Saturday, October 10, 2009
As we get ready to pack our suitcases and print our boarding passes, it's time to wind up the week in food. Thanks to the recommendations of our concierge and a fantastic book on Boston's restaurants that Kathy got me at the Green Valley Book Fair, we have eaten well. Here are some highlights:
Sasso: Upscale, attentive service, and a fantastic table by the window, whereby we watched Boston walk past. The seared scallops I had were particularly wonderful, as were the crab cakes I had as an appetizer. We'd go back.
Legal Sea Foods: Yes, it's a chain, but it's a family-owned chain, and they do have a commitment to the freshest and healthiest seafood possible. It was fabulous. I had salmon, but the real winner was Hank's lobster. (We can't come to Boston and NOT have lobster, can we?) My only problem here was very inattentive service. We'd go back, but we'd pray for a different waiter.
Fiore: By Italians for Italians in the North End. Fantastic antipasti (with the exception of the pickled eggplant. I think Hank liked it.) Great pasta and original sauces, plus, we ate in the courtyard, watching the panoply of humans and listening to the Italian family next to us. The staff was wonderfully friendly, too.
We also had some great lunch and snack experiences that are worth a note.
Finagle a Bagle. This one came from Kathy's book, and they're right, it's a delicious bagel topped with any one of a number of delicious things (I had lox once and regular cream cheese. Hank had sausage, egg, and cheese on a jalapeno-cheddar bagel. It can get complicated.) I just like to say "Finagle a Bagle."
Au Bon Pain: This was so handy for us that we had lunch here twice. I LOVE their soups and bread. Yesterday's lunch was particularly nice, because it was cool and rainy, and the soup really hit the spot.
Uno: The spinach-broccoli pizza was great, and the wildberry sangria wasn't bad, either.
P.F. Chang's: Fried green beans. That's all I'm gonna say.
The Boston Museum of Fine Art Cafe: Boston Clam Chowder is a specialty, and I had some, and it was great. Clam chowder is easy to get wrong. If the clams are tough, or the potato-onion balance is off, then it is pretty horrible all the way around. This was perfectly balanced, and, like lobster, you have to have some while you're here. (We also had Boston cream pie at Legal Sea Foods.)
We heard this and a lot of other history today because we went totally non-native and took a trolley tour. This was the best money we've ever spent, because we got to see all kinds of places we would never have gotten to on our own, like the campus of MIT, Charlestown and Bunker Hill, Long Wharf and the waterfront, and, of course, the heavily Italian North End.
The great thing about our trolley experience was that it's a hop-on, hop-off, so we spent the whole day looking at various areas. We walked down Long Wharf, first, and looked at the waterfront and at the view of the financial district from there. A short trolley-ride later, and we got off at the Boston Garden stop, to hike over to the Old North Church. (And here's an aside: We considered going to a Celtics game last night at the Garden, but the CHEAPEST tickets we could get, in the nosebleed seats, were $96. Good grief.) To continue, the trolleys can't go into the North End because the streets are really, really narrow. This is because they're pretty much the original streets. That doesn't mean that Franklin, Adams, and the rest would recognize anything -- Boston has had a lot of fires and calamity in its history. They'd recognize some things, though. Paul Revere's house is still standing, for example.
Let's see. Here in no particular order are some Fun Facts we either learned or experienced on today's foray, with many thanks to Joe and J, our trolley drivers. (And yes, we got off and on more than once, but we kept getting Joe's trolley.)
1. Boston has 290,000 college students living in the city on 88 campuses. We have been, (counting my travels earlier in the week) to Northeastern, Boston College, and MIT. We were in Cambridge, but elected not to take the MTA to Harvard. It's just as well nobody knew that we were from Virginia when the VT-BC score came through. We rolled past dozens more schools, and generally had a fine time.
2. When Franklin and Adams roamed the town, Boston was just the North End, connected to the rest of Massachusetts by a narrow peninsula. (Really narrow, like about 20 yards wide.) All of the Back Bay area, where our hotel sits, among other things, was underwater. The city dumped two of Boston's three hills into Back Bay to transform it into more Boston.
3. As an interesting side note to 2., we learned yesterday that Trinity Church is supported by wooden pilings sunk 40 feet into the fill gravel and kept underwater by pumps, so they don't rot.
4. Today we encountered a jillion cops and SWAT teams just south of Fenway Park. They had guns drawn and were ducking behind cars. We were fairly freaked out until we learned that somebody was shooting a scene for a movie.
5. The religious makeup of Boston is 45% Catholic, which is down from 60% fifteen years ago. A lot of Irish and Italians in Boston, which would, again, make those Puritan fathers scream. They really didn't like Catholics at all.
6. The Big Dig (that project that put all the interstates under the city) cost 17 BILLION dollars and took 16 years to complete. It was projected to cost $3 billion and be done in five years. Oops.
This is me enjoying the breeze on Long Wharf. The financial district is behind me. Boston Harbor is what I'm looking at. We have to note that, as a port city, Boston hasn't really been one in a long time. In terms of shipping traffic, Boston ranks below Huntington, West Virginia. (Coal barges, dontcha know?) It actually ranks below a lot of places, coming in at the 31st busiest U.S. port by weight.
Friday, October 9, 2009
The whole experience was breathtaking, and THEN we scored a free concert in their Friday Concert Series, an organist from Philadelphia who is incredible. She played two fugues, one Bach and one modern by Maruice Durufle. She also played an absolutely charming and playful piece by a composer named Ad Wammes, called Miroir. Oh, and she was 14 years old. We thoroughly enjoyed it, hence this immediate update.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find the place locked up tighter than a bank at midnight, despite the celebration of 9 a.m. mass, which must have finished shortly before I arrived. I have never, and I want to emphasize this, ever known a cathedral to be locked up. It's almost unthinkable. The cathedral is the one place you can be guaranteed a hushed, lofty peace in mid-city. I was completely disappointed, but not willing to give up hope.
