New Orleans Street Music

Though I remember this mostly from photographs, I think I first picked up a pair of church handbells in kindergarten, of tones, I think, in B flat and C.  I remember I liked these bells because they weren’t the teeny tiny tinny ones, and they weren’t the super-heavy ones that the boys had to play, or the ones the girls had to hurl up with their whole bodies. They also got played a lot, so I never got bored standing there following the bars and wondering when I’d be able to chime in with my ring. I remember playing my small two-belled parts in some of my favorite Biblical hymns, sometimes even accompanying my mom’s 120-voice choir, sitting underneath the tiered seats, banging out those bells in a forte that was probably a little too strong.

In seventh grade, I begged my mom, a lifelong musician herself, to buy me a flute, and I joined the school band. I took lessons at a local music school. Unlike a lot of my peers at school, I loved practicing scales–the repetition of it, the predictable nature of it, the full-bodied, high-pitched trills that happened, magically, when I reached those high octaves and didn’t squeak.

DSC_1195

I sang, too, ever since I knew how to put words together and string them into complete thoughts. I sang throughout school, in the car, in the shower, to my favorite CDS (and then my favorite .mp3s, and then my favorite Pandora streams). And I lived my teenage years through music, as many of us do, faithfully attending every single Incubus concert I could afford in the Southeast (truth be told, I probably went to a LOT more Incubus concerts than my meager hostess salary afforded me, but alas, I digress). I attended a million punk and ska concerts with my best friend Rachel, and we followed bands around like we did trendy shoes, buying them up, wearing them for a while, and then flitting on to the next big thing. And then we went to college, where Rachel would study music business at a tiny Christian school in Nashville, the land of country music and mandolins, and I would study Comparative Literature in Athens, Georgia, where more Southern rock bands call home than anywhere else in the country. (my nostalgia recalls many a Widespread Panic and Phish concert in those tree-lined Southern streets and in the historic walls of the Georgia Theater).

Something weird, happened, though, between those high school and college years. I put down instruments and I stopped singing.

DSC_1110

DSC_1148

DSC_1120

Like many kids, it started around 10th grade, when, suddenly, it was no longer cool to tote a metal flute case down the hallway. I still wanted to play music, I desperately did, but I didn’t want the rest of the halls of my high school to know, because, unlike the rest of those band nerds, I was too cool for that (how many of us have said that before, am I right?). In an attempt to be both clandestine but still respectful to my instrument, I would stuff my flute case into my backpack, the tips of the oblong-sized case pressing up uncomfortably against the seams of the top and bottom of my already-packed backpack, and I would teeter down the hall, books in my arms instead. By the end of high school, I was second chair, meaning that I had solos in concerts, sat in the front row, and dressed up for the concerts.

And then, well, college came around and I tried to pick up the guitar instead. I was in Athens, after all; a place where the guitar is about as common a pastime as breathing. But my fingers also chapped, I could never pluck the strings fast enough, and I couldn’t catch up to friends of mine who’d been playing for years. There were banjos, mandolins, guitars, lutes, ukuleles….and lots of talented players behind their strings.

Sometime between then and now, I’d become an observer. Someone who watched, wistfully, from afar, who listened to music but didn’t participate in it. I’ve missed my music–I even see my acoustic guitar in the closet here, beside me, as I write this, and I think mournfully about all the songs that never got played.

DSC_1114

Two weeks ago, I went to New Orleans with Ryan to attend a wedding, and these thoughts have lingered with me stronger than ever since I’ve been back. I knew New Orleans had a magnificent music scene (I wrote about it for Perceptive Travel, actually), and I knew, from popular culture, that musicians played in the streets in the historic French Quarter. But imagining and experiencing a thing often leaves an impossible abyss….there is nothing like walking through the sweat-filled humidity of those tropical New Orleans streets, watching the local musicians set up their equipment, lay out a bucket, a guitar case, or a basket for coins and dollar bills, and catching tourists take snapshots.

In the following photos where people are featured, I always asked before I took the picture, and I always left a gift for them as a small piece of gratitude.

DSC_1146

DSC_1144

DSC_1269

DSC_1155

DSC_1265

DSC_1270

DSC_1184

To be honest, I didn’t really understand how much I actually missed playing music–as opposed to simply listening to it live–until I joined our friends’ second line to their wedding reception. From the Irish Cultural Museum to the art gallery where they had their Creole celebration set up, we marched through the streets behind a 3-piece brass band, enacting a very old West African tradition brought to Louisiana by slaves and merged with the military brass band parade traditions of the Europeans and white Americans, and I wove a white handkerchief in one hand and held my high heels in the other. As the 60 or so of us walked down those cobblestone streets, passing tourists, musicians, and other artists alike, I felt a reverence for this place and its inextricable link to music. Even know, I find it difficult to describe, this feeling of sound and place coalescing like that.

