture book of Japanese street fashion (compiled from a magazine of the same name), which made me laugh and made me feel nostalgic, and The 5-Minute Iliad, written by a friend of Lisa’s. Hung out there for quite some time. It’s a nice bookstore.

Then it was on to the evening’s entertainment. It was punk-rock/metal karaoke night at Arlene Grocery. (Why no possessive “‘s”? I don’t know. Why is a bar called a grocery, and why am I prone to mistakenly refer to it as Arlene’s Kitchen? Truly, these are eternal mysteries.)


Some dude rockin’ out at Arlene Grocery

This was truly one of the high points of the trip. This is not like normal karaoke, with a machine. There’s a three-piece rock band. They’re very good at what they do, and they started pretty promptly, near the appointed time of 10:00 PM. They have a playlist of, well, at least 60 songs. The lyrics for each song are on a separate sheet in a notebook, the notebook is passed around, and anyone who wants to do a song pulls that sheet and passes it up. The emcee pulls a sheet from the stack at random and calls out “Who’s doing ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’?”. The would-be star gets up on stage and rocks out.

Some people, bluntly, sucked. They were obviously having a good time, thought they’d take a shot, and picked a song to which they barely recalled the chorus. The bassist spent a lot of time coaching these folks through their songs. Some people, bless their hearts, they were really trying, but couldn’t hit the right notes, or the right time, or couldn’t project. Some people were really into it and pretty good. And a few people were great. There were two brothers, who clearly had some musical talent. The first got up and did Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train”, and nailed it. The second got up and did Rush’s “Limelight”. Not only did he nail it, he nailed Geddy Lee’s neuter, nasal voice, and the bassist even handed over his ax, for the complete Rush-mania effect.

It’s quite a scene. There are a lot of regulars–the emcee addressed many of them by name. There’s even been a documentary made about it.




Views from Williamsburg Bridge at night

That was a lot of fun, and we stayed until about 12:30. Lisa has, like, a job, so she had to head home. I headed back on foot (glutton for punishment) and took some pictures as I crossed the Williamsburg Bridge.

Tuesday, 16 Oct 2001

My last full day in New York, and it promised to be action-packed.

I need to back up a little here to a pre-trip anecdote. A week or so before leaving, I had received an e-mail from a guy in the UK, Dominic, interested in buying a specialized piece of firedancing equipment from me. He mentioned that he’d be in NYC between certain dates, and that I could ship it to him there to save the international postage. I responded “I’ll go you one better–I’ll be in NYC at the same time, so we can handle the transaction in person.” Have I mentioned how much I love the Internet? For some reason, we both look like we’re sneering in the picture, but we aren’t. I think we were just captured in mid-speech.


Dominic and me. I’m on the right.

I had fedexed the equipment in question, along with my own (used) firedancing wicks and a couple other odds and ends, so as to avoid raised eyebrows at airport security. These arrived on Monday, and bright and early on this day Tuesday, I called Dominic to arrange to meet. He and I decided to meet at the streetside jewelery booth where Dori is working.

So I took the train in with Dori, hovered uselessly as she set up the booth, and waited for Dominic to appear. He appeared. We took care of business. Cool. We got to talking, and it turns out he had also been at Arlene Grocery the night before, and enjoyed it as much as me. A small world gets smaller.

I had a lunch date, so I headed north on foot to Union Square. I had some time on my hands, so I wandered around a bit. The park at Union Square looks a little run-down, but it clearly fills an important role in everyday life. It’s an oasis in the middle of a busy part of a busy town.

There’s an off-leash dog-run at one corner of the park, and I noticed a person walking a dalmation towards it, with the dalmation clearly eager for the chance to run around and sniff some dog-butt. There was a sign on the gate to the dog run reading “If you’re not responsible enough to clean up after your dog, you don’t deserve to own one.” This has Giuliani all over it, don’t you think?




Views around Union Square

I was struck by the assymetric cornice on the building in the middle photo here, clearly avoiding the airspace of the adjacent building. Also by the fact that elephant-ears grow in NYC (see the rightmost photo)–I had imagined those were more tropical plants.

While I was waiting to meet up with Kim for a lunch date, I got calls from two other friends I also planned on getting together with, plus a call from Kim saying she was running a few minutes late. Weird to get three calls all clustered together within just a few minutes like that.

Kim arrived, and we headed off in search of food. At first thinking of Indian, we shifted gears and decided on Burmese instead. Wandered around, since Kim’s recollection of the place’s location was a little vague, so she called information, gave them an approximation of the name, got the restaurant on the line, and got the address. Food was pretty good, and what the hell, it’s only the second time I’ve had Burmese food.


Knish bakery

After lunch, I had some stuff to take care of back at Dori’s loft, so I started heading in that direction when I came across this knish bakery. I didn’t stop inside, but I love the sign.

I wanted to fedex some of my excess stuff, including my wicks, back to Austin, and had scoped out a fedex box near Dori’s, but it was completely devoid of supplies. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I figured I’d find a way to work things out, and to my surprise and relief, there was a fedex driver just a block away. I buttonholed him and got the airbill and pouch I needed. Took care of that and got in touch with my old high-school friend Scott, who’s an artist in Brooklyn and now goes by the monicker of Dread Scott. I can’t get used to calling him that, though. Anyhow, we decided to get together right then, so I called for a driver to deliver me to his house. I remember driving past a bunch of ultra-frummy (Hassidic) men standing on a grass island next to a highway on-ramp, standing around as if they were waiting for something to happen. I wonder what.

This is an interesting phenomenon, hire cars. NYC has a notorious shortage of medallion cabs, and all of them apparently operate in Manhattan. The shortage has led to unlicensed jitney cabs, but the interesting thing is that when cellphones are widespread, hire cars become a viable alternative to cabs. If you have the number of the car service on your cellphone’s speed-dial, you can have a car there within a few minutes, which is effectively about as good as a cab. Although hire cars are more expensive. Then again, you get to ride in a Lincoln Town Car instead of a Ford Crown Vic. That’s one thing I noticed–all the hire cars are Lincoln Town Cars, and if you see a Lincoln Town Car on the streets of NYC, it’s very likely a hire car.


Not Ray’s Pizza

Scott lives in a third-floor walkup in a classic Brooklyn brownstone. Nice apartment, though somewhat snug for two adults and a kid. Great parquet floors (isn’t it odd how the word for a wood inlay technique became a brand name for margarine?). A bizarre collision of militantly political art and kid’s toys all over the place. Scott and I hang out, shoot the breeze, discuss these bizarre reversible shiny plastic jeans Scott’s wearing. We head out to pick up his son, Mo, from day-care. Mo is 4.5 years old. He vaguely remembered me from our first meeting in Florida, where he saw me spin fire. Like most kids his age, he wants to be the center of attention, but he’s got a nice disposition and good manners (as Scott joked “we didn’t want anyone to realize he was ours”). Scott’s wife Jenny was at work, so I didn’t get a chance to see her. The three of us headed over to Not Ray’s Pizza for a slice. The joke here is that many if not most NYC pizzerias are named some variation on “Ray’s Pizza.” Just as most pizzerias have a wall of fame, this one did too–decorated with pictures of all the Ray’s Pizzas around town, and famous Rays, like Ray Bolger, Sugar Ray Leonard, etc.

After pizza, it was time to go to an art opening. Hopped on the subway, though just before we descended the stairs, Scott said “Wait…” “What?” “See over there? Someone’s gone and done what I knew was coming–they’ve put in an art gallery.” I guess that means it’s all downhill for the neighborhood now. It was right when we went down these stairs that my left knee started bugging me. I must have put a foot wrong or something. Anyhow, the art opening was for a new installation by Jenny Holzer (who I had confused with Barbara Kruger when Scott mentioned her to me). We took the train over to Chelsea, which, as Scott explained, is pretty much the center of the U.S. art world, though many artists based in NYC (other than himself) like to think of it as the center of the art world, period. Didn’t get the name of the gallery. It was very crowded, with lots of people standing around outside to get some air. I could smell the white wine before we even got to the door. Really.

