Saturday, September 20, 2008

Remembrance of things bought: Week 3

Slow down this week. There is only so much that one bank account can take but this is what I have learned through consuming.

1. Antique Glassware, Location Congress, South Austin

My dear Great Aunt Nicki collects glassware and so as a gift to her I went shopping in the local parade in South Austin near to where Leslie, my friend from University and fellow India Adventuress, her husband Mark and delicious toddler Gus live. Gus speaks Single-ish - a mix of Signing which kids learn before they can articulate words, English and the Spanish he learns from his child-minder and Leslie - who is bilingual and speaks to him in both languages.

In fact South Austin has the only local parade in Austin. It is home to cafes, one of the biggest cowboy boot shops in Austin, an amazing ice-cream shop where you get your flavours 'cut' with a whatever you fancy from nuts, to cookie dough, to sprinkles - which we call hundreds and thousands. Everywhere else is drive-to. It is as if most of the US has forgotten the pleasure of chance interactions with urban streets, with unexpected shops and people. Shopping has become terribly functional.

2. Tastings of pan fried tomatoes and green gazpacho, acai shot and lunch of grilled rock salmon. Location - Whole Foods Flagship Store, Austin

South Austin and much of Austin in fact is a pleasant mix of small painted clapboard bungalows with large porches for sittin', rockin', chewin' and chattin'. Leslie and Mark live in a fabulous modern house which has a roof terrace. From there we watched the sun go down over Austin. It's a great town set amidst the woodlands of the hillier country in Texas. So much so that from above, the sub-divisions look like untouched woodland. With the hills come the springs and rivers. Austin embraces its water and there is a stretch of water that's been landscaped just enough to function as a swimming lake. Go out further into the hills and its just a question of keeping a look out for swimming snakes and diving in, like into Hamilton Pool which I visited with Leslie

Austin is different from the Texas stereotype of desert not just because of its natural setting. It is known as a "crunchy" city which means in these parts means alternative. It is a blue spot in a red sea - you see "Texans for Obama" posters in front gardens, and it has strong artist and musician communities. City Hall runs an annual art exhibition and the piece receiving the most votes is purchased by the city. Leslie believes 'crunchy' derives from the granola loving hippies and Wholefoods is the crunch capital of Austin. It one of a number of organic fresh food stores and possibly the best. Alongside its 35 types of granola (and that is the loose stuff not including the packaged cereals) and 8 types of tofu in the deli bar, there are a number on restaurants on the shop floor offering raw food, Italian, fish, sausages, and patisserie, juices, pizzas. You can buy anything from the extensive deli counters and heat in microwaves in a seating area or you can get them to steam fish behind the counter. Then of course there is all the produce aisles, clothes, beauty products. It truly is kingdom of food - a holistic sensory experience offering a sanctuary for indulgence just as Marshall Fields did up in Chicago where his store did all it could to become a bolt hole which wealthy women would have no need to leave. It offered a post office, the largest telephone switchboard of the time, tea rooms, a nursery, a writing room with complementary stationery, a customers parlour, a library, meeting rooms for women's civic organisations and a check room for coats.

3. Blue jeans. Location - First try Allens boots. Second try faceless mall.

What could be more Texan than jeans even though Levis came from California. So off to Allens boots where behind the rows of boots is a smaller selection of more traditional jeans. "They're all boot cut" said the girl with red cowgirl shirt, embroidered cowboy boots and a face that was looking for a bigger spender than I appeared to be. Sadly they failed to find one that fitted "my booty" as it is was described. So later onto Neiman Marcus outlet store where amidst rows and rows of frocks which were abit to sparkly to sell, and trousers which were abit to tight to wear I found some indigo jeans from the J Brand label. Never heard of them but delighted to find the brand name checked in the Evening Standard a few weeks later. My bum has an unerring instinct for style.

Post-Hoc Blog

As I've travelled around America, I've also managed to catch up slightly on the Internet Revolution and have embraced blogging. Prior to that, I was still in email mode - so for my own satisfaction I'm aggregated previous emails so that I have a comprehensive account of my explorations.

From 2nd September: Beginning at the Beginning

Writing to you from a pasture in Mohawk country now known as Massachusetts. Using my new blackberry so this is painstakingly two thumb typed. A useful constraint which encourages your otherwise prolix correspondent to record only that which is worth remembering. That said if you don't have the time or inclination to read even my edited down version if reality simply email back with "yawn" in the subject field or just ignore!

