FogCon

The short version, for the attention-deprived of you, is that I had a great time, and will absolutely make going back next year a priority.  Read on for anecdotage complete with me making an ass of myself.  Also, for maximal enjoyment of this post, read yesterday’s about my abbreviated tour of SF.

I spent Friday morning cursing the fates.  Consulting work was going sideways and people wanted me to call them.  Real Estate work was picking up, so much, in fact, that I had buyers who wanted to go see a property right then because, oh man, they’re this close to making an offer and they wanted to make sure the rain didn’t flood the basement.  So I have to find another Realtor willing to do me a favor who I trust to not poach my client (they’d have signed the paperwork making them mind, all mind, if only I’d been in Wisconsin any time in the ten days prior) or to upset/irritate/scare/otherwise ruin them.  This was more challenging than it really ought to be.  Plus, I still hadn’t decided what I’d be reading the next day for my first ever public reading of my own work, also I had the delightful Keffy Kerhli and Liz Argall right there being far more interesting than just about any of the annoying things the internet was keeping me on top of.

In other words, by the time the con actually started, I was mega-ready to be at a con, forget about being a consultant, or a Realtor, and indulge in rampant writerly geekery.  This was not hard to do.

The Equal Time for Non-Vampires panel was great fun to be on, and I think the audience enjoyed it, too.  It did not devolve into Twilight-hate wankery, opting instead for more interesting drive-bys, I confirmed that I’m not the only one who heaves a heavy sigh when episodic fantasy shows grab for the Wendigo, or the only one who’d like to see South and Central America getting mined for material more often.  Plus I got to share my love for the krampus.  Major wins, one and all.

Liz Argall viciously cliff-hung the entire audience, stopping her Machine of Death 2 story part way through and maliciously telling us to buy the anthology to find out what happens.  I should have stolen her manuscript  while it was ungaurded in the room to read the rest.  I wasn’t coherent enough to think of that.  Christie Yant and Vylar Kaftan were at the same reading, very good, and kindly read pieces to their conclusions.  Also, I got to eat chocolate John Joseph Adams put on a chair.  It’s the little things that really make an experience.

I’m going to stop right here and take a moment to wax fondly about Vylar.  She’s the FogCon Con chair, and the entire reason I went.  Last year she tried complicated machinations to get me there which my work/travel schedule utterly thwarted.  Then at WisCon she made a point of introducing me to everybody she knew, who just happened to be FogCon people, and then looking me in the eye and ordering me to go to FogCon.  Ladies and gentlemen, when a Nebula nominee tells me to do something which I can do, and which sounds like fun, I am not going to argue.  But she didn’t stop there, and made a point of checking in with me, being friendly, and making sure I got plenty of California sushi.  We went out for dinner Friday and it was all so good I made myself ill.  In fact, it was so good I went back Sunday and ate some more.  Vylar is awesome like the sushi was, except I have not yet managed to make myself ill through over-consumption of Vylar.  Maybe she’s low calorie.  Or magic.

The most amusing point from Friday night was, I think, on the tour through the hotel bar where I wandered by a table full of con people.  I did a double-take when I saw the guy sitting at the end of the table.  “You work at Broad Universe!” I declared.

To which I received a patient, confused look.  And then, “You mean, Borderlands?”

“Yes, that,” I say.  For, of course, this was the guy who sold me the two books I didn’t have room in my luggage for, and who couldn’t give me tips for a good dinner joint.  His name was Naamen Tilahun.

“You had me really confused for a minute,” Naaman said.

At that point, I was actually confused about what my name was.  I’m happy I at least started with the right letter.  Also, Naaman seems like the kind of guy who is going to forget I introduced myself that way, which is why I had to record it for posterity on the internet myself.

Did I mention yesterday how really cool Borderlands is?  Yes?  It’s unforgettable.  Really.

And while we’re telling stories featuring Anaea, the blithering idiot, I had not one, but two conversations with two different people that involved me craning my neck up at them and astutely observing, “You’re very tall.”  Both gentlemen humored me and waited until I was well out of sight to shake their heads at me.  In my defense, they were both very tall.

Saturday morning was an exercise in time zone fail.  I listed myself as available for early panels because I figured I’d have a two-hour cushion, and 9am isn’t nearly so scary when it’s actually 11am.  Except I’d sorta adjusted to California time?  To the extend that my body had any clue what sleep was anymore?  I may have told the entire audience of the What We Re-read and Why panel that they were perverse and sick for voluntarily being anywhere at that hour?  I don’t know, it happened before 10am.  I’m told I was coherent, but I wasn’t really forming memories at that point.  Also, everybody was so relentlessly nice I suspect they were willing to lie about those things.

The Who Are You panel was, I think, definitely the weakest of the events I participated in.  The conversation wandered directionlessly a bit and there were a few awkward pauses.  I have no idea whether or not the audience noticed.  But, we got to talk about embodiment involving hair and tattoos, both topics pertinent to writerly things I’ve been playing with, so I got something out of it whether or not anybody else did.