The installation was in three rooms. Each room was very large, white, with very high ceilings. They were completely empty except for the installation pieces. In the first room, there were 4 towers of scrolling LED text in blue, reaching from floor to ceiling, in a square formation. In the second room, yellow LED text scrollers were attached to the ceiling in parallel lines. In the third, it was red LED text scrollers, set into an alcove in the ceiling, criss-crossing each other somewhat like interleaved fingers. The text seemed to be the same in all three rooms, and was a fairly sensuous description of a woman’s body. When it was legible, anyhow–after a while, text would be running in two directions at once, or blinking, or using other effects making it hard to read. I suppose one could read all sorts of things into this–about the death of romance, or the loss of privacy created by technology, or some crap like that, but when Scott asked me what I thought, I told him “I’m not sure I’m getting everything I’m supposed to be getting.” He said it was partly an exercise in showing how the artist could do this neat high-tech thing because she had a lot of money.

We hung out in the gallery until Mo got bored. On our way out, we bumped into an older, professorial-looking guy, who stopped to chat briefly with Mo. As we walked away, Scott told me “That was Andres Serrano“. “Who?” I ask. “You might remember a controversy in the art world a few years ago…” “Piss Christ!”. Yep, that was him.


The bar at the Marriot

My timing was working out just about perfectly. Scott and I walked out to one of the avenues (10th?) and I caught a cab to the Marriot at 45th and Broadway, where I was supposed to meet an net.friend, Kelly, for drinks in the hotel bar. Apparently they used to have a rotating lounge overlooking Times Square, which must have been pretty cool, but that area was closed for rennovation. The bar we did sit in was pretty cool, and had a lot of glass pieces lit from beneath by a rotating color wheel (or something like that). We had a long and wide-ranging conversation about this and that. Eventually it got late, we got the check, and I discovered I had been drinking the most expensive beer I’d ever had. $32 for two wines and two beers. But oh, they had brought tasty little nut-snack deals gratis. It was drizzling in Manhattan when we stepped out, so I made haste to get to an F-line station. When I made it back to Brooklyn, it had stopped raining.

Wednesday, 17 Oct 2001

My last day in NYC. Oh well. It had been a very full trip. Dori didn’t have to be anywhere special that morning, so we had a leisurely coffee and I got my stuff together. We hugged goodbye and I headed into Manhattan by train. I had a coffee date with another net.friend, Robin, somewhere in midtown. When I was closing on the location of her office, I gave her a call, and we met down in the lobby. Headed over to the tea room in the Morgan Library, which was very civilized. Although she and I had corresponded sporadically for some time, this was still sort of a “get to know you” situation for some reason. She told me exactly where I could catch a bus to LGA, and of a cool-sounding exhibit at Grand Central, right next to that. Once I got as far as the bus depot, which was at the base of the Chrysler Building, my feet and left knee were just killing me, so I wimped out and got on the bus out to the airport. $10.


Closing in on the Chrysler Building


Last shot before getting on the bus

At the airport, I went through security, which was taking its job really seriously. Studied my ID, had me remove my glasses. When some spare change set off the (very sensitive) metal detector, I got a very thorough patting-down. Once cleared, I walked past the M15-armed national guardsman and purchased an overpriced sandwich and orange juice and plunked myself down at the small departure lounge at my gate to start reading my new book, 5-minute Iliad. Very funny, by the way. Eventually other passengers started showing up, and four of them sat down next to me. One of them, a man, got to talking with the three women sitting there. He evidently just came from the New Life Expo (red flag!), and discussed how he was “doing some healing” for the disaster victims. It got worse. Evidently this guy never met a crackpot theory he didn’t believe. He was going on about the two theories for the “real” perpetrators of the 9-11 attack. Either time-travellers from the future or the Trilateral Commission. Riiiiiight. He went on in some detail on this subject, also explaining how anthrax was a “virus” (it’s bacterial) engineered by the U.S. Government (it occurs naturally), which won’t release the antidote (only poisons have antidotes, not diseases) because it wants to maintain control over the population (anthrax is treatable with typical antibiotics). The three women seemed to be listening to this nut-job with more than polite interest, but I had to get up and walk away otherwise I would have RIPPED HIS FUCKING HEAD OFF!! if for no other reason than to see if bats would fly out. Not to mention the public service I’d be providing.

The flight was basically uneventful. Had to transfer in Kansas City, and this time I did have to exit one secured area and get checked into the next. Really dumb. Security was tight here too. They were having some guys take their boots off and send the boots through the x-ray machine. They opened my bag, and the pimply-faced young security guy was very puzzled by my firedancing equipment, which I identified simply as “poi”. Got back into Austin pretty late, and caught the blue van home. Phew. What a hell of a trip. I felt like I fit ten days of stuff into four days of time.

UK-Netherlands-Belgium Trip Report

19 Nov 1997: The following is taken directly from a (paper) travel journal I wrote in while on the trip, which was in May/June 1997. I’ll be cleaning this page up and filling in some missing links gradually.

As it happens, I am writing this almost exactly 24 hours before the reversion of Hong Kong to China. This is on my mind because the hotel room we are in has CNN on TV, and they have been flogging the story relentlessly.

We are in the town of Zwolle, a sleepy old town in the middle of the Netherlands. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Our trip began, as all trips do, with a cab ride to the airport. Our cabbie was Eritrean, which is kind of interesting, since his country wasn’t a country when he moved to the USA. Our outbound flight plan was Austin-Atlanta-Manchester, and the flights were reasonably comfortable and basically uneventful. We arrived, sleepy, in Manchester, a very new airport with a lot of new construction going on. I was rather stunned that there was no customs check for our baggage: I don’t just mean that no one looked at our bags, I mean that there was no one to look at our bags. Surprising for a country that routinely suffers terrorist attacks. We left the airport and entered a seemingly endless enclosed, elevated walkway, very new and shiny, which brought us to the train station. After some hemming and hawing about whether to go into Manchester or leave immediately on the train, we left for Sheffield. British Rail has handy automated ticket vending machines that nobody seems to use, but years of living in Japan had habituated us to them, so we did use them—no problem. On the ride to Sheffield we alternately dozed and watched the extremely green fields pass by.

Upon our arrival in Sheffield, we made for a fish+chips shop, something Jenny was particularly nostalgic for. It was a tatty, tiny place that probably has had exactly the same client base (us excepted) since 1962. We pushed on towards the middle of town, eventually reaching the campus of the University of Sheffield. Unfortunately, that was not our destination: we were looking for the residence halls (dorms). We did find a map on one of the building walls, and that gave us an impressionistic sense of where to go. So we pushed on, asking directions a few times along the way. It is chilly and drizzling at this point, we are both tired and lugging our packs, so nerves are the tiniest bit frayed. Finding the correct dorm, Halifax Hall, proved difficult. First we had to find the road it was on, Endcliff Vale Road. We quickly found Endcliff Circle, Endcliff Rise, Endcliff Whatever, but no Endcliff Vale. Eventually we found that, and then a dorm complex, but no Halifax Hall. We wandered about aimlessly for a while, until a cleaning lady noticed us and gave us directions. Even then we managed to find the wrong side of the building, but eventually we got in and our spirits improved drastically. We were torn between getting some rest and mingling with friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. Mingling won. It was worth it—it energizes me.

There was a semi-fancy meal that evening, so we ducked into our room to change into our semi-fancy attire. For me, this means T-shirt, jeans (so what else is new?) and a tux jacket. This combo, especially with my red high-tops, got excellent reviews. For Jenny this means a slinky black velvet number she picked up recently. The dinner was the fabled rubber-chicken affair, with several well-meaning but dull speeches, one being in Japanese and inaudible. Jenny and I ducked out of this, leaving our dining companions, Alan and Connie, to fend for themselves. There was a pub in the dorm. Ordinarily, I would question the wisdom of this, but for our purposes, I reckon it’s a great idea. I had a chance to share a beer with Barry Byrne, who I had previously known only by e-mail. Pubs in Britain close at 11, and that is roughly when we retired.

The next day started with a shower. I must pause now and say some unkind things about British plumbing: it is inadequate. Every day we spent in Britain, we encountered some example of bad plumbing. In Sheffield, it was a weak shower that could only occasionally be persuaded to yield hot—no, make that warm—water. I will chronicle events involving the foibles of British plumbing as they crop up throughout this report.

The first regular day of the conference began with a short walk to the conference facilities, led by Mary Gillender—about a 15-minute walk. This was much less time than it took Jenny and me to navigate to Halifax Hall, but then again, we had no idea what we were doing.

