Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Not Road-Weary Yet

Someone told me once that Los Angeles is a hidden city, and that unless you live there yourself, you have no way of discovering how good it is to live there.

I've been visiting LA since probably 2000 or 2001, taking short business trips a couple times a year, and it's only just recently that I have any level of comfort there. Sure, I've fallen in love with other parts of California, but LA has been somewhat of a hold-out for me.

Until this trip.

Maybe it's the fact that I'm unemployed, and the happiest I've been in seven years. But I found joy in everything in LA from the moment I stepped on the jetway at JFK to the moment I took the redeye back. My flight to Burbank was full of movers and shakers, from those I recognized - Andy Richter, Toccara - to those who just seemed important. When I arrived, I was waiting for my rental car alongside Frank Whaley, and as I got on the road towards my hotel, I passed all the closed roads, valet parking, and other Oscar-related hub-bub (including John Waters in a tux) around Hollywood Blvd and the Kodak Theater. I was happy being neither a mover-and-shaker nor a spectator. I was just passing through, and would watch the telecast on TV just like the rest of the country.

El Carmen

After the telecast, I took the hotel shuttle to El Carmen, a taco bar that boasts 400 tequilas (though not the one I ordered, Alcatraz) and a collection of Mexican wrestler memorabilia. I met a movie financier and his son, who drove me back to my hotel. The next morning, I had an amazing latte and chili poached eggs at Kings Road, served to me by a flirtatious barista whose confidence and familiarity with the clientele made me think he must be the owner, but of course, he's an actor. When he gave me his card, I thought he was flirting with me, but maybe he was just networking.

I was in town on business, after all, so I needed all the networking I could get. A meal spent alone was a meal wasted in my mind, so I packed my schedule cram full from morning til night, driving from Hollywood to Beverly Hills to West Hollywood to Santa Monica to Hollywood to Pasadena to Burbank, ending my trip like many weary travellers at Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, as the sun set behind the palms, just a few miles from the airport.



I didn't visit a lot of my usual haunts on this trip. And I didn't shackle myself to West Hollywood the way I often do to avoid driving, in those cases when I don't make someone else drive my ass around. Instead, I embraced the opportunity to explore the wild, unfamiliar west, meeting friends and clients on their turf (resulting in some fantastic finds, including the Enchiladas Howard at El Coyote).

People have started asking me if I'm going to move to California. The truth is, I don't know. My lease is up in August, so I know I'll be moving somewhere. But if a full-time job presents itself to me on the West Coast, I'm not going to turn it down. And in the meantime, I'm doing some pretty good groundwork to make sure I don't feel so much like an alien out there as I have for the last eight or nine years.

Bookends

I managed to catch two sunrises today: the first at 6:30 a.m. PT and the second at 6:30 a.m. ET, after returning to NYC on the redeye from Burbank.

In California, I've come to anticipate the sunrise, waking up excited to start the day. In New York, seeing the sun come up has always meant it was time to go to bed.

And so it is now, after two and a half adventurous and fulfilling days in LA, exploring a new life and trying to figure out what the next few sunrises will bring.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Call of the Salt

It's kind of a weird coincidence that someone from the "Salt City" would be so drawn to the Salton Sea. Is there some intrinsic desire for salt in me that causes both my cravings for french fries and my obsession with a salty sea?

I'm thinking twice now when sprinkling Maldon sea salt on my salads. The jagged shards look a little like the shore in Salton City.

photo: Edith BellinghausenI ate a tilapia po' boy for dinner last night at Marshall Stack and it made me want to leave New York City and open a yacht club. I imagined living in Indio or Joshua Tree and taking a weekly or a monthly trip back to the Ski Inn, to catch up on the gossip and have a patty melt. Maybe I could help the SDIA get their act together and market themselves a little better, so that people like me would actually pay the $5 membership if they knew they were getting something out of it, like, oh I don't know, a newsletter?

There's a plot of land in Bombay Beach up for auction on eBay. Last time I looked, the price was $3000 and that didn't seem so bad. A quick web search brings up other foreclosure listings in Salton City, and I wonder, who will buy those? More inner city families from LA looking to keep their kids safe and off the streets? Local residents who believe in the ultimate comeback of the area? Poets, writers, painters and other artists, who are perpetually inspired by the sea's sunsets, dust storms and boiling mud pots?

I've spent so much time trying to get away from where I came from, and yet I keep seeking out the fifth taste, even asking Maria to make salt potatoes (a hometown delicacy) when she hates potatoes herself. But I've always been one to give into cravings rather than resisting them. If you're thirsty, drink water. If you feel anemic, eat skirt steak. And when salt comes calling, you might as well answer it to see what it has to say.

Further reading:
Leave No Trace
Land of Opportunity

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Am Not-Working

I've been in a pretty heavy existential crisis since late April, when I visited Death Valley. I realized I was tired of being surrounded by mediocrity, and really wanted to do something bigger with my life.

In October, when a new boss had been hired above me, I was in a difficult meeting with her when she said, "Come on, we're all marketers here..." and I thought, "I'm not a marketer." Sure, my title was Vice President of Marketing and was the de facto head of the two-person department, but I didn't define myself by the marketing I executed.

Now that I'm unemployed, I've had to face the ever-present question, "What do you do for a living?" which we all know really means "Who are you?" So without a job, who am I?