We headed out of NYC the morning after we arrived, part of the exodus over the Labor Day bank holiday weekend. The group is Jean Val my friend from my Paris days, Camille a fashion economic attache for the french government, Arnuad a Master blacksmith who hand crafts beautiful wrought iron gates for the world's wealthiest, and Karine a french girl at large in the big apple working in marketing. Our destination was Stockbridge one of the clapboard towns which record the increasing wealth of the settlers in this part of early America who could risking branching out from eking a life from the thick deciduous woodlands, the rivers, swamps and mountains of the region and to incorporate as a town. My sense of heading into unknown territory, being uprooted was compounded by the road signs. Norfolk, Canaan or Sheffield proffered one. Doubtless the souvenirs of earlier visitors who sought their comforts in memories of the past or hopes for the life to come.

The towns we pass though are loosely assembled. Generous white painted, porched houses set in well tended and equally generous plots. Even the historic centres of towns look to me like the relaxing edges of settlements. None of the huddling together of an english village. No evidence of a people who felt bounded or needing to be sparing in their division of the spoils. Could I detect therein one of the founding principles of a nation? A nation that has still perhaps not felt the need to limit itself.

We are staying in the charming Red Lion Inn. All antiques, white paneling, chintz, hanging portraits, fresh linen and excellent plumbing that could not be assumed in an equally quaint inn in the uk. Lunch in the courtyard then a hike up the nearby ridge to survey the 'Last of the Mahicans' county. We walked up through warm humid woodlands ideal conditions for a beautiful array of fungi. The best I have ever seen this side of a stall in borough market. Strawberry red toadstools out of Grimm fairy tales, velvet brown little caps, miniature yellow one, lone pristine white mushroom incongruous amidst the muddy brown humus, strange webbed green fungus growing in flaps like ivy on logs. Enough to make me a mycologist.

Back then to stockbridge for a wander around what was once a two horse town centre (handsome but small brick town hall, small row of shops and two churches) and is now a many car town. People to drive every where: to pick up morning coffee, to go the the shops, to go to the start of the hike which is maybe 1km out of town. A function I think of the shaken out nature of the urban form, even in historic places. Of note is the war memorial to those who perished in "the great war of the rebellion" in 1860 something. This can only be the civil war and the predominantly irish and english names thereon are from a different era to the modern US where even NY subway signs are in english and spanish.

Enough I think for today. Will try and send

From 2nd September: I Vant to be A Lawn

It continues but this time on a computer for a change. A release for the fingers after the two thumb typing

Next day started with a proper breakfast of pancakes cooked on the griddle in front of me in the town cafe. I had a lucky escape from an "everything" bagel which is indeed what it says on tin a bagel with sesame, poppy seed and onion flakes. Not so good with "jelly which is what I would have had.

We headed out on a bit of a road trip starting at North Adams where we went to Mass MOCA which might sound like a Brazilian dance but is the Mass (not going to spell all that again) Museum of contemporary art. The exhibition is called Badlands and one of the exhibitors is a friend of Camille. The link is here:

It was an amazing exhibition about Man's impact on the landscape and was a stimulus for us to consider whether we really understand the extent to which we have altered the land. A series of photos of visible aspects of extensive and often hidden utility, military and infrastructure installations around the State, many of them buried deep underground showed us how a place can have many hidden meanings or functions- I suppose the reservoir up near British Camp is a prosaic equivalent near Malvern. The exhibition wasn't overtly 'environmental' or activist but its effect was sobering.

Then onto Williamstown - a college town. Same clapboard houses in their grounds and seas and seas of lawns. This is the land of the hidden drive-on lawnmower. I haven't seen any yet but they must exist, coming out only at night to tend to their perfect acres of grass. I thought that the Brits were the lawn experts. I was wrong! Maybe it's all orchestrated by the same bodies that respond to the "adopt a highway" scheme. I don't know if this is federal or at a state initiative but at regular intervals, there are signs stating that a particular organsiation has adopted this bit of highway: the masonic lodge was one, lots of local businesses and then a neighbourhood. Not sure what this entails. A ritual baptising with petrol drips, regular strum-alongs in praise of this bit of the open road, a group drive thru' annually. What could more symbolise the importance of driving to the American way of life than that you take a piece of road into your life!

