“You Are Here” Radio Interview

I’ve always hated hearing my recorded voice talk back to me.  So I haven’t listened to my latest radio interview, in which I talk about myself, my life as a writer, and some of the ideas that went into “You Are Here.”  Click the link below to download the interview; it’s about 15 minutes long.  Feel free to share!

iUniverse258.1-ChrisDelyani

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Huffington Post Blogs

I haven’t been blogging much on the website lately because I’ve been working hard on my latest novel as well as contributing blogs on gay issues at the Huffington Post.  But if you happen to stumble on this page and wish to check out my contributions to HuffPo, the links are below.

For my first blog, from February 2013, I wrote about how my life in San Francisco tracked Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz.  When I moved to the Bay Area in 1993, I’d bought the myth that San Francisco was like a gay Oz.  The reality turned out to be something different.

Where Will Your Yellow Brick Road Take You?

For my second blog, I commemorated the 25th anniversary of my coming out, which began when a slip of paper fell out of a library book at the Boston Public Library.  I wish I’d kept that slip of paper.

A Silver Coming-Out Story

For my third blog, I interviewed my 83-year-old neighbor Robert Akeley, who over the course of his long and colorful life has “come out” no fewer than three times.  He told me his third time coming out — just shy of his 83rd birthday — was the scariest for him.

A Portrait of the Artist at 83

Finally, for my fourth and latest blog, I had a chat with the amazing Grace Sterling Stowell, a transgender woman who’s thrown her life and soul into one of the oldest gay-run youth groups in the country.

Amazing Grace

Enjoy!

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Yoga, Writing, and The Next Big Thing

I started taking yoga classes in the late summer of 2009, a few weeks before my 41st birthday.  I had just recovered from a debilitating back spasm and was determined to strengthen myself against future back spasms.  More than three years later, I’ve become addicted to the classes at Flying Yoga, my neighborhood yoga studio run by the inimitable Laura Camp.  I haven’t had a serious back spasm in three years.  Best of all, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting — and practicing with — some of the nicest people the Bay Area has to offer.

Rachel MeyerOne of these people is the instructor Rachel Meyer, who, in addition to running a super-fun but super-tough class on Sunday mornings, is a writer working on a book project you can read about on her blog.  It doesn’t surprise me that both writing and yoga come naturally to Rachel, since both require the same set of skills:  focus, discipline, a sense of humor, and a willingness to return to the practice despite any frustrations or setbacks.   In her classes she makes no pretense that the poses are easy — but what she does do is offer me the possibility that someday, maybe, I’ll get that funky pose right.  I think I could say the same thing about the many fine instructors who have patiently overeen my progress these past three years.

Anyway, Rachel reached out to me as part of a “chain blog” to answer ten questions, listed in bold below, about a book I’ve recently published or a work in progress.  In my case, I have a recently published book and a work in progress.  I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to write about.  The book I published has been out there since August.  But the project I’m working on is still in the claymaking phase (as opposed to the sculpting phase), and I’m very reluctant to say anything about it yet, not even the working title.  So for those of you who aren’t yet familiar with “You Are Here,” I give the color below.  For those of you curious to know where I am on the current project, check out the postcript at the bottom.

Enjoy!

What is your working title of your book (or story or article or whatever)?

“You Are Here.”

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The first literary spark came from Jane Austen’s brilliant “Mansfield Park,” in which the dashing rake, Henry Crawford, falls under the spell of the quiet, unassuming Fanny Price.  I even remember the sentence that made me first want to start writing fiction:  “It would be something to be loved by such a girl, to attract the first ardors of her young, unsophisticated mind!”  I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of the man who can have (almost) anyone he wants, yet finds himself falling for the one person he can’t have.

And then there was the passage of Proposition 8.  I could write at length on the injustice of that law and how angry it still makes me feel.  But if there was one good thing about that law, is that it gave me ideas for the story arc of my book’s three main characters – Peter, Miles, and Nick.  So this book incorporates many layers of my life, coming in at different times of my life.

What genre does your book fall under?