And then my reading.  Late Friday I decided that I wasn’t going to decide what to read.  I was torn between my favorite of my short works which, er, is not PG and for reasons the FogCon demographic would care about, and an excerpt from the agent-seeking novel which is best characterized as “light-hearted and quirky.”  I let the audience vote and, with one exception, they went for the second option.  I rewarded them with a pirate jail-break.  Charlie Jane Anders wanted to know where to read the rest.  I claim all the winning.  (Psst, hey agents, do you hear that?  You’re guaranteed at least $.25 if you represent me…)

Saturday night featured karaoke.  A lot of karaoke.  It’s possible I did a jig in public.  While stone cold sober.  Honestly, though, the Devil won’t go down to Georgia if you don’t jig.

I got eight hours of sleep between going to bed Saturday night and waking up Sunday.  I was going to get eight hours of sleep pretty much whether or not I meant to; my body was inventing clever ways of signalling its utter exhaustion that I was not enjoying.  I got up, took my laptop and tired self to the consuite, and waited for wakefullness to come.  Dr. Who came up in conversation and, magically, alertness happened.  I went to more panels which continued the general trend of having the right people on them saying interesting or useful things.  I did more meeting/chatting with cool people.  It’s possible I went to the same sushi restaurant for dinner not once, but twice.  (I didn’t eat the second time, but only because I remembered the lesson from Friday about too much sushi)

Remember the story from yesterday about the ring I got my first time I was in SF, and how I’ve never found a replacement for it?  Check out what I picked up in the dealer’s room.

That’d be badass jewelry with a side of nostalgic symmetry, ftw.

There was a lot more worth waxing enthusiastic about, like blue cheese in the con suite (I’ve lived in Wisconsin too long) and a panel about writers screwing up biology that covered all of my pet peeves and recommended all of the right books, but those were the essential highlights.  So now I’m looking all of you in the eye and telling you, hey, these are cool people and I know a Nebula nominee: You should go to FogCon.

San Francisco

Late Monday I got home from a two week excursion that was quite fun, if far too long and thoroughly exhausting.  Work got done, my bride sister got showered, and FogCon got attended.  The last bit is all I’m going to blog about.

A bit of background: The very first time I ever flew anywhere, it was from BWI to Oakland (stopping over in Salt Lake) to visit a quasi pen pal who lived in San Rafael.  The trip was made of awesome, and enlightening on many fronts.  I already knew I was a city girl trapped in the country.  This confirmed it.  It also introduced me to Chinese food, chopsticks, gnocchi, and cheese-filled hot dogs.  My favorite souvenir from the trip was a sterling silver ring that looked like a snake coiling around my finger which I got from a street vendor.  It was not one of the pieces spared in the great apartment burglary of 2007, so I’ve been looking for an adequate replacement ever since.

I flew out from Norfolk on Wednesday.  This required me to get up early, and took all day.  Literally.  It was 1am Thursday by the time I checked in.  I’d done so much running around with event buzz while prepping for the bridal shower, and then work before that, I was zombie-Anaea.  Also, my body was very confused about what time zone we were in – I think it had us pegged as somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic to explain the hours I was keeping.

I woke up much too early Thursday, sighed, and started working.  Wrapped that up as quickly as I could, promised myself to go to bed at a reasonable time so I wouldn’t star the con tired, then set off for adventure with a two-fold mission: Bubble Tea and Borderlands.

I took the BART as near to Chinatown as it appeared to go and then set off walking.  I kept my eyes peeled for jewelry weilding street vendors in hopes of finding replacement jewelry, and meandered in the vague direction google maps indicated for finding Chinatown.  I wound up stalking a street car going up California which claimed it had a stop in Chinatown.  This was clever, especially since switching coasts always leaves me a bit disoriented for a while.  (Not my fault.  The water is on the wrong side!  Even Chicago knows that big bodies of water belong east of you.)  I did a lot of poking into shops while wandering through, looking for bubble tea.  I did not do a very good job of taking pictures.  Coherency, I was beyond it.

It is entirely possible that Chinatown in SF is chock full of bubble tea joints.  I found lots of tea shops, most of them advertising free tastings, but none of them advertised bubbles or tapioca.  After about two hours of wandering I was trying to figure out whether bubble tea is somehow not authentically kitschy enough for SF’s Chinatown, or perhaps it skipped the west coast before landing in the Midwest?  Of course, I’d also spent two hours looking for bubble tea, and I was getting stubborn about it.  (Not, you’ll note, stubborn enough to ask the magical internets living in my pocket.  That’s cheating.)

I’m pretty sure it’s a chain, and it’s barely in Chinatown – there’s a taqueria across the street – but they served bubble tea.  I got a lychee black tea with tapioca to go and felt very pleased with myself.  Mission 2/3rds accomplished!

According to my google maps research before setting out, it’s about 3.5 miles from Chinatown to Borderlands and there are no less than four good public transit routes for getting from one to the other.  Other research indicated that there are sketchy neighborhoods between the two best dodged by the wary traveler.  I so totally took my bubble tea and walked it.

Look, I spent nearly all of Wednesday on a plane, and if I sat still I was going to fall asleep.  Caffeine does nothing for keeping me awake, but I was at the so-tired-caffeine-cures-this-headache stage.  Also, my sense of self-preservation is under-developed.

I survived.  Maybe I accidentally missed the scary, scary bad bits.  Look what I did find!

I think there was a museum of some sort behind it.  I didn’t explore too much, just stopped long enough to snap pictures because, dude, random dandelion sculpture.  You don’t find things like that if you take the train/bus/streetcar.

