Miami and the cult of the fake

Before I actually went to Miami, I had two very distinct, very specific visions of what Miami was like.

  • This glamorous place with palm trees everywhere, cool parties, tan people and also the kind of pretty pastel buildings you can see in Scarface
  • Since Miami is in Florida, it was at the same time this place full of retirees here to buy big ass houses and enjoy their golden years in the sun and the sweat

Big shocker, it was neither of those. I know Miami sounds cool, but honestly, and I am not one to say that lightly: I did not like it one bit. Miami is ugly, trashy, fake and in your face. Its streets full of restaurants and bars with music so loud, even at lunch time, that you can’t talk to the person right next to you. Its filled with big ass shiny cars with trashy gangsta music blasting throughout the day.

It’s all these girls roller blading at the beach with fake boobs and a shitload of makeup on their faces, even though it’s 35 degrees and it looks like they are melting. Even the shop mannequin have bigger than life boobs there !

Miami is also decadent and poor at the same time. They have this huge district with only luxury stores. The streets are beautiful and clean, everything is shiny, they have street art and fountains, beautiful people walking by. And LITERALY the next block is all empty, dirty buildings and empty pieces of land in between, with poor people and empty beer cans everywhere. For me there was something indecent about such luxury and such misery right next to each other. And no one cared about it, either way.

I know, I know, but what about the palm trees and the sun ?! what about super famous Miami Beach ? Now, I know that my judgment here is not 100% honest. That I am completely spoiled by my year of pristine empty beaches in Australia. But Miami beach ? Nah. Nothing special. Too many people. Not FANTASTIC like the beaches of Western Australia or Queensland. I know. Spoiled brat.

But I just didn’t feel the vibe. And you KNOW how much the vibe is important when getting to know a new place. I didn’t like the people that much either, you could talk to someone forever and not ONCE would they ask about you. I’m pretty sure one time I talked to this woman for about an hour, and she told me all about her ex-husbands, and that she was inhabited by the spirit of an old Hawaiian dancer (she demonstrates her skills too) and she didn’t even ask for my NAME. How amazing is that ? How perfectly shallow, self-centered and egotistic.  What’s the point of meeting someone if all you talk about is yourself. Honestly.

And the American laziness and wastefulness was somehow exacerbated there. I was so shocked the first time I went to a hotel breakfast. Everything was in plastic and you just threw it all away at the end, plates, cups, mugs, everything. That and their AC cars that they leave running even though they are not in it, so that they can come back to a fresh and cool environment. The never ending lines at the Starbucks drive-ins because they are too lazy to get up and get their coffee. I mean the whole place was a big stereotype of how Europeans are seeing hard core Americans. Fake, lazy and egocentric.

I don’t want to be too dramatic. There were some things I truly enjoyed about Miami. Like the Wynnewood district with the gorgeous street art. And they were definitely some things I enjoyed about Florida. Like the Everglades and the Keys.

But in the end, Miami will always stay in my memory as the cult of the fake.

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Street art in Wynwood district, Miami. Only thing I loved

Swimming with whale sharks, sparkles in my eyes

I guess I must have mentioned this somewhere before, but my favorite animal is the shark. I remember the first time I saw one in a random aquarium somewhere. I must have been about 15. I didn’t expect anything, it took me by surprise. Instant, delirious love. I was fascinated. I just sat there and watched them for hours. It was so utterly and deeply relaxing. I guess it’s about the elegance with which they move. The casual dignity. It’s also about the symbolism of it all. They never stand still. Ever so slightly, they move all the time. And they can’t move backward, they can only move forward. Isn’t that the whole point in life ?

So, when I arrived in Mexico, it’s the only “day cruise” expedition that I signed up for. Swimming with sharks. And not just any sharks either. WHALE sharks ! Amazing, beautiful HUGE whale sharks. I was so excited.

The boat ride to get over there was pretty rough. I’m usually a pretty seasoned sailor, but by the end I was throwing up just like EVERYBODY else on the boat. Fernando (our guide) asked me if I wanted to go first. I was like “yeah” and then throwing up and then “HELL yeah”.