After lunch we went over to Tanglewood to the closing concert for the Jazz Festival. Tanglewood is set amidst classic Berkshire countryside so woods and expansive rolling hills. The festival is famous I think - at least I believe that I had heard of it. What must have started as open air concerts has now morphed into an amazing hanger like hall with an opening front (like a fire station but about 3 time as high). There are seats inside but the cooler thing to do is to picnic on the sloping lawn situated in front of the doors. We were poor amateurs who turned up with nothing other than ourselves to see groups settling down in plus chairs, with picnics so large that they had to be brought in pull along cool boxes. The etiquette is to bring flowers in vases and citronella candles to ward off the swarms of mosquitoes so dining takes place in a very elegant atmosphere. The concert was interesting and a thought provoking piece - a requiem for Katrina. The link is here

The trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard is a native of New Orleans and spoke angrily and movingly about the way the city was left to rot for days with bodies floating in the water and people stranded. At that moment he said, he felt as if he and his fellow citizens had had their US citizenship ignored or stripped from them. And lots of requests for us to pray for all the people on the move again being evacuated from their homes in the face of Gustav as we sat peacefully and comfortably on a beautiful summer's evening listening to music.

Amazing playing by the trumpeter but the orchestration fairly boring. Lots of long drawn out backing harmonies by the Boston Symphony Orchestra who can do a lot more. Glad to be there but proms better.

Have been writing this in NYC waiting for the washing to finish in the laundrette downstairs. Flats even expensive ones tend not to have washing machines in them as the plumbing and water pressure aren't up to sending water up all the stories. I think that my cunning plan of reduced packing may have a sting in the tail as I have discovered that I have 4 days clothes max so I may be spending some time waiting around for them to become clean. Still it creates good writing moments. Should go, I think washing will be ready now and I need to discover Harlem.

From 3rd September: Long Island Sound and Harlem

Camille's kind and welcoming family live in New Rochelle. It's on the way back to NY and so it was suggested we visit and hang out. Fully embracing the desire to let adventure (or the beat-up Subaru in which we're travelling) take me where it will, I was up for that.

It was a blissful day. Long Island Sound is a tidal body of water protected by or more probably created from the Atlantic by Long Island which acts as a land barrier to the ocean. I didn't get the measure of it but it must be a least a mile out to Long Island proper. The banks are variously covered with woods, some large family homes still in clapboard, jetties and marinas. The shipbuilding and industrial yards are going or gone and new condos are being built. Within the sound are small islands, mainly the preserve of birds but also hikers who cross using small bridges.

Our hang out was the Sutton Manor boat house a wooden building with a shady terrace, a boat room for canoes, surf boards, and wind sails still draped with festive lanterns from July 4th celebrations and a pier for bathing. Outside men enjoying battered clothes, weekend stubble and manly things tinker with out-board motors and perhaps forget the day job in NYC - 30 min away but eminently forgettable on such glorious days. Kids jump off the pier shrieking and laughing, peletons of geese glide around in most organised formations. It is a very expensively secured simple life and I felt privileged to share it for a day. The day passed with a languid dip, enough reading in the sun to dry off, a beer and then another dip and so the cycle could begin again. I did rouse myself for a turn in the canoe around the blue, blue and tranquil lagoon skirting buoys and small boats as the sun started to set in a warm rosy glow.

Back to NYC in the evening. Strange to have a homecoming feeling for somewhere which is far from home.

The objective of the next day was to discover Harlem which is where Jean Val lives. The Harlem renaissance or I suppose you could say gentrification has being going on for some ten years at least so the urban chaos of crime, drugs and crumbling buildings has been receding. Interesting that in our western world at least, the urban dystopias of science fiction and super hero novels don't quite become embedded. Something pulls them back from the brink as the economic cycle elsewhere pulsates out waves of economic growth and governments are spurred or shamed into action.

So I set out on what was a very hot day, a beads of sweat down the back of the knees, scuttling over to the shady side of the street, longing for a shower, visiting shops just for a burst of air con kind of a day.

First stop was up through Morningside Park to Columbia Uni campus. It is set around a huge square with two monumental libraries acting as the book ends. Built around the turn of c20th I guess, the style is distinctly classical with the names of the greats of western canon carved in the building if one. The young turks of American literary life - Poe, Melville, Hawthorne and Twain merited much smaller letters in a less prominent place. I am not sure whether the lionising of Western heritage as the crucible of American heritage still persists or whether America now looks within to define the roots of the nation. What do you think? I shall ask my American friends and report back.

