Keep Austin Weird

I have been very lucky in my life. So many of the places I’ve traveled to I’ve gone with my family, and even as my sister and I grow older, my dad still offers us so many new experiences. Just last year he took us to the Dominican Republic and then this year, he took us to Texas. At first, I was surprised by that choice, but the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. My family has travelled a lot outside of the USA, but not much inside. I’m familiar with California and the North East, but everything below and in between seemed more foreign than, well, the foreign. I looked at middle America as an estranged family member or distant cousin. But travel is about breaking down boundaries and getting rid of misconceptions, is it not? Well, in December, just one month after the 2016 presidential election, I was feeling very estranged from the States (I still am). A lot of that frustration and fear was channeled into anger and looking back on it now, some boundary breaking was just what I needed. So all of a sudden I found myself in Texas. Austin, especially, changed so much of what I’ll freely admit was judgemental thinking on my part.

Some things, though, were just how I imagined them. We arrived in Austin on Christmas night and as we drove in from the airport, starving, we were sure we wouldn’t be able to find anything to eat. As we searched for something, a Subway or whatever, we happened upon Haymaker. The very first thing I noticed as we walked in were the cowboy hats and boots. I guess I thought their popularity might have been exaggerated by the media, but no. They are very much real and, even more surprisingly to me, they really look good! (More on this topic later). Haymaker was great – certainly better than anything we had hoped to find open on Christmas. The first thing I noticed on the menu was poutine, which I thought was strange since I had just come a very long way from Montreal. But although I was tempted to test what a Texas poutine would taste like, I went for the burger and I would absolutely suggest doing the same. Their burgers were served on toast instead of buns, which apparently is the true Texas way.

The next day we truly started our Americana visit by learning about an American president and Austin local at the Lindon B Johnson Memorial Library. I’m not going to lie, I’m always very skeptical about this sort of thing. I truly believe that the worship of politicians and blind patriotism are extremely dangerous, but I quickly learned that that is not what the LBJ Library is all about. Besides LBJ being an interesting man and leader, he was president at an interesting time. The Sixties were a time of change. It was a decade where people started to think differently about race, about gender roles, about people’s rights to be themselves. I actually see a lot of what was going on reflected in today’s popular human rights movements.

LBJ Memorial Library

The visit began with a timeline of LBJ’s life. But what made it interesting was that along side what was happening in his life, there was a description of what was going on in the country at the time. It was great because we got to understand a little better where he was coming from as a person and how what was happening in the United States throughout his life had shaped him into the man and president he would become. I think it’s important to try to look at everyone this way, as impossible as that might seem. Understanding where a person comes from — the context in which they became who they are — does so much to help us understand why they do what they do and where they might be dangerously biased.

I knew extremely little about LBJ before visiting the library. I associated him with the Vietnam War, but I honestly doubt if I could have even told you with confidence whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. It turns out, though, that he did some really amazing things for the US. He created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which finally made basic education accessible to all American children. He also signed the Civil Rights Act into law and worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr on civil rights issues. As I walked around the library reading about all these things that he had done, I couldn’t help but think that as far as American presidents go, he was kind of a progressive dream! Considering some of the presidents that came after him, it almost feels like he was well ahead of his time. He could have been the perfect president, but there is no such thing. There’s always something, and LBJ’s something was a very big one.

“Hey! Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

This was a popular chant during anti Vietnam War protests. It’s a chant that I could see myself partaking in if I had been alive at that time. There is no denying that the Vietnam War was a mistake. It wasn’t only a pointless endeavour based on the irrational fear of communism, it also caused such an immense amount of harm in Vietnam that the effects are still being felt today. It made me very confused. How could a president who had done so much good make such a horrible judgement? And then I played a game. The library is really interactive and has a lot of activities which is exactly the way I like to learn. During the game, I was given all the information LBJ would have been given by his advisors about Vietnam and then I was supposed to decide for myself whether or not we should go to war. At first I said that they shouldn’t in my “hindsight is 20/20” position of privilege. But if I only knew what these advisors were telling me, only received their biased, one-sided, incomplete recommendations, I probably would have been scared shitless of Vietnam. Scared enough to start a war? Maybe. I’m not saying that LBJ was blameless. He was a grown man and should have been able to see through this absurdity. But it’s so important to remember that the president trusts, has to trust, their advisors. Those advisors hold an immense amount of power and influence and so it is just as important to know about them and their pasts as it is to know about the president because they play just as important a role in making decisions.

