Sunday, May 2, 2010

avant la lettre – the U.S. chronicles ep.01

until the end of the film... (a tribute to Malvina Reynolds)
It’s been about three years since I wrote my last travel diary. Snoopy would sigh and coldly state: "these were three happy years". The reason is probably I ain’t traveled to another continent in a while... nor traveled at all, actually. What the title strongly – sill subtly – suggests, is I'm in the United S. of A. What it doesn’t, is this is going to be about six weeks long and the plan is to be travelling, North-East to South-East, hopefully all the way to New-Orleans, then back North until Quebec. Alone, with friend Laura, and with whoever may appear along the way. Intention is to be Couchsurfing (Wooo! The world is smaller than you thiiink! Live life to the fulleeeest!), camping and staying at some friends', some friends' friends' and even some friends' friends' friends'... As you’ll have guessed already, because of the big U. States of A. thang, I shall try and improve (well, at least “practice”) my written Engrrrish. Sorry for the inconvenience!
Smooth warm-up, let’s go with some starters: today is May, 1st, my parents and many others all around the world must have gone to the workers' day march and I've just been lazily wandering around South-West Brooklyn on a bicycle with my camera, to shoot the last pictures on my first film.

the rusty-go-arty (or is it the other way round?) South Brooklyn peers...
Blocks, blocks and more blocks of old, rusty-go-stylish brick buildings along some not-so-abandoned piers: broken windows covered with newspaper, whose yellowish colour probably dates back to the twentieth century ; fire-escape stairs drawing these regular Z-shaped stitched-scars from some invisible, ancient wounds along the front walls ; the Statue of Liberty quietly standing at some (respectable) swimming distance, her lead head and golden flame bizarrely floating over the vague humid fog, while the dirty upper New-York bay melted, thick waters bounce to the tired boats slowly making their way in between. The sun is shining brightly on top of what is definitely a beautiful warm spring day on earth. So… Where do I begin (to tell the story of how...) complicated flying to the U.S. can be? Thanks Shirley for always being such an inspiration for me. Well, the answer is: “One month ago”.

One month ago, I booked a – cheap – flight to NYC. I filled the online application for the ESTA (American procedure for the visa exemption program), checked everything was okay, received a positive answer from the American embassy, read it wasn't necessary to print the document and simply stopped to worry about it. I just totally forgot about it. This was my second mistake. Second, because the first one – whose existence I then ignored – was to type in my passport number including the final letter. I would later discover the final letter of a passport number doesn't belong to the passport number itself.
the Fifth-type (en)counters.
I wonder what you’d say if somebody called you someday, mispronouncing your name, then when quietly told how your exact name was supposed to sound, he’d answer: "No, no. That's fine the way I spell it: See, it's because the last two letters of your name are not actually part of it". You'd be grateful to be enlightened with such revelation. Well, I reckon I am probably the one who made the mistake in the first place, reading the number from the code lines, where there is some extra X at the end, which do not appear on all the other places a passport number is printed on a passport... It’s sometimes challenging to recognize that you screwed it big time just because you weren’t quite enough concentrated, or in a rush.

 But hum... That doesn’t matter yet. And many things happened during this month anyway. One of them, not the least, is that Björk is suspected to have tried the well-known "Menthos in a Coke can” experiment, slightly too close to a geyser. Although unintentionally, she caused this fantabulous volcano eruption up there in Iceland, whose main consequence was the gigantic ash-cloud that sort of paralyzed all European airports and gave me the opportunity to spend an extra week in beautiful Barcelona. Yey!

Icelandic ice carpet? cherry blossom on Koya San? Prospect Park in May!
Thanks a lot, Björk:
It's much appreciated!

Mon petit volcan,
You're eruptions and disasters,
I keep calm,
Admiring your lava,

I keep calm,
Possibly maybe,
Probably love.

Possibly maybe.

And so on.

We all know the lyrics:
kind of a confession.
Sure thing. She's guilty.
That's it. Let's move on...

