Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Convoy to Calais



"They've closed Dover," I said. "And this guy's tweeted that he and his daughter are being held by the cops in Calais." The ferry shuddered a bit and I put down my bad coffee. I refreshed Twitter.
"Do you think they'll stop us when we get off the ferry?"
"I don't know."

I tried to picture what I would say to a French cop. Je vais sur un vin croisière. Désolé, je ne parle pas très bien français. 

"I'm gonna tweet the organiser - wait, no, do you reckon the cops'll be watching the hashtag? I'll use this other account. Wait, how tech savvy are cops? I mean if they visited the website and did a whois lookup?"
"If you were a cop, how tech savvy would you be?"
"Okay. So we can't tweet. Okay."




The trip was booked under my sister-in-law's name. She couldn't make it, last minute. They were checking the lead traveller's names, not number plates.
I heard the goods we donated got through. So that's good. Everything had been dropped off in advance at central locations.


We put our thumbprints on a map of the world, showing where we'd come from, how far we'd travelled to show we cared.

One of the refugees said, they didn't want any journalists writing any more stories. They wanted things to change. They wanted the chance at having a life.
Another refugee said, "I'm 22. The things I've seen in the past two years in Europe... the camp is so much better than a war zone."
The camp was huge. It went on and on. They call it the Jungle.


About the Jungle.
About the Convoy to Calais.
About the blockade at Dover.
Read more about, or donate to Care4Calais.

How do you start a blog post?

"I'm sorry I haven't blogged in a while, but."

Sunday, 6 September 2015

We stayed in an Air BnB in a Brooklyn Brownstone, up a narrow flight of stairs and through a living room crowded with rugs and couches.


Our room was at the front of the building, overlooking the street, and maybe the nicest in the apartment. It was clearly lived in by someone. She had decorated the space above her desk with vintage eyeglasses, and left a To Do In 2015 list prominently displayed. We didn't open the wardrobes or chest of drawers, but it still felt oddly intimate, and oddly sterile, like staying in a historic home, done up as the inhabitants may have left it, with a mishmash of artefacts typical for the time. 


We went to a restaurant called Pies 'n Thighs. "Pies, for my thighs," said Sylvia happily. 
"We never would have found this place without a local," said Jesse. Sylvia has lived in New York for over a year, but we had known each other well in New Zealand. 
"Look at that crocheted chicken leg," I said.

Raymond was visiting too. It was his first time out of New Zealand, and he said it was exhilarating to be around so much theatre, that he had fallen out of the scene at home, that he didn't like his day job. 

We were sitting around tiny sidewalk tables outside another cafe, drinking boozy milkshakes. Mine was bourbon-bacon flavoured. It had wide lardons of bacon at the bottom, and I fished them out with the straw and ate them. 

Raymond was saying a director had emailed, but he wasn't sure if he should audition or not. I scolded him until he said, "Fine!" and emailed the director, saying yes please, he would like to audition for the role. 

It was tremendously hot. We went for a nap. 

Later, we went out to a place called Barcade. It is a bar filled with arcade machines. I won the fourth-highest recorded score in Tetris, then played a racing car game and lost absurdly. 


Jesse played shooting games. "Do you remember this?" he prompted. 
"I mostly only played Tetris," I said. 

We were in a yellow cab, riding across town, to someone's favourite bar. It had pool tables, but the bathrooms were surprisingly clean. 


We did picklebacks: a shot of whiskey, followed by a shot of pickle juice. The pickle juice erases the whiskey, so the effect is like a drink of cool water on a hot day. 

I made friends with the bartender, and then the bartender's fiance, who plomped down on the stool next to me, to be friendly. I made him watch New Zealand memes on his phone. "Always blow on the pie!" he crowed. "That is just - that is just something."

He told me about the circus scene, that government regulations were killing it. "If a man with lobster hands wants to walk over broken glass, then play the piano, then let him!"
I tried to say something about accessible and well paid jobs, but muddled it, and gave up. We watched a video of him swallowing fire instead. 

Sylvia was ready to go. Her date had forgotten my name. "It was SO nice to meet you," he was saying to Jesse. "And you - it was nice to meet you too - Jesse's girlfriend." 
They stumbled out. I tried to hail an Uber, but all the Uber drivers had gone to bed. 

