June 2009


The title for this post is connected to my past Thursday in two ways, and those two ways have a lot to do with why Thursday was one of the greatest days I’ve had in a long time. The first is that I went to a presentation on public transit in the city of Strasbourg, France, and the presentation was actually given in French (we had a translator so it still ended up making sense to me) by the mayor of Strasbourg. The second is that later that night, I went to the Iota Club and Cafe to see the Duhks, a French-Canadian group playing…well, a great many things. I’ll talk about Strasbourg transit some other time (when I’ve earned back more of my readership’s good will–two transportation-related posts in a row means hell to pay). Today is given over to the Duhks.

As mentioned before, I saw the Duhks at a place in Arlington called the Iota Club and Cafe, the location of which I had a vague idea. Fortunately, my dear friend Kate was willing to come along with me along this adventure, despite never being to the Iota Club nor having listened to the Duhks before. That, my dear reader, is faith. But Kate has an adventurous spirit, and it was the first concert we’d been to together in two years, since we saw Medeski Scofield Martin Wood two years ago in Providence (which was a very good show). We got to the Iota Club about an hour early, so we decided to sit in the cafe part of the venue, and it was a very nice place. I can’t really speak to the food, as Kate and I had already eaten, but the beer list was fairly impressive, especially for a place that wasn’t trying to set itself up as any sort of conneisseur’s stop. The one complaint I would have is that the prices weren’t exactly student-friendly. $6 is a bit much to pay for a Blue Moon, in my opinion.

The atmosphere of the cafe is very laid-back and unassuming–it really doesn’t try to craft itself in any sort of way, existing more as a blank canvas for everyone’s own enjoyment. And I actually liked the atmosphere a lot, because I think it contributed to the Iota Club drawing a very mixed group of people. At both the cafe and the show, I saw people of all ages (well all ages older than 20, since the show was 21+), and they all felt perfectly welcome and comfortable there. There were twentysomethings who looked fresh out of college, there were middle-aged folk, and there were people with gray in their hair. And what really amazed me, personally, is that they all looked like how I hope to look as I grow old. I’m sure this has to do with the fact that they were there to see a band I myself enjoy, and so I forged all these connections with them (more on that in a bit) and just played down our age gap by saying they’re what I will become. But at the same time, I saw two people, probably in their late 40’s/early 50’s, dancing some sort of dance (it looked like a variation on swing mixed with folk but I know diddly-squat about dancing so I can’t really say) during one of the Duhks’ songs and looking so happy while they were doing it. And I want to be like that–dancing without a care at a damn good concert in my older age.

So let’s talk about this concert, then. In short, it was amazing–the most fun I’ve had at a concert since I saw the Flaming Lips on Spring Weekend of my freshman year and I put Mike Levy on my shoulders and flipped him into the crowd so that he could crowdsurf over two thousand people and STILL managed to find his way back to us and fall on my head. And that, I tell you, is a lot of fun. The Duhks play a wide range of music–a partial list would include folk, Celtic, blues, Afrobeat, and Cajun. And what really impresses me is that they do all these things (and do them damn well) with a small band whose members don’t change instruments much. The Duhks consists of a banjo player (also called a “banjoist”, which means you learn something new every day), a drummer, an acoustic guitarist, a lead vocalist, and a fiddler.

The lead vocalist was really the only one who changed instruments, and these were mostly small percussion instruments. Her power obviously came from her voice, which is EXTREMELY adaptive–she had the smokiness of a jazz club singer, the depth (although I’m not sure about the range) of a gospel singer, and the speed of a folk singer. She also sang in more languages than I could identify, although I am THRILLED to say that French was one of them (she’s from the largest French-Canadian community in Winnipeg, the capital of Maintoba. She told the audience that. I swear I’m not a creeper). Let me tell you something about me: I have a real weakness for those who can speak French. And the lead vocalist was really, really pretty. And when a pretty lady is singing French to you, your heart just goes out to her faster than you can shout. For the record, the drummer was also very attractive and also had a very good voice–he actually sang the lead on a couple songs, which impressed me, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drummer sing lead vocals before. But I later learned that the drummer and the lead vocalist are brother and sister (okay maybe I am a creeper). If that’s the case, they must come from an extremely attractive family. The banjoist was a bit older than the rest of the band, but he had this fantastic energy around him–he founded the group, and he displays his love for what he does with a beautifully frank openness. You can tell he loves music, and he loves what he plays, but he also really loves what his BAND plays. There were many moments during the concert when he would step back from the mic as one of the other band members took the lead on a solo, and his smile showed not only pride, but awe–he looked so impressed at what his fellow band members could do. And of course, he certainly held his own, being an amazing banjoist. Admittedly, I can’t say I’m an expert at determining a good banjo from a bad banjo, but his solos really made me want to dance. His banjo injects this fantastic energy into the music that moves faster than you can, and keeping up with him is a delight. I told Kate that he reminds me of what Charlie Shrader will look like in fifteen or twenty years, and she agreed with me. Right down to the Beethoven-esque hair and banjo playing. Charlie, if you read this, please know I say this as a deep compliment to you. Seriously, the guy is icredible.

