Well, it's been a long time since I'm posted something on this blog. I have meant to post something for weeks now, so I thought I'd at least share some thoughts about my summer vacation, so you all know what's up with me.
I had the good fortune to be in six different places this summer: New York, Philadelphia, Vermont, New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Coast, and Chicago. Even though I've made multiple trips to some of these places, it makes sense to group the adventures by geographical location.
In the beginning of the summer I was offered free tickets to see Anna Bartos and the Ensemble Alma perform in New York City, and so I decided to fly in for the occasion. Anna is a classical singer, and has a particular penchant for singing Spanish classical music. The concert was enjoyable, and the musicians, including Anna, were all very good. I particularly remember some of Anna's last few songs, and an especially moving rendition of Villa-Lobos on a solo guitar.
Other highlights in New York include going to the Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro. It's one of the few highlights in that part of downtown to me, and if you haven't gone you should check it out sometime. Artisanal is a wine bar with well over a hundred of different bottles of wine by the class, and a cheese shop with incredibly select cheeses from throughout the world. Although the three of us only ended up buying about three glasses of wine per person, we lucked out with a really great bartender who had a passion for finding the perfect bottles of wine for each of us - so in the course of the night we probably tasted over 20 different bottles of wine in our little three-hour expedition. And the cheeses there were also remarkable, and since the cheese counter is right next to the wine bar, you and your wine glass can make hourly pilgrimages from the bar to the cheeses and back again. I think we sampled about ten different cheeses, but by far the most remarkable cheese was a cheddar from Cabot Creamery in Vermont. I consider myself to be a cheddar aficionado, not the least because Vermont has two of the best cheddar producers in the world: Cabot Creamery and the Graftron Village Cheese Company. And they're both within driving distance of my hometown. Hence, I've had almost every sort of Cabot cheddar imaginable, but even I never even heard about the variety of Cabot cheddar they had at this cheese shop. It was a clothbound cheddar of which only perhaps 60 wheels have been made, and unusually enough, they were not aged at Cabot, but were shipped off to Jasper Hill Farm to be aged in a small cave in the Northeast Kingdom. The taste was quite unusual: a good cheddar with heavy notes of Parmigiano-Reggiano flavor. (As a side note when many people are depressed and need a pick-up they go and get a bottle of wine, when I want a little pick-me up I end up going for cheese, in particular a Parmigiano-Reggiano that is produced only from the rare red cows of northern Italy: Parmigiano-Reggiano della vacca rosa. Definitely worth trying at some point if you haven't, although at it's current price you might want to settle for the smallest of slivers. I should add that when we left the restaurant, there was an eerie light in the city . . .
Another highlight of New York were the 4th of July Fireworks. I spent the 4th hanging out at a barbecue in Brooklyn with my sister, her boyfriend and some friends. It was fun, but the real hightlight was watching the fireworks from the rooftop. Just see the photos:
Oh, and visiting my friend Zarya at her favorite bar in the upper West side, I had the first Mojito I have ever had in my life that I actually enjoyed. I don't know what went wrong with the Mojitoes I've had before this point, but they were all quite awful. But after our bartender spent 45 minutes making us a suitable beverage (no exaggeration, it was a little excessive - he said he was out of mint, so I'm guessing we just had to wait for him to plant some), I finally had a Mojito worth ordering. And after our compliments, our bartender decided to make us each another round. He got quicker, but it still took 20 minutes!
Other highlights of New York were seeing the new Morgan Library. I liked the open spaces that Renzo Piano, one of my favorite architects, designed. They are a nice way of preserving the old rooms of the museum, but providing modern open spaces. The biggest highlight of the museum for me was seeing the musical scores in one of the upper rooms. There, at the end of the room I saw a musical score that really did move me: a selection from one of Bach's cantatas written in his own hand. I don't know what it's about seeing a musician's original score, but to me it's like seeing a painting in person: one can just imagine the motions that the painter used to place each stroke on the paper, and it somehow makes one feel closer somehow to the painting. Perhaps it's a little bit of fantasy to think that one can divine something about the music from merely seeing the actual score - which, after all, Bach may have just been recopying in utter boredom - but as irrational as it may be, part of me thinks I can learn something from it. I also got to spend some time with my mother in Central Park. My sister's apartment is almost right on the park - and what's more the prettiest part of the park. - so it is easy to wander out there, especially on a beautiful summer day.
Oh, and I almost forgot, I went to a concert at the Blue Note with Marta Topferova. She has a really neat bossa nova sound. And it turns out that when I spoke with her afterwards, we discovered that we actually went to college together. A very funny coincidence. Anyway, she's definitely worth listening to if you haven't. Especially her album La Marea.
