Posts Tagged 'offbeat'

How To Rock in Kosovo

Show flier

1. Get up at 5am. Ease open the lock on your cupboard and stuff your purse full of the only socks and scarves you own. Leave the key on the counter and walk through the black-morning streets. Think about how Genti said this city was best at 4am—a different place without the cars, all smooth and still; think about how you’re an hour off but how he’s right.

Meet Robo at the bus stop, which isn’t a bus stop but a street corner with two wheezing vehicles, bumpers touching like a kiss. Drink an espresso and still fall asleep before the bus leaves.

2. Wake up when your ears start popping, look out the window and see only mist—a kind of apocalyptic mist that’s mixed with pollution so you don’t know which is which—mist and trash and dogs sleeping in the median by the border control. Think of “The Road.” Hand the man your passport, remark how you thought you’d be the only navy one, have Robo reply, “The others are former Yugoslavia passports.”

Hazy border median

It’s easy when the man comes back on the bus—he calls the names of everyone, groggy hands reclaiming documents—but for you, he just hands it over, doesn’t even look up.

3. Stop at the cafe, squat toilet and sensor towel dispenser. Eat a salad for a Euro, wrap the hunk of bread in napkins and tuck it in your purse. Robo goes across the road to the market, comes back with a bottle wrapped in newspaper and a plastic bag, “Like in America,” he says and laughs and drinks.

4. Fiddle-rock and Turkish pop, Kosovo countryside through the window: tire-less cars on the roof, pile of trash burning and man warms his hands, leans his ear into a cell phone. Dead dog in the ditch, blood-matted fur and lolling tongue. RC Cola ad. Hotel Luxory, Hotel Florida, Hotel OK—two points for honesty.

That's not a real beverage

5. Arrive at the Pristina bus station. Jay-walk across the overpass and remark how cars actually stop for you. See a Bill Clinton statue, see Yankee flag and American knock-off products everywhere: American Hot Dog, American Doughnut, American Cola. Say: “They must be the last country left on Earth that likes us.”

6. Go to Tingle Tangle, a hipster coffee shop that could be in Brooklyn or SF, except everyone’s smoking, smoking, inside and out, and a 10-year-old walks by, box full of cigarettes and you shake your head no. Sit in the sun and order a cappuccino, which you find out is a mocha, and look at the macchiato Bledi orders and say, “That’s a cappuccino,” and he says, “No, it’s a macchiato.”

Word.

The kids are different here, in Kosovo, where you’ve come for a music festival called Cow Fest, or something like that. They speak Albanian, but a different type of Albanian, more slang, they tell you, looser and more wild. The kids look more European or American or something—hip in the way we like to be hip, sweaters and beards and slept-on hair—less like Tirana, where most of the kids are trying so hard to look Western they just fail—an approximation based on music videos and bad Hollywood movies, a hauty snootiness the girls assume, cheap shoes and too-much make-up, in the face of that failure. Say something about this, and they tell you, “Yes, yes”—how Kosovo’s been more connected to the Western world, how in Yugoslavia they could travel while Albania was on lock-down, how the music scene is better here but how the city’s smaller, less dynamic.

Nod and drink your fake cappuccino. See an “Occupy Pristina” sticker, and open your purse, your notebook, dig out one the Obey stickers Greg gave you, metal drawer full. Peel off the back and put it up. Wonder if anyone will know what it means. Take a picture.

7. Take a taxi to the one cheap guesthouse in town, share it with Gredy, who’s got a half-melted face and you don’t ask why—with Mardi and Marin, who you remember from last year and who remember you too. Reception smells like stale smoke in the underground, and the cupboard’s got tea cups and condoms, and the staticy TV has an “I ❤ English" sticker on it. Astro-turf-style carpet runner, crash for a disco nap—bleary limbs back awake for the walk down the hill.

8. Sound check at Oda, the theater where the festival will be: velvet wallpaper and cement floors. First espresso’s free. We leave Mardi there, cello and guitars—walk through a shopping mall where Marin stares through the window at hiking boots, “They’re all shit in Albania”—just finished another season tour guiding and wants to get out of the country fast (Pristina doesn’t count), wants to go to Rome or Berlin, wants to play the guitar, wants to meet a nice girl.

But first he wants a hamburger, so we go to Route 66, an American style diner with the requisite Monroe/Dean/Elvis pictures, and a Mexican section on the laminated menu. Shake your head and order the sorriest, soggiest salad you've seen all trip.

9. Walk the town, the cold hurts: back to Tingle Tangle, over to the opening of a photography exhibit where they play Son House and you laugh. Some other smokey bar, always a smokey bar, and, no, you still don’t want a drink. Clear liquid in short glasses, a kind of grappa, and you feel like you’re in the way. Walk again, and the cold still hurts.

10. Go back to Oda, wait for the first band. Proceeds from the festival go to purchase cows for local farmers in need, and you ask how much a cow costs—“500 Euros.” Figure out your entrance bought 1% of a cow. Try to figure out how many people there are, how many cows you’ve bought so far. “It was bigger last year.”

Marin’s bummed cause the DJ he wanted to see has canceled, and Robo stands in the back, and the first band sucks, a jazzy quartet with a hip-hop-style MC. Go for another walk, the cold colder—buy chestnuts and sit at a table in the mall, shedding shells and tell Robo your writing dilemma and ask for advice. It’s slurry now, but solid. Nod and know what you have to do.

11. There’s a fleet of teenagers back at Oda, and the floor is sticky and a punk band is playing and they’re decent, despite shotty vocal levels. Nod and watch the limbs of a mini-pit thrash, silhouette against the stage lights, not too unlike home. You’ll decide later it was the best band of the night.

