It’s been quite a year. I started the year pondering how Cats happened, and now, the longest eight months later, the question remains unresolved but somewhat less important. An apocalypse can be a disaster or it can be a prophetic revelation, and to this amateur observer, Cats was a disaster that revealed nothing while the pandemic is both disaster and revelation. It’s time to see what we can see, and maybe get there before the rest of the world shows up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: