You get nothing but the wider world

I went to the El Caserio Museo Igartubeiti yesterday in Gipuzcoa, Spain, as I traverse the Basque Country in Spain and France doing some exploratory research for a screenplay.

In much of my reading and research, people have noted that the Basques have always been adventurers and explorers — they’ve fanned out around the world and were eager to move to the Americas and the US.

I’ve been wondering about why this is, I mean why would some cultures be more eager to move thousands of miles away from home — it’s hard enough now, but imagine doing that in 1620 when you had never been on a boat (if you lived inland, many Basques were incredible sailors and shipbuilders) and maybe had never even seen the sea and certainly hadn’t been on a long boat voyage or seen any other country or culture apart from your own.

You’d have to be pretty… crazy. Or brave. Or, maybe it was because of their inheritance laws!

I found out that they had a system where the oldest son (or daughter! imagine that!) received the majority of the inheritance. For a non-wealthy family, that would mean the land (e.g. el caserio).

So basically, one child gets the cider press and the surrounding land. The rest of the children get token items and some words of encouragement and they set off on their own, which would seem to encourage high-risk, adventurous travels and endeavors and Wiki agrees:

In contrast to surrounding regions, ancient Basque inheritance patterns, recognised in the fueros, favoured survival of the unity of inherited land holdings. In a kind of primogeniture, these usually were inherited by the eldest male or female child. As in other cultures, the fate of other family members depended on the assets of a family: wealthy Basque families tended to provide for all children in some way, while less-affluent families may have had only one asset to provide to one child.

However, this heir often provided for the rest of the family (unlike in England, with strict primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited everything and often did not provide for others).

Even though they were provided for in some way, younger siblings had to make much of their living by other means. Before the advent of industrialisation, this system resulted in the emigration of many rural Basques to Spain, France or the Americas.

Harsh by modern standards, this custom resulted in a great many enterprising figures of Basque origin who went into the world to earn their way, from Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, to explorers, missionaries and saints of the Catholic Church, such as Francis Xavier.

Interesting that the English had a similar system of inheritance and also a penchant for sailing around the world and mucking things up.

Despite your complete lack of distinguishing features, we have decided to hate you

The quote in my post on witch hunts yesterday mentioned another persecuted group in medieval Europe, the Cagots, a group of people that everyone decided to just hate for basically no reason:

Cagots were shunned and hated; while restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages.

Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills.

They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use.

They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called “Canards”).

So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were often restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.

The Cagots were not an ethnic nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots.

Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots! They weren’t even hated for the normal reasons of like religion or skin color or sexual orientation!

“Even though they look like us and have the same religion, we hate them and they probably have the plague! But we’ll let them make rope!”

The 1600s were quite a time to be alive.

Witch hunts

From 1609 to 1612, there was a big witch hunt in the Basque Country. Hundreds if not thousands of women were burned to death for the crime of being a witch.

You could denounce your neighbor (or whomever) for witchcraft and the Inquisition would give you a chance to confess to whatever you felt like confessing to. Then after your confession, they would charge you. If they charged you with something, e.g. witchcraft, that you hadn’t confessed to, you would be burned.

A common accusation was that women were flying in the night to wild orgies with animals, usually goats, which symbolize the devil.

If you confessed to the thing you were about to be charged with, you would perhaps receive a more lenient sentence, like being expelled from your native village for two years, which is not a great thing to happen to you today but was even worse back in the 17th century especially with the awkwardness of trying to explain to your new friends that you were evicted from your last village for being a witch.

Much of this comes from Mark Kurlansky’s book on Basque history:

“Nobody who could be identified as distinct and different was safe in this age. It is inevitable that in such an era, the Church would also grow concerned about Basque heresy. In past times of intolerance, Basques had been lumped with other undesirable groups.

“…But by the late 16th century, the Canon Episcopi, which had been universal Church law, was being circumvented by the claim that society was faced with a new and more virulent form of witchcraft and therefore the old laws did not apply. Witches, poor rural women, were consorting with the devil just like the Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, Lutherans, and Cagots.”

That last sentence there is interesting to me because of just HOW FUCKING INTOLERANT PEOPLE WERE BACK THEN. Basically, anyone who wasn’t Catholic was considered an infidel and had to be converted or executed.

And even a Catholic woman had to fear that any perceived slight to another person, not matter how unfounded, could land her in front of the Inquisition.

Leaving Chicago

Ten years ago, I was traveling around Argentina, working online as a freelancer. I had a great time traveling and thought I might live like a nomad for a year or two, but after a few months away I really missed doing comedy and on a whim I found a summer sublet in an apartment on Webster in Lincoln Park.

My plan was to stay for the summer, take some improv and sketch classes, and then move on to another city. I ended up staying for 10 years.

I stayed to join a community and write and put up shows and get on stage as much as possible and learn how to be a better comedian.

I think I succeeded. I’ve read the sketches I wrote in my first summer here, in the Second City writing intensive. They’re really bad. The things I write now, I think they’re pretty decent. They’re much much better than what I was writing ten years ago, and much better than what I was writing three or four years ago.

Comedy on stage didn’t work out for me the way that I hoped. That was heartbreaking. So I pivoted, before that as a word I knew. I started writing a lot and then making movies and found that I loved writing just as much, albeit in different ways.

I miss the stage sometimes. It’s a different feeling when a show goes well, a feeling that I haven’t found anywhere else. I could say that it’s like a drug, but I’ve done the drugs and they’re different.

I’ve been lucky to find great communities here in Chicago, first in comedy and then in film. Artists in Chicago are incredibly supportive and welcoming and eager to help each other out. People come from all over the country to study and learn here, to form groups and put up shows and write and rehearse and experiment and take classes and study.

I think that sometimes we take this for granted in Chicago, that there are so many people who come to a place and work really hard and devote themselves to a practice or a field or an art form. Of course there are other cities where this happens, but not very many, apart from New York and Los Angeles.

The beauty of starting in Chicago is that there’s not much industry presence and that means that it’s easy to be around people who care about the work more than anything else. The downside is that ambition means that eventually many or most of the people will move on.

I used to complain that the film community here was spread out and hard to find. That’s true to a certain extent, but after living here for a few years I’ve realized that that’s an unfair criticism. I think that in relation to the improv/theater community, it never felt quite as good.

That’s because improv always had natural meeting points — you were always going to a show to perform or see a friend and so you were always running into people. Film screenings are less frequent and production isn’t very frequent either. I only made about 1.5 things per year when I was directing video/film stuff in Chicago.

But after spending a few years in the film community, I found some really really great friends and I found myself in a place where I would often run into people when I went to a local festival or film event or just to see a movie at The Music Box. There were plenty of people to talk shop with, it just took some work to get there.

In my opinion, the best thing about Chicago in terms of artist development is the culture of showing up and working hard. I believe that this comes in part from the Midwest culture, an extremely hard-to-describe-but-ever-present culture.

In Chicago, people show up. They commit (and often over-commit) and keep their word. They work hard and don’t complain. They’re not superficial and they don’t create interpersonal conflict for the sake of drama.

When you say “let’s do a show,” people say “yeah, let’s do it. do you want to meet on Saturday to start writing? In the mean time, I’ll look at some possible theater options.”

I think it’s very easy to underrate this culture, but having lived in other cities and having talked to filmmakers and comedians in various cities around the world, I think that this kind of culture is not the norm, and that maybe 30-40% of success is determined by how people respond when you say “I’m going to do a thing.” It’s not every city where people encourage you and want to help out or join in or say “that sounds crazy but fuck it you should try it.”

Of course these are generalizations, but they tend to be true in my experience.

Anyway. I’m leaving.

It’s really hard to leave right now because right now it’s summer and Chicago is the best place to live in the summer — it’s magical in a way that only a city that experiences long dark freezing winters can be.

And it’s hard because I have great friends here. And practically speaking, it’s the easiest place for me to make a movie right now.

So why leave?

While I do have great friends here, a lot of my friends have left, and this isn’t an uncommon experience. For the artist community, a lot of people view Chicago as a stop along the way to somewhere else, with that somewhere being Los Angeles or New York. But I’ve also had a lot of friends and acquaintances, people who aren’t actors or comedians of filmmakers, move as well.

Most of my remaining close friends either have general plans to leave at some point in the next two years or a general sense that they would like to try living somewhere else.

It’s hard to form close bonds when all your friends keep leaving!

Living in Chicago has become easy for me. My days and weeks have become routine and I no longer have the feeling of excitement that I had when I first moved here. I don’t feel like there are any surprises waiting for me here.

I don’t want to be complacent. I want to experience a new culture and to see how things are in a new place. And yes, I want to pursue bigger opportunities. And travel, like really travel for a few months, without the overhead of rent and a gym membership and the burn rate that comes with being fixed somewhere.