The fiddler deserves her own paragraph, which is also why she is included in the post title. The fiddler was phenomenal. I have not seen someone play with such a mastery of their instrument in a long, long time. She shrouded herself in this wonderful mystique by wearing a fedora low on her head so that it covered her eyes while she played–all you could see of her (really pretty) face was a smile that was sly enough to make her seem self-assured (but really charming). And she deserved that self-assurance, because in my opinion, she was the defining feature of the music. So many of the songs took their strength and their lead from her fiddle, whether she was drawing her bow up and down in dramatic slashes or moving her hand so fast that the bow barely seemed to be moving but spat out music like a burst pipe. And always with this great smile on her face.

The music kept up a high level of energy–even the blues songs they played counterbalanced their slower tempo with a strength and a vitality that kept the word “mellow” far from my mind. And on one hand, this made me a little sad, because my favorite song by the Duhks is called “Annabel”, which is a very slow, sad song. But I understand that to play it at the concert would have really changed the atmosphere, where most of the folks were dancing (or in my case, grooving). So the music kept us on our toes, as they moved through folk songs, a couple of Cajun numbers, a song that tipped its hat to Fela Kuti (the pioneer of Afrobeat) a French song and then I don’t remember the rest because my head was in the clouds about the pretty French music. My personal favorite was probably “Death Came a Knockin'”, a folk/gospel number, which was played early on with a nice touch of jazz (coming from the banjo, which is something in my life that I never thought I would experience or choose to tell others about).

I think part of the reason why the chose to keep the energy so high was that they had the PERFECT venue for it. The Iota Club holds somewhere between 50 and 70 people–it was the smallest concert I had ever been to that wasn’t being held in, like, a bookstore. This made the concert incredibly intimate (the people that the Duhks were crashing with were in the audience–the band thanked them for putting them up for the night). The band even said that they were going to be hanging out in the cafe after the show, and that we should stop by and say hello. Kate and I missed this opportunity since we had to catch the Metro back, but in retrospect it was probably a good idea–I would have hugged one of the band members and probably not want to let go.

But with an audience that small, the band felt more like one of us–I think that’s part of the reason why it felt like the banjo player so openly displayed his pride and awe for his fellow band members.  It also meant that there was no disconnect between the band members’ energy and the audience’s energy. While I certainly didn’t have any moment where I thought that the lead singer made eye contact with me as though she were singing just for me (but Lordy I wish I could say that), I still felt much closer to the band and much more in step with their music. Part of it may have been being close enough to watch them look at each other and look at their instruments, so that I could see them connecting with the instruments and each other–it was a humanizing moment. So although Kate and I could not stay to tell them how much we enjoyed their show, I still felt good walking out the door knowing that they would be staying around hoping to talk to some of those twentysomethings and fortysomethings who were dancing right in front of the stage.

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I’ll give this whole “writing about transportation” a go today. I’m going to talk about my favorite method of transportation, which is perhaps the worst thing I could possibly use as an introductory remark at a dinner party.  But I have a captive audience (no I don’t, you people can click away at any time and seriously God love you for sticking around to make it to the end of this parenthetical remark, let alone the whole post), so I’ll go on ahead.

As the post title makes clear, I am a big fan of buses, especially in the context of integrated transit in mid-sized cities and connecting cities/suburban areas spread out across a moderate (but not significant) physical distance. I mean, DUH. But really–I think that they’re a pretty effective way to connect a wide variety of locations, such as job parks, residential neighborhoods, or downtown commercial areas, as well as larger geographic areas (rural, suburban, urban, interurban, etc.). They carry enough passengers to make an impact on traffic patterns and emission levels (when properly utilized, I know buses also run nearly empty on off-peak hours), and require much less infrastructure than light-rail or subway systems. This makes it easier to set up a public transit system based on buses, and allows the buses to adapt to changes in population demographics or consumer demand. Have you ever seen the Boston T suddenly jump the track and make it out to a hot new club in Brighton? DIDN’T THINK SO. (but Lordy I hope for that day. That would be so damn cool)

The number of private bus contractors even enable private companies or organizations to establish their own transit systems for a more specific population’s needs. This is an example of paratransit, and usually it’s used with smaller vehicles like vans but whatever, buses are awesome. And I felt TOTALLY vindicated on this point when I had a conversation about transit with a businessman, and he told me how his company (a manufacturing industry) rented buses to bring workers in to the factories during a tough economic time when the local bus company had to scale back its resources and the workers couldn’t drive to work. That’s right. BUSES saved the day.

I know that all my environmentalist friends are already preparing to yell at me because rail systems are electric and buses run on fossil fuels. I’ve picked these sorts of fights on SEVERAL occasions. So here I am, READY TO YELL BACK,. I counter that there is a lot of progressive (if experimental) work done on alternative energy in buses. Here in Washington, there are several buses that LOUDLY proclaim on their sides that THIS BUS RUNS ON BIOFUEL! or THIS BUS RUNS ON ELECTRIC POWER! I never thought I’d see the day when I was glad to see advertising launch such an assault on my eyes, but whaddya know.  And admittedly, I don’t know the statistics on how much this really reduces emissions overall. But I think it’s an important step in introducing alternative fuels into the overall market. I’ve been very impressed with my own observations (yeah like I’m a goddamn scientist) taken from Boston and Washington, where the number of buses running on alternative fuels (mostly biofuels or compressed natural gas which I KNOW aren’t sustainable but they’re at least better than just straight-up diesel) seem to make up the lion’s share (don’t really get that saying but I’m quite fond of it) of bus transit systems.

But buses are plagued by something that makes them…undesirable. And I believe that this undesirability stems from something that isn’t an inherent fault of buses themselves (but isn’t that just like a liberal. No one needs to take any personal responsbility for ANYTHING. Shameful). For example, I cite the following quote, take from a June 9th edition of the Washington, D.C. “Express” newspaper (handed out for free at Metro stations. See? This is why you take public transit. You get free stuff. I’m hoping for a t-shirt one of these days). The quote comes from a section in the “Express” that’s full of quotes taken from various blogs on the Internet. (One of these days, Baird! Dare to dream!) The quote follows: “‘I took the bus both ways, thinking it would provide great blog fodder. What a disappointment. It was a great way to travel—and probably the only way I will travel to NYC in the future.’—kcanedo.blogspot.com expected a debacle while taking the bus but was pleasantly surprised”

People think buses are terrible ways to travel, both over long distances (Boston to NYC) and short distances (riding any transit system). Buses are branded as poorly and incompetently run, smelly and uncomfortable, and used only by the destitute and the desperate. Now, there may be truth to all of this.  Goodness knows that the different bus lines that run between NYC and Boston are crap shoots, where people can get left behind at a Burger King in Connecticut by a bus that is in danger of EXPLODING.  I would argue that this is because these buses charge fares ranging from $1 to $13, and maybe that’s getting what you paid for.

But either way, I was both frustrated and pleased to read kcanedo’s comment. I was frustrated to see that, in any context, someone was looking forward to a bad experience simply because it would make for good blogging fodder. I’d rant about this, but it would be so ironic for a blogger to complain about a blogger looking for blog material in his/her daily life that I think my computer would catch on fire. I just want to say that I think one shouldn’t hope for bad things to happen. That’s lame. But ALSO I was frustrated that this author thought that the bus would be so terrible. Why would they think that? I’ve heard my share of horror stories from people who took a variety of bus lines, from Fung Wah and Lucky Star to Greyhound (which I think is high end but maybe that’s because I travel out of Worcester), but I’ve also heard of people saying the exact opposite. I myself have experienced both good times and bad, but you know what? I’ve had bad days riding the T in Boston, and I’ve never heard anyone say that the T should be avoided at all costs (or that it would make good blogging fodder). And here in DC, I’ve been warned for certain days in August when the weather is unbearably hot and somehow the Metro seems to know this and so chooses to run with high delays. I am not looking forward to that day, that sounds like a way for riots to start. And I mean, I love me a riot, but not on a TRANSIT SYSTEM. That’s just barbaric.

