Five questions not to ask New Yorkers when you’re building a travel writing portfolio

If travel writing is all about storytelling, then I’m in big trouble

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This guy didn’t want to answer any of my deep questions. Photo: M. Yung

As a Midwesterner and an aspiring travel writer visiting the Big Apple over spring break, I wanted to use a trip to New York City to build my portfolio. Sounds easy enough, right?

However, good travel writing is all about storytelling, or so the big-time travel bloggers tell me. And in order to tell a story, one must fully immerse oneself in a new culture. One must talk with the natives, learn the local customs, and ask the hard questions. Y’know, the questions that reveal fresh cultural perspectives and which way is north.

Watch out world, my travel storytelling is gonna take off any minute based on the slew of revelatory conversations I generated with New Yorkers by asking them these five riveting questions:

Number 1: Where am I?

I asked this question of a 60-something man standing against a concrete column at LaGuardia Airport. I was trying to find the pick-up spot for the Uber I had reserved. “D Terminal. The lower,” he informed me before shifting his feet and looking away.

See what I mean? There’s good fodder for a story.

Number 2: How do we get to the ferry?

The 20-something construction worker rose from the barrel he was leaning against and walked toward us. I think I had interrupted the break he had been taking at the far west end of Huron Street in Greenpoint. He pointed one block down, toward India Street, just south of where we stood. “Go through all the construction, keep to the right, and you’ll get there,” he offered.

Can’t wait to build a ten-minute read off that one, I told myself.

Number 3: Why do you think I need a fork?

Just as I uttered this profound query,  a rice noodle slinked off my chopsticks, splashing a drop of broth onto my glasses. The young waiter at Lao Ma Spicy in Greenwich Village had just walked by our table and offered me an alternative utensil. Apparently, I seemed to be struggling.

I mulled over his offer. My stomach rumbled. “Yes, that would be fine,” I said. I set down my chopsticks, blotted my glasses with the corner of my napkin, and waited for a fork to appear.

A travel tale for the ages, folks.

Number 4: Is this train headed south?

When I asked this head-scratcher, I had just become separated from my daughter as we headed back to our flat one evening. She had boarded the train; I missed it. Man, those doors move fast. So I hopped on another train on the opposite side of the platform. After finding a seat, I wanted to verify that I was indeed on the right bullet to Brooklyn. I asked an Orthodox Jewish man next to me; he looked up from his scriptures and confirmed that yes, the G train would take me south.

A novel will come from that encounter. I just know it.

Number 5: How do we get out of here?

After wandering around the subway maze that exists below Times Square, I posed this question to a man striding by in a navy blue uniform. He looked to the ceiling, waved his finger back and forth as if tracing some imaginary constellation and replied, pointing off in the distance, “Take that train to Court Square.”

Yet another meaningful exchange.

All right, maybe my conversations weren’t the kind to evoke rich and meaningful dialogues upon which to build fascinating tales of travel and intrigue. Oh, well. Maybe next time I’ll be able to focus on the people and places I’m experiencing instead of merely focusing on how to navigate public transit.

So, thank you, New Yorkers, for exploring my existential wanderings on street corners and in subway stations, and for not ducking away too quickly when you realized that I was just another tourist, confused, bewildered, and amazed at the city you know and love so well.


My daughter and I visited NYC for a week in mid-March. We asked questions when we needed to, just not ones that will give my travel writing the shot in the arm that it needs. It was a great trip, nevertheless. Feel free to leave a comment or follow my blog for more. And thanks for reading!

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Stop, Gawk, and Drool

The NYC subway’s newest mosaic stunner: Funktional Vibrations

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The outside wall of Funktional Vibrations above the escalator at the main part of the station. | Photo: M. Yung

You’re a lost cause.

When you push against the turnstile to exit the subway at 34th St.-Hudson Yards in New York, you can’t help it. The brilliant cobalt of Funktional Vibrations snags your attention and stops you in your tracks. That’s okay. In an hour or so, this last stop on the 7 line will be bustling and you’ll have to get out of the way. But for now, go ahead and gawk.

After all, you came all the way over here, one day before parts of the Hudson Yards complex even officially open, to see the latest and one of the largest additions to the public art collection of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Funktional Vibrations is a mammoth mosaic (2,788 square feet, according to artnet news) that fills the ceiling of the station’s mezzanine and then oozes outside onto the wall surfaces above escalators.

Created and designed by fiber artist Xenobia Bailey, Funktional Vibrations riots on a field of cobalt blue within its dome.

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Funktional Vibrations in the mezzanine. | Photo: M. Yung

It’s colorful. Abstract. Lava lampy. Kaleidoscopic in color and pattern. And you notice there’s an Atlantic vinyl record, too, tucked into the design. (It’s the black dot on the left side of the photo below.)

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A closer shot. | Photo: M. Yung

To your eye, Funktional Vibrations pulsates with life. “Bailey sees the work as speaking to the universal idea of creation and has created artwork that vibrates with energy,” according to an MTA website article. “(Bailey) refers to her accumulation of materials as in the tradition of African-American art—reflected in the music of the 60’s she grew up with—and its material culture and design, where one made do with what was available and made it into something new and wonderful.”

