Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Midsummer East Coast Tour, Canada And Back

Why the train is relaxing.
There are better times to visit Montreal than the ones I've visited in the past. When I lived in Europe, I'd go as I left the country after SXSW, stopping in New York, then heading north. The trouble was, late March up there is like early February in other places, and I've had to make my way through loads of snow and slush just to get from one place to another. Not to mention the time the train back to New York froze and the rescue vehicle coming to fix it fell over on its way up from Albany. But summer, summer's very different.

In fact, this year, Montreal was suffering higher temperatures than New York, which was odd indeed, and I was beginning to regret having packed the jeans jacket I figured I'd be needing. Not to worry; it rained the day I spent on the train, and by the time I got there, it was considerably milder.

This was to be a quick trip, to come down from the New York experience before heading back to Texas to start doing publicity for one of the two books I have coming out this year, so I wasn't in any particular rush to do anything when I got off the train except check into my hotel and get dinner. Fortunately my friends Terry and Patricia had done research on the latter and were at the station to hustle me into a cab. Dinner turned out to be up a side street around the corner from the hotel in a restaurant called Bonaparte. It was first-class: absolutely traditional French cooking -- I had a goose-leg confit with a mushroom ragout, and Terry and Patricia had skate wings and veal -- done perfectly. The big surprise was the wine: it was an extensive list, so I stuck to what I knew, and picked a Pic-St.-Loup I'd never heard of from a winery that seems to be brand-new. A glance at their website doesn't show the wine we had, which had a Japanese name, but I know the area they're located in, and the rest of their stuff looks very interesting.

On the way to the restaurant we noted a video projected on the side of one of the buildings: a black woman was running towards us, fleeing a wall of flames. Terry said there was a 19th century woman who was accused of arson who'd become a symbol of racism and sexism. On the way out, though, she'd been replaced by a young Jackie Robinson, who'd gotten his start in the minor leagues in Montreal. Apparently there are a number of these things around the city, called Montréal en Histoires, with an app that can help people discover where and what they are.

Terry was anxious that I see the Pompeii exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, so Sunday we hustled down there to discover a line out the door and down the block. So much for that, but there was also the Redpath Natural History Museum at McGill University, right nearby. Terry described it as an instructive look at an institution of a previous century struggling to catch up with changing attitudes, particularly in its cultures-of-the-world section. I knew what he meant: the natural history museum in New York features quotes from Theodore Roosevelt about Manliness and Duty set in metal letters right in the marble walls, and as I waited for my ride to Nyack, I gazed at the huge bronze statue of him outside, on his horse, leading the inferior races -- an Indian in a big warbonnet and a mostly-naked Negro -- into a glorious future. They may have to deal with that some day. But for some reason the Redpath was closed on Sunday.

Trying to salvage the day, we headed to the Fur Building, a nearly block-sized structure downtown that had held the warehouses for furs, back when that was one of Montreal's biggest businesses. Today, the fur companies have left, and artists and galleries, happy to have such huge rooms with long windows at their disposal, have moved in, along with a couple of dance studios, martial-arts instructors, and yoga studios. We'd been there before, and the galleries never seem to be open at once, so you pick your way down the hall to see what's open. Of course, it was August, hardly high season in the art world, so there wasn't much to see. A couple of galleries were open, but I doubt they were showing their A-list clients. There was an amusing video shot under some elevated subway tracks, the images heavily treated, and one mysterious and effective installation where objects were placed in square columns of frosted glass. Some of them were moving, some not, and the amount of visibility on each side varied. It was clever, which was more than you could say about most of the rest of the stuff.

Having arted, we made it back to my hotel, rested our feet, and finally set out for an experience we knew would be deeply satisfying: dinner at Cuisine Szechuan, which I consider one of the best Chinese restaurants in North America. Since the last time I was in Montreal, Terry and Patricia have befriended the owner, who happened not to be in this time. Still, the place was superb again, and since they turned the ordering over to me (except for starting with both Szechuan-style -- in a tart sauce with Szechuan pepper and toasted sesame seeds -- and Hunan-style -- in a peanut-based sauce -- dumplings, traditional favorites going back years in this place) we wound up with a bunch of stuff nobody had had before: a meatball soup with glass noodles, crispy chicken with a lot of stir-fried vegetables and a sauce I'd never heard of before, and a casserole of eggplant and fried tofu in a garlicky sauce. (I think there was one other dish, but it's not coming back to me: it was one of the ones whose leftovers they packed up for the next day's breakfast). Two great meals in two nights.

