There’s been a definite buzz over the last six months or more concerning Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and it made a perfect Christmas present for Menno in a thrifty year. He saw the books off sharpish and then it was my turn. I’d heard so much hype about the originality of the heroine and the intelligence of the writing, let’s just say there was a lot of anticipation.
I’ll accept that this is just a simple crime novel with no lofty aspirations to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but with so much bigging up in the media, I expected more than this. The characterisation was a bit clumsy, using (brand) name-dropping too often and lots of “telling” rather than “showing”.
Lisbeth Salander, the ‘remarkable’ heroine, I found not so amazing, and inconsistent. The amount of violence towards women and Lisbeth, I thought a bit too gruesome. As for the journalist, Mikael, the strength of his sexual allure was rather predictable and cringeworthy, close as his character is to that of the writer himself. I will say, though, that the Vanger family mystery thread is quite good.
Despite all this I picked up the second book (it’s supposed to be ‘even better’). I put it promptly back down after a few pages. More of the same, a young girl shackled and abused, etc and it’s not something I want to read right before bedtime. I love a good murder mystery as much as the next person but I think crime fiction needs to look outside this fascination with rape and bondage. How about a nice bank robbery or poison-in-curry story?
I applied early to help at International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2009 – another useful tip from my film tutor – and stated a preference for volunteering on the Press Desk. As it happened there were, I think, nearly 50 applicants after these coveted places and only six volunteers would be needed. We had a rather surreal group interview to state why we thought we were better candidates than the others sitting next to us. Embarrassed as we were, a few of us were happy to talk ourselves up and I must have impressed as I made it to the final six.
So for two weeks in November I racked up to Rokin to help run the pop-up Press Centre. We mostly spent our days welcoming international journalists, cooing over filmmakers and shooing away any walk-ins looking to use our free wi-fi (nb. the Dutch pronounce it wee-fee).
And of course I made it to a few films.
Monsieur Advertising (France): Almost an infomercial for a French advertising agency, fawning beyond excuse. 5/10
Soundtrack for a Revolution (US): How music and songs fortified the civil rights movement. Thoughtful use of archive footage and lovely looking talking heads. 9/10
Colony (Ireland): This beautiful film followed several great characters all involved in identifying and resolving threats to America’s bee colonies. The bee-keeping brothers from an intense religious family were especially endearing. “We need bees”, one brother’s simple statement, delights me whenever I think of it.8/10
Monica & David (US): A little schmaltzy, which is just my thing. A cute couple, both with downs syndrome, get married and move apartment. The sharpness of their wit and bantering is enlightening, as are their ambitions and desires, but at the heart of it is a good old love story. 10/10 monicaanddavid.com
Iron Crows (South Korea): Beautifully shot documentary about workers on a ship scrapyard in Bangladesh. The film follows their dangerous work, literally following their bare-footed climb up the rusty hull of an old tanker. My absolute favourite of the festival.10/10
Last Train Home (China): I felt a lot of scenes had an unnatural feel and stiffness which affected my empathy for the subjects’ dire situation. This actually won the festival’s main prize, so what do I know? 6/10
The Yes Men Save the World (US): The funniest documentary of the festival. Two guys pulling audacious, topical pranks on corporate giants. What they do takes a lot of nerve, and you can really see blind panic in their eyes sometimes. Or maybe just insanity? 8/10 theyesmenfixtheworld.com
A Hundred Patients of Dr Jia (China): A camera was set up at Dr Jia’s desk, facing the patient’s chair and basically just left recording for a year (obviously they had to change the tape once or twice). Great for an insight into the community life and banter of this busy clinic – the doctor smokes during consultations and patients jostle for his attention like playful kids. Simple but charming.8/10
Crude (US): The story of an Ecuador village and its fight with a big US oil company for compensation after heavy pollution. Fascinating moments of slimy, corporate wriggling contrasted with poor but determined villagers who believe that with truth on their side they will prevail. 8/10 www.crudethemovie.com
Over in Panama during the last fortnight of our trip, we spent five nights on a sailing boat in the San Blas islands, an indigenous autonomy in the north east. Along with a few other guests, we stayed on board The Andiamo, courtesy of Tony Santos, a gravel-voiced, sun-kissed American on a long hiatus from his native land. (NB He writes a regular blog about his experiences – it would make a great book one day: theandiamo.com).
