Saturday, December 31, 2005

Photo du Jour: Collette in the Snow

Collette in the snow.

The snow melted overnight, but we have this memory. Happy New Year to all.

Update: I forgot to mention... January 1 is this old dog's birthday! She's 14 years old now - that's 98 in dog years. Talk about an old bitch...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Photo du Jour : The Holiday Tree

Click on the picture for a larger view.

I thought I'd put this up before it gets too late. I've been messing around with photoshop trying to learn new tricks (no "old dog" comments, please). The ornament on the top left is a hand-painted glass ball with a scene of the beach at Mendocino, CA. It was a gift many years ago. The ornament on the bottom left is the Tour Eiffel, which I bought at the museum shop at the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco about 5 years ago.

Season's greetings to all!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Chapter 9: Going Home

The drive back to Sunnyvale from Yosemite was without incident, although it was terribly boring and just a little stressful. The development out in the San Joaquin Valley is really out of hand. Too many cars, trucks, houses, malls. And after you make it through, you still have to deal with navigating through the Bay Area (Livermore Valley, Santa Clara Valley). In years past, I was always happy to get back home to the city (San Francisco) and out of all that suburban freeway traffic mess.

Once at Cheryl’s, I took a badly needed shower and started up some laundry. I e-mailed Cheryl at her office to let her know I was back, and asked if she had anything specific in mind for dinner. She replied with, “You obviously haven’t looked in the refrigerator.”

I dutifully went to the kitchen and opened the fridge door. On the door shelf was a bottle of white wine with a post-it note stuck to it that said, “Drink me!” I chuckled, then noticed that inside the fridge was another bottle with a post-it note: “No, drink me!” As they say on the internet, I was LMAO. Cheryl had also made up a tray of what she calls “thing-urritos.” I’m not sure how to spell that. Cheryl’s traditional thing-urritos are tortillas filled with whatever can be found in the fridge, rolled, topped with sauce & cheese then baked. They’re like burritos, but with stuff like chicken, broccoli, you get the idea.

Next, I got started packing for the trip home.

I was on my second glass of wine when Cheryl pulled into the garage and announced that she was working (ha!) at home that afternoon. We finished the second bottle of wine as the thing-urritos came out of the oven. We had a great time, cleaned up, and too soon it was time to hit the hay. I left the next morning about 9:00 after an emotional good-bye and headed to the airport for my 12:30 pm flight to London. I snuck this photo of the first class lounge at SFO while sipping champagne:

The flight was long (11 hours) but comfortable, even though I developed a sore throat about halfway through. At Heathrow, I found the arrivals lounge and had a nice hot shower, changed clothes, then headed to the subway into central London to catch the train for France. Here’s the crowd at Eurostar waiting for an earlier train:

I had a long wait at the station since I had built in a good time cushion just in case the flight was late. A cup of tea and a lot of people-watching later, I was on my way through security and boarding the train. Waterloo station is pretty big and is a bustling place on a Friday morning:

The train rides went well – I changed trains to the French TGV in Lille for the ride directly to Tours, thus bypassing Paris, and it went without a hitch. Ken met me in Tours and soon I was back home. My sore throat became a full-blown cold and I was glad to eat something and go to bed.

The trip was over. Nearly a year of planning and anticipation had come to an end. I had a great time, and wish that I had had more time to spend seeing more people. But you can’t do it all, eh? Writing this account of the trip has been fun as it’s given me a great opportunity to re-live the entire adventure. I had fun working on the photos, too.

So then, I am suddenly faced with what to do next on this blog. Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Chapter 8: Yosemite Valley

Sue and I left the cabin and headed, via shuttle bus, to Yosemite Village to do some light souvenir shopping. I found some postcards and a couple of tee-shirts. One for me. One for Ken. Then we went to a pizza restaurant that was perhaps less than a quarter full. Wine and pizza hit the spot and we headed back to the cabin for bed. The night was dark and it was still raining. It rained all through the night, and although I thought I slept well, I do remember hearing the rain on the canvas of the tent cabin most of the night. It was very nice.

Sue got up during the night to go to the bathroom, and so did I. But, while she got dressed and went all the way to the bathrooms in the center of camp with a flashlight, I must admit that I just stepped outside the tent and peed against a tree. Oh the wonders of nature!

In the morning, Sue went out to take pictures and we met over by the restaurant for coffee and apple pie (that we had brought). It was foggy, but the fog lifted soon enough and we were on our way to the trailhead for the hike up to Vernal Fall. At one point I wanted to get the camera out to take a picture and... the camera wasn’t in the camera bag. We panicked. Did I leave it on the arm of the chair outside the restaurant? Shit. Then I looked in my backpack and there it was, inside. Not where it was supposed to be, but at least it was there. Whew.

