I have long been fascinated by why people are so disquieted by drones. While pretty much every one alive in 2019 experiences some degree of acute tech anxiety, drones, as a category of objects, still inspire an unusual amount of disquiet – much more so than, say, an iPhone. This distrust extends to both consumer drones you can buy at the mall and to enormous militarized drones: anything with the word ‘drone’ appended to it inspires clickbaity headlines and nervous conversations at bars. Some of this, I think, can be attributed to the fact that we still lack widely-agreed upon modifiers for the word ‘drone’ in our society, which differentiate between objects in the overall ‘drone’ category – which means that it’s easy for people to assume that a $500 multirotor you can buy at the mall and a Predator drone are actually somewhat similar objects.
But that’s not all that’s going on. It is apparent to me that there isn’t a single, easily-explained reason why people distrust and fear drones as a general category of things. There are actually many interlocking reasons, ranging from the very obvious (there isn’t a person in them and some of them can be used to blow things up) to those that are more subtle.
What I want to do with this series of blog posts is to describe some of the reasons for drone-distrust that I’ve come across or conjectured about. This is both for my own amusement, and for a more practical reason: public distrust of drones drives me and my drone sector colleagues absolutely nuts, and the first step towards figuring out ways to address the public fears is clearly describing what they are. So let’s begin with this reason: Drones are inscrutable.
By that, I mean that it is very hard for people to know how much a drone knows, or how smart it is, just by looking at it. Most people do not know very much about drones as a general category of flying objects. Certainly they haven’t (and have no desire to) delve into the various technical details regarding each platform’s specific capacities. Nor is it likely that this is going to change much. Despite the lofty hopes of many consumer drone companies, we do not presently and probably never will live in a world where the average person has much use for a drone, beyond their obvious utility as a last-minute present for Father’s Day. While civil service and public utility drones are becoming much more common, they’re still nowhere near typical, as boring and unnoticeable as a city truck with its flashers on. Nor do most people know much about, or have reason to think much about, the distinctions between a cheap consumer drone and, say, a massively expensive Reaper UAS used by the military to zap people on other continents. This understandable lack of public familiarity with drones leaves plenty of room for confusion, misapprehension, and outside influence.
The average person’s knowledge gap around drones is then reinforced by our media (writ large), which absolutely loves to portray drones – even small, cheap-looking ones – as much more intelligent and sophisticated than they actually are today. (This is also why my loved ones hate watching TV with me now). TV and movies today are absolutely lousy with small drones that can: fly for days at a time, stealthily and silently track people both inside and outside of buildings, shrug off terrible weather and the occasional bullet, and can make complicated strategic decisions on their own, without human input. TV and movie drones are majestically capable, terrifying devices. They make real drones, the kind I actually fly, look like total delicate dumbshits.
Which, let’s be frank, they are. Real drones are dumb and fragile as hell, especially when we compare them to their fictional brethren. In Real Life, my (nice!) $1200 quadcopter drone is not capable of: reliably navigating around trees, following me in an area that isn’t an open field, avoiding taking photos of things I don’t want it to take photos of, being controlled from more than about a mile and a half away, and reliably avoiding plummeting into a lake or something if it loses radio signal. Its battery lasts for approximately 25 minutes if I’m lucky, and it makes a sound somewhere between a dentist drill and a demented, enormous bumblebee. It cannot fly in rain or snow beyond a gentle drizzle, or navigate winds above 20 miles an hour. While it can navigate a pre-programmed flight path using GPS capability, and take photographs at pre-determined intervals (both very cool features), it’s still not capable of making its own value judgements about where to go or what to photograph.
It has no autonomy, but instead just does exactly what I tell it. Drone facial recognition software, while a frightening possibility, remains mostly theoretical and is prone to even more errors than the already horrifyingly-error ridden terrestrial type of facial recognition tools. While there are fancier small drones on the market, they’re really not capable of doing much more than mine can. But again, the average person doesn’t know much about the actual dumbshitness of civilian drones, and doesn’t really have a good way to know that, unless they use drones themselves. Certainly drone companies aren’t eager to brag about how stupid their drones actually are, and ‘Drone Fails to Do Anything Exciting’ is not a compelling tech magazine headline.
This leaves people to draw their own conclusions about drones, and what I think they often conclude is that drones are much more intelligent and capable than they actually are. However, the actual parameters of that smartness are also confused, because these media drone portrayals often vary widely in what they show drones doing. Taken together, this means that people know 1. Drones are smart and capable and 2. It’s unclear exactly how smart and capable they are, or what that actually means in practice, which is scary. In other words, to most people, drones are inscrutable.
inscrutability is compounded by a few factors. For starters, consider that a drone,
visually, betrays almost no information about what it is up to or who is flying
it to the average schmo on the ground. Police and fire vehicles, even news
helicopters, usually have some kind of marking on them that gives us a hint
about where they’re from and what they’re up to. Drones do not, and even if they
did, they’re so small and so distant that it would be hard for us to see it. We
still lack any system that might allow someone on the ground to identify a
drone, or at least read off a drone license number: the only way to know what a
drone is for is to find the pilot. There’s no clear means of determining exactly
who is looking through the computerized eyes of a drone, and what they’re
looking for. Or what is looking
through the drones eyes, because we are also uncertain about the degree to which drones have minds of their
While no one relishes the idea of being spied upon by a person, being spied upon by a creepy human being with a telescope is not a particularly novel or shocking idea. A human being, even a creepy one, operates within human parameters and can presumably be subject to human reason and justice. Being spied upon by a machine, however, is much more disturbing. A good old-fashioned creeper, in the pre-Internet era, had a limited ability to disseminate imagery of you in your underpants far and wide. A machine-equipped creeper has the ability to disseminate those images to everyone on the planet with a pulse in 15 minutes, before you’ve even known that it’s happened. This is terrifying. Even more terrifying, perhaps, is the idea of a machine itself making the decision to disseminate those images – or perhaps making the decision in collaboration with a creepy human being.
To be sure, this human concern over what it means to have a machine mediating our perception of the world is a relatively old one, an anxiety that ebbs and flows in our culture. Andre Bazin wrote, in 1945: “Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography. For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent… All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.”
Drone photography take this modern dynamic that Bazin describes even further, because a human being is by definition absent (or at least, is in control of the situation from very far away) when a drone snaps a picture. Perhaps even more importantly, we – living as we do in an era of AI hype – may not be entirely confident that a drone *is* a “nonliving agent.” AI is new, and so are drones, and there is plenty of kerfuffle in the media about AI being attached to drones.
We therefore shouldn’t be surprised if some people also assume that all drones are equipped to some degree of AI that is much more sophisticated (and frightening) than what is actually possible today, as part of their overestimation of the general abilities of the technology. Insofar as they are aware, a drone may very well be looking at you – and making choices about following you – in and of itself, without being explicitly guided in its every action by a human being.
The drone is turned into something less like a ‘dumb’ remote controlled airplane and much more into something more like a trained attack dog, or even a trained spy. It may be carrying out sinister directives at the behest of someone else, but it is also capable of making its own choices in the process. It is an object that has been imbued with an unusual amount of agency: one could argue that it has become an agent in and of itself. If we look at this from the lens of actor-network theory, drone of uncertain (and currently impossible) intelligence is an entity that exists in a weird place, somewhere between being an artifact and being a social actor in and of itself. We don’t know that it isn’t exerting a certain amount of automated capacity to choose, or to act.
It is a thing that is ontologically uncertain, and mostly, we don’t like that. (I wouldn’t either, if I didn’t know about drones). This makes sense. After all, it is considerably harder to outsmart something that wants to hurt you or spy on you that is imbued with its own intelligence and autonomy than it is to outsmart a remote-controlled machine controlled by a far-away human that can only see so much ‘through’ the eyes of their mechanical avatar. While we may distrust the motives of the people who made our Amazon Echo or our iPhone, we generally don’t think that the object itself has bad intentions. Yet I often get the sense that people who distrust drones are imbuing the drone itself with bad motives or intent, because they suspect that the drone is capable of doing such a thing.
In another sense, our uncertainty about what drones are up to and how much they know makes us animists, leads us to anthropomorphize them to an extent that we do not anthropomorphize, say, our smart thermostat or our iPad. My drone is not very smart, but its blinking lights and what I interpret as its occasionally temperamental opinions about the conditions it will operate under lead me – even though I know better – to treat it more like a pet at times than like a tool. (I’ve certainly found myself talking to it).
Multirotor drones even move in ways that suggest living objects, more like darting hummingbirds than like conventional aircraft. When I’m bringing my drone in for a landing, it hovers expectantly in front of me: it is an object, but it’s definitely not inanimate. The fact that drones move, too, is another source of distrust. Even if we distrust our Amazon Echo or our iPhone, they are un-moving objects that stay where we’ve put them. Drones, though – they move, and presumably might be able to do so without human input. Creepy.
So then, if drones are inscrutable: what can we do to make them less inscrutable, to make their motives more apparent? Time will certainly help, in that we generally become less frightened of technologies as we grow more accustomed to them. The development of systems that will permit the average person to get a sense of what a drone is up to – perhaps by pointing their phone at it to pull a “license plate,” or something of that nature – will help as well. Still, I don’t see this central ontological issue with drones as something that we are somehow going to fix, or explain away. They are human, and therefore we are going to have to learn to live with them.
We regularly drive from Boston to Southern Vermont to visit my partner’s family, up through the Green Mountains. The little two-lane road is deeply atmospheric, in that creepy Ichabod-Crane sort of way: it passes through a few little villages with economies that appear to be largely dependent on flea markets and small-batch artisan pottery. It was as we passed thorough one of these towns that I spotted the Patriotic Lobster, slapped confidently on the side of an otherwise mundane home. It was a wooden lobster painted in red, white, and blue colors, with a bit of rustic flair, the sort of thing you could imagine an old, half-blind lobsterman lovingly crafting in a shack. I had to have it.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find one. You can buy so many weird things in so many places online, but there is one thing you cannot buy online, and that is a hideous red-white-and blue lobster wall-hanging that I can offend my neighbors with. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I think about stealing that Patriotic Lobster, right off the side of the house: I imagine creeping up in a ski-mask and snatching it, then vanishing into the night. I could also, I guess, knock on the door and offer to buy it, a roll of $20s in my hand. (I don’t know what the market value of a wooden Patriotic Lobster is, but it’s priceless to me). But no. I won’t steal it, and I won’t buy it, either. I don’t have the heart, the ruthlessness, to deprive someone of their own horrible lobster.
I have to keep looking.
While I haven’t found my very own Patriotic Lobster, I have found lots of other patriotic lobster products. So many that I could probably open up my own highly specialized boutique. Flags. Clothing. Onesies for children. Semi-tasteful wall hangings (which are, obviously, not what I’m searching for). Some even featured crabs or shrimp or crawfish. But the vast majority centered around lobsters, proving that Americans surely must consider lobsters the most patriotic of our native sea-bugs. Lobsters have actually been linked to rah-rah patriotism before, overcoming their initial cultural status as dubious sea-bugs fit only for the tables of the desperate.
During World War II, the U.S. Government found itself with a hefty supply of surplus lobster on its hands, due to the collapse of the export market: the Fisheries Department put out an advertising campaign framing consuming the leggy beasts as an act of patriotism. A 1918 issue of Munsey’s Magazine (which is a danged good name for a publication) noted that it “is a patriot’s duty nowadays to eat lobster,” as a person who consumes less lobster must necessarily eat less pork, beef, and wheat. I also was able to dig up this postcard from early 1900s, which appears to be a French pun about Americans who, you know, ride gigantic lobsters about on the summer shores of Southern France.
