Goodbye, Saint Louis!

I didn’t know this for certain until today, but this is my last day in Saint Louis. There have been a few hiccups in finding somewhere to stay in Miami, and yesterday, the day before my flight was due to leave, I still had nowhere to go once I land there. A friend of mine was calling friends of his and waiting for their responses, and while I waited I had a goodbye meal with friends, packed my suitcases, and eventually went to sleep without knowing whether or not I was really leaving. This morning I woke up with an email confirming that a place has been found, and now all I’m waiting for is a phone call to make arrangements to be met at the airport. One of my personal philosophies is this: ‘Don’t worry. Ever.’ (Deep, I know.) So to be left without knowing where I am staying until the last minute has been a test of this mind set. (I’d like to say that I have passed this test with flying colours).

Now I know that I’m definitely leaving, I feel kind of sad. I arrived in Saint Louis two months ago (it feels like only two weeks) without having any idea of what to expect, but during my time here I have met new people and made lasting friendships which I really value, I have come to love the city of Saint Louis, and (here comes the cliché – brace yourselves:) I feel I have grown as a person (sorry).

I am truly going to miss this place and the friends I have made, but I am definitely going to return some day, hopefully very soon. This is a short post because I need to finish packing my suitcase and get it into my head that I am actually leaving in a matter of hours. I also need to arrange being met at the airport. Anyway, I will update you on my travels when I arrive in Miami!


The Houses of Saint Louis

One of the things I particularly like about Saint Louis is the city’s houses. People here take great pride in them, and making them look pretty – painting them in different ice-cream shades, adorning them with matching pots of flowers, decorating their porches. It really makes for pleasant walks, especially now in the summer time.

Here are a few photos I took of some houses while walking around the Central West End:

This last one is my favourite – I want to buy it from whoever owns it now! I guess I will need a job first though.

I don’t know if my photos show how charming the area really is, you might have to come and visit for yourself!

Texas – Part One: Good Food and Missing Passports

I have just arrived, exhausted (please remind me to never again catch a plane without having had at least 30 minutes of sleep the night before), back to St. Louis, after spending 5 days in Texas. (Actually, I returned yesterday. I was just too tired to think about writing until today)

After a struggle in St Louis airport trying to convince the authorities that, yes, I could take an internal flight within the United States without a passport just as long as I had photo ID (and having to explain to them what the phrase ‘internal flight’ meant), I arrived in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday morning ready to spend the coming days being shown around the city and spending time with friends. Upon landing, I discovered that the popular saying – “everything is bigger in Texas” – was indeed true. The first thing I noticed when stepping out of the plane was the amount of obese people wearing ridiculously bright colours (I didn’t think they needed to be drawing any more attention to their bodies which rippled beneath their neon sportswear with each waddling step). I also found, to my delight, that people in Texas actually do wear cowboy hats – something which, until then, I had always thought was just a clichéd stereotype. This was to keep me amused for the next five days.

Like these guys! Real life cowboys!

I was picked up from the airport by my friend Jesus (I know! Plus his best friend is called Angel, so I felt like I was in the bible the whole time) and from there we went to the end of the church service to meet some more of his friends and then go out for lunch, where everyone laughed at my accent when I ordered a Doctor Pepper. Come to think of it, the majority of activities we did during my stay in San Antonio were based around food, which I believe is the perfect, and perhaps the only true way for an outsider (and especially one with limited time) to gain knowledge of, and get a feel for a new place and its culture. Here are some of the restaurants we ate at:

On the first night, Jesus, Angel and I went to Mi Tierra, a family run Mexican restaurant and bakery which first opened its doors back in 1941. It is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and all year round it is decorated with over-the-top Christmas decorations. Mariachi singers float from table to table, serenading couples and families as they dine with Mexican love songs in their deep-voiced harmonies and dramatic vibratos. There I tried fried ice cream (another thing about Texas – EVERYTHING is fried. More about that later.), which was delicious: a scoop of vanilla ice cream rolled in coconut, pecans, peanuts and toasted flakes, topped with a homemade caramel sauce and whipped cream, and served in a ‘sopapilla’ (a kind of thin, deep fried pastry shell). All of this was then sprinkled with icing sugar (powdered sugar for the Americans) and the whole thing was amazing.

