Tripping out over the next trip

As I’ve mentioned about 32 times, I’m going to Portugal in January, another far-flung journey, a big bite of exoticism and edification, of soul nourishment and reckless indulgence in the name of peripatetic pleasure. I’m absolutely thrilled about it. It’s going to be terrible.

I’m riding the old seesaw of doubt and delight I always teeter on once I’ve bought my ticket and committed to swanning to someplace faraway, a jaunt that could be brilliant or a bust. I’m giddy. I’m aghast. 

After a two-week flurry of excited planning for Portugal — I booked neat boutique hotels, cheap tours, acclaimed restaurants and compiled a list of things to do and see — here’s what I wrote in my journal the other day: 

“I don’t think Portugal is going to be that great. The giant swell of energy I had for the trip has fizzled. And yet I’m still all about it and I kind of can’t wait.”

Three sentences oscillating with exquisite ambivalence.

The initial bloom of enthusiasm wilts into a kind of premature burnout. I’m two months away from the actual trip and already I’ve invested too much time, energy and money on a mirage. Waiting, I stew.

It’s not about this particular destination. It’s about all destinations, be it Japan, New Orleans or my recent trip to Paris. I get loopy, worried that all my anticipatory energies are for naught. What if it’s disappointing? What if I get in an accident? What if, god forbid, it rains? What am I doing? Refund!

This worry-wart-ism, this privileged angst mixed with delirium, has me up at all hours researching and reserving and sometimes, in fits of bleary-eyed buyer’s remorse, canceling flights only to rebook them the next morning when I’m a mite more sane.

Portugal ain’t Paris, and its comparatively modest offerings — a smattering of churches, a few museums, breath-stealing views, spicy sausage and smoky sardines — distress me. I’m going to the two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto, and both seem a little sleepy, more scenic than interactive, more walk-y than do-y.

Still, I look forward to a long tour of labyrinthine Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest, most atmospheric neighborhood, and hopping classic Tram 28, rattling up city slopes the color of Easter candies (see below).

In Porto I’m doing a fancy port tasting and taking a celebrated food tour. I’ll hear fado in a cavern-esque club. (How much fado singing I can take is a whole other matter.) And Portugal’s famed chocolate chain Chocolataria Equador — I’m there. (I’ll have the Dark Chocolate with Gin, por favor.)

Then there’s the people, always the people. I’m sure I’ll be saying obrigado (thank you) profusely.

The juices flow again just typing those words. I’ll always feel a churn of emotions about each journey — I’m a stubborn realist — so it’s about harnessing the positive and running with it. I have a good feeling about this. I think.  

No matter. It’s happening. I’ve done my homework and charted the trip in almost granular detail. Everything’s in place. (I think.)

Now I stand back, sit down, and wait patiently, with or without a hearty supply of Xanax.

Paris perambulations

The worst French onion soup I ever had was in France.

It happened last week at a cozy bistro in Paris’ hip Le Marais district, a minor hiccup, though major faux pas, amid a constellation of remarkable meals I savored during my most recent travel escapade — eight days in Paris, the greatest city on the planet. 

I love onion soup, French style, but I never have it. Where do you get an authentic bowl? Well, try France. And so I did. Yet something went wrong. No, lots went wrong. The oily brown broth tasted OK — sweet, savory beef stock — but the onions themselves were pitifully scarce and, much worse, it was topped with small, stale, store-bought croutons and a grisly pile of clearly processed shredded cheese from a ziplock bag, cheese that was not Gruyere or Parmesan or melted.

I’ve had better onion soup in New Jersey. This was a disgrace. Only once, maybe twice, have I ever sent a dish back. I didn’t mutter a complaint about the soup. I didn’t want to shame anyone. Partly that’s because I also ordered escargot and it was pretty delicious — hot, plump mollusks drenched in garlic and olive oil. This was, of course, my purposely clichéd French meal. It had to be done, despite being a half fail.  

Saddest onion soup in the world

But I don’t travel for the greatest bowl of onion soup (or do I?). I do it for the explosive newness, to be pried out of my home-addled head and relocated to the novel and exotic, to live, learn, experience. To find joy, or even fear. To escape the self and kick open doors. To move, move, move. To seek, discover. To be astonished. 

Instead of my usual Paris haunt the Latin Quarter, I stayed in the aforementioned Le Marais on the Right Bank, a village of winding cobblestone streets, haute boutiques, LGBTQ cool, cafes, bars and trend-setting ambiance. It’s kind of fantastic. 

As usual I walked miles around the city till my toes blistered. Transportation-wise, I eschewed the Metro and instead hailed Ubers and taxis. After years of scrappy, lo-fi travel, I felt I deserved the convenience and ease of environmentally devastating vehicles. I’ll call it what it was: shameful, privileged laziness. It was a marvelously stupid decision that cost me hours in choking traffic and hundreds of precious dollars. I get all sad just thinking about it.

But the destinations, after I popped from the cars with a chirpy “Merci beaucoup!,” almost always assuaged the grief and guilt. There were of course essential standbys — the Louvre, D’Orsay, the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the bone-encrusted Catacombs — but I added new spots to my well-trod Paris itinerary. 

Louvre

Like the avant-garde exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, where an impenetrable show by German artist Anne Imhof baffled and bored; and vaunted bistro L’Amis Jean, where I ate the most delectable rabbit and country vegetables and reveled in the festive atmosphere; and the dreamy Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at Centre Pompidou; and the itty-bitty restaurant-bakery Mokonuts, one of the hottest and hardest to get seats in town. 

Run by an endearing if understandably frenetic couple — with no employees, they’re the chefs, waitstaff and hosts — Mokonuts is low-key gourmet all the way. I had raw scallops that made me smile so involuntarily, co-owner/pastry chef/showrunner Moko Hirayama burst out laughing. (The main plate, pink-fleshed pigeon, was equally amazing.)  

Mokonuts is where I chatted with a middle-aged American couple about food and travel. They asked if I’d ever been to Lisbon, Portugal, and I said yes, I visited many, many years ago. (I’m of Portuguese descent, but that’s neither here nor there.) I found Lisbon to be like a giant, beautiful seaside village, suffused with languid, old-world charm. I relished it, but it didn’t leave teeth marks.

The couple perked up and replied that things have changed and they go there often for its food, people and invigorating bustle. Lisbon, I’ve since read, has become one of the most visited cities in Europe. My fellow travelers went on about it and inspired me to take a deeper look. The crazy result: I’m heading to Lisbon and Porto in mid-January. Expect a blog about sausage.

Musee D’Orsay

For the very first time in my many trips to Paris I did not see a classic American movie at one of the city’s numerous revival cinemas; no films (“An Affair to Remember” — pass) grabbed my interest, sadly. Yet I did take a short amble through my good friend Père Lachaise Cemetery, freckled as it was with fall leaves and dappled with autumn shadows. I sought out the relatively new grave of French actress Anna Karina, wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, with no luck. The place is massive. In fact I saw no celebrity plots — no Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf — on this visit. Yet I still found a baroque beauty in death. 

As always seems to happen, I strolled by Notre Dame several times. The gothic vision oddly emerges out of nowhere almost anywhere you go. It demands your attention.

She is tragically transformed after the April 2019 blaze that tore her soul out and broke the world’s collective heart. Only the indelible, indomitable facade is fully visible, as the rest of the cathedral is girdled by a fortress of construction walls, webbed in scaffolding and towered over by spindly cranes. Depressingly visible are exposed wood planks on the flying buttresses and gaping maws in the charred rooftop. 

The surrounding wall panels are emblazoned with photos and explanatory text describing the fire’s destruction and exactly what type of surgical procedures the ancient lady is now undergoing. It’s informative, and classy. People still come to gaze in awe, and the cathedral’s gargoyles still perch in the heavens, smirking, telegraphing in their way that everything will be all right. 