Then on through a further Park - Riverside Park to inspect the Hudson River. This part of New York is wonderfully endowed with parks and with layouts which optimise shadiness, they feel like wonderful and farsighted gifts to the city. It is as if as the city expanded and the initial colonial frenzy subsided that city fathers felt inclined to be more generous with space. However the parks are not maintained just by government largesse. There are sections all over the parks I've seen which are identified as volunteer maintained areas. I think I've been a little glibly acerbic about some aspects of US life in my emails and on the basis of relatively little info (but when has this ever stopped me?) But credit also where it is due. The US notion of direct civic involvement noted by De Tocqueville back in the c19th is still going strong even in a global capital based city and I think it's laudable.

At one end of the park is the Grant Tomb - am ashamed to say that I didn't know that he was one of the most successful generals of the Civil War. For the benefit of other ignoramouses, he accepted the surrender of the Confederacy from General Lee and enforced a magnanimous peace then went on to be president. Readers, this is a deficiency which is being remedied. I have bought the idiots guide to the Civil War and am now making my through strike and counter strike and a bewildering array of generals. As the book points out at the outbreak of war, no Americans had experience of commanding large armies and over 2 million men eventually were under arms so the job interview was basically leading a battle. If you survived you got the job.

Grant's Tomb is a sparkling marble temple with a dome, columns, a flight of steps to the sombre interior and an avenue of trees as the approach. Just what the departed Grecian hero would have ordered.

On then into Harlem proper where I visited several neighbourhoods that were built by speculators towards the end of the c19th to tempt the wealthy middle class away from the unsanitary conditions of Downtown. The gamble never paid off and so the decline began but that legacy left some good built stock which is now supporting the regeneration. There are handsome rows of brownstones with sweeping front steps taking you immediately up to the first floor elsewhere in Hamilton heights are intricately embellished facades reminiscent of art nouveau Brussels. The gentrification is business in progress. Many of the houses are buffed up but others are still dilapidated or in the process of redevelopment. There are sudden gaps in rows where houses were probably pulled down when the structures became too dangerous in the 60s. Some of these areas have become community gardens and I hope they endure the new property boom. Then you'll come across numerous residential halls most likely subsidised housing, some affixed with NYPD's "Clean Halls" logo and severe barred windows. Regular signs command No loitering, No sitting. All speak of a less glittering, upbeat side of Harlem.

Amidst the "row houses" as they are called, are remnants of the time before the speculators when the area housed the country residences of the New York elite. They have been preserved as monuments but in typically American way, only so far as it suits them. Hamilton Grange which was the 18th century home to one statesman appears currently to be being relocated and rebuilt in a "new home" as an information panel cheerily stated. Never mind the authenticity, just look at how old it is!

With a respectable amount of adventure accomplished I headed downtown in the wonderfully air conditioned subway for a bit a retail therapy in the trendy shops around Greenwich Village. I met Jean Val for an excellent dinner in Cafe Pitti a superb Italian where JV who is a regular hailed the owner and secured us a table ahead of the queue. Or maybe it was the power of my new top which I wore out of the shop deciding that I was otherwise too bedraggled for the cool NY nightlife.

We headed home stopping off for ices in a pocket park where beside an illuminated fountain, couples danced tango slowly, precisely and skillfully. Thumb ache coincides with the end of another day to report. More to follow when inspiration strikes.

Love to all

E x

The stories of America

Nations are crafted out of the mental battlefields of myths and principles as much as through blood and war. I have seen the evidence of both on this trip, the former arising from my trip to the Grant Memorial in NYC (related in the Post Hoc blog) and the information on the forging furnace of the Civil War. Religion and heroism are both used in the latter case to continually refresh the claims of the American nation on the hearts and minds of citizens.

When a Haitian taxi driver in Chicago asked how the UK differed from the US I said that no politician would ever publicly invoke God so, "God Bless Britain" would never be heard. He looked askance that such a little thing would not be permitted but of course religion is not a little thing here. It is an everyday thing. It's not the number of churches. There are many but it's not particularly more obvious than the UK given the c19th building spree. It's more how religion is embedded for example the church service of the month column (more like two pages) in Texas Monthly magazine which reports on the congregation mix, the readings and the quality of the sermon. Remember this is no parish circular. Texas has a population of 24 million. It's in the religiously founded hospital one of which, a specialist heart centre is called Christ Hospital which uses the strapline "Give your heart to Christ". It's shown by the tablet carved with the Ten Commandments which is erected in the grounds of the Capitol building. God is just around the neighbourhood a lot.