The hike was great; easy at first, but soon steep and more difficult. We stopped on a rock in the river after a couple of hours for the snack we had packed. Sue had been to this rock before, and we spent a few minutes looking for it. We considered it a special, private place, but of course there have probably been thousands of people on the same spot before us. We had a great view of Vernal Fall from the rock. However, on this day, there was no one there but us. It was magical.

The lower part of the Vernal Trail - the big rock you see in the middle of the riverbed is where we had our snack.

Sue sitting on the rock.

After recharging, we headed up the Mist Trail that, in spring, lives up to its name. At this time of the year, however, there isn’t enough water in the fall to make enough mist to get climbers wet. This section of the trail is very steep and it’s slow going.

Vernal Fall and rainbow.

We got to the top, huffing and puffing, and I posed at the very top of the waterfall to commemorate the occasion. We found a quiet spot near the stream and broke out our packed lunches. The simplest food tastes so good after a couple of hours of uphill hiking! Needless to say, the trip back down was quick – although going downhill requires using a whole different set of muscles from those used to go up, so I was still working and stretching and knew that I would be quite sore the next day.

Walt at the top of Vernal Fall.

Sue and I finished off the day by visiting the Ansel Adams gallery, sending a few postcards, and stopping at the Ahwahnee Hotel for a drink (or two). We sat outside the hotel bar under some beautiful oak trees. Suddenly, we heard a loud clunk on the sidewalk next to us. Acorns were dropping out of the trees and, as we found out, they were dropping pretty regularly. A woman next to us got bonked pretty good on the head. Squirrels dashed about at our feet picking them up and stuffing them into their cheeks. After a few sips of wine we sat back and enjoyed the show. At one point, Sue ran into the hotel gift shop and came back with a little present (pictured here) to commemorate our experience: a tiny silver acorn!

Our waiter offered to take our picture together:

Walt and Sue at the Ahwahnee.

With light heads we jumped back on the shuttle and headed to Yosemite Falls to see what little water was tumbling down. Sue wanted to show me the new access paths that the Park Service had installed since I had been there last. They had eliminated a parking lot and added bathrooms, benches, and some interesting interpretive stuff (which includes a touchable bronze relief map of the Yosemite Falls area of the park – pretty cool). It was all much nicer than it used to be and without the parking area it felt more like wilderness than one of the most visited tourist attractions in California. It didn’t hurt that it was an early evening in late September and there were at most 10 people there with us.

We went over to Yosemite Lodge to have dinner (burgers and fries) and then walked back to our tent cabin. Along the way, as the light in the valley was just about gone, the view of Half Dome, still partially glowing in the late evening sky, was spectacular. I took this picture, but of course I needed to use the computer to lighten it up; that’s why it’s a bit grainy. The light faded pretty fast and we walked the rest of the way in the dark.

Half Dome.

On Wednesday, we took a short walk along the river after breakfast, then I packed up and said good-bye to Sue (who was staying for a third night) and hit the road back to the Bay Area for my last night in California. The next day I would be on the plane headed back to Europe, and home.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Chapter 7: Auburn to Yosemite

On Sunday, I arrived at Sue’s in Auburn around one o’clock in the afternoon after the two hour drive from the Bay Area. It was a great feeling to get off the freeway and drive the back roads to her place, up the little road to the house, over the bridge over the irrigation ditch, and into the car spot next to the building she calls the “bunkhouse.” Why it’s called that I’m not really certain, but it’s a 2-storey metal-clad building that shelters her heating wood and stores a bunch of stuff she doesn’t want to keep in the house. Over the years we’ve made trip after trip to the bunkhouse to get something out or to put something in. Her kids keep stuff there in between their moves. And we stored the car-top carrier that we used to move to California in there for the past 19 years – I think it’s still there. It’s Sue’s now.

Sue's place and the bunkhouse.

It was great to see Sue again, the last time being in France when she visited last year. We quickly got caught up. I checked out the new art on her walls and the state of the yard. She told me that the irrigation ditch was going to be decommissioned in the next few years, which is kind of sad. The sound of water running right past the kitchen window is as much a part of Sue’s place as are the windows, walls, trees, and owls.

It wasn’t long before I opened a bottle of wine. I set to work trying to get Sue’s busted computer up and running, but I had no luck. After 2 hours of trying unsuccessfully, I gave up, and we went shopping for food to take on our two night excursion to Yosemite. Dinner was great, but somehow I’ve forgotten what we ate... I think it might have been spaghetti and garlic bread.

