Texan Trilogy, Act I: The Houston job

As I make my way back to the airport, I glance at the rearview mirror. Stretching over the concrete highway, a long procession of memories from the last three months follows me. In front of me, clearer than the approaching runway, I see my friends and family back home. The push and pull between discovery and home had been constant during those months. Torn between the excitement of the unfamiliar and the serenity of the familiar, the latter had often pulled harder. But now that I was going away, I already missed the ones I was leaving behind.

It had started with a phone call.

“Hey Verne, what do you know about Houston?”
“Enough: It’s muggy, there’s flash floods every Tuesday, and it’s 16 hours away from Lisbon”
“Don’t be such a drama queen. It’s only 15 hours away”

In the last years I made a habit out of working no further than Europe, so I could fly home for the weekend. While that makes for spectacular Saturdays and Sundays, it reduces the rest of the week to a desolate commute between office and hotel. With an eye on repeating the experience of living in Brussels – a cold place where I met some of my warmest friends – I found myself swapping a carry-on for checked-in luggage and catching a flight to Texas.

Early in the first morning, stirred by the idea that some exercise would help with the jet lag, I stumbled out of the hotel. I didn’t run very far, as the dim lighting ended my torpor in spectacular fashion, with a fall that scored my knee and bruised my ego. A couple of hours later, hopelessly trying to keep the crusted knee from sticking to the suit pants, I met my two new colleagues. In a crowded room and over a very American breakfast, three Europeans studied each other intently.

She was half Bulgarian and half German. The former gave her intensity, the latter efficiency. Having learned to read by herself at the age of three, she was now wrapping up a PhD in Germany but nevertheless took a 70 hour a week engagement in Texas. Enthusiasm and brains, neatly organised into a long-legged blond. I shall call her the Tall Doctor.

He barely looked 17, but that hasty impression quickly vanished when he first spoke. Raised in a small German village without a TV, top of his class in college, he now spent his weekends on 48-hour hackathons and his evenings building prototypes to test an overflowing current of new ideas. I would call him Dexter if not for the fact that he too was taller than me, so he shall be the Wonder Kid.

So there stood the Tall Doctor, the Wonder Kid and the limping Portuguese, ahead of three months together. Spending so much time with someone will either create a bond for life or a complete disconnect, never something in the middle. What were the odds that these three very different characters would choose the former? Over the next months, we would spend our days labouring over spreadsheets and our free time discovering Houston and its Houstonians. Indeed exploration doesn’t necessarily require flip-flops, sometimes a pair of uncomfortable dress shoes will do just fine. There’s less time to wander, but more opportunities to interact.

This suited me, as my curiosity about Houston was second only to my fascination with Texans. Did they all wear cowboy hats and lived in prairie houses surrounded by rattlesnakes? Were there more guns than cell phones? Did they even know where Portugal is?

As it often happens, my preconceptions had missed the mark entirely. The only cowboy hat I saw was on a tourist. Houston is the fourth most populous city in the US, leaving little room for rattlesnakes. There may be more guns than cellphones – the rent-a-car lady did warn us not to honk – but they are kept out of sight. And they definitely know where Portugal is.

Houston itself is built for who lives there, not for who drops in for a visit. A car is essential, as the city is spread across multiple clusters connected by a web of concrete highways (the Wonder Kid discovered this the hard way, when he tried to walk from the hotel to the office and found no sidewalks). Huddled in our tiny European rental car, the three of us navigated through Houston’s web, from the city’s parks to Kemah’s gulf-facing boardwalk, from Houston’s downtown to NASA’s Space Center, where the Apollo missions were manned.

Our tiny blue car paled in comparison to the monster pick-ups that surrounded us, but we soon found out why Houstonians commute on apocalypse-ready vehicles. One night, a storm of biblical proportions sparked flash floods throughout the city, and we woke up with water reaching the hotel’s front lobby. One look from the receptionist told us that our car was meant to whizz through the narrow streets of Rome, not burrow through a flood.

As in any play, the stage merely frames the main characters. In my Texan memories, dead center in that rearview mirror, stand the Tall Doctor and the Wonder Kid. These photographs from Houston, seemingly devoid of human interaction, remind me not of places but of them. We’ll be back to this plot in the next two acts of our Texan Trilogy.

The second act is out, read it here.

Verne*

61 thoughts on “Texan Trilogy, Act I: The Houston job

      1. Hahaha….no more Lisbon. I just have to live in suspense I guess…..or with assumptions, which I am good at anyway…making assumptions. Enjoy Houston with that nrw guy DT…..eeeeek.

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      2. Curious to hear your assumptions, I promise to tell if you get it right 🙂 Funny you mention DT: the three Texas counties I visited (Houston, San Antonio and Austin) all voted Clinton, the vast majority of the other counties voted Trump

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    1. Thank you! I take all pictures in color and decide which ones to convert to B&W in post-processing. I like B&W in images that emphasize texture and contrast, like the clouds on the cover photograph or the seagulls in the other colorless image.

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  1. Simpáticas memórias de um período que deve ter sido bastante doloroso, com as 16 horas de diferença de Portugal e um joelho acidentado! (A propósito, qual é mesmo a tua profissão? 😉

    Maravilhosas fotos, gostei imenso das de Kemah Boardwalk (as gaivotas até parecem mais bonitas que as da minha terra, mas não acredito que sejam, deve ser arte do fotógrafo…)!

    Pois claro, viajar permite-nos actualizar-nos e ultrapassar preconceitos. Antigamente os estrangeiros confundiam Portugal com Espanha, mas agora já não. As pessoas estudam mais (digo eu!),e nós, recentemente, ganhámos o Euro, para já não falar do Joaquim Alves Gaspar, que ganhou uma Starting Grant do Conselho Europeu de Investigação… Somos famosos!

