What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 5: Austin, TX to Bethlehem, PA

The weather for my Monday flight out is appropriately dour and unpleasant: overcast, drizzly, and just plain “blah.” It matches my mood.

I’m up half an hour before everyone else, so after I triple-check what small amount of luggage I have, I sit out in the living room with the cats and read some more James Tiptree, Jr. while the rest of the household wakes up and does their thing around me. Things move quietly and efficiently until Noah gets the text alert that my ride to the airport’s arrived. I say my goodbyes at the door, but then an idea hits Noah.

“I’ll come out with you. I just realized that the driver will probably be looking for me, since I called for the ride.”

I’m reminded of our goodbye in NYC last October, when it was Noah disappearing into an Uber to the airport and I was the one left behind. On that equally gray morning, after hugging out our goodbyes, I had hung by the open door and watched him disappear down the stairs with our host, only for him to dart back at the last minute for a last hug. This time it’s me vanishing into an Uber for the airport.

We meet my ride at the curb, a cheerful woman in early middle age. I swing my larger bag in the back of the car. Noah pulls me in for one hug then, and then the “one more hug” trick again right before I step in the back passenger seat. After that, he lets me go for real, and I get in the car.

It’s the price you pay to pull up stakes and move to another country. Facebook and Skype and email help, but they’re not the same. And some people translate better online than others. Noah is markedly worse than others. That’s probably what makes our goodbyes so heavy.

On the plus side, I have a pleasant ride to the airport. It’s weird talking to human beings for no reason again; it’s weird how comfortable I am doing it (after stony silences in cabs and Ubers in Stockholm and NYC). Is this my inner American coming out? Is this who I’ve been all along?

No, it’s probably just being in Texas. Extroversion acquired via osmosis.

We talk about music festivals: how much money people can make off of SXSW, how busy it can get, how small Musikfest (on my to-do list during this trip) is by comparison, even though both festivals have been running for about as many years.

Musikfest 2013. Image courtesy the official Lehigh Valley Flickr account.

I check in at the airport without a problem and see again that I’ll be among the last board. Whatever. I make it on board and text Noah and my mom to let them know that everything went according to plan.

The weather in Newark is equally crummy and I’m convinced that we’re going to hydroplane into the back of a tractor trailer or get sideswiped or anything else on the way home. I’m no longer used to car rides on the highway in inclement weather; is this a small sign of my own de-Americanization?

Obviously we make it home just fine. I get Priscilla, my indestructible-except-for-her-hinges laptop, up and running (how many months of updates do I need to install? too many), check in with my sambo on Google Hangouts, and then begin the long work of culling my library yet again. I work on the project off-and-on for the next few days; eventually I’ll have five(!!) boxes of books for the Riegelsville library.

Riegelsville library

I take a break for Jeopardy!, because I’m a nerd, and then decide on my course of action for tomorrow: library and ‘fest.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Austin, TX, Day 4

It’s my last full day in Austin and I try really hard not to be sad about it. Fortunately that’s easy, because today’s the day we go to Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio and see the bats!

Everyone sleeps in and I’m the first up, again. I’ve finished Stories of Your Life and Others by now (I finished it while I was waiting for the bus to/at Book People yesterday); my eye catches a James Tiptree, Jr. collection and picks that up.

“Take that with you,” Elizabeth says when they wake up. “I’m basically holding on to those books to give away to people.”

Noah and Elizabeth decide to take advantage of the rental car and do the grocery shopping for all of the heavy things (read as: kitty litter). I follow along, because I really do genuinely like wandering around grocery stores, even if (like my trip with Elizabeth yesterday) there’s no giddy quality of planning and anticipation involved.

After we bring the groceries back (and make a quick run to the store to find a misplaced “bag of bags”), we decide to try to get lunch in town before the drive out to San Antonio. The places we check have incredibly long waits, though, so instead we get some macarons and a turkey and cheese sandwich (for me and Noah to split) and head straight to San Antonio and decide to eat there. Noah consults with a friend via text about the best tacos in San Antonio, and he responds: “Rolando’s Super Tacos, Jesus is Lord.”