The next morning we were up and out by around 10:30. We took two cars since I had to get directly back to Cheryl’s from Yosemite the day before my flight back to Europe (Sue lives four hours north of the park, Cheryl lives four hours west of the park). We decided to take the freeway through Sacramento rather than the small roads through the foothills for time’s sake. We agreed that Sue would lead and I would follow. We agreed that we would exit the freeway at Highway 4 East in Stockton. Just before we reached Stockton, Sue let me pass her. We waved and smiled. A few miles later I watched in the rear view mirror as Sue exited the freeway an exit early. This was not part of the program. It was too late for me – I was already past the ramp. Holy shit, I thought, what’s up with this? Is she out of gas? Did a tire blow? Neither of us had a cell phone, so there was no way for one to contact the other.

I took the agreed-upon exit and pulled off to the side of the road and waited. About 15 long minutes later, here came Sue. I flashed my lights and waved and she pulled over in front of me. She said that she thought she saw me exiting and followed, but realized too late it wasn’t me. She nearly panicked, but managed to find her way back on the freeway and got to the correct exit. “I’m not a very good follower,” she told me. “Then why did you let me get in front,” I asked? “I hate being the leader,” she said. Uh, okay.

We agreed on two rendezvous points in the foothills in case we were to get separated again, but we didn’t need them. We stopped near Copperopolis for lunch – Mexican. Tacos, enchiladas, beans, rice, and beer. It really hit the spot. Next, we headed for the gas station at Yosemite Junction which is the turnoff to Don Pedro reservoir just before the climb up to Yosemite. I was pretty low on fuel and Sue was getting low, too. When we got to the turnoff, the gas station was not there. Sue said she thought it was there the last time she came through. Uh, okay. We debated turning back to Copperopolis or trying to make it up to Groveland at the top of Priest Grade. We both knew there was gas up there. We decided not to turn back. On the way I tried hard to remember a gas station or two in Groveland...

Indeed, there were several. We made it up the grade with no problem and the tanks were once again full. It was raining on and off, but the Sierra landscapes were beautiful as the storm clouds moved around and over the peaks. As we finally pulled up to the park entrance the rain was really coming down. There were about five cars ahead of us, and directly ahead of me was a pair of motorcycles, one with a trailer. I did a double take and realized that in the trailer, with its head poking up, was a big black lab-type dog wearing a pair of motorcycle goggles happily looking around at all that was going on. What a sight! I wish I had had the camera handy, but with the rain and low light, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a good picture of him. We stopped for water and a bathroom break and drove over to Crane Flat and down into the valley. There was construction on the road, but we weren’t delayed too long.

Once on the valley floor, we stopped for some pictures before heading over to Curry Village to check into our tent cabin. I was excited to be back in Yosemite. Seeing El Capitan and Half Dome again, not to mention the trees, the boulders in the Merced River, and the meadows, gave me chills. It sounds dorky, but it’s true. I’ve done that drive through the valley many times, and each time is like the first: wondrous. Above is a picture of Cathedral Rocks near Bridalveil Fall, and below is a shot of Glacier Point rising above the Merced River.

We dodged the rain drops between the parking lot and the check-in office at Curry, and were second or third in line. Check-in was smooth; we got our bear instruction and signed our “bear aware” release forms. The Park Service is not responsible if we mess up and become a snack for the local fauna. We ran in the increasing downpour to our cabin, which was not too far from the village office, to check it out before getting our bags out of the car. Good thing, too, since the cabin had not been cleaned after the previous occupants left. We ran back to the office. There were now about 15 people in line. I could tell Sue was not a happy camper, and we weren’t even camping yet. I took the key and butted into the front of the line. I got looks, but I didn’t care. I told the guy behind the counter that our cabin wasn’t ready. He dutifully apologized and assigned us another one very close to the first. We thanked him profusely and headed out. The rain was really coming down now. It would be nice to get into the cabin and dry out a bit. We opened the door to the new cabin. It, too, was not ready for new occupants. Uh, okay.

