I’m back from a whirlwind vacation in Paris, my first-ever trip to The Continent proper. I quickly realized that tourism in The City of Light leans a great deal on its literary history: the exclusive, posh Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris; the ascension of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore into sightseeing destinations; the queue to get into Shakespeare and Company. This isn’t a post about my vacation, though. It’s about a book I bought (and read) in Paris. I mention Paris and my vacation because that’s the only reason this book fell into my lap. I was unaware of it, wasn’t looking for it, and wasn’t necessarily intending to ever read it.
Even though my travel companions and I stopped by Shakespeare and Company shortly after it opened for the day on a Thursday, the store was already crowded. Between the jostles and the bumps of people, and the knowledge that there was likely a queue building outside, it was hard to get into the mindset of leisurely browsing the books. In the stress of the moment I decided to focus on getting something either in French or about Paris, rather than something I could buy any old time. Et voilà: A Waiter in Paris.
Edward Chisholm and his girlfriend move from London to Paris and he decides, for nebulous “I’m going to prove something to myself” reasons, to become a waiter. A Waiter in Paris is his account of an eight-month stint at a fashionable bistro and a book-length expansion on his 2013 piece for the New York Times, “Notes from a Parisian Kitchen.” (Link is to an unpaywalled PDF version for your ease of reading.) Less generously, it’s an overly self-serious version of Rob McKittrick’s 2005 comedy Waiting.
A Waiter in Paris has glowing reviews everywhere. Publishers Weekly, Radio New Zealand…even the 3-star reviews on GoodReads are still faintly positive. Most of them seem spellbound by one, or both, of the following:
Chisholm’s depiction of the labor conditions in a French bistro
Chisholm’s observations of French (or at least Parisian) society
While I won’t fault reviewers who haven’t lived or worked in Paris, I’m concerned that anyone in the Year of Our Lord 2022 could be genuinely shocked and appalled at restaurant labor practices. Did anyone writing these reviews ever work a service job?
Bereft of the one-two punch of “working class tourism” and “cultural observations,” there isn’t much left of interest in A Waiter in Paris. Chisholm’s writing is fluid and readable, certainly, but there are a couple tics he has that border on purple prose (overblown Greek mythological allusions) or just plain “trying too hard” (too many attempts to work “liberté, égalité, fraternité” references into the narrative). He also cites Down and Out in Paris and London as a major influence, which—never remind people in the middle of your own book that there’s a better one they could be reading instead. You’re only going to invite an unfavorable comparison.
The unfavorable comparison in this case is that Chisholm could learn a thing or two from Orwell about narrative distance and detachment. Down and Out leaves plenty of room for the other people Orwell encounters, while A Waiter is essentially The Edward Chisholm Story, with his fellow restaurant staff as background characters. This reaches its peak in a couple episodes that have a very powerful r/ThatHappened vibe. Not that I doubt they happened, but rather that they serve no purpose in the book except as evidence that the other waiters like Chisholm, maybe even see something special in him.
And that’s kind of where it falls apart for me. Underneath the razzle-dazzle, it’s just The Edward Chisholm Story, and Chisholm is, demographically speaking, exactly the kind of guy I went to college with—the kind of guy reading this book to begin with. A kind of guy with which I’m well familiar by this point. The real interesting part is the other people working in the bistro, but at the end of the day we don’t get all that much about any of them.
Of course, eight months isn’t exactly long enough to build enough trust with someone to find out their life story. Especially in a chaotic atmosphere like a restaurant where there’s not necessarily a lot of downtime to make smalltalk, and when you haven’t yet mastered your French, and when people will come and go at random. But whatever part of personal biography you can’t access or divulge, you can make up for by providing larger context and history, even if a nutshell version, and there’s nothing of that in here. What conflict was our Tamil Freedom Fighter actually involved in? What’s the prevailing French attitude towards the Portuguese? Are there historical or social reasons the Maghrebi waiter is so (seemingly hypocritically) dismissive of les africanes? The intersection of politics and history in the kitchen of just about every restaurant in Paris (and probably in most of Europe, if not the world) is a great lens through which to examine colonization and globalization. Missed opportunity, in other words.
At the end of the day, though, it was the writing that put me off A Waiter in Paris more than anything else. I’ll close out my thoughts by returning to that aspect of it, because this was the most damning aspect of all.
There is a sort of arch tone that expats take in their writing, including yours truly. (I’m the guiltiest of all.) On one hand, we make evident our limitations by conceding we don’t speak the language well enough yet, or loudly bemoaning that this or that thing is utterly opaque or impenetrable to us. But on the other hand, we relish the idea of others considering us insiders or experts, since from their perspective that’s exactly what we are, and so we continue to hold forth. Maybe I recognized too much of myself—or projected too much of myself—in the writing and in my imaginary version of Chisholm to really enjoy the book.
I got off to an early start, since I was taking the train out of Gothenburg (only twenty minutes or so, but still). I didn’t know how long my visit to Alingsås would take me, but I knew I wanted to visit Aniara Bokhandeln later the same day, so I’d booked a train for 10 am to assure me plenty of time for both. I got up early enough that my hair would be good and dry after my morning shower and leisurely hotel breakfast.
Alingsås was cute and charming, with a surprising amount to see and do for what seems to otherwise be a fairly small little town. I’d only dropped in because of the Karin Boye memorial, and in the end decided not to make a day trip of Alingsås this time around, but to come back another time and plan it better for the labyrinth, the large park, and I think some old castle or fortress?
I know Karin Boye best from Kallocain (which I originally read, like Aniara, in English translation in my Swedish literature course at Stockholms Universitet in undergrad) but she was prolific and talented and troubled. The ill health and death of her long-time partner (and possibly, Fascist encroachment in Greece?) finally unnerved her and she killed herself. A farmer found her early in the morning and a large boulder nearby was at some point declared her memorial.
Partner ill health and Fascist creep are deep, soul crushing worries I can relate to, so when I remembered that her memorial wasn’t far from Gothenburg I decided to go out there and sit a while.
