Hot Sauce

In the US, even hot sauce leaves a distinctly sugary aftertaste. Sweet is king here.

Hot sauce is not really hot, either, nothing like the blindingly hot concoction that numbs you like a fiery and corrosive alternative of a dentist’s injection.

In a way I cannot really pin down, intensity is not appreciated here. I was talking with a Turkish colleague yesterday, it was relaxing to be with someone intense and frank. Even the Brits can be intense, not overwhelming, not too strong, but intense. Americans, even New Yorkers, seem like they prefer to maintain a level of non-noxiousness (I wouldn’t call it innocuousness). Having said that, maybe this is just a Yankee thing. Probably is. Maybe they know about hot sauce in the South. I bet they do.

Big City

Looking over towards Manhattan from the Jersey wasteland, I remembered that disturbing and, indeed, disgusting film, the War of the Worlds (the Tom Cruise version). And I suddenly felt I realised why someone living in Jersey and facing the Manhattan skyline dim in their eastern horizon day in day out could secretly cherish the destruction of this city. Clearly, what you can see of this city from over there is a world at a different scale, a humbling and humiliating dense forest of titanic constructions. It looks like an alien world that doesn’t care, one built by the corporations, which materialise as skyscrapers and towers and lights that are perpetually on in distant offices in Lower Manhattan. Those distant giants, the proverbial canyons between them, mock the mortgaged wooden boxes they live in, which they call home. The sight of the city from over there exudes sinful pride, in a country where everyone feels the need to be proud of at least one thing. It is a world on the other side of the river and a world that they can only see from a distance and briefly visit.

What those who would relish the experience of turning Manhattan into ruins, embers or underwater habitat is how many poor people it contains itself. Living side by side with the corporate citadels, possibly working for them. Looking at the Manhattan skyline from a distance belies the city’s complexity and subtlety and confusing diversity, but it is all there: what cannot be seen from Jersey is tenements and shops and condos and tiresome endless streets, the very grid that gives the pretense of Cartesian infinity on this very small island.

American Bar

The amount of work I have done within the last 48 hours, I usually produce within a week or so. Not to mention how original it feels. I now understand those writers who go to retreats and isolated places and write away. Relative isolation helps you focus: even if not everything you produce is good (let alone brilliant), by externalising it you can either build on it or be firm in discarding it.

So, for tonight, there are exactly two choices: a hipster dive or a sports bar where jocks hang out. I think I will go to the latter, in the hope of grabbing a burger, too. Let’s see.

Long Island

I arrived yesterday. I am still jet-lagged, and I want to go to the gym so that I can shake the drowsiness off. Then I will get some dinner, somewhere. Staying on a university campus means there is little to do. Like in the Outpost Capital: one event per night, or less.

Well, the event here for tonight is a string quartet. But I think it is sold out. Or ticketing at $40, I can’t remember. Either possibility makes it rather unattractive, especially for someone who will probably sleep through Brahms and the other offering, only to wake up half-dazed when the Beethoven offering begins.

Otherwise, working here feels easy. I don’t know why. I had a meeting with my kindly but famous host in the morning. I left it feeling that my work is relevant and interesting, maybe of some modest importance in the greater scheme of things, too. Interacting with an esteemed colleague, something that is gravely missed in the Outpost, made me understand what I do more than all my private thinking put together.

Yes, nobody really exists in isolation. On whichever plane.

On Saturday I am going back to Manhattan after 5 and a half years. Last time I was there, I decided to change my life. In Spring 2008 I put the ring on to remind me that. I don’t know if I changed my life, but I definitely let the circumstances and people make it richer — that is certain.

Two moments in Utrecht

One

I am sitting at a bar, the equivalent of a Northern English local, on the Canal. My glasses are rained on, I am waiting for them to dry as the bartender did not understand that I needed a napkin to wipe them clean. Through the window I can see a blurry dance of candlelight and shadows at a window in a building on the other side of the Canal.