While on vacation in Joshua Tree, I realized that I am now defined by what I do (not necessarily for a living) rather than what my job is. At The Desert Lily, I was a writer, both to Carrie and Bob who run the place, and to the other visitors staying there. A writer, and a traveller. And maybe that's what I really am, and what I should be. It's far more interesting than working for this-or-that company marketing this-or-that music and no I don't really meet any famous people and no I don't get invited to very many parties anymore.

I think that not-working will give me a good chance to figure out who I am and who I want to be. And maybe that means I'll figure out my next career move. In the meantime, I'm really enjoying the various odd jobs that I've taken on to make ends meet while I figure things out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Land of Opportunity

Since last March, I’ve been pioneering my way around Southern California, carving out little niches for myself in small communities by using more metropolitan areas like LA, Vegas and San Diego as home bases. Between Death Valley, Anza-Borrego, and now Joshua Tree, I feel like I’ve done all of the big stuff, so either I’ll start digging deeper into more eccentric locales, or start heading north.

I just can’t get it out of my head that California is the land of opportunity. From the gold rush and the wagon caravans who never made it across the desert, to the Southern Pacific Railroad and Route 66 creating more accessible gateways to the promised land, California has beckoned man to go west for centuries. And for the last year, I too have been answering the call.

As I prepared to fly back east at 6:15 a.m. on Monday morning from Ontario, an airport not that close to Joshua Tree – one of the disadvantages of redeeming miles for air travel – I slowly reintroduced myself into society after a desert weekend by meandering alone on I-10W. I exited I-10 to drive north into San Bernardino, a depressed Inland Empire community for whom progress runs at a snail’s pace, and whose commerce relatively disappears once the drug dealers and sex workers get cleaned off the streets. When I walked into the McDonald’s and Route 66 Museum, the museum attendant couldn’t quite believe I was there at all, and all the way from New York (a sentiment echoed by many of the locals we encountered on our trip). Scattered with donated memorabilia – including old uniforms, propaganda, and Happy Meal toys – the most interesting part was the Route 66 annex in the back, which includes an impressive collection of local bullet-ridden street signs and colored glass insulators from the tops of light poles. It even included a dedicated display on the town of Amboy, which Route 66 also passes through to the northeast of Twentynine Palms. I’d considered driving up there just to see the crater, and it turns out there isn’t much else there except a gas station and café. In fact, only two people actually live in Amboy, and the town makes most of its money from location fees for fashion photo shoots. A 20th Century ghost town, whose vitality was so dependent on the singular highway that passed through it, completely shut down when a larger, better highway was built elsewhere, circumventing the town. Amboy just couldn’t survive without western explorers traveling through, and especially without good water supply.

Heading west now is so easy. There are burger stands at every exit competing for business, gas stations galore, and casinos to win big if you’re running short on cash. But it used to be a much bigger challenge.

There are stories of early pioneers trying to reach California and stumbling across Death Valley, probably the most uninhabitable place in the country. They expired in the heat and they froze in the cold. They burned their wagon’s wood for warmth at night, and they ate their horses. Most died along the way.

California seems to be characterized by this coexistence of successes and failures. Some make it big; some don’t. Some towns become Palm Springs and flourish; some towns will never become the next Palm Springs. Some starlets will get their teeth fixed and marry a matinee idol and move into a house in the hills; some will end up with a dumpster with track marks.

It’s hard to know which fate will be met for any of us until after it happens.

Without the benefit of Route 66 passing through it, Salton City was supposed to be the next Palm Springs. Millions of dollars were spent paving roads, laying out plots of land and laying pipes for sewage and running water. And most of it was never built on.

Edith and I first encountered the Salton Sea last September, when we drove east out of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to explore the saline inland sea that stared out at us as brightly blue from the desert hills as it did when we first spotted it on the map. We thought you could just drive there and see what there is to see. We didn’t realize that we’d be driving in circles in a maze of unpaved roads and no buildings except for Superburger. A lot of research later, which included watching both the documentary film and an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and we were ready to go back and really see the new things that are actually still there.

North Shore Yacht Club
We started on the northern shore this time and came across the abandoned North Shore Yacht Club, with its nautical façade and porthole windows still reflecting the sun on a gorgeous, warm day, much cooler and less humid than our last visit. An amateur urban explorer, I was excited to take pictures of an abandoned building without security or blockades, until I realized that all the local hoodlums had the same access and had completely defaced the inside with fresh layers of graffiti paint, in some cases leaving behind their paint trays and brushes (not even using spray cans like a good graffiti artist!). It was hard to tell what the building would have even been used for, strewn with pigeon feathers and rubble, until we reached the hourglass-shaped pool in the back and looked out into the small harbor which would have made a perfect boat launch, shaded by now-overgrown palm trees and gazing out at the white seabirds resting at their winter migration stopover point.

Next store there’s an abandoned general store that sold bait and food and beer and such, as indicated by some faded lettering on each side of the building. But, like the yacht club, it’s just sort of a rusty box now, and hard to discern its original purpose. Just beyond it, there were more birds perched on an old swing set, whose swing seats and chains were long since gone.