This kind of major life change has always been exciting to me because they force me to evaluate everything I own and to question all the major premises of my life. Where should I live? How should I make a living? What kind of films should I make, and should I be making films at all? What is important to me? Why is Spain? Oú sont les Neigedens d’antan!?

So with a hunger for something new, something that I don’t yet know, I’m selling off most of my stuff, putting my books and a few important items into storage and leaving.

I don’t know where I’m going to land yet.

I’m going to travel for a bit and try living in some new cities before picking one to settle in.

These are my favorite things in Chicago:

The Music Box Theatre, on a Friday night when the house is packed and the organist is playing.

Seeing something fucked up and hilarious at The Annoyance.

The tacos.

The coffee.

The architecture.

Summer days with adventures that go on forever.

The lake shore, which I never spent enough time at.

The creative communities and creative people.

The painfully short autumn.

That every neighborhood is like its own little town with its own character and sense of place and culture.

The next-level restaurants that are actually affordable for non-wealthy people.

That I’ve never met anyone here who was trying to ‘become an influencer.’

The amazingly generous teachers I’ve had.

The fact that it’s so cheap to live here compared to other world-class cities. You can still come here and get a cheap apartment near public transit and afford to work on your thing.

And yes, I love the -50 degree days that come every few years in February.

Notes on Berlin

From somewhere over the North Atlantic, I’m on my way home to Chicago after a month in Berlin.

I took the trip in part for family reasons but I extended it to get a better feel for the city, but I was writing, editing, and working throughout. I stayed there for just over a month (leaving for a long weekend in Spain in the middle) in a one-bedroom AirBnB apartment in Graefekiez, a gentrifying neighborhood in Kreuzberg. These thoughts are gleaned from many conversations with people here, Germans and non-Germans, as I consider moving to a new city or staying in Chicago.

I arrived on December 18 and quickly remembered how cities change drastically during the holiday time from Christmas to New Year’s Day. I usually don’t like the way the rhythm of cities slows down during holiday times, but I felt it double being in a new city. Things changed drastically once January hit and I felt a lot more life in the city, and had a much easier time meeting people.

I mostly avoided touristy things, except for two walking tours of Kreuzberg, including a tour of street art, something Kreuzberg is well known for.

When viewed from the street, much of the city is ugly to me. In Kreuzberg, almost every building surface within reach of spray paint is covered in graffiti.

There’s more trash on streets and the energy often feels messy — during our tour, a man stopped to pee on a tree about 15 feet from us, in the middle of the afternoon. I saw many other men pissing on the street during the month, including on a building in the middle of Alexanderplatz on New Year’s Eve, and none seem concerned that the police would give them a citation (or that everyone was shooting off fireworks, mostly into the air).

I love the street art.

This last one is one of my favorites, the Berlin wall turning into a wall of Euros. Anti-capitalist slogans are everywhere in the city. There also a lot of griping about gentrification and rising rents (which are still very cheap for a major city) and a feeling that the “cool Berlin” is gone or quickly fading. I hear this just about everywhere I go, whether in Berlin or the U.S. — it’s gentrifying, rents are going up, this place used to be cool 5/10/15/25 years ago.

Still, grassroots movements to keep the city unique have had some success. Google wanted to build a large office here and decided to back down after protests. “Fuck Google” stickers and graffiti can be seen around town.

The bigger art pieces are commissioned or done with permission. Some of the graffiti, like these ornate tags by the Berlin Kidz are also beautiful, at least to me.

That spells “paradox”.

While much of the exterior in the city is ugly, the interior spaces are often beautiful and unique. Stores, cafes, and apartments often have colorful interiors with ornate flowers painted on the walls, impeccable lighting, and many plants. It’s the opposite of Chicago, where the architecture is consistently beautiful but the interior of everyone’s apartment looks the same.

I wonder if Berliners feel that when they come inside, they want to come into warm, welcoming, cozy spaces, oases from the ugly exterior world.

There’s a similar phenomenon with the people too, who are generally attractive but dress in unflattering or, well, aesthetically unconventional ways. I’m not sure if it’s just the current fashion or what.

All of this amounts to a massive amount of texture. The city feels lived in, real, and human in a way that the grid of Chicago often feels dehumanizing and alienating to me.

Fewer than 50% of the residents are from Berlin. There are many many immigrants, expats, and refugees (notably Turks, Syrians, and Spaniards). And the city has also attracted droves of young professionals, artists, designers, coders, and entrepreneurs from all over the world.

