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.

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.

Portland,OR – Thursday 25th August

Portland, OR – Thursday 25th August

11:46 AM

3217 N Williams Ave, Portland, OR 97227, United States

MILES 2.54

TRIP TIME 00:07:28

FARE BREAKDOWN Base Fare $1.25

Distance 2.92

Time 1.49

Subtotal $5.66

Booking Fee $1.35

City of Portland Surcharge $0.50

Total $7.51

Driver – Scott

The People’s Pig bright sky blue building is only a block or so from our AirBnb loft lodgings in Portland’s North-Eastern district. Wide, tree-lined streets of two storey homes in lush well-tended gardens. Plenty of shade to stop us over-heating on the way to second breakfast. Steve is wearing his light white linen shirt and beige shorts, a panama atop for added protection. Our brunch, late breakfast or early lunch is worth the smoke tainted clothing we are now left with for the day’s remainder.

Smoked chicken pieces which were then battered and deep fried.

Moist pork shoulder smoked dark and sticky. Coleslaw comprising of equal parts mayonnaise and cabbage. Macaroni salad – I’m still yet to determine the parameters for salad in the United States. It seems that anything is up for nomination: dried fruit, pasta, cheese, small goods, cooked meat. In fact, raw or cooked vegetables appear to be the most flexible ingredient.

Sweet vinegary barbecue sauce, spicy aioli and jalapeño jelly.

A local beer for Steve and a sweet iced tea with bourbon for me.

As suspected, neither Steve nor I, are in any shape to walk downtown so we order an Uber. Thanks Uber Scott for saving us from excessive exertion during this unanticipated heatwave. San Francisco, inland Northern California and Oregon had been cooler than we were expecting but Portland weather certainly made us catch our breath again. It is a short but welcomed ride from brunch at People’s Pig to downtown Portland. Time to join the line of tourists, domestic and international at Blue Star Donuts. VooDoo Donuts also has a strong reputation for the fried pastry in all crazy flavour combinations, but this one is easier to get to and surrounded by a range of craft beer places we want to visit.

Over this and my previous trips to America, I’ve revelled in the differences and the similarities between my own and American culture. As a food-focussed person, one element has always confused and intrigued me. The combination of sweet and savoury within a dish and often within one item. PB&J donut with blackberry habanero jelly and peanut butter powder was an elevated example of this. A butter-rich brioche dough made freshly daily with a rotating selection of flavours, it is easy to see why the business was nicknamed ‘donuts for grownups’ – Blueberry bourbon glaze, buttermilk old-fashioned, raspberry rosemary, maple bacon, Cointreau crème brûlée.

In order to scratch somewhat beneath the surface of Portland, we book a Brewcycle tour. A dozen people together power an over-sized bike around a tour of some of Portland breweries. Possibly due to the expected heat (35 degrees Celsius plus) half the group have cancelled last minute and while the tour could go ahead, we take the opportunity to bail with a compensatory beer from Back Pedal and a full refund.

One beer in, we decide to gently wander the streets of Portland’s downtown and sample more breweries on our own. Fatheads, Deschutes and Rogue are on the hit list before heading in the direction of our new home. Labrewatory is hidden underneath a freeway overpass in a light industrial area. This is something we encounter time and again on our brewery pilgrimages. I’m enchanted by the business concept of Labrewatory. They don’t brew beer. What they do is hire out brewing equipment and space. A percentage of the beer produced is then sold in their bar. It is an intelligent way to be involved in the brewing and beer industry. A canny business plan, I’m half-tempted to try and launch something similar on return home. The sheer population size of States and its more compact distribution means that the depth and breadth of their craft beer industry is beyond the scope of what many Australians can imagine.

Our last stop before turning in is Ex Novo brewery. A not-for-profit enterprise and only couple of blocks from out Portland loft, in the four days we spend in Portland, we visit it three times.

Elkton, OR to Bend, OR – Tuesday 23rd August

Elkton, OR to Bend, OR – Tuesday 23rd August

A deep sleep buried under layers of feather and white linen and quieter than I am used to means that pulling myself out of slumber land requires genuine effort. Steve is sitting in bed next to me, shoulders poking out of the bedding. Phone in hand reading, he turns to face me.

‘I wondered if you ever going to wake up.’

I contemplate closing my eyes and rolling over. ‘What time is it?’

‘Nine o’clock. Want a cuppa?’

‘Always.’

I spread further out in the bed and into the warm patch vacated by his body. I feel myself sink deeper into the mattress. This is a dangerous bed. I might never get out. If not for a persistent discomfort from my bladder, we may never make it to our next destination today.

Dragging clothes on, I stumble to the cedar clad ensuite and squint at myself in the mirror on the wall under the skylight. Slightly sunburnt nose from all this sunshine even though I religiously apply SPF cream every morning. I tug at my hair with a brush grateful for a month without high levels of daily personal presentation demands. Two lipsticks, one eyeshadow and some mascara are enough make up supplies for a month holiday. I know that make up is cheaper here in the States but I’ve never been interested in that kind of thing. I have no childhood memories of putting on my mother’s make up. Like me, my mum is pretty low maintenance. No monthly manicures or facials for us. I’d rather spend that money on smothering more enjoyable like a meal out or a fabulous bottle of wine.

