Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Non-Typical (Typical?) Berkeley Weekend

26 - 27 July 2014

Granted, I have not spent much time in the Bay Area, but from anecdotes shared by friends, it seems to be that the non-typical experiences are the typical experiences of this NorCal realm.

Saturday - 26 July 
After a short, late night flight Friday night and soon-to-bed, Saturday was a blissfully-allowed, slow-to-get-going morning.  I was staying with friends going to graduate school in the Berkeley area and we decided to make a go at visiting Muir Woods that day.

Alas - apparently Saturday, July 26th was the same day everyone in the NorCal area decided to descend upon this local grove : no room at the inn of any parking lot associated with the woods.  We waived off on the idea, heading along the windy mountain road that hugged closer and closer to views of the ocean to get to Stinson Beach. 

Alas - apparently Saturday, July 26th was the same day everyone in the NorCal area who was not at Muir Woods decided to descent upon this local beach : traffic was backed up for over a mile back from the beach front, and no parking spots in sight once we patiently endured the line inching closer to the sea salt scent.

The thing is: as a visitor, I was still having loads of fun just getting a little safari ride tour of the sights around.  I've seen so little of NorCal, that all of it was a thrill.  And, when you are with good friends, even miserable circumstances are made enjoyable...in the end it is only the snafus of travel that we talk (or write) about...we very rarely repeat the tales of the courses that ran smooth.

We gave up on the Stinson Beach idea, but were starving, so we double parked for a little in-the-car picnic of a homemade kale salad.  Then: the day gifted us with an additional tale of woe to tell - the rear-view mirror broke from its foundation and remained swinging and dangling the rest of the driving-day, completely useless for anything besides a good laugh (with two co-pilots our driver made out just fine without it).  As was aptly said by one of the car companions, "we are heroes in this moment."

Since we remained keen on getting some sort of feet-on-the ground experience while in that area, we made a spontaneous turn towards the San Francisco Zen Center when we saw a sign.  The narrow, barely-paved road down to the center is anything but zen: your car will bump rather violently at each of the long-ignored potholes as you descend.  We parked next to the far end of a hidden parking area, uncertain if we were even allowed to be here or not.  There was a man getting out of his car as we pulled in and we asked if there was anywhere we could hike here.

He gave us a sly look, with the suggestion that non-Zen folk will be sniffed out, and aren't supposed to walk through the area, but advised us to "just be cool" and we'd be fine to walk through the center to find the public walking area in Green Gulch Farm (which is just beyond the center).  We figured we had little to lose, and thought we could successfully "just be cool."

We made it to Green Gulch Farm, which permits for pleasant strolling, along whispering eucalyptus groves, past green houses, and bordering just-budding lettuce patches.  We even had a little sword fight (once sufficiently far away from the zen center of course) with bamboo sticks, which, combined with the enjoyment of the walkabout in nature, sufficiently worked out our "stuck-in-traffic-on-a-Saturday" kinks.

Once back in Berkeley, I took a little urban hike up the hill from where my friends live and got a nice panorama of Berkeley and distant views of San Francisco on the horizon beyond...and even some city-dwelling red wood spottings.

We made polenta pizza together for dinner, as a happy little family, had a dessert trek down the street to Menchie's frozen yogurt, and then a projector viewing of Saint Young Men (anime fans - don't miss seeing that one).

Sunday 27 July 

I woke earlier on Sunday and headed to the Bart around 0830 in order to meet a friend visiting from over seas who was in San Francisco for a few days.  We met at the Ferry Building, and did some aimless meandering around the various market stalls inside.  My favorite was the "The Wild Forest Products" vendor, selling a wide variety of mushrooms and even a grow-your-own mushroom kit.  We got coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee and headed across the street to a grassy knoll covered in clover blossoms to simply chat.

As she was flying out that night, we had but a few hours to catch up.  However, that is the great thing about deep friendships - it is the quality of time together, not the quantity, and two hours truly felt like several days in terms of the soul-sharing conversation we had in that span of time.  We parted ways at the Bart, her waving in that classic farewell movie scene manner as the train car pulled her from view.

