How to vacation during a pandemic: week one

There are extremely valid reasons to not do this kind of travel in this era. Here’s why I did.

  1. I booked it when things were a little calmer, before infections rose again and we had Delta Variant feelings. So it goes. I also paid extra for direct flights in the interest of less exposure (and potential exposing).
  2. I was particularly cautious about what I did in the two weeks before I left. None of this stuff – only necessary errands, carried out in exactly the same way I did in, say, October 2020 and other similarly dire pre-vax periods. I wanted so badly to go out dancing, but I couldn’t justify it when I knew I’d be crossing the country soon, when other people would be in proximity to me without the ability to consent to the risks I’ve opted into.
  3. I was going from the Bay Area to New York, which have similar vaccination rates. This was very important to me both for my own safety and for people I’d encounter.
  4. Even so, I was, if anything, even more zealous with masks while I was there. Sometimes, especially late evenings in the Lower East Side, I was the only person wearing one. I reasoned that the biggest benefit of a mask is specifically to protect people from my California cooties. I don’t mind looking paranoid if it keeps other people safer. I’ve been the dork in a room before and will be again.
  5. A lot of my activities and all of my meals were outside.
  6. I gravitated toward Official Tourist Activities where masks and vaccinations were required. These let me relax. Bless you, Tenement Museum.
  7. If I didn’t do something other than existing in north Oakland for another several months, I was absolutely going to lose my entire fucking shit.

I’m a security engineer and believe in harm reduction over goals of perfection we’ll never live up to. I took the trip.

a painting of a Dala horse on a building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Day one

I arrive at JFK in the early evening, just in time for a sudden rainfall to reduce the west coast smoke that preceded me here. I had hoped this trip might help me duck some of the fire and smoke back in Oakland, so seeing those hazy pictures ahead of my arrival was a disappointment. But when I arrive, the air is wet and fresh and heavy. Alive.

I’ve only slept for 4.5 hours, so my subway ride into the city is a little surreal, my rumpled self draped immobile and sweaty around my bags as my brain begins what will be a constant practice during this trip: seizing on all the small details of the people around me. I’ve always done this, and in fact love it, but after so many months of not being able to immerse myself in other people, my brain starves for this in a way that makes it not an entirely voluntary activity.

I promised myself I didn’t have to go out on my first night unless I really wanted to, and that was before I realized how little sleep I’d get on my travel day. I summon Chinese food to my hotel room, eat most of it, and pass out for nine hours.

feet in sandals below a blue-and-white-dress next to a social distancing floor sticker

Day two

Since I’m still getting used to this “no longer in my living room” thing, I kept my plans modest for my first full day. I do well when I tell myself things like, “Do this one thing, and then you don’t have to do anything else.” This applies for activities like preparing for job interviews, but it also applies to fun that I know could stress me out.

I order a bagel with lox from Russ and Daughters to pick up, which I eat in bed. An everything bagel with lots of poppy seeds is, I will say, an interesting choice of bed food, but here we are. I eat it while I start my work during London Writers’ Hour. After, I take a walk around the neighborhood, get a coffee, and go on a Tenement Museum tour. I chose Finding Home, which takes us into a recreation of two eras of a tenement apartment, one from when a Jewish family moved into it just after World War II, and the other from a later era when a Puerto Rican family moves in. Everything feels connected to my awakening brain, so an hour-plus of a super-informed guide augmented by tales from several older Jewish New Yorkers on the tour just makes the synapses sparkle. I feel so lucky.

I go back to the hotel to decompress a little and realize that my occasional travel problem of sorting out food in a timely way is extremely likely to be an issue on this trip. I make myself go out and get a veg burger, which I even eat outside, before going back to the hotel for my online appointment with my therapist. I stay in bed and think and write and read until I realize, again, the food thing is an issue, and I dress up a little and shove myself outside. What I didn’t anticipate was that Thursday in the Lower East Side is basically Friday. Almost all the outdoor tables at restaurants are full, and the sidewalks are crammed with the young and drunk.

This is a lot for me right now.

