Friday, 30 April 2010

Tempest toss'd town

I've been in Seattle for nearly a week now, and it's certainly living up to its reputation as the rainy city - the skies have been pretty uniformly grey, and any hint of blue disappears like a false dawn as soon as I get outside! Having said that, today the sun shone - and stayed shining - as I headed out to Bainbridge on the ferry. It was a glorious trip, with Seattle's skyline gradually disappearing behind us as this tiny island appeared ahead. The real highlight was getting out on the water, but I also enjoyed pottering about Winslow's bookshops and
cafes, and absolutely loved the city centre - three wooden buildings and a bizarre pod-like sculpture. Archetypal small-town America, right down to the picket fences.

Elsewhere, I've been mixing food for body and soul. Yesterday Helen and I went on a tour of Theo's Chocolate Factory in Fremont. It's a small place that makes Fair Trade and organic chocolate: we got the low-down on production from tree to tummy, and at the same time were given a bunch of free samples to concentrate the mind! Just to balance out all this indulgence, earlier in the day I'd been round the Seattle Art Museum, with some really interesting modern art (my favourites, a giant black mouse sitting on a man's chest, and a chainmail coat made out of 40,000 dog tags. What did they mean? Who knows? And who, really, cares? It's all about how they make you feel. There was a quote by Georgia O'Keeffe up on the wall that is possibly the best explanation for abstract expressionism (and modern art) I've ever seen: "Even if I could put down accurately certain things that I saw and enjoyed it would not give the observer the kind of feeling the object gave me - I had to create an environment for what I felt about what I was looking at - not copy it.").

Rather less high-mindedly, the previous day I'd been to the Seattle Center, photographed the Space Needle, and run amok in the Frank Gehry-designed Sci-Fi Museum (it also housed the Seattle Music Experience, but except for a rock photography exhibition, and some information on the grunge scene of the Nineties, this didn't interest me so much). But, oh, the books! The cyberpunk! The models of the Terminator! The original costumes and ray-guns from Star Trek! I admit it - I geeked out. Then I went on the monorail into town and felt like I was in Fahrenheit 451 - without the book-burning...

Anyway, I'd best head off and get some more coffee down me. Seattle being the home of the barista (yes, I've had a mocha in the original Starbucks - I couldn't resist), they have coffee shops every few steps here, just in case your caffeine levels fall dangerously low. By the time I leave here I may well be vibrating, but, oh, it's delicious! Bottoms up!

Friday, 23 April 2010

Just enjoying the vibe

So, Portland. I wish I could say I've been exploring the politics of America's greenest city, and soaking up the hipster arts scene, but sadly not! Perhaps it's because I'm coming to the end of my odyssey (only five weeks to go, and then I'll be back in the UK - pray God not under a Conservative government), but I've been content to mooch about instead.

And in fairness, that's been pretty cool all by itself. The first major landmark I visited was Powell's, the largest independent bookstore in the States. Strangely, I find myself walking past it often on the way to somewhere else, and popping in for a browse - the ways of my unconscious are not that unconscious! Apart from all the novels (room after delicious room of them), there's a pretty good graphic novels section too, and I've belatedly discovered Preacher, the dark tale of one man's attempt to make God answer for abandoning humanity. But with sex and guns and secret societies. Those who know the series (and even those who don't) will not be surprised to learn that my favourite character is the tormented but charming Irish vampire. I know, I know, I'm sorry! I've tried to like nice guys, but unless they come with a side order of torment, misery and emotional angst they just don't do it for me.

Back in the land of the emotionally sane, the other delights of Portland tend to revolve around its green spaces, lush and plentiful because of the climate. Washington Park is glorious, with an incredibly moving Holocaust memorial tucked among the trees, as well as a beautiful authentic Japanese garden. This really blew me away - there's a steep climb to get there, and suddenly you come across this haven of peace and tranquillity, with gentle waterfalls and limpid pools full of coy carp, winding paths and carefully arranged stone gardens. Unlike many Japanese gardens it's user-friendly, too - you can walk around it without being told not to touch (or walk) in case you disturb some deeply meaningful arrangement.

Equally lovely is the Chinese garden - you walk off the street and suddenly you leave Chinatown (one of Portland's sketchiest areas) behind. Portland is twinned with Suzhou near Shanghai, and they designed this garden for the city as their sister gift, basing it on scholar gardens of the Ming dynasty period, which were also meant to create an illusion of spaciousness and peace right in the heart of a city. The relatively small plot (less than an acre) is divided into scenes that flow into one another - the view from one pavilion, for example, would take in a small pool running under a bridge, leading the eye to a larger pool and waterfalls beyond. Small paths run into nowhere, and the walls between courtyards are pierced with windows that frame more beautiful views beyond. As soon as you walk in you can feel your cares lifting from your shoulders - a wonderful experience.

My other highlights in Portland have been hanging out with other guests from the hostel - I've met a really good bunch of people, and part of the reason I haven't been out sightseeing is because I keep getting sidetracked into gossiping with my room mates! Still, it's nice to chat over a few glasses of red wine, and probably better for the soul than checking out architecture - my world needs a little balance! Tomorrow a group of us are heading out to a comics convention, where I will be geeking out and having an all round cool time. And after that it's on to Seattle - Starbucks, here I come...