Always weird to come upon a place you’ve seen photos of before on Wikipedia. Something about the real and the image of the real, signs and signifiers, etc. (Oh, hey, and something like nine months after this trip I finally read Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation!) Nor did it help that you essentially have to cut through the Swedish version of suburbia until suddenly you’re faced with what’s essentially a small cliff. There isn’t any threshold, either, from the quotidian to the transcendent, nothing to ease you into the place of someone’s death. Rather, as soon as you scramble up that cliff the boulder is right there.
The view from where I did most of my sitting and thinking. I scratched out a little poem while I sat there.
24 April 1941
Hur gick det att dö
Bland träd och sten och mark?
Ångrade du dig
i sista ögonblicket?
Längte du efter människo-
(eller hellre kvinno-)
Hittade du en fördröjd spår av framtidstro
i en fågelsång eller en blek solstråle?
Eller var du
A small group of older women out on a walk passed in one direction first, then later, in the other direction; a woman my age, whose little dog didn’t take kindly to my presence.
After maybe an hour or so, I descended the cliff again and did a little flaneuring in the vague direction of the train station, taking in the architecture and the art installations of Alingsås (light shows, statuary).
Back in Gothenburg, Aniara Bokhandeln was empty when I turned up, so the proprietor turned all of her friendly storeowner attention on me in a way I should be used to, but for whatever reason am not. It’s at least not as thoroughgoing as in the US, so she didn’t hound me as much as someone in a similar position would have in the states.
The selection, I joked in a WhatsApp message to a friend, was full of material as erudite and impenetrable as its literary namesake. Politics, history, philosophy, and all manner of dense academic texts lined the shelves. Not so much airport novels or popular fiction, which resided in two small sets of shelves in the back, in a recess up two or three stairs behind the main floor of the shop.
I struck gold there, however. I found a copy of the much-lauded Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige (a book-length investigation of how individualism and collectivism play out in modern Sweden) and the much more obscure but the possibly way more buckwild Uncle Sam’s Cabin (a “we Swedes have traveled around the US and are now reporting back to you on what we discovered” type travelogue from the early 60s).
Books and some postcards in hand, I went off in search of dinner, which ended up being my second langos of the trip. It took them a little while to prepare, since they’d run out of feta, but I was grateful for the long opportunity to sit and read, and they offered me a free drink to make up for the wait, so it all worked out in the end. The only other customers while I was there was a couple, husband Swedish and wife of some kind of central European extraction, and the wife had no qualms whatsoever about informing the owners that her lango hadn’t been prepared quite right, and so began a long conversation about the best way to fry them.
Full of good food and warm from head to toe, I set out for my hotel room on foot instead of by tram. I hadn’t paid for a single tram ride and wasn’t about to start now, plus I wanted to know how to get from the Second Långgatan neighborhood to my hotel on foot, without having to rely so heavily on Google maps. It was a good half hour to forty-five minutes of a walk or so, but the weather was fine and I welcomed the exercise. I stopped off at a few secondhand stores to see if they had any small rabbit figurines (an inside joke with my sambo), but no dice. Otherwise I just followed the tram line as best I remembered and lo and behold it wasn’t that complicated at all. Just a bit long.
I left the books and the postcards in my room, grabbed my fully charged powerbank and cable, and took the tram back the Second Långgatan quarter. I’d thought out loud via WhatsApp at Irish Coworker about whether I felt up to crashing bar trivia in Swedish as a team of one.
“I got a mate there, Fabian. Look him up, he loves a good pub quiz” and sent me a link to Fabian’s Facebook profile.
“Nja, drinking with one of your friends? I’ll wake up in a gutter somewhere.”
“Kelly’s then! You gotta go to Kelly’s.”
So Kelly’s it was, with a lot of beer and lot of reading. I contemplated striking up a conversation with a guy I saw at the end of the bar who never once put his phone away but seemed on very friendly terms with the bartenders and a couple of other regulars at the bar, but never got around to it and so instead I more or less finished reading Une morte très douce. I stayed until closing, stonefacedly ignored the couple cab drivers making a bid for my business, and made it back to the hotel room at around 2 am just fine.
Next on my agenda after Lund was Gothenburg, Sweden’s “second city.” Unsurprisingly I knew, and still know, almost nothing about it; like every Stockholmare, for me Sweden is Stockholm, fuck everyone else. I mean, not really fuck everyone else, but it’s uncomfortable to admit that I have become the Swedish equivalent of the asshole New Yorker. I have brought shame and dishonor upon my house.
I didn’t do much upon my arrival because I was exhausted from too much wine and too little sleep (and too short a train ride to make up for the sleep). I stumbled in to my hotel room at around noon and napped forever. Getting sloshed on Zoom while watching a Neil Breen movie was still 100% worth it and I ended my day with no regrets.
This hotel wasn’t half as charming as my place in Lund. It was generic hotel in all its presentation and decor (as opposed to the cute, non-hotel-ish railroad theme of The More Hotel in Lund), but it was also butt ugly. I booked a room expecting something like this:
But got this (note! this was after my nap, the place didn’t come prerumpled):
Not to mention the weather was bleh and, once I woke up from my nap and worked up the energy to go outside, everything was closed. At just 8 pm on a Sunday! What! I ended up stopping at an Espresso House despite my undying hatred for them just to grab something like dinner, plus a smoothie to go for the rest of my boxed wine, which I of course schlepped with me. It’s in a box, after all.
That’s all of my notes for the day: “Why is everything closed??”
I spent a couple hours writing up my thoughts on Lund, and then zonked out.
After a shower and a hotel breakfast, I made for the cathedral, Domkyrkan Göteborg. The one in Lund was fresh in my mind and so I thought, might as well take in a bit of history and culture before I do anything else too crazy in town.
The website was quite dodgy about whether or not there were tours, however. I found an old Swedish travel blog write-up about taking a tour but it was several years out of date, plus coronatider mina bekanta, so I just meandered around after the Monday afternoon service was over to see what I could see, without any more guidance or context than the occasional plaque.
The cathedral is pretty new as far as these things go, dating back only to the 1800s (there were two previous, older cathedrals on the site that burned down, oops), and so lacked those good good historical vibes I like in the churches here.