Sue agreed to stay put in the cabin while I went back to the office. She said she was not good at being indignant. But I wanted to be dry. We traded jackets (hers had a hood), and I took the keys back to the office. Along the way I passed about 150 middle school-aged kids heading off to their cabins. Inside, there had to be at least 25 people in line. All wet, all crammed in. I marched right up to the desk. The staff ignored me for about five minutes, but I finally got somebody to notice me. The clerk wanted to give me a cabin on the other side of the village, near all those school kids, but when we looked for it on the map it didn’t seem to exist. At least we noticed this before he gave me the keys. I told him we really had gotten attached to the side of village we were on and would rather have a cabin over there, and he bought it. He talked to the manager, and then gave me keys for a cabin very close to the two we had already seen. I was beyond running, so I trudged through the rain back to where Sue was waiting. She had found a couple of hangers in the cabin and was claiming them for us. We climbed up the stairs to our third cabin and... it was clean. I realized why the clerk talked to the manager back in the office: this was a cabin for 5 people. There were 3 single beds and one double; plenty of space to spread out. There were many blankets and pillows, which was good, because it was cold and raining outside.

Tent cabins in Curry Village.

We unloaded the car, packed food and toiletries into our locked bear box near the bathrooms, and unpacked the rest of our stuff in the cabin. Since the tent cabins are made of canvas, bears can get in easily if they think there is food inside. For that reason, it’s strictly forbidden to keep food or anything with a fragrance (like toothpaste or shampoo) in the cabin. The park provides metal storage lockers at several central locations for things that bears might like. Bears have learned they can’t get into the lockers. People have learned that bears CAN get into locked cars, so leaving food and toiletries in your car is also not allowed. You are also strongly discouraged from eating inside your tent cabin, lest the scent of your snack entice a bear to investigate during the night. Since it was raining, a dinner picnic outdoors was not in the cards for us. Happily, there are several restaurants around the park.

Everything was stowed and finally we were happy campers. Time for dinner.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chapter 6: San Francisco

So, I woke up early on Friday morning in Sunnyvale, a South Bay city I had lived in for almost four years of the nearly eighteen years I spent in California. Cheryl had to go to work, so after we had coffee and breakfast, I ventured out to Palo Alto to do some shopping. I had a list of things to get to take back to France. Among them: liquid smoke, masa harina, DVDs, dental floss, eyedrops, and toothpaste for the dog. I also needed to get my sunglasses repaired.

Now I should say that Cheryl is an old (don’t take that the wrong way) friend of Ken’s from graduate school at the Univeristy of Illinois, who kindly took us in when we moved from Washington, DC, to California in 1986. She has been a close friend to us both ever since, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else I would rather have stayed while in California than her place.

Cheryl and I went to the Sunnyvale farmers’ market on Saturday morning to get food for the weekend. My plan was to spend the weekend with Cheryl while she was off from work, then spend the next week seeing other friends and former work colleagues. It was hectic and fun. We ate, drank (the Château la Paws, at right, was one of many bottles we savored over the weekend), watched movies, baseball and football games, listened to music, and generally had a great time “hanging out.” It was like old times.

On Saturday, our friends from Los Altos, John and Candy, came over for dinner. We grilled salmon and had great fun. J&C have come over to our place in France several times, and we all enjoy eating good food and tasting new wines and talking about all things Francophile.

John, Candy, and Cheryl showing off the salmon.

I also had the chance to have meals with friends from Silicon Valley and from San Francisco. Ginny and Mitch met Cheryl and me at a Thai place in Sunnyvale. It was great to catch up.

Ginny and Mitch.

I met my former boss, Mike, and colleague, Lucy, at the Left Bank in Menlo Park for lunch. We had a great time remembering old times and catching each other up on what was new. Another former colleague, Pierce, and his partner, Glenn, just bought a house in Menlo Park, and they took me out to a wonderful Italian restaurant there. P&G have also visited us in France, and it was great to see them again.

Glenn and Pierce (and kitty).

One of Cheryl's favorite South Bay restaurants, and one we've been to several times, is Brigitte's, owned and operated by, you guessed it, Brigitte. She's a 30-something parisienne who runs the small dining room expertly, and is never without a welcoming smile. She always finds time to chat with the customers and makes you feel like the only people in the place. The night we were there, Cheryl and I were joined by John and Candy and our friend Crickett. Most of us had a flank steak with frites as the main course. Everything was delicious. Crickett took this picture of us hamming it up:

Dinner at Brigitte’s.

I ventured up to San Francisco for lunch with my friend David, from graduate school at Berkeley, and for drinks with my former colleague, Nancy, at the Ferry Building. I ran an errand for a French friend who collects beach sand from around the world: I collected sand from Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

People fishing on Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

The Embarcadero Center and the Ferry Building Marketplace.