The whale sharks were pretty impressive, so massive, right next to our tiny fragile boat. One of the women of our group refused to jump “nope, nope, I see them now, I’m good, I’m good”.

So you just sit on the boat, wait for a shark to be RIGHT there, and your guide says JUMP and you can’t hesitate; you just jump right next to the shark. And it is AMAZING. I mean yeah, physically it is rather hard on you. You have 3 or 4 jumps of about 10 minutes, so that there’s not too many people in the water. We jumped 2 by 2 with our guide. You have to swim pretty fast to keep up with the shark if you want to see something. It’s very disorientating. Too many things happening at once. Then you go back on the boat, you throw up big time and when it’s your turn again you just spit, put your mask back on and jump again. No rest for the warriors.

So yeah, everybody was pretty sick and exhausted afterwards. But during. It was surreal, amazing, beautiful. These creatures are peaceful and graceful in a way I couldn’t have imagined. I was lucky, our guide kind of liked me best (probably because I was the only one doing that by myself). So he was always grabbing my hand and pulling me closer to the sharks so I could keep up, and see the most of it. The sharks didn’t give a damn about us. I mean I’m not even sure they registered our presence. The just kept on moving lazily forward.  With their cute little spots and distinguished presence. It was one of the most surreal experiences in my life. When I got back to my hostel and my best friend, I was pale under my tan from too much throwing up, but my eyes were shinning bright. I couldn’t wait to call my mother and give her an heart attack by saying “guess you swam with huge bad ass sharks today ?!”.

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PS : sorry I don’t have any pictures. I was too busy living the dream.

My best friend Don

During my time touring the US, I found a job in a hostel near Miami. I am not going to lie, that was one of the worst jobs ever. But I stayed anyway, for the people. Being an employee in a hostel is a wonderful social experience. Yes, it’s tough because you have to say goodbye a lot. But you get to meet so many cool people, and you have the special power to be the one who regroups everyone because you are the person everyone knows. I hung out with all kinds of people there. My new best friend from Sweden with cool tattoo sleeves and a shaved head. The dude with an eagle on his chest and a record. The Florida guy who was taking a vacation from the Zombies. The Swiss dude with the long hair, smoky voice and Harley Davidson. That young American couple who went food shopping for me and put little notes all over my stuff. That sweet German guy who used to cook me pasta. But the one I want to talk about here is the particularly odd one.  The unlikely friendship.

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Street art in Miami

There was this older dude. He was kind of living at the hostel, kind of living in his van. He was using our showers and eating at our tables. Always shitty food, always by himself. That looked lonely.

So I started to ask if I could sit at his table, a little, in the evenings. And when he got comfortable enough, he started talking. He was a sweet man. But OH MY, the things he had to say.

He talked about aliens. Area whatever, instruments of some kind that allowed him to see and recognize things we couldn’t see or recognize. I was amazed, and kind of fascinated. I mean, it sounded completely insane but at the same time it was such a caricature.  You know, of these Americans we make fun of on TV.  With the tin foil hat and whatnot. He told me about famous psychics that he knew. How he was some sort of channeling master. How one of his girlfriend got pregnant (and then un-pregnant) by an alien. How he participated in the dismantlement of a prostitution gang with his shaman friend from Louisiana. Sometimes I listened, fascinated by that level of craziness, sometimes I was uncomfortable and shot desperate glances at the eagle dude so he would come and save me. But all in all, I loved my talks with Don. He was sweet and alive in his ideas. I could tell he really appreciated our time and the company, and that made me glad. And you know what ? When I had to leave, who drove me to the airport ? Was it the cool motorcycle guy ? The eagle man who was hitting on me the whole time ? No. It was good old Don. I didn’t ask for anything. He just got up in the morning and offered to drive me.  That was the sweetest thing. He deserves to have his story told. The odd ones are always the best ones.

Texas and the complexity of the hospitable South

I had a very strong opinion of Texas before going there. It wasn’t even on the plan but somehow I got talked into it. And I can honestly say that I loved Austin. Houston not so much. What I really want to talk about is my special evening with my new Texan friends. In the end, they were kind of everything I was told a Texan was supposed to be. Both good and bad.