So that explains the Atlantic record, you think… an earlier era’s musical relic retrofitted for contemporary times. It fits perfectly—seamlessly even—into the mandala-like charms and spheres that vibrate all shape-shifty and cloud-like across the glass mosaic cosmos.

Bailey, originally an ethnomusicologist (here’s what that means!), worked in costume design before transitioning to fibers, specifically crochet, as noted by Manhattan’s Museum of Arts and Design. She is known best for her colorful crocheted hats and mandala design. Funktional Vibrations evokes that aesthetic, which observes African, Native American, and 70’s funk motifs.

So how does an artist who specializes in fibers transform her designs onto glass tile? With the assistance of mosaicist Stephen Miotto of Miotto Mosaic Studio in Carmel, NY. In fact, Miotto’s team have helped many artists selected by MTA’s Arts and Design Program craft and install their mosaic interpretations.

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A detail shot of the outer wall surface. | Photo: M. Yung

You learn later that Funktional Vibrations includes a total of three—not two—mosaic installations by Bailey. You vow to return another time to photograph the third. For now, you revel in the vibrancy, the touch of the human hand, and the simple rush of this subway stunner.

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Funktional Vibrations was worth the search. | Photo: K. Yung

I went to New York City with my daughter for spring break. I’m still tripping out over the mosaics (and the tile work in general) that adorn the entire subway system. How did I not know about this underground art museum? Follow my blog for more posts on subway artworks.

Ten More Things You’ll Find in Venice in March

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Photo: W. Mitch Yung
  1. Young mothers in Campo San Stefano at five in the afternoon, visiting and watching their little girls jumping rope.
  2. Intricate wrought iron street lamps at Palazzo Grassi.
  3. Post-Carnivale confetti clustered in the recesses of steps on the bridges in San Marco.
  4. A thirty-something sandwich shop worker laughing as he slices meats for the lunch crowd in Campo San Vio.
  5. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” playing on the intercom at the Punto Simply grocery.
  6. A seagull resting on a terra cotta rooftop at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
  7. A woman jogging in tank and tights along the Zattere waterfront before dawn on a Tuesday.
  8. Prayer candles burning in red votives inside Santa Maria della Salute.
  9. The murmur of gondoliers conversing on a Saturday night outside the Rialto COOP grocery.
  10. Sensible, durable, unadorned shoes and boots; not a high-heel in sight.

I spent a week in Venice a few months ago and tried to notice details— large and small. To read about more things you’ll find in Venice in March, click here.

10 Things You’ll Find in Venice in March

 

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Our Venice view from our window in San Marco near Campo San Stefano.

 

  1. An unlit candle in a bowl on a round table outside a glowing café.
  2. A lone fuschia glove dropped on the steps of a bridge in Campo Sant’Angelo.
  3. A woman sweeping her windowsill with a handheld broom.
  4. A cocoa-brown poodle posing happily for its owner’s camera.
  5. A row of uncomfortable, wood-and-metal chairs lined up behind the pews in St. Zaccaria church.
  6. The staccato shouts of middle school students playing out-of-doors, just beyond a brick wall you cannot see behind.
  7. A woman begging for alms, kneeling, head down, enveloped in black, silent, holding a withered paper cup in her hand.
  8. Orange, lavender and smoky-gray marzipan fish glistening in a store full of sweets.
  9. A troop of ten-year-olds skateboarding in Campo Santa Margherita at nine o’clock on a Saturday night.
  10. An overturned green plastic flower box waiting for spring.

 

Life was too short to wonder about something she couldn’t feel

 

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Photo: Katherine Yung

She ran her finger down over her knee and felt nothing. What’s going on, she wondered. Why did she have this numb, yet tingly feeling just below her knee? She followed the vague sensation down her shin. It continued. How strange, she thought. Probably nothing, but she Googled it anyway, so she could forget it later. As a result, she discovered that others about her age had experienced this same phenomenon. One website told her what she wanted to know: if the numbness was not accompanied by other symptoms, it should be acknowledged and noted, but not feared. She pondered it for a moment, tracing a circle over the numb spot, turning off her phone. Could turning fifty, which she had done six months earlier, be one of those other symptoms?  Should she worry?

A car blared below, pulling her back to the moment.  She decided to follow her own  advice, doled out so many times over the years to her kids when they suffered mysterious stomach aches, spontaneous rashes: just keep an eye on it.

Turning off her concern like a faucet, she grabbed her phone and took some photographs of the scene outside her downtown Hanoi hotel window: layered apartments painted in royal blues, marigolds, and dusty whites were punctuated with balconies that dripped with trailing plants and vines. Evenly stacked window air conditioners hummed and hovered over an alleyway. A bicycle, three scooters, and a gleaming black car darted below. It was time to go, to venture out into the alleyway, and explore this city. Life was too short to wonder about something she couldn’t feel.

