Sunday morning cafe


I get lost in words — on the page, spoken by others around me, the new ones that swirl with the old ones in my head.

Smells, sweet and savory, waft in my direction and then move swiftly away.

The occasional eye contact with a stranger; reading someone’s lips while pretending to listen intently to whatever is(n’t) streaming through my silent headphones; the random utterance or facial gesture that reminds me of my grandmother (she would’ve turned 90 yesterday).

Über concentrated forms of distraction.

Incarnations of bread and water.

Avoiding people/dogs while acting like I’m not bothered by (scared of) them.

Mind wandering, thoughts out of nowhere; a long standing dilemma eases naturally as if the answer was present all along; at peace with where I am.

This must be what church is like.

Slip and fall


The almost-gash on my leg, just below my knee, refuses to bleed. The indentation, the size of a large staple, taunts me as if it is daring me to take a closer look, knowing full well that the sight of actual blood would induce swooning. So instead, the capillaries along the two-inch abrasion scream silently, the bright maroon from a few hours ago now settling into a brownish wine color. Another, smaller patch of this strange hue sits just millimeters below.

It’s not the pain or the embarrassment that lingers after a fall. No, it’s the split second between realizing you’re about to fall and the moment you begin your descent. The heart, perhaps out of self-preservation, holds its breath. We’re falling, it says, steadying itself before bracing for impact. It’s that instant that reoccurs, the memory of the moment just prior to losing all control that leaves the most indelible mark on the mind and in the body. It’s a recognition of fear about which we can do nothing but succumb. Powerless.

Let me go back a few hours, back before I had cause to wonder how early my doctor would be able to see me Monday morning.

Friday, the 23rd, the day after American Thanksgiving. To the internet and consumerist world, it is Black Friday. For me and three others with whom I passed the time this afternoon, it was a respite from the busy-ness of ordinarily hectic and over-scheduled days. All of us educators and researchers; three of us faculty at universities and the fourth a junior high teacher; all of us, despite our geographic distance, are ever in conversation with one another.

I snapped the second plastic buckle into place and adjusted my scarf before swinging the bag over left shoulder. What I was wearing as a scarf was a large, rectangular, thick cut of green wool that my grandmother had used as a shawl. Along the edges thread has been woven back and forth to resemble the shape of flowers or something else in the flora family. Folded lengthwise, I could wrap it around my neck a few times or, as I was wearing it this time, I often left one end hanging low in front of me and flung the other end across the opposite shoulder. As I started walking toward the door, I was filled with a soothing bliss, a flashing remembrance of the last several hours spent in the company of friends and colleagues with whom I had attended graduate school, with whom I enjoy talking and thinking about and imagining new questions and ideas that arise from our intersecting threads of inquiry.

We sat in the corner, occupying two small tables that on one side offered seating in the form of a curved cushioned bench with a tall, arched back covered in dark fabric, and on the other side could accommodate chairs. I had noticed the clusters of food scraps that rose up from the dark, vinyl floor like mini-landfills here and there, but, other than making a mental note to avoid them I hadn’t paid them much mind. During the course of the afternoon spent at the cafe where I once was employed for 36 hours, and to whose food preparers I almost completely handed over the responsibility of meal preparation during the year that I was writing my dissertation, I had successfully maneuvered my way to the counter to order a total of two cups of coffee and a scone. The service had been pleasant — not overly impressive given my very simple order, but worth noting all the same.

My friend, who would be giving me a ride home, walked a few steps in front of me and I had no reason to think anything was out of the ordinary… and the next instant, I was gripping onto metal and plastic poles that had been set up to direct traffic to the salad station. Down I went, but not before gliding uncontrollably for what, in that instant, felt like an unending spell of torture — the ground mocking me as I struggled to maintain some semblance of an upright posture before recognizing that pain would be unavoidable.

Perhaps I should have stayed down for a few more seconds, but in that most powerless of moments, the only thing the body wants to do is return to normal. How bad can it be, you think, fully aware that your shock impulses have taken over. There is an inexplicable impulse  to smooth your hair, to dust the unbelievably filthy floor dirt from off of your jeans, and then, while all of this maneuvering is happening, a glimpse of crumbs on the floor. A patch of wet crumbs. The culprit. So harmless looking. A non-issue had the crumbs never been dropped, or had they been swept up in a more timely fashion.

