Huntsville, a Glimpse

I’ve been in Alabama for three weeks now and I’m still walking around wide-eyed and bushy tailed, soaking in all of the South-ness that my big little California heart can handle. I find incredible joy in the simple things: a waitress calling me ‘sugar’, a lingering firefly on the front porch, walking down the street and being greeted with a wave and a smile by every single person I pass. And I am truly grateful for all of the wonderful people that I’ve met, especially my roommates and Airplane Girl & Co. (aka her family), for welcoming me to Huntsville with such open arms.

My lovely roommate, Mononita, the smiliest girl you ever did see!

I have learned to enjoy the slowness of the South and be more open to unplanned weekends and just letting stuff happen. Back in Los Angeles I was always busy, always hustling, my weeks filled up quickly. And that’s great, don’t get me wrong, I look forward to returning to my L.A. life and hitting the ground running. But these days, when I’m not working, I spend my Sundays in coffee shops reading and writing and hours at home or in the park playing music and singing. Joys that I have always loved but never really spent the time to nurture.

Excitement here is relative. I don’t mean to say that life is dull or boring in Huntsville, but rather, I’m re-conditioning myself to enjoy life in a different way. Huntsville is not Los Angeles, and thank goodness, because I get to have an entirely new adventure here! For example, the highlight of this last week was a solo trip to Tangled String Studios in the arts district of Huntsville. I stumbled upon this guitar shop on one of my wanderings and started talking to the owner, Danny, a friendly and fascinating man. He is a retired NASA engineer and used his mechanical engineering knowledge and love for music to open a workshop where he makes guitars by hand. It’s a beautifully eclectic store – whimsical really. With twinkle lights hanging from the ceilings, tools strewn about, mismatched chairs and sofas for guests to sit in, pieces of instruments hanging from the walls, and concert posters galore. You can feel the love that has gone into the curation of this place and he opens it up regularly for intimate evening concerts. After speaking with Danny, I came back later that week to see The Mulligan Brothers, a folksy “Americana” band. I hadn’t heard of them, but they’re local to Alabama and I figured it would be a great introduction to the listening room – that’s what they call the shop/venue. I also learned what a listening room is: essentially a music venue, but very small, intimate, and without any “extra’s” like an attached bar or restaurant, so that the sole purpose of the space is to truly enjoy the musical experience. Guests can bring their own libations, curl up in a cozy armchair and just listen.

Inside Tangled String Studios.

While I sat and sipped my beer in a can, listening to the honest lyrics and joyful fiddle playing of The Mulligan Brothers I smiled to myself. I was utterly content (the beer helped). But something about the night just felt so magically Southern. It was an experience unique to my time in Huntsville that sort of captured everything that I’ve come to enjoy about the city – the warm end-of-summer night feeling, the friendly community, the magic of the shop and little gems I keep discovering. The glow of the twinkle lights were like fireflies and the stage made of plank boards almost made it feel like I was sitting in the backyard with friends at some antebellum house watching the local band play on the porch. I’ve never been anywhere like it before.

The Mulligan Brothers

A sucker for a good tour (and a history lesson) I accompanied Airplane Girl and her parents on a historic breakfast trolley tour of Huntsville. There were blueberry muffins and coffee involved. Yes. So much yes. It’s always fun to be a tourist in your own town, and neither Airplane Girl nor her parents had gone on this particular tour before, so everybody wins! We went through the historic downtown district and saw a lot of really beautiful antebellum homes – owned by such figures as John Hunt, one of the first settlers of Huntsville, and LeRoy Pope, related to the famous poet, Alexander Pope. I learned lots of fun facts like the identity of the elusive Lily Flagg. I live off of Lily Flagg Rd., there are Lily Flagg Apts, Lily Flagg Municipal Pool, a Lily Flagg Furniture store. Who IS this Lily Flagg? She must really be somebody. Well, thanks to my trolley tour, I come to find that Lily Flagg was, in fact, an award-winning dairy COW who broke the world record for butter production. We saw Lily Flagg’s owner’s house (didn’t bother to remember his name), who painted the mansion butter yellow, in honor of the cow, and was the first in the city to install electric lights in his home in preparation for the extravagant party he threw for Lily’s big win. Leave it to the South to introduce electricity to the city because of a COW. So great.

Airplane Girl & Co., my adopted Southern family with that post-tour glow!
Tallulah Bankhead was born in Huntsville! Whaddya know!

The Twickenham neighborhood in Huntsville is the largest antebellum district in Alabama and is full of beautiful, old homes. I look forward to exploring more of the streets and watching the leaves change as we creep into Fall.

Twickenham Neighborhood
One of the beautiful antebellum homes
Oh hey, another one!

I also visited Harrison Bros. Hardware, a Huntsville establishment over 100 years old. The store, still in operation, uses the original cash register and old hardware is sprinkled throughout the store amongst the newer treasures. It’s a very charming little place to wander around in.

Inside Harrison Bros. Hardware
Some old paperwork and other antiquities from the original store
Old and new
The original cash register

I’m going to New Orleans next weekend with the Atomic Cherry Bombs to perform at the Swing Dance Festival. Look forward to a post about my adventures in my favorite American city!!!

Being a goober in Big Spring Park

Until next time.