The hero also receives a good deal of press. During my day in downtown Austin I went to the excellent History of the State of Texas museum. Somewhere like Texas where life needed to be established in hard conditions there is the myth of Ranger, the rugged horseman without parallel who defended citizens from indians or during the Civil War from yankies and also the legendary cowboys. This translates now to the military. There is a strong movement to bring the troops home (I spoke to the Women in Black standing for peace protest group standing by Austin's Capitol for example) but there is an evident respect for the troops. All hotels publicly list their reductions for military personnel and the Austin Hilton even offered free rooms for stranded members of the armed forces. So the historic heroes of the interior have been joined in the Big Tent American Pantheon by heroes asked to perform deeds abroad. A motivation for the willingness to serve abroad emerged from the exhortations carved into war memorials that I found in the grounds of the Austin Capitol to be vigilant and to protect America : "Freedom is not free" on the Koran War memorial erected in 1999, "Remember Pearl Harbour - Keep America Alert" put up in 1989 and the 1951 statue erected by the Boy Scouts of America as part of their unspecified "Crusade to strengthen liberty". It seems as if there is a desire and a willingness continually to renew America. Experiencing the vastness of the physical land mass as I have flown over it, the teeming population in huge cities and bustling through hundreds of airports, the continuing immigration pulling language and culture in different directions I continue to think that it is amazing that such diversity has been melded together. Compare this with the spluttering, stop/start European Union which is of a similar size but is forever hamstrung by the more dominant country level identities. Loyalty needs to be perpetually reinforced and it seems to me that the founding myths remain essential in the on-going project to believe America into existence.

"History is the story of the victors" was a favourite title for my Oxford entrance exam and the Museum of the History of Texas sympathetically showed what has been left out from the founding myths. Hero status and liberty were not given to the Indian nations who were harried from and exterminated from the land or for any freed blacks who were not permitted to stay in Texas once the state declared its Independence from Mexico in 1836 and whose status was such that in any land grants from the 1820s onwards they merited up to 80 acres per slave below the 160 acres available pre child, 320 acres to a wife and 640 acres to the (male) head of a household. Even a century later in Chicago which was theoretically integrated, there were race riots when blacks tried to move out of the black areas of Southside into white areas. There are still dues to be paid I think not in money but in opportunity if the truths of the myths are to be equally shared.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Of restrooms and pisspots

America is land of the Free (Drinking Water). Hugely impressed by the plentiful supply of drinking fountains in toilets, public buildings and public spaces. So far, so predictable - although they seem to have dropped off the funding radar in the UK - but even in private buildings with substantial public passage, like the Marshall Fields department store, you'll find fountains. Water availability is also mirrored in restaurants where iced water is readily given. There is none of this "still or sparkling?" question prevalent in the UK followed by The Look implying you're being a skinflint who is going to ruin the exquisite cuisine by imbibing the ghastly Chateau Eau du Robinet.

In general, toilets or the confusingly named "restrooms" given that rest is not the usual activity, are sparkling and plentiful. Difficult not to find a decent loo plus they've embraced modernity by labelling them all "Women". I ain't no lady although this doesn't appear to have been noticed by most Texans who use the term abundantly. However, the one thing that disappoints is the lack of awareness of water efficiency. In the whole of Texas where the rivers have run dry and North Carolina where one restaurant posted a notice saying that because of the drought water would not automatically be bought to table, I only found one loo with a flush saver function. In fact the loos are going the other way by installing the infra-red sensors which flush if you so much as blow your nose. This is going to make retrofitting difficult. A little technology is a dangerous thing.

Strange Loo Fact #1: In Austin Airport, the ladies loo is the designated hurricane shelter.
If you have any more strange loo facts, please add.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Plane thrilled by San Francisco

The dramatic geography of San Francisco which rises up and over hills at vertiginous angles calls for an appreciation or deconstruction of the city into its component planes and geometry.

45 degree street inclines
I kid you not. This is the city of burnt out clutches and rock solid thighs. Driving, walking, running, biking and riding the running board of the cable cars require nerve and stamina. At times the city streets feel like one long rollercoaster. Houses determinedly step up and up and up the hills, taking advantage of the sudden drop-aways to create several storeys of basements and verandas which zig zag down the rear of buildings. Height is prized and the "Victorians", a generic term applied to the houses built from mid c19th to early c20th often have false cornices heavily encrusted with ornamentation giving another metre or two of bulk. To the victors, the spoils. From hillier points, there are phenomenal views out to the bay, to both the Bay and Golden Gate bridges and across the city. April and Jerry's view below is an example although the fog does it a disservice here.

