Incidental New Yorker XVII

August 14, 2016

🚘 Just returned from a wonderful little New England road trip in a darling rented light blue VW Beetle, which we became quite attached to. We covered Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York State, and thus did exactly what Europeans have always criticized Americans, then the Japanese and now also the Chinese for doing: whizzed about, staying only one night in each place. But we had a lovely time, relaxed, talked, swam, explored and had more fun than we’ve had in a long time. Every now and then we got excitingly lost. And we ate lots and lots of lobster, which was very high on the list.

So we started out early one Tuesday morning, car neatly packed, missed the exit to Highway 95 and were delightfully slung about in Harlem and the Bronx, like were we in a tumble dryer. The prim woman’s voice in the map app spoke Danish, and she had a hard time pronouncing the American street names; th – as in 34th – comes out in Danish as “turn right,” MA (for Massachusetts) comes out as “Monday,” which is fun, so we kept her speaking in Danish. We soon found our way past the many orphaned stretches of highway seeking to be adopted by people, businesses or organisations that will keep them clean – and maybe even maintain them? We had our first lobster roll in charming old Newport and reminisced over the Kennedy era in the small Kennedy Museum in Hyannis and the family compound in Hyannis Port. And from there we basically stuck to the byways. 

Combat seagulls in Chatham © Mette Holm

First overnight stop was Chatham, a pretty little area where we had a lovely room overlooking the beach. The houses were simple wooden affairs, not opulent in the least, they were fairy tale pretty and every other one had been awarded a plaque, prominently exhibited, for its remarkable renovation and maintenance, which really was the norm; a smart way to have residents compete to have their houses in good or best shape. Producers of Stars and Stripes do real good business, as every home seems to have at least one, flying on a pole, hanging on the house, the porch wherever … Most of the houses were summer houses, and it was nice to see people walking and lots of teenage kids racing around on their bicycles. Cars were mostly parked, and parking was close to impossible.

We got up early to see the sun rise inside Chatham’s little bay. A part from gentle rabbits and a few low-flying combat seagulls who really didn’t appreciate our being around, the beach was deserted. We swam, the current was quite strong, so when swimming our best, we remained in the same spot. Our only company in the water was a seal! The sweetest, friendly, curious seal. It watched us, soon got bored, ducked under water and came back up with a big fish, which it happily chewed and swallowed, not in the least minding our presence in the water. Then we went for a walk to dry in the sun, and soon were joined by other early-birds; at the far end of the beach some 50 people gathered for their morning yoga!

Beware of the Undertoad! © Mette Holm

Only on our way back for breakfast did we see the signs warning us not to swim because of unpredictable currents and undertow – which reminded me of the frightful Undertoad of the sea that young T.S. Garp so feared while growing up in New England, in John Irving’s wonderful novel The World According to Garp. There was no way that we’d swim outside the Bay in the actual Atlantic Ocean; three Cape Cod ocean beaches were closed, after at least six great white sharks (right, the ones from Jaws) had been spotted, feeding off the carcass of a dead whale …

We continued to Boston, a dignified and delightful city, it seems. On our way into the city we dropped by the spectacular Kennedy Museum there. And here we realised that already in 1960, election campaigns involved actors, party conventions were designed for TV, voters were inundated in radio and tv spots, songs an more to convince them of the candidates’ political message (more on that below). What struck me was how livable Boston is, the way the streets, parks and squares are inviting, even embracing. Modern cities often forget that people have to actually live in them, populate them, and how important street level life is to make a city livable, not Boston. Here it seemed an integral part of the city.

Relaxing afternoon in Boston’s lovely China Town © Mette Holm

Other visitors to Boston were Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s globetrotting Circle of Animals, Zodiac Heads, a touring set of 12 sculptures of heads of the Chinese zodiac, inspired by similar heads in Beijing’s Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan, which were looted by British and French soldiers in the 19th century. I have wanted to see Circle of Animals for a long time. It’s from 2010, and the first of Ai’s larger public and very articulate installations. So it was a lovely surprise when we happened upon the very distinct heads while strolling along Boston’s Greenway.

Selfie-snapping at Ai Wei Wei’s Circle of Animals © Mette Holm

We went back to enjoy it twice, and part of the delight was throngs of Chinese snapping selfies with their zodiac animal, thinking that every decent US city probably has Chinese zodiacs prominently on show – and having not the slightest notion that they were interacting with the work of one of their own most controversial and famous contemporary artists, much disliked and often harassed by the Chinese government. Circle of Animals came to Boston in April. The installation will continue to Prague in the Czech Republic in late October and from there to Sacramento in California.