Terry and I got into the Pompeii show on Monday, and it was very much worth it. A lot of what one goes to see at Pompeii isn't exactly moveable, nor were all the first-class artifacts taken on the road for this, but the show (which I can't seem to find moving elsewhere, although it showed in Toronto last year) brilliantly exposes daily life in Pompeii (and the other two towns that got hit by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Herculanaeum and Stabiae, the latter a tiny resort town that never gets mentioned) through intelligent labels and well-lit displays. Sports, sex, business, daily life, all get their rooms, and then one walks into a room with a dramatically-lit cast of a dog that died in agony and the four walls projecting the progress of the disaster, the chronology of which we know because the Plinys, father and son, were living nearby and went to rescue friends of theirs from the eruption. Pliny the Elder's lungs got filled with volcanic dust and he died during the rescue, while his son, when it was over, wrote a detailed letter to the historian Tacitus about what had happened. It's a dramatic use of space: after we've seen all the artifacts, the decorations, the silverware, the shrines to the household gods, the statues of unknown people, we're in the destruction. The next room has casts. Everything was covered by ash so quickly that people were suffocated, and when the ash hardened, their bodies disappeared. When these hollow areas are discovered, casting material is poured into them and the cast is excavated. There are men, women, a child, all at the moment of death. In the next room, a film shot by U.S. Army personnel stationed in the area documents a 1944 eruption, the latest major one.

After this bravura display, the rest of the museum could have been a letdown, but it wasn't. A fine Toulouse-Lautrec show had many of his familiar images, but put them into the social context of his circle and Bohemian Paris in general, and was just large enough. The permanent collection, like those in many regional art museums, is largely filled with the best work of second-tier artists, enjoyable in its way. At least that was true for the older stuff: downstairs there is some first-rate stuff by "name" modern and contemporary artists and some surprises by folks I'd never heard of, not all of whom were Canadian. There was a separate gallery for Canadian stuff, a design gallery, and lots more, but I began to get art burn after a while, so we left and headed to the Redpath, which was quite a let-down after what we'd both seen and, yes, trying its best to put things into the current cultural context.

I was pooped, so we headed back to the hotel to meet Patricia, who'd been studying at Terry's office at Concordia University. She was going to take a French proficiency test, passing which will mean she can work in Quebec. Make no mistake: French is the first language in Montreal, even if it isn't for a lot of its population. It's a shred of cultural identity for Quebec to hold on to, and they do so like pit bulls. We took a bus to Point St. Charles, the tough Irish working-class neighborhood that's very slowly gentrifying, so I could see the current progress on their house. (Others who are interested should check out Terry's blog on the subject). We had no idea where to go for dinner, so we decided not to go far. Across the street, as a matter of fact. Chez Dallaire is a hipster bar in a non-hipster zone, but it seems to attract enough people to keep going and has added a small but interesting menu. Across the street is a place I have yet to try, Boom-J's, run by an affable and savvy Jamaican. So while it's a bit premature to suggest the Point as a destination for dining, I bet in five years it'll have some great stuff to offer. As for now, we had pork rillettes in a little glass jar for appetizers and "grilled cheese" sandwiches for the main course: toasted high-quality bread enveloped a wad of smoked meat -- Montreal pastrami -- and had a tangy cheddar-like cheese melted over it. Along with the craft beers they pour, a satisfying meal. These guys look like they'll make it.

Happy diners, Chez Dallaire

Having had a "sandwich vietnamien" that was made from canned tuna in the museum, I was anxious for the real deal, and Montreal's Chinatown was just down the street from my hotel. With Terry and Patricia sidelined by work for much of the day, I'd have time to find the place Terry had told me about when I was expressing my disappointment with the museum sandwich: real Vietnamese banh mi. I had Terry's instructions with me, but no such place was in evidence. I walked the streets of Chinatown, untempted by the Chinese places (I'd just been in the best of them), and finally settling for a place with a specialty of "soupe tonkinoise," which, because Quebecers don't like foreign languages, means pho. This place had a line in front of it when I first passed, but by the time I'd scoured the rest of the neighborhood, it had calmed down, and despite its weird name (Pho Bang New York, possibly connected to a New York restaurant also called Pho Bang) I went in and had a pho that had the best tasting broth I've had in a long time. It's at 1001 Boulevard St-Laurent if you're in the neighborhood. And another cool thing was stepping into a tiny shop to see if they had gong fu shoes, which make wonderful house slippers, and not only finding them, but finding big enough ones to fit my feet, a sign that Chinese people are indeed getting biger. Ten bucks Canadian, too. Can't beat that.