DSC_1159

DSC_1262

When we arrived at the gallery’s doors, and the musicians stood outside wiping sweat from their brows, I stopped the trumpet player and said thank you. He looked up, surprised, I think, that one of the wedding attendees had taken the second to personally recognize him, and I told him how lovely his artistry was. He smiled, knowingly at me, this once-upon-a-time musician, visiting his special Crescent City.

DSC_1289

Yours in travel,

Kristin

All photographs by me 🙂 A special thanks to the New Orleans CVB for helping me arrange accommodations for my stay in New Orleans.

Just a Day in greenwich Village

What do you do if you have one measly day in one of the world’s most fantastic cities?

You go to a coffee shop and write.

20150308_174934_Richtone(HDR)

At least, that’s what I did two weeks ago when I was in the city and found myself wondering what life would be like if I lived here. So I decided to do whenever and wherever I am: I find the nearest spot where I can order a hot drink and park myself for a few hours among some strangers.

The place I stumbled upon, Stumptown Coffee, had an odd name but a huge line, so I guessed their cappuccinos were most likely up to the standards of the many literary voices and writers who’ve passed through its doors.

20150309_163152

As I looked around at the NYU students eagerly catching up on their assignments, the writers lost in thought, their faces lit up by their computer screens, the foreign visitors pouring over their travel guides written in Mandarin, I decided I’d park it for a while here, catch up on my people-watching (it’s kind of a weird hobby of mine—thanks, mom), and pop open my laptop and—Gasp!—write something.

I should clarify that: I mean write something that is not my dissertation.

I put on my headphones, found a playlist of happy indie music, and got to work. I pretended I was a real New York writer, with a dedicated agent, a fancy publisher, a big book deal and plans to traverse the nation talking about my amazing new memoir. I should mention that I don’t often daydream about these things, partly because I’m always so insecure and busy that I hardly ever give myself the time to daydream, to imagine other possibilities, to let my mind drift to places I’d forgotten existed.

20150309_162336

I felt like I was twenty again, stepping into my first creative writing classes, getting my first passport photo taken, wondering what in the world was in store for my young life. Then, I used to daydream. When we grow up, we all too often push those thoughts aside, make ourselves get back to the business of being smart professionals with illustrious careers (or at least serviceable ones). But we don’t often let ourselves imagine what we could do if we just had the time, just had the money, just had the freedom, just had the (INSERT NOUN HOLDING YOU BACK HERE). Now, ten years later, I found myself sitting at this perfect little coffee shop full of intelligent, creative people, and I was daydreaming again.

Of course, I should mention that being twenty wasn’t all glory and glitter, and that in-between feeling very out-of-place and weird most of the time, I had absolutely no clue whatsoever what I was going to do with my life. The only thing I was convinced of at the time was that I knew I wanted it to be something special.

I still don’t really know what the purpose of life is, but I still know that I want it to be something special. Maybe I don’t need a swanky book deal with a big New York publisher. Maybe it’s something else, instead. I don’t know—but at least I should keep myself open to the possibilities. Maybe that’s what adulthood should teach us: to be more open to the possibilities.

I went to the beautiful Big Apple for an interview, but though I didn’t leave with an employment contract, I left having reconnected with a “me” that I’d long buried underneath grading piles of students papers, writing freelance articles, and just plain getting through the hectic daily grind. I’d thought the job I was applying for would give me that–would free me from the monotony of writing a dissertation and being a poor graduate students–but perhaps all I needed was a day there. Maybe, at least for now, I don’t belong in New York. And that, I’m learning, is OK.

20150309_162632

The morale of all this? I’ve decided that more of us should park it in busy coffee shops in Greenwich Village from time to time.

Yours in travel,

Kristin

Dispatches from Boston’s Chinatown

DSC_0835I recently read a story about the first Subway opening up in one of North America’s Chinatowns. Despite the overlooked fact that a Subway had crept in to an otherwise corporate-free ethnic enclave, the interesting thing was that nobody knew how to translate it. It couldn’t be the actual word for Subway, because no Mandarin speaker would have any idea why a sandwich shop was named after a mode of public transportation. There is no such translatable idea of a “sub sandwich” in Mandarin.

So what did they do?

They went with something much more beautiful: they chose three characters that, when put together, mean “better than hundred tastes.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about that yesterday when I went to visit Chinatown in Boston.

