Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 3

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.

Interior of the Lund Cathedral, facing the altar behind rows of wooden chairs.

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.

Interior of the French Book Store in Lund

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.

Exterior of the Cafe och Le in Lund

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.

Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 2

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.

Entrance of Stadsparken in Lund on a sunny day.

A duck pond surrounded by trees under a bright blue sky with fluffy clouds.

A street in Lund on an overcast day. Single-story buildings in eggshell and yellow are framed by flowering bushes on either side of their entrances.
Lund feels much smaller and cozier than Stockholm.

Exterior of a hotel in Lund on a sunny afternoon.

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+.

A banana Nutella crepe.

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.”

Exterior of the Cafe och Le in Lund

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.

Pineapple, banana, and peanut pizza
Banana and pineapple are perfectly acceptable pizza toppings. Fight me.

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.

Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 1

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.

A clean hotel room with large skylights and a freshly made bed.

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 Nasal Committee Exhibit in Lund, Sweden.

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!

Gravestone that reads, "Poet Critic PhD, Susanna Roxman. 29.8.1946 - 30.9.2015"

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.

Entrance to the Bok Kulturen exhibit at the Lund Cultural Museum.
This exhibit on the history of printing presses and book publishing was another high point of the museum for me.
Old brick work tools as part of a display in the Lund Cultural Museum.
The difference in architecture between Lund and Stockholm was a surprise to me. So much more brick work!
A display of old pinball machine art.
The pinball exhibit was a nice piece of contemporary pop art to round off my visit.

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.

A bowl of black soup with diced tomatoes and avocado in a brown clay bowl, with a small bowl of nachos on the side.

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.

Interior shot of an empty Mexican restaurant with bright yellow walls, black sombreros hanging from the wall, and chairs upholstered in bright stripes.
Dos Hermanos in Lund, Sweden

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.

The Glorious Return: Uijeongbu

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.

  • Visited a couple temples along said trails.

  • Finally, FINALLY attended a Royal Asiatic Society lecture about Chollipo Arboretum.
  • Finally, FINALLY attended a comfort women protest.

Weekly comfort women protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Exterior of a shop on Medicine Street in Daegu with jars in a glass display and a terrifying pair of taxidermied deer.

  • Ate everything.

Interior of a Gimbap Cheonguk in Uiejongbu, South Korea

  • Drank a lot.

A bowl of makgeolli on a wooden table.

  • Stayed in a hanok.

Courtyard of a hanok guesthouse in Seoul

  • Saw friends and former coworkers for the first time in a million years.

A chain of soju bottle caps dangling from a ceiling decorated in fairy lights.

  • 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)

A brightly-lit gamjatang restaurant at night.

  • Took in the late-night teenage buskers in downtown Uijeongbu.

Crowds enjoying late-night busking at the pedestrian mall in downtown Uijeongbu, South Korea.

  • Got scrubbed.
  • 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:

  • Cox

A dark bar, with "Cox" in light wood mounted on the black wall above the bottles.

  • What the Book? (in a new, smaller location, sadly)*

Interior of the now-closed What The Book? in Seoul, South Korea.

  • 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

Mosaic of a sunrise.

  • Maltese

The restaurant Maltese in Uijeongbu, South Korea.

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.

The author at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul, South Korea.

*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.

Bloomsday Weekend

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.

An Irish breakfast: sausages, bacon, ham, and half a tomato.

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.

A bar of F. W. Swenys 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.”

“Me too.”

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.”

Interior of the Dublin Writers' Museum

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!”

Street art with high-contrast black and white portraits of Irish writers on a purple background, with text that says "Feed your head: read."

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.

Selfie of the author and her friend.
And naturally I made point of obtaining a straw boater ahead of time!

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.

A neatly made bed in a small, old-fashioned hotel room.

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.

“Dubai.”

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!”

“Thank you!”

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.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 18: Old Orchard Beach, Portland, and Fort McClary ME

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.

That’s a long fellow you’ve got there!

It was a cozy little wander full of graffiti and politically-minded stickers.

I felt at home here; I could imagine myself in Portland (if I ever wanted to leave Stockholm). As I texted my friend back in Austin: “The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland ME, too.”

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.

The infamous GI Joe (actually an Indiana Jones action figure) and beaver.

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.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 17, Part I: Road Trip to Maine

It’s showtime!

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.

“That’s fair.”

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.

A diner in Massachusetts in the early morning hours. The view is across a counter, under which you can see some basic food prep supplies, to the far wall with a fridge full of sodas, a shelf of tea selections, and plants and wall art.
A beloved American tradition.

Yes, we got to sit on stools at the counter. L was pleased as punch and so was I.

American-style waffles with creamy butter and some fruit, on a white plate.
Big fluffy American waffles!

“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.

A box of Bigelow 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!”

“Bye!”