It was also pretty ugly, in my view, and something about it left the distinct impression of the US and the Antebellum South. I didn’t stay too long, and spent most of my time looking at the small display of goods from the charitable artist’s school and collective the church sponsors in Kenya rather than the tacky architecture.
Yet I’d had such high hopes after this straight up Lovecraftian nightmare statue right outside the church grounds!
I hopped a tram a few stops out to visit the Botanical Gardens, because I guess the two things I will instantly gravitate towards in a city are churches and gardens. I suppose history and flowers are as good a place to start as any when you’re in a new town!
I won’t bore you with ALL OF THE FLOWERS. Let this photo be a stand-in; you can imagine your own flowers.
On the ride out I noticed a place called Aniara Bokhandeln, and if there’s anything that’s going to get my attention it’s going to be an indie bookstore named after the great modernist Swedish poem of the 20th century. I made a mental note to check it out another day.
There was a food truck by the entrance to the gardens and it was still parked there when I had done a full circuit around the most interesting parts, and thus began my culinary theme for the trip: langos.
I don’t know if there’s a particularly large population of Hungarians in Gothenbug. My Hungarian friend said nothing to that effect when I pinged him with the above photos of my food (though he was horrified at what he considered awful mash-up Frankenfood), but all of a sudden I landed in town and there they were, everywhere. At any rate, fried dough with just about anything can’t go wrong. I approve.
The whole day, I’d been in intermittent contact with a coworker who used to live in Gothenburg and had just been back to visit during his recent vacation. I kvetched about everything being closed, to which he replied: “just make it to 2:a långgatan and it’s all good!”
That inside tip turned out to be the thing that made Gothenburg worthwhile for me. Not that the botanical gardens or the other things I did weren’t nice—they were!—but it’s helpful to know where people go to relax and have fun. Even if it’s coronatider, mina bekanta.
I wandered around and eventually found Cafe Publik, another Vänster Partiet watering hole (or so it seemed, based on the lefty stickers and its proximity to the party headquarters) and one of those odd ducks that has a full license to serve alcohol but also serves coffee and tea.
It was a much better lefty cafe experience than India Däck, where I felt just very, very old. If this was the party watering hole, it hadn’t become so insular that literally no one else ever turned up. I would have holed up there the entire evening with my book (Une morte très douce) except that my phone battery was quickly eating it from an unusually high level of Google Maps usage, and I didn’t want to be caught out with a dead phone.
Back at the hotel, I put my phone to charge, made plans for tomorrow (it suddenly struck me that Karin Boye’s memorial wasn’t far from here) and continued reading The Fifth Season in the hotel lobby, again with a fireplace. I thought about going out to get something for dinner, since it was early yet, but satisfied myself with some of the muesli I had brought with me from Lund and a chocolate bar.
My only plans for the day were the hotel breakfast (had overslept or otherwise missed it previously), a tour of the Lund cathedral, an international bookstore I’d discovered too late the previous day, open mic at Cafe och Le, and then bad movie Zoom.
There was some minor miscommunication between staff members about where the tour was supposed to start, but it all worked out fine in the end. Our guide was a cheerful and slightly theatrical young woman (she also does tours for school kids and it showed) who informed us that there was a baptism scheduled after the tour was over, so we were free to stay unless they needed to make room for the baptism guests. We stayed to watch a large, complicated clock go off, complete with good and evil knights fighting and the three Wise Men turning up to pay their respects to Mary and the baby Jesus to the tune of “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” after which I decided to wander off elsewhere and give the baptism party their….not privacy, I guess, but their something.
I made a beeline for the international bookstore I had found yesterday and immediately fell in love. No weird minimalist artsy displays with just a book or two per shelf: just shelves and shelves of books, everywhere, every which way. By this point I’d finished two of the six books I brought with me, so I was entitled to get two replacement books, right? And a souvenir book as well of course. And he happened to have the memoirs I’d been meaning to get for ages so of course I picked that up.
The sign said French Bookstore, and then listed a bunch of other languages below, which I found amusing, but then once I was in there it made sense: the owner was clearly French, and also excruciatingly though charmingly slow and old fashioned. He wrote out my receipt by hand and spent most of my visit there waiting for his payment system to process a bulk order from a librarian who had come in from Malmö. And even though everything I bought was in French, I still kept to Swedish with him because my spoken French is pretty crap. But my brain did the thing and so suddenly my Swedish accent started to turn French. Wild.
I wandered a bit more and stumbled on the last half hour of a pop-up…art gallery? Flea market? Unsure. But I checked it out on a whim and ended up with three gorgeous prints painstakingly excised from an old encyclopedia: a star map with the North Star and nearby constellations, a map of “China and Japan” (and the surrounding countries of course, but at that point given as either Chinese or Japanese territory), and a watercolor illustration of a Chinese mandarin and a young Japanese woman, posed together a bit like a museum display, clearly part of the section on different cultures around the world and their traditional costumes.
The weather was starting to turn by this point, so I hoofed it back to the hotel room to drop off my booty rather than schlep it along with me to the open mic at a place called Cafe och le (Cafe and smile), which is a pretty cute little pun since you pronounce it the same as Cafe au lait. I showed up about half an hour ahead of the scheduled start so I could be sure of a seat and also have some dinner, but it ended up being more like forty-five minutes ahead of the start since it took a while to get the sound set up going.
It was a delight despite that, and no one who performed was tragically or embarrassingly bad. The highlight for me was an older guy who turned up and out of nowhere, THE BLUES. One of America’s few cultural exports worthy of mention; probably the closest thing I’ll ever experience to patriotism is the weird little warmth I get in my guts when I listen to non-Americans play the blues. Appropriately enough for my musical patriotism, the last song I caught before I returned to the hotel room for bad movie Zoom was “Summertime,” and boy howdy do I have strong feelings about George Gershwin!
The bad movie zoom was top notch, as always, and I polished off a great deal of (too much?) mediocre boxed wine before last-minute packing all the assorted small things and then collapsing into bed at 3 am or so.
I burned through my agenda in basically one day, so I started my second day in Lund with a long sleep in and then took a walk through Stadsparken and Lund at large to enjoy the sunshine.