The first session was a plenary session reviewing the alphabet soup of translation groups out there. Fine speakers but boring subject matter.

The second session that I attended was on machine translation. This was a sort of panel presentation with five speakers, one of whom used up way too much time. What was interesting was the perspective put forth by all the speakers (who were all very much involved in the commercial, not academic end of MT), which was that MT systems do have their uses within limits, but aren’t going to challenge human translators any time soon, and in fact can complement them. All well and good, but nobody discussed any serious work on radically better MT systems—ones that “break the semantic barrier” as one speaker put it—but I know such work is happening in academia, and wished we could have heard about it. One interesting comment was that as MT software has dropped in price, it has become vastly less profitable, which I suppose might dampen enthusiasm for doing research on radically new systems (or at least commercializing them).

The next session was Robin Thompson’s lecture on Okinawan performing arts. After a regrettably long explanation of the evolution of various Okinawan verse forms (during which I may have nodded off, due to jet lag), he eventually got around to explaining how Okinawan is different from standard Japanese, how a few songs go, and actually playing them, which he did quite well.

The session after that was presented by the guy who went on too long in the MT panel, Ian Gordon. Perhaps I should have known better. This was basically a sales pitch for a kind of computer program—”translation memory”—which his company sells. This is basically software that matches everything in your source text with everything in your translated text. When it runs into the same or similar source-text phrase in the future, it can insert your previous translation of it. Sounds very promising, but A) requires source text in electronic form; B) doesn’t work J-E, and C) doesn’t run on a Mac. So much for that.

The last session I attended on Day 1 was given by Judy Wakabayashi, on research into what the translation process involves. Judy gave a similar talk at IJET-4, and all the “research” at that point seemed to consist of ivory-tower academic making half-true but half-baked a priori pronouncements from on high. Evidently there has been a revolution in the study of translation: now they are actually studying the translator at work. What a concept. Admittedly there are a lot of problems inherent in this approach, but it seems a vastly more promising avenue of exploration.

After the day’s sessions, there was to be a photo shoot on the steps of the facility, but this got rained out—or more accurately, rained indoors. The photographer was also late, so Robin Thompson entertained us with some more music from his sanshin.

Returned to the dorm on foot and assembled for a bus ride out to the nearby town of Castleton, which is noteworthy for having a castle, imagine that. Once in Castleton, there were theoretically two options: 1) hang out in a pub; 2) go hiking around. The weather put paid to option 2. We all broke up into large-ish groups and headed off to various pubs around the town. Our party wound up in a very cozy little pub that served good food.

That’s right, good food. The Brits have always gotten a bad rap for their cooking. If I’m going to rag on their plumbing, though, it is only fair that I stick up for the food: evidently they have learned methods of preparation other than boiling everything. Their coffee, however, is still uneven at best. It hasn’t taken root there yet, I suppose. I had good coffee on two occasions while in England and bad coffee the rest of the time.

Back on the subject of plumbing though, I must also observe that the convention of hot water on the left and cold on the right is not observed: they just hook them up any old way. The Dutch are more consistent, but not entirely.

Anyhow, back to the pub. We all had good meals. Michael House was at the next table, engaging in one of his endless, earnest monologues with a hapless victim. This time the topic was not animation but the virtues of the Macintosh computer. Even though I share his sentiments more or less, it is almost painful to merely overhear him going on and on.

On Day 2 of the conference, we were both still having a hard time dragging our butts out of bed, and we both considered blowing off the morning session. We wound up sitting in on Wolfgang’s talk on kanji capability for PCs, something that isn’t exactly relevant to me, but I like to keep my hand in, as it were, and Wolfgang is an entertaining speaker.

For the second session, I wasn’t especially keen on any of the sessions being presented, but I decided on Christian Galinsky’s talk on terminology standardization in translation. This wound up being more interesting than I’d expected, simply because it got me thinking about a problem I hadn’t considered before—that there might be a body of official translations for regular words, and failing to use them could be problematic. This hasn’t been an issue for me in the past, but part of the reason for going to IJET is to get exposed to new aspects of translation.

Blew off the lunchtime lecture.

For Session 3, I naturally attended the presentation by Jenny and Matt Loader. Jenny discussed her survey results, of course, and despite being nervous initially, eventually got into a rhythm and got more comfortable with the audience. Matt discussed issues of ergonomics, workplace set-up, effects of music on heart-rate, etc. He quoted one translator who claimed to increase his throughput six time by getting a perfect set-up (this was Warren Smith).

Session 4 was mine, on the Honyaku mailing list. I went in planning to sort of play things loose and adapt my talk to the crowd’s level, but this prevented me from having everything mapped out in advance. I was afraid I might not have enough material, and it turned out that just shooting from the hip I did not. However, several people in the audience fed me material, which would remind me of points I had wanted to cover but forgotten. In the end it worked out OK, and resembled a sort of live presentation of the FAQ.

After the day’s sessions, everyone assembled for closing remarks and tea in a very impressive meeting hall. The tea was quite elaborate, with all sorts of delectable items being served—scones, strawberries with cream, tea (duh) and good coffee. This was one of the two places I had good coffee in England.

This tea was where people were saying their goodbyes. Unfortunately, some of them slipped out before I had a chance to say goodbye to them.

When this broke up, Jenny, Mary Gillender, and I all caught a ride back to Halifax Hall with a friend of Mary’s. This was much appreciated, as it was raining. Still. I swear, the weather in England bit the wax tadpole. A more authentically English experience, I suppose, but it makes for a bad trip. Anyhow. Then Mary and I caught another ride with the same friend to Mary’s apartment, where I made use of her computer to switch the IJET infobot message over to the IJET-9 message. I walked back to Halifax Hall, which was close by. Jenny and I were going to go to dinner with Jeremy. This expanded to include Uncle Bill, and then about 12 people in total. Jenny just wanted to have a quiet chat with Jeremy, so when the group split up at an Indian restaurant, us three hung apart. Unfortunately, Michael House was with us. We eventually wound up back at the same Indian restaurant as everyone else, but at a different table, listen to Michael talk about Macs. This went on for some time.

One the way back to the dorm (where Jenny and I had elected to spend an extra night before pushing on), we all ran into Cliff Bender and Tim Leaney. We let them sort of absorb Michael while we faded back and then darted off in the opposite direction, eventually reaching a sort of yuppified pub, where we hung out for a while.

The next morning, there were still a few people left over from the conference, so we clustered together, had breakfast in the dorm, and said our goodbyes.

Jenny and I made our way to the train station fairly early. Although Leeds was the only other English destination in mind, our primary reason for going—to visit Bob Jackson’s factory—would not be achievable that day, being a Sunday. So we headed for the historic town of York instead. York is very touristy, but not objectionably so. It does have lots of shops that obviously cater to tourists, but really no shops selling “I’m with stupid” T-shirts or anything like that.

We wandered along the old city walls until we got to a tiny museum inside of the old city gate towers, Micklegate Bar. We paid our admission and looked around. It had a lot of hand-made displays chronicling the city’s checkered past, how it was heavily contested back in the —what was it?—1300s. And how the heads of the losers would be hung out on display (People can be so vindictive). And how a tailor once stole some of these heads after they had been flapping in the breeze for 8 years. (Peope can be strange). Plaster reproductions of some of these green, decaying heads adorned the top floor of the museum. Yum.

This gate was one of the three that were the points of entry to the town (apart from the river). A “murrage” (import duty) was charged on all goods entering through the gates, which paid for the upkeep of the walls but made them very unpopular with merchants. They were allowed to fall into disrepair until the 1800s, when some conservationists (even then) started agitating to have them kept up.

We then went into the town. We located a pub tha had a few rooms to let, checked in (perhaps the least formal check-in process on record), dumped our packs, and started walking around. The center of York is a dense network of alleys and streets (come to think of it, this is true for a lot of the towns we saw) that all seem to turn in on each other. We wandered these streets for a while and started scouting a suitable location for lunch. We wound up at a cafe that cought Jenny’s eye because it had a “curry yorkshire pudding” on the menu, which she did in fact order. I tried it. It was OK. Curiously enough, three other IJET people were having lunch there.

