Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spring was late in New York! March 2013

Trip to New York March 11 to April 6 2013

We could just see the very first hints of spring in Central Park with snow-drops and witch hazel (‘winter bloom’) starting to flower.  Otherwise bare, cold and windswept … yet the sun is out and we know the daffodils, tulips, blossom trees, etc will all have done their thing by the time we leave in a month.  There was a small pile of dirty snow on the edge of the JFK tarmac, reminder of a recent blizzard. 

On arrival at the flat with two bags of groceries I put some dried beans into water.  Once they had hydrated I cooked them up with onions, tomato, parsley and olive oil for lunch with toast.  Having the cooking urge and serious jet lag I tried to copy a 'schmaltz herring' dish using some bottled pickled herring from Finland.  It was not a success.  The original from Bondi had tasty, spiced, briny, fish pieces with red onion … but mine tasted like wet tissues mushed with fish sauce.  My boiled onion was like gyprock pieces, the sauce like spent engine oil and bay leaf turned to sandpaper.  Maybe the whole thing is a Jewish plot to fool outsiders.
Another experiment, this time with a plantain was more successful (see below). 

I have kept busy to fight jet lag.  Having arrived in the city on Monday evening I attended a dependency meeting at Columbia on the Tuesday evening regarding "Brief Treatments for Older Problem Drinkers".  It was fascinating but there was an undercurrent that older people, like pregnant women, should really not drink at all and that any reductions in alcohol consumption was necessarily good.  I reminded the meeting of the research showing that modest alcohol consumption makes one live longer.  It was received with a ‘thud’! 

Then I obtained some very cheap seats for Don Carlo at the Met for the Wednesday.  I have better seats for the Saturday when I should be more acclimatized.  Hence by Thursday I felt like I was quite exhausted and so just took a bracing morning walk in Central Park, bought some more provisions from Fairways and put on a Thai beef curry to slow cook as I took a snooze (against all the advice of the sleepologists). 

Wash-up from St Patrick’s Day at Lennon memorial, Strawberry Fields

New York is an amazing place indeed and around ten o’clock by a ludicrous chance I just ran into a close colleague amongst the hundreds streaming into the local subway.  My friend was as surprised to see me as I was to see him.  We shared a brief greeting and descended to the platform whence we took different trains, myself towards Astor Place to attend to some purchases.  No less than two other occasions in the first week in New York the same thing happened as we just ran into people we knew, the latter not quite as surprising as they were opera fan friends in the vicinity of the opera house … somewhat select audience, etc.  So there are ‘small town’ things that still go on in the big apple. 

At times the Met production of Verdi’s long grand opera Don Carlo was reminiscent of the Papal voting process which was going on at the time.  Some would probably like to bring back the inquisition and reverse it onto certain members of the clergy. 

The trip from Sydney deserves a whole review of itself.  We were upgraded to first class on the A380 with Qantas … I hasten to say NOT because we paid the five figure-plus fare, but through a pre-Christmas ‘sale’ on business class tickets recommended by our long-time Jewish travel agent, supplemented by some reward points. 

The first class cabin on Qantas A380 is a very pleasant place to be compared with the 747 where I felt hemmed in.  Furthermore, on the latter, the front wheel is directly beneath the floor, making for extreme noise and vibration on take-off and landing.  And the wheel retraction makes a nasty mechanical grinding, further vexing the nervous flyer like me. 

By contrast, the downstairs front cabin on the A380 is an elegant rectangular room with a dozen or more windows, four doors, two ahead and two aft and three rows of passengers across the wide bodied plane.  Even the toilets each had a porthole … and with a mysterious optical mechanism which could instantly turn a clear view of the outside into an oval of blue opalescent light – to no particular purpose (but perhaps privacy while still on the ground or else a French practical joke).  Forward of the first class cabin is a large vestibule, bigger than on a Sydney train.  This lobby also has doors to two toilets, a staff bunk room and the flight deck up a couple of stairs to the front, opposite a grand staircase to the business class section. 

This staircase rose to a private bar with red leather upholstered bench seats for about a dozen (each with lap seat belt).  The room is shared with the adjacent business passengers. The stairs at the rear of the A380 consist of a gated half spiral curve in the economy section.  Despite numerous ‘treks’ around the plane to ward off clots, I only once saw anybody using the lounge.  My fellow insomniac turned out to be a delightful second year resident doctor from Brisbane on his way to snow-boarding in Whistler, Canada. We chatted urology while the rest of the plane was seemingly under an anaesthetic.  As we spoke, an attendant came in unobtrusively and asked if we would like some food or drink. A Valium might have been more to the point. 

But first class starts well before take-off with an on-ground hospitality experience which is hard to beat.  Just where the sign separates business and first passengers, one enters a marvellous world of food, architecture, glamour and style.  A busy kitchen can be heard (and partly seen) with a series of connected formal and casual rooms to choose from, each with its own enormous skylight and vista over the airport and city skyline.  The curved entrance corridor linking the noisy clatter of the retail terminal with the tranquil first class lounge is lined by a sandstone montage of live jungle specimens including climbers, maiden hair, tree ferns, orchids, grasses, staghorns and other species forming a tall palisade of botanical rarities about 25m long.  

      Qantas first class lounge at Mascot Airport – large and classy!