A podcast interview with Eddie Izzard fills the silence on the long drive; a Texas state lawmaker (who both Noah and Elizabeth recognize, since they both work in the Capitol) drives very aggressively, ultimately passing us on the right, and Elizabeth and Noah both shriek in inchoate rage. (Apparently she’s a garbage politician in addition to a garbage driver.)

We get to Rolando’s Super Taco without incident. We took the “Jesus is Lord” part of the text to mean that really, they’re awesome tacos, but then when we arrive we see it: bold text, professionally painted on the side of the building.

The tacos are, indeed, super. And the water glasses are comically oversized. (“Welcome back to America,” either Elizabeth or Noah says when a “Jesus, this is huge” reflexively escapes my lips.)

Stuffed to the gills, we continue to the cave, which is a jaw-dropping tourist trap of truly American proportions. I suppose when your cave is in the middle of uninhabited ranch land, you can spread out as much as you like; there are two different gift shops, some kind of zip line attraction, a maze, gem panning, and even a cafeteria.

The next tour leaves in about five minutes, giving us enough time to stroll over to the tour holding pen. This cave opts for the “tour guide at every station” model, which I like less than the “have a new friend and personal cave psychopomp for an hour” model, but given some of the hairpin turns in the path, I see why it’s run the way it is. I don’t fall, thankfully, though Noah almost does.

They have an obligatory photo spot, which Noah and Elizabeth resent—”even if they don’t sell your picture to you, they can use it in promotional material”—and so they strive to look as awful as possible when the flash goes off.

I shrug. “Joke’s on them. I’m not photogenic at all!”

The cave itself is spectacular and miracle of miracles, my camera phone manages to capture some of the magic. I lose my mind repeatedly on the tour.

“Thank you for indulging my weirdo nerdy interests,” I say as we follow the walkway back to the main tourist campus of shops and food. I still have OMG CAVE HIGH thrumming through my veins.

“You’d do the same for me,” Noah replies.

“What would be the equivalent? That Eugene O’Neill play, I guess.”

“Oh, yeah. Which one was that?” He stops to think and we both say, together, “‘The Hairy Ape.'”

We wait in the cafeteria for the bat tour to begin. There’s some short paperwork to sign, a waiver for something or other, and then we’re out on the patio for a short lecture on bats. The bat colony here are Mexican free tail bats; they don’t hibernate, so they haven’t been devastated by White Nose Syndrome like the little brown bats in PA. But the BCI volunteer touches on WNS, and other kinds of bats as well. She brings up the flying fox: “Do I have anyone here who’s six foot?”

“This guy is,” Elizabeth says, pointing at Noah. The BCI volunteer asks him to stand and hold his arms to demonstrate the wingspan of a flying fox. Elizabeth and I both crack up, and she snaps a picture of his demonstration. The volunteer moves on to other bat species and Noah sits down.

As we’re caravaning out to the cave where the bats will emerge, Elizabeth tells Noah, “I volunteered you to stand up because I knew you would love it. Everyone watching you? Perfect.”

The drive to the cave is surprisingly long, though we can’t be driving more than 20 mph, so that’s part of it.

“They could just be really efficient serial killers,” Elizabeth wonders as we drive. The rental car isn’t exactly made for off-roading; I think we all are fervently hoping that we don’t get a flat or suffer any other road maladies. The survives, and right away you can smell the presence of bat. Woof. It’s a short walk through the Texan scrub and then we’re at the mouth of a cave. Or not at, not entirely; we’re a few hundred feet back, separated by a gentle slope full of rocks and debris.

At ground level a few benches have been built to seat bat observers, and some artificial terraces. We make our way to the front-most ledge and sit and wait, while the BCI volunteer continues to inform us about the nearby wildlife and other bat facts.