Anyway, I think bus systems get branded VERY unfairly. No transit system is perfect, and I don’t see why buses take the brunt of the criticism (aside from people who complain that buses don’t serve complimentary drinks like airlines but you know what? Toughen up). I recognize that they’re not as comfortable as a train or as fast as an airplane, but they’re more accessible and generally reach more destinations than airplanes or trains. For example, Worcester and Providence are connected ONLY by buses–not by any other form of transit. That matters to about twenty people, probably. But I’m sure they’re all really nice people and we shouldn’t rag on what they take to go from one place to the other. So thank you, kcanedo, for lighting a candle against the darkness of the bus’s bad reputation. You and I, we’ll ride that bus between NYC and Boston to our hearts’ content.

p.s. The title for this blog post comes from the underside of the cap to a Sobe drink. I know it’s probably a declaration of forever embracing a hippie lifestyle, as in “I will always ride the Love Bus”, but I like to think of it as an imperative, with the bus as the direct object of the sentence, as in “You must love the bus for life.” I’m thinking of getting this as a tattoo.

At this point, I’ve spent a bit more than a full week here in Washington or just oustide Washington (one must be specific, after all). It may be a bit premature to write down my impressions of the city so far, especially since I’m feeling prepared to make some SWEEPING generalizations about the place, but I think they need to be down here, if for no other reason that to serve as evidence for my utter lack of intuition when these impressions are (possibly) shot to sunshine later on. So onward!

Washington, simply put, fascinates me, because it is utterly unlike any other city I’ve ever been in. The public transportation is excellent, and in many ways ideal (on the Metro, you’re charged by how far you travel rather than a flat rate. I can’t say how much I love this), but shockingly enough it’s not what’s driving my impression of the city (but it is making me REALLY happy. Every day). Rather, it is Washington’s purpose as a city. The city is essentially, a massive business office; its role is to provide space for those who run/work in the government to do what they need to do. Obviously, this purpose expands itself into providing sustenance and entertainment and distraction for those who work here. And it does all these things very well, from what I’ve seen. The block system, while not perfect or perfectly consistent, makes it fairly easy to get around most of downtown D.C. And cognizant of the fact that the city is full of people foreign to DC, either as workers (whoooole lot of non-profits and embassies around here) or visitors (whooooole lot of souvenir shops around here), just about every streetcorner in the downtown area (that I’ve seen) has a large sign that points you in the direction of various landmarks, namely museums, monuments, or Metro stops.

Once you figure out where you’re going, you have a plethora of options–Washington offers a staggering array of restaurants and bars and cafes and museums and theaters (that last one particularly surprised me) and I really have to say I’m getting quite caught up in exploring the city. I’m very fortunate to have friends here in the city who really don’t mind walking down any (straight and fairly pedestrian-friendly) street for a good long while until we find something interesting or find a reasonable place to change direction. Generally, this is determined by what traffic signal says “WALK” when we get to an intersection. I’m very impressed by the extent to which it seems to tailor to individual tastes. This is based largely on what my co-workers have told me, but every available style of eating seems to be widely available, and at a range of prices, from dirt cheap to swanky.

For example, there are a large number of Belgian and Ethiopian eateries (by which I mean Belgian places and Ethiopian places. If I ever found a Belgian/Ethiopian fusion restaurant I think my mind would be blown). I had no idea that there was any sort of Belgian immigrant/expatriate community in the US, but Belgium isn’t that large, so I suppose they have to go somewhere…and as I’ve read on several conservative blogs, there is no better place to immigrate to than America. So SUCK ON THAT, all you who would criticize America! (Of course, there may be a certain irony that some  would therefore work to develop an immigration policy that would discourage them from coming to THE BEST COUNTRY EVAR but I guess that’s neither here nor there)

The downside to this is that Washington, while feeling very vibrant (this past weekend was the LGBT Pride Weekend. A city doesn’t really get much more vibrant than that), also feels almost artificial, lacking the sense of organic development that would occur in a city that isn’t designated as a workplace. Now, I already know that this isn’t true. For example, consider Dupont Circle, a really nice place that features, among other things, a Tatnuck Booksellers-esque bookstore/cafe called KramerBooks and Afterwords Cafe. Jared described Dupont as the “former” gay neighborhood, saying that more recently the queer community has been slowly moving out of the area into new parts of the city. And that isn’t the result (or at least not the DIRECT result) of planning decisions; it’s just the natural evolution of a city.