The (near) Sinking of the Kuna Navy: One of the local Kuna (the tribe that govern the islands) called by as he had lost or broken one of his oars, so Tony duly phoned the fisherman’s son to come out and bring him a replacement. Meanwhile, M and another guy, bored with snorkelling, decided oh so cleverly to tied his boat to our dingy so he couldn’t leave. However, when the poor man tried to sail away, he actually starts going under and the knot got tighter and tighter. The two jokers got him free in the end and without a major international incident.
After a few days in Buenos Aires and some in Mendoza drinking lovely wines we hit the road big time with an economy car and five days to go about 1,000 km to Salta province, up in the North West of Argentina. We were on our big Latin American adventure in between the NYC placement and a new life in Amsterdam. A lot of the travel forums suggested forgoing this journey for a bus or a flight straight to Salta but we were intrigued by the challenge of the Ruta 40, the main road running down the interior spine of Argentina, with all the tourist-free villages to stop off at and the open road to motor along.
Well, if you can call it a road (Ruta 40 pictured above). On particularly gravelly bits we really feared a puncture would leave us deserted – we rarely passed other cars on the road. Thankfully with a bit of luck and M’s careful driving, the tyres held out. Another problem was the signage. We had a road map but if we took a wrong turn it was often two hours before we realised and had to track back rather grumpily.
But still, the sense of achievement upon making it to a village (and sleep spot) each evening was enormous. After a long day driving around dried up valleys and arid landscapes, we’d know we were approaching a village as suddenly there would be a plush, green spot with tall trees as a kind of banner – “life exists here”. Plus, we got a much better idea of truly authentic Argentian life by staying in these little places, each with their own idiosyncracies and atmosphere. Ice-cream ruled in one village square, perfect hamburgers, the next, and one had more than its fair share of mad people. But in each place, the residents, young and old, families and gangs, they all congregated in the squares by night and stared at us with much more curiosity that we did them.
On one of the stops, there were three hotels in the village so we had chanced it and not booked a room. We arrived to find out there was a big wedding that night and two hotels were fully booked and at the other one, the owner was drunk as a lord and couldn’t really focus. We tried a couple of b&b’s, one really dirty, one with puppies being reared in the rooms and began to worry if we could make it to the next village to find somewhere. In the end we found a family to host us via the tourist centre (amazingly the village had one). They promptly kicked two of their kids out of their bedroom for us. I think I remember my little bed had a great Boca Juniors cover.
Monday morning and it snowed like crazy overnight, bridges to Manhattan backed up, etc, yada yada yada, so our movers wanted to postpone a day. Not really an option with flights out of JFK Tuesday lunchtime. Relax, it was all OK, Menno gave them hell over the phone and they arrived in the end. Our Super did an amazing job of shovelling snow off the sidewalk in front of the building, worth majorly over-tipping him at Christmas, after all.
Actually these movers were the bees knees, they wrapped everything up way more diligently than the movers and packers we had in Europe, even plain old wooden chairs got covered with paper, cardboard and tape. Maybe not so good for the environment, though.
At the airport the next day we had our kittens in special cabin-friendly carry cases so that they could stay with us all through the flight, tucked neatly under the seats in front. We did have to take them out when we went through security and there some funny looks as we went through the metal detectors with wriggly kittens on leads. Oh yeah, and one security guard got freaked out when he tried to check M’s passport because he had a fear of cats. Ahhhh.
We took a whole bunch down to this LES music spot to see Tragedy, a heavy metal Beegees tribute band (yes you read that right), lots of spandex. I seem to remember it was cheap, like $14 dollars including four support bands (they were all fun-weird too).
