Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I Heart Amsterdam

Mention Amsterdam and the first thing anyone thinks is sex and drugs. I kept getting advice like go to such-and-such place for the best weed or don't take pictures of the prostitutes in the Red Light District. But legalized sex and marijuana overshadow what the place is really about. Which can probably best be expressed by the Dutch term gezellig. It's a word that's considered rather untranslatable in English. Here's a whole page attempting to define it. And here. But basically, I think gezellig is what everyone who was around in the East Village in the 1980s misses - a sense of togetherness, of comraderie, of homespun warmth.

In Amsterdam, I kept feeling like it was the 1980s all over again. Part of this feeling was probably due to me staying with Walter at the Vrankrijk, one of the oldest squats in Amsterdam. He's a friend of my friend Joel who had lived in Amsterdam for two years back in the early 1990s. One night, Walter and I made pizza together and he put on a VHS tape to share some of the performance pieces that he and Joel used to do together. He was surprised that instead, the VHS tape began with half an hour of footage in which he ran around with friends asking people on the street how much money they make - the ultimate forbidden question. I mean, people will answer compromising questions about their sex life before they will admit how much money they make. And of course, I think this is a taboo that really should be confronted. So there I was, enjoying a simple night of making food with a friend, watching a crappy VHS tape of something hilariously radical - I was getting flashbacks that definitely did not derive from any substances legal or illegal. I began wondering if home wasn't necessarily a place or a community, but a time period or perhaps just a quality. Maybe gezellig can just be simply translated as homey.

Joel did appear in the end - in a wacky mystery thriller about foiling a dastardly plot by the Dutch Santa's black helpers. Dutch Santa? Black helpers? Yeah. If you don't know about Sinterklaass and Zwarte Pieten (or even if you do), you should listen to David Sedaris read from his hilarious story 6-8 Black Men.

We also went and saw The Night of the Hunter at De Slang (The Snake), one of about six other squats across the street. The building is pretty iconic - I've seen photos of it before in books, maybe in Robert Neuwirth's Shadow Cities - it has a painting of a giant spotted snake with fangs. While the squatters in the Vrankrijk managed to buy their building, I learned that De Slang and all the squats on the other side of the street were threatened with eviction. Ah, shades of the East Village. It seems that the corporate powers are beginning an attempt to disembowel communities in Amsterdam, same as they did in New York City. Maybe the squatters in Amsterdam will find a way of foiling them. Unlike in NYC, they seem to have support in the general population, probably since most squats seem to have some kind of artistic venue that is open to the public.

After the film, we ended up at Cafe the Minds, where Walter works, a bar decorated with a dozen hanging pairs of combat boots and a giant oar. Most nights ended at Cafe the Minds, actually. The first night, a very drunk guy sidled and lurched up next to us and asked Walter in Dutch what my name was. After seeing the guy try to hit on every other girl in the bar, Walter was mortified enough to toss him out.  And then there was one night when I sat down next to someone else wearing an IDFA badge and he exclaimed, "Oh, I thought I would avoid all the IDFA people here!" It turned out that he's a pretty well-known Iranian filmmaker.

I would have liked to have spent more time getting to know the city, but I was really there for IDFAcademy, and had a pretty intense four days of workshops that started at 10AM and ended with drinks that lasted until 2AM. I had already been partying since Paris so the entire trip I felt "rough as a boot" as one Dutch filmmaker whom I became friends with put it. Plus I was pretty darn broke. I never did get to tour the canals on a boat. Or see the Rijkmuseum. Or visit the Red Light District. But after these last two years when I've been despairing that NYC is at a dead end, out of gas, end of the line, it was great to remember what it used to feel like. And so very unexpected to find a place that has managed to keep its beautiful collective spirit, the missing ingredient in the new New York that used to make everything so possible.

Pictures of Amsterdam are here.
My IDFA experiences are on the ALMOST HOME: TAIWAN website.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lost in Paris

 Three days walking around in Paris, meeting some great people and getting lost.

Headless man depicted in Notre Dame.

And I buy yet another beret, in the city of berets. Which I naturally lost in the airport coming home.

Pretty city.

Pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co.

James at Shakespeare & Co, in spirit if not in person. The place made me miss him even more. And Gotham Book Mart and Tompkins Square Books.

Canal St. Martin by night. I think this was my favorite Paris neighborhood.

Got lost looking for the Canal on Day 2, ended up in Villette, where I found this market.


Paris collage.

Okay, it's pretty. But I'm not enough of a tourist to go and climb the darn thing.

Seems to be a required pic, Eiffel tower in the background.

Houseboats on the Seine.

What is up with the locks in Paris? Anyone know? Saw a bridge that was full of them too.

Golden asses. 
The Musee d'Orsay. Got there at 4:15 to get the reduced fare ticket, which left me only an hour to hike through the place. Gawked at some Van Goghs and was impressed by some impressionists.
Got lost in the Invalides looking for Rue de Vernueil and found the Taiwan consulate.