And it was perhaps this latter point that brought the manager, who was working his very first shift, rushing outside while my friend and I waited for our ride. Was I ok? Was I sure? What was my name? First name? Last name? And my number? And my address? But I wasn’t comfortable sharing my address. Oh, well my supervising manager will ask me for it. My head was reeling, I wasn’t all quite there. Thankfully, my friend had the presence of mind to ask for the manager’s card, noting that I would get myself checked out and be in touch if necessary. The man shook my hand asking, Are you sure you’re ok? Do you promise?

My friend later told me that I had inadvertently used the magic words that no business wants to hear: Slip and fall. It was the simplest explanation. And yet, they carry with them the ominous promise of legal action. Litigious action was the furthest thing from my mind as I inspected my leg at the scene of the crime incident. A visible scrape, some swelling, the promise of an abrasion and no doubt a scar to come.

Our bodies carry stories. And now mine carries a reminder of one more.

it’s the people, stupid

While contemplating ways to turn my sabbatical into a full time gig, another thought has been slow to develop, awaiting, it seems, for the right combination of stop bath and fixer to come together for the image to render. The image, of course, is always there. In what form, to what degree of expression and saturation — that is anyone’s guess. I am referring to the line made famous during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, attributed to “ragin’ Cajun” James Carville, has all the simplicity of a Rubik’s Cube waiting to be restored to color-coded order: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

The intended audience for this linguistic artifact of Carville’s arsenal of distinct wordplay was the crop of Clinton campaign workers, but quickly spread and became a catalytic force in the election that shifted voters’ attention toward the early 90s recession and away from the then-current administration’s efforts in the Persian Gulf. A cynic might only see the self-serving nature of this tactic, and certainly such an assessment is not without merit, but it may be equally valid to suggest that this redirection impacted perception as well as interpretation; experience is never unmediated, memories are always colored with the filters of perception.

In my recent travels, therefore, it is telling that the moments of greatest significance have been people, a realization that brings into stark relief that what I miss is tempered by what awaits:

strolling with and without purpose,
a conversation, or many all at once, making short work
of twenty blocks or a few turns around the reservoir,
pausing to mark the path the cherry blossoms make their own
each spring, leaving traces of cotton candy pink on the ground, year round.

the latest adventures of dancing girl and the urban cartographer,
that put petulant antics of impossible characters in perspective.
hesitation, then slow blooming exhilaration on faces, young and younger,
in leaps and laughter.

oh, the laughter… infectious, soothing, a salve for the senses
that blister too swiftly without apt balm,
the space of rumination and silliness*, a most wonderful distraction**
found(ed) in the comfort of friends.

New York and Philadelphia are both gritty cities, that’s true, but the grit, too, has purpose, story, context; and occasionally, the grittiness recedes long enough for the rest of the image to come through. Readjustment from sabbatical back into the awaiting semester — this return from leave, which a follower of a follower on twitter described as “landing” — fills me alternatively with dread and anticipation. The invitation to see the familiar anew, however, has the potential to serve as a parachute to soften the landing. Knowing when to pull the handle to deploy the chute in time can be tricky when you’re flying through the air. New toys and old friends can help.

Part of the seeing, again, collection:






…so many previously overlooked or unrecognized corners teeming with stories if someone is willing to ask; conversations yet to be had; words to be written and read; ingredients awaiting a turn in the skilllet or chopping block; battles to be fought for the purposes of larger goals; goals to reconsider.

Yes, perhaps returning won’t be so bad after all…


*and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll click on silliness above… may cause giggling, so put your headphones on.
* wherein distractions are, of course, the very stuff of life. click and read the longer post by a kindred ruminator, another interweb stumble-upon.

must do lists

We all have them, must do lists that we enact even if we aren’t aware of them. That list of things we do to acclimate ourselves in new surroundings. For some, it’s connecting with friends and family, for others it’s seeking out and dining in local restaurants. Apparently these are mine:

– cafes and coffee shops, scouting and frequenting, for writing and people watching in

– grocery store comparative ethnography, which yes, involves registering for a points accrual card

– walking, aimlessly and with purpose — the purpose being to achieve enough of a sense of directionality that any point I know where I am on the imaginary map in my mind. For HP fans, yes it’s my own version of the marauder map and I am the moving dot.