We explored the town some more. We looked around Yorkminster Cathedral, which was mindblowing. Incredible artwork and detail everywhere you look. Just to give you some idea what I’m talking about: in the ceiling, all the vaulting ribs were decorated, and a “button” adorned every rib intersection. And every one of these buttons were unique. Cathedrals seem like reefs that are accretions of artwork instead of coral. We climbed Yorkminster’s tower, which was a bit of a workout. Something like 250 very steep steps, mostly spiral. There was a great view from the top, and descending was vertigo-inducing.

We also went a bit out of our way to visit St. Cuthbert’s, a church built in 687, and still operating. I think this may be the oldest artifact I have ever touched.

Here I am, standing on Elizabeth Taylor’s grave, just outside St Cuthbert’s

After quite a bit of enjoyable traipsing about York, we returned to the hotel to cool off for a while. We headed out for dinner at a neighboring Indian restaurant, and just outside our inn, we bumped into some other IJET-ers, Judy Wakabayashi and Yuki Sayeg, who were going on one of York’s numerous “Ghost Walks,” tours of all the various haunted houses around town.

When we walked into the Indian restaurant, it was empty. The maitre’d sat us by the window, which is always a good way to make a place seem busy from the outside (and therefore desirable). We chatted with him about the lack of decent Indian food in Austin, and I postulated a new theory: Austin’s Indian restaurants were probably all started by failed engineers, who had no particular aptitude for cooking. Sure enough, our place by the window did draw in some patrons, including one very argumentative couple, who bitched at the maitre’d’s insistence that they order an entree (which admittedly seems a little silly). At any rate, our meal was good, no complaints.

We went for a walk along the river and retired to our room. We had a TV in our room and watched it a bit before turning in. There was a show on featuring a woman named Priscilla, who would spring these “ambush blessings” on unsuspecting civilians. The theme for the show we were seeing seemed to be people with long-lost relatives in Australia. It was a sort of cross between “Queen for a Day” and “Candid Camera.” ‘Cilla’s favorite phrase: “Surprise, surprise.” I think she picked that up from Gomer Pyle. I found the whole thing a bit disgusting.

The plumbing inadequacy encountered in York was the shower, which spewed forth a bracing flow of chilly water. Yikes. The toilet was also noteworthy, in that before going into the waste pipe, the effluent passed through a breadload-sized plastic box that I think of as the “muncher:” the waste pipe was fairly narrow, and I suspect the muncher ground up anything large that passed through it. It would start making horrible grinding noises about a second after flushing. I presume that the muncher occasionally needs servicing, and I can only hope that this is a job reserved for convicts on work-release programs.

Monday, 23-June-97

We made our way to the train station fairly early and headed for Leeds, home of the Bob Jackson bike works. Leeds is a gritty, industrial town, and when I mentioned my intention to visit it to friends at IJET, they all thought it was a, ahh, peculiar objective. Upon arrival in Leeds, we promptly hailed a cab and had the driver take us to the Bob Jackson shop—I had their address and a map they had faxed me.

The shop turned out to be close to the train station, but we probably never would have found it if left to our own devices. The place was largely as I’d pictured it: a showroom, and off to the side the work area, which consisted of a junk room with a blasting chamber, a brazing/machining room, and a painting room with an oven. Bob Jackson shoots with enamel, which is not very toxic compared to some of the new resin paints, so all the spray work is out in the open.

We were met by one of the workmen, an older guy named Michael. He had an accent about a foot thick, and sometimes I could only understand what he was saying through what I would describe as a “gestalt experience”—I wouldn’t understand any single word in isolation, but it was possible to understand what each word might be by what the neighboring context sounded like. There was another guy working there and I simply couldn’t understand anything he said. I wonder if he had the same problem with my accent. I doubt it.

The showroom had some real gems—everything from a tandem tourer with fantastically ornate lugs and curly stays (a la Hetchins) to a sleek 853 racer with wishbone seatstays, these very cool filleted “Phoenix” lugs, and 9-speed Dura-Ace. And everything in between. Michael told me that 853 OS was great stuff, and that Reynolds was in fact phasing out all its older tubesets in favor of newer alloys. He also had nice things to say about 9-speed Dura Ace, which surprised me a bit: I expected more of a crusty retro-grouch attitude here.

We both had Michael measure us for custom frames, a process that turned out to be more casual and perfunctory than I expected. We collected a price list and some flyers and chatted with him a while.

I had noticed that adult trikes were unaccountably popular around Britain. Which is not to say I saw a lot of them, but I did see a few, and that’s more than I’ve seen in the USA. I asked Michael about this, and he agreed that it was a pretty strange thing.

Jenny and I had determined in advance that we would take the ferry from England to Holland, but we weren’t precisely sure about where to pick it up or any of the other details. Michael was able to fill us in on this, having taken the ferry himself some time ago (I can only wonder what the Dutch, who generally have an admirable command of English, made of his accent). He even told us that one of the ferries plying the route, the Norland, saw duty in the Falklands war as a hospital ship (later corroborated by others). Michael’s advice determined our route to Hull (Kingston-upon-Hull, technically). He also told us there was a catamaran ferry that left from Harwich, which was much faster (3 hours), but the slow ferry was actually pretty neat, so we should try that. We didn’t seriously entertain the idea of taking the catamaran, and in any case, Harwich was pretty far away.

And with that, we left. I was please as punch to have made the pilgrimage to the place where my bike came from, and I was grinning like a damned idiot.

We walked into the center of town, which was starting to come to life since it was about time for lunch. The city is actually not a bad place—it seemed a lot less depressing than Sheffield to me. Jenny and I eventually happened upon a stylishly modern-looking cafe, with the unlikely slogan “Leeds deserves groovy” (or something very similar) in the window. The place had a bright, simple secondary color scheme and minimalist furniture, making it a little out of place with the rest of the street, but very inviting anyhow. We decided to stop in for lunch. I had a nice sandwich and a caffe latte. This was the second occasion on which I had a good cup of coffee in England.

We wandered about Leeds some more. We saw several piercing parlors, which reminded me of Austin, and a huge covered market that was probably built in the Victorian or Edwardian era, and must have been quite the marvel in its day. Now it is more of a faded marvel, but it is still pretty neat if you can look past the grime and decay—the same could be said for many of the train stations we saw in England.

Wandering around Leeds, we encountered this interesting view.

We stopped into a bike shop that had no Bob Jacksons in stock. I was mildly appalled.

After a few hours of wandering about Leeds, we decided we’d seen enough, so we pushed on to our next stop, Hull. Upon our arrival, which was in the afternoon, we debated whether we should attempt to catch the ferry that day, or spend some time in Hull and catch it the next day. We opted for the latter. We were feeling a little discombobulated, and were having a hard time finding a cheap motel, so we wound up staying in a relatively expensive hotel right next to the station.

Hull is a relatively new-feeling city: most of the downtown area seems to be new construction, and nearby there is a distressingly American-style mega-store shopping mall and gigaplex movie theater. The theater, incidentally, was showing only American movies, including (cringe) “Beavis and Butthead do America.”

Chatting with the hotel staff, we learned several things:

  1. They like Beavis and Butthead.
  2. They don’t see anything wrong with the lack of British (or any non-American) movies, pointing out that British music is disproportionately popular in America, so it balances ou (somehow, I don’t think British music is as popular outside Britain as they do).
  3. Hull used to be a fishing town, but the local industry was closed down because the waters were being depleted. This shattered the local economy, predictably enough, and it is only in the past seven years or so that the town has started prospering, thanks mostly to the ferry business, it seems.

We had the luxury of a TV in our hotel room, and we watched it a fair amount. There was a documentary about Queen Victoria, which was actually pretty interesting. It turns out that she was a doting mother, which is not what one might expect from a general knowledge of the Victorian era. She was opposed to pomp and circumstance, which in fact had not been a big part of the monarchy before her (her coronation was a low-key and comically inept affair, evidently), but for her diamond jubilee, she was essentially pressed into service as the centerpiece of a bombastic festival. There was also a sort of autobiographical documentary by a Jewish-British screenwriter (whose name escapes me), followed by one of his stories, “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” which was interesting in that it revealed a fairly extensive Jewish community that I wasn’t aware of.