I manage to make it to the couch where my morning cup of tea, in the largest mug available, is waiting for me on the coffee table. Against the wall, a record player and a milk crate of vinyl records sits optimistically. The gentle sounds of wildlife outside, the very occasional passing car and Steve pottering around in the kitchen are all that I could want right now so the record player will just have to remain untouched.

An hour later we are packed up and closing the farm gate on the vineyard behind us. Each night when we arrive at our Air BnB it seems so foreign and someone else’s. Each morning, I feel I have just gotten used to the way the taps turn on, their particular creak of the floorboard near the bathroom or the heft with which you have to close the front door. Traveling is that odd combination of seeking out the unfamiliar and trying to make that fit with what you already know about the world. A curiosity about the world keeps the brain engaged and active. I can’t imagine ever being tired of new places. My parents in their seventies still travel, though the plane legs get shorter and the rest stops become more frequent. That will be Steve and I in another thirty years.

One podcast episode later, we are arriving in Eugene. A university town, Eugene hugs the Willamette River and in the late summer its established trees provide much needed shade. Fisherman’s Market is first on our list. This seafood place came too our attention due to a guilty pleasure of a tv show called Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The name is fairly self-explanatory. A loud, brash host with white-tipped hair drives around everyday America in a red retro sports car calling in on dining establishments nominated by the show’s audience. The premise is clear. Guy is shining the spotlight on hidden gems of America’s often overlooked dining scene – the Korean restaurant in the strip mall, the fried chicken joint attached to a rest stop and the vegan taco truck at the local park. The episodes are easily consumed, not running much longer than twenty minutes and, like the meals showcased, leaves you craving more.

With the parking challenge sorted, we find ourselves inside this part seafood retail space and a eatery.

‘Guy said the Cajun crawfish pie is the way to go,’ reminds Steve as we stand both gawping up at the menu board.

‘Ummm, sure.’ It’s another extensive menu in an otherwise unassuming place. Burgers, sandwiches, pies as well as all manner of fried concoctions fill the menu. I can’t be bothered to read it all properly so am happy to be lead by Steve and Guy.

‘I’m going to have the fried snapper sandwich. Can’t go past something with bang bang sauce.’I leave him to order and step out into a patio area. Unsurprisingly, we are the only people here eating seafood burgers and pies before noon.

Minutes later, the food arrives. My pie even comes with colourful salad. Chunks of crawfish meat held together by a thick creamy sauce, even the pastry is a delight. Flakey and buttery, I lift it off to eat first with my fingers. A habit leftover from my childhood, I always eat the top of a pie first before scooping out the insides and eating the base last by itself, now stodgy from the moist filling. Don’t judge me.

The salad is fresh lettuce, crunchy cucumber pieces, wedges of juicy tomato and thick rings of red onion all capped with slices of smoked salmon just in case you needed more fish. The obligatory ranch dressing sits in a plastic cup between pie and salad. I know Steve wants to try some and I want a bite of his sandwich but neither of us want to share. It tastes too damn good. Reluctantly, we each portion off a miserly part of our meal. While he’s distracted cutting off some of his sandwich, I steal a couple of his waffle fries.

Leaning back into the wood bench, I now notice the tubs of dirty dishes against the wall by the door and the flies they are attracting. My arms touch the laminate table top and it is sticky on my skin. The sun streaming in on the back of my neck is a portent of the heat of the day to come. Steve laps up the last of the bang bang sauce with some waffle fries. Hands are wiped as best they can with the inadequate napkins provided and I’m grateful when he says, ‘Let’s blow this popsicle stand.’

Ninkasi Brewing Company is located a walkable distance that we drive in the same amount of time. A vacant lot down the street as an impromptu parking lot as we park next to a growing number of other cars. I check the fences for signs to no avail. An expansive mural of a Mother Earth figure covers the wall of an adjacent factory. Her arms opened wide, leaves in all shades of green dripping down. I step back to get a photo but can’t fit her in. I do manage to get a photo of the next fence though. Alternating in blue and red, one meter high letters spell out B-e-r-n-i-e-16. By August 2016, Bernie Sanders was no longer in the running to become the US president. Though there was no hope for Bernie, at that stage we still couldn’t imagine Donald Trump gaining office. Like Brexit before it, the 2016 US election was a shock and surprise to most people I know.

Waiting a few minutes for noon to arrive and the gates to open, we loiter on the shady footpath.

‘Poor Bernie.’

‘Huh?’

‘I said poor Bernie.’ I repeat, gesturing towards the sign on the fence.

‘Bernie was never going to win.’

‘Why’s that?’ I am genuinely curious.

‘He is too overtly socialist and that scares Americans. They like to think of themselves as democratic cause that’s all flag waving fun but socialism sounds too close to communism and that makes them uncomfortable.’

We don’t often talk about politics. It’s not that we disagree. We fundamentally have the same take of things politically. Steve is wider read on these thing than I am. I stick my head in the sand too often as I get sick of the lies that seem to get perpetuated. My grandfather taught me not to bring up politics at the dining table. It can be a volatile subject matter and in the wrong hands, test relationships to the breaking point. I’m grateful that we have similar outlooks on politics and the world. Living in close quarters with another person can be very trying at times, but sharing the same basic political views is one less arena of conflict.

The gates are opened and we file in behind several other eager beer tasters. The black tasting room, teal green wall and corrugated stainless steel tank resplendent in the sun. Entering the tasting room we walk straight to the bar while the others let their eyes adjust and get their bearings. We are old hands at this by now. I hang back and let Steve order, knowing he’s already checked these guys on social media and consulted his private beer forums.