But while there is a certain linkage between lobster and heady feelings of country-love, I don’t think this adequately explains the existence of all the patriotic lobster-crap you can buy on the Internet. What message are these object’s makers trying to send here, exactly? Does hanging a flag outside your home with a red and white blue lobster simply symbolize a smidgen of coastal pride, a fondness for lobster rolls? (Which does not explain why one of these Patriotic Lobsters would show up in darkest, landlocked Vermont). Or does it really mean that you love America so much that you’d like to crack its hard exterior exoskeleton and devour the tender flesh within it? Do we wish to extract the essence of America and serve it with some drawn butter on a picnic table in Cape Cod?
God, I don’t know.
All I can say with confidence is that something lurks within the American psyche – within my psyche, I’ll freely confess – that makes us want to make and buy shit with festive red-and-white crustaceans on it. Come with me on a journey through the world of Patriotic Shellfish.
Your father always did have his lucky lobster-clutching-things collection of belts, for all evening occasions and relevant superstitions. A lobster clutching a Christmas ornament. A lobster clutching a shamrock. A lobster clutching a skull (for Halloween). And then there was this, for the Fourth of July. You hated that belt. Also, I am unsettled by the fact that this product is labeled as “‘patriotic pinchers.”
OK, but what does wearing a tank top with a patriotic lobster on it say about one’s heterosexual masculinity? Is it a straight-up expression of country-love, or sort of a leering joke? Who goes out and specifically orders this sort of thing? Have I just not spent enough time in Maine to understand? I would like to hear your theories.
This is another exceedingly masculine patriotic lobster t-shirt, except it’s a spiny lobster and not the more mundane, less dangerous-to-wrangle American Lobster, which are of course exclusively fished and consumed by delicate pansy wimp-boys. I’ve probably just entirely made up a whole macho rivalry around people who fish for different sorts of lobsters – but what if I haven’t? What if it’s real?
My Patriotic Lobster has taught me this: Americans are absolutely ecstatic over the possibility of dressing their offspring in patriotic crustaceans. I find it a bit tragic, in a way. Why is it assumed that anyone over the age of 10 must surely have too much dignity to adorn themselves in a bunch of nationalistic sea-bugs? Perhaps I too would enjoy a summer swimming set with color-coordinated lobsters. You don’t know me.
If you’d like your little boy to adopt an air of masculine, casual coolness to the world – set him on that path towards success – then you must dress him in inspiring Patriotic Lobsters. I guess this is a thing, for some people.
A number of different outfits sell this patriotic lobster garden flag, which leads me to believe that an actual human being – maybe multiple human beings – has bought one before. I will probably do the same. It calls to me.
This is the best thing I found, of course. It’s an actual, living crawfish that was born patriotic, rendered that way by the semi-benevolent hand of human selective breeding. While I can’t exactly stick it on my wall (that would be mean to the crayfish), I could absolutely buy one of these beauties, put it in a tank, and make all my friends admire it whenever they come over. But I would also have to keep it alive, which is a bigger responsibility than just owning some terrible art. My search will probably continue, but I’m glad to know this guy is at least an option.
I found out about Narisawa a while ago on one of those Best Restaurants in The World For Terrible Snobs websites. I’d been looking for high-end restaurants in Tokyo for our upcoming family trip, and was struck by a picture that appeared to show people eating a mossy chunk of bracken in the forest. It was actually a picture of one of chef Yoshihiro Narisawa’s better known creations, named “The Essence of the Forest,” featuring scattered local ingredients meant to resemble the forest floor, as well as a bamboo cup of purified, oak-infused water from a forest spring. Narisawa explicitly wanted to make his high-end diners scrabble for little tidbits through leaves on the forest floor, like a foraging badger.
I read more about him, and was charmed by his down-to-earth reliance on local ingredients, and self-confident (but well-considered) weirdness. He calls his food “Innovative Satoyama”: the word “Satoyama” in Japanese refers to the liminal zone between mountainous foothils and the flat land where most people live. Narisawa interprets this term as a reflection of human coexistence with, and proximity to, nature and natural ingredients. The food the restaurant serves is meant to be a visual expression of these values, something he describes as “Satoyama Scenery.” I wanted to see what it was that he was talking about, and also, I just wanted to eat that fucking forest bracken. Luckily my family did, too.
Narisawa has two Michelin stars and has been getting a lot of press recently thanks to Chef Narisawa’s recent appearance on that “Final Table” show on Netflix. Reservations can be a challenge, both due to its popularity and the fact that there’s only one dinner service a night. They do mercifully open their reservations up to a month in advance, freeing you from having to make concrete dinner reservations a year out. The restaurant is located in central Tokyo, in a pretty modernist building, with an entrance that faces away from the street and towards a small garden. The dining room is fairly austere (as is often the case in fine Japanese restaurants), because the focus is meant to be on the food, as well as on the open picture window that shows the chefs darting around the kitchen during the dinner service
The lighting was excellent, which I appreciate. So many of today’s nice restaurants have dank and forbidding lighting. If I’m going to do an many-course tasting menu at a place like this, I really like it when I can actually see the food. The lighting also made it very easy to take nice-looking photographs of the food, which may even be intentional – without asking, the servers would cheerfully tilt dishes towards my iPhone camera so I could catch a better angle. How vindicating! Chef Narisawa was there in the kitchen, overseeing the dinner service (we watched through the window), and he in fact came out to say hello to us and to ask us if we were enjoying the food midway through our meal.
We arrived for the earliest seating, and behind us were a group of Americans who we were pretty sure were from a band, except none of us were cool enough to know who they were. We’d picked the middle option for the tasting menu, which came out to a dozen courses focused on different Japanese ingredients and regions of the country. The menu is variable and extremely seasonal: we were eating the “Winter Collection,” which differs markedly from what you might be served during other times during the year. . One of us selected the wine pairing, and one of us selected the sake pairing as well: the wine pairing featured exclusively Japanese wines (which were pretty good, but the sakes, unsurprisingly, are better). The sake selection is truly remarkable, and I enjoyed trying varieties I’d never heard of before.
Here’s the “Satoyama Scenery and Essence of the Forest.” The forest bracken on a plate! I loved this. They encourage you to eat this with your hands, much to the horror of some of the usual jerkholes on TripAdvisor. I didn’t actually lick the plate, but I probably could have, if I really had no sense of shame.
This was followed by Japanese Yam from Saga and Botargo from Fukuoka. This was served hot in a sheet of paper, and we ate them fast, which is why I don’t have a photograph. Our waiter told us the dish was meant to evoke the handheld wintery street-food of the chef’s youth. It was a surprisingly delicious, comforting bite, with the fishy quality of the roe matching nicely with the dense, carby yam.
These are skewers of soft-shelled turtle from Shizuoka, brushed with a light teriyaki sauce and with just a bit of buzz from the Japanese equivalent of Sichuan peppercorns. “You are fine with eating turtle?” the waiter asked us at the beginning of the meal, just in case we were turtlephobes. (We were not. We hail from New Orleans, where we take angry, hissing bog turtles and turn them into refined soups).
This was a turnip from Shizuoka was filled with crab from Hokkaido. This was the best turnip I’ve ever had. It made me want to eat more turnips, except I know very well that any turnip I cook will not be filled with butter and Hokkaido crab. All my future turnips shall pale in comparison with this perfect, Ur-Turnip. My turnip life has peaked.
Spanish mackerel from Yamaguchi was served with mixed grains from Gifu. Like the finest high-end breakfast cereal you’ll ever taste. Some unnoticeable detail with the sauce was wrong on my plate, so the waiter apologized profusely and brought me a new one (I hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, so I didn’t ask). Impressive!
This is rosy seabass from Ishikawa served with kombu (seaweed) from Rebun Island off Hokkaido.
Free range chicken from Shizuoka with wild mushrooms from Hokkaido. It is a known thing that a very good restaurant that dares to have chicken on the menu will make exceptionally good chicken. By their chicken, ye shall judge them.
This langoustine hails from Shizuoka and was part of a dish named “Luxury Essence 2007″: the crustacean is served in a truly remarkable broth, which apparently is made from chicken, pork, and ham. It is now among the Two Best Langoustines I’ve Ever Eaten. The first was a langoustine I ate back in 2009 at Extebarri, the famous Basque all-grill restaurant. Eating that was like being punched in the front teeth by a delectably smoky mantis shrimp.
The Narisawa langoustine was totally different from that langoustine, much more subtle and aromatic, but it was equally sublime: eating it was more like being gently caressed by a mantis shrimp. I dismembered my langoustine with extreme throughness. It died for my sins, after all. I also dismembered my mother’s langoustine, as she is not nearly as committed as I am to digging for very tiny pieces of meat inside of multiple layers of hard chitin. I ended up with a fairly large boneyard of langoustine parts on my plate, and a profound sense of happiness with the world, in that particular moment. (How many good langoustines does one life get, I wonder?)
This was eel from Aichi with fresh wasabi from Shizuoka. The eel was delicious, although at this point in the meal we were starting to flag, and it was just a little dry.
This was the piece de resistance, the biggest fanciest thing: the “Sumi 2008” Kobe beef from Hyogo, which is served to you as a gigantic carbonized thing that looks like a space rock from Planet Zarg that might be cursed. It is the most delicious cursed alien space rock you will ever eat. The black charcoal on the exterior of the meat is carbonized leek. I looked up a recipe for the carbonized umami leek dust and I’m pretending I’m going to try to replicate it someday.
The beef was sliced and served to us with a single piece of steamed taro, and a drop of an extraordinarily densely-flavored reduction sauce, with notes of soy and vinegar.
A strawberry from Fukuoka was served with deliciously light magnolia sorbet from Gifu. Intensely essence-of-strawberry flavored here – I loved it. Japan does strawberries much better than anywhere else.
Finally, we were served whiskey ice cream in a whole pear (like the turnip!), with walnuts from Yamagata. The waiter politely told us that we shouldn’t eat the walnuts. I bet they’ve had some fucking guy at Narisawa before who shrugged and tried to eat the walnuts. Tragedy ensured. Christ, don’t eat the walnuts. Please. One of my walnuts rolled on the table, because I am very clumsy and bad at eating, and I had another thought. About the walnuts. Has someone, some déclassé couple perhaps, got into an actual hissing and spitting fight here, right at the point that the walnut course is served? Has anyone yeeted a whole entire walnut at their spouse’s face at Narisawa before? I hope they haven’t, as the restaurant is so nice and the staff are so nice, but you have to wonder, when a place serves people who’ve gone through six or seven wine pairings little hard projectiles on a plate.
Finally, we ended with some subtle tea cookies made with yame matcha from Fukuoka and Azuki beans from Kyoto. Our meal at Narisawa was incredible, and it was interesting as well. Interesting is the highest compliment i can give a restaurant: I mean that it is a place that works with local ingredients that I have never tried before and does things with them I have never experienced before. It is a perfect way to sample the flavors of Japan at a restaurant that is actively engaging with modern, international food culture.
