Queens Towers (by special request)

18 10 2008

I was recently chided for having written about two of my nieces and not their sister, my darling Olivia.

And so, without further ado, a post especially for Olivia, in two parts.

I may be belaboring the point but I love being an aunt for the simple joys of passing on knowledge, joy, enthusiasm, and for cultivating those female bonds which I think are so special. At home in California this summer I had several opportunities for just these things, some already noted and others soon to be forthcoming. The added bonus of all this, I found, is that I get to learn in the process as well. And thus, part 1…

We have a tradition when my brother Gregg brings his girls from Colorado to California for visits. We head to Oakland’s Jack London Square and take the East Bay Ferry into the city. From there the routine is pretty generic and pretty touristy, usually consisting, in random variations, of lunch at Johnny Rockets, playing and shopping on Pier 39, and a long time marveling at the famous sea lions who lounge there. Then we make the long walk along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building, where the rest of us wander the markets waiting for my brother to spend an inordinate amount of time purchasing wine before we catch the ferry back to Oakland. It’s always a great day and the kids look forward to it every visit.

This summer, however, we switched it up, especially for Miss Olivia. Last year, on the walk to the Ferry Building, I pointed out Coit Tower to the darling and she has been obsessed ever since, determined that we must visit the “Queen Tower” and also the “other Queen Tower,” which happens to be San Francisco’s other most distinctive building, the Transamerica. So this year, we diverted from the usual plan and took Olivia to the Queen Tower, no small feat given that I have not lived in the city for more than two years now and have become a little rusty on my geography, not to mention there’s that massive hill to climb (we cabbed it).

Once up there, however, it was well worth the trek. For my mother, who had visited often with her own mother (my Gaga), it brought happy memories of growing up in San Francisco. For Olivia, who for a year had been talking about the Queen Tower, it was a thrill, nearly equaled but not overshadowed by the joy of seeing “Alcatrax.”

The Princess in front of the Queen Tower

The Princess in front of the Queen Tower

And for me, who managed to grow up in the Bay Area, live in San Francisco for two years, and only see one of its most iconic landmarks for the first time on a visit from New York, it was a reminder of what we take for granted when we have easy access to some of life’s most amazing places, and a reminder that you don’t have to travel to travel. Often the best things to see are in our own backyards. Or at the very least just a ferry ride away.

Coit Tower, which can be seen from most places in downtown San Francisco, looms over the city from its perch on Telegraph Hill in North Beach. It was erected in 1933, and was commissioned to honor San Francisco’s firefighters by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric San Franciscan who often rode along with the firemen, despite this being considered unladylike behavior. For more information, click here.

Flashbacks (or Something More)

15 04 2008

I think Argentina’s stalking me. Or haunting me. Or calling to me in some strange mental telepathy sort of way. Or perhaps I’m channeling Argentina and making it all up. Whatever the case, it’s been cropping up a lot.

It’s going to seem hokey, but while there I felt I had some sort of spirit/force/what-have-you watching out for me. I’m pretty sure it was Gaga, my maternal grandmother who passed away before I was born but who, I’ve always been told, had a strong adventurous spirit and was in all an amazing woman. I grew up jealous that my siblings have Gaga stories and I never got to know her. In my recent adventures, it only seemed right to speak to a strong female force in my life—who, incidentally, came to San Francisco from Hong Kong (by herself) at age 22, knowing no one (and my mom was worried about my move to NYC).

In my recent adventures, I got to know Gaga. Just when I was feeling exhausted or sick or lonely, I’d get pulled into a parade at Carnaval or stumble upon a beautiful Ash Wednesday ceremony. And it always seemed that I’d recently asked her for help. Call it what you will, I think my grandmother was looking out for me.

Then I came home, and during the job-hunting struggles of late I’ve had the distinct feeling that Gaga is giving me the silent treatment. Last week was especially rough (a separate post all to itself), and I went into the weekend feeling particularly frustrated and all around glum.