I wander around for more than 25 minutes, coming up empty-handed, vowing to make more reservations if I’m so hellbent on going out to eat in the future. Finally I spot a couple empty tables at an Italian restaurant with a stunning indoor bar, all twinkle lights along the ceiling, just a glittering golden oasis of possible inebriation that I cannot go into right now. I stuff myself with burrata and cheese-filled shells. I listen to the table next to me having a fairly ruthless and joyless political argument, a European lecturing an American and being what I think is correct but also pretty exhausting about it. I see people ten-odd years younger than me thrilling to their own hot vaxxed summers, coming within six inches of my sidewalk table.

I resolve that I do not need to go out for dinner tomorrow if I don’t want to.

Day three

I set an alarm and head for my time slot at MOMA. I have a Clif bar for technical breakfast and then, after saying hello to “Starry Night” and some other lovely things, I eat macaroni and cheese at their Terrace Cafe. It’s overcast and soft when I go outside, but the sky laser turns up to 11 approximately 30 seconds after I order. Like any common vampire, I cover myself in the large light scarf I usually have on me, and thus I survive to see the rest of the museum.

After, I walk north into Central Park, meaning to amble toward Bethesda Terrace in a roundabout way. I see dogs and read bench plaques. I see bike rickshaws, so many bike rickshaws, plus those tourist carriages and dozens of aggressive cyclists. And it’s wonderful. I dressed light, so I’m not dying from the humidity. I’m kind of wondering what my hair looks like, but I’m not uncomfortable. I get to my destination and sit on the cool stone ledge inside to write, listening to a guy playing the duxianqin, mixing the more traditional stuff you hear from one of those with things like the theme to The Godfather. I watch people selfie (the true theme of the day; MOMA was constant shit for the ‘gram, in a way I found more melancholy than annoying), I watch a guy making giant bubbles with one of those rope wands, I watch people living out their Real New York City Experiences, and I feel fairly content. I get up after a while and walk further through the park. A bit later, it begins to rain.

I haven’t felt soft summer rain in a long time. California doesn’t really have that: rain the same temperature as your skin, that feels like it grows things, like encouragement. My bag is full of moisture-averse things like my journal and the museum postcards I bought, so I can’t exactly luxuriate in it. I end up walking down Fifth Avenue, hopping from the shelter of one tree to another, until I end up under a Bergdorf Goodman awning and realize I’m close to the train back to my hotel. I wrap that sun-shielding scarf around my head, draping it over my bag, and make my way there, getting to the platform just as my train pulls up.

True to my word to myself, I get home and hang out for a while before getting crepes from the little shop across the street from my hotel. It stays open until two, and the crepes are exactly what I want. I do my daily writing. I do my first batch of sink laundry. And after I stayed outside for seven whole hours without having a pandemic agoraphobia-induced panic attack, I start to make more plans.

It feels safe to make more plans.

a mural of the Notorious B.I.G. on the Brooklyn Love building

Day four

I keep staying up later than I mean to. It’d be easy to blame this on time zones, but the reality is that I have a Kindle full of excellent library books and zero ability to cut myself off of anything joyful at this point, even if I know it’ll be waiting for me tomorrow. Last night, I stayed up past three finishing The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, which was described to me as a warm hug, and it delivered. This meant, however, that getting up with my 11:30 alarm was… pushing it. I finally lumbered out of my hotel room around 12:45 (after washing my hair, because I’m rediscovering how curly hair works in humidity) and walked to Tompkins Square Bagels to grab breakfast and lunch, which I took to Battery Park to meet friends. “Meet us by the Seaglass Carousel” were the magical instructions, and I found a shady bench and devoured my nova lox bagel like any common large sea mammal. I came here to try to see what it’s like to live, and sitting in a park with friends, watching Zelda the dog roll ecstatically in the grass and try to eat mango, then walking back to my hotel with one of said friends, weaving through neighborhood after neighborhood, stopping to buy fruit at a sidewalk table, seeing layers of city give way to each other… it’s good. It’s very good. This could be your life, my soul whispers to me. I know, I whisper back.

