Tuesday, October 29, 2013

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. You may find yourself in another part of the world… You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

I remember waiting with huge anticipation for Remain In Light to be released in 1980. I was already a huge Talking Heads fan and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the new album as soon as it came out. I wasn’t sure what to make of it in the beginning. African beats and at times a crooning and laid back hypnotic vocal. The whole album had a different feel to previous Talking Heads albums, but it grew and grew on me to become one of my favourite albums of all time. The single, Once In A Lifetime, had a different feel again from the rest of the album. I liked it too with its more characteristic David Byrne manic manneristic way of singing. But for the life of me, I never knew what a shotgun shack was. Or how somebody would ever find themselves living in one? It was only on coming to New Orleans that I discovered the answer.

I’ve had enough of hotels as a mode of accommodation. They have their place and I’m sure I’ll be staying in them again, but on this trip to the US I decided to give AirBnB a go. This web-based portal allows people to rent out a room in their house, or in some cases the whole house. I was coming to New Orleans on my own and I couldn’t be bothered with all of the run of the mill tourist stuff that seems to come with being in a hotel. I hoped that AirBnB could scoot me straight past that to a place where I would get to meet and hang out with a few of the locals. So I scoured the site for a place that looked appealing. “Shotgun house in the heart of the Marigny” shouted one listing. A read of Katie’s profile sounded like I may have the right place. Guests were not only able to come and share a meal or go out with the hosts, but were actively encouraged. That sounded like something that I was after. But what the hell is a shotgun house. As it turns out, it is a distinctive architectural style particular to New Orleans. Essentially it is a house where each room connects directly through to the next room without a hallway. From the front door, all the way through to the back garden, you have to walk through each room to get to where you’re going. Or as Katie described it in her listing: The house is a classic shotgun, a very common style of architecture for homes here in New Orleans. Each room is arranged one behind the other. You will be walking through all of our bedrooms to get to your room, and while you'll have your room to yourself, people will need to walk through it to access the kitchen, other bedrooms, backyard, and bathroom.
It seemed like it may be an interesting way to spend a week. I mean, if people were going to be walking through my bedroom to get to the bathroom or other parts of the house, I was pretty much guaranteed that I was going to be meeting people. I wouldn’t even have to get out of bed to do it!
Katie & Matthijs
Katy was actually away when I arrived at the house. She was off having her own adventures with her Dutch boyfriend Matthijs, hitchhiking across Europe and then visiting her folks in the north of the US. When I arrived nobody was home. With some relief, I found the key in the mailbox and let myself in. At that stage I’d been travelling for around 24 hours, so was thankful that I didn’t have to deal with the drama of not being able to get inside. The fact that the house was empty meant that I also had an opportunity to explore the place and try to work out what I was in for. The front room was quite sparsely furnished. Being the entranceway to the house, this was clearly a major thoroughfare. There was a wooden construction that appeared like some kind of an installed loft. I climbed up the ladder to have a look and saw a double mattress up there. OK. Somebody sleeps here. There didn’t look like there was much more room above the bed than to sit and I wondered if there was even room for that. The extremely wide door from that room led into my room. Very nice comfortable queen size bed, bedside table, chest and mirror, with all of the furniture against the walls leaving a thoroughfare. I was starting to spot a bit of a theme. The doors that led from one room to the next were very wide. With the doors to my room open, it looked like it melded in to the next part of the house. God! How was this going to be? Immediately through the door from my room, was a door to the left (the only slight detour available in the house), which led to the small but tidy bathroom. Going straight led to another bedroom which had a few personal items scattered around. Ah… another guest. Or perhaps the person who was looking after the house while Katie was gone. And it continued on. Each room one after the other – tiny lounge area, with another loft built above with more sleeping quarters, and then the kitchen, which was actually quite spacious and bright. The entire house was decorated with all manner of interesting bits and pieces. I checked out the bed and basically vagued around in a jetlagged kind of a state until the front door opened and in rushed Ryan. She was the occupant of the next room. So basically it turned out that just the two of us were living in the house. I was somewhat happy to have the house essentially to ourselves for a little while, but was sort of sad that Katie wasn’t going to be around. My aim of hanging in a local house seemed somewhat awry if the locals weren’t actually there. I was therefore happy to discover that Katie was indeed coming home on day three of my stay. And by that stage, I was well settled in. Ryan had gone, so I’d had the house to myself for the morning. It was only after being out on the town and after a night of beer and wine with my new French friends Emilie and Fred, that I arrived back at Katie’s house, now with both Katie and Mattiis back in residence. I was pretty exhausted from a combination of jetlag, nights until 4am and a fair whack of alcohol over the previous days, so intended to try and sleep early. That plan was thwarted quite early when Amy rocked in. She was the next visitor coming to stay in Ryan’s room. She was down for a work trip that she’d somehow cajoled out of her company and arrived resplendent with a bubbly demeanour, fine cheese, beer and wine. There goes the sleep. And so, on joining them groggily, I realised that I was once more living in a share house that this time just happened to be a shotgun shack in New Orleans. And all of the usual conviviality that seemed to take place in every share house I was ever a part of also unfolded here in New Orleans. The next night I brought Emilie and Fred back to Katie’s place so that I could share with them some of the household’s conviviality on their last night in town. A bit of a farewell party. Sitting out in Katie’s back garden took me back to nights at Castle Rock, a hub of activity in one particular share house that I once inhabited along with its regular stream of visitors. Only this time there was the added dimension of different languages to coordinate. Both Emilie and Fred spoke English well enough. At least with me. If they got lost for words, my French was capable enough to be able to help them find the elusive word on most occasions. But under the haze of the backyard, communication at times became humorously problematic. But maybe that had nothing to do with language. We were a mixed assortment of ages as well as languages, as we all found out. Katie is a 28-year-old American artist, initially from New Jersey, who moved down here some time back. Matt is an 18-year-old Dutch musician. He is the youngest of the crew but he certainly has an impressive story. He left home at 17 from his family farm out in the sticks in the north of the Netherlands, hitched down through Europe for a few months and then flew to America; New York initially and then down to New Orleans. Quite an amazing journey for someone so young. He met Katie initially as an AirBnB guest. Perhaps walking through each other’s bedrooms continually helped kindle a flame. Both Katie and Matt have been exceptional hosts as well as great people to hang out with. Emilie is a 32-year-old singer and Fred is a 37 year old chef. They are over here from France for a ten day holiday. I met them on my first night in town and had spent every night with them since. Beautiful people. I definitely brought in the rear at the ripe old age of 50. And while sitting with this crew out the back there in Katie’s shotgun shack, I realised that when Remain In Light was released, Fred was 4 and apart from me, nobody else there had been born.