The next band “is real shit”—girl with dreads pinned into a bun, scatting while the band jams, but no real set, no real songs—so you sit against the back wall with your knees to your chest, which reminds you of being a teenager. They’ve only raised a cow and a half so far, “Last year it was seven,” and they say how the show wasn’t promoted this year, how everyone was fighting, how another band canceled last minute—how still, the scene is better than in Tirana, where they’ve nearly stopped having shows, where it’s all cover bands—“We lost our best guitarist to Pristina!” Marin exclaims as he grabs Bledi’s cheeks.

Decide it’s still decent enough to rock to, and nod your head, even though you’re sitting in the back and you’re tired, which is how you rock anyway these days—“Granny style,” you tell Robo and laugh, as he takes another swig from his plastic-bag bottle, America-style.

Notes on Flying Into Albania

At the Bergamo airport outside Milan, and I’m in Albania before I’m in Albania.

Waiting at the gate, last flight of the night and it’s delayed—“ritardo,” which sounds like “retarded” and I laugh and take a picture, and get those sideways glances—“Girl, you’re not from here.”

And I’m not—one of the only people at the gate that isn’t Albanian, clutching a red passport and the clothing suddenly different, so un-Milan, where even the dogs are better groomed that me. At Gate 3, it’s faded loose blazers instead of crisp fitted ones; it’s cheap haircuts and scarves tied over the heads of old women. It’s scuffed low heels and calf-length skirts, thin linen—it’s hard faces, jaws and brows more pronounced, and skin chiseled too, even in the children—chiseled, as though the expressions were carved out of some kind of different living, different reality, and you could never quite assimilate, could you? I think—No.

I’m wrecked tired, stayed up till 5am with the Le Fooding kids, slept maybe 4 broken hours, and I’ve got a bottle of Pelegrino and my headphones cranked up, tapping my foot through a caffeine haze just to stay awake. Glances snag on me—not Italian, not Albanian, what the fuck?

An hour after we’re supposed to leave, and a shuttle bus pulls up to the gate. People push and jostle; a man tears our boarding passes, which look like they were created in MS Word, printed on Xerox paper, glossy-thin. The bus smells like wet and feet, and it lets us off at the stairs to the plane, which bears no markers, no logos, a surface so lumpy it looks like paper-mache. We scurry in through the cool Italian night, breath clouds and blinking lights.

They’ve got the first ten rows blocked off—I remember this from my last Belle Air flight—and I can’t really discern why. People push and prod, they yell instructions to each other over, motion over the heads, and I can’t discern that either. There’s an old woman in my seat, and the seat next to her, and I show her my ticket and she shakes her scarved head as if to say, “No.”

I shrug and the stewardess—dolled up like a retro Pan Am attendant, hair pinned and orange hat tucked jauntily to the side—she shrugs and motions me up to the front of the plane, to the unassigned rows, and I grab an extra seat.

A staticy safety announcement rushed through in 3 languages—sounds like the voice in a fast-food drive-thru—and it’s too quiet for me to hear anyway over the mechanical groans of the plane. There’s nothing identifiably “Belle Air” about the plane, save the cloths on the head rests, and I decide it must be some kind of generic rent-a-plane, which doesn’t make me feel terribly confident, but I close my eyes and wait for take-off—though really, in a lot of ways, all these ways, I’ve already taken off.

We take off, and I watch the lights of Milan dissipate, fade—goodbye Western world. We’re cruising at news-helicopter altitude, it seems, and I feel like I could reach out and touch the little lights, the clouds that snag on the wings and eventually swallow everything, everything.

The cabin lights keep dimming and brightening, like a kid playing with a switch. Outside, the sky crackles a yellow flash, illuminating the shapes of those clouds, and I imagine the static clinging to us like clothes from a dryer, or when a silent electricity is in the air and you don’t know it until you touch something and get that little shock—in the black above the Adriatic, but we’re already in Albania, a rattly, groany little generic bullet of Albania, carrying Albania through the sky.

Lights appear and we start to sink. The scarved woman in my seat stands up—she opens the overhead bin literally as we’re landing, the first bump and rumble, and others follow suit as we taxi, and the stewardesses stare ahead, bored-looking and don’t bother to point out the seat-belt sign or tell us to sit.

Another flight of stairs, another stinky shuttle bus, and a mad rush to the immigration desk. It’s a quarter-size line at the “Foreigner” counter, though I could have sworn I was the only non-Albanian, and a man elbows me to get there first, waves his wife over, and it seems like a monumental rush for nothing, so I just let out a half-laugh and watch.

A faded dim stamp I can barely read, slammed on top of another stamp, and I wonder what the point of it is. Three luggage carousels that all read flights from earlier that day. My backpack finally appears, on its side amid the luggage mummified in neon shrink-wrap.

No buses at midnight, so I grab a taxi, and he drives between the lanes, over the lanes, flashing his high beams like lightning or static or the cabin lights that could never sit still. We cruise into Tirana, and I see familiar sights—the crepe stand I liked, the gaudy shopping mall, the dug-up square beside the national museum, the statue that sits amid the construction like a warrior in a dead battlefield, the broad empty road where the futbol crowds shot off smoke bombs.

It’s like a boy I’d met once, thought I’d really liked and kept on thinking about, retelling the story to myself so that eventually I didn’t know if it were true or not anymore, if I’d made it up or not—but I’m back and it’s still all there and it’s real and I can’t help but smile at that—Tirana, Tirana, sleeping and dark but still as I left it.

The taxi stops at the gate to the hostel and the driver helps me with my bags and I pay him and then he pauses and looks at me, nods and smiles, reaches out to shake my hand—maybe because I’m American and he knows that’s what we do, I’m not sure why. But he shakes my hand and I shake his and he pats me on the back and I ring the bell and now I’m in Albania, really in Albania—I’ve arrived.

Gaeta, Inbetween-itis, and Why I Love a Beach Town in October

This is what I wanted: a chill, cheap beach town to hole up in and write for five days. This is what I got:

So, sometimes, success can be yours.