    E venha o resto da Trilogia… 🙂

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  2. Hi! First of all good luck with the Houston job (although I note that someone has already tried to dig for what it actually is…) You have a distinct prowess in capturing the extraordinary in the ordinary – very inspirational indeed & can’t wait to see more!! 😊

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    1. Thank you Jolene, already working hard on the next two acts! I didn’t mean to give my profession of aura of mystery (there’s nothing mysterious about it), but rather divert all attention to the two main characters of this story: the tall doctor and the wonder kid 🙂

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  3. You’re right about Houston–it’s a town meant for vehicles and unless you’re downtown, there’s no real walking anywhere. I’ve lived around it my whole life and only grew to appreciate it for its own particular weirdness and other contributions a few years ago (and I love NASA–wish I could afford to go back). Houston wasn’t much to talk about until NASA came along and then the SPRAWL!!! So yeah, I think you got the general idea of it. Some of the town needs to be jacked up about two feet so the roads aren’t so bad during heavy rains. Hope you had fun and didn’t get too lost.

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    1. I absolutely had fun in Houston! The car thing was a nuisance at first, as I like to walk everywhere, but it’s super easy to drive in Houston: people are courteous and there’s parking everywhere. I did get lost a couple of times trying to avoid the EZ-TAG tollways though 🙂 The last time we spoke I remember noting that you were from Texas. At the time I was writing this post and though about mentioning it to you, but I said to myself: “Verne, Texas is half the size of Europe. What are the odds of our fellow introvert being from Houston?” 🙂

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  4. I live in Alberta, the Texas of Canada. I can totally appreciate your comments about the number and size of the pick-up trucks! All I want to drive is a cute little European zippy car… but the winters here just can’t get in line with that desire! Love the way you write. Your metaphors and your sense of humour are so much fun.

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      1. I’m sure it wouldn’t! I remember a driving trip we did through the Peloponnese one year…. even our tiny rental car had a hard time fitting. I’m sure the wonderfully historic cities & towns of Portugal would be similar. Alberta was only built up/populated with settlers in the late 1800s and didn’t even join Canada until 1905, and it also has tons of space… and so the roads were built wide and the SUVs and pickup trucks are often huge! Have you seen any duelies yet? (Pick up trucks used in the oil patch for hauling heavy equipment with double wheels on each side of the truck bed)?

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      2. I did! It was sitting at the office parking, barely fitting inside the rather generous painted white lines. The tall front bumper had a winch and a camo paint job that wouldn’t look out of place in a ‘Walking Dead’ episode 🙂

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  5. Nice start on the Houston set. My memories of the place are mostly of long hours of layover in the airport waiting for connections further south, and an impression of immense humidity.

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      1. I remember that during the year I lived in Brussels I only turned off my apartment’s heating for a couple of weeks in August. Houston is the opposite: if you’re lucky you might be able to turn off the air con in December 🙂

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  6. Great storytelling. We all carry stereotypes of people in other parts of the world. There may be more stereotyped views of Texas and Texans than any other part of America. You’re a keen observer and a good storyteller. Glad you had the opportunity to get to know a place, rather than see. MOST American cities require a car to some degree. Sorry. We got started late, had lots of available space, and simply spread out.

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    1. Thanks Brad! It’s always with some hesitation that I talk about the US. I know enough about it (I lived in California for a couple of years when I was a kid and visit often) to be wary of the dangers of stereotypes, but not enough to always avoid them. Good to know I didn’t shoot myself in the foot this time 🙂

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  7. Although I have lived in Austin for almost 40 years, Houston is a place I’ve only been a few times… not many reasons for me to go. I really enjoyed seeing it through your eyes – your photos are lovely, and I enjoyed your descriptions. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy!

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  8. You summed up Houston perfectly! I am always amazed that visitors didn’t look on a map before coming (sub tropics) and they expect to see horses. You were very brave to drive a small car – my best car was an old Buick built like a tank. A BMW rear-ended it and crumpled into a tiny box. The Buick was stoically just scratched, much like Texans!

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  9. Well, you two are a fun find! (Although I guess, technically, you found me.) How odd also that you found me via that particular post of mine … did you recognize a photo location and make a connection? I’m a big fan of Houston although I haven’t lived there myself for decades. Your photo of the Hines waterfall really brought back memories; I was an oil and gas lender when that was built by Transco Energy Company (that was their tower right next to the fountain/waterfall), and they were my biggest client. One more thing: did you spend much time in Montrose? It is what I find the most walkable part of town and where I think I’d live if (when?) I went back.

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    1. Hi there! I (Verne here) stumbled onto your blog while searching for posts about the US (I’m always curious to hear the thoughts of others about the places I’ve visited), and then lingered on browsing through other familiar places. By the way, I’m afraid I couldn’t find your blog’s name in John Lennon’s Wall, this past Summer…

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    2. I didn’t spend that much time in Montrose, just a couple of visits to Bayou Park. My hotel was near the Hines waterfall, so I ended up walking/running mostly in this area. This included a 45 minute jog in Memorial Park that turned into a 120 minute one because I couldn’t find the exit anymore 🙂

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  10. This was a fun read! Loved the photos. Although I don’t live in Houston, I’ve been there a couple of dozen times. Don’t worry about stereotyping a place. I’m in Oklahoma, and people always think it’s still “cowboys and Indians” here. Although… in a few places people do ride their horses to the Sonic Drive-In, or the MacDonald’s drive-through. 😉

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    1. Thanks for reading! I would love to visit Oklahoma. So far my trips to the US resemble puzzle making: I’ve been to the edges (West Coast, East Coast and now the South) but not yet to the middle 🙂 -Verne

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