Saturday, May 31, 2008

Comedy of Errors x 2

Went to see The Comedy of Errors last night at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, actually a sort of reworking of the play with a frame set at Shepperton Studios, London, during WWII. A bunch of film stars with their own considerable personal issues are making a film of Errors to entertain the troops. The frame was quite well written, and there were even times I wanted to cut the Shakespeare scenes short and get back to the 'real' characters! Some overdone things with the staging, but the cast was so uniformly charming that it really worked. The two Dromios, the anxiously aging director and big Shakespearean star in 'real' life, were especially brilliant at switching back and forth from silly Shax slapstick to their neurotic '40s personas. There's some excellent singing in it, too, as they 'record' the soundtrack. Overall, I highly recommend it to anyone who's in the area. We went on a Friday night, and it was sadly very far from full, so it should be easy to get tickets.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Steinbeck's Salinas

I read somewhere that Salinas is to Monterey as Oakland is to San Francisco; overlooked, less developed, cheaper, and with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Of course, Salinas doesn't have a waterfront, which is a serious problem from a tourism point of view. However, it does have just as solid a claim to Steinbeck as Monterey.

I don't know much about the history of the creation of the National Steinbeck Center, but I can assure you that it is one of if not the best literary museum in the United States. Tourist guides say so, so it must be true. No, in all seriousness, it is an impressive museum, with tons of interactive exhibits for the kids (you can pick a pony's hoof in the Red Pony section, which actually is a little macabre -- I mean, it's a hoof. A real hoof. No longer attached to a pony). Tons of screens constantly show clips from Steinbeck films and plays. Quotes are everywhere, some manuscripts are on display, recreations of settings and so forth. The single best exhibit is Rocinante, the custom-built truck/camper/Winnebago that Steinbeck drove around the country on his Travels with Charley, the most famous and well-regarded of his late works. My photo of it did not come out too well, sadly.

Just a couple of blocks away from the museum is Steinbeck's childhood home, mentioned in East of Eden. It's now a restaurant, which sadly was closed on Memorial Day. Oh well. Authors' houses are sometimes barely interesting when they're set up as museums, let alone as restaurants. I'm a trifle surprised that there was no move to make this part of the museum; I don't know if there's any real relationship between the two. We also drove past the high school, but I skipped the graveyard where his ashes are interred. Some were scattered into the wind on a seaside cliff in California, a fitting memorial.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Steinbeck's Monterey

John Steinbeck wrote that Cannery Row in Monterey is "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

Not any more it isn't. Now it is a boardwalk, a string of hotels, a tourist trap, a commercial paradise, and, final insult, a Bubba Gump. Nonetheless, nothing can take away from the beauty of the views, as you can see from this shot taken behind the Bubba Gump. You can't see it, but out on the little chain of rocks that shows right next to the building is a seal sunning itself.

The canneries are gone, and so are the bums and whores of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Almost nothing of Steinbeck's vision remains, and it doesn't help to know that he felt this same way when he visited Monterey later in life. Just a couple of structures are left. One is the Wing Chong grocery, immortalized as Lee Chong and then Joseph and Mary's groceries in the aforementioned novels. It's now a souvenir shop, and not even a good one, though the faded original sign remains.

The only truly authentic thing left is Ed Ricketts' lab at 800 Cannery Row. Here I am, on the steps pretending to enter, with unwitting passersby below me. You have to know to look for this; there's no sign, no marker, nothing. The town owns the building and has done nothing with it.

Ricketts was Steinbeck's very close friend, so close that when Steinbeck went out to take care of his affairs after Ricketts' death in a car accident in 1948, he burned all their letters. Having read some of Steinbeck's letters to other friends, I can only imagine how extremely personal they were. Ricketts is immortalized non-fictionally in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, but most famously as the drunken, generous-hearted Doc of the novels; though he didn't entirely agree with the portrayal, he appreciated it. It really gave me a lot of geeked-out pleasure to go to his home, even though I couldn't go in.

Drive the coast

Isn't it gorgeous?

