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One Breath Around the World

One Breath Around the World

Guillaume Néry has a superpower you and I don’t have: flight. Thanks to his massive lung capacity and low regard for safety, he can take a breath and soar around underwater spaces with the casual ease of a superhero. Here’s a lovely 12-minute video that made me painfully jealous. …But not so jealous that I’m going to venture more than two inches underwater.

God Forgives, I Don’t

God Forgives, I Don’t

This is just a hair too important for a Facebook post.

A year or more ago, I became enamored with a print that hangs next to the pool table at The Liberty in east Austin. It got to the point that I would specifically choose The Liberty over the other bars in the neighborhood, just to visit “my girlfriend.” I would even choose the table that faced the painting so I had a view of it. This doesn’t happen to me with art! But it did with this one.

It’s titled “God Forgives, I Don’t.” It’s by an artist called Gabe Leonard. He reminds me of Vermeer in how he captures an energized, dynamic movement and freezes it in amber. She’s swinging the gun around to fire, her face full of resolve, her dress shining and flowing; and yet she also seems perfectly at rest, stuck in time, never to pull the trigger.

Finally one day I got the courage to ask the bartender if it was for sale. No, it’s wasn’t; but they put me in touch with an Austin gallery that had some of his work. And his work is fantastic, you really should check him out! (This is a personal favorite.)

But it wasn’t the one I loved. Furthermore, they told me, Gabe had only created 100 prints of the painting, and they were all spoken for. And there my dream ended; any time I wanted to visit my girlfriend, I had to visit The Liberty. I told my friends that if anyone heisted the painting at any point, they could find it at my house.

My girlfriend—the real human one, not the painted lady with the rifle—knew about my obsession with this painting, and had seen it on a previous visit. And a few weeks ago, she confessed something: she had emailed Gabe Leonard directly (something I never thought to do) and asked if he knew of any prints that might be available. Alas, she told me, he didn’t know of any. That’s too bad, I said; but it was so sweet of her to even try!

A couple of weeks later, a roll arrived in the mail.

I may have gasped audibly.

Kiki told me the truth about contacting the artist, but she was a sinful liar about no prints being available. Gabe had put her in touch with a gallery in California; they mailed it directly to me.

I was astonished.

A few days later I took it to the framers; today, I got it back. I couldn’t be happier. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

South Africa 3: Saturday

South Africa 3: Saturday

The last full day in Cape Town was the warmest. Mid-70s, sky so clear you’d think you could see the stars. I found myself back at my preferred local dive, slowly sipping a beer1 as the open windows allowed in the air and noise of the afternoon, and—weirdly—a six-year-old boy seated next to me nursed his hot chocolate and occasionally showed me drawings from his Shopkins book. I’ve had weirder barmates.

I spent the afternoon with my fellow Americans festival-goers climbing Lions’ Head, a mountain adjacent to Table Mountain with a spiraling trail to the top that was more like a climbing route for the home stretch. Cape Town beneath us to the east. The Atlantic, impossibly huge, to the west. Dozens of sailboats drifting close to shore, with a cargo ship loitering on the horizon. Once, a trio of paragliders zoomed into view, each of them passing within ten feet of the trail before soaring off to the distant beach. Ground squirrels and songbirds stalked us at the top, hoping for snacks.

Once I got back to the Airbnb, my trip hit the fast-forward button. A brief shower.2 The crushing realization that I didn’t have time for a nap. The festival’s instructor showcase, which evolved into a narrative about a coup at a Catholic girl’s school. One final mixer show. Last visit to the local dive bar. Four underpriced vodkas. The penultimate History Under the Influence, which went very well. Festival afterparty. Nice chats with interesting people. Hugs and farewells.

The walk home was serene. I’ve been warned to stay vigilant on the streets here, and I did. And my heightened senses reported back nothing but the sound of my steps bouncing off the pavement of the narrow street and the security walls to either side; the faint hum of the orange lights overhead; the whisper of highway traffic somewhere in the abstract distance. Orion watching over me, upside down, like he was doing a handstand.

I finally figured out just the right jiggle to unlock my Airbnb’s security gate—the last time I’d ever need to; don’t it always go that way?—and let myself in.

PS: I’ve said precious little about the festival itself! I had a great time teaching my workshop. The performance highlights were Lusty Mannequins, two instructors from Second City Toronto; and La Teatre Andre, a spectacular trio from Oslo.3 The locals were, as always, fun to be with on and off the stage. To any improvisers reading: if you have the means—for the plane ticket; it’s stupidly cheap once you get here—I do recommend applying.