I wake up at 6am on the cold morning of April, 26th, have a shower, take my backpack and a bicing to the airport shuttle stop, then get on the bus and reach the airport waaaay too early. After a half hour waiting for the Continental Airlines check-in desk to open, a polite French (??) woman wearing a trendy Continental blue suit asks for my passport, electronic ticket and ESTA copy. As I give the first two documents and explain her I didn't print the third one because I'm quite an eco-concerned guy and a beaver-friendly-don't-print-unless-absolutely-necessary-tree-saver (and occasionally -hugger too), she says it's a bit of a problem and I should at least feel sorry for doing basically what I was told to on the American embassy's website. She sends me to her colleague, who types in my passport number on his computer and tells me my ESTA is not valid because I gave no stay address in New-York. My answer: I put "Brooklyn" in the address field online and my request was accepted, makes the guy call the girl next to him and repeat it to her, like it's Broadway's latest music-hall’s best joke "this guy typed in BROOKLYN as his address in New-York". Ha ha ha ha ha! They begin to laugh, lol and rofl. Ha ha ha ha ha! “Dude typied in address: Brooklyn”. Ha ha ha ha ha! Like it's so funny they’ll choke on laughing and it’s gonna kill’em... Ha ha ha ha ha! Idiots.

my address in New York, sir? Sure! I'll stay in Brooklyn, sir.
Anyway, long story made short: I have to run to the business center at the other end of the terminal, pay 3.50 euro for 20 minutes of Internet connection and look for Laura's address. I don't have it in any email. It's on a piece of paper, on my desk, at home. I'm lucky enough this German friend, Jule, is staying at my place and probably sleeping now. I try and call her. Phone turned off. Yep! She's sleeping. F-c-! I'll call the neighbours so they can wake her up so she can send me Laura's address. I don't have their phone number. I look for their home number on the net. They don't have a land line. I call the girl who lived at my place before I moved in. She answers and gives me the neighbours’ number. I call them. They go and knock on my door. Jule wakes up and put pass her on the line. I remember the scene in Lost Highway when the guy calls his own house and is answered by the guy standing in front of him. That scares the crap out of me. You shouldn’t put that in a movie and expect people to be comfortable with that. Being creepy ought to be fined. Anyway, it's only Jule. She's sleepy and lasts forever before understanding what I'm trying to tell her. I’m probably speaking too fast (and too furious). She finds the paper with the address after hours. I thank her so much, type in the address in the ESTA online sheet and save the changes. I run all over the airport with my backpack to the check-in desk. The guy is not there anymore. I go to another one and explain the whole story.

the (d)rain pipe, the bridge and the ever greener other bank.
He checks everything and tells me the ESTA is not valid. We have a look at it and that's when I discover my first mistake: the one of typing in my passport number with the final X letter. That’s when the other guy (who ignores the address: Boorklyn joke) explains me with delectation that the final X digit on my passport number doesn't really belong to my passport number. Again: at least it's not the same guy as before! Because after the address: Brooklyn incident (lol, rofl), he would have laughed so much (Ha ha ha. Hum)! The new guy tells me I need to go back to the Internet, to try and change my passport number before it's too late and the check-in is closed. A while ago it was too early. Ford! these people really don't know what they want, do they? And I say to myself (as I often do) “What a wonderful world”... Run, breathe and sweat, bitch! I’m now back at the business center. I try to smile at the girl with a clear "Hey you, remember I was there 15 minutes ago and I used about 20 minutes of this ridiculously expensive 30-minute internet connection? You’re not going to ask me to pay again, eh?" I smile and explain that unfortunately, I need to surf again for about 5 minutes and maybe... No... Forget it. Better: don’t even think about considering it. She smiles back in what I translate as an unambiguous "Hey you, I recognize you and remember you were there 15 minutes ago and stayed way less than what you ridiculously-overpaid for, plus you look pretty fucked-up and stressed right now, so I could reasonably assume you’re into trouble. And you’re cute and being extremely nice, but that's exactly the reason why I can ask you to pay again and believe me, you'll pay. Come on, bitch, pay again!" smile. Yes, I know, some people’s body language is freaking talkative, right? Right? Women will kill me, I know that...

