New Perspectives in San Antonio

I had imagined San Antonio as smaller than Austin. I don’t know why— I had never looked up the populations of either city or even really seen comparable pictures. It was just a feeling I had stored away in my head under the label of “fact” when, it turns out, it’s not true at all. Austin has a population of about 931,800 people while San Antonio is home to 1,437,000. So yeah, I was very wrong. Perhaps it was the size, but I found San Antonio a little harder to get a feel for than Austin. It was more difficult to just happen upon things to do, although we did plenty.

Every blog will tell you to do the Riverwalk and mine is no exception. It really is amazing how much your world changes just by walking down a flight of stairs. The Riverwalk feels like a jungle — a literal urban jungle — with green river-water winding through leafy green trees. The atmosphere is misty and wild and it feels extremely different to the dry Texas air of the streets above. Before going, I had pictured it as more of a park, like Montreal’s Lachine Canal. But the Riverwalk is very active! We passed by countless restaurants while we strolled. Most of them are actually accessible from the street as well, but using the Riverwalk entrances made it seem like two totally different places. It reminded me of a strange sort of parallel universe. We decided to do a boat tour down the river, which is the kind of thing my family doesn’t usually do. To be honest, as our tour guide told us to wave at the pedestrians diners on the shore I did feel a little embarrassed, but I got over it. The tour gave a really cool view of the city. It’s not often that you can look up at the street — at the bottom of buildings all the way to the top. It’s a feature that really makes San Antonio a unique city, one with something I had never experienced before.

I found the Riverwalk at night very beautiful. The trees were all lit up with fairy lights, and I mean all lit up. I couldn’t help but be impressed by whoever’s job it was to climb up into the trees to string those lights. The effect was dazzling. It would have even been magical if it weren’t for the countless drunk partiers all over the place. I’m not against a good time and I can appreciate the fun of a good night out. However, with so many people so wasted, it did make it a little difficult to enjoy the stroll down the walk. Plus, since I guess drinking is the main focus of the nighttime Riverwalk, past 11:00 it was impossible to find anything that wasn’t alcohol. All we wanted was to sit by the water and have a little coffee before heading back home, but no place had it. I guess that’s not so strange for nighttime, but with so many places open, it was surprising that none of them could offer anything but alcohol. Maybe my reaction would have been more positive if I had been there with friends and had been in the mood for partying. But with my family and in the mood for a nice stroll, it seemed a shame. It’s also possible that we were simply at the wrong part of the walk. Maybe along other parts of the river things are quieter, even at night.

And then, of course, there’s the Alamo. The Alamo is one of those big parts of American history that I vaguely remember learning about in high school enough to know that it’s important, but not enough to have a real understanding of what happened. I approached our visit there ready to learn, and I promise that I really really wanted to enjoy it. I consider myself a historical traveler. I think spending time learning about the history of the place you’re in is important, so I tried hard not to be bored. I didn’t want to be one of those people bored by a historical monument, but I was. First of all, we waited for ages to get in. The line literally wound around the street corner although, to be fair, it did move relatively quickly. Once we got in there were so many people I could barely see the place. I wanted to appreciate the architecture but there was too much jostling. There was quite a bit of history in the barracks section, but it focused exclusively on military history (not surprising) and I found it quite difficult to engage with it.

But as it turns out, the Alamo is only one of four historical missions in the San Antonio area. There’s actually a bike route that you can take to each of them. We didn’t know about it ahead of time so we didn’t have time to do it, but it sounds like it would have been really nice. If you’re visiting, definitely check it out. Biking always adds an extra element to any activity. The only other mission we had time to see was Mission San Jose and I was very pleasantly surprised. After the Alamo I had slightly lost interest in the missions, but as soon as we got to San Jose I was reminded why I love visiting historical places so much. The church itself is big, but not too imposing. The dusty colour of the stone and its rounded top almost made it look like a hill in the distance while we were walking towards it. It reminded me of a church you would find in an old Spanish pueblo, which of course is exactly what it would have been modelled  after.

The church was at the end of a long grassy space enclosed by a rectangular of tiny houses which were home to the Native Americans who lived at the mission. The whole thing was very well restored. By that I mean that while the buildings had been fixed up to be in perfect condition, I could still feel the history. I wandered into one of the casitas by myself and just stood in the middle of the floor taking it in. There was one small rectangular window which let in just enough light to get my imagination really moving. I felt like I could really picture life there. I pictured small children growing up in this beautiful mission, in its shadow. Of course it’s not a happy history to imagine. Missionary work in what is now the United States was often bloody and cruel. I couldn’t help but wonder about the things the people who lived in this little house had seen. How many brothers, mothers, or children had they lost? Were they happy? Could they be happy as their world was being forcefully changed and ripped apart? It was a strange feeling because while I was surrounded by such a beautiful place, it was also so sad thinking about what had happened there. But I like that dissonance. I think it’s important to be able to appreciate the beauty that comes from history while still being critical of the history itself.