The latter half of the afternoon was meeting up with Terry and taking a whirlwind tour of the magnificent Atwater Market to pick up groceries he needed and admire the just-in Quebec strawberry crop, which I wished I could teleport back to my place in Texas. The tomatoes also looked great. After depositing this at the house, we decided to visit another gentrifying neighborhood, this one with a lot of history. For a long time, much longer than was healthy, Terry was married to a woman he'd met in college (we both went to Antioch). I performed the ceremony, in fact, with my Universal Life Church credentials. Eventually, the marriage fell apart, divorce papers were filed, and much ugliness ensued, with the bright spot being Terry's deepening affair with one of his students, Patricia, whom he followed to Japan, where she was teaching. During Terry's previous marriage, they'd lived in a suburb called Verdun, where I visited many, many times. It was gritty, working-class, and not that easy to get to on the Metro, either. But it did have potential, and now some of it is being realized. Terry remembered that Wellington, a main street a quick bus ride away, had a number of good restaurants on it, so we headed down there. Alas, it may have had, but like many pioneers, they'd gone out of business or been forced to change menus. True, there were two Indian places, which I certainly would have appreciated way back when, but we stumbled on a fish joint that doubled as a market: Queue de Poisson. They do excellent fish and chips, the grilled monkfish I had was perfect, and there's a good selection of Canadian craft beers. (A note on these: Quebec microbrewers seem to be chasing French beer as an ideal. Folks, French beer just sucks. Try to embrace a teeny part of your English -- or even American -- heritage for at least a couple of your beers. Thanks.) Once again we ate outside, once again the young folks who ran the restaurant did a great job. First Point St. Charles, then Verdun. There's hope for Montreal yet.

Sunset, Hudson, NY railroad station

I said good-bye to Terry and Patricia when they got off the bus and then rode it the rest of the way to my hotel. The next morning, Amtrak took its sweet time getting me to New York, but I managed dinner and a good night's sleep, then spent the next day shopping for salt-cured anchovies (at Eataly, of all places, and a good sight cheaper than in Oakland) and got to JFK with lots of time to spare.

I was headed home, and happy about that. Less happy, though, that that home was in Texas. Not that I'd gotten any inspiration where to go next (which won't be for a while). Jersey City has pockets that are real nice, and much larger areas that just exude despair. I hadn't seen enough of Nyack, Hoboken was out of the question, and forget Canada. Still looking. I've got time.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Midsummer East Coast Tour, The U.S.

File under "offer you can't refuse": my agent, David, asked me what I was doing around the beginning of August. His wife is from Hawaii, and every year they head down that way with their kid and visit the in-laws. Would I be interested in house-sitting for him in Jersey City? Oh: and cat-sitting a ten-year-old cat. How hard could that be? Jersey City is a couple of stops on the PATH rapid-transit system from Manhattan, and although it was August, there'd be stuff to do there. My publisher for The History of Rock & Roll, Vol. 1 was having a typical publishing August -- ie, not doing much -- and wanted to sit down and chat about the book. Playing around with Google Maps with a vague idea of renting a car and going somewhere for a day came up with all kinds of interesting suggestions. And best of all, it'd be free, at least up until the last day, when I'd hop on Amtrak and head to Montreal for a few days.

So I said yes.

David's house is about a mile from the PATH station, Little India, and many other attractions. I was determined not to over-plan anything, except to nail down a lunch with the publisher and explore JC. I'm still planning to leave Austin as soon as it makes sense -- ie, not for a while yet -- and wanted to see what the place was about.

After a conversation with last-minute details (which I should have taken notes on) I went back to the Ramada (the only hotel except for that weird Indian one I stayed in a couple of years ago in that part of town) and crashed. The next morning, I checked out, carefully picked my way down JFK Boulevard, and arrived at the place I'd be occupying for the next ten days. No sooner had I arrived than Maud, the cat who I'd been assured would mostly sleep while I was there, emerged and started yowling, hissing, and spitting at me. No matter that, over the rest of my stay, I would feed and water her and clean her litter box, she didn't ever warm to me. Far from it.

Maud, none too happy
I actually had no clear plan for touristing, except I did want to go to the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's collage of medieval buildings in Ft. Tryon Park at Manhattan's northernmost point. I hadn't been there since I was a teenager, and by now I've seen lots of stuff of the sort it contains, as well as having visited the church in St. Guilhem le Désert where they got one of their cloisters. Plus, I heard they had a piece by the Master of Cabestany.

My first day, though, was spent finding a grocery store and familiarizing myself with the surrounding neighborhood. There would be a farmer's market the next day at the PATH terminal in Journal Square. Didn't expect much from that, but it'd be worth looking at. I took a quick look around Lincoln Park as the sun set and walked back to the house.

