Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Here, here J.R.R. Tolkien, here, here. The Hobbit is just full of tasty lines that apply seamlessly to our own travels. Luckily we are not likely to encounter any trolls. But I suppose that really depends on who you ask.
There have been witches. And possibly ghosts.
Though a comfortable stay in a cozy house with ample food and drink may not make for much of a story, I can tell you this about our first two weeks in the U.S.:
Pickles can now pedal a tricycle and say a lot of new English words. English is winning the language race now that we’re surrounded by people speaking it.
I can now say, tried and tested!, that this recipe for Pumpkin Pull-Apart Bread is the best cooking decision you will ever make. (Oh. My. Cod.)
Sculpture parks can be creepy and fun. (See photos.)
Jet lag with babies sucks more than you ever could have possibly imagined.
There are air mattresses in this world that are actually comfortable.
Tonight will find us on the highway heading south. Who knows when we will make it back to New Jersey. Next year? In three? In five? But it has been fun. And off they drove, tra la la!
I am writing this to you from the shores of America.
It is a fact that I still find hard to believe.
The jet lag was horrible; I don’t recommend traveling across time zones with babies to anyone, ever, period, exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.
I spent 23 years of my life in America, and now it strikes me as a country of people running in circles, frantically waving their hands above their heads.
Not everybody, not individuals, and probably not you: It is a feeling, an image that comes to mind when people start telling me stories about the health care system and gun violence and the economy and abandoned houses and minimum wage and the way people drive. America doesn’t make any sense to me, and I’m not sure that it has anything to do with the fact that I have lived elsewhere for the past eight years.
But we are having a lovely time, eating decadently and enjoying watching Pickles get to know a new set of grandparents. We’ve been to the beach (it was foggy; we built castles) and a thrift store (I miss the warehouse-sized American thrift stores, though it turns out I can get much better deals at the flea markets in Germany) and on walks beneath the brightly colored stragglers still hanging onto their trees.
Mmmmm. Milk. When I think of milk, I think of white mustaches and dunked cookies, of the comfort of hot chocolate and the “Got Milk?” ad campaign that was everywhere when I was growing up. I remember replacing cow milk with soy milk when I decide to eat vegetarian, and, of course, when I continued on into veganism. Then one day my face swelled up in big red blotches, and bam just like that I was allergic to soy and out my main protein source. I started dreaming about cheese, and soon returned to vegetarian shores. Re-enter milk, stage left.
I hadn’t become vegetarian (or vegan) because I found the consumption of animal products to be inherently wrong, but because I found the animal product foods industry to be inherently wrong. Workers are treated poorly and the animals even more so. We’ve all seen the PETA pictures of the factory farms. It’s not a pretty sight, and all the “supermarket pastoral” pictures of cows grazing in bright green fields under an open sky on the supermarket milk packages couldn’t make me forget it. So when I started drinking milk again, I knew I wanted it to be from a small local farm, and I knew I wanted it to be raw, that is to say, unpasteurized, unprocessed, unmolested.
My reasoning had to do with what I had been reading about whole foods, particularly raw milk. I read stories about people whose doctors had pronounced them lactose intolerant who could drink raw milk with no problem. I read stories and studies about the way children grew faster when drinking it and about it curing everything from asthma to digestive disorders. And all this because during pasteurization the good bacteria are killed along with the bad and during homogenization many of the milk’s nutrients are destroyed. As a French-born cheese shop owner in Berlin told one journalist, eating pasteurized cheese “…is like being at a funeral. The bacteria are dead, the cheese is dead, it can’t develop any further. It only tastes like water and fat.”
Unfortunately, raw milk is something that government food regulators are fond of banning. Here in Germany, it is only technically illegal—that is, it’s illegal to sell for consumption the way supermarket milk is, but can be sold if labeled otherwise (Vorzugsmilch or Ab-Hof-Abgabe). Which means that here in Germany I can read the government warnings, but am ultimately left free to make my own decision. In the United States the FDA conducts undercover sting operations on Amish farmers who presume to sell unpasteurized milk products to people who have consciously decided it’s raw dairy or nothing, people who are willing to sneak around the law to get it, people who are willing to fight for their right to whole foods. A friend of mine had her buyer’s club shut down by just such an operation in May. (You can read about it here.)
The FDA is convinced that raw milk is bad for you, but, unfortunately, they have done an incredibly poor job proving it: their studies are biased, their statistics faulty, and many of the illnesses that they have linked with raw milk consumption involved no tests on any of the raw milk in question (raw milk advocates have put together a report that refutes the FDA’s evidence against raw milk point for point, and you can download it by clicking here). Even according to their own statistics there are more food-related illnesses caused by deli meats and pasteurized milk than there are by raw milk. The thing is that there is a risk involved in any kind of food, and you can get sick from pasteurized dairy just as you can from unpasteurized dairy.
The beauty of the raw milk most food enthusiasts are drinking, that I am drinking—and when I say “raw milk” I mean unpasteurized, unprocessed milk from grass-fed cows, not unpasteurized mass-produced grain-fed industry cow milk—is knowing exactly where your milk came from and who farmed it. The farmers’ names and address are printed right on the label, and often it is one of those farmers who, every Saturday, hands me fresh bottles of milk and wraps my cheese in white paper before telling me to have a great weekend. Can you say that about any mass-produced milk? Even the crunchy organic stuff? I trust people I know more than I trust a faceless, nameless factory farm, more than I trust the FDA and their statistics. For more information about raw milk, click here.
When the Beard and I were in America last fall, we spent a couple of days stuck in Philadelphia. Saved from ruin by the kindness of an old high school buddy, we had a place to stay, and a few days to fill with city wandering. Those wanderings inevitably brought us to South Street, which then brought us to the Magic Gardens.
Though I’ll admit that most of the time I’ve spent in Philly has involved racing wheely chairs up and down university hallways while waiting for my dad to finish teaching—that is to say, I haven’t gotten out much—I would give the Magic Gardens the prestigious title of Nikki’s Number One All Time Favorite Tourist Spot in the Whole City. Despite my lack of gorilla experience in the city, having been brouht there on numerous class field trips throughout my school years, I can say with certainty that the Magic Gardens are a thousand times more interesting than the Betsy Ross House and the crack in the Liberty Bell.
You see, the Magic Gardens aren’t actually gardens at all, but a sculptural experience the size of the (once) empty house lot on which they were built by artist Isaiah Zagar. Let me tell you, this man knows how to make a dazzling mural. He also knows how to build walls out of old bottles, bike tires, and other shiny miscellanea. Really, words can only sum it up as such: the place is fucking insane. And amazing. The kind of place where you could spend days just staring at the walls.
On the side of a completely normal looking street, you find this:
Peering through the metal gate, you get a glimpse of the labyrinthine madness that awaits you inside:
I was happy to pay the five dollar admission fee. Did you ever see the movie Nothing But Trouble with John Candy and Chevi Chase and Demi Moore? Well, this is like the set of that movie, but friendly. And tell you what, the set of that movie is about the only reason it’s worth watching, but it is such a good reason that I actually own a copy. But I digress.
The story of the Magic Gardens goes something like this: “Zagar started working on the Magic Gardens in 1994 in the vacant lot nearby his studio. He began by constructing a massive fence to protect the area from harm and then spent the next fourteen years excavating tunnels and grottos, sculpting multi-layered walls, and tiling and grouting the 3,000 square foot space.”
In 2002 the owner of said not-so-vacant-anymore lot noticed that property values on South Street were rising and decided to sell. And in one of those touching “and then the neighborhood came together and won out in the face of real estate speculation” stories, the folks who appreciated Zagar’s work did just that and became a non-profit organization so that anyone who wanted to could come by and give Zagar’s work a good thorough ogle.
Below is a view from inside the lot looking back out onto the normal buildings across the street.
