A Quiet Scene of Street Art in Astoria

Queens is kind of an unknown quantity for many people, even for those who live in other boroughs of New York City. And when visitors to Queens finally discover the charm of the borough, such as its unparalleled culinary diversity, they usually end up walking away with another unavoidable impression: its ugly buildings. A friend of mine even runs a blog devoted to Astoria’s homely architectural specimens.

Recently, something has begun to stir in this terrain of utilitarian construction. For the past year, on a block of 38th Street free of attractions or heavy foot traffic, a pocket of street art has begun dressing up those nondescript postwar walls. The efficient flatness of the buildings and the monotony of closed metal grates have become large canvases, free of Victorian turrets and detailed, molded façades that would have limited the usable space. I will share the fruits of this pocket below. But first, is ‘pocket’ the correct zoological term for a cluster of street art? Should it be a gaggle? Herd? Clash? Congregation?

I think I’ll go with scene.









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Mazurkas and Biguines: A Musical Journey through Martinique

A drummer plays a gwo-ka drum at Restaurant Barracuda. Anse Mitan, Martinique

A man began hunting for LP records in Martinique. What happened next will shock you!

Just kidding. There’s nothing shocking about it. Unless the thought of feeling the rumble of live drums up close scares you.

Following the Grooves in Martinique” is my latest piece for Perceptive Travel. Ever wonder where the biguine began? If you are thinking about the composer Cole Porter and his famous number, he didn’t get the rhythm quite right. In the story linked above, I let music be my vehicle as I explore the island of Martinique, a vibrant, far-flung piece of France in the Caribbean. I hope you enjoy it.

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Une Grande Fête with the Acadians of Prince Edward Island

Joe Narcisse band, Abram Village

On a recent visit to the western end of Prince Edward Island, the old stomping grounds of my maternal grandfather, I was curious to see what my far distant cousins were up to. I picked a good weekend—the region was holding its annual Acadian Festival and Agricultural Exposition in the town of Abram Village.

The area, known as the Région Évangéline, is the where the island’s Acadian heritage is strongest. The Acadians are descendants of French settlers in Eastern Canada, a people who withstood a turbulent history. After the British gained control of Acadia in the 1700s, the Acadians refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Britain. The Brits, fearing the Acadians would support France in future conflicts, rounded up over 3,000 Acadians on the island, burned down their houses, and deported them to France in 1758. Over half of the expelled population died from shipwrecks or disease. The event is known as the Grand Dérangement, or the Great Expulsion.

A few Acadians, however, basically said to the British, “Screw you, we ain’t leaving,” and hid out in the woods with the Mi’kmaq nation, their allies against British aggression. The expelled population that survived was soon allowed by treaty to return to the island and joined the few Acadians that had remained. But they faced difficulties in keeping their language. As late as the 1960s, there were no schools giving classes in French in the city of Summerside. According to historian Georges Arsenault, the Acadians of Summerside wrote a letter to their bishop asking for a French-language mass, since many of the parishioners were French-speaking Acadians. The bishop contacted the local priest, who then exploded at the pulpit and accused the Acadians of being Communists.

Presently, the Acadians of Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, can freely speak their language, and the announcer of the festival’s lobster eating contest nimbly switched between French and English when stating the rules of the competition to the crowd of amused onlookers.

Lobster eating contest, Acadian Festival, Abram VillageWinner: Joel Arsenault, left.The contestants start with a whole, steamed lobster. The person who eats all of the tail, knuckle, and claw meat first is the winner. Utensils? As if to nod to the resourcefulness of past generations of Acadian settlers, none are provided. A lobster doesn’t contain that much meat, so the eating part is the easy part. Accessing that meat as fast as you can, using only your hands and teeth, is where skill comes into play.

Two heats of contestants demonstrated the Acadian appetite for lobster. Some clamped down molars, others punched the claws in a staccato viciousness. In the end, the fastest eater, who was also last year’s winner, was penalized for leaving a little piece of knuckle meat in the shell. The judge was boldly meticulous while examining the shell debris of the contestants, dipping her bare hands into the mess of shards on a mission to find the true winner. Serious business, this Acadian lobster eating contest. The trophy, emblazoned with a silhouette of a lobster, was awarded to the second fastest finisher, Joël Arsenault, who managed to eat the shells clean. He also received another prize: ten fresh lobsters (that he could eat at his own pace).