It starts because I have six days to kill in Italy, before meeting two chef friends at a French food hipster festival in Milan. This is what’s known as a luxury problem—a problem only because whiling away a near week in Italy means whiling it away in Euros, when I’m already short on funds. Plus there’s the hassle factor: I’m moving across the world, so I’ve got a lot of crap with me, and hauling it on this train and that bus and down some cobble-y old alleyway loses its charm real quick. All I wanted was to find somewhere mellow, about to shut down for the season, and park it. Catch up on writing and sleep, maybe do a couple yoga podcasts.

So I sent out a Twitter blast and emailed Liv over at I Eat My Pigeon, did a bit of Tripadvisor digging, and ended up in Gaeta. Cue the lights and music.

It’s kind of like having a really specific craving for, say, calamari, and stumbling upon some of the best damn squid you’ve ever eaten—same level of deep satisfaction. Which I don’t think many of the locals around here get, cause it’s the number one question I’ve been asked (after, you know, “Where are you from?”)—“Why Gaeta? Why now?”

A beach town in October is one of my all-time favorite things. Take last year’s Sveti Stephan, or the previous year’s Legzira Plage. There’s something about the end of the season, hot days and cool nights and everything twinged with nostalgia and pink. The businesses are all half-shuttered-up and the crowds have thinned and you’ve got the place, not to yourself, but to share with the locals and the last straggle of tourists, who you feel a sort of aren’t-we-oddballs comradery with.

And the room rates drop like mad.

So really, what more could a cheapskate blogger want?

I uncovered the B&B Un Letto A Gaeta on Tripadvisor, and decided that even if I couldn’t read the Italian reviews, it was still a good sign that there were four and five stars. It’s on a hill above an olive orchard, run by a dude with a killer record collection and good taste in art, and my private room is less than half what it cost 2 months ago, in the height of the tourist season.

I unpacked my bag five days ago, and let it become a little like home.

Proof I was there!

I got the chance to meet up with Liv, the International Woman of Mystery behind one of my favorite narrative travel blogs. We cruised around the region, known as the Ulysses Coast (cause apparently this is where it all went down)—we went to some of the neighboring towns and I got to glimpse into her life. She blogs mostly about the daily life of an expat, and it felt almost like walking into a novel you’ve read, and having it all be real, right in front of you—this character and that character, her friends and the cafe she writes at. (Someone was occupying her favorite table when we were there.)

We strolled around the ancient quarters and paused in front of Roman ruins and talked about writing and the freelance hustle, about expat life and being solo females. It feels good, the more expats I talk to and the more writers I talk to—less like I’m making some sort of horribly rash and insane leap, and more like a logical step in my career. It makes it all feel achievable and, well, normal.

Of course, though, she told me her friends had all been curious: they wanted to know why Geata, and why now?

The only other person occupying a room at the B&B also wanted to know—a college kid from Torino who’s renting a room for a few months while he studies here. I gave him the stock answer: “I love a beach town in October.”

Which is true, but it’s really more about the funny inbetween state a beach town in October encompasses. It infects you, and you become inbetween too. Locals have their guards down a bit more, and they start to recognize you, as you jog around in the morning or buy paninis or drink espresso, and they wave and say hello (in English cause you can’t ever manage to learn any Italian). You’re a tourist, for sure, but not an all-the-way tourist; in October, you’re something else. A familiar stranger, maybe—something inbetween.

Cause I’m here but not really here. I’m on my way, moving across the world, and I feel like I don’t have a right answer for those “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” questions. I’m not a “signora” and I’m not a “signorina.” I’m a traveler, in transit.

There’s a local specialty here, called tielle. It’s—get ready—like a savory pie stuffed with local calamari and olives and other good shit. It’s off the chains. I went with Liv for lunch to a super cute little spot in the medieval quarter of Gaeta; a few days later, after a rambling jog across town, I bellied up to their take-away window and ordered a slice.

The owner recognized me, said hello. “You are lonely today?”

I knew what he meant—I was alone, not with Liv. But the question, you know, in light of the name of this blog, struck me as funny. Cause I wasn’t lonely, cause he’d recognized me and so had a dude that had served me espresso the day before, who’d honked and waved as I’d panted up a hill, running—cause it was a beach town in October, one of my goddamn favorite things.

I smiled. “Yes, I’m alone today.”

The Keeper, Yuba River Character Study

Didn't take a picture of The Keeper. Though he apparently doesn't mind. So here's a Flickr photo instead

He stood like a masthead on the wooden deck and yowled at the river.

His shirt flapped open in the breeze. The stomach was hard, muscles like little knots and skin tough as old leather. Cargo pants and sandals, not-quite-Birkenstocks. Eyes as spooky-clear and sharp as the river water, blazing from behind a scraggle of hair: shoulder-length gray and a light-socket beard that seemed reminiscent of those old miner photos, made you wonder if he wasn’t the descendant of some wayward band of them, a man born into the wrong era, or the last living vestige of an era that’s dying, been dying, might already be dead.

“He’s a dyin bread, for sure,” Alicia said as we tromped over the dirt path, stepping sideways so our worn old sneakers wouldn’t skid us into patches of poison oak. “Like a real-life troll gate keeper.”

Backpacks and coolers and limp plastic flotation devices—we were rolling 22-deep, a smattering of tattoos and a trail of cigarette smoke rode up from Oakland for an annual camping trip.

I could glimpse the river from the path: slick green between these flat, broad boulders, like a long line of really crooked molars. It was hot—Northern California hot, which isn’t really that hot—and each spot I saw along that Yuba River looked perfect, picturesque, a postcard of Sierra-Foothills pristine.

“The best spot is further down,” Chummy called back. “But we gotta to pay The Keeper.” And he smiled at the joke and people called out “Keeee-per” and we laughed.

“It’s the OG dude,” they’d explained, “that’s got one of the best swimming spots on the river on his property. There’s a fence and shit, a sign telling you you’re on private property, but you keep walking down and you get to this shack he built down there, where he lives and is always kinda hanging out. And you give him a couple beers or some weed or something, and listen to him talk for awhile, and he lets you pass.”