On a mission, of sorts, I set off around the church, where I found a door ajar. I slipped inside and, well, may or may not have impersonated a nun. I do not think that impersonating a nun is a crime, if you do it to gain access to a cathedral, and furthermore, I don't think God minds. I certainly use my time in cathedrals to talk to Him. I went up a short flight of stairs and found myself in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, alone with one other worshipper, who was saying his rosary at the back of the room. I slipped into a pew, and tried to look sufficiently nun-like.
The chapel is a lovely room, as big as many churches themselves, but for some reason it is painted a deep pink. Its crucifix, at the eastern end, is said to contain a relic of the true cross. I was not about to inspect it, but include the Archbishop's own photo of it here; you can make up your own mind. The cathedral itself has beautiful glass, but a rather forbidding aspect. This could just have been my conscience.
One of the advantages of being fifty, with sensible gray hair and an imperious demeanor, is that no one challenges you if you look sufficiently confident, and so it was that I gained a limited access to the nave of the cathedral, dim and somber in the morning light. It was at this point that I did feel like a trespasser (in so many ways) and hastened away, still endeavoring to appear as nunly as possible. It wasn't until much later, when I was telling the story to a horrified but seriously amused Hank, that he asked me, "So, what did you do with your wedding ring?" I stared at him in horror -- in the heat of the moment, I forgot to take it off.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The museum itself is undergoing massive construction and renovation, so a number of galleries were closed, to my disappointment. It also has that highly disorienting layout that makes so many art museums so confusing -- gallery leads into gallery, which doubles back onto gallery, and pretty soon, you're going around and around the same statue of Buddha, which is why I tend not to visit the Asian art exhibits. (I DID, however, enjoy the gallery of antique Chinese furniture. Very simple and beautiful.)
Anybody who wants to tour the place can start at the MFA's fantastic website, http://www.mfa.org/index.asp. I have some observations to make that aren't exactly museum-specific.
1. Asia, India, and Indonesia must have produced craptons of "art," because every museum I have ever been in has had rooms and rooms of it. One wonders if there are any votive statues, family altars, antique porcelains, bronze Krishnas, or statues of the Buddha left anywhere in Asia. I think I saw all these same artifacts in Seattle, so I skipped through.
2. Why do middle schools insist on bringing three busloads of seventh graders to museums when I am there? Why, in fact, do they do this at all? The middle schoolers run shrieking through the galleries, waving the lists of questions their teachers have given them, and pooling their answers. They're having a blast, but it's so LOUD.
3. And that leads me to my next question: why are we so hushed and deferential in the presence of Art? It's not like we're going to wake it up or something. Certain pieces have left me speechless, for deeply personal reasons, (Mary Cassatt's "Baby Reaching for an Apple," for instance, and Titian's "Daniel"), but I'm not exactly sure why the middle schoolers shattering the quiet should be considered irreverant. The Appreciation of Art is, apparently, best conducted sotto voce.
4. Finally, where is Sarah and that convenient art history minor when I need her? She's better than a museum guidebook, plus, I can make comments to her that I probably couldn't make to anyone else.
Boston magazine did a surprisingly balanced retrospective of his life that stinted neither his hard work nor his flaws. It also listed his projects in and around Boston, and I have to say, whatever else his legacy may be, he's going to be remembered around here for a long, long time, as one of the city's greatest benefactors. He wasn't, according to people who are supposed to know, as bright as his brother John, or as passionate as his brother Bobby. He was, however, a tireless plodder, and those people can get quite a long way, indeed.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
I went there because it's the first stop on my tour of literary Boston, and it houses John Adams' personal library. Should you ever need to FIND John Adams' personal library, let me give you this easy series of steps.
1. Go into the Boston Public Library and lurk by the main stairs. Watch for an elderly man who looks as much as possible like the late G.P. Winship. It helps if he is wearing an old sweater and a preoccupied expression.
2. Follow him up three flights of marble stairs, through a gallery of some French guy's political cartoons, past two abandoned letterpress printing presses, and through a room full of storage shelves and ancient card catalogues, wherein six men in turbans will be looking assiduously at musical scores.
3. Turn left past the display of creepy marionettes, and go through the book-thief-detector.
4. Stop in the display room, even though your unwitting guide will be waltzing through to the reading room. You CAN have access to any of Adams' books, but you'll have to think of a plausible reason, and that's hard to do on the spur of the moment.
Seriously, the Adams' collection was amazing, if only because it's so easy to imagine him holding those leather-bound volumes. I spent a LONG time at the BPL, exploring the building and reading histories of Boston in the reading room. I may have to move to Boston just so I can be near this place.
After I tore myself away, I bought a DMD at a drugstore, and drank it on the steps of Trinity Church, where I also made friends with a Great Pyrenees named Letty, and her owner. I have found Bostonians surprisingly friendly. The only experience I'd had with people from Massachusetts was in San Francisco, where our little pension also held six cranky and and pushy people from Cambridge. Turns out, they must have been anomalies.
From Trinity, I went to the Public Garden, where I sat on a bench and sketched, while my aching hip rested. Remembering the monster sketchbook that I made Kathy lug through Longwood Gardens, and not having her here to lug this one, I packed lighter. It came in immensely handy, though, for keeping notes and making small drawings. I pretty much wrote out the AmLit blog in it while I was at lunch (pizza at a bar called Uno).
Monday, October 5, 2009
We don't have much of a sense of Boston yet, because this is one confusing city. For starters, its 380 years old, and the streets in the old part of town are unbelievably narrow. Add to that the turns and twists that old streets take, and lay over top of that modern, wider streets that occasionally dive underneath the city in tunnels. It's not a city for drivers. On the plus side, Logan Airport is really close to downtown -- about a ten-minute cab ride -- and the city is very walkable.