I took this photo while standing on a rock in Pacific Grove, feet numb from the cold water and jeans rolled to my knees. I can't enthuse enough about the California coast; it's amazing. My lovely friends loaded me into the back of their car and drove down from Palo Alto so I could hit Steinbeck country (a direct quote: "You are the only person I know who would drool at the idea of going to the Steinbeck museum").

Pacific Grove, where the butterflies swarm, is heavily mentioned in Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, and Steinbeck himself must have climbed these very rocks with his pal Ed Ricketts, the model for Doc.

This photo was taken from the rather craggy rocks. I put my shoes back on to climb over them, looking for tide pools (it would have been more fun to wade, but it was not that shallow with the waves washing in). This was not so much a tide pool as a massive tidal inlet of sorts, but it was the best I could do in that particular location. Look how clear the water is.

After this, we got back in and did the 17-mile drive around Pebble Beach, which by the way costs $9.25. The toll presumably keeps out the riffraff and also pays for PB to maintain scenic stairs and bathrooms and fence off certain sections during harbor seal pupping season, which it is right now. We then looped around to Carmel, had dinner in Clint Eastwood's restaurant, the Hog's Breath Inn, and hit the highway back home. The best day. There will be a more Steinbeckian post soon.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Happiness is a slab of raw fish

Japantown in San Francisco is unbelievably interesting, with a vibrant community life and lots of commerce. I went to the Japan Center today, a three-block mall with a giant concrete pagoda in the middle. You can buy just about anything there: Japanese videos, magazines, books, anime, antiques, Okinawan manufactures. There's a half block of restaurants, where I happily chomped down a seaweed salad and a little plate of sushi at Osakaya. Those are open for lunch, but many of the others, which supposedly have the best sushi, are only open for dinner (and not on Sundays, I've heard). The mall itself has all sorts of decorative touches like bridges, fake cherry trees, waterfalls, rice-paper screens, etc. There are also lots of cafes and bakeries. I had a weird pastry that looked like something you'd get in Paris, but was mango-flavored. Very odd fusion experience.

The community itself still seems alive and well; I strolled past a Zen Buddhist temple, the JACL headquarters (in a green three-story house with a huge porthole window), various community centers, and other Japanese businesses. The mall was full of Japanese, Koreans, whites, and Latinos all shopping and eating together in harmony.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Miss (Beatrix) Potter

Indulged in the recent costume drama/biopic Miss Potter over the weekend, starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. This one flickered in and out of theaters, so I was braced for another Becoming Jane. However, it was surprisingly charming. Rather light, not big on complex side characters, but well enough told and acted to get past a not terribly dramatic storyline. Zellweger and McGregor were great together, as they were in the more colorful but intermittently awful Down with Love. The pretty score was by Rachel Portman, who I've liked since her fantastic score for Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow, also with McGregor). (Incidentally, she wrote an opera based on St. Exupery's The Little Prince that just finished its premiere in San Francisco.)

Briefly, the story is about Beatrix Potter's rise to fame and independence in her thirties, when she's a spinster living in her parents' house, fighting with her mother, and trudging around looking for a publisher for her 'bunny book.' Enter McGregor as sympathetic young publisher, and fill in the gaps yourself. Flashbacks to Potter's childhood were useful, not annoying, and when her drawings spring to life to interact with her imagination, it works surprisingly well without making her look insane. I also can't stress enough how insanely beautiful the location shots are; it makes me want to head straight for the Lake District next time I'm in England. The film could have been terrible, and I would still rewatch it just for that.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Traveling alert!

If your fancy is turning lightly in the direction of foreign travel, you absolutely have to go look at this article on credit card currency conversion fees at I nearly screamed when I saw my issuing bank's fee; that's on top of the 1% that Visa or MasterCard charge, mind you.

Go forth and get yourself a Discover or CapitalOne card.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Too much Ivanhoe as a child

When one of my professors told me about a church in London that had effigies of Knights Templar on the floor, I had to find it the next time I was there. So on my first day in London, I grabbed my friend and headed off to find the appropriately named Temple Church, in the midst of the Inns of Court that feature in so many of the novels I love. These are the law societies in London, and you can still get a kick out of their very formal name plaques.

Temple Church is a relatively unassuming building, stone with a low round crenellated tower. Inside, it's a beautifully restored building with tons of new stained glass (to replace the WWII losses) and a ferociously loud organ for its small size--and, of course, the effigies, which date from the 12th-13th centuries, I think. Oddly enough, right next to the effigies are beautifully made casts loaned from the V&A, which is all very well, but I kind of don't see the point. The originals are still in great shape.

Around the nave are famous little grotesque heads. I was particularly taken by this one with the monkey chewing on his ear. They reminded me a lot of the grotesque wooden heads on the coffered ceiling of the royal throne room in Wawel Castle, Krakow, and that's a connection you don't get to draw every day.

Oh, and yes, it was in the Da Vinci Code, though I prefer to think more of the Knights Templar in Ivanhoe (though that was a bit earlier than this church) or of Shakespeare's Henry VI.

Unexpected castle

Still writing on the recent visit to Poland. My brother's girlfriend drove us around her village and the neighboring towns, including the Radziwill Castle where Chopin played, but I have to say that the most surprising thing was in her town, Sosnie, about an hour away from Wroclaw. As she drove to the church, she started to tell me an incredible story about the abandoned castle near the church, which belonged to a couple of nobles. They built this beautiful castle/mansion/hunting lodge, whatever you want to call it, covered with cork bark imported from Africa. And there they lived happily until the husband got in a duel because of a dispute over cards, killed his opponent, and had to flee to Africa, where he spent the rest of his life. (Belle Epoque era.)

I listened to this story with growing amazement, and it wasn't that I didn't believe her, but it didn't sink in until we looked at their tombstones behind the church. Sure enough, his indicated that he died at Aswan, Egypt. I suppose his body was shipped home.

The castle is all boarded up and in disrepair. It was used for a while as part of a school for foresters, but now it's empty. But you can see how amazing it is; we peered through one window to see this fresco on a wall, and you can see the beautiful wooden ceiling above it. Even the porches have custom tiling; I was amazed that it hadn't been pried up and carried off by now. It's for sale very cheap, but I can't imagine how much it would cost to fix up. With the story behind it, it would be worth it!

Friday, May 9, 2008

A quiet side trip

A detour from lovely town squares and church towers: my brother and I took the train out to Auschwitz-Birkenau for a day. Well over a million people were killed here during WWII: Jews, Poles, Roma/Sinti, and POWs. It's kind of surprising to see any grass and trees there; you'd think nothing would ever want to grow there again.

A tourism note first: if you go to Auschwitz, you MUST go to both I and II, or Auschwitz and Birkenau, as they are sometimes called. I'd actually suggest going straight out to Birkenau first and winding up at Auschwitz, in the museums, except that it might perhaps be emotionally exhausting. But Birkenau is huge, and it takes serious time to walk around. Budget accordingly.

My first thought upon seeing Auschwitz was one of genuine surprise. It looked so permanent; I couldn't believe that anybody would put that much work into planning a concentration camp. Then we found out that it used to be a Polish military barracks, which explains the brick buildings and windows. Some original signs are left, including of course the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will make you free) over the gateway. Other small edifices have probably been rebuilt over the years, like the little hut where the SS officer could sit in the rain to take the interminable roll calls. Heaven forbid he should have to get wet.

Because the buildings are so solid, as you can see, most of the buildings are now set up as museums, one devoted to each nationality or ethnicity. We learned a lot from the Roma building, how even the assimilated bourgeois Roma were hunted down and taken off to the camps. One had fought in Rommel's army in Africa; the poor man died in Dachau, I think. The Jewish museum interestingly focused half on the devastation, going more for affect than education, but then half on resistance, which is an aspect I was not as familiar with. At Birkenau (often referred to as Auschwitz II), the prisoners managed to explode one of the crematoria. Letters were smuggled out, photos were secretly taken and buried in cans to provide some kind of future evidence, coded plans were circulated. The Yugoslav museum was like a paean to Tito and his partisans, who certainly played a key role in defeating the Nazis.