When I can’t sleep because I’m jet-lagged, I like to go for a walk, particularly in those early-morning hours before the streets fill with people. By 6:00 in the morning in Tokyo, I was wandering around the Shiodome area trying to figure out where the 7-11 was. I had two reasons for this: one, 7-11 stores usually have international ATMs, which are otherwise hard to find in Japan, and I needed to pull some cash. Two, I wanted to buy some novelty potato chips and an energy drink as a precursor to the hotel breakfast. I took the convenient, High-Line-esque above ground walkway from my hotel to the Shiodome Caretta building, a hefty half-moon shaped complex of shops and restaurants that theoretically had two 7-11s inside of it. It ended up taking me about 20 minutes to figure out how to actually get inside the building, but I did.
The 7-11 was everything I had been promised it would be. I’ve been to really good 7-11s before – Bangkok does them particularly well – but Japanese 7-11s are the OG, based in the country that had truly created the unskeezy, gourmet 7-11 concept, taken it from mysterious rotating hot dogs to a beloved phenomenon. (While 7-11 was founded in Dallas and still has headquarters there, the Japanese have owned the chain since 2005).
I looked happily at the pretty rows of triangle-shaped rice balls, tonkatsu sandwiches, and pre-prepared pasta carbonara bowls, fresh noodle salads, and nigiri assortments, and selected a crab-and-mayo filled nori roll. The potato chip aisle was even better, with everything from cheese-and-cod filled variants on the inferior American Combo to caffeinated chewing gum, whole dried crabs, and strawberries coated in mochi: I settled on freeze-dried potato wedges with mayonnaise. I should probably note here that I absolutely love mayonnaise:I am one of those Mayo People who goes through a thing of Kewpie mayonnaise approximately once a month. If you’re one of those poor, weird souls who can’t stand the stuff, you may want to tread carefully in Japan. Because they put it on or in everything here.
I returned to the hotel to meet up with my partner. The Villa Fontaine hotel breakfast was lovely, although I’d pregamed as mentioned above and didn’t eat much. Japanese breakfast buffets usually feature a nice salad bar, which I appreciate deeply and wish was more of a thing in the US. There was also beef Japanese curry, Japanese omelette (tamago), natto, rice porridge with fresh octopus and other toppings, Western-style bacon and eggs, and a selection of Japanese sweets.
We met up with my parents, and we collectively decided that we’d make our way towards the famous Meiji Shrine, after which we’d head towards Harajuku. My mother had wisely purchased Pasmo cards for all of us at the airport, which are refillable smart cards that can be used for a wide array of travel services, including buses and trains (and even some shops). After some initial, inevitable confusion over which line we should get on, we were on our way. As Boston-dwellers, my partner and I marveled at how much nicer the Tokyo trains were than our gazillion-year old, mildly urine-scented T. While it is nice that we have some semblance of public transit in the U.S, I’m regularly reminded of how desperately underfunded and out of date it is whenever I travel abroad.
We got off at Harajuku station, but before we went to the Meiji Shrine, we needed to have lunch. I’d picked out a place called Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki, which is located on the third floor of a building on Omotesando Avenue, very close to the train station. We had to remove our shoes in the bamboo-lined entry of the restaurant, after which our server led us through the impressively quiet restaurant to our table, which overlooked the tree-lined street. Matsubara-an focuses on handmade soba (buckwheat) noodles and the snacks that accompany them: they have a selection of set menus from ¥1,500-¥3,810 at lunch time, which come with noodles and a selection of appetizers.
Our appetizers included some deliciously vinegary cold noodles, a bit of fried taro, tofu with preserved beans, and a few slices of cold duck.
We also tried the super-light vegetable tempura (some of the best we’d have on our trip) There’s a dizzying array of options on the menu, from soba with shrimp and squid tempura, to soba with fried eel, to hot soba with clams. I considered trying the cold soba, which I’m partial to, but it seemed somehow wrong in the depths of winter.
Three of us ordered the duck soba, which isn’t exactly commonplace on U.S. menus. We didn’t regret it: the super-rich broth matched perfectly with soft leeks (very popular in Japanese winter cuisine), soft and fatty duck breast, and a little bit of shungiku (chrysanthemum greens).
Suitably fortified, we walked roughly five minutes to the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, or 明治神宮, Meiji Jingū. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the departed Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken: The Meiji Restoration of 1868 that toppled the Togukawa Shogunate and restored Japan’s emperors to power was carried out in this Emperor’s name. The Meiji Period from 1868 to 1912 was a period of incredible change in Japan, as the nation industrialized and opened itself up to Western commerce and to Western technologies and cultural influences. Meiji’s reign also coincided with Japan’s two successful wars against China from 1894 to 1895, and with Russia from 1904 to 1905, announcing the arrival of Japan as a major world power to other wealthy nations. The Meiji shrine is sometimes confused with the much more controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which Emperor Meiji dedicated specifically to Japan’s war dead – including people found to be war criminals by International Military Tribunal for the Far East – and which is still favored by nationalists and conservatives today.
Emperor Meiji’s time may have been especially action-packed, but the Shinto shrine dedicated to him is decidedly not, at least if you don’t go there during the peak of sweaty, jostling tourist season in the summer. The shrine sits in the middle of a 170-acre forest park (which is attached to Yoyogi Park), and we found it to be a delightfully quiet departure from the buildings that surround it. When we arrived, the late-afternoon light was absolutely superb, painting everything in wonderful golden and green shades.
We walked through the huge torii gate at the entrance of the park (which is made of 1,500 year old cypress) and meandered up the forest path to the main shrine, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the few trees that still retained blazing-bright fall colors. We watched a few people who appeared to be some flavor of Instagram influencer take many, many supposedly casual shots of themselves posing in front of the huge collection of decorative sake barrels at the shrine. Sake factories from all over Japan contribute barrels here. I was very happy to spot a gigantic yellow and black Jorō spider in its web, which it had built in one of the lamp posts lining the walkways.
The main shrine is a reproduction of the 1920 original, which was destroyed by US air raids during World War II: this particular iteration was completed in 1958. The shrine’s 100th anniversary takes place in 2020, so there’s some renovation work going on in the area, which means that the treasure house building is closed. There’s also an inner garden area, which requires an entrance fee. We didn’t visit this because the light was fading, but I’d like to see it sometime, especially during the spring flower season.
The shrine itself was beautiful, but what we were most struck by was what appeared to be an intense crow civil war happening in the trees above it. Tokyo is absolutely full of jungle crows, which are hefty, 18-23 inch long beasts that are quite happy to make unblinking, fuck-you eye contact with you if you happen to walk by one as it’s tearing apart a badly-secured trash bag. Which I don’t mind, because I love crows. I deeply appreciate their incredible disinterest in taking human bullshit, and I’m fascinated by how eerily similar they are to us when it comes to both their personal habits and their intelligence.
It was getting dark by the time we left the main shrine, and the park was closing, as the loudspeakers arrayed throughout the park at regular intervals helpfully reminded us, complete with a very recognizable, gently-cajoling “please leave” chiming sound. So we did, walking towards Harajuku, because we figured we ought to see it. If you’re even vaguely aware of Japanese culture, you’ve probably heard of Harajuku before, a district of Tokyo that has become internationally famous as a bastion of weird fashion and particularly daring street-youth-culture styles. Harajuku first became “cool” in the 1990s, as colorful Japanese youth fashion became internationally famous, thanks to the efforts of talented fashion photographers and a media world increasingly fascinated by the prospect of an ascendant Japan. Tourists began to go to the area to gawk at groups of kids, while many of the kids in turn became justifiably annoyed at being treated like zoo animals dressed in exqusite gothic-Lolita attire (or whatever, there’s a lot of possibilities when you’re talking about Harajuku fashion through the ages).
What I am sure about is this: I am hilariously unqualified to ascertain if a certain area is actually cool, and I will make no assessments of the coolness level of Harajuku here, because that would make me look like an idiot. Our arrival at Harajuku lined up perfectly with the end of school, and the street was heaving with both high school kids dressed in uniforms and rubbernecking, ambling tourists, many of them eating enormous puffs of rainbow cotton candy with fuzzy ears and LCD lights stuck into it.
Attractive people dressed in maid outfits and extremely tight pants handed out leaflets for shows, maid cafes, and fashion sales. I browsed through a few boutiques, but I was starting to get tired already thanks to the effects of jet lag, and my heart wasn’t really in it, even if I do happen to love things like sweatshirts with creepy two-legged brains on them. We stuck our heads into a sock store to escape the crowds, and then we bought a bunch of practical, cute pairs of socks with little Shiba Inus on them. Being an adult is terrible, but, then, you also have warm feet.
We headed back to the Shiodome-Ginza area afterwards on the train, which had become a little bit more busy as rush hour began, but still hadn’t attained the nightmarish, sardine-like heights you often see on American TV shows about how exotic and weird Japan is. (It really isn’t). Daniel and my dad were going to go out with some of my dad’s former Japanese colleagues, so my mother and I had decided to go get sukiyaki, one of our favorite Japanese dishes, and something that is oddly difficult to get in the United States.
The hotel concierge had recommended Seryna, one of Ginza’s startlingly large number of high-end sukiyaki and shabu shabby restaurants. It is in fact located in the basement level of the Tiffany building, in case there were any doubts about what you’re getting into. We opted for the sukiyaki set that wasn’t made with ultra-high end Wagyu beef (complete with a birth certificate), just the regular, bog-standard Wagyu beef, which is still the best beef you’ll ever eat ever.
We began with a delicious stuffed crab appetizer and drinks. I ordered yuzu wine, which has a marvelously tangy, light flavor, and is very refreshing served over ice.
Sukiyaki is often presented as a pre-cooked meal in the USA, but in Japan, it’s cooked in front of you in stages. A very nice young woman in a kimono swirled beef fat in a cast-iron pot as the first stage, then began to put in a few slices of beef. This flavors the broth that the rest of the ingredients, including vegetables and tofu, are cooked in. She spoke some English: we mentioned to her that my parents live in Orange County. “Wow, Orange County?” she said. “I was just there. Visiting Disneyland!” (A lot of Japanese people that I spoke to during our vacation had recently visited Disneyland, in what I found to be an amusing cultural exchange. Jesus, is that the most exciting thing about the United States to non-Americans? Don’t answer that).
She passed the beef to our plates with tongs. It really was the most exquisite beef I’ve ever had. It melted in my mouth exactly like all the ad copy for high-end Japanese beef says it should. We also were given bowls of raw egg to dip the beef into, which I did: it’s a nice unctuous compliment.
At this point in the evening, the jet-lag was hitting me hard, but I was determined to finish this meal. Our server added vegetables – chrysanthemum greens and onions – to the cast-iron pot next, which took on an exquisite beefy flavor. This was alternated with beef, then tofu. It was a small portion of beef, but it was really all you needed. I was about to pass out into my rice bowl by the time we ate our last slice of beef, so we headed back to our hotel through the pretty, lit-up streets of Ginza, which had been decorated for the Christmas holiday. Well, I’d managed to stay awake past 10:00, anyway. That’s an achievement.
I’m doing a series of blog posts on my recent trip to Japan, over the Christmas holidays. Why? One: I miss travel blogging, and I realized recently there was nothing stopping me from doing it, beyond inertia and just sort of forgetting to. Two: Perhaps someone on the Internet will find this travel advice useful, and I’d really like to direct other people to some of the fantastic restaurants and places we visited during our trip. So, let’s begin with the beginning.
TOKYO: DAY ONE
I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, but despite living in Southeast Asia for years, I’d never managed to make it over before. When my parents suggested that my partner and I spend Christmas in Japan with them, I was thrilled: I also realized, to my embarrassment, that I really didn’t know shit about Japan. My Japan-centric knowledge before I arrived was a confused smattering of data on Japanese woodblock print landscapes, regional Japanese cuisine, beetle-fighting, half-remembered bits of anime shows from the 2000s, and errata absorbed from history books about other places in Asia.
My parents, who invited us on this trip, my dad had worked for a Japanese company for a number of years and had been many times, while my mother went for the first time as a kid back in the 1960s and has returned periodically ever since. My parents adore visiting Japan and have always spoken very highly of how pleasant, easy to get around, and (most importantly) delicious everything is. The one thing they don’t like about Japan is the fetid heat of summer time, and our end-of-December trip was perfectly timed to avoid it.
My mother had put together a classic itinerary for us. We’d start with a few days in Tokyo, proceeding to a hot spring (onsen) in the mountain-town of Hakone near Mt. Fuji. We’d then head to the ancient capital of Kyoto, and finish up in the industry-and-food town of Osaka. Thanks to Japan’s railway system, getting between each of these cities was easy, and we didn’t find it to be too compressed or rushed a schedule.
Traveling in Japan, for an American in a coastal city, is about as expensive as traveling in the US. The only inherently pricy thing about Japan for Americans is getting there. We bought our tickets early in the year, and we were lucky enough to book ourselves direct flight on JAL from Boston to Tokyo, a thirteen-hour long flight that passes over various beauty spots in Siberia. JAL was perfectly nice – as is the case, in my experience, with all airlines that aren’t run by my fellow, surly Americans – and I enjoyed looking out at the frozen expanses of Kamchatka whenever I got bored with watching violent comic book movies, of which there were so very many options.
When we began to descend near the end of the flight, I noticed a suspiciously conical-looking cloud out the window. Mt Fuji, or a suspicious cloud? The sun was in my eyes, but I kept glancing back at it, until the air became hazy and it became truly apparent what I was looking at. It was Mt Fuji, and we were landing at Narita.
Our flight arrived in the early evening, at 5:30 PM, and we had expected to meet my parents outside of customs. I figured out over the course of about ten very agitated minutes that we were actually in different terminals. Which brings me to my very first Japan travel tip, though it is in fact a very general travel tip, the sort you’d think I’d have memorized by now: figure out what terminal you’re in before you try to meet people at the airport. Daniel and I grumbled at each other and ran over to the bus between terminals, which deposited us at the stop for the shuttle bus to our hotels in the Shiodome area of Ginza. (Taxis from the airport are, I’m told, very expensive, and Narita is almost exactly an hour’s drive away from Tokyo proper).
Driving into Tokyo from the Narita side was not, I think, one of those great mind-blowing city entrances. I will never forget the first time I saw the glittering skyline of Hong Kong, approaching from the sea. But that’s deceptive. Tokyo is the biggest city on the planet, with 37 million inhabitants. We often assume that translates into it being a heaving mass of human beings, like Times Square literally all the time but with more vaguely dystopian neon lights. What many Americans don’t know is Tokyo is also a very spread-out city, and it is not nearly as dense as we tend to assume it is. Tokyo can be classified as a “low rise, medium density” city (at least according to this writer.
I was struck by this throughout my time in Tokyo. The city just didn’t feel crowded to me, especially in comparison to the other high-density megacities I’ve visited, like New York City, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Manila. I’m extremely familiar with that feeling of being squashed in the sweaty armpit of humanity while walking around in giant cities, and I’d sort of assumed that was what I was going to get in Tokyo: the truth was something much different, and more pleasant. Of course, we were visiting in winter, where there are fewer tourist – and cooler temperatures help with that perception of uncomfortable urban closeness. It also helps, as my mother pointed out, that much of the urban foot traffic and activity happens underground in the huge concourses and tunnels around mass transit stops, or on walkways elevated above the city. In American cities, even dense ones, most people tend to congregate or commute on the street level. This is decidedly not the case in Tokyo.
We were staying in the Shiodome area, which my father was very familiar with from his time working for a Japanese company. The district is very close to Tokyo Bay and to the old Tsukiji market area, and it’s home to luxury hotels like the Conrad Tokyo (where my parents stayed), and perfectly nice business hotels like the Villa Fontaine (where my partner and I stayed).
While the Shiodome area is indisputably an uber-polished business district where very few people actually live, it’s a great base for outward travel to the rest of the city, as the hotels are essentially on top of Shimbashi station. I enjoyed observing little snippets in the daily lives of the Japanese commuters trooping into their respective high-rise office buildings in the morning. I also liked exploring the Shiodome area’s vast network of underground shopping malls, restaurants, and tunnels, which connect many of the buildings in the area to one another and to the train stops.
Since we arrived in the evening, and we were swiftly experiencing the unpleasant knock-on effects of sitting in an airplane seat for thirteen hours watching “Deadpool” while growing uncomfortably sweaty, we defaulted to finding a quick bite to eat in the Shiodome area right by our hotel. We had a sampler of yakitori (chicken parts on a stick, done much more nicely in Japan than in other places I’ve been), a mysterious but tasty hot pot noodle dish, and ground chicken kebabs. We also each had a few highballs, Japan’s ubiquitous whisky and soda, which is available both from restaurants in convenient cans at the convenience store, and which I quickly became addicted to.
Tomorrow: we go look at some people eating curiously glowing cotton-candy in Harajuku, observe a crow gang war at the Meiji Shrine, and eat the platonic ideal of sukiyaki.
The Sicilian city of Siracusa used to be known as Syracuse, and that’s the name you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever read ancient history or sat through a class on the ancient Greeks. This ancient city was the birthplace of Archimedes, hosted first-run plays by Sophocles, and was the site of some of the more exciting wars in Ancient Greek history. Founded sometime around the year 735 BC by Corinthians (or so Thucydides says) it was likely named, not exactly glamorously, for a nearby marsh. Today, it is a beautiful and at times atmospherically-melancholy place—and there are Greek ruins everywhere. The place is lousy with them.
I drove into Siracusa from Taormina fairly early in the day, as I’d hoped to have lunch in town. While driving in, I was briefly stopped by Italian traffic police in their distinctive striped pants so they could ascertain I was not transporting any kind of contraband. They were pleasant enough to me, and I proceeded into the city, towards a public parking lot that was fairly close to my hotel. I had found a good deal on the B&B Nostos located in Siracusa’s newer city centre – it was only a short walk over a bridge from Ortygia island, the city’s ancient historical centre.
The B&B was a pleasantly modern and clean place (although the whole complex could have used some more outward facing windows) on the third floor of an ancient apartment building. I’d arrived at lunch time, and so I dropped my things off and headed right for the island of Ortygia, headed for lunch by the Mercato di Ortigia, the city’s old food market. Ortygia reminded me a bit of Venice, which is probably just an artifact of the Baroque-era style of many of the buildings and the fact that the entire thing is surrounded by water.
Sicily has this fantastic way with markets, in that they’re really good ones with lots of beautiful products and all the vendors yell a lot, but in that pleasantly fun way, and not in the way that makes you think they might want to kill you. They remind me of markets in Asia and that makes me happy. Sicilian markets never play host to a slightly bedraggled man wearing Crocs and an elderly tie-dye shirt plunking out Grateful Dead tunes on his guitar, which already makes them better than our markets. Siracusa has some excellent places to eat in the market area.
The Siracusa market has an extraordinarily famous sandwich shop called Caseificio Borderi. Which already had a line out the door at 11:30 AM, and I am, sadly, completely allergic to lines. I wondered if I should go wander around a bit and see if the line would die down. Then I noticed that there were a lot of people sitting down to gorgeous meat and cheese and seafood spreads, at a place with outdoor seating right next door to Caseificio Borderi.
This was Fratelli Burgio, another vendor of high-end meat, cheeses, wines, and preserved seafoods. I was quickly seated outside: I ordered the “terra mare” sampler, which included smoked fish, cold cuts and cheeses, and pickled vegetables. It cost 15 Euro, which actually seemed pretty reasonable for the obscene quantity of stuff – beautifully arranged stuff – that was plonked down in front of me. There was smoked white fish with radicchio, prosciutto with pepper relish, soft goat cheese with sun-dried tomatoes, salmon and pistachios, and God knows what else, I just ate it. With a glass of local white wine. Everything tastes better when it’s served on a piece of artisanal wood.
I had fed myself, and now it was time to go look at some old junk. I say this in a loving way, because I am one of those people who plan out entire trips – like this one – around looking at really old things that do not look anything like they used to 2000 years ago. The first stop on my tour was the Temple of Apollo, a gorgeous 6th century Doric temple which is conveniently smack-dab in the middle of Ortygia, right next to the high-end shopping street.
I suppose I should be horrified by this juxtaposition of crass mercantilism with this sublime, now-revived place – the most ancient Greek temple in Sicily – but, nah, no. I find it charming to see people living mundane, modern lives wedged right next to a gigantic pile dedicated to Apollo. I have so little patience with people who believe that everything beautiful and historical should be preserved perfectly as it is. It’s a tiresome hatred of worldliness that reminds of ascetic monks, except the people making these boring comments are usually Americans – just like me – who grew up in places where history doesn’t extend much past 1925.
Think about it: what if we actually did ensure that we kept all of our chain restaurants and cigarettes-and-magazine shops and worldly things a regulatory 100 metre distance or whatever from Ancient Wonders of the World? It is true that travel bloggers from California (like me!) would whine and keen less about everything being ruined, but it is also true that we’d have far fewer Ancient Wonders to be annoying about. The history of the Siracusa Temple of Apollo is a perfect example of this cheek-to-jowel layering of very old things with ever-newer things: indeed, places like Siracusa often are so fascinating because people have never stopped living in them, an unbroken chain of people doing annoying people shit, stretching from the Phoenicians to us, today, us poor slobs purchasing shiny sneakers from Superga. (Which I did).
The Siracusa Temple of Apollo was at various times a Byzantine church, a mosque, a Norman church, and then a barracks for Spain: by the 19th century, a notary named Matteo Santoro lived in apartment built over the temple. HI apartment walls were reportedly built in part from the Doric columns of the ancient temple., and tourists would ask to be let in to look at them. Eventually, the Municipal Antiquities and Fine Arts Commission decided to demolish the apartments and restore the temple.
The temple had remained surprisingly intact through all these years of conversions, and it is now easy today as a tourist to assume that it had always looked pretty much like this throughout the centuries, nobly moldering away as the rude activities of mercantile life went on around it. But that’s a modern illusion. It’s unlikely that this temple was ever not surrounded by scenes of crass mercantilism. We tend to think of ancient Greek forums as places of lofty political debate, but they were actually devoted in large part to buying and selling crap, just like market squares are used in some places today. You probably could buy offensive penis-shaped souvenirs to give your stupid friends close to this temple during the time of the Romans – who were really big on penis-shaped souvenirs.
I came up to the ticket booth, paid my entry fee, and walked into the park, headed first toward the Roman amphitheater. The park is covered with a forest of Mediterranean pine trees, which smell pungently fresh, and which rustle beautifully when the wind blows. October is the off-season, and (like everywhere I went), I mostly had the ruins to myself. Which was a wonderful thing.