Once back in Berkeley with the two friends I was staying, we all decided to drive to the end of town, and walk half an hour on a pedestrian path to get to the Berkeley Kite Festival.  Kites of every shape and size abounded.  We were without one to fly ourselves, but there were enough to vicariously go around.  We managed to successfully gain a free funnel cake and sat on the grassy hill sides to take in all the flyers.  As we left there was even a synchronized kite flying routine, matched up to a rather intense, Marvel-comic-film-esk song...I still don't understand how they could fly like that without crossing wires.

On our walk back to the car we happened upon Takara Sake - a sake museum and tasting room.  While my friends did a $5 tasting, I watched a video on the making of sake and studied a illustrated diagram that explained how sake was traditionally made.  They have an area where they are making sake in-house which you can peek into as well.  It is worth stopping in, whether you like sake or not.

We did a grocery store run on the way home and then made saralatkes (special, and arguably the best latkes), grilled vegetables, and bacon on a pancake grill placed in the center of the kitchen table as an interactive dining + cooking experience.  We capped the night off with a partial viewing of The Wind Rises...but, having all seen it before, decided to go to bed before we got through the whole thing since I had to leave at 0400 the next morning to fly home.

All-in-all...a non-typical Berkeley weekend, which is actually a typical Berkeley weekend in the end.  Bottom line being: you really can't have a bad weekend in the Bay Area.  So, go without plans, and you'll happen upon spontaneous plans that go wrong and unintended plans that go better than planned, both of which are necessary for a grand weekend.  If you are with the right people, which I was, everything is a delightful adventure, even doing nothing at all.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Boston on Foot (in a half day)

Let's just say that you are flying in and out of Boston to go elsewhere in the New England area, but that you happen to have about 4 hours of daylight to see a bit of Boston.  "Not enough time to see it properly" you say?  Not true! At least not entirely.

 Fortunate for the on-foot traveler, Boston is a very walkable city and complete with a very walkable and easy-to-follow 'trail' that leads from one historic site to the next.  I was able to see much of Boston and take a walk through American history by following The Freedom Trail. 

Granary Burial Ground

Location of Boston Massacre

The "Old Corner Bookstore" that is part of the Freedom Trail is now a Chipotle, however, very near you'll find Commonwealth Books which is a bookworm haven. Don't miss it.
Commonwealth Books
Besides all the historical monuments/locations you'll take in on the trail, your eyes will feast on Boston's fine architectural delights.  If you are lucky to have the late afternoon light when you are walking about, well, you won't be able to take a bad photograph of the place.


And, since I was fortunate enough to be in Boston on 4th of July Weekend, I happened upon a patriotic-themed sunset concert at Old Ironsides, featuring the Navy Band Northeast, complete with demonstrations of revolutionary-era canon and musket exercises...which wrapped up the bite-of-Boston experience quite nicely.

Old Ironsides (USS Constitution)

Windham, Maine - Independence Day Weekend

3 - 6 July, 2014

It is of my firm opinion that every American should spend at least one Independence Day in New England...preferably in Maine...optimally during a rainy stretch (as I did this year).

A NYC friend of mine invited several friends to her mom's cabin in Maine to spend the 4th of July holiday, and I was fortunate to be among them.  The cabin is in Windham, Maine, on Pettinggill Pond (which is rather more like a small lake), and within an hour's drive of Portland.

Portland has the feel of a small big city, historic in tone somehow: brick accents abounding and the smell of sea salt greeting you around most corners.  In proper Maine fashion, lobsters advertisements are most everywhere you look.  I had only an hour there to explore, but it had all the pleasantries of a beachfront town, the old port area seeming to be the most popular spot for visitors to congregate and stroll about.

Once I was collected in Portland, we drove off to Windham.  The road there was a 2-lane highway, dressed in the aesthetic appeal of Midwest-small-town finery.  We made a brief stop at an antique store called My Sister's Garage, which felt very much like my grandparents home which had the effect of making me very much want to stay for the evening: crochet items around every corner, bedrooms tucked into nooks and crannies, old books piled in corners, and all housed in an old farmhouse.  They bake cookies daily and offer them to patrons for free.  True story.  So don't miss stopping by.