After the LBJ Library we headed to South Congress Ave for lunch. We had planned on wandering beforehand and picking the best looking option, but once we figured out that South Congress Ave and Congress Street are not the same thing we were starving. So we pretty much picked the first place we saw and that was Güeros. The place was actually amazing — a super lucky pick. The food was rich, flavourful, and spicy and felt very authentic, at least compared to most Mexican food in the North East. Monica told us that in South America Güeros actually means “white people”. I found this very clever and could just imagine the owners saying to each other “Open a good Mexican restaurant and the white people will come”. And, well, there we were. The tacos were great, there was a full salsa bar, and the margaritas were the best I’ve had in a while. All in all a good lunch.

With full bellies we were much better prepared to enjoy the charm of South Congress. There were lots of shops to poke around in and each one was super cute. My favourite was a huge curio shop filled with things nobody needs but that I absolutely wanted.  I think what did it was the way the shop was organized. Each little section, or alcove, had a coloured theme. One part would be all cream and sea foam green while the next would be different shades of pink and yellow. The continuity made it seem like each individual object would be beautiful all on it’s own, although I suspect most of the things would look quite out of place in my actual apartment.

From there we went to Allen’s Boot Shop where I learned what a $6000 pair of boots looks like. Before leaving Montreal I had joked with my partner, John, about bringing back a pair of bright red cowboy boots. He was horrified by the idea and told me to promise not to get any, which I would not. But being there, staring at the rows and rows of boots, I realized that these were not a joking matter. One does not simply buy a pair of cowboy boots as a funny souvenir. These boots are serious business. I was tempted by the Cowboy hats since I have a weakness for hats in general, but the boots had made me realize that this was a style I did not understand and to which I had no right.

For dinner (what is life if not the journey from one meal to the next?) we went to the Roaring Fork. At the start of the meal there was a bit of tension because it was immediately obvious that it was not really the ambience we were looking for. The restaurant was quite nice but very big and the AC was up high. It lacked the cosiness and homeyness that my family likes in a restaurant and, besides the antler chandeliers, it was difficult to tell that we were in a different place at all. That is, until the food got there. It was good southern food. I was so engrossed in my own meal that I quite forget what the rest of the family ordered, but I simply could not get over my chicken. “Chicken?” you say, “It’s just chicken”. But it wasn’t, though. It came with a corn bread stuffing — the best idea in the entire world. It was sweet, as corn bread generally is, and paired so nicely with the peppery chicken. This was just the second time that I really got to see why people are so passionate about southern food. (The first time was on a trip to the Outer Banks with a friend who introduced me to North Carolina BBQ). So any doubts about the restaurant disappeared after each of us took our first bites of food, and afterwards we were happy and ready for a nighttime stroll.

The Congress building was beautiful at night. It was lit up dramatically to highlight the best of the architecture. I find that so many capital buildings in the United States look pretty much the same, but I definitely do not mean this as an insult. I find the style very beautiful. It seems sophisticated in a tasteful way, grand in a modest way. The differences are in the details. This one, for example, was made of a light brown stone (granite?) that seems quite common here. The building was massive and we had a lot of fun working our way around it as we walked off our dinner.

But of course, my favourite after-dinner activity is a drink, and there is no better place to do that in Austin than 6th Street. Besides the good bars, I absolutely loved the feel of being on 6th Street. The vibe was laid back and everyone seemed happy, but I don’t think it was just due to the alcohol. I think part of it was the open doors. It’s a special thing to be in a place where all the doors can be wide open in late December. It meant that we were invited inside by the live music playing in almost every spot. We ended up at Friends bar for a free show and some good G&Ts. The band was great — some really good Southern Rock — and I’m very annoyed with myself that I forgot to write down their name. I do wish we had had the chance to see some Blues while we were there, though. Apparently Austin is famous for its Blues and its a shame that I didn’t get to experience it. Next time, I guess.