‘Two tasting paddles, please.’

‘Anything particular you want to try?’ The bartender asks, leaning on one of the tap handles.

‘A range of your most popular. Whatever you recommend.’ We are rubbing off on each other by now. Steve loves the research as much as he loves the travel but he’s also been pleasantly surprised by allowing staff to guide our choices. After years spent in hospitality and more spent eating out, I know that effective staff know their own product inside and out.

We grab the narrow steel trays that hold our beers and exit to find a shady spot on the patio. Slabs of concrete form perching spots but we grab a small table under a marquee. I’m sure this place is shoulder to shoulder at peak times. Each beer sits in front of a well designed card advertising its brand and varietal. In the style of a graphic novel, these cards are part marketing part collectible. A light seasonal release lager, a session-able IPA, a hoppy red ale, a deliciously bitter double IPA and an oatmeal stout are my introduction to Ninkasi and I’m happy to report that I like them all. It’s almost as if I can’t remember a time that I didn’t like craft beer.

When someone tells me that they don’t like beer, I can only assume they haven’t spent enough time tasting good craft beer. In fact, I have made it a challenge in the past to convert people. Beer can be sweet, it can be dry, it can be bitter and it can be light. Beer can be almost anything. I’ve had a beer so aged that it was thick and syrupy like a fortified wine. I’ve served a lambic style beer in champagne flutes so that guests assumed it was a sparkling wine.

Slightly disappointed not to be able to stay longer, we leave our now empty paddles behind, the cards liberated as souvenirs and head back towards the car. This is another bar that we would want as a local if we lived nearby.

‘Hashtag, our new favourite place?’ I propose, not for the first time this trip.

‘Definitely.’

New York City, NY – Sunday 4th September

New York City, NY – Sunday 4th September

The New York City subway is a complex system comprising hundreds of stations, most underground. Unconstrained by weather and running 24 hours a day, a single Metro card bought from a vending machine will open up all five boroughs of NYC for exploration. This morning Steve and I take the subway south to Wall Street. We have a brief wander around the historic area along with too many other tourists. Neither he nor I feel compelled to do many typical tourist things, the Freedom Tower 9/11 Memorial among them.

After a quick snack from a diner, we stand in line for the ferry to Red Hook and Brooklyn. A bright yellow ferry provided by IKEA transports potential shoppers from Manhattan and deposits them at the door of IKEA. This service is free on the weekends for prime shopping time though charges a fee for its weekday services. As the boat pulls away from the quay, we get a great view of the lower city skyline and other islands. Similarly the free Staten Island ferry is a great way to reinforce the notion of Manhattan as an island, which is something that is easily ignored or forgotten when you’re amongst the skyscrapers.

Red Hook was one of the busiest shipping areas back when shipping was a major mode of freight and people transport. Now, like the rest of Brooklyn, it is at the crossroads of gentrification. Long time residents are seeing infrastructure improve, crime rates decrease but there’s always some character that gets washed away with the grime.

‘When I was here last time, there were a heap of food trucks up near the baseball diamonds,’ Steve explains as we disembark 20 minutes later. A new looking boardwalk skirts factories and car parks. We follow this then divert away from the river towards the ball park.

‘Is this it?’ I ask suspiciously as we come upon fenced off diamonds.

Signs detailing the closure of four diamonds due to soil contamination from lead are attached to the fence by a locked gate. Lead contaminated soil in a park for kids is far from ideal. In a densely populated city with green open space at a premium, this must be having a devastating effect on the local baseball league.

‘Shit. When I was here a few years back, this place was seething. Latin American food trucks up and down both sides of the street, queues at each one.’

Hands hooked onto the black wire fence, I peer through imagining a boy sliding into home base, dirt streaking up his uniform. Parents cheering and clapping. Another kid bat in hand, practising his swing. I’d spent so many weekends of my youth in the same way, playing and umpiring. I can see the entire scene in my head though only an overgrown dirt patch remains.

Consulting the oracle, Steve gets his phone out and checks our location.

‘Another block over, there are more baseball fields. Might be something happening there.’

Rooting, or as it is called in Australia, barracking is heard before we round the corner and see the game in action. I can’t tell if the Tigres or the Coloniales are winning. I don’t understand the language being spoken but I do understand the excitement of the game. Voices raised, kids perched on the edge of the benches, one re-tying his laces. Parents in camp chairs, agua fresca in one hand, tortilla in the other but all eyes on the game. Transfixed by the action, I stand as close as a dare for an outsider.

‘Hey, they’ve got pupusas,’ Steve shouts to get my attention.

‘What’s a pupusa?’

‘It’s like a corn fritter stuffed with cheese, beans or whatever. You want one?’

‘Sure,’ I say to placate him though I’m not really hungry. As well-researched as he is, Steve has a run of bad luck when we travel that means the sought out restaurant is closed that particular day, or run out of its specialty food. The contaminated ball fields and its subsequent impact of the food vendors is just another in a long line of unfortunate dining events in our lives.

Food trucks advertising a slew of Latin American food are doing a steady business in the tree-lined street. We can choose from pupusas, soft corn tortillas with carne asada (charred grilled beef) and more, grilled corn, tamales, ceviche and wash these all down with any choice of agua fresca – fruit based water drinks.