– book stores, for book viewing, greeting card purchasing, conversation having – libraries, not just visiting but signing up for a membership card

– public transportation, for riding to rest my weary feet when I’ve walked too far, and for those accidental encounters like the one last night when an enchanting 4 or 5 year old girl, telling jokes replete with utterly beguiling British inflections, was tugging at my dress and tickling me by the end of our 10-stop-long ride together, much to the embarrassment of her French father. For my part, wary of not wanting to encourage small children’s interactions with strangers, kept my distance but could not help but laugh along at her endless string of “guess why” jokes. In a similar scenario that took place a few years ago in New Orleans, another girl around the same age struck up a conversation with me, en francais, on a hotel elevator and by the end of the 33-floor ride, was inviting me to accompany her and her father on their afternoon visit to the zoo.

And of course, starting to talk like the locals. I can’t really help it if I start my interactions with a friendly Hiya, now can I?

teenage wasteland

the song comes on overhead, here at fleet river bakery where the early-morning rush has given way to a mid-morning buzz, and i am instantly transported to the many other times i’ve heard and been consumed by this song. getting lost in the drum solo, more than a few turns at air-guitar and air-violin, and channeling my inner roger daltrey when no one was looking. what were the circumstances that brought pete townshend to write this song. sure, wikipedia speculates and the artists themselves offer memories. but what was it like when that final riff was played for the first time? and why has my adoration for it only deepened over time?

it’s over now. and i can’t wait to hear it again.

good wednesday morning.

a right rainy day

there’s a light rain falling here today. and by that i do mean that the droplets literally feel lighter, as if this is water of a lighter density falling from the skies above. not quite meant to evoke notions of heavy water reactors and radiation, but more on the order of water that is taking its time falling down, light as a feather with less velocity as if something is breaking its fall, but wet all the same.

i write this post from fix coffee on whitecross street, a fantastic pub-turned-coffee house that i found courtesy of this ingenious brainchild of website: (plenty of london cafe/coffee shop listings and a few nyc listings, too. further evidence that there many of us out there: we who like to work in settings that are not too loud and not too quiet, where we are happy to make a purchase and not be freeloaders while still enjoying access to wifi and electricity without feeling like we must leave within minutes of arriving. fix is spacious with high ceilings, bulbs that hang straight down from thick metal wires, and a steady stream of guitar-heavy music is adding to the hum of the comfortably full room.

the walk here, via a quick information-gathering pitstop at the very fun-filled Barbican Centre, was filled with the quirkiness of an average Saturday:

— a boy of three or four runs in a purposeful zig zag pattern down a stretch of footpath and the wind fills his shirt and he is flying… for several seconds before his mother says loudly, but not quite in a shouting manner, “Kyle!” he freezes, pivots, and runs back at full speed into the open arms of his slightly older sister.

— balloons mark the entryway to the Good Fashion Show, going on today amidst other London Fashion Week events.

— walk past the Charles Dickens house-turned-museum, where he lived for a short time. too bad i didn’t walk by a few days ago when the prince and duchess were by for some cake

— spend several minutes at the Barbican, where i intended to stop to pick up some information about youth arts programs. there, in their fantastic little museum shop, i stumbled onto a neat collection of essays penned by william morris titled, “useful work versus useless toil.” in just the opening lines of the titular essay, the first of four in this slim volume, he raises the question of what work is desirable and who gets to cast work in what light. these opening pages are reminiscent of a discussion about work and labor that is found in the pages of lefebvre’s “the production of space” in which he writes, “Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures.” much to ponder…

— another happy, albeit digital, discovery: the newly released letters between robert and elizabeth barrett browning. thank you wellesley college and baylor university! all of the letters, taking up over 100 gigabytes of hard drive space, have been archived and transcribed, and especially fantastic are the scanned images of the handwritten missives between these authors, friends and lovers.

and, now a few pics from other walks this week (and the end of words for a bit). more on flickr.

Morning run

Whitehall Court

Follow me

Temple Church

Deco art

Montreal, la version longue

I am counting the 12-hour train journey as part of this Montreal chronicle, which began when the train I boarded before daybreak left Philadelphia at 5:52a and arrived in Montreal after sunset, at 7:33p. The sky was beginning to lighten slowly as the train pulled away from 30th Street Station, but we were nearly halfway to Trenton before the day was broken into by streaks in the sky that looked like a very large animal had torn into the atmosphere revealing a blood orange color with lava-like brilliance. Truly day break.

