Friday, July 20, 2007

A few hours in Austin

I was planning to post every day of our Texas trip, but we've been without WiFi (gasp!) for three whole days. So I have a little catching up to do.


Modern travel is a wonderful thing. At 8am this morning, I was having breakfast in my own apartment. Twelve hours later, I was sitting on a grassy knoll 2,000 miles away, cursing bats.

What happened in between? A reasonably comfortable and hassle-free flight to Austin, marred only by a slight delay in St. Louis and the fact that the passenger behind us on the second leg of the trip was the four-year-old lovechild of Tattoo and Rainman, who spent our entire time on tarmac at both ends saying, “I see an AIRPLANE! Look, an AIRPLANE! Mommy, look a BLUE airplane! ANOTHER airplane! Look, there’s an AIRPLANE!”

We took a shuttle ride from the Austin airport to the hotel (the La Quinta, which is Spanish for "Our WiFi connection is a big fat lie"), dropped our luggage and headed out. As it was close to 6pm, our first order of business was—naturally—food.

We ambled past the impressively oversized pink granite Capitol building and down toward the river, past suspicious-looking Mexican't places and a plethora of small and funky but closed cafes, until we came to a short row of stuff that looked interesting.

The Starlite looked particularly so. We went in.

The space is a long, narrow room, separated into two areas: the front part holds the bar, and is a little like the Miracle: wood and slate, with a high ceiling at an offset angle. Beyond the bar was the dining area, which was white, high and open, with an oversized chandelier and wall-filling mirrors. Both were practically empty, which the bartender said was not unusual for a Tuesday night in the middle of summer.

We sat at the bar and had cocktails: Pimm’s with Keffir lime gin and lemon juice for me, and sour cherry margarita with cointreau-soaked cherries and cherry brandy for The Boy. And because we couldn't resist, we also ordered a couple of apps: incredibly tender and melty beef carpaccio with greens, romano and crostini, and fried green tomatoes with a bright, bold julienned cucumber-mint-lemon salad and Neal’s Yard Cheddar.

Sufficiently satisfied, we strolled down toward the river to find the bats. Here’s the deal: 1.5 million of them live under the South Congress Street Bridge. At dusk, they fly out en masse—it’s been described as being like a cloud of smoke—to grab a bug or two for dinner. The bats have become something of a symbol for the city, and are quite the tourist attraction.


On the grounds of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper offices is a small park with trails that lead along the river, a little like Boston’s Esplanade. Next to the bridge is a steep grassy hill, and as people were already starting to congregate, we followed suit. The bridge was in front of us. The sun was setting. All we had to do was wait.

And wait.

And wait.

After an hour, our grassy knoll was filled with families on blankets, young couples and passing cyclists. And the bridge was lined with people from one side to the other. All waiting.

An hour and a half after our arrival, just as the last streaks of light started to fade in the sky, people in the distance started pointing. Some of our fellow knollers got up and wandered closer to the river. One by one, others followed, so finally we did, too.

What did we see? Well, The Boy saw a couple dozen shadows against a street light. I saw not a thing.

So the bats were late for work. This is what we should have seen.

The only possible consolation being food, we set out further along South Congress. The bartender at the Starlight had suggested we try Botticelli’s, so we strolled into the latest area to become gentrified, otherwise known as SoCo and already lined with hip boutiques and home-décor stores with one-word names, until we found it.

The space would not be out of place in Boston's South End, all white-painted exposed brick and groups of young hipsters. And us.

We had a couple glasses of a velvety Chianti, and a few more appetizers: mixed greens salad with swiss chard and watercress with a bright and lively vinagrette; an amaaazing, refreshing white-grape gazpacho with almonds, yogurt and mint; grilled roma tomatoes stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs and cheese (not the most exciting dish; needed something more in the stuffing); and the lightest and fluffiest gnocchi, in a creamy sauce with truffles, capers and anchovies (almost completely melted) and cheese.

And then we walked back to the hotel to find ourselves in the middle of the Great Texas Cricket migration.

I’m used to crickets. They're the little delicate things you find, very occasionally, chirping a reedy little song in the back yard.

But this is Texas, where everything is allegedly bigger.

These were the size of your thumb. Not your thumbnail, mind you; look at your thumb now. Look at it. Now imagine it’s cockroach-black, with wings and legs. And there are dozens of thumbs everywhere you look: on the sidewalk, on the sides of buildings, throwing themselves at your door, sitting on your bathroom floor, by your bed, on your pillow …

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