Other People’s Childhoods: On Visiting Fairyland

The entry sign to Oakland's Fairyland

My first time in Oakland, I biked past Lake Merritt with Amy. Trailing behind her and freaked out about the passing cars, poor cyclist that I’ve always been, I only just managed to catch the sign for Fairyland, unlikely colors glowing over the lake’s rippling surface. I thought quickly of Breakfast of Champions*, which only made the sight weirder. When we stopped later, I asked her, out of breath: what – no, seriously, what – is this Fairyland that’s on the edge of this lake in the middle of Oakland, a town I was only just starting to dispel my stereotypes about.

As I remember, she said, “Oh, that,” with a little smile. “We’ll go next time you come.”

I was here once more before I made it there, but made it there I did.

A cottage at Oakland's Fairyland

Here’s a thing about Fairyland: adults can’t come in without a kid. This is for safety, I’m sure. However, it also keeps it an entirely earnest venture, I think. And that’s part of both its wonder and wonderfulness. I wandered Fairyland for a couple of hours on a darkening August night, and it wasn’t enough. I want to, as I have joked/”joked” many times this summer, borrow a child and get to spend a little more time there.

Reading library at Oakland's Fairyland

There’s a natural echoing feeling between Fairyland and Disneyland, but Fairyland came first in this chicken-and-egg situation: Walt Disney toured it and several other theme parks when seeking inspiration for his own, a million times bigger and grander than Fairyland could ever be on its own little plot of lakeside land. But Disneyland’s size means it can never have what makes Fairyland so wonderful to me. Amy told me that there’s an annual painting party to keep it up. And that surprised me – considering the nature of most attractions trafficking in fiberglass and cartoon characters, I expected something a little rundown, illuminated for others by the light of their memories of beautiful days when they were five or six.

But no. Fairyland was, is, and remains beautiful, and beautifully devoid of irony. It is what it is and does so earnestly, which is something I admire a great deal in both people and places.

The chapel at Oakland's Fairyland

I got to go to Fairyland without borrowing a child for an afternoon. It turns out that my season in the Bay Area was perfectly timed: almost perfectly in the middle of it was Fairyland4Grownups.

Three hours, once a year. Money goes to keeping admission low for local kids; attending adults get to wander the park and enjoy complimentary beer.

The annual adult’s night is a Thing. A wonderful, wonderful thing. And so is dressing up for it.

Revelers at Fairyland4Grownups

I was fortunate enough to notice this tradition as I walked by the line on the way home from school. Doubly fortunately, I brought something costumey to wear in my tiny travel trousseau: my Auntie Mame caftan cape thing, all flocked peacocks and beads and fringe. I got to join in the fun at least a little bit. I didn’t bring as much joy to the world as the woman in the purple feathered headdress or the full-on ren faire-clad folks, but I brought a little fabulousness to Fairyland. Not that it needs my help.

Mushrooms at Oakland's Fairyland

When you walk through Fairyland, you get to be submerged in something a little magical.

Wizard of Oz puppetry at Fairyland

Like seeing dozens of adults quietly, respectfully watching this wee puppet show, acted out by small felt figures to a recorded soundtrack. They change the show once a season. Someone’s job is to make or revive a season of shows, four each year.

Playing card guards at Fairyland

These guys. Painted every year. They are perfect.

Fairyland path

And then, to my regret, night started falling. Fairyland is only open to grownups between 7 and 10, and I hadn’t gotten there until 8. So I took as many pictures as I could in the fading light, the place becoming absurdly pretty during that quick blink of the magic hour.


But I found a way to console myself.

Smoregasm menu

Because this is an event in the Bay Area, by law there must be food trucks. I started with this – it’s actually Multiple Smoregasms, but I only had one because 1. there are diabetics in my family, and one can only muck about so much, and 2. $6. I had red velvet, dark chocolate, and Guinness + chocolate. Small; mighty; worthwhile.

Smoregasm constructionAnd each made to order by people who’d gone to some length to make every aspect of this as beautiful and perfect as possible. (They do weddings more often than events, they told me, but do this night at Fairyland every year.)