I guess I'll find out how walkable tomorrow, as Hank puts in a full day of conference (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and I start my tour of literary and historical sites for the American Lit. class. Photos and other goodies to follow.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Friday, July 10, 2009
Top Dog Cafe, Rodanthe. Still a favorite. Chip, Guy, Ian, Jody, Hank and I hit this on Sunday night and were well pleased, as usual. Top Dog started as a microscopic beach bar, but has morphed into something more upscale. The tuna steaks were perfect -- medium rare and meltingly tasty. I had bacon-wrapped scallops over pasta. When I saw them, my heart sank, because they were very brown on the outside. Turns out, it was just the bacon; the scallops were perfectly tender and juicy. Yum. Chip had a monstrous hamburger that fed him for dinner, and Ian and Scott for lunch the next day. Yes, it was that big.
Atlantic Coast Cafe, Rodanthe. This one is so good, we keep going back. Ian and Jody went first, and reported that the fish tacos were delicious. Hugh, Susette, and I went for lunch on Wednesday, and found that not only were the fish tacos great, but the oyster po'boy wasn't bad, either. The taco construction really added to their flavor -- a corn taco shell inside a flour tortilla, with jalapeno cream cheese, flaky (not fishy) white fish, shredded sweet cabbage, more cheese, and topped with homemade pico de gallo. Even people who don't like fish love these tacos. AND they're not expensive at all. Ashley and Scott went there for breakfast today and reported that breakfast was just as yummy as lunch.
Penguin Isle/Pamlico Jack's, South Nags Head. When this was Penguin Isle, we ate there with Pam and Tye Kirkner. Now it's Pamlico Jack's, but it's weird -- same staff, same chef, same owners, but now they've got a pirate theme. Even the staff think it's stupid. Fortunately, the food is the same, just with ridiculous pirate names. Hugh's seafood medley had the perfect degree of doneness, and wasn't smothered in sauces or other things that obscured the flavors. I had a tuna steak that was, our waitress said, "unloaded off the boat and in the back door." Also wonderful were the Buffalo tuna bites, where the spicy, blue cheese flavor did not overwhelm the tuna. Side items at the Restaurant Formerly Known as Penguin Isle are overpriced and forgettable, particularly the cheese grits. Mine are better. Desserts are house made, which is good, but hit-or-miss, which is bad. The cheesecake wasn't great, but the creme brulee was delicious, and the cherry pie worth every calorie.
Jimmy's Seafood Buffet, Ocracoke. If you like crab legs, this is your place. The people in our party who like them were encfhanted. I wasn't as thrilled with everything else. It had all been on the steam tables too long, and scallops were in short supply. This is too expensive for overdone and hectic service. Skip it and go to Captain George's if you absolutely have to have a seafood buffet.
Our House. We had fun with food this week, from Brent's mom's spaghetti to spiral sliced ham, to shrimp with Outer Banks Crab Boil, to jambalaya. We're at the point where a restaurant has to be pretty awesome to beat what we can do ourselves. (I forgot to mention the Tennessee jam cake I made for Chip's birthday, the cherry brownies Chip made, and the iced gingersnaps that were Hank's brainchildren. We didn't starve.)
Thursday, July 9, 2009
I am not ready, emphatically not ready, for grandchildren, but if and when I have them, I hope they're as chill as Autumn. The photo is Scott, Ashley, and Autumn on the ferry last night, as a point of reference. We hadn't met Scott's family, and I was a little apprehensive. Turns out it was a waste of angst. Ashley is great, and Autumn is amazing.
She will be three in November, but she is the least whiny two-and-a-half year old I have ever seen. She's always laughing, able to amuse herself with a game timer, and thinks that Jeff hung the moon. (Well, Sarah's a favorite, too.) Yesterday she played with Sarah and Jeff in the surf, laughing hysterically, until she had blue lips. I remember those blue lips. Our own kids wouldn't get out of the surf until their lips were purple.
To warm up, she sat on Sarah's lap, wrapped in two beach towels, flirting with Jeff. It's a good thing that Ashley is a National Champion sharpshooter, because they're going to need big guns, probably about the time Autumn turns eight. It's a real credit to Scott and Ashley, and their parenting skills, that Autumn is such a happy, well-adjusted girl. We've all enjoyed her so much. Here she is wearing Sarah's shoes. This morning she's been amusing herself with a tape measure for an hour now. I love that in a baby.
And Ashley has been such a pleasant surprise. She quilts! She knits! She blows things up with gunfire! We've been looking at quilting magazines, and she's knitting a sweater for Autumn, insisting to me how easy it is. I do not have good memories of knitting, but I almost want to try again. I do needlepoint until the urge fades.
We celebrated by going to Ocracoke for dinner at Jimmy's Seafood Buffet. The buffet was just mediocre, but the trip was a blast. On the ferry going over, there were very few cars, so we had lots of room to spread out and enjoy the ambiance. My experience with ferries is limited to the Jamestown-Scotland ferry in Tidewater. That one a.) doesn't cross deep water, and b.) doesn't have waves. The Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry crosses the mouth of Hatteras inlet, and even on a relatively calm day like yesterday, the swell is enough to toss you about.
It was in the midst of this swell, when most of us were leaning over the port rail looking at the waves breaking across the mouth of the inlet, that we noticed Brent's face. It was green. Oh dear. This did not stop him from slamming back a mortal ton of crab legs at dinner, but it did make him apprehensive about the trip home. We started calling him Chum Bucket. Fortunately for him, the trip back was quieter, from a wave standpoint.
Logistically it was a little difficult because we didn't know that the ferries start running on the hour after nine p.m. We got to the ferry slip in time to make the nine p.m. ferry, but the line of cars was too long, and we were five cars back when they stopped loading. Woe is us. We sat there until ten, listening to Arlo Guthrie on Brent's ipod. The upside of this is that Brent got to digest his dinner, and it stayed put on the trip. The other upside was that we had a night crossing, which was amazingly different from the day. I stood at the side and tried to figure out the buoy lights, while Chip and Guy debated how deep the crossing channel is.