South Africa 2: Wednesday

South Africa 2: Wednesday

I subjected myself to the second modern-art museum on this trip—the Zeitz, opened only last month—not least because of its startling architecture: it was carved from a grid of 100-foot concrete silos to create hypnotic geometric spaces.

I liked the museum even better than the Tate in London. Maybe the fact that African culture is so unknown to me helped me to appreciate the enigmatic weirdness of its modern art.

Next I walked a couple hundred meters to the famous V&A Waterfront, only to discover that it’s a giant shopping mall and tourist trap. And that’s all I have to say about that.

After an equally uninteresting wander through downtown—Cape Town’s CBD is long on office buildings, short on local dives—I finally stumbled across a pub that served me something called Portuguese Chicken on a sizzling platter. Yummy. Including beer and tip, I spent over $10 on lunch! (I spent $11. This place is cheap.)

The Uber back to my neighborhood1 coincided unfortunately with rush hour, but gave me a chance to examine Cape Town more closely as we crawled eastward out of downtown. Salons, tyre shops, and incongruously posh restaurants; one private bus after another competing with cars and motorbikes and daredevil pedestrians for room on the street, the painted lines on the street merely decorative; a lifetime’s worth of carbon monoxide through our open windows.

South Africa 1: Flying There

South Africa 1: Flying There

To get from London to my stopover at Dubai, I boarded an Emirates Airlines Airbus A380, which felt like the biggest thing I’d ever seen. It’s two stories from tip to tail, like something a child might draw. As we rolled down the runway, I trusted they had done the math to ensure this monstrosity could actually take off.

Take off it did. The cartoon airplane took us over the heart of Europe, then Turkey, then Iran (taking an awkward detour around Iraq). I gawked out the window at cities I’ve never heard of, trying to discern their structure. Tourism in the dark at 85% of the speed of sound.

Finally we flew across the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf (floating oil platforms; cargo ships anchored by the hundreds) and approached Dubai. Unluckily, I didn’t get a proper view of the famous skyline, either landing or departing.1 But even the areas around the city were otherworldly. Geometric subdivisions separated by inexplicably large gaps of desert. Glittering compounds that might have been power stations, or tourist attractions, or both. Highways to god-knows-where, stretched like orange ribbons across the black, literally disappearing in the distance.

I was on the ground in Dubai for literally an hour, scampering from one Emirates jetliner to the other, at 3 in the dang morning. I’d like to see the city some day, but this wasn’t it.

Then I slept most of my way across the African continent, at some point crossing the equator for only the second time in my life. Fall became spring outside my window. When I woke it was day again, South Africa coming up at me from below.

The plane shot out over the Indian Ocean—my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean—then turned back north for a landing. Cape Town came into focus, subdivisions and shantytowns. With hardly a glance in my direction the customs official stamped my passport. I ignored two dozen taxi hype men and made my way outside, where the festival producer Tami was waiting. The weather was fucking perfect: mid-60s, warm sun, blue skies. Time to begin.

London Blog

London Blog

(Get it? Like fog? Never mind.)

My first-ever visit to London1 would have been a whirlwind even without extraneous factors. It was a mere 56 hours between my arrival from Austin on Saturday morning and my departure to Cape Town on Monday afternoon. That’s hardly enough time to visit a couple of museums, take a couple of selfies, and get hit by a bus cause you looked the wrong way while crossing the street.

And yet, there *were* extraneous factors. This was a glorified stopover for me, but by wild coincidence, there were TWO enormous improv events happening in London: the Slapdash International Improv Festival and the 50-hour Hoopla Improv Marathon. This meant I had shows to see and perform in, and a wild number of friends in town. Improv, I just don’t know how to quit you.

I landed at Heathrow and took the tube to my host Phil’s neighborhood, with markets and cafés and double-decker buses and a peculiar number of barber shops. London’s concentrated diversity was everywhere—races, accents, and languages in abundance that’s hard to find outside of New York City.

I dumped the bags and headed back downtown. My first and biggest stop of the day was the British Museum, where 3,000-year-old sarcophagi lay in front of me, nothing but the honor system stopping me from placing my hands where some anonymous stoneworker placed theirs, over a hundred generations ago.

The magnificence of these ancient civilizations persists. Look upon my Works, ye mighty, and despair, the enormous statues instruct the gawking tourists. What of ours will tourists stare at 3,000 years in the future? Given how little stonework we do these days, I figure, not much.