My sister came on the journey with me and, as she pointed out more than a few times, this may be the longest amount of time we have spent with each other as adults without other family members present. She was right. We are also each enjoying a break from our respective fields of work at present – me, on sabbatical, and she having just resigned from her position in an administrative wing of a local department of education. Whereas I embrace, with great joy, meeting-free days and a schedule-free existence, she is less prone to feelings of joy about the same. And while her resignation was self-initiated and motivated by a desire to find and pursue work that better stimulates and inspires her, she only now, after more than a month away from the routine, has resigned herself to the reality that the journey may be the “there” and that one person’s “there” is another person’s “nowhere.” So it was only natural that she, without anything keeping her from accompanying me, should come along and see what a bunch of anthropologists do when they get together. Her own emergent ethnography found the following:

  • They speak in their own jargon as equally self-referential as any talk of “rubrics, deliverables, and outcomes” (although, in my *completely unbiased* opinion, talk of “positionalities, spaces, and being” is far superior to the latter!);
  • They socialize. A lot. Over drinks, breakfast, lunch, and shared love of chocolate.
  • They like to celebrate one another, pay homage, give respect, and illustrate connections and lasting legacies through stories and other practices of situatedness.
  • Some of them are not very self aware.
  • Yes, some really do wear ponchos and socks with Birkenstocks. (I had already prepared her for this; the anthro dress code is one of the main reasons I hang a part of my proverbial hat there.)
  • They, at least the ones in the sub-section I’m associated with and with whose members she had several chances to interact, are quite friendly, welcoming, and at the ready with advice and ideas.
  • Some of the new and first-time presenters lack the finesse and depth of more practiced anthropologists. Apparently in a few sessions she attended, presenters felt no need to connect to other work (e.g. lit review) and meandered as they talked without any sense of purpose or timing (I witnessed one such paper with her – oh my…).
  •  Anthropologists are not saints and also have their share of hypocrisy, lack of judgment, questionable decisions and ethics, and plays of power and authority.

As a member of the afore-not-mentioned organization, it was both a treat and source of nerves to have my sister along for the ride. A true boon of this experience was the opportunity to truly engage in that ethnographic practice of making strange something that is by now so familiar. As was the opportunity to spend time together talking through ideas, and doing so (on my part) without frustration that various concepts were not obvious. For this, I had to view dear sister as a nascent and interested interloper and not a judgmental family member; the shift in orientation does wonders for assuming a dialogic stance rather than a similarly judgmental one. I willingly offered examples when she asked for them rather than changing the subject as I might have done in a move characteristic of a self-protective, “my family doesn’t get what I do” attitude leftover from the past. (Stunning, isn’t it, how quickly we retreat to these familiar corners and postures, and how truly challenging it is to dislodge oneself from these habit patterns.)

We also took in this fine city whose citizens entertained my inclinations to speak French, which of course thrilled me endlessly. We walked up rue Saint Laurent through the Quartier Latin, traipsed through McGill University and its surroundings, made our way to the Mile End neighborhood, and back down for some delicious mushroom tacos and tequila at the aptly named Tequila Taco House.

And I can definitively say that the café Olive et Gourmando is one of my absolute favorite spots for eating and communing in the world. During our short stay, I visited this eatery no less than four separate times and everything I consumed was prepared on site and simply delicious — food, atmosphere, and friendliness. Allow me to demonstrate with a vignette.

Two women, sisters perhaps, sit opposite one another enjoying their lunch. One has ordered a grilled cheese. But this is no ordinary fromage grille; this is goat cheese with the brie-like rind still attached, smothered in between two slices of le pain magnifique, topped with carmelized onions and accompanied with a veritable vat of slightly thinned ketchup for dipping that boasts and delivers the flavors of autumn harvest: apple, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Across from her is the sister’s order: truffle macaroni and cheese; that is, a mélange of mushrooms delicately tossed and presumably sautéed in truffle oil before joining spiral macaroni cooked to al dente perfection and bound together with a generous (but not overwhelming) amount of gruyere cheese, all served in a square cast-iron skillet in which the dish was clearly prepared and broiled as the browned edges of the cheese on top indicate. The mac ‘n cheese skillet was accompanied by a simple green salad with the complex flavors of tarragon, citrus, and an as-yet-undiscovered flavor running through a mixture or arugula, dandelion greens, fennel greens, and toasted almond slices.