“I once took a photo of him,” Matt had said, “that I was gonna mail him, to some PO Box he’s got somewhere. I never did,” shrugged, “but he wrote the address down on one of those discharge papers they give you in jail—you know, we’re they’ve written down everything you have in your pockets and shit. It was all like: ‘$1.17 in change, a bus ticket, a pint of gin…’ Homeboy’d just gotten out of the drunk tank like the night before.”

“That guy is cool as shit,” Moe’d added, grinning. “The Keeper.”

And we tromped and skidded down, and sure enough: a wooden shack and the sharp glare off a tin roof and a gang of chickens clucking and a grizzlied old man standing in a semi-squat hollering at it all.

It seemed like a continuous stream of somewhat-intelligible drunk babble that we’d happened to walk in on—I could imagine him going on and on, with or without an audience, talking to himself and the chickens and the rocks and the river that didn’t ever stop flowing either.

“See that there,” pointed to a little fenced-in patch of green, “I call that My Feeble Attempt To Grow Something,” and yowled in laughter. A rooster yodeled back, as though in response. “Here you can hear the roosters crow all day long, yep. I been here, watching this tryin to grow—” pointed at the green again “—and haven’t left in damn near three weeks. Just had some people passin through to give me a few beers and some LSD from time to time and that’s all I need to live, you know what I’m sayin?”

Sadie opened her bag and handed him a few cold beers.

“Well alright, alright,” The Keeper said, nodding. “You are officially no longer tourists, you are guests, welcome. The only rules are that you bring back your cans and that you remember to come back, cause—” a pause here “—if you didn’t, it’d break my heart.”

“Yessir!”

“Keep coming back, it works!” The Keeper called out and laughed as we shuffled by. “And be careful on the rocks, watch your step—these are the most difficult steps you might take. Twelve steps, my own twelve steps,” and howled again in laughter, a not-quite-crazy kind of laughter that got swallowed by the rocks and the river and passing of the river, as we marched on to our swimming spot.

Saturday Night Fevered

Long stalks of flowers and twisted plumes of incense burning. Nodding, bowing, chanting with their eyes closed. Trays of food—peeled fruit, shrink-wrapped cookie packages, an entire plucked chicken—held atop people’s heads as they murmur. Candles and coconuts, red glowing altars (to what, to what?).

Children and hunched-up old people, a constant bumping, bustling, brushing against—the Asian conception of personal space, or lack thereof, exemplified. Announcements on a loudspeaker (what, what?).

Smoking a cigarette while he prays. Sweeping rubbish out from under the feet of the worshippers—playing cards with footprints on the floor.

Photocopied money in buckets being carried, to be burned—tossed into a pit outside that shoots scraps of burnt paper all over, raining ash in the night wind. Smoke rising (to where, to where?). Calling to children—“Em oi! Em oi!” Some kind of urgency, some kind of plead—nothing Christian about this piety. Nothing solemn; everything sacred.

Security guard siddles up to me, glances at the furious scribbling in my notebook (for what, for what?).

A Buddha-looking diety looking down on it all—a halo of neon, flashing in technicolor.

——–

This was perhaps one of the biggest What The Fuck moments of my travels. I had no idea where I was, what was going on, what any of it was for—just that I was suddenly immersed in it, plunged into a cloud of incense smoke and chanting and riotous fervor. These were the notes I made in the middle of the madness.

The motorbike driver didn’t speak any English. We were coming back from another site outside of Chau Doc, a town along the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta. The roads became cluttered, lined with food stalls and carts and bodies, bodies. They filled like a clogged pipe until they choked and he had to pedal the bike through the crowd.

He stopped in front of a temple adorned with blinking Christmas lights. He pointed. I went in.

It was a funny thing, to be wrapped up in the zeal and fervor of it all without having the slightest clue what any of it was—an entirely sensory experience, a ritual out of context, a girl out of context, cultured-shocked.

When I got back to the hotel, I asked the English-speaking desk clerk, “I just went to some temple, up the road and—”

“You saw thousands of people,” she finished me, nodding.

“Yeah! What was that?”

She told me that they’re city-folk; they come to Lady Temple after the new year to ask for good luck. On weekends in February, March, even up through April, the otherwise sleepy town of Chau Doc swells with these Vietnamese travelers.

“Pilgrims, pilgrims,” the other clerk told me the next day. He’s younger than the girl, I thought, but he only seems it—he later told me that he’s almost 40. I wondered where the years went, behind his boyish smile.

“Other times, not so many people in Chau Doc. It very good for the business.” He looked out the glass lobby windows onto the town’s main market, overflowing into the street with tourists—not so many of them Western.

Snapped a couple of jostled photos before I saw the "No Camera" signs...

Smog City Street Art

Second and Traction. I wouldn’t have ended up there if three degrees of separation and a vaguely pointing finger hadn’t sent me, the intersection pulsing on my iMap like a gleam off buried treasure. Does every town have a warehouse district—posed delicately between decay and revitalization, a hushed breath that sends the trash dancing ecstatically down deserted streets. Abandoned buildings, chain-link fences, art collectives, lofts, hip cafes on whose terraces a gothic bartender I once knew squinted her eyes against the LA sun (she never did get sober). Dogs and day laborers and cute girls on bicycles—and a shitton on graffiti.

I’m thinking this little tract of Downtown LA is something like the hill (or dug-outs or BART tracts) where the cool kids in high school smoked weed. There were pieces from big names like So-Cal native Shepard Fairey and the UK’s D*Face (who recently made a stir with his Zombie Oscars installations), as well as wheatpastes and stencils and tags galore. I came across a friendly crew of dudes painting a legit mural on the side of an abandoned building that read “Still Kicking Ass.”

Damn straight.

Shepard Fairey

A lot of the work was heavily politicized—making poignant to satirical comments on the imperialism, immigration, consumerism, commodification and other fun subjects not typically conjured in my LA stereotypes. Just more proof that there’s more going on than teeth whitening and Botox injections.