Well, I didn't get to see much of Philadelphia, because I had a flight that was supposed to arrive in La Guardia at 1 PM, and I had to manage to catch a train to Philly by 3:30 PM, and somewhere in between I had to make it to the upper west side to drop off some stuff and my sister's apartment, of which I technically did not have a key. Seemed a rather risky plan on a tight timetable. But then throw into the mix the fact that my plane was an hour late, and it begins to verge on the impossible. So what was my journey? I woke up early in the morning, caught a bus, that took me to a train, that took me to a plane, that took me to a cab, that took me to a subway, that took me to a train station, that took me to a commuter train station, that took me to a car that brought me to my destination. A very long day of travel to spend merely one night at my friend Rad and Sue's apartment. But since my friend Sheila was there, as well as Kathryn and Dave, it seemed worthwhile. And wow, the rain in Philadelphia when I arrived: it had rained so hard that to cross through the tunnel from one side of the train station to the other I had to wade through an river that made it over the top of my shoes. But when I arrived there were plenty of friends, fantastic Indian food, and of course, several round of that most addictive four-person card game, Rook. It was fun to see Rad and Sue's two children again. They're terribly cute. Although I suppose little Rad might choose a better word to describe himself, so I'll let you choose your own adjective for him, and just show a photo.
I also got to spend time in my hometown in Vermont. It had been a long time since I was in Vermont in the summertime, and it really is beautiful. On the first trip to Vermont I was only there for a few days, but I still got to go to many of my favorite old haunts like Cooper Hill. And the top of my hill:
On the second trip I was only there for two to three days, but I still got to spend a day with my mother next to lake Whitingham.It's one of her favorite places to relax, and it really does have spectacular scenery. It occurred to me that if I lived in Vermont I'd probably be making far less money than I would living in a place like New York or Chicago, and I wouldn't have all the nightlife and museums to visit. But in Vermont one's job benefits would include, clean air, beautiful summer days with the wind going through the trees, bright blue lakes surrounded by mountains, and genuine peace and quiet.Working in the State of Vermont comes with a pretty good package of benefits if you ask me.
On that trip I also got to have a fantastic free meal at the Inn at Sawmill Farm.I've probably mentioned this before, but my little town of 600 people in the hills of Vermont had the distinction of having two of the best wine cellars in the country: the Inn at Sawmill Farm and the Hermitage. The latter closed a few years ago, and sold off much of its cellar, but the former is still there. No longer a Raleigh and Châteaux resort it still is a Dirona restaurant with a Wine Spectator Grand Award wine cellar, and good professionally prepared meals. I suppose in the course of my time in Vermont, my whole family has worked there. I was a waiter, a holiday coat checker, a breakfast prep chef (e.g. I did the morning fruit, etc.), and had the odd jobs such as stringing up the Christmas lights around the property, and even taking architectural photographs of a part of the inn (the only time I've ever been professionally employed as an architectural photographer). My sister did gardening, made a fortune checking coats for New Year's, and did many other odd jobs, my father was a chef there, and my mother has done everything from taking care of the rooms and public spaces, to flower arranging, to making tomato juice, to making jam, to sewing the curtains and helping refurbish the rooms. For about twenty years my family has been associated with that inn. That was a bit of a digression, but it all is building up to the fact that as a treat to my mother for all the work she's put into the place, we had a free dinner and free wine while I was in town. I have mixed feelings about some of the Sawmill Farm's dishes, but I have to say that that night my roasted loin of lamb was cooked perfectly (I've fallen so far from my vegetarian days!), and the Chateau Chasse-Spleen (I think it was a '95) was good, with just enough of the terroir that one looks for from a restaurant that specializes in rare French wines.
And on the same trip that I went to Vermont, I also went to New Hampshire to see my friends Alex and Suzanne get married. Their wedding was on Friday at 5 PM. I had a flight that morning from O'Hare at a quarter to 8 AM. Everything should have worked out wonderfully, except that I missed my flight. Why did I miss my flight? Well, I had not anticipated that there would be so many people there that Friday morning. Actually, I have never seen the place so crowded in my life, and I've flown the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day, and those busy weeks before the Christmas holiday. Anyway, apparently most of the flights the previous day were cancelled due to passing thunderstorms. Anyway, since my ticket was earned from frequent flier miles, I sort of was stuck waiting for the next flight with an available seat to my destination. And after an hour of completely maddening exchanges with United's customer service, I decided to wait for the next plane. I don't want to go into all the details, but one of these maddening conversations went like this:
"I want to talk with someone about seeing if I can get a ticket on another plane to somewhere on the East Coast," said in a calm and curious tone.
"Were we responsible for missing your flight?"