Cafe L'Empire on Rue de Vernueil. Well worth getting a little rained on and walking in circles to find this street and this great inexpensive restaurant.

Paris still life with duck confit.

Dinner at Jim Hayne's atelier for his birthday.

The birthday boy and blondes.

Jim Haynes and me.

Jim surrounded by women.

Cathy and her husband Yves. Way back in 1978, she was staying at Jim's and liked to cook, so they began having dinner parties on Sunday nights. They are still having parties every Sunday only now it's like 60-80 people.
Glad to have a chance to get to know everyone in a more intimate gathering.

Happy birthday, Jim.

Jim invited me to stay over his place and the next day, after I moved into that lofted area with the beams, I helped him prepare for the Sunday night dinner. About sixty people did show up. 
Jim's philosophy of life.

Last day in Paris. Wandered Montmartre and had lunch at the cemetary.

I'm not enough of a celebrity gawker to really hunt for famous people alive or dead. Took a little look for the Goncourt Brothers and for Francois Truffaut but couldn't find them. Alexandre Dumas (fils) was an easy find but damn is his tomb ever tacky. Well, maybe that suits the writer of La Dame aux Camelias. I much prefer his dad. First novel that made me realize what writing could be was The Count of Monte Cristo.

Lost Unicorn posters are also in Paris!

Went up the hill to get this shot of a Montmarte windmill and got lost. Again. Only this time I had a train to catch to Amsterdam. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hurrication in NYC

Just wanted to post a few pictures from NYC post-hurricane. A beautiful time of people coming together to share resources. One of the reasons I love the Lower East Side. No where else like it. 

The few places that had generators offered neighbors electricity to charge their phones, at least until they started running out of gas... This charging station was at TNC. There was a constant line of at least ten people, I was told.

Free tofu at Commodities!
Free ramen at Rai Rai Ken!

Free curry at Sapporo!

Jeff and I chow down on some free curry. Delicious.

The lit-up deli is like a beacon in the dark East Village.

How gorgeous the restaurants were, all quiet and lit by candles.

Avenue A in the dark.

Avenue A restaurant Flea Market in the dark.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Blackout Tourists: Halloween Adventures in Darkville

It was already dusk when my friend Sheridan and I climbed the ramp onto the Williamsburg Bridge, walking in the opposite direction of most people, who were headed to Brooklyn for power and a shower. "Why are they going to the East Village?" I heard someone say. But I had been feeling  cut off for days, obsessively keeping track of friends in Loisaida as the East River overflowed and turned Avenue C into a river. Emergencies bring out the best in the East Village and I was really missing being a part of the neighborhood's beautiful big-hearted spirit. As my friend Joel said, "It's like Burning Man meets a Rainbow Gathering!"

It was also like the early 1800s. We were on our way to meet Joel on the darkened corner of Avenue A and 10th Street. Buzzers didn't work, he said, and neither did cell phones, so we were back to those days when you made a fixed appointment to meet up with someone. Of course, we were already half an hour late. As we passed the halfway point on the bridge and there were no more lights, my cell phone rang. Apparently, Joel had scrounged up a phone and plugged in his moribund landline, which he had kept for emergencies just like this. But the phone cut off just as he told me to meet him at his home instead.

A dark lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge. 
Delancey Street without lights. 
I repeatedly tried calling him as we got off the bridge but the phone refused to cooperate. Apparently, in Darkville, there were no phones. There were also no traffic lights. A policeman in a yellow slicker with reflective stripes was directing cars as they came off the bridge onto Delancey Street. We turned up Clinton Street while I continued to dial Joel's number. But when I finally got through to him, a friend answered the phone and said that he had gone out on the street corner to try to meet me.

So I gave up calling and concentrated on getting to Avenue A as quickly as possible. As he had told me, the Lower East Side seemed peaceful and beautiful, bathed in darkness. A few restaurants were open, serving dinner by candlelight. No music, limited food, lots of wine. I had heard that earlier, restaurants were giving away food for free. It made me think of the novel Germanie Lacerteux by the Goncourt Brothers, which begins with a description of a lavish communal dinner on the streets of Paris at the height of the horror in the French Revolution.

When we got to Houston Street, I was surprised that there were no policemen at all. It certainly wasn't like the blackout in 2004, when cops swarmed around everywhere, putting red flares in the middle of each intersection. A few cars crept by warily as we scurried across the avenue, Sheridan frantically waved her blinking light like a kid trying to do tricks with a yoyo.

Only one restaurant was open on Avenue B and on the normally busy strip of Avenue A between 6th and 10th Street , flickering yellow candlelight could be seen in only three establishments  - the bar part of Sidewalk Cafe, Niagara, and the relatively new taco joint La Lucha. Most of the familiar old bars and restaurants that had been there since the 1980s were dark and shuttered - Benny's, 7A, Lucy's, Odessa, Ray's. Tompkins Square Park was shut tight. But as we passed by, there was the unmistakable rustle and squeak every New Yorker knows. The headlights of a passing car revealed that behind the park gate at 8th Street, a generous misguided soul had scattered birdseed that was being consumed by a hundred hungry rats.