As we stroll away from the food vendors towards our next destination, Other Half Brewing, the scene changes as we wander through residential streets, roller doors revealing neighbourhood bodegas. Young men in ironic fedoras and Ray Ban air wings push toddlers in strollers. I see signs advertising a temporary restaurant pop in in a shipping container, a performance space for hire and bikram yoga classes. Vegetable plots on the verge, rooftop apiary and vacant lots for sale talk of an area facing real change. The coffee shops and bars are no looking servicing stevedores knocking off from a long shift.

Pushing on we hit the Gowanus Expressway. Multiple lanes raised high above the road below. The dominance of the automobile in the development of modern American cities is hard to get away from. McDonalds, a petrol station and other light industry are dwarfed by its pylons. Down a short street, we manage to find Other Half Brewing behind crusty garbage dumpsters and a well-tagged door. Reclaimed wood cobbled together for a cost bar section, this young upstart of NYC craft brewing was certainly drawing a crowd. The obligatory coloured chalk tap list offers a range of IPAs, pilseners, lagers, ales and stouts.

12:55 PM

195 Centre St, Brooklyn, NY 11231, USA

MILES 5.40

TRIP TIME 00:21:07

FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare $18.97

Subtotal $18.97

Total $18.97

Driver – Mohammed

‘Right. Let’s wiggle,’ Uber Mohammed doesn’t give Steve time to trot out his standard opening line. Only paying scant attention to his driving app, he rips the wheel to the right and we barrel down a side road. Through residential streets, across main thoroughfares with little more than a glance, he chants, ‘heavy traffic. Heavy traffic.’

I swear we repeat certain street circuits and clearly so does Steve. Phone in hand, he zooms in and and out trying to ascertain our location in comparison to our intended destination. One way streets conspire against us getting too close.

‘Just drop us here, buddy,’ Steve finally allows himself to say.

Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) had come to my attention via Instagram and immediately I knew I had to go there. An embryonic museum, it seeks to connect to people in a very tangible way. Spread across the ground floor of a double-fronted warehouse, the exhibits invite you to taste, smell and touch. My favourite part is the flavour exhibit where you can play with different natural and artificial elements creating a whole host of combinations. Steve’s favourite thing is the free dulce de leche ice cream we receive on our departure.

The rotating exhibitions are entertaining if not extensive but then all museums have to start somewhere. I admire the small collections of food packaging, menus and other ephemera. MOFAD attempts to inspire and educate people about how food is made, how it’s manipulated and its role as social glue for communities. Food is very clearly more than just ornament or fuel and MOFAD respects this. I want to shout encouragingly, ‘keep going, little buddy.’

Mendocino, CA to Eureka, CA – Sunday 21st August

Mendocino, CA to Eureka, CA – Sunday 21st August

The morning light reveals a hammock hanging between two redwood giants, ferns nestled in at the base and little else to distract. It is from this hushed oasis that we drag ourselves away from to explore the North California coast and the town Mendocino. Five streets wide and only marginally longer across, the town juts out on a headland into the Pacific Ocean and is as windswept as that entails. Located between Big River and Slaughterhouse Gulch, this historic logging town is less tourist town as it is one that acknowledges its place but gets on with life anyway.

We eschew the two hour self-guided audio tour organised by the local Museum of historic architecture, though whitewashed cottages with their lace filigree eaves don’t go unnoticed. Equally the many recommended coastal and forest hikes are not on our list. It’s a shame that we are too late, or too early depending on which way you look at things, to witness the annual whale migration. California gray whales give the town a swim-by on their way south to Baja in Mexico to get their mating on after months feeding off the Alaskan coast. That I would have been all over. A quick coffee and too-dry buttermilk scone and we hop back into the car to head further north.

One of the handy-dandy apps on Steve’s phone plots possible points of interest along the expected car journey. An portentously named Glass Beach is half an hour north up Highway 1. Magic and romance may come to mind but they should be banished, as this beach at Fort Bragg was originally the town’s dump. What is bizarrely now a tourist attraction was originally the rubbish dump, with fires often lit in order to reduce the size of the pile. This does not discourage the thousands of visitors each year who surely are drawn purely on the name. Local council even tried to replenish the glass remnants after wave action, and human intervention no doubt, diminished the glass supplies.

After hugging the coast most of the way, Highway 1 turns inland and we follow it to its conclusion as it hits Redwood Highway Route 101. That Highway 1 can end in such an unassuming town as Leggett surprises me. There’s a romance road trips inhabit in popular culture. Route 66 was a major migration route west for many years before it was immortalised in songs, novels, films and even a Pixar animation. From Kerouac’s coast to coast freedom fantasy to a Blues musician’s Faustian deal at a crossroads in Mississippi, road tripping in North America has a solid foundation. Dodgy stops such as Glass Beach are just a toll we pay along the way.

The Peg House Grill is little more than shed out the back of a convenience store with a large shaded patio area. Plastic stackable chairs and a repurposed hot air balloon as shade cloth belie the quality of food this no-frills joint pumps out. House made non-alcoholic root beer for Steve to quench his thirst and an ice-cold draft beer for me and we settle in to watch a troupe of traveling musicians set up for the afternoon. Bicycle-powered equipment, they each take turns preparing for the show.