Then on Saturday I sat in Washington Square Park to enjoy beautiful weather and a band playing the greatest hits of Marvin Gaye. The man on the bench next to me was wearing a bracelet, a wooden saint bracelet that just about every male in Argentina sports. I happen to have one of these bracelets. It was given to me by Dario, who I met on a bus to Buenos Aires at the end of my trip. This experience warrants a separate post in itself, but for today’s purposes, it’s only necessary to say that in a particularly weak moment I called on Gaga and then met Dario (which happens, in addition to everything else, to be my nephew’s name). He gave me not only interesting conversation and perspective but a bracelet by which to remember him.

I wore the bracelet the rest of my trip and periodically put it on now that I’m home. It’s not fashionable, but it makes me happy. I wasn’t wearing it Saturday (I put it on when I got home), but the sight of another wearing it here in New York gave me that same sense of happiness, and a sense of peace that this is indeed a small world and a good one. I didn’t talk to said male because he seemed to have lost that Argentine friendliness, but I vowed to email Dario and tell him about it. (I have yet to do this, but I will. And then I’ll blog about it.)

Since then, Argentina’s been all over. This morning in DailyCandy there was a deal for a Pachamama massage at the Iguazu Day Spa, and while I didn’t make it to Iguazu I am definitely simpatica with Mother Earth (as the Pachamama is also known). I won’t be getting the Pachamama massage any time soon, but it seemed a weird coincidence since I keep hearing about things from Argentina.

Perhaps more bizarre was my experience yesterday. After an afternoon of struggling through the headache that is taxes (yes I’m one of those brilliant people who waited until the last possible minute) I heard a street band on my way to work. This is not uncommon (see above), and yet yesterday’s band was different: something about the horns and the rhythms was distinctive. Though I was surrounded by tall buildings and fast-walking people, for a second I turned the corner expecting a group of brightly colored diablos dancing around on a dusty street.

Perhaps it was my tax haze, but it seemed so real I was almost there, and I really did expect a parade. Is it all coincidence? Wishful thinking? Or am I simply going insane? Or could it be Gaga telling me to hang in there and remember my adventures (and her)? The jury is still out on all that. In the meantime, however, I will continue to wear Dario’s bracelet and to remember my parade.

And for fun, this video I took in Tilcara which captures my diablo abduction. You’ll see the girl next to me be pulled into the parade, then I laugh before my diablo grabs me and chaos ensues as I get pulled into the parade. It’s like the Blair Witch Project (except much less scary… and real).

The Other St. Patrick’s

25 03 2008

Last week was all about St. Patrick’s Day debauchery (and a very winsome horse). This week I have a different St. Patrick’s in mind, the one I visited over the weekend.

On Friday afternoon, I’d just dropped off my last “waitressing resume” of the day at a cute Nolita cafe, where the somewhat frazzled and very grumpy manager gave it a cursory once-over, and then asked my availability before brusquely informing me that he’d be calling people on Monday for interviews (translation: “I’m not interested in hiring you so get out of my sight.”) After much the same success all day, and with aching feet and whirling head, I self-pityingly plodded my way along Mott street on the way home.

But my dreams of a nice glass of wine and some self-indulgent chocolate came to an abrupt halt when I saw a lovely church in the middle of Mott Street. Still not having decided where I would go for Easter Mass, I decided to get closer and see if it was Catholic. Not only was it Catholic, it was Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a landmark about which I’ve been curious for a while. The facade is nothing much as far as cathedrals go (St. Patrick’s having burned down in a fire in 1866, was hastily rebuilt in two years and thus gave up its grand facade), but the inside is lovely. It’s similar in style, though not in scale, to the larger and more famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral and there is something so warm and welcoming about it that I decided I would attend Easter mass there.

On Sunday I journeyed out of my way to attend mass at the new special church, and was not disappointed. Not only did the priest give a beautiful (and well-appointed given my weekend bout of self-pity) sermon, but the music was lovely (some unseen and very rich male voice) and the church itself a friendly place. It was a stark contrast from my experience when my mother visited last year and requested that we attend mass at the lovely, sacred St. Patrick’s. The awe-inspiring interior and spectacular sense of place waned a good deal with the lector gave a speech before offertory about how much one should pay when the basket came around. Not only was the “price” of mass exorbitant, I found it slightly distasteful to have said anything at all: yes, there were many tourists in the church who may not understand mass, but it almost felt like this mass was yet another overpriced trip to the top of the Empire State Building.