Interesting comment on the commodification of political figures--especially considering the man responsible for the oh-so-famous Obama image had a piece up a block away.

Mad skills

Reminiscent of Banksy mice, no?

D*Face: Siiiick

Word.

Dudes painting mural

"Can I get a picture of your bird tattoos?" "Sure." "Aw, dude, show her your Booger tattoo."

At work

More pieces on the same building

One of Nomade's Roman fellows

Down on 9th and Mateo, another abandoned building was getting seriously hit up by some bad-ass murals, part of the LA Freewalls Project. Local boy Saber had just completed an impressive piece, as had D*Face.

Saber's mural

Detail: buffed graffiti

And, why not, a couple more gems from elsewhere in the city…

Sherpard Fairey & Saber alley, Silverlake (thanks for the correction, Daniel)

Note the can: Campbell's Soup. How Meta.

If all taggers and graffiti artists looked like this, they'd have a much easier time.

Health care reform passed while I was in LA. Was delighted to see the Monopoly fellow around.

So what does it all tell you, these smears of paint and peeling papers, about Los Angeles? If street art and place really do have as much of a connection as I suspect they do, LA’s told me this: that even within the belly of mass culture and consumerism, pangs of outsider aches burn acidic. And they don’t sit quietly, politely, hands folded and waiting their turn. They’re illicit, guerilla and goddamn beautiful.

Estudy of Estyle: Chilean Street Art and Figuring Out What the Hell It Is I Have to Say

There’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but struggling to find the words to explain: the connection between travel and street art. I’ve had fumbling conversations in which I attempt to articulate it, flapping my lips like hands gasping at butterflies, trying to gather vague supports for an unformed thesis. An idea has been forming in me, very far inside my brain, amid the murmuring currents of subconsciousness—like a toddler without the vocabulary to express herself, feeling emotions she doesn’t understand, but only knows are true.

And then a friend posts a video on Facebook that starts to explain everything I’ve been thinking and struggling to say. Thank God.

Chile Estyle has released the first documentary in what I’m hoping will be an ongoing exploration of the evolution of the burgeoning and blossoming Chilean spin on the global phenomenon of street art. And in its coverage of the specifically Chilean take on the art form, Chile Estyle touches on what I’d felt street art is doing all over the world: revealing (like a striptease) just a little more of the soul of a place.

I’ve been hearing a lot about Chilean street art, most recently in a photo essay by Oakland artist Obi Kaufmann (discussed in connection to his recent mural here). We stood around The Oakbook’s small gallery space, and I listened to Obi talk about the distinctions of Chilean street art: materials lending a unique aesthetic (due to the relative absence of aerosol spray paint in the country), and the culture of muralism leading to the acceptance, even support, of the community (you’re more likely to see street art on the sides of businesses and schools than abandoned warehouses). I can’t say I saw a lot of street art when I was in Santiago, nearly five years ago. Something has changed.

Judging from the picture presented by Chile Estyle, the explosion of street art in Chile has a lot to do with the country regaining confidence and reestablishing its identity. Artists in the video talk about seeing work from New York, Europe, Brazil, and taking pride in the fact that Chile can contribute works just as valuable and important. But, of course, it comes with their own distinct style, a product of their own history and culture.

This one's for you, Mom

The video discusses “Chilean graffiti identity,” informed by the country’s tradition of political muralism. Uber populist and at its core revolutionary, graffiti and street art are seen as an extension of the self-expression that acted in rebuttal to (right-wing) major media outlets—“walls are taken much like a newspaper.” The tradition has lent a culture and community far more tolerant of street art than in most places of the world; it’s seen as “a gift for the people,” rather than vandalism. And, as Chilean street art has begun to garner international attention (like in a recent exhibition at LA’s Carmichael Gallery), it’s become a source of national pride.

How different this is from the culture of street art around the world. And more than just isolated vestiges of self-expression, one can take Chilean street art as a product of the country’s past and perhaps one of best reflections of its contemporary culture.

This is what I’ve been suspecting street art could do. In moments of blinding conviction, I’ve felt that street art, in its democratic and uncommercialized glory, can capture placeness just as well as food or architecture or music or any number of things people look to when they travel. In a continual cross-pollination of artists and influences, cities wear a bit more of their souls on their walls, as though the murals and stencils and wheatpastes were images from its dreams. It’s the way a city like Tel Aviv becomes a mecca for political street art, the way the aesthetic now known as Mission School bloomed in the alleyways of the 90’s SF Mission, whispering its stories in neon—and the way the tradition of political muralism paved the way and painted the walls for a purely Chilean approach to the art form.

And I still don’t have the words for it, the right or complete words to explain it all—because of course, virtually the same things could be said about all art forms, in how they inform and are informed by place. But something in me sparks when it comes to graffiti, in the same place of my brain that travel ignites. I guess the only thing to do is keep digging, poking, on the internet and down alleyways, until I stumble upon the thing it is I’m trying to say—painted on the walls in plain sight.

Take Me Back to Bunker Hill: Finding What I Came For in Downtown LA

“Well,” my Dad asked, “did you find what you were looking for?”

I sat travel-dazed and dirty-socked at the dining room table. I’d fought the coming home blues all 372 miles up the 101, driven straight to my parents’ house to eat dinner, tell stories and delay actually arriving home a couple more hours. My car rested in the driveway like a tired horse, bag-laden and dirt-covered. I couldn’t remember having ever wanted to come home less.

Of course, my dad meant Los Angeles, its gritty and unglossy underside—had I found it? I’d made quite the to-do over my mission to dig in, delve beneath and uncover buried, bloody gems of LA’s uncommercializable heart—the skeletons in its closets, its alleyways, the voices that came through tattered paperbacks and the shrieking distortion of old punk LPs. Had I gotten there, found there, held a bit of there in my hands like it could be mine?