But this is not the best part. No, that happened when the man sitting next to the sister with the grilled cheese asked the other sister what she was eating, and expressed interest when she replied “truffle macaroni and cheese.” He, with his perfectly round, thick, black-rimmed glasses and red knit hat and scarf tossed casually over his left shoulder, had already caught the sisters’ collective attention. The rest of the exchange went something like this:

Red hat: Is it any good? (nose wrinkles with anticipation)

Truffle Sister: Oh yes, so good. (nodding, fork in hand ready for another bite)

Red hat: Well (nodding) I’ll have to look for it next time. (momentary pause, while he continues to smile and look at the artfully designed wooden board on which the dish was served) Ok, class is over! You can go back to eating in peace now. (another smile, a bit more devilish this time)

Truffle sister: Thanks (a smile, presumably related to the joy that comes from someone else validating one’s food selection)

The sisters continued to eat their meal as Red Hat and his companion – another man with thick rimmed spectacles that are more rectangular in shape and whose manner is less animated than his friend’s – consume their meals and move on to dessert. Truffle Sister spots Red Hat’s dessert: some kind of chocolatey, bready item served in an oval basket with a perfectly-sized (not too big, but more than an espresso) cappuccino on the side. Another exchange ensues:

Truffle Sister: Ok, now I must ask you, what is that? It looks delicious. (not even trying to hide her covetous eyes)

Red Hat: Ooh, I’m in school now! (laughs – infectious was a word designed for this man’s exhortation of delight) This is the chocolate brioche. They make wonderful desserts here, but you can’t go wrong with Valrhona (referring to the brand of chocolate that decorates the inside, outside, every-side of the magical item in front of him)

Red Hat’s English reveals a lilt of something else when he pronounces Valrhona and it is only then that Truffle Sister realizes that they are talking with Quebec natives – later she learns they are Montreal natives, partners (in business and in life) for over two decades. Food, as it turns out (yet again), is the true uniter and for the next twenty-five minutes, the New Yorkers and Montrealites exchange stories, with the latter giving the former restaurant recommendations and an invitation to their food shop in a local indoor market. In this conversation, the New Yorkers learn that Rene (Red Hat) and Glenn have just bought a new home, are in the throes of home renovation and repair craziness (which Truffle Sister, aka yours truly can empathize with), have traveled the world and have made friends with great characters along the way, and that they think the sisters are the friendliest New Yorkers they have ever met.

Merci, Rene et Glenn! We think you’re fantastic, and merci aussi for the tres yummy fleur de sel chocolates you treated us to during our visit to your store, Les Douceurs du Marche, that I highly recommend to all who visit Montreal. We had the great pleasure of participating in a few tastings (olive oil, olives, and something heavenly called pistachio crème that puts nutella to shame!) before departing Montreal and returning to the States. Meeting this duo was certainly the highlight of a trip that was also filled with good conversation, meeting new colleagues, and some quality time spent with my never-former, always-current mentor – I wonder when she’ll tire of giving counsel. I hope and suspect the answer is never. – and intellectual fuel for my ongoing inquiry into questions of belonging, being, and becoming and how the combination of travel, food, and laughter inspires new learning and openness in seemingly magical ways. (hmmm… I suspect I may have stumbled onto the subject of my next post. But much nanowrimo-ing must come first! Especially as I received the very welcome news that a chapter originally due at the end of the month can now be submitted in early 2012. Joy!)

cafe bleu

A cafe that does not offer free wifi is a rarity in these parts — northeastern United States. Yet La Colombe, tucked away with a touch of Euro-snobbery on 19th street, between Sansom and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia is a cafe that is staunchly without wifi. The outsider is easily marked when he asks without reservation, across the small yet spacious room, “What’s the wifi here?” and his question is met with looks of bewilderment laced with a sort of pitying as if to say, “Oh, you poor sap with your wifi dependency. You’re clearly out of your element here. And is that *iced* coffee in your plastic sippy cup?” [internal eye roll — that’s when you look straight at the person but inside you are totally eye rolling.]

The plaid shirt and jeans wearing fellow to my left, also seated at one of La Colombe’s non-tiled table tops, confirms my “Um, I don’t think so” shake-n-nod and we both share a glance into which is built an affirmation that neither of us would ever raise such a question; perhaps wondering also who let this poor bloke in. (See, euro-snobbery latches onto you even if you are perfectly nice in other domains of your life!)*

Plaid Shirt, who like me was texting and presumably emailing or engaging in other communicative practices that one does on a smart phone just minutes earlier, resumed typing into a word document open on his laptop screen, already filled with words. He’s a double-spacer. This stands out to a longtime single-spacer — how can you know what you’ve written when it literally goes off the viewable page? Next to him, a woman with chin-length hair that is almost evenly salt and pepper, stands up as she prepares to leave. Her navy coat goes on atop her navy turtleneck, jeans that are a perfect medium blue held in place with a complementary chestnut belt, and a navy blue scarf that is sheer on one side and has a velveteen leaf pattern on the other.

