Since the last time I wrote here everything has come into flower.
Some plans also. A long-time plan, finally getting through red tape.
Some sickness, some sewing, some cleaning, some writing, some teaching. That’s all.
Oh, you might have heard. Alexander Chee was asked what his favorite place to write is, responded that he wished Amtrak had residencies, and now Amtrak are actually kind of offering writers residencies. Or at least they’re beta-testing and planning.
Of course this got me super excited. Last summer when I toured the US reading from my second collection and giving workshops, I took the train almost everywhere. I decided that I would travel by Amtrak well before any other details were confirmed; I wanted to see parts of this country that is mine in name but where I haven’t lived for almost a decade—and I wanted to see them at a pace that was slower and from a distance that was less than a plane could provide. (I don’t have a driver’s license and never have, so driving was obviously not an option—but in any case I also wanted to travel with people, to hear their voices and to be put into situations that were to some extent out of my control. Some of the best things I experienced on the Amtrak trains were conversations with strangers.)
Living in France, the UK, and Belgium, I have traveled on more trains than I can count. I’ve gone to work by train, visited friends by train, taken the train simply to have some quiet space to think and write (no internet! Surrounded by unconcerned strangers!). I’ve traveled overnight from London to Inverness (you can get a sleeper car for as little as £19 if you book the Caledonian Sleeper early enough), then boarded a tiny regional train to Thurso, where I caught a ferry to the Orkneys. I’ve transferred in the dingy underground parts of Birmingham New Street Station and in the cathedral to rail travel that is the renovated St. Pancras International Station. I’ve stood on platforms in tiny towns, waiting for a train that’ll take me across national borders. And on all these trains, although there’ve been few other constants, I’ve without fail taken a notebook out of my bag and written.
This coming summer I’m going back to the US to do some research in New York City, to visit friends in Maine, to spend a month at the Vermont Studio Center, to teach at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and to visit my family in Minneapolis. I’ll be traveling almost all of that by train (the exceptions are the leg from Maine to Vermont—there is no train service—and from Osceola, IA, to Iowa City, and back—again, no train service there). Like last summer, the travel I do will be in a coach seat with a pillow packed in my tiny suitcase so I can sleep. Like last summer, I plan to write during the 60-odd hours I’ll spend on the train. Like last year, I’m saving my scraps of income to do this.
I want to be clear that while I’d love to be part of the #AmtrakResidency if it’s set up in time for my plans, I don’t (and I think most writers don’t) expect anyone to pay my (our) way. And I also don’t want Amtrak to become the exclusive province of people with laptops heading out on a five-day round trip in sleeping cars. Part of what I love about Amtrak and about traveling by train in general is the mix of people you meet, the sense that everyone is on their way somewhere. A primary objective of public transportation is (for me) that it remain accessible and affordable. No sense in public transportation that most people can’t afford (ahem BART ahem). Despite its prices being what they are (i.e. nowhere near as affordable as travel on trains in the EU countries where I’ve lived, although definitely cheaper per mile), Amtrak was much more affordable than flying, and I hope it stays that way. I’d hate most for train travel to become a boutique service, when it should be a democratic one. I’m conflicted about what, uhhh, how do I say this, might end up feeling or being in some way the gentrification of Amtrak (putting something that people use for their daily lives/their necessities to a use that is mainly ‘pleasure’ [?] oriented?). But this might be my own anxieties speaking; there might be enough room for residency programs and ordinary travel on these trains. And I’m definitely hungry for time when the writing isn’t accompanied by the little wolves of bills and rent nipping at my mind. (Hungry for a democracy of this—time on trains without worry for all us writers and for all us humans, line cooks to welders to day-care providers to waiters to electricians to garbage collectors….)