It’s an immense luxury to be able to wander around ancient Roman and Greek ruins in perfect weather alone: also a little sad, in that Ozymandis sort of way, with all those huge white limestones, crumbling into nothing. The Roman amphitheater is reasonably well preserved, but there hasn’t been much maintenance or weed-pulling done on it lately, although this adds to the ambience. There are a few signs, and you can see where the wild beasts were held before gladiator fights, where the grandstands for the fancy people were, the usual trappings of a Roman amphitheater.
Close to the Roman ampitheatre is the Altar of Hieron II, which was once used to sacrifice bulls to the god Zeus. There isn’t as much left to see here as elsewhere in the park, but you can get the gist of how huge this platform was. Supposedly up to 450 bulls were slaughtered here at one time, which does stick me as excessive.
I then walked through the pines to the 5th century Greek theatre, which really does resemble whatever you probably have in your head when you contemplate “Greek theatre.” It was famous back in the day – Arschylus premiered “The Aitnan’s here sometime around 456 B.C (a lost work), and probably staged “The Persians” (which survives) here as well.
Like many Greek theatres, it’s set in a place with a particularly panoramic view. It was one of the largest theaters in the Greek world, and Greek plays are still staged here. The Greek theatre festival here lasts from mid-May to the end of June and is a particularly well-known event: I’d like to attend some time. From 1526 onwards, the Spanish under Charles V mined the place to reinforce Ortygia’s foundations, as is the case for many ancient monuments: still, plenty remains. It’s a nice place to sit, maybe have a snack, and contemplate the universe, especially if there’s a breeze going.
Behind the theatre lies the Grotta del Ninfeo, an artificial cave carved into the Temenite Hill that contains the theatre. It used to contains statues dedicated to the Muses (which you can see in Siracusa’s excellent archaeological museum): a fountain that still runs here was devoted to the Greek cult devoted to nymphs. Thus the name “nymphaeum” – a commonly used name for attractive fountains in the ancient world that might theoretically contain a nymph. If nymphs were actually a thing. This might have been the location of an ancient “Sanctuary of Muses,” perhaps where the actors in the theatre would hang out and make the requisite offerings (or, who knows, gossip and drink wine) before they went on stage.
Finally I walked towards the quarries, known as the Latomie del Paradiso., which translates to something like “latomia = stone cut ; paradise = garden, park.” (Or so this source says). It’s a pretty name for quarries that were likely cut by miserable Athenian prisoners of war, after Athen’s spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to capture Syracuse in the year 413. Walking here felt a bit like walking into the pleasantly menacing den of some sort of ancient forest spirit, what with the thick, drooping trees and the weird, not-entirely-natural hollowed out white shapes of the rocks around me. The quarry stretched away into a small valley, which had been planted in modern times with groves of citrus trees, and a floral, sweet smell of lemons and rotting leaves hung in the air. It was getting to be later in the day, which always has its own air of weirdness to me – what if you get stuck out there, or something, could something get you – and this created a nice sense of frisson.
I quickly came upon the Ear of Dionysus, an immense dark slit in the white limestone. Caravaggio – yes, that Caravaggio – named the cave this because he thought the place looked a bit like a human ear, which I guess it does if you squint at it. The name stuck in particular because of a story claiming that the famed tyrant Dionysus I had a habit of crawling up into the cave to spy upon his many unhappy prisoners, who were forced to quarry rock out of the place: he could rely on the acoustics to hear them inevitably trash-talking him. And then he’d have them executed. This seems like a really convoluted and inefficient way to torment people, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Another theory says that he was just really into listening to the amplified screams of people being tortured. But, hey, the cave really does have remarkable acoustic qualities.
Pretty much everyone goes to the very (dark, spooky) end of the Ear and yells to see how it works: I didn’t do this because I hate loud noises and human joy, but some other couple did and I was duly impressed at how the sound carried. What is perhaps most strange about this cave to me is that sources still manage to disagree on if it is natural or if it was carved by the aforementioned unhappy slaves. Someone should probably sort that out.
Next to the “Ear” is the now-walled off Cave of the Cordari, which apparently used to host a thriving guild of Sicilian rope makers. You can’t go in anymore, possibly out of fear of something falling on your head, but it’s atmospherically creepy to look at.
On my way out, I met some excellent cats.
For dinner that evening, I wandered towards the Piazza Duomo, which is sort of obviously named for the Duomo di Siracusa, a 7th century Catholic cathedral. The cathedral was built right on top of the 5th century Greek Temple of Athena, to commemorate the tyrant Gelo’s victory over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera. Cicero described the plundering of this temple by Gaius Verres – a noted asshole – during his tenure as praetor of Siracusa from 74 to 70 B.C. You can still see the Doric columns embedded into the church walls.
I had a serviceable (albeit not incredible) sausage and broccoli rabe pizza at Ristorante La Volpe e L’uva on the square, with a view of the ancient Doric temple – a nice bit of ambience. Then I wandered back to the B&B Nostos. I would be headed for Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples in the morning.
Where I Stayed in Siracusa:
Corso Umberto I, 66, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy
This modern, newly-renovated B&B is on the upper floor of an apartment building in downtown Siracusa, across the bridge from the old city center. It’s an easy stroll from here to the citadel area, and it’s also easy to walk the other direction towards the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheater, as well as the museum. The rooms don’t have any kind of view – the windows open up onto the buildings outdoor courtyard, mostly – but I found it very comfortable and quiet, with a good breakfast and friendly staff.
I wrote for Foreign Policy about how consumer drones are much better at terrifying people than they are at killing them – and why it is important that we recognize this.Read it here.
“The camera shook with the sound of an explosion and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro looked up, confused. Guards swiftly surrounded him with protective shields; soldiers in the military parade he was addressing scattered for cover. So did everyone else around him, reacting to the sound of a nearby explosion from the sky. Maduro and the Venezuelan government say—and video evidence seems to confirm—that someone tried to attack him with an explosives-laden consumer drone, likely made by Chinese drone manufacturer DJI. Open-source reporting organization Bellingcat and other investigative outlets agree that the attack involved drones, despite early reports claiming otherwise.
There have been fears for years that commercial drones would be turned into deadly weapons. But was this their coming-out party, the incident where death-by-drone moves from the military into the hands of terrorists and assassins? I don’t think so. Neither does European Council on Foreign Relations policy fellow Ulrike Franke, who told me: “To put it bluntly, I don’t think that this was the event that changes the view of smaller commercial drones from good to bad.”
Supposedly Boston is known for free speech: the sort that leads to epoch-altering revolutionary wars, fancy tea getting dumped in harbors, and the occasional massacre. Perhaps that is why the organizers of this summer’s two Boston “free speech” rallies chose a notoriously Democrat-leaning city as their venue. Perhaps it’s because organizer Daniel Medlar is an early-twenties kid from Boston with a distinctly limited understanding of both his surroundings and of basic optics.
Regardless of the reasons: there have been two “Free Speech” rallies in Boston since the start of 2017, one on May 13th,and the other on August 19th. One was very small and you probably didn’t hear about it. The second was very large and you almost certainly heard about it. I went to both of them to observe, out of both a sense of documentary responsibility and the same perverse instinct that compels children to turn over moldy logs in the forest.
I want to write about both rallies because I think that what happens at the first represents what the organizers had naively assumed would happen at the second. That is because Boston largely shrugged at the first “Free Speech” rally: it was a tolerance of right-wing loonies that would not persist after Charlottesville ripped away the fig-leaf of peaceful disagreement from the alt-right once and for all.
The First Boston Free Speech Rally: May 13th:
The first “Free Speech” rally was held on May 13th, in the middle of an unusually cold spring. The organizers had chosen the vaguely-Grecian-if-you-squint Parkman Bandstand on the eastern side of Boston Common as their venue, and had optimistically declared that it would run from 12:00 PM until 5:00 PM. The Free Speech ralliers milled around in brightly-colored packs around the bandstand: a walking path separated the stretch of land they occupied from Flag Staff Hill and the Soldiers and Sailors monument, which black-clad antifa protesters had arrayed themselves around. Boston bike police officers in bright yellow jackets stood in a tight line on the walking path, presenting a human-and-bicycle shield for the protesters in case anybody got particularly restive.
The Free Speech Rally was organized in part by actual high schoolers, including one Steven Verette, who proudly told The Daily Beast that the idea for the event had “originated on 4Chan’s /pol/.” (The oldest organizer was, apparently, the advanced age of 32). The organizers were youthful, but they had still managed to attract a half-decent slate of big-name alt right stars, or what passes for a star on the nasty bits of the Internet. The biggest-ticket name was Based Stickman, who is actually Kyle Chapman, who is actually a thrice convicted felon from California best known for beating anti-Trump protesters in Berkeley with a leaded stick. There were the Oath Keepers, a virulently anti-government organization that was founded as a direct response to Barack Obama’s election in 2009: largely comprised of former military and law enforcement officers, they are particularly fond of showing up as self-appointed and often distinctly unwanted armed guards for people they decide they like. They claimed on their website that they had “been asked to assist with security” and would coordinate with other alt-right groups to “ensure the safety of the event from several terrorist organizations.”
There were dewy-faced high school boys and college freshmen with hand-made “Kekistan” signs and red Trump caps: one held his sign up for me to photograph like a beaming 3rd grader who has just drawn a somewhat serviceable picture of a giraffe. A number of protesters had showed up with crash helmets, gas-masks, goggles, body armor, and other tactical gear, as if they were preparing for a pitched machine-gun battle in Fallujah and not for a mildly damp day in a verdantly green park in spring in Boston. One helmet-wearing boy showed off a hand-painted wooden shield with a slightly wobbly rendition of the Bennington flag, while another carried a shield with a bald eagle painted on it. Some people were waving the Japanese flag, for reasons I am too lazy to look up. Many people had appeared in camo, perhaps under the impression that it would make it harder for antifa to see them. A few men had showed up in full Centurion armor. (Did they just have it lying around? Did they buy it for the occasion? Was this armor set aside for dual LARPing and white supremacist protesting purposes? Does anyone have answers?).
A young and very skinny man in a purple greatcoat was holding a large wooden stick: he used the stick to guide a group of snickering alt-righters into some simulacrum of a military formation while he shouted, presumably as a show of organizational superiority to the shouting counter-protesters on the other hill.
“Man, I hate to admit it but they’ve got hotter girls over there,” I overheard one free speech rallier say to another, as they surveyed the counter protesters on the other hill. (I know this sounds implausible, like wishful thinking on my part, but I swear I actually heard it).
Off to the side were the Proud Boys, who emanated great waves of frustrated masculinity, in such quantity that I am pretty sure they could be be captured by any normally sensitive camera, perhaps sensed from miles away. The Boys were members of Gavin McInnes white supremacist fraternity, which is (I swear to God) actually named after a song from the Aladdin Broadway musical. It is meant to evoke a sense of chummy, supportive white male solidarity, and I guess that it is what these men to the side were up to, all these lumbering beardy men in baseball caps who shouted and hooted at each other in the same fashion as any group of thwarted male primates.
The Proud Boys were feeling very thwarted indeed. Despite the line of police in neon-green vests separating them from the counter-protesters, they hyped each other up as if they would, at any moment, bum-rush the police and burst through the line. “We’re going to take back that hill,” they shouted at each other, casting angry glances at the counter protesters on the other side.I later read social media chatter that indicated they and a number of other attendees were angry at the Oathkeepers for (apparently) holding them back from getting rough with counter-protesters and by proxy the police – which indicated to me that the Oath Keepers, for all their other flaws, at least had a sense of basic self-preservation.
