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New York City, NY – Monday 5th September

New York City, NY – Monday 5th September

New York City establishment. This phrase may well be thrown around easily on blogs and restaurant review sites but it is a phrase that Anthony Bourdain rarely employs. Steve and I are only two of millions of Bourdain’s fans across the globe. We’ve watched every episode of his food and travel shows that we can find. I’ve read his books, many of his published articles and even follow him on social media. So when Bourdain recommends particular eating establishments, Steve can’t help but award them a gold star on his map.

Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King would surely win this gold star based upon its impressive name alone. Cream cheese schmear beneath folds of hand-sliced smoked salmon on a fresh, not toasted, bagel epitomises the quintessential Manhattan dish in my book. If I can’t find such a dish at Barney Greengrass, I may as well pack up my bag and head home. So at 10.30am on Labor Day Monday, Steve and I eagerly approach the Upper West Side institution from the south, its triple fronted store a beacon amongst over-hanging construction scaffolding.

Framed photos and certificates faded by years of sunlight line the base of the front windows. Inside, the counters mesh together haphazardly between refrigerated glass cabinets, old school registers and retail shelving. Baskets of bread spill forth their contents; rye, light rye, spelt, whole-wheat, unbleached white, sourdough, sesame, pumpernickel. Dried fruit and nuts are stacked in clear plastic containers above the counters. I’m not sure where to look first.

Steve taps me on the arm and indicates an empty table being cleared of its previous customer’s debris. As we move towards it twisting between occupied seats, the man clearing it looks up and smiles. His well-loved cloth swiftly clears the last of the crumbs and he pulls back the vinyl chair for me. I smile and faintly nod as I unload my bag onto the seat back. Three walls surround me, each proffering an array of smoked and/or cured fish products. Chalkboards run the perimeter also, detailing the delivery services available within the contiguous United States of their smoked products, caviar, salads, house-roasted coffee and more. Having not uttered a word, I have signalled my status as tourist and a thoughtful waiter hands me a couple of menus and proceeds briefly to illuminate me all about Barney Greengrass – The sturgeon king.

Four generations and over 100 years has seen this institution provide high quality hand-sliced smoked and cured fish products as well as meats, pickles, bagels and bialys to the people of Manhattan. Eggs with no fewer than twelve variations of fishy sides grace one page of the simple black and white folded menu.

‘I don’t want cooked eggs and I don’t want an omelette either.’ I’m slightly exasperated. I didn’t come here for a variation on the standard American breakfast fare.

‘What do you want?’ Steve asks.

‘I want a bagel with lox. And a schmear. But I can’t order it like that. They’ll think I’m taking the piss out of them.’ I look him in the eye. ’You order it for me.’

‘I’m not ordering your meal. You do it.’

He no sooner closes the menu and a waiter dressed in stiff white cotton shirt and trousers appears at my side with a half-full coffee jug in hand.

‘Coffee ma’am?’ He enquires.

‘No, thanks.’

‘Sir?’

‘Sure and I think we are ready to order,’ Steve answers and looks my way. I swear I can see a slight smirk emerging on his face.

‘Ah, yeah. I’m a bit over-whelmed by the choice actually,’ I blurt at the waiter.

‘How can I help?’ the waiter bends closer and his smile softens, somehow more genuine.

‘Well, what I’d really like is a bagel with lox and cream cheese. Simple really.’

‘That’s no problem, ma’am. Now lox is salty – that okay by you?’ I nod eagerly. ‘And if I may recommend sliced tomato and onion on the side?’ I nod again.

‘And for you sir?’

‘Scrambled eggs with sturgeon and Nova Scotia salmon on the side. With onions.’

‘What kind of bagel? Plain or toasted?’ He interjects.

‘Everything bagel. Plain,’ Steve responds without pause, as though he does this most days.

‘Anything to drink ma’am?’

‘Orange juice please,’ I answer, happy to not be referred to as ma’am for the next half hour or so, now that our orders are placed.

At times, New York City can feel like a theme park. Times Square with its M&Ms store and Disney store screaming neon and flashing screens. Yellow cabs honk and toot their way down the numbered streets. Barney Greengrass could unfortunately be one more tourist attraction in this theme park and yet it’s not. The aged wallpaper and scuffed vinyl flooring has the feel of a well thumbed book. I wish this place was in my neighbourhood. I would work my way through the Jewish delicacies now adopted by New Yorkers – chopped liver, knish, egg salad, cheese blintzes, babka, borscht and matzo ball soup.

When the sturdy plates clatter down on our table, a lesser person may have been underwhelmed. Standard-issue crockery holds Steve’s unadorned well-coloured eggs. Chunks of salmon sit beside flakes of buttery sturgeon while sweet caramelised onions dot the sunny eggs. No singular leaf of iceberg lettuce or finger of pickle gussies up the dish.

My bagel has a tight shiny surface that squeaks slightly under my teeth. Several folds of bright salmon are top and tailed by a generous schmear of cream cheese and a sprinkling of plump capers. Thick slices of both ripe tomato and sweet onion sit forlorn on the side plate.

Though it may be a family run legacy, this thriving food store still sends out customers of all ages and extractions toting large paper bags brimming with all manner of treats. If we didn’t have an afternoon’s exploration ahead, I have no doubt that we too would gather a bounty of food treats on our departure.

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NYC, Sunday September 4th – part 2

Sunday on a long weekend in New York. We really should have known better. By now we’d attempted to eat in closed restaurants, braved over-crowded ferries and tourist-inundated attractions. I’m surprised we were surprised when we tried to visit Brooklyn Brewery at its home in Williamsburg, an uber hip part of Brooklyn . The day was warm and sunny and all the beautiful people were out and about. The queue could be seen long before the large spray painted sign which covers one side of the building. More young hipsters were joining the line quicker than it appeared to be moving.

‘How much do you really want to go there?’ I ask Steve.

‘Nowhere near enough,’ he answers.

‘Good.’ I scan the block. ‘How about that place?’ I point to a dark opening flanked by a large, drooping palm in a black concrete pot.

‘Is it a bar or a café?’

‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’ I respond, grabbing his hand and leading him on. Faux-industrial stools line up against a bench with the front roller door pushed high up and away. I’m drawn to the inner depths of the place with the promise of a dark, cool sanctuary. Passing the bar and its attendant young, gorgeous staff, I motion towards vacant seats beyond. We are nodded on our way.

Seated, I can now contemplate formulating a reason for being here.

‘I honestly didn’t imagine Brooklyn Brewery was going to be that busy. I mean I knew it would be busy but that is beyond just busy.’ Steve settles back further into the soft couches.

‘It is craft beer but on an American scale, a New York scale even. I remember being served a Brooklyn Brewery beer on a Delta flight a couple of years back,’ I continue. ‘When is craft beer no longer craft beer? When it is served on airplanes perhaps.’

‘Or when it’s bought out by one of the big boys like Asahi or AB InBev maybe,’ posits Steve.

‘So I could always see if they serve Brooklyn beers here?’

‘No thanks. Think I’ll see if I can get a coffee. An iced coffee even.’

‘Oh good thought. I’ll have an espresso martini. Let me sort it out.’ I approach the lithe, bronzed bartender who is killing time polishing glasses and place our order. Another couple wander into the café bar, pausing at the entrance as their eyes adjust from the bright sunshine outside. This time the bartender looks up and greetings are exchanged while the only immediate job she had – preparing our drink order – is abandoned as she scoots around the bar and throws her arms around the guy. There is little point getting upset about the delay in our order as we’ve nowhere desperate to be. Holidays are the delicate balance between making plans and having no plans. The rest of the working world has a schedule they need to keep but there is flexibility to our days. Yes, there are certain fixed appointments like flights but even those can be altered if we wished.