Dessert dispensed with, I walked past piles of fried chicken, tacos, and succotash only to end up getting… pizza. I was hungry, it was ready, and I was very happy for it. I also got in a half-hour line for stroopwafel, one you could fortunately wait in via text. I felt my own insta-nostalgia of being in Amsterdam in November, where the stroopwafel comes in packs of ten in crinkling cellophane bags, and you place it atop your steaming tea so the caramel inside becomes soft and gooey. It is perfect, and when I saw the sign, I immediately knew I would be giving them money too.**

This was a little different than my beloved Amsterdam convenience store multipacks, but not nearly as much as I expected. They let me sub cheese for bacon in their Figgy Piggy, making it a Figgy Cheesy, and so, once I’d finished my dinner and hung out in the grass with friends for a while, I was summoned to pick up my fig-cheese-caramel stroopwafel, something which sounds mildly abhorrent but is actually exquisite. I talked to the guy making it, enjoying both his top hat and his (in this area) unlikely southern accent, and he kept remarking, with some admiration, “This is gonna be decadent.” It was.

I dispensed with my third course of the night fast, and then I was mildly nauseated and ready for another wander.

Fairyland bait shop

Where the light allowed, it was even prettier at night, particularly at this tiny village.


I wandered along winding sidewalks that threaded between tiny houses, few of them much taller than my knee. A complete labor of love.

Tower at Fairyland

This melancholy fellow was well above me, though. If it’s Pinocchio, he gets punished more at Fairyland than in the usual telling.

Looming statue at Fairyland

And some of it grew wonderfully eerie at night, minus sunlight and full context.

Dragon at Fairyland

Earlier in the evening, I watched a guy trying for a good minute-plus to get just the right selfie with this dragon near the entrance. Inside its nostrils were two plasma balls; its eyes moved when you pulled the tongue-strap back and forth.

And then it was ten, and the nostalgic drunks by the whale and on the astroturf-covered hill and dancing to incongruous music among Wild West-style buildings had to go. The staff looked a little wild-eyed as we left, finally done once again with this weird annual ordeal. Apparently beer-fueled adults are more daunting than throngs of ecstatic children. I’m not sure I’d agree, but I haven’t had a job corralling people in a long time.

Fairy and constellations at Oakland's Fairyland

This fairy and these constellations were tucked in the ceiling next to the ticket window, impassively watching as yet another group exited. And, to my amazement, I didn’t hear a single sly word: no one trying to be clever, no shitty irony. Just people quietly filing, figuring out what to do next en route to the parking lot or their awaiting Lyfts. Like the park, the crowd was surprisingly earnest. I saw and heard nothing that made my soft heart feel hurt on the place’s behalf.

Fairyland isn’t something people feel lukewarm about. Shortly after getting to the Bay Area (nearly two months ago now, wow), I went to roller derby and spotted a surprisingly large tattoo of the Fairyland logo on a woman, right where her neck met her shoulders, the colors and lettering vividly and accurately depicted. And when a friend visited recently (hi, Amity!), we were talking about the part of her childhood she spent in Alameda. I asked her about Fairyland, and she sighed and smiled. “Fairyland,” she repeated back to me, her voice dreamy. Fairyland is serious business.

I still want to borrow a child and go back to Fairyland, ideally a patient one who doesn’t mind me stopping and taking a million pictures, the way my company that night allowed me.

And so now, when I pass the part of the park where the trees are a little thin and I can see a brightly painted, 10-plus-feet-tall stack of books peeking through the leaves, it won’t just seem incongruous. It will seem wonderfully unlikely, lovingly kept, and a well-regarded beacon of memory to the many, many joggers circling the lake.

I get it. And I’m grateful I got to go.

P.S. They only do this particular event once a year, but there are other adults-only/adults-allowed events here and there. Another one is coming up on September 25: Drawn Together, which combines local art and Fairyland, SIGH. I won’t be here. If you can, though, I really hope you go.

*I tried to find the illustration Vonnegut did of the FAIRY LAND in the book, but it is apparently a vastly less popular scan than his asterisk asshole illustration from the same book.

**When I travel in a regular way, my non-lodging money mostly goes to museums, postcards, and food. In my time in Oakland and San Francisco, it’s similar. I bring my lunch to school most days, so on the odd occasion that I want to eat something beautiful without feeling like a bad unemployed person, I usually go for it. Examples include San Francisco burritos, a fine veg burger at 21st Amendment on a very hungry day, and Thai noodles for lunch about once every two weeks. It helps that I get at least a couple quite good free meals each week at tech meetups. Tech meetups: never buy t-shirts or dinner again.

I Didn’t See the Auction at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

A big giant fish head in a case of ice at Tsukiji Market

But you know what? That’s ok. I still saw plenty.

A thriving street and crowd in Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

This is the crowd at about 8 am on a Sunday in April at Tsukiji Fish Market. (Say “tskEE-jee.”)

I had arrived the day before and barely managed to make myself wander Akihabara before calling it a night. The thing to do, per every guide and every person who has been to Tokyo or maybe heard of it once, is to get up ass-early (that’s any time between 3 and 7 am, per my body’s clock), somehow get yourself to Tsukiji even though the trains aren’t running yet, and register for the tuna auction audience, for which only 3.5 seats are available*, and, and, and…

I set an alarm for 3:30 (sorry, hostel-roommates), just to see how I felt. I woke up, still fully dressed, underwires pressed into permanent grooves on my ribcage. (Woe to the person who thinks they’re just going to lie down for a quick nap at 7 pm after flying across an ocean, for thou art fooling thyself.) I squinted at the streetlight coming through my window, said a very quiet yeah no, Houdini’d my bra out from under my cozy wrap dress, and rolled back over.

I woke back up at 6:30, the first time that has ever been considered late for me. I took a shower in possibly the nicest hostel shower on earth – not fancy, but immaculately, reassuringly clean, and so needed after my 10-hour flight the day before. I shuffled out by 7:30 for a quick breakfast (ordered from a picture menu, of course) before I hit the train for my first proper Tokyo outing.

Octopus posters in a window at Tokyo's Tsukiji MarketMy first job was at a farmers’ market, when I was 14 and new and being paid under the table. (Soulard Market, I still adore you, never question.) I’ve had an affinity for open-air food markets ever since. Tsukiji is a mix of things in the way that happens when a market is both functional and a wildly successful tourist attraction: dizzying tables full of beautiful, intricately painted sushi dishes; tanks of beautiful, doomed fish; readymade food stands; and crowds and crowds and crowds. Still too shy and jet-lagged to make the most of things, I instead wandered through like a wraith, ducking down narrow alleys with counters with a scant five or six stools, peering into knife shops, and marveling at the mix of locals and tourists. (You can tell the latter from the former by their ability to maneuver a corridor or any other straight shot of pedestrian thoroughfare. This is a universal language; these days, I navigate Union Square in San Francisco five days a week, and my ability to tell a tourist at 50 paces has grown even sharper.)

This is my favorite near-miss picture:

Crabs and crabs at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Still getting used to my new camera, I knelt before these crabs and fiddled with settings for a moment before I was ready to take this one. In the moment before the shutter opened, an older man ducked down, knelt into frame, and gave me a quick peace sign and a giant, cheesy grin. He then leaped up and apologized profusely, even though I laughed and tried to ask him to do it again. It’s easy to get bitter at tourists when you just want to buy your damn fish and get home to make lunch; to see someone take the piss in such a good-humored way was a good way to start the trip.

I also didn’t go to the most famousest ramen place. I will let you figure out why.

Ramen line at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Not all of this is the line, but more of it is than you might think.

After I roamed the narrow hallways and alleys and streets, taking in my first bit of Japanese morning, I went to the more industrial area of the market. These pictures are fewer because I had to make sure to, well, stay alive.

Tsukiji Market don'ts and don'tsThis is all really good advice with not a bit of overstating present.

Once you emerge from the market aimed at individuals, you find yourself in a lively shipping yard, threaded by small, screaming trucks, one seat wide with a tiny flatbed behind, which zip around and by you in a somehow flawless ballet while emitting the most appropriately eerie high-pitched whine. No drunk indeed – you’d be street pizza.

I ended my trip with a few oysters, pulled from running saltwater by a man standing sentinel between two tanks, patiently weathering tourists taking picture after picture. I just gave him money and took these to the little eating area across the way. I couldn’t find chopsticks, so I just tipped them into my mouth, scandalizing someone, I am sure.

Oysters from Tsukiji Market

So: Tsukiji Fish Market. I shaped my plan with Lonely Planet and a featureless amalgam of “So you’re going to Tokyo” to-do lists on various travel blogs – I found them remarkably consistent. Maybe you’re more patient than I am and are game to wait in a long-ass ramen line, or maybe you’re willing to get up at ass-early and take a wildly expensive cab across town. But the way I did it was just fine too – wading through crowds, gawping at fish, dodging certain doom via people just trying to do their job ok thanks. A fine welcome to Tokyo, and a good introduction to the very particular kind of keeping on my toes that I found crucial while I was there. Plus oysters.

Lanterns at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

*Ok, it’s like 40 or 60, but every recommendation drips with doom at the LIMITED SEATS and YOU ARE GOING TO MISS IT no really GET THERE AT FOUR, GET THERE THE NIGHT BEFORE AND CAMP OUT LIKE YOUR SAD BUDDY DID FOR THE PHANTOM MENACE, oh god you’re already blowing it, it’s too late.

