Making Amtraks

Posted by Cila Warncke

Union Station, LA

Union Station in downtown LA feels deliberately anachronistic, an amalgam of art deco and country-house library. It is cool, dim, discreetly curved; big tan leather chairs march squarely along the polished floor. All it needs is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s chattering undergraduates clutching long green tickets, or Lane Coutell with his cigarette and unadjusted muffler.

Trains operate on different timescales. Twenty-nine hours from LA to Portland is a languid reproof to modernity. All aboard. Get comfortable. The urgent coping mechanisms of rapid transport (inflight movies, car stereos, PSPs, magazines) are only partially applicable here. An 11-year-old wraps her little sister up, telling her to pretend to be asleep. They both leap up, balancing on the edge of their seats, watching the passing Pacific waves intently, after mum hands them disposable cameras. A much younger mother chats to her parents in English, breaking off to call her wandering toddler back: “Mami! Aqui!” Lengthy complaints from another parent when they discover the change machine in the “arcade room” downstairs (four worn-looking video game consoles) only gives tokens: “I don’t want $20 worth!”

The lounge car is a refuge for beer-drinking veterans and emo kids umbilically attached to their iPods. “They started being nice to us. That’s how we knew it was real. They weren’t yelling at us for once” — an ex-serviceman tells his drinking buddy, recalling the World Trade Center attack.

Downstairs, a middle-aged woman is scanning the drinks menu at the snackbar. “It’s hard to get high on a train, on beer. Something about the motion.” She orders a Jack Daniels, then adds, apologetically. “People think because I’m little I don’t have problems. But after five kids your little old body gets all kind of aches.”

Plump, glossy, brown-eyed Aly is on her way to Chico to sign up for a dental hygienist course. “I told him, ‘get out!'” she chuckles. “Then he came back the next day and said he was sorry, that he’d never had a serious relationship before. That was three years ago.” She is 19; her boyfriend, 22, is shy but a promising baseball player. Aly wants to move to Chico because it’ll give her mom time to miss her, but she’s worried about giving up her walk-in closet. “I don’t want them doing anything to my room while I’m gone.”

The dining car fails to nourish Casino Royale fantasies, but there are flowers on the table and a choice of cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Scott orders scampi and Diet Pepsi. He’s on his way from San Luis Opisbo where he was helping a friend with some building. Getting laid off from his job repairing heavy machinery in steel-processing plants has compensations, like the freedom to take off for a little fishing in Ensenada, Mexico. Someday, he’d like to go to Europe.

Jack wouldn’t. He has vowed to never again leave “the sovereign United States.” His Navy baseball cap shades sharp, Irish-blue eyes: “Americans are targets.” He also won’t return to his home state, Louisiana, because (lowers voice) “The white man is under attack.” Don’t rush to conclusions. Jack has been with his Chinese-American wife for 50 years and three children; has two masters degrees; his manners are impeccable. America — land of contradictions.

Amtrak Coast Starlight

Snow-dusted lakes. Rolling miles of dry, golden grass with the occasional oversized ranch house. Ferns curl wetly on the edge of evergreen woods. Surfers bob sleekly in spumy Pacific breakers. Darkness erases hours as kids pad stocking-footed along the aisles, a mother curls around her sleeping infant, couples sprawl intimate-awkward across their seats and sleepy slumped heads crick necks.

Twenty-nine hours is not half long enough to hear or guess at all the stories. Andrea trots up and down the dining car with trays of food, 13 years on the rails, four days on, six days off. Another waitress, much younger, flirts with the supervisor: “I brought my teddy bear.” He shifts heavily, tells her to go get her things. She’s changing at Salem. Sometime in the night a drunk passenger was met at a station by the police. “Be careful cleaning that room,” the supervisor tells someone. “Someone thought they saw a needle on the bed.”

The Coast Starlight arrives punctually: 15.37 (scheduled, 15.40). Passengers roll off onto the rain-slick platform. Sea-legged. All that’s missing is a man in an overcoat to scoop up my suitcase and offer his umbrella.

Ibiza – Cheap Eats

Originally published in Mixmag, summer 2009

Ibiza’s 10 best budget restaurants/snack bars/soup kitchens

1. Comidas San Juan, Calle de Montgrí, 8 – Ibiza Tel.: 971 311 603
They don’t take reservations and there’s always a queue. That’s because you can get a hearty meal, with wine, for under €10. Croquettes or calamari are a good bet.

2. Bon Profit, Plaza del Parque Ibiza Town
Don’t let the chic bistro vibe fool you. Food here is ridiculously cheap. Huge hunks of lamb, fillets of fish and hearty paellas all for around €6 a plate.