Gay literary fiction.  Or gay romance.  Or a story in which the main characters happen to be a bunch of gay guys.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The first fiction-writing class I ever took was at Harvard Extension, taught by the formidable Pamela Painter.  I remember her forbidding us, in her usual forceful tone of voice, that we should never, ever picture our stories based on a movie or movie stars.  If there is ever a movie rendition of “You Are Here,” I expect the characters would be played by a bunch of unknown actors who then go on to make their careers – you know, like Leonardo DiCaprio in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A young painter moves to San Francisco to escape a personal tragedy and finds himself the unlikely love object of two more experienced men.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’ve self-published both books.  I’ll probably self-publish the third.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It was a hell of a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure I first attempted a draft in 1996 and finished it in 2000 under the title “Peter’s Room.”  I actually managed to get an agent for the book, who shopped it around without success for two years.  By then, I’d already started another book – “The Love Thing,” my first published novel – which I finished by the end of 2006.  While “The Love Thing” got shopped around (without success), I then turned back to “Peter’s Room,” which I drastically rewrote and published as “You Are Here.”  Looking back on it, I’m glad the book never got published the first time.  The time wasn’t right.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Anything by Stephen McCauley (particularly “The Object of My Affection”).

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

In 1993, I quit a sputtering career in journalism to move from Boston to San Francisco and devote myself to writing fiction.  My new home turned out to be a scarier and more confusing place than I’d anticipated it.  (You can read more about that on a guest blog I wrote for The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices series.)  So that was very much on my mind when I first conceived the idea for this book.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

A very generous Goodreads reviewer said she liked my work because my books “are just. …more.  They’re not your typical romance. They’re not even all that steamy, really. But it totally works. Because you’re dealing with characters who are making mistakes and are going through some hard things in their lives, and nothing is easy, which is more true to life than most books you read.”  I invite all potential readers to check out my books to see if that reviewer got it right.

What about the next book?

On January 17, 2012, I made a public bet that if I didn’t have a draft of my third novel completely finished in 90 days, I would donate $100 to an anti-gay marriage charity.  Horrified by even the remote possiblity that this would happen, I finished this draft in 90 days — on April 15, to be exact — and donated the money to Planned Parenthood instead.  I wrote 102,000 words.  I printed out what I’d written and circled the parts that I wanted to carry forward to the second draft.  Then, on May 29, I began this second draft.  As of today, I have 83,108 words written.

I’ve made a public commitment to have this third book out by 2015.  For this to happen, I would have to have the manuscript in final form by the end of 2014 or early 2015 at the latest — after that, I would then move to getting a professional editing job, a process that took me about three months for “You Are Here.”  In order for me to have a manuscipt in decent enough shape between now and then, I am going to have to write pretty much every day.  What I have so far is still a mess.  But I’m not worried.  It’s just like yoga —  if I fall today, I’ll just keep on returning to the mat until I get the damned pose right.

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Glacier Blue

The welcome sight of blue.

The welcome sight of blue on a cloudy afternoon in Glacier Alley.

As the ship crept along the Beagle Channel on the approach to “Glacier Alley,” I realized only then that I didn’t know what a glacier looked like.  I guess I was expecting something that looked like one of the ice cubes from my freezer, only larger and dirtier.  But what surprised me, ultimately, wasn’t the bigness of the glaciers—although the glaciers, don’t get me wrong, were awe-inspiringly big.  It was their blueness.

Until then, the color blue had been in dismally short supply that day. The blue sky that greeted us upon our re-entry to the Beagle Channel from Cape Horn got swallowed up by lowering clouds, turning the water in the channel to a dull charcoal-gray.  So the sight of the blue ice, tumbling down like piles and piles of cake frosting between the darkish-green mountains, came as something of a jolt—a pleasant jolt.

Less than a month ago I’d read an article by Natalie Angier in the New York Times about the fascination the color blue holds in science and in history. “Blue’s basic emotional valence is calmness and open-endedness, in contrast to the aggressive specificity associated with red,” Angier writes. “Blue is sea and sky, a pocket-sized vacation.” And I couldn’t help thinking of that article here at the ship’s rail, the icy mist blowing more and more into my face as we cruised down the Alley.