The following Saturday, I left Cheryl's house and drove back up to the city for two parties. The first was at the home of Gerri and Phil in Sunnyside. We've become friends since Ken met them through work in Silicon Valley many years ago, and G&P were our first houseguests in France in 2003. They were having a party with friends and invited me to stop by on my way to an afternoon event in Marin. Here we are in their back yard with their kids Julia and newborn Connor:

Gerri, Connor, Phil, Julia, and Walt.

Next, it was up to Corte Madera to a small gathering at the home of Nancy and Bruce:

Nancy hired me in 1997 to work as a planning manager at the San Francisco Municipal Railway. She and another colleague, Carmen, told me that the job they were hiring me for was "a management challenge." Boy, was that an understatement. But, as they predicted, I was successful thanks to their support. Nancy subsequently left to form her own consulting firm and I was lucky enough to get her position at Muni. A few years later, I was even more lucky to leave Muni and get to work with Nancy in her consulting firm. We shared a great number of good times and working with her is pretty much the only thing I miss about working...

After a great afternoon party at Nancy's and Bruce's, where I got to see old friends from work days and reminisce a bit, I headed to Hercules in the East Bay to see yet more friends, Harriet and Alfred, and spend the night. Ken knows Harriet from France and Illinois in the late 70s. We re-established contact in 1986 when we moved to SF. Alfred is her husband – just married last year! H&A visited us in France this past July, so we had seen each other recently. They suprised us by deciding to buy a house in France while they were there, about twenty minutes from where we live! That purchase is going through now, and they will be back in the Loire Valley this Christmas to finalize the sale. While I didn’t take any pictures at their place in Hercules, here's one of them at the train station in Montrichard back in July:

Harriet and Alfred in Montrichard.

We had a great visit before I headed up to my friend Sue’s place in Auburn for the final part of the California trip: camping in Yosemite National Park.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chapter 5: The Cross Country Flight

Newark airport was a mob scene. Crowds pushed onto the people mover between terminals and the lines at the ticket counters and the security checkpoints snaked unnaturally through the corridors, making easy movement through the terminal impossible. I thought that this might be normal, until I finally made it into the gate area to find that most flights were delayed due to weather. Including mine. A harried gate staffer announced that our flight was originating in Chicago, and had not left the ground yet. We would be at least 3 hours late leaving Newark making our estimated departure time between 9:30 and 10:00 pm. Passengers were not happy, but they seemed to take the news in stride.

What really got people edgy was the fact that here, beyond security, we were like caged animals with nowhere to go. There was only one eatery, a TGI Friday’s that was not built to handle a terminal full of hungry and thirsty passengers. There was a line at least 20 deep of people (with their bags) waiting for a seat. Anywhere. At the bar. At a table. People sat with strangers just to get a beer or burger or something. The wait staff was overwhelmed. I made several attempts to get in, but each time I ended up leaving the line to walk around the terminal or sit and wait. On my last attempt I was invited to sit at a table with a few other people, so I did.

I’m not the kind of person who’s comfortable with strangers, but I wanted a glass of wine. Each traveler at the table was taking turns telling the others where he was from, where he was going and in many cases, why. I am always amazed at the personal questions people will ask total strangers. Questions about marital status, family situations and employment, your brand of cell phone service, how much your laptop cost you, and more. I am even more amazed at people’s willingness to answer such questions. I’d rather talk about the weather and how the airlines just might improve service.

And the food. Ugh. I didn’t eat, but I watched in amazement as normal looking adults devoured huge plates of mega-burgers, gloppy barbeque sandwiches, greasy fries, and other gastronomical horrors that they would never have had the opportunity to order had they not been delayed in this particular terminal with access to this particular restaurant. It was as if our travel delay was an excuse for these otherwise responsible parents, professionals, and, by their own admission, Martha Stewart devotees, to regress into teenage mall rats.

After my second glass of wine, our flight was announced. Once everyone was aboard the plane, the captain announced that he had good news and bad news. This is never a good way to begin a flight. The good news was that we were going to push back from the gate in about five minutes. The bad news was that ground control had stopped all departures. We were going to park somewhere on the tarmac and wait for something to happen. There’s nothing I hate more than sitting on an airplane that is not moving. Well there is, but not on this particular night. The flight attendants calmed us down a bit by serving wine (yippee!) and other beverages.

During our thirty minute wait, I listened to the ground control tower talking to the flight crews around the airport on United’s nifty “From the Cockpit” audio on Channel 9. Ground control was lining up planes to leave, telling some to start up their engines and others to cool their jets, as it were. You could tell these guys were just a little stressed. Our captain finally got clearance to start the engines and we rolled onto the taxiway. We were number 22 for departure. I could see planes taking off through the window as we inched our way toward the end of the runway. We were now number 17 for departure. Then we were number 12. Number 7. Finally, it was our turn, and four and half hours late, we took off.