Four sizeable Humboldt Bay oysters skilfully grilled with a garlic barbecue sauce so they are just cooked but not at all dry. A classic cheeseburger comes with a plastic tub of creamy coleslaw on the side both nestled in a paper basket with a green and white checked liner. We make short work of our modest order and I’m sure if we weren’t getting behind according to the spreadsheet gods, we would have stayed longer.

After a stop for fuel along the way, we arrive at Eel River Brewing in Fortuna just after 3pm. Triple Exultation Old Ale, Emerald Triangle Double IPA and Raven’s Eye Imperial Stout make it into cooler for later. A tasting paddle of their organic seasonal beers is a perfect pick me up as we sit soaking up the sunshine. Two cats, who clearly run the brewpub, prowl the perimeter of the beer garden.

‘Does it make you miss our cats?’ I ask Steve.

‘A bit but I don’t miss getting woken up at 5am.’

‘Where you guys from?’ I hear over my shoulder. Turning to see a small family group at the table behind us, I look straight at four faces staring right at me.

‘Australia.’

‘Oh, yeah?’ the younger bearded fellow replies. ‘Whereabouts in Australia?’

‘Melbourne? Victoria?’ With no looks of recognition I proceed, ‘Right down south.’

‘Fantastic. Your first visit to Eel River?’

We nod and sip our beer.

‘We live down the road in Loleta. This is our favourite spot. Beer’s awesome. Food’s great too. Burgers with all the fixings,’ he continues while the peanut gallery behind him bob their heads in agreement.

I’m not sure if we’re done or this is just the start of a conversation.

San Francisco, CA to Mendocino, CA – Saturday 20th August

San Francisco, CA to Mendocino, CA – Saturday 20th August

During our three days in San Francisco, I had tried and failed to light the gas stove so I could boil some water for tea. There’s no point saying I should go out to Starbucks to buy tea. I need tea as I’m pottering around getting ready in the morning. This is a non-negotiable. On our final morning in my new favourite city of San Francisco, I wake early and sit on the mustard velvet love seat peering out the bay window. While the world goes about its workday morning business, I curl up and catch up on my journal writing. I decide to take one last go at lighting the mid-century stove in our eclectic Air BnB.

Our host is a photographer and the apartment reflects his visual aesthetic. Visual vignettes are everywhere. An over-sized glass candy jar filled with fluorescent-yellow foam earplugs graces the bedside table. 1960s postcards decorate the table lamps perched on the triangular tables twinning the loveseat. A wooden artist mannequin resuscitates a polymer cockroach. There’s a fine line between art installation and amenity in our second floor Oak Street apartment.

With the stove finally conquered, I realise I need to go out hunter-gathering for milk. Americans may like their tea floral, black and insipid but I like mine strong and milky. Coffee here in America is filter coffee with creamer. Creamer is a bizarre concoction of corn syrup solids with hydrogenated soybean or cottonseed oil and white powder thrown in to make it acceptable. Espresso is yet to take strong hold.

So out I trek to find somewhere to buy milk. I aim for a service station or convenience store thinking that will be my best bet. A block west and half a block north and I find two service stations opposite each other. Things are looking positive. As I stand on the street corner waiting for the lights to change, I pull my jacket tight around me to guard against the chilly early morning wind. Unmarked white buses pull up just prior to the intersection and collect a small number of people I’ve just noticed gathering. Later, I discover this is a common practice to bus staff out of town to large corporate estates.

As I enter the store, I head towards the fridge I see at the rear. There’s no familiarity with the bottles I see on the shelves. Out of the way, I manage to decipher images and words to find plain, unflavoured milk. It would have been easier to buy soft drink, sports drink, juice or even bottled water than milk. America clearly isn’t a strong dairy culture, regardless of the cartons of milk I remember seeing children drinking on television. Like a conqueror, I return home successfully and provide caffeinated beverages to prepare us for a long drive to Mendocino north along the Californian coast, the Pacific Ocean at our side.

9:01 AM

955 Oak St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA

MILES 12.96

TRIP TIME 00:19:44

FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare $35.11

Subtotal $35.11

Total $35.11

Driver – Tommy

We get dropped off at the Alamo car rental section of the San Francisco airport. Staying close to our luggage, we take our place in the queue which snakes across communal foyer. The vibrant carpet no doubt hiding all manner of stains. Finally, international licenses in hand it is our turn and we stand at the long counter. At five feet tall, I’m not tall enough to lean on the top of the reception counter and yet somehow seated the rental sales person still manages to look down on me. The psychology of sales is not lost on me.

After negotiating our exit from the car park maze, we can begin the self-guided drive portion of our journey. Heading north we zig zag across to the beachside road. Ambitiously named Great Highway, this road extends not much more than five kilometers. Smack bang between John F Kennedy Drive and Great Highway is our brunch stop Beach chalet brewery and restaurant. Two stores high with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the beach and the Pacific Ocean, I imagine this tourist Mecca gets packed with Happy Hour sunset seekers. Chowder in a roll is what I am here for. By the time we arrive just after 10am, the dining room is half full with weekend brunchers.

Ocean Beach Breakfast for Steve with three eggs scrambled, crispy breakfast potatoes and the chicken apple sausage option. Top of the soup and salads section is my target – pacific chowder in a sourdough bowl topped with oyster crackers. Although the size of a small oyster, these crackers don’t contain any oysters but are often served with oyster stew. As much as I’d like to linger over multiple coffee refills with a view like this, I’m eager to put some miles under our belt.

From here the Golden Gate Bridge is only 20 minutes away, which we choose to approach through The Presidio. A former military post, this large park houses many historic buildings though today we sit patiently in our rental car in the steady traffic stream. Controlled chaos is a positive way to describe the scene around us. Tourist buses jockey with cars for position while pedestrians and cyclists take the wise option with their own designated walkway. Most stop to pose for snaps under the signature red suspension cables, the city in the background and swirling currents below.

All too soon though it’s time for our first pit stop at Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma. 

Our American brewcation was Excel spreadsheeted to the hour by Steve, so we manage to avoid the heaving crowds by turning up as they open. A tasting paddle of their brewery-only beers and a soft pretzel with beer cheese sauce is a fine late breakfast.

Four days of self-driving through Northern California and Oregon dictate that designated-driver Steve is on strictly limited tastings only. California has a legal blood alcohol concentration of 0.8%. While this is higher than what we are used to, the craft beers we are tasting range up towards wine level of 12% ABV (alcohol by volume). The craft breweries we have planned to visit offer all manner of beers from simple west coast IPAs through to barrel-aged stouts. Thankfully, every place offers small tasting paddles.

I’ve offered to drive more than once but Steve definitely prefers to be in control. I don’t think he likes being a passenger, in any sense of the word. I’m trying to avoid leaving nail marks in the door upholstery. Why is it that each corner delivers an RV travelling too fast and too close to the centreline? 

Along the pilgrimage route is Russian River Brew Company. These legendary craft beers are difficult to get anywhere in Australia. If we had wanted to sample beers from their bar, the wait line was over an hour. Instead, we opt for takeaways from their bottle shop, which requires only a 20-minute wait in the noonday sun. We buy their legendary Pliny the Elder which is a Double India Pale Ale that is not only rare in Australia but also overpriced at AU$50 for a standard 500 ml bottle. Much lauded as the ideal DIPA, it regularly receives 95% and higher on beer ratings websites. What do we think we finally get to taste it hours later? Meh. It’s nice but it is nothing more than a well-balanced, bitter fresh ale in the manner of west coast ales with loads of citrus and pine.

We also snag their available barrel aged beers – the Supplication brown ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries, the Temptation blonde ale aged in Chardonnay barrels and the Consecration ale aged in Cabernet barrels. The Supplication is funky thanks to the added yeast and bacteria and nicely tart from the sour cherries. It’s my kind of beer. The Temptation is buttery and slightly oaky with its time hanging out with the Chardonnay barrel. The Consecration is the youngest of the barrel-aged beers but is satisfyingly full bodied with hints of chocolate and spice. At 10% ABV, this is our sipper beer that end up rounding out our evening.

Before we can get to any of that though we need to complete our allotted day’s brewery visits. Next up we have Anderson Valley Brewery in Boonville, CA. It’s after 3pm by the time we arrive and the dry dusty fields that serve as their car park are full of tents and inebriated campers. Turns out, we’ve happened upon their annual Disc Golf Championship weekend, though we never actually witness the event in action. Essentially a competitive frisbee round-robin, Disc Golf, as we soon discover, has a strong craft beer drinking participation in the west of the United States.

We easily locate the taproom by the steady stream of shoeless people trudging towards an unsigned shed. Now, I know Anderson Valley beers from buying them overpriced from our fabulous bar/bottle shop near our house. Their tart thirst-quenching Briny Melon Gose is a go-to for my summer drinking. Salt and watermelon? What’s not to love about that in a beer. Cans and bottles of Dreef Fooper IPA, Boone Amber Ale, Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout, and Blood Orange Gose find their way into our cooler. Two litre Growlers and six-packs fill the hands of campers as they stock up and make their way back to their camps, like ants filling the home stores.

Just before we get to Mendocino where we are to stay for the evening, we stop in the town of Little River and buy some snacks for dinner from the only store in town. Its dark weathered exterior nestles into the grey green cliff side, white breakers relentless below. Inside is a bustling well-stocked convenience store that sells bait, beer, groceries and hot food. Crackers, some cured meats, cheese. Earlier we bought ourselves a cooler box so we would have cold beer with us at each destination.

Sitting on a damp garden bench, my bare feet push into the humus rich earth beneath them. Though low clouds have rolled in from the Pacific Ocean hiding the tops of the dark redwoods in their misty skirts, the sky beyond is still bright. Our tiny log cabin is marginally larger than our queen-sized bed. An electric kettle, for which I’m grateful, sits upon the mini-fridge. Gathering what we need for the evening from the boot of our rental vehicle (an oversized SUV), I’m eager to simultaneously flop onto the bed with its soft, white linen and explore my surrounds.

The main house is quaint, pale yellow weatherboards and dark grey slate roof. Chooks roam free everywhere except the fenced off vegetable garden. The host family – mum, dad, five year old daughter, eight and eighteen year old sons – are tucked up inside going about their evening routines. I can hear no cars, no airplanes. It’s odd – this loud silence, almost unnerving. The sound of my pencil rustling against the paper is louder than the birds in the woods that surround me.

San Francisco, CA – Wednesday 17th August 2016 – part 2

Next stop is Rogue Ale House down near Washington Square halfway to the waterfront. We’ve lucked in or out depending on which way you look at it as it’s Trivia Night at this gastropub. A quick scout for a table proves fruitless so we join the line at the elevated bar for drinks. Rogue are known for growing their own grains, hops and other ingredients on their Oregon farm in the Willamette valley. This ‘we grow beer’ attitude gives them control regarding purity and quality throughout the process. After collecting a couple of large tall glasses of the amber stuff, we retreat outside away from the hub-bub. The ill-lit rear courtyard is more smoker’s concession than vibrant beer garden. A few wooden picnic tables with fairy lights wrapped around umbrellas do little to offset the massive spotlight glare.