A dedicated gallery displayed large portions of the Parthenon, which I would’ve expected to see when I visited—ya know—the Parthenon. The British Museum’s open dirty secret is how many of its greatest hits are straight-up plunder. One ancient Egyptian obelisk was labeled as a “gift from King George III” and I’m PRETTY SURE HE WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL OWNER, GUYS.2

Without consulting a map—intentionally so; I was happy to wander—I left the museum and walked roughly in the direction I figured the Thames was in. I managed to miss it entirely, but I did stumble upon Trafalgar Square and finally found a bridge at Big Ben. I’d forgotten to switch to my comfy shoes. The blisters were a-comin’.

After strolling along the southern waterfront (and discovering I was in the wrong neighborhood entirely), I finally got to the Slapdash venue, where I found an astonishing number of improv friends both expected and unexpected. It was like a family reunion. The highlight of the night’s shows was Decibel, a silent-improv trio featuring my friend Jacintha from Finland.

I stayed at the afterparty way too late, then doubled down by cabbing over to the Hoopla Theater, where they were midway through their 50-hour marathon. I watched improv to the point of true delirium (improvised Rick and Morty?!) before finally heading back to Phil’s place for a few hours of sleep. Sunday morning we headed right back to the theater; it was time for the antepenultimate3 History Under the Influence.

Jet lag + a few gin-and-Sprites make Kevin a silly boy. My cast performed wonderfully as we documented the Russian Revolution, the dissolution of the monasteries, and Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power. (“Did you guys see Ratatouille? It was like that, with an evil butterfly.”)

Thankfully, and as per plan, I hadn’t gotten so drunk as to waste the rest of my day. I took a 20-minute cat nap in the pub downstairs from the theater, then walked 10 minutes to the Tate Modern, the second of my two big museum visits.

Now, look, real talk: I’m not a super modern-art guy. But I only rolled my eyes a few times. There was some great great stuff, including the requisite Dalis and Pollocks and Rothkos, and entirely new discoveries.

Next I walked on the Millennium Bridge across the Thames.4 Looming in front of me was St. Paul’s, the overpoweringly enormous cathedral finished in 1720. I arrived during the informal changing of the guard, as Sunday-afternoon parishioners filed out and Sunday-afternoon tourists filed in. I examined crypts and sarcophagi and statues that were ostentatious AF; the bus-sized tribute to Lord Nelson is truly ridiculous. I then sat for a few minutes under the tremendous dome, neck craned back, staring at the frescoes and finding fascinating details everywhere.

Here’s a fun historic anecdote: on September 10, 1940, a German bomb crashed through the roof of St. Paul’s and failed to detonate. The bomb squad quickly conducted what was surely the highest-stakes defusing job of their careers, then hauled the bomb into the countryside and exploded it, creating a 100-foot crater. That’s how close we were to having lost this thing.

I took a couple of hours to rest my foots at Phil’s place and watch Phil’s Netflix, before finding dinner at the nearby kabob stank and making one last improv pilgrimage to the final hour of the Hoopla marathon. The night ended with drinks and stories at Phil’s kitchen table. I was in bed at something like a reasonable hour.

Off I go in a couple of hours to Heathrow, then to Cape Town, by way of Dubai. (Go check out a globe if you don’t realize how out of the way that is. Including this stop in London, my route from Texas to South Africa would make Indiana Jones scratch his head.)

Iceland Blu-Ray Special Features

Iceland Blu-Ray Special Features

After a 10-minute cab ride, 50-minute bus ride, 6-hour flight to JFK, mad dash through customs, and 3 1/2-hour flight to Austin, I got home at 1:30 in the morning on Friday.

Bye Iceland.

Today’s a day for laundry and unpacking and not spending any money oh god.

Here’s some random thoughts and observations on the trip that never got into a blogpost.

Looks like some sort of alien submarine creature.

  • I made a critical miscalculation in my desire to see the Northern Lights: there was no, way, in, hell I was going to get out of my sleeping bag in the frigid dark and open the camper door just to check if they were out. If I could get some kind of northern-lights Amber Alert on my phone, then we’re talking.
  • I never mentioned cairns. Icelanders used them as navigational waypoints way back in the day, and they’re still all over the place—sometimes standing alone on a hill, sometimes in lines that stretch for miles next to the modern-day road.
  • Apparently Icelanders love basketball? I saw hoops outside of most schools, and at the restaurant in Akureyi, a group at the next table were closely watching a livestream of a women’s basketball game.
  • Akureyi is the second-largest city in Iceland and it has 18,041 people. The tenth-largest city has 2,546. This is a sparsely inhabited place.
  • Reykjavik meanwhile is blowing up, with construction cranes on every block. I heard how hard this country was hit by the recession, but it seems they’ve turned that frown upside down. It’s the Austin of the north.
  • This country is safe, I mean like leave-your-keys-in-the-ignition safe. One possible reason is a lack of class struggle:

    A study of the Icelandic class system found only 1.1% of participants identified themselves as upper class, while 1.5% saw themselves as lower class.