Not very, is the answer. Guy was hoping it was 100 feet deep, and was quite disappointed to learn that it's only about twenty. I was a little freaked out about it, actually, because the ferry channel threads between sand bars. On one of them, on the trip out, someone had anchored a boat, and people were fishing and sitting on the sand -- and it was about fifteen yards away. I don't think the ferries ever run aground, but it still weirded me out. NCDOT has to dredge the channel, and the channel out into the ocean from Pamlico Sound, several times a season and after every storm.
And by the way, this is one of my favorite photos from last night's trip. (These we took with Hank's phone, and they're smaller than the camera ones.) In it we have Sarah, mostly hidden, Jeff, Brent, Suzanne, Chip, and me, watching the ocean go by.
When I woke up this morning, a luminous mist lay over the sound, a glowing white cloud that made the distant shrimp boats look like seagulls in a bright sky.
I love the sound. It never looks the same two days in a row. It doesn't have the restless drama of the ocean; it has a quiet spirit, at least as long as the wind stays out of the east. Some days it's flat and sky-colored. Some days it's fractured into tiny wavelets. At least once, I've seen it churned to coffee-colored foam by a storm.
Yesterday (Tuesday) the sound got a lot of our attention. Hugh and Susette paddled and snorkled, respectively. Hank and I paddled out to the barge, where we saw blue crabs -- my favorites as long as they're staying in the barge and not actively chasing me. Hank and Ian floated just off our dock, practicing being weightless. (That's what they said; I dunno.) Sarah, Jeff, Jody and I caught hermit crabs. There's something so adorable about the way they poke their little feet out, and then scurry across your hand. Jody said she loves an animal that understands how to work the housing market.
(And yes, I have pictures that I love, but we don't have a photo editing program on Hank's laptop, and I can't resize them to fit on the blog. Sigh.)
Monday, July 6, 2009
Answer: Dig holes, of course!
This is the beginning of Ian's hole. By the time he finished it was twice this deep, fifty times as dangerous, and the product of Hugh, Chip, Guy, Hank, Jeff, Brent, and Troy. Guys like a challenge, and it's guys of all ages, too.
I spent the afternoon kayaking in the Pea Island Nature Reserve with Hugh and Susette. This was a blast, except that we decided to explore an inlet that got progressively narrower. By the time it closed off completely, there was absolutely no way I could turn around. I had to back the SS Diet Dew all the way out. It's very hard to steer a 17-foot kayak, backward.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
A day of clouds and showers actually meant that our crew went to the beach -- none of them were up for more sun just yet, especially Chip and Guy, who could more aptly be called Crisp and Fry. I am amazed at the way all of them revert to some sort of inner eight-year-old (in a good way) at the beach. Here they are digging holes at the tide line. No one knows why.
I was getting in touch with a different kind of inner child this afternoon. I decided it was time to take the SS Diet Dew out on the sound, but that meant I had to hose the spiders out of it. The word "hate" is not strong enough for how I feel about spiders. Abhor comes closer, but it lacks that certain element of creeping disgust and horror. At one point I distinctly remember yelling DIEDIEDIEDIEDAMMITDIE! I had to bludgeon one, finally, with an oar.
The point is, I do not want to find a spider that I somehow missed when I am 600 yards from shore in a fairly brisk chop. It's important to KILL THEM ALL.
Okay, better now. Kayaking on the sound is one of the reasons I'm here. It's the most pleasant of occupations, gliding silently over a moonscape populated by hermit crabs and eelgrass. The world becomes a silver sheet of water under a silver sky, every stress reduced to the rhythm of the paddle.
I decided to visit the sunken barge first -- a deliberate wreck that has become a haven for crabs of all sorts. I always forget how long it is -- probably fifty yards. One end sticks up above the water, but it goes on for a while underneath, covered in oysters and scuttled over by spider and wharf crabs. I let the wind push the SS Diet Dew against the far end, and sat watching crabs, who were watching me. A whole lot of deep things can be summed up in the solemn gaze of crabs who are waiting for signs of a dip net.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
The bulk of the house was behind us, to the north, and it blocked our view of the neighbors, which explains why Suzanne's boyfriend, Brent, did the "duck and cover" maneuver when they set off some huge and wholly illegal fireworks next door. He said, and I quote, "I couldn't see the lights! I thought it was gunfire!" There's a lot of him, and he folded up like a Japanese fan. Fortunately, he was among friends who will let him live this down sometime. Maybe. Before he's old.
What does faze me, though, is the fire alarm going off at two a.m. Hank and I scrambled into the hallway, to find Sarah and Katie already there, while Suz was sitting up in her bunk, holding her ears with both hands. We didn't smell smoke, so Hank trooped upstairs and managed to shut the alarms off. (They're hardwired, one in each bedroom, one in the kitchen, one up in the loft, and one in the hall. They make an AMAZING racket.) Everyone went back to bed, but then I got worried, so I sent Hank out to look for signs of trouble. I remembered the story of the bird's nest in the outside light that started a house fire.
Nothing. He came back to bed, and the earplugs went back in. To my own amazement, I was able to go right back to sleep, and at seven-thirty this morning, woke up still alive and un-roasted.
Oh, and it's worth mentioning that the hullabaloo utterly failed to wake up Chip and Guy. Yes, they slept through the alarm making a high, piercing whistly sound in their room, plus all of the rest of us stomping about looking for flames. I don't know whether to be in awe of how soundly they sleep, or worried that they aren't ever going to be able to get themselves up.
Friday, July 3, 2009
Sarah, Suzanne, Katie, Jeff, Brent and Troy got here about one. After a quick lunch, we all went over to the beach, even me. It was fun, actually, to watch them play in the ocean, reading in my surf chair, watching the waves. We set up camp high on the beach, and napped and talked for most of the afternoon.