Steve’s spreadsheets have allocated activities for certain days, some even with duration or time dependant details. This research is part of the enjoyment of travel for him. He spends months roughing out itineraries, debating the positives and negatives of different routes and destinations. He emails me links to these spreadsheets so I can share in the joy and give feedback. Occasionally I will even open one up and glance at it. Rarely do I follow the embedded links to scenic attractions, accomodations and so on. It’s not that I dismiss all his effort or that I’m not interested in the trip. I am interested in the trip. The trip is the very thing that I am interested in. It is the months of research that I’m not enthralled by. I recognise how fortunate I am that my partner is a trip planner and how simple my travel is made by this quirk. I will not however download any of the apps, no matter how many invitations are sent my way. I’m sure they make his travel a more enjoyable, richer experience.

Equally, I will not try to persuade anyone else to take out an hour or two each afternoon for a little quiet time journal writing. My preference for a glass of wine and a small plate of something savoury to nibble on as I write in my hardcover journal with a quality medium-density pencil is a quirk of my own that I’m happy to embrace. I like to find a comfortable spot with some cushions on the floor or a corner spot on a couch. Natural light is preferred with a low side table for the aforementioned drink and snacks. Local radio is about the only addition of noise I can tolerate. Television is far too distracting to sustain any significant journal writing.

Regulation over-sized ice cube keeps Steve’s cold-drip, locally-roasted coffee chilled. He sips slowly, absentmindedly as he stares out the front window and into the bus depot across the road. My espresso martini has a bracing bitterness and thick crema that declares itself a product of quality, freshly extracted espresso. Content, I sit back and pull out my phone having already noted the wifi password displayed at the bar. Once connected, notifications start popping up left, right and centre. I delete a swathe of emails, upload a few photos of the day so far and check in with my daughters via Messenger. After longer than necessary social media browsing, I put my phone down to see Steve resting his eyes. My hand on his knee slightly startles him but he manages a smile anyway.

‘Hey babe, how about we grab an Uber back to the apartment and take the rest of the afternoon off?’

‘Sounds good. I’ll call the Uber.’ He extracts the phone from his pocket while I pack mine away. I pick up the cocktail glass and slurp the remaining contents, sticking my tongue out and swishing it side to side determined not to waste any.

2:57 PM

90 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11249, USA

MILES 6.42

TRIP TIME 00:28:51

FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare $33.07

Subtotal $33.07

Total $33.07

Driver – Olimjon

As we swing around Brooklyn in a loop and cross the Ed Koch Queensboro bridge, I am again reminded that Manhattan is an island to itself. Brooklyn may well be as part of New York City as is Manhattan, but they are culturally as well as physically two very different places. Green rather than the iconic yellow taxi cabs of Manhattan are just the beginning.

New York City has five boroughs or areas in total – the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. More than just an administrative division, the boroughs each have distinctive personalities. The Bronx is witnessing a revitalisation of housing and infrastructure after years of neglect. Brooklyn is home to distinctive architecture as well as a plethora art/design outlets and technology start-ups. While Manhattan is the smallest in size, it is also the most densely populated. Queens is famously ethnically diverse with a range of eateries to match. Conversely, Staten Island very much embraces its suburban image. Though linked by bridges and tunnels, I wonder how often Manhattanites leave the comfort of their island. Perhaps they are more likely to travel interstate or internationally than visit any of the outer boroughs.

Three flights of stairs and a refreshing shower later, I pour myself a generous glass of Chablis add a few ice cubes and empty the bag of Buffalo blue cheese flavoured cheese curls into a bowl. I rescue my journal from the depths of the suitcase and drop a couple of plump pillows then myself on the floor by the edge of the bed. My back is propped against the bed while Steve is sprawled out on top of the floral bedcover. Thin cotton curtains do little to block the heat out. Slightly chilled air is pumped out of the vintage air conditioner in between the clunking and whirring. Somehow, Steve has managed to block out the din and drift off.

When I find myself sketching the columns on the building’s façade opposite, I decide to give up dissecting the details of the day and pop in my earbuds to listen to a podcast or three. This way I manage to disappear into a private space of my own for a couple of hours. Voices drift in and around my head. I follow threads of stories only to lose them again. At 6pm, I decide to wake Steve so that he’ll be able to sleep tonight.

Ahead of us is an evening of Micheladas and platters of mixed tacos at a pumping restaurant we’ve walked past multiple times since we’ve been here. A michelada is crisp Mexican beer with hot sauce and lime. This refreshing combo pairs perfectly with the Latin inspired cuisine on offer. We decline the signature dish – guacamole constructed table side with a variety of enhancements from pineapple and pomegranate to papaya and mint. Not upsetting is also that we missed happy hour with its reduced price frozen margaritas and beef sliders.

It’s not long after 9pm and we find ourselves in bed. Outside the window, beyond the gently swaying curtains lights flash and cars toot their horns. I lay awake and watch the arcs of light creep across the ceiling. An Irish bar is two floors below but any noise it emits just blends in with the soundtrack of the streets – pedestrians laughing and shouting, the occasional dog barking, car horns and music escaping from cars idling at the traffic lights. It’s night and although the noise level is nowhere near its daytime extreme, New York City lives up to its reputation as the city that never sleeps. I’m not sure how people live their entire lives here. Perhaps they go slowly mad from the constant stimulation. I’m sure there are enclaves protected from sirens and construction in more wealthy sections of the city. West 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue is not one of them.

New Orleans, LA – Thursday, 8th September

New Orleans, LA – Thursday, 8th September

9:35 AM

1100 N Peters St, New Orleans, LA 70116, USA

MILES 3.16

TRIP TIME 00:18:57

FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare $8.34

Subtotal $8.34

Total $8.34

Driver – George

When I awake, things feel different. The bed and it’s soft, enveloping mattress, the plush bedding sealing me off from the outside world. I’m not sure if it was the bed or some magical qualities in last night’s purple drink but sleep was solid and refreshing in ways it not always is. Today’s itinerary begins with an Uber ride to the Garden district for a tour. Apparently quite the common tourist attraction and one that Steve has done before, we are booked in at 10am to tour the oldest New Orleanian cemetery – Lafayette Cemetery Number One.

Uber George is one of the quietest drivers we’ve had this trip. He answers Steve’s questions but offers no more. Steve gives up and tries to adjust the vents at the rear of the centre console to direct some cooled air in his direction. I’m left to sit in the back lost in my own thoughts. Outside the areas of the French Quarter, Seventh Ward and Treme-Lafitte pass by. From the expressway, I can see the massive Superdome that was refuge to to many people during and after Katrina’s rampage in 2005. Dropping down into Central city, house blocks become interspersed with estate agent offices, furniture stores, coffee shops, parking garages and playgrounds. We pull up in one of the few empty spots on Washington Avenue, opposite Commander’s Palace restaurant.

‘That’s where we are having dinner tonight,’ Steve casually throws out.

‘Commander’s Palace?’ I ask although I know it’s one of his all-time dining highlights.

‘Yep. Commander’s Palace.’ He checks his watch. ‘We’re a little early. Coffee? There’s a place just back on the other corner.’