Most everyone in the cafe is sitting alone at a table for two, along the wall leaving the inside seats empty. Some of us with laptops in front of us, others reading a book — sometimes two at a time — with a notebook where notes are scribbled in between meaningful glances upward, to the right, straight ahead… in search of a word, inspiration, a plan for lunch…

The navy woman was dressed much too warmly for today when the sun is doing more than merely smiling down; it has warmed each molecule of air. I would appreciate the warmth more if the exterior of our house was being painted in this gorgeous weather. Instead, I am awaiting confirmation from the painter so that we can schedule a start date. Today! I want to exclaim. What is the number of phone calls after which eager morphs into nuisance?

Coffee refill: $.50.

I am usually a tea drinker and even in the height of my coffee consumption (these were known as the Cosi-dissertation years when I consumed more shots of espresso in a three year period than most people might or should consume in a lifetime) I was a “fluffy” coffee drinker. My 20 ouncers were only a quarter to a third actual cocoa bean and the rest was sugar-free flavored syrup and steamed milk, but never foam. I loathe foam. But here, in La Colombe where the even the average schlub is in his Monday smarts and spectacles are de rigueur, and writers writing are the plentiful attraction whether in digital or analog form — here, I drink coffee. Oh sure, their lattes are divine and even finished off with that coveted fancy leaf design that is the result of the artful pouring of steamed milk into expectant espresso. But the coffee beckons, served in sizable coffee mugs bearing the same set of designs that adorn many of the small table tops and served most often atop a mis-matched saucer. Before the no-smoking laws went into effect, my lungs and hypersensitive nasal passages wouldn’t allow me entry even as I longed to join the throngs of writers writing, with their shaggily disheveled hair, array of canvas sneakers that might seem ironic in another cafe, and horn-rimmed glasses. Now, seated amongst fellow clickety-clackers and croissant snackers, surrounded by a new collection of paintings that echo the melancholy of the burnt tomato colored walls, I feel a strong desire to sit back and light up.

*Although it is probably self-evident, this post was sent after I left La Colombe and relocated to a wifi-friendly spot. Totally worth it.

sunday morning

We were never a sunday-morning-ritual sort of family, at least not that I can recall — I add that caveat because my sister often tells me that I tend to mis-remember or had wildly different experiences growing up in the same house. Not entirely a surprise that siblings would carry different memories with them, and also not surprising that those memories grow roots in different ways in the fertile ground of our imaginations. I’m reminded of Johnny Saldana‘s keynote a la performance at a conference last yet as he transformed the large, impersonal space into the deep recesses of his memories, and with him the room full of 150+ people traveled to his high school English classroom, a college dorm room, his living room, a mother’s embrace, a teacher’s compassion.

Sunday morning scenes in movies and television shows always fascinated me. Staying in bed longer than the length of one’s slumber was a practice that at least one of my parents equated with various other sins of the world; the other parent, naturally, embraced the opposite of vim and vigor and appreciated the benefits to be had from a more languorous start to the day. As someone who is chronologically recognized as an adult, I am woefully lacking the routines and schedules that many of my adult friends — and more than a few young people I work with — have comfortably incorporated into their lives. But this strange, (relatively) meeting-free existence I’ve been living these past few months has seen a schedule creep in, and I seem to be in the midst of a third Sunday morning that involves a nice dark roast, multiple computing devices, the buzz of cafe chatter, and an easy toggle between reading (today it’s back to muriel barberry’s the elegance of the hedgehog) and writing (barberry is upping my game for all the nano’ing i have yet to do). And it doesn’t hurt that coming through the speakers overhead is often a bluesy, throaty, voice of a songstress from nearly a half a century ago — or at least ones that sound like they might have been.

People around me are:

  • leaning against their palms staring into/laughing at/appear confused by their laptop screens
  • looking just past any one object as if they are trying to fashion a new dimension simply by intent alone
  • sitting, one leg folded over the other, with the city weekly paper unfolded across their laps
  • turning pages of a book while looking at the person sitting at the next table, who is staring intently at his/her screen
  • slowly, carefully, and with love stirring their cup of tea or coffee to which they have just added milk/cream/honey/sugar/simple syrup/splenda
  • standing, hands around a mug or cup, deciding where to take a seat, spend a bit of their Sunday morning.