Then, we were off on a gravel road winding towards the pond and the cabin.  Each cabin we passed on the way was charming in its own right, my favorites being those that looked more aged with chipped paint and weathered wood.  My friend's mom's place is painted in navy blue with red trimming.  It is maybe 30 - 50ft from the pond's edges, raised up on a hill with gently climbing stairs. 

The cabin is framed in trees of various kinds, but none of them block the view of the water.  Below, there is a tiny wooden dock with a paddle boat and two kayaks.  It is so charming to look upon it seems almost like a doll house, as in : "this place cannot possibly be real."  It cannot be real life.  Simple implausible.

Yet it is.

If you should answer to the siren song to come dwell a cabin in Maine in the woods by a pond, there are several things you prepare yourself for:

First, the water.  In July, the water is warm but not hot.  When you swim you'll find pockets of shockingly cold water neighboring pockets of soothingly warm water.  The temperature is always in flux.  Take a tour around the outer edge of the entire pond in a kayak and/or paddle boat and wave to the friendly neighbors as you pass by their docks.  Take pause and look up at the trees that border the pond's edge and notice how the leaves of different types dance differently in the breeze.  Let yourself simply drift.  Bring a book and a cup of coffee.  It's best to go at dawn or twilight because the golden light reflects off the water and through the branches of the trees in such a delicious way you might just die of contentment.
Second, rain.  We were rained out on the 4th of July.  I could not have been happier.  It began the night before, ushered in with a heat lighting storm that was better than any firework display could have been.  Swimming in the rain is something not to be missed and to be reveled in.  I fell asleep several nights with the window open so I could listen to the sound of the downpour.  And, if you permit yourself some time for stillness, you'll notice the subtle differences in the symphony of rain falling on leaves and rain falling on water's surface, and find they harmonize together into a song you'll never want to get out of your head.  Don't worry: if you aren't keen on rain, it won't last forever.  The day after the 4th, there was no rain to be had, and we had a cotton-candy pink sunset and a 3-hour firework show (neighbors periodically setting off their own supply of explosives that went unused when they were rained out on the 4th).

 Third, the trees.  You'll find northern red oak, loblolly pine, eastern hemlock, white oak, London planetree, American hornbeam...to name a few.  Maybe it is because I live somewhere with mostly palm trees (which hardly count as trees), but the variety was splendorous and intoxicating.  Within two miles of the cabin there is a loop of trails you can hike or run through that I named "Ferngully" for the abundance of ferns that will kiss your legs as you go along the path: overgrown and lushly green.  Try to go during or just after a rain: the forest floor has a springy quality to it and water droplets cling to leaves like gem stones, and the perfume of petrichor is everywhere.    

Fourth, the people you share that space with.  My friend is a natural gatherer of inspiring, kind, and interesting people.  Most are of the creative sort, and every conversation I had throughout the weekend was both soul-soothing and thought provoking.  We were all quite different, but yet all spoke a common language, no one feeling out of place, and all of us feeling quite like a family.  It was strange how easily we fell into a sort of routine, each having our own little corner to sleep in the living room, each of us naturally filling roles when it was time to cook dinner and clean up afterwards.  This cabin was our whole world and only world.  And, speaking of meals, the most decadent versions of nourishment was concocted: lobster omelets, Brussels sprouts sauteed in coconut oil, shrimp scampi, and even a s'mores pie (believe it).  We ate crowded around an almost-too-small-for-seven-people wooden table with wide windows looking over the lake.


Finally, time.  Time has an evasive quality here.  It is doesn't exist. Yet, it bleeds on too quickly.  It is evening before you know the morning has even gone.  A cabin in Maine is the perfect venue to practice presentness.  But it all seems so peacefully surreal that you feel it an intangible and make-believe experience.

Was it all a dream?