Entering Ueno Park in Tokyo

Ginger at at Ueno Park in Tokyo
Here’s a thing about traveling a good amount in a shortish period of time: wherever you go, there you are. And you get to find out exactly what that means.

I have a cat tendency. I spot them, I study them, I follow them, and when I come across them, I feel I’ve intersected with the actual life of the place. (Other repeated things I enjoy: coffee, outdoor food, pastries, popular city parks, walking tours, and cemeteries. These constants give me some easy, interesting comparisons between the places I go. Coffee in Japan is much different than coffee in Paris, for instance. I love them both.)

In Ueno Park (which I will get into more soon), this was the second cat I saw. The first was grey and soft and gently misted over by the day. An older lady was kneeling next to him, opening a carton of milk and then pouring some into a bowl. The cat dug right into it. I considered taking a picture, but I decided to observe and leave it be, imagining she was doing a daily or weekly ritual of giving this cat a little treat.*

Real estate is tough in Tokyo, and I understand that pet-friendly housing is exceptionally hard to come by, hence the explosion of cat cafes. So to see a woman doing a bit of gentle caretaking for this furry friend in the city’s most popular park felt like getting a glimpse into how people stay sane and balanced in a place of such extremes. Furthermore, there was a particular beauty to  a private moment taking place within sight of what I immediately named the Selfie Tree, a red bud tree so profusely blooming that 1. it was a solid, searing tree-shaped field of magenta, and 2. it was perpetually surrounded on all sides by singles and groups selfieing in front of it. Behold:

Selfie-ridden red bud tree in Tokyo's Ueno Park

If I hadn’t also spent a morning at Shinjuku Gyoen, I might declare this the most-selfied flowering tree in Tokyo. I grabbed a snack from one of the nearby tents so I could munch while watching people take pictures in front of this tree, over and over again, delicately keeping the shoulder-to-shoulder hordes out of frame. I wonder where the pictures go, whether they’re only for social media or if they get printed and added to some more permanent archive. I wondered this while biting off Hello Kitty’s waffle head.

A paper bag full of Hello Kitty-shaped waffles

Twenty of these for ¥500 (about US$5 that day). A bargain at any price, though, to be honest.

Ueno Park was my first day setting out alone in Tokyo. This trip happened when cherry blossom season was about 60 percent past, which meant that while I was scouting cherry blossoms, so was most of Tokyo. We didn’t plan the timing this way, but I recommend it, and not just for seeing blossoms. The flowering trees there are lusher and bigger than the ones in Seattle, so I found them worth seeing for that reason. But to visit a country at the same time that the locals are marveling and flocking to see the area’s natural beauty with the same fervor as someone who crossed an ocean to do it – that’s a special thing. While I never felt of Tokyo (hard to do when you’re a 5’8″ white lady with some pink hair), in that moment, I felt brought along for something special that Japan has been rejoicing at for centuries. I do love some flowering trees, to the point that they’re among my favorite things in Seattle. But to see locals picnicking on tarps, feasting and sitting and watching and taking picture after picture, all of us thrilled to be there, all of us so glad at that moment? That’s worth crossing an ocean for.

*Once, years ago, when my small cat was sick and had trouble taking in calories, I tried giving her cream, hoping the nutrition in it would outweigh any lactose-intolerant effects. Later, cleaning diarrhea off the side of the litterbox, I apologized profusely. She was unimpressed. But then she is always unimpressed.

Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, Where I Am

A most excellent shop window in Montmartre in Paris

I am yearning to travel.

I am currently, technically, traveling every day.

I look up flights in October every day or two lately.

I remind myself that I will probably want nothing more in October than to sit my ass down in my apartment, pet my own cats, and do the work on my home life.

It helps sometimes. For a few minutes.

I’ve just finished my first month of living in the Bay Area. I live in Oakland; I go to school in San Francisco at Hackbright. (You can read about what I’m doing there on my other blog).

I had some realistic ideas about what school would be like. I knew it would absorb most of my energy. I knew it would be a major undertaking. But I still thought of it as a kind of retreat, in that it would be me concentrating on myself and learning a skill. The focus part of a retreat if not the relaxing part.

I didn’t anticipate the difference between the energy that goes into a full-time job and the energy required for 40 solid hours a week of learning something entirely new.

(Spoiler: IT IS MASSIVE.)

And so my “SF planning” spreadsheet, with its optimistic tab of places to explore, is relatively untouched.

A month in, my energy is starting to come back. On Wednesday, I took an indirect route home from BART. I saw this.

Turquoise three-eyed cat graffiti in Oakland

That same day, I took a lunch walk that ended with me reading in Union Square for a while, surrounded by tourists and gobs of languages and the soft summer sunlight.