The flight was smooth and calm, I ate my airline meal (and I noticed that the people who ate at TGI Friday’s also ate their airline meals), and settled in. We landed in San Francisco a little after 1:00am. Baggage claim took forever as did the airtrain ride to the rental car terminal to rent the car. The rental car terminal at 2:30 in the morning was just a bit eerie, but everything worked out fine. I called my friend Cheryl to let her know I was on my way. I got there around 3:30am. She had left the key under the mat and gone to bed. She had also left a note saying to feel free to log on to her computer to send Ken an e-mail, which I did. She got up briefly and we said hello, then it was back to bed. I crashed in the guest room pretty soon thereafter.

Oh, I almost forgot about Sarah Jessica Parker!

When I checked in for the flight back in Newark, the woman behind the counter said, “Do you know who’s in the first class cabin with you this evening? Sarah Jessica Parker!” I said, “Wow. Does she know I’m in there, too?”

“I’ll be sure to let her know,” she answered. I don’t think she followed through.

I really only know SJP from an early movie (L.A. Story with Steve Martin, in which she played a bouncy character named SanDeE*). I’ve never seen Sex and the City, although I have seen a lot of its advertising. At any rate, there she was one row behind me and across the aisle. Her hair was perfectly straight, no curls, and her tiny body was obviously made for TV. She wore very little or no make-up. She was not glamorous. She looked a little like the French tennis player Mary Pierce. She wore black.

I didn’t chat with her. Although, had I known that our friend from Alabama, Evelyn, knows SJP personally, I certainly would have introduced myself with great Hollywood-esque finesse as a close acquaintance of hers. Then we would of course have had coffee together – half-caf non-fat mocha-ccinos – and explored our common interests. I would likely have been invited to her home back in New York where she and her husband, Matthew Broderick, would regale me with show business tales while we sipped fine champagne. What would I wear? Something black, to be sure. But I digress.

SJP was traveling alone, apparently. I noticed this at baggage claim in San Francisco when she loaded her cart with 3 or 4 large suitcases, not to mention the 3 or 4 very small ones, all by herself. With such a small body, you’d think she could get everything she needed into one carry-on. Go figure. No one had met her at the airport. Our flight was 4 hours late, but still, you’d think a big star like that would have someone to help lift her bags onto the cart. Perhaps doing it herself is what keeps her trim. Oh, the life of a star! I would have given her a hand, but I think you’ll agree that applause was not appropriate at 2 a.m. in baggage claim.

I wondered what her connection to the Bay Area was. I was to find out the following week while having dinner with friends in San José. One member of our dinner party mentioned that SJP was appearing at Macy*s Union Square in San Francisco to promote her new line of clothing or fragrance or beauty products. I’m not good with details, but I did notice how the star that Macy*s uses in place of an apostrophe is just like the star at the end of the character’s name that SJP played in L.A. Story: SanDeE*. Coincidence? I think not. Cue Twilight Zone theme music.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Chapter 4: Last Days in Albany

The remainder of the Albany portion of the trip was full of fun and food. I visited Indian Ladder Farms with Lorraine. One of my favorite places, ILF is an apple orchard in Altamont, NY, that offers pick-your-own apples (as well as the already picked variety). There is also a produce market, a cider mill, and a bakery. They have a small café; they sell crafts, jams and jellies, and offer tours of the farm operation.

We stopped in for apples and cider then drove up the Helderberg Escarpment to John Boyd Thacher State Park for views of the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys and the Adirondack and Green Mountain ranges. You can actually see Indian Ladder Farms and its orchards in the lower left of the first picture below (remember: you can click on any picture to see a larger version - use the "back" key on your browser to return to the blog). While there, we encountered a group of birders taking in some of the local birds that frequent the cliff face. They had a table set up with a selection of bird books and many bird sculptures. We had as much fun watching the birders as they seemed to be having watching the birds.