I got a tip from a friend on a good crepe place, so I ambled over in that direction and got a crepe to go. It was a good tip and a very good crepe, so A+.
I ambled a bit more, since the weather was still good, and picked up snacks and some boxed wine for my later weekend plans. (Zoom drinking: pandemic hobbies.) I discovered a few stores and places to visit tomorrow, after the tour of Lund cathedral I had planned: an international bookstore, an open mic at a place with the very clever name “Cafe och Le.”
I wrapped up the night with a take out pizza, since it was Friday and old habits die hard, and then nosed around the hotel a bit to see if I wanted to use their sauna.
Verdict: I don’t like Swedish saunas as much as Korean ones and I would be better served by a really hot shower in my own room. I did just that, and with my hair toweled off a bit I went downstairs to read The Stone Sky in the hotel lobby. I was hoping that the fire that had been going before would still be lit, for those good good cozy vibes, but alas it was not to be. Still, pleasant to have the white noise of people conversing (the lobby opened directly into the hotel bar/restaurant) and I read until I was ready to nod off right there on the couch.
I didn’t want to fly anywhere during a pandemic, and it was a bit embarrassing to be a jävle stockholmare who had never been beyond the greater metropolitan area even after seven years of living here, so I decided this was the year to take the train out of Stockholm and visit other parts of Sweden. This time around: Lund and Göteborg.
I sprung for a hotel room in Lund, a full on grown up suite hotel room with a kitchenette and plenty of space ALL FOR ME. Deep in my heart I’m still a slummy hostel rat, but during corona I don’t want to bunk up in close quarters with other people traveling so I dropped the cash for the fancy option in a hotel built in a converted locomotive shed.
Once I had settled in for the night, I set about putting together an agenda for the rest of my visit. The thing I wanted to see most was the Nasal Committee, a collection of plaster casts of assorted famous noses. This sounds a bit weird when I put it like that; it’s not at all a serious exhibit but a long-running joke that started in an award acceptance? commencement? speech by a Swedish comedian back in the 80s and now here we are today. Amongst the actual noses from living people, you also have entries like the Sphinx (“mysteriously noseless” according to its little catalogue write-up), Tycho Brahe (complete with the brass bit like he had in real life) and the eel, Anguilla anguilla.
The botanical gardens were along the way from my hotel room to the museum, so I took a wander through there to appreciate the flowers and fresh air, even though the weather was a bit overcast.
The botanical gardens also adjoin a cemetery (which actually had a pair of goth kids smoking by the entrance, bless) so I had a fun time investigating the headstones. Like Stockholm, no graves were particularly old, but unlike Stockholm a lot of them had the deceased’s career listed. The most noteworthy one was a PhD. She worked too hard for that doctorate NOT to have it proudly listed on her grave!
The Cultural Museum was a quite a bit larger than I would have expected, with several buildings and open-air exhibits. I ended up exploring several other areas as well.
After the museum and a bit of a walk, so I decided to see if the Mexican place I passed earlier was open and taking drop-in customers. It was and they were, and for Mexican food in Sweden it was pretty good, definitely a cut above the usual crappy tacos.
It was also blessedly empty so I didn’t feel too much like I was tempting fate: it only started filling up when I had finished, so I paid and got the heck out of Dodge.
After a couple hours of futzing around in my hotel room (drinking loads of tea, getting some reading done) I decided to futz around at a bar instead. Most of them looked too nice to go there alone (and a bit too crowded), so I eventually ended up at good ol’ Bishops Arms, drinking beer and reading Ice until closing. On my way home I nearly got taken out by a cyclist coming too fast around a corner, but in the end I was fine and he ended up eating shit and wiping out so I ended the night with a good laugh.
After many lean years and tight travel budgets, in 2019 I bummed a favor from my friend Yousef and got the “friends and family” price on an Air Emirates ticket to South Korea. (He doesn’t work at Air Emirates anymore so that flight was a one-off memorable experience in itself.) My itinerary was a few days in Uijeongbu, a few days in Seoul, a few days in Daegu, Chuseok in Seoul, and the last few days in Uijeongbu. I centered my visit around Uijeongbu because I had lived there for two years, so I knew people there and was eager to take in the nostalgic sites (which ended up being more “seeing how things had changed”) in addition to new and exciting cities and experiences.
The short version of fun things I did, which I might or might not expand into later entries as the mood to reminisce strikes me:
Hiked (“hiked”) a bit in Bukhansan park, along parts of the trails accessible in Uijeongbu/Hoeryong/Mangwolsa.
Saw friends and former coworkers for the first time in a million years.
Met the next generation of teachers at my very first hagwon. They had already renewed their contract for a second year at this point in Q3 2019; I wonder how the plague year of 2020 treated them.
Deliberately avoided visiting my second hagwon and all of its bougie environs.
Mourned the apparent end of my third and best hagwon, its space now a kiddie play park above the gamjatang restaurant on the first floor (which is somehow still the same gamjatang restaurant, down to the signage—cold comfort, that)
Took in the late-night teenage buskers in downtown Uijeongbu.
Actually, spent a lot of time in jjimjilbangs, up to and including the date of my departure, when I:
Dropped myself into a jjimjilbang locker room conversation between other foreign women and encouraged them to embrace the nudity of the sauna because it was extremely fucking worth it.
The weather was gorgeous. Typhoon Lingling hit on my last day in Daegu, prompting me to bump my departure up (too soggy to go out and do anything in the morning, which had been my original plan), and for a few days after there were intermittent showers heavy enough to warrant umbrellas, but then sometime around Chuseok it broke and it was beautiful weather the rest of the time—and I came back to a cold and gray Stockholm, awesome.
Things I loved in Korea that are no longer there:
Tom Bar in Uijeongbu
the Uzbek restaurant Jong-min and I always went to in Anam
My third hagwon (see above)
The officetel my third hagwon rented for me: the building is still standing but dark, quiet, a mere ghost; no doubt slated for demolition or at least renovation (Uijeongbu really växer så det knakar these days)
the Thai restaurant Yousef and I would frequent after binge shopping at What The Book?