Ingredients for fun evening in Boston © Mette Holm

Driving up the coast, we swam in bays, and when we went inland, we swam in rivers and lakes, and dipped in waterfalls. We stopped in the quaint little town of Boothbay Harbor.

Quiet little Boothbay Harbor © Mette Holm

The town has an active population, and during our evening walk we passed the old – newly restored – fully packed Opera House and enjoyed the odd joke and the waves of laughter over a visiting comedian. And the local Canadian-Boothbay Harbour Brass Band played on the lawn outside the beautiful old Library. Lots of locals brought chairs and sat and enjoyed the performance. Very idyllic – so the following morning, when we returned from our pre-breakfast beach outing, we were shocked to see a large ominous sign in the busy Oak Street intersection, signalling quite the opposite: Black Rifles Matter; YES We have ’em; NO, You Can’t Take ’em! Terrifying!

The flipside of quiet little Boothbay Harbor © Mette Holm

To settle our nervous system, we ate (lobster!) our way further up the coast a bit, then turned inland, towards Bethel through magnificent landscapes with forests and soft mountains, like bear paws, covered in what looked like green velvet. Along the narrow roads we saw far too many abandoned houses, likely the result of the financial crisis of 2008. Windows smashed, walls falling apart, roofs no longer holding up, and round the next bend, carefully groomed lawns, neat houses, Stars and Stripes, inviting and well kept … And after another bend a not-quite-so-neat house with a big inhospitable sign: NO TRESPASSING. And for good measure, a life sized straw doll swinging from a gallows. I didn’t even dare take a photo. After this we were careful when approaching people to ask for directions. Because you see, in those parts your smartphone mostly tells you “no service.” Find your own way – which we did, the old fashioned way with maps and the help of friendly people … 

In Bethel we visited a workshop where the owner has been producing Shaker furniture for 40 years or so. Simple and elegant craftsmanship. The gentleman told us that there’s only one surviving Shaker community with three inhabitants. The sad, simple and obvious reason being that Shakers don’t believe in reproduction and have been relying on attracting new converts for the survival of the community since the 18th century. Their official name is United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, also known as Shaking Quakers because of their ecstatic movements during worship, and Shakers for short. In the mid 19th century there were 6000 Shakers in America. According to Wikipedia they are pacifists, live a communal lifestyle, and believe in gender equality, all of which is most sympathetic, even endearing – and sadly, apparently not fit for survival.

After a pleasant stopover in Burlington, Vermont, with a gorgeous sunset over the mountains on the opposite bank of Lake Champlain, we continued to our last stop, Kate’s Lazy Meadow near good old hippie time bubble Woodstock – the second Woodstock on our trip, the first one in Maine, a lovely little town with a lake, which prohibited guns in public spaces. In hippie Woodstock we were going to relax and dip our toes in Esopus Creek. No such luck! The place boasts no service so we had to pop into Woodstock for supplies, only we got seriously lost this time and arrived one minute after closing time at the organic supermarket. So we got some nice take-out and returned – to realise that we’d either lost the key or left it inside the room. As there is no staff at the establishment after 4 or 5 PM, and the only two other guests had gone dining, we called all the suggested emergency numbers – on an old land line (no service on the mobile phone) in an orange box on the wall of the house. No one answered, and we left lots of messages on lots of phones, sat down to eat our Mediterranean dinner, which was lovely, if a bit dry without water.

Flying saucers at Lazy Meadow © Mette Holm

The sun had long since set, and we felt very sorry for ourselves – until the young New Yorker couple returned, and offered us both water and wine. Soon one gentleman after the other turned up to open our door, key inside, all was well. We ended up having a lovely evening in wonderful company – and actually decided that our mishaps were positive as we wouldn’t have met new friends if everything had worked according to plan … And then we got up early and dipped our toes in the creek.

🚲 🚲 And then we returned to a boiling hot NYC. Yesterday we realized what it means to be invisible! We were riding our bicycles across Manhattan to catch a boat and enjoy the fresher air on the Hudson River. Car drivers were obviously also hot, their brains apparently floating in jelly or something, because even if we have ridden all over this city with our brightly colored helmets and survived, yesterday was the closet call by far, and it lasted the entire ride. The drivers simply didn’t see us, they didn’t notice our presence. They parked in the bicycle lanes, and banged the doors open without looking. Strange indeed, because all the time we’ve been here conditions for cyclists have improved almost weekly. And then, one hot summer morning and wham! We’re invisible. Must be the heat – which I also blame for not being able to enjoy the Perseids Meteor Shower, which this year at its peak had 150-200 shooting stars an hour. But the nights were cloudy, and obviously NYC outshines any starry sky on any given night. 