Downtown mural

I stayed mostly in Downtown, LA’s most un-LA area. Modestly tall buildings jangled with the light dancing off of cheap jewelry stores; young girls beckoned you to enter their stores, calling out the names of goods in Spanish; a legless beggar with perfectly combed hair occupied the pavement outside Clifton’s Cafeteria; Santeria markets abutted Art Deco theater marquees, sitting above boarded-up entrances and watching the street like purgatoried angels. Hipsters took morning strolls with their well-groomed dogs, past shopping carts and transient twitching, the encampments of misery that compose Skid Row. There were no Valley Girls, OC bros or Pilates-perfect MILFs. There was even a cafe that served Ritual coffee.

It’s called “Historic” Downtown, complete with markers and murals, and I crossed several groups of confused tourists, consulting street maps and looking up bewildered at the carcasses of LA history as if it say, “Huh?” You learn to take the term “history” with a grain of salt in California, but it went beyond that—this was barely even a Downtown. There were no bustling businessmen, no Banana Republics, no dudes hawking maps of celebrities’ homes on the street corner, no tourist facilities, not really any non-neighborhood locals. Working-class, non-white, unglamorous—this was Downtown LA.

I hiked over to Bunker Hill, a doomed and fruitless mission, I knew. It was once a down-and-out neighborhood that held, in the shadows of its slanted incline, flophouses and brothels, dive bars and cheap hotels, derelicts and drunkards and two of the best damn writers to come out of that cursed city. John Fante curled up in the liquor-soaked sweetness of the slum, while Charles Bukowski broke furniture and chased alcoholic insanity in its tenements. A 1950s revitalization project razed the ramshackle Victorians, paved over the shattered remains of lives and dreams and addictions, suffocating the howling ghosts neatly beneath office parks, wide streets and sterilized, sparkling sidewalks.

There was nothing to discover. I tromped up a San-Francisco-steep hill, glanced at the historical markers, cruised past the newspaper village of bare feet and cigarette butts outside the Central Library. I stood on a corner that will next week be renamed John Fante Square, and not a damn thing remained. Not a shadow, not an echo, not a ghost of a passing fit of madness. There was, to use a tired and perfect quote, no there there.

But of course, there never really had been. None of it was true, not all the way true, at least. Us writers and alcoholics are tragically skilled at romanticizing even the most sordid, harrowing of places and experiences—and in all likelihood, the actual Bunker Hill bore more resemblance to the modern-day Downtown than it did the gloriously gritty harem of passion portrayed in the novels I’ve loved. It was, most likely, a sweet little lie those boys told themselves, in their more tender of moments, when they ached for something to hold them, rock them, hum the lullaby of a childhood none of us really had. I know I’ve been guilty of rose-painting, perfuming the past, my own life, and it takes a photograph, something tangible, to jar me out of it, to remind myself how much it hurt, it bled, it puked and moaned; I saw people die, burn out, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”

So in that way, what I sought was all a mirage anyway. The narrow alleys and sagging Victorians of Bunker Hill may have been gone, but had the illusory soul of the place ever been more than that, a fevered dream? There was a current-day incarnation, just down the hill—laced with more sinister, soul-eating of drugs, for sure, with the rattle of shopping carts and broken lives—but it was probably a more accurate representation of Bunker Hill than those exalted odes to insanity, like the moment of pure genius and bliss before the trip goes back and the come-down shatters in.

But maybe it was all a mirage, Los Angeles—an oasis that keeps glimmering just a little further out in the sand. Katie told me about a girl she’d met in a penthouse one day (“typical LA story—went out for a coffee, met the Del Taco guy, went up to his apartment with his friends…”): perfectly thin and gorgeous, a 22-year-old model who’d run away from her Midwest home at 15, found herself stranded in California when the boyfriend ditched out, came to LA, rose in the ranks and behind the flashing of cameras, sat now on a leather sofa doing rails of cocaine off a glass coffee table. “She was the total LA person—came from somewhere else, chasing this glamourous illusion, the LA dream. She knew it was a dream, she was totally aware of it, but still too addicted to the dream to disconnect.”

Here’s what I learned: LA is a place for seekers. It seems it always has been, at least for the last 100 years or so. The City of Angeles, of a fleeting fulfillment you can almost, but never quite, grasp. There’s an LA dream, that’s not too unlike the American dream, that this too can be yours, that you too can find it, have it, hold it. It’s a flickering projection of images, like on the backs of eyelids or clean white screens, that’s so close to being real you could almost weep, almost believe it.

So did I find what I was looking for? Yes and no. It may have all been a dream to begin with, like the utopias of the almost-cults I visited. It had been bulldozed and redesigned with crisp corners and clean towers; it was living on in the ragged throats and stained clothes of Skid Row. It was a memory so old you don’t know whether it was a dream or not; it was a love song for the one you never really, but almost, had.

Candy, Travel and Love in Los Angeles

On a smog-sighing spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I met my soul mate. Possibly two soul mates.

Tuesday was a charmed day, my last full one before I hit the highway and headed back up the green spine of California. I ultimately failed in my scurrying attempt to cram in everything I hadn’t gotten to in the previous days—but I did encounter, sheerly by happenstance, two kindred spirits, cosmically bound in a coruscating tango set to the tune of my greatest loves: the unexpected beauty of travel, and sugar.

I got to Glaco’s Soda Pop Stop the round-about way. I learned about the Highland Park neighborhood (where Glaco’s has operated since 1897) through Trekking Los Angeles, a non-profit that aims to leverage cultural tourism to bring financial benefit to underserved communities. A pretty bad-ass ambition, and especially interesting given the recent spark in the ongoing debate about the cultural benefits/damages of tourism at World Hum and Matador. But how would it play out practically? I tried out one of their neighborhood guides.

The Highland Park guide focused mostly on art galleries and community spaces, which though interesting yielded a pretty incomplete neighborhood guide. I cruised past several of the galleries, finding only one open, and discovered the crowning Southwest Museum to be closed indefinitely due to earthquake damage.

