Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 31, 2004. Austin, Texas.

Austin is nice. And visiting friends is easy. Keith and Jonathan are people Iíve known since 1987, when I was in Tunisia doing my dissertation research. Keith was doing his dissertation research as well, and Jonathan was teaching English. Seventeen years later, Keith is a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas and Jonathan an immigration lawyer with his own business. Some of the people I met in Tunis back in 1987 I barely remember, but for some reason Iíve always thought of Keith and Jonathan as ongoing parts of my life, even though I hardly ever see them.

Austin seems like the right place for them Ė and, perhaps, for me. Itís on my list of possible cities to settle in, when Iíve had enough of the road. I loved the weather in December, though, which is a bad sign Ė most of the year Iíd probably melt into a puddle on the ground. Austin is the home of UT and of the state government, two institutions that I can imagine are frequently at odds, given Texas politics. Itís famous for being the folk music capital of the US. Itís full of coffee houses, it has good used bookstores, itís easy to bike in, and itís not quite as suburban as many of the cities Iíve visited. Perhaps because it is the capital of a red state whose governor was George W, itís not as new age as my other favorite college town, Boulder. Maybe thatís why it seemed so congenial to me. It has the liberal culture of a college town without feeling provincial. And it has at least some of the feel of a real city, without being as horribly expensive as New York. It doesnít feel like a mass of strip development, the way Tucson does. It feels real, though itís neither as old nor as densely settled as eastern cities. Itís organic, not the real estate developerís imitation of a city that are downtown San Antonio and Phoenix.

It has a river, too. I took my kayak out on Town Lake, as the river is known thanks to dams at both ends of the city. There are several rowing clubs that anyone can join; Keith is a member of one of them. Sign me up! I havenít been out in a shell in twenty years, and Iíd love to do that again. At the upstream end of the river is a small island park, where dozens of dogs splashed in the water as their people chatted on the shores. Downtown, the paths along the water were crowded with walkers, runners, bikers, and folks just hanging out. On the river, I came across a couple in sea kayaks who turned out be both avid paddlers and avid bird-watchers. We took Barton Creek as far we could, following birds in the water and people on the shore. At the downstream end of Town Lake I watched coots, scaup, wood ducks, and other feathery creatures dipping and diving in the

water. If it had been warmer out I would have gone for a swim in the famous Barton Springs Pool, a vast spring-fed swimming pool that has been the subject of an extensively-analyzed watershed protection movement as development threatens to contaminate its source waters. Austin is the kind of town where there would be a community uproar about sprawling development that puts a treasured pool at risk. Itís an educated town, full of people fighting to make the city what they want it to be.

It is also half Hispanic, but that side of the city is much less visible. When I told the paddlers on the river that Iíd launched my boat downstream of the I-35 bridge they looked a bit alarmed, suggesting that it might not be so safe to leave my van there. When I mentioned it to a boy at the Texas Rowing Center, where I pulled alongside the dock to inspect the shells, he seemed quite taken aback. Keith and Jonathan pretty much suggested that the far side of I-35 was "the wrong side of the tracksĒ in Austin, and that the road had been placed where it was to create a buffer between the upper-middle classes of the university and the state house and the less affluent Hispanics. Indeed, when I drove down to the park where I launched my kayak, the sudden change in neighborhoods when I went under the interstate was striking, to say the least. But I never did go further into the east side of town, so I donít know what itís all about.

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