But to me, it feels very hard to see WHERE this evolution is taking place (which makes me sound like a Young Earth Creationist), because at times, Washington feels very utilitarian. This may because venturing into the city on a Sunday means seeing a very quiet place–since people aren’t working, many of the shops are closed and the downtown streets are largely empty. This would make sense for a small town, but for a major metropolitan area, it comes as something of a shock. Maybe it’s just my fast-paced living*, but it’s kind of frustrating to see that the city is shaped by the work day to such a large extent. Even CVS’s and grocery stores close on Sundays. It also feels as though there aren’t places to live within the city, because the city promotes work, not life. Again, I know that I’m wrong about this–there are apartment buildings above most of the offices (woohoo mixed-use planning!), although whether those are for residents or for people who travel to do work in Washington I don’t know.

I also know that I’m wrong because, during my explorations (I call them explorations so that they sound more exotic and dangerous. Imagine me wearing khaki shorts and a pith helmet and carrying a machete as I navigate the dense jungle underbrush. It’s what I do when I’m walking down Connecticut Avenue, and it really adds to my day) of different neighborhoods this weekend, I DID see many people out on the streets and in the parks (lots of greenspace in D.C., and that’s very nice).  The streets weren’t crowded, but it was clear that people were moving about rather than moving through, enjoying a really lovely day. It may be important to note that these people were out in neighborhood streets rather than the central downtown streets (which is where I was last weekend when I noticed how empty it gets). So perhaps life just manifests itself in ways other than consumerism (shocking!), and organic development takes place within the context of a planned administrative environment in the same way that weeds push through the sidewalk.  This weekend population could be a different demographic from the people who work in the city, or it could be that the city offers enough that people see it as more than just a business-office community. The business-office feeling I get does not pervade every element of the city, and other forces are at work than simply the nine-to-five workday. Like sunny days and a good fountain in the center of a HUGE traffic circle. You peoplewatch there, and it’s the greatest.

p.s. The title of the blog post comes from the Talking Heads song “Cities”, which I actually only really know from Phish’s cover of the song. And I guess that makes this post a quiet tip of the hat to Phish, which is touring again after breaking up a few years ago. I’ve never seen Phish, and it’s not necessarily top on my list, but my good friend Will has seen them many a time and always comes back with good stories about all the zany things Phish does at their concerts, so I’m glad to know that they’re out there, bringing that sort of joy back into people’s lives. The band also gave us Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream, which is my personal favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor.

*This is meant as irony. Jared and I spent Friday night watching TV and eating brownies that his mom had sent us. Thank you for the brownies, Mrs. Emmons!

This Friday, I moved in to my friend Jared’s apartment in Arlington, Va., where I will be living for the next three weeks. The apartment is beautiful, very tastefully decorated and well-outfitted and full of good company and basically way the hell better than any other place I could have found on my own. So first and foremost, a HUUUUUUUUGE thank-you to Jared and his roommate Tim for letting me crash on their couch and leave my stuff all over the place. I often tell people that I will repay them in baked goods for various acts of kindness and assistance. In the case of Jared and Tim, I think I have to buy them a muffin shop.

But this is technically the third time I’ve moved in three weeks, basically since I’ve come home from Denmark. I moved my stuff out of Denmark back to Massachusetts, unpacked in a pretty half-assed way once back in Massachusetts, re-packed my stuff and moved it down to D.C., took a subset of that stuff with me for my week in Providence for the Transportation Expo (which was oh so wonderful, I really can’t begin to describe how much it enriched my understanding of transportation policy), and then took that subset with me on Amtrak (first time on Amtrak and frankly I’m not that impressed) and rode that silver train down the New England Corridor back to Washington and on to Arlington, where, as I mentioned before, I stay for three weeks. Then, I move to American University for four, maybe five weeks, and then I have no clue where the hell I will be.

In summary, I will spend at most five weeks in any one given “living situation” this summer.  This, in combination with the fact that I’ve recently returned from Denmark, where I was living for four months, has left me with a few facts to face. The first is that I have no damn clue where most of my stuff is. I think I have various t-shirts and books and toiletries spread across most of continental Europe and the Eastern Seaboard. I should have tagged some of this stuff, I’d love to see where it all ends up. It would be like the garden gnome from Amelie. (And if you, dear reader, do not understand this reference, this reflects more on you than it does on me. Go see Amelie, dammit)