Round and angular window bays (can we call them hemi-hexagonal?) and turrets
The dominant Victorian vernacular adds candy and colour to the city. Painted in every shade of pastel with intricate detailing on rooflines, gables, eaves and doorlights, streets become a delightful froo-froo of forms. The facades are further embellished with a plethora of projecting bays of differing shapes giving further opportunities for those in and outside to admire or be admired in this most body conscious of cities. And to facilitate this observation, furniture makers have obliged by creating the sofa which cranks round the angles of the bay window. My evidence is based on a statistically accurate and rigorously controlled sample of April and Jerry's house but wouldn't it be great if form following function was widespread specifically so that citizens can check out in comfort who's strutting their stuff well.

San Francisco still adopts the pedestrian countdown timers on many streets (grhhh but only Allah is perfect) but in residential neighbourhoods the street intersections are usually free from signalisation and rely on 'Stop' signs. Right of way depends on eye contact and courtesy as the first to arrive is accorded priority. This makes hurtling done the inclines a perilous activity. Cars often cede to pedestrians and cyclists of which there are many. It's an example I think (though illustrating not inspired by) of the work of urban theorists like Hans Monderman who argue the extreme signage and engineering applied to streets infantalises drivers and encourages them to abnegate responsibility for their and other's safety. He advocated removing road markings and putting obvious risk and uncertainty back into the roads. His experiments suggested that drivers would respond by slowing down and becoming more observant. It has been successfully applied in the Netherlands and the politician behind Kensington High Street (see post "Lessons for Urban Living" below) is seeking to apply this to Exhibition Road. All power to his de-cluttering elbow.

Curves, lines and squares of the Golden Gate bridge
The bridge is a breathtaking sight from all angles. Painted a red which is actually called International Orange and running across the mouth of the Bay between the two undulating headlands of Marin county and Fort Point, it is elegant and muscular at once. From a distance you note the curve of the main suspension arcs which are sections of a huge circle which would top out in the heavens. Driving over under its huge supports you move towards and through the squares punched through the legs and then whisk by the taunt double bands of the suspension cables which mark out a regular rhythm in space. It is a wonderful piece of engineering and a great gift to the city and its people which is both practical and beautiful.

San Francisco Bay
Squashed sea-horse rather than perfect spheres is what comes to mind when trying to describe the form of this segmented bay which in places reaches 12 miles east-west and 60 miles north south. On one glorious day we cycled around it (the farmers market and bike theft day) hugging the shoreline where we could, making numerous pit-stops to capture what seemed to be ever more staggering views of the headlands which rise up from the water. The city is located on one of the jaws of the Bay and ripples down the various hillocks and mounds of the city in a concertina of towers, blocks and colours. The Ocean and the Bay never seem particularly proximate as one tackles the hills and enjoys the effervescence of city life but viewed together, the City and its blue lung form a perfect conjunction. Check out wikipedia's entry for a wonderful panorama of the bay.

Shape eraser
The world of planes, angles and intersections which the city inhabits needs to be found afresh each day from under the blanket of fog that rolls in off the Ocean each night and covers everything. "Layer up" is the advice when you arrive so you leave the house with coat, wrap, jumper and also sun hat and sun glasses. It can be chill under the mist and to my surprise the first time I have worn my feather puffer jacket is in what I imagined to be sun-baked California. Come late morning though the layers come off one by one until the sun is in full force early afternoon. The process then reverses in the evenings. It's not uniform across the city. The variety of elevations across the city means that one part can be in mist whilst another enjoys sun. You've just go to keep moving until you find the scene you want.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Remembrance of things bought. Week 2

Poorly, poorly credit card. I am currently single-handedly trying to redress the US balance of payments deficit.