Into the labyrinth…
Down the stairs to the grotto and through one of the little tunnels…
This is recycling for the kind of apocalypse I would very much like to be a part of. Maybe someday I’ll have a little piece of wooded land on which I, too, can build creepy trash-n-bottle labyrinths into which I can send all my writer’s block to shrivel and perish.
Our trek led us on. And on and on and on. The day had begun with a coffee in the hazy half-light of dawn, and it would end five hundred miles later with Pabst Blue Ribbon in a tiny silver can at a country-western bar in Nashville. It was a pilgrimage of sorts: We made country music ourselves, and rumor had it that the streets of Nashville were paved with banjoes, cowboys, and lucrative recording contracts.
I’m not the marathon driver that I used to be (personal record: 13 hours from upstate New York to Ohio, one stop), so somewhere just past Knoxville we stopped at a gas station for several minutes of feigned sleep and more watery coffee. We’d prayed for a grocery store, but all we had found along the highway were “convenience” stores, truck stops, and chain buffets. We’d finished off the leftovers of La Ninja Espanol’s delicious faux baked chicken and were reminded at every rest stop food counter just why Americans tended toward obesity and cardiac arrest.
The memories were filtering slowly back. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten them, but that they’d lost their poignancy in the fog of years and miles sifted through the gray matter that sloshes between my ears, as if the memories were not of this world, but of a parallel universe that had ceased to exist when I’d left it.
But now I remembered. I remembered my last American desk job, where the word “crazy” was liberally tossed around when I mentioned that I rode my bike to work every day (a five minute ride) and astonished looks greeted the fresh salads and greens-filled, vegetarian sandwiches I would prepare for lunch. In America these things made me some kind of freak, but in Europe the same habits just made me a part of the mainstream.
The cheapest fare, it seemed, was always the most disgusting, so I swallowed my pride and my poverty-bred spending habits, bought a bag of peanuts and a jug of orange juice for five dollars, and chalked it up to jacked-up gas station prices. But it turned out that in comparison to what we bought at home for under 10 Euros at Aldi or Netto was going to cost us about 60 dollars at American grocery stores. Had it always been this way? I couldn’t remember.
Finally, tired, euphoric, and deeply disturbed by the price of American beer, we arrived in Nashville where we were unceremoniously greeted by the committees of strip malls and chain stores that line every town in every state across the nation. Were we in Nashville? Denver? Tallahassee? It didn’t matter. It would look the same no matter which city border held our weary bones.
With two hours left until our couchsurfing host would return home from work, we decided to seek out some of the sights, which for us generally meant infoshops, used book stores, and thrift shops. (Oh how I love the musty smell of a warehouse full of donated clothing, books, and funny hats! Oh what patience the Beard would exhibit as I dragged him between the over-stacked shelves and Salvation Army racks of seven states!) Before leaving for a new city I would search the internet for a Food Not Bombs chapter whose website links would, in turn, lead me to the radical culture of each destination. In Nashville’s case the lone beacon was the Firebrand, an infoshop and venue named after the publication of a Tennessee-born anarchist named Ross Winn.
In an unassuming building in an unassuming neighborhood we found the boxy white building. Closed? No. We wandered into the library at its right entrance and found, among the zines, a man who rented a practice space in the building. “What good luck that I was here!” he told us, once we had explained where we’d come from and why we had stopped by. “Usually the infoshop doesn’t open for another two hours.”
Through the library was a show space, floor still littered with bits of glass unswept from the last show that had been held there, and through that room was a tiny infoshop where we added copies of our CDs to the shelves, and I bought a CD from a local riot folk band called Chicken Little. As we browsed through patches, zines, and records, Practice Space Man told us about the bands he’d toured with and played with and recommended bars and venues we might enjoy seeing while we were in town.