I collapse back at the hotel, diminished after hours of sweating, before resurrecting myself to go out to dinner. It’s month-long restaurant week here (ok!), and I found a place around the corner with a prix fixe menu that includes both shrimp risotto and panna cotta (I fucking love panna cotta; a useful thing to know about me, because now you know to keep your hands away from my mouth and dessert when it’s on the table). It takes a good 15 minutes for someone to take my order, which is five minutes less than my limit for waiting on that kind of thing. The Lower East Side, it turns out, makes me feel very on the outside. I’m pretty accustomed to feeling that way, having been a weird kid for many many years now, but I’m not accustomed to being among people again yet, so it’s a little difficult. I sit alone at a four-top with another excellent book, content enough, but feeling outside, as I’m surrounded by friend groups fueling up for a night out (with both food and, in the case of some table neighbors, rounds of tequila shots). I have no problem eating alone, but eating alone at a place that’s all about large groups is a slightly different situation. I order champagne, because yay me, but am informed they only have rosé champagne that night. Oh no, not that. I say that’s fine, but the waiter brings me regular champagne and then a bonus on-the-house glass of the rosé, with a wink of that particular kind that comes from a career waiter. It feels like extra oxygen in the room to be visible and judged worthy of a little kindness and delight. The panna cotta is excellent too.

He comps me another glass of champagne with my check. I tip well and happily. I am very happy to be seen as that woman who dines alone and warrants champagne.

mural of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Day five

I stayed up late last night, waiting for the champagne to work its way out of me, and then decided at 2:30 am that it was definitely time to do a first revision/editing pass on that printed-out short story I brought with me, and so I give myself the gift of sleeping as late as I damn well please. I emerge from my hotel just before three and walk back to my favorite East Village bagel shop. The ice melts in my coffee before I get to Tompkins Square Park to eat them, but fortunately, the coffee is mostly gone by then too. I am relieved that travel’s magical transmuting quality on coffee still works for me. At home, it’d give me an elevated heart rate and a sense of vague danger; elsewhere, it provides more of that awake/alive/ready feeling that seems normal for a lot of people.

I find a place on the lawn to eat, drink my lemonade, and write in my journal a little. A cover band plays mostly Beatles songs, and excellently, with one single deviation with an Eagles song, for which I can forgive them. I smell weed and watch dogs try to chase squirrels and see everyone in their shared yard in public. I realize I’m too warm to eat more, so I stop at half a nova lox bagel. It will be the last thing I eat for more than six hours, well into the evening.

I need to get to the Upper West Side, and I screw the directions up a little, somehow missing the stop on Houston I sought. Instead, I end up walking a long, warm mile and a half, mostly avoiding the sun for all the good it did me, arriving at the next station approximately seven hours later (meaning probably 30 minutes) and certainly down a pint of the humors I need to keep me alive. Seriously, I become a freaking lawn sprinkler as I wait on the platform. I know it’s gross when my shins are sweating. The train I needed pulled away as I stepped onto the platform, so I have the longest wait possible, 13 minutes to stand in the shared sauna, breathing deeply and reminding myself that suffering is as transient as joy. The AC of the train is a balm, is an absolution, is a reminder that maybe I’ll live to see another day.

I get to my destination at least 30 minutes later than I’d intended, just long enough to talk to my boyfriend and spot a minivan with the license plate 1-HOTMOM parked outside. I’m there for a performance of Twelfth Night at a community garden on 89th Street.

“I, uh, didn’t know you liked Shakespeare,” Sean says as I talk to him before going through the gate to find a seat. “You’ve never seemed especially interested when I’ve proposed it.”

“I’m not when there are more options,” I tell him. “But I like seeing theater when I come to New York, so I like it just fine when it’s one of the few outdoor performances happening.”

It’s a lot of fun to watch. My attention span remains spotty and unpredictable after all that time in my apartment, and I watch some and drift away in my mind some, going back and forth, but enjoying the performances. I like a whimsical interpretation of a Shakespearean comedy. They do a nice job, and I’m glad I stumbled onto it online. The president of the garden sits next to me sometimes, on the edge of a planter, and we both have hand fans in motion most of the time.