Monument to the early settlers of JC who fled the Irish potato famine, Lincoln Park
There was no doubt where I wanted to eat that night: Deccan Spice in Little India is one of the best Indian restaurants I've ever enjoyed. Thing is, I forgot something important about them: as you approach Newark Avenue from JFK, you see their sign, so naturally you suppose the restaurant on which it hangs is Deccan Spice. It's not. Deccan Spice is two doors down, and if you're walking up Newark Avenue, there's a sign facing your way on the right building. I chose the wrong restaurant, and paid for it: it's called Home Kitchen, although it also has another name, too. The menu is confusing, but not as confusing as something I thought I spotted on the way in: a Bible, a picture of Jesus, and a rosary with a crucifix on it. The chicken dish I had was very ordinary, except for the effect it had on my intestines an hour later. That was impressive.

That farmer's market was also a surprise the next day: only one farmer was represented, along with a Puerto Rican food truck and a bakery, but the vegetables looked top-notch. With the idea of making a salade niçoise, I bought lettuce, a red potato, some green beans, and some black cherry tomatoes. Now all I needed was some good tuna and I was ready to rock. And I knew where to get that: David's printed guide to JC mentioned Carmine's Italian Deli, where he said cops and firefighters went to get sandwiches. It wasn't far.

Not, that is, if you read the address right. Instead, my brain told me it was on a nearby street, albeit a fair walk down that street. So, after walking the mile back to the house and resting up a bit, I started walking down that street. And walking. And walking. Finally, a sign I was looking for came into view, but not Carmine's. Cool Vines was the wine shop David had mentioned, so I went in and looked around. They seem to import everything in the shop themselves, so there was nothing I recognized, which was good and bad. The proprietor was a bit sniffy, but I bought a couple of interesting-sounding bottles and walked all the way back to the house. I sat around until I got hungry and realized there was no vegetable steamer in the house with which to make the salad. I consulted the list again, and started walking down that same street to downtown JC in search of Razza, an upscale pizza joint. For some reason, pizza was just what I wanted, and there was apparently no old-school pizza joint in JC any more. Razza more than fulfilled my expectations. Let's just say that I rarely eat all of the crust. I ate all of the crust. The heirloom tomatoes with a chive vinaitrette was also a perfect opener. And let's face it: after all that walking, I was ravenous. I took a cab back and collapsed into sleep.

JC Astrology #1
I was annoyed enough the next morning that I'd made so many mistakes that I decided to do something I knew how to do: go to the Cloisters. And I did. It was a beautiful day for it, too: the Hudson's palisades were as lovely as I remembered them, and Ft. Tryon, or at least its site (Washington thought he could invade New York City from there and boy was he wrong), a cool and quiet place to spend time.

Note to Founding Father: you can get there from here, but it's not a good idea.
The Cloisters' collection had been added to considerably since I was there last, and I was gratified to see that I could pick out pieces from places I'd spent time, most notably Catalonia, Germany (a bunch of Tilman Riemenschneider wood carvings) and of course the Eastern Languedoc.

And there it is: the cloister from St. Guilhem le Désert!
There was a lot of stuff to see, and yet the place was small enough that I believe I saw it all. One note I made was that the familiar yellow Valencian pottery that had unexpectedly entranced me all those years ago in Castellón was using identical colors to Moorish pottery made in the same vicinity. I found this exciting because I will be in Valencia in a little over a month and am hoping fate steers me into more information about this. I realized after visiting the Cloisters that I seem to have picked up a hobby after all these years: figuring out the three-part society of pre-expulsion Spain, as the Moors, their fellow North Africans the Jews, and the Spanish worked out a way to live together, albeit with some tension. I attribute this to the pieces that clicked into place this spring in Girona.

And here's the Master of Cabestany's piece, considerably larger than I thought.  If he existed, this is by him. 
I left the Cloisters feeling great: between the weather, the views, and all the stuff I'd just seen, I was in a good mood. I pulled out my phone to send the Cabestany picture to a friend in Austin and a grandmotherly black woman with a teen in tow asked me if I were playing Pokémon Go. I told her no, I was trying to send a photo, but had just discovered I couldn't, and also told her that seeing me with my phone was a rare sighting indeed. She clearly approved. I walked a bit further and came upon a setup where a photographer was erecting lighting and tripods and such and a tall, thin black man had a drone in his hand. A couple in full wedding gear were sitting waiting and suddenly I put the pieces together. "If you don't mind," I told the drone pilot, "I'm enough of a geek that I'd like to watch this." "Sure, just stay out of the shot." Easily done from the bench once the couple stood up and too their places. The drone hovered in front of them and then shot out over the Hudson River. Then it hovered a bit and he brought it in, more slowly, as they waved. Man, they don't do wedding videos like they used to.

Bride, groom, drone

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