Trusting Your Gut: If It Looks Like a Dead Body, It Probably Is

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Photo: Bureau of Land Management

When I lived in Tempe, Arizona, one night I think I might have witnessed someone loading a dead body into the trunk of their car. This was in 1991. It was around 10 at night and I was walking back from my boyfriend’s apartment across the street. My apartment complex was called Riviera Palms and it was actually a converted motel that consisted of three 1950s-era two-story brick buildings that were arranged into a “U” with a swimming pool in the middle.

That night, as I approached my apartment, I could see a car with an open trunk around the corner of my building. I lingered out of sight in front of my corner apartment’s door and watched two people lifting something wrapped in a white or a light-colored sheet between them into the trunk of the car. The two people struggled to lift the heavy load.

At the time, despite its cumbersome size and the fact that it really looked like a body, I still didn’t believe it could be a human inside the sheet. I rationalized that it could have been a couple of large dogs (still a very strange scenario) wrapped up due to the bulges and bumps that protruded from the sheet. Or maybe one of the people was moving from their apartment and this was the easiest way to get their kitchen appliances, their guitar, and a lamp into the car.

These ideas sound ridiculous now. Looking back, what else could it have been but a body? But, really? 

After they closed the door on the trunk, I turned away and quickly ducked back around the corner and into my apartment. And then, I assumed, they drove away. I got ready for bed, and drifted off to sleep. While dozing off, I reasoned that I probably hadn’t witnessed a crime. From a small, Midwestern Kansas town, I had not, up to that point anyway, experienced first-hand much of any serious physical violence. In fact, peering around the corner of my apartment building, I felt as if I was watching a movie or TV show like an old “Starsky and Hutch” episode. Things that happen on-screen don’t actually happen in real life, right?

I also, and perhaps more pragmatically, thought that it was simply too early at night for people to be sneaking dead bodies around. Tempe is a college town, and at 10 p.m. the streets are still busy with cars and people out in the cooler temperatures.

I went to work the next day. And the next. And the next. Occasionally, the episode would cross my mind and it wasn’t until a full month later, when I finally acknowledged my unforgivable failure: I should have reported what I saw that very night.

So I called the police. After listening to my story, the first thing the officer asked was, “Why didn’t you call sooner?” I told him I didn’t really know.

And I still don’t. It surprises me how quickly I was able to dismiss what I had seen. What if it was the culmination of a murder? What if upon leaving Riviera Palms that car then made a left onto Rural Road, and then continued out of Tempe into the deserts south of Phoenix, and then stopped at the end of a quiet, sandy road? What if those two people had earlier packed a shovel so they could dig a grave for the body?

My casual dismissal of what I witnessed causes me to wonder why I didn’t trust my first instincts. Why didn’t I immediately go with my gut feeling that I had seen a crime in progress? Why did I doubt myself? Would I still do that today?

Has the passage of twenty-three years imbued me with a confidence I lacked in my mid-20s? Or could it be simply that the advent of 911 emergency service has made reporting suspicious activity easier to do and more common now?

I’ll never know if I witnessed a crime or not that night. I hope I didn’t and all this retrospective analysis is for nothing. But it does make me wonder why some people, myself included obviously, automatically dismiss a danger signal as needless worry.

It reminds me of the phenomenon present in some school shootings when witnesses report their first response to hearing gunshots. Often they assume the sounds are something benign, such as a balloon popping or a textbook falling to the floor. Does this happen because they are unfamiliar with what gunshots sound like, much like I would be? Those people presumably aren’t attuned to the sounds of gunfire. Maybe that’s why I was so quick to dismiss what I saw on that warm Arizona night. Violence simply wasn’t a part of my prior experience.

Now I know the next time I find myself in an unknown experience — especially one that involves doubt and fear — I should trust my gut even if it feels wrong, silly, presumptuous, naive. That night, I could have truly been in the right place at the right time to help someone or provide a lead. Before ending the conversation, the police officer said there was really nothing he could do at that point, but he would make a note of my call. Too much time had passed, he added. He told me to call sooner if I ever saw anything suspicious again.

“Okay, I will,” I said, and then I hung up the phone.

Favorite place on Earth

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Monument Valley, Utah

Well, it happened again. I travelled someplace new and I am forever changed. This time: Monument Valley, Arizona. There is nothing quite like spotting something on the horizon that appears surreal, other-worldly and truly unknown. And then it is something that changes you and makes you feel small, insignificant, yet important to the world.

Those spires. Those ledges. Those behemoths of weight and mass, rising from the high desert floor with quiet heft and bulk.

The space between them is as much a part of the experience as the monuments themselves. A disintegration of perspective coexists with an awe that overwhelms. There is no way to determine: how far is that from me? How far apart are those mittens?

Silence. True silence. Other than the distant, nearly imperceptible rumbling of cars travelling the dusty red roads, there is nothing. The breeze is even silent, its sound swallowed around the folding gowns of sienna curtain walls.