We see a few flutters of individual bats here and there, and then eventually they’re out, like a bat vortex. They stream out and into some fields we can’t see to feed on assorted pests. After a few minutes of watching, the BCI volunteer announces that she’ll be leading people to the other side, right over the cave, so we can be right under the bats as they fly.

It’s a pretty amazing sight, though I’m mindful of the fact that we’re under animals and try to remember to not stand and gape with my mouth wide open. Don’t want to be a bat toilet!

“They look like an aurora borealis,” I say.

“There is a river-like quality to their flight,” Noah agrees.

Again, I think of Vonnegut: If this isn’t nice, what is? “Not everything is a total garbage fire,” I comment, and Noah just laughs.

On our way out, we can still see bats silhouetted against the clouds in the vanishing daylight. According to the BCI volunteer, they can hit bursts of speed up to 100 mph. With the right wind and atmospheric conditions, I guess.

We pull back on the highway and listen to a podcast Elizabeth wanted to try out, The Babysitter’s Club Club. It’s two guys reading The Babysitter’s Club books, one for the first time and one for the first time since childhood. It suffers the usual podcast problem: desperately needs more editing and/or more scripting, and much of the episode is full of only moderately funny banter. We all pick it apart a little, and then Noah puts on another podcast for the second half of the trip home: Pop Culture Happy Hour.

As we wind in to Austin, food comes up. Noah is hungry; Elizabeth isn’t. (She had a huge platter at Rolando’s Super Tacos, Jesus is Lord.) Elizabeth drops us off at the all-purpose eatery Noah and I had patronized for breakfast on Friday and goes home herself. Noah gets loaded vegetarian nachos (tofu instead of bacon!) and I get a cider. We sit and talk about everything important and nothing in particular: friendships, relationships, anxieties, veganism. There’s no postponing the inevitable, though: we finish the nachos and my cider runs out and it’s definitely time to go home.

 

“Should we wake you up, or do you have an alarm?”

“I’ll set an alarm. Have I checked in?” Weird to phrase it like that, but since Noah bought the ticket, he’s the one who keeps getting the email reminders from Southwest.

“Yes, I did that this morning.”

“Okay, great.”

A few minutes into me last-minute packing and double-checking everything, Noah drifts out of the bedroom. “Okay, so I didn’t actually check you in. I had the window open to take care of the airport cab, but I never hit the button. Should I send it to you, or…?”

I wave him way. “You can just do it yourself, it’s fine.” If my flight back is overbooked and I get bumped to a later one, I don’t really care so much.

“Okay. Night!”

“Night!”

My things are packed as best as they can be with me still in pajamas. I double-check my alarm (poor form to miss a flight someone else has paid for), and then drift off to sleep.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Copenhagen and NYC

It takes forever to get out of the Copenhagen airport, or at least it feels like forever. My flight was supposed to arrive at 12:30; when I check the time on the surprisingly dingy subway, it’s already 13:40. Oops. I had grand, if brief, plans for my layover in Copenhagen: see The Little Mermaid statue, grab a smorbrod at Aarman’s, and top it off with a beer at Cafe Malmo. I chop the list down to Cafe Malmo (beer above all else). It pours down intermittently during my walk there, but by the time I find the basement bar (Cafe Malmo is emphatically NOT a cafe), the weather has broken for the better.

I take a seat right opposite the open door, enjoying the cool breeze and the blue-gray patch of sky projecting into the dark wood paneling. The fresh air is good because there are ashtrays everywhere and the unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke—smoking in restaurants, a memory of a bygone era.

The exterior of Cafe Malmo.
The exterior of Cafe Malmo.

At the bar I struggle with whether to use English or Swedish. I switch uncomfortably between both, if finally skewing more towards the Swedish end of the spectrum. The bartender understands me just fine and truthfully I can’t tell if he uses Swedish or very slow and deliberate Danish with me in return. I know that I can read Danish okay, but trying to listen to snatches of overheard conversation is impossible. It’s all gargling.

