Friday, January 6, 2006

Christmas 2005

Well, when I started this blog, the primary purpose was to share pictures and stories of my adventures with my internationally distributed group of friends, and despite this fact, I've almost never posted any of these adventures. The simple reason is it just took so long for me to get the photos developed, and scan them into my computer that by the time I could reasonably complete the project the moment had passed. But now I have a handy little digital camera that is small enough to bring just about anywhere. So, I can finally let you all know what I'm up to from time to time.

My latest adventures were two weeks in New York, with a quick escape for Christmas in Vermont. It was great to be in New York again, since it has become my favorite city. I suppose this is only natural since I grew up five hours away, and I spent many weeks in college traveling down to the city for running races, symphony rehearsals, operas and shows. A lot of people describe New York as an "exciting" place, and I suppose it is. But the adjective I would use to describe it is "comfortable." People seem more direct and interesting, service is so much better than in Chicago, and you can have deli sandwiches delivered at 3 AM. That makes it my kind of town, and just hanging out in it can be cathartic. My sister's place is also in a great neighborhood, just a few dozen feet from Central Park Treeinpark

on the upper West Side. Hence, if I want to go to Central Park I can be there in less than a minute. Sheepmeadownyc It has turned out to be a great place to study, although it was a bit too cold for that this last trip. Snowincentralpark

Here are some highlights from my trip. One fun afternoon was spent at Anna's apartment in midtown. Anna is a classical singer specializing in the Spanish repertoire, and she has a fantastic apartment, just off of Time's Square. As the photos below show, it is very difficult to imagine better views in New York than those from her balcony.


If you look to the south you have an unobstructed view all the way past the Statue of Liberty (which looks very, very small from this vista).


If you look to the southeast you get a perfect view of the Empire State Building.


I can honestly say that these are some of the best views I've seen of the city. Yes, I've been to the top of the Empire State building among others, but those buildings are just a little too tall. You can see everything below you, but you lose a sense of proportion and relative size. But from Anna's building you're in the middle of things. But many of these views might not last forever since a new high-rise will be going up to the south. It's a real shame, but at least it won't obstruct the view of the Empire State Building. Anyway, we had a great time talking about Goya, Granados, and listening to Alicia de Larrocha, and spending time with her cats. I decided then and there I needed to learn Spanish in the next few years. I mean, it's funny, I've studied so many languages, but I've never studied what is probably the most useful language to be speaking in the United States other than English. And maybe this will be a prelude to a trip to Mexico. I've actually never been there, but the tales I've heard of the regional cuisine there really inspire me. Italo Calvino's Under the Jaguar Sun comes to mind. But, in general, I've always thought that Mexican cuisine is one of the great untapped cuisines of the United States. I say untapped, because Mexican cooking has an extraordinary range of flavors and techniques, but most restaurants in the U.S. can't even begin to express this range. The most expensive Mexican restaurants in the United States seem to actually err more than the cheaper ones, since they make the cooking just a little too French - I mean, don't get me wrong, I love cooking French food and think that no other culture has such rich tradition and such exacting techniques for manipulating the ingredients as the French, and so I cook it often - one quarter I even managed to cook the cuisine of a different region of France every week, paired with a wine from the same region. But I think it's true that when you apply too many French techniques to Mexican food it just seems to lose some of its vitality. As a consequence, I've had some of the best Mexican food I've ever had at complete dives. But, anyway, I digress.

Speaking about food, I also should mention that I had probably the best Korean dinner I've ever had at Do Hwa in Chelsea, and one of the best risottos I've ever had at Épices (although the second time we went back it wasn't quite as good). Two restaurants I'd highly recommend. Maybe I'll add a restaurant review section to this blog at some point. Funny, this post is largely revolving around food, but then so did my trip to New York.