Paris ping-pong

So it’s back to Paris I go. After a foolish flirtation with a week-long trip to Ireland, which went as far as booking a flight, hotels and tours, I dithered again and scrapped the whole damn thing.

My fall travel plan was initially for Paris, which I booked early summer. Then I got cold (Covid?) feet and thought: Hm, I’ve been to Paris plenty of times, let’s try something virgin and verdant. Ireland! Odd, as I’ve never had one inkling of an urge to go there. Still, I traded my Paris flight for a Dublin one and away we (almost) go. 

And then I dove into my usual rigorous research, combing and poring over books and sites about the land o’ Guinness guzzlers (evidently not a cliché, at all) and after each tepid tourist “gem” (the insanely popular, intensely lame Guinness Storehouse) and middling tour (the Jameson whiskey distillery), my heart began to sink and I was like: shit

I was even hard pressed to find any restaurants worth a prized reservation in Dublin and Galway, my two destinations. What came up repeatedly and endlessly were pubs and pubs and pubs. And it hit me: I don’t even really like pubs, what with their rowdy regulars, garrulous gulpers and sports super-fandom. Dublin and its kinda interesting cathedrals, fascinating-for-about-14-minutes Book of Kells library and three million pubs fizzled fast. (Let’s not forget Enya.) 

Paris suddenly looked magical, marvelous, as it always does. Dublin dumped, I swapped back my flight to Paris, where I’ll spend eight days in mid-October. I’m staying in the chic, foot-trafficky Le Marais, eating fine cuisine at Buvette and beyond and cruising quays and cobblestone to my favorite museums and bone repositories, from the Catacombs to the oceanic Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Just booking the trip was its own journey. Oh, the fun, fickle planning of the neurotic mind. My impulses are famously rash — watch me shop online, and weep — and when I’m bitten by something that seems fantastic, I swoop into action, Visa in hand. That of course leads to the occasional snap judgement. Like Ireland. 

With that, you might say I’m depriving myself of a new experience, a land of uncharted wonders and bottomless brown suds. But I argue I’m saving myself from groaning mediocrity, eye-crossing tedium and the deflating effect of the chronically underwhelming. (Here I risk rousing the “ire” in Ireland.)

I’m certain Ireland has its charms and delights. But it’s not for me, not now. Paris is my place, an almost mythical destination — the art! the food! the bookshops! the cinemas! the river! the boulevards! the gardens! — that fairly twinkles. 

The City of Light makes me lightheaded.

4 for fall

1. Au revoir, France — hello, Ireland? That’s how it looks right now, especially since I’ve swapped my flight to Paris for a ticket to Dublin. So I guess I’m going to Ireland in October (insert a wee leprechaun kick). Or I think I am. The tyranny of the pandemic can upend everything, so while Ireland has relatively open tourism guidelines, things can change in a depressing snap. I scotched Paris because France’s Covid rules have become groaningly prohibitive — très crappy. I’m not torn up about it. I’ve been to Paris a few times, but this purportedly worldly traveler has never made Ireland. Frankly, it hasn’t lured me to its bucolic charms: rolling green hills, craggy ocean cliffs, mossy castles, obsession with pubs and, suspiciously, Guinness beer, minor museums and churches. It’s been on my index of non-bucket list destinations (including Australia, Iraq and pretty much anything Caribbean) until now. What clicked? The idea of something far and uncharted (and not tropical). Focusing on Dublin and, briefly, Galway, it will be a mellow journey, eight lolling days of food and drink, mild tourism, immersive history and lots of questionable Irish music. If I really get there, I’ll be lucky, charmed.