Does that one look hungry to anybody else?  It looks hungry to me…

Borderlands is, in fact, awesome.  I didn’t have any room in my luggage for book purchases, what with cramming two weeks of stuff into my carryons.  So, of course, I had a meltdown and wanted everything.  I settled for picking up Neruomancer and Vortex, the first because I haven’t read it yet and should, the second becasue OMGloveSpinandAxisdidn’thurtme.  Then I sat down in the cafe with more tea (my poor head) and had some bonding time with the internet via my phone, then with the book I’d brought along.  I pried myself up when it was time for dinner and asked the guy working behind the bookstore counter for a dinner recommendation for somewhere nearby.  “I have no idea.  I live in Oakland,” he said.  Oh well.  I wandered over to mission, then more or less randomly picked a restaurant with a sunbursty type symbol rather than an actual name on its sign.  I should have taken a picture of the menu because I have no idea what it was called, and can’t identify it past saying that it was on the east side of Mission, south of 14th street, and blue.  The guacamole welcomed me to the west coat by blowing the roof off my mouth.  It was awesome.

Then I dragged my tired self back to Oakland, via BART, finished drafting a story, and assured myself that just as soon as I know all my roommates for the con had made it safely and checked in, I would go to bed and die for many, many hours.  We all converged around 12:30.

Yeah, I was up until 3.  I blame Elizier Yudkowsky.

By the way, helpful lesson learned I pass on to you: Make sure the people sharing your room know that your pen name, by which they know you, is not the name attached to the credit card holding the room.  This will make everybody’s life easier.

Actual con report tomorrow…

I declare

image

I’ve never made a secret of my intense phobia about airport security. And I’ve got a giant stack of anecdotes about me interacting with airport security and it being intensely unpleasant, from watching a wheelchair bound man forcibly stripped and yelled at, to being personally threatened with arrest for reasons inexplicable to me and the twenty witnesses who probably saved me by voicing their confusion.

The last time I flew, on my way home, I got treated to an extremely thorough pat down punctuated with commentary about how if I didn’t want to have that happen, I should have worn different pants. I’m going to sit here a moment while you read that last sentence again. Yeah. That.

But when it was all over I’d made a startling discovery; phobia gone. All I’ve got left is the offended rage it kept in check. “Crap,” says I. “I’m going to get myself arrested.”

Counting today, I’m going to go through airport security at least four times in the next two weeks. So when I got dressed this morning, knowing the pants I wear today will probably be the pants I wear every time I go through security, I paused. After all, if I don’t want to get pat down, I won’t wear my cargo pants, which have enough pocket space I don’t need a purse, or to move my bag once I’m on the plane. If I don’t want a stranger putting her hands down my waist band, I’ll wear form-fitting jeans instead. Not even Madison is safe anymore; the airport here installed the millimeter wave machines a month ago. Purse or pat down, the choice is mine.

I spent a whole ten seconds debating it. My conclusion? Fuck that. It is not my fault our security system is absurd and I will not enable it by wearing inferior clothing. My livelihood no longer depends on my ability to fly and I can get around flying for most of my recreational travel if I really have to.

I’m done with quietly freaking out while the TSA makes a farce of security. And I’m not biting my tongue when they blame me for their absurd flaws anymore. Here, have a picture of a security screening area to seal my petty little rebellion.

I’m probably going to get myself arrested. Oh well.

Conning 2012

I am apparently going to a lot of cons this year.  Between that, slight travel for work, my sister’s wedding, and my fervent desire to leave the country for kicks at some point, my travel schedule is starting to stress me out.  The stress is mostly because the schedule is nebulously swirling in my head and I have the sneaking suspicion I’m double-booked in different time zones.  So, to straighten myself out and edify anybody who cares, here is my planned travel schedule for this year.

February 13-16: Work trip.  Woo.

March 24-26: My sister’s Bridal shower.  I’ll be in Richmond at least that much time.  Might sneak a jaunt up to D.C. in while I’m there.  May also attach March’s work trip.

March 30-April 1: FogCon.  Between repeated invitations from a few people I know and then getting ordered to attend at the FogCon party during WisCon, (Gilgamesh and Enkidu communicating entirely with the word “dude” will cause that) this one became a priority.  So I’ll be heading to San Francisco for the first time in a decade.

May 4-7: Sister’s Wedding.  This is the bare minimum of time I’ll be gone for that.  Realistically, I’m probably going to Richmond the weekend prior. 

May 25-28: WisCon.  I intend to stay home the week leading up to this con, just to thwart my WisCon curse and any new dastardly attempts to prevent attendance.  Just because I finally made it last year does not mean that the curse is broken.

August 30-September3: WorldCon.  It’s in Chicago.  Hell yes I’m going!  I bought membership as soon as that opened, then booked a room on the first day that was available.  It’s possible I’m excited about this one.

September ?-?: Argentina?  Unless Europe has a recession and I go there instead?  All I know is that I like leaving the country in September and I’ll be so sick of politics that if the recalls aren’t resolved yet I probably won’t care.  (Also, staying home to freak out and meddle was so last year.  I hope.)

November 1-4: World Fantasy Con.  It’s in Toronto, where I’ve never been.  And it’s not over Halloween, which means it won’t conflict with my Halloween party for once.  I am leaping on this opportunity.