My sis and I picked up some unique finds on an icy cold Sunday over at the Brooklyn Flea. She bought a red retro, circular suitcase, me a huge enamel pie tin ($10). Other wares included vintage clothes, rugs, furniture, and of course… pickles.
I’d been told good things about the resident covers band at Cafe Wha? by my friend, Sloane, who readily admitted a huge crush on the guitarist. And it was great, too. Waitress service at a table within spitting distance of the tiny stage was a bonus.
Tasty, good value Cuban food with the main problem being getting a seat or even a space to stand in – it’s so insanely popular. Ridiculously cool people, lots of models or artists with beards, tats and hats, so M really stood out whenever he met me for a mohito after work. Going solo for a beer one hot day, I remember hanging out with a wannabee scriptwriter who was totally coked up and going on about his latest film exploiting Heath Ledger’s recent death, nice. NB. Menu pick – fish tacos.
Tonight, a party in a classic loft apartment full of original art and interesting people (read – a guy with a hat and a couple whowore matching clothes). Mac & cheese, meat loaf and plentiful supplies of cake. Jazz trio and two young pianists vying for our ear.
In NYC, up until now we have only been to other Europeans’ apartments with other Europeans as guests. The reliable ex-pat circulars of leaving parties and housewarmings. In this instance, our real estate agency wanted to say “Thanks” with a party and get it in before the Thanksgiving rush (well, rush for some – we’re still waiting for an invite for turkey dinner, hint, hint).
I was expecting a bar somewhere with a rolling presentation of apartments to rent, and brochures all laid out. Then, even when entering the 5th floor Tribeca apartment, I thought, oh hang on, this must be an apartment they are trying to rent out, the market is quiet and so they’re hosting a party there – cool idea. But no. The owner (of both the apartment and the real estate agency) had invited us into her own home. A senior-looking little lady, she was stylish with an open face but with a hint of frailty. Her son’s artwork hung on her walls and someone called Brian had made all the food.
M returned form the kitchen, astonished at the eccentric salad-spoon manoeuvres of a pushy tall skinny guy behind him with a big mop of hair. Next minute the same guy is tinkling away at the grand piano, in some kind of a personal contest with a gothic girl. She was way better. It could have been a scene from a Woody Allen movie if it weren’t for the lack of angst and intellectual rambling.
So, anyway, now I feel like a New Yorker. Or someone who knows New Yorkers, at least. Ok, then, someone who buys stuff off New Yorkers and spends enough money to be invited to their house.
Awaiting the results coming in via CNN, at home on the sofa with M, it just didn’t seem that exciting so we rushed down the road to The Onion’s bash in the LES, then rushed back home to get ID and then rushed back to the bar. Once inside we found a big screen at the back and at the bar, a quite white crowd and smelly take-outs surrounding us. Still not really that exciting, people seemed grumpy to me, which is odd because I thought The Onion’s bandwagon would be good for a laugh. Same old anti-climatic coverage from CNN, not really communicating the significance of the Ohio and Pennsylvania wins when they came in.
So coming up to 11pm and Obama on just over 200 electoral votes, having been inching up slowly over the last hour. Gearing up to go home, thinking even though the West coast polls were closing at 11pm, it would take another hour for votes to be processed. But no! Bang on 11pm, CNN flashes up Barack Obama is the new President of the United States, electoral votes hiked up to over 300 just like that. Ok, thanks for the heads up, guys.
Good speeches from both McCain and Obama, the latter in particular appearing incredibly serious right from the beginning of his victory speech, allowing himself only a few smiles. Quite sobering, amidst all the celebrations going on. It got me thinking of what a heavy load to bear he now has, together with the worries of keeping himself and his family safe from harm.
Unfortunately I’d had loads of coffee to prepare me for a long night, and now found myself too wired to sleep after it was all over by midnight or so.