But the more significant fact is that all this moving around has really made me question what I think a home is. As an individual, I’m very quick to call a new place of residence home. As long as a bag of my stuff is there and it has a surface for me to sleep on, that place is home to me. I’m serious–I referred to several of the hostels I stayed in throughout Europe as “home”, even though I’ve spent longer periods of time in my high school history teacher’s classroom than I spent in those hostels (man, good times with the speech team…).  Now, partially this is just an example of how I belong to the overall trend of casual use of the English language that is prevalent in this culture, but I think it also points to my relationship with physical spaces. While it’s true that it’s easier to refer to a place as “home” than try to think of whether or not I’m in a hostel or a hotel or an apartment or what, I think I also give myself an immediate comfort with a place if I refer to it as “my home”. It means I can move freely within the place,  that my physical surroundings are not something to worry about, and that they are a part of me. It also means that I can walk around without a shirt on, which leads to conflicts when others do not share my same definition of “home” or “decency”. But whatever, I feel comfortable. Isn’t that what counts? (Consider this a pre-emptive warning/apology to anyone who ever ends up living with or otherwise sharing a place with me)

But moving around so much and so recently has made me question the ease with which I call a place home. If calling a place home creates a relationship between me and my surroundings, what does it mean that I have all these “homes” scattered across the country? It’s a positive, I suppose, because I think it means that I have several places where I can go and always feel welcome, and perhaps receive a bite to eat and a place to rest my feet (I might think wrongly, but I don’t know, I’ve never really put this theory to the test).I am fond of seeing the homes of my friends as my homes. In an odd way, I’ve always seen walking in to a house without knocking as a sign that that place is “home”, when in actuality I’m just being extremely rude. But hey, nothing dismisses a faux pas like acting as though you’re one of the family.

But calling so many places home may also mean that I am too quick to connect to a place, and therefore I can never really create a sense of longing for what is truly or uniquely “home”. There are elements of each of my “homes” that I miss: the smell of my family’s house in West Boylston on a summer morning, the Danish radio station that always played in my host family’s house, the couches in the basement hallway of Perkins, my freshman year dorm, sitting on the green benches at Goddard House, etc. etc. But which “home” is where the heart is, to cite the painful cliche? When I’m stuck outside in the cold and I close my eyes, bitterly ranting against the weather’s mistreatment, where do I picture myself getting warm? (The answer is obvious: Tatnuck Booksellers, formerly of Worcester, MA. But that place closed, and took with it a substantial part of my heart)

If the standards for calling a space a home are so simple, how will I ever truly shape my identity to a place? I’m currently reading a compliation called “State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America”, which is a collection of pieces written about each of the United States, with each state written about by a different author. It’s an excellent book that I highly recommend (my dear friend Mally gave it to me as a way to stave off homesickness when I went to Denmark, interestingly enough. And it worked. It kept me grounded in US lore and eccentricity as Denmark shifted from strange to familiar and I learned the local bus schedule and how to order coffee in Danish. Thank you, Mally), and calling a state home is frequently discussed throughout the book. Many authors argue that they would not be the people they are if they had lived/grown up in any other state (which is wonderfully ironic, since many of the authors often address their current location, which is almost always Brooklyn or Manhattan. God Almighty, it’s like there’s no other city in the country. Go visit the Twin Cities in Minnesota, dammit! Or try Montana! Or even Wilmington, Delaware looks nice! And I hear Ashville, North Carolina is beautiful!). So I wonder which of these places that I call home is quietly (or noisily, for that matter) shaping my identity.

And I wonder which place will keep drawing me back when I’m older. I consider myself a Massachusetts resident (but not, significantly, a Masshole), but when I met a CTAA delegate from South Dakota at the conference and informed her that I have South Dakota roots, she immediately opened up to me and metaphorically embraced me as a fellow SoDak, and even introduced me to other Midwestern representatives as a South Dakotan or a Midwesterner. I was honored to be so warmly welcomed, but in a way I wondered if I was being dishonest, either to myself or to the SoDak, by jumping in to the Midwestern pool so enthusiastically. I guess this is another advantage to having so many homes–I have a broadly-definied identity, and I have a wide sense of belonging, one that might even be larger than I truly deserve.