1. Heirloom Tomatoes. Location - Farmers Market, Federal Centre Square Chicago - Of all the places in the world to get a little rural, Chicago is one where the paradigm shift must be the most extreme. But, there in the heart of the menacing but magnificent metropolis every Tuesday assemble farmers from neighbouring Michigan and Indiana selling their wares. In certain places, Americans are serious foodies, cherishing what is natural and seeking infinite variety not supermarket uniformity. I bought a couple of Cherokee Purple tomatoes from a stall selling 50 different types of tomatoes reputed to be heirloom breeds. Bulbous purple ones, distorted green ones, tiny orange and yellow ones, flat ones oval ones. It made Borough Market look terribly dull and the perfect red supermarket tomatoes strange distortions of nature.

2. Unspecified number of clothes. Location - 24th Street, Noe (pronounced No-eee), San Francisco. April and Jerry live in the very cool Noe Valley area. It is probably like Islington was about 5 years ago. good architecture, enough money swilling around to keep quirky, what you desire rather than what you need shops in business, and still up and coming enough that the arty shops subsist on rents of yesteryear than than the rents to come. Starbucks has arrived and who knows what follows in its wake. For the time being though it's delightful and its clothes and shoe shops quite irresistible.

3. Obama pin. Location - Market St, Downtown San Francisco. Downtown is packed full of banks with soaring c19th lobbies designed to be sufficiently ornate and embellished that gold-panners would believe them places that understand how to nourish hard won capital. They are temples to financial success where the supplicants come bearing their offerings which they present at the altars of marble tended by reverential cashiers. The banking system is what built the West - Wells Fargo being the name that has endured but also Bank of California, Bank of Italy which bizarrely is now Bank of America and so on. Crouched modestly within this Luxor of Mamon was a little stall staffed by Democratic campaigners. Yes I am voting for change by giving $4 to support its coming. in return for an Obama pin. Hardly a subversive gesture in a very liberal city but good to be part of it. In fact I seem to be travelling largely around Democractic America. New York and Massachusetts very 'liberal'. Chicago is Obama's homeland. San Francisco is so alternative that republicans don't get much of a look in (although Arnie as Governor is republican). Austin is the only democratic stronghold in Texas. The coasts are typically more 'blue' but there is a cottage industry in proving that the dramatic state level red-blue split in majority vote should actually be a more nuanced wash of purples and mauves. Just put "red blue maps US" into google or look at this link (with thanks to Jerry Michalski) to see what I mean.

4. Pluots and figs. Location - Ferry Building Farmers Market. San Francisco was the sea port of the West until air travel took over. All along the bay is the Embarcadero which at one point was an extended array of piers and now a mix of the crumbling, the touristy kitsch, the cool office rehab and the glorious Farmers Market in the old Ferry Building. I am used to Farmers Markets but it is always exciting to see the local fecundity. Here we had lots of fruits from the central California Plains, huge colourful delicious nectarines, peaches, plums, pears and the pluot which is a cross between a plum and an apricot. It is larger than both fruit with a firm flesh and sweet but not sugary taste. Yum. Also lots of types of fig including little bright light green figs as well as the rich purple ones that I know. Like Borough, stalls offer fresh cooked food so one wanders around with taste buds making themselves known and chemical signals sending feet over to investigate. We settled on Hayes St bakery where I had a crabcake sandwich (crab fishing big in the bay) and Jerry ate a Po'boys - griddled oyster sandwich. Sad addendum to this delightful morning was that April's bike was stolen. I am an old hand at being ' victim of crime' in London as I am now on Steed The 5th but April's bike was much nicer than any of the ones I have had. To rub salt into the wounds one of the homeless guys who was there offered us a bike 'he has in his garage... bought for $500 but available to us for $300'. Hum.

5. Salads of Radish, buffalo mozzarella, lemon cucumber and feta and confit of tuna, broccoli spears and tomato, ash covered goats cheese, artisan bread and olive mix. Location -Cowgirl Dairy Point Reyes Station. California does great food. It's fresh, local, bursting with colour and flavour. It's come off the land in the same way since the US agricultural lands became cultivated but it is no longer typical for the country. My brain struggles to understand how at one point a generation that had tasted such bounty could be weened off it in favour of mass produced industrialised food that fills the shelves in supermarkets. We were lucky and ate sat outside the shed in the sun in this small town known now for its access to the hiking and biking in the Point Reyes coastline area where we came for a hike to see the pelicans, seals and sunlight glinting on the Pacific ocean rising between here and Japan.

The wages of sin in my case are not death but ridicule. My purchases have now caused luggage spillover and Jerry and April have (kindly) given me the huge pink Pooh Bear plastic holdall that they bought in Mexico to carry my stuff. Am going to enjoy picking that off the conveyor belt.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Shades of Gotham, shafts of light

Chicago is overwhelming.