Brent's mom, God bless her, sent spaghetti sauce, spaghetti, oil and cheese, and this made tonight's dinner simple, plus, it saved us from having to drive to Avon immediately for groceries. The meal was fabulous, even more so, probably, because we were starving from all the activity. Now I'm watching the sun drop into the sound and wondering how soon I can go to bed. It's been a long day.
But, naturally, I have a couple of comments for what they're worth. Why does nobody in the Rodanthe/Waves/Salvo area open a real grocery store? I went to three "convenience" type stores looking for salad ingredients, and what I found was some slimy lettuce, two mealy tomatoes, and a bag of iffy carrots. I passed on the lettuce, and finally found, at the fourth store, a head of lettuce I'd actually eat. Wouldn't you think that somebody on this island would have fresh vegetables? All you can reliably find is beer, and I hate beer. (Well, except for Bud Light Lime and something to boil shrimp in.)
Comment two: Suz and Brent were in charge of dinner, and we discovered that a huge pot of water on the stove for spaghetti NEVER boils. We cooked the pasta anyway. Sea level messes with stuff . . .
Thursday, May 21, 2009
I'm all packed up for the flight home. I had to move all the stuff from my carry-on that is legal on trains but not on airplanes. Basically, you can carry anything you want onto a train; airplanes, not so much. It's been a great week, it really has. I'm going to miss the traveling around, but even more, and I might as well say this here, I'm going to miss the closeness with Hank. We often pass like ships in the night at home -- he goes to bed when I get up, we both have meetings and responsibilities. But here, out in the world together, we have time to laugh, to really talk, to play silly games, and generally be in love. If I could wish for one thing, and I do, it's that we carry some of the carefree spirit we've had this week into the summer ahead.
If we were still in Chicago, I wouldn't have the nerve to do this, but I remembered from our last trip that drivers in Ann Arbor are mellow to the point of comatose. They do not honk at you or flip you off if you make a mistake. In fact, they will graciously allow you to turn wherever you want, and I've noticed that they're remarkably tolerant of jaywalkers. For some reason, these mapless forays always end with me on the phone to Kathy, having her look up streets on Mapquest and tell me where the heck I am. The tradition of hotels handing out useful maps of a metropolitan area has really gone by the boards.
What I wanted to do first was go to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church (cf. "cathedrals") to pray for the son of friends who is in critical condition in a nowhere-near-state-of-the-art hospital in Nepal. (What is it with Nepal? I do not want Christopher to get wind of all this; he's anxious enough as it is.) I discovered that parking anywhere near St. Thomas was out of the question, and of course, one doesn't need a church to pray in, but I was looking for the focused intention that churches bring.
I found it in a huge photograph of a Portuguese cathedral that covers most of a wall in the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The museum was such a serendipitous find. It's small enough to be manageable -- unlike the Carnegie, in Pittsburgh, which needs a couple of days, or the National Gallery, in DC, which could take the better part of a lifetime. Art has to be ingested in small doses. You CAN rip through a musem and glance at everything, but enjoying what you see takes time. You have to be able to walk away, come back, stand and look from different angles, and generally mosey around. The UMMA galleries are perfect for this. I particularly liked line drawings by Gustav Klimt, small Chinese porcelains, and a wall of modern woodcarvings. My favorite thing, though, was a modern sculpture called "Stones from the River." Carved wooden bowls nestle in a low, teardrop shaped bench. The entire installation is about six feet long. When I was there, the sun was just touching the side of it, and it reminded me, for some reason, of Dad. This tiny picture doesn't do it justice, but it was the only one I could find.
After walking through the beautiful buildings of the law school and the elegant Student Union Building, I was headed home, but got sidetracked by the Forest Hill Cemetery, where I spent a happy half-hour lost on the myriad paths. I don't know why people find cemeteries morbid -- they're green and beautiful and full of quiet. This one was immense and full of the light-honey smell of blooming spirea. It was peaceful and gave me the energy to locate Division Street and the only way I knew back to the hotel. I can't expect Kathy to always put her job on standby while she helps me navigate long-distance.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Today was the final leg of our train trip. We took the Wolverine from Chicago to Ann Arbor, a trip that took five hours and fifteen minutes when it should've taken about four hours. We were a bit delayed in Chicago switching out engines, and never made up the time. Oh well. It's a very pretty trip, after you get away from the industrial areas of south Chicago and Gary, IN. It's just that coach is a bit more confined, and we arrived in Ann Arbor stiff and tired.
The high point of the trip was a statue of Tony the Tiger on the lawn of a factory in Battle Creek, Michigan, home of a gazillion cereals. Cereal factories are very clean-looking, particularly in juxtaposition with the steel mills in Gary. I guess no one wants to think their cereal comes from a grubby place.
I should also mention that as we came through Chelsea, we were confronted with a fifty foot high painting of a Jiffy Corn Meal box, because Chelsea is "The Home of Jiffy Corn Meal Mix." We all have to have things to be proud of. Don't judge.
Now, on to how we started a fire, and no, this has nothing to do with euphemisms about how to celebrate 25 years of marriage. This is the other kind.
Our room, you notice, faces east. It's a very cool room, very art nouveau, lots of little extra decorations, including a shelf of books. On the marble desktop, they had seen fit to place a slightly out-of-period art deco lamp with a clear globe base, full of water. This watery globe sits exactly in front of one of the eastward facing windows, through which the morning sun streams like, well, blazes.
Hank and I were doing our morning get-ready-to-check out chores when I asked him, "Are you on fire?" Turns out, he wasn't, but his sweater was. We had tossed it on the desk near the lamp, and (I swear I am not making a word of this up) the sunlight through the globe of the lamp had ignited it. Smoke was spiraling upward, and the edges of the sleeve were laced with tiny, festive flames.
I put the sleeve in the sink to extinguish it, and moved some magazines that were under it. Then I called downstairs to let them know that their lamp positioning didn't take basic physics into account. I understand that much interior decoration doesn't. They were very apologetic, but did not apparently feel that our trauma warranted, say, a free stay at some other time. They did, however, promise to move the lamp.