After, I go get dinner at the Mermaid Inn, where I drink almost two liters of ice water. I eat a giant pile of kale, because one of my weekly goals is to try to get more salad. (My last few days were more bagel-based than is ideal.) They bring me a little surprise chocolate pot to finish things up, and I feel blessed by waiters again.

After, I wander down Amsterdam and into some of the more residential blocks. I have to figure out where a character of mine lives, and I take pictures of front doors of likely looking places. It’s interesting roaming around an area I kind of know but who someone I’ve invented knows very well. May I recommend writing a novel set somewhere else and then going there? It’s a new kind of orientation, the imagination overlaying the half-familiar.

I walk down to 60th, frown at the people taking stupid selfies in front of the shitty former president’s shitty hotel (I mean, seriously, still?), and duck onto the subway. Some deeply odious bros are being exactly as you’d expect, and I put my headphones on for the first time since the plane here. Lots of things are easier with an application of Nine Inch Nails.

I arrive home and discover new blisters on my left foot in places I generally don’t get them. It’s good; it means I’ve been walking a ton, one of my primary goals for this trip. But it also means that tomorrow’s a great day to try to take it a little easier physically.

Day six

In fact, I take the day off.

I get up before 11 to do London Writers’ Hour while eating a bagel from yesterday. After I get my words done, I realize I’m still zonked, so I go back to sleep for a couple of hours, having those shallow, vivid dreams that pop up sometimes with out-of-band, uncertain sleep. Between my feet being kind of fucked and the fact that it’s somehow warmer out today than yesterday, I realize that the best, most honest approximation of living here today is… staying the hell inside. I eat longan for the first time, piercing their shells with my incisors before shelling them and spitting the dark seeds into my crepe bag from several nights ago. I write and catch up on neglected emails and responses on Slack and Twitter. I wash my hair after all the sweaty hours of yesterday and get to let it dry before I go outside. I do the next London Writers’ Hour and work on some editing.

If this were a week-long vacation, it would feel like such a massive squandering of time, but I’m realizing that this is the luxury of a longer trip: I can just veg sometimes and be a person who gets tired and needs a moment. If I’d gone outside today, I might’ve forced myself through a couple hours at the Met or some other museum that I probably would have liked well enough but which didn’t really sing to me today. Anyway, it’s Monday, and lots of cultural things are closed. Instead, I’m letting my body rest a little, limiting the push of sharp, sharp summer on soft, pale limbs that really aren’t into marching around in 90-degree heat and sweltering sun. I’m starting to understand what it would be like for me to live in New York in the summer: I’d do less some days, like you always do if you’re just home. It’d be easier if I could just go see a movie or luxuriate in restaurant AC, but I’m not doing either of those things right now, so my options for climate control are my hotel room, the subway, and museums. Instead, I stay inside, and it’s just right.

In the evening, I take two trains over to Fort Greene to meet online friends for German beer, and it’s nice to just sit and talk and exist with people who have at least a little context of who I am. I love this version of traveling: a couple of days to wander and feel only barely tethered to the world, then getting to see friends and be a person in the context of the rest of my life for a little while. We talk hacking things and security conferences and mutual friends. (It’s security; there are always mutual friends.) When I go home, I’m able to make the return trip without consulting my phone. Not the most complicated route, but it’s just such a joy to be able to figure things out again for fun reasons. A memory of letters and colors, understanding what the endpoints on the trains mean, and getting to be just another blase person on the subway platform.

I realized during dinner that I seem to have walked off the unhelpful portion of my “I am among people, oh shit!!!” anxiety, leaving only the useful stuff (masks inside, a general disinterest in unsafe indoor things and people). I book a ticket for a day at the American Museum of Natural History and am surprised at how excited I am. This kind of unadulterated looking forward to stuff has been largely out of reach for the last pandemic length of time. Always, some part of myself had to be left on the shelf in order to emotionally survive things. What a gift it is to look at even one thing without that weight sitting across my shoulders.

I learn during dinner that the place I’m staying in the Lower East Side sits neatly within what’s called Hell Square.

This explains some things.

Day seven

For my last full day staying in Manhattan, I go to… Staten Island.