Have I left anything out?  More importantly, who’s going to the same cons and wants to be travel buddies/roomies?

Note to self: Almost every one of those is the first weekend of the month, the same weekend your crit group meets.  Shame on you.

New Orleans Part 4: The Amazing Race

Friday was John’s last day of vacation since he had to fly back to work painfully early Saturday morning.  We had theater tickets for the evening, and a date with fried chicken for lunch.  We made up the rest of our plans over lunch and on the fly.

Lunch was at Fiorella’s, which is touted as the best fried chicken in New Orleans, particularly by the horse-drawn carriage tours that go by every ten minutes or so.  It was thoroughly competent fried chicken.  I described it to John as, “Technically perfect.”  The breading had excellent crunch, the chicken was juicy and moist.  But the breading lacked character – the flavor came mostly from the Tobasco we poured on after the first bite.  There was nothing wrong with this meal, except that I strongly suspect I could have gotten something more exciting by going for a local specialty somewhere else.  New Orleans =/= reliable source of all Southern cuisine.

After lunch, John acquired a porcelain Mardi Gras mask for his office mask collection, we returned to the hotel room just in time to bother the maid cleaning our room (temporary released from her tortuous existence as a fresh coat of paint), optimistically grabbed reading material for a leisurely afternoon reading somewhere pretty in the Garden District, and hopped a street car.  Our immediate destination was Sucre for chocolate.

We spotted that in a yard on our way from the street car to the chocolate.  No, I have no idea why that seems like a good idea to somebody.  I can tell you this; that’s awesome, and I want one.

“I want one,” was my theme for the afternoon.

New Orleans is overflowing with candy shops.  I generally think of Madison as having an excellent scene for fancy chocolates, but New Orleans puts Madison’s offerings to shame.  I was very full of fried chicken, so I only had room for one chocolate, but on the theory that liquid calories don’t take up space, added on a cup of hot chocolate.

Was that a tasty chocolate?  That was a tasty chocolate.

Remember those theatre tickets we have?  Well, they tried really hard to render the logistics for our day gruesome.  The play put up by a fairly impressive community theatre troupe across the river, which apparently only has two crossings; one in the French Quarter near where we were staying, and the other on the opposite side of the city.  Reading through the guidebook I got a little carried away over one of the restaurant descriptions and insisted we had to have dinner there.  It was so far across the city that it made more sense to take the crossing farther away from our hotel, so we decided we’d get a cab from the restaurant to the show.  Between chocolate and dinner we’d wander vaguely restuarant-ward until we got tired and took the street car the rest of the way.  “Could we just walk to the restaurant?” I asked John as I tried to cope with the different map scales from neighborhood to neighborhood in my guidebook, and he was cheating with his magic phone.  “No way,” John said.

Yes, I'm still mourning. Shut up.

St. Charles street?  Love.  Every other house on it provoked covetous lust and I am not ashamed to admit it.  Old Southern mansions on streets with giant trees and a street car running up and down the median?  I’ll take three, thanks.  This was when New Orleans finally clicked into my personal categorical framework; St. Charles street felt like Richmond, Richmond feels like home, I was home, why dont’ I have a bajillion dollars to buy all the houses?  And the furniture and art and rugs and…

John spent a lot of Friday humoring me.  And picking on my work habits.

That’s a public library.  Library!  No, I am not ashamed of the lust.  I’d live on that street in a flat second…then run screaming the second the weather starts to get warm.

Winter is coming!

“John, are you okay?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You’re limping.”

“Oh, it’s an old knee injury.  My knee does that when it gets tired.”

“Should we sit down, or catch a street car, or something?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Okay…”

Yeah.  We walked all the way to the restaurant.

Pausing a moment to say that this comic shop was awesome.  I think I’m going to make accidentally stumbling onto an awesome comic shop at the end of a trip a tradition for all my vacations. (Did I really not blog about the comic shop in Reykjavik?  Bad me.)

Alligator bacon cheesecake and a steak served with oysters, blue cheese and hollindaise sauce. That was  what so ferociously caught my attention in the guidebook, and landed us at Jacques-IMO.

This place was fun.  Seriously.  We got there early because we wanted time for failure to get to the theatre.  You walk in to a super tiny bar area with a hostess stand at the back.  To get to your table, the hostess than leads you through the kitchen, to the still-cramped but roomier back where the tables live.  The walls are covered in these really great murals, the music is up-beat and invigorating, and the wait-staff are on the ball.  It would get a recommend even if the food weren’t great.

That's the bacon alligator cheesecake. Cheesecake is a misnomer; it's a quiche, and that sauce kicks ass
The carpetbagger steak. This takes my gratuitous steak-smothering standard practice, then adds oysters and hollindaise. I was delectably outdone.

The cab ride to the show was mildly hilarious.  I would not, ever, recommend you use the same cabbie, but I’m glad we got him.  John and I bantered, cabbie assumed we were married, remained skeptical despite assurances that, no, really, would people please stop cajoling him to buy me things.  Cabbie once thought about getting a Real Estate license since he knows a lot of people, but didn’t.  Cabbie did not know his way around at all and wound up getting directions from John, who was using the GPS on his phone.  Cabbie was also openly fuddled about why tourists would go to such lengths to see a play.