We grab a quick caffeine hit from Still Perkin’ Café. A neighbourhood style coffee shop, this unassuming place is heavily air-conditioned much to Steve’s delight. The neighbourhood is a mix of expansive historic mansions with manicured gardens through to more modest single story weatherboard homes. Much treasured shade is provided by the many mature Live Oak trees, hundreds of years in age, dripping with Spanish Moss and ferns nestling in their elbows. Like outstretched arms, their branches reach out along the blocks intersecting with the next one.

In an otherwise residential neighbourhood, the cemetery is free and open to the public. Small groups of people huddle in the shade of a large tree by the entrance. It’s partner on the opposite side on the entrance way fallen victim to some previous hurricane season. A small metal sign attached to the front wall reads No pets, bikes, vehicles or skateboards allowed in cemetery. No soliciting allowed in cemetery. I nudge Steve and point out the sign.

‘Sex work? Here?’ I question sotto voce. He shrugs. Just then our docent arrives, wisely holding an umbrella for sun protection. Clipboard in hand, she enquires officiously, ‘Amanda? Steve? I’m Gayl. From Save Our Cemeteries.’ Stepping through the over-sized gates I can’t help but notice how completely different this place looks to other cemeteries I’ve seen. Walls of vaults edge the block but the most striking thing is the large above-ground tombs. Housing multiple family members, they are a solution to a very unique problem.

‘Shall we begin?’ Gayl begins her spiel, ‘Save Our Cemeteries is a not for profit group dedicated to the preservation, promotion and protection of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries through restoration, education and advocacy. Watch your step.’

The paving stones and concrete beneath our feet are losing to the tree roots, lichen and grass that thrive in the Louisiana climate.

‘ Save Our Cemeteries is the only non-profit in New Orleans that offers cemetery tours. You may have seen some touts at the front gates soliciting for business.’

I catch Steve’s eye and we exchange smirks. I mouth oh that kind of soliciting. Our guide carries on, ‘The cemetery is free to the public but monies collected from these tours go directly to the many restoration projects that the SOC co-ordinates.’

There are few clouds in the sky to provide any break from the relentless heat, so each time we pause at a particular tomb, Steve and I seek out all possible shade relief.

‘Lafayette Cemetery Number One is the oldest of the seven municipal, city-operated cemeteries in New Orleans. Originally, it was laid out in a cruciform or cross-shape pattern. The aisles were lined with magnolia trees and paved with shells.’ Gayl is affable and knowledgeable. ‘More than 7000 people from all denominations and societal groups are buried here.’

‘Ok, I have to ask,’ I interject. ‘What is it with all the mausoleums?’

‘I wondered when that would come up,’ she responds. ‘The first settlers to the area had problems with in-ground burial. New Orleans has a very high water table and when it would rain the caskets would just pop up and out of the ground.’

‘Seriously?’ The look on my face must be incredulous. ‘Bodies would just pop out of the ground?’

‘Yes, absolutely. Though there is also a cultural influence, too. Many immigrants were from Spain and as is the custom there, bodies were buried in above ground family vaults. The cemeteries were also known as ‘cities of the dead’ with the tombs resembling small houses.’

We come across a tomb that is for sale. Rusting fencing, crumbling façade and a broken urn doesn’t dissuade me from momentarily contemplating owning a tomb in a Louisiana cemetery. I start to factor in costs of transporting a body, legal forms to be completed and the difficulty of family visiting to mourn and decide against it. A short lived fantasy. Shame, it was very reasonable at only $7000.

A feeling I’ve encountered before on our trip is that of deja-vu or even just familiarity in a place. I don’t recognise one particular tombs or even a particular view down one of the aisles. It is a more general sense of having seen this before. There’s no point trying to explain these things to Steve as he is a return visitor to many of the places we are traveling.

‘Is it wrong to say that I find this all quite beautiful?’ I say more to Steve than to our guide. ‘The lacework of the small fences, the way those small ferns have managed to grow in the cracks of the brickwork. Even the engraved marble sheets crumbling away. It’s like there’s a slow but incessant battle between Mother Nature and man. Mother Nature is gradually gaining ground, I think.’

Gayl extends her right arm out, her umbrella pausing us. ‘Just down this way is one of our volunteers working on one the tombs. It’s a never-ending job. Once we’ve secured funding, we’ve got to sort out ownership and other legal issues before any of the restoration and preservation work can even begin.’

‘The tombs are so elaborate. All that engraving and sculpting.’ I go to run my hand along a nearby tomb and stop, unsure of the protocols of touching. There’s an odd thing that happens in cemeteries about personal space. The grave sites are private space and there are unwritten rules about sitting or standing on them. Convention says that you go to the effort of walking around them, even though the deceased and meters underground and unlikely to ask you to do so. This historic but still active cemetery straddles a wobbly line between tourist attraction and sacred place.

‘Absolutely. The sculptures are highly symbolic. There are many images to represent a life cut short. Broken flowers, broken columns. Even an upside down torch – the torch being an ancient symbol for life. Many of these, you’ll find on the pediments of family tombs. Another one often used on the graves of children is that of a lamb. Their gentleness and innocent akin to that of the child.’ As she explains these, the cemetery becomes richer and more meaningful. It is more than just a charming ready-made film set.

‘Another common sight here in Lafayette Number One, is the society tomb. Orphanages, benevolent societies, fire companies and more all had their own society tombs with their insignia engraved on the pediment above.’ The tour is a fascinating mix of education and entertainment. While I now know that the name of the piece of stone engraved with the names of the deceased is called a closure tablet, I also enjoyed the many vampire movie references. Anne Rice, the famous author of the Interview With a Vampire series has been a long time New Orleans resident.

The heat of the day is starting to pick up and though we’ve tried to stick to the shade of the plentiful magnolia trees, we are both beginning to fade. We wind up our tour back at the gates on Washington Avenue and thank Gayl for her incredible service.

‘That was so much more than I’d expected,’ I say. ‘Though I’m not really sure what I expected, to be honest.’

‘It was pretty great, wasn’t it?’ and then addressing Gayl directly, Steve asks hesitantly. ‘Can . . . can we give you a tip?’

‘I’m not allowed to accept tips but I do encourage you to donate to the SOC organisation online. Thanks for taking the tour with Save Our Cemeteries. All the best for the remainder of your trip.’ She turns sharply and walks away. I stand still, slightly bewildered by the past hour and a bit. Steve consults the phone oracle and points in the direction of our next destination.

‘I thought we’d walk down to Magazine St and grab something very cold to drink and some lunch.’

Sounds like a plan, Stan rolls off my tongue before I can stop it. We hug the side of the road with the most shade but I can feel the sweat rolling down my back. Luckily it is only a few blocks before we hit Magazine St. It is a buzzing commercial strip with restaurants, gift shops, antique stores and more vying for the tourist dollar. Like all streets located in the is city, they follow a gentle curve as the river forms a wide U-shape around the city. This disrupts one of my usual ploys for getting a grip on a city when I travel. Using a water-body or some striking topography to ground myself in a city helps anchor me, helps me intuit direction. In this ‘Crescent City’ the river curves and streets fan out to meet the river. North, South, East and West are less helpful than they should be. The river can be south, west and east of you at the same time. New Orleans sits on a delta with the river running through it with a large lake to the north of it. New Orleans is lucky that it isn’t water. No wonder coffins float up out of the ground. Sections of the city sit below sea level. Subsequently, when levees and flood walls were breached during the Hurricane Katrina, the water had nowhere to go. Storm surges both from Lake Pontchartrain and the river left 80% of the city and its inhabitants flooded.