I was drinking a beer with my new friend on the back porch when her husband came home. And he looked at me and said “you are drinking my beer ? On my back porch ? Chatting with my wife ?”. A pause, and then, with a big smile and a tap on my back “ah, you are FAMILY now ! if you ever need anything you can always call us”. And that’s all it took. From then on I was their best friend. They took me with them on the birthday diner, and I slept in their daughter’s bedroom, and somehow I ended up going out partying with them and their friends. And that night says it all. I arrived there and everybody was insanely friendly “you come from EUROPE, woow, what are you DOING here of all places ? You want a drink ? Let me get you a beer”. And asked cute questions and were interested in what I had to say. Drove me around, paid for my drinks, were just so completely and perfectly lovely. And this is the south. The south, in what I experienced of it, is full of kind hearted people, ready to drop everything and help you out. Opening their homes, cooking heavy food for you, telling stories. It’s about belonging to a community and the simple stuff in life.

But south is ALSO the rest of that evening. “So, I heard you didn’t have a real good opinion of Texas before coming ? How come ?”. Well you know. Back where I come from we always think Texas is the worst state. You know with guns and … “Guns ? Yeah, guns are important. I mean I have 4 of them upstairs. You got to be able to defend yourself”. Mm, ok. And then it was a lot about all those immigrants coming in to steal their jobs, even though they come to collect the food stamps in Cadillacs (“every one of them I swear !”). I was asked if I had a boyfriend, and then, with a suspicion frown, if I had a girlfriend. Then they talked about the confederate flag and even between themselves they were not quite clear on whether or not it’s ok to have it in your garage.

I guess what I am trying to say is, I really loved my experiences in Texas, and in the South in general. I found people absolutely lovely, so ready to help me out, so open and lay back. But that evening made me wonder if I was able to experience all those things because I was a cute, white, young female. And I just wondered for a second if my black, Mexican or gay friends would have as much good luck here as I did. And that made me sad.

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Street art in Austin, Texas

Surfing in Mexico, winning the battle

I always thought surfing was cool. It’s all about the ocean, and that definitely speaks to my soul. It is about braving the waves, spending time at the beach, getting salty hair and sandy toes. I love, at least in parts, the philosophy of surfing, the lay back attitude, the chilled out spirit. I spent a whole year in Australia, THE country for surfing, and yet I didn’t get the chance of trying. I spent a lot of time in California and still nothing.

But when I made it to Mexico, the water was so blue, so warm, so delicious. I was told it was the best place for learning since the waves were smaller and still you could surf on them. My new best friend was up for it and one day, we got down to the beach and just rented two boards.

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I think you could right away guess what our level of success was going to be by watching me helping my friend carry her board to the water because it was too heavy for her. That first surfing for me was basically an hour of getting beaten down by the ocean. Hanging on to my board for dear life, and just a general unwillingness to give up. A lot of surfer dudes type were coming up to me and asking “you all right ? I surf, you want me to give you some pointers ?”. And I would just generally reject everybody saying “I’m fine, I’m fiiiine”. And I would get back on that board and wait for the next wave and paddle paddle paddle, and fall down, and underwater, and get hit by the board in the ribs or the legs, and spit salty water, and pant, and moan. And still, I would get back up on the board and paddle away. After an hour I managed to KIND OF get up on the board for some seconds, and I’m pretty sure that counts.

Exhausted, my friend and I gave back the boards, sat up on those swings at the beach bar and started ordering a steady flow of Coronas.  Victory tasted de-li-cious.

The next day people were asking me with a shocked expression “what HAPPENED to you ?!”. I had bruises and cuts over 70% of my body. I didn’t care. That’s battle scares. Mexico was only the beginning of what I imagine will be a long and brilliant life of surfing.

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A thousand lives : My time as a winemaker in Napa, California

Arriving in Napa, California, was a little bit like going back home. Going back to “civilization” as only a European snob can say it. I just came from two months in the south of the US, where, let’s face it, everything is either fried or deep fried. Where all the restaurants are the same kind of joints, serving the same kind of food, with the same kind of accent.