    The remaining 97% identified themselves as upper-middle class, lower-middle class, or working class. (source)

  • Prices were so expensive that I kept thinking I was doing the math wrong. (It’s basically 100:1, we’re not talking advanced calculus here.)

    Aww a cute little puffin toyWHATTT
  • I was here for 15 days, and I didn’t handle Icelandic currency once. I’m not even sure what it looks like.
  • Iceland takes Easter seriously. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Easter weekend are all national holidays.
  • It sounds like a cliché, but I seriously missed enough stops on this trip to justify a second trip. If I do ever come back, it’ll be in the summer, when I can visit the more remote areas that were closed this time around. And see puffins.
  • It’s the last trip I’m taking with this passport. I have stamps for Australia, Finland, The Netherlands, Greece, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Thailand1.
  • You can tell the Icelanders. They’re not wearing hats.

Here’s the only real memento I brought back: I collected sand from beaches in the north, south, east, and west of Iceland, plus volcanic ash (and a little water) from the glacier.

Iceland Day 14: ACTION PACKED

Iceland Day 14: ACTION PACKED

I went downstairs for breakfast.

I went back to my room and put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door.

I left again for lunch.

I met this dog.

Voff-voff!

The weather was quintessentially Icelandic—sometimes snowing, sometimes sunny, sometimes both.

Snow in the sunlight. I'll miss you, #Iceland.

A post shared by Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on

I literally cried laughing at this.

https://storify.com/vjzuylen/please-stop-roasting-my-goddamned-shoes

I dozed.

And then, almost as a dare to myself to brave the cold one last time, I walked 10 minutes down the street to dinner. The wind blew at me from literally all four directions. I was pelted by frozen rain while the sun shone on my face.

Ahhh, Iceland, how I’ll miss you.

Iceland Day 13: Cake compared to yesterday

Iceland Day 13: Cake compared to yesterday

The end of my crazy Rescue 911 day was remarkably mundane: watching “Black Mirror” in the back of my camper while sipping hot chocolate with a wee nip of whiskey. For the final time, I went through my settling-in routine: suitcases shoved to one side, couch folded down to a bed, curtains drawn, dish cloth draped over the skylight, myself zipped into the sleeping bag, heater turned off. The next morning, everything in reverse order.

My neck and back were in open rebellion after 10 nights in Björk. But I had good news for them: after folding my giant paper map of Iceland every which way, I had finally come back around to the quadrant that included Reykjavik. The end was, at least on paper, in sight.

But we don’t head in a straight line to the end point, my friends. Not even—ESPECIALLY not—when we’ve survived a Snowstorm Rescue the day before.

And so, instead of driving south from Borgarnes to Reykjavik, I turned east on highway 50.

If Bob Ross had been my road trip companion, he would have thankfully reloaded his color palette at this point—deep browns, greens, reds, and yellows, with black and white needed only for the mountains in the distance.

The valley was broad and flat, and river meandered through it in senseless cursive loops. I might have been in Missouri, if the plumes of white in the distance had been brush fires, rather than steam emerging from underground.

I arrived at the viewing area for two adjacent waterfalls. At Barnafossar, the river funnels through a jagged channel of lava rock that’s only about 1200 years old. The churning water is so violent that it could pass for milk.

Just a bit farther down, Hraunfossar pours water into the right bank of the river for almost a kilometer.

For not-the-first time on this trip, I was frustrated with how pictures fail to capture the sights in person. Some of this stuff you just need to be there for.

Björk’s check-engine light had been lit since I first picked her up ten days prior. (“It’s just the emissions,” said the employee cheerily.) Now, though, the light had begun to blink and the engine had noticeably lost power. I called the Happy Campers service line, and since I was so close, they told me to just bring it on in to Reykjavik. I rubbed the narwhalrus for luck and we continued south.

Oh yeah, he’s been with me this whole time.

I was in a rush to return the camper by 4pm. Even so, I took one last sightseeing stop to Glymurfoss, Iceland’s tallest waterfall1 just a bit north of Reykjavik. It was a bit of a bust to see the falls themselves; the best viewpoint is from the opposite side of the river, and the only way to get across (dry) is on a log bridge that’s only open in the summer. But the hike out and back was super-fun, requiring a climb down through a cave tunnel and up a steep muddy slope. And the ravine itself was impressive on its own.

Back to the car. Time for the real, actual, home stretch.