What I ended up finding coolest was just wandering the streets. Far from trendy and slick, Highland Park is a diverse, working class community (not too different from Oakland) filled with raspado carts, 99 cent stores, auto shops, old women walking under the shade of umbrellas, panderias displaying Nescafe, Santeria markets, Food4Less, fast food chains, the lonely hiss of traffic. And art. Graffiti bloomed electric in the alleys, while murals covered the sides of buildings, highlighting local history, cheerfully advertising for businesses or bilingually encouraging you to recycle your motor oil. If it hadn’t been for Trekking Los Angeles, I’d never have ended up in Highland Park.

But Yelp led to me to the real gem of the neighborhood. Judging by the magazine articles taped to the front door, Glaco’s is far from undiscovered. Which is a good thing. Because under the fluorescence and atop the linoleum lies one of the most killer collection of sweets I’ve ever seen. I’d come to the holy land of sugar fiends. Cane sugar fiends.

I walked starry-eyed through the aisles, along displays of glass bottles and vintage candy. As I stocked up on candy cigarettes, Bubble Up and chocolate taffy, I perused some of the ingredients list. High fructose corn syrup was nowhere to be found. At the check-out line, I asked the grayed, smock-wearing clerk if the sweets sold were all in fact original recipes, free of all the chemicals and crap found in American candy today.

His eyes shone, a web of smile wrinkles appearing. “Our products only contain cane sugar.” My heart fluttered. My wallet opened.

Turns out the clerk was John, the owner of Glaco’s and the man responsible for turning it from an old-school deli to a cornucopia of candy. Being a fairly mellow Tuesday afternoon, John commenced to guide me around the store, explaining his philosophy and pointing out beloved brands.

John was all about the taste. He wasn’t a new-agey health nut (obviously)—to him, products made from natural ingredients like cane sugar just taste better. “The big companies are all about cutting costs,” he told me. “They don’t care about taste.” He told me how he remembered, as a kid, when 7Up switched from using lemon and lime oils to extracts. “It was terrible,” he lamented, with the touch of nostalgic heartbreak reserved for unhealed childhood wounds. “Now this,” he picked up a bottle with care, “is the good stuff. Original Dr. Pepper formula, with Imperial cane sugar.”

John and I proceeded to bro down about ingredients for about 20 minutes. Coming from the Bay Area dining scene, it’s all about quality, natural ingredients, even at the bar—squeeze your own fresh juices, make your own simple syrup, even your own small-batch Vermouth, increasingly. It’s a trend based on taste. But for John, it’s no trend. The vintage candy and soda thing isn’t a gimmick, isn’t hip. It’s just the way sweets were always meant to be. A square-shaped old man with smiling eyes and a die-hard passion for sugar, I almost asked if he had any single grandsons.

Thirty dollars and one mean sugar buzz later, I headed clean across town to Culver City, the undercover hotbed of hipness. Some of LA’s most prominent contemporary urban art galleries are housed in the unassuming tract of wide streets and windy sidewalks, including one often featured on one of my favorite street art blogs, unurth. I checked out the whimsical exhibition by Brazilian street artist Nina Pandolfo at Carmichael Gallery, and chatted up the friendly dude gallery sitting. He told me not to miss the current exhibition two doors down, at Roberts & Tilton. And oh man, am I glad I listened.

The white walls of the gallery’s main room were lined with a single ring of photographs, hung right at eye-level. The black-and-white images were haunting, gritty, unflinching, and ultimately beautiful. They were the work of Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton is a kind of a Renaissance Man of contemporary cool—a pro skateboarder, photographer, artist, editor of a magazine, and, after reading the press release for his current show The Seconds Pass, a damn good writer, I’ve decided:

There is a scribble of asphalt and meandering ribbons of concrete tangled all over North America in a contiguous line of material that connects each of us to whomever else is also in contact. I sometimes marvel at this, walking from my front door and standing on the asphalt looking down at its grimy blackness, wishing I could rest my ear down on it and hear everything like the Indians in an old western film. The pavement I’m standing on is connected to other pavement, concrete, or steel to almost anywhere I can think of. Certainly everywhere you can drive to. Someone in Burnt Church, Tennessee is standing on gravel that is connected by touch to my street, just like someone is in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I can be in New York City in 3 days from my home in the suburban sprawl of Orange County, California without ever touching the earth.

All the photographs in the exhibition were taken from cars. On the road, in transit, the photos captured those fleeting moments, those “ephemeral winks” that slide past the glass like a poem of images, a slideshow of humanity and place. Walking, biking, waiting for the bus, staring out through the windshield—they were snapshots of those little moments, seemingly small and sometimes lonely, that are somehow connected, or connect us.

I’d been roadtripping for 9 days, riding the veins of America, the journey of it as much a destination as the places themselves. Dusty towns, gasping palm trees, billboards and cacti, strip malls and faces, faces—it was like a projection of something, a movie flickering on my windshield, disappearing in the side-view mirrors. And a thread of something laid underneath it all, tying it all together, like some obscure plot line I couldn’t quite grasp, but that kept nudging, whispering at me in its language of images, the roar of the wind. It was the road, the black asphalt itself—and god-damn, if I could take a decent picture, it’d look something like the ones lining the walls of that gallery.

It might have just been the cane sugar coursing through the blood, but things were beginning to make sense.

Interstate to the Underbelly: Digging Around Underground LA

 

Not my photo

 

Freeways are the subways of LA.

I had that realization as I ached red-brake-light through the afternoon traffic, slugging from Orange County to my sister’s apartment in North Hollywood. The New York City subway system seemed to me, on my first trip there, like a whole nuther underground world—its own city, separate from the other city, living and breathing and pulsing passengers just beneath the surface of the streets. And the freeways in LA are kind of the same thing, choked and crawling and lined with furry-necked palm trees—a world within a world, a sub-city. And it seems you could live your whole life within its concrete confines, going back and forth and never arriving, not needing to arrive, having come to a place beyond arriving. (And you may not be able to buy a hot dog in the middle of the LA freeways, but you could always pull off and grab some oranges alongside the exit ramp.)