I put on my glasses. The window belongs to a flat. Large window, the room must be cold. The glass pane is all clouded from the inside. The shadow dance is of a piece of cloth, like a partial curtain, against the flickering of two candles or, perhaps, a fireplace. The shadows themselves are non-distinct and coloured.

Two

I am standing near the entrance of the great België bar. A couple is embracing standing next to me. A Santa Claus figure walks into the bar. He walks straight towards me and with his two thumbs he lifts up the edges of my tight downward pointing smile. “Better now”, he says in English (?) and disappears inside the establishment. The couple next to me talk softly to each other in Compatridese.

Jerusalem Day 6

We met our generous host for a tour of the Old City at 8.30 this morning. We walked through a hillside neighbourhood of ‘luxury apartments’ facing it, mostly bought out by rich Jews abroad who visit twice a year and hope they will eventually come to retire here, within sight of it.

The tour was exhaustive but very pleasant. Through the Jewish Quarter first, with its brand new rebuilt Ramban Synagogue, a very large one, and (very) devout Jews going about their daily pre-Sabbath business. The Jewish Quarter has been very extensively renovated, excavated, rebuilt, restored, scraped clean, and signposted. It feels like one of those European medieval towns in that everything has been carefully (or not so carefully) restored back to its former glory (Ottoman glory, in many cases here). The Western Wall plaza, where a neighbourhood was razed to make room for pilgrims, is what one expects it to be. There was no question about visiting the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, this being Friday and us being non-Muslim. We wandered inside the Muslim Quarter and then we visited the very chic Bethesda site (complete with a basilica and excavations, run by the French), the Lithostrotos (and the associated underground waterless cisterns) up Via Dolorosa and to the Holy Sepulchre. Between these we experienced the crowds in the Christian Quarter and the after-prayer ones in the Muslim Quarter, had hoummous for lunch (nothing like the hoummous elsewhere) and Arabic coffee, scented with cardamom.

The place is — predictably –madness. Everyone seems to hold on to a piece of it, from the Ethiopian Church and the Copts on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, to the Austrians and their convent, to Greeks and Russians, the French, the Germans, the Syriac Christians and the Orthodox Christians and the Orhtodox Jews and the Conservative Jews and the Hassidim, from Orthodox Palestinians to Armenians, from Poles to Ukrainian Greek Catholics, from street sellers to shop owners to women with their head wrapped: nuns in black, nuns in white, nuns in grey, orthodox Jewish women, Muslim women, Russian women in pilgrimage and prayer. A place where sense does not matter, in the name of God. A place of archeological battlegrounds and fake monuments, of displaced places and revamped facts. A soberingly unstable playground for the Devout, where God only matters and where homes and bodies are usurped, bulldozed, evacuated, longed for, exchanged. In life and in death, like the Jewish tombs on the Mount of Olives bulldozed by the Jordanians to make way for a swanky hotel. A place where people chose to be buried: Jews in the Mount of Olives, Christians on Mount Zion, so as to be close to their respective Messiah when he comes to raise them for the dead. Amen.

Tonight I might try to go to the American Colony and East Jerusalem, to get away from the Sabbath stillness falling here as the sun goes down.

Jerusalem Day 5

A very special day. After “almost a triumph”, we walked to the market, Mahane Yehuda. I finally saw the city centre, which gives the impression of an urban network of streets and buildings, unlike the insular leafy-suburbs-on-hilltops we were getting during the previous days. We walked along the pedestrianised Yafo Street, where brand new trams run empty, seats still wrapped in bubble wrap. The area felt like an English market town (with Yafo Street like a High Street of sorts), albeit with rather unassuming and almost ugly buildings of a middle-eastern rhythm, despite made of the famous stone. We had dinner at the spectacularly good Mahne-Yuda restaurant, an amazing experience (and a very fullfilling, too).

Tomorrow I will see more of the city.