I drove back up the south side of the valley, along the base of a long dark slope with streaks of green moss and white snow straining to meet each other in the middle. Signs of civilization began reappearing: semi trucks, overpasses, four-lane roads, police cars, even a Toys R Us. Björk and I limped back to port, check-engine light flashing urgently the whole way.

That’ll do, Björk. That’ll do.

Happy Campers is located near the airport, so to get back to town I took the airport shuttle again, almost like I was rebooting my trip. The landscape drifted by once more outside the window. It was so strange and new when I first arrived. It’s still strange, but now I know it well.

I had a beer at the hotel bar and a yummy noodle bowl from a place around the corner. I retreated to my room, drank whiskey, watched BBC, and otherwise did as little as possible. I slept in a bed. Like a rock.

 

Iceland Day 12: Like Baywatch, but the opposite

Iceland Day 12: Like Baywatch, but the opposite

Coming down out of the Westfjords on Sunday afternoon, with sunlight on my face and dust on the road, I’d had a subconscious feeling of being home free. Oh, Iceland was not done with me yet, my friends.

The weather was mild and dry when I left the campsite in Stykkishólmur on Monday morning. I drove west on the Snaefellsness peninsula, taking a detour through Berserkjahraun, a seemingly endless field of lava rocks in weird formations.

 

It began to snow gently as I continued westward, then right at the turn of the peninsula, the wind picked up. And picked up. And picked up some more.

 

Snow flew sideways as I headed south along the tip of the peninsula. Björk was weaving as much as ever, this time due solely to the incredible wind speed. I found myself in third gear, then second, then first. Even at 20kph I was all over the road. Miraculously, a turn-off area materialized out of the whiteness, and I pulled over to wait it out, along with another van.

Björk was rocking on her axles like a boat at sea. Just for funsies, I tried opening my front door a smidge—it required a SERIOUS amount of effort. If the wind had been blowing in the other direction, I have little doubt it could have taken the door right off its hinges.1

With nothing else to do, I climbed into the back of the camper, typed the first part of this entry, and caught up on my podcasts. There was heat, food, water, power, and even a bottle of Viking Toasted Porter left in the mini-fridge; just about the pleasant-est waiting experience imaginable. But even after 2+ hours, the wind was still hammering away.

At last, bright flashing lights appeared alongside me on the road: an enormous rescue 4×4. A fellow in a bright red parka hopped out and walked up alongside like a typical traffic stop. He told me that the forecast was even worse for later in the day, Björk was at risk of tipping over, and they needed to extract us from that location.

A real live rescue operation!!

More excited than worried, I grabbed my bag and exited Björk on the leeward side2. I then walked around the camper and was SLAPPED in the face by the snow and wind. My hood flew off my head and I staggered back a step. Sweet Christmas. With difficulty, I made it the few steps to the rescue truck and climbed inside.

“Welcome to Iceland!” the driver said cheerfully.

I was joined by the couple from the camper that had pulled up behind me, and we all headed down the road. Even this monster truck was buffeted back and forth. We passed one poor little hatchback that had been blown clear off the road. (Another truck arrived to help.)

After chatting amongst themselves, the rescue staff seemed to change their minds, and we returned to the campers. I then handed off my keys to one of the guys and sat in the back seat of the 4×4 as we drove down the highway side-by-side, our vehicle acting as a windbreaker for Björk.

Fast and the Furious: Reykjavik Drift

After just a couple of miles we reached a little turn-off area and everybody pulled off. It didn’t seem especially less windy, but they seemed to think we were good from here. The Rescuers shook our hands and sent us cautiously on our way.

At their instruction, but also because it was still windy AF, I was forced to skip several stops on the southern edge of the peninsula: the striking rock formations on the beach at Londrangar, the cave tour at Vatnshellir, the scenic ravine at Rauðfeldsgjá. Next time, guys.  :\

Björk struggled mightily against the wind descending onto a broad plain, with mighty snow-covered slopes ascending to the north, and furious white waves pounding the beach to the south. Scenic, but also un-photographable in my current condition. After another two hours I made it off the peninsula and back to the Ring Road, at a town called Borgarnes. I was super-hangry, but I found a nice Bucee’s-style mart and got inside for Wi-Fi and a hot dog.

And here I am!

Tomorrow is my final leg to Reykjavik, with a few scenic stops en route, and hopefully less CRAZY FREAKING WIND. Then I return Björk, and I’ve got 48 hours to chill in town, probably doing as little as possible, before at long last flying home.

If this had happened on my second day in Iceland, it might have put me in an extremely sour mood. Coming near the end, though, it’s just one more wild turn.

I’m gonna miss this weird place, y’all.