This did not matter, insofar as the river just oozed along, sloshing water back and forth with Lake Michigan in a very unorganized way. Sometimes the river flowed into the lake, and sometimes, when things were dry, the lake flowed into the river. It was one of those "open arrangements" that seem weird to more conventional minds, but it worked.
The people along the lake were nomadic sorts who didn't have very much use for rivers, so they left the short, fat river alone. Unfortunately, these were sent packing by some people who used rivers a lot, and those folks were busier than a hive of bees. They built houses and shops and granaries, and then they built abattoirs to chop up the animals that ate the grain. They noticed the short, fat river, and said, "Instant drainage." They dumped everything into it -- sewage, offal from the slaughterhouses, chemicals from the tanneries and soap makers whose businesses always happen alongside slaughterhouses. Because the people got their drinking water from the lake, through big intake cribs offshore, the short, fat river seemed unimportant.
The short, fat river could not do anything with this mess other than what it already did, which was to slosh back and forth with the lake. Sometimes the foulness from the river reached all the way out to the intake cribs. When that happened, people in the new city got sick. At one point, a sixth of the city's population died of cholera. Besides, it stank. No, it reeked. It produced so much gas from rotting goo that the south branch was called "Bubbly Creek."
Something had to be done, not to clean up the short, fat river, but to carry away all the filth that people wanted to dump into it. Because these people were rather typical of people everywhere, they decided to turn the short, fat river into a long, deep river going the other way. They dug a deep channel, hooked up the short, fat river to the Des Plains river, and watched with joy as Lake Michigan water flowed into the short, fat river and washed the stench and filth toward the Mississippi.
Oh, how the people downstream howled! How they complained about the smell and the disease! But there was nothing they could do, because it's not illegal to divert a river in Illinois, something that good children will be advised to remember. The people in the city rejoiced that the short, fat river was acting like a real river and actually flowing. They forgot that the gradient was so slight, and they forgot that silt and other goo will clog channels. It wasn't long before the short, fat river was just as horrid as before, only now it could foul water in two directions.
Then, one evil night, the city caught fire. The citizens on the north looked at the onrushing flames with dispassion. "The short, fat river will stop the fire before it gets to us," they said. They apparently believed that the short, fat river contained water. What it actually contained was a toxic, flammable stew that caught fire almost immediately. Now it was the northern side of the city's turn to howl, as soon as they rebuilt.
Moral: Don't mess with short, fat rivers.
Addendum: The Chicago river still flows west into the Des Plains, still carries a lot of waste that makes it unfit for animals or people, but the Friends of the Chicago River have gone a long way toward seeing in cleaned up, restricting development along its watercourse, and containing floodwater in huge reservoirs.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
We had a wonderful dinner at Riva, a terrific seafood restaurant with equally terrific views of the sailboat basin and the city. The best thing, though, was just being with Christopher and Kris. I really can't believe we've waited so long to do this. Kris is so much fun, and the two of them have traveled a lot themselves and have great stories. The time flew. They insisted on taking US to dinner, to celebrate our anniversary, which was so kind. We tried to make an end run around them and pick up the check, but Kris sweet-talked the waiter, who seemed oddly immune to Hank trying to sweet talk him.
Now we're back in our room, watching the Lakers and wishing we could stay in Chicago longer. Tomorrow morning we catch the Wolverine for Ann Arbor, if we can navigate Union Station and actually find our train . . .
Right. How hard can this be? I'll tell you how hard. We decided pretty quickly that if New Orleans is the Big Easy, then Chicago, 926 miles north, is the Big Hard. First of all, tunnels DO go everywhere down there, and we are not familiar with the layout. Second, we have arrived during rush hour, along with ten thousand Chicagoans heading to work from the double-decker commuter trains. We are squashed on escalators, bumped on concourses, and bumfoozled when we finally get to the light.
I call Christopher, but I don't know where we are, and there aren't any street signs. Finally I walk a block west to an intersection and figure it out. It's another fifteen minutes, thanks to the magic of rush hour traffic, before the welcome (and oddly familiar) sight of Christopher's silver Ford Explorer with a Yakima rack, pulls up in front of a line of cabs.
After that, Chicago got a LOT easier. Christopher drove us all over, from Hyde Park to Lincoln Park and beyond, while we looked at architecture and got caught up. We took a walk along Lake Michigan, and back around by one of many yacht basins, enjoying the blue sky and the company. We went to his and Kris's house, a truly beautiful garden condominium in the north Chicago neighborhood near Wrigley Field. We also looked at his office, which he designed himself.
After a yummy 100% organic lunch at a restaurant called Uncommon Ground (where Christopher knew everybody, waiter and patrons), he dropped us off at the Blackstone Renaissance downtown. From the window of our 17th floor room, we have a fabulous view of Grant Park, the Buckingham Fountain, and Lake Michigan beyond. This is so interesting, and so different, that I really wish we had a lot more time here. As it is, we'll be taking a cab in a few minutes to Navy Pier to meet Christopher and Kris for dinner.
The biggest thrill in seeing Chicago is seeing Christopher and how well he's doing here. It's also cool that he's Dr. Wolcott, and that his chiropractic practice has really taken off. He teaches two days a week at two different Chicago schools, too. He's going to Nepal in June to see David (his brother), who's been there for five months, living with a Nepalese family and teaching. I feel mostly caught up with him, but also really impressed with how much he has done and continues to do, and yet he's the same comfortable Christopher. With the same dry sense of humor, and no, Chip, he has not once mentioned that you wrecked his truck.
Some random Chicago thoughts: This is the third largest city in the U.S., after New York and Los Angeles. It does not lend itself as well to walking as some more compact cities we've visited; it could spread in every direction, so it did. On the other hand, I would hate to try and drive here. This is the sort of city for which cabs were made. I must remember on return visits to budget for cabfare.
