Things to see when sitting in a car in Brooklyn

I’m back from a monthlong stay in Brooklyn during what was probably the worst month of the year in terms of weather, just my luck! But I nonetheless had a great time, and visited and saw many sights (and worked a lot too…that is after all what I was there for). Sometimes I saw things from the warmth of my car, because it was the only way to get from point A to point B without turning into an icicle. To my great surprise, and despite the warnings, Brooklyn is surprisingly car friendly. Mind you, we did get two tickets and were towed –and I swear we did not deserve it!– but despite that, driving was sometimes the best option to have a look around. I discovered that Brooklyn boasts some great vantage points for viewing Manhattan.

NYC from Green-Wood Cemetery

On a day so cold I thought I was in Canada again, I visited the Green-Wood Cemetery, in the Greenwood Heights neighborhood. It is a hilly burial ground with an intriguing range of gravestones and funerary monuments, and some impressive views of Manhattan. To be fair, I got out of the car for all of the shots shared here, but the views were excellent either way. I almost sacrificed my hand for the sake of this specific shot because you can’t wear mittens and still press the correct button. The cold wind felt like bathing in liquid nitrogen.

Another great place in Brooklyn if you want to see the city from afar is Sunset Park, and I was actually there at the beginning of sunset. You can even see the Statue of Liberty from here (though not in this shot), and that is the one and only time I ever gazed upon that big, green lady, because I sure as hell was not going on a boat ride in February.

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NYC from Sunset Park

Finally, Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood also has some great views of Manhattan, especially in the small and poorly named WNYC Transmitter Park. Between rundown warehouse buildings that all seem to house stinky passenger buses, you can find this little gem if you bother to look. In this case, you need to get out of the car and walk to it, but wait until it gets warmer; I almost died twice while penguin walking over a 2 inch layer of ice.

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NYC from Greenpoint

Bermuda underground, literally (Bermuda Part 1)

Over the past few years I have spent a total of 4 weeks in Bermuda, which is plenty of time to explore the tiny archipelago isolated in the Atlantic. The fact is –and no one seems willing to admit it– Bermuda beaches are very small and often crowded because of the large amount of tourists who disembark from floating hotels. Luckily, there is a surprising amount of off the beaten track sites and activities for those eager for an experience that does not include endless sweaty strangers.

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A favorite of mine is cave exploring. The most famous cave network on the island is Crystal Cave, an official tourist attraction, which is beautiful, but not nearly as fun as the many caves and subterranean grottos found in Blue Hole Park.

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Part of the much larger Walsingham Nature Reserve located in Hamilton parish, Blue Hole is a lovely combination of dense vegetation, tide pools, caves, and mangroves. Causeway Cave, Castle Grotto, Blue Grotto, Walsingham, Subway, Deep Blue, Vine, Fern Sink are some caves that come to mind, many of which are accessible and filled with water, creating a unique opportunity to view fish, turtles, and birds within a microenvironment.

And while you may encounter other hikers, more often than not you will feel like you have the park, and the caves, to yourself.  Take a swim in the dark, and if you get hungry, the park has an endless supply of sour surinam cherries.

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Breaking Backs, Breaking Stereotypes at the Loyola Plantation (French Guiana Part 2)

It’s often important for archaeologists to point out that movies like the Indiana Jones franchise provide very poor examples of our  craft. Frankly, I can’t imagine why anyone thinks being shot at by Nazis, chased by giant boulders, or having your face melted off by a supernatural artifact sounds like a good day at work*. But a very different archaeology stereotype has us digging with toothpicks and toothbrushes, barely removing an inch of dust for our efforts. Your face has time to melt from boredom! Luckily, real life archaeology is more stimulating than the latter, but safer than the former.

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I spent a week in the oven to the right

In 2006, I participated in a project in French Guiana, an overseas French territory in South America. We dug on the site of a colonial plantation established in 1668 by Jesuit Priests. The Jesuits were major land owners in French Guiana, and took full advantage of the slave trade. Over 1000 slaves worked on their five plantations, many of whom were of African descent, but others were natives of South America, and some were even convicts from France. The combination of inhumane treatment, hard labor in equatorial heat, and tropical diseases made this an undoubtedly terrible place. By about 1740, the Loyola plantation produced more sugar, coffee, and cocoa on its 1000 or so hectares of land than the rest of the colony put together.

Our project involved the unearthing of what remained of the sugar mill. Delicate techniques were not appropriate for removing the massive amounts of mud, dirt, and rocks covering the stone foundations. The extreme heat and humidity meant the mud at the surface was full of putrid wood, squirming insects, and rotting god knows what else. But since the shovels got stuck in that thick biomess, the job began with us removing it with our bare hands.