"I might go to New Zealand," said the barkeeper's fiance. "My brother did."
"You should - the beaches," I said. "And the mountains."
"And the haka!" he said. "It's awesome. We should do it!"
I said no, that it was cultural misappropriation, and we shouldn't, but he was standing up, and a bottle of whiskey slipped from beneath his jacket and smashed on the floor. Raymond, Jesse, and I stood outside and shivered, until the cab arrived. 

The next day, we took two buses to Prospect Park. Our Air BnB claimed it was central, but it didn't seem to be close to anything at all. 

It did have a cat (noted under amenities), but it was resisting my attempts to befriend it. 


Prospect Park seemed a world away from the city. A hundred steps in, and New York disappeared, leaving only trees behind. 


I was entranced by the squirrels and gophers, feeding them the cashew nuts I'd bought as a snack in Auckland Airport, a world away. 


One afternoon, we walked over Brooklyn Bridge. 


New York has been a dream of mine for too long, a place so filtered by movies and novels and TV screens that when it came true, it hardly seemed real. The Brooklyn Bridge represented the signifiers - skylines and movies and a hundred songs. The city seemed to flicker in and out of focus, from the signifier to the signified, the real city, hot and dirty.








The Brooklyn Bridge became an epicentre for this leg of our trip. We set distances by it, and orbited around it, visiting the park at its base for a sit-down, for a wine. I rode the carousel. How wonderful, to have a carousel in the middle of a city. 


Another evening, we sat and watched a show in the Brooklyn Bridge park. I don't remember who was playing, but I remember watching the locals sit and picnic and dance, and seeing the sun set over the Hudson. 


But this afternoon, we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge with Sylvia and Raymond. 


The wind was blowing, and they were cold. I pulled a cardigan, and then a shawl out of my purse, but no one else was so prepared. We stopped in at the Gap, and they all bought jumpers. It seemed absurd, to be worrying about material things like bodily comfort on holiday, but what would I know: I was warm. 


The financial district was deserted, but waist-high piles of rubbish lined the streets. "Now that's worth a picture," said Raymond. He was using a purchased-just-for-the-trip iPad mini to take photos, and I loved him for it. So practical! 


"Look at that fallout shelter sign!" I said. "That's worth a picture." But no one was listening. 

We took the free ferry to Staten Island and back, to see the skyline at night. We were all exhausted by this time, from too much walking and the chill of the night, and huddled on plastic seats, assuring one another that we should go get a wine, after this, maybe, or maybe another time?



Another time, Jesse and I took the subway to meet Raymond for brunch. I was directing, and sent us wrong, but we called Raymond and headed back in the other direction, despite out delays early for our rendezvous. 

The trains were grimy, and hot, the platforms seeming breath, a sharp, damp exhalation with every train that passed.


Sylvia had said, "Don't take the M Train. The M Train will break your heart." The M Train was closet to our Air BnB. We never had a moment's issue with it. New Yorkers only saw the flaws in the subway system. They couldn't see the miracle beneath their feet. 

After brunch with Raymond, he showed us Sylvia's neighbourhood. She was at work, but he showed us her front door. I took photos. 



We walked around Sylvia's neighbourhood, taking photos of the street art. Raymond snapped pictures of Jesse and I with his iPad and posted them to Facebook at once. So practical!








Travel resists all narratives but the most mundane. I feel as though I am writing What I Did In My Holiday for my Year Five teacher, because in a way I suppose I am. Here is the story of another afternoon: 

We went to the park.


Oasis is a better word for Central Park than it is for Prospect Park. Prospect Park envelops you, and the city is forgotten entirely. In Central Park, it still threatens, always bleeding through at the edges. 

Jesse said: "When I was here with Kat, we saw a man standing there," (he pointed) "catching baby turtles in a net. Later, we went to Chinatown, and saw the same man selling them. We talked about buying them and letting them go, but we didn't."

"I think they're called terrapins," I said. He was silent, remembering. So was I, trying to recall a poem I'd memorised as a child for some class or other, about terrapins, I called them Orpheus and Eurydice. That was all I remembered, but maybe the poem wasn't really about turtles after all.

We went to the Natural History Museum, and looked at animals in dioramas. 


They were dead and stuffed, against backdrops that were not quite skilful enough. I thought about a line from The Collector, about how "a single specimen makes no difference to the fate of a species," and of how many people must have stood and looked and learned since the single animal's sacrifice, and still felt terribly sad. 



We went up buildings, to look at the view. 





We weren't sure exactly where we were. Sure - we knew where we were, in New York city, at the Top of the Rock, or up the Empire State building, and we could pick out Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, but all the other buildings, and the million lives within them were a mystery. We wandered and took photos instead.


I wanted a photo by the 30 Rock sign, because of the TV show. 


Jesse wanted a photo by the lego sign, to make fun of me. 

I thought I might cry in Moma, the sight of all the paintings I'd only ever seen reproduced. 
"It's the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction," I said. Jesse looked blank. "Walter Benjamin. Two first names, I always think that's so funny. Something about an aura. Never mind."



What was amazing about paintings is the colour and scale. My high school art history teacher used to show us slides, yellowed and greened with age, so we viewed the Renaissance from underwater. She saw them differently than we did, urging: "You have to imagine! The colours are beautiful!"

Jesse wanted to go to a sports game, and I was agreeable. "It's expensive, though," he said. 
"Can we afford it?" I hesitated.
"Yes - but." he said.
"Then we should go, but don't tell me how much it costs." I tried not to translate everything into New Zealand dollars, and then into material goods. A week's groceries; a week's rent. How many times will you visit New York in a lifetime? Twice? Ten times, but only with the best of luck? I didn't want to miss out on anything. But I didn't want to worry about it either. 

We went to the hockey game. 

Someone handed us each a tea towel as we entered Madison Square Gardens.  "What is it?" said Jesse to me.
"I thought it was a tea towel, but it's the wrong size and material," I said. "Did I ever tell you that I read online somewhere - some stupid blog - about Tea Towels are the Perfect Holiday Gift, and the comments section was full of Americans saying 'Cute! But what is a tea towel?' And the author didn't really know either. They said things like, 'You can line a tea tray with it, or use it to wrap a loaf of fresh-baked bread.' And I thought, how wonderful, a country where everyone has a dishwasher! And has never seen a teatowel in their life!"
"Our Air BnB doesn't have a dishwasher," offered Jesse.


The tea towels were sweat towels, intended to mop a sportsplayer's dewy brow. It was cold in the hockey rink, the chill emanating from the ice below. I shrugged into the free t shirt draped over the back of my chair. Jesse pointed out that it insinuated the Rangers, but was careful not to show the logo. "No wonder the tickets cost so much," I said. 

The men around us - they were all men - waved their tea towels around their heads when excited. When the whole stadium did it, it looked like the ocean - flecks of white against a field of blue. The men swore in heavy Jersey accents, and yelled advice to the players: "Skate! Skate!" The man next to me turned to his friend and said: "What they need to do is play defensively." The friend agreed. 

My favourite evening was a quiet one. We went to the West Village and ate gourmet hot dogs, then walked the streets, stumbling into a dance party. 

Later, we sat nursing craft beers, a different one every round, watching people go by. 


The bar was tiny and crowded. People younger than us were playing with the jukebox, putting on 90s hits, and the whole bar was singing along to Oasis. 

"This is exactly what I thought New York would be like," I said. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

Upstate New York was the point of the trip. Kat and Jon were graduating, and we were going to watch them.

We walked around Syracuse for a scant twenty minutes, through a graveyard which had been gradually cleared. There were long gaps and slight depressions between the grave stones still standing. Born 1779. Born 1919. There was a children's playground just across the road, on a lot of matching size.

Syracuse is a small university town, but Kat and Jon went to another university in a smaller town some two hours away, and lived further out in a town that was smaller still. I pictured matryoshka dolls. Jesse had planned this leg of the trip, and hadn't thought to explain beyond: "We fly into Syracuse for the graduation, and they'll drive us home," so I spent the first leg of the trip in continuous surprise. Kat pointed out local landmarks - "There's the toilet garden. This is the bridge which has been marked unsafe, and might fall down at any moment. That thing is a feedlot."