The next day, my cousin Michelle and I drove up the Northway to a family picnic that mom was hosting in Moreau Lake State Park in the foothills of the Adirondacks north of Saratoga. We gorged on the traditional hamburgers and hot dogs, potato salad, chips, etc. A bit later, Uncle John and Aunt Grace arrived with steaks and shrimp for the grill. Man, was that good. Most of my siblings were there (5 of 7) with their friends, significant others, and kids. I hadn’t seen my brother, Scott, in many years and I didn’t recognize him at all. When he walked up to me to say hi, I introduced myself to him. We all had a good laugh at that...I spent two nights at my cousin Michelle’s new house in Albany. It’s a beautiful bungalow style house, and she’s fixing it up very nicely. I don’t know why, but I didn’t take any pictures there. On the second evening, we relaxed on the front porch with a glass of wine. Michelle’s friend, Amy, who works near by, stopped for a few minutes to say hello. Amy and Michelle visited Paris in 2004 and we spent a day walking around the city together. Here's a photo of M&A in Paris:

Michelle’s new boyfriend, Dimitri, joined us briefly before we headed over to my Aunt Grace’s and Uncle John’s home for dinner. It was “meet the parents” night for Dimitri. He’s a music teacher at the junior high school that I went to so many years ago, and although he’s too young to have been there when I was (not even as a student – yikes!), he knows two of my teachers from back then. One of them just retired and the other must be very close. Aunt Grace had prepared a fantastic lasagna and the evening was fun and full of memories both old and new. Again, I took no photos. I guess we were having too much fun to fuss about with cameras. Here are John and Grace at the picnic the day before:

Michelle’s brother Mark, now an artist, was also at dinner. Mark was busy preparing for the opening of an art show he was coordinating at the Albany Institute of History and Art. He’s a founding member of Albany Underground Artists, a group dedicated to promoting local art and artists in the community. Although the show didn’t open until Thursday, Mark gave me, our gram and Aunt Kathy a personalized preview on Wednesday afternoon. It was great to wander around the gallery taking in all the works with no hustle or bustle and to have Mark to tell us about the artists and their work. You can see some of Mark’s own work on his website.

I also had a great lunch with my Aunt Faye (dad’s side of the family) at an Italian eatery where we had pizzas, and another with my friend, Lourae, whom I hadn’t seen in over 20 years, at a downtown brew-pub. I spent the final two nights at my gram’s house. She cooked dinner both nights, and the second night my mom was down from Glens Falls. We had a pork roast, gram’s home-made applesauce, a waldorf salad, and other goodies, along with a bottle of Beaujolais that I picked up earlier in the day. That night was hot and humid and thunderstorms rumbled outside. The heavy air and my memories of steamy upstate summers kept me tossing and turning until morning.

I finished my visit to Albany on Thursday, a week after I had arrived. Gram and Aunt Kathy took me out to lunch at the Ginger Man Café, a terrific little restaurant with a very respectable wine list close to downtown. After a great Caesar salad with grilled chicken, I took Gram and Kathy back to the house and headed down the Thruway. I have to admit that I felt a bit strange as I watched Corning Tower fade into the distance in my rear-view mirror. I really had enjoyed being back in Albany and seeing family and friends after so much time away. I guess I wasn’t expecting that.

My flight to San Francisco was scheduled to leave that evening at 6:20pm from Newark Liberty Airport. The drive south was pleasant and uneventful, but the weather had turned and the overnight storms were still in the air. Hurricane Ophelia was churning up the southeastern coast and a deep low pressure system was moving through the mid-west. None of this boded well for an on-time departure.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Chapter 3: First Days, cont'd

Albany is not the most exciting city in the world, but it’s my home town, and although I haven’t spent much time there in the past 25 years, I felt instantly at home and comfortable with the place. Looking from the outside, it hasn’t fundamentally changed since I left so long ago. Unlike the big metropolises of the south and west that have grown exponentially through the 80s and 90s, Albany has the same small city feel it always did. This is something I appreciate more now, of course, than I did before I left. The city is navigable, on foot or by car, without the kind of time and effort you expend traveling around megalopolises like the San Francisco Bay Area. It didn’t hurt that the September weather was spectacular. I do remember what winter can be like...

My first stop downtown was the visitor center at Quackenbush Square. I took a look at the historical exhibits and asked the docent for directions to the new pedestrian bridge to the Hudson River waterfront. The city was cut off from the river in the 60’s by a 6 lane freeway. At the time no one really cared about the waterfront; downtown was dying (despite Nelson Rockefeller’s attempt to revive the capital with a huge downtown office development) and the river was polluted. A big road must have seemed to make sense then. I know that people came to regret that decision – further expressway incursions into the heart of the city were stopped on the drawing boards.