On the 24th, we checked out of the hotel but left out bags at the front desk, so we could explore the town. We went to the nautical museum, which had an extensive exhibit on whaling. I’ve got to say that whale-hunting is an awfully hard way to get oil. The museum also had numerous models of passenger and fishing boats that have plied the local waters, and that was kind of interesting. The whaling exhibit had a skeleton of a young right whale (about 40 feet long), explanations of how all the various harpoons were used, actual diaries kept by men on whaling expeditions, scrimshaw art, etc. I felt like I was wandering around inside Herman Melville’s brain.

The museum had a room set aside for an exhibit of collections kept by people in Hull. This had nothing to do with whaling or sailing—these were just regular folks’ personal collections of stuff. A collection of insect brooches, for example. This was quirky and amusing.

After that, we bought some Dutch Guilders at the local Thomas Cook, and then bought our ferry tickets at a nearby travel agent. The ferry had cabins, which were private, and open seating, which is much like on a train or airplane. It turned out that all the cabins were booked, so we took open seating.

We caught a bus at 5:00, which took us straight to the port. We passed through a few checkpoints and got on the boat. “Boat” is a bit of an understatement. “Floating city” might be more like it. The ferry was enormous. Bars (plural), a restaurant, a movie screen, a dance floor, video arcade, etc.

After absorbing the hugeness of the thing, Jenny and I dumped our packs at our assigned seats and began wandering the ferry. We had stickers made up by a machine that looks like a videogame, but takes your picture with a video camera, composites that image with a decorative frame of your choosing, and then spits out 16 postage-stamp sized stickers. At my insistence, we chose one of the less cutesy frame images, but the whole thing was extremely cutesy and extremely Japanese, even though I don’t recall having seen anything quite like it in Japan.

When it got to be mealtime, we bought meal tickets at the ferry’s information desk. We had to charge it, since we had used nearly all of our British currency. The services on the ferry were all in Pounds only, something I had wondered about beforehand.

In the dining hall we were seated at a table adjacent to a couple of British guys. The older one seemed ordinary enough, but the younger one was huge, heavily tattooed, and had rings through both nostrils and his septum, so he was sort of scary looking. I was curious about the relationship between the two of them. In the meantime I got some food from the very well-stocked buffet. The food was quite good—probably the best food I’ve ever had in a moving vehicle.

Eventually we got to talking with the guys at the next table. It turned out that they were both bikers going to a huge rally descending on Holland from all around Europe—something like 250,000 bikers, I think they said. They both turned out to be nice guys. The older one had been to the Netherlands a good number of times before, and offered tips on where to stay, what to see, etc.

After a long and pleasant conversation—we were practically the only ones left in the dining hall—Jenny and I retired to our seats. The seats were pretty comfortable. I managed to sleep tolerably on mine, and Jenny just laid down on the floor, which was not a problem, since there was a lot of spare room. The arms between the seats were unfortunately fixed in place, otherwise it would have been easy to lie accross two seats. Actually, I saw one woman do just that, by arcing her body around the armrest, but it didn’t look comfortable.

The ferry pulled into Rotterdam at about 5:30 AM on June 25th. It took about 30 minutes to get it lined up for us to actually leave, though. Once we walked out, feeling rather bleary, we proceeded through a customs check, where I was asked to produce an ongoing ticket (something that has never happened to me before), and then on to a bus terminal. There was a bus headed for Amsterdam, but it was full-up with people who had bought tickets in advance (probably the same people who had the cabins). The driver told us not to worry, that there would be another bus for Amsterdam “maybe.” Well, that wasn’t especially reassuring, but he called his dispatcher and told us that yes, there really would be a bus in fifteen minutes, and it would have room for us. So we cooled our heels for a bit, watching the ferry being unloaded. It was a bit comical to watch semi-tractors hauling camper trailers.

The bus did arrive as promised, driven by an irritated tall guy who rolled his own cigarettes—even while driving. He also tailgated and made life difficult in general for any vehicle smaller than his. The ride to Amsterdam took about an hour (my memory at this point is unreliable). The bus deposited us on the wrong side of the central train station. We started wandering around in some confusion until we came to an underpass, which clearly led to a brighter, more populous part of town. Once there, we found ourselves on Damrak, the main drag. We went into a shop selling tourist info, and bought a city map and a country map from an irate woman who didn’t want to take a fl25 bill for a fl10 purchase. Jeeez. So far, our encounters with the Dutch people had not been very positive. I am pleased to report that almost all our contacts afterwards were perfectly friendly.

Back out wandering on Damrak, Jenny espied a “Hotel” sign above a Chinese restaurant. Sensing this would be a good bet, she decided we should check it out. It turned out to be a reasonable deal, so we took it. We deposited our bags and headed back out to the street.

The guy at the desk sold us on the idea of taking two nights upfront. I had expected to spend more time than that in Amsterdam, so that was no problem.

For our first day in Amsterdam, we just sort of wandered about aimlessly. The streets around where we were staying were jammed with shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, porno stores, tourist-trinket-traps, and “coffee shops,” the code word for hash-houses. A little further out—but still very much in what the Dutch call the “centrum”—were blocks of narrow (really narrow) residential townhouses, often with cafes on the streetcorners. Evidently houses in Amsterdam were once taxed on their street frontage, resulting in really narrow, really deep buildings with narrow, steep staircases. So narrow, in fact, that furniture cannot be taken up them readily. The clever Amsterdamers solved this conundrum by building their townhouses with dormer windows on the roofs, with booms projecting from them. A pulley can be hung from the boom, and the furniture brought in through a window. Makes a lot of sense, actually. Most of these buildings were built with fronts that lean forward slightly. This is disconcerting if you are standing under it, but it ties in—this is done so that furniture doesn’t bang into the building on the way up.

Odd signage in Amsterdam.

There are three U-shaped canals ringing central Amsterdam, so there are numerous bridges. A lot of these are old, old drawbridges, and are designed a little differently than the drawbridges I’d seen before. They have an overhead horizontal beam with a counterweight, and this moves in a parallelogram action with the bridge surface. Many of these bridges are decorated with white lights, except for the bridges in the red-light district (you can guess what color the bulbs are there).

The canals also host a huge number of houseboats. Dutch houseboats are basically just smallish river barges with a cargo section replaced by long, narrow living quarters. Some of these houseboats are pretty funky and hippy-ish, while others look quite nicely manicured and sharp. They all tie into the city’s power grid through convenient hookups along the canals (other Dutch towns have similar arrangements).

At one point, we got to see a houseboat passing through some drawbridges. This was a laborious affair, and one that must require advance reservations, I am sure: a drawbridge keeper enters a control room by the bridge, raises the bridge, the boat passes through and advances to the next bridge. The keeper lowers the bridge, gets on his bike, and rides to the next control room. Repeat.

We speculated on the difficulty of obtaining berthing rights along the canals of Amsterdam. I assume they would be highly valuable. Perhaps they are passed on through families, like heirlooms.

The buildings in Amsterdam are great. They are all made of brick—obviously there is no place to go quarrying for stone—and they are well-made. Buildings erected in the 1600s are no big deal around town, it seems. There are a lot of great Art Deco buildings in Amsterdam—all around Holland, in fact—with geometric stained glass, interesting brickwork, and often some decorative carved-stone elements.

A not-very-portable phone.

Bikes are an integral part of the transportation network, along with pedestrians, streetcars, and motor cars. All streets have bike lanes, and all intersections have separate signals for cars, bikes, and peds. This can be a bit disorienting for the outsider. Almost all the bikes are clunky sit-up-and-beg models, with fenders, fully enclosed chains, racks, and “girls” construction. They are all one- or three-speed (no hills), and many have rod or drum brakes. Many people give their bikes amateurish, whimsical paint jobs. Popular brands are Gazelle, Batavus, Union, and Raleigh. It is ironic seeing the world-championship colors gracing the logos on these clunkers, but there it is. There are also a fair number of recumbent bikes to be seen, and recumbent trikes seem to be fairly popular with bike messengers. This makes a lot of sense, since they have a lot of built-in carrying capacity, and they were fast, too. I noticed one model that uses the front wheel for both steering and drive (which I have since identified as a Flevo), which struck me as very interesting. It was refreshing to be in a place where bikes really belong.