The ice seemed to tumble like spilled cake frosting.

Tumbling ice.

This blue was no ordinary blue. This was the blue you see in Windex and Curaçao bottles, the blue they dye cotton candy and Popsicles with, the blue of the Disney genie in Aladdin.  And, like the genie, the blue seemed to glow from some mysterious inner chamber of these behemoths. As the ship’s science guide explained to us over the loudspeakers as we snapped pictures, the glaciers get their blue from the sheer weight of the ice squeezing out all its light-diffusing air.  In other words, the awesome ice that carved out the Chilean fjords also produced this color before me, this mysterious Glacier Blue.

I can’t help feeling that if humankind allows global warming to continue to its logical conclusion, we’ll suffer not only from the devastating rise in sea levels but also from the loss of these gorgeous blue glaciers.  We’d mourn the glaciers the way we’d mourn the extinction of some beloved species like the elephant or the tiger or the rhino.

But the glaciers won’t be extinct.  Most likely, the glaciers will take implacable revenge in the next Ice Age, which has to happen sooner or later.  And what will the glaciers do to us then?  As the science writer Chet Raymo put it in an article he wrote for The Farmer’s Almanac, “They will push down across the continent like mile-thick bulldozers, scooping, grinding, and breaking.  They will plane off the top of hills and excavate valleys.  They will scrape Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Boston off the face of the Earth.”

The blue seemed to glow from an inner light inside the glacier.

The blue seemed to glow from an inner light inside the glacier.

Glacier carving a path into the water.

Glacier carving a path into the water.

Fishing boat at the base of the glacier.

Fishing boat at the base of the glacier (closeup).

Fishing boat, wide shot.

Same fishing boat, wide shot.

The apron of light blue around the promontory is not a trick of light; it's the fresh water of the melting glacier meeting the salt water of the channel.

The apron of light blue around the promontory is not a trick of light; it’s the fresh water of the melting glacier meeting the salt water of the channel.

Waterfall from retreating glacier. The mist got thicker the further we cruised down Glacier Alley.

Waterfall from retreating glacier. The mist got thicker the further we cruised down Glacier Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bottom of the World

Cape Horn from our stateroom window.

Cape Horn from our stateroom window.

At around six-thirty the next morning I woke up to the pitching and the creaking of the ship.  We parted our stateroom curtains to reveal a dark, greenish-brownish mass of rock slide past us.  Right on schedule, the ship was creeping toward the southernmost part of our journey, indeed the southernmost part of the world save for Antarctica:  Cape Horn.  Until that morning I’d gotten used to shuffling out of my stateroom much later in the morning, but the ship was planning to swing by Cape Horn for less than an hour before heading toward the Chilean fjords.  So if I wanted to see the Horn above-deck, I had to get moving, and fast.

And what did I see?  I saw a craggy cluster of islands, shrouded in mist, rising gloomily and forbiddingly from the white-capped, steel-gray ocean.  The petrels that had so far followed the ship had largely abandoned us; the only bird I could see was a single giant petrel hovering in the icy air next to the ship.  As I took in the beautiful desolation of this place after so many miles of travel – and so much anticipation to make it that far south – I got a strange feeling, a mixture of gratitude and sadness.

I couldn’t help thinking of a short story I’d read over twenty years earlier, back when I was taking my first baby-steps in the world of fiction:  Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1982 short story “Sur,” in which the author ingeniously conjures an all-female expedition to the South Pole two years ahead of Roald Amundsen‘s historic 1911 discovery.  LeGuin tells her story in language so clear, so vivid, that even today I have to remind myself the expedition never took place.  I couldn’t help digging out the story after I got home from South America.  And the story’s truth that I’d felt then seemed just as true as that morning on Cape Horn.

“To go, to see – no more, no less,” LeGuin’s nameless narrator says when explaining her intense desire to reach the Pole.  But the harder she struggles to reach her goal, the more she realizes she’s making a mistake—“This is not a place where people have any business to be”—and by the time she and her fellow travelers climb and crawl their way to the Pole, where “nothing of any kind marked the dreary whiteness,” she regrets what she’s done.  In the end she “lets” Amundsen take the credit for discovering the South Pole:  a hollow victory.