Things I loved that were still there:
What the Book? (in a new, smaller location, sadly)*
My first officetel building, once a modern piece of shiny new domination on that brief stretch of road, now dingy and old and dwarfed by taller buildings on either side
Cheonjiyeon jjimjilbang in Millak dong
The mosaic along the bike path next to the stream
The one activity I’ll detail is this:
During my last days in Uijeongbu, I bought a couple cheap-o bottles of makgeolli and a box of Korean Digestive biscuit knock-offs (my favorite snack). Then I made small little pilgrimages and offerings to places that were important to me. At each location I emptied out a measure of makgeolli or left a few cookies and sat and talked to the place, out loud like a crazy person. I have a thing about being able to say goodbye to people and to places, to have as much closure as possible. What terrifies me about having so many friends spread across the globe is the knowledge that each time I see them may very well be the last (true for literally every person you see, sure, but it feels more urgent when you only see someone every few years) and that I’ll never, ever be able to give them the farewell I’d want to give. But here was an opportunity to do exactly that, and I did.
I thanked the officetel for a good year, for sheltering me and protecting me and being a cozy little room I could call home. I also told it that I hoped whatever was going to be built in its place was nice and charming and worthy of being built there. The other sites, being more a general sense of place that’s hard to really destroy, were less emotional since they’re literally impossible to disappear the way a specific building is. But they still brought up memories of friends and a life I no longer have, and my heart ached a bit.
It turned out to be a well-timed trip on my end. The last chance to visit people in Korea before they left, the last chance to visit What The Book?, the last chance to see a familiar place before the coronavirus appeared on the world stage and (irrevocably?) changed so many things. I have such stupendously good luck so often, it astounds me.
*As of the date on this backdated entry, What The Book? still existed, but a few months later it closed very abruptly and unceremoniously. The books I purchased there on this last trip will never leave my collection.
One of my literary friends, Yousef, suggested we do Bloomsday in 2018, a suggestion we finally made good on in 2019. Yousef is also an immaculate planner so I left all of the scheduling and eetail work to him, and he didn’t disappoint. Following his lead I stayed at Barry’s Hotel, which turned out to be a prime location for us and which was both comfortable and cozy.
The first day off the plane was a bit of a whirlwind of long-overdue hellos after six years of separation, finding the right bus, meeting up with our third travel companion, Ian, and getting dinner and drinks and settled into our hotel rooms.
On the second day, my dirtbag body woke up at 5:30 am and wouldn’t go back to sleep and that was my life. I browsed the Internet, enabled data roaming on my phone so we weren’t reliant on spotty wifi, and then went downstairs for tea and breakfast: a proper Irish breakfast full of meat.
Yousef and I trash talked MFAs until Ian turned up at our hotel—then it was time for a tour of Trinity University, including the library and the book of Kells.
Then we made a beeline for Oscar Wilde and Offbeat Donuts, though not before dropping in Swenys for a live reading from Ulysses, the very last chapter. People were in seats that were in a line snaked along the tiny little chemist’s-cum-bookstore. Everyone had their copy of Ulysses out and helpful event/store clerks proffered us extra copies open to the right page if we wanted to read along. (We declined.) Things began with an elderly woman who read quite well—you got the impression she’d read this portion quite a few times. The last chapter is one I like better as well, though I’d like it a lot more with more than eight periods…! She finished, and the next reader stumbled through his bit, which is when Yousef and I ducked out.
After Oscar Wilde and donuts, Yousef had a Dubliners walking tour. I could have crashed it but instead opted for taking the tram back to Sweny’s, where I picked up another postcard plus the infamous lemon soap.
Once reunited we made the pilgrimage to Hodges Figgis. We only had two hours until it closed, which was not nearly enough time.
“I’m glad I’m in a bookstore with people who won’t judge me for my habits,” Yousef said over the giant stack of books he was carrying. He had enough books to fill up a stamp card in one giant shop. My haul was much humbler, partially because one of the three books I found was 78 goddamn Euros! But it was a fairly academic text on translation that neither Stockholm library nor the university library carry, so I figured why not.
Afterwards we tried The Pig’s Ear, but it was fancier than we were prepared for so we left and opted for a more casual steak place (so much steak!). We started with Thai spicy chicken wings and I couldn’t help laughing.
“Thai food after book shopping, just like in Korea.”
We rounded out the night with a lot of beers at Mess Maguires and then it was the end of day two. Tomorrow would be Proper Bloomsday.
Like every other day of the trip, I was the first up and spent an hour or so on my own, reading and writing up travel notes.
“Sorry I wouldn’t commit to a time for the museum last night,” Yousef said when he got downstairs. “But it’s my vacation and I just want to sleep in.”
“No, I get it. Breakfast?”
“Just the continental today, I think.”
Yousef had toasted peanut butter and Nutella, while I had corn flakes with raisins and some Nutella and jam on toast. When he went to pay with his Emirati debit card, the clerk asked a tentative question in Arabic and a brief exchange and introduction followed.
“I knew he was Egyptian,” Yousef said as we strolled out of the hotel. “I could tell by the accent but I didn’t want to say anything.”
Our first stop was the Dublin Writer’s Museum. The thinking was that we could visit there first, learn a little bit, pick up some names or titles that might be interesting, and then go book shopping. Originally we wanted to go back to Hodges Figgis, but we ended up spending more time at the library than anticipated and since we had a tour to make at 1.30, we opted for Chapters, which was closer to the Joyce center.
A lot of the writers I noted were slightly too old but still insufficiently “classic” to be found at Chapters (which, unlike the other two bookstores we had visited already, didn’t have a separate “Irish literature” section), but I did find a couple of 20th century women writers who had been featured.
Back at the Joyce center, Yousef gave me a little bit of friendly ribbing about not buying a ticket (“They were all sold out when I went to finally buy them!”) but it’s not like there were any ticket takers or handstamps so I just told the guide I was here for the 1.30 tour and that was it. The tour was a short walk and covered Joyce’s biography as well as particular spots from Ulysses. A film crew from a Farsi station on the BBC was on our tour to report about the event, except I would have never guessed or known that if I had been by myself but Yousef made a point of asking what they were filming for, and at the end of the tour he gave the producer? director? his email address and she promised to send him a link to the clip when it aired.