Amsterdam, and Holland in general, have a lot of flowers. England isn’t bad for flowers either—many people have small gardens, and we noticed in several of the towns we were in that flower baskets hung from storefronts were a city works project—but I don’t think it stands up to Holland. Flowers were just all over the place in Amsterdam. Mostly roses, not tulips (though it might not be the right season for them). There is, of course, a big flower market along one of the canals, and this has a lot of tulips, but I suspect that is to cater to the expectations of foreign tourists as much as anything.

The flipside to the flowers must be the dogshit. It’s everywhere. You’d think you were in Paris or something. Amsterdam doesn’t really have many grass runners along the sidewalks, so the dogs usually do it right on the sidewalk.

Part of the turd density must have something to do with the fact that the Dutch seem to take their dogs everywhere—into shopping centers or restaurants, onto boats, everywhere. Their dogs are generally pretty well mannered, and in fact seem blase about sniffing other dogs’ butts, or making friends with strangers.

In the course of our wanderings that first day in Amsterdam, we dodged a lot of turds. We also had to dodge a lot of raindrops, because it started drizzling every so often.

After a while, we got hungry for lunch. Feeling parsimonious and vitamin-C deficient, we stopped into a greengrocer’s and picked up a carton of blackberries, another of strawberries, and some yogurt. We improvised a little picnic on a park bench. The blackberries were enormous, soft, and verrry tasty.

We were pretty wiped out, and the weather looked threatening (again), so we headed back to the hotel for a siesta. We hung out in the lounge with Roger for a while. He gave us tips on museums to take in. We also spoke with the proprietor, Tony, who was able to suggest a nice Indonesian joint for dinner, whereupon we set out in search of it.

Eventually we found it, following Tony’s somewhat vague directions. We went whole-hog, ordering their rijstafel, which was quite a production. After some shrimpy-tasting flatbread appetizer, they brought out little flat plate-warmers, five of them, and set two small plates of food on each. Each plate had a different item, most of them swimming in curry sauce. There was another stack of plates on the side with cold condiments as well, like peanuts, roasted coconut, etc. These were meant to be interspersed with the hot courses, but we spaced out and just ate them all at the end. Everything was very good. When we asked for water, they wisely brought us a large bottle and left it on the table. Evidently Americans are known abroad for always wanting water, and then more water. These guys must have encountered that before, and came to this sensible solution. In general, if you don’t ask for any beverage, you won’t get one. If you ask for water, you’ll be offerred the option of mineral water or plain water. If you ask for tapwater, you’ll get a small glass that will not be refilled (unless you ask, I suppose). The tapwater in the Netherlands in just fine. The tapwater in England may explain why the English so often make tea out of it.

Anyhow, after our enormous and tasty meal, we had coffee, and they brought us a few rambutan in syrup for desert. The Dutch drink very potent coffee in very small cups. In fact, I think it is basically just espresso that has been slightly watered down. It was of uniformly good quality, although I suspect the coffee dispensed by the snack trolleys on trains isn’t too great).

After dinner, we waddled back to the hotel through a light drizzle and hung out in the lounge some more. there was another guy there waiting for Tony, and we got to talking. He was from Sri Lanka originally, living in England, and was himself half-English and half-Sinhalese. We talked about the situation in Sri Lanka and politics in general. Nice guy.

Then we took our obligatory stroll through the red-light district. This seems to be a popular tourist activity. It is pretty much what you would expect. Girls in underwear sitting on stools in windows framed in red neon. Live sex shows. Sex-aid shops. The usual. Nobody hassled us.

We eventually retired to our room. There was some literature for tourists lying around, including a sort of newsletter/guide to Amsterdam put out by an English-language comedy troupe called Boom Chicago, which was started by a few Northwestern University grads. This newsletter proved quite informative.

For our second day in Amsterdam, we took a more purposeful approach. We got an early start, stopped at a little bakery for breakfast, and made for the Anne Frank House. This is, in fact, the “secret annex” where the Frank family managed to hide out from the Nazis for a time during the war, until they were betrayed. The visit didn’t hold any startling revelations—everybody knows the story in outline—but actually being right where it happened is powerfully affecting. That’s one of the things I learned about travel on this trip: when you travel to a historic site, history stops being just academic, dry facts and dates. History is right there. It is in context and it is real.

Our next stop was the Rijksmuseum. It took us too damned long to find this place, especially in the endless drizzle. When we did find it, we were in a rather foul humor. Once inside, we cheered up.

There was an excellent exhibit of nudes. Mostly prints, but also charcoal and pencil drawings. This was followed by an excellent display showing the various printing techniques and their relative advantages. We then moved on to an extensive display of furniture and decorative arts. This was wonderful, and there was just way too much neat stuff to detail here. I will mention one piece we were especially taken with. It was a large apothecary’s chest, which opened to display numerous ranks of tiny drawers, shelves with tiny bottles, etc. Everything on the inside was lavishly decorated with art. The chest had two curved doors that swung open. On the inside of the left was a tiny painting of a young woman above the words Ars Longa. In the same spot on the right side was a tiny painting of a skeleton above the words Vita Brevis. Why the cabinetmaker bothered to put this in there I don’t know, but I love it.

The museum map indicated that there was a room of Art Nouveau furniture. I wanted to see it, but its location was a bit confusing. Once we had navigated to a point near where we thought the room should be, I asked a museum staffer where it was. “Up the stairs, to your left, and up again,” he tells us. “That’s funny, that’s the exact opposite of where we thought it was,” replied Jenny. Indeed. The guy had bullshitted us, for reasons I won’t bother to speculate on. It wasn’t all bad though: it took us to a textile arts exhibit that we also wanted to see.

Eventually we navigated back to where I though the Art Nouveau room was, and sure enough, it was just around the corner from where we had encountered that staffer the first time around. We saw him chatting with a woman right in the middle of the Art Nouveau exhibit, in fact. I thought about asking him why he lied to us, but restrained myself.

The Rijksmuseum has quite a collection of Dutch Masters, which comes as no surprise at all. We were getting a little museum’d out, so we only viewed the most impressive of them. They were indeed quite impressive.

On our way out of the museum, we heard music. There is a tunnel through the museum for street traffic, and a brass combo was playing Hallelujah in there, with the sound reverberating mightily. It was wonderful.

The weather was not. Still. We picked up some raspberries and wandered around some more until the weather cleared a bit. We sat down on a park bench along a canal and ate them. They were wonderful. We didn’t need much lunch, since we’d eaten such a big dinner the night before.

Eventually we headed back to the hotel for our late-afternoon siesta. This had become a habit for us, and it is one I recommend, but it was largely made possible by the fact that it stayed light so late that far north—it wouldn’t get really dark until well past 10:00 PM. This was a bit disorienting: we’d look at the light, think that it was too early to eat dinner, and then check the time and discover that it was actually 8:00 PM. Anyhow, these siestas gave us the chance to unload our feet for a while, and often keep us out of the rain. The weather seemed to have a pattern: sunny morning, rainy in the late afternoon, clearing in the evening.

Anyhow, hanging out in the hotel’s lounge, we chatted with Roger at some length. He told us he’d seen four people killed by Amsterdam’s streetcars, one split stem to stern. He told us the reason that all the cheap bikes were so heavily locked (often with two kryptonites) was to prevent Amsterdam’s numerous junkies from absconding with them.

By and by, another friend of Tony’s showed up, a young Romanian guy who lives in Israel. I began suspecting that Tony started the hotel just to put up his friends coming to visit. This guy didn’t have a great command of English, but volunteered that he believed the writings of Nostradamus. The rest of us pooh-poohed all that, which may have made him feel bad. After a while, he hooked up with Tony and took off. We went out a little later for dinner (pizza) and another stroll.

This time, we went in a completely different direction than we yet had. We wound up going past a large and amazing Art Deco apartment building, which had heads of real people (perhaps figures from Amsterdam’s history) as gargoyles. We eventually wound up in a rather prosaic residential area. At one point, we passed a Portuguese Synagogue, which was rather unexpected.