The next day we drove for over an hour outside of San Antonio to eat at a restaurant called The Salt Lick. The journey led us through miles of countryside: around rolling hills, through green and yellow farmlands, and over sleepy streams, until we came to the restaurant. A brick and wooden building stood in the middle of this uninhabited countryside, with no visible sign of civilization anywhere except for the full-to-bursting car park which encircled it – a sign of a good restaurant. As we walked through the doors, the first sight to welcome us was a huge open pit barbecue laden with enormous steaks, full racks of ribs, and sausages hanging in bunches above the grill in its rising smoke. From this moment I knew I was going to enjoy my meal. The restaurant had a bring your own beer policy, so customers would come in clutching six packs of it. We sat at a wooden bench table and I ordered ribs and sausage with coleslaw and beans. The meat was so good, and their homemade barbecue sauce made it even better.

The next day we drove to Austin, which, though only an hour’s drive away, had a completely different atmosphere to San Antonio. It was a vibrant, youthful city, full of young fashionable (and noticeably healthier – i.e. less obese) people. I didn’t see one cowboy hat that day. We spent our time touring the city, eating good paninis in hipster cafes, visiting the state capitol and walking along the river. (Hugo and Angel kayaked; Jesus and I watched). Later that night we went to another restaurant called Fonda San Miguel – recognised as one of the finest Mexican restaurants in the country. The dramatically lit building, surrounded by banana plants, palm trees and brightly coloured exotic flowers, was washed in light greens and blues and decorated with Mexican mosaics. The huge hand-carved wooden doors bounded by engraved stone welcome you inside to an interior full of hanging lanterns, warm colours, large plants, Mexican artworks and a lively atmosphere. The food was to die for. I had enchiladas de pato (duck), followed by pastel de tres leches (three milks cake), and finished it all off with café de olla, a sweet cinnamon coffee.

enchiladas de pato

I’m getting fat.

These were the three restaurants I enjoyed the most out of a week of good food. I will write about what else I got up to in my next post!

Baseball, Pagans and the Ghetto! – A Quick Update of My Time in St. Louis

A heavy thunder storm has recently passed, and I have come to sit out on the wooden porch, my favourite part of the house, to enjoy this fleeting moment in time where the rain has just ceased to fall and the sun has proudly re-emerged. The earth and its buildings and trees are now momentarily lit in exaggerated colours against the black clouds, and the branches, still dripping, stretch out and hang above the porch on which I am currently sitting, upon a wicker rocking chair, listening to the birds which have just re-appeared.

I thought I would take this opportunity to write, as it has been almost three weeks since I last posted, to give you a quick update of some of the things I have recently been up to.

I went to my first baseball game. Actually, it was the first sporting event I’ve ever attended, not just baseball. I didn’t go out of a love for the sport. Not even a lukewarm affection. In actual fact, I knew nothing (and still don’t) about baseball – I just went for the cultural experience. Everyone in St. Louis supports the Cardinals baseball team, so going to watch a game was something I had to do while I’m here. After sitting through the game, I came to the conclusion that I haven’t been missing much by having never gone to a sporting event before. I felt like I spent the entire three hours just waiting for the game to begin, when suddenly everyone got up and left and apparently the game was over. I can’t say I completely didn’t enjoy myself though. It was fun to see how involved the crowd got with the game, even though I couldn’t tell what was going on, or even if anything was being played. The jolly organ music which played sporadically was like something I think I’ve heard in movies (probably My Best Friend’s Wedding), and the singing of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ during the 7th inning (is that the correct terminology? – I don’t really know what I’m talking about) was fun (though I didn’t join in. 1 – I don’t know the words, and 2 – I don’t sing. Ever.)

I’ve visited many restaurants and have been introduced to some new cuisines including Vietnamese and Ethiopian. (Both extremely delicious and I will be looking for similar places in London when I return home)

My first taste of Vietnamese food. So good!

I found myself walking through a Pagan festival, and quickly came to the conclusion that the title ‘Pagan festival’ was just a cover-up for what was in reality nothing more than a weird people’s convention. Stalls sold things like magic wands (sticks obviously picked up from the park floor a few meters away), chainmail bikinis, paranormal investigation services, and lots of tie-dye. The festival attendees were some of the strangest people I had ever seen, and to see so many peculiar characters in one place was truly a memorable experience. People came dressed like wizards or extras from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (but they were serious) or half naked in swim suits (if not in chainmail or tie-dye). I was dying to take photos of this – the most surreal situation I have found myself in to date. But I didn’t feel comfortable pointing my huge SLR in these bizarre people’s faces, being uncertain of the reactions this might have provoked from them. My friend, however, was slyly taking photos of everyone using her phone whilst she pretended to text. When I get hold of the photos she took I will upload them onto this post for your viewing pleasure, but for now I will leave them to your imagination.

