Thursday, May 16, 2013

The bell, the ghost and the stone angels

A vintage glass bell is not the most practical travel accessory but it seems fitting for my travels.

It hasn’t been with me the whole time; we found each other in the seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts, an hour out of Boston.  Rockport has a long history, it’s America’s most renowned artists’ colony, and its harbour is the view most depicted in artistic interpretations in the whole country. I was staying on the headland, overlooking the sea, and visited the town by taking the old Garden Path along the shoreline. Even if the guesthouse I was staying in hadn’t been called The Captain’s House, I still would have expected the dashing poltergeist from The Ghost and Mrs Muir to stop by. Sadly no such visit occurred, which is probably for the best, although I know he would have liked my glass bell.

The bell was in a tiny, basement antique store where the windows looked up to the sea foaming gently over moss-covered rocks. I kept coming back to the bell, picking it up and making it ring. The impracticality of travelling with such a delicate piece was obvious, but there was something about its light amber dome and faceted handle that appealed to me. The shop owner didn’t rush me, and was happy just to chat about the bell and the other things in his store. Everyone I’ve met in Rockport has been more than happy to stop and chat and share a bit of their interests, be it the silversmith and purveyor of gemstones, who knows his geology, or the jeweller who showed me how a true pearl doesn’t stay scratched, buffering smooths away the imperfection.

What we choose to take with us when we leave home has been on my mind during my travels. I brought over a box of possessions for a friend who has moved to LA, everything carefully bubbled wrap and then positioned in my luggage. I took good care of the stories and memories entrusted to me. I delivered them safely my first night in LA, a bit like Santa Claus, but decked out in a strappy silk dress and sandals.

And it’s not just the things that we take on our journeys, but what we leave to make our mark or reach out to the world around us that I’m thinking about. Last night I was in Boston, and my ambling feet took me down Boylston St to Copley Square. Along the street there are several makeshift memorials to the bombing that happened just four weeks ago. Along one cast iron railing strips of colourful cloth ribbon, all with simple messages of hope and support, are tied. Further down in Copley Square there is a larger shrine, a temporary fence encasing the site with running shoes tied all along it. T-shirts with messages and flowers in plastic wrappings fill the site, all from people needing to reach out and leave tangible signs of their sorrow and support.

For me this trip has been about not just seeing fascinating places but reliving important friendships my previous travels have brought me. When I started planning this adventure, Nancy, my dear friend from Rotterdam, said she would meet me in New York. It means so much to me that she would travel so far to see me. The first time I was in New York it was to visit her when she worked her for the Tribeca Film Festival, and New York remains a special meeting place for us. We even made a special pilgrimage to Rocco’s in the West Village to split a slice of New York/peanut butter cheesecake. Our last slice was five years ago, but we still remembered so clearly how rich and thick it was, and were able to detect that the recipe has been improved and lightened. This time we didn’t end up lounging in our seats, groaning that we’d never be able to move again.

The cheesecake was the end of an amazing night on Broadway, seeing the musical Once. Based on the 1997 film (that had just been released when Nancy and I first met each other), it is about an Irish street musician who has given up music, defeated in his dreams, and the optimistic Czech woman who helps him rekindle his purpose. It’s a love story certainly, but one where the two leads share an important moment and take separate paths, inspired by the other. It stars Arthur Darvill, who has played one of my three favourite Dr Who companions, Rory Williams (my other favourite companions are Donna and Leela). Nancy waited patiently with me at the stage door after so I could get his autograph, and snapped photos for me as I talked briefly to him. Given Rory’s fate at the end of his story, zapped back into 1930s Manhattan by the creepy Weeping Angels, I said I hoped he was watching out for stone angels. Yes I might be in the most exciting city in the world but I’m still a geek through and through.

Speaking of stone angels, they are everywhere, and I am definitely keeping an eye on them. I’ve spotted them all over, peeking out from behind the band at the Dr Who theme bar, the Way Station in Brooklyn, to apparently setting up their own shop in Rockport. You can rest assured I wasn’t tempted to go in.

Nancy and I were staying in a basement apartment in Brooklyn, and are converts to the charms of the neighbourhood. We’ve loved the tree lined streets and brownstones that are just as beautiful as any in Manhattan. 

Our host, Joan, was so kind and caring, even taking me to a herbalist where her daughter works so I could get a natural cure for the insomnia that plagued me for several days. I didn’t go there until after Nancy’s departure, so she had to endure a zombie like companion on her final morning. Fortunately I wasn’t the walking dead the whole time we were together, managing to be bright eyed for most our adventures, vintage clothes shopping and going to the best taqueria in Williamsburg to see our friend Aida. Here we even came across a film crew shooting scenes for the Boardwalk Empire.

New York will forever remain a city of friendship for me, a place to meet friends made on other journeys. It’s here that I saw my friend Crystal for the first time in almost 10 years, celebrating a friendship that started back in Edinburgh in 1996. I joined her and her friends for lunch in Little Italy, and it’s entirely thanks to Crystal choosing SoHo as the location to meet that I found my spiritual home. Yes, I stumbled on to the Manhattan John Fluevog store. No one would expect me to go past that opportunity to treat myself to a pair.

And New York too is where Cathy, whom I first met at a bus stop in the South of France two years ago and then just last year explored Hobart with, came to visit me. She too was entranced with Brooklyn, while I remain humbled by these wonderful friends who are willing to come so far to see me. It’s thanks to Cathy too that I was in Rockport, it is one of her favourite places in the world. It was my turn to travel to her, so I took the train from New York’s Penn Station first to Boston, then the local train along the coast to Rockport. It was a journey that was worth it.

So now I’m on my way back to New York for a few more days. Although I’d planned to go further north to Seattle, I really couldn’t bring myself to leave New York just yet. I don’t know when I’ll be back and I want to make the most of my time there.

I’ve felt like a local, I even took part in a writer’s workshop at the Gotham Writers’ Center. Even though I questioned the lecturer’s use of dramatic irony I learnt some important lessons and pushed myself. The class was full of interesting characters, who could be characters in their own right, from the woman with the strong New York accent I’ve been waiting to hear (I just wanted her to say ‘kwoffee’) and the NYPD vice cop who talked like Raymond Chandler.

There are times when I feel like I’m living in a novel myself. And occasionally I feel like I’m in a comic series. I did my own impression of Superman’s quick-change abilities, when Cathy and I were going to dinner and then the Broadway show of Orphans. I ran out of time to get home to change, so thanks to the wonders of mobile technology, I texted Cathy and asked her to bring my dress with her. Having been on a shopping mission to Sephora for friend at home, I had the makeup I needed to freshen my look and I bought earrings while I waited in Times Square. I put my ensemble together in the restroom of the restaurant, although as there was only once facility, I had to do it in stages so as not to inconvenience the other diners. I popped in at first wearing my day clothes, emerged in my evening dress, then returned to genuinely powder my nose. Superman never seems to have this trouble finding an empty phone booth.

When I’m back in Brooklyn tonight, I’m going to unwrap my amber glass bell. I’ve rented a studio apartment near Prospect Park, and it will be here that I spend a bit more time living in this wonderful story. Every time I look at that bell I will remember that even though there is always a risk with travel, it’s the discoveries along the way and the people you meet who become lifelong friends that make it worthwhile. 

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