I’ll write a review for the play some time if I get time, but there are no pictures and it would be too long to cram into here, we’ll sum it up as “Enjoyable,” and skip to the ride back.  We had the cabbie take us to the pedestrian ferry.  During that ride he stopped at green lights, ran red lights and stop signs, skipped a toll by going in the clearly marked exit for a police station, and regaled us with a story about a fare who tried to pay in marijuana even after the cabbie claimed to be a cop.  (He’s actually an EMT, if what he told us on the way to the play can be believed.)  Half way through the trip I passed John a note I wrote on my phone: Please use a different cab to get to the airport tomorrow.  He did.

We got back to the room late enough to reasonably go to bed, did some packing, then packed in.  I suppose John’s alarm must have gone off and he did all his getting dressed gathering things at early o’clock.  I was a sensible person and slept through it.

Which brings me to my last bit of time in New Orleans.  I diligently checked my train ticket times to make sure I was right about it being at 1:30, discovered it was actually 3:30, and set out to finish eating all the things I hadn’t gotten to.  Also, to buy jalapeño jelly (mind still blown) and a magnolia scented candle (because you can’t find them in yankee country).

The street musicians on Saturday were not as good as the ones during the week.  The performers were mediocre, too.  This amused me a lot.

Can you spot why I took this picture?

Had breakfast at cafe beignet, where I got a croissant and listened to live Spanish guitar.  Went for lunch at Stanely’s where I got a Korean BBQ po’boy.  It was tasty, but not twice as tasty as everything else on the menu despite being priced that way.  The sweet potato fries were great.  I ordered a muffaletta to go for dinner on the train, thereby ensuring I hit all the essentials, and proceeded to do more wandering and kill more time.  Went to a candy shop and ordered a Jackson Square, which had caramel and peanut butter and crisp rice in with the chocolate and I highly recommend it.

I also accidentally ran across the end of a parade of some sort.  Neat.

Earlier than required, but I was feeling insecure, I returned to the hotel, collected my luggage, and caught a cab to the train station.  I swear, everybody in this city knows everybody else (the bell boy bantered with four different taxi drivers and a bouncer while loading my luggage), and that’s really fun.

At the train station I went to the desk to ask about upgrading to the sleeper car for the train to Chicago.  “But that train already left.”  Yeah, 1:30 was right and I should learn to read.  After looking at plane tickets to Memphis, to Chicago, and trying to book with Enterprise (thank you free internet from Subway, via pilfered network code given to me by Amtrak man) I managed to book a one-way car rental from New Orleans to Memphis, the first and only place I could conceivably catch up to the train.  “So, how big are the cops on speed traps between here and there?” I asked on my way out.  “You should get going right away,” Amtrak man said, very encouragingly.

Taxi to the New Orleans airport, Hertz rental completed (Yay gold member standing!), I got into the car, conveniently armed with dinner, and said goodbye to New Orleans.

Did you know that you can get from New Orleans to Memphis in exactly five hours?  Now you do.  Also, I’m a moron, but you should have guessed that when checking my train schedule was important enough to mention explicitly.

There was a bit of adventure in getting from the Hertz rental to the cab.  Namely, the Memphis airport shuttle driver didn’t think I should pay the premium for a cab pickup from the airport, went off his route to stop at a gas station, then got off the shuttle, assuring me that he was going in to call a cab for me.  “Self,” I said to myself, “Nobody knows where you are, you are distinctly not where people expect you to be, and this is slightly sketchy.  A normal person with a reasonable sense of self-preservation would be concerned about their safety right now.”  “Meh, this is kinda funny, and I’m not sure I’m willing to admit this ever happened,” I replied.  “Surely there’s a quota on the amount of stupid we can be in one day.”  Self and I compromised with a geo-tagged google+ post.

The shuttle driver came back, stubbed out his cigarette, and finished arguing with the cabbie he had on the phone.  “It’s only ten minutes away.  That’s still absurd,” he shouted into the phone.  He hangs up, tells me that if I wait here, I can get a cab for $25, vs the $30 from the airport.  “Honestly, it’s worth five bucks for me to get there faster,” I say.  Reluctantly, the shuttle driver takes me to go get ripped off more thoroughly.  See, sense of self-preservation, everything was fine.

I caught the train.  I got two seats to myself.  It was dark, and quiet, lacking in screaming children or emphysema patients, and I slept pretty well.  But first I did some writing.  And a bit of reading.  Say, three hours worth.  Hardly the literary indulgence I’d pictured, but hey, the trip was chock full of story.  That’s better.

Gratuitous closing photo

New Orleans Part 3: Where the Swamp Things Are

Thursday could be described as “Project get out of the French Quarter” day.  We had a swamp tour scheduled, and dinner reservations at the Upperline restaurant in the Garden District.  But first, we needed sustenance, and that meant hitting up one of the restaurant recommendations we got from Wednesday’s tour guide.

“It’s a bit of a dive,” the tour guide said, hesitating in his recommendation.

“I love dives,” I replied.

“Then definitely go to Coop’s.”  He was right.  When John and I tracked the place down on Wednesday, we knew we’d found the right place immediately.  We knew, because the smell of the food wafted out the door, then mugged us, dragged us around back, and turned us into whimpering, famished things.  If we hadn’t still been in an agony of over-eating from Muriel’s, we’d never have resisted.  As it was, we beelined there for pre-swamp lunch.