I do know, however, that right now, I am home. And this is partially because my books are on the kitchen table and my shoes are in the closet. It is partially because I went grocery shopping with the people who live here, and had a say in terms of what went into the cart (including pop-tarts, hummus, and strawberries. AWESOME). But it is also because I am among good friends, who know my likes and dislikes (and, frustratingly, know where I’m ticklish) as I know theirs. So I may not be here long enough to see the changing of the seasons (or even long enough to do more than one or two cycles of laundry), and perhaps it will only further fragment my sense of belonging, but while I’m here, I’m going to sprawl out on the couch, make smoothies at irrational hours, and call it all home.

p.s. The post title comes from Club 8’s “Take Me Home”, which is a very simple and very beautiful song. I have to admit, however, that I might not be citing the song properly. I couldn’t find lyrics for it online, and I am pretty bad at hearing/interpreting lyrics correctly. Specifically, I think the last word of my quotation is either “done”, “down”, or “dead”. I really can’t say for certain, but I decided to choose “done” because I think it best suits my needs for this post. If the band members of Club 8 ever wind up reading my blog and it turns out I have wrongly referenced their material, I will apologize. And ask them to come play a show for me (wherever I am at that time) because I really like Club 8.

When I first started writing this post at 3 pm, I had not yet finished my first day of work. I actually have six hours of work ahead of me, and one of  my co-workers has told me that several of those hours would be some of the most policy-intensive hours of the week. So many hours later, I realize that my co-worker was correct. I was thrust into an hour-long discussion about connectivity and intermodalism, providing transit service people with disabilities, and problems with federal funding and possible state- and local-based alternatives.

But I’m too excited to not start gushing about my job, because I’ve already become enamored with it. I could talk about the fact that ties aren’t standard dress attire. Or I could talk about the fact that I got to sit in on a phone conversation to learn about a newly developed form of transportation that, strangely enough, is actually based upon a form of transportation from the past and, even more strangely, is making me rethink my attitude towards light-rail systems, which is kind of like Dick Cheney saying that he’s rethinking his attitude towards torture.

But instead, I’ll talk about the second thing that happened to me this morning. First thing was that I walked into Room 557 for the morning staff meeting, and became immediately recognizable for two reasons. The first was that I was a new face in a relatively small organization (30 people), all of whom are pretty friendly with each other. The second was that I followed my usual pattern of behavior when I’m in a new professional setting, and that is become so overwhelmed by panic that I stand stock still and freeze up, like a deer in headlights. This is noticeable in a room of animated and energized people, and so many of them came up to me and introduced themselves. Fortunately, I maintained enough professionalism to introduce myself in return rather than give in to my fight/flight instinct (which was SOARING OFF THE CHARTS) and bolt for the door as fast as my legs could carry me. After a few introductions, the two people from the CTAA whom I first met last summer came up to me, and, wonderfully enough, they remembered me, and offered a warm welcome to the organization. Later, when they listed off the attendance, one of the people looked up and gave me a huge smile when he got to my name. I said “Here,” and the rest of the CTAA clapped for me. To reference the Danes, perhaps a bit too casually, it was very hygge.

But then the second thing happened (I know, I took some liberties with the definition of “the first thing”, but whatever), and that kind of blew my mind. The director of the CTAA asked a few members of the organization to stand up. I figured that they were standing up to be recognized for some accomplishment. The director then informed the rest of us that these people standing up would be leading us in a rousing morning edition of “You Are My Sunshine.” This was my thought process, starting at about two seconds after the director made this announcement:

Haha, he’s making a joke in the early morn to raise spirits. How merry and lighthearted!

Five seconds after the announcement:

Oh goodness, one of them is singing! That’s great. He’s in on the joke.

Seven seconds:

Oh my god, everyone is joining in. They’re all singing. It’s seven-thirty in the morning and these people are singing.

Nine seconds:

Sing, dammit! Look like you fit in! SING SING SING SING SING!

The moments that followed that thought are all a blur. I think that’s my memory being merciful to my sense of shame. And after the singing had stopped:

I don’t know the lyrics to “You Are My Sunshine”.


So I CLEARLY didn’t know what I got myself into when I signed up for this. But somehow, I have only come to love it more. I just can’t wait until I get to lead singing, because I think I will just belt out that song that they kept using from “Hello, Dolly!” in “Wall-E”. That should make some mornings.

p.s. Oh, and for the record, it seems as though I was clairvoyant when I wrote last night’s post. Because this morning, one of my co-workers went to go get an ID badge for me. And when it came back, I found that whoever made my badge has now christened me “Baire Breen.” Which is actually a new one.

My time in Copenhagen (the curious/archival sorts can read about that time at learningtobike.wordpress.com) gave me the bloggin’ bug, and I’ve decided to continue blogging, even though I remain on US soil. Interestingly enough, however, the setting of my future adventures is only slightly less foreign to me–I am going to write about my experiences as a first-timer in Washington, D.C., a place through which I have only been a passerby. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call myself a tourist, as I think “tourists” generally stay in one place for an amount of time longer than it takes one to drive from one end of the city to the other, even if one encounters heavy traffic.