On Christmas Eve I made a quick trip up to the mountains of Vermont. Not many photos to share from the adventure, since, well, I didn't have a camera with me until the ride home. Abstractphoto1 But we did somehow get there despite the fact that our rental car broke down on the way. And we had a wonderful dinner at the Inn at Sawmill Farm. The Inn is perhaps an anamoly. It is a converted barn that was transformed into an inn and restaurant, and then it was stocked with one of the greatest wine cellars in the world, complete with many years of Petrus and Château Latour. When I was a teenager I used to enjoy telling people that my little 600 person town in Vermont had almost as many top wine cellars as New York City (The other inn in my town with a similar reputation, The Hermitage, has unfortunately now closed). Anyway, we didn't have a Petrus '66 on our table, but we did have some good food and absolutely fabulous bread and butter. Yes, we all ordered elaborate preparations of duck, venison, and what have you, and they were prepared well, but my most vivid gastronomical memory of that dinner was just the quality of the rolls and butter. I wonder if someday I'll start a list of the best places for rolls and butter. The white bread at Épices on the upper West Side certainly would make the list.

Back in the city we made preparations for New Year's in New York. The preparations were a little difficult to make since my sister and her beau were leaving the next morning at 6 AM for Deer Valley, Utah, and I myself was leaving at 10 AM for Chi-Town. Add to this the fact that my friend Zarya (a.k.a. the opera-singing neurologist) might or might not be coming from Montréal for the festivites, and some friends of my sister who might or might not make the trek from Brooklyn, and you have the beginnings of a logistical nightmare. Even so, we seemed to have a reasonably good time. Five of us (Ari Lauren and her friend Jenny joined us) had dinner at the Rosa Mexicano in Lincoln Center at a quarter to 10. We were actually amazed that we made it there at all since we only made the reservation an hour or so beforehand. The demand for a holiday table at Rosa Mexicano must have been down a bit this year. The place was all dressed up for the holidays, complete with a DJ on the first floor. The food was quite good, although not good enough to overcome my previous assessment of Mexican restaurants in the U.S - but the tableside guacamole was a real hit. We then rushed out to the meet Zarya - who in fact made it to town in time for the fireworks Firework2Treefireworks - and then after watching the running race in Central Park (which I definitely want to run in sometime in the next few years), we went back to Alexis' for grappa and Steely Dan.

Actually, Steely Dan is worth an aside. Alexis put it on the stereo since the band was a subject of much conversation at dinner, with Ari saying it was one of the main influences on her music. I admit that I've never really been into the band, despite the fact that it's a band from my alma mater. But I have to say, that when the lights are down low, and you have a decent stereo, Steely Dan can really set a nice mood. And hanging out with my sister's friend Ari at the same time has also inspired me to try to write some rock music of my own. It's sort of funny, I was actually seriously into music composition at one point in my life. As a high school student I was really thinking about becoming a composer for a while - this was in my conducting phase - and I even went to Carnegie Mellon as a high school student to study with Leonardo Balada among others. But when I was composing I was writing opera scenes, elaborate piano works, and modern classical works for woodwinds that were too complicated, I admit, for a high school student such as myself to complete - although I suppose I did manage to produce a couple of things that I liked. But writing rock music seems like it would be a breeze in comparison! I mean come on, I-IV-V with a reoccurring baseline can produce masterpieces! I think I might even be good at it if I can manage to get my jazz piano down, or pick up a guitar again. Anyway, I actually fooled around with itunes the other night and found myself creating all sorts of interesting beats. Maybe I'll put a few of them online in the near future. Although this last evening was a little goofy. I mean, I found myself writing all sorts of songs with a new age feel. I really don't like "new age" music, but I have to say it is a lot of fun to create with an electric keyboard.

The rest of the evening was spent trying to find a place to dance with Zarya and her friends, Zaryacab but the only success we ended up having was a strange little dive of a bar in Chelsea, with an audience that consisted entirely of transvestites and guys who had nothing better to do than stare in our general direction. But even in these circumstances I was beginning to dance a little, something perhaps partly induced by the tequilas. It's funny that I've hardly danced at all in the past few years. I mean, growing up, I was that seven year old who couldn't stop dancing at weddings, in high school most of my love relationships revolved around dancing, and in college not only did I study Scottish country dancing, and ballroom dancing, but also what might be described as intensive classical flamenco (I still have the boots). I suppose I just haven't found myself in particularly inspiring circumstances in the last few years. Zarya, who is quite attractive, was beginning to persuade me to begin again, but alas, a few minutes later and we were all back on the streets again. That is perhaps the story of the rest of the evening. And maybe the story of my dating life at the moment. But I do have better hopes for the upcoming year.


Thursday, January 5, 2006

Mt. Katahdin Adventure

Well, one of the main reasons I started this blog was to keep my friends informed of my adventures and exploits. But it's odd that I've never actually done this. It's not that I don't have stuff to share, I've just not had all the time I would like to type it all up. But now since some of you have started asking about the pictures, I thought it was time to put some up. The following is an account of the trip to the top of Katahdin that I was a part of this past August.

Dscn0653_1 This past August I got a phone call on Sunday from my sister. She asked, "So, what are you up to this week?," and when I said I had no idea, she said, "Well, how would you like to climb Mt. Katahdin tomorrow . . . well, probably on Tuesday?" So, within a couple of days I was whisked away from the heat and haze of Chicago and on a plane to the jetport in Portland, Maine. (It is a jetport, and not an airport. I suppose they want to make it clear that you can catch something other than a prop plane there). Then six hours later we were up in our campsite at the Big Moose Campground, just outside of Baxter State Park. Now, I've done a lot of camping. Camping for me usually involves taking a bus or a plane to the middle of nowhere, hiking at least six miles a day, setting up camp in a blizzard, fighting off mountain lions with my firm and confident voice (OK, I exaggerate slightly, I think it was actually a weasel, but man, at three in the morning, when a weasel scratches my canvas tent at precisely the place where my head is resting, it might as well be a mountain lion!). Camping is hence a lot of work, exhausting, occasionally life-threatening, but all in all quite a bit of fun. Camping with my sister and her beau however is a very different experience. There are stainless steel martini glasses, a plentiful supply of vodka (vodka martinis are the official drink of boo and pookie's camping excursions), enough citronella oil to permanently alter the ecosystem, and really comfortable portable reclining chairs. In a word, it's quite civilized. Dscn0629_1 This is not to say that neither of them have attempted more adventurous camping expeditions (my sister for instance spent two weeks in an old growth forest in northern Ontario, accessible only by airplane), but it is just a different way of camping. And I have to say for the first time tailgate camping seemed like a rather nice way to spend a weekend.

Of course, even with tailgate camping, there are problems. Like the showers. Man, I mean the bathrooms were very clean: surprising for any campground, well lit, and in general in very good shape. But I remember my first night there in the shower building. I was in the men's room brushing my teeth using the clear water from the tap, when I heard a crash in the next room. Someone was kicking the coin operated shower machine. This was followed by lots of swearing, the sound of a fist against a wall, and an agonizing scream, followed by the slam of a door. I thought to myself, "Man, some guys sure have anger management issues," and walked back to my tent. Little did I know that the next morning I would end up doing the very same thing. It's almost impossible for me to describe how annoying these showers were the first morning. The way these showers are supposed to work, is that you put a few coins in, turn the dial, you get nice and toasty warm water, then when it begins to fade you put a few more coins in, and you can shower for as long as you want (or as long as there's water in the tank). Well, with the machines that morning, you put the required coins in, turn the dial, and nothing happens. So then you think, the coins are stuck in the machine. So you tap it on top. If nothing still happens, you think to yourself, maybe the water tank is some distance from the shower, and that if you wait a minute or so everything will be all right. When five minutes go by, you put more coins in the machine. And then miracle of miracle there is a clicking noise, the sound of water going through a pipe, and then . . . nothing. So after a few more coins and a few more minutes, you give up and walk out the door, letting it slam behind you, only to have the water suddenly go on. A miracle! So you quickly go back in, close the door, take your clothes off as quickly as possible, jump back in the shower, experience two minutes of ecstasy before the water suddenly turns off leaving you covered with soap in a cold shower stall. At this point is there anything to do but start to yell at the machine, hit it a couple of times, make agonizing screams until by shear force of will you manage to make it work? Suddenly the guy from the night before seemed perfectly reasonable. I think I spent an hour in the shower to get my precious six minutes of water. Fortunately, we got to move to a cabin for our last night!