With another hour left to burn, we wandered. As luck would have it, we wandered right into “Music City Thrift,” located among shifty discount beer joints and various other strip mall fodder, and found enough $1 Christian propaganda T-shirts to cloth every member of the hell train. One white shirt read “Nashville: Jesus City” above a city-skyline cartoon, complete with Jesus parade and zeppelin. A blue shirt’s front read “For the Glory,” while the back asked if YOU had what it took to fight for the lord, our commander, apparently, in a soccer match.
When I left you last, intrepid readers, the Beard and I were in Filthydelphia, waiting for the Fed Ex man to bring the key to our imminent escape to Tennessee. Though I had long stopped believing in any sort of happy ending, our white-trucked knight finally rang the doorbell and pressed a new copy of my credit card into my hand. We were euphoric.
Back at the airport car rental office, I gritted my teeth as I realized that I was going to have to deal with the same woman who had refused to help me in any way, shape, or form in the name of company policy. But as the luck of the line would have it, another representative took my information, and it was a matter of minutes before we were on south 95.
Freedom. Finally. And yet how depressing it is, the way that in America owning or having access to a destructively made, destructively fueled chunk of metal can be associated with freedom instead of repulsion. But there you have it. Sunglasses on and music turned up we drove right into every six-laned rush hour traffic jam from Philly to D.C. The Beard gaped–how could six lanes of highway be completely full?–and I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel to the tune of Bonnie Prince Billy singing what would become our trip’s cliched theme song (Ramblin’ Fever, apparently written by Merle Haggard and much improved upon by the Bonnie Prince).
And how appropriate, for it was to Nashville–mecca of country music both cheesey and wonderful–toward which we were headed. Between us and cowboy-booted glory, however, were 800 miles of highway. But we had a tent and an enormous duck-print sleeping bag, and around midnight we crept our way down a winding dirt road in Middle Creek, Virginia (which Google is currently telling me does not exist where we found it that night) to a camp site.
Like a lot of other camp sites with signs out on the highway, Middle Creek Campground wasn’t a campsite persay, but an RV site, a place designed, not for people with tents, but for people with large, wheeled vehicles and electric hook ups and water tanks. A sign at the entrance instructed us to check in at the general store to settle up. A sign on the closed general store told us to knock at the house across the stream if the store was closed.
A barking dog answered our knock, but no one emerged to take our 10 dollars and assign us a spot. So, back across the stream, we set up our tent and slipped away before dawn the next morning, congratulating ourselves on not having spent ten dollars that could be better used for cans of beans, bags of tortillas, and hot sauce.
And for those of you who like schmaltzy country music, the offending tune as sung by Merle Haggard:
Whoops, I broke the internet. Well, not the whole internet, but I did forget to renew my domain name, briefly panicked about possibly losing clickclackgorilla.com, renewed, and then spent several weeks wondering why it still wasn’t working. Then my friend the computer genius told me what was what and now here we are, together again at last. Sorry for the brief absence. I hope some of you are still here.
I don’t have much time now because I am about to, fingers crossed, see an eagle in the wild for the first time, but my fingers have been a’twitch for weeks thinking of all stories I could be telling you. We’ve hitch hiked ourselves onto the back of a loaded pick up truck; drank moonshine, homemade watermelon wine, and more bad-tasting beer than I care to think about; were given a ukulele; housed ourselves on a roof outside of an abandoned apartment with a freezer full of shit; and were spontaneous witnesses for a wedding I thought I had missed.
Fun has been had, cold beans have been eaten, backpacks have been emptied of all unnecessary weight, and we now find ourselves in Cambridge, Maryland, about to leave again for our next exciting destination (hello, Baltimore). Though wireless internet seems to flow eternal in this, the land of individual-serving everything, we have no electric devices with which to access it, and I don’t know when I will be back to tell you a few travel yarns. Until then, glory glory, etc.
A man with a sign picked us up in New Jersey. A sign, a black suit, a little phone stuck in his ear, and a terrible mood. He didn’t chat in the car, but panted, perturbed, despite the frozen air pouring from the car’s vents, by the heat. We couldn’t believe our ears when the pilot had announced that it was 97 degrees in Newark, New Jersey. When we left Germany it had been three-sweatshirt weather.