The jambalaya was the recommended dish, though most of the menu looked ravishingly good.  And it smelled so good in there I contemplated eating the table.  John ordered the jambalaya (supreme or extreme or something like that.)  Then I violated every rule I hold sacred about restaurant eating, and ordered the exact same thing.  Can you blame me?  Look at it.

This is an unholy concoction featuring not just rabbit, shrimp and andouille, but crawdads and tasso, too.  It was pleasantly spicy, tender, filling, and best of all, correctly portioned.  We cleared our plates without agony, and walked away feeling sated, but like there was hope of dinner consumption later.  This may very well have been my favorite meal for the whole trip.  I’d go back to New Orleans just to eat this again.  And, you know, maybe try some of the other stuff on their menu.

We got back to the hotel just in time to wait outside for our hotel pickup to the swamp.  After a few minutes I started reflecting on the last time John and I were waiting for a hotel pick-up for a tour, i.e. the horse riding tour in Iceland.  John didn’t really remember, so I decided to pass the time waiting for our pick up by regaling him with the tale of prior disaster.  I’m not sure why he thinks I’m a good travel companion.  Our pick-up arrived with minor incident (he got the hotel wrong, but we had that straightened out through the magic of cell phones well before the close of the pick-up window) and we were off.

“We’re going East.  Most people don’t realize how big New Orleans is to the east.  From here on out, everything you see, it was under water.”  We’d done it.  We’d entered Katrina Tourism Territory.

“When we get to the high point on that bridge, I want you to look around.  Everything you  see; it was under water.”

“That is the 9th ward, where you saw people getting rescued off their rooftops.  You can see the patches in the roofs where they cut through so they could be rescued.  They were under water.”

“That empty lot over there.  That used to be a Wal-Mart.  It was destroyed.  By the water.”  It’s possible a let go a silent cheer for Katrina on that one.

Finally we got to the point where our driver announced, “Here we are, fifteen miles inland from lake Pontchartrain.  This part didn’t flood.”  We’d entered a realm of blue herons, magnolia trees and Spanish moss.  A backwater bayou reported in pop culture to house rednecks with unsavory predilections for shotguns, swamp witches prone to cannibalism, and alligators ready to devour you in a moment.  We had arrived at…wait for it…THE HONEY ISLAND SWAMP.

Okay, so the swamp was mostly pretty, and it’s possible I took about 300 pictures in two hours.  I’m just going to scatter photos of the swamp tour through the rest of this entry because after that, I had picture fatigue and did not document the rest of the day.

We did not get to see any alligators.  It was too chilly and they’d gone for hibernation.  We did see lots of birds, and lots of turtles, and one nutria – an invasive animal the state is trying so hard to get rid of that they’ve put out a bounty, and at one point tried to spark a trend in wearing nutria fur.

Our tour guide tried really hard to find a gator for us, threatening at one point to turn the trip into a “three hour tour” and thereby inflicting a horrible ear worm on me.  He knew his ecology, rambled on about evolutionary niches without saying any of the stupid things I’ve heard similar tour guides say, and was really good about stopping the boat to avoid disturbing wildlife people wanted pictures of.  He also included just enough local color that I really felt like we got a sense of the community.

“Hey Chuck.  Living the dream?” our guide asked one of the other tour guides on the river – also desperately looking for alligators and failing.

“Maybe if this were a jug of moonshine,” Chuck replied, gesturing at his gallon of water.

“That’s what he told his Daddy when he dropped out of medical school to start a swamp tour company.  He was living the dream.  I guess he’s happy,” our guide explained as the boat pulled away.

I don’t really know him, but I kinda like Chuck.  (I made up his name.  I do not remember what it was.)

The ride back to New Orleans featured a mellowed driver, Bob Marley tunes, and me catching up on DSF stories in my inbox and my google reader.  You’ll note this as the first reading I did on the trip.  Yeah, that literary orgy I was going to have?  Woops.

Dinner was another three course Prix Fixe menu, this time at the Upperline restaurant, located on Upperline street.  That involved our first transit by streetcar (so quaint!  So very stuck in traffic).  We were a touch early, but there wasn’t much on Upperline that looked interested to wander through, so we went in early.  The place filled up quickly after that.

The food was tasty.  I got the etouffe with jalapeño jelly for my appetizer.  The jelly blew my mind a little.  The grits that came with my shrimp entree were great and made me happy.  The bread pudding was well-balanced and nice.  A good meal.  Coop’s was better, and a fraction of the cost.

After dinner we flailed around a bit planning the next day.  Then I finished off some work I still had to do.  John fell asleep, and was utterly conked by the time I finished.  But it was still early, the room had no balcony, and I was not ready to spend the whole night cooped up in the hotel room.  So I went for a walk, no particular goal in mind other than to kill time and see something cool.  (The rest of the text for the entry is copied from a google+ post I made that night, so if you already read that, just look at the pictures.)

I wound up at a late night gallery opening. “This artist is the modern Toulouse Latrek. Even the French say so and they’re kind of snobby.”

I can see what he means. The paintings are vibrant and lively. I didn’t get pictures of the best ones because they probably didn’t want me taking pictures at all.