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.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 15 and 16: Albany, NY

Day 15

We’re up early to see L  out the door to work. A makes some eggs and toast for breakfast, and we have some of the Söder to go with it and wake up from the late night. After some art and doodles, the oldest wants to have a puppet show, and I keep both boys distracted for long enough with Monkey the Dentist and Giraffe the Doctor that A  has time to jump in the shower and have a few minutes to herself (until the youngest gets some serious separation anxiety and I drop him off to be in the bathroom with Mom).

I also have a fun time reading to the oldest, because I love reading anything, even if it’s kiddie picture books for the five thousandth time. I chat with A  over the boy’s head when he’s deeply involved with a book himself, though we never get back to the topic of friendship and time. Once in a while he wants some quiet, or he wants attention, and he yells at us: “Stop talking!” After numerous incidents, A lectures him a little about having patience and waiting, and that’s the last “Stop talking!” for the rest of my stay.

We also read through a book about dragons, and at the end it mentions Komodo dragons. One of my students has family in Sri Lanka and has visited on and off, and told me once about seeing a Komodo dragon on temple grounds, where it was allowed to just hang out and be a Komodo dragon because you aren’t allowed to kill anything near the temple. I bring up the story with A,  and she mentions that oh yeah, when she worked at the zoo she got to get up close and personal with a Komodo dragon, close enough to touch it.

Cue the meltdown from the oldest.

“NO MOMMY DON’T TOUCH THE DRAGON”

All the days I’m there, he doesn’t go down for a nap in the middle of the day, so as the afternoon drags on he gets a little overwhelmed and fussy (which makes dinners a little rough going, but we bribe him through with alternating reading pages and having bites of food).

While the youngest (still an infant) is down for a nap, I go out for a run in the park across the road.

 

I jump in the shower to wash off the sweat and grime when I get back and air out my workout clothes on the porch. A offers to wash them with the family clothes, but I figure they’ll be fine with some fresh air. A smart move, as it turns out: a stray crayon ended up in the wash and while nothing was ruined, it made the process a little more stressful than usual. It stressed A enough already; if a guest’s clothes had been involved, it would have freaked her out even more.

 

But the big event, in between books and arts and crafts and puppet shows, is the oldest’s favorite TV show: “the moon show.” “The Moon Show” is just his name for it, of course; can you guess why he calls it that? A hint:

“Do you know what Miss Koba’s favorite TV show is?”

“No, what?”

“The Moon Show!”

I don’t understand what about MST3K can possibly appeal to three-year-olds but there you have it. We don’t make it through the entire episode before L gets home and it’s time to start getting ready for dinner, but enough that I’m satisfied. After dinner and baths and bedtime books, the three of us sit down to a classic MST3K episode (a fond Hamilton favorite: Eeegah!), which ends up being background noise while and I (with input from A) break down how the new season compares with the series and give voice to our assorted little nitpicks (I think Jonah comes across as really nervous in the host segments; A misses how cheap the props used to look). We don’t make it through the entirety of Eegah!, either, and this time everyone heads to bed much earlier.

Day 16

L has taken a half day off work the next day so he can be home and hang out with us a bit, and also talk to the guy from the solar panel company who’s coming to evaluate the best place to put more solar panels. That means he’s also home in time for lunch, which is pierogi, one of my absolute favorites. I’m touched that A remembers—especially when she has absolutely no way of knowing that I haven’t had any in ages. What Sweden calls “pirogi” are really pirozhki and now if I want any I have to make them from scratch myself instead of getting an acceptably tasty ready-made version. I read a bit more from Her Smoke Rises Up Forever during the afternoon, while L plays with the oldest. We also putz around outside on the slightly crooked swing set.

Dinner is a bit of a hassle, again thanks to lack of an afternoon nap, but “eat, then read” bribes (tonight’s book is The Missing Piece Meets the Big O) get the job done. Everyone is a little rushed because we’re expecting my high school friend Fox, along with her boyfriend,  for company and board games, so it makes the oldest’s fussiness a little extra trying. But everyone gets shuttled off for a bath and bedtime stories successfully. Instead of helping with bedtime stories like I did the last couple nights, I set to work sweeping up veggie burger bits and washing dishes.

Fortunately, Fox and her boyfriend are running a little late themselves, so we have plenty of time for snacks and board games and adult company. This even though L and I have an early morning tomorrow: a four-hour drive to Maine the day off the wedding. We won’t have a lot of margin for error!

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Austin, TX, Day 2

My favorite part of visiting friends, particularly friends I only see every so often, is borrowing books from their personal libraries. It keeps me from having to pack books myself, and I like to see the ways that friends have branched out and developed in my absence. So it’s not a problem that Noah is still sleeping and Elizabeth has already left for work when I wake up a little after 7:00, alert and refreshed. I use the time to sit with a collection of Ted Chiang’s short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others.