On the morning of the 27th, we headed up to the town of Groningen, in the northeastern part of the country. Walking out of the station we were a bit perplexed—”now what??” I saw a sign pointing the way to the VVV (the national tourist bureau), which we followed for what felt like a very long way. At the VVV, we got a guide-pamphlet to the town, which laid out a walking tour. We then located a ‘grillroom,’ a restaurant that serves Middle-Eastern food. These are all over the country, and seem to have reliably good food. It is interesting to note that Amsterdam is a real melting-pot, with Chinese, Indonesians, South-Asians, Africans, and everything in between represented in fairly big numbers (and all speaking Dutch, which seemed a little weird for some reason), but when you get out in the sticks, the only ethnic minority that seems to be widely present is Middle-Easterners. This place was run by a Syrian guy an an Eritrean guy. The food was marinated and grilled mutton, and was very tasty. The guys were able to point us towards some hotels. We wound up at the Hotel Friesland, which was a reasonably good deal. We dropped our packs and started walking the route given in our pamphlet. We didn’t hit every spot, and some were obviously more memorable than others, but the high point was unquestionably the gardens of the Prinsenhoftuin. These is elaborately, rigorously laid out and consists of a large, rose garden in the middle, a circle in a square, with different sections for different kinds of roses. Surrounding this is a pathway enclosed by elaborate, meticulously manicured trellised growth that formed corridors with doorways and windows. The pathway encloses four smaller circular gardens with different kinds of flowers arranged in pie-wedges. Beyond all this was another garden, with flowers arrainged into the letters A W.

We worked our way back to the center of town, near our hotel. We got caught in a big rainstorm and took shelter under a sporting-goods store’s awning, where we were joined by some British bikers. They were in town after the rally, which was evidently quite damp. We had quite a friendly chat. One of them confirmed a suspicion of mine: that Sheffield had been devastated by bombing during WWII, because of its steel industry—in the late 1800s, it supplied 70% of the world’s refined steel. I had the impression that Sheffield was a town that had never quite recovered.

I have no idea what we ate for dinner that night.

The next day we checked out. We actually wanted to stay an extra night, but the hotel was booked. We had decided to spend the day on the northern island of Schiermonikoog. After some confusion and very bad pronunciation, we bought combination bus/ferry tickets to take us there. Unfortunately, the bus runs only every two hours, and we had just missed one. Se we headed to the city museum, just accross the canal, to spend the extra time.

Missing the bus turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The museum was great. The building itself was designed by several hip architects (Allesandro Mendini, Philippe Starck, Michelle de Lucchi, and Coop Himmelblau). Each one evidently designed a different “module” of the museum, which was consisted of several independent structures joined together underneath (the passages between them are in a moat, and as you walk through the passageway, you look out on the water at eye level). The entry module, no doubt the Starck-designed one, is basically a featureless burnished bronze box, surmounted by squarish blue spires at each of the roof’s corners, flanked by curvey, smaller outbuildings in pale green and silver. Another building looked like a random heap of scrapmetal painted red and black, and a third was a squat cylinder in silver, decorated with (I think) bowling-pin shaped blobs at regular intervals around its circumference.

Jenny has already described most of what we saw. One exhibit was a bunch of paintings by a local boy from the 1600s (?). He painted a lot of allegorical paintings, like “Truth Vanquishing Discord,” in which certain stereotyped characters represented these traits. It occurred to me that we don’t recognize these symbolic characters much anymore (except for Justice, a blindfolded woman with scales). It also occurred to me that thanks to TV, we have a new batch of symbolic characters—think “Costanza.”

The time came for us to get on our bus, so we did. On the trip out, to Lauwersoog (say “law ver shog”), we trundled through a bucolic paradise: snug little houses with neat little gardens clustered in homey little hamlets, surrounded by carefully tended fields.

We got off the bus, and after a typical speel of confusion, go into the correct line to board the ferry (by this time, I was getting a little tired of feeling clueless). They tore stubs off of our bus tickets, and on we went, along with a lot of families (many of which brought their dogs), a lot of couples, a fair number of people with bikes, and a handful of cars. The seating on the ferry was more like a cafeteria’s: booths with tables. They were, in fact, serving snacks from a counter, so maybe it is fair to say it really was a cafeteria.

The ferry ride was uneventful and took about 45 minutes. Once on the island of Schiermonikoog, we walked up the spit of land where we docked to a dyke running around the island. There was a bike-rental place along this spit that had, in addition to normal bikes, a few sit-up-and-beg tandems and a sort of bike-car with 4 wheels, two front seats with pedals, and a sort of rumble seat. We saw three chicks riding in this, lazily allowing their boyfriends (who were on conventional bikes) to propel them along by pulling the bike-car along, holding on to a tube here or there.

It was fun to walk along the dyke (which is really just a grassy embankment) because we could look at the sea on one side and the farms and village on the other. Eventually we made for the village. We passed a sort of petting zoo, which had a number of goats and goat kids. The kids were frisking about, playing king of the hill on some rocks and generally being cute. There were also rabbits, a donkey, deer, and maybe some other critters. The deer were vocalizing, something I’d never heard before. They made a sort of chirping bark, if that makes any sense.

Clover growing along the dike on Schiermonikoog. Holland is a good place to be a bee.

The town was miniscule and almost devoid of motor vehicles. There was a newsstand selling German papers, and we learned that the island was indeed popular with German tourists. We had ice cream and did some more wandering, to the old lighthouse. Evidently the island is so small that the houses don’t have numbers, they have names.

Inevitably perhaps, it started raining. and we took shelter under a grocery store’s awning. The store let its local patrons wheel the shopping carts all the way home. We also saw a woman tow a trailer full of groceries (and her daughter) behind her bike.

After a brief shower, the rain let up and we resumed our meanderings. We headed gradually back to the dock, since our return time was approaching. We wound up lying out on the dyke and catching sun for a while.

For the ferry ride back, no ticket was required. I guess they figured that they’ve got you covered by monitoring outbound travel. During the ride, we struck up a conversation with a Dutch college student sitting near us. Among other things, he recommended that we visit Maastricht, so we pencilled that in on our mental itinerary.

The island was an enjoyable place to spend the day, though our enjoyment would surely have been greater if we weren’t carrying our packs the whole time.

Back in Groningen, it was getting late, which meant that we needed to find a place to stay, and we needed to eat. Our attempts at finding lodgings were unsuccessful, so we had dinner at an Italian place. I had something sort of like spaghetti carbonara, and it was good. Jenny’s was good too. Now it was really getting late, so we tried something different: we got on the train to Zwolle. This was on the way south to Maastricht, which we had decided to see.

Sitting on the train down to Zwolle, we were feeling pretty skeptical about finding a place to stay. After all, we couldn’t find anything in Groningen, and it was going to be quite late when we got in. I thought about fallback plans, like finding a pub and just sitting in the back all night.

We got into Zwolle at about 11:30 PM. Not an auspicious hour for hotel hunting. We marched resolutely out of the station past a bunch of cabbies (I thought about getting in a cab and demanding “take me to a hotel,” but didn’t). We came upon a very ritzy-looking hotel almost immediately. Although it probably cost a lot more than I would ordinarily be willing to spend, this was not an ordinary station, so in we marched. The concierge was a charming fellow who didn’t show a jot of dismay at seeing two scruffy-looking backpackers walk into his nice lobby. He informed us that his hotel was full, but offered to check and see if another nearby hotel could accomodate us. He checked, they could, so arrangements were made. He even called us a cab. Jenny commented that his hotel seemed really nice, and I said that it was a shame we couldn’t stay there. He sympathized, saying it was a famous hotel. “Are you famous?” Jenny asked. “No, just clever,” he answered.

The cab came around and delivered us to the Hotel Campanille, on the other side of town. This is a branch of a French-run chain, roughly equivalent to Holiday Inn.

We checked in for two nights. I was glad to be in a big, comfortable room with a full-sized bed and plumbing right in the room. The room was on the top floor, partly under the slant in the roof, and it had these funky sloping windows that pivoted in the middle.

Although it was already midnight, we wound up staying up for at least another hour because “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was on TV. In fact, almost everything on TV at that hour was something American with subtitles. This caused a certain amount of speculation on our part: why is it that American media is so popular abroad? It isn’t because of the exceptionally high quality, that much is obvious. I think it has something to do with economy of scale. The cost of producing a typical sitcom or news-magazine show is going to be fairly inflexible. An American programmer can recoup that expense fairly handily by showing that program in a huge market, which must generate substantial advertising revenues. Having paid for itself, the show could then be sold to foreign markets. The market for Dutch-language programming is obviously much smaller, so it would logically be harder to recoup those costs. That said, Dutch TV has hardly any ads compared to American—I understand that some shows are shot with “euro-minutes” to pad out the gaps left by removing American ad intervals.