New Orleans, LA – Wednesday 7th September – part 2

Coop’s Place is not a place you linger after you’ve finished your meal. It’s noisy and the seating is tight. Our check is dropped at our table while morsels of food remain on our plates. The servings are generous and one of the things about airplane travel is it hardly stimulates the appetite. With so much sitting around plus the free but average-quality food in the airport lounges, we haven’t had the opportunity to do anything to work up an appetite.

‘Shall we take the hint?’ Steve suggests, waving the docket deposited by our server.

Looking around for a till or even a pay bill here sign, I add, ‘Sure. Not sure where though.’

We gather our things, stand and walk up to the bar.

‘Can we pay the bill here?’ I ask when the bartender glances our way in between drink making.

‘Someone will be with you shortly.’ I’ve used this line before. It’s the polite way of saying it’s not in my job description. I turn back to check we’ve not left anything at our table to see another group already seated with menus in hand. In no-man’s land, there’s nothing more we can do but wait.

‘If you want to wait outside, I’ll look after this,’ I offer to Steve. I don’t need to ask him twice. Squeezing between the tables and servers, he steps beneath the faux leadlight transom above the doors and out into the balmy evening.

Wallet and phone stashed, I emerge from the crowded restaurant onto an equally crowded street. Leaning against a pole, Steve looks up and beckons me over.

‘Not far from here is the place where my Facebook profile photo was taken. That one your mum hates cause it looks like the straws are going up my nose.’

‘Perfect. Let’s go and take a photo of both of us with straws up our noses.’ I smile and grab his arm. ‘Mum will hate it.’

We zig-zag across the French Quarter. Down Decatur St til we hit Café Du Monde. This legendary coffee place is open all day everyday. I make a mental note to come back during the day when I may actually want to consume chicory-infused coffee and fried pastries. Swinging right onto St. Ann St we skirt alongside the Jackson Square which is a favoured hangout of all types creative. It’s just after 8pm and an array of musicians and painters are setting up for the evening. Paintings in progress rest on easels. Mime artists, jugglers and lone tuba players sit alongside fortune tellers. The buzz is inescapable.

Left on to Chartres St then right down Pirate Alley. This narrow laneway takes us between St Louis Cathedral and what I later learn is a museum called The Cabildo. I love a dodgy, ill-lit alley. Dumping us onto Royal Street, I’m beginning to see what Steve loves about the French Quarter. It is easy to imagine oneself in another time. Books and movies about time teleportation belong here. The melange of architectural styles, the narrow mainly pedestrian streets and the casual atmosphere in shops and restaurants beckon the visitor to imagine themselves as belonging here. I hear accents and languages from around the globe and yet not one person stands out above another. All are welcome. Maybe that is why this place is known as The Big Easy.

Moments later we are standing out front of Pat O’Brien’s. I’m not sure what I expected but from outside it appears to be another New Orleans bar. Jade green coloured shutters cover the windows. Plants hang from a wrought iron balcony above. The muted red walls give way to a wide alley into a rear courtyard. We go to walk through the alley entrance and I get stopped for ID – an event that used to flatter me until I realised that it is done to every patron.

‘I’ve been here before,’ I say.

‘What?’ A shocked Steve glares at me as though I’ve been lying to him for years.

‘I’ve been here before.’ I repeat whilst trying to rack my brain for the connection. And then it clicks. Several years previous, on a trip to Florida I found myself joining a group of friends on a visit to Universal Studios in Orlando. This entertainment complex and theme park presented among other delights Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Hard Rock Café and a reproduction of Pat O’Briens “N’awlins style”. Of course, I’d never been to Pat O’Briens let alone a Margaritaville, but I went along for the ride unable to discern the fictional from the factual.

‘In Orlando. At Universal Studios. There’s a replica of this bar. There’s a courtyard out back and duelling pianos in a side bar somewhere.’ I point ahead then look sideways. It’s like I’ve taken the wind out of his sails. ‘Frankly, it’s a little disconcerting,’ I add.

‘Okay. Well. I was thinking we would sit out back and order a couple of cocktails. Sound good?’ he asks.

This is his town and I’m eager to get the royal treatment. ‘Absolutely.’

Service is efficient and friendly. The server to customer ratio is spot on for a tourist dependent joint. Patrons rarely sit with an empty glass in front of them and servers circle the small candle-lit tables unobtrusively. A server in regulation white shirt white trousers and green bow tie directs us to a vacant table by the water fountain. Flames incongruously shoot up and out the top of the fountain while rainbow lights below the water at glow brighter and dimmer to someone unknown cue. Wrought iron chairs and tables sit under green canvas umbrellas. Tall iced drinks in all colours of the spectrum adorned with tropical fruit. The drinks only just out do the outlandish surrounds. Tourist trap? – yes but it feels more than that. A place like this feels like it is custom made for a theme park. But there are real people here. People of all origins. Large groups and small groups and individuals sitting at the bar nursing a beer and chatting to the bartender.

‘Two hurricanes please.’ Steve orders while I’m still looking around, taking in all the details and timing them off against forgotten memories.

Soon enough two tall tulip glasses turn up, each with a slice of half orange and bright maraschino cherry nestling into the ice. The branding on the paper napkin extols you to ‘have fun.’ Ok, if I have to.

Back to the drink itself. It’s bright red matching the kitsch maraschino cherry perched a top the mound of crushed ice that fills the large, curved glass. Ostensibly made with dark and light rum as a way to use the plentiful rum supply in the days after Prohibition, the drink is sickly sweet with the fruit concentrate used to pad out the alcohol. I’m not sure I can taste much beyond sweetness. The fruit accompaniment makes me think this is supposed to a fruit juice based drink but the strong red colour gives no hint at its supposed passionfruit juice base. It’s cold and it’s sweet and it’s hard to discern the alcohol. Maybe that’s the point.

Down here we all float, you’ll float too

‘So how do you feel?’

I don’t know. How do you possibly expect me to be able to answer that?

I should’ve known something wasn’t right when my standard greeting of Hi, how are you? elicits a most non-standard response of I’m fantastic. How are you today?

‘Ummm, not bad,’ I reply already knowing that is not the correct answer.

‘I’ve got 1pm appointment,’ I continue on valiantly. ‘I’m a bit early, I know.’

‘Grab some water or tea and take a seat. Your room will be ready soon.’

‘No thanks, I’m fine.’ I flop down in an over-sized neutral-coloured chair which matches perfectly with the neutral-coloured surroundings. Kicking my shoes off, I relish the cool concrete beneath my feet. I search my bag for my book but come up empty. Meanwhile a tattooed young man in shorts, striped t-shirt and worn-in thongs enters and greets the receptionist by name. Reluctantly, I resort to messing about on my phone. Was electronic stimulation advised at this point? I’d read the FAQs last night and had avoided a morning coffee but eaten a small meal a few hours prior as recommended.

‘Amanda? The Atlantis room is ready for you.’

I resist the temptation to make any lost city jokes as I follow the lithe, leisure-wear clad receptionist.

Inside the Atlantis room, I discover THE POD. Smooth, white and egg-like, it is everything I had hoped for. I am almost surprised not to find Mork from Ork sitting inside. A soft blue light twinkles off the shallow water. Flat, shiny beige tiles line the floor and walls of the room.

‘ . . .trust me, you’ll be thanking me for that later,’ she carries on though I know I’ve missed something vital. ‘Then use the pre-float soap on your body and the pre-float shampoo on your hair and then you’re ready to hop on in.’

I nod as though this is all expected even though she knows it’s my first float from the online form I’d filled out when I booked the appointment. I’m looking directly at her now so I don’t miss any more information that I’d be grateful for later.

‘Once inside, you pull down on this handle gently to close the lid. This button on your left is only for emergencies you understand. If you press that, I will come in assuming it is an emergency.’ She stares at me and I duly nod.’

‘And press this switch here to turn the lights off.’ Multiple pressings of the switch are doing nothing for the lights but she soldiers on anyway. ‘Press it like this . . . Hang on . . . Like this.’ With still no luck, she steps behind my egg and turns the whole thing off at the wall then back on again.

‘Ok, you turn it off like this.’ This time, the lights go out first time.

I almost put my hand up but figure it’s only me and her here so I can interrupt without repercussions. ‘And if I don’t want the lid down, that’s ok too?’

‘Are you claustrophobic?’

‘Kind of.’ I have experienced claustrophobia before but not sure that makes me claustrophobic. I’ve smoked a cigarette before but that doesn’t make me a smoker.

‘Sure, you could do that if you want to.’ Though clearly she doesn’t think it’s the best idea.

‘The session starts with five minutes of music and ends with five minutes of music. So when you hear the music the second time, you know it’s time to get out, have a shower and get dressed. Any questions?’

‘No, I’m good.’ I’m already taking off jewellery.

‘Oh, one last thing.’ She reaches into my egg and grabs a small spray bottle hooked onto one of the suspension struts that holds up the lid. ‘If you get any of the water on your face, spray this on your skin. It’ll help, trust me.’

She pivots, her sneakers squeaking on the tiles and is out the door in seconds. I start to peel off my clothes in this humid, too warm room. I try to lock the door behind her but can’t figure out if I’ve done it or not. I give up after a couple of attempts, assuming no one is going to accidentally walk in on me and more fool them if they do. Clothes hung up, I step into the shower area to begin the ritual. I can’t imagine what it was she first opened her spiel with that I’d be thanking her later for. I soap my entire body and wash my hair.

Careful not to slip on the tiles, I gingerly step over to my egg and place one then two feet inside. Crouching down, I grab the handle and pull the lid down, closing off the world momentarily. I press the plastic coated button and my thumb slips off it. I try again and then again with my other hand. I’m flailing around trying to stay upright and put all my weight into making that damn button responsive. It doesn’t work and briefly I wonder if this constitutes an emergency and should I attempt to press the button on the other side and summon assistance. I decide against this. A non-functioning light switch is hardly an emergency and I don’t fancy subjecting the receptionist to seeing my naked body.

I lay down on my back and automatically my arms shoot out sidewards, palms facing up. My fingertips touch the edges of the tank and I figure this isn’t conducive to my intended sensory isolation. I wedge my hands onto my chest, interlocking my fingers. This feels too rigid so I place my hands lightly crossed between my breasts. This feels slightly vampirish and I smirk and keep them there. The magnesium salts which are mixed with highly filtered water provide the flotation mechanism as well as acting as muscle relaxant. My skin feels slippery, almost slimy but I like it. My eyes are closed and I wonder if I’m moving in any one direction. Occasionally my toes bump the far wall to let me know where I am.

Although my shower was a cool one to help combat the mid-30 degree temperature outside and my five minute walk in the sun to get here, I’m still too hot. I sit up inelegantly and open the lid. This in turns triggers the sensor light in the room which lasts a few minutes before cycling through dim to off with a click. I lie back down and try to find a comfortable position again. Arms out, arms in, arms crossed, arms behind head. I settle with resting them on my belly-button. The salts begin to dry out on the portion of skin which is exposed to the air. My skin itches so I wash more water over my body to keep it damp. Images of beached dolphins are hiding somewhere in the back of my mind.

‘Ok, mind – go blank. Well, not blank but at least quieten the chatter please. I’m here to relax, to switch off, to tune out or is that tune in?’ My neck feels odd so I grab the inflatable pillow tucked under the left hand strut and splash about getting it comfortable under my head. Water has splashed onto my cheek, so I wipe it off only to figure out that is not going to help. I paddle across to the other side gently and unhook the tiny spray bottle. Eyes closed I spray my face. Nothing comes out.

‘This is going well,’ I think sarcastically. I open my eyes and sit up awkwardly. The salts make any movement clumsy. I try the bottle again. The lever won’t compress. It is multiple attempts later that I realise a small pin needs to be pushed to one side to allow the pump action to work. Ok, lay back down, spray face more than is possibly required and return spray bottle.

Hands gently resting on my abdomen, eyes closed and I’m determined to find oblivion in my egg – now that everything is sorted, well, apart from the light and the lid. My stomach growls. That sushi hand roll two hours ago may not have been enough. My 1pm appointment was probably not the wisest in hindsight. I’m a late breakfast eater cause I find food too violent in the morning (I’m not getting into that discussion here). As per the FAQs I was mindful not to float with too full a stomach. Hence the one sushi hand roll. Tuna with brown rice, in case you’re curious. I choose to ignore my digestive system and chase nirvana again. But maybe my digestive system is trying to communicate something to me? Maybe it is the seat of my nirvana?

In an attempt to sidetrack my mind, I let my hand wander along my skin, enjoying the silky feel of it beneath the heavily salted water. Reconnecting to my body, I decide piping a guided meditation track into these eggs would be a solid idea. Maybe birdsong or a whale singing soundtrack would be good instead of silence?

My mind wanders and I remember floating off the bayside beach my family would frequent when I was a kid. On hot days, the water was flat as a tack and you’d walk out to where the sand dropped away and the water changed from clear to a deep teal. It was here, too far out for little kids to follow and annoy you, that you’d find a quiet place. Lay back and close your eyes. Hands outstretched and let the water cradle you. No waves to upset your float, you’d keep your eyes closed for as long as you dared. There was usually someone sneaking up to scare you. But not here, not now.

It is the low rumble of a passing tram that lets me know I’m not at McCrae anymore. A shower is running in the room next door and Miss Squeaky Shoes is walking down the hall. I spray my face again with water and wash my body to halt the salt crystallisation. I can’t quite grab that childhood beach memory back again no matter how hard I try. Momentarily I think about driving an hour down to the exact location to recreate it but then realise there is no point. I can enjoy the memory from a distance without the disappointment of a failed recreation.

I now begin to wonder how long I’ve got to go on my one hour introductory float. I run through the rest of week and its commitments in my mind. I plan out the week’s dinners and what I need to get from the shops. I tell myself to remember to email Nick this afternoon and transfer the rent tomorrow. I flirt with the notion of standing up and showering now anyway. The post-float soap, post-float shampoo and post-float conditioner are waiting for me.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. Just wait.’ And I do.

Several minutes later, standing in front of Miss Squeaky Shoes who is seated behind a ridiculously large computer screen, I hear her ask again, ‘So – how do you feel?’

‘I honestly don’t know,’ I reply. This time I manage to respond, though I keep the honest answer to myself. I feel like a Seinfeld episode.

New Orleans, LA – Wednesday 7th September – part 1

New Orleans, LA – Wednesday 7th September
There are roadworks on the street which houses our Air Bnb though there is no one actually working. It’s early evening and the traffic from the airport has been thick and slow. I’ve enjoyed peering out the windows watching kids messing about at baseball practice, people stopping off at the grocery store on the way home to pick up something for dinner. We meet the girlfriend of the owner in a pizza joint on the corner of Decatur and Governor Nicholls streets. It is the only time we step inside the place during our visit to New Orleans. We didn’t come to New Orleans to eat pizza. Dragging our suitcases along the sand covered footpath, we try to dodge the rubbish spilling from ripped open plastic bags. Flies hover around the decaying food, dog excrement and other detritus. The girlfriend, meanwhile, nimbly hops over the piles and skips ahead.

Key in hand she opens the first door. ‘So you need to make sure this door is locked every time you come and go. Otherwise, we end up with all sorts of drunkards relieving themselves inside. And nobody wants to step in that.’

Half a dozen steps up, a short landing and then another few steps, unequal in risers and challenging to ascend with heavy luggage. Another different key unlocks the next door which brings us into some sort of laundry and storage area, stacks of timber and tools taking up the space between wall joists.

It is another thirds key that unlocks the tall, narrow double doors that lead to our apartment. Artist’s loft is how it was advertised on Air Bnb. I’m not sure if it comes with an easel and half-finished painting or if it has been the residence of some faintly noteworthy artist at some point in time. What it is when the doors are finally negotiated is a wonderfully cool, dark refuge.

‘Jo and I have the apartment next door so if you have any problems just send me a message and I can pop over.’

‘Ok. Thanks.’ I just want her to leave so I can peel off my sweaty clothes and throw myself on the bed.

Leaning against the kitchen sink she continues, ‘There’s milk in the fridge, tea and coffee right here. Cups, bowls, plates -everything you need really.’

Steve stands by the table and unloads his pockets. Wallet, phone, handkerchief.

‘So as I said, if you need anything, just holler and I’ll be right over. Jo works nights and I’m off til the weekend.’

He can’t help himself and asks, ‘Oh and what do you do?’

‘Me? I’m a burlesque dancer.’

‘Lovely,’ he responds automatically.

‘But I’m thinking of going back to study. Nursing perhaps.’

‘Great.’

I can’t wait this out so I excuse myself and shut myself in the bathroom. Small and airless, it is the wrong move.

‘Oh, should probably leave you guys to it then,’ I hear her say through the door.

‘Thanks so much.’ I hear the doors close and lock. I wait a minute and let myself out.

‘Sorry. Couldn’t do any more small talk,’ I apologise and look to him for a sign of understanding.

His back is turned and he continues to unpack his carry on bag. Crumpled receipts, sugar sachets, a plastic stirrer from his mid-flight coffee. The artfully splayed maps and magazines have been pushed to one side by my handbag and his backpack. Next to the table is a brown leather corner sofa. Saggy bottom seat cushions and shiny leather attest to its years of use. Behind that hangs a series of glass and timber doors, with brightly painted glass panels. Dividing the bed off from the rest of the studio apartment, I’m smitten with its simple yet elegant solution.

Bare brick walls expose the additions and subtractions that the building has seen over its many years. The floor slopes towards the balcony and I unlatch the slim French doors. They fall open onto the tiny private balcony which also lacks a true level floor. I avoid the temptation to step onto it, unsure that it will take any more weight than the pot plants and hanging baskets that adorn the fancy filigreed ironwork.

I hear the street below. Not so much cars but raised voices, laughter and music. This is the call of the hedonist – a common species found in New Orleans.

One foot on the balcony is all I can allow myself as I try to peer forward.

Opposite is a three-storey building, with a wide balcony complete with ornate lacework, large patriotic flags and pot plants. Below that is a bar as it appears most shopfronts are in this section of the French Quarter. I’m glad we purchased a multi-pack of heavy duty earplugs at Walgreens earlier on the trip.

‘Getting peckish my love?’ I enquire, stepping back onto more solid ground.

‘Always, you know me.’

‘Any thoughts on where?’ I persist.

‘I have ideas but I want a shower first.’

I strip my clothes one by one and lay them on the suitcase. Climbing up onto the tall bed, the linen feels cool against my skin. It’s nice not to be moving for a few moments. An armoire placed opposite the end of the bed partially covers an in-filled doorway. I begin to wonder at the things this room has seen. A bordello perhaps to entertain the itinerants that ports attract. A smugglers residence with a view across to the river to watch the ships’ arrivals. Eyes close, shower running, water in drains and before long – ‘Are you going to get ready or what?’

My eyes flash open. The daylight has started to fade. ‘Huh? Yeah. Sure.’

On my feet, I grab a dress from my suitcase and slip on the first pair of shoes I find.

After negotiating the plethora of keys and locks on the way out, we turn the corner onto Decatur St.

‘Let’s stay in the French Quarter for dinner?’ I half-ask half-state. Steve nods.

‘So just up here on the right is a place called Coop’s. Haven’t been there before myself but it is supposed to be a pretty cool joint. Authentic Cajun food.’

‘Sounds good,’ I respond before he offers up any other suggestions.

He picks up my left arm, threads it through his and we weave through the bar patrons who have spilled out onto the footpath. The sun may have started to set but the buildings are holding the day’s heat. It is only a few minutes stroll and we arrive at our intended dinner spot. A menu displayed by the front door has people gathered around it. Above them hangs the restaurant’s sign featuring an alligator wearing a bib with a wineglass in hand. We sidestep them, push open the narrow twin doors and are lucky to nab a last table.

‘Welcome to Coop’s place. How y’all doin’ this evening?’ we hear as our server appears in cut-off denim shorts, logo t-shirt with a tiny pocket apron.

‘Be better soon,’ Steve responds. ‘Can we get a couple of Abitas please? The Purple Haze and the Turbo Dog.’

‘Sure thing, sir.’

Fans furiously spin overhead. Paint is peeling from the walls. Posters of local musicians abut neon beer signs. Condiment bottles jostle for position on the table – mayonnaise, yellow mustard, sriracha, local hot sauces, vinegar, salt, pepper. Customers enter only to be turned away to queue outside along the front wall. A large chalkboard on the walls opposite spruiks this evening’s menu.

‘The real deal Creole seafood gumbo, eh?’ I read off the menu behind Steve. ‘We’ve got to order some of that.’

‘What else is on there?’ The seating is tight and he can’t twist around far enough to read the menu.

I continue, ‘Bayou Appetizer – fried crawfish, oysters, shrimp and crab claws. Sounds like our kind of thing. Rabbit and sausage jambalaya? Absolutely. Lamb ribs, smoked duck quesadilla – no thanks.’

‘Any red beans and rice? Gotta have red beans and rice,’ he asks, twisting again in an effort to have some agency over our evening’s meal.

‘What about a side of fried chicken? Comes with coleslaw so there’s the salad bit covered.’

I’m rarely not in the mood for crispy, salty, chickeny goodness. I do usually have to order multiple pieces though. The first piece is always too hot and I’m not known for my patience. Subsequently, I’ve discovered it’s best to peel the fried layer off with your fingers and therefore exposing the flesh to the cooler outside air. Crunchy seasoned skin is the perfect amuse-bouche or palate teaser. In fact, surely someone has figured out this would be an ideal bar snack – crispy fried seasoned chicken skin to stimulate drink ordering. Chicken skin is always the first thing to disappear from a roasted chicken. My youngest daughter would have subsisted on this alone if I’d let her. To this day, she can devour an entire plate of chicken wings without blinking an eye.

When the gumbo turns up I’m glad the lighting is subdued as it is not a dish you order for the Instgramming opportunities. It’s murky brown depths hide all manner of things. It is the long slow cooking of the roux (browning off flour in pork fat) that lends the finished dish its colour. Near constant stirring in a wide shallow dish is needed to achieve the not burnt but well-seasoned base of gumbo. After this, chopped onion, celery and capsicums are stirred in and simmered. Broth then the chosen protein is added to the whole lot cooked gently then served over rice.

It has been said that gumbo is an apt metaphor for Louisiana and its population. It is the result of a mix of cultures and the culinary traditions they brought with them. The French provided the roux. Slave ships from Africa brought rice and the vegetable okra which has a very distinctive slimy characteristic. Spanish immigrants, especially those from the Canary Islands, contributed seafood and cayenne. German immigrants brought their sausage making knowledge and skills with them to the New World. Local inhabitants introduced filé powder from the sassafras tree as a thickening agent and the corn grits the dish was originally served with.

The rabbit and pork sausage jambalaya is a wet rice dish similar in consistency to a risotto though not as cohesive. It is packed with diced onion, tomatoes, capsicum, shredded rabbit meat (though honestly with all the spices it may as well be chicken) and small slices of smoked pork sausage. It’s tasty without being too hot and spicy and would make a meal on its own. Like gumbo, I can see this dish could vary with seasonality and availability of ingredients.

Next up is a dish that is as unassuming as it is indispensable – red beans and rice. Dried red kidney beans are soaked overnight then added to the holy trinity of the south – onion, green capsicums, or bell peppers as they are known in America, and celery – and simmered away with stock or water for many hours until they are creamy and the liquid gelatinous. Add some prepared spice mix such as Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning or Slap-Yo-Mama seasoning to give it all the kick you need. Though that doesn’t stop Steve adding some hot sauce at the table.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the rice is an afterthought though. Rice is important in the cuisines of the south. For hundreds of years, rice was a common crop of small-scale farmers in the area with seeds saved from the most desirable crops and replanted season upon season. There is a movement to revive heirloom varieties of grains and legumes across the region. Traditionally a Monday night dish, this simple hearty meal fitted in with the domestic rhythms of housekeeping duties. Cooking slowly during the day, red beans and rice made a wholesome dish to nourish the body and soul after a long day at work.

IMAG5944

Bend, OR. Wednesday 24th August 2016

The Victorian Café at the top of the Main Street of Bend posits itself as offering a brunch worth waiting for. Thankfully today being a weekday we manage to skip that part of the process even though it’s well after 10am by the time we arrive. Clad in red painted timber, iron chairs and tables spread out in front and to the side under the looming sequoia trees. Upon seating us outside, our server hands us the menu cards. ‘Can I tempt you folks in one of our famous 23 ounce Bloody Marys? Comes with charbroiled prawn, Andouille sausage, pepper jack, olive, and pepperoncini skewer. Double shot of house-infused pepper vodka too.’

‘Ah, no thanks. I’m driving shortly.’ Steve shakes his head.’Just coffee for me.’

‘And for you ma’am? A mimosa or Irish coffee perhaps.’

‘Ummm. I’d love an orange juice – no ice – and some English breakfast tea with milk on the side.’ I’m getting better at ordering in America.

‘So that’s coffee, a juice and a tea.’

Around us groups of mostly young adults chat and pick casually at their meals. No one is in a rush to be anywhere. Drinks delivered and meals ordered.

Biscuits with sausage gravy and easy over medium eggs (soft yolks with cooked whites) for Steve. Hobo potatoes for me. Hobo potatoes as I discover are crispy potato chunks with diced capsicums, red onions, tomatoes, mushrooms topped with American cheese (an industrial style all of its own) and spring onions.

 The server swings past multiple times filling the stout coffee mug which rarely leaves Steve’s hand.

‘So from here I was thinking we would head over to south west Bend to a place called Crux. Over twenty beers on tap on the tasting room. We may have to stay longer in Bend.’

‘That’s assuming we ever get our breakfasts and get out of here,’ I add. ‘Funny how you can never find a waiter when you want one.’

When I do track down a waiter, she apologises repeatedly. Moments later a mimosa is delivered to our table as an apology by the manager. The flaccid tea sits cold and I sip on the mimosa as a head start my day’s alcohol consumption. Feeling a little buzzed by the time our meals arrive, I can’t be bothered mentioning that I order my dish without the scrambled eggs. I do my best to eat around them.

Another thing I’ve added to my list of life in the United States of America is that alcohol at breakfast is completely acceptable. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone here; I happily admit to consuming alcohol prior to noon. Iced tea with bourbon to go with my smoked meats and salad at 11am would prove to be the perfect beverage choice a few days later. A bloody Mary (vodka, tomato juice and more) and breakfast taco in Los Angeles. My mimosa (sparkling wine mixed with orange juice) to accompany this morning’s breakfast.

I can’t say it is something I often see in Australia. In general, I see more spirits consumed in America. Cocktails are offered at all times of day and up-sized for a only a dollar more. I’m wondering about Prohibition’s influence of how alcohol has taken hold in American culture. Distilled spirits, as opposed to beer or wine, would have been easier to conceal and transport from legal authorities at that time. It makes sense.

Prohibition had other effects on American society including loss of tax revenue and increase of organised crime but also not insignificantly, a loss of wine-making knowledge and skills. I blame this for my exasperating efforts to track down affordable, drinkable American wines. Having spent too many years working in one of Australia’s premier wine regions, the yellow, oaky and sweet American wine is almost enough to turn me to beer. Luckily, a chance meeting with a San Francisco restaurant manager leads to a Californian wine masterclass and hope is redeemed.

Breakfast completed, we manoeuvre our way past oversized pick-up trucks and SUVs. Ten minutes later we are driving in circles in an industrial estate, Steve hell-bent on tracking down the first of today’s breweries. At the edge of an ill-signed industrial estate, we find Crux Fermentation Project in the home of a former transmission shop bound by the railway and an aqueduct.

Reclaimed fixtures and furnishings pay homage to the building’s history. Sitting at one of the communal bar tables mashing tanks, fermenting vessels and ageing casks surround.

‘Imagine a set up like this at home.’

‘Do you mean in Australia generally or actually in our home?’ I question, unsure if I want to know the answer.

‘A little bit of column A. A little bit of column B.’

The extensive beer tap list is outlined on a photocopied sheet on the table in front of us. Lagers, ales and all the way through to dark beers. There is even a couple of ciders and kombucha on tap. These guys are more than a fermentation project in name only.

Rogue Creamery, Oregon August 2016

IMAG5115‘It’s an hour round trip. Are you sure?’ This time it’s me with phone in hand.‘How often are you going to get to this part of the world?’ He has a fair point.

‘Okay. You’ve convinced me. Let’s go get cheese,’ I say, not really putting up much of a fight. Only the month prior I had stood at the counter of one of my favourite cheese providores and paid more than I care to admit for 100 grams of Caveman Blue cheese. Sweet, buttery and amine rich, it was reminiscent of my go-to after school snack – Vegemite on hot buttered multi-grain toast. Have you noticed that butter tastes better, richer when it melts? The milk solids get released and the salt makes more of an impact on your tongue.

Cabot cheddar, Monterey Jack, chèvres from Cypress Grove and more have recently cemented my love for premier cheese from America. It’s easy to be dismissive of both American and Australian cheese with the skewed view that only European product is worthy. Australia makes some rocking cheese and I’m damn proud of it. America is proving no slouch either. The industrial shelf-stable Velveeta is a mere fleeting thought as we turn at Grants Pass towards Central Point in southern Oregon.