Joe Narcisse band and dancersJust as the contestants went at the crustaceans with no utensils, the band La Famille des Joe Narcisse provided percussion to accompany their guitar, fiddle, and keyboard outfit without any percussion instruments. They stomped on the stage while still seated to keep the beat. “It’s the Acadian weight-loss challenge,” the guitarist called it. Halfway through the set, a group of dancers hopped on stage and picked up where the foot-stomping left off.


kevin Naquin and the Ossun PlayboysThe word Cajun derives from the word Acadian (the bayou of Louisiana was where many expelled Acadians ended up), and this year, the Festival invited Kevin Naquin and the Ossun Playboys, a group of the Acadians’ long-lost relatives from the Bayou, to play up north. “It’s like dancing at home,” the keyboardist announced. As expected, lobster-versus-crawfish jokes abounded.


pole climbersThe pole climbing show was part acrobatics, part comedy skit performed in a jumble of French and English.


first place chickenHistorically, Acadians have been both farmers and fishermen, working the land and the sea. The coastal terrain the Acadians populate reflects such a connection to the environment. The Festival gave awards to the best livestock, although I’m afraid I’m unsure of what criteria one uses to judge the best chicken. The timbre of its clucks? the fluffiness of its feathers? And another question: does a first place ribbon exempt the bird from ending up in a simmering pan of chicken fricot?


Boot throwing man, Acadian FesitvalBoot throwing woman, Acadian FestivalThe boot throwing competition was one of the Festival’s largest draws. The longest throw wins, bouncing included. One of the groundskeepers, who won a few years ago, gave me seasoned boot-throwing advice: since the boot has an opening that can catch the air and slow it down, you have to throw it in such a way that the opening is toward the back as much as possible.


Acadian tattooI spotted this biker, tattooed with the Acadian flag, enjoying the pole climbing show.


Lobster trap with acadian flag, Abram VillageOne of the houses in town displayed the Acadian flag on a pair lobster traps in the middle of their lawn.


Steamed lobstersSpeaking of lobster, my wife and I had our turn at the Resto-Bar la Trappe. Last I checked, lobster is not an endangered species. But based on the amount of times we took advantage of the inexpensiveness of the local catch while we were on Prince Edward Island, I think the scientists should check again.

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Candombe Comes to Queens

Candombe drummers in Long Island City, QueensWhen a friend of mine from Uruguay mentioned on social media that he was not only in the country, but performing in my borough, I had to check it out. Little did I know that my friend, candombe drummer and music historian Tatita Marquez, would be just one part of last night’s festivities at Long Island City’s newly-opened Paper Factory Hotel to celebrate the birthday of the hotel’s owner, Gal Sela.

As if to underscore the magnitude of the celebration, the candombe drumming didn’t even begin inside the swanky hotel itself, but on 37th Avenue, right outside the hotel. This was not some provocative maneuver. As I narrated in a piece I wrote for Perceptive Travel a few years back, groups of candombe drum players, or cuerdas, are frequently seen and heard in the streets of Montevideo and other Uruguayan cities. Tatita and crew treated us to a Uruguayan experience, right here in Queens.

Candombe drumming in Long Island City, QueensThe street sign for 37th Avenue is visible above, in case you might be thinking that this happened on Calle Isla de Flores in Montevideo. Also, the cuerdas in Montevideo usually consist of many more than six drummers. Check out A Dialog of Echoes in Uruguay for more background and pictures from Montevideo.

Blue bird fire dancer at the Paper Factory Hotel.And here is a sampling of the other acts, starting with a roof-top fire dancer. By roof, I mean a roof of an old Blue Bird school bus.

Finger painter at the Paper Factory Hotel.A finger painter.

The High and Mighty Brass Band at the Paper Factory Hotel, July 31, 2014.The courtyard was also treated to a set of New Orleans-influenced tunes from a stripped-down lineup of the High and Mighty Brass Band (from Brooklyn).

Bus top hip-hopBus top hip-hop meets A Clockwork Orange. I think.

Tatita Marquez and Darrin DuFord at the Paper Factory Hotel.Tatita and I.

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Belize’s Lionfish: If You Can’t Beat Them, Eat Them

lionfish_tableTargeting invasive species with a dinner fork, especially a species known for its own bottomless appetite, can result in satisfying justice. It’s all the better when the critter in question makes a satisfying meal. Belize, along with the rest of the Caribbean, is currently battling the lionfish invasion with enthusiastic culinary experimentation.

To do my part, I met up with a Belizean diver and several restaurateurs during a recent trip. My story, Man vs. Fish, appears on the award-winning travel journalism site Roads & Kingdoms. Tuck in your napkin and enjoy the ride.





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