This creates a feeling of constant energy and excitement. It feels like people really want to be here. On the other hand, I got the feeling from talking to people that it’s a bit of a transitional city, a waypoint on the way to somewhere else for many people. Several people told me it was hard to maintain friendships for more than a year because people come and then move on. Sometimes people come and then change completely as they discover some new way to live or new thing they’re into and join a different milieu or social group. That’s what makes it exciting – people can come and be free to find themselves, but it can also make it difficult.

The thing that I wonder though is — how much is substance and how much is hype? How much is just cool vs. impactful art? I have no way to answer these questions.

The city is incredibly international. There are people here from all over the world. It’s striking how uninternational Chicago feels in comparison. If you speak more than one language, then it’s common to have a little dance at the beginning of every conversation where you try to figure out which language is Pareto optimal for the conversation.

It was common for me to start with German (of which I know very little), have the other person switch to decent English, and then after a few minutes I would realize that they were from Spain or Colombia and we would switch to Spanish.

There are many Spaniards and Latin Americans there and Spanish is a pretty useful language to have in the city, although English is widespread. Almost everywhere you go, someone speaks at least some broken English. And some locals are upset because they have gone to restaurants or cafes where none of the staff spoke German. Many of the expats never bother to learn any German.

Now, some sentences about the fucking weather.

I’ve been to Berlin in the summer, when it was sunny and warm (but not hot) and it’s similar to Chicago — everyone is happier, everyone is outside, the sun is up until late, everything feels more beautiful, and there is much merriment had by all. In Berlin, you can drink in public and you’re either unemployed or have six weeks of vacation a year and so obviously you can enjoy the summer even more, drinking by the river with your eight friends, each from a different country.

Berlin in the winter is the opposite of that. It’s extremely gray. Like no sun for weeks at a time. My brother (who has lived there for seven years) tells me that a few years ago ago they had a winter with only 40 hours of sunlight the entire winter. I didn’t see pure unbroken sunlight for more than a five-minute stretch until… three days ago, or after being there for almost a month.1 The sun rises late (around 8am) and sets early (around 4pm).

I think it’s hard to underestimate the impact of living without sunlight for so long. Chicago winters are also depressing to me, mainly because they don’t end until April or May and also because they are also very gray. But Berlin felt depressing in a way that Chicago doesn’t.

My theory is that the Chicago winter is so extremely cold and harsh and the wind so terribly biting that it all creates a sometimes dire sense of hardship and suffering, which on the one hand is about as enjoyable as any other hardship and suffering but on the other hand has the pleasant side effect of creating a feeling of camaraderie with your fellow Chicagoans because we’re all in this together and goddammit we might not have much to live for but we will make it to see the summer, so help me God.2

Berlin’s weather felt less like a desperate struggle against mother nature and more like “well, this is just how things are, sorry, maybe try some Lexapro?”

I don’t know if it’s the city or the weather or the fact that the sun doesn’t rise until 8am, but my schedule shifted. I’ve been waking up at about 8am like clockwork for the past year and all of a sudden I found myself sleeping until 9am or 10am without any problem and naturally falling asleep around 1am or 2am. On a few nights, I went out to a bar or a party only to realize that it was 4:30am or 6:00am. There’s no way I’m just accidentally staying out until 6am in Chicago.

Film and Work

I wanted to meet up with more filmmakers but the weird time of year conspired against me.

I did get to one film event this week and met some interesting filmmakers. There was a pitch session where people could talk about their project and try to enlist collaborators. My sense was that most indie projects here are zero budget. I’m not sure if that’s better or not than Chicago – in Chicago, most indie projects have some funding, although never a lot of funding. Probably some projects would be better off going zero budget but it’s also nice that people get a little bit of money.

Another thing I noticed was that most of the people pitching were looking for writers to collaborate with. In Chicago, it feels like everyone is a writer. I don’t know any directors in Chicago that don’t also write their own material. Almost every comedian/improviser I know is also a writer or has written their own material at some point. I don’t know if everyone writing for themself is optimal, and I don’t want to draw conclusions from just meeting a handful of filmmakers in Berlin.

My hunch is that while Berlin may be more creative or inspiring than Chicago, it’s also harder to ship your work because there are so many shiny fun things going on, so many interesting people to meet, etc.