I took a driving tour over to East St. Louis – a separate city to St Louis (though they’re often assumed to be one and the same) located on the other side of the Mississippi, which is the dividing line between Missouri and Illinois. The area is known for being the most deprived ghetto in the United States, and I was interested to see the striking contrast between living conditions from literally one side of the river to the other. East St Louis has the highest crime rate in the USA, including a murder rate of 101.9 per population of 100,000, in comparison to the US national average of just 5.6 per 100,000. We drove through the city, a crumbling ghost town that resembled the set of some post-apocalyptic movie, without stopping; except for when Zach, the designated diver for the day, drove over one of the innumerable potholes too fast, causing the engine to shut down and the rear-view mirror to fall off. The car ground to a halt under a decaying railway track, and I thought the whole ordeal was quite hilarious. Zach, however, did not; and upon finally getting the engine to successfully restart, drove back over the river as quickly as he could. A curious fact which I find quite sad, is that the city’s racial makeup is 98% black, in a nation where black people make up just 12% of the population. Visiting the city made me wonder why nothing is being done to revitalize the area, which seems to have been abandoned and discarded – sitting squalid and depressed just a two minutes’ drive across the bridge from a city of million dollar homes and thriving businesses.

(I didn’t take these last two photos – I found them online. I thought that was a smarter idea than taking my camera with me over to the east side.)

On a brighter note, I went to Food Truck Friday (again). A growing trend in American cities is food truck dining. No, not those greasy kebab vans that we’re all too used to in England; the food is good, restaurant quality, gourmet stuff. The trucks are generally extensions of already established and well-loved independent restaurants, which drive to a different location of the city each day, informing their followers of their whereabouts via social networking sites. Though generally it is the successful and independent restaurants which launch their own trucks as extensions of their businesses, it is not uncommon for food trucks to begin as just that – self depending food trucks; sometimes even launching a restaurant in a fixed location as a follow up of the truck’s success. Driving through the city you will often see a food truck parked on a street corner with its patrons crowding around it. Erin, the daughter of Mike and Linda, works for a prominent food magazine here in St Louis, and on the second Friday of every summer month the magazine hosts ‘Food Truck Friday’, where some of the city’s best trucks (around 20 of them) come together at a park for the afternoon through early evening, and around two to four thousand people show up to buy good quality food and have a picnic, accompanied by live music! It is a fun event; the trucks do all kinds of food – Indian, Middle Eastern, American, German, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean… Mexican and Korean fusion! The list goes on. There are also trucks that specialise in desserts, and there I tasted the best cupcake of my life (sorry mum) it was salted caramel… mmm.

One of the trucks (you can’t see well on this photo but it even has a roof garden!)

The cupcake truck’s menu board

These are just a few of the things I’ve been doing during my stay here. I’m enjoying myself, making new friends, and getting to know and love St Louis more and more each day! Next week I will be flying to San Antonio, Texas to spend a week with friends there, before returning back to St Louis for a final week. I am looking forward to this, and will let you know what I get up to in my next few posts.

The Cathedral Basilica

This week I have left the home of Mike and Linda Peters – the couple whom I am staying with during my time in St. Louis – as they are out of town, and have moved in with a young family from their congregation:  Jason, Kathryn, and their two little boys. Here I am living in the city, as opposed to the county – the city’s leafy suburbs. Therefore I am closer to all the attractions the city has to offer.

My new view

As well as going to the zoo (which, by the way, is free despite being one of the best zoos in the country), I was able to visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Until now, I had never been awe-struck by entering a church building. The tall walls and high ceilings are completely covered in mosaics which form amazingly intricate patterns, and the light which pours through the stained glass softly illuminates the room just enough so that the tiles sparkle and shimmer as you walk about.

The mosaics cover 83,000 square feet, making it the largest mosaic installation in the world, containing 41.5 million glass tesserae pieces in more than 7000 colours. (Thanks Wikipedia!)

I was shocked to discover that construction of the cathedral only began in 1908. Being from Europe, I am used to these kinds of buildings being ancient – such as St. Paul’s Cathedral which was founded in 604 AD.  The St. Louis Basilica Is brand new in comparison, which was hard for me to believe when I first learned this, as it looks so distinguished and long established.  Installation of the mosaics began in 1912 and wasn’t finished until 1988.