Monday, 19 April 2010

San Francisco days

I left you, dear reader, lounging about in San Bruno, cuddling babies and generally making myself (a little bit) useful about the house. But the following day Dad and Vanessa joined me in San Fran, I moved down to the boutique Hotel Frank in the city, and the serious sightseeing began...

And thus started the pattern of the next four days: in the mornings the three of us went to some major attraction, and in the afternoon D&V went to rest (Dad's just had a tendon injury) and I pounded the streets checking out the neighbourhoods, before we met up again in the evening and I showed off the photographs - virtual sightseeing!

The results of this punishing schedule will be up on Flickr, as soon as I can find a computer terminal that lets me upload photos (God bless the YHA for being so security conscious, but it's killing me that most of a normal computer's functions have been disabled!). Day One we saw the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a glorious collection with some new names for me (the emphasis was very much on American and local artists, with a bunch of Diego Rivera stuff too, which I absolutely love). Day Two was Alcatraz, which should have been cheesy but was awesome - they had an audio tour you could follow as you went around which was superbly atmospheric (lots of slamming doors and distant shouts and cries), and the place itself has a lowering atmosphere all of its own. We went into one of the cells in solitary at one point, and had to hold on to each other because it was so damn scary.

Day Three our joint excursion was to the Golden Gate Bridge (of course!), and it was a lovely clear day - something that doesn't often happen in SF, I hear, but which happened for me twice so I feel very privileged. Again, it's something that you think might be overrated, but it's hard not to feel dwarfed and overawed by the sheer miracle of engineering you're walking across, and it's given a human element by the phones spaced along the bridge that connect directly with a crisis counsellor, in case you feel tempted to jump.

On my own I had some fantastic trips too - an afternoon exploring Chinatown, and another following in the footsteps of the Beat generation in North Beach (the City Lights bookstore was a particular highlight, as was the first club to feature topless waitressing, commemorated - believe it or not - with a plaque on the wall! Beats our Blue Plaques, that's for sure). I also climbed the crookedest street in the world (so steep it has 10 switchbacks on the way down), and admired the gilt-and-stone Classical wonderland that is City Hall. But one of my favourites was Coit Tower, endowed by an eccentric (but rich) lady named Phyllis Coit, to beautify her beloved San Francisco; as well as building great towers on the highest hill in the city (gorgeously decorated with murals inside - Rivera is here, too), she was given to wearing a fireman's helmet and joining them whenever there was a call-out. And who wouldn't, given half a chance?

My favourite of all, though, was when I went back to the Castro district to have another look around on my last day in the city - I felt it was appropriate. I saw the Harvey Milk Plaza, and 575 Castro Street, where he ran his camera shop in the Seventies, and I ambled around the "gayest four corners of the earth" on the corner of Castro and 18th. But best of all I got to see inside the Castro Theater, one of the most amazing movie theatres I have ever been in. It's a mixture of Spanish, Oriental and Italian influences, with great golden panels and starbursts in the ceilings, while the front was designed to be reminiscent of a Mexican cathedral. It's hardly been altered since it was built in the 1920s, and it's about the most luxurious place you can think of to watch a film - and, even better, I saw A Single Man in it. In the heart of gay San Francisco. I was so excited I was bouncing up and down when I got my ticket - and not just the film, but the circumstances too made me cry like a baby throughout. [In an aside, and having now seen all the competition, Colin Firth was robbed of that Oscar.]

So there you have it - San Fran in a nutshell. Now I'm in Portland, Oregon, having come up the West Coast via a very scenic train journey (and this is for the Americans in the audience - the train was on time. I thought the UK was the place with the worst trains in the world, but it's not so, folks. Sure, we have leaves on the line and the wrong sort of snow, but here it's not unusual for trains to be three days late. Kind of puts my journey from Liverpool Street to Stoke Newington into perspective). Anyway, this too is a delightful place, all hippieish and liberal and full of AMAZING restaurants (the residents pride themselves on their food, and rightly so). It also has the largest independently owned bookstore in the States, but more of that in another blog. For now, it's dinnertime so I'll sign off and go in hunt of something delicious to eat. It's a hard life, but someone's got to do it!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

My summer of love

Well, there's been precious little sightseeing in the last week - I've been hanging out as part of a family instead, and having a lovely time. However, Mel and I, plus Sophia and Zachary, did head down to hippie central yesterday, the place where it all happened in 1967.

Basically, Haight-Ashbury was once a mecca for all the drop-outs and alternative lifestylers from America and beyond, and it's still leftfield and incredibly cool. As soon as we left the car we were right among the Tibetan handicrafts, tattooists, hemp products and "smoke" shops - plus the skinny teenagers in Gothy T-shirts and winklepicker shoes. In short, it's like Brighton, but with wooden town-houses and steeper hills. And sunnier, of course.