It’s been a busy four days in Los Angeles, poking, prodding and trespassing into the underbelly of the biggest un-city of the US. I’ve got about 100 stories to tell, and even more poorly shot photos—marginal neighborhoods and abandoned places and esoteric cults, street art and Santeria markets and a female-run strip club. I’m debating how I want to organize and present it all and, as usual,chronologically seems the least linear, in terms of telling the story of it. The lines curve and arch and connect like the freeways, tangentially, seeming to move independently and with their own direction.

Most of my best finds and coolest adventures came as the result of totally serendipity and randomness. I dug for hours on the internet and then, three days before I left, I happened upon a not-quite guidebook in a bookstore: LA Bizarro (whose blog component can be found here). Cheesy in parts, genius in others and snarky throughout, the book brought me to some seriously hidden gems. And one that had fallen off the edge of the continent.

Sunken City was one of the coolest places I went to. A piece of San Pedro that had crumbled into the ocean during a mud/rockslide, Sunken City is the name given to the concrete, graffitied remains. Quardened off by a barrier wall and a couple of easily shimmied-under fences at the end of Point Fermin Park, Sunken City is technically off limits, but we found it full of about a dozen people—including a bunch of ballsy teenagers skateboarding the broken surfaces. Palm trees, grass and wild chard (from someone’s old vegetable garden?) punctuated the wind-swept rubble. It’s a wet dream for anyone who loves abandoned ruins, low-level trespassing, oceanside vistas—or anyone dreaming of the day California falls into the Pacific and floats away. Expect a photo essay soon.

I got word of another killer abandoned place from an old friend via Facebook. I drove into the green hill of Griffith Park, and poked around the rusty abandoned cages of the Old LA Zoo. Parts are a proper picnic/park area, while others lie behind a well-bent fence. The further into the hillside you go, the weirder and more graffitied the remains become. The zoo closed as a result of poor funding and animal deaths, and looking at the archaic cages, it’s easy to feel the suffering of the long-deceased captives. Especially since you can climb inside the cages.

Again, it was me and the teenagers—digging around behind broken fences is a fairly juvenile activity. We smiled and exchanged sunny day pleasantries, them choking on blunt smoke and remarking on all their friends’ tags, “Damn, blood, everybody been up here.”

I don’t even remember how I stumbled upon the MAK Center’s How Many Billboards project, but it totally intrigued me: artists taking over billboards in one of the most heavily advertised/commercialized/image-obsessed cities on the planet. I missed the bus tours and I’d feared the whole exhibition, but a bunch of the billboards’ leases got extended beyond the show’s original run. I hunted around town and found a couple really cool ones:

I also somehow stumbled upon the New Image Gallery, and found out legendary LA artist RETNA was having a solo show. I missed the opening reception on Friday, but stopped by today. Combining fashion photography with layered scrawlings, advertising with graffiti, glamour with grit seemed like the perfect collision of LA cultures. And it looked bad-ass.

Another thing I’m totally mystified as to how I found was Jetset Graffiti, my new favorite nerdy obsession. The site recently featured the latest Saber mural, part of the LA Freewalls project; I scurried down amid the warehouses and day laborers of 7th and Mateo to snap some photos. Expect a lengthy photo and word essay on LA street art I stumbled across, including stencils, wheatpastes and works by DFace and the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey.

Saber mural, "Pepper's World"

 

 

I discovered Esotouric by Googling “Charles Bukowski landmarks” (I said I was nerdy). Offbeat, indie and utterly obsessed with LA’s underbelly, Esotouric has an entire “Haunts of a Dirty Old Man” Charles Bukowski tour—plus John Fante, Black Dahlia and Tom Waits tours, among others. They only run tours once a week or so; I wasn’t super stoked on the one they were running while I was in town, but figured entrusting myself to people so dedicated to the strangeness of LA would be a damn good way to spend an afternoon, regardless of the subject matter.

“Maja’s Mysteries” focused on spiritual sites—the truly marginal and counterculture ones. Some might call them cults, some might call them New Agey nonsense, but all had found a home in the City of Angels. Maja, the White Witch of LA—tall and blond and subtly doused in glitter—grabbed the bus microphone and instructed us on karma and grace as we toddled up the hills and along the highways. We stopped at historic spiritual centers, founded by estatics searching for Utopia. They were all evangelists and mystics and soothsayers that prayed into crystals, channeled the cosmos, allowed the voice of Jesus to speak through their voicebox, clogged the old streetcars with thousands of revelers on a weekly basis, and generally used the power of prayer to create oodles of good mojo.

Though I didn’t connect to the spiritual eccentricity, and was downright spooked by the haunting recordings of George King’s contact with cosmic voices, I realized something on the Esotouric tour: all these people had come to Los Angeles from somewhere else. All of them seekers, searching for something, looking to fill a void or answer a question amid the swaying palm trees and quivering fault lines. Long before Scientology, long before Hollywood, long before reality shows about struggling actors and wannabe models, the magnetic currents of LA had drawn these misfits into the sunshine, the skin-piercing, cancer-blooming sunshine. They found followers, built philosophies, perfected their teachings, erected buildings—and fell off, eventually, into obscurity, settling into the dust between the hills, just under the surface of all that pavement.

Seen in that way, Hollywood isn’t some departure from the true, wild spirit of LA—it’s a continuation of the soul-hungry-ness, the seeking lonely and the elusive mirage that almost, but never quit fills the void—that circles and circumvents, glittering hoods and gleaming break lights—touches on a tangent, an overpass, for a moment, then glides off along the concrete arteries, the highways of LA, never arriving.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

Join 3,718 other followers

Tweet this Sh%t

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Buy This Sh#t

Categories