I’ve meant to take the ferry for my last several visits to the city, but do you know, it’s really easy to just keep not doing that. Not until a friend mentioned the Alice Austen House did I have the double-barreled reason to actually go. I book a 1 pm tour, set an alarm, and spend the last hour of the morning making my way to the ferry. On the other side, I get a bus down Bay Street to the museum.

It overlooks the water, and it’s fitting to learn about Austen’s work there, because she documented so much local stuff: street life in Manhattan in the late 1800s, quarantine islands in the same era, and her robust social life, which seemed to be full of sardonic nerds. I like them immediately.

Lobster Newburg recipe typed on a card
Alice and Gertrude bribed the chef at Delmonico’s $75 for this recipe and never really recouped the money. You can enjoy it for free.

When I get back to the hotel, I give myself the gift of a couple hours in the AC before I go out, eating an egg salad sandwich from Pret-a-Manger in bed to tide me over before fancy dinner.

My new favorite kind of bar is the kind that wants to see my vax card. It doesn’t fix everything, as we know, but it’s harm reduction, which will do. The room at the back of the bar in Brooklyn is small, probably the size of my living room and bedroom put together. Mambembe is a ten-person ensemble (that night, anyway) that takes up between half and two-thirds of the space. I’d forgotten what it’s like to feel the strike of a drum in my bones, going resonant through my ribcage. Turns out it’s everything. New Heights Brass Band is all women, and their solos, I just… I get FEELINGS much more easily right now than I usually do, and I found myself on the edge of tears at a guitar solo during an arrangement of “Genie in a Bottle”, to say nothing of all the other actual brass solos.

I am not the same as I was, and in some ways, that’s pretty ok.

I dance and I dance and I dance, and I drink pulque that even the bartender didn’t realize was on their bottle list, and the bar staff is extremely kind, and everyone’s so glad to be there. Including me.

a lightbulb sticks out of a Supremes record

I take the subway back for my last night in my hotel, and I’m struck again at how simple it is: how frequent the trains are, how clear everything is, how stuff just works. I’ve been here enough to know that’s not always the case, but I am pretty sure it often is, and for someone who has gone through elaborate thinking to figure out how to get from Rockridge to Ashby via BART without wanting to tear things apart or wait a pointless 28 minutes for a transfer, that is everything.

Tomorrow brings trip part two: the Brooklyn-based days. I cannot wait.

Everything Looks New Again, and Can So Many Times

I love writing titles like that. My job involves, among other things, SEO-conscious writing and good internet content practices. Writing a title like that is the wordsmith equivalent of gliding about in a sequined caftan.

Here are things I’ve done since I last wrote to you properly: went to Paris as part of a duo, took a timeout in Rennes, went to Paris solo*, explored Berlin, slept in a boat in Amsterdam, joined my family in Florida for the holiday, got drunk on salt in New Orleans while rediscovering my love of oysters, decided to live in Capitol Hill for one more year, took an intro to programming class, got a new job, flew business class to Tokyo, bathed naked in a hot mineral pool while gazing at Mount Fuji, turned 32**, and returned to my blog.

I swear, I lose track at how eventful stuff can get until I write one of these big run-on paragraphs.

I also got a new camera. This is the first picture I took with it.

Echo at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle

In which I learned the Sculpture Park got a hell of a new addition.

Here’s another view that isn’t the first shot ever of something: Continue reading

I Loved the Atomium in Brussels Just as Much as I Thought I Would

We first saw the Atomium from the high viewpoint next to the Palace of Justice in central Brussels. Just an angular speck on the horizon, faintly silver in the late-afternoon light. Victor, our Brussels Greeter, pointed it out. I gazed at it and thought, I am coming to you.

There are two things that brought me to Brussels.* The real reason I ended up there this summer is because Tom is a uniquely determined kind of person and searched and searched until he found us an awesome deal on American that used miles we’d received from a credit card deal earlier this year. We knew we wanted to go to Europe, and he found a way for us to get there for a mere $375 each, round trip (and the return leg was business class, mmmmm). That’s almost reason enough to go anywhere.