I got there, and it was instant love. It’s just the cutest, most distinguish little town. It’s all European deli with really fancy delicate food. It is restaurants with a “concept”, with a nice decor, imaginative menus. It’s Americans at their snobbiest. The kind of Americans that spend every holiday in south of France or Italy, and talk about wine and fine cheese and traveling. California was for me like being back in Europe, expect sunnier, wilder and little bit more “in your face”.  Napa was the easy lay back small town, with distinguished rich people, talking about culture and being snobs.

It was my first stop in California because I found a job there working in a vineyard. That was always one of the things I regretted not doing in Australia. One of the arrows missing from my quiver. Working in the fields, in wine. The dream.

I absolutely loved it there. My bosses were this couple of retirees who had spent a fair bit of their time traveling in Europe. I would spend my days with my little cowboy belt, working on the vines with my secateurs, cutting the little regrowth so the main vine would have more strength. It was a long and tedious job but painless and easy. And I would work alongside people. Either my boss, talking to me about what we were to eat. My boss’s wife, talking to me about books and movies. Or their only employee, talking about his studies and Mexico.

For lunch the boss would always take me to town, we would go to this fancy Italian deli, buy the best food, come back home with fresh bread and pastrami, delicious expensive cheese and salad. And in the evening after work, if it was a good day, he would open one of his own bottle of red wine, offer me some fancy cheese and crackers, and we would sit there, in the delicate color of the evening, surrounded by vines. I loved the work, I loved the wine and I loved the people. They were brilliant. Old travelers, cultured, with their vineyard in Napa and their beautiful house in San Francisco. They were living the life, quite comfortable about what they had achieved, in what they were doing, and in the glorious and easy future ahead of them. And I just thought, well, I wouldn’t mind being here, quietly working the fields, when I’ll be their age. Winemaker it is.

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No one ever walks : welcome to the US

I will always remember my very first day in the US. I arrived in Florida and worked near Miami. I asked where was the closest supermarket and I was told the nearest Wal-Mart was about 30 minutes away by bus. I asked if I could walk there and I was told “nooo, it’s too long a walk”. On my phone it was about 15 minutes away, so I happily put on my brand new little white shoes and went on my shopping trip.

15 minutes it was but there was NOWHERE to walk. Not one sidewalk, not one bicycle lane, nothing. I walked on the side of a road for about 5 minutes and suddenly I was confronted with two massive motorways. I tried walking by the side of it, a little farther away, in the grass. It was uncomfortable and loud and after about 5 minutes I feel into a puddle of mud, up to my knee. So much for the pretty white shoes.

Then I came to the point where I was forced to cross those motorways. I had to run across them, it was highly dangerous and probably incredibly illegal. I arrived at Wal-Mart exhausted, sweaty and disgusting. And that was just one way.

But that’s the way it is in the US. There is just nowhere to walk because, well, let’s face it, no one wants to. I found that the lifestyle was, for the most part, very lazy. Everybody owns a car there, because that’s the only way to get around. And then their whole system is built around that. I went to a burger place one time, and wanted to go to the ice cream place across the road for dessert, and there was LITERALY no way for me to walk there, I had to take the car and DRIVE those 100 meters.  And since they are driving everywhere, they are getting pretty reluctant about leaving their cars. That’s probably why they have drive-in for everything. And I do mean everything. Drive-in for MacDonald’s and burger king, ok, fine, we have those in Europe. Drive in for Starbucks, well, why not. I mean, the line was always so long that if you would have just PARKED your car, walked out, ordered your coffee, walked back, you would have been 10 minutes faster than just waiting in the drive-in line, but I guess that’s just too much commitment for coffee.

I saw a drive-in for an electric company, so you can pay your bill from your car. Drive-in for the post office. Drive in for ATMs. So you can get into your car and, without once getting up from it, get cash, spend it at the fast food place, get a coffee for dessert and go home. All of that from the comfort of your leather seats and AC environment. Well. After all. Isn’t that what we are talking about when we are yearning for the American dream ?

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How I fell in love with Memphis, Tennessee

I know that Memphis may not seem like the trendiest coolest destination when going to the US. I know it’s all about California, New York and Miami. But I wanted to get inside the country, to experience the South, to go deep. And yes, I went to Louisiana, and Texas. And it was wonderful. But what I want to talk about right now is Memphis.