2. With uncluttered elegance, the film is called “Lamb, and it will chill you to the bone. Coming October 8, it’s described by hip indie studio A24 as “Icelandic folktale on top, Nordic livestock horror on bottom,” and it flows in the vein of A24 creep-outs “The Witch” and “Midsommar.” This one, by Valdimar Jóhannsson, is about a childless couple adopting a creature that is neither lamb or human: a sheep has given birth to a hybrid animal that has the body of a baby and the head of a lamb. Watch the trailer here. It’s unsettling. It’s eerie. It’s glorious.

3. I’ll take sweaters over sweat anytime, and I cherish every cool breeze that cuts through this soggy, sloggy summer. Let’s call it a wrap. I have things to do this fall and the chaotic weather, be it soak or scorch, is proving a deflating victory for climate change. It’s time for 50s and 60s and the end of wildfires, heat waves and floods. Yes, I hate summer, but no season’s perfect. Even autumn, the best of them all, has its pesky drawbacks, from confetti storms of leaves and Mandalorian costumes on Halloween, to football and corn mazes. We can deal.

4. And we curl back to Dublin, via Irish author Sally Rooney, whose new book “Beautiful World, Where Are You” arrives September 7. A globally celebrated wunderkind for her twin novels “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends,” both written before she was 28, Rooney returns to her familiar milieu of middle-class millennials swirling in career, interpersonal and libidinous distress. Couplings and uncouplings of bright young things juice the story and, if her other books are any indication, things will get hot. And bothered. A Rooney fan, I’m looking for artistic growth in the new novel, her longest yet. Rooney’s not the most assertive stylist, her stubbornly lean prose tweezered of metaphor. In a 2019 post, I concluded that “Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature.” That said, they’re nourishing and human, and I’m banking on “Beautiful World” to be a frothy palate cleanser after more vinegary fare this summer. Then, for some tang, I’ll grab E.M. Cioran’s self-explanatory “The Trouble with Being Born,” and the world will sleep well again.  

I plan for Paris. Covid laughs.

Last fall, Paris went kaput. That is, my planned trip to my favorite city was scrapped with a muscular assist from the pandemic. Covid, that magnificent killjoy, effectively squelched the October vacation, along with so many of your precious plans to get out and live life freely and safely. 

Woe is me. I know this is a first-world, big-baby complaint, but actually I’m not complaining. The trip was doomed from the start, founded on chutzpah and delusion. The pandemic would pass by October. Right. What a dope.

But I couldn’t resist the $430 round-trip flight bought last spring and the airline’s policy of crediting the ticket if trips were cancelled by Covid. Considering how grim everything was, it was sort of win-win.

I used that credit yesterday when I decided, rather rashly as usual, to take another shot at Paris in the fall. It cost a little more money, but the price was still right. Eight days in mid-October, starting where I left off during my last visit in fall 2015. 

Paris is slowly stirring from its Covid coma, when life was hamstrung by onerous rules and restrictions that made visiting pointless, if you could even get into Europe. I’m banking on more normalcy in the next few months as cafes, museums and bistros cautiously unlock their doors. (Alas, Notre Dame remains closed to worshippers and tourists after the blaze of 2019.)

Notre Dame, fall 2015

Must-dos: Musée d’Orsay; Musée Picasso (essential); Musée de l’Orangerie; citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies in Paris); Centre Pompidou; and the skull-crammed Catacombs.

This time, my sixth in Paris, I will skip my beloved cemeteries: the lushly rococo Père Lachaise and the more classical Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, which together house the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, François Truffaut, Susan Sontag, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Balzac, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Why visit cemeteries? Because they’re haunting and beautiful and, in Paris, they’re like strolling walks of fame for artists and intellectuals.)

Centre Pompidou, 2015

The Parisian foodie experience is paramount, and I have several places in my crosshairs: the peerless Frenchie; Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand; Buvette; and famed falafel joint L’As Du Fallafel in the Marais. For cocktails, it’s the vaunted Little Red Door — named one of the world’s 50 best bars for seven consecutive years — also in the Marais.