🐅 The world has an international day of the tiger! July 29th. To remind us of the sad fact that only about 4000 tigers remain in the wild today, in India (2226), Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China (7), Vietnam (5) and Laos (2). 100 years ago, when my grandfather was travelling south in the Siamese (now Thai) jungle, the expedition encountered a tiger, which was something you feared at the time. Not so anymore. If you really want to meet a tiger, America is the place! Here you have more than 5000 tigers in captivity!  – in some states its easier to buy a tiger than to adopt a dog from your local animal shelter!

🍦In America you also have a national ice cream day! In 1984 president Ronald Reagan proclaimed the entire month of July National Ice Cream Month, and the third Sunday in July National Ice Cream Day. One wonders what national days 🌽🌽🌽His Trumpness will proclaim, should he ever get the chance … And now that we’re at it. Observing party conventions and the election campaign as such is something of an eye opener to country bumpkin Danes like us! 👀 It would be great fun if it weren’t so serious. The democratic convention in particular was choreographed into the tiniest detail. Absolutely no room for spontaneity. Every single speaker carefully selected for a specific reason. And some of them, FLOTUS and POTUS in particular, were brilliant. Also, I much appreciated Ohio representative Joyce Beatty’s wearing exactly the same dress as Melania Trump, when she plagiarised FLOTUS’ 2008 speech for her husband at the rep convention in Cleveland. Very elegant plagiarising from Joyce Beatty there.

Joyce Beatty & Melania Trump. From twitter

As for cheering, I had to ask my Facebook friends covering the democratic convention how it was possible for delegates to be waving a new and highly appropriate sign for every other statement or keyword. I imagined bulging seat backs in front of you, filled with signs, but no, I was told, signs were distributed before each speaker. Every speech was carefully scripted, no individual messages from individual members … Compared with the Danish equivalent, this was like watching some reality show, which I guess is what election campaigns have become here, carefully scripted TV affairs. Not scripting 🌽🌽🌽 His Trumpness seems to in itself be scripting.  Even if the campaign of 🌽🌽🌽His Trumpness had tried to choreograph the republican convention, things didn’t go quite as smoothly there. I am slowly beginning to believe – or am I only hoping? – the people who say that 🌽🌽🌽 His Trumpness is becoming more and more outrageous because he really doesn’t want to win. American politics confound us. We watch in disbelief and increasing horror. Freedom of expression at its most extreme. Much like the second amendment, I am not sure this serves the Americans in any way at all. Generally, I believe that my freedom of expression stops short of hitting someone, both literally and figuratively. 

🇺🇸 Last year we celebrated a splendid American Independence Day here in NYC, watching the fireworks on East River. This year, strangely, we celebrated in Denmark with the old Danish-American community. As is often the case with immigrant communities old customs die very hard, and we took part in a weird ritual of receiving the golden key to the oldest tavern in Aalborg, one of Denmark’s major towns and close to the Hills of Rebild where 4th of July is celebrated in Denmark. We had no choice but to participate in the old drinking guild’s morning ritual, where very mature elderly men behaved like boarding school boys, drowning a worm in Danish aquavit and insisting that we all drank beer and snaps and ate bright red traditional sausages, a nasty floury affair, claiming to be meat, which one hardly comes across anymore. Having downed the nastiness, and been chased along with a long chain of people round a linden tree, which they poured a mug of beer over, we were led to the backdoor of the tavern for more beer – and each given the golden key to the backdoor. Soon after we proceeded to the official celebration, which takes place in the beautiful rolling hills of Rebild. With the help of the Royal Danish Air Force the ceremony was overflown twice by – soon to be exchanged for new fighter jets – F16s and once by a good old Hercules cargo plane. I have got no idea why the Air Force is thus involved, but I do know that because the planes have to spend a certain amount of time on their wings, sometimes the air force will overfly public events at request when it can be fitted into general activities.

My days as Incidental New Yorker are coming to an end. A mere – albeit very hectic – six weeks and we’re back in Denmark. This is why I must eat as many lobster and crab sandwiches as I can in the shortest possible time! 🦀