3. Jamal’s Bistro, C/General Prim 16, San Antonio, 971340117
Just off the West End, Jamal’s has a winning combination of classy looks, great food and alluringly low prices. It’s been voted the worker’s favourite restaurant.

4. Croissant Playa, Pais Vasco, Figueretes
The best breakfast/lunch/take-out place in Figueretes with amazing pastries, vast bocadillos and delicious homemade quiche. Works equally well as a breakfast spot or a morning-after comedown hideaway.

5. Casa Ana, C/. Ginebra 8, Ses Païsses (San Antonio) 0034-971 80 36 13Cheap With homemade pizzas, bacon cheeseburgers for under €5, roast chicken and take-aways Casa Ana is just the place to soak up the booze after a night on the town – or line your stomach before you get started.

6. Fisherman’s Kitchen, C/Madrid, San An10 971 34 57 72
All the stodge you need – but nicely made. Homemade pies, chilli, bangers and mash and lasagna will set you back around €7, a full English €5.50. Its sister bar down the road has wi-fi and TV sport.

7. Il Veccio Molina, C/Navarra, 12 Figuretes 34971305520
Gorgeous homemade pastas in huge quantities – €6 or 7 euros will fill you up quick plus cheap, decent house wine. It’s just up from the Figueretes taxi rank, making it easy to hop to your next destination.

8. Chill Cafe, Ibiza Town Via Punica, 49, Ibiza Town
Chill Café has internet, printers and a fax machine, making this the perfect spot to sort yourself out if you’re looking for work or want to catch up with folks at home. Great coffee, homemade baked goods, vast bocadillos, quiche and salads.

9. JDs, Playa d’en Bossa promenade, 971 307 062
Run by English expats Jo & Darren this popular beach-front hangout does everything from bacon butties to Sunday roasts to cheese & Branston pickle sarnies. It has wi-fi and a shelf of English newspapers and magazines to pass the time.

10. Can Joan, Playa d’en Bossa C/Murtra, 10, 971 30 66 93
Proper belly-filling fare but a cut above the plastic-chair-and-tablecloth competition. Homemade pizzas and pasta, paellas, grilled meat, and plenty of hearty breakfast options.

Tate Modern: Pop Life is Rubbish

Posted by Cila Warncke


Wheatfield with Crows

The view from the sixth-floor members’ lounge of the Tate Modern is spectacular. A cool sweep across Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge and the sludge-grey curve of the Thames. After that, walking through the ‘Pop Life’ exhibition is like touring a crypt: lifeless, rigid, ostentatious, dull.

There are scenes of a sexually explicit nature (in the demure phrase of the small black-and-white signs dotted around the rooms) but the only shocking thing about them is their banality. Jeff Koons aggrandising pornographic (self) portraits are faintly amusing only for the contrast between the unremarkable dimensions of his penis (photographed) compared to its heroic amplification in the accompanying sculptures. Around me, students scribble on notepads. Hopefully they’re writing: Jeff Koons = outsized cock.

Warhol, as ever in these tributes to shit-for-brains interpretations of post-modernism, has pride of place. One whole wall devoted to tiresome screen prints of his warped, ugly little face. I feel like Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde calf. By contrast, when I walked out of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the sky itself seemed higher.

Take the self-portraits. Jeff Koons creates himself as a comic-book character with a giant phallus; Warhol wallows in profitable narcissism. Van Gogh looked at himself unsparingly and responded with an honesty that still speaks in every rusty brushstroke. It isn’t that Van Gogh was too unsophisticated to be commercial. He worried frantically about money and his letters to brother-patron Theo are riddled with anxious survival schemes. Yet immerse yourself in his wheat-fields or sunflowers and your mind unfurls. ‘Money’ is a tiny notion, reduced to its proper place by his swirling French skies.

It is fashionable to say that technique is unimportant, but how can anyone claim to be an artist if they don’t respect their art enough to study it? Van Gogh spent his living allowance paying models in order to hone his craft. Warhol found the easiest, most repetitive, least-demanding mediums imaginable (and was too lazy to even use them inventively). In another section of the Tate an artist whose name mercifully escapes me destroyed a bunch of his paintings in some kind of ‘performance’. How original. How irritating. How insincere. If you really believe what you’re doing is art then it must have value, must have something of yourself in it. How can you just destroy it? The corollary is if you can casually wreck something then you must not feel it truly represents you; it’s not your art. In which case, go back and try harder. Van Gogh bled for his art. He worked while confined to a sanatorium, he lived in raw poverty, he wrestled with demons. The fragmentary calm in his paintings is heart-rending because it evokes peace in the midst of passionate struggle. Koons, Hirst, et al, I warrant, never fought for anything more meaningful than a parking space.