Anyway, our first day was watercolor day. Part of the rationale behind this trip was to spend an entire day next to a lake in Maine painting watercolors. This is actually one of my favorite activities. I love being in one place long enough to really observe the change in shadows, the different effects the light produces on the water, to really take in a vista or two. And since the whole time you're painting, you're participating in an activity that really helps you see details in the world around you. Painting can also be a way to meet people. I remember meeting many fishermen, carpenters and children this way when I traveled through Greece as a teenager. One of the better locations for this was sitting by a harbor in a particular small town - I think it was on Aegina, but I'm not sure. I didn't even have a smattering of Greek back then, so there was nothing I could say, but all day people were constantly coming up to me attempting to communicate. Most of these conversations involved one of the fishermen pointing to something in the harbor, and then pointing to the corresponding image on my canvas, and smiling. A bit awkward at first, but after a while it seemed to become a bit of an amusing game. Oh, and children would come up and stand nearby and just be entranced by the gradually unfolding picture. Of course, this is all a side note, since there was no one else at the lower Togue Pond in Maine, Dscn0643_1 there was nothing to do but just keep painting and make tuna fish sandwiches. Dscn0669_1 We probably spent four or five hours doing this. My sister is actually getting rather good at watercolors, and her boyfriend made it quite evident why he was a professional painter. I personally, wasn't entirely happy with my creations, to be honest, I haven't really found a style yet - I've been inspired by the more abstract watercolors of Signac recently, and some of the watercolor and ink creations of Kandinsky that were on exhibit at the Guggenheim last year, but my creations looked like none of the above. But I'm getting better, and besides part of the virtue of painting on the side of the lake is the pleasure of the immediate experience of sitting next to a pleasant lake in Maine. After the day of painting, we had time for a swim in the Upper Togue Pond on the other side of the road. Dscn0639_1 The water was the perfect temperature. Dscn0636_1_1 It was a bit chilly over there, with a crisp wind coming down across the water, but as long as you stayed underwater, you were warm. Anyway, watercolor day was a unanimous success, and we also got our first view of Mt. Katahdin, Dscn0634_1 as it loomed alone on the horizon. That afternoon we also inquired as to the best way to climb the mountain. If you've ever been to Katahdin, you know that the number of people allowed to climb it is strictly limited every day, and it is possible to arrive at nine in the morning and not be allowed in since the park is full. So you have to plan your trip a bit ahead of time to be sure you get to the gate early enough to get in. The woman at the park information center offered us some advice about the mountain. She told us that we probably couldn't get into any of the trails at the north side of the mountain, since they were mostly full, but we should come up by the south. There were a few trails there. One was steep, and "right of the side of the mountain," and we were told to avoid that unless we were experiencesd hikers (we had all hiked, but some members of our group had not done so for a while). Instead, she suggested that we take one of the trails further down the road that goes up the mountain more gradually. The easiest way up was probably the Hunt trail, so that's where we should head. It also had the added virtue of being the actual ending of the Appalachian Trail, which terminates at the summit of Katahdin. Anyway, I mention her advice, since there is still a bit of debate among the hikers that day about whether John chose the right trail to go up. All I can say in my defense is that the women at the gate told me it was the easiest way!