Is it extra appropriate for a dive bar to have a nautical theme? I can’t decide. In one window, a copper(?) bathysphere is surrounded by potted cactuses. The duality of man, or nature. The wall opposite me features a collage of faded photos and the title “BUGISSTREET SINGAPORE” in that font used exclusively for saloons in the Wild West on crayon-bright yellow paper. The photos are of women, glamour shots and candids alike, and many feature exposed breasts.

The interior of Cafe Malmo.
The interior of Cafe Malmo.

The sign outside the bar promises live music, but I’m skeptical that you could comfortably fit the accouterments necessary for even your basic guitar-strumming singer-songwriter. There would be floor space between my seat and the door, but it’s dominated by a heavy five-pin billiards table. Or maybe the billiards table doubles as a stage as necessary?

While I sip my beer, the thought strikes me of “third places,” or maybe it’s called “third spaces.” The idea is that we crave places that are neither work (obviously stressful for most, or at least oversaturated, even if you like your job) and home (often its own brand of oppressive), so we go to places like bars, parks, and cafes. I suppose my third place of preference is bars; I’d like them even without drinks. Even the cutest, quirkiest cafe can feel performative and formal. But everyone relaxes in bars. Especially during off-peak hours, it’s a place to relax and be around-but-not-with other people. They have no expectations of me (except to, say, pay for my drink, not to leave a mess, etc.) and likewise I have no expectations of them. I have space to think.

That said, I don’t think about much. I just let the weird mix of classic American top 40 and European schlager I don’t know and Danish covers of American songs wash over me. There is a surprising amount of country music. Selections include:

  • A Danish cover of James Taylor
  • “Fly By Night”
  • “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
  • “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”
  • A loungey version of “Revolution”
  • A country version of “O Holy Night”

Eventually other patrons appear, or maybe friends of the young busboy. They set up the five-pin billiards game. The box with the pins and the chalk for the scoreboard had been sitting on a shelf behind me the whole time and the thought had earlier occurred to me that one of the small, finely carved pins would have made a nice souvenir. Now I’m glad I didn’t pinch one. I watch a game play through, not understanding any of the rules, and then return to the airport for the most important flight: from Copenhagen to New York.

That flight itself is uneventful. I read a lot and sleep a lot. The real fun begins when I land at JFK and try to get to my lodgings for the night: King Sauna in Palisades Park, NJ. In the process I wrangle a cheap burner sim card and some allergy medicine (my hosts in Austin have cats), but getting to the sauna is more of an adventure than I would have bargained for. I get there nonetheless.

King Sauna is a Korean-American version of a jjimjilbang, a particular kind of sauna. There’s not really anything that’s different between one in Korea and one in the US except, maybe, context: in the US they’re a luxury and a reward; in Korea they are (or were for me) as a reliable part of travel as highway rest stops or Motel 6. In some neighborhoods they’re a place to spend a few hours with the family; in others they’re a cheap place to crash if you missed the last subway home.

In retrospect, my view of jjimjilbangs as the latter is maybe incompatible with the semi-luxurious status they enjoy in the US (would a hostel or AirBnB for the night be cheaper?), but there’s something to be said for 24-hour entry, saunas, and hot tubs when you trudge out of JFK at 10 in the evening.

Unfortunately, the “lagom” pool—not boiling hot, not tepid or ice cold—is drained to just a few inches, I guess for cleaning? So I can’t indulge in my favorite warm-cold-warm ritual, but I enjoy having a luxurious hot shower and sweating it out in the steam saunas.

The other nice thing about jjimjilbangs generally, and this one in particular, is the freely available computer access. Without that, it would have been impossible to get my budget sim card started. I could have flown into Austin semi-blind, relying on the crapshoot that is free wifi, but that would be cutting it a little close, even for me. I also take the time to order online NJ transit and airport shuttle tickets. Phone tickets. The future is now!

There were other intangible benefits to staying at the sauna, mostly related to sense memories. There’s a smell to jjimjilbangs—is it damp bamboo mats? tea?—that I will eternally associate with relief, safety, and relaxation. And the second it hits my nose, all the tension from traveling leaves my body.