The artist, as it happens, was visiting from his home in Paris. “Where are you from?” he asked me.

“Richmond, Virginia.” It’s as true as anywhere else I could answer, and it feels like the better response.

“Aren’t there two Virginias? West and…east?”

The gallery owner jumps in to explain, apparently aware of how a Virginian might take offense. (I didn’t. It’s hard to be offensive by screwing up geography with a French accent.) But his explanation faltered when he tried to explain why there were two Virginias. He looked to me for help.

And that’s how I came to spend a portion of my evening two blocks away from Bourbon street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, talking about regional secession during the Civil War, legal fictions like state death, and how pleasant it is to go somewhere just because it’s there and you can.

To be concluded…

New Orleans Part 2: Keep reading for the octopus chandelier

Wednesday’s was a day colored heavily by the failure of my “socially appropriate” filter.  Oh well.

Over breakfast, (I had a disappointingly mediocre crepe, John had biscuits and gravy which he seemed to like.  Cafe Conti does not get a recommendation) John and I finally sat down to form a plan for the week.  I grabbed a stack of brochures from the lobby and we sorted out what we were interested in doing.  Tour-wise we booked a “ghost tour” that featured walking through the French Quarter’s cemetery, and a visit to the voodoo temple.  Neither of us cared much about the voodoo parts, but we wanted a guide to tell us the interesting bits of the cemetery and this was the only tour that didn’t promise vampires and hauntings.

Our tour guide was genuinely enthusiastic and fairly snarky.  Perfect!  A local lady and a friend of hers visiting from Chicago were the only other people on the tour.  “Don’t call me on it of you catch me lying,” the tour guide said to the local lady.  “Feel free to share if you’ve got a better lie,” I said.

The tour guide handled it really well when John and I thwarted one of his stops by talking about the glass we’d noticed cemented into the tops of walls earlier.  “It’s kinda pretty.  I wonder if Don would let me do that to our windows,” I said.

“Why would you do that to your windows?” John asked.

“To prepare of the zombie apocalypse.”

“I’m sorry, what?” the tour guide asked.

The graveyard was cool.  Definitely visit it with a tour – there are no plaques to explain the cool stuff to you.  My favorite part was this:

For some reason this statue screams Titus Andronicus to me.  It seems appropriate.

After the graveyard, we walked over to the visitor’s center for a water break and to rest our feet.  Then, after checking to make sure nobody was an ophidiaphobe, he took us to the voodoo temple.

At no point in or near the temple did I call bullshit on anything.  I’m saying this up front so everybody can relax.  Also, I want a cookie for good behavior.

At the beginning of the tour, our tour guide warned us that we might only meet the priestess in passing, or she might decide to talk to us for a while.  If she didn’t decide to talk to us, we should be prepared for her to talk in circles.  “You might think she got lost in the conversation  but she knows where she’s going.  It always ties back,” he advised us.  In other words, the voodoo priestess has confused obfuscation for spirituality.  Not the first, but noted, and thanks for the warning. (Remember: I behaved)

The priestess took us into the temple, sat us down, and started rambling about how spoiled people are for expecting the electricity to work.  Did you know that there was once a time when people didn’t have electricity?  I was shocked to hear it.  Then she started demanding that people ask her questions.  All four of us demurred.  I was hoping that if nobody asked we’d get out of there before I’d do something John would feel like he had to apologize for.  The priestess started suggesting topics people might want to ask her about.

“Maybe somebody is wanting to know about a man?  About their marriage prospects?” She looked around the room, then settled on me.  And kept waiting for me to ask her.

“Don’t look at me.  I don’t want to get married.”

“Oh, she just wants to be responsible for herself.”  She was dismissing this, which I’ll admit, I found rather insulting.

“Precisely,” I said.

And then she did this thing other women and older people do when they think they’re being wise and really they’re just being assholes.  “Well, you’re young.  A girl reaches a certain age, her biological clock starts ticking and then…”

“I took a hammer to my biological clock.”

The tour guide a the back of them room just about lost it.  It’s possible he was still reeling from hearing about the zombie apocalypse.

“You what?  How?” asked the priestess.

“At sat down with it, gave it a hard stare and said, ‘It’s your or me, and it isn’t going to be me.'”

“I’ve never heard of that before.  A hammer to your biological clock.”

This was not misbehavior.  I’m still waiting for that cookie.

Before parting ways with our guide, I extracted restaurant recommendations from him.  Then John and I spent the rest of the afternoon tracking down the French Quarter restaurants he’d suggested (he’d claimed two of the places were on Chartres.  They were actually on Decatur)  and exploring the French Market.  When dinner time rolled around, we opted for something fairly light.  Breakfast had been a formality; we were still full from Muriel’s.  John and I, we discovered, suck at eating.

For our light dinner, we decided to check out the New Orleans sushi scene.  The Lonely Planet guidebook only mentioned that sushi was available in New Orleans, it didn’t recommend any places.  This was a mistake.  The only place I’ve had sushi that good was Seattle.  It was fabulous, and the waiter was so friendly and enthusiastic he almost talked us into dessert even though we were full and planned to get beignets later.

After dinner, John and I grabbed our laptops, went to Jackson square, and settled down to, finally, commit acts of fiction.  I got a little high on people still being out in the streets, just wandering around and enjoying themselves.  After a while we stopped into the 24/7 cafe tucked between the square and the river and I introduced John to the sugared-dough beauty that is the beignet.  Then we fictioned until it got positively chilly, and walked back to the hotel.