Joel was not on the corner of Avenue A and 10th, so we proceeded to his apartment. But the buzzer didn't work and neither did my phone, so we milled around outside uncertainly until someone who had been walking his dog let us in. "Joel?" I called when we got to the courtyard of his rear building. "Vicky?" he responded from somewhere in the dark. We heard footsteps and saw a light weaving around in the dark, as he descended from the third floor to open the door.

Joel was in the middle of washing his dishes. We opened a bottle of wine as he told us that a friend was going to be cooking a huge dinner on 10th Street. At 7:30, he ran downstairs to let another friend in. "I'll finish washing your dishes," I volunteered and went into his kitchen. After a few minutes fiddling with his faucet in puzzlement, I realized that the dishes had to be rinsed with water that was boiling on the stove since nothing but cold water came from the tap.

Joel came upstairs with Monica, who was wearing eye make-up that looked like an expressionistic mask. I couldn't tell what she was - a sexy raccoon from the 1920s? - but I wished I had a costume. So far, she and Sheridan were the only two people whom I saw dressed for Halloween. Sheridan was a Zoo Creeper from Killema Zoo, a costume she had created for a haunted house in a park she works at.  I hadn't had time to put together a costume before the storm hit and I felt rather lame in their company. "Would you like a trick or a treat?" Monica asked archly. "A treat!" Sheridan squealed. Monica instructed us to rummage through a giant brown leather bag and pick something. Sheridan pulled out a glittery skull made of styrofoam. I got a tampon.

Joel finished washing his dishes and began to put on his Halloween costume, a dapper outfit from the early 1900s. I wanted to say hello to a few friends whom I hadn't heard from and Monica also had a friend she wanted to visit, so we all told Joel that we would meet him at his friend's place for dinner in about fifteen minutes. "Just holler Bianca when you get there," he informed us.

We parted ways with Monica on Avenue A and set out for my old apartment building on 11th Street and Avenue C. When we arrived, we saw that a generator was running, apparently pumping water out of the basement of the building. The door was open, so we entered and immediately noticed how damp and musty the building smelled. The first floor had quite obviously been flooded. Later, I heard that there had been a river between 8th Street and 14th Street on Avenue C, which was quit natural since it was all landfill on marshy ponds here anyway. Picking our way up in the dark, we knocked on Apartment 16 and spent a few minutes catching up with my old friend Sense, who was huddled in the dark with a few candles. He told me his wife and daughter were in Brooklyn.

Then we walked down Avenue C and found a cook-out happening in front of C-Squat, one of the remaining squats in the neighborhood and the only one that still hosted raucous semi-legal punk rock shows. Jerry the Peddler was outside with a bunch of the usual punks and crusties. I asked about the museum that had just opened on the ground floor of the squat and he confirmed that the basement had flooded and they had lost some artifacts. We also stopped at my friend Chip's apartment, but he wasn't there so I left a note for him on his door. Then we doubled back up Avenue B and ran into a group of my son's friends in front of Sheen's Deli, which apparently is selling candles in the dark for twice as much as usual.

Sheridan the Zoo Creeper in conversation with Jerry the Peddler in front of C-Squat. 
On the corner of 8th and C, Darkville. 
Making a call  to Chip the old-fashioned way. 
As we arrived on 10th Street, we heard someone yelling, "Bianca!"  It was Joel, outside with a friend, who was on her way to the alternative Halloween Parade. Monica had not yet arrived. I was intrigued with the idea of an unofficial Halloween Parade but we were hungry. Bianca came down eventually and led us up to her apartment, where we had a fantastic dinner of coconut shrimp and fish with two other friends. When they found out that Sheridan and I had come from Williamsburg they said, "Oh, you're blackout tourists!" We all moaned about eating so much in the past few days but that didn't prevent us from polishing our plates. Dinner was punctuated with Joel occasionally leaning out the window shouting, "Monica???" She never showed up.

Joel in costume at Bianca's for dinner. 

We eat like kings in Darkville. 

A Darkville dinner. 
After dinner, we hitched a cab back to Williamsburg and found normality rather strange. People were in costume and bars were full. Halloween as usual. I wished we had seen the alternative parade but it was fun going to the Monster Mash at Glasslands, where the top costumes included a guy dressed as a bloody vagina and a girl in a giant lobster costume made of red felt. I still felt stupid for not having a costume. Someone asked, "What are you?" I brandished my camera and said, "A blackout tourist!"

Alana Amram on Halloween.  
Halloween at Glasslands. 

Lady and a lizard. 

Mary and Jesus DJ-ing. 
Outside Glasslands at the Monster Mash.