Berlin felt like it was telling me to not miss out, to come out and play and be weird and stay out late and party and meet people. During the winter in Chicago, I feel like the city is telling me to stay home, edit and write and watch Netflix and occasionally go to a bar with my friends to complain about the weather.

So while I think it would be more creatively stimulating to live there, I also think it would require more discipline to work and write.

Freedom

There’s something about Berlin that truly feels free, like I actually felt more free there. I can’t quite describe it, it’s something cultural, something in the air.

And I’m not exactly oppressed in Chicago. I can’t really put my finger on it, but you just get the sense that anything goes — you can be anyone you want in Berlin and people won’t judge you (as long as you’re not judgmental).

Then there are things like the fact that you can drink in public. And urinate in public, if that’s your thing. And there’s the drug dealers at the Gorlitzer Park U-Bahn station (I never bought from them, but it’s nice to know you can buy drugs if you want them).

Smoking is still allowed in many bars, and regulations seem easy to skirt or laws are ignored or not enforced. And smoking is much more common.

Three days before New Year’s eve, tons of pop-up fireworks stores open up and people buy massive amounts of fireworks. The entire city is lit up by nonstop fireworks for hours after midnight on New Year’s Eve. It can’t be safe… I had fireworks exploding near me multiple times as I walked around or drank a beer on the sidewalk. It’s insane how many people were shooting off fireworks, including children.

Even the dogs are free — most dogs are walking around with their owners, unleashed.

And it almost always felt civil. I never felt in danger. Many of the smaller streets are dark at night but crime is much lower than in a major U.S. city.

And while raving drunks are tolerated on the train platforms, people will publicly yell at and scold people who are having ‘adult’ conversations or talking crudely in the presence of children.

Random notes

Nobody asked me about Trump. When I traveled to Europe in the Bush years, everyone made comments about Bush.

I talked to a Russian who had no idea about any sort of Russian interference with U.S. elections. I told her it was a huge debate in the U.S. and she thought the very idea was preposterous. So, it seems that one of us is being lied to.

One of my favorite things was drinking tea, which was served with freshly-sliced ginger or mint leaves.

It’s feels safe in a way that a U.S. city never feels.

Reading Jane Jacobs has helped me understand why I much prefer living on mixed-use streets and why these streets feel better to walk on and live on.

There aren’t so many, uh, basic people.

It’s probably one of the best deals for geo-arbitrage for someone that wants a major international city. Cost of living is rising but still much lower than London, Paris, NY, SF, Chicago, LA.

Anti-racist and anti-sexist graffiti and signage are all over the place. The city is aggressively intolerant of intolerance.


  1. My weekend in Spain was uninterrupted sunlight for three glorious days. 

  2. To be fair, you shouldn’t believe anything I say right now, because it’s January and any asshole can tell you how the winter isn’t so bad in January, a whole three to four months before winter ends. 

Newsletter: Berlin + Feature Film Update

Reposted from today’s newsletter:

It’s December and for most Chicagoans that means turning inward to look deep inside ourselves and ask the age-old question: am I really going to do this fucking winter thing again?

“No! No, I am not!” I declared to myself while waiting for Amazon autoplay to kick in the next episode of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

I am going somewhere that is two degrees warmer on average, slightly less windy, but even grayer and rainier. That place is Berlin and I hear that it is NOT lovely this time of year. I don’t care. Coffee tastes better in the winter. And it’s a great time to GET STUFF DONE.

Anyway, I’m going for a month.

// still-untitled feature film update

I spent a weekend in November in NYC with Anna, the editor. The movie is like almost there. I screened a rough cut for some friends this week and the consensus was “it’s like almost there, but here’s 20 things you should think about or change.”

So, back to editing. ETA is still TBD but looking at Q2 FY2019.

Also, I’m really proud of this movie! It’s really weird! I’m still very shocked but eternally grateful that my friends read the script and said “we should make this.” I think half of doing anything big is just having friends who will shrug their shoulders and say “yeah, why not?”

Here’s a picture of the production from when it was summer:

(photo by Jeanne Donegan)

Have you seen The Favourite yet? It’s so so funny. And good.

At the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham

I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…

Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.

They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).

The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.

 

Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.

The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.

 

   

Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).

Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).

The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.

Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.

Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.

What about the film festival, Robert?

This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.

 

The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.

Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.

I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.

I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.

It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.

The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.

I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?

I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.

Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).

I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).

But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.

Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.