We followed the shore farther south to Bombay Beach, a thriving Salton Sea community if there can be such a thing. Most of its inhabitants were born there or lived there most of their lives, which reach into the 50 or 60 or 70 or 80-year range. The place to go in Bombay Beach is the Ski Inn, where regulars like Wacko and Brian start drinking their screwdrivers with cranberry and rum-and-cokes at 7 a.m. and don’t show any signs of leaving at lunchtime. They couldn’t imagine what a couple of New Yorkers would be doing there – normally they only see Canadian ski bunnies on a detour from San Jacinto – but they were more than happy to buy us drinks and tell us about their lives, the jobs they once held, the sea they once knew. There is hope for the sea to bounce back, but they don’t think it’ll be in their lifetime. Regardless of whether it gets better or worse, they won’t be leaving.

Our patty melts were greasy and crispy and far surpassed all expectations, and I thought for a moment that I could live there and hang out at the Ski Inn all day. It’s for sale, and for a flash, I wondered how much it cost and what it would take to buy and run it. With a good beer selection that includes Fat Tire, freshly-popped popcorn, a dangerously metallic dart game and a religiously dedicated clientele, that place has got potential. Franchise anyone?

But in truth, the Ski Inn was sold once already and it was a nightmare for the original owners and the residents of Bombay Beach. It was run so poorly that the former owners sued to get it back. So how are they going to find someone to run it lovingly, and well?

As tempting as it was to stay there all day and gossip, we had more exploring to do on the western shore of the Salton Sea, back to Salton City where we first thought to ourselves, “This is it?” because we didn’t know where to look.

Salton Bay Motor Hotel
This time around, we did know where to look. Sort of. We had our hearts set on seeing Albert Frey’s Salton Bay octagonal motel/marina/yacht club with its grandiose palm tree-lined boulevard entrance that we’d seen on postcards, and we’d seen in ruins in the film about the area. When we got to the bottom of the loop of Marina Drive, we knew we were in the right place, but there was nothing there. We saw the white painted curbs from the boulevard, which held only burned-out palm trees. As we tiptoed closer to the water, we spotted slabs of concrete and wires. Some rubble in the water. That’s it. No clear foundation. No nostalgic relics. No graffiti. No abandoned boats. No birds even. Just…nothing. The pride and joy of the Salton Sea’s heyday – the beacon to all those who dreamed that it truly would become the Salton Riviera – was gone with barely a trace. And we didn’t even know what happened.

Had it been destroyed in a fire? An accidental one or an intentional one? Demolished? Blown away? Even the Google Maps satellite view shows it’s still there.

Reality came crashing down on us. Salton City was never built up. Celebrities no longer visited. No one was boating, despite the speed and buoyancy of the salt-ridden water. Even the greeter at the park ranger station had an acerbic tone when he described the “treasures” we’d find in the Visitor Center.

A casino has been built on 86S in hopes of bringing some more interest (and money) to the area. I’m more interested in the old casino I read about which stands partially submerged in the water somewhere along the sea’s shore as yet unexplored by us. Besides, although casinos are good for bringing tourists in, they can be disastrous to local residents, who gamble away their pensions instead of having enough money to live on, further sealing their fate to forever live in a town like Bombay Beach.

This was the land of opportunity for a lot of people just a few decades ago, but, perhaps precisely because of the commerce and industry that normally helps build cities, something went horribly wrong here. Algae overgrew. Tilapia washed ashore in massive die-offs. Birds soon joined them, succumbing to avian flu. And the Salton Sea’s residents died too, with no new residents moving in to replace them.

It’s strange that such a dead place would pique my interest so much and make me want to return so many times, but that held true for me in Death Valley as well. Salton Sea, too, is teeming with ghosts, and is haunting to its visitors even after they leave.

Before going to bed early to make sure I could get up for my early flight, I continued west on Base Line Road in San Bernardino to drive to the J. Filippi Winery in Rancho Cucamonga, one of a handful of historic wineries in the area which signify the beginning of California’s wine boom. A little farther west and one left turn and I was back to Route 66 and the site of California’s oldest winery, now operating as The Wine Tailor. Though Route 66 in Rancho Cucamonga is basically like any main drag in any suburban area, lined with car dealerships and strip malls, you see a few vestiges of the old 66 people used to sing about: mostly motels and steakhouses with sparkling lights that evoke old Vegas but are now buried between fast food joints and muffler repair shops. As I drove back east towards my motel, I only spotted a couple historical markers to remind me where I was. In fact, my motel was the last reminder of Historic Route 66 driving east on Foothill Blvd itself: the infamous Wigwam Motel, where you can sleep in a teepee on your way to making your dreams come true.

Wigwam Motel
For me, it was a cheap, wacky way of getting a few hours of shut-eye not too terribly far from the airport, but thankfully not at the airport. I had my own teepee, made out of concrete of course, with a bed boosted up high and a shower that ran hot. I fell asleep to the low hum of distant traffic, since nobody seemed to actually drive on that part of 66 anymore. And I had all of my dreams ahead of me.

Over the next few months, I won’t be flying to LA on business or attending conferences around the country the way I have been for the last year. I won’t have much disposable income to go gallivanting around California the way that I’d like. But this trip has made me feel that anything is possible for the future, and that even if bad things happen, their ugliness can be beautiful and inspiring. Instead, I’ll spend a lot of time planning the next trip, which for sure won’t be the last.