Prevented from punching any liberal arts undergraduates, the Proud Boys occupied themselves with their central initiation ritual. Picture it like this, although you can also watch video. One Proud Boy stands in the middle of a circling of shouting Proud Boys, and then he begins to recite different, beloved brands of breakfast cereal. As he does this, the other Proud Boys punch him. He is supposed to name six different types of cereal before he gives up. “Frosted Flakes, Cheerios, Cocoa Pebbles,” he squeaks, as the Proud Boys rain not-exactly-ferocious blows upon him. “Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Wheaties, Froot Loops,” he continues, as his other Boys hit him. Sometimes there is giggling.
This ritual is then followed by the recitation of the Proud Boys oath: “I am a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” (This seems to imply that the assembled Proud Boys had personally discovered weaving, the printing press, thermonuclear physics, and the Internet, which I am reasonably sure they did not). They even have a manifesto, which you can read here, and which they take very seriously. It begins with ‘clear the area of all women,’ which should give you an idea of the contents to follow. They politely ignored me as I filmed them: maybe they assumed I was a fan, like the “Proud Boys Girls” who cheer on their men’s minimalist achievements on social media.
At one point, a young man with a scraggly beard walked swiftly through the crowd from the counter-protesters side, his head down. He was spotted, as he presumably walked towards the subway: the thwarted Proud Boys and a few other free-floating Free Speech Ralliers formed into a pack and circled around him hungrily. One Proud Boy acted as if he’d dump a cup of soda over his head, perfectly fitting all known stereotypes of damp-pitted and vicious lunchroom bullies. Others screeched “REEE” at him in ear-splitting tones, which is the sound that white supremacists on the Internet like to believe that both people with autism and “social justice warriors” make. The young man with a beard looked less afraid than he looked disgusted, or maybe disappointed, and he began to argue with them.
A few of the Free Speechers had a bullhorn, and they were attempting to carry their voices over to the counter-protesters on the other side with extremely limited success. “Your women want to sleep with us!” one guy with a beard in olive-green army fatigues shouted through an underpowered megaphone. Everyone cheered. The speeches began on the bandstand, behind an American flag backdrop. I did not stick around for these, in part because I knew they’d all be on the Internet anyway, and in part because I was much more interested in the anthropological weirdness of watching the alt-right tribes mingle than I was in the usual boilerplate about Taking Back Our Country and Western Chauvinism and Why Can’t I Use Racial Slurs When I’m Just Telling Lighthearted Jokes.
I had edged away from the speeches and was walking back towards the counter-protester side when I noticed a certain large Proud Boy with an orange shirt and a neon-green belt who had been creeping closer and closer to the line of police. I had turned my back when I heard a commotion behind me: a police officer was already twisting the Proud Boy’s arms behind his back and was preparing to cuff him. “He tried to punch that girl!” someone said by way of explanation: apparently he’d lunged over the cops and attempted to deck a female counter-protester, but she was able to get out of the way. I got out my phone and began filming as the police perp-walked him away. Later I cut it to the theme music from Curb Your Enthusiasm, at my boyfriend’s request, which perfectly captured the hapless look of *surprise* on the Boy’s face, as if the universe he’d been promised had suddenly dissolved beneath his feet and left him stranded.
The counter-protesters began to filter away in boredom. We did, too. Later, on social media, the free speech ralliers posted images of themselves standing on the hill where the counter-protesters had been, smiling and celebrating. “WE TOOK THE HILL!” said one caption. I suppose winning an ideological battle on the basis of simply boring the other side to death is a sort of strategy.
All told, the May 13th Free Speech Rally attracted roughly 200 participants and a smaller number of counter-protesters. The tiny baby organizers figured it to be a great success, on the basis of their exultant Facebook posts after the fact and the underwhelming numbers of counter protesters. They began feeling confident. They began planning for a second event on August 19th.
We got down there early, unsure of what to expect. There had been hope that the city would deny the event its permit, in part because an honest-to-God anime cosplay picnic had been scheduled for the same space at the same time – but the understandably spooked cosplayers dropped out, and the alt-right were able to appropriate the slot.. As we walked to the Common, we scanned for signs of right-wingers but saw no one who seemed to obviously fit the bill: no Trump hats, no Gadsen flags, no American flags inappropriately used as capes. Media trucks lined the Common. A tour guide in a large pink duck boat said “Yes, that’s where it’s going to happen,” then rumbled by again.
I assumed that the ralliers would mill around loosely as they did at the first event, but the Boston Police had other plans, plans that were obviously influenced by footage of the horror in Charlottesville. As we walked into the park by the Boston Massacre monument, we saw an intricate pattern of chain-link barrier fences: the police had apparently decided to fence in the bandstand and the free speech ralliers for their own safety, aware that keeping thousands of irate counter-protesters with a taste for fascist tears would be impossible.
Thousands of counter-protesters were expected, who had been rallied in large part by Monica Cannon, Violence in Boston, Angie Camacho and the Black Lives Matter Global Network in its Fight Supremacy Facebook event. Rally organizers had offered non violent direct action free training on Thursday and Friday at multiple locations. The early estimates of 20,000 counter-protesters proved to be a major underestimate: city officials would later estimate an attendance of 40,000.
By the time we arrived, many had begun to mass on the same hill the counter-protesters had used last time, except there were already vastly more of them. Another huge contingent of protesters, led by Black Lives Matter, were set to begin marching in from Roxbury by 11:00 AM. People joined us to lean over the fence and squint, looking for Nazis. “Is there even anyone there?” they asked each other.
The crowd grew and grew and grew from 10:00 AM onwards, and had turned into a large and rowdy summer block party by 11:00 AM. A huge swath of Boston humanity was represented, from some weird shirtless white guy with bulging veins doing one-handed pushups and growling “Fight me!” in the general direction of the Nazis to glittery pink drag queens with magic wands to bandanna-wearing Antifa clad in all black to a very large and very discordant array of musical instruments and speakers blasting mid-2000s emo music (for some reason). The Nazis served as hard-to-see entertainment – not that we could hear them, and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t hear us, beyond a distant, threatening roar.
We positioned ourselves on a hill and looked out over the roiling mass of shouting, largely cheerful humanity below us. I was taking a photograph of the crowd when I noticed a group of black-clad Antifa members moving in a line below me on the hill: I had just snapped an iPhone photo when I realized that someone had winged a mostly-full bottle of Polar Seltzer in watermelon-lime flavor at Antifa, overshot their target, and nailed me in the thigh. It only hurt a little (although the bruise would end up being impressive): I picked up the seltzer bottle, nonplussed, and looked into the crowd for the thrower, the person who had inflicted upon me the most New England injury I will likely ever have. But whoever it was had disappeared again.
There were some skirmishes when a very small number of foolhardy MAGA’s and Trump supporters wandered the crowd attempting to rile people up, but rally marshals and Black Lives Matter did a good job of crowd control. I saw one skinhead looking guy on the ground after apparently being punched, while a counter-protesting black woman defended him and told other people not to attack anyone. People who were angling for a fight didn’t get one, although there was a lot shouting and anger at the white supremacists, which is, after all, as it should be.
I noticed that some people were moving through the crowd, down the road between the hill and the field that sloped down to the bandstand. I put it together that the police were leading a couple of the right-wingers through the crowd and out of the park, right through the center of the counter-protest: people were following behind them as if the right-wingers were a particularly punchable ice cream truck. “Get the fuck out of here,” people shouted. “Fuck Nazis” people roared, collectively.
I joined the scrum, which pushed through the crowd until the police held everyone up for a second to give them some lead time – after about 30 seconds, they nodded and let us through again. Some of the counter-protesters began to jog and then to run in the direction of the police and the retreating ralliers. I began to run too, with my phone in my left hand – it looked like the police were headed to the gates of the park and to the street beyond it. I got out in front of the crowd and videotaped the two right-wingers, who were smiling nervously and pretending not to be frightened: one was wrapped in an American flag and the other wore a red newsboy cap and was wrapped in the bright-yellow Gadsen flag.
They made it past the green truck that was being used as a temporary barricade at the gate to the park, and the police hustled them through at a brisk jog – it appeared they were making for a white police van that was parked in the middle of the road. Another police van came screaming down the road and made a quick three point turn to block off one access point to the van. I was in the scrum of press and protesters as the guy in the American flag was stuffed bodily into the back of the police van by police, like a racist sack of potatoes. The van drove away quickly, and we all stood around, this former and now dissipating scrum, and appreciated each other. “Wow, I hadn’t done that in years,” one grinning news photographer said to another, mopping his sweaty brow. “That was fun,” a butch woman wearing black said to her girlfriend. We all smiled at each other.
That woman expressed the general feel of the day, which I can sum up as joyful release – and it was something I felt too. It was an opportunity, a moment for the quivering rebels to finally get a chance to score back. For these were 40,000 people who had since November been watching in powerless anguish as the Trump administration vomited upon American norms and pimpley Nazis stomped through the streets and the GOP ceaselessly attempted to take away relatives access to inhalers and cancer treatments. And then, just a week after Charlottesville, the proud fans of this stress, this horror, this fear, had decided it would be a good, an absolutely skippy idea, to parade around in an easily-accessible park with little wooden shields. Right smack-dab in the middle of a very Democratic city in a very Democratic state. We came out to meet them in anger, certainly, but in the great gathering of enraged people I do think there was a lot of fun, a sense of beer-drinking-in-the-park commitment to the great cause of frightening Nazis out of the public sphere.
We had begun walking back across the street and into the park when I stopped and looked up the road at the wavy, black blobs of a group of unidentifiable people approaching: were the other protesters coming that way. I began walking up the road, back towards the city: a few people who were counter-protest organizers were already running ahead of me, talking into their cell phones. “Yeah, the riot police are moving,” I heard one of them say: and sure enough, a big crowd of the riot police I’d seen standing around at the Au Bon Pain strode into view, decked out in body armor and holding billy clubs.They paused briefly and began walking in tight formation into the park. Were they coming out to extract the other right-wingers from their bandstand enclave? Were they going to empty out the Gazebo Full of Racists before the end of their appointed time? I began following them.
The “Free Speech” ralliers social media accounts from around this time indicate that a siege mentality had begun to set in, which strikes me as the natural thing to feel when you’re huddled in a gazebo with a bunch of your fellow racists and are surrounded on three sides by enormous numbers of people who think you suck. They seemed just as surprised as the Proud Boy was, when the police marched him out of the Common: they’d expected to be met unopposed, or at least met with light and easily mockable opposition, but they hadn’t expected this sheer mass of pissed-off Bostonians to sally forth on a pretty Saturday to tell them to go eat a dick.
The alt-right forum banter before the event involved a lot of tough talk about turning out numbers to intimidate the liberal weaklings of Massachusetts. It had not anticipated this. And so they decided to turn back, and had presumably asked the police to escort them out. They had lasted for a total of 40 minutes. Former Infowars “reporter” and PizzaGate proponent Joe Biggs Tweeted a picture of himself inside of the Parkman Bandstand: “We are huddled around in the common waiting to find out if we have police protection or we have to fight our way out. This is America,” he wrote. The photograph shows half of his face (worried, scrunched-up brow), and just visible in the distance, a fence with a huge mass of cheerfully fascist-rejecting humanity behind it.