I have learned that I feel unlike myself when I don’t have the energy to explore. I feel like I’m inhabiting someone else’s weird, small life.

So it’s an interesting, evocative thing for me to think about things like “Shall I take a trip in October, before I (with any luck) get a job? Or shall I respect my limits and needs and stay the eff home for five minutes?” Traveling feels like who I am. Exploring is how the parts of me I love best work in the way I enjoy the most.

I had a sharp division in time about a week and a half after I got to the Bay Area. Except for my six-week depression national tour in 2007, 18 days was the longest I’d ever been away from Seattle in the ten-plus years I’ve lived there – that was my trip to Europe in November. Recognizing that I was approaching that limit and then surpassing it affected me more than I expected. While I’d been to San Francisco and Oakland before, I’d never stayed past the “Gee this is neat and new let’s eat this and see this ok wow windmills right then going home now” point. Doing that has felt like an umbilicus stretching and then going slack, if not actually breaking.

Part of the tasks of being here is deciding whether to stay or not after the program is over. I am training to go into tech; it would certainly make sense to try to stay. But my focus right now is on learning Python, and I think I won’t have answers until I go back to Seattle for a bit. See what I miss about the Bay Area when I leave it, see what feels like oxygen rushing back into the room when I return to Seattle.

In the meantime, five weeks in, I have the energy for a few extra things now. On Friday, after class, I went art supply shopping and then took the long route to BART from SoMa, walking up the Embarcadero along South Beach, past the paint-flaked workaday piers, the tugboats floating in coronas of golden light on the twilit bay, the bow-and-arrow sculpture, and finally the synapse sculpture, its LEDs cycling through the rainbow in a way that seems to have been scientifically calibrated to the way I appreciate color. Tomorrow, quite early, I am going to the Alameda antiques market with my friend/roommate. I am seeing things and doing things.

Just in time to start projects season at Hackbright, during which I may disappear. I hope not. I don’t know.

I had to stop myself from doing that thing of avalanching Amy with iPhone travel pictures earlier tonight, instead showing her just a couple of street art from Montmartre. When I do flight searches lately, I look at Reykjavik and Paris; I’ve gone to enough places that I’m considering repeats. Maybe part of it is that I also recognize that I basically want to go everywhere, so I might as well go somewhere. Central and South America. Morocco. Italy and Greece. Turkey. Croatia. Japan, again, more. India. Korea. Australia and New Zealand. The better known, the lesser known, the easily accessible and the ones where you have to squeak by in single lanes, via tiny boats, such tenuous connections to the rest of the world that you wonder if you’ll be able to squeak back out.

But my difficult adjustment – which is, granted, exacerbated by school – has given me things to think about regarding long-term travel, or even living elsewhere. Whether it still has any appeal. Whether what I’m doing now has that many parallels. I don’t know yet. I don’t know a lot yet. I guess that’s one of the things going new places will teach you. For most of us, a lot of our basic daily intelligence is based on familiarity. Pull that, and you’re lying if you say “I know” more than you cheerfully shrug.

I’ve thought of writing here often over the last several months. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting about school on my other blog. A couple people in my cohort have said that they’d have a hard time writing that much; we’re all basically exhausted all the time. And I say, “I’m a writer. It’s what I do and what I’ve trained to do; it doesn’t take much out of me.” And it’s true. And it’s time to do it again for myself too.

I have such a backlog of pictures. Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam. Victoria. Japan and Japan and Japan, where I had my new camera that captures things almost as beautifully as I see them. San Francisco and Oakland.

I’m very lucky.

The backlog has been daunting. I prefer to knit together narratives, stitching together themes and my observations and those feelings and impressions that stick with me still, that I think of when I stare off into space these days, trying to figure out indentation and functions and just-so syntax in a way that’s both familiar to me and radically new. Turning a corner in Montmartre and seeing another piece of street art so stunning and perfectly placed that I feel something pierce me slightly in the vicinity of my heart. Gently rocking houseboats in Amsterdam, generous guides and new friends and being able to see the beauty of a place but having no chance to get its full context, the glory and tragedy of it. The insight of the outsider without the context of the insider. It’s all we have sometimes.

And it’s late, and tomorrow is early. And I’ll be back soon. I’m going to start writing moments. If there are themes, they can grow from there. But I’m long overdue to tell you where I’ve been lately. I’ll fix that soon.

P.S. The top picture is a Montmartre store window I passed on the way to get breakfast before a walking tour. I wanted to go back; I didn’t get to go back. Not yet.