But the seed of wanting to go to Belgium was planted some time before. I have friends who are also lucky enough to travel, and last year, they went to Paris and Brussels. They’re also engaging enough to be able to propose a thoroughly worthwhile slideshow night to show their trip pictures. I was enraptured by their many photos of Paris, of course, but the showstopper was some silver angular thing that looked like it had fallen out when someone gave the 1950s a good shake.

“What…” I began to ask. “What is that thing?”

That thing was the Atomium, Brussels’ version of the Space Needle. Made for Expo 58, the 1958 World’s Fair, the Atomium is an iron crystal model 165 billion times larger than the real thing. It is huge and shiny and immediately, undeniably absurd, and I saw it and immediately thought: I want to go to there. Nay, I needed to go to there. But at the time, I put it in the back of my head with the other 150,000 places I want and need to go. It’s not rare for me to feel that pull of I HAVE TO BE PHYSICALLY IN THE SAME PLACE AS THAT SOMEDAY.** I’m pretty practiced with filing these impulses away for the right time.

But when Tom suggested Brussels for our big summer trip, and I accepted, my pre-trip research yielded a grand thing: the Atomium and I would be together at last.

To get there, take the Brussels Metro about 30 minutes north of downtown. You’ll emerge in what seems like the most unremarkable suburbia, until you turn around and…


Oh. Hello.

I didn’t think it would be possible, but I was even more taken with it in person. There are two qualities that can make me love something almost immediately:

  1. The thing is a model of something else.
  2. Said model is much larger or much smaller than the original.

How could I not be besotted? It’s a big, absurd relic of a strange time. It’s like it was made for me.

Brussels' Atomium, slightly closer

Things like this mess with one’s perspective in the most beautiful way. This towering, unlikely object, gradually…

Brussels' Atomium, gradually filling the frame


Staring up at Brussels' Atomium from the ground

…your entire field of vision.

(A note: I have dozens of pictures like this, because this thing is photogenic and reveals new angles every few steps. However, part of being a good writer is being a good editor, and so I have spared you. You’re welcome.)

At the base, though, the whole thing briefly devolves into the worst of Belgian tourism. A person being paid to sullenly collect 30 cents from everyone who has the misfortune to need to pee. Spendy tickets. Children running hither and thither in the not-fun way. This was our last day of the trip, and my back hurt, and I was already a couple days past my usual isn’t-humanity-neat good humor deserting me. So all I wanted – all I wanted, more than anything – was to just get my audio guide and get up in that thing and be one with the Atomium, ok.

First, this:

Security scanner in the bottom lobby of the Atomium

Apologies for the poor picture. I am American and therefore become remarkably unbrave when faced with superfluous security screens because I assume they’re staffed by unkind people on power trips.

Fun fact: the symbol for “security screen” seen here is the same one they use outside for “pickpockets gonna take your stuff.” Make of that what you will.

Once through (and once we had our picture taken with a guy in a big-headed character costume of a redheaded cartoon bellhop, something we wouldn’t begin to understand until we hit the Belgian Comic Strip Center later that day), we encountered a long, long, winding line leading to an elevator. Next to them was an escalator with no line at all. Thinking myself very clever indeed, I suggested we head up the escalator and beat the ridiculous crowd.

The elevator takes you to the exhibits, which are basically catnip to my particular kind of nerdery. 50s-style concept illustrations, the cute outfits the Brussels ambassadors (read: pretty young women, go figure) wore, the various concepts for the Atomium, and press clippings galore. Here’s a thing I learned this trip: did you know that the world does not agree on how many continents there are? Fact! The Brussels World Fair insignia is a five-pointed star, “representing the five continents,” the accompanying card breezily informed me as I leaned over, squinting at badges with the fair’s insignia in embossed relief.

I stood straight up, pressing my audioguide wand to my ear. “Five continents???” I hissed to Tom, who was a couple display cases away. “Did you know we haven’t settled this bet yet?” He was unaware as well. This basic fact, this elemental thing we teach tiny children to let them feel that they can quantify the world and hold it in their hands even a miniscule amount, this is something we can’t agree on. We have regular trade talks with countries that inventory the earth differently. God, I love traveling. This is not the kind of stuff that comes out in casual conversations with people you’ve known forever.***

The interior at this point was perfectly 50s-innovation thematic, original to the event. These stairs are so charming you’d practically dance on down them to your basement nuclear shelter.