Chicago gets its drinking water from Lake Michigan. You can just see the little artificial islands where the intakes are. On the plus side, there's a lot of water in Lake Michigan (whose vastness really has to be seen to be believed), but on the downside, a lot of that water is pretty dirty with things like PCB's and mercury. Thanks to the zebra mussel, the water is crystal clear, which makes looking into the depths off the jetties somewhat alarming, particularly if you're me, and you don't have great balance at the best of times, much less when you've been walking on a train for a while. Nobody had to fish me out, but I didn't walk too close to the edge, either.
And P.S., the photo above was taken out of our hotel room window. This is just amazing.
Somebody, and I think it was Pam Clark, said"We'll see if you still love trains after you've been on them a while." I've been on trains for a lot of hours -- almost forty at this point -- and yes, I still love them. We've had several Arlo Guthrie moments on the City of New Orleans. It's a newer train, bigger room (except for the upper berth, where Hank struggled all night with cramped quarters), and cooler dining car. I like it.
I also, strangely enough, slept like a real person, all night long, thanks to the miracle of earplugs, which shut out all the distracting noises. We stayed awake until Memphis, because we wanted to see it, and it did not disappoint. The Mississippi River runs right to the left of the train tracks, and even in the dark, it's spectacular. Crossing the Ohio at Cairo was pretty cool, too, insofar as I just woke up as we were pulling onto the bridge. I watched the train cross, then went back to sleep. We're an hour and a half from Chicago. Yay!
Monday, May 18, 2009
We had beignets and Cajun hash browns in a sunny courtyard this morning. I fed the sparrows bits of beignet from my hand, to Hank's amused exasperation. He said he was sorry that something as small as a sparrow could do a mind meld on me. We walked slowly down to the river, took pictures, and now we're packing up for the train station. On to Part II of the adventure.
As the average train whistle says: Woohoo.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
The cathedral of St. Louis was founded in 1720. The current building dates from 1792. I think that argues, actually, for some architectural stability. The first archbishop is buried beneath the altar, with 47 other people. I was kind of horrified to learn this, but then discovered that most of these are prelates, and they didn't just wind up there in some sort of sarcophagus accident.
Despite being a non-Catholic, I collect cathedrals, and that's one of the first places I seek out in a new city. I have prayed in cathedrals from Pittsburgh to St. Augustine, my favorite being St. John the Baptist in Savannah, because of the brightly painted interior.
Cathedrals are designed to draw one's attention to God, particularly to the majesty and greatness of God, something that we Protestants tend to miss with, say, the Porter's Bottom Holiness Tabernacle and Upholstery Shop. In a cathedral, the world is hushed. The ceiling soars away at the top of columns that are themselves reminders of the necessary vertical element in our relationship with the divine. In the days before printing presses made the Bible accessible, the stained glass of the cathedral illustrated the stories of the faith for a largely illiterate population.
St. Louis is a beautiful cathedral wrapped in a rather humble exterior. The narthex, particularly, is grim and brown, and like everything else, watermarked. Once inside, though, the cathedral is bright with paintings on walls and ceilings, and wonderful windows. The clerestory windows are geometric designs, refreshingly plain, while the main windows depict scenes from the life of Christ. The altar is an elaborate baroque creation dating from 1852. It's interesting that the church's literature about its architecture and ornamentation stresses, repeatedly, its compliance with Vatican II. Not sure what that's about, really, but I enjoyed standing in the reverential atmosphere, breathing the cathedral-smell of candles and incense.
The brunch is a serious foodie affair, with a number of delicious things that just have no Appalachian equivalent. House-made andouille sausage, brioche, crawfish salad . . . it's awesome. The other awesome thing was that, in honor of the occasion, Hank had the jazz trio serenade me with "Where or When," a tune made famous in our personal history by Judy Collins.
We finished brunch in the outdoor court just as the rain started, and so we fled across the street to an art gallery and talked about jewelry making with the owner until the downpour turned drizzle. From there, we've spent much of the day wandering the French Quarter in a desultory way, looking for interesting buildings, taking pictures, and generally being tourists.
The French Quarter is FULL of tourists, and this makes people here happy. Part of our afternoon was spent on a mule-drawn-wagon tour, where our guide told us, rather plaintively, how happy New Orleans is to have the tourists back. You cannot go far in this city, or talk to many people, without coming smack against Katrina and the aftermath. Coming in on the train, for instance, you notice that every block has houses that are boarded up, ruined, abandoned. Even here, downtown, the building across from us -- and we're on the 19th floor, looking into the side of it, so it's not small -- has boarded windows and broken glass.
It's the elephant in the living room. New Orleans is not the city it used to be -- much of that old city has yet to be rebuilt, and maybe it won't be. The people here now are the ones who believe that the place can come back. The others left. Tony, the attendant in our sleeping car, used to live here. He and his wife lost their house in the storm, and he moved to Georgia. He's from New Orleans, but he said he couldn't live here anymore, couldn't take the risk, didn't want to keep starting over.
On the other hand, Jeff, our waiter this morning, couldn't wait to come back. He loves this city, hurricanes be damned. (He's from Minnesota, where crawfish are bait and palm trees are postcards. This probably has something to do with it.) I'm just a tourist, and I don't have a right to an opinion, but I stood on the bank of the Mississippi River this afternoon, having walked UP to get to it, and looked at a continent's worth of water roiling past. The river is 210 feet deep here, miles wide, and the city settles at the rate of three inches a century. "We just have to hope we never get another storm like Katrina," our tour guide said. Me, I really don't like the odds.
I'm not sure what I had imagined, but Hank leaned over and commented, at one point, that it was like Busch Gardens on crack. Music poured out of every open doorway, people sloshed into the street from every direction and in every possible way, and even though Mardi Gras was a while back, a fair number of people wore beads. Hmmm. Wonder how they got them?
