Life experience · Travel

On Visiting Austin

Dear friend, family member, former neighbor, backpacking progeny of a schoolfriend or workmate…

Now you have decided to spend some time with me in Austin, I thought it would be useful to give you the benefit of my experience on the city and what it’s like to live here. Forewarned being forearmed, etc.

This is what you need to bring. And what you don’t.

Bring:

  • Socks, but not many. See below in “Do not bring”. Shoes without toes.
  • Sun lotion and a big floppy hat. Because you’re a crazy person coming to Austin in August.
  • Medical insurance. You can’t afford medical care here, and neither can I. If anything happens to you that requires medical attention, and you don’t have insurance, I will drive you to the hospital and push you from my moving car into the lobby. It’s more than a local would do.
  • Shorts, T-shirts, one shirt with sleeves.
  • If I’m driving and putting you up, then you’re paying for me, my family, and the homeless people by the side of the road. Let me know if I should send you my Amazon Wants List in advance.
  • An extra suitcase for all the weirdness you’ll want to take home. When you unpack in your own home, these magical items will have mysteriously turned into cheap plastic knick-knacks.
  • A camera. Especially if you are old and can’t remember what you had for breakfast, much less your location at any given point. Photos are memories for the otherwise impaired.
  • Plastic bags. Like Levi’s in Soviet Russia, plastic shopping bags are now currency in Austin. Shops can’t give them away any more, so they’re like gold dust. Bring a thousand, go home a king.

Do not bring:

  • Fancy clothes. Even if we go to the opera or ballet (and we won’t), we would wear jeans and sandals. “Dressing fancy” means socks.
  • Your own food. I hate people who do that. And tea bags. You’re on holiday – experience the local flavors. And local spellings, like “flavors.” It’s not like you’ll be in the jungle, eating bugs and drinking rain water. But let me know if you want to do that –I know a guy who can make that happen.
  • A guidebook. I am your guide: the places the guidebook tells you to go may be cool but the parking will be awful and I’m not driving around for half-an-hour looking for a space just so you can spend an hour in the gift shop.

About our roads…Did I ever tell you the story of how I learned to drive? It’s a horror story – for everyone else. Six hours of behind-the-wheel experience and then I had a license. The real horror is the thought that everyone else around you on the freeway – in the sports cars, the SUVs, the hundreds and hundreds of pick-up trucks – they all learned the same way.

A local once told me how you could tell if it was raining in Austin without having to look out a window. You can hear sirens. Because the weather here is almost always sunny and dry, people can’t drive in the rain, she said. If there’s snow, people just stay home. Otherwise: accidents, sirens, emergency services. Every accident I’ve seen (well, every accident aftermath I’ve seen) has involved three police cars, one ambulance, one fire engine. It’s quite a sight. You’ll see it.

There are many wildlife parks and zoos in and around the Austin area, but you can save money by just driving up and down the roads. You’ll see everything Texas has to offer lying dead somewhere on those roads: armadillos, squirrels, coyotes, porcupines, opossums, skunks.

Skunks. You don’t always see them when they’ve been hit by a car, but the evidence comes in loud and strong if your windows are down or your AC is on. It’s a smell you’ll take home with you.

Roads downtown are cleverly set out in a grid. It’s impossible to get lost downtown. Of course, I have been profoundly lost downtown. But it’s not possible. All the locals are very clear on this.

Away from downtown, the roads are random and tricksy. They turn at odd angles, narrow down so the average Texas family car (think: tank) can barely scrape by. And if there’s one of those monsters going either way at the same time, pull over to the side and practice your duck-and-cover.

I like bikes and admire the brave men and women who use them. Well, not all of them; I’m not sure I could honestly claim to admire Thong Guy. But, now I’m a driver, those bicyclists make me very very nervous. They’re not the best at staying in their designated lane (but then, neither am I), and they look so fragile next to the pick-up trucks hurtling around them. And that’s just the sensible ones. The inevitable hardcore bikers, with their Tour-de-France-standard equipment and their eye for the racing line…they terrify me.

August is a great month to come to Austin. Excellent choice. The weather is warm, the breezes are cool, the water is soothing.