026It didn’t take me too long to realize that this project wasn’t going to involve much complex thinking…maybe later, when we had found what we were looking for. Occasionally, archaeology is more action than intellect, and it seemed that with all the strength of my impressive 5”2 100lb frame, I had been hired for grunt work. There was once a three-day stretch when the only tools I used were a pick-axe and wheel-barrel.

I thought I had managed to escape the stereotype of the weak and small, overly feminine blonde woman that had pursued me my whole life. Yet I had to push myself harder than ever, because that stereotype was never far behind. I stopped counting how many times I was referred to as “the blonde.” Any act of kindness towards me was because I was “blonde,”  not because I was a pleasant person who perhaps deserved to be treated nicely. Did they not see my dark roots? I stopped being a true blonde as a teenager, but I guess my choice of hair-dye must have affected the fundamental nature of my personality. Oh wait…hair color never affects the fundamental nature of one’s personality. Apparently, being among scientists –you know, those people who claim to adhere to fact and logic?– does not save you from unfair judgment.

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In an oven for a week

Nor does science always mean precise data and high-tech instrumentation. And sometimes, as a petite archaeologist, you spend a week wedged inside of an ancient oven digging out rocks, because you are the only person who fits in that space.  And yet you still get called a princess because you dared to wear mascara after washing off the dirt from the hard day’s work. Maybe sometimes archaeology is like Indiana Jones, exciting and kind of sexist.

*Indiana Jones movies may portray poor archaeology, but that doesn’t stop me from loving them as movies!

Featured Fiction: Yellow Eyes (published in Luna Station Quarterly Issue 18)

Reading short fiction requires only minimal commitment, and in the process the reader may encounter a worthwhile story and writer. With that in mind I hope I can convince some of you to read “Yellow Eyes,” which was published last year (see http://lunastationquarterly.com/story/yellow-eyes/ ). I would describe it as a fantasy story, though there is no magic or supernatural elements, but it is rather characterized by a dark and violent atmosphere, and one disturbing boy.

And you if don’t read or finish it…many thanks for dropping by nonetheless.

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Darius concentrated on the babble of the nearby stream and the scuttling of insects beneath his ear, but in the distance he could still hear the muffled screams. He pressed the left side of his body deep into the log’s soft, warm vegetation, as though to disappear entirely. The man to his right died when he hit the ground, and his skin was cold and wet, his arm stiff against Darius’ pliable flesh. As for the old tree, it fell decades ago, during the greatest storm the village had known. It was once a towering elm, taller and thicker than any left in the forest today. The rotting wood was now completely covered in new life —moss and fungus— as the humidity from the stream had spread like an infection.

Lodged between different kinds of dead, Darius struggled to breathe and his muscles cried out against the weight atop him. The man above, however, was still alive and breathing loudly, a raspy, whistling sound that reminded Darius of the noise the wind sometimes made when it twirled in the empty fireplace. Those were cold nights, with wood too wet to light and his family’s bony cow serving as their only source of heat. But the dying man, Cade, was hot. He was fighting alongside Darius when the Yellow-Eyed man’s arrows pierced him. Three through the chest, like knives in soft butter. Cade stood still and gasped, then slowly, in no hurry to die, stepped backwards until he tripped over the corpse of a comrade. Cade collapsed onto Darius, an underfed youth with the stature of a mere child. They both went down with a bone-breaking crash, Darius’s old butcher’s knife firmly clutched in his hand.

The battle raged and Darius, so conveniently yet uncomfortably hidden, went unseen. The Yellow-Eyed men come the hour before dawn, bearing torches in the dim light, yellow flames dancing in their eyes. They vanish by sunrise, leaving villages empty of life, but otherwise intact. They trade in people, not coin.

It was mostly over, Darius knew, because the high-pitched wails told him they had found the women and children. His mother and sisters, including seventeen-year-old Audrey. His big sister cared for him when he was sick, ruffled his hair playfully, and always kissed him goodnight.

Darius should be terrified, “trembling like a leaf” his father would say. His heart beat fast, but he remained listlessly calm, almost sleepy, as each minute stretched out. He found himself thinking of odd things, like how much he hated Cade. Brave and handsome Cade, whose family came from the town over the mountain range, where now only the Yellow-Eyed men reign. The village had welcomed the Overholtzers and their brawny son and their sack of golden chalices, candlesticks, and candelabras. Refugees, bringing strong arms and gold —who would turn them away? The village girls became silly and wore bows in their hair, even sweet, down-to-earth Audrey. It quickly became obvious that Cade had eyes only for her, with her shiny red hair, sturdy frame, and straight teeth.

“Good hips for bearing sons,” agreed Darius’ father when Cade requested her hand. Cade blushed and mumbled something about “love.”