Our first full day in Zwolle was a Sunday. We wound up getting a fairly early start on the day, despte being up so late. The hotel breakfast buffet had fruit, something that had been generally lacking from our diet—not so bad as to cause scurvy, we hoped, but the fruit was quite welcome anyhow.

Sunday is a bad day to be in Zwolle because everything is shut. This is not typical of Holland, but a woman at the hotel pointed out that Zwolle is a very religious town. We wandered all over it in the morning and hung out in one of the squares writing postcards. We had lunch at a shoarma joint, which was open obviously because it was run by Moorish infidels (thank God). We then headed to the Stadhuis Museum of Naive Art, which was probably open because the town figured they needed something to appease the tourists. It started raining on the way there, and once we got inside, it really started pouring. The museum was just about the only thing to do in the town that was open on a Sunday, and it was a good thing, otherwise we would have been confined to our hotel room.

The Stadshof Museum, where we weathered the storm.

The museum had an extensive collection from all over the world (obviously a lot of Dutch stuff), and had a special exhibit of Indian artists. It was fun. There was a wide spectrum of styles—from intentionally childish to untutored-and-energetic, to naturally talented, and everything in between. All media were represented, too. Sculptures, paintings, drawings, etc. There was a sort of dollhouse in one room, and life-sized dolls in another.

We stopped for coffee in the museum’s coffee shop. Jenny asked the teenage waiter “Do you speak English?”. Rather than the usual “Yes” or “A little,” this uncouth lad answered with more honesty: “Of course” he said. I had suspected that it might actually be a little insulting to ask that, so I asked him which seems worse: to assume that everyone speaks English and just plow ahead; or to check first. He wasn’t sure.

We wound up chatting at the front desk of the museum with the clerk (he may also have been the curator, for all I know). He was impressed by the fact that we had visited Schiermonikoog, and suggested that Venlo might be worth checking out.

By the time we were ready to leave the museum, the rain had let up. We stopped at a place selling “Italian ijs”—this was not Italian ice in the American sense, but rather gelato. They would scoop umpteen little balls into a cone, which was quite a trick. Jenny and I each had four-scoop cones (with four different flavors), but they’d scoop as many as 16 to a cone, I think. It was goooood.

We had dinner at the hotel, did some more wandering around Zwolle, and then hung out in our hotel room reading and watching TV. There were bikers from the rally staying at the hotel, ad we would see them in the hotel dining room.

Zwolle may have been the prettiest town we visited. It does get some tourism, but not enough to spawn overtly touristy businesses. Unfortunately, that also means that the town doesn’t really go out of its way to accomodate tourists—by having business hours on Sunday, for example. We never got a list of attractions in Zwolle or anything (the VVV was closed). Even obviously historic churches were sometimes lacking the bronze explanatory plaques that are ubiquitous in the Netherlands. The town could clearly do some business on Sunday, evidenced by the large number of people wandering the town center at loose ends.

One of the shows we saw on TV in our room was an English documentary filmed by Miranda Richardson about wealthy women and their nannies. Really twisted, but very interesting.

The next morning, we got on the train for Venlo, on the strength of the recommendation we got, plus the fact that it was right on the way to Maastricht.

Venlo is nearly spitting distance from the German border, and it is a popular tourist destination for Germans. Unfortunately, this meant the VVV had tourist info in Dutch and German only, so that didn’t do us much good.

Venlo is on the Maas river, but the river is not the center of the town, and the town doesn’t have much of a canal system, so it has a much different feel than the other towns we had visited to up to that point. I had just been getting used to the pattern of an old city, ringed by a canal, with new development outside of that—this was the pattern in Groningen and Zwolle, and Amsterdam too, after a fashion.

I suspect we did not see Venlo’s best side. We didn’t really know what to look for, and we didn’t find anything especially interesting. From what we saw, the town seems considerably newer and busier than the previous couple of towns we visited.

In the evening, we got it into our heads that it would be fun to walk to Germany, so we set out to do it. Unfortunately, we got turned around at some point, and wound up walking along the Maas for some time before we realized we were going the wrong way: we were following signs pointing towards Eindhoven, which we thought was in Germany for some reason. It isn’t. By the time we figured this out, we were considerably less keen on the whole expedition, and the weather was threatening, so we headed back, stopping along the way at yet another grillroom, where I had a pizza (I think). We had stopped in a department store earlier in the day, where I picked up a notebook, so when we got home, I started keeping this trip diary in it.

Points of interest? Crossing the Maas river, we saw some swans. That’s about it. Oh, and there were some guys laying paving blocks near the hotel, using an interesting contraption to move these very substantial bricks around. It consisted of a vacuum head with a rubber skirt that sucked onto the block, and the head could be raised or lowered through a sort of forklift-like apparatus. The whole thing could be wheeled around to get the brick into position.

Our hotel room was a bit odd. A bathroom had been retrofitted to it. Since the bathroom had to fit inside a bedroom that wasn’t too big to start with, the bathroom wound up being very long and narrow—so narrow that the toilet had to be placed in it slant-wise.

The next day it was on to Maastricht. This involved a transfer on the trains, so the woman at the ticket counter helpfully printed out a little itinerary showing the track numbers and times. The transfer was in Roermond, and for whatever reason, the train we were supposed to get on was taken out of service, so we had to get off and get on another train, which was a bit confusing since we didn’t understand the Dutch announcements and didn’t know what was going on. Sometimes we could make out a word or two from the platform announcements (or we thought we could), but this probably just fuelled our anxiety more than anything else. In any case, we got to Maastricht without incident.

Upon arrival, two things had to happen: Jenny had to pee, and we had to find a hotel room. The main drag in Maastricht is littered with hotels, so we figured that, in theory, accomodations shouldn’t be a pr

Minnesota pictures

I’ve posted some photos from the Minneapolis leg of my recent trip over at imagestation (log in as adamguest/adamguest).

Home from Chicago

We’re back. It was a great trip, but it is good to be home.

On Thursday, we visited the Shedd Aquarium, one of three museums (along with the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium) that make up the “museum campus” on the lake, next to the newly mangled Soldier Field, where the Bears play. Soldier Field was a beautiful neoclassical stadium, but it was old–first built in 1924, and not much changed since, as far as I know. So it lacked the widgets and gewgaws of modern stadiums, a lack that somebody decided needed to be fixed. Whoever’s in charge was, to his credit, unwilling to tear down all of the old stadium, which is nice as these things go. What they wound up doing was keeping the neoclassical bits and dropping an enormous alien battlecruiser on top, which spills over the edges and dwarfs the original structure. The effect is bizarre.

I hadn’t visited the Shedd since I was a kid. It has expanded quite a bit, with two new exhibit areas. Getting into the original museum and the new areas is alarmingly expensive–$21 for out of towners, $14 for Chicago residents. We splurged, and we did enjoy ourselves, but not $21-worth.

After that, we went to my favorite place for stuffed pizza, Bacino’s, took a siesta, and went out to see the Magdalene Sisters (op cit).

Friday, Gwen, Lissy, and I went to the International Museum of Surgical Sciences, which was fascinating and unsettling. Lots of very old and beautifully crafted surgeon’s kits, which consisted largely of amputation tools, and in many cases, trephination tools. Medicine in the 1800s was surprising for the level of advancement in some areas, and the crudity in others. The museum building itself is quite amazing, modeled on the Petit Trianon and built for a Chicago socialite. After that, Gwen and I wandered downtown to ogle the buildings and for Gwen to try on more shoes. That night, we got together with the rest of the family for more pizza.

Saturday was our return date, but it was an evening flight, so we had some time to spend in town. We went over to Wicker Park, a neighborhood that was “transitional” at best when I lived in Chicago. Today it is a funky hipster neighborhood that butts up against un-transitioned areas. Milwaukee Avenue is notable for having one bad furniture store after another. But it also has a Fluevog store, and after having tried on countless shoes everywhere else we looked, Gwen finally found a pair she liked, and bought them. We wandered around the area some more, had coffee, marveled at a restaurant that serves fried twinkies, and pushed on for O’Hare. The security gantlet went smoothly, as did the flight.

It occurred to me that if I lived in Chicago, my life would be very different–I’d live in a different kind of place. My friends would be different sorts of people. I would do different things with my time. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.