Awesome mid-century Atomium stairs

But after that, it got perfectly… wonderfully… weird.

The Atomium's Cylon escalator

The lights dimmed. People grew quieter.

And suddenly… we emerged into this.

Pulsing red lights and LEDs in the Atomium

Hold on

More of the Atomium's Cylon room

No, let’s discuss this

The core of the Atomium's Cylon base

Ok, what the hell is that?

Along with the sudden switch in décor, which moves from Tomorrowland’s rich pastels to an angry teenage nerd’s bedroom as decorated by Cyberdog and Spencer’s Gifts, the sound changes. It’s an immersive experience, this thing, with throbbing bass and enough moving staticky sounds to leave you feeling quite off-kilter.

And then we ascended one more escalator and found an explanation. It was a two-month art installation, an experience based on a short story about a ship’s AI system fighting off an invading virus while ending up unavoidably changed.


Here’s something I like about Europe: there are so many old, wonderful things there that they can do things like this in stride. It’s not that the US doesn’t do out-of-the-ordinary things with our Approved Historical Landmarks and Such, but I can’t imagine the White House covering a room in mirrors and simulating rain. I can’t even imagine the Space Needle, the philosophical sibling of the Atomium, attempting something like this. Yet the Atomium harbored a Cylon rave, and, last year, Versailles welcomed a variety of modern art, including lining the wall of one stately room with a 12-foot-tall brick of fallen leaves encased in chicken wire. They’ve existed long enough that they know that most ordinary things clean up just fine, in the end.

And then that’s the conclusion of part one of the tour. The audioguide informed me that it was time to head back downstairs… to the elevator line.


On the way there, winding down stairs (there are quite a lot; the Atomium is hard on people without a lot of mobility), we glimpsed this through locked glass doors.

The Atomium's adorable nap room for lucky children

In addition to I will someday share physical space with that thing, I occasionally get flashes of That is a thing I will do or have if I ever possess a ridiculous amount of money. I experienced that here. You, I thought at these little pods, you will someday be where I rest my eccentric, rich, weary head.

This is their daycare. Because the Atomium has a lot of spheres, and some of them are conference space. This is true.

Back at the ground level, we joined the elevator queue. Standing still did my back no favors, so I leaned on Tom as I pulled my heel toward my bum, hoping that stretching my angry, tightening muscles might get me through the rest of the day. I weighed whether it made sense to stand in this line, to go to the top of some tall thing that overlooked stuff I wasn’t familiar with. I have a resistance toward tall things; people spend their valuable vacation time going to the top of them without weighing whether it’s really the most interesting thing to do.

And then came a new piece of information:

The Atomium, glimpsed from inside through a rain-covered window

We’d been lucky enough to have pretty great weather throughout the trip. It had felt a little close and humid out earlier, but I’m still jaded by 18 years of Midwestern summers. It turns out that I don’t recognize the indications of an oncoming European torrential rain.

“Will it even be worth it to get up there?” I whined. “What are we even going to see? We’ll be inside the thing I want to look at.” The first part of me that gets chased away with pain is my sense of casual sure-why-not adventure.

It took about an hour, time I was afraid would be better spent looking at artifacts from the Belgian comic book industry.

But in the end, we made the right choice by staying.

We crammed into an elevator like Vienna sausages, and the guide blithely told us about how fast it was and how impressive it once was… in about six languages. As Belgians do.

And then… oh.

The rain had stopped, but the sky was still thick, grey, and surly. The rest of the world was left with the intensified colors a good dousing can give them.

The Atomium over the Belgian landscape

At certain angles, the Atomium’s spheres and their recently added steel plates blend in with the horizon while still reflecting and distorting it. It’s a beautiful thing – and genuinely, absolutely worth seeing from within. It may be nearly 60 years old, but it’s still capable of inspiring awe.