Darius did not want his sister to stop being his sister. If Audrey married Cade, she would move to his house and have babies, and would have no more time for him, like his own mother, always with a newborn at her teat. Now Cade’s blood is dripping onto his forehead, and that seemed like a fine thing.

Darius’s fingers ached, locked around the knife he had yet to use against the enemy. The fighting was quick and intense, the onslaught aimed at the strong. Within what seemed like the first ten seconds of battle he saw his father struck by a blow to the head, finished by one thrust of a blade. His father had given him the old butcher’s knife, and Darius had oiled the rusty blade until it gleamed as well as it could. He remembered the time, years past, when his father used the same knife to outline a square in the pink flesh of a large hog, lifting the skin; a window onto its slimy innards. Darius had wrinkled his nose and stared. His father pointed towards the liver, then poked Darius’s own belly.

“You mean I have one of those?” Darius said in mild disgust, hands on his abdomen.

“That and everything else. We’re not so different from the pigs, and that’s good to know in battle.”

“What about the Yellow-Eyed ones? I thought they were demons?”

“They have the devil in their heads, but their bodies are just like ours.”

From that day, Darius observed the pigs his father butchered and often wished he could kill one himself. But his father always slit their throats, bleeding them while they squealed to their death. No part was wasted. Instead, when the honey melons growing in the garden were ripe, Darius offered to slice them, stabbing them wildly and pretending the hard, slick thud was that of the enemy’s chest cavity. Here, with the earthy smell of decaying wood doing little to cover Cade’s sweat and acrid breath, the thought of cutting the enemy’s flesh repulsed him. And it seemed a shame to sully his blade when there was so little left to save.

Darius tried shifting his position, to catch a glimpse of the events. Sprawled on his back, with Cade’s face nestled against his shoulder, his only option was to tilt his head backwards, hoping the movement wouldn’t draw attention. It was hard to make out what was happening, with people looking as though walking on their heads. With the light of day almost upon them, the tall men dressed in black appeared less sinister, their eyes dull. Some wiped their blades on the grass while others rounded up the last of the weeping women. Darius saw a flash of red, and wondered if it was Audrey with her fiery hair, or just more blood. He felt a pang of regret, but continued to stare, immobile as his kinsfolk were marched away, easterly, towards the mountains. Besides, he knew they would survive, and he would have lost Audrey, anyhow. She could still have babies, on the other side of the mountain range. It was all the same to him.

The sun was high and flies were buzzing by the time Darius extricated himself. Cade was long dead, as were all the other men, young and old.  He headed directly to the small wooden structure that served as church and council hall. He bagged the chalices, candelabras, and all objects shiny and marched west. As he passed through the village gate, he smiled to himself. Perhaps in the next village he would be greeted as the new “Cade,” by eager parents and girls wearing pretty bows.

END

Frozen in New England

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The cold has finally come to New England, but without any of the charm usually associated with it. No snow, no frosty landscapes, no blinding sun against stark white. At this time last year, a storm hit the coast, leaving in its wake a visually arresting mixture of beauty and destruction. It seemed that a spell was cast that encased the town in ice and threw the ocean into a frothy fury. Winter.

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Paris Future Perfect

The beauty of Paris’ grandiose architecture, the madness of its meandering streets, and the charm and particularities of its history and people are unparalleled. A few months ago I mused that if I could choose any city in the world to live in for an extended period, I would without hesitation select Paris. Not a surprise, since as a French Canadian, French culture shares many similarities with my own, and yet it is different enough to remain exciting and enticing.

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Thanks to a strange and unlikely series of events, Paris appears to have chosen me as well. As the new year starts, so does a new chapter in my adventures; next week I will be starting a job which will give me the opportunity to travel to Paris every year. And not just for brief visits. I may remain there for a few months at a time, which means this blog will soon reflect that change in lifestyle.

clock at Musée d'OrsayIf I write about the typical sites and attractions, I will bring a different angle, my own. Paris has so much more to offer than the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa. Steeped in history, art, and literature, the City of Light can be explored from different perspectives, and my stays will permit me to get a feel for the “real” Paris.

From place to place, time has its own texture, and I look forward to experiencing it in the small things: the chances encounters, the coffee consumed at soon-to-be discovered favorites cafés, even in the metro rides from here to there. Furthermore, my great-grandfather was from Paris, and I relish the chance to make this city a part of my own personal history.

Paris has many off-the-beaten track archaeology sites, museums, shops, and parks, but I also want to find little pieces of daily life worth writing about. What are you dying to know about Paris and French culture? Do you have any recommendations? I suspect I will have many ideas (and thankfully French is my primary language), but I would love to hear yours as well!

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