Truthfully, my favorite jjimjilbangs in Korea were much more budget and much less luxurious than this one; basically places for drunk patrons to sleep it off. But I like the touches here: the delicate white-and-pink upholstered fancy chairs and matching tables, with intricate leaves and curves carved into the arms and legs; the overwhelming presence of flowers, real and artificial; vases, geodes, and crystals set in decorative tableaus (maybe for obscure feng shui benefits?). The net effect is one of repose in a fairy forest bower, and it’s surprisingly calming.

My original sleeping plan was to avoid the coed fairy bower area, to minimize the risk of encountering a pervert, but when I get exiled out of the private rest/sleep area in the women’s-only side for wearing the jjimjilbang uniform (“clothes outside!” the attendant tells me and the other woman in there), I notice that in the co-ed corner devoted to sleeping has little wooden barriers to cordon off “private” space—random dudes won’t be able to comfortably roll over and try to spoon with me. Satisfied, I put my glasses on a nearby shelf and set a series of alarms on my phone to make sure I don’t miss my flight to Austin.

Yours truly, sweating it out.
Yours truly, sweating it out.

As it turns out, I don’t need the complex series of wake-up calls. Whether it’s jet lag or anticipation, I only sleep for a couple of hours and wake up at around 4 am. I peek in the saunas to see if the lagom pool has been refilled yet, but no dice. I relax in a few of the different infrared saunas in the coed fairy bower section, then leave a little before 7 so I can get the NJ transit bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal in good time.

“What time is it?”

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Wise words from one of America’s greatest modern writers. My own version of this was a game I started in college, and have played ever since. It doesn’t really have a name—I just call it “my favorite game” and leave it at that. I suppose you could call it the “what time is it?” game, otherwise. I play it during parties, picnics, and other pleasant get-togethers, though it isn’t a party game as such.

The whole game is just a simple request: “Time to play my favorite game, guys! What time is it?” The trick is that you aren’t allowed to check the time; you have to guess. It’s understood that I’m not really interested in what the time actually is, but what time you think it is.  You win by being the closest, I guess, but the point is never to win. The point is to be cognizant of the passage of time and to either appreciate how much time is still left to enjoy the night and how slowly time has passed so far despite the fun we’ve been having, or to try to come down and wrap up the night. It’s usually the former; I usually invite a round of the “what time is it?” game after I check the time myself and am pleasantly surprised at how early it still is.

This game gets rather more difficult when you live at latitudes farther from the equator than what you grew up with. I’ve lived in Sweden for almost four years now and I think I might have a handle on how to deal with winter, but then again I might not—it’s all too easy to blithely handwave winter away in the middle of June and forget how grim it can really get. In the winter, the “what time is it?” game isn’t about hope and joie de vivre but about reminding yourself to persevere. In the summer, though, it becomes straight-up sun worship.

All of that is to lead up to this subpar smartphone snapshot I took while I was out on a run yesterday:

Stockholm sidewalk during a summer evening.
So, what time is it?

This was yesterday: June 26, 2017. What time is it?

9:41 PM.

Winters in Stockholm are bleak, but summers are the most amazing thing. You need to store up moments like this one and hold on to them when it’s pitch black by 3 PM.

After all, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

ArmchairBEA, Day 1: Introduction

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

The first prompt is, as usual, a simple introduction prompt. In case you wanted to know more than what’s on my About Me page!

I am . . .

Most basically, I’m an American expat in Stockholm who cobbles together a living from freelance editing and EFL tutoring. I don’t see the fields as discrete; rather, they interact with and reinforce each other.

Currently . . .

I’ve just wrapped up lessons with three different students, just in time for me to pick up work on two (rather large) editing projects.

I love . . .

I love giving people the tools they need to articulate themselves. This is where editing and tutoring overlap, and it’s the best part of both jobs for me.

I also used to work in a jewelry-making supplies store, and incidentally that was my favorite part of that job as well. Only I was helping people articulate themselves through a very different medium!