The man with the sign took us to a church-turned-house in idyllic, small-town New Jersey, where we gorged ourselves on gourmet vegan fare and contemplated ghosts. We took a trip to the Jersey shore where we played skee ball and whack-a-mole and traded in our tickets for 50 plastic spider rings. We took walks through soy bean fields and took pictures of squirrels. Being a tourist in places I have visited for most of my life, I experience each place in layers: the nostalgia of retold memories and the tourist’s way of perceiving everything as exotic and new, experienced simultaneously. It’s a good excuse to take a picture every three meters.
The Beard and I had been torn between taking a rental car or a Greyhound bus to Memphis. One was cheaper; the other would offer more freedom and exponentially less misery. Finally, we pried our cold fingers from around our dollar bills and decided to rent a car. We would pick it up at the Philadelphia Airport, and we would take two days driving to Memphis where Elvis would receive us personally, and we would ride off to Graceland on the back of a pink sequined broomstick.
But there was a problem with my credit card. Though I often use my credit card to make internet purchases, I only have an expired copy in my wallet. The up-to-date copy (oh woe-befall me!) is in a filing cabinet in upstate New York. Would the rental company accept my handwritten number and expiration date?
I didn’t think so, so I called the credit card company. They cheerfully told me (oh American customer service, I had forgotten how sweet you are) that they could authorize the charge over the phone with the rental company, that it would be no problem at all. Ha! Hahahahahaha! If only we had been more cynical, stayed where we were, and had a new card overnighted to us on the spot! But alas.
But alas the rental company refused to accept authorization over the phone. But alas every rental company refused to accept authorization over the phone. Even when, after spending several hours on the phone with the credit card company, we called the rental company together and the customer service lady explained the urgency of the situation, explained that they did this all the time, all we got was a stern this-is-company-policy-and-I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-it-means-you-are-screwed. But alas they wouldn’t even let us pay in cash. And we found ourselves stranded in Filthydelphia, mourning our trip to Memphis, and wondering if we were doomed to haunt the streets of Philly like a plastic bag on a piss-scented wind.
Like every stranded tourist without a cell phone before us, we headed to the pay phone, and after a few calls we found ourselves on the couch of an old high school friend. The situation didn’t look so bad from the little alley garden over the top of a cold beer. But it didn’t look great. And instead of riding our economy rental car to deep-fried southern glory, we walked around the historical district and bought groceries in Chinatown.
And now, Memphis amputated from our itinerary, we find ourselves waiting, jumping at every sound outside the door, praying that the fed ex truck arrives with the key to our escape before our new car rental reservation turns into a pumpkin, at which point we will fade into the rustling plastic debris and flattened cups that line these dreary streets, never to be seen again.
Nervous energy. Everywhere. Right down to my fingertips. Tomorrow morning I will get on a plane in Frankfurt, and tomorrow afternoon I will get off of a plane in New Jersey. When I think about it even just a little I am still completely astounded by the concept of flying. Every single time.
It has been two years since I last set foot in the U.S.of.A., and I have a poll running: who will be the one with the worst case of culture shock? I’m betting on myself. It’ll be a close win, though, as the Beard has never set one single toe there.
I remember the details, and I explain them to others. “You’re gonna have a hell of a time finding rolling tobacco and papers,” I say. “The beds in America have one big blanket instead of two. And the pillows are rectangular not square,” I say, a side note. “But there’s not going to be any public transportation there,” I explain. But what I don’t really remember is how I feel in America, or what it’s like to speak English every day of the week. The things there will be familiar, yet far-off, intimate memories yet still not daily normalities.
The trip looks something like this: New Jersey, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Nebraska, Maryland, New York, and finally, back to the arm pit of the earth to fly home again at the end of October. Two months! Two! And yet when I start to list off all of the things we’ll do and all of the places we’ll see, it starts sounding like far too little time.