“I don’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to.” – Bjork

For more Salton Sea photos, click here and here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Last Desert Day



I was so sick before this trip, I wasn't sure that I would make it. Even as I arrived at the gate at JFK, I was sweating and teary, dreading the long flight and drive ahead.

But practically as soon as we landed, I magically recovered.

As I approach my impending return to NYC, I'm starting to feel a little sick again.

I'm going to take one last nature walk this morning after breakfast before I depart Joshua Tree, to refill my lungs with fresh, dry air and clear my sinuses before I head to the more polluted, economically depressed western portion of the Inland Empire (also known as "Foreclosure Alley").

I thought we'd gotten our fill of nature on Thursday when we meandered down all the paved roads of Joshua Tree National Park, but I'm longing for it again. If I were more of a hiker or rockclimber, there'd be plenty more for me to do there, but I won't go back, not on this trip.

When we drove up Quail Springs Road (which explains all the quails I've seen) to the park entrance, we popped a copy of The Joshua Tree into the CD player. It didn't occur to me what a cliche we were til I had to roll down my window and pay the park fee, looking sheepishly at the park ranger who took our money. It's hard not to think of U2 when you're in this area, after having grown up listening to that album and associating the name with the place all these years. But in truth, The Joshua Tree was recorded in Dublin, not here. And the cover photo was shot in Death Valley, where the actual joshua tree that inspired the logo was from.

Still, as the Harmony Motel loves to advertise, U2 did stay here while they were working on the album (probably after it was recorded), and did an entire promotional photo shoot here.

Red Ocotillo cholla

It's no wonder - even the Twentynine Palms Highway is photogenic. In the park itself, I couldn't not take a photo of a joshua tree, rarely snapping anything that didn't have one in the foreground. As we drove farther south, the joshua trees became sparser (not only where there had been wildfires) and we came across other bizarre forms of desert vegetation like the blooming red ocotillo or terrifying cholla cactuses, which look fuzzy and loveable but will pierce your skin with their projectile prickly spines without thinking twice.

I don't know if I'm ready for city life yet, but heading back out west today to stay in a teepee tonight near the historic Route 66 will provide an interesting and perhaps bizarre segue.

For more photos of Joshua Tree, click here

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Clear Skies

You can see the stars in the desert. That's something you'll just never get in New York.

I remember the last time I was unemployed, there was some celestial event that I wanted to witness, so I convinced James and Alex to drive down to Coney Island at like 3 in the morning to see if we could see it. Of course, we didn't realize that the stadium lights would still be on and that Coney Island would be just as bright as elsewhere in the city, so we couldn't see anything.

The sky was bright, but at eye level it still seemed dark on the beach. That worked to our advantage when we wanted to swim. We saw shadows of figures who looked like they were up to no good, but we couldn't see enough to deter us. And even when some random older guy asked me to watch his wallet, took off his pants, ran into the ocean, and then took off his shorts and came back, crouching next to me, I still couldn't really see anything.

Tonight, unemployed again, I keep walking outside into the cold to look up at the sky, waiting for something to happen. Somehow there seem to be more stars tonight than even our first two nights at Harmony Motel, when we stripped down to our suits to stargaze in the hot tub after hours. Edith pointed out the Big Dipper and Orion's belt, and we squinted upwards as the steam rose past our faces, clouding our view but not the sky.

Tonight at The Desert Lily, there's no hot tub and no Edith to guide me astronomically, but I still find myself gazing upwards. I'm farther from the airport now and the planes look more like stars. I'm too tired or intimidated to figure out how to build a fire to keep me warm so I can spend more time outside. But I know that clear, pinhole sky is out there, and my mind is clear too.

What would you give for a little clarity?

My High Desert Hideaway

Relaxing at The Desert Lily B&B

A lot of people thought I'd gone a little crazy when I told them that I was spending Valentine's Day alone in the desert. If I already knew I'd be lonely, why would I want to make it worse? But of course, the desert has so many mental and physical healing powers for me that I knew it would be good for me, and I'd much rather be alone in the middle of nowhere than be alone in a city where I'm expected not to be alone.

Still, even the folks that run my little desert hideaway, The Desert Lily, are feeling sorry for me. In addition to the Russell Stover chocolates last night and the candy hearts this morning, which Carrie gave everybody, the owners just invited me out to a party so I wouldn't be sitting here alone in the dark with my laptop. I declined, though, because this is what I wanted.

In the desert, you kind of have to live your life by the sun. And this B&B is so hidden in the dirt hills that it's pitch black out, so it kind of seems like time to turn in for the night as soon as the sun goes down, which this time of year is around 5:30 p.m.

Every morning since I arrived for this trip on Wednesday, I've woken up with the sun - either just before it rises or just as it's rising. Normally a night owl and a sleepyhead in the morning, this feels abdurdly natural to me, and I wake up in the dark looking forward to those first peeks of light over the eastern horizon. This morning's sunrise was nice enough, met with roosters crowing, dogs howling, and quails fluttering, but the real treasure was when I wasn't alone - when Edith woke with me, a little farther east down on the main highway at the Harmony Motel, whose meditative garden and hot tub felt magical both as the apricot light illuminated it for the first time in the day, and when the year-round twinkly lights lit the path (and passing jackrabbits) at night. It reminded me so much of our mornings spent at the Palms at Indian Head in Borrego Springs last fall, a trip that impressed me so much I had to come back and explore the rest of Southern California's desert frontier.