To be truthful, I went to Memphis for Elvis Presley. Yes, old school, almost dusty really. But I am a HUGE Elvis Presley fan.  So my goal was to visit Elvis Presley house. But when I got there, I loved it all. It was brilliant. Yes, the average traveler there was a bit older than I was, so what ? Memphis was rusty and tough, a bit older and shabbier than the places I went to before. But it was a good tough, authentic and palpable. It was old bars and old beers with old dudes listening to old rock n roll. I felt right at home.

It was friendly Uber drivers telling me where were the best joints for nice ribs. Nice bars and restaurants with live bands dressed like Elvis or Cash, singing amazing songs and none of that clubbing crap I hate.

It was old whisky in rough glasses, paved streets and music everywhere. That’s what I loved about it the most I guess. The music. I went to visit the Sun studio, where Elvis Presley started his career. It was tiny but packed with memories. They made us listen to a lot of music, most of them are now on my ipod. It was the Howling wolf, Elvis, Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis. It was old vinyl signed and memorandum. I went to visit a guitar factory, went to concerts, live music events, the Stax museum.

I obviously went to visit Elvis Presley house. When I went into the little bus taking us there I was very aware of being the youngest person there by a good 30 years. I didn’t care, I was just smiling to myself, so happy I made it. I loved the house because it was all about history, records, music. And I loved Memphis because it was my soul place. The whole vibe of the city is : come in, have a drink, listen to old music and just be comfortable in your old ripped jean and old band t shirt. Just chill out and be true to yourself. Be rough, be tough and be cool.

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#My people : the best crazy lady in Louisiana

I guess I already mentioned somewhere here that one of the things I absolutely love about traveling is the people you get to meet. Those completely INSANE humans, that you could never have imagined were walking this earth. I love them. It makes me wonder about it all. It makes me think that anything and everything is possible. It makes me relax about the kind of life I’m trying to build for myself. It just opens my mind so much.

I want to start writing a few articles here about some of the best of them. I’ll start with my boss when I was in Louisiana. That state, and New Orleans, was the sole reason I wanted to go to the US. Everything else was opportunities and bonuses. But Louisiana, that was my goal, that was what my soul was yearning for. I got a job working in a “spiritual retreat” there.  I arrived at the bus station, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I was so out of place than in the 10 minutes I was waiting for her, 5 different person came up and talked to me “what are you doing here ? are you lost ? wow, really, a spiritual retreat ? Where is that at ?”.

SHE came and picked me up in a car full of junk, with little pendants and bracelets everywhere, just talking the whole ride. Talking and talking and taking with that delightful Louisiana accent, saying “cray cray” and “ya’ll” everything few seconds. I got comfortable instantly.

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In the Bayou

I had a truly brilliant time there. The woman was AMAZING. She was in her own world, something she created herself. Her home was full of herbs and potions, she talked about her late shaman and the spirits. She believed that we had to inform the fairies one day before mowing the lawn that we were about to do it, so they could hide way and not get hurt. She was an amazing cook and she made her very own tea, that she would sell to her daughter’s friends to help them in their diet.

She would wear her cowboy hat and blast country music while we were out in the garden creating a “fairy garden”. She would make some mean mojito every night and we would drink them on the front porch, with the sound of a thousand frogs around us, talking about our path in life. It was brilliant. I admire her so much. From what I could piece together she spent her life reinventing herself, and that is just pure genius. She was a big career person, and then a pirate in the street of New Orleans, and now a spiritual guide in a retreat. She had designer clothes and yet wore flowery blouses tucked into her cowboy jeans for working the dirt. She was crazy and creative, so open-minded and loving. She held my hand and told me I came a long way, but had still a long way to go. That I had to stop caring about what other people thought. Honestly, I’m not really a shaman kind of girl, and I just rolled my eyes. But now I’m thinking, may be that crazy, loving, red hair energy devil was right after all. And maybe it was more of a special place than what I allowed it to be. All I know is, when she’s writing that the light porch is always on for me, my stone heart melts a little bit.

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On the Creole trail