The bridge leads pedestrians across the freeway to a new waterfront park on the right bank of the Hudson. The centerpiece of the park is a small amphitheater built into the riverbank where concerts and other events are held. All the seats look east, across the river. Behind, to the west, rises the downtown skyline. There are trails for walking and jogging, and places to dock boats. The river, a ribbon of inky blue water (as opposed to my memories of brown water), is lined with green trees on both sides, but they do not block the views of bridges and mountains to the north or of Albany’s port to the south.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around downtown, taking in the last of the summer sunshine. I saw the new buildings I set out to see and reacquainted myself with several of the older ones, some of which have been amazingly restored while the others stand silently by, waiting for the possibility of a new life.

I met Lorraine at a wine store near her office uptown and we found a Vouvray, of all things. Back at her house we sat on the deck and talked and laughed while we made quick work of the bottle. That evening, the three of us went out for a fabulous Italian meal that included a succulent Chilean sea bass main course. The food and wine combined with the balmy weather made for quite a heady evening.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Chapter 2: First Days in Albany

My friends Lou and Lorraine live in the Albany suburbs. I hadn't seen Lorraine in 4 or 5 years (on the occasion of her business trip to San Francisco) and hadn't seen Lou since 1998. It was a great reunion and we spent a couple hours catching up before bedtime. I met L&L back in 1979 when we all worked in the same department of the NYS government. Lorraine is an attorney and Lou, at the time, was a member of the department's executive staff. They gave me the courage and the push I needed to leave my clerical state job and go to France for the first time in 1981. They've always welcomed me into their home and this trip was no exception. Such good friends!

The next day, we went to a local luncheonette for muffins and coffee before L&L went off to work. I stopped in to see my grandmother and aunt in Albany, then headed downtown to see some new buildings and to take photos. Here's my gram's house and a photo of the two of us:

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Chapter 1: France to London to Albany

After nearly a year of planning, my first trip back to the US in two and a half years began on September 7, 2005.

I took the TGV from Tours in the Loire Valley to Paris and transferred to Eurostar to go to London. I was supposed to bypass Paris and transfer to Eurostar in Lille, but there had been a power outage on the train line earlier in the morning and the trains were delayed such that I would have missed my connection - ça commence bien, I thought. But the agents at SNCF (French National Railway) put me on a train to Paris and authorized Eurostar to re-book me to London from there, and I was on my way.

The reason for bypassing Paris was to avoid having to cross town from the Montparnasse station (where the TGV from Tours arrives) to the Gare du Nord (where the Eurostar departs). The best laid plans... Once in Paris I was faced with the choice: taxi or subway. Of course, being the train fan that I am, I chose the subway. The fact that I didn't want to spend the money to take a taxi across town between train stations did not sway my decision in the least. So I lugged my bags through the Paris métro. Many stairs and long corridors later, I got to the Gare du Nord, soaked in sweat. Should've spent the money on a cab. Everything went smoothly at Eurostar, and the train departed the Gare du Nord at 1:04 pm. Even with the delay and re-route, I got to London's Waterloo station only a half an hour later than scheduled.

I spent the night in the Majestic Hotel (photo) in South Kensington/Central London, a place I found on the internet. And no, I did not learn my lesson in Paris; I lugged my bags to the hotel on the London Underground. Arriving a day early was my plan to avoid missing the flight from Heathrow to JFK the next day.

My less than 24 hours in London were fun; it was my first time there. I walked for a few hours around the Soho neighborhood, Picadilly Circus, Covent Garden, and Charing Cross, shopped for curry powder, ate dinner in a Thai restaurant, and finally walked through Trafalgar Square and Whitehall over to the houses of Parliament before heading back to the hotel for the night.

The next day I took the tube out to Heathrow to get my 1:30 pm flight to New York. I was able to get on the internet at the airport to check e-mail and send messages. The flight was on time, smooth and comfortable aboard the Boeing 777, and the champagne flowed.

I snuck a few photos while on the plane. Not the most interesting pictures, but this is an experiment, remember? I had to check to be sure the wing and engine were still there...

After landing at JFK and going through all the normal getting-off-the-plane stuff (passport control, customs, baggage claim, car rental), I headed upstate to Albany. The Van Wyck was easy, but there was construction at the Whitestone Bridge. I had nearly forgotten what urban traffic at rush hour can be like. Traffic crawled up through the Bronx and over to the Saw Mill River Parkway. I took the Taconic State Parkway north since I hadn’t done that in more than 20 years. The views of the Hudson Valley and southern Catskills were beautiful, but it got dark about halfway up, so I missed some of the scenery.

I arrived at my friends’ house outside of Albany about 8:30 pm. Turns out that I made good time after all. It was great to see them again and we sat and caught up for a couple of hours before bedtime.
What follows this first post will be an attempt to publish photos from my USA trip in September. We shall see how this works out...