Not so at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, where the vaulted ceilings and ornate altar are augmented by a larger sense of community and history. At the final blessing, the priest welcomed all those Easter-only attendees and told a little about the church, mainly that its cemetery and crypt house the ancestors of those in the area, and probably many of those among us in the congregation. This was particularly apropos given that entering the church that very morning I had noticed a plaque on the door memorializing someone named Louis Russo, possibly of no relation but I like to ponder some distant bloodline.

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was the second Catholic Church in the U.S. and has a long and tumultuous history, which includes persecution of its people (who fought to protect it), a fire in 1866, and a cameo in one of America’s favorite movies, The Godfather. In its cemetery are buried many of the heroic men from its early Irish parish, who fought in the 69th regiment of the Civil War Battle of Bull Run (the only regiment that didn’t flee). Over time Italian immigrants populated the area and the parish became less Irish, but today it is a mix of all, mostly Italians, Dominicans, and a large enough Chinese following to warrant a Chinese-language mass.

Whatever its parish, it is a lovely landmark with a rich history, and perhaps one of the most overlooked attractions in the city. For more on the church’s fascinating history, check out this very thorough (and entertaining) podcast by my friend and former employer Tom and his partner Greg, otherwise known as New York’s history podcasters extraordinaire, The Bowery Boys.

Lesson learned: The St. Patrick’s on 50th is breathtaking, and definitely a sight to see, but next time the parents visit I’m taking them to the original. (For those also wanting to visit, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is located on the corner of Mott St. and Prince.)

Meanwhile in Tilcara…

4 02 2008

There’s a party going on.

Yesterday on my way back to my hotel to relax before heading down to the Carnaval festivities, I stopped to watch a parade pass. Along about 30 diablos (men and boys in vibrant, jesterish costumes that are meant to represent the devil) picking off female bystanders of their own size as they went.

The girl next to me went, and next thing I knew my hand too was seized by a diablo, and I entered the fray as well. My diablo gave brief instructions where necessary, in the high pitched voice that goes with the costume. The parade alternated from dancing (he used his tail to whirl me through the streets), to sprinting through the street, and then ducking under the bridges made by other devils and their partners.

We proceeded this way throughout the entire town, and let me just say that what seemed like a small town in the morning didn’t not seem so small after my half hour jog through it. By the end I was sweaty, laughing hysterically, and covered in talco (talcom powder) and nieve (spray snow), which are thrown and squirted by the watching crowd.

But no time to catch your breath. My diablo had scarcely left when the the crowd of bystanders surged into the street, attacking with talco and thrusting jugs (otherwise known as the cut halves of two liter bottles) of homemade sangria my hands.

The rest of the evening was spent dancing in the streets with the rest of the crew, while buses patiently waited for the crowds to clear, which never happens. Until the next parade…

What Is Travel Writing?

10 01 2008

Thursday, 10 January, 2008.

Day four of an interesting but rather grueling traveling writing course. The day we spend entirely “in the field,” researching and writing a full “city guide” for one neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

I spent the morning becoming an expert on Retiro but could not find the Plaza de Embajaro Israel, all that remains after the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy. My intense thesis work not having satiated this obsession I seem to have developed with loss and memory, I was determined to see this monument to the lost and learn how Argentines remember their turbulent history.

I was looking at my map when I encountered Julio, a thin man in his sixties with thick coke bottle glasses. He bounded up and asked what I was looking for. Confident that I had already figured it out, but eager to practice my Spanish, I told him. Then he told me how to get there. I understood about half.

Julio walked four blocks with me, and we spoke (in Spanish) the whole way. Then he pointed out the Plaza and I realized (though I didn’t tell him) that I had been on this block earlier the same morning and had merely forgotten to look. Thank God for forgetfulness. After pointing out the Plaza Julio proceeded to tell me its history. And very patiently repeated it until I understood. I’d read the history in my guidebook, but it was much more poignant hearing it from Julio. This is the real key to memory I had been seeking.

Then we parted, Julio wishing me buena suerte (good luck) on the rest of my travels. I understood that part perfectly, and I walked on feeling a bit happier, and a bit giddy that my job (at least for this week) means not just seeing amazing places, but really seeing them, through the eyes of those who live there.