Viva La Revolución! An American in Cuba

I visited Myanmar soon after they opened their borders to tourism, so it only seemed fitting that the next country on my list of places to visit be…. Cuba. Technically, the embargo still hasn’t been lifted and tourism to Cuba isn’t totally Kosher, but hey, that makes it all the more desirable now, doesn’t it? I knew that I had to make it to the land of cigars, music, rum, and Castro before everyone else did. Getting to Cuba wasn’t nearly as complicated or stressful as I prepared myself for, and will only get easier as relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to develop.

For my one-week excursion, I decided to focus solely on Havana and the nearby beaches to truly soak in the Habanero culture. Lodging options in Havana are fairly straightforward. You either stay in one of the government owned hotels (expensive) or in a casa particular with a native Cuban family (I went this route). Cubans are extremely friendly and contrary to popular belief, love Americans. I stayed with a lovely family thanks to a friend’s recommendation – which seems to be the “Cuban way” across the board. Need a place to stay in Trinidad? “I know someone there…” Want to take a taxi to Santa Maria beach? “My cousin drives an old ’65 Chevy. He’ll take you!” This is the Cubans own way of introducing capitalism into what has been a Communist nation since Fidel Castro led the Revolution in the 1950s.

Walking around Havana felt like being transported through time. The buildings from former dictator, Fulgencio Batista’s reign, once glimmering with the royal intricacies of Moorish, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Roman architecture, are now crumbling. But the vivid coats of paint that have been slapped on to cover up the city’s deterioration are actually quite charming, and the layers of Havana’s history can be seen through its architecture. The Bodeguita del medio, for example, once a regular hangout for the bohemian likes of Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is now adorned with scribblings and pictures of visitors past and present.

The vintage car situation in Havana is exactly what you imagine it to be. Once a major center for American car companies, after most trade to Cuba was cut off, all that was left were these vintage American cars and the strange Russian ones sent over in the 80s. I tried to ride in these beauties as much as possible, because riding along the Malecón (Havana’s famous coastal thoroughfare) in a ’55 Chevy convertible is a once in a lifetime experience.

Surprisingly, the food in Havana is not as scrumptious as you’d think. Those gooey pulled pork sandwiches you get at Versailles are replaced with who-knows-how-old deli ham and a slice of cheese slapped between a semi-stale roll. If you’re lucky, it will be pressed hot, nay warm, on a panini maker. But as a nation slowly emerging from its Communist cave, cuisine is not necessarily at the top of their to-do list. We did, however, discover a quaint little restaurant wedged in a tiny alley, off of the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana that had pretty amazing grilled seafood and tapas. It was there that we also met our new Cuban friend who called himself “Junior” and played guitar in the Cuban band that took up residency at the restaurant. We ended up eating there several times, both for the food, and to listen to the enchanting music played by our new friends. My love for Latin music and secret desire to be a drummer led them to invite me to play attempt percussion with them for a rendition of Besame Mucho. As the afternoon faded to twilight and then on to a humid Cuban night, I let the hours go by as I sipped Cuban beer and let the music take me away.

I  only saw a small slice of the vibrant Caribbean country, but one of my favorite memories of the trip was a day visit to Viñales, a valley region 3 hours outside of Havana. Here is where the lush, exotic landscape really takes over and the nutrient-rich soil shines a deep red that feeds the tobacco, coffee, and fruit crops that grow there. We rode horses through the valley – mine’s name was Negro, and the sweet smell of tobacco leaves and the vast, luscious foliage around me left me in a daze of ecstasy. After a while, I asked the guide if we could run and before I knew it he was yelling “Corre caballo!” and we were galloping across the open valley alone – no other tourists in sight. As cliche as it sounds… I really felt free.

No visit to Cuba is complete without a visit to the cigar factory. Officially, the Partagas Factory is the only government approved cigar production in the country, but many street vendors sell lesser quality versions. Some of the cigars at Partagas are even “Fidel approved”, marking his personal favorite stogies. I opted for traditional Cohibas in addition to some artisan ones that I bought from Leonardo, my new cigar making friend from Viñales.

Much of Cuba’s charm truly emerges when you simply get lost wandering the streets of Old Havana. You may turn a corner to find the most enchanting band of musicians playing yet another rendition of Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan”. Or stumble across an alley where local children are playing with a kite. Around another corner is a Libreta, a store where food and other goods are rationed out according to the Communist government order. Each breath of humid Cuban air is sticky sweet of papaya, tobacco, and a little bit of gasoline. Each gaze is colorful and animated. These people have soul and are just trying to make it work with what they’ve got. Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating; Cuba is a country of undeniable and enigmatic magic.

On one of my last nights in Cuba, I walked, as I tend to do when I visit new places. I walked along the Malecón, the 5-mile coastal esplanade that marries the city to the sea. Originally constructed to provide protection for the city, with the Morro Castle fortress perched across the water, now the roadway is more popular for twilight promenades and a haven for fisherman. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the chance to visit this magnificent country before many other Americans. And I also couldn’t help but feel a little scared at what opening up the borders to the outside world would do to the island that has lived in isolation for so long. But that’s life and things change. So as the sun set over the Malecón and the sky turned from blue to gold, I thought to myself…. “This moment right now will never change. And it is magic.”

*Note – originally posted in August 2015