The area around Joshua Tree - specifically the Morongo Basin, consisting of small towns Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley - is considered the high desert, unlike the low elevations I experienced in Death Valley and at the Salton Sea. Between the higher elevations and the winter season, the area was a little colder than we would have liked on this trip, but even for here it's been unseasonably cold. We watched the snow-capped San Jacinto Mountain become even whiter, and we stumbled onto some snow on the ground in Joshua Tree National Park. Last night when I was driving home from dropping Edith off for a romantic weekend with Eric in Palm Springs, I swear I saw snow in my headlights.
As much as I loved the dry heat of Morocco, Death Valley and Anza-Borrego, I've come to quite like the crisp wintry sunrises that give way to sunny, warm days with a cold gust blowing in from the car window, cooling my sunsoaked neck as I speed down the highway.



Driving - and driving fast - has been par for the course during this trip. We flew into Burbank and drove out here from there, taking a little longer than the prescribed three hours - not bad for hitting a lot of traffic. But since I chose to stay in a more remote location instead of the "too populated" Palm Springs, we've done a lot of driving, and, by necessity, fast. People who live out here don't care how dark, rainy, or bumpy the roads are. And they will come up behind and eat you if you can't keep up. Personally, I think there's a place for slow driving, like when you're looking for a place to eat, or when you want to pull over every five minutes to take photos instead of snapping them from behind the steering wheel. I wish we could have driven more slowly past the windmill farms that characterize the majority of the landscape where I-10 meets Route 62, the Twentynine Palms Highway and the gateway to the Morongo Basin towns where I've been based during this trip. Here, there's nowhere to pull over and take pictures. You have to get 'em while you can as you whizz by. Someday I'll come back to take a tour of them, when the tour facility is no longer under renovation, as it is right now. It's always nice to have a reason to come back.

Despite the cold rain last night, I got great weather today. I'd managed to drive the entirety of Joshua Tree Park with Edith yesterday, so I had plenty of time to drive up to Landers for a sound bath at the Integratron, drive down to Indio for the National Date Festival and Riverside County Fair, and drive back to Morongo Valley for a quick sunset nature walk in the canyon preserve. A restorative day all around: starting with the homemade stuffed French toast that Carrie served for breakfast, on to the magical battery-recharging geophysical powers of a strange desert sound chamber built to be a time machine, right down to one of my favorite activities, going to a fair. The Integratron, with its time travel-tinged lore and its weird sound effects (the sound of crystal bowls being played reminded me of listening to the Bjork song "Headphones"), made me ready for any bizarre thing that might happen to me today, but instead, everything felt so simple and effortless afterwards. Drive an hour to Indio? No problem. Get lost in Desert Hot Springs without GPS? No biggie. Spent Valentine's Day alone? You betcha.

The Date Festival didn't contain as much California date-related propaganda as I was hoping for (fried dates! date on a stick! date pizza!). And, since I decided to go during the day, I missed out on the amusement park ride lights I love so much and the nightly Ali Baba performance. But I got to eat a delicious smoked tri-tip sandwich from Big Bubba's, and see all the West Coast food wonders like a stand devoted to Indian Fry Bread and fried White Castle burgers. I only spent about an hour there but it was a great, relaxing way to spend some time in the sun and get some local flavor.

So I'm in for the night now, drinking red wine and eating homemade chocolate chip cookies. I'm hidden away in the desert, with no cell phone service and no desire to drive drunk down that harrowing hill again. I feel alone, but happy. Maybe my chakras got a little of that reverberation from the sound waves in the Integratron earlier. Or maybe my brain is just getting healthier.

Monday, February 9, 2009

I Regret Not Doing Today the Things I'll Do Tomorrow, But I Don't Regret The Things I've Done Today

When most people think of England, they conjure images of the English countryside, castles, cathedrals and other ancient stone buildings. My time living there was comprised only fractionally of those things, with a short trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to study Shakespeare and a day trip to Oxford. So when I came back this year for a visit, I thought I would be a little adventurous and get out of the black-sooted London to breathe in some fresh air elsewhere in England.

My first trip to Leeds Castle in Kent was a smashing success, despite the fact that I departed too late to catch the all-in ticket with the shuttle bus. Still, I managed to split a cab with some Japanese tourists and pay the same amount as the shuttle, and arrive as the afternoon sky cast shadows beneath all the exotic birds in the castle's bountiful duckery. As soon as I got there I was greeted by two peacocks, a male and a female, poking around the gravel in front of the ticket office. I don't think I'd ever actually seen a peacock before. As I proceeded through the duckery to get to the castle, I got pretty close to all these magical birds who'd been imported from far away places and somehow acclimated to the brisk waters of the man-made moat that surrounded the castle.

Leeds Castle was never really used for warfare - it was more of a decorative castle - but Henry VIII did stop there once on his way to France, which is probably why it's worth visiting for history buffs. As for me, I didn't really care about its origins, enjoying more the access to nature and the creepy cellar. In the back, there's an aviary that houses screeching parrots and macaws and Golden conures which were the brightest yellow I'd ever seen. Farther back, there's a maze which looked innocent enough in daylight, but as soon as I poked my head in to check it out and decided to turn around and catch the last shuttle back to the train station, I was lost in the maze. There was a grotto in the center which was your goal to reach, but I could neither find the grotto nor find the entrance I came in, nor any other way out, for a good twenty minutes. I swore I'd only taken about twenty paces into the maze, but I guess that's the point.