We stopped at a Burger King and I was amused to see a Mennonite (or, at least, a person with a beard and a hat; I would hardly interrogate a stranger on their religion), use the bathroom and buy an ice cream. "They're allowed to eat at restaurants," said Jon.

We passed several dozen Mennonite people that week, in buggies and in fields and carparks. I didn't take photos, but I marvelled at the choice the adults made, and felt sorry for the little girls, in long dresses even in the heat.

Kat and Jon lived in what they called an apartment, but I would call a unit. It was a low-slung rectangular house, made of forgettable synthetic stuff, attached at its short end to a single neighbour. It sat in scrubby woodland - "Don't go through that fence, there's a firing range right there" - in a semi-circle with half a dozen more identical units, widely spaced around a dirt drive. Inside it was tremendously comfortable, with large rooms, and a spare bedroom which Jesse and I shared with a mountain bike, a desk, and a keyboard, and still room to spare.


The rest of the buildings in the small town showed extreme poverty, or extreme wealth. There were houses which had been gutted by fire, and still left standing, trailers crammed together in narrow lots, and houses with balconies and turrets. "It's the Walmart," said Kat. "There's no other jobs, and it doesn't pay enough to live on."




The parents came too, Jon's driving five hours from Massachusetts, and Kat's coming from New Zealand. "Oh, but we're going to San Francisco next," said Kat's mother, as if flying halfway around the world was a regular occurrence, and maybe it is.

Jon's mother knitted, and I showed her the socks I was making. "I had a dream that I was knitting rainbow socks in upstate New York," I explained. "Except we were camping and there was a bear - anyway, it doesn't matter, I saw this yarn the day after I had the dream, and thought I better buy it. The pattern is mostly made up."

She showed me her project, a complex, cabled aran jumper knitted from a tattered booklet. "I must have made every sweater in this book at least twice," she said.

We went for a walk in the forest, way up in the hills, the base of the Adirondacks. The sun was very bright, and there was very little shade. The silence was total, rising from the ground in waves like heat.



Kat pointed out birds, a caterpillar, beaver dams and beaver dens and led us into the bog, where we bounced up and down on the moss, testing its softness and feeling the threat of the water beneath. Kat's father saw a snake, and I was glad I didn't.






We visited the small town, but it seemed to be closed. It was beautiful, with tall brick buildings on the main street, built 1895, burned 1985, built 1991 with thanks to the community, and a river with a hydroelectric dams, right in the centre of town. The community centre offered Jazzercise.



We bought beers from Walmart, from the craft beer place, from the gas station ("What a world!" I marvelled), and drank a tremendous amount. It was a celebration.

Graduation day was oppressively hot, 90 degrees in the shade. "I bought this stupid dress in winter," said Kat, bemoaning the sleeves. "It'll be air conditioned in the hall," said Jon.


I packed a cardigan and a shawl in my purse, and was glad I did. The ceremony was held on an ice hockey rink, and the chill emanated up from below. Sunny was hungover. I wrapped my shawl around her, and tempted her with bacon jerky and bottled water. Jesse took photos to try and ease the boredom. I knitted four inches on my sock and looked at what the graduands had written on their caps. I did it! Greek Life. Accio Diploma. Because the university focused mainly on business, the pipers and the brass band were brought in from the wider community, not drawn from the students. I thought what a shame, to attend a university without any violinists.

Kat and Jon are both immensely smart, and have worked terrifically hard. They graduated with honours, and we clapped extra hard for them when they shook hands with the dean. I hadn't known Jon long enough to recognise his height or gait, his features shaded by the hat and his shoes anonymous and took a dozen photos of some other American with a similar surname, who glared at me in suspicion.


Kat and Jon cooked pulled pork, and assembled salads. I made a pav and festooned it with cream and fruit, so much fruit, bought so cheaply at the expense of the people who worked at Walmart. "What is a pav-a-love-a?" said Emily, an American friend. "It's sort of a meringue," I said, and gave her the recipe.


The parents excused themselves back to their hotels after dinner, saying they'd leave us kids too it, as if we kids weren't all nearly 30. Kat and Sunny disappeared for girl talk, and Jesse and I and the Americans sat around the table and played Settlers of Catan until the early hours.