That said, I will travel this summer by Amtrak regardless of who pays for it. I had decided this before the Chee interview, before any of the excitement on Twitter. I probably made that decision the moment I got off my first overnight train, from Tucson, in L.A. It would be incredible to spend time writing on trains, knowing that the writing was being supported by the trains (the trains the employees the rail system the government and the people I suppose). Knowing that the travel, which I have to do anyway to get from appointment A to appointment B, wouldn’t set me back into real financial worries. And to see the silver body of the train waiting at the platform, to walk onto it, find my place, sit down, open my book, and read and write while the sun chases the horizon and the sky darkens, and the high windows in the observation car reflect the land passing us by at speed.
The pictures in this post, except the last two, are from the train up the coast of California (Santa Barbara to Oakland on the Coast Starlight) and from the four days I spent at a friend’s house in Oakland. (The very last photo (below) is Portland Union Station in Oregon.) It was about ten hours from SB to Oakland, and without exaggeration it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced. Not only the movement or the scenery. Also the way people spoke to one another, the sense of time passing, the openness I felt traveling by train, the feeling of capacity and expanse. I would recommend this trip to anyone interested in ‘short’ train trips in the US.
I have been wanting to make crackers for a while (because I like having stuff to snack on sometimes but we don’t tend to buy salty snacks and anyway I don’t like chips and Belgian crackers seem mostly bland [for cheese] or very oily). Last night we did and it was gratifyingly easy. The nice thing about making something like this, as I remarked to J while putting the fourth or fifth tray in our tiny toaster oven, is that your learning curve happens over the course of one session, rather than waiting for the next time you make the thing to improve how you do it. We figured out quickly that the dough has to be much thinner than we’d thought in order to make crunchy, flaky crackers, and that there is a magic moment between not-quite-cooked and burnt.
We made crackers with Parmesan and black sesame seeds because that was what we had in the house. Too late I remembered that our rosemary and thyme plants could have been brought into service (they haven’t died back because we have had no winter). Next time I would like to do Parmesan + rosemary.
As usual I did not use very precise measurements but I did try to standardize. We used a small drinking glass/juice glass of about 12.5 cL capacity as a standard measure so when I say cup that’s what I mean. We did all the preparation in the food processor that ND gave us and it made a very smooth dough much faster than I think I could have done by hand, but of course it can be done by hand, so if you don’t have a mixer don’t feel this isn’t for you.
3 ‘cups’ flour
.5 cup warm water
.5 cup milk
.5 cup oil
1 cup grated Parmesan
mix the milk, water, and oil, and set aside.
mix the flour and salt in the food processor or by hand.
if in food processor, open the lid and pour in the wet mixture.
if by hand, make a well in the flour/salt and pour in the wet mixture.
mix, adding more milk if too dry.
add cheese just at end.
mix until it forms a ball.
dough will be smooth and very elastic.
don’t knead it, just gather into a ball.
set aside in a cool (not cold) place for 20 mins.
divide dough into 4-6 parts.
heat oven to 200-220° C (depending on how hot your oven runs).
roll dough out, very very thin.
you can roll sesame/other seeds, herbs, etc. in.
slice into shapes or use a cutter.
sprinkle with salt if you like.
bake for ±8 minutes on a cookie sheet covered w/ parchment or tinfoil.
crackers are done when golden and brittle.
cool on a rack.
By no means a perfect recipe. Please adapt to your tastes. If dough looks crumbly/dry after first mixing, add more milk. A simple Google search will offer you many millions of more precise cracker recipes. I based mine (loosely) on this, but had no butter (thus oil+milk). It made about 60 small (bite-sized) crackers, and maybe 15 of the longer twists in the tall jar.
The relatively limited orbit I track: post office, library, laundromat, dance school, park, grocery stores, coffeeshops, and then again. Feeling like an odd and only semi-visible body getting around by half-measures through an elegant and reserved city. Visible in the wrong ways most of the time (I feel), meaning the wrong kinds of clothes or ways of being, mainly imagining a wrong visibility. Imagining being visible (being seen). More to say on this but not now. Anyway, that’s my strange inner-me, doing my chores and talking in my strange inner voice.