Crags rising gloomily in the mist (Cape Horn).

Crags rising gloomily in the mist (Cape Horn).

We were still several hundred miles from the shores of Antarctica, but even so, looking out at the Horn, the ship pitching and the wind stinging my face, I got that same sense:  the sense that this ship, this crew, we tourists had no business here.  The place was cold and barren; the waves were knocking us around.  Cape Horn was all but telling us to leave, leave, leave.

And yet, as I stood on the glistening deck with my feet planted firmly on the boards, I didn’t want to leave.  Here I was at the bottom of the world, or as close to the bottom as I thought I could manage.  And as cold as I was, I wanted to cling to that moment, unable to let it go.  But then a bitter gust of wind nearly knocked me off my feet, which I took as a sign from Nature to get the hell back inside.  I went inside.

View of Cape Horn from the rear of the ship.

View of Cape Horn from the rear of the ship.

Rocky islands at Cape Horn.

Rocky islands at Cape Horn.

Dan held his camera steady when he took this picture; it's the ship that's not parallel with the ocean.

Dan held his camera steady when he took this picture; it’s the ship that’s crooked.

At times I felt as if I'd slide off the deck into the water like a chicken bone off a plate into the garbage.

At times I felt as if I’d slide off the deck into the water like a chicken bone off a plate into the garbage.

The skies began to clear upon our return to the Strait of Magellan later that day.

The skies began to clear upon our return to the Strait of Magellan.

Back in the Strait's calmer waters.  We were now ready to see the glaciers of Glacier Alley.

Back in the Strait’s calmer waters. We were now ready to see the glaciers of Glacier Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Road To Ushuaia

Tierra del Fuego is the terminus of a highway whose other terminus is located in Alaska. Depending on your perspective, the road ends -- or begins -- here.

Tierra del Fuego is the terminus of a highway whose other terminus is located in Alaska. Depending on your perspective, the road ends — or begins — here.

Thanks to the rearranged travel schedule, the ship slid into the dock at Ushuaia – the most southernmost city in the world — several hours earlier than planned.  This gave us plenty of time to explore the town as well as take a too-brief land tour of Tierra Del Fuego National Park, followed by a frigid but thrilling ride down the Beagle Channel, so named for the ship that brought Charles Darwin to that part of the world.

Our first stop that morning was Tierra Del Fuego.  I felt as if we had barely time to take in the size, the beauty, the icy tranquility of the place before we had to pick ourselves up and head for the bus to leave.  (Just like the penguins.) Then again, I probably couldn’t have lasted much longer than I already did:  the air felt like a continuous dousing of icewater.

As for the boat ride, the strong winds and near-freezing temperatures proved both a blessing and a curse.  On the positive side, the cold sent most of our fellow travelers inside, leaving the outside decks, which were just a few feet above the water’s surface, wide open for me and Dan to take pictures.  On the negative side, standing out in the cold for a two-hour boat ride was no doubt the cause of the cold both of us caught just a few days later – a cold that stayed with us even after we got back home.  Looking at the pictures now, I say it was worth it.

Tierra del Fuego.

Tierra del Fuego.

Tierra del Fuego.  The green seemed greener amid all the white.

Tierra del Fuego. The green seemed greener amid all the white.

Post office at Tierra del Fuego, from which you could mail a postcard from the bottom of the world.

Post office at Tierra del Fuego, from which you could mail a postcard from the bottom of the world.

Lake and mountain at Tierra del Fuego. The place where I took this and the following picture had a profound stillness.

Lake and mountain at Tierra del Fuego. The place where I took this and the following picture struck me with its profound stillness.

Mountain's reflection,Tierra del Fuego.

Mountain’s reflection,Tierra del Fuego.

View from the visitor's center, Tierra del Fuego.

View from the visitor’s center, Tierra del Fuego.

Even the trees there seemed to have their own history, their own secrets.

Even the trees there seemed to hold their own secrets.

Leaving the park behind as we pushed into the Beagle Channel.

Leaving the park behind as we pushed into the Beagle Channel.

Wind-whipped trees (Beagle Channel).

Wind-whipped trees (Beagle Channel).

Cormorant in flight (Beagle channel).

Imperial cormorant in flight (Beagle channel).

Rock cormorants (Beagle Channel).

Rock cormorants (Beagle Channel).

Sea lions and cormorants (Beagle Channel).

Sea lions and cormorants (Beagle Channel).

Nesting cormorants (Beagle Channel).

Nesting cormorants (Beagle Channel).

Sea lions (Beagle Channel).

Sea lions (Beagle Channel).

The sea lion looking straight at the camera would not stop making noise -- a piercing, plaintive cry.

The sea lion looking straight at the camera would not stop making noise — a piercing, plaintive cry.

Lighthouse (Beagle Channel).

Lighthouse (Beagle Channel).

Leaving the lighthouse; heading back to Ushuaia.

Leaving the lighthouse; heading back to Ushuaia.

Back on dry land (Ushuaia).

Back on dry land (Ushuaia).

Leaving Ushuaia.

Leaving Ushuaia.

Sunset, Ushuaia.

Sunset, Ushuaia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Water, Water Everywhere

We were supposed to turn into the Strait of Magellan (following the red line on the map), but instead we went around the tip of Argentina to Ushuaia.

We were supposed to turn into the Strait of Magellan (following the red line on the map), but instead we went around the tip of Argentina to Ushuaia.

 

 

Sailing south of Puerto Madryn, we were supposed to turn into the Strait of Magellan for a day of scenic cruising and then dock in Punto Arenas, in Chile.  But high waves and gale-force winds compelled the captain to deliver the bad news that the ship couldn’t turn into the strait without tipping over.  So instead of two days of sightseeing, we got two days of riding the open ocean—and what a ride that was.

Even before the captain’s announcement, we’d already had our taste of rough seas; one night, the ship rocked from side to side so badly that I lay in bed, in near-total darkness, trying to remind myself that this kind of rocking was likely nothing worse than what most sea travelers endured, and not the coming of the next Poseidon Adventure.  But even that didn’t prepare me for the two-day ride in store for us.  I felt I was riding on a carousel horse, or a slow-moving kiddie roller coaster, except that this was no two-minute amusement park ride.

Even so, the scene from the ship’s outside decks – once they opened the outside decks to the passengers, that is – offered a constantly-shifting landscape of striking images.  The play of waves and clouds, of sun and shadow, supplied its own drama.  I can only imagine what the first seafarers , those explorers who navigated these waters in much cruder vessels than the one I was standing in, must have imagined when they first contended with these cold, harsh, dangerous waves, the wind gusting ceaselessly into their faces.   As for me, the worst I had to contend with was the boredom – and the drained swimming pool.

 

I took this picture off our balcony shortly after the captain's announcement.  With the wind and the ship's rocking, I was too scared to get close to the railing to snap the picture.

I took this picture off our balcony shortly after the captain’s announcement. With the wind and the ship’s rocking, I was too scared to get close to the railing to snap the picture.

I took this picture after the captain deemed the outside decks safe for passengers.  The sky, the clouds, and the waves made for ever-changing scenery.

I took this picture after the captain deemed the outside decks safe for passengers. By then, we’d been on the open ocean for three straight days.

I took this picture only a couple of minutes after the picture above.  The waves, clouds, and sun made for ever-changing scenery.

I took this picture only a couple of minutes after the picture above. The waves, the sky, and the wind made for ever-changing scenery.

One of my favorite sea pictures, in which everything seemed to turn black and white.  The sea foam seemed frozen onto the wrinkled surface of the water.

One of my favorite sea pictures, in which everything seemed to turn black and white. The sea foam seemed frozen onto the wrinkled surface of the water.

The bird in the upper right is not a gull, but one of the many giant petrels that followed our ship.

The bird in the upper right is not a gull, but one of the many giant petrels that followed our ship.

A group of Cape petrels riding the waves, many miles from shore. There's a flying Cape petrel to the right.

