I have to admit, moving halfway around the world has involved less getting used to than I anticipated. I was bracing myself for a tremendous amount of culture shock moving from the backwoods of Maine to a bustling port metropolis but I think I’ve settled in pretty well so far. There has been so much I’ve missed about the city. Public transportation is a major one, I didn’t mind driving around Maine most of the year and the freedom that entailed, but I find zoning out to music in a bus or sitting at the back of a subway car a hell of a lot more conducive to my creativity than trying to do it in the car while being hyperaware that at any given moment a suicidal deer may throw itself out of the underbrush. The press of people and the ambient noise level really makes you feel small, but not in a bad way. The sheer variety of food available is my personal favorite, though. I don’t know that I’d necessarily call myself a foodie but rural New England did not boast a wide range of cuisine. Portland and Hallowell are major hubs featuring some amazing Asian fusion restaurants, a couple of Indian places, some hole in the wall Italian joints… But my immediate area was a wasteland of chain restaurants and fast food.
Here, though, the Vietnamese food alone was worth moving for. I haven’t had spring rolls this good in years, and they’re practically up the road from me. There’s also Singapore noodles on demand, a variety of schnitzel places, homemade gelato stands, and it’s frankly a wonder I haven’t put on twenty pounds in the last two months.
There’s a great sense of history here, too. There are layers to the city, as you get in any major port. The oldest stuff is built very organically, following the body of the land, and as you move further and further away from that it melts into a more traditional grid shape. Nothing so rigid as, say, Manhattan (and not nearly as easy to navigate so far) but the kind of setting where if you know the name of the street and the rough direction, you’ll eventually run into it instead of being led round a semicircular avenue. My favorite spot so far is a section known as The Rocks, a multi-level neighborhood west of the Opera House and the bridge, one of the oldest surviving regions of the city. It’s “only” two hundred years old but has a rich history I’ve recently been immersing myself in, featuring everything from bloody gang wars to hosting the bubonic plague. Today it’s a gorgeous collection of sandstone buildings and ramps that give the impression of having been built over a rough-hewn quarry. There are definitely some elements of gentrification lurking around the old-school pubs and government buildings, but I guess I’ll take that over the plague. By a tiny bit.
So, why is my image for this post a man’s tattooed back? Well for one it’s a public domain piece by 19th century Japanese photographer Kusakabe Kimbei and I’ll take any chance to show his beautiful work off. For another, that’s the big thing that’s stood out to me here.
There are tattoo parlors everywhere. It’s ridiculous. Again, maybe it’s just because I’m coming from a more rural spot, but I was still driving distance of the largest cities in the state and between them I think there were as many parlours as I can find in one neighborhood here. And such a wealth of styles too! I see a lot of Japanese and Malaysian studios here, and a surprising number of the local artists have actually traveled to other countries to study and hone their craft. As someone who gets a little bit antsy about cultural appropriation it’s been nice to see that level of respect in play. I see barely any tribal tattoos here, the bulk of them I notice tend to be nature-themed. Lots of gorgeous floral work and native birds. I’m trying not to be impulsive, as I have gotten a lot of tattoos over the last year knowing that I was going to be moving away from my local artist and good friend, but I’m going to have to bite the bullet and get scribbled on soon. I’m just so spoiled for choice I don’t know where I’d start. Okay, I know where I’d start, the problem is that it’s like three different studios all in the same week and then comes the itching times and the hemorrhaging wallet.
Finally, let me just take a second to talk about how seriously they take their caffeine in this country. There’s a definite lack of energy drinks (and to be fair, given how fast those things were liquefying my insides and/or soul back in the states that’s probably a good thing) and it’s extremely bizarre to see Monster touted as a kind of fancy import over the homegrown brands like Mother and V. It is more than made up for in the tea selections and the coffee. Dear God, the coffee. Dear Odin and Zeus and Quetzalcoatl and Raijin, while we’re at it. The ristrettos. The flat whites and short blacks. The latte over ice, blessedly free of high fructose corn syrup meant to emulate caramel. There is a reason Starbucks failed in Australia, and as a card-carrying coffee snob and caffeine junkie it is because I can walk into any cafe on the side of the road and pay a couple of bucks for an espresso shot that will come just short of heart palpation without the lingering, sour, burnt flavor a lot of people have unfortunately come to associate with strong coffee. My first time here last year, going out for breakfast with friends, I was actually warned halfway through ordering my beverage, that the coffee here would be much stronger than I was used to.
I routinely sprung for the fancy stuff back in the states. I’d happily forego actual nutrition and fill up on ramen for a week if it meant having access to good beans. But they were right, this stuff is head and shoulders above and I spent the year between my last visit and actually moving here yearning for it. At last I can balance out all the pesky blood in my caffeine system.