From the brand-heavy laminated menu we choose fried tater tots with ranch dip, chicken wings with hot sauce and fried cheese curds with jalapeño jelly. Piping hot fried finger food makes up the bulk of the menu though the odd vegetable does make a token appearance under the guise of salad. Service is perfunctory without being rude. I’m sure the beer nerds who attend to us all home brew on the side, dreaming of taking their hobby next level.

‘If you’re still hungry, you can have desserts. They’ve got beer floats. Chocolate stout over vanilla ice cream with whipped cream and a cherry?’ I offer.

‘Yeah, nah,’ he responds. ‘Think I’ll skip it this time.’

Placing his now empty glass on the table, ‘But I could go another.’

We up sticks and go inside determined to find a corner to perch now the evening has cooled off and the wind picked up. Thankfully, the trivia quiz has reached its conclusion and the bar is emptying out somewhat. I find a slightly sticky table and push the dishes to one side. Although there are guest beers on tap, Steve and I have a philosophy of ‘when in Rome’ so it’s a Rogue double chocolate stout for him and a Rogue barleywine for me. Slightly higher in alcohol, we sit a little longer on these smaller tipples and watch the bar in action around us. Television screens showing sports we don’t understand blare from the corner. Crowded tables of college kids raucous in their laughter. Large groups playing board games on other tables. It appears we are not their core demographic.

‘Fancy a bit of a stroll and some fresh air?’ I posit as our glasses are nearing empty.

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ he says taking my arm in his and we gratefully step from the bustling bar onto a darker, quieter street. Heading along Columbus Avenue, a broad road that cuts a diagonal swathe through the street grid from the financial district to the waterfront, we pass pizza joints, sushi restaurants, closed cafes and Indian eateries. I think we are aimlessly wandering but of course Steve has a plan and it turns out to an excellent one.

I’m not one for gimmicky tourist attractions and if I’m given a choice I would avoid them. Our visit to the hundred year old Buena Vista was not a choice, though an Irish coffee was an inspired idea to cap off our evening. A cocktail of hot coffee, whiskey – Irish of course – topped with a thick head of whipped cream is what The Buena Vista is rightly famous for. Located in the ground floor of a three storey building at the terminus of the Powell-Hyde Cable Car, it is ideally sited to capture the tourist dollar. Waiters in stiff white jackets with bright eyes and broad smiles choreograph their customers with ease. Momentarily, I feel like a teenager asked on her first date when he offers to bring us two Irish coffees. Of course, the answer is yes. How could I possibly refuse you?

I know we had a second Irish coffee but there’s not much more I remember about that evening. In the Uber ride home, I don’t hear Steve and our driver, Parker, make small talk. All I can think of is how warm I feel inside. It is only the next morning laying in bed that I think about The Buena Vista’s human resources department. Staff can be the make or break of any hospitality business. After all the business planning, success really depends the people you have at the coal face. You can have the best Irish coffee in the world but it’s the people that really make your customers feel warm inside.

10:50 PM

2765 Hyde St, San Francisco, CA 94109, United States

MILES 3.52

TRIP TIME 00:16:19

FARE BREAKDOWN Base Fare 2.00

Distance 4.05

Time 3.59

Subtotal $9.64

Booking Fee $1.55

Total $11.19

Driver – Parker 

RECIPE PERFECTED AFTER MANY ITERATIONS

20 ml dark brown sugar

45 ml whiskey – your choice

60 ml espresso coffee

60 ml hot water 

Make sure these are well combined then float 45ml of whipped cream over the top. It helps if you pour it over the back of a spoon.

Enjoy in a minimum of two per sitting.

Ramblings for my next creative project

2:41 PM Terminal 1, Departures – Door 10, San Francisco International Airport

3:11 PM

955 Oak St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA

CAR UBERX

MILES 14.45

TRIP TIME 00:28:10

FARE BREAKDOWN Base Fare 2.00

Subtotal US$24.82

Booking Fee 1.55

SFO Airport Surcharge 3.80

Total US$30.17

Mid blue Cadillac mustang

Diogenes 4.35 stars

The car tentatively slows, crawling along the curb, driver leaning forward peering out the dusty front window. Smiling and waving, Steve steps forward, phone in hand, to open the front passenger door.

– Hi, I’m Steve.

I drag my suitcase from the pavement. As it dumps on the bitumen, the driver appears by the rear door and heaves both our suitcases into the trunk. They land between slabs of bottled water and a forest-green adidas sports bag that may or may not have a small dead body inside. Over-dressed for the surprising warm weather, I peel off my baggy black jacket I carried with me from Melbourne before jumping in the backseat.

Steve always sits behind the driver as the English gentleman in him won’t allow me to get in the car on the road side and naturally as a lady I can’t be expected to scoot over. I allow him these indulgences, quieting my inner rabid feminist. From my position in the rear passenger seat I get the perfect observation point on our Uber driver. Burgundy check shorts, a ‘limp from many years of washing’ indistinct logo t-shirt. Bob Dylan’s version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ plays too loudly on the radio.

