Sunday, March 24, 2013

#3. Baltimore

3. Balimore, August

Summer is conference season for academics like myself, so August saw me going all the way to the University of Maryland for the Tenth International Congress of Neuroethology. I was in the unusually relaxing position of having nothing to present, as my postdoctoral career was but four months old. The conference itself was simultaneously enjoyable and grueling - I find "networking" tough at the best of times, but trying to stay on point all day whilst battling almost the worst jetlag the planet can offer (11 hours) really took it out of me. Anyway, after five days of coffee sipping and lanyard wearing, I had a free day before my flight back, which I spent with the Dawg.

Big Dawg, aka Adrian (he's English, about 5'8", and a Cambridge graduate, but somehow he pulls this moniker off) is a friend of mine from my postgrad days. We used to play poker every week, and he was a keen participant in the heyday of dicecrawls. When I flounced off to Japan, he got a postdoc at Johns Hopkins and relocated, along with his lovely wife Melissa, to Baltimore. Since I'd last seen them, they had taken the curious step of manufacturing another human to live with them. At the risk of inviting further unfounded accusations of man-broodiness, Madeline was a delightful baby, with huge eyes, pudgy little limbs, and - most importantly - a rather quiet disposition.

Our first activity for the day was brunch at a fancy diner. As appears to be standard in the US, the waitress was way too over-familiar for my liking. I was intending for our relationship to be brief, and almost exclusively based around the logistics of exchanging currency for pancakes, so I didn't see how her name was relevant. Of course, the reason for this insincere chumminess is that they are trying to earn a tip. Not having to tip is one of the long list of things I take for granted about Japan, but which I am sure to sorely miss if/when I leave. It's between "affordable sushi" and "politeness". Anyway, I had a calorifically indecent cream cheese monstrosity. It was delicious.

Now, I consider The Wire to be the best TV drama ever made, so I was keen to see first hand some of the grim urban decay that forms the show's backdrop. As these are not the kind of neighbourhoods that it advisable to walk around, it was to be a driving tour. Sadly, it wasn't as much fun as I had hoped. It was hard to shake off the feeling of guilt at being a bunch of middle class Caucasians gawking at poverty for the purposes of, essentially, entertainment. Plus, you couldn't really have a proper gawk because you were in a moving vehicle, and didn't want to be obviously rubbernecking for fear of antagonising someone. It was like going to Mt Fuji but not being allowed to look directly at the peak. Perhaps Madeline has a precocious moral compass, as she started getting restless and we called the whole thing off.

Following afternoon naptime, we went out for dinner in a lively area with lots of trendy bars where young hipsters, rather than crack-addled destitutes, roamed the streets. We were to have the local specialty of crabs. Now, I like to think that life in Japan has made me quite the sophisticated seafood gourmand; I've sampled raw whale, I've tucked into the reproductive organs of still-moving sea urchins, I've even quaffed back living fish. However, prior to this evening I had never attempted to shell a crab. The waiter (Mark) covered our entire table with butchers paper, and issued us each with a plastic knife, a wooden mallet, and no plate. Some time later, he brought us a bucket containing a dozen smallish crustaceans (they didn't have the big ones in that day) coated in spices. Adrian then tutored me in the art of separating the tasty white muscle from the nasty internal organs and inedible shell, using a variety of moves including hitting the knife with the mallet, like a sculptor. It was a tricky business, but by my fourth crab I think I was getting the hang of it. It's a very labour-intensive way to eat, but I think the effort of getting to the meat is part of the fun. In this regard, I'd say crabs are like pistachio nuts taken to the next level.

Melissa took Madeline home, leaving Adrian and I to do some manly drinking. While mass-produced American lagers are bland and uninspiring ("Why is Budweiser like making love in a canoe?"), there seems to be a burgeoning indie craft beer industry these days. We sampled quite a few of these, like the hipster ponces we are. It was just like old times, when we'd go to the pub after work on a friday (and more often than not, stay there until closing time), but with one significant change for the worse. We were sitting at the bar, and this being America, every time we bought a drink we had to put a dollar bill down in front of us, as a tip. At some point - not immediately, but within a few minutes - the barmaid who had served us would come by and pick it up. This, more than the other tipping customs, made me uncomfortable; I felt like I may as well just tuck the note into her underwear, while lighting my cigar with another one. In both Britain and Japan, there seems to be an understanding that while money changing hands is a perfectly reasonable and necessary, there is something slightly unseemly about it, and thus it requires to be handled a degree of discretion. Rather like bodily functions, I suppose. Thus, to my Anglo-Oriental sensibilities, this vulgar tipping system was tantamount to squatting on the bar and taking a shit.

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