This all sounds super on paper, like most vacations do. The planning, the reservations, the advanced tickets, the accommodations (Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais), the raw, giddy anticipation. But it’s a crap shoot.

I’m all in. I’m ready to split this burgh for a few days, sip wine on the Seine, see an old Eric Rohmer film, walk the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens, skip the Mona Lisa, and be blown away by the city’s exuberant beauty. Again.  

I don’t know if I’ll actually get there. But I’m making a bid for it. For Paris, and for life. 

Stuff this

The taxidermist was having none of it. 

On assignment for a midsize city newspaper, I was interviewing the local taxidermist, a Mr. Martinez, stuffer of critters, asking him about his life’s calling: 

How did you arrive at upholstering bobcats and mounting them in hissing, menacing postures? 

What’s the taxidermy process? Do you only use the animal’s skin?

Is it bloody? Does it stink? 

That kind of crap.

Growing bored by Martinez’s predictable answers and feeling stifled in his stuffy workshop — a matchbox cluttered with mounts, models, skins and dead, static animals in dubious attitudes — my mind drifted.

Though I knew the answer, I asked Martinez if he could taxidermy my long-passed pet rat Phoebe. Sure, he said without a blink, though with a wink, as if a common eight-inch rodent would present any challenge.

Then, scanning the room’s carpentry, tanning and painting gear, I waxed inspired. Could you, I asked, stuff my best friend Ian and mount him in a fearsome pose, like an agitated grizzly? Martinez smirked, but he hadn’t heard my full pitch.

My friend is still alive, I told him. Is that a deal-breaker? Martinez snorted, shook his head and pondered how his lab’s chemical fumes had affected me. Surely he thought I was delirious. Or just dumb as a mounted wildebeest head.

But I really did wonder if he could taxidermy my dear pal Ian, a generous fellow with good skin and, hairy as a chimp, would look splendid posed in a loincloth, hunting a saber-toothed tiger in the Neolithic period. I picture this scene amid a Serengeti landscape in a diorama in a musty natural history museum. That, I think, is where Ian belongs. You’re welcome, bud. 

No and no, said Martinez, squashing the dreams of this faithful friend. Adds award-winning taxidermist Katie Innamorato: “It’s illegal to taxidermy or mount a human being in the U.S. While I’m sure it’s possible, the end result doesn’t seem worth the trouble. Human skin discolors greatly after the preservation process and stretches a lot more than animal skin.”

Gross.

You want gross? Ogle this:

That’s from the site Bad Taxidermy, a cheeky celebration of botched stuff-and-mount jobs, from the whimsically warped (a kitty fastened with giant angel wings, dangling from the ceiling, its face a mask of open-mouth terror) to the near-blasphemous (a quacking duck head popping out of the butt of a surprised baby lamb).

As Bad Taxidermy and its competing site Crappy Taxidermy illustrate, it’s simple. 

There’s good taxidermy:

And there’s grotty taxidermy:

From macho hunter displays to Victorian curiosity cabinets, taxidermy rarely goes out of fashion. Two books — “Crap Taxidermy” and “Taxidermy Gone Wrong: The Funniest, Freakiest (and Outright Creepiest) Beastly Vignettes” — are taxonomies of the mutilated and misbegotten, the bungles and blunders. Horrible hilarity ensues.

What is taxidermy, exactly? Real fur, jagged antlers, feral poses, glassy doll eyes and wholesale creepiness come to mind. (Also: reprehensible game hunters and their appetite for machismo-fueled slaughter.)

Essentially, says an expert, “taxidermy is a mix of many disciplines — sculpting, woodworking, sewing, painting, carpentry and tanning, to name a few.”

It’s a grisly craft. “The animal is first skinned in a process similar to removing the skin from a chicken prior to cooking. Depending on the type of skin, preserving chemicals are applied or the skin is tanned. It is then either mounted on a mannequin made from wood, wool and wire, or a polyurethane form.”