Birkenau is 3 km away, so if you didn't come with a tour bus, you can take the free shuttle between the two. Birkenau is more like I expected. The barracks were constructed out of wood, so only a row of them have been reconstructed on the one side; the women's side seem to have held up better or been reconstructed more fully. Acres and acres of chimneys, punctuated by the occasional watchtower, remain. This is where the bulk of the Auschwitz deaths took place. There were four crematoria, and I can assure you that it was a long march of death for the prisoners.

Another photo: the infamous watchtower, which you can now climb, though it's a little odd, I think, to get the SS-eye view of the camp. From there, you can see a lot of the grounds, though it's so vast that you can't see all the way out to Crematorium IV, for example, the one that was blown up by the prisoners (the others were blown up by the retreating SS). On the other side is farmland, and houses, though none too near. On the opposite side of the camp is the international memorial. Right outside the Birkenau gates are some tourist-friendly restaurants, of course.

My friend asked me whether people visiting were really emotional. Some were in quiet kind of way. Some were surprisingly smiley. And some were extremely inappropriately dressed, women stumbling around the rocky dirt paths of Birkenau in high heels and miniskirts. We met tourists from all over Europe and some Americans, though not many Asian tourists (not many in Poland yet).

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Another day, another church tower

Going out of order here, but this is the last church tower I climbed in Poland, the morning of the day I left. This is St Mary Magdalen in Wroclaw, a slightly less visited church because it is not right on the Rynek. An imposing brick Gothic edifice on the outside, on the inside it exhibits the same stark splendor as most of the churches I visited in Poland. Very plain white walls with some brick detail on the vaulting, little or no stained glass. The altars were incredibly ornate, and so was the carving in the choir stalls, but I couldn't get close enough to really look closely. Nor would I really have the vocabulary to tell you about it if I had.

But I can climb. 5 zloty to climb the tower, less than U.S. $2.50. Do you see that little bridge connecting the two towers near the top? It's called the Penances Bridge, and you get to go out on it.

Of course, once you've climbed the last several flights of stairs that turn into those open metal grilles with no backs, and you can just look down at the cement stairs below that will kill you, and you start wondering when the last time is that that old priest walked up these stairs... Well, let's just say that it took me a bit of inching along till I really started walking out on the bridge (to right).

Was it worth it? Here's one of my photos from the top.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Hey all, I'm back from Poland and England! Poland was fantastic, or at least the various parts that I saw. They should provide blogging fodder for quite a while.

Let me start with Krakow, the first city I hit and the main tourist attraction of Poland. I quickly figured out why as I rolled my suitcase across the huge town square (Rynek) at 10:30pm, with the Cloth Hall, church, and other structures looming in the lights of the pubs and restaurants. At right is St. Mary's, which dwarfs the houses surrounding it.

My brother and other discerning travelers may turn their noses up at Krakow and its plethora of tourists, but it's nothing compared to NYC or Paris. Granted that RyanAir and other budget flights have brought in many fine young gentlemen from Britain looking for a cheap drunken weekend, it's still a gorgeous historical city with a fine museum, the Czartoryski (a noble family's private collection, kind of like the Frick or Morgan in NYC), that holds Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine. It also used to have a famous Raphael portrait of a young man, but it vanished during WWII and has never been seen since.

As you run around the streets of the old quarter, you find pubs, restaurants, clubs, hotels, shops... I don't know where the Krakovians live, but probably not many live in the old city. Still, I saw many elderly Krakovians enjoying a leisurely ice cream topped with mounds of whipped cream when I stopped into the Naber Cafe one afternoon. I had a luscious kremowka, which was pretty much a thick layer of puff pastry, an inch and a half of delicious light vanilla pastry cream, and another pastry layer on top. The old ladies covertly watched this strange Asian tourist girl hack away at it and decide that there was really no neat way to eat it; as an Edna Ferber character says in Dawn O'Hara, by all rights you ought to get in a bathtub to eat it, because as soon as you take a bite (or forkful, in this case), the cream all shoots out the other end.

Every street in the old quarter is charming. Here's a view of Ulica Florianska leading to the Florianska gate, the tower at the end. The kings used to enter this way on coronation day.