I was so impressed by the cathedral that I visited twice in the same day. My camera ran out of battery on the first trip, so I made sure to revisit after I had re-charged it. The photos don’t do the place justice – it was hard to take them in the dim light, and you can’t appreciate the scale of the building and both the amount and intricacy of the mosaics until you are there in person.

Toasted Ravioli and SUV’s: First Impressions of St. Louis

Finally, after 19 hours of travel, three airports, and less than two hours sleep over the course of two days, I have arrived in the land of the free and the home of the brave: the USA!

My flight out of Bogotá was to be at 7am. So naturally, being a good and punctual Englishman, I woke at 3 (I didn’t even get to sleep until 1) in order to get ready and arrive at the airport for 4, leaving three hours until my flight. As you can imagine (being in Colombia) the flight was delayed until 8.30. My stopover in Miami was to be 8 hours long, so the postponement caused by ‘technical problems’ affected a welcome delay – on my part at least.

Thankfully Miami airport has vastly improved since the first time I used it as a stopover in 2008. That year my flight had arrived late, leaving me with just an hour to go through immigration (coming from Colombia into the USA, this takes somewhat longer than usual and involves a lot of heated interrogation) collect my luggage, check it in again, go through security for the second time, and catch a flight. Of course this was impossible and the flight was missed – owing greatly to MIA’s impractical layout and streams of never-ending, motionless queues. However, none of that applied this time. Yesterday, upon arrival at MIA, I went through immigration as though through a walk in the park. Travelling alone after spending four months in Colombia (and looking even more sickly-pale than usual after just a two hour sleep) I was prepared for an intense grilling. This was not the case. The officer simply flipped over my passport, indifferently took my fingerprints, and sent me on my way.

“Is that it?” I asked, shocked.

He answered positively though somewhat annoyed by the question, so I quickly made my way to baggage reclaim before he changed his mind.

As soon as I sat down on the next plane I was fast asleep. I have a blurred memory of being woken half way through the flight by a stewardess asking if I wanted a drink. Unfortunately for her I was not fully awake and so after perplexedly looking about, eyes squinted, trying to work out whether or not we were in the air, I grunted incoherently before dropping my head again and falling immediately back to sleep; not waking up again until the stewards were preparing for landing.

As you may have gathered, I am not good at being tired. So when I met Mike and his assistant David at baggage reclaim 19 hours after leaving the apartment in Bogotá, and with only two hours of sleep in 48 hours (sleeping on the plane doesn’t count), I must have appeared as a zombie – traipsing through the airport with vacant eyes, dragging hand luggage behind me expressionlessly – a dead man walking. Or at least a sleeping man walking.

I was driven from the airport in the north of the city to Webster Groves, a southern St. Louis suburb which is to be my home for the next two months. Upon arrival I instantly fell asleep, not waking up until morning.

Today, as light poured through the window (and as the alarm blared in my ear) I awoke refreshed and energized, able to see my new surroundings clearly for the first time. I looked out of the window onto the quintessential leafy street that everyone would imagine when asked to picture a suburban American neighbourhood. Handsome white wooden-panelled and redbrick houses sit far apart from each other, surrounded by wide lawns featuring long driveways adorned with huge SUV’S, at the end of which are mail boxes perched on wooden posts. American flags flutter by each front door and huge trees line the street – the only thing missing from the neighbourhood are white picket fences.

I was picked up and taken around the city by David, who explained to me some of its history (I’ll save that for another post). He also told me that St. Louis is the biggest small town in the world, which I soon found to be true. It looks like a city: there are tall buildings, large roads, big parks, impressive monuments, etc. but there were barely any people, and the atmosphere was that of a small town where everyone knows everyone else – even though over three million people live here.

Looking cautious before trying the ravioli!

For lunch I was taken to a sports bar, where I sampled a delicacy unique to St. Louis – deep fried ravioli. I know, it sounds awful, I thought so too – but surprisingly, I enjoyed it a lot. I would even go as far as to say that it’s better than regular, un-fried ravioli! Here I met a few young people from the church who were very friendly and outgoing, and we were also joined by Mike, who too has been very hospitable and kind.

From what I have seen so far during my first day here, I can tell I am going to enjoy my stay. Before I arrived I had no expectations. I decided not to expect to like it here, and not to expect to dislike it either – just to wait and see what there is to see, as I had no idea what St. Louis would be like. But already I have seen that it is a handsome city, filled with friendly, welcoming people, and I know I am going to appreciate every minute spent here.