The thing is, there's a lot of humanity to be watched, and a lot of music to listen to, and it was fun. I was a little surprised at that last bit, because this really isn't my deal. When I was looking completely overwhelmed, Hank steered me into Cafe Beignet, where we had excesses of our own -- pecan tarts, bread pudding, and, of course, beignets that were -- thank you Jimmy Buffett -- too hot to touch. All the while we were doing this, we sat at a little table in an open courtyard listening to a Dixieland jazz band fronted by a guy who calls himself Steamboat Willie. (I informally dubbed his bass player Slick Willie and his drummer Wet Willie, and that pretty much sums them up.)
Thing is, Steamboat Willie could flat play a trumpet, AND a banjo. So it was good music, lots of sugar, and welcome to New Orleans.
I got back to our hotel room (on the 19th floor of the Pere Something), took a shower, and honestly, literally, do not remember closing my eyes.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Trains are a little bit like cruise ships. You spend a lot of time eating. And napping. And, of course, waking up. These are kind of backward, but you get the idea. Our Exhibit A especially prepared himself for this trip by not sleeping for the 36 hours previous, thereby guaranteeing himself a good night's sleep on the train . . . and a good morning's sleep . . . and several good minutes in the afternoon.
And here are the random musings for this afternoon as well.
The Talladega River. Flooding. A bit scary, actually. This was the first big bridge I was awake for since Danville. Very wet, Alabama.
Pell City, home of the Panthers. I LIKE a place that puts its name right where train passengers can find it. When I rule the world, everywhere will have to put its name out front, so you don't have to strain your eyes looking at auto license plates to figure out what state you're in. Furthermore, I'm gonna require that states paint big, wide boundary lines that can be seen from airplanes, too.
Long Honking Tunnel. Somewhere east of Birmingham. I like tunnels almost as much as bridges.
East of Birmingham. The sun is shining, at least for now, and the wind is blowing the rain from the trees in flashes of silver.
Mounds. 900 years ago, some native tribes built a bunch of mounds for ceremonial purposes. The train goes right by these, and it's very strange. Green circles of earth coming almost straight up from the ground.
Sometime around midnight last night I sent Sarah a text message, to wit: “I can't sleep; I'm too excited.” Hank was already asnooze in his upper berth, but I lay in the darkness and watched the world roll by, afraid to miss anything. It wasn't until Salisbury that the tiredness kicked in and I was able to sleep. Even then, it was a fractured sleep; trains are surprisingly bouncy. At one point, I would have sworn we'd hit a moose. Sometimes we'd stop to let another train pass. Sometimes we stopped at stations – Greensboro, Salisbury, Charlotte. After that, I slept and did not remember.
This is not like ANYthing we've ever done before. Our rolling bedroom is equipped with a shower/toilet combination that's very weird. We have two berths that we're not eager to convert back to the day benches. They are surprisingly comfortable, mostly because each one is the seat itself, topped with a separate mattress. When the sleeping car attendant made our beds last night, he put the mattresses on top already fitted with sheets and blankets. Hank is napping, in the lower one, despite having three cups of very good coffee at breakfast. The room is compact, the way I'd imagine a cabin is on a ship. We have high shelves to store gear (really only accessible from the upper berth), and stowage space under the lower berth.
We had breakfast in the dining car, beginning while it was parked in Atlanta. I can't get the hang of walking on a moving train. Somewhere in mid breakfast, the train pulled out, and we ate omelets and French toast while watching downtown Atlanta slide by. Our waiter, Leroy, brought us coffee, which he poured with complete confidence, despite the train lurching all over the place. I would have dumped coffee all over me, the dining car, and possibly all the other diners.
Now we're rolling through the city of Bremen, Georgia, at 9:50 a.m. It's raining in Bremen, but rain doesn't faze us; we're not driving. What we ARE doing is marveling that the entire state of Georgia seems to be covered in kudzu. As a matter of fact, kudzu and red mud seem to be the order of the day. It's very green out there, despite the rain, except in the places where the red clay has made little rivulets of water the color of cream of tomato soup.
One further observation, while I wait for Birmingham and a chance to upload: The train is much quieter than we expected. At slower speeds, it feels like we're floating along, frictionless. Of course, when we speed up, it's like being in the back of somebody's pickup truck – somebody who doesn't think much of his suspension.
Friday, May 15, 2009
This evening we take the train from Charlottesville to New Orleans. According to the timetable, this trip takes 23 hours. In a way, I'm really sorry it leaves so late, because I would love to be able to see the familiar country around C'ville from the unfamiliar viewpoint of the train tracks. Goodness knows, when we lived there, we tresspassed on them enough times, but riding the actual train is different.
All week I've been reading voraciously about train travel -- what to take, what to expect, stories from other passengers. Now, in just a little over twelve hours, the fun will actually begin. Believe me, there will be further bulletins as events warrant.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
I'd forgotten what beaches are like here. I'm used to Rodanthe, where the beach is a steep hillside covered in sharp shells. This is as flat as a freeway, with cute little waves fringing the edges of it. My kinda place. Even better, we saw a dolphin having a fine breakfast of something fishy in the surf, and pelicans skimming the water. Woohoo.
Monday, March 16, 2009
The point, though, is that I'm updating this as we're traveling, because Hank has a Verizon card for his computer that works anywhere, including the middle of SC, where there's not a lot else going on. I know I'm easily amused, but being able to check email, weather reports, etc., while scudding down the highway is pretty cool.
Normally I would deplore how the technology makes me miss scenery, etc. But the scenery here is pine trees, ranks of them, and rain. Oh, and billboards for Stuckeys. I am happier blogging. I feel guilty because Hank just has to watch the windshield wipers. I'll read this out loud to him and make him feel better. Bwahahahahaha.
We just passed a treeful of Spanish moss. Every time Hank gets around Spanish moss, he wants to bring some home. What he really wants to do is put some in the hemlock outside the dining room and rejuvinate it, sort of like a toupee for trees. I'm guessing Spanish moss won't survive in our climate, but it might be worth looking into. After all, we did get upgraded to USDA Zone 7.