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: