Roberta’s

Rustic plank table, chilli flakes in the Parmesan shaker, salt shaker and three wilting chrysanthemums in a squat glass bottle; multi-coloured party lights drape from shelves and windows; unpolished concrete floors; two overhead fans rotate lazily; mirrors, hipster paintings, a pogo stick and a toy truck complete the interior decoration. My eyes keep coming back to one painting in particular: an homage to an iconic scene from Brokeback Mountain, the two central characters appear to be wearing masks that are a cross between a goat and a clown. This in no way diminishes the impact of the intimacy imbued in their body language.

‘Here’s your coffee, my dear.’ A hand reaches down and delivers the quintessential cup of American coffee: over-sized white ceramic cup and saucer, inky black liquid with a few bubbles clinging to the edge, two sugar sachets and tiny stainless steel jug of cold creamer. I look up to say thank you and am greeted by a perfect Roberta’s waiter.

Sleeveless, cropped white logo t-shirt, Levis 501 jeans fraying at the ankle, blue floral Converse high tops, baseball cap worn reversed, a two-day growth and multiple chain around his neck. His disarming smile compels me to continue to look into his eyes. His runaway blonde hair pokes out from beneath his hat. I can now read his t-shirt – THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. It is only now that I see that he wears glitter on his skin. It is lightly applied all over his face.

‘You’re wearing glitter,’ I say unnecessarily.

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Is that a cream or do you just sprinkle it on your face?’

‘I actually apply a bit of oil to stay hydrated and then I dab it on my face. It’s a special body glitter.’

‘I have a real glitter phobia but, on you, I like it.’ I make redundant hand motions just to drive the point home.

‘Oh, thank you.’ He half bows as best he can due to our close proximity. ‘Do you know that strippers aren’t allowed to wear any glitter?’ I nod genuinely interested. ‘Cause it sticks to the skin of people they come into close contact with.’ We both giggle at the possibilities of punters explaining to their significant others where the glitter came from.

‘What’s your name? I’m Mandy.’ I stick out my hand.

‘I’m Pedro.’

When he turns to get back to work, I think I can almost see rainbows and unicorns revolving around him.

‘Cheers.’ An icy tumbler of pale pink, alcoholic goodness is deposited by another waiter. This one is wearing a black band t-shirt, turned up jeans, black socks with runners that have seen better days and sports a high pony-tail and bandana. My ‘savage garden’ cocktail is skinos (a Greek spirit) agave gin, strawberries and coconut. It tastes like a grown-up’s version of a kids’ party drink. It’s fruit-sweet without being cloying, perfectly cold and the coconut milk adds a welcome creaminess.

Before long my ‘white and greens’ pizza arrives. Thin but not-too-thin base, still a bit chewy with that tang you get from a long-fermented sourdough. An adequate layer of mozzarella cheese (grated more finely than is the usual) is laid down with the additional onion I requested, then into the ferocious wood-burning pizza oven which backs onto the street. The balance of the kitchen is at the opposite end of the restaurant. Wood burning pizza ovens are a wonderful thing. They produce an intense heat which cooks food quickly and with plenty of flavour. But that heat has to go somewhere and not all of it goes up the chimney. It’d be a great place to work in winter but not summer so much.

Back to the pizza – the mozzarella and onion-ed base is given its obligatory few minutes in the oven, then topped with ‘greens’ which appear to be a mix of friselle, parsley, arugula and other unidentifiable bits. The pizza then gets a liberal dose of freshly-grated Parmesan and is plonked on a warm metal tray, cut into six slices and delivered to the lucky table. I demolish in about the same amount of time that it took to prepare and cook.

Yesterday was a full day for me. I was up at 5.45am in London to meet my 6.15am shuttle from the Hilton airport hotel, which naturally did the rounds of the other airport hotels before dropping me at Terminal 3. I then spoke to the check-in staff who were too perky by far for that time in the morning, collected my boarding passes and began the fun that is submitting oneself to security procedures at airports these days. It was just after 7.30am when I found my way to the lounge which looks like a cross between the Star Trek command deck and a 1970s swingers’ party. That was the highlight of my day. I spent the next 18 hours either queueing, waiting, flying or waiting some more.

Back to Roberta’s. I’ve said this before about a few places this trip and I’ll say it again – good thing I don’t live here as I’d be here way too often. It isn’t the cocktail list with cbd oil additions. It isn’t the quirky artistic vibe of the staff. It isn’t even the delicious food and tempting drinks list. It isn’t that they have a thriving kitchen garden to augment their orders. I don’t know what’s it is exactly, I just feel like I belong here.

First cocktail down, pizza tray cleared, coffee now gone cold and I figure it’s best to down a glass of water. I’ve still got a few hours to fill before I need to leave for the airport and I need to keep my wits about me. Today’s flight will take me to New Orleans and that place is not known for its restrained sobriety. It’s a marathon not a sprint.

I order a second cocktail – the WIFI which is ironic because this joint doesn’t offer free wifi unlike many places in the United States. I’m okay with that. Six weeks of travelling without constant connection has broken the habit. Social media doesn’t distract me like it has in the past.

Aviation gin, watercress, lime and cbd oil. The watercress means that drink is the colour of healthy grass. No doubt it also helps tone down the flavour and colour of the cbd oil. The drink comes in a squat conical glass. Without ice like my previous one, this drink is a sipper. It’s concentrated flavour. By its conclusion, I’m definitely feeling more relaxed but I can’t testify as to whether that’s from the cbd oil or due to the pizza and cocktails.

The day has warmed up and I’m thinking ice cream may just hit the spot. The staff are very attentive so it’s not before long that another waiter swings by my table, so I enquire. Doesn’t hurt to ask, does it?

‘We got almond, blueberry and burnt fig. You can have it as is or in a sticky bun.’ I can detect an accent of sorts but I’ve no idea where it’s from. That’s something I’ve experienced a lot in America, or to be more precise, in New York. Most people are from somewhere else. Whether as tourists visiting or as recent residents, a myriad of languages and accents are heard throughout the city. But big cities are like that, and New York even more so. It represents possibility. Your dreams can come true, in theory anyway.

‘So did you decide if you want any gelato? I think the blueberry’s the best.’

‘You’ve convinced me,’ I say. Sometimes it’s easier to let other people make the small decisions. I don’t really care what flavour, I have. I just feel like a little something cold and sweet. I’m grateful to be able to get just one scoop. Meal sizes here can be over-whelming, especially when I usually want to try multiple dishes.

At the small table next to me, two women of dressed in jeans and flannel shirts make their way through a couple of pizzas. One leaves the crusts uneaten on her plate. It takes every ounce of willpower that I have not to lean over and ask her if I can have them. I’m not hungry after my full pizza but I abhor waste and pizza crust is yummy, particularly these pizza crusts. The crust is where you get the full flavour of the dough, slightly smoky and charred from the oven plus all that sour dough taste. I guess the real test will come when they get up and leave. Will I leave those morsels be? I’m saved from myself by one of the many waitstaff who arrives to clear the plates

They ask for the cheque and one says, ‘At least, I eat all my crusts.’

I smirk while the waiter retorts, ‘Well, I wasn’t going to say anything but.’

I’m presented with my dessert. The bowl cradles one generous scoop of the most intense blueberry gelato you’ve ever had. Well, I had it, not you. It’s perched atop wafers which taste like a version of cornflake. These are glued to the bowl with a delicious honey that they probably harvest from their garden. I lean forward so as not drip any of the purple dessert on my top. My luggage is packed and I don’t fancy opening it up in the middle of the restaurant to find something clean but crushed to wear. I’ve only got two and a half hours to get through unscathed until I make my way to the airport.

A stack of glasses are knocked over but the soundtrack of pumping background music and hearty conversation doesn’t pause one iota. Each table has now filled up and three lone wolves perch at the bar. I move to a corner and nab a vacant power socket to charge my ipad and phone. More pleasant to do it here where they serve drinks than to try find a spot at the airport where the drinks are over-priced and of unpredictable quality.

The lunch rush comes and goes. Tables are re-set and the odd person remains, lingering over a drink. I’m one of those people. Suddenly, my phone buzzes. I had forgotten that it was still in vibrate mode. No one has called my phone for weeks. Apart from the obligatory message from my service provider to tell me what country I was in and that I was eligible for a day pass for only $10 a day. Yeah, no thanks.

‘THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is required.’

I’d heard about this FEMA test on the radio the day prior while getting a lift from the airport to my accommodation. 75 percent of mobile phones are expected to display this message. Around the restaurant, people pick up their phones, spend a few seconds and put them back down.

With a numb bum and an empty glass, I reluctantly decide that it’s time to make the break. I do and I don’t want to. I want to go to New Orleans and I want stay here in my new favourite place with my new favourite people. I bite the bullet, call for the bill and gather my luggage. With the receipt signed , I tip well and walk out the door.

Goodbye Roberta.

I love you, whoever you are.

Canal boating

‘It’s just like a bath tub with a plug and taps. When you want to fill up the bath, first you put in the plug and then you turn on the taps. If you want to empty the bath, you lift up the plug.’ He’s young and dressed head to toe in dark blue clothes. ‘Locks are as simple as that.’

Four of us are standing in close, so we don’t miss anything. Our fifth is at the back of the narrow boat, the stern, because he’s driving, or is it steering? Even the the term steering is misleading. When it is my turn, it feels like I’m trying to guide a 56ft (17m) bus along a narrow, icy road without any brakes. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s get back to the locks.

Locks are a way of altering the height of a waterway. They comprise of two sets of gates, one at either end, as well as paddles which are lifted or lowered to allow water out or in. Water inside the lock chamber needs to be at the level that the boat currently is. So if you’re going downhill, you make sure the paddles are down on the far set of gates and raise the paddles of the set closer to the boat. Once the water fills the chamber, the pressure has equalised and simply leaning on the gates will open them easily. If you try and force them, you’ll only do yourself an injury.

After bringing the boat inside the chamber, the gates are closed behind the boat. The boat needs to keep far enough forward of the cill which becomes exposed when the water level falls far enough. If the back gets caught, the boat can list forward and fill with water. So now we’re inside, the paddles at the front are lifted and the water drains away, levelling out again so the gates can open and the boat can exit. Don’t get carried away and motor off too fast though, as your crew has to shut the gates and lower the paddles again before you pick them up.

Anyway, do that a dozen or more times a day, motoring at a leisurely pace along a canal that you can probably stand up in. That was our weekend. We only moved 10 km down the canal before we had to turn around (another adventure) and do it all again. And I’m already conniving a plan to do it all again. Why? Because all mucking in together, talking things through, taking turns at the different roles steering, working the locks and steadying the boat with ropes was incredibly bonding. Steve and I, Steve’s sister, Sarah, and her husband, Craig, their 10 year-old son, Byron and my nephew, Marcus, all worked as a team. It was kind of like camping but on a narrow boat.

Our instructor, Will, has been only working for Shire Cruisers for four years but his family always had a canal boat so he grew up around them. Coiling the rope neatly and hanging it on the back hooks is second nature to him. You won’t find him tripping over it and falling in the fetid water. He scales the side ledges with ease, can reverse the boat in a tight spot and has no qualm sticking his hand in cloudy water to check the propeller can turn freely.

He gives us a short, fifteen-minute induction detailing the daily checks we need to perform to keep everything ship-shape, so to speak: grease, oil, propeller, prime the starter motor and so on. We are then sent on our way to practise our steering on the way down to the first lock. It is there that he goes through the process with us, directing us like a patient kindergarten teacher with addressing those with a short attention span. We struggle with the new vocabulary, soon coming up with our own names for the tools.

And like that, we’re on our way. The map and emergency phone number is left on the table so we can find it easily if we need to. I keep looking over my shoulder but Will has turned his back and is walking away from the canal. I miss him already.

Craig is doing an excellent job steering us in a relatively straight line. Out the window, three ducks swim past us. ‘Give it a bit of welly, then,’ I say encouragingly. Back in the day, horses used to provide the power, pulling cargo-laden barges down the canals. Nowadays, the canals are mostly full of tourists and holiday-makers trying to avoid each other and those who live on their boats. It’s toasty warm inside now as it’s early autumn but I don’t envy boat residents getting through the winter months.

‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ Sarah asks for the first of many times over the next few days. We all seem to agree that we’ve earned a cup of tea. The boat has a fully equipped kitchen with gas stove, mini fridge, microwave, crockery, cutlery and a dining cum lounge area that transforms into another bed in the evening. Down the stern end are two single beds with good storage, a bathroom with shower, then two more beds in the middle and another bathroom and shower, a slim wardrobe and then the kitchen/lounge area up front. At 56 foot in total length, it is both long but not very big. If we pair with a shorter boat, two of us can fit in a lock together which saves us all time and energy.

Before long, skipper announces another lock is ahead and teas are abandoned or skulled as we nominate ourselves as lock crew, rope assistant or gate watcher. It is quite literally all hands on deck and I can’t imagine doing this with less than four adults. None of us have ever done this before and it is a mental exercise as well as a physical one. For stretches at a time, we’re just cruising along slowly soaking in the ambience of the canals. Weeping willows over hang the water. Blackberries, ivy and fig trees come right down to the water’s edge. Moss-covered stones line the tow path which follows alongside. Excitable dogs followed by their owners and cyclists cover more ground than we do but it’s about how fast you get there.

So many quaint lock-keeper’s cottages, village pubs and stone bridges than you almost become immune to their charm. Almost. The first afternoon, we don’t go very far at all but we all agree to moor within walking distance of a pub. We go through a lock and moor not far the other side of it. Stakes hammered in, ropes tied front and back, we lock up the boat to head into Elland for dinner at the Colliers Arms.

Typical English pub menu is on offer: pies, fish ‘n’ chips, liver and onions, roast of the day, burgers, gammon, and so on. Tonight we all order pie, mash and peas with a pint of local cask ale. Those drinks have never gone down so quickly. Seconds, and for some people thirds, are ordered and consumed. That night we sleep well even with the narrow, firm beds.

St John Restaurant

We’re early so we decide to have a little wander around Smithfield before arriving at the restaurant. We pass door upon door of generic coffee shops and take-away food outlet close to the station. An impressive, expansive building comes into sight – the wholesale meat market. Since the 10th century, first a livestock then a meat market has occupied this particular site. Between the bustle of the growing city and the ease of access to farms, Smithfield was well-positioned for this charge. It is suitably impressive with its pale stone arches, red brick infill and large cast iron and glass roof.

It’s getting on to noon so the market is closing as it’s been open since 4am. Time for the workers to knock off and have a full English and a pint. Slabs of gammon, thick fingers of sausage and a puddle of beans are washed down by hand-pulled cask ale. The Fox and Anchor has been serving the market porters for hundreds of years from 7am each morning.

We pop our heads into The Charterhouse, which is a school, almshouse and former priory. A small complex of historic buildings, part of it is now open for the public to add to the thousands of feet that have walked over the same ground. London’s like that though. Thin ribbons of roads weave between modern office buildings and public ale houses hundreds of years old. There’s no imposed grid system taming the streets with curbs and pavement here. It’s easy to imagine that you’re walking the same paths that thousands of others have over many, many years.

Eventually, we circle round on the main road back to where we need to be. Scaffolding and bright orange bollards are a common sight as much construction is underway. Cranes dot the skyline. There’s no point decrying that ‘they’re ruining the city’ as cities are dynamic places. They stretch their limbs, reconfiguring to meet new demands. People ebb and flow as industry, commerce and residential factors change. Cities have been, and will always, remain living organisms.

‘It should somewhere here.’ Steve pauses and holds his phone square in front of him. I pull up and step close to him, to allow the free flow of lunch-time pedestrian traffic. In doing so, I now see the simple black font (possibly Times New Roman) announcing our destination.

St. JOHN Bar & Restaurant

‘It is,’ I say and point over his shoulder. ‘I know we’re early but let’s just go in.’ We’re still half an hour early but I’m too excited to wait.

‘Just a minute.’ Steve turns me 90 degrees to my left and there just a metre or two away is the man himself. I put my hand over my mouth then scramble for my phone. I take a couple of photos of the food menu and wine menu as cover before nonchalantly snapping a couple of him.

Fergus Henderson is legendary in culinary circles. I see Fergus as the progenitor of a new approach to British cooking. In the mid-90s, he opened St John restaurant with Trevor Gulliver, the wine half of the partnership. And in 1999, the untrained cook published his first cookery book Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking. His bold approach to meat consumption quickly became a classic amongst industry and public alike.

So here we are, metres from a legend outside his original restaurant. It’s like seeing Father Christmas himself, in a bright navy pinstripe suit, white shirt, red socks, brown brogues with walking cane in hand. Steve tugs at my shirt and we walk through the portico and into the bar and bakery area. A staff member directs us up the short, black metal staircase which leads into the dining room.

To describe the interior as pared down is an understatement: no art hangs on its white-washed walls; a simple coat rack runs along the walls at picture-rail height; paper over white table cloths, dark brown stained chairs and painted, worn floorboards; basic salt and pepper grinders play floral arrangement relief on the tables.

A tall, lithe waiter soon arrives at our table with menus in hand. He smiles as he greets us and hands us the menus. I find myself staring at the few grey hairs in his beard. He announces a couple of specials for the day, then leaves us to peruse our options. Deciding on what to order is always a process of negotiation with us. I am looking for a balance of dishes with different proteins and no doubling up of ingredients. Sadly, I can’t stomach neither horseradish nor hot mustard so those options are immediately ruled out.

A metal basket of breads is brought to our table with a slab of butter. Wide slices from both brown and white cob loaves are laid out, their beauty self-evident. It’s a confident place that offers such simple things to begin with. Chewy, slightly tangy inner crumb with a satisfying exterior crunch is only achieved with years of sourdough practice. The demand for St John’s bread has been so strong that they’ve opened a separate bakery in one of the London markets. The options are limited – white, brown, light rye or fruit.

I want to order us wine but I have little frame of reference for the mainly French offerings on the wine list so I’m going to need help. Jean-Patrick, our waiter, offers assistance. ‘Perhaps if I know what you’re eating then I can suggest something to go with it.’

‘Well, I was thinking something white or pink. I work in a winery region at home in Australia so I’m familiar with those styles but I don’t really know French wine that well.’

‘Why don’t I bring you a sample of both our whites?’ Two small footed glasses are delivered with generous amounts of wine for us both to taste. We settle on the 2017 Languedoc blanc, plenty of fruit without being sweet, and a small amount of oak.

Our order is taken and the three starters are quick to arrive. The first plate holds two pools of thick, buttery yellow mayonnaise. Plump anchovy fillets and two soft poached eggs sit proudly atop. Tiny capers and a bunch of baby cress finish off the plate. The second plate has a mound of potted hare, thick shreds of meat obvious, with celeriac remoulade and one fat pickled walnut. The final plate presents a meaty fillet of house-smoked eel with cucumber and dill tossed in a hot mustard dressing. We decide against the signature dish of roast bone marrow and parsley salad as we had an excellent example of it for breakfast the day prior.

For the main course, we’re sharing devilled kidneys. Six portly kidneys nestle together on a thin slice of toast. The whole lot is bathed in a piquant gravy, featuring a generous hand of Worcestershire sauce. It’s sweet and vinegary and sour and rich all at once. In a similar vein, the Welsh rarebit is all crispy, cheesy goodness. To assuage any possible guilt, I also order a vegetable side dish. Thick green ribbons of cabbage have been lightly steamed and tossed with lashings of butter, salt and pepper.

I’m done. Only a few ribbons of cabbage and a swirl of gravy remain. The wine is finished and my elasticated outfit is proving a wise choice. Just one more mouthful of cabbage perhaps. I’ve never tasted cabbage so sweet and unctuous. That’s it. No more.

‘Would you like to see the dessert list?’ Jean-Patrick suggests as he clears the plates.

’No, I’m all good,’ I say.

‘I already know what I’m having – Eccles cake.’ Steve’s grinning like a small child. ‘You sure you don’t want a glass of something sweet, my sweet? How about a sloe gin?’

I cave swiftly. ‘Alright. Wouldn’t want you eating alone.’

The dessert arrives quickly. It’s a rotund shiny pastry sitting next to a thin, triangular slice of Lancashire cheese. No more and no less. The food on the plates speaks for itself. There’s no garnish, no flurry, no attempt to disguise the food for anything other than it is. I sit back into my chair, interlocked hands resting on stomach and look around the unadorned dining room. I sip my sweet, berry-infused gin while Steve picks up the currants that fall out onto the plate. ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.’

‘Glad to hear it, love.’

Tuesday September 4th 12.10pm Butter & Scotch Bar and Bakery.

Tuesday September 4th

12.10pm Butter & Scotch Bar and Bakery.

Bar AND bakery, I hear you say. Yes, bar and bakery. Why does this concept not happen more? They open at 9am and offer brunch options until mid-afternoon. Think sandwiches in the American sense ie hot fillings sometimes toasted and often in a bun not bread, biscuits/savoury scones, sweet pies, cake, ice cream – cause, you know, America.

This morning I tried to go to the Museum of Women’s Resistance but, alas, it appears to be no more. Damn internet! Promising a vibrant experience that in reality is a nondescript townhouse with a for sale sign hanging out front. Of course, it was bound to happen at least once this trip. Occasionally, the internet doesn’t always tell the truth. Who knew.

So that’s how I made it to this oasis earlier than planned. On this trip, I’m trying not to consume alcohol before noon although the crossing of time zones can mess with one’s sense of whose noon it really is. It’s quiet in here; there are a couple of guys sitting at the bar drinking coffee plus me. The air conditioning is strong and welcome. My 4000 steps this morning were hard work in the relentless sunshine.

‘How you doing this warm day?’ The barman stands behind the bar polishing glasses in the way that barmen all over the world do.

‘Better now,’ is my response.

‘Yeah, it’s getting warm out there.’

I slide along the wall, edging past the two guys perched on the chrome and vinyl bar stools. Black and white chequered tiles on the floor, painted, colour-blocked walls and a feature wall of red lips by the bathrooms signal the fun, casual vibe of the place. The mirrored wall behind the display of extensive spirits indicates it’s a bar in more than just name only. I grab a table near the bar for ease of service as much as conversation.

Traveling by myself has its pros and its cons. I don’t have to please anyone else but at times I crave human interaction beyond the cursory. In the mornings, as I’m having my mandatory two cups of tea, I listen to podcasts. It helps prepare me to interact with the big wide world outside my bedroom door. This trip is an ideal mix of time alone, time with family and time with friends old and new.

The obligatory glass of water is delivered with the menu. I opt to begin with a coffee with the encouragement of the barman despite my reticence for American coffee. He promises to attempt a piccolo latte for me. I’ve coached him through it and I reckon I’ll get something close. I do, in fact, receive a passable piccolo latte. The espresso shot has enough oomph for my liking and it’s not been watered down with too much milk. In reality, it is a flat white presented in a glass mug with a handle. Some sugar helps balance the dominant bitterness.

I scour the menu for a smaller-sized breakfast dish and I want to leave room for something sweet afterwards. Steve would be disappointed if I didn’t. I settle on the chicken, chilli and cheddar hand pie with salad. A hand pie is a filled pastry triangle by another name. The buttery pastry is flaky and tasty all on its own. The diced filling is good value on the chicken front with enough heat not to warrant any extra use of hot sauce or chilli-infused honey that sits on the table. A little light on the cheddar for my liking, it’s a small, insignificant criticism on my behalf. The mixed salad greens are perfectly dressed in a country where I often find dressings overwhelming the salad they’re supposed to complement.

Coffee downed and I decide to step things up a notch with a michelada. A tall glass is rimmed with spicy salt, then half-filled with ice, doused with hot sauce, and finished off with a crisp lager and a wedge of lime. I need to embrace these more in my summer life. It’s thirst quenching and substantial at the same time. I take photos, all the time thinking Steve would love it here.

The menu which is currently discarded on the table next to me promises desserts in a variety of styles: key lime pie, s’mores pie, daily special pie, unicorn cake, salted chocolate cookies, six flavours of ice cream. All these are made in the bakery section next door which I can see into through a doorway behind the bar. I finish up my breakfast grateful for the small serving and embark upon an in-depth consultation with my friendly barman. Between us we concoct a boozy milkshake based upon the key lime pie with coconut ice cream and added rum.

When it arrives, I’m not disappointed. It’s thick and creamy with generous amounts lime zest sprinkled on top. The rum comes through immediately and I give it a thorough stir in case I’m drinking all the rum first. I slurp again and it’s just as good. I don’t often order sweet things and I think I’ve only done it this time in honour of my absent partner. I’m delighted that I did and even more grateful that he’s not here because I don’t have to share it. It’s mine, all mine I tell you!

Sunday September 2nd Smorgasburg, Prospect Park Brooklyn

Sunday September 2nd Smorgasburg, Prospect Park Brooklyn

11.57am

Not quite noon and I’m full up to pussy’s bow. I’ve found a shady spot on some soft grass in between picnic rugs. It feels like it’s time for a nap. I arrived an hour ago as the food stall event was opening. The sound of grills being lit and ice tipped into cooler bins was the soundtrack to my entrance. Grabbing a cold coffee with whole milk at the first stall in, I decided a reconnoiter was in order. The business names delight and amuse me.

Takumi Taco

Lobsterdamus

Bonsai Kakigori Japanese shaved ice

Jian-bing Shanghai-inspired street food

Mighty Quinn’s slow smoked barbecue

Rooster Boy

Handsome Hank’s Fish Hut

Mao’s Bao

Noodle Lane

Oyster Party

Okay, first point of order. Figure out which stalls sell smaller portions. After one circuit, I decide the morning is best started with a blood orange donut to go with my coffee. For $3.75, I buy enough donut for 2 people. I ask for a bag so I don’t feel compelled to finish it all. The wooden picnic table under the large central tree are still pretty empty so I take one end in the shade of an umbrella. The coffee is disappearing fast, long before the ice has a chance to melt. The tartness of the donut is balanced perfectly by the soft sweet dough. I look around at the crowds that are starting to gather.

That ramen burger is so instagrammable

Anyone want to share some mozzarella sticks?

Excuse me sir, what’s that you’re eating?

‘I’m not hungry but . . .’

‘Well, I’m here so I might as well like go crazy.

What is it? A dumpling? Wanna share?

The best thing about the jet ski is that you feel like you’re going through time. I’m not even joking.

It’s toss up as to begin the savoury section of my brunch with a taco or a sandwich. Slow cooked beef brisket wins. Two generous slices of tender brisket complete with smoke ring at the outer edge are placed on a soft slider bun. Creamy coleslaw, pickled cucumber and rings of red chilli are then piled on top. I attempt to return to my spot to find it’s already taken. The tables soon become hot property whether they’re in the shade or not.

I point to a vacant spot and ask, ‘do you mind if I sit here?’

A Scottish accent replies, ’go for it.’

Plopping down on the bench opposite I place my bun, napkins and various wet wipes on the table. ‘What a place. The hardest thing is deciding what to get.’

‘I know. My girlfriend has just gone for another pass at things.’

‘What was that?’ I point to the detritus in front of him.

‘A philly cheese steak, from over there.’ He points behind and I make a semblance of turning to check it out.

‘Good?’

‘Great. We don’t get them in Glasgow.’

I press the top of my bun down in attempt to get solid purchase on my meal. Fortune favours the bold, it is said, so I abandon all decorum and get stuck in. Lifting the bun to my mouth, I take a generous bite, hoping to get some of each part of the whole. There’s nothing worse that the last mouthful of anything being just the salad, or just the pickles. Balance is important. I can feel something clinging to my chin. I grab the wholemeal napkin and wipe extensively.

Pale skin and ponytail bobbing, the girlfriend returns. ‘Hi, I’m Rachael.’

Wiping my hands hurriedly, I introduce myself. ‘Hi, I’m Mandy.’

My table buddy takes his turn. ‘Oh, sorry. I’m Grant.’

Friday 31st August NYC

2pm

After less fuss than it could have been, Simone and Richard are packed and ready to leave. It takes a couple of trips in the lift to get all the bags down to the lobby so I wait downstairs and mind the bags. I finger the door key in my pocket. With damp eyes, she steps from the lift with a dog in her arms.

‘I had to say goodbye,’ she explains. The white fluffy dog is clearly missing the sobriety of the moment as it moves around in her arms. The doorman wedges open the door and starts to roll the bags out to the curb. I take the smaller ones and roll them out also. Richard requests an Uber and stands by the curb looking up the street towards the Queensboro bridge. We corral the bags to take up less pavement space. A light breeze is keeping the morning cool and my sister wipes her eyes.

Minutes later a dark sedan pulls up and the driver eyeballs the amount of luggage. He pops the boot open and starts the game of Tetris that is packing the bags into the car. Cars start to bank up behind and the horns start. No one rushes and eventually the cars manoeuvre into the next lane and around.

‘You’re a real New Yorker now,’ I say. Last hugs, tight and held, and they’re in the car. I wait til they pull out into traffic before I turn to go inside. I pat the outside of my pocket to feel the key safely tucked inside. The streets are quieter this morning. It’s a Friday at the start of Labor Day weekend, the last hurrah of Summer. Richard’s favourite coffee spot two doors along is even closed. I turn, enter the lobby and go to wait for the elevator. Well, the one that is working anyway. The superintendent told me there’s little chance of getting a repair man out this weekend.

Back upstairs in the apartment, I take stock. I stack the dishwasher and open the fridge to see what might be consumed in the next 24 hours before I leave and what should be thrown out. My suitcase is mostly packed. The long-sleeve tops and cardigans haven’t even made it out of their packing cells since I arrived. I choose loose denim trousers, a black singlet and a black top. With a bit of make-up and some bling, I’m ready to hit the town. Well, a small section of it anyway.

I grab the bag with some of Richard’s leftover clothes on my way out the door. I’m heading for the goodwill store on 62nd and 1st. I’m determined not to get my phone to look at the map. Most of the pedestrians seem to be tourists this morning and I’m even able to give directions to one. Feeling quite chuffed, I saunter along and jay-walk with more confidence.

It’s mid afternoon when I make it to The Jeffrey. It’s a bar I’ve walked past many times and this time I’m going in. The front bar is buzzing and I’m grateful to arrive before it gets too busy. I locate an empty seat away from the door and swiftly the bar staff hand me a drinks menu. I open it up and instantly regret not bringing my glasses.

‘What can I get you?’ The pretty blond barmaid asks me.

‘I forgot my glasses so I’ll have to ask you for some recommendations.’

‘Here, borrow mine.’ The woman next to me hands me hers.

‘Oh, that’s very kind. Thank you.’ The prescription is so strong that I can’t make anything out. Meanwhile, the barmaid asks, ‘what kind of beer do you like?’

I lower the glasses.

‘All kinds. I’d like to try something local-ish. Something hoppy?’

While I’m poured a couple of tasters, I hand the glasses back to my neighbour. She reminds me of someone though I can’t place who. Tight grey curls ring her round, warm face. A bunch of cellophane wrapped flowers sit on the bar in front of her next to a glass of prosecco.

‘I’m Karen,’ (say this in your head long and drawn out). I introduce myself. She smiles and nods. ‘Ah, I recognise that accent. A coloniser.’

‘A coloniser?’ What am I missing here?

‘I’m from Jamaica. One of Britain’s colonies.’ She laughs and smiles and takes another swig of her drink.

‘Oh, no. I’m not a coloniser. I’m Australian. I’m a fellow colonist,’ I explain and take a gulp of my cold beer.

South Carolina

Thursday August 23rd

Cowpens, South Carolina.

I think it’s mid afternoon but since I left Melbourne 30-something hours ago in the evening, I can’t really be sure. In front of my aunt is a large, icy gin and tonic. Condensation forms on the bottles of local craft beer sitting between my cousin and I; Fat Tire Belgian White Ale, Stone IPA, RJ Rockers Son of a Peach Wheat Ale. Good thing we bought the local sampler pack from the supermarket on our way through from the local airport.

In the near distance, a slow rolling hum of a freight train, drawn-out horns sounding at the three level crossings it passes. Cicadas are quietly murmuring in the settled heat. Waves of a soft breeze cascades through the mature trees which line both sides of the gully. A yellow, rope hammock sits abandoned down by the creek which snakes its way through the kudzu-covered underbrush. This large-leaf vine swiftly grows over anything that stands still. A problem in America’s South-east, it’s taking over 150,000 acres of land a year.

My aunt is peppering my cousin with questions about work and I’m only half-listening. His accent is the perfect blend of retained Australian phrasing and the local Carolina intonation. Every now and then, he pauses to explain who this Dave or that John is. I smile and nod and know that I won’t remember it but enjoy being included anyway. His wife sits opposite keeping an eye on the kids as they dart in and around.

We sit out back in the shade of the carport around a metal outdoor table, a well-used basket of chalk centre-placed. This could be my home – scooters flung by the back door, shoes lined up by the steps, coats hanging on hooks just inside. Three generations usually separated by half a globe but this afternoon we’re gathered around a table.

Friday August 24th

Cowpens, South Carolina.

A woodpecker goes about his business in a tree by the house next door. No one else even looks up from their morning cup of tea. I’m onto my second. And it’s in a full-size mug rather than those pissy little excuses of things that airlines give you. On the flight over I gave up asking for more tea after the third cup.

Other cheery chirps go on in the distance. A car drives down the road; it’s only the second one I’ve seen since I arrived. The kids scoot up and down without concern. Padded up, their knees and elbows protected by plastic and velcro. It reminds me of the year my siblings and I were given bicycles for Christmas and the entire summer we’d peddle around the top of the court where we lived. My brothers were more adventurous than I. They’d walk their bikes up the steep hill at the start of our road and let the bikes speed down the slope, feet splayed out, pedals turning madly. Aimlessly riding around and around never seemed to get boring.

As the morning plays out, the woodpecker falls silent to digest its breakfast of insects gleaned from the bark. It now snoozes as the next stanza of birdsong starts up. The occasional rumble of far-off traffic or a freight train punctuating the rustic peace.

Tamika and the kids go off to Forest school to scramble about in rivers and across rocks for the next few hours. David, Lynda and I are heading into Greenville to do some banking, organise a SIM card for my phone and have a general look around. David and Lynda go inside to have a shower and get ready. I take the chance to sit out here solo and absorb my surrounds. A third cup of tea helps. In the front yard of the quiet grey house next door, an animal of some kind attacks a tree, seeds, leaves or twigs fall to the ground. In the distance, a truck applies its air-brakes. Dogs bark in the yard, their sounds echoing off the hill behind. Other dogs further up the road respond.

I look out through the balustrade and into the gully below. Heavily treed, there’s only the odd plant growing through the dense carpet of discarded leaves. Dappled sunlight brings out a rich variety of greens in the trees above. This late summer day warms my winter bones and only the sounds of traffic from nearby roads remind me that I’m not alone.

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 pomegrenate 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 – 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.

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.

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