Emilie, Fred et moi
When I’d bid a fond adieu to Emilie and Fred, I decided it was time to crash out. Just me and the thoughts racing around my head at a million miles an hour. And of course whoever needed to walk through my room. There were only three other people in the house, but there must have been at least twenty trips back and forth through my room, clomp clomp clomping across the loud wooden floorboards. But I’ve felt comfortable in my bed and I’m not really bothered by the nocturnal passers by. I still have a couple of days to go in New Orleans and I already know that I will be sad to leave. I live in a house back home that I share with four other very interesting and special people, but it’s been great to revisit the share house ethos that was more familiar in earlier days while being able to once more resume a more carefree existence. I don’t have to get out of bed here at any particular time and today (my fourth day) is the first time that I’ve managed to have breakfast prior to midday. The AirBnB thing has definitely worked for me in spades in New Orleans. It is what I hoped for and also what I needed. A reminder of a more simple life. A reminder of what I like to do and what interests me most. I love travelling. Having new experiences. Meeting new people from somewhere else with a story to tell. I love people’s stories. Being transplanted into somebody else’s household and into the middle of their story makes AirBnB the perfect form of accommodation for me. It will now be my first choice every time.

Letting the days go by. Letting the days go by. Once in a lifetime.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gone to look for America

I have a long time love affair with America. It seems to run in parallel with my long time disdain of America. The two somehow coexist in my being, each with a fiercely burning fuel of their own. I have never been able to reconcile these feelings into one coexistent stream. They are opposites that seem equally strong. Attraction and repulsion. Maybe it is these magnetic-like qualities that continually draw me there with such an intense fascination. So flicking through the inflight films from A to Z on my US bound journey, it was with a feeling of rightness that I arrived at the last film in the list and it seemed like nothing could be more perfect. Woodstock. It is the embodiment of what I love about America. And indeed humanity. It is this part of America that I always try to tap into when the side that disgusts me starts to get me down. The love of humanity, generosity, innovation, passion and self-expression. All culminating in music that strongly resonates with my being. From Richie Havens opening set through to Jimi, it is just a three hour celebration of what I love about people and the world. And indeed the US. Optimism, hope and defiance against the expected norm and institutions that aim to control you. I am feeling excited now of my impending trip to look for America and my quest to seek out some people with a like mindset. And really to find a bit of myself to jolt me out of the malaise I’ve been in lately.