To be continued, with more pictures of food.

New Orleans Part 1: Soylent Paint is Maids!

I’d been flirting with the idea of going to New Orleans for a trip for a while.  Savannah, New Orleans, San Diego, Portland and Maine are the only places in the U.S. left that I’ve never been to but would like to visit.  (I know Maine isn’t a city.  Hush)  I pictured an orgy of reading a writing and eating good food, bracketed with a train ride on either end, just to make sure I actually relaxed and indulged in the reading and writing parts of the trip.  I was reaching the point of giving up on the trip (the recall was coming and no way am I taking a vacation during that) when John mentioned that he had vacation time he needed to burn ASAP.  Cue the most last-minute vacation planning ever.

On Monday morning we took the bus down to Chicago and I gave John a relatively thorough five hour tour of downtown Chicago, starting with walking from the Union Station to Millenium Park, then all the up to Oak.  We stopped for fabulous Indian food for dinner.  Then we caught the 8pm City of New Orleans train.

This is where my vision of the trip started to fall apart.  I’d indulged in some rather extreme nocturnal behavior over the weekend, did not not adequately make up for it by sleeping in, then got up early on Monday.  I was too incoherent to write and too tired to follow written text.  So I watched Netflix on my phone until bed time.  Here enters the second flaw in my plan: When taking an overnight train, bring a blanket, get two seats for yourself, and do not share a car with anybody answering the description of emphysema man.  The last point is especially pertinent.  It’s possible I spent most of the night talking myself out of smothering a fellow passenger.

But I got a nice nap once emphysema man got off the train, the train arrived on time, and not getting searched, radiated and interrogated still ranks as a win for my travel standards.

We didn’t really plan the trip until the Thursday prior, so we had some trouble finding a hotel with availability.  I was thoroughly charmed by the hotel we did get, though.  “They decorate with bookshelves.  And they have books on those shelves!” I said when we got there.  John humored me.  John humoring me was a major theme of the trip.

We took our stuff up to our room.  The hallways were full of cleaning ladies and their carts. We dropped our stuff, freshened up a bit, and less than ten minutes after arriving, left to go exploring.  The cleaning ladies were gone.  Their carts were gone.  Instead there was a gentleman touching up the paint on the trim, and wet paint signs.  “They turned the cleaning ladies into wet paint,” I said.  “I don’t think so,” John said.  “How else do you explain this?”  John did not have an adequate alternative explanation.  Satisfied that our hotel knew classy decor and carried a touch of morbid creepiness, we set out to explore the French Quarter.

“Is that the third Hustler club?” John asked.

“That one’s the ‘barely legal annex,'” I replied.

“There are an awful lot of strip clubs.”

“I think we’re on Bourbon street.  Let’s, uhm, pick a different street.”

I really like Royal street, by the way.  It’s full of shops selling gorgeous art, fabulous jewelry, and stunning French antiques.  It’s possible I spent a lot of time demanding explanations for why I’m not absurdly wealthy.  “You work 15 hours a week,” John said.  “I work more than that.  I just only get paid for about fifteen of them.”  Speaking of work, I worked 1.5 times my normal number of paid hours that week.  And my boss didn’t notice I was on vacation.  I call that success, of a sort.  It’s possible I fail at vacation.

Our first destination was Jackson Square.  By the time we got there, I was very fond of New Orleans.  It wasn’t just the Anaea-crack getting sold up and down Royal.  It was a Tuesday afternoon, and there were people out and about on the streets.  There were street musicians, and they were pretty good.  Artists were setting up stands and hanging their work on fences to sell.  To top it off, the weather was gorgeous.  It felt like what I want from summer.  Given that it was well into November, I truly fear was a New Orleans summer is like.  As it was, I immediately started fantasizing about hunkering down in a sidewalk cafe with my laptop and spending hours committing acts of fiction while people watching and listening to street musicians.  Or maybe hanging out on one of the wrought iron balconies.

For dinner we went to Muriel’s which was on the corner of Jackson square.  The decor was nice, the wait staff seemed bored, and the food was quite tasty.  I’m a bad blogger and forgot to to take pictures, so you’ll have to trust me on it.  John got their BBQ shrimp with grits.  I am sad he did this, because it was his introduction to grits and I could tell from across the table they were no good.  Grits are touchy; if you don’t do them right they’re really bad.  Muriel’s did not do them right.  But their shrimp and chevre crepes were phenomenal, and so was their pork chop.  We both did the 3 course prix fixe menu, and we both walked away clutching our stomachs in pain.

We got back to the hotel and I discovered the one flaw with it; no balconies.  We were at the Prince Conti, and this was my only complaint.  Sadly, it wound up grating me enough that I wouldn’t stay there again.  I was tired, didn’t want to go out, but I wasn’t ready hole up in my hotel room for the night.  If I’d had a balcony to sit on, perfect.  Not having it left me feeling stifled.  I wound up working until I couldn’t see straight anymore and going to bed.

So, two days in to the trip, we’ve had two meals worth bragging about (the Indian food in Chicago was really good too) but planned literary orgy has been notably absent.  Woops.

To be continued…