On twitter, others have been spontaneously sharing the goings-on of their #sundaymorning. I think of this when skeptics criticize and critics are skeptical of “the value” of social media. They’re asking the wrong question — it’s not what one gets out of it, but that there’s a there there in which to participate, if one is inclined. Another space, like the coffee shop, church, a large comfy bed, a mountain retreat where one might spend some time on a Sunday morning.

Hallelujah — Rufus Wainwright’s rendition of the song penned by Leonard Cohen — has begun overhead and so I must stop writing and fight the urge to tear up; thankfully this is not the Jeff Buckley version which causes me to come undone each time… Ah music, memories, space, and time.

one day in sydney

in total, i spent 3 nights and parts of 4 days in sydney on my way back from tasmania en route back to the states. what follows is a brief listing of where the wind took me on one of those days, with some images from the day included below (a more complete collection of pics from oz here. note: the pics are at best ok and at worst terrible. why? because i realized too late that my camera battery was dead and therefore i had to resort to a blackberry-ipad camera combo to document my trip. not terrible, but definitely not great!)

Early to Mid-Morning

Walk north on York after leaving my hotel. The air is cooler than yesterday, clouds blanket the sky and a light mist and steady breezes make me thankful for the scarf around my neck and the umbrella in my bag.

Coffee, blueberry muffin from window cafe on York St. As I walked up, I inadvertently interrupted what looked like a familiar flirtation between a thirsty male customer and a friendly female barista.

Walk across the Harbor Bridge, on the lower, commuter side. I walk briskly like the Aussies around me, each moving with a purposeful stride. The non-residents are easy to spot; they/we pause to look at the brilliant views of the opera house, the central business district (CBD), the Circular Quay (pronounced “key”).

Follow foot traffic over bridge and into North Sydney. Descending the stairs, I am struck by the almost carnivalesque colors in this part of the city.

Admire the wood stain work on a series of benches. After snapping a couple of pics, I get the attention of a thin man who looks to be in his late 50s who is busy sanding the surface of a picnic table. He wears a construction vest with neon yellow stickers over his grey sweatshirt. When I ask if I take a photo of one bench, he blushes and nods; his face becomes redder when I make an appreciative remark about the craftsmanship of his stain work. He points to the collection of benches and tables in the small area where he is working and tells me he worked on each one. He is smiling even as I walk away.

Luna Park. Full of artful and unexpected views of the familiar Sydney skyline, a giant moonface entrances, ferris wheel and other artifacts reminiscent of boardwalk topography: games, prizes, and rides. All empty, likely awaiting the blossoming of spring into summer where visitors will be plentiful.

Back across bridge. Collect a few more pics for my “Benches” photo essay.

Late morning to early afternoon:

Set out across town toward Paddington. As I walked through the city center, across Hyde Park, and in search of a café I had read about, I stumbled onto a large protest going on held by public workers in opposition to the wage caps and job cuts being imposed by the New South Wales state government. Teachers wearing red tees bearing the slogan “public education for our future” and correction officers in light blue with the slogan “we face what you fear.”

Walk in search of and in the direction of At Perry Lane. I meandered through town with a vague sense of my destination, which was a café I had read about as a much touted must-visit spot in the Sydney café scene. On the way, I found Ampersand Book Store and Café. I stopped in, fell in love, started reading a biography of Wittgenstein that was poking out of one of the many full bookshelves. I was getting hungry, so I decided to head to At Perry Lane (APL) and stop back at Ampersand on the way back.

APL closed. Apparently under new ownership, not yet re-opened. And yes, it was really good – according to the two employees working in the adjoining clothing shop. A part of me is bummed, but after snapping a couple of pics, I happily headed back to Ampersand for lunch and more time in the magnificient, cozy basement, shelf-lined room.

Lunch at Ampersand. Mine was a “Vegie Brekky” – that’s vegetarian breakfast sandwich to you and me – an earl grey tea, and a trail mix cookie. I was served my lunch in the magical room and I spent the next hour catching up on a few emails (courtesy of Ampersand’s free wifi) and reading most of the first chapter of the Wittgenstein biography. I also had delightful chat with a man who initially engaged me to ask about my iPad – did I like it? Was it useful? What did I use it for? – and we ended up talking about his son, a musician who is currently finishing up a three-month stay in Brooklyn; about a play he was writing based on his time living in Rome – he has called many parts of this world home at some point or another, including Tokyo, London, and New York; and he explained that he was here dropping off some books given to him by his daughter for which he had received a $30 credit from Ampersand. While we chatted, my new colleague from Scotland, who was also part of the Tasmania conference, let me know he was in Sydney so we decided to meet up at another café near the Circular Quay. I finished my lunch and came to a good stopping point in the story of young Ludwig, and, after purchasing a ticket from the convenience store next to the bookstore, hopped on a bus (the 380) back to the city center.