“Tori I’m lost,” I said, but I knew she was sleeping. “I’m aching and empty and I don’t know why…”

My father was born in America. Hank the Yank they called him at the various cricket clubs he played at. He was in fact the first American born man to play first grade cricket in Victoria. And also in Western Australia. And again in Tasmania. Baseball had been his game until moving to Melbourne with his mum at the age of 14. The kids at Elwood Central school had apparently laughed at him when he took guard with the cricket bat over his shoulder as the bowler commenced his run up. But being the determined bugger that he was, he had a couple of mates bowl to him through the winter so that when the next season came around he had some element of mastery over the game. He continued on majestically and ultimately counted a number of Australian test and Sheffield Shield cricketers as his teammates. His own aspirations for cricketing heights were cut down by a car accident with a semi-trailer on the Hume Highway that almost cost him his life, but in the end just cost him 90% of the movement in his ankles. He still managed to play the game at a decent level for another forty or so years afterwards. Tough and determined. When I was young he told me all sorts of stories about growing up in New York. Sledding down the hilly iced up streets of the city in winter, hoping that no traffic would come around the corner at a fatally wrong time. Going on a scout camp upstate and having to burn all of his clothes after an encounter with a skunk that ended badly. Fending off and fleeing from a knife wielding kid on the street who decided that he wanted the jacket that he was wearing. He escaped that encounter with a wound down his arm that he was still able to show me some thirty years after the incident. “The kid tried to stab me in the face but I blocked the knife with my arm… here”, he told me while tracing a finger down the long scar. A few fond and not so fond reminisces aside, he had no real romance or love for the country. Times must have been tough over there for he and my grandmother. It was 1947 when she decided to up sticks from the US and emigrated to Australia where her brother Sam and sister Rose were living. It was only two years after the second world war. My Dad’s dad had died more or less broke four years earlier in 1943. Having lost all of his money during the depression, he had scraped to support his family by driving a taxi and running numbers for some local crims. When he died, my grandmother had to somehow create a life for her and her ten-year-old son with no money in the bank. Just after a war in which she’d had six of her brothers and sisters and both of her parents die in the concentration camp back in her birthplace of Riga. I’ve known this my whole life but have never really been able to get my mind around it. Having the bulk of your family systematically murdered, then having your husband die with no money in the bank, back in the days when women never really worked but just stayed home to look after the kids. I guess people do what they need to do, but she must have been one tough lady. In Australia she was able to build a fine life for herself totally from scratch, as so many other post-war migrants did. Dad had the opportunity to go back and live in the states when Nat and I were young kids, but he decided against it. He was a devout Australian by then and didn’t want to bring his kids up in New York. A place that he now viewed as an overcrowded asylum where gangs and hoods ran rampant with knives and guns. In the 1970s that was perhaps a fair assessment. I don’t know, but I couldn’t help but feel an attraction. The inferred danger seemed in some way to appeal to me. I was partly disappointed at the time that my father turned down the opportunity. It seemed exciting to my ten-year-old mind. I knew I had to go there some day.

This must be around my 25th or so trip to the US. Sometimes I come home enlightened. Sometimes I come home disgusted. But one thing I know is that the perspective of America, like anywhere I guess, is always different from within. External views always seem to be caricaturised or sensationalised to a degree. The pervading external view of America is of an out of control beast that is being controlled by greedy corporations and rich individuals who have no regard for anybody or thing other than themselves. It somehow forgets that there are actually 300 million stories going on there. The latest crisis of the shutdown over “affordable healthcare” just makes everybody else in the world’s mind’s boggle. Are these people morons? Are they genuinely so selfish that they couldn’t give a fuck about the people in their own country who can’t afford to see a doctor when they are sick? But in fact, I’ve always found Americans to be incredibly generous and hospitable on a personal level, even as I listen to some of them espouse ideas and beliefs that are completely alien to me. Sometimes I’m shocked to hear such right wing views come out of the mouths of people that seem in every other way to be kind and caring people. I can’t help but feel myself in some way recoil from them even though they have been nice to me. It is difficult for me to reconcile. But then the people of the Woodstock mindset are still there too. They are alive and well in various pockets around the country, in significant numbers. And they are still inspirational to me. They are the ones I cheer for. They represent the best in all of us. They are what I love about America.