San Antonio also has a lot of great museums of which we saw two, by mistake. I say by mistake because once we were all in the San Antonio Museum of Art with our tickets bought, we realized we hadn’t meant to go there. We had meant to go to the Briscoe Western Art Museum to experience something more local. But since we were there at the Museum of Art, we decided to check it out. I really enjoyed the collection and thought it was very well curated. Each piece was placed in an extremely well thought out spot with much attention given to the pieces around it. I especially liked the collection of South American art, José Luis Rivera Barrera in particular.

I love how well the horizontal movement of the sculpture pairs with the painting behind it.

Afterwards we did end up going to the Briscoe Museum. It had a lot of really cool old artifacts. I especially liked the saddles. I learned how to ride on an English saddle, and it was fun seeing how intricate and particular the Western saddles could be. My favourite part was looking at the old carriages, though. In the entrance of the museum there was an old stage coach which I couldn’t even begin to imagine traveling across the country in. But even more interesting to me was the chuckwagon. It’s a type of wagon designed specifically for feeding ranchers while they’re out with the cattle or doing whatever it is exactly that ranchers do. I had never really thought about the need for a specific way to feed ranch workers before. It had a lot of different compartments for keeping food, medicine, tools, and first aid things. Apparently the cook pretty much took care of all the ranchers’ vital needs. I learned that some chuckwagons are still in use today, but most ranches have switched to using pickup trucks. Thinking about it now, I can’t help but laugh at how even in a museum I’m immediately attracted to whatever has to do with food.

Which brings me to food. We at ate some great places in San Antonio, but the two highlights were Boiler House and The Luxury. The Boiler House is located in the Old Pearl Brewery, an industrial building which (just a wild guess here) used to be a brewery. It’s been renovated and now is home to lots of little shops and trendy restaurants. We went for dinner and it was very pretty in the night. Like the Riverwalk, it was all lit up with fairy lights but without all the drunk people. There were many places to sit near a fountain and around the square. It seemed like an absolutely perfect date spot — very romantic. There were many restaurants to choose from, but we had a reservation at Boiler House. The food was flavourful and we all really enjoyed our meals, but the atmosphere was definitely the best part. We sat outside, which was really nice, but when I wandered inside to use the bathroom I noticed that they had done a really good job at maintaining the original integrity of the building. It had a real industrial feel to it, which I love. It reminded me of a lot of places in the South West of Montreal.

My favourite was The Luxury, though. We found this place towards the end of the Riverwalk right next to the San Antonio Museum of Art. It’s a totally outdoor spot with a counter to order food and another to order drinks. It had a wonderfully laid back and chill attitude about it with many people sitting at either picnic tables or swinging chairs looking out over the river. The aesthetic was amazing too — I thought my sister was going to explode with happiness. They had a great collection of local beers and ciders which I always like to see. I believe I ordered a fish burger because I was feeling bad about the number of hamburgers I had eaten so far on this trip, but I later suffered from some serious food envy. My dad and Monica both ordered hamburgers and they insisted that I try a bit, so I did. It was seriously the best burger I had ever eaten. I’m not a huge burger person so maybe that isn’t saying much, but I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. If you make it to The Luxury and aren’t a vegetarian, the burger is a must. The only thing I didn’t like about the place was the fact that they don’t recycle. I was really disappointed when the bartender told me. Usually cool places like that at least follow the basics of sustainability. If they changed that one factor, the place would be absolutely perfect.

The award for our strangest meal, goes to the Alamo Drafthouse. This is not a purely Texas thing, but it was something this New England girl had never experienced before. For others who have never had an Alamo Drafthouse experience, it’s a movie theatre that serves you dinner and drinks while you watch. At later showings no one under the age of 18 (or something like that) is allowed in. It gives you absolutely everything a childish quasi grownup like me could ever want out of a movie theatre. We had such a great time! Although, especially watching the wildly inappropriate and hilarious adds before the movie, it was quite surreal. We went to see Why Him? with James Franco which was actually really funny and way better than any of us had expected. The food was also really good, which surprised me. Maybe I’m a snob but I had not expected a movie theatre meal to be of particular quality. They totally won me over with their adult milkshakes. Being a true lover of mint chocolate chip ice cream, I got the Grasshopper milkshake and it was to die for. I can’t wait to make it myself at home. It was our last night in San Antonio, and a really fun one. It felt like real, modern Americana.

If I’m being honest, I think Austin was more my style than San Antonio. If I were to do the trip again, I’d probably spend one more day in Austin. This is mostly because I felt the presence of other tourists more in San Antonio and I don’t like that. I like feeling like I’m really getting a feeling of the city, and the things we did in San Antonio were a bit more touristy. That being said, I had a lot of fun in San Antonio too. Plus, I was only there for a few days! There’s no way to really judge a place after such a short visit. In general, our trip to Texas was wonderful. We had fun, saw a very new kind of beauty, and were able to open up our minds and think differently about a part of the world we had never seen before. It was everything a good trip should be.

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.