I’m of two minds: I absolutely hate the idea of killing creatures for egomaniacal trophies. The other part of my brain revels in the freakish Frankenstein concoctions sprung from twisted artistic souls, Gothy individualists in black, with scads of tats and a penchant for playing Bauhaus while making taxidermy scenes of iguana tea parties.

My pal Mr. Martinez is a more traditional practitioner of the taxidermy arts. As his workshop attests, he goes for big cats, woodland animals, spindly deer, exotic game and other heartbreaking visions. 

So he won’t stuff my friend, got it. Maybe if I modify my specifications so Ian could still be prepped and mounted without breaking any laws. Maybe if Martinez does something less human and more on the hybrid side — a hint of Dr. Moreau, say.

Maybe, just maybe, we can settle on this:

Skulls, scales, piranhas and penises

Once I was strolling down the sidewalk in a small leafy city when I almost stepped on a dead baby bird. Gruesome and heartbreaking, about the size of a toddler’s palm, the chick bore hues of hot pink and bruised blue. Its livid, bulging eyelids were sealed, its featherless body as smooth as a plum. It was impressively intact. 

After a flush of shock and pity, I did what any sane person would do. I wrapped the freshly hatched corpse in a handkerchief, stuck it in my pocket, and took it home. 

I knew exactly what to do with the sad songbird that would never sing. I took a small, squat jar and dropped the creature in. Then I filled the jar with rubbing alcohol as a cheap formaldehyde substitute to preserve the bird. It looked like the baby floating in space at the end of “2001.”

“You’re nuts,” a friend said, grimacing at my latest specimen.

“If by nuts you mean genius, then you are correct, amigo,” I replied. 

Those were the days when I maintained a kind of ghoulish cabinet of curiosities, an array of animal bits and pieces that you might see in a really good, icky museum, like the Mütter in Philadelphia or the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Jarred birth defect, Kunstkamera Museum, 2017

A minor collector of the morbid and marvelous, I was proud of my little spread on the mantel. It featured a perfect gopher skull I found in a forest that I boiled to get it ivory white; a shark jaw bought in Tijuana; a desiccated sea horse; an artfully mounted dried piranha; a skinny, three-inch coyote penis bone picked up at the wondrous Evolution Store in Manhattan; and, of course, the pièce de résistance, the newly jarred baby bird. 

All I needed were the famous bones of the Elephant Man to make my mini-museum world-class. Instead I had a penis bone. Of a coyote.

Coyote penis bones

My interest in this kind of fleshly ephemera goes back to when as kids we hunted lizards and snakes, captured frogs, tadpoles and the occasional crawfish. At the beach, we collected sand crabs, starfish and washed-up egg sacks from sharks.

It wasn’t callow mischief guiding us, but a dogged fascination with the slimy, squirmy world, our first real engagement with the natural sciences and coexistent creatures. Back then our main educational outlet for these things was TV’s “Wild Kingdom,” a show that pales woefully next to today’s über-slick “Planet Earth.” Yet it was good, eye-opening.

Even now, none of this bores me. Though I’ve since discarded my assortment of animal oddities, I love roaming the aisles and perusing the glass cases at the Mütter and the Evolution Store, gaping at furry and scaly taxidermy, jarred sharks, pickled human organs, and skulls of all species.

I’m not alone. The Mütter and Evolution are bustling tourist magnets, irresistible emporiums of the morbid and mortal, stocked with shocking notions and terrible beauty. (I just recalled I own t-shirts from the Mütter and Evolution. How could I forget?)

Meanwhile, my birthday is coming up. Here’s what you can get me, from Evolution:

Jaws in a jar. Beat that.

College, the great mind-blower

In my first semester of college, Marlon Brando blew open my bitty blinkered brain.  

I was 18 and watching the actor at a small on-campus screening of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ torrid fever dream of a play. I was mesmerized, disturbed, rattled. 

Who is this guy? I wondered. What is this guy?