Rogue Creamery is undoubtedly one of the premier cheese-making companies in North America, having won multiple World Cheese Awards. Its foundation in 1933 was an attempt to eke out a sustainable living from small-scale farming during the Depression coupled with the harsh Oregon winters. During World War 2, the company was able to employ many local women and seasonal workers as they ramped up cheddar production, supplying the USA armed forces overseas. From cheddar and cottage cheese, the founder, Tom Vella, headed to Europe to seek an entree into the world of blue cheese and more specifically, The Roquefort Association. Moulds, recipes and cultures in hand, Vella returned valiantly to Oregon in 1955. From here, Vella set about building a Quonset, which is essentially a semi-cylindrical building that would mimic traditional cheese-ageing caves. Insulated to maintain correct humidity and temperature, cheeses are regularly turned by hand as part of the process known as affinage or bringing cheese to its ideal ripening.

It’s almost 3pm as we pull into the carpark beside the unobtrusive looking building which is our destination. Parking up against the factory’s side wall, Steve is trying to get the car in any shade that’s he can. Nestled behind the driver’s seat under both our unnecessary coats is our chiller box stacked with beers gathered on our journey so far. Hot and parched from the drive, cheese tasting is not the first thing that comes to my mind. Past patio chairs and milk urns turned planters we stride awkwardly. Steve opens the door and we step from the bright sun into a cool, dark and familiar-smelling shop. The bare concrete exterior walls belie the dairy cornucopia contained within. I stop and allow my eyes to adjust to the light. Ahead of me stands multiple fridges stacked with thousands of dollars worth of cheese. Foil wrapped rounds, handwritten signage and exposed cheese faces with spidery blue veins. ‘Made locally. Celebrated globally’ is written in signature cobalt blue chalk along the bottom of the fridge. I can attest somewhat to this. Three cheesemongers, I know personally in Australia have extolled the skills of RogueCreamery cheesemakers.

To one side, there is a large window looking into the adjacent factory. Gleaming stainless steel benches and scrubbed tiled floor wait for the next delivery of milk from the farm. Today the vats stand empty and forlorn. Framed black and white photos from times gone by document the process barely changed to the current day. Rogue Creamery is the very definition of an artisan producer. They combine sustainable practices with technology to scale up production without compromising the high quality of their handmade cheese range.

A tall, stocky man clad in a blue polo shirt and matching bib apron looms over the counter. ‘How’s it going there?’

I look up from the fridge showcase before me, my face like that of a stunned mullet. Momentarily I don’t know what to say. I know he is speaking English to me but I can’t figure what words were just used. Steve steps in to ameliorate.

‘Better now. How are you doing?’

I manage to find my voice. ‘What an amazing selection. Are they all made here?’ I ask gesturing to the fridges in front of me and also lining the wall.

‘Most of ‘em. Sure. Gotta a few imports in that fridge but I make the majority of them back there, beyond that window.’

Looking up and around I’m unsure where to begin. I eschew the farthest fridge with its portioned wrapped cheese, pickles, smallgoods and other cheese accessories. Back to the glassed-in selection, I only recognise two of the many cheeses in front of me.

‘So, I’ve had Caveman Blue and Flora Nelle before but I don’t know any of the others. You don’t want to know how much we pay for these cheeses back home in Australia.’

‘How much do you pay for them?’

‘At least double,’ I respond doing some quick maths in my head.

‘Huh.’ He pauses then adds, ‘Would you like to taste some?’

‘Yes please,’ we both enthuse.

‘We didn’t come 50 miles out of our way to tell you how expensive they are in Australia mate,’ Steve adds.

For the next twenty minutes or so, our new friend gives us a comprehensive tour of his cheese cabinet. This is a move I’ve done myself professionally. It’s fun and satisfying to introduce passionate cheese lovers to new curdy delights. From salty, buttery, spicy, fruity and smokey to everything in between, Steve and I ride the highs and greater highs of cheddar and blue cheese. My mouth savours the creamy texture, the pronounced piquancy and the briny backbone. I’m eager to purchase as much as we can consume in next few days, adding to the Cowgirl Creamery washed rind and the Humboldt Fog chèvre we already have staying cool in the insulated foil box in the warming car.

If it were earlier I’m sure we’d stay on and sample more local beers on tap and the no-doubt incredible cheese toastie made with four year aged cheddar. But it’s not and we’ve still got miles to put on the odometer before we can hunker down for the evening.

What do you get when you cross an engineer and a design graduate?

What do you get when you cross an engineer and a design graduate?

A book cover artist of course.

Another Word Con and more engaging presentations from a variety of professionals in the publishing industry. Though I was saddened not to listen to Justin Heazlewood’s session (and more importantly get him to sign my copy of his book ‘Funemployed’), day one was full of fun and facts.

Rob introduced us to Marisa and Puja from Hardie Grant Egmont, specifically from their YA and middle-grade fiction. Though not a field of interest to me, I enjoyed the dissection of the publishing process.

Andrew presented a session exploring the space between flow state and focus in our contemporary, increasingly distracting, society. Robyn Doreian’s guest Cate Blake from the Penguin Random House imprint Viking proved a popular guest. With a focus on middle market and literary fiction, Cate pulled back the curtain on the submission process and emphasised the importance of being involved in literary competitions. Venetia bravely pitched her completed novel, putting into practice exercises from the previous semester. If I had a completed manuscript or even a firmer grasp on my project’s thesis, then I am sure that I would have also pitched.

Emma Noble was the final guest for the day. With a background in the publishing industry in various roles, she currently runs her own business as a literary publicist. Overall, Word Con 4 is a ripper of a mini literary conference. I enjoy the variety of presenters and the range of positions they can talk to within the publishing industry.

I found Puja’s contribution to the first session the most engaging. Puja’s varied background, including an engineering degree, reinforced for me the obscure nature of many career paths, my own included. Through the publishing subjects, I have managed to combine my innate visually creative inclinations and the book embryo I am birthing. As with Puja, every step that I’ve taken professionally has led me to this point though not necessarily via any predetermined plan. As a side note, she was completely charming to speak with after the session.

vibrant

 

discover who you are through writing

 

Science fiction, speculative fiction – yep, you can keep them. Adam Browne’s lecture on his process of translating his narratives to short film seemed like a diversion of interest only to others. I was wrong. Slightly nervous with reflux tablets to hand, Adam cut a ‘handsome genius’ figure, to paraphrase his blog site. Checked chef pants, fire-engine red runners and tropical bird print Hawaiian shirt only added to the quirky image of him as author, illustrator, and filmmaker.

Between attempts to play his short films and responding to Andrew McRae’s prompts, Adam also fielded a mess of questions from the audience. During ‘The Adjustable Cosmos’ I noticed he sat, arms resting on his head and eyes closed. I couldn’t not ask him about this.

‘You sat through that with your eyes closed. I wondered if it may have anything to do with the fact that as a writer you were concentrating on the words unlike the visuals over which you didn’t have any control,’ I asked.

‘No, just nerves,’ he replied.

I pursued him further. ‘You write, illustrate and make films. What comes first in your head? Is it a linear or circular process? Or more like a pizza dough?’

‘That’s a good question that I don’t have an answer to. I don’t know.’

In a way, I had hoped that he was going to answer that he sees his stories as a movie first of all. This is how I experience my stories. Even when writing from my own real-life experience, I see the movie unfold in my head. I then try to describe the scene, picking out key details that will express the most in as few words as possible.

I’m curious about the interplay between the part of my life as a visual artist and that of a writer. As Adam said – a good question that I don’t have an answer to. I will, however, take solace in another piece of wisdom he shared – that you can discover who you are through writing.

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