"Well, no, I hadn't planned on there being . . ."
"Then you have defaulted on your part of the contract!," said in a screaming and accusatory tone. "You have failed to live up to your bargain, we owe you nothing! . . . What are you still doing standing here," said in response to my mystified and confused pause, "Why are you still standing in line!"
"Um, I can't get past this person in front of me . . . "
"Excuse me madam, step aside, this man is leaving . . . why aren't you leaving!!"
I actually wasn't leaving since I was a little confused. I hadn't expected a customer service representative to respond to an innocent question with not only no help whatsoever, but a completely belligerent and accusatory tone. There was a time when companies were supposed to be nice to their customers, whatever the circumstances. I suppose I just stood there in disbelief for the moment - and really, it was only a moment since she was getting mad that I was standing there for less than five seconds, rather than leaving immediately. Maybe it was an effective strategy for dealing with me, since I was so caught up in disbelief that I didn't even have a reply, and just walked away. If I had my wits about me I would have yelled at her until the police arrived (which actually happened with someone else later in the day). Oh, and I have to share one other customer service interaction a half hour before. I was on a phone with an agent, while standing at a computerized kiosk, and our conversation ended like this:
"So, what you're telling me is that the ticket that I purchased is completely worthless, and there's nothing I can do with it, so I need to buy a whole new ticket for $500.00 to travel to my friend's wedding."
"And, so it's pointless for me to be standing here at a United machine to try to get on another flight."
"You need to buy a new ticket."
"So, this machine that I'm standing at now, should not be telling me that I can possibly get on the 11 AM flight to Manchester, NH? It should not be telling me I've been added to a waiting-list for free. And wait, it shouldn't not be printing me a ticket while I talk with you on the phone this very minute! Are you trying to tell me that none of this should be happening??!!. . . I think you need to be giving out better information. This has been a completely infuriating and useless telephone call."
It was infuriating to be told to spend $500.00 to go to a wedding, and not to be told that I could actually still use my ticket to get on a waiting-list. I don't know what was wrong with the agent I was speaking with. It's true that she had a heavy Indian accent, and so I might have misunderstood her at one part or another in the conversation. At one point she had to repeat the number "40,000" five times before I understood the number (e.g. and it was important: how many more frequent flier miles I had to spend to fly out that day - as a footnote I add that I didn't have to use any!). I didn't understand her when she was saying the number, which is odd since I'm actually unusually good at understanding Indian accents since I've studied Sanskrit, many of my friends are from India, and some have heavy accents. But even with all that she was at times completely indecipherable. Although I can see why United might want to use agents like her for normal English business transactions, I can't understand why a company would assign people like her to deal with complicated transactions with travelers who are extremely angry from the start. You think that at a certain point in our twenty-minute conversation they would have transferred me to someone who could speak to me with at least a comforting and natural intonation. I mean, speaking in a recognizably comforting tone may not be important in most circumstances, but when you're furious, it's essential to completing a good transaction.
Anyway, so I got on the next flight's waiting list, but given the crowds of people at the airport that was full, and so I got put on the next plane, and the next plane, and the next plane, and finally TWELVE hours later, after having missed the wedding ceremony, the dinner afterwards, and most of the party, I got on the last plane form O'Hare to my destination. And I could tell tales for hours of what I, and the band of about eight or nine other Manchester-bound travelers who were in the same boat (we certainly were not in the same plane!), went through. Some highlights: one of us decided to take the anger route to get on a plane, and yelled for 45 minutes to see if he could change something, and finally had to be taken away by the police. Another one of us made it through most of the day, and then just fell apart at hour eleven and had what can best be described as a nervous breakdown as she leaned against a wall and had an almost surreal conversation with the ticket agent. And then there were those wonderful moments at hour eleven and a half when some members of our group finally had their names called for seats. Far from being jealous and mad like we all might have been ten hours earlier, we actually seemed to develop enough of a connection for one another that we were actually quite happy to hear other people's names being called, since it not only meant that they got relief from their suffering, but that the rest of us might be ever closer to getting to our destinations. What a surreal experience.
Well, I finally did get to New Hampshire on the day of the wedding, and fifteen minutes before midnight, when the party was supposed to end, I was able to walk into the dance hall, and make it for the last dance. And almost everyone I knew, including the bride and groom were still there. And it was a joy to hear my friend Sheila yell my name as I walked in, and to see the happy faces on my friends and the bride and groom: the contrast between being with friends on such a happy occasion and my preceding day spent with strangers was so acute, that those few minutes at the wedding seemed to make it all worthwhile. And plus, I got to see the bride and the groom in their wedding attire, I got to take part in the brunch the following day, and hang out with Rad and Sue and their kids afterwards.