lights and reflections at financial district.
I pay the 3.50 euro again to get on the American embassy's website, to try and edit my passport number. It happens – fair  enough – that the only data you cannot change on your ESTA application is the passport number. Call it the root data of your application form. I have no options left but to start a new application with the correct passport number, filling all the fields again. Then sending it and waiting for a positive answer from the American embassy and not even knowing if they'll answer today or on Groundhog day 2034. Boarding is scheduled in about 40 minutes... Think about it: some people manage to get on planes with false identities and hi-jack them and do whatever they want with them… So, I quite definitely qualify among the short 1% percent of unusually cyber-clumsy people. Okay, after about 2 minutes, I’ve got a positive answer. Miracle! Either they have highly skilled computer slaves and mechanical turks or it's an automated answer and as soon as you don't tick the drug dealer, terrorist, communist and/or serial killer boxes, they systematically give you a YES. I then start wondering why all this hypocrite ESTA thing and complex procedure of visa exemption program, if it’s a matter of trusting your word that you intend to commit no criminal offence, felony, or whatever it classifies as... But I don't really have time to wonder, at that point. Now is time to run. Hop! Woops... "I'm so sorry I smashed your ice cone and stepped on your furry teddy bear, you stupid fat little kid in a Spiderman suit. But ush, little baby, don't you cry. You should not have been on my way in the first place: summertime and the living is easy, I'm running late and there's a worldwide conspiracy agenda to make me miss this flight". Run, breathe and sweat, bitch! I’m now back at the check-in desk. Wormholes must exist. Everybody's gone, except the first guy. I provide him with the new freshly-issued ESTA code. - Alrighty, sir! - Thank you, Sir. - You have a nice flight, Sir. - Thanks again, sir (translation: Thanks again, a-hole. You have a good day, a-hole. Wish you get a flat tire on your way home, a-hole).

Stair Wars' laser sabers in front of the Metropolitan Art Museum.
Guy's wish became true: had a nice flight, some good food, several terrible movies, a nice couple of elderly grey-haired hippies sitting next to me and nothing special to say about that, even though I’d love to. We landed at Newark ten minutes late. And I stayed 40 minutes in line at the customs office. Nothing special either. A long, slow line, filled with tiredness, boredom and a vague anguish. No problem, no questions or just the usual ones: any intention to work illegally, sir? Any plan to kill someone? Any project involving weapons and drugs? No, Sir. Me very nice, Sir. Me good tourist, Sir. Thank you, Sir. Then they let me in: U.S. of A., here I come! Now my time is running short after wasting hours with those pointless stories... New-York City (NYC) is amazing. Huge. Way bigger than, say, Brive or Clermont-Ferrand. So much it's mind-boggling. Everything is bigger than home, higher than home, tastier than home, larger than home, further than home, wider than home. Sometimes quite fatter than home, too. And even homier than home. I'm staying in Brooklyn (See? Told ya, but you wouldn't believe me!), very close from Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, not too far from Prospect Park. Amazingly amazing. It takes one whole hour and quite a lot of sweat and stress to make it to Central Park on a bicycle. I move around on a bicycle. I’m desperately trying to keep at an eye-distance behind Laura's flashy riding helmet on a bicycle. My brakes don't really work properly.
d(r)iver-proof bicycle lanes on Manhattan bridge.