A group of Cape petrels riding the waves, many miles from shore. There’s a flying Cape petrel to the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For The Love Of Penguins

Two days later our ship docked early on a cold and windy morning in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, about 825 miles (1,330 kilometers) southeast of Buenos Aires.  From there we took a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride across the empty Patagonian plains to one of our most anticipated destinations of the trip:  Punta Tombo, a nature reserve where tens of thousands of Magellanic penguins make their homes in the spring.

I’d seen penguins in their natural habitat two years earlier, on a trip to southern Africa, and I couldn’t wait to see them this time around.  I used to love watching them do laps at the New England Aquarium in Boston, but to walk among them in their natural habitat is to see them for the wild birds that they actually are, not some cute animated figure on a Hollywood movie poster, or a Santa-hat-wearing mascot on a glitter-spangled Christmas card.  On the bus ride to the colony our guide had joked that Magellanic penguins swam to Brazil in the winter “to do the samba,” and in that phrase, I think, she captured why the penguins have such appeal.  I can hardly imagine a pigeon or a seagull doing the samba.

African penguins testing the water near the Cape of Good Hope (Sept. 2010). Watching them only whetted my appetite to see penguins again in the wild.

When we got to Punta Tombo, I must admit, I was disappointed.  I was expecting to see thousands of them crowded on a beach, like the hordes of penguins in the famous Gary Larson cartoon in which a single penguin in the crowd sings “I gotta be me.”  But it wasn’t like that.  I needed a couple of minutes to spot my first penguin, then another, and then another, until I looked around and realized the colony stretched for miles.  The landscape reminded me of a U2 album cover:  black-and-white birds, about a foot-and-a-half tall, artistically spaced apart from each other on the scrubby, sandy, wind-lashed terrain.  The penguins certainly acted like rock stars while we were there, seeming very much accustomed, and not at all concerned, about the human beings walking along the pathway, looking, pointing, leaning in as close as possible to snap one picture after the other.

Our penguin visit lasted all of forty-five minutes.  We were given strict orders to return to the bus in order not to miss the ship. While we walked through Punta Tombo, trying to take as many pictures as we could, the cold wind sliced through us.  And right before we were due to leave, a chilly rain began to fall.  I had just traveled thousands of miles, first on a plane and then on a ship and then on a bus, to get forty-five measly minutes hiking around a bunch of birds who frankly couldn’t care less that I existed.  Would I do it all over again?  Oh, God yes.

Penguins at Punta Tombo: more U2 album cover than Gary Larson.

Penguin striking a pose. Like the celebrities they are, they seemed quite used to the constant snapping of cameras.

Penguin hanging out in his nest under a thistle bush. Many penguins make their ground nests under these bushes to protect their eggs and chicks from predatory seagulls.

Penguins guarding the castle.

 

Penguin charging the paparazzi.

Penguin chillaxin’ on the wooden path that snakes through Punta Tombo. Signs along the path warned us to cede the right of way to the “pinguinos.”

Penguin eggs. The fact that I could see them made me nervous for their safety.

 

The stark, forbidding, altogether beautiful landscape, especially under the lowering clouds, was itself worth the trip.

 

I managed to snap this photo right before I had to get back on the bus. (It had just begun to rain.) Looking at this picture now reminds me how sad I was to leave Punta Tombo.

 

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Kitchen Secrets

Thanksgiving at sea. The cooking — and cleanup — occurred well out of our view.

One of the many illusions — perhaps the biggest illusion — that a cruise offers is the constantly available food.  We’d wake up in the morning, walk up a short flight of stairs, and there the food was waiting for us, ready to be put on our plates by smiling servers.  And so it went all day.  I don’t think our species can get any further away from its hunter-gatherer roots than a couple of weeks on a cruise ship.