I was lost for so long that I had to run back down the hill, through the duckery, to try to catch the last shuttle back. Luckily, the shuttle had car trouble and was running late itself, so I managed to catch it without having to call a cab.

A good day overall, though I didn't get to see any of the water voles (like Ratty in The Wind in the Willows) that the nature markers touted as local inhabitants.

Sunday we took the train to see Windsor Castle, one of the Queen's official residences, but the real highlight was seeing yet another part of the winding Thames River, which splits Windsor from its sister city Eton (home of the Eton mess). We were greeted by a throng of honking swans, which are much meaner animals than you'd think (as any Colgate student or alum has learned). The sun was so far angled in the sky, just about to set, that it only hit the beak of one swan whose neck extended out to us as we walked by, with either a greeting or a reprimand. It's so hard to tell in England.

I was originally supposed to leave the following morning, but I was having such a good time and felt so inspired that I changed my return ticket to give myself a couple extra days for exploring. After deliberating a Eurostar trip to Paris and then nixing it for not having enough time (and the catacombes being closed on Mondays), I settled on Stonehenge. It's one of those tourist sites that normally attracts me, so much so that I can't understand why I never visited it when I lived in London. I think I was intimidated by the regional rail system, or so focused on my own poverty that I dismissed any trip beyond really cheap bus fare (as evidenced by our overnight bus trip to Edinburgh, which I'll never do again). But the more I thought about it, and read about the nearby ghost town of Old Sarum, I became fascinated by it and really excited to go.

Then the snowstorm hit.

Last Monday, the entire London transportation system was shut down. Double decker buses. Tube. Rail. Heathrow. We saw a cab or two on our way back from warming up in Gossip, a vegetarian cafe in Broadway Market that wasn't packed with snowball-wielding revellers. But basically, I was trapped in London. On a boat.

The day after the snowstorm, I assumed everything would be back to normal. After all, Monday night I managed to drag my rolling luggage trolley through the snow from Victoria Park to Chiswick on the tube. Sure, it had taken me two hours, but I got there. And it wasn't snowing in London at all, and it was warm enough to start melting most of the accumulation (much to the dismay, I'm sure, of the snowballers who were pelting strangers like me from their flat windows). So I checked the train to Salisbury, which was running, and I was off to seek mysterious stone formations and perform a pagan dance.

About an hour outside of London, I had a sinking feeling. I woke up on the train to a white-washed English countryside, snow sweeping down from the sky and blanketing the rolling hills below. The onslaught continued until we arrived in Salisbury, the nearest town to Stonehenge. No shuttle bus. No taxis. No one was even sure that Stonehenge would be open, the weather was so bad. But how do you call Stonehenge to check??

I'd come this far, so I busied myself in Salisbury. Remembering that the outdoor market runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and noting that it was Tuesday, I headed for the town center, only to be greeted by a single stand of pastries and a battery vendor shutting his stand down. I walked in circles drying to follow the street signs to the cathedral, and felt as lost as in that Leeds Castle maze, only I was in the wide open, looking apparently for the tallest steeple in England and somehow still not seeing it in the skyline.

When I finally found Salisbury Cathedral, nestled in snow, I thought at least my trip would be worthwhile. I'd arrived just in time for their daily tower tour, which wouldn't be as cool as an ancient abandoned settlement would would still be right up my alley.

The tower tour guide didn't make it into work that day. Because of the weather.

Was I the only person in England who had no problem braving a little snow?!

Yes, the cathedral is cool. Yes, it houses the world's oldest clock and one of the few remaining copies of the Magna Carta. Yes, I enjoyed the smell of incense as I approached the decrepit-looking statue outside. But I was wet and cold - again - and Salisbury itself is just any old small town with Boots and Domino's and Pizza Hut with a few crumbly structures peppered in. The day just felt like a bust.

I found out later that Paris had pretty much shut down too, so I'm glad I'd decided not to go on my own. Still, I was glad I got to stay the extra two days, not only to avoid the hassle of cancelled flights at Heathrow but also to spend some quality time with Bill and his family in their lovely home in Chiswick, a place I will definitely return to not only for Bill's cooking but also to visit the Fuller's brewery.

I guess I could have gone to Canterbury or Dover or even Bath. I might do those next time. I could've even stayed in London and visited the Hindu temple (which is on my list for next time) or my old stomping grounds in Kilburn Park. But I'm glad I at least tried to get to Stonehenge, even though the odds were against me.

Like most trips, this one felt like good research for the next one. It's very rare that I can visit a place and feel satisfied that I've seen it all. Except for maybe Budapest...

For more photos of Leeds and Windsor Castles, click here

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sense Memory: A Taste of London

England was never really known for its food when I was living there, but over the years its cuisine has become incredibly ethnically diverse, and even the traditional dishes seem to taste better. Bill was shocked to learn that the predominance of curry was a relatively recent thing, because when we were trying to pick a place for dinner, we didn't even consider pub grub or English food, which used to be pretty much your only choices. Between great coffee, fish and chips, sandwiches-in-a-box, and the most amazing Korean of my life, I'm missing the food I ate on my trip last week.

Sick in bed, I just made myself a cheese and chutney sandwich. Sure, it was made with green tomato chutney from John's garden in Bucks County instead of apple chutney from England, and it was on Wonder bread instead of the huge, freshly-baked country bread at St. John, but it made me miss London just a little less. I'm too sick to drink red wine with it tonight, but the glasses of Côtes du Rhône (off-menu!) at St. John sure did wash the sandwich down nicely.




I didn't actually drink that much alcohol when I was in London (save for a pint each of Fuller's and John Smith's Extra Smooth), but I found myself drawn to drinking coffee this time around. I found myself at Bar Italia, a famously historic Italian spot that seemed a bit dodgy to me when I peeked my head in, but I was meeting someone there so I took a breath and ordered. The Italian barista spoke French to me and gave me a gorgeous cappuccino whose leaf-decorated foam was too beautiful to drink. But I did anyway.

I had a nice white coffee with breakfast at The Breakfast Club Angel the next morning, too, and kept asking Max to make me cups on their Nespresso machine, which were delicious.

The Breakfast Club kind of reminded me and Jesse of the old Shopsin's on Carmine Street, but only in decor and not in terms of menu. Instead of obtusely named dishes with surprising combos of ingredients, they served me the very simple eggs-on-toast, which came perfectly cooked and hearty, with a tomato chutney and a rocket salad. I sat next to a table full of music industry workers, gossiping about YouTube deals and Warner Music Group. I wanted to stay there all day.




One of my great joys is discovering new places - hidden treasures - both at home in New York and out on the road. Like Bar Italia, when Bill brought me to St. Giles High Street for Korean, I was suspicious. The guide book had recommended this place called Assa, but Bill insisted that there was another place on the same block that was better. I walked into the former Seoul Bakery, above the Azito Hair Salon at 55 St. Giles, and had no idea that the soondooboo chig (a phonetic spelling of sundubu jigae), a hot pot made with the freshest tofu I've ever eaten and a raw egg cooking in the hot broth, would be the finest Korean cuisine that London has to offer. Even the kimchi was amazing. We chatted up the owner, who complained that most Korean kitchens in town were run by the Chinese and therefore not authentic (and not good). We thought he was so amazing he tried to convince him to move to New York. But maybe his real success will be in London, where his talents are desperately needed.

Of course London is better-known for the famous fish-and-chips dish, but I'd only it in England once prior to this trip - a greasy, yellowy portion served under too-bright fluorescent lights at a place I could actually afford near Trafalgar Square. I've had plenty of fish and chips and other fried delights in New York at places like A Salt and Battery and Chip Shop, but still, I didn't know what I was missing. When we stopped into the Henry VI pub in Eton, we'd followed the Sunday lunch rush and all they had left in the kitchen were cheeseburgers and fish and chips. We lucked out. Both were fantastic.




Our trip to Eton, across the river from Windsor, inspired Bill to make Eton mess for dessert - a parfait-like serving of strawberries, whipped cream, and meringue pieces with a berry coulis. It was a perfectly refreshing ending to a filling meal of lamb leg roast and potatoes.

The next two mornings, Bill made French-style soft scrambled eggs with Janna's freshly baked rye bread, crust flecked with toasted caraway seeds, and poached eggs with roasted potatoes. Turns out Bill is a really good cook. I was treated like a princess in Chiswick!

I managed to not eat at McDonald's or Pizza Hut once during this trip, though I frequented both places a lot when I lived there (despite the mad cow disease scare). Instead, I ate beetroot, mature cheddar and rocket sandwiches from the cold case in the train station when I was on the go, and lots of bags of Walkers crisps (including a new flavor they're testing, not surprisingly, "Fish and Chips"). I also managed not to eat Dairy Milk bars every time I saw them in a tube station, unlike my normal breakfast on the way to class circa 1995. But I did try a peanut butter-flavored Kit Kat Chunky at Heathrow while waiting for my flight. I love trying regional variances in packaged foods (and fast foods!).

It's not that I can't find good coffee or good Korean in New York. Obviously there's an abundance of both here. But there's something about the context - the anachronism of it - that made the experience really special. And the combination of just the right amount of spice with something called "strong" cheddar (instead of "sharp") that's still kind of a novelty to me, even though I should be used to it after several visits to London, including one long-term stay.

But it's good to miss it. It keeps me coming back for more. And to discover how else the city has changed since the last visit.

Drift Away

approaching sunrise

As I write, I'm bedridden with some horrible illness that I succumbed to shortly after returning from London. Someone asked me if I thought it was the plane ride, subjected to all the recycled air breathed in and out by hundreds of Virgin Atlantic passengers.

I think it was the boat.

London is a cold, damp, depressed town. And it's not just the credit crunch (their version of our recession): Londoners are naturally downtrodden, as I quickly remembered upon arrival. But I was visiting two very happy friends who have somehow made a life for themselves on a houseboat on the Regents Canal, mooring in a different spot every two weeks. Despite the fact that everything is even damper on the boat, my friends still seem really happy, and when it got even colder with a record snowfall and the first winter storm of its size in 18 years, Jesse was downright giddy.