Fun fact! My Danish host family has actually spent more time in Washington, D.C. than I have. Both sides of the cultural exchange agreed that this fact was equal parts amusing and sad. I did not know my nation’s capital, and yet I will likely come to depend on it for employment, however indirectly. But that is neither here nor there.

I will be in Washington, working at the Community Transportation Association of America, a transportation advocacy nonprofit that focuses on expanding transportation opportunities to underserved populations, like suburban and rural areas that experience high levels of poverty. There is much, much more that I will write about the CTAA and my time there (since I’ll be, you know, WORKING there), but the most important thing for any reader of this blog to realize is that I’m REALLY excited about this. Transportation and poverty is what I’ve spent much of my time as a student studying, and this internship (to me, at least) is my opportunity to see the processes that shape and lead to the trends I’ve studied and ranted about on numerous occasions. I will likely be ranting about this subject matter here, so let this serve as sufficient warning to you, dear reader.

As with my Copenhagen blog, I start this blog, which is ostensibly about my time in one location, when I am not actually IN that location. I guess I have an itchy typing finger for this sort of thing. I’m not as far from Washington as I was from Copenhagen when I started my blog, however. I’m in lovely Providence, the fairest of the mid-sized New England cities (suck it, Worcester), sitting in the lobby of my hotel, eagerly awaiting to begin my work at the 2009 Transportation EXPO Conference, which, among other things, will probably involve all the attendees diving into a pit of money given to state transportation departments by the Economic Stimulus Package. Seriously. I helped drain the pool tonight and fill it with twenty-dollar bills. You know every thing those conservative pundits warned us about with the stimulus package? IT IS ALL TRUE. The volcano monitoring system is actually just a really sweet water slide.  I mean, if they’re putting up an intern in a hotel room, who KNOWS what they’ve got planned? (Seriously though, I’m just glad to have a roof over my head. I thought I’d be spending this week crouched beneath an I-95 overpass, because I don’t plan things very well)

So I don’t know what they have planned for me, but I will be here for it all, wearing my car-themed tie (I’m not kidding, I own two) and trying to take it all in. There’s a conference on health care and transportation that I’m particularly interested in…

But before those riveting posts, I offer my readers some words of explanation about this blog. Its title “It’s paradise to me!”, comes from the AWESOME song by the Magnetic Fields entitled, cleverly enough, “Washington, D.C.” There’s a certain irony for me using the song title, since the song is largely about how the singer loves Washington only because her lover lives in the city, not because of the city itself.

But despite this, I couldn’t help but decontextualize the lyrics into a celebration of Washington, the city, because I’m hoping to love the city for the city itself (although I am living with a very dear friend for a month, thank you Jared!). I actually used the song as my anthem for when I first got the internship, walking around the streets of Copenhagen and quietly chanting “W! A-S-H! I-N-G! T-O-N, BABY, D-C!” to myself. I’m sure I looked like a crazy, but whatever. I had a full beard, so at least my appearance fit the part. For the record, I’ve since lost the beard but kept the goatee and moustache. This is my attempt to look professional, but since I have Disney character cookies in my bag, I’m probably not fooling anyone.

The subtitle of the blog comes as a tip of the hat to the man (indirectly) responsible for my internship being a paying internship this summer, and that is the Ringmaster of the Washington Circus, one Barack Obama. Back in 2004, when Obama gave his speech at the Democratic National Convention and put himself on the political landscape, he referred to himself as a “skinny kid with a funny name”. While my name has never been used in a smear campaign against me to connect me to Islam and thus Islamic fundamentalism (man, what a great campaign. I miss those days. That stuff was better than the movies), I figure I’ve had to correct enough mispronounciations in my time to adopt the epitaph as my own.

So will I get lost, despite D.C.’s block system? Probably. Will I sprawl out on the National Mall and unknowingly fall asleep? Probably. Will I try to discover unique aspects of the D.C. cuisine? Probably, although I don’t really know if those exist. Will my nerdy little heart thunder within me when I read over policy papers? Probably. Will I explain these papers in great detail in my blog? Probably not, unless I’m feeling vengeful, but they’ll be mentioned at least in passing.

Follow me, dear reader, as I take on the Capital. And hopefully come across Obama eating a burger, since that seems to make the news like nothing else can.