July 2010

So here we are again, sitting in a terminal at the end of a trip. Our passports now record trips to Europe (2006), New Zealand North Island (2007), France 2009, New Zealand South Island 2010, and now North America 2010. In between, we’ve damaged the environment by taking holiday and business trips to Brisbane, Melbourne and Darwin. Not a bad record for five years – and already we are talking of the Great Barrier Reef with family in July next year and January of 2011 in Northern Europe.

Why do we do it? I think we are always able to look back at our trips and reflect on the things we saw, the places we experienced, the people we met, then turn them into tangible memories, interesting stories and lessons for our own lives and those of our families and our students. Sometimes it’s just a question of reminding ourselves to wonder at marvels of human and divine creation. And sometimes, because there is just the two of us, it adds to the store of our journey together, as we squeeze every moment out of the life we embarked on a little later than some.

So what can we say we learned this time? Well, we reconnected after a really busy six months, the most consuming we’ve had since we came together. It was wonderful go share some special time. As for the rest…

Best Hotel: Vancouver (l’Hermitage, because the room was great and everything was thrown in, including gym and pool), New York (Lucerne, loads of character on the Upper West Side), Jasper (big room with an amazing view of the Rockies).

Best meal: hard to pick, because there were so many good ones. Vancouver gave us Joe Forte’s fish and chips (divine), but we ended up lusting after anything with wild Pacific Salmon. We had great Greek seafood there as well. Jasper was OK, but Banff turned on a fantastic Italian meal. Everything we ate in New York was nice, but our two seafood meals in San Francisco were outstanding. But our favourite eating was done in Sauk Centre – family cooking in the company of the people we love.

As for experiences, all were valued. We haven’t travelled 10,000 kilometres to be bored. Trying to pick winners is just too hard, so maybe we can pick one or two for each stop along the way.
• Vancouver – the Orcas stole the show from the Belugas at the Aquarium, but Granville Island was a blast.
• The train trip into the Rockies was breathtaking, the walks, sights and the wildlife wonderful, but the glacier experience – in fact that whole bus trip – capped a memorable introduction to Canada.
• New York is a bit of a wonder in itself. The Met is truly one of the great art museums and its shop enough retail therapy for a month. Paula’s spiritual home nearly became Century 21 – if only she could work out the dress sizes. But the rather eccentric Jarryd’s “Heroes of the World Trade Centre” tour won because it was sensitive and genuinely moving. We ended up respecting New Yorkers greatly.
• It was such a privilege to experience small town middle America. Ben and Claire have built a genuinely wonderful life in Sauk Centre, but I think all four of us felt privileged to witness the “monks mass” at the Abbey! As for the Maw of Amerika….
• San Francisco was the peaceful end to a great trip, but we loved our trip on the Bay.

Negatives: the TV was just appalling. Network television is truly dead in the USA. Thankfully, we had lots to read and lots talk about. No wonder cable dominates the entertainment industry!

So here we go. Hope the inflight food and entertainment is bearable – it was on the way over. Washing, shopping, dog and children await us on Friday morning, before work grabs us again. Bon voyage!

I’ve loved Northern California and San Francisco since I had four days here fifteen years ago. They were still repairing earthquake damage in 1996, but San Francisco shone above the double-dip recession this week. Lovely weather, lovely food and a chance to relax before the journey home.

We had a great evening after the regular drama with airport shuttles, taking the cable car down to Fishermans Wharf and having a pleasant and inexpensive seafood meal. Today has been spend along the Embarcadero, taking a cruise out to the Golden Gate and shopping at Pier 39. We had a great meal at Fog’s with almost the last of our cash.

Tomorrow we want to walk the Bridge before checking out and shopping around Union Square. Our flight doesn’t leave until nearly 11 pm, so we have some time to kill. We’ve decided against upgrading: it’ll have to be cattle class, so we can save the points for Europe – Christmas 2011 here we come.

I wouldn’t bother with a blow-by-blow account in normal circumstances, but the trip into the airport was crowned by visiting the Mall of America (aka Maw of Amerika).

I have to share the disabled doll from American Girl. This was worse even than the twenty dollar matching haircut little girls can get for themselves and their doll right there in the store.

Ignore the fun park in the centre of the Mawl – this truly was the heart of tacky America.

Now it’s just numb bum until we get to San Francisco!