We had about an hour to kill before the readings, and debated carrying our book shopping with us or dropping it off at the hotel. We opted for the latter, and good thing we did, because later that evening it started pissing down rain (Ireland!) and we would have been drenched.
“Did you have a good day?” an elderly gentleman asked me as we left the hotel. I must have looked absolutely panicked, because he continued:
“We saw you leaving the hotel this morning. Have you had a good time so far?”
“Oh! Yes, great.”
“It’s not over yet,” Yousef added.
“No, the night is young and so are we!”
We still had enough time to do a quick souvenir and gift shop. I picked up whisky cordials at Hotel Chocolat and Yousef asked if they carried anything with Baileys. No dice, but the girl at the counter suggested one of the tacky tourist tchotchke shops down the block, which was conveniently on our way. I also picked up some Baileys cordials, because why not, and then we grabbed a seat for the readings.
The whole reading was very femme and very queer, which is fitting for an event during the high holy month of Pride. The readings were interspersed with a singer performing songs from the book, which was a good call to break the monotony. Not that it would have been monotonous otherwise, but the singer was quite good so if there had been a couple duds in a row you could count on something a little livelier soon enough. The highlight of the entire event, which was a good two and a half? three? hours was a Senator who also happened to be a Joyce scholar reading from the bit with Bloom masturbating on the beach, complete with all the appropriate intonations, and then concluding his selection with: “Nothing like a spot of masturbation on a beautiful summer day!”
Ian was supposed to join us for the reading, but he took a different tour and ended up getting absolutely plumb lost, so we didn’t see him again until the cabaret show at 8. We made a beeline for the restaurant Yousef most wanted to try on his list (assembled for him by an Irish coworker who really put her project manager all into it and gave us a good selection), and by now it was getting a little chilly and I was in a light dress with no stockings or leggings and wanted to get inside.
This restaurant was BBQ and of course, since I was wearing white, I made a bit of a mess of myself. The food was worth it, at any rate, and I was glad for something warm.
The only cock-up was a mistake in the program. Our last event for the night was a cabaret performance that looked like it started at 8 and ran till midnight. We got to the venue at 7.30 and waited for the doors to open…and waited…and waited…in the downpour that I mentioned earlier…while all the while the crowd grew larger. When the doors finally opened at 8 (which was what the program should have noted but didn’t), there was such a huge crowd and such a bottleneck at the desk that it still took ten or fifteen minutes to get everyone in. We grabbed a round of drinks and waited for the show to begin.
It was worth the rain and the waiting, though. I grinned and laughed so much my face hurt, and the acts were all really good, and really creative takes on the material in Ulysses (with varying levels of poetic license taken with the source). Ian even got called on to the stage for one of the audience participation bits, which was to use a piece of sandpaper to remove as much pink paint from a toilet plunger as you could in five minutes—again, masturbation.
“I’ll hold your drink if you get a picture of this,” I whispered to Yousef a few seconds into it, and he handed over his Beamish and then did one better by capturing it all on video.
“Blackmail material,” he said with a grin when it was over.
During the intermission we talked about US politics with a woman in costume, complete with a “Votes For Women” sash (you saw a couple of those throughout the day). I stood Yousef another round of drinks and told him:
“This is a fucking delight. You made an excellent choice with this, thank you.”
Because much as the tour was a good tour and the readings were excellent, the cabaret was next level. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t going in with really high expectations. I was expecting a kind of cringey but endearing amateur burlesque thing, but it was so far beyond that.
The second to last act was a dance routine inspired by the “Ithaca” chapter, specifically the part where Stephen and Leo go outside to take a piss and look at the stars. The lights dimmed even further and a dancer in an outfit and long scarves rigged with lights performed a routine to an orchestral version of “With Or Without You.” The effect certainly didn’t cost all too much to make—take a string of LED Christmas lights of decent quality and attach them to your fabric properly and that’s about all you need—but it was genuinely captivating, and that plus all the emotional intensity of the last few days and the disappointment at having to leave the next morning got me to crying, so congratulations I’m someone who cries at dance performances now.
Ian didn’t have to be up quite as early as us, so he bid us good night and we went on our own back to the hotel. We checked into our flights and figured out our gameplan for getting to the airport. Cab fare wasn’t outrageous, so we decided to hell with it, we’re on vacation. Plus Yousef had just a small backpack and a couple of flimsy paper bags, but a million books to fit in there: all easier to manage in a cab than on public transit.
I had a larger bag and fewer books, so I got everything packed away easily before I went to bed, set a bunch of alarms (paranoia!), and curled up for the last night in my posh bed at Barry’s.
I didn’t oversleep, of course, and begrudgingly I went downstairs to check out and order a cab. I sat with one of my books—Cocktail Bar—and messaged Yousef to let him know I was up and that our cab was coming in an hour.
“Cool. Just trying to strategically back four bags of books into two.”
At ten after nine I knocked on Yousef’s door to make sure everything was cool. He didn’t answer, but I could at least hear him packing, so I retired to the hall and waited for him to finish.
“Need any help?” I asked when he came out.
“Nah, it’s okay.”
We had enough time for some morning tea and discussed the events of yesterday (best and worst readings, how good the cabaret was) and the merits of city-based literary festivals.
“I wonder if New Orleans does anything for A Confederacy of Dunces,” I said. “Or maybe that would be grim, considering what happened to the author.”
After tea, we decided to head outside and wait for our cab. The desk clerk, a friendly middle aged woman with a husky cigarette-y voice, came out with us to…make sure we didn’t get into the wrong one?
“So where did you guys fly in from?” she asked.
“Well, I’m in from Stockholm,” I offered when Yousef hesitated.
We talked a bit more about the weather and how Yousef would rather the weather in Dublin than the 50 plus degrees C in Dubai, until she spotted our car and ushered us across the street.
“Thanks for visiting, safe travels back!”