At approximately the same time that the Free Speechers were begging to be escorted by police out of their Gazebo of Refuge, a huge contingent of marchers organized by Fight Supremacy arrived at the Commons: they had walked over from Roxbury, and they soon began to fill the Commons up, even more than it had already been filled. The police, I realized, had been sent out to escort the alt-righters out of the park, through the protective corridor that ran from the bandstand out to Tremont Street. I walked around the fencing and down to Tremont Street to what looked like the usual park maintenance entrance – all walled off – and joined the group of people peering over the iron fence.
We could see police vans lined up behind the gate, that presumably contained the frightened alt-righters within them. Police began to line up on Tremont Street, wielding billy clubs and standing in formation with their black helmets on and black boots, perfect fodder for dystopian photographs. I accidentally got too close to one of the police officers forming a human barrier around the entrance from the utility gate to the street: he wheeled around and snarled “Don’t startle me like that!”
I apologized and stepped back: soon enough, the gates opened up and, sirens flashing, the police vans drove through, surrounded on all sides by police protection. People followed the vans out of the park, yelling “Make them walk!” and other appropriate missives of love, and I followed. I was at the corner of Tremont and Park Street when I saw a black man on the ground, who was soon entirely surrounded by police, blocking our view. He was getting arrested for something: “I think he punched a cop,” someone speculated over my shoulder, but they weren’t entirely sure. No one was sure, but there was a man on the ground, on his face, getting arrested with the police blocking our view of it all.
The protesters showed no signs of dispersing. Next to me, two men were conversing: a white man in a t-shirt who seemed to have arrived on the scene only recently, and a black man in a green bucket hat. “Who chased off the Nazis?” the white man asked.
“Man, the whole city,” the black man replied.
It seemed over; I mean in that the dramatic climax of the Nazis being repelled off to their suburban dens had happened. But it wasn’t over. We’d walked to get celebratory drinks downtown, to get out of the heat and to stop sweating for a moment or two. Our chosen bar was on Temple Street: so were the riot police, wearing gas masks and black gloves. “What the hell is going on?” I asked a nervous-looking guy with swim goggles around his neck. (He’d been in Occupy). “Some people got tear-gassed down there,” he said, and by that he meant Washington Street, which runs parallel to Boston’s featureless downtown mall. “People were throwing rocks at police or something. Don’t go down there – they’re going to shut the street down.”
I debated going down there anyway, and advanced forward a bit, but I couldn’t see anything happening still. We decided that we’d get a drink at the bar on Temple Street, operating under the perhaps dubious logic that if a street-fight went down, we’d hear about it and be able to rush out and take photographs. So we had a couple drinks, and then we re-emerged back onto the street an hour or so later, and it still wasn’t over and everyone hadn’t gone home yet.
We walked all the way down Temple Street this time, towards the T, when we found a group of angry people gathered on Washington Street. They were shouting at a line-up of police in full-riot gear with gas masks on. Hanging out behind them was Boston Police Department Superintendent in Chief William Gross. “It’s your job to protect us,” a woman screamed in his direction. “These are our streets!” a man yelled. A skinny white kid wiped tears from his eyes: he’d been tear-gassed earlier and was attempting to flush out the poison with milk. I took his picture, and asked him if it was OK if I posted it on Instagram. “Oh, I’m also on Instagram!” he said, excitedly. We added each other.
Gross smiled and came forward from behind the line of cops, walking right into the crowd. He had gentle words for everyone. He behaved as the personification of a warm hug, your nice grandmother, a plate of warm cookies. He told everyone that he understood how they were feeling, and that he just wanted everything to stay calm. He was deeply complimentary. “You should be proud of yourselves, you all did this the right way,” he said, beaming, as if we were his children and we had just learned an important lesson by means of doing something understandably naughty. He described how Martin Luther King had spoken at the same bandstand back in the 1960s, a remarkable analogy, considering, and people nodded. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring enough doughnuts for everyone,” he cracked. The woman who’d previously shouted at the police ended up hugging him. People took photographs with him. It was an act of raw charisma.
As Gross benevolently worked the crowd, we spoke with a young woman and her friend, who had been there when the police started tear-gassing people. “I had to rescue this dumb old white guy,” she said. Apparently, he’d been taunting the largely non-white protesters, and they were about to attack him. But she felt as a black woman that they wouldn’t attack her, so she grabbed him by the back of the shirt in a sort of protective tackle and dragged the idiot backwards down the road, towards the T, away from danger. “They interviewed me on the news,” she said, contemplatively. She worked at Northeastern University and studied education, and we exchanged our information, mentioned getting drinks sometime: another meeting of professionals under slightly curious circumstances, as is the way of things for our particular millennial subset, in the year of our Lord 2017.
Almost to the T, we passed by a couple of reporters wearing flak jackets and helmets. Up against the wall, they were fiddling with their video cameras and adjusting their helmets, wondering if it was over yet. We assumed they were some easily-scared local reporters who’d hyped themselves up for something worse than this was. “Hey, what’s with the jackets?” one of us asked. “Oh, early Halloween!” said one of the men, with a fairly thick accent. “We’re Al Jazeera!” the other man said. “You’ve had a rough couple of months,” I said, thinking of the Saudi government’s ever-more aggressive efforts to shutter them. We fist-bumped each other.
“Isn’t it weird how cucumbers don’t have spikes on them anymore?” my partner asked me.
“Cucumbers don’t have spikes,” I said, as I picked up a cucumber from the vegetable display at Whole Foods. “Cucumber have never had spikes. I have never encountered a grocery-store cucumber with spikes”
“They do,” he insisted. “ Well, they did. The cucumbers definitely had spikes when I was a kid. “
We stared at each other. It was a moment of perfect generational incomprehension. I was born in 1988. He was born in 1982. And apparently, sometime between when he was a little kid and when I was a little kid, grocery-store cucumbers ceased to be spiky. Or did they? Was this one of those massively unsettling Berenstain Bears moments, a strange generational fillip in memory, something we probably shouldn’t speak of ever again?
I had to find out. The first step was, naturally, asking social media. My partner posted on Metafilter and received 18 answers. People who grew up in the 70s and 80s in New England and in Canada and in the UK said that they had no memories of grocery store cucumbers with spines. Someone in their late 40s did recall something like “prickers” on store-bought cucumbers purchased in New England, although the poster noted they were easy to wipe off with one’s hand.
The evidence was inconclusive and utterly unscientific – but interesting nonetheless. Apparently, if someone did remember encountering a spiked cucumber, they had to be at least over the age of 35. I do not agree with those tight-lipped middle-aged people who maintain that millenials have had easy and care-free lives, but I will admit that in this one, extremely specific instance, they are right: people my age have never accidentally pricked themselves on a supermarket cucumber. Most of us are in fact unaware that cucumbers have spikes at all, which is a little bit embarrassing, though I think not nearly as embarrassing as not knowing, like Baby Boomers, that college is much more expensive than it used to be.
We are so unaware of their true spiky nature that many of us are startled – shocked – when we grow them ourselves and are confronted with cucumbers bristling with spines. There is, I’ve discovered, sort of a mini-genre of advice givers telling younger gardeners that their cucumbers have not actually mutated. “Your cucumbers are perfectly normal,” a columnist reassured one nervous spikey-cuke grower on the ThriftyFun website in 2006, in the sort of tone that is typically used when you’re calming down a tween who is embarrassed by the symptoms of puberty.
But if we’ve sort-of established that the Great Cucumber De-Spiking took place somewhere in the 1990s, how was it done? And why? The “how” part is easy. The flawless green water-crunchers you see at the grocery store, stacked up in perfect lines, are another marvel of denatured marketing, just like artificially-ripened tomatoes and aggressively waxed shiny apples. Most of the cucumbers that you see at the grocery store are varieties that do have spines in their natural form. While there are spineless varieties, grocery stores don’t seem to prioritize buying them.
There are in fact a dizzying variety of cucumbers, vastly more diverse than the mundane pole and English cucumbers that are present at every American grocery stores. Unsurprisingly, some of these cucumbers have spines. Cucumbers are part of the Cucurbit family that is shared by melons, pumpkins, and squash, and they’re native to India and Western Asia. Gardeners have been cultivating and devouring them for approximately 3,000 years. According to the University of Missouri, ancient Egyptians would make a “weak liquor” by cutting a hole in a cucumber, stirring its insides up with a stick, then plugging the hole and burying it again. I’m sure some organic-food blogger will try this immediately, and I want to know about it if they do. I think.
Cucumber varieties are seemingly endless: there’s an entire Freaky Cucumber world out there to discover. (If you need a hobby). There’s the lemon cucumber, which does look eerily like a Meyer lemon, and the exceedingly long Chinese “Suyo Long” variety, which garden catalogs advise you to allow to “sprawl on the ground for circular shapes.”
Some cucumbers even sprout little hairs instead of spines: I firmly believe that an unshorn, hairy cucumber is way more problematic than a spiney one. Imagine biting into a *hairy* cucumber in a salad. Would you ever emotionally recover? (In case you’re desperate to have this experience, for some perverse reason, you can buy hairy cucumber seeds on eBay).
This dizzying kaleidoscope of cucumber varieties is often divided up into “pickling” and “slicing:” varieties. The “pickling” type, according to this source, are more likely to have spines than the slicing variety. You can see the “spine scars” on the skin of pickled cucumbers, which are larger than the spine scars left on the skin of cucumbers meant for slicing. Commercial cucumber cultivars all have either black or white spines: white spined cucumbers have a slow rate of development and stay green and supple longer than their black-spines counterparts, while the black-spines variety turn yellow faster but produce larger fruits.
Cucumber spines are properly referred to as “trichomes,” and they serve a number of functions if you are a cucumber, including protecting plants from stress, ultraviolet light, and asshole herbivores. Per a few scientific papers I found, Chinese cucumber-buyers actually prefer their cucumbers to have spikes, which means that our weird American preferences for smooth and denatured cucumbers are not the international norm. (Surprise!)
So how does one de-spine a truculent cumber, anyway? In the dark ages when Grocery Stores Cucumbers Had The Spines, you had to remove them before you peeled or pickled your cucumber – most people don’t want to choke their neighbors and loved ones to death on dangerous prickle-cucumbers. This can be done by running a sharp knife blade over the cucumber, or even rubbing them vigorously with a towel: the spines come right off, and nature’s defense mechanisms are defeated again.
But how is this de-spiking done on a mass scale for grocery stores? I found it bizarrely difficult to find concrete information on how grocery store cucumbers are despiked, and I suppose I’m in need of an assist from a good agricultural student. The long, slender shrink-wrapped English or “European Greenhouse ” cucumbers you find at the store barely have spikes to begin with.
The thick-skinned “American slicing cucumber” or “Pole” cucumber – you know, the nasty ones, bred for longevity rather than taste – are somewhat more likely to have spikes in their native state, although they still don’t have many. After they’re picked, they are washed and then sprayed with wax to seal in moisture. Here’s a video of the process.
One might assume that the constant jostling they’re subject to would naturally remove any spines that might be present on their leathery skins to begin with. Another video, which you should start at 0:28 seconds, depicts the spraying process that puts all that shiny and supposedly appetizing wax on your cucumber to begin with. It is weirdly mesmerizing viewing of the genesis of The Nasty Cucumbers.
(Now that I think about it, I have no idea why human beings find unnaturally shiny foods more appetizing – is being shiny-as-hell actually correlated with anything edible in nature? Or are human brains just bad at identifying what is actually food, considering that we’re really into blue food dye? I digress, but, seriously, think about it, it’s super weird).