The average NYC driver unavoidably falls in one of these two categories: those who don't care about you and would run you over without even blinking and those who care a lot. Those who do, do care a lot ! I mean, a lot. Way too much. They’d gladly get down their car to go and fold their right rear-view mirror if they thought it’d help you flow smoothly in the traffic. As for the other category, well, my hair is getting white, but it's a fun experience. So far. The weather is wonderful: so sunny and warm and fresh. I've been riding back and forth the Brooklyn bridge in the morning, afternoon, evening and right at the sunset; even at night, on Wednesday, with a huge reddish full moon right over the skyline. New-York New-York, Mr Sinatra used to sing... Brooklyn is cool, funky, colorful and happy. Well, through my eyes. People are nice, easy-going, friendly and don't give a shit about how you dress or how you spell Mississippi. They're so real, you know? I mean, real. You see? They recycle everything and do not eat: they adhere to the big whole fair organic stuff that’s so happening right now, you know? They even have vegan fake chicken wings carved out of fair-trade tofu loafs, organically whole healthy fake. How cool is dat? We may have them in Europe too, and I just am so not up-to-date. They drive those huge cars that must waste ridiculously-excessive amounts of gas, better expressed in gallons (per yards). And they park them quietly in front of their neat brick houses with bow window and front stairs, under the cool shade of some lovely bright green willows. Once the huge car is parked, they usually ride their bicycles to go everywhere around and take their domestic compost to one of the many coop’ urban gardens. I love it! The coffee houses make and serve a watery freshly brewed organic original homemade blend with organic whole milk from local dairy farms and juicy vegan organic fruit shakes and wonderland gorgeous whole-wheat warm muffins stuffed with exotic what-the-hell?-nuts or how-did-you-call-‘em?-berries. Looks like New-York invented the Bo-Bo thing long before left bank Paris did. How long until we have some hipsters at home, too?

Anyway, in a random – although nearly chronological – order, I:

Union square hippy organic market: want big apples?
  • witnessed a storm-like pink snow of cherry blossom in the alleys of Prospect Park’s botanical garden and for a second believed I was the hero of Takeshi Kitano's Dolls (or an extra in a Hello Kittie video).
  • experienced jetlag 6:15am wake-up, 9:00pm sleepy attack for three long days!
  • had the typical American-, Brooklyn-, East Village-, Jewish-, and Round-the-corner- breakfasts: with french toasts, scallion and cheese cream bagels, muffins, fried eggs, fruit juice and more.
  • wandered around Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Italy, Greenwich Village and Soho.
  • burnt my eyes on Times Square at night, all in blue and neon and pink, slaloming between grooms’ Hummer limos, hanes’ Lincoln limos and some amazingly ugly tuned japanese GT superbikes.
  • had, of course, a huge Angus beef hamburger with french fries and THE legendary War sauce (something like mayonnaise with peanut butter, fried onions and spicy little things in it. It was just gorgeous – believe me – although this totally contradicts with the gateau du chat's theory).
  • fed an obese squirrel in Union Square at the fancy farmers and art market, before playing chess on the street with an old black fundraiser for the Manhattan AAs (Alcoholic Anonyms). He won and I could try to find some excuse, but it's not necessary. He opened e2-e4, fair enough. I answered e7-e6, my favourite (French) ouverture, then went on with dignity until I lost a bishop on a nervous collapse. I resisted until the sad yet ineluctable fate. Costed me 5 bucks and the remembrance of dry mouth, wet hands and compulsively touching my ear, back from a long-gone past...

on the sunny side of the Hudson, laughing at the guys from New Jersey!
  • got lost in a crowd of suits and got my neck stretched and twisted looking for the light between the buildings in financial district.
  • spent a whole hour with the sunset reflecting in the reservoir, staring with my eyes wide open at the dog-walkers, the thousands of joggers and the old retired in flashy sportswear at Central Park.
  • not only eaten but also cooked my first catfish papillote with eggplant, mushrooms, onion, lemon and chives. Wow! French cuisine rocks all over the world!
  • of course, laughed at the New-Jersey people from the other bank of the Hudson River (the good one), because it sucks to be on the other side.
  • celebrated the Kentucky derby day at a Cuban eco-friendly paradise, with Brooklyn’s local home-made Sixpoint beer and the best pork and guacamole spicy sandwiches ever.

It's pretty late now, but the car is packed and the backpacks too. The dry food is prepared for days of hiking. The route is more or less drawn and some CSers have been contacted along the way. As Jimi would say: “after all the jacks are in their boxes and the clowns they’ve all gone to bed. You can hear happiness staggering on down the street, footsteps dressed in red. And the wind...”.

Tomorrow morning, early wake up: we hit the road all the way down south to New Orleans.
See you next week!

the one and only way to get the coolest view from Manhattan bridge: Spider-man up!

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