The Atomium, blending into the horizon

Also of inspiring weird little neighbors.

Mini-Europe from above

May I introduce you to Mini-Europe? Part of a neighboring complex of attractions meant to inspire tantrums in the children of visiting families, Mini-Europe is the centerpiece of a property that also includes a waterpark. Tom and I leaned over and identified the various places represented. We identified the Arc de Triomphe and the Coliseum, but we got stuck on “some airport, I guess?” and “is that a prison?”

I love miniature things, but I don’t understand the desire to pay 14 euros to walk around small buildings that are within a couple hours’ drive or train ride. I contain multitudes.

One last fun fact: the US Pavilion is one of the last buildings left from Expo 58.

The US Pavilion in Brussels, seen from the Atomium

And the US was kind enough to make a building that’s worth seeing, even more than 50 years later. The grandeur at most World Fairs was equaled only by how incredibly temporary and disposable the attractions were generally made to be. (Read The Devil in the White City for some insight into this, or consider the strange missing Ferris wheel axle from the 2004 St. Louis World’s Fair. Things were built to dazzle but not to last for very long, an interesting shared quality for events that were meant to showcase the future.

So it was good to see that the Atomium had company, and that it shared an origin with me. And it was good to see the Atomium at all, to spend part of my last day in Belgium at the first glimmering thing that had attracted me to it. Even if you don’t like novelty and relics as much as I do (a high bar to meet), it’s worth a stop. Particularly if you follow it with Belgian comics and one last beer outing, as we did.

I didn’t love Belgium. But I swooned for the Atomium, and so I ended my trip on a very satisfied note.


*Who am I kidding. There’s also number three: BEER. But more on that another day.

**Other recents: that green inflatable buttplug in Paris, the Santa Claus holding the black buttplug in Rotterdam, Mont St. Michel. I don’t lack.

*** A quick Google tells me that six or seven are the most common answers. Lots of people (quite reasonably) lump Europe and Asia together. Belgium, at least at that point, considered the Americas to be one long, spindly continent too. Fair.

Art, Across from the Gum Wall

Pike Place Market's Post AlleyI’ve been scroogey this holiday season. The first Monday I walked downtown after Thanksgiving, I surprised myself by looking up at the glittering lights, the newly installed tinsel, and the freshly opened Santa’s Cottage and thinking:

“Oh. Oh god.”

It wasn’t a strong rejection – instead, worse, it was a flat sigh of observing something I was uninterested in but powerless to stop. Continue reading

What I Got Up to Today

Sadness at the Depressed Cake Shop in SeattleI experienced sadness at the Depressed Cake Shop of Seattle. A mere four minutes before I arrived, my friend witnessed the announcement that there were no more grey cakes or pies or anything to be had. Cheers to the fundraiser; alas for the rest of us.

Billie, Pike Place Market Piggy BankI discovered there is a second piggy bank at Pike Place Market. Billie, Rachel‘s more retiring younger sister, sits at a back entrance of the market. She is also pleased to take your spare change.

She’s harder to sit on for pictures, though, as I watched an 11-year-old girl discover as she slid down the back, clutching desperately but futilely to Billie’s back.

upper wall art pike marketI saw some Pike Market art I’d never witnessed. It pleases me that this is still possible. I attribute it to the magic of wandering Pike Market with someone who doesn’t live here. It’s like the Room of Requirement, but with public art.

Mount Rainier, showing off over SODOAnd then we saw this. If my friend wasn’t already pretty much convinced to move here, this might’ve settled it.

My last Americano at Bauhaus, for nowI had my last Americano at Bauhaus – for at least a couple weeks. Appropriately, I was joined by the person I’ve known the longest in Seattle. I’ll talk more about this outing later.

And this is what it looked like on that last night:

The verdant beauty of Bauhaus at nightI realize I’ve been to the last night of several Capitol Hill things – the Vogue, Bailey Coy, and now this. Black widow or opportunist? You decide.

Not pictured: several hours of reading for school; a fine siesta; being in bed with cats; the midnight toast n’ eggs meal I made to settle my coffee-roiled belly.