On a less career/aspirational level, I love being outside in the sunshine (and being at home in the rain), reading, a good cup of tea, and Korean food.

My favorite . . .

My favorite Korean dish is budae jjigae (a spicy stew that includes assorted American-style meats), my favorite tea is Söderte, and choosing my favorite book would be like choosing a favorite child. You can read about my favorite books according to GoodReads, if you’re curious about my tastes.

My least favorite . . .

My least favorite precious gem is the diamond. Controversial opinion time, I guess! But even if they weren’t an ethical nightmare, I would still be unimpressed. I’ve seen properly cut, high-quality quartz that has the same sparkle and flash as a diamond. And that’s not even including Herkimer diamonds.

My least favorite book is equally hard to choose, but out of a field of mediocre reads, one that stands out is Rabbit, Run. I’m not a big Updike fan.

My current read . . .

Oh, so many! I have two that I’m reading for group obligations:  Madonna in a Fur Coat for my Internet book club and The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide for my in-person critique group. I’ve also borrowed The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage from a critique group friend, a book that is relevant to my interests as well as my ongoing writing project. Finally, my Swedish book of the moment is Karin Boye’s Kris.

My summer plans . . .

I’ll be traveling to the US in August for a wedding.

My buddy . . .

My buddy Aaron is the one getting married! Here we are in Beijing during Lunar New Year 2010:

Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2009
Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2010

He’s conversant, if not fluent, in (Mandarin) Chinese, and when I touched down in Beijing on the evening before Lunar New Year, he put that Chinese to good use finding us a place to eat. All of the restaurants anywhere near our hostel had been closed all day, or closed early. When we got here, they initially turned us away, too, but he finally switched to Chinese and explained that it was my first night in Beijing, and that I had just flown in from Seoul without any dinner. Either his Chinese, my sad story, or both convinced them to let us in, and we shared a huge company meal, complete with alcohol and dancing.

And now he’s getting married!

My blog/channel/social media . . .

The other place on social media where you can find me is on Twitter (@KobaEnglish). I would rather eat rusty nails than start a video channel.

The best . . .

The best part of this trip will definitely be seeing so many of my friends in the US who can’t take the time (or spend the money) to come see me in Stockholm.

Friday 5: Malfunction Junction

When have you had a wardrobe malfunction?

I lost a skirt to a motorbike gear while I was in Indonesia. Nothing too mortifying, but we needed to stop and get a new one for me. Going to Indonesia with a regular peasant skirt from the US and leaving with a batik print one from Indonesia isn’t a bad deal, though!

Kat Koba Indonesia
Before…
Kat Koba Indonesia
…and after

 

When did you last have a problem with your alarm clock?

Yesterday, actually! Either I slept through it, or the alarm doesn’t automatically override the headphones if they’re plugged in. It’s set for 7:30 and I didn’t wake up until almost 10.

 

What was your most recent computer problem, and what was the fix?

Well, one of the hinges on my laptop is breaking, which seems to be a common denominator in a lot of HP laptops. I’m not sure what the fix is, since at this point it’s no longer under warranty and I can’t really afford the time it would take to send it off for repairs.As for software, once in a while I need to restart Word or OpenOffice because they slow down, but that’s about it.


What’s something about cars you know specifically because you had to have one repaired?

Nothing, really.


Have you had any brain malfunctions this week?

I miscalculated hours for a student (in their favor and not mine, at least) and I missed an important-ish email about an editing project, though I suspect that was an email attempt at sorting spam malfunction more than anything else.

Koba English is Born

Welcome to the new home on the web for Koba English (that’s me!). While the important stuff, like editing rates, tutoring availability, and contact information, will stay on the static pages, this blog space will be for news and other transient things: thoughts on language, book recommendations and reviews, the occasional goofy photo. I’ll get the ball rolling with a goofy photo:

bloggerprofile

There I am, out visiting the sheep on a farm in Uppsala in 2010. Très chic, n’est-ce pas?