In New York I managed some more semitic wanderings – detailed elsewhere for anyone who is interested.  One of the Muslims I met mentioned that much of the present misunderstanding was due to Islamic Americans not being visible enough in the media helping with communications.  There are some staunch, conservative Americans who still find it hard to take Muslims as equals.  And even after all the ‘troubles’, few westerners comprehend the perceived and actual wrongs done in the Middle East.  Starting with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire from Baku to Palestine in the first half of the 20th century, leading to the Russian and western invasions of Afghanistan, then Iraq and the rest.  Nobody expects a quick solution but some acknowledgement of our mistakes, like Vietnam and Korea, would go a long way to appease discontent amongst those in this part of the world in my view.   It is often pointed out that more in Israel might acknowledge the immediate previous owners.  Veteran Israeli statesman Uri Avneri goes further and says: “If Israel could just apologize for what we have done to the Palestinian people, a huge obstacle would have been removed from the road to peace”.  As an outsider all I can do is hope for peace and ensure facts and understanding prevail over the many casualties of war, including propaganda from either side.   

No 1 Riverside Drive Mosque - a brown-stone uniquely angled for Mecca.

On the way back from the shoe store I went past the World Trade Center site where two buildings are going up apace (and third has also started).  The Freedom Tower is truly magnificent and its companion on the diagonal corner (SE?) is also pretty smart looking.  Both are nearing completion and one might be over 100 stories.  I still personally still have problems with high rise of this size and their inefficiencies and lack of green credentials. 

                                Freedom Tower
On the subway platform where I changed to the 1,2,3 line (9 was destroyed by the 9/11 bombings) there was a man playing a Chinese violin (‘erhu’) most beautifully haunting … that WAS, until the train rattled noisily into the station.  I do not recall hearing this instrument before and it was just one of those New York experiences which come for free and to improve ones education.  I don’t think that this two-stringed fiddle will find its way into the symphony orchestra ‘any time soon’. 

Subway platform showing Chinese fiddle player with his music stand in centre.

I have now cooked my first plantain which was marvellous ... Initially I fried thick slices with butter and sprinkled with a little sukkar (‘sugar’ is basically an Arab word - and probably an Arab innovation).  Next I did the same thing with slightly thinner slices in corn oil ... until almost crisp, salt added ... delicious both ways ... and a third of the big plantain to go – maybe as filling for a crepe.  Contrary to popular opinion, they can also be eaten raw - as long as you catch them before turning black (according to a blogger from Belize).  I tried and was not disappointed. 

Other operas we are attending or have attended are Otello with Jose Cura, Francesca da Rimini with Eva-Maria Westbroek, La Traviata with Diana Damrau (and Domingo), Faust with Beczala and finally Julius Caesar with David Daniels.  These are all at the Met. 

Sunday 23rd March was a sunny if a chilly day in New York City.  My niece Tess and her fiancĂ© are in New York for three months … I walked Tess from Strawberry Fields near the Dakota Building across to the Met museum and back across Central Park past the Belvedere and towards the Natural History Museum on 81st St.  We saw the beginnings of spring everywhere including lovely crocus flowers in yellow and purple coming up in the grass and low gardens.  At Columbus Avenue behind the museum numerous street markets were operating.  We ventured further down the avenue and Tess was last seen mesmerised by the dozens of stalls in a school yard precinct market selling clothing, glass, silver, semi-precious stones, ivory, etc, etc, etc.  Not to mention exotic foods, bakery items and more besides.  There was even one stall selling nothing but chandeliers!  We found a couple of small items and will catch up again at the opera on Tuesday at the opera.  Her fiance Lucas was up-state for the day, on business I gather. 

I reminded Tess about the Macy’s flower show which is on this week.  Due to renovations it is in the three-roomed pavilion or marquee out the front of the building in Herald Square … just another example (like our ‘opera on the harbour’) of large bits of scarce public land being given over to private use for the already privileged (but don’t get me doing on that issue!). 

We had a nice dinner with Tess and Lucas at a French Canadian restaurant, La Bonne Soupe, after a couple of other plans didn’t happen – such are the attractions of the city.  As they had left the MOMA nearby an hour before, Tess opted to read quietly in the interim while her paramour Lucas went for a walk in Central Park.  We had shared numerous phone calls and emails … I gather they are having a nice time living in Brooklyn (Bedford-Stuyvesant) for the duration of Lucas's artistic assignment. 

I blithely offered to get them tickets to an opera and Tess was hopeful of seeing La Traviata.  However, having Placido Domingo in it, it was booked out.  The famous tenor is singing the baritone role Papa Germont and I gather he is rather good (people who heard the live HD broadcast said so).  Despite the difficulties, our generous opera contact managed to come by two front stalls seats (‘returns’) and so we can give the youngens our old seats in the front row of the balcony which Allan deftly obtained on the internet some months ago, knowing we would be here.  So this keeps everybody happy (and we were not disappointed – see my review elsewhere).  

There is a New York ‘institution’ being a flocking to Central Park on the first sunny Sunday of the spring season.  It can be quite a mob, but a happy one.  It might sometimes occur in early March but sometimes not until early April in bad years.  But when it happens it is like the Sydney Easter Show crowds.  After everybody has been cooped up for the winter in their apartments they just love coming out with a smile, a book, i-pod/pad, towel, etc for a few hours in the world’s greatest urban park. 

And one of the best places to start a walk 72nd Street and Central Park West, right opposite the Dakota Building.  Once in the park you can see the Belvedere ‘Castle’, Reservoir, Boathouse, Lake, “The Ramble”, Tavern on the Green, Bethesda Fountain, Sheep’s Meadow, Lilac Walk, ‘The Mall’, Poet’s walk, etc. 

If the weather turns bad, one can about-face at Strawberry Fields and head the two blocks to Broadway and Zabars, Fairways, Citarella and the other wonderful provisions stores.  There is also the oldest Jewish congregation in America on 70th Street opposite the park, the enormous Shearith Israel synagogue. 

The first warm spring Sunday is very, very special to New Yorkers. 

More later about restaurants (Jean-George's, Asiate, Cafe Luxemboug, Sechwan) and Metropolitan Museum.  Also medical events at Rockefeller University, NYU, Albert Einstein, Columbia and Bellevue Medical Centers.