The Bobby Dazzler in snow The Bobby Dazzler in snow

I don't think I'm hardy enough to live on a boat. I was always freezing and wet, and to be frank, I'm just too big for that narrow of a living space. I kept banging my head on the lanterns hanging above - the lanterns that conserved energy when they didn't have the time to run the engine and charge up the battery. I was too big for the shower stall, so I didn't bother shaving my legs or washing my hair. And I was way too wide for the path between the bed and the wall, which led to the control panel full of switches for the voltage inverter and the pump that sucked water out of the shower floor.

But boy was it an enlightening experience. When your resources are really limited, and you only have access to fresh water every couple of weeks, you really think about how much water you waste when you run the faucet to wash your hands or the dishes, or when you run the shower til the water gets hot. Jesse and Max have found ways to catch all of that water and reuse it for something else. Out of necessity, it's a total eco-friendly way of living.

It also gives them access to nature in a way that city living normally doesn't. The morning after the snowstorm started, Max was feeding bread to a duck that was tiptoeing around the icy top of the frozen canal, right outside the boat window. Wherever they moor, they're usually near a park or greenway, and the canal system itself is lined with a towpath (originally for horses towing the boats) that's friendly to bicyclists, runners, and mums with baby trolleys alike. This is a side of London that you would never see as a tourist.

As for me, I love living in London, so this was a perfect visit for me to see how other people live there. In 1995, I lived in a flat in Kilburn Park (an ethnically diverse working class neighborhood that's become somewhat gentrified over the years) with a bunch of American students, and my only complaint was that I didn't feel like my experience was immersive enough. The last time I visited, in 2002, I stayed with two Germans who'd moved to London for work. They had their own way of living but it was still as visitors, and they moved back to Germany shortly thereafter. This time around, I got to spend a few days living in London like a Londoner. Though, a very unique Londoner experience.

Because I'd already spent so much time there, I didn't care to do many touristy activities in the city. Instead, we explored new places to eat (something I rarely did when I had no money for food), saw a Japanese play called Shun-Kin at the Barbican, and went to a benefit for Colombian children at Fiesta Bar in Brixton. You don't normally find a lot of Central or South Americans in the UK - more Southeast Asians and North Africans - but somehow we stumbled upon a bar whose Colombian bartenders enthusiastically made me a Havana Club/ginger beer/lime cocktail and then twirled each other behind the bar, eventually dancing on the bar and jumping off into the boisterous crowd, who met them with cheers and high-fives. The margaritas they made were served up in martini glasses, and didn't taste much like tequila, but the partiers didn't seem to mind and everybody was having an amazing time.

I wasn't sure whether this was a manifestation of a changing tide in London nightlife (which, 13 years ago, was pretty much about pubs or nightclubs) or whether it was a side of London that I'd just never experienced before. After all, it was my first time in Brixton - where I discovered the origin of Electric Avenue and the song it inspired - and, as our two hour journey back to the boat on the wrong Night Bus proved, there were still lots of areas of London that were unknown to me.

I was sure that other areas of London had changed quite a bit. I kept insisting there were more tube lines than seven years ago (what is the DLR??), and when I arrived in Soho to drop my luggage off at Jesse's office, I didn't even recognize Oxford Street. I had to convince myself I was walking the right way when I finally spotted the HMV. I was also glad to see that the proliferation of Starbucks, which astounded me in 2002, had come to a halt and spurred some chain competitors, making a cup of coffee as easy to find as in NYC, or even Seattle.

Could coffee be taking over tea in London?

Seeking some familiarity was important to me while in London, like reacquainting myself with Soho, Covent Garden, Charing Cross Road, Shaftsbury Avenue... My heart skipped a beat when I spotted the Palace Theatre, where I'd seen Les Miserables and used to watch fire-eaters and other street performers late at night, as I walked by on my way to or from the Limelight or the London Astoria 2. It's closed now, in anticipation of the opening of the Pricillia Queen of the Desert musical. The Limelight is closed too, taken over by an Australian sports bar in 2003. By 2002, the LA2 was called The Mean Fiddler but it was still running their Saturday night indie dance party (read: Blur, Manic Street Preachers, Black Grape, Chemical Bros), which I went to despite discouragement from my German hosts. I'm glad I had one last night there. It was sold in 2006.

My last night in London, instead of going clubbing, I found myself back on Oxford Street, and I stopped into Zavvi, one of the many music chains going out of business, for some CD bargains. They were playing techno dance hits from the early- and mid-90s, and as I sang along and browsed the shelves, I remembered how much I used to look forward to new release Mondays. How I would listen to all the listening stations, and buy compilations of the songs I danced to at the LA2. How I would sometimes stay up all night listening to the radio on my Walkman, discovering new music, listening to the DJs' British accents, which were way too exciting to put me to sleep. I loved music back then, and my experience in London led me to my career choice in the music industry. Unfortunately, my work in the music industry has led me to love music a little less. I hope I can get that love back while I'm not working.

Here in bed, I can still feel the rocking of the boat that cradled me at night, as I cuddled under piles of blankets to stay warm. But the sound of the water sloshing next to my head is gone, and my fever has left me hot.

For more photos of the Bobby Dazzler, click here
For more photos of London and beyond, click here