These towns of China, these glorious microcosms of Chinese food and shopping, have always been a source of curiosity for me. For one, there are a lot of Chinatowns across North America (except, sadly, for Tucson, which could really benefit from an influx of decent Asian fare, and not the trendy, DIY, “roll your own sushi” place by the university or the unfortunately-named FuKu Sushi on University Ave). Secondly, I always find myself inexplicably drawn to Chinatowns for some reason or another, aching to try the juicy pork dumplings or the fried noodles, eager to find a place that serves food like it’s supposed to be, even though deep down I know even that’s a meaningless statement in itself. Food like it’s supposed to be….food is malleable as it migrates, just like people.

To be honest, I think it’s the general sense of awe and curiosity of stepping into a place that’s meant to mimic another place while still holding on to bits of the first place that strikes me so evocatively about Chinatowns. These places, too, are often the result of difficult migrations themselves, poverty, an aching for community, blue-collar labor, and sometimes, even red light districts. They are contact zones in and of themselves, simultaneously serving as relics of the past and examples of modern globalization.

Boston’s Chinatown is no different. As I walked through it in the pouring rain yesterday, hoping to find a hot cup of tea and a warm bowl of soup, I started thinking about these mini “towns” and what the represent, both geographically and culturally. Historically, Chinatowns popped up in tandem with waves of Chinese migration, to both ease the transition into life in a new country and to preserve a sense of community that might have otherwise gotten lost. Though many Chinatowns no longer specifically function as enclaves for Chinese immigrants and have been infiltrated by tourists and city locals, there’s still something fascinating about these replica spaces.

For instance, here’s a photo of a woman eating her lunch in the Dumpling Cafe, a little soup and dumpling shop right around the corner from the hostel where I’m staying for the weekend.

DSC_0840

Presumably from China based on her rapid Mandarin and her ability to navigate the menu like a pro, she’s not doing anything that unusual–after all, she’s just eating and catching up with an old friend or business associate on the phone, right?–but there’s something very, well, Chinatown about it. A woman eating a spicy bowl of soup that may or may not remind her of home, a smartphone, a conversation in Mandarin, equal amounts of white and Asian customers skirting by in the background–these are all images I see when I close my eyes and I think about the busy, chaotic, weird life we live in modernity.

DSC_0838

I also noticed the plate setting in front of me, lemon tea, a plate unusued, plastic utensils stacked on top of each other, a menu written in two languages. Another example.

From the window, there’s a McDonald’s, infamous in its two yellow half-moons, its logo placed next to Chinese characters that curiously seem to be the translation of the word. From my research, I now know that the orthography for McDonald’s in Chinese is essentially meaningless, a transliteration of the English word’s pronunciation, but when I saw this yesterday, I couldn’t help but think how strange it was to see such an American icon–yellow against its bright-red background–next to a set of Chinese symbols that are otherwise meaningless.

DSC_0842

Or this, a wrapped door calling out to shoppers of 3-D Pictures (what are those?!), Luggages, a cold Coca-Cola, DVD movies, and a drowned out “Push” sign. Elements on the spectrum, some words translated, some not.

DSC_0841

My sojourn through Boston’s Chinatown wasn’t long, and I was too cold to really spend any good amount of time there (yes, I’m pathetic when it comes to below-freezing temperatures, even when bundled up), but when I turned the corner and went back to the hostel to warm up, I had so much more to think about than just soup.

Chinatown is centered on Beach Street in downtown Boston. It borders Boston Common and is easily accessible by the MBTA’s Orange Line.

Yours in travel,

Kristin

All images copyrighted by Kristin Winet, 2015.

In the Rare Book Room at the Royal B.C. Museum

Located deep in the collections of a Canadian museum is a tiny book. Its corners are frayed, its spine cracked, its cover is worn…..

This is how I started my recent article for Atlas Obscura about Captain Cook’s very rare fabric books from his last voyage. I was on assignment with Tourism Victoria and took about a thousand photos of this incredibly rare, inextricably colonizing and yet gentle book of fabric swatches and descriptions from the many people Cook met on the last voyage he took before he was killed. Chilling, really, to see a book like that up close….but so much fun to photograph.

We didn’t get to use all of my photos in the article, though, so I thought I’d include some photos here of the actual process of going through the book–lots of nitrate gloves, careful handling, and a smiling docent at the end 🙂 If you’re intrigued and want to learn more about this tiny gem, grab a cup of tea, settle in, and take a peek at my Objects of Intrigue piece on Atlas Obscura.

DSC_0565DSC_0562DSC_0580DSC_0578DSC_0569DSC_0584DSC_0577DSC_0573DSC_0587

A special thanks to Tourism Victoria and the Royal B. C. Museum for helping me plan this unforgettable one-day voyage to Victoria.