And so begins our trip up the west coast of America. For the next month, Steve and I travel up the west coat, fly across the top stopping in Chicago before landing in New York then down to New Orleans and back west to San Diego.

Eagerly embracing the new disruptive paradigms of Air Bnb and Uber, we tasted a previously hidden or hard to find version of America. Staying with an American version of my great aunt and uncle in Bend, Oregon or an ageing Mills-and-Boons-cover-model-turned-bar-owner in New York City, we met many entertaining people whom opened up their cars and homes to us.

From a yurt in a deserted vineyard, yacht in a marina or tiny log cabin surrounded by tall, foreboding pine trees Air bnb hosts welcomed us . Uber drivers in exchange for pieces of gold, similarly opened up their private space to strangers from a foreign land. Unable to retreat to a distant room, our Uber host must find their own space within the metal cage.

– How long you been doing this?

Steve always starts the same way. He doesn’t actually really care how long you’ve been working your car for Uber or been driving today? It’s a hook to hang the rest of the conversation on. It’s a toe dipping into the water testing the temperature. It’s throwing out a line to see if anything bites. Most often, he catches something but occasionally it’s appears to be one of those days you wished you hadn’t’ bothered to buy bait.

It turns out our driver today is named Diogenes. The app tells us so. Diogenes himself doesn’t actually tells us much at all. The fourteen and a half miles over twenty-eight minutes costs a total of US$30.17 which includes a surcharge of $2.00 for pick up at the San Fransisco airport. When you submit yourself to a taxi in a foreign country, there is a fair degree of trust involved. Ubers take this one step further. A private company with little external regulation, car sharing is just one part of a new society we are figuring out as we build it.

But back to that point about foreign-ness. America still is a foreign country. Though it’s distinct turns of phrase may have infiltrated our language and its tourist landmarks may be more easily recognisable than some of my own country. America is still a foreign country. One could argue, since Trump’s election in November 2016, it has become even more foreign.

The language spoken may highly resemble the English language, it is being shaped in ways that Australian English is not. Australia prides itself on its multi-culturalism but in very few places will you find signage in anything other than one language – English. Through my travels across the many states of America, I often saw dual-language signs and advertisements. A high percentage of the population speaks another language – Spanish. Hispanic, latino, Mexicans, these are words that I can only grasp the nuanced concepts of. To look around I can’t perceive who is who. But then why should I necessarily. Why do I feel the need to categorise people? What purpose does it serve? It only divides us, me and them. This idea of otherness is the crux of so many of the problems in the world. To separate people into different groups ultimately leads to a power hierarchy. Some groups say are better than other groups. Some people are better than other people. To use the words ‘us’ and ‘them’ serves no one. It is only perspective that makes me an ‘us’ or a ‘them’.

“Strangers are only friends you haven’t yet met”. Yes, it’s cliched but that doesn’t make it invalid. There is a sweet podcast I listen to on an irregular basis (irregular due to my bingeing tendencies) called Strangers hosted by Lea Thau. Her low, seductive voices narrates extra-ordinary stories from ordinary people. It is this concept of ‘otherness’ that she somehow breaks down, dissolving it away. So intimate is the sound of her voice in my ears that I come to empathise with her US election anxiety. Throughout our journey we hesitantly venture into conversations about the upcoming election. Time and time again, ‘He’ll never get in’ is what we hear. Only once, in New Orleans, does someone tell us that they plan on voting for Trump. That person is a childhood of my partner’s. They grew up in the same working class area of Essex, UK together. They went to the local primary school together. They played football on the field at the bottom of the road together.

It is during the hour long drive across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans to Covington that this comes to light. We’re trapped in his car, him driving us to his place for dinner that it all comes out. His take on ‘crooked’ Hilary being the force behind his decision . I’m only minor-ly heartened by that it is a push away from Clinton and the Democrats rather than a pull towards Trump and the Republicans.

[Months later, back home in Melbourne on the night of the US election, I end up in tears and at the bottom of a wine bottle listening to R.E.M. songs over and over again.]

During that car journey, I look at the back Steve’s head in the front passenger seat while he tries to re-connect with his longtime friend. I have no past history to go on, so this is my introduction to him and all of a sudden the chance of a casual home-cooked meal seems less appealing. So I look out at the scenery. Lake Pontchartrain doesn’t change much in the half an hour we spend driving across it. There’s only so much to look at. The concrete lanes head of me match the ones beside me.

The bridge over Lake Pontchartain is actually two parallel bridges spanning just under 24 miles. Two lanes either way with multiple turnaround points for emergencies, the causeway, as it is known, first opened in August 1956. Lucky us to be travelling on in its 60th year. It has the honour of being the longest continuous bridge over water according to the Guinness World Records. These facts I find out thanks to the smart phone in my hand and an internet search engine. I spend my expensive data roaming dollars distracting myself from the depressing conversation going on ahead of me.

It is only later that I have the distance to be angry at myself for a short-sighted reaction. His political leanings didn’t align with mine and I shunned it all. After picking up my chin, I tuned out. This shallow reaction is how we keep up the ‘us’ and ‘them’ paradigm. This is how filter bubbles get curated on our social media feeds. We turn away from the things that challenge us and we don’t agree with.

I have no answer to this apart from being aware that we are doing it. Awareness is the first step. From there we can take steps to reach out to others because there is only us; there is no them. We are all us.