Day two began at UT Austin, which has a beautiful campus. I realized as I was walking around that if I had visited there while I was looking at schools, I would have fallen instantly in love. It’s an easy place to picture yourself in. The layout is well designed and I loved all the little alcoves and courtyards where students can sit in the grass and study. It’s an interesting combination of cozy and outdoors which I don’t often see. While there, we visited a free gallery which was holding an exhibit of Elliot Erwin. Being the photographer of the group, Sofie was able to appreciate it best — especially since Erwin mostly took portraits, which is her forte as well. Well all enjoyed it, though. I’m always amazed at how well good photographs can capture a person, how they seem to tell their subject’s whole story with one shot.

My pick for the day was the Baylor Street Art Wall, also known as Hope Outdoor Gallery. Since I’m used to Montreal street art, I had imagined it would be a collection of murals. Instead, anyone was invited to spray paint. That meant that the aesthetic was much less refined, but it was cool and different. It was inclusive — even non artists could participate and feel like they were really a part of something in Austin. Since we didn’t realize this was what it was all about we didn’t bring any paint, and if you go you definitely should. Still, I had a lot of fun walking around looking at things people had painted and written and climbing around on the walls. It didn’t compare to Valparaíso, but nothing ever really could.

At the Baylor Street Art Wall

For lunch we went to The Picnic food truck park which was, quite simply, awesome. There are many food truck parks in Austin and and I can’t say how this one compares to the others, but we had an amazing time. It was so fun be outside in the sunshine watching people, really feeling like we were in the middle of everything. All of us decided to eat from The Mighty Cone truck where everything was served in … a cone. Even the picnic tables in front of the truck had little holes so that you could put your cone down. I had the shrimp and avocado cone covered in sour kraut, which it turns out I love. To be honest, the paper cones weren’t really necessary — the food would have been exactly the same served on a plate, but I approached it from an “art for arts sake perspective” and concluded that it was fun.

Photo cred Sofie Melian-Morse

After lunch Sof brought us to East Austin Succulents. This was honestly probably the best thing we did the whole trip, or at least in the top three. The whole greenhouse was filled with succulents and cacti and in the dry Austin sun everything felt exactly right. It was impossible not to fall in love with every single one. My dad said that we could each pick one to take home, which quickly evolved into me deciding to pick two cheap ones which then further evolved into Sofie deciding to pick two not so cheap ones. C’est la vie, Papa. We spent hours in there just walking around and enjoying the particular beauty of each succulent that caught our eye. The air just feels good in a greenhouse. It seems healthy and green and you can feel the energy of all those plants growing. Especially since I had just come from the middle of a Canadian winter, it was energizing to be around the plants.

That night we had steak for dinner since we absolutely couldn’t leave Austin without eating one. I had seen good things about the Hoffbrau Steak House so that’s where we went. We all started off with the “love it or leave it” salad which is really just lettuce, onions, tomato, and olives served with a garlic dressing but for some reason it absolutely hit the spot. I couldn’t believe how good it was. I guess I fall into the “love it” category. And then, of course, the steak. I don’t know anything about steak but I do know that I ordered a ribeye. It was spectacular. We all got large ones and while everyone else was regretting the decision I was secretly very glad I had gone big. It was the best steak I’d had since I was in Argentina. I had forgotten what good, quality steak actually means. It was also really cool that we were eating in a place that had been around since the 1930s. There were other customers sitting by us who seemed like they had been eating there every day for thirty years. It made me feel like we were experiencing real Austin. I know, I know, I found the restaurant on Trip Advisor, but even so the restaurant really felt authentic and I could almost imagine what Austin might have been like in the 30s while I was eating there.

I fell in love with Austin. I loved the art, the music, the food, and the cowboy boots. We were there for such a short time and I left feeling like there were so many corners of the city that I still needed to uncover. But that’s a good thing! I want to leave a city wishing I had more time there. It’s the same deliciously unsatisfying feeling as finishing a good book you wished would never end. I never thought I would feel so at home, so comfortable, in a Texas city. Austin changed my perspective and opened my mind up to a part of the world that I was, honestly, very closed minded about. At all the souvenir shops I saw stickers and t-shirts that read “keep Austin weird”. Let’s hope they do because it is a strange and special place and I want it just like that when I inevitably find my way back.

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