Dining not alone

Something different about Scotland, something that I really like: if you go to a restaurant and there are no open tables, they sometimes seat you with another group that has an open seat at their table. This happened to me for the second time this morning when I went for breakfast at The Larder for the big Scottish breakfast. I sat with an English family in town for their daughter’s graduation from the University of Edinburgh. After some initial awkwardness, we talked about Il Duce, Brexit, American politics, tennis, and soccer/football (England is in the semi-finals).

I’m never quite sure what kind of cultural norms I’m supposed to follow in these situations, especially since they tend to be somewhat fluid in the U.S. Can I ask about work? Talk about work? We talked about politics right away, which gave me pause at first, because it can be so divisive in the U.S. I wonder if they sort of sensed based on my appearance that we were on the same wavelength? I always want to talk about these things because they interest me, especially when it’s with someone who has an outsider’s perspective, but I guess there’s also plenty of fun in the meta-conversation of how we’re dancing around this interaction between strangers.

Anyway, I just think it’s nice when semi-private spaces like restaurants create situations for meeting strangers, although I can see why some people wouldn’t like that. I imagine if annoying people kept sitting with me, that I would not like it.

They didn’t seem that interested in visiting the castle, which I thought, OK I’m not alone.

Back to being seated with strangers: I wonder if there’s just a politeness and trust to the culture here that makes this sort of thing more accepted? I went to fill up my rental car yesterday and I couldn’t find anywhere to pay for my gas at the pump. The sign said to pump first and then pay inside (!). I ran into the same thing in the highlands, but I assumed it was a rural custom. But this was in the heart of Edinburgh, a major city. I can’t imagine something like this in Chicago or New York or even the low-crime suburb in Maryland where I grew up.

Don’t people ever just drive away? I need to talk to someone about this before I leave.

I know the vacation is working because I feel the tug to get back home, to get back to routine, to work, to write every morning.

Here’s to the Scottish enlightenment:

 

I’m off to read on the Meadows.

 

Isle of Skye

My second time up in the Isle of Skye, a northwestern isle, part of the inner Hebrides. It’s incredibly peaceful out here, the air is cool, and I’ve been lucky to get mostly sunny days.

My non-touristy vacation continues as I refuse to engage in culturally significant tourism and instead relax into the views and meet an occasional local to ask about life around here.

 

I drove to the end of the road in Egol and stopped at a boat launch with a snackbar next to it. The boat was away from the launch, off with tourists who want to look at seals. I got a coffee at the snackbar and talked to the girl working there. The dock is also used by the local fisherman, including her father.

I asked her what it was like to grow up here and she told me that there is only one high school on Skye and that when school was in session, she slept in a dormitory near the school during the week because it’s about a 90-minute drive each way.

All but a few main roads are single lane, with little passing outlets on the side of the road every 100 yards or so. There’s a lot of stopping, pulling over, and backing up. Everyone waves as they pass. All this means that it takes a long time to travel by road but as a traveler with nowhere particular to go,  I didn’t mind because the scenery is so spectacular all around. Magnificent blue water and striking green mountains.

I asked her if she’s ever hiked the mountains across the harbor and she said no and we laughed because it’s the same everywhere, isn’t it? You don’t do the touristy stuff in your own backyard. She said that many people leave the island to go to college or to travel or to work, but that most of them come back eventually. I wonder if a place like this just stays in your soul and pulls you back. She’s saving up to travel to Italy and then go to college in Edinburgh.

Travel notes from Edinburgh

My second time here, last time was in 2014.

I’m glad I did the touristy stuff like visit the castle last time I was here because I’m completely worn out from filming and I get one week here to relax before I head home, move to a new apartment, and start a 3-month freelance producing gig in Chicago.

After 6 weeks of pure obligation, I’m spending my time here without anything remotely resembling a responsibility, except for basic hygiene and meeting up with my family for dinner (they’re on a 1-week guided tour of Scotland).

First priority is getting good coffee. I found a place yesterday with this sign:

The city is full of tourists, many of which visit the cafe where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. The coffee was pretty good. In Scotland, an americano is called a “long black,” which is a much better name. They serve it with less water than in the states.

Yesterday, after coffee, I went to see Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts at Filmhouse, which is the local arthouse theater here.

Then I walked down to the University of Edinburgh and read on the grass for a while.

An ambling vacation, just decompressing from the intense stress of movie-making. I can’t really muster any interest in seeing castles or churches or monuments. And I think it would be a bit odd to live here with so many tourists. It feels like there are more tourists than locals, but maybe I’m just in the wrong places.

 

Oh and I saw the Queen:





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