Actually, none of these things are true. In terms of weather, August in Austin is a searing, charring, boiling hell. Bring full body protection. Lotions, blocks, soothers, unguents. Bring water, lots of water.

The British are supposed to be obsessed with talking about the weather, but I’ve never met anyone with the meteorological knowledge of the average Texan. They can feel the wind on their cheeks and tell you exactly, to the degree (F), what the temperature is. They check out the forecast in the morning – how hot? – and then spend the rest of the day watching it happen.

And it never rains. It never ever rains. You will not see rain.

Unless it rains. And then all the rain you have ever seen will pass by your eyes once more in a 5-minute downpour that floods streets, blinds drivers, fills up dry rivers and lakes, and washes Austin clean. If only temporarily.

There is no protection against the heat, of course, except to never ever go anywhere near it. The great inventions of our species may be the wheel, the Internet, penicillin, and Salma Hayek, but air-conditioning is the one you’ll be blessing when you’ve spent no more than seven minutes walking around in Austin.

You’ll lose weight through the simple biological processes of sweating and being passed out from the heat for so long that you miss meals. You’ll put it all on again with a typical child’s meal at any of the town’s many cathedrals of burgers. It’s the circle of life.

Pro-tip: If you’re walking and a buzzard is walking beside you, you probably need to sit inside for a bit and rest. Or pass out. Either way, it should be inside, away from the carrion birds.

Austin has a high opinion of itself, mostly deserved I think. It looks at conservative Texas and sees itself differently. A sea of red in an ocean of blue. You will see, find charming, and then be a little bored by, the philosophy of “keeping Austin weird”. You will learn what “hipster” means.

You will see poverty a little more visibly than you may be used to from back home. Men and woman stand at intersections, holding handwritten signs telling their life stories and begging for change or food. Most of Austin looks the other way; some people treat it as something to read while the lights change. Twice I’ve seen someone actually roll down their window and offer cash. That doesn’t seem the kind of rate of return I’d be looking for if I was deciding whether I wanted to make a living by standing in the Texas heat.

You will not see cowboys on horses, outside of a parade, but you will see police-on-horseback, especially around the capitol. Other notable modes of transport are Segways (I think here and Portland, OR, took all the Segways), skateboards, and bikes.

There may well be a lot of students in Austin when you visit and that’s fine; they’re good for the economy. But they do get in the way when you’re grocery shopping, driving, simply exhaling. Apparently, locals are not always impressed with the students. Or people who move to Austin from California. Or foreigners coming in to take their jobs and their women. Or tourists.

They will love your accent though, so make sure you speak to people slowly, clearly, and – if things don’t seem to be going well – say something about Downton Abbey. Trust me; this will work.

Have you been dieting? If you have not been dieting, at least tell me you did what I told you to and bought good traveler’s health insurance. Because if the roads don’t get you, the food just might.

American food – normal, everyday American food – is a warm hug to your heart, a party in your arteries. It’s meat, cheese, starch, and lakes and lakes of soda. Tex-Mex is the same but more so.

We’ll eat outside at least once, because we’ll feel like it’s something that would be fun to do. And it is. For two minutes. And then the sun burns off whichever part of the body you absent-mindedly forget to keep under the shade of the table umbrella. You realize that the food is 80% what the chef intended and 20% insects that Mother Nature has provided because you don’t look like you’re eating enough. The grackles will, almost inevitably carry off at least one person from the table next to us.

After that, it’s an inside table with air con all the way.

Burgers taste like little round slabs of heaven. Or big round slabs of heaven. Or piles and piles of heaven atop more and more heaven. If there’s not enough heaven, add bacon.

There’s pies, which will be fruit-based, by-and-large. Ice-cream beaten half to death on marble slabs right in front of you and then thrown into a cone the size of your arm.

Mostly, we will be eating barbecue. Or barbeque. Or BBQ. However you spell it, you will smell it all around Texas. Everything smells good, but not everything is good. Take a poll of 10 locals and find out which BBQ places they like. You’ll have 10 different answers, but that’s 10 different places to possibly have lunch while you’re here.

Fresh fruit is also available. It’s called peach cobbler.

 

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