Part frightening and part exhilarating. At time it feels like the inspiration for Gotham. You cross the river over a number of bascule bridges acting as the drawbridges leading to a dark citadel. Once in downtown, a building of 8 stories is a midget. They rise to 20, 30,40 stories as each rapid innovation in building techniques was pressed into service in the building frenzy of the late 19th and early 20th century. The street facades may be glitzy but between the blocks are cavernous dank service alleys, the landing pads for spindley unkempt fire escapes that hang off the dull back faces, and the spaces for rubbish bins and unknown activities. Even on a hot day the main roads are chill and in shadow, the sun blocked out by the towers. Encircling the original downtown is the elevated train line the EL, known in this area as The Loop. Its rusty hulk sits squat in the centre of the streets laying another layer of shadow on pedestrians and cars below and how those cars honk at each other. These are bad tempered streets. They are also tricksy streets which disorient the newly arrived tourist. Signs hung from gantries slap bang in the middle of the carriageway do not in fact identify the street you are about to enter but the street that crosses perpendicular. I spent half an hour wandering up and down a street not understanding where I was. They are wide streets up to 6 lanes governed in places by the objectionable pedestrian countdown timers found in Toronto but set to 25 seconds because the streets are so wide. At the corners shuffle the destitute shaking their starbucks cup hoping for a $1 from the trickle down economy. From the confused, over-world gloom you can go down the steps to the river bank some 20 metres below current street level as the city has been jacked out of the swamp and mud of the Chicago River and there find another mid layer of dimly lit roads. The grey sky of my unrelentingly rainy first day added to the menace and my heart lurched as I unexpectedly entered this subterranean scene replicating the city dystopias of the films. Venture out to the suburbs and you don't find well tended lawns and 3 cars in every garage. You find huge vacant factory lots with the housing that formerly depended on this for employment peeling and decaying around. A suburb is more the scale of a declining industrial town and there are 27 of them (29 less the park and downtown districts). It's like Stoke on Trent but multiplied by 20. And over it all presides the dominant figure of Mayor Richard J Daley. His name appears everywhere, on project signs and on advertisements for commercially run events. This is the puppet master.

But oh but oh. It is impossible not to be amazed by the verve, arrogance and wealth that is displayed in the most glorious array of skyscrapers I have ever seen. Chicago pioneered tall buildings, innovating first with massive ground stories to hold the upper floors and then racing upwards once steel frames and lift technologies were introduced around the early 1890s. Within the buildings are glorious lobbies faced with marble, mosaics, stained glass, bronze, metal work and statues. Go to the palaces of commerce or of culture and see how the world class artists were encouraged to produce their best for the city - a luminescent atrium ceiling mosaic in the enormous Marshall Fields department store and a delicately detailed cupola of at least 10 m diametre in the former City Library now the Cultural Centre were both commissioned from Tiffany. Money no object in the city that dominated intra-continental transportation, lumber shipping, meat packing and mail order. The conjunction of buildings compared with what Toronto could manage at a similar time shows just the amount of capital and determination is needed to create buildings of enduring quality in less than a generation. And whilst industry might be contracting, there is still plenty of money sloshing around to endow new parks, to ensure that the historic buildings remain glittering and to bequeath a new generation of fabulous architecture to the city. The Millennium Park is a wonderful mix of sculpture, planting and structures (no beggars though, the city has decreed that such pleasures should not be sullied by the evidence that human life is not always this good). Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor but called the Bean by locals, is a highly polished silver bean shape which reflects and refracts the city skyline in its flanks and gives you a kaleidoscope of light ands you within its doomed interior. The Lunas garden sets perennial flowering plants mostly native within a restful composition of streams. A Gehry designed open air concert venue sits the orchestra in an explosion of silver petals manifesting the music that will flood outwards and then a sinuous chrome bridge, plated with tiles that look like dinosaur scales overmounts the road below to link to the blue expansive Lake Michigan where hundred of boats bob and clink their pulleys against the mast, a flotilla of ants next to a giant city which offers glorious skylines which ever way you look.

So do I like it? Yes but I need more time to understand it and survive it. It's going to have to be next time. I'm finishing this in San Francisco sat in April and Jerry's gorgeous home (check out their stimulating blogs) looking out over the city as the Bay fog is gradually being burnt off by the California sun that will come out later. A new city to discover.