Afternoon to Evening:

Police and Justice Museum. I had a couple of hours before meeting B for coffee so I wandered a bit then saw on my google map that I was near the Police and Justice Museum. Given the complicated history of Australia’s origins, it seemed like an interesting option. The featured exhibit was on the uses of various forms of surveillance to identify and pursue “persons of interest.”  This quote by Oscar Wilde, emblazoned in one of the exhibit rooms, seems to say it all: “One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted.” A part of me did not want to document this visit as I had the rest of my travels through this country. But there were a few images and visuals that compelled me click and capture, if only to ponder further as time passes.

Coffee, flat white. Le Quays, where my Scottish friend and I were scheduled to meet, was closed for the day so we wandered a few steps away to another coffee shop and each ordered a flat, white coffee. We sat outside, taking in the chilly air that was refreshing after the day of walking that each of us had experienced. Another option worth an afternoon’s exploration that I learned about was the Botanical Gardens just steps away from where we met.

Dusk walk thru CQ. My coffee companion and I walked in the direction of the Circular Quay where the ferry terminals were located, and paused to take in the city at dusk on a cloudy day in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House.

The opera house. After bidding my colleague goodbye, I rushed back to the hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes and rushed back out again in hopes of securing tickets for that evening’s showing of La Boheme. My colleagues had encouraged me to ask for the “concession” fare, so when I approached the box office – in record speed, if I may say so! And whizzing right past scores of people all heading in the direction of the opera house for one of a variety of happenings taking place there that night, in addition to the opera itself. – I inquired about available tickets and concessions. The ticket agent asked to see a university ID, which I readily produced, and she handed me a considerably reduced ticket. I walked away elated that I had secured a seat (and feeling the slightest bit funny that she may have mistaken me for a student). I was early, so I took in the scene around me and from various vantage points in and around SOH before finally taking my seat.

La Boheme. I have always loved the music of this Puccini creation, but until this viewing I did not pay close attention, I think, to how the Italian had been translated into English. I admit, the stilted translation bothered me. But only momentarily after which time I got swept up in the performances, the story, the emotions, and the stunning voices of the performers. It was a special treat to discover wifi inside the opera theater, which I took advantage of during the intermission to quietly exclaim to my sister a few others that “I was watching La Boheme inside the Sydney Opera House.” While I’m easily delighted by life, I find that I’m not easily impressed by the usual, iconic world attractions that are foregrounded in travel books and tourist guides. SOH was an excellent exception to this rule.

Veggie Udon, a hotel room, reflecting on the day. If it hadn’t been raining, I might have followed the advice I found online to go up to the 36th floor of the Shangri La Hotel and get a drink while taking in the city view. But I left SOH feeling quite full in many ways, so I opted instead for a quiet end to a busy day. The restaurant next door to my hotel prepared a fantastic veggie udon soup which I consumed while relaxing in my hotel room. It was my last night in Sydney, in Australia. I was already thinking of what I would do on my trip…


i was going to write a post of pleas to my fellow human beings so that we might live more harmoniously together. and then i received this sandwich delivered to me at my absolute favorite so. philly cafe by one of the 2 co-owners. it’s a simple combo: egg and tomato on toasted multigrain. but check out the artfully placed tufts of basil on top.

the sandwich arrived with a light aroma that is characteristic of basil, the magic herb — shredded, julienned, ground up, or incorporated whole: always a slightly different effect. and as a garnish these basil leaves tell me two things: a) the owners of this cafe have instilled an ethos of dignity in all aspects of their spot, from friendly but not intrusive banter when you place an order to the marrying of order with patron, such an important but all too often moment of exchange — where one’s commitment to a cafe is really nurtured and grown. that is, am i just an onerous interruption to your texting or inter-cafe conversations? or am i to you, like you are to me, a potential source of human connection — that which we seek regularly, but that we eschew in our hurried ways; and b) that a cafe is truly ripe with stories and inspiration and possibilities and i need to get cracking on my ‘overheard at the cafe’ series — still not sure of the medium, but it needs to have dialogue, characters, and settings — the perfect sabbatical ‘side’ project.

so i am left with this question: how can i garnish someone else’s life today, in the way that the tufts of basil enhanced mine?

(and not to worry, peeves and annoyances post to surface soon)