Katahdin is the tallest mountain in Maine. It is 5267 feet, and it stands at the edge of the Northern Appalachian range, so there is an unobstructed view that goes all the way to the ocean. It is also in the middle of nowhere, and it's almost always covered with fog or mist. A guide book I once looked at said that you almost never see anything from the top because of the mist, so the climb is often disappointing. The other thing that most people know about Katahdin is that it looks like a deceptively easy climb. I mean, there is hardly anything in New England that is truly difficult to climb, and Katahdin shares the same gently rolling hill line of other mountains. So it is a common mistake to assume that it's going to be a piece of cake. It isn't. I wouldn't say it was a hard climb, but it's just a lot harder than we imagined. So, needless to say, we arrived the next morning bright and early, drove to the trailhead, and began the ascent up Hunt trail. The first few miles of the trail are a nice walk through the woods. Then you begin to climb for a few miles up a gradually steepening trail until you finally break through the tree line. It was somewhere along these second couple of miles when you begin to realize Katahdin is not alone. Other mountains begin to rise around you as you ascend. I remember looking up at a mountain at one point during this climb and thinking, "I hope Katahdin isn't too much taller than that." It was then an odd experience an hour later to have to look down quite a distance to even see that "tall" mountain (The Owl, 3597 feet). Well, after all this gradual climbing, Katahdin throws its first surprises at you. First, you end up walking up to a stone wall at the edge of a cliff. Dscn0692_1 Although it is perhaps not a terribly scary cliff, with the wind blowing along the side of the rock face, it initially seems quite out of place with the pleasant walk beforehand. I suppose that is the first point at which we realized that this was not as easy a mountain as we thought. Fortunately, the wall is very short, and really no problem. But then you get to the boulder field. And these are relatively big boulders. Some of them are so big, in fact that you have to use the iron ladders and poles that are mounted in the rock to get up them. At a few places the shorter person in our group had to use someone else's shoulders. And all of this with the wind blowing back and big drop-offs all around. I think we hesitated here. We began to think maybe this climb wasn't such a hot idea. But fortunately, we were almost to the summit (which we THOUGHT we could see), so it seemed worth taking some risks now that we were so close. Well, we weren't so close, because when we got to the top, there was another concealed part of the mountain behind it. And when we got to the top of that, suddenly the sides of the mountain disappeared, and we were on a thin ridge, cliffs on either side, leading up to a very steep peak in the distance. Again, we hesitated, but we thought we were so close and trudged on since that DEFINITELY was the peak. Dscn0694_2 And of course, it wasn't the peak, because when we got to the top of that, we entered a tremendous alpine meadow, with what looked like a whole other mountain in the distance, and a sign informing us that we were still over a mile away! So we trudged across the plain, taking a break at the small water source known as "Thoreau's Spring," Thoreauspring2 because Thoreau was said to stop there on his hike up to the top. And finally, we got to the summit.

And wow, that was one of the more amazing moments of the past year. Dscn0707_1 When we got to the summit, the sky was absolutely crystal clear as far as the eye could see except for the few overhanging clouds far above. Katahdinview_2 Dscn0711_1 In fact, I do think that we could see the ocean, just barely shimmering on the horizon. Dscn0710_1 And after a few minutes up there, everyone else who had climbed that day left, and we were absolutely alone. I took up a seat next to a very large cairn, and just enjoyed the silence. And there is something almost divine about being on the top of a mountain, being able to see for miles: the smoke in the distance, the lumber trucks barely visible as they turned up the dust along the logging roads, the people on the other peaks in the distance, everything going on around you, and yet not a sound anywhere. I mean, one could probably hear a pin drop, and when people spoke on the alternate peaks about a quarter mile away, you could hear every word. I could have easily spent a few hours up there, but alas, we knew that we had to climb down, and after five hours or so up, it would take us a long time to get back to the car, so we were only there for about half an hour.

One interesting sidenote to our tale was that we ran into a 60-year-old women who was climbing up to the top of the mountain by herself. She actually had climbed up the day before, but turned back at the boulder field, and was trying it again that day. Right when we were leaving the summit, there she was, having made a successful summit on her own. We invited her to have dinner with us that night since we thought she deserved something for having attempted the mountain twice and succeeded, but she didn't accept the offer. We hope she got back safely that night. The mountain is actually well-patrolled, and the number of hikers is kept track of quite closely, so it is actually a rather safe place to climb, but still.

What followed? Well, a dinner on a porch at the Big Moose lodge - with a talented, if quirky one-man band nearby, a cabin at the edge of a beautiful lake (more photos will follow as soon as I develop the last role of film), bright stars at night, and just the sort of complete relaxation that one needs after a climb to the top of Katahdin. Then we had to drive four or five hours to the South and I just made my plane. What a great break from Chicago.