So why did cucumbers at the grocery store start to get less prickly (in some locations), at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s? I’ve spent a few days combing the Internet and I am sad to report that I still don’t know. I can certainly guess that the grocery stores of 35 to 40 years ago carried different, or less uniformly prickly varieties of cucumber than they carry today. The “why” bit remains unclear, and I can’t find any Internet cucumber historians who could explain – but I know they’re out there, and I hope one of them writes me an indignant letter.
Another theory is “liability” – otherwise known as a cultural rejection of the romantic, dark danger of eating a cucumber that might make you go “ouch” for like a second if you grab it the wrong way out of the crisper. As someone called tripod2000 speculated darkly on a money saving forum, perhaps it’s because “the supermarkets don’t think we can handle prickly cucumbers.”
The student of history might theorize that cucumbers lost their spines at a time in American life when many things were being rendered safer, less dangerous, more boring. De-spiked cucumbers hit the market at approximately the same time as fun-yet-deadly metal play structures were being excised from playground, Lawn Darts were removed from shelves, KinderEggs were banned as a choking hazard, and parents started to really realize that trampolines are just highly-efficient neck snapping devices.
Maybe there really was some Patient Zero for the great cucumber de-spiking sometime in 1990, some kid – let’s call him Kevin – who picked up a grocery store cucumber, pricked himself, screamed as if he’d been shot, and eventually prompted his anguished helicopter-parents to file a lawsuit against Big Cucumber.
I could not find evidence of the existence of some stupid loser wimp like Kevin, so I’ll revert to the more likely explanation, which is that people generally didn’t want to bother with de-spiking cucumbers themselves. Sure, it takes two seconds to wipe off the spines. But that’s still time and energy that people in our ever time-strapped world would rather not exert.
Whatever the reason, the memory of a time when Grocery Store Cucumbers Had the Prickles is eroding, slowly but surely, from our collective memories in the United States. Us millennials like to garden: perhaps prickled cucumbers will come back in vogue as the next heirloom produce craze, signifying good flavor in the same way that they apparently do in China.
Perhaps we will all start getting really into hairy cucumbers instead (get your mind out of the gutter). Perhaps we’ll shed the green n’ long variety of cucumber all together and start consuming exclusively lemon cucumbers. We cannot know the future. We can only know the past: the past where grocery store cucumbers were slightly more dangerous than they are today.
When I was very young, my mother’s uncle from Kentucky convinced me that there were long-fingered creatures that lived in the dark in closets. They were called, he told me with great seriousness, garments, and they were definitely real. For years afterward, I would open closets and wonder if there really was some sort of lemur-bat like thing huddling amidst the outdated winter coats, or buried in the miscellaneous and unknowable sock box. By the time I discovered the boring polyester truth about garments, I was more impressed than anything else at my great uncle. It was a good bamboozling. He was also following a great North American tradition: entertaining and disquieting gullible children by telling them about improbable monsters. I was both entertained and disquieted, and I never stopped liking monsters.
I had one of those strange Proustian moments the other day: I was thinking about the Appalachian mountains in the context of something I have already forgotten, and then I remembered that I once had this book about the mythological creatures of North America, and it had made a peculiar impression on me, and – as is the way of these recollection – I desperately wanted to see it again. Not that I could remember the name of the book. I could just remember that it was, like all the children’s literature that is great, both interesting and unsettling, with just-too-detailed drawings, a tiny bit more of a surrealist tinge than is usual in books catering to the small. I did remember it had an animal in itcalled the Splinter Cat, and something about a HideBehind. Good enough for Google.
The Internet has made these incandescent, incessant childhood memories much more accessible than they used to be. I guess my elders must have had to resort to rummaging around in field markets in hope that something will jog their memory. Me, I go to the Internet Archive, where I found the book in approximately 2.5 seconds. It is called “Kickle Snifters and Other Fearsome Critters,” and it was written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Glen Rounds. It is a book of strange animals collected from American folkore, and while they are described as “fearsome,” that’s really an overstatement. There are a few actually-horrible creatures in the book, like the omnipresent and awful windigo, but the vast majority are more ridiculous than anything else. There’s the Hugag, a creature that leans on things to sleep, and the Kickle Snifters themselves, which reside in old men’s beards and only emerge when you happen to be getting tired. Schwartz describes the monsters in a distinctly un-straightforward, mysterious way, as befitting their nature. The book would have no magic if it simply straight-up described the monsters with detailed color illustrations and made-up biological statistics, as some children’s books on fantasy animals do. The book retained the sense of unknowable mystery.
Consider my favorite animal from the book, the sea serpent. Schwartz gives us a perfect two-paragraph long short story about it. There’s a professor, he’s picking plums (for some reason), and this creature emerges from the ocean. It speaks, for some reason, in English, and it feels wistful about things. It has retreated onto land, for some reason that we are not to know. It could be anywhere. It could be right outside your door. It might also be that you’d like to get to know it. This is not a sea serpent of a scary story: it is a sea serpent of a surreal story, which I always liked much better.
Schwartz and Rounds constitute a sort of dream-team of inappropriately creepy children’s literature, which probably explains why Kickle Snifters has so effectively installed itself in my brain. Schwartz is the deeply sick individual behind the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series. Gazillions of American children have have been successfully traumatized (and delighted) by these books since they came out in 1981. I was among those children who both loved and feared them, who’d stare for a long time at Stephen Gammell’s hideously detailed and tendriled illustrations of floating skeleton-children and dogs with human hands and face-erupting spiders: Schwartz was probably responsible for many children’s first visceral perception of their own fleshy mortality.
Knickle Snifters was not illustrated by the infamous Gammel, but in some respects, I found (and still find) Glen Round’s illustrations just as pleasingly unnerving, albeit in a more subtle way. Glen Rounds has one of those great 20th century biographies: he was born in a honest-to-God sod house in South Dakota in 1906, and then moved to Montana as a child in a covered wagon. Later, he worked as a mule skinner and a carnival artist (whatever that is) before he became a full-time children’s illustrator. He eventually wrote and illustrated 150 books, and while I have not read his entire oeuvre, it is probably more familiar to you, if you are of a certain age, than you might realize. His version of the 3 Billy Goats Gruff, with its aggressive, ascetic illustrations appears to have found its way into every elementary school library in the 1990s.
Rounds had a particular gift for drawing underfed and menacing animals: there are a lot of lean hound-dogs and scrawny ponies and bony-romped cattle in his drawings. Rounds also had a bit of a gift for the bleak, the desolate, which is probably the sort of thing that happens to you if you are born in a sod house in South Dakota. Anything that Schwartz and Rounds collaborated on was destined to get a little off-kilter: and so it is with Kickle Snifters. Kickle Snifters is in fact just one volume in Schwartz and Rounds series on American folklore and tall-tales. I haven’t read the others, but I’m half-inclined to hunt them down to see if the weirdness of Kickle Snifters persists.
Schwartz and Glen Rounds did not make up these monsters out of whole cloth. They are in fact part of a great tradition of disquieting children and greenhorns, the same tradition my great-uncle with the garments partook in. We can figure out some of the influences because Schwartz helpfully included a bibliography. The book largely drew from one great source: Henry H Tryon’s “Fearsome Critters,” a definitive guide to North America’s faux natural history, meant to preserve “various legendary woods varmints in some permanent record.” It also has unsettling illustrations, of a particular and charming turn of the century sketchy style. You can read the entire thing here.
Tryon claimed in his preface that he largely picked up his tales of horrible and unknowable creatures from woods camps. It was not that the lumberjacks really believed that they were at risk of being attacked by a tripod-legged, rock shooting elephant: rather, they were intended for “the puzzlement and temporary terrorization of some camp greenhorn,” in the exact same tradition as the garments-story my great uncle told me. Many of the creatures found in Knickle Snifters are here: the HideBehind, the Hoop Snake, the Hugag, the Splinter Cat. There are other, more-on-the-nose ones, like the Axehandle Hound or “Canis Consumens,” which runs off with a lumberjack’s favorite axe handle.
Tryon himself was just one of the faux natural history chroniclers of the early 20th cetury. Lanwood Sharpe’s wonderful “Lumberwoods” website has hypertext versions of other sources: there’s Art Childs 1922 “Yarns of the Big Woods,” and a book compiling 1913 accounts of The Marvelous Critters of Puget Sound from the Seattle Star’s writers.
So why did I, and why do so many people, like these false and not-so-threatening monsters so much? What is the peculiar attraction of making up ridiculous fake animals to mess with greenhorns and tourists and small children?
Stories about monstrous animals of dubious realness are certainly ancient and they are everywhere. There’s the aforementioned windigo, which shows up in the mythology of a number of Algonquian groups, none of which one entirely agree on what it looks like or what it does, beyond its extreme horribleness. We have the man-eating uktena serpent described by the Cherokee in the Southeastern United States, and the Athabaskan cannibal-ogre known as the Wechuge, and the Sasquatch, and the thunderbird. David D. Gilmore’s excellent “Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors” describes many of these not-real animals from many different cultures, and speculates as to why we’re so fond of them.
But most of these well-explored monsters are meant to be taken more seriously than those described in “Kickle Snifters” and “Fearsome Critters.” The monsters of Kickle Snifters who do things like hide in old men’s beards or make strange and annoying noises are largely not that dangerous, or they are dangerous in improbable ways – they’ll bite you on the leg and not let go for months, or they’ll make you bounce and laugh, or they’ll make weird noises at you. They exist in the realm of the surreal and unsettling and silly. If you made a horror movie about them, it would have to be a very stupid one. It would also be the best horror movie ever.
They largely are not physically described by the tale-teller: you’re supposed to fill in the gaps about what a goofus or a hide behind or a squidicum-squee actually looks like yourself. This is a story-telling trick that is particularly effective on children, and so it was with me: my great uncle did not actually describe what a garment looked like, after all. He merely mentioned that they existed and that they lived in the dark in the closets. I added in the stuff about the long fingers and the lemur-like appearance and enormous eyes myself. That was the fun part, although it was also the part that made me slightly terrified of closets until I hit third grade.
While the monster of Kickle Snifters and Fearsome Critters don’t really fit into the genre of horror and ghost stories, their unseriousness weirdness of these folk monsters situates them perfectly in the world of tall tales. Nancy Cassell McEntire defines tall tales as “an informal, fictionalized narrative, created out of increasingly absurd exaggerations that begin in the ordinary world and depart from it through hilarious descriptions.”
Brown emphasizes the importance of deadpan and the pretense of truth in these stories: the tale-teller had best be entirely sincere in their delivery, completely convicted in the belief that they came across a snake that folds itself up into a hoop. This does not meant that they actually believe it (which is how “bullshit” has been so famously described). It means simply that the humor comes from the fact that they’d like us to believe it. It’s BSing, but of a sort that is meant to be more amusing and good-natured than cruel or genuinely threatening. It is meant to do nothing more than to make kids mildly dubious of closets, not to paralyze them with fear.
Why tell these stories at all? Why this benign sort of lying? Story-teller Don Lewis, quoted by Carolyn Brown, thinks that the stories are “an attempt to make some kind of sense or maybe a joke or do away with a little bit of the threat of a disorganized universe.” This ppeals to children, who are faced with a world they do not understand and have little influence over. It also appeals to me in 2018, where I feel approximately the same with more tax obligations. May the Fearsome Critters persist forever. May we continue to harmlessly convince children and the gullible of strange and nonexistent creatures.