My favourite place was the comics shop (I told you it was like Brighton), but the incredibly attractive man who chatted me up in the hippie coffee shop ran it a close second (I'd dressed up for the occasion in purple top, heavy eye make-up and oversized jewellery). Feeding the ducks in Golden Gate Park with Sophia afterwards was another highlight, as was the gopher - it popped its head up right by us, which I personally found very thrilling!

Talking of thrilling, I've also introduced myself to 3D films this week. Clash of the Titans was absolutely rubbish - it bore almost no relation to the myths I knew and loved; its only redeeming feature was that Sam Worthington was dressed in a short tunic throughout. How to Train Your Dragon, however, was absolutely awesome - seriously, it may be a cartoon but it's bloody brilliant. Highly recommended!

Tomorrow I'm joined by Dad and Vanessa, and there'll be some serious sightseeing going on. Honest! This blog will have educational content once more - and some pretty pictures too. Over and out for now...

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Here's a question

We did a lot of driving on my road trip, and there was plenty of time to think. Something that occurred to me as we powered our way along Route 66: if you were a question, what would it be? After some consideration, I decided that mine would have to be: "Says who?"

Route 66 was awesome, by the way. Every anti-Establishment bone in my body (and that's quite a few of them) thrilled to be retracing the steps (well, wheels) of all those Harley riders and leather-clad rebels. And in Seligman they serve the best milkshakes in the States.

Road trip!

It's been a whirlwind week - I've been through four national parks, partied in Sin City for two days, and taken in the world's campest Easter Parade in the Castro District of San Francisco (trust me, you've never seen an Easter bonnet competition quite like it). And I've had an absolute blast throughout.

Our road trip started in Los Angeles a little over a week ago - 11 women and one man (one half of our honeymoon couple!) boarded a minivan at the airport and headed out to Joshua Tree National Park. We were incredibly lucky with the time of year - being spring, the trees were blooming. All these spiky arms were reaching for the sky, topped with white pinecone-like flowers (the trees are actually part of the lily family, hence the waxy flowers). I thought nothing would top Australia till I reached New Zealand, and then I thought nothing could impress me more... till I reached the States' desert landscapes. The vast rock formations, the lonely trees, the scuttling lizards and croaking birds - it was so beautiful, and so eerie.

And even this was as nothing compared to the Grand Canyon. I splashed out and took a helicopter ride, which was the best decision I've ever made - the first five minutes of the flight hugged the tops of serried ranks of pine trees, before bursting over the rim and revealing the Canyon in all its glory. It has to rank as the single most spectacular moment of my life - nothing can prepare you for how vast, how splendid it is, inhuman in its scale. We flew for 50 minutes and it felt like seconds - every moment we were seeing another amazing view: the Colorado River the size of a bootlace below us; being dwarfed as we flew below the rim; amazing rock formations in the shape of temples and animals; all the amazing colours... We ended the day watching the sun go down over the Canyon, the grey gradually leaching the reds out of the rocks in front of us. It was a truly magical day.

But the trip wasn't just about the glories of nature: the next day we hit Las Vegas, which has to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on (or even without). Regina (a 70-year-old Swiss grandmother, and an awesome travelling companion), Anna and Nikki and I hit the town together the first night, picking up margaritas (but sadly no men!) as we went. Every so often we'd have to stop and just laugh in disbelief and delight: it was all in the middle of the desert, for God's sake. My favourite was the Venetian - with a replica of St Mark's Square inside, plus a false ceiling that bathes the place in constant daylight, and canals with gondoliers plying tourists up and down... and it's all upstairs. But the boulevards of Paris (plus l'Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower), and the streets of New York, New York (Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, brownstones and the Brooklyn Bridge no less) were awesome too. And the lions - real lions - in the lobby of the MGM Grand were pretty cool, as were the old-school kitschy sword-and-sandals style of Caesar's Palace and the Luxor. I even went to a totally naff and over-the-top magician's show on the second night (Criss Angel - basically Paul Daniels with Gothic frills). It all tickled my sense of humour (and after all I love a bit of camp), and I am totally going back again - I'm not done with Sin City!

So what could follow that? Death Valley, of course, a vast plain of salt pans and churned up, baked earth. It had rained the previous day so there were flowers, but it was still an eerie landscape - beautiful, though. I'm definitely a deserts girl. Yosemite, where we went last, was also beautiful but didn't move me in the same way (perhaps because we have mountains and snow at home?). In fairness we weren't seeing it at its best; while spring is good in deserts, in Yosemite it just means that most of the tracks are closed off by snow and ice. The waterfalls were going great guns, though, and the lakes were at their best!

And now I'm having a few days of domesticity: I'm in San Francisco with Mel and Will (who have very kindly taken me into their home, and shown me Doctor Who specials - life doesn't get much better than that). After all my travels it's great to be in a real home again, and I'm loving being Aunty Abigail to two small children (both Sophia and Zach seem to like me, which is incredibly flattering!). But I did pop down to the Castro district yesterday, and I'm heading off to the hippie area of Haight-Ashbury in the next few days, so I haven't abandoned all my sightseeing. Stand by for a post on the Bay, and in the meantime, au revoir mes amis.