I had seen Brando in “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” on VHS, but this was different. This was the young, bristling Method actor, a radical of modern performance, searing the screen with unseen naturalism — a combustible churn of physical and psychological muscle, animal charisma, brute sexuality and roiling menace. 

He was a new kind of screen male. He hollered and knocked things over. He was sensitive, a raw nerve. He was scary, feral. He was gorgeous. He was hideous. He was fantastic.

This, I thought, is what college is about: revelation, learning, getting gobsmacked by the greats. All at once, in that Brando bombshell, was a liberating feast of ideas and culture. The very next day, I borrowed a Brando biography from the library. I craved more.

A curious kid at a university in a wildly diverse, culturally rich city, I gulped it all, from Hong Kong action flicks to Zippy the Pinhead comics. In a city of famed seismic activity — yes, San Francisco — Brando was one of the first icons to rock my late-teen world.   

Brando, smoldering

He wasn’t alone. Other cultural forces who uncorked my brain included, in no order: Beethoven; Sartre; the Marx Brothers; Shakespeare; Freud; Stanley Kubrick; the Beatles (I’d always known their music; I just didn’t know their music); Orson Welles; Buddha; Nietzsche; John Waters; Dalí; Bogart; Buñuel; Kafka; the Ramones; Fellini; Charlie Chaplin; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

(Woke alert: I realize there is only one woman and, save for Buddha, exclusively white people on the list. This is just before I fell for Toni Morrison, García Márquez, Miles Davis and all the rest. As it’s the past, there’s very little I can do to remedy the situation.)

I adored my school. It was an institution that showed scant regard for sports and frats. (I sort of felt sorry for our neglected little football team, but not really.) It was the kind of liberal arts college where August Coppola — brother of Francis Ford Coppola and father of Nicolas Cage — was Dean of Creative Arts and the city newspaper’s erudite pop critic taught my History of Rock ’n’ Roll course. 

Protests were big — pro-Palestine, anti-apartheid. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played the stamp-sized Student Union for five bucks a head. Director Sydney Pollack gave a seminar on filmmaking. Free movie screenings abounded. You barely needed class when almost everything around you was an education.

Take the campus library: nerdy, for sure, but a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of intellectual stimulation. There I’d watch esoteric documentaries, listen to concertos and symphonies and pore over rare books. It was all part of this teen’s great game of cultural catch-up.

And isn’t that what college is, a way to get young minds up to speed on the world, culture, history, life? It’s about my freshman geography professor dismissing the Bible as a book of fairy tales and the above rock history teacher expounding on the lush productions of Phil Spector, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

It’s about watching bad improv groups perform in the dorms and serving as Opinion Editor on the fiery campus newspaper. It’s about eating falafel for the first time and meeting Allen Ginsberg at a reading of “Howl” at City Lights bookstore.

College as entrée to life’s rich pageant, untrammeled exposure — that’s how I took it. There were city museums and concert halls — at 19, I got a student subscription to the San Francisco Symphony — the Haight-Ashbury, its own mad cultural-historical corridor; movie theaters like the Castro, Red Vic and Roxie; plays at ACT and the Magic Theatre. Not to mention the cultural cornucopia awaiting just over the bridge in Berkeley.

I got my first good camera as a freshman, styling myself a shutterbug about town, a wee, wannabe Weegee. I got deeper into my drums, soaking up sophisticated masters like Steve Gadd and Terry Bozzio, learning to kick things up while toning them down. 

It was all about finesse, those early college days, about forging newly freed passions into a prismatic worldview that made sense to me. And it began with a revelatory sensation that was balled-up in the raw, sweaty brio of Marlon Brando.

Not for a moment has that novel feeling stopped. Once launched on the journey of discovery, you’re pretty much stuck. College lit a fuse; the explosions keep on popping.

Fall reading officially begins … now

A Big New Book is being released tomorrow: Elena Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults, the follow-up to her celebrated four-book Neapolitan Novels (“My Brilliant Friend,” etc.) that’s been awaited with clammy palms and mild hyperventilation around the world. They call it Ferrante Fever, the passion with which readers embrace her Naples-set, fiercely feminist fiction. In fact, so beloved and famous are her novels, of which I’ve only read two (heresy!), I will go into no more detail about their glittering renown. 

As reclusive and elusive as Sasquatch, Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and an impenetrable cloud of anonymity, so thick even her tireless English translator has never met her (him? they?) in person. The tenacity with which she preserves a faceless non-identity, shrouded in maddening mystery, makes Ferrante a sort of Banksy of literature. She’s been touted for the Nobel Prize, and we wonder how that would work — a fashionable no-show à la Bob Dylan? Does it matter?

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The publication of “The Lying Life of Adults” (which charts the thorny coming of age of a teenage girl) has been called the “literary event of the year” by those New York magazine types, and lots of slobber has soaked its impending release. 

I haven’t read the novel yet — I have a copy on hold, he panted — so I can’t say much more about it without paraphrasing the publicity notes and that will put all of us to sleep. When I finally crack it, I’ll share. 

Meanwhile, about the excellent book I just finished today … 

I have great faith in the tastes of London-based blogger Jessica, a native Ohioan who writes the funny and fascinating — and on the rare, lucky occasion, riotously scatological — Diverting Journeys. So when she recently reviewed the freak show history “The Wonders: The Extraordinary Performers Who Transformed the Victorian Age, I promptly grabbed a copy. A fellow enthusiast of the creepy and freaky — from baroque cemeteries to carnival sideshows and babies-in-jars museums — Jessica writes, “I genuinely loved this book. It was so fun to read, and was the perfect combination of cultural and medical history.” 

51Nh9MINwEL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Agreed. Author John Woolf weds sharp scholarship and anecdotal color about some of the most popular human oddities of the 17th to 20th centuries with accessible and mesmerizing verve. Some of the abnormalities are digestible — dude, you’re like the size of a Cabbage Patch Kid! — while others rattle: the rampant racial exploitation marring the sideshow circuit truly sickens. 

A “Wonders” sampling: the woman with a blimp-sized derriere and an XL labia; the original Siamese Twins (slaveholders, they), who both married and had like fifty children; an array of dwarfs who thrived as playthings in Europe’s royal courts; and two of my all-time favorites, Julia Pastrana, billed as the Ugliest Woman in the World, and Joseph Merrick, the eternally doomed Elephant Man. (Actually, Pastrana was also doomed. You cannot believe how she winds up.)

These are stories of amazement — you keep wondering how? and why? — and, too often, searing heartbreak. This book somehow manages not to shatter you, not by shirking facts, but by maintaining a tempered, dignified humanity that cleaves to historical reality. Shudder if you must. 

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Julia Pastrana

A step backward for Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of my favorite structures in the world. A chunky, imposing cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-public-museum, flanked with four rocket-like minarets, a bulky beacon doused in faded hues of pink and salmon, the famous building shares the same lush Istanbul peninsula as the nearly-as-glorious Blue Mosque. Almost amazingly, the edifices sit directly across a palm-lined park from each other, a spiritual and architectural bonanza. 

So it’s with slack-jawed dismay that I read this about the treasure in today’s newspaper:

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.

“The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.”

Erdogan, on an Islamist tear, is, like another aspiring authoritarian, a crackpot. And today’s move on Hagia Sophia is culturally criminal. 

More from the article:

“Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.”

Below are some of my photographic memories of the holy site, aka Ayasofya, where you can see the exotic marriage of Islam and Christianity, including walls of crumbled majesty, their layers peeled back to reveal vibrant Christian frescoes and mosaics from 537 AD, as well as gigantic round panels emblazoned with Arabic script perched from atop the basilica. For years, it was the world’s largest interior space. It is spellbinding.