And then there was my drive along the Massachusetts Coast. A rather nice day, I should say, and I was glad that Anna had the time to join me. The spur for the trip was my desire to see the sea again (I grew up in a bedroom less than ten feet from the Atlantic, and I miss it in the Midwest). The trip was all the more fun because Anna had never seen the open ocean before. We drove out to Gloucester, then along cape Ann to Rockport. In the course of the day, we got to see great sites, like the Stonehenge of northern Massachusetts (which is in a Halibut Point park - an old quarry that has been converted into a particularly beautiful park), the sexiest fisherwoman I've ever seen,, and I got to have a decent fish sandwich later that evening.
Finally, all the rest of the time this summer I spent in Chicago. And if I haven't said it enough, Chicago is a fantastic place to be in the summertime. Not only can one ride along the entire shoreline on a bike, but there are an endless series of free concerts and events to go to.
My friend Rachel come to town for one week during the summer. She had such a good time she even extended it another week. It was also an occasion for me to buy a second bike. Yes, that's right, from now on if anyone comes to visit there is a guest bike in a fiery magenta red.
We did all of my favorite things while she was in town, such as riding along the lake at night (Thanks Elina for introducing me to this), eating good food in Greektown, going to a concert in Millennium Park, and so on. But one of the more remarkable events was our kite-flying adventure on Northerly Island. I thought I had found the perfect kite-flying locale on Northerly Island, and so I had Rachel bring her kite. She also brought at least a thousand foot line of string, and we spent the afternoon trying to get the kite to stay up in the air. At first, it was rather desperate. It was hard to get it aloft for more than 20 seconds. But then, while Rachel went to get some beverages for us, I got it to stay up, and began releasing line. By the time that Rachel came back, I had 2/3s of the line out, and then Rachel took over for a while, and low and behold, we put that kite up so high that all the string was let out.A thousand feet up - so high in fact it took like a half an hour to reel it in again. And if you don't think that's such an accomplishment, consider what happened: In the middle of flying the kite, a police cruiser rushed out to the far end of the island where we were flying the kite. Since cars aren't allowed on the island, and we were the only people there, it was quite remarkable. Such a thing has never happened before while I've been out there. But then the cruiser pulled up right behind us, and stopped ten feet away. The officer then took out a pad, began writing something down on it, and then left without saying a word. Yes, it's true: we flew a kite so far up in the sky, that they sent a cruiser out to investigate. That's a serious accomplishment. Fortunately, he decided that we were not a threat to the safety of the city and let us stay.
Other great things in Chicago. A fabulous Fado concert with Mariza in which I got to sit under my umbrella and watch the show in the rain, while everyone else tried to run for any available cover.
A concert with Goran Bregovic in which not only was Millennium Park more crowded that it has ever been, but people were even being disobedient and dancing in the aisles. And two women in the audience count as the best house dancers I have ever seen in my life. But the guy who really stole the show was Bregovic's protégé, Alan Ademovic. I hope they record more albums together. Bregovic's most recent album is "Tales from Weddings and Funerals," and they played with the "we're just a wedding band" motif throughout the evening, despite the fact that he can apparently attract crowds in Europe of over a 100,000. If you want to hear a good song, check out his MySpace page.
There was also the Battleship Potemkin with a full orchestra,an endless series of other concerts every three or four days, a tall ship celebration,
a red hot chili peppers concert, Manasi and Ajay's wedding, and all in all it was a fabulous time to be in Chicago.
Well, enough about my summer vacation, this has been a tome, but I had a few hours tonight to think back over my trips and experiences the last two and a half months. That is one of the great pleasures of doing fun things: the time to reminisce afterwards. In a way that's all this e-mail has been, pleasant reminiscing.
But many things to look forward to. One thing that is looming on the horizon is my potential move to downtown. Yes, everyone, it's still on, and we're coming oh so close to the deadline and I still haven't found a place. But the good news is that I have applied for one place downtown. It's not the most ideal arrangement - the lease has a provision so that when the condo is sold, I have 30 days to move out - but it is in one of the best buildings in the city, practically on top of the Fox & Obel - the best gourmet food store and café in Chicago - and it is on the 39th floor overlooking the lake. I can afford the place because of that annoying 30 day move-out provision that discourages other people from living there. It could be very annoying to have to find another place in the middle of the winter, but the real estate agent there assured me there is a pretty good chance of finding another apartment in the same building. I shall keep you all posted. The good news is that although the apartment is just a convertible, it has two distinct living areas and so once I buy a new bed, it will be very easy for guests to come and stay!! But first I need to get the place. All may be decided tomorrow . . .