I start with “The Story of Your Life,” since I had recently seen and enjoyed Arrival,  and have just begun another before Noah wakes up and brews some of the Söder tea I brought to go with the mugs. We talk while we finish our drinks, sleepy and meandering.Making new friends in a new country can be challenging, especially for introverts (and maybe even especially in a culture that’s very introverted); I relish the chance to spend time with someone who has a history with me and who knows me well, and vice versa. The conversation continues through starting a load of laundry, walking to (and then eating at, and then walking home from) a breakfast joint, and a visit to a store that has a proper name but that Noah and Elizabeth simply call “The Magic Rock Shop.”

My reputation precedes me, I guess; anytime I visit friends somewhere, they point me towards a nearby rock and gem shop, if one exists. I worked at a cave (a literal, hole-in-the-ground cave) with a pretty hardcore mineral and lapidary selection throughout college and afterwards. As a result, I have a soft spot in my heart for rocks, even today, and I guess it’s obvious to anyone who’s known me for any length of time. This one tilts more New Age than rockhound, but there’s still plenty to enjoy (and, of course, the pallets out back with the bulk, rough-cut slabs).

I’ll never understand the appeal of amazonite.

One of my priorities in Austin was seeing the Art.Science.Gallery. in person, but they’re closed while I’m in town. Oops!

What awful timing!

It’s quite close to Zhi Tea, though: across the street, basically. I know about Zhi Tea because of another friend, originally from Austin but now based in Sacramento. Noah is also a fan and it was already on his agenda for us that long weekend without me even asking, so it works out perfectly. We jaywalk across the street (I had forgotten how much the American landscape hates pedestrians) and I make a beeline for the black tea selection to find four I want to try in the little four-cup sampler. Noah orders an iced tea and we go and sit in the garden in the back.

Pardon the unintentional photobomb behind me.

All of my editing and lesson planning runs on bottomless cups of black tea. I love a good Söder, but I’m always curious about new varieties. My Sacramento friend had sent me some other Zhi Tea, and it was good enough that I was keen to try their other blends. None of those four in front of me disappointed, either.

I remember to (mis)quote Vonnegut at one point in between sips: “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Even with on-going life anxieties, I recognize that at least in that moment I’m happy. I like to think it comes out well in that photo; as someone with chronic Resting Bitch Face my smiles come out rather forced in most photos unless I’m genuinely and really happy.

After finishing our tea, we go back into the tea shop so I can make the difficult choice about which tea to buy. I eventually settle on Fredericksburg Peach, and we head out for Korean-Mexican fusion food next because all of the caffeine has put me in hummingbird mode; I need some food to take the edge off. Miraculously, I have a huge bowl of rice for lunch without lapsing into a food coma right after.

We bus over to the Capitol building for a tour. It’s much shorter than usual, since both the state senate and the state congress are in special sessions, so we just wander around the halls a bit, with our bald, eyepatch-wearing guide. I stop in the gift shop and pick up some postcards for mailing later.

We check out the state Senate and Congress from the gallery, Noah narrating in low tones about current legislation they’re trying to pass and assorted factions within the state government and within the state-level GOP. We don’t stay long (maybe the prospect of politics is too depressing?), though, and eventually head for the library, where Elizabeth works. Her day is almost over at this point, so we just wait at a table for her. Our conversation here, influenced by the library atmosphere, is slower and hushed. I encourage him to write more.

Then it’s back home, and everyone reads for an hour or two. I sit with Elizabeth in the living room and read more from Stories of Your Life and Others while Noah retires to the bedroom, eventually falling asleep in his book. Once in a while Elizabeth and I talk about the cats, or the graphic novel she’s reading for a book club.

We stay like that until it’s time for Master Pancake, a local riff show in the spirit of Mystery Science Theater 3000, my all-time favorite TV show. Before we get to the Alamo Drafthouse, it’s pizzas, Chicago style, in a dark and dingy bar. Three different TVs have three different things on, all muted with closed captioning: there’s Young Guns, a sports game, and something else.

“They have all the Austin bases covered,” Elizabeth notes. “People nostalgic for the 80s and people who want to watch sports.”

The food is a completely opposite experience for me from yesterday with the veggie sandwich and Subtraction Soup.  I thought I was hungry when I ordered, but after the first bite of pizza I realize This is way too much. Even with Noah mooching a slice off of mine, there’s still a last slice of my personal pie left over. I would have left it, truthfully, but Elizabeth wraps it in foil and bravely carries it in her purse for the rest of the night; Noah will have it for breakfast in the morning.

Eventually it’s time to the theater for Master Pancake. We stop at another, closer bar first, in order to meet up with everyone. I get my first and only Long Island for the trip, and we go up to the roof to people watch, which quickly turns into “sitting in the air-conditioned part of the roof bar and watching the arcade.”

More of Noah’s Austin friends find us at the bar, and we all have a good time at Master Pancake. We hang around the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse, tired but also reluctant to brave the horde of loud, drunk people. It has to happen sooner or later, though, and we squeeze into someone’s car for a ride home. When we get back, it’s late but I’m not as tired as my hosts, so I make use of their wifi and check my email and gchat and things before bed.