For the first couple of days at sea I tried to dupe myself into the notion that the meals I was being served was something out of Hogwarts, that there was some Albus Dumbledore in the main dining room to clap his hands for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not to mention the desserts, from opera cake to Baked Alaska to Poire Belle Hélène,  to magically appear.  To cure myself of this, I eagerly stood in line to take a tour of the ship’s spotless kitchen, a large, windowless, clinical-looking space that snaked a path next to the main dining room on the seventh deck.  And here I saw first-hand the tremendous effort put in by the ship’s staff to bring the plates to our table.  The place seemed to operate like a Swiss watch: every meal, every garnish, every glass and fork and spoon, seemed broken down to its tiniest component.  If you ever find yourself on a cruise ship, then a tour of the kitchen is an absolute must — a feat of human ingenuity to create the most unnatural human eating environment.

Meals under construction.

Chocolate Eiffel Towers, also under construction.

 

Hobart mixer, presumably to help process some of the 2,700 lbs. of butter and margarine, 1,300 lbs. of sugar, and 2,900 lbs. of flour that the ship estimated was consumed each week.

Detail from a poster providing a visual aid for every meal served on the ship.

Flowers and shakers waiting to be used for stateroom service. Yes, the flowers are real.

The finished product (opera cake). I still find it hard to imagne how the staff made every single dish look like this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Montevideo

Much of the architecture in Montevideo made me think of Europe.

A night of sailing down the Rio de la Plata brought us to our first port of call, the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo.  The morning was as bright and as placid as the sun that adorns the Uruguayan national flag.  Until that morning, Montevideo meant not much more to me than as the answer to an eighth-grade Spanish test.  So I disembarked with no expectations of the city, no idea of what I might see.  And what I saw was a congenial port city of over a million people (in a country of roughly three million):  tree-lined streets and plazas, beautiful old buildings, and the high doors and tall shutters of homes I usually associate with those in Rome or Paris.

I walked around Montevideo that morning with the same attitude as I had when I walked around La Recoleta three days earlier.  I’d never learned Uruguayan history or culture at school, and I didn’t have time to study Uruguayan history or culture for my one-day stopover.  So I figured I’d have more fun to guess about the city — how it got here, who lived here, what stories might be hiding behind its doors and shutters — than to know for sure.  So at the Plaza Independencia I relied on my imagination to fill out the biography of the man whose colossal horseman statue dominated the center of the plaza, even though I was fairly certain that the guy probably had his own Wikipedia entry.

But now that I’m home, after doing a little research for this blog post, I kind of regret not knowing one indelible piece of Montevideo history — particularly as it relates to “La Cumparsita,” the iconic tango.  (If the title seems unfamiliar, it’s the song most people think of when they think “tango.”) La Cumparsita, I later learned was composed at the site of one of Montevideo’s most striking buildings, the Palacio Salvo, which rises prominently in one corner of the Plaza Independencia.  To think that I’d stood near the spot where one of the most recognizable songs int the world — a song so famous that it’s practially woven into human consciousness, a musical Mona Lisa or Hamlet — had been written!  And in a place that not a week before I scarcely knew existed!  I was more connected to this strange place than I realized.

Even more than architecture, what struck me most about Montevideo was the art — not only the vivid murals that covered many of the outside walls of the buildings, but also the art for sale at the galleries in the city’s Ciudad Vieja.  Of these, our favorite was the Acatrás Del Mercado, and of the many artists represented in that shop, our favorite turned out to be the Montevideo-born Alvaro Bonilla, whose depictions of freighter ships seemed to have — to me, at least — a haunting, almost human dignity.

 

Keeping an eye on Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja.

 

Sign advertising “chivitos,” a steak-ham-cheese-egg sandwich that’s a Uruguayan national dish. I didn’t think I had the guts — either literally or figuratively — to try one.

 

Artigas among the air conditioners, Plaza Independencia, Montevideo. I wondered about the people who used those air conditioners almost as much as I wondered about the man on the horse.

The skyline-defining Palacio Salvo, Montevideo. One of the world’s most famous tangos was composed at a café where this building now stands.

“Crazy monkey” art, Montevideo.

Bookstore, Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo.

Leaving Montevideo. The Palacio Salvo is at center right.

 

Thanks to its national flag, the sun shines every day on Uruguay. And thanks to a street vendor selling flags, the sun shines every day in our basement.

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