We’re sitting on the back deck at ‘Nepean’, enjoying the company and the peace of the Lake. We’ve had a most relaxing couple of days: from the moment we touched down in Minneapolis, it’s been a chance to do what many visitors don’t get a chance to: discover small town America.

Even though we had barely three days with Ben, Claire and their kids, there have been interesting glimpses. The drive up the freeway, getting accustomed to the local approach to car-park design – take a large shopping centre, figure out the maximum cars that will visit it on the busiest day of the year, then multiply by four and find a cheap bit of worn-out farming land to plonk it in – to the strange ethnic divisions of the locals. Was it Stearns County where, due to the refusal of the German Catholics to intermarry with the Swedish Lutherans, or anyone else for that matter, that the major moral dilemma is, if you divorce your wife, is she still your second cousin?

We were inducted into the mysteries of Sauk’s Catholic’s: the Irish church and the German church, three blocks apart. We visited St Cloud and had a look at a mid-western town – flat. We shot through the uni and had a look at Steph’s – and soon Nick’s – fabulous prep school. We went grocery shopping and wondered at the quality and price of much of the produce. Perhaps not enough gourmet stuff for Claire, but we found everything we needed for the slap-up meal we prepared together on the Saturday night.

While we really went to Minnesota to spend time with family, it was an incredibly rich couple of days. We loved the home that Ben and Claire have created: in summer, it is idyllic, and in winter is must be a cozy refuge. The town is in many ways like an Australian country town – except for the green, which Ben kept saying was already faded from it’s Spring verdure. Ben and I rode eleven miles out and back on the bike trail that runs along the old rail line, Ben spotting wild-life as we went. We watched some of Nick’s baseball game. We took a trip round the lake, ostensibly in search of one of the local golden eagles, though we did see a trio of loons.

Sunday was one of those days that appear out of nowhere; we had decided to go to “monks’ mass” at the Abbey and arrived in good time to discover that it was the Feast of St Benedict – something that Ben had decided was an unimportant details. The abbey was full – downstairs anyway – and it was high mass. We got the schola’s chanting, wonderful hymns and responses with the organ, and a liturgy that included jubilee blessings and renewals for monk priests and brothers celebrating fifty, sixty and SEVENTY years of solemn vows, as well as the perpetual vows of two new monks. All this in the splendid atmosphere of the Abbey Church!

We saw Dick and Eileen Haeg, and Dick kindly explained the window on which he had worked to us. We had an all to brief look around and took photos. I left my iPhone at home so the images will have to wait until our return to Sydney.

Sunday afternoon saw Paula, Claire, Steph and I pursuing Mammon through the Albertville outlet centre (read town). I finally got the sunglasses I had first wanted two years ago at less than half the price.

The evening has been idyllic – Boomer has been entertaining us after a wonderful chicken dinner and we have talked and talked as we very seldom have chance to when Claire and Ben visit Australia. We speak of all the things that people like us think of – the state of the world, our children and their prospects, our hopes and dreams – against the peace of the trees and the lake.

Wednesday’s flight home seems much too soon.

I’m writing this in part standing in Century 21, the massive discount clothing store opposite the huge building site that is the World Trade Centre. Notice the number of superlative adjectives in the previous sentence? We must be in New York!

We had a late start to the day, courtesy of our Broadway adventure (the memory of which will stay on our credit card as well as in our memories). Paula wants to do the Heroes of the World Trade Centre tour, and we have combined this with an heroic assault on Macy’s because our fabulous New York cards gave us an extra ten percent discount. So far I’ve collected two pairs of Levis for about 100 Aussie dollars, in addition to the amazing shirt and tie I bought at an outlet near our hotel on the West Side. Paula is trying on a pile of designer bits in this amazing barn that offers anything up to 70% discounts. If I had a few quid saved and room in the suitcase, I could grab designer suits and shirts – beautiful English and Italian stuff for about A$160. London Fog raincoats are about US$120. Ahh, covetousness! The only extra I want is a warm long coat in dark grey or navy, and I haven’t seen it yet! Maybe in Claire’s famed outlet mall.

We’ve completed our tour with the amazing Jarryd and have both come away completely moved by the experience – perhaps not so much by the awful events of that morning as by the behaviour of volunteers and rescue workers; by the outpouring of support to the local people, by the poignancy of the memories in Old St Paul’s Church. I’m so hesitant to talk about miracles, but what providence protected the church from the tons of falling debris from the towers only a hundred yards away? It became a place of refuge and recovery for the workers as the site burned foe three months… I hadn’t realised Rowan Williams had been in Manhattan that day… I remember Vic Chirillo’s story of being caught on the island and not being able to fly out for days.

Being in the church became a kind of homage to so much history – this was Washington’s church on the day of his inauguration, this building that is the only British era building left in Manhattan. To leave and walk around the site listening to Jarryd was to experience not the memories of falling buildings but the effects on ordinary New Yorkers, who had hoped that their city was renewing itself at the time, only to be traumatised by more than the day, but the loss of thousands of jobs, some forever, and long economic depression. Jarryd made the point that many of those walking past us might be survivors with still-traumatic memories. We both liked the respect he showed at the various points where he stopped and talked.

He finished by observing that, in his opinion, 9/11 had changed New Yorkers from the live-for-the-next-deal stereotype to a people more aware of life’s fragility, where goodbyes had a greater intensity and meaningfulness. It was a good moment on which to conclude our time in New York.

It’s hard to make any meaningful summary of New York after five days, except to note that it seems to be the quintessence of America. Paula made the point that in a city with more than it’s fair share of poor, we saw hardly any beggars – unlike Vancouver – because everyone seemed to be desperate to make a buck at any length. Street vendors and the merchants on the stands seemed to work from 9 until midnight. The girls in the bars and restaurants – all of whom seemed to have ‘foreign’ accents – worked massive shifts for poor wages and the promise of tips. One had to respect the fierce independence and drive to succeed, although one wonders about the cost to those who don’t. And what of those living in less affluent areas like the Upper East Side or in the Bronx? We saw none of that, and do they have a safety net as we, less entrepreneurial, Australians would expect.

But altogether a most vibrant, creative and – we think – polite city. In your face, after your money, but giving as good as it gets. No wonder it is America’s greatest city and the centre of it’s cultural life: you can see anything money can buy, and much that it can’t.

This was the day Central Park hit 103 degrees and nearly took us with it. We decided to attempt an agenda which in retrospect was lunacy, but which was fun until that last 40 minute trek across the park.

Each of our museums held some significance – the Natural History Museum because of Holden Caulfield’s breakdown, the Met because it is the biggest, which really matters in New York, and the Guggenheim because I’ve looked at photos of the building for decades and imagined climbing that fabled ramp.

Loved the AMNH: the atrium with it’s solar system theatre suspended like a planet four stories high was stunning, but so was the old entrance with its memorial to Teddy Roosevelt. This was certainly a day for confronting America’s tradition of private benevolence – along with a lot of other New York characteristics that I’ll need to sit on he plane and think about.

There was no way we could do more than marvel at the range of exhibits. The anthropology seemed a little dated at times, but we enjoyed the section on North-west Indian peoples, having just come from there. More recent exhibits were excellent in their defence of biodiversity and arguing for personal response to climate change – all good messages for the munchkins on summer camp who swarmed around the museum and who’s yellow school buses clogged the surrounding streets.

Note: without suggesting anything racist, we have been amazed at the number of African-America nannies taking their charges around. While we are sure that blacks are increasingly represented in more wealthy parts of society, here was real evidence that they remain over-represented among the poorer people of the city.

We left for a stinking hot walk across the park to the Met. We didn’t try to cram too much in, but did manage a great Picasso exhibition and good recent photography, as well as a wonderful display of dresses to illustrate the American Woman. This was quite amazing in documenting all those social and cultural changes in the image of womanhood in America in the last 120 odd years. So the question remains: given the remodeling of the American woman by the turn of the 20th Century, why did it take so long for women to achieve suffrage in the States?

We shopped joyously at the Museum shop and then agreed to look at the Guggenheim, which Paula could not visualise from my description. We marveled at the ramped design and the range of imagery displayed: the design in simply extraordinary in it’s ability to set up each artwork and give some sense of continuity and connection.
We then has to stagger back through the park and it nearly did for us. Notwithstanding our evening’s engagement on Broadway, we napped for an hour before hitting the subway for “Promises, Promises”, about which more later.

We were quite wrecked by today, but three cheers for Paula’s ankle which did us all proud!

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