We breezed through security—not sure if DUB has its shit together or if we just picked an unpopular time to fly— and finished all of the check-in stuff by 11 or so. Our flights weren’t until almost 2,so we had plenty of time to kill. Yousef did some last-minute souvenir shopping and we had some breakfast. What we really wanted, and hadn’t been able to find in all of our restaurants, was a proper stew, so we just bided our time until the restaurant downstairs started serving lunch. What the restaurant billed as a “casserole” ended up being extremely stew-y, so mission accomplished.
I had a long schlep back to my gate once Yousef’s flight was off the ground, so I didn’t have to sit for too long until we started boarding. An animal rescue group, Dogs Without Homes, had been on my flight on the way over and sure enough, here they were on my way back, easily identifiable in their bright sky blue t-shirts. The flight back was uneventful; I read a good chunk of Cocktail Bar and, even though the flight was just a couple of hours, snuck in a quick nap.
Would that I could just create an imaginary city with everything and everyone I love from all over and then just never leave. Alas, stuck here in this material realm, limited by the laws of space and time.
Since the cabin was about two hours from Old Orchard Beach, we hit the road relatively early for bagels and other goodies at Aaron’s aunt’s house. Everyone else had made plans amongst themselves; Theophanes and I had decided yesterday to visit the International Cryptozoology Museum. One of my Hamilton friend’s boyfriend has been there before: “It’s just, like, two rooms of stuff, and this guy following you around, telling you how Bigfoot is real. One of the display is, like, a GI Joe doll standing next to a stuffed beaver to show how large giant beavers are supposed to be.” He laughed and shakes his head; Theophanes and I looked at each other like YESSSSSS. That is definitely what we’re doing next.
Her GPS didn’t have an updated address for the International Cryptozoology Museum, which unbeknownst to us had moved to some old warehouse unit behind the Greyhound station, so we had a nice little wander around downtown Portland.
It was a cozy little wander full of graffiti and politically-minded stickers.
For our one and only actual stop in downtown, we visited The Green Hand and despite the incredibly temptation I resisted the urge to buy books. Still, I wanted to get something, so I bought a little High Priestess pin and a ton of postcards.
They very conveniently had a poster by the register with directions to the new location of The International Cryptozoology Museum, so we realized our mistake and (after a fight with the parking garage) were able to rectify it.
We had a little trouble finding the museum once we were on the warehouse campus—we literally walked right past it and didn’t see it until we turned around—but we were still there before closing. It was everything I love in a tourist trap: weird and kind of grubby but incredibly enthusiastic. It’s situated in a weird place; it splits the warehouse room with a fried chicken restaurant, so we had to walk through another place to find the entrance. (It has its own door, too, but on the other side of the building.) We watched the little introductory video by the founder first (Loren Coleman, no doubt the “creepy dude” mentioned earlier), then I paid for our tickets and we explored.
The first floor is a riot of assorted mounted weirdnesses—this is the “hoax” section, which the video explains is included because the founder wants you “to be critical and skeptical.” It includes Fiji mermaids and Jackalopes and so on.
And bits about assorted species once considered mythical that turned out to be real: mountain gorillas, etc.
Upstairs is dedicated to hominids and the founder’s little shrine to himself and assorted cryptid kitsch.
The museum It reminded me, a little, of The Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA, in that these are both vanity-ish projects that are kind of the crystallized, refined essence of what makes their founders tick. Only The Museum of Jurassic Technology isn’t really self-aggrandizing about it and is much more about “here’s this stuff I like!” The International Cryptozoology Museum is a little more, “Here’s me, and here’s the stuff that made me famous.” Anything that made him famous: an overhead LED light that was used on a camping trip when he potentially saw Bigfoot, the computer Coleman used to write his first book on cryptozoology, that sort of thing. A wall-mounted TV plays a video of his appearance on some show or other (but we didn’t stay long enough to find out if it loops).
They have a photo op set up, and naturally we availed ourselves of it.
I spend my last remaining pocket change on a postcard in the gift shop and we decided to try to the deep-fried PB & J food truck we saw while we were trying to find the museum.
Everything sounded really good, or at least really interesting; I settled on a sort of sample platter that’s half a regular (deep-fried) PB & J and half something called a S’More: no peanut butter or jelly, but fluff and something vaguely Nutella ish. We chatted for a little bit with another customer, who was maybe itching to talk to people and so when he heard me give my name for the order opened up with a story about a woman he knew who was named, for real, “Katherine Katherine.” We talked about unusual names and doping in sports and NASCAR and then our sandwiches were ready, so we took our leave and give them a try.
The cook in the truck helpfully pointed out which sample was which; I decided to start with the s’more sandwich since the PB & J seemed to be the flagship standard. The s’more one was an absolute delight; the PB & J less so, if only because the jelly seemed to have more or less evaporated with the heat of the deep fryer, so it was essentially a warm peanut butter sandwich with powdered sugar on top.
But the s’mores one was SO DAMN GOOD.
Hunger sated, we headed back to the car to decide what our next stop for the day would be. Theophanes had a couple suggestions, and we eventually decided on Fort McClary because it was the closest one to us. It was still an hour away, about, but we had time.
Some people from your childhood, if you meet them again as adults it’s weird and you have nothing in common with them anymore and you struggle to understand why you were ever friends to begin with. Maybe sometimes you kept an inseparable circle of BFFs. Visiting Theophanes with is somewhere in the middle. Thanks to Facebook, we’ve more or less kept tabs on each other, though we never interact one-on-one. But in person it’s fine, and it’s not weird, and it’s like: here’s this person who’s known you, if not always very deeply, forever. We drove a lot and what could have been long, uncomfortable car rides with a virtual stranger are perfectly comfortable. Silences occur and are natural, but most of the time there was easygoing conversation.
We poked around Fort McClary without paying the “suggested donation” because we’re rebels. This is all you need to know about Fort McClary:
“During the Civil War, plans were drawn for large masonry forts on major rivers, but advancement in weapons caused them to become obsolete before construction was completed. The huge granite slabs on this site remain where they lay when work stopped.”
We alternately poked around for pictures, enjoyed a view together, or stopped and shot the breeze. We quite possibly scared a couple of dudes away when the subject turned to birth control and periods. I watched the boats in the water and thought about Murder, She Wrote and drank in the smell of the ocean.
Somebody had it in for Sir William Pepperrell!
RIP Granite Wall
It’s a small and unremarkable park, but it does have a lovely view. I can understand why someone would be honored by a memorial bench here.
We decided to leave when the sun started to go down, since we still had a long drive back to the cabin. By the time we get home, Theophanes’s brother, girlfriend, and her nieces are already there. We knew that they were going to be staying overnight that night, so it wasn’t not much of a surprise; we just didn’t know what time they’d be arriving. For it being such a small cabin, though, it didn’t feel cramped with all of those people. Theophanes and I are beat (we did a lot of walking), but we hung around and chatted a little bit about our plans tomorrow: driving to Boston, Walden, Boda Borg. Neither Theophanes nor her family were really familiar with the concept of escape rooms, so I explained.
“I hope they let you out if you can’t solve the puzzle,” the girlfriend joked.
We needed an early start the next day, though, and we were seriously bushed from our adventures. We didn’t talk for long until we said our goodnights and collapsed into bed.
This day ends up being long, to the tune of 20 hours long: I got up at 4 am and I finally crashed at around midnight. It was basically two days crammed into one, so I’ll split it into two parts.
A insisted at the close of last night that she’d be up to say goodbye, but of course she wasn’t and I knew she wouldn’t because she’s an exhausted mother of two children, so I wasn’t surprised. I managed to make it out the door without leaving anything behind, except Her Smoke Rises Up Forever. I didn’t realize that for a while, and when I finally did I was a little sad because I get sentimental about books from friends, but I already have other books from Noah in my library (The Fifth Season, Harpo Speaks!, Name of the Rose) so I wasn’t as heartbroken as I might have otherwise been when I finally realized what had happened.
“I absolutely do not trust myself to drive on any leg of this trip,” I told L as we get ready. “Driving myself? Fine. If I eat it, whatever. But you’re a dad now. I couldn’t live with myself if something happened. I’ll stay up and keep you company, though.” Which is a bigger deal promise than maybe it sounds because I can fall asleep in cars at the drop of a hat.
It was still dark when we took off. The only other cars we saw were trucks and tractor trailers. Every time we passed one, I held my breath and tensed up. I trusted L; I did’t trust truckers on the road at 4 am.
“The one thing I really wanna do on this trip is get breakfast at a proper greasy spoon truck stop diner,” L said early on in the drive. “A place where you can sit on stools at the counter. I can’t do that with the boys. I was thinking we could find one once we get to Massachusetts.”
“Omigod, yes. Sweden doesn’t do diners. That sounds perfect. My treat.”
We hit Mass at around 6 in the morning, and after a little futzing with the GPS we decided to try a coffee shop in a strip mall. I was wary, because it’s hard to have a proper diner in a strip mall, but coffee is coffee and you want the driver on your road trip to be as awake and alert as possible, so I took the compromise.
Except it wasn’t a compromise, and inside it was a proper full-on greasy spoon, including the low-budget Americana decor.
Yes, we got to sit on stools at the counter. L was pleased as punch and so was I.
“If this isn’t nice, what is?” I thought to myself, and for the half-hour or so that we were relaxing and having a proper roadtrip breakfast, I could forget about all of the stress and awfulness going on around us.
The glass display counter by the register had some baked goods, because of course, and so we each picked out a donut to have as a snack later as I paid up. The shelf behind the register also boasted a number of teas; in addition to the usual English Breakfast and Earl Grey, I spotted THIN MINTS TEA.
“Holy crap, they make thin mints tea now?!”
The waitress gushed. “Oh yeah, it’s great. Here, take a bag. Free sample.”
“Aw, nice. Thanks!”
Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty tasty tea.
The sun was up now. It was weird to think that it was 7 am and we’d been up for hours. Bolstered by our food (diner food is magic, I’m pretty sure), we continue northwards. There were other cars on the road now; it felt more normal and less lonely and apocalyptic. Once we hit Maine, we pulled over in a rest stop to have our donuts and change out of lazy driving clothes into proper wedding clothes.
This was when L realized that the pants he meant to wear, with the cigars he bought for the occasion, were at home, but the good news is he had everything else, including another pair of dress-y pants in the car already, so it wasn’t a sartorial emergency. We also realized that we didn’t have the address for the church and since neither of us had data on our phones, I put in a call to A to do some Internet sleuthing for us.
“Hi sweetie!” A chirped. I was calling from L’s phone.
“Hi sweetie yourself,” I joked back. She laughed.
“Oh, hi Koba. Everything going okay?”
“Yeah, peachy keen. But can you do us a favor and look up an address for us? The invitation only has the address for the reception, not where the ceremony’s going to be.”
“Sure, just a second.” I could hear her negotiate with the oldest over use of the tablet, and some wondering aloud about if the place she found Googling was where we were going, but eventually she found it.
“Sorry I wasn’t up to see you guys off. I totally meant to, but…”
“Nah, it’s fine. We left super early.”
“Well, have a good time! It was good to see you. That was a good talk we had. It’s a lot to think about.”
“Anytime. It was good to see you, too. I’m sure I’ll be around again at some point. People can’t stop getting married.” Four more friends from this college crowd aren’t married yet and I can safely assume I’ll be invited to those weddings, plus Noah’s if they decide to take that leap. Plus the odd assortment of friends I have outside of Hamilton. “Have fun with the boys.”
“I will. Bye Koba!”
L had estimated the time for the wedding ceremony wrong, but in our favor: he was planning for 10:00 am, not 10:30. “Oh, sweet. Then we have time to get some Moxie!”
I laughed. “Yes, definitely.”
We found the nearest grocery store according to the GPS and L helped himself to the remaining cases of diet Moxie left on the shelf, four in all. He knew that an anniversary present from A arrived in the mail the other day, but I had no idea if he knew that it was Moxie. Well, it’s not like it’ll sit around unappreciated, I thought.
“Someone likes Moxie,” an older woman remarked quizzically, confused over why someone would stock up on so much regional soft drink. Diet, at that.
“We don’t have it in Albany,” L explained, and the woman maybe nodded or said something, I forget, but we made a beeline for the checkout, loaded up the car, and returned to the church-adjacent neighborhood to find some parking.