Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Wait, have you seen my heart around anywhere? Oh, I know where I left it..."

On Thursday morning we bid a tearful goodbye (some of us) to Anaheim and got on a plane to Oakland. From there, we got on the BART and travelled to the heart of San Francisco. What an awesome place! We stayed in the new Intercontinental Hotel, which we got through an online deal and by sheer coincidence my parents had stayed at during their last Hymn Society sojourn. We got really lucky (again, off season) and were upgraded to a superior (or something) room, on the 22nd floor. We had an amazing view of the river and a slick and sleek hotel room. We loved it!

We walked around a little bit in the afternoon and saw the end of the cable car line, which of course is at the bottom of an enormous hill. We wanted to have one fancy dinner on our trip, and that evening we went to Millennium, a swishy vegan restaurant in the former Hotel California. We always like trying out restaurants that use all locally-grown and seasonal produce (à la Jamie Kennedy for our wedding), and this one had the special advantage of having no dairy on the menu, so for once David didn’t have to pick his way around what he could eat. My appetizer was crispy black bean fritters (they reminded me of the falafel at Mont Fort in Oakville) and the main course was a cornmeal-crusted Portobello mushroom with wilted bok choy and pomegranate seeds. It was totally delicious and very filling – definitely a place to go if you are in town.

Friday was our huge day of exploration. We started off by climbing up to the Knob Hill area, passing Union Square on the way. San Francisco is of course a very hilly place, and David and I were using leg muscles we didn’t even know we had. After scaling the first peak (parallel to a cable-car track), we found ourselves looking at a beautiful vista down another hill towards the harbour. San Francisco is like Venice in that way, though – everywhere you turn you think you've found "the" shot of the city, only to round a corner and find another great view. In this case, we were looking at the well-known Transamerica Pyramid. Keep that in mind for later.
Next we wandered (climbed) over to Grace Cathedral, a really lovely Episcopal church on Knob Hill. Mom and Dad had seen it when they were in San Francisco, and told us to go because it has replica doors identical to a set in Florence, Italy (David's hometown). Called "The Gates of Paradise," the bronze-cast plates were designed by Ghiberti, and after the original doors and this second set were made, the mould was destroyed. David noticed that the Grace doors were pretty muted, while in Florence - it being such an art history and tourism-minded city - they keep them polished up to a shine. The doors are really beautiful. It is so neat to have seen them in their two different cities.

We went inside Grace Cathedral, which, of all the large cathedrals I have been in, had the kindest, most welcoming and honest feel I have experienced. Sometimes, with large and potentially imposing structures like that, there is an attempt at telling you that all are welcome and that diversity is appreciated there, but the atmosphere of the place tells a different story. Here, there was a very genuine feeling. A feature of the cathedral is the Interfaith AIDS chapel with its altarpiece designed by artist Keith Haring. There is a prayer labyrinth on the floor of the nave, as well as outside up on the cathedral courtyard (everything in SF is "up on" something) – the outdoor one is a replica of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth.

(The organ is a 1934 125-rank Æolian-Skinner, in case any of my organist classmates are reading this. With additions made in 1974 by Casavant Frères - CanCon!)

Near the entrance of the cathedral there is a beautiful piece of art in bas relief (David can contradict me on this if he ever reads my blog) created to honour the institution of the United Nations in San Francisco (we learned something new) in 1942. It's a beautiful piece, and I wish I had taken a picture because I can't find one online.

In other news, David tells me that in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the headquarters of the Federation were in San Francisco. (Because the headquarters of an intergalactic UN would totally be on Earth. In the United States.)

Next, we wandered over towards Lombard Street, taking in the sights of various impossibly parked cars along the way. At one point I went to take a picture of a particularly slanty street and thought "it doesn't look that slanty in the camera"... only to realize I had unconsciously "straightened" the view looking through the camera!

Because of all the hills and implausibly intersecting streets, San Francisco ends up having a lot of great little nooks and crannies. We have decided we want to live there (David says there is a well-respected arts school in the area....!)

Lombard Street is awesome looking! We trekked up there and watched the cars wind their way down. I knew you'd wish you had been there so I took a video for your edification.

After that, we headed down towards the touristy marina area. [Sidebar: I remember Dennis Dewey during a workshop on Biblical Storytelling giving us an anecdote about learning the story of the Good Samaritan by heart. In learning a story, you want to create concrete, visual references for yourself to move through as you tell the story (so that it is storytelling and not memorization). The parable starts out "A man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho..." Dewey stopped there and asked how many of us had been to that part of the world. He said "if you've been there, if you've ever walked that road, you know it really is DOWN from Jerusalem to Jericho." Well, in San Francisco you really do head DOWN towards the marina.]

We stopped for a yummy breakfast at a random place with global aspirations. We asked for brown toast and the waiter said "We only have sourdough; this is San Francisco." Well, the sourdough was awesome. (P.S. we also almost got run over by a bus but don't tell our parents.)

After that tastiness, we walked all along the marina walkway (very pretty area) chatting about this and that* and bit by bit making our way towards the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. This was quite a walk, so when we got there it was really, really satisfying. We saw Alcatraz as we walked through the Fort Mason area by the water – I was surprised by how close the island is to the shore compared to what I had pictured. I really kind of thought it was out in the middle of nowhere but if you meant it you could swim to shore. Maybe I was thinking of that island they shipped Napoleon to. The second time.

They have restored an ecological feature of the area by rebuilding some nature paths that had been eroded (Andrew can correct my useless environmental language, if he ever reads my blog) and we got to walk through some nice shrubby trails winding up to the bridge.
We walked partway along the bridge and got a great view of the expanse of the city and the water. Here`s a picture of the view. See the pyramid waaaaay in the distance? (It's in the left quarter of the photo, partly behind a whiter building.) Please note that we walked from the FAR side of that tower. That's right. (And Dallasites can't believe I walk from the DART stop to First Pres... pfffff.)
Another interesting revelation was how noisy it is on the bridge! I totally hadn't thought of this when looking at so many photographic images of it, or taking it in during the opening credits of "Full House" in days gone by. The traffic whips past and there are several little rumble strips or something, which all makes it very jarring. Anyways, it was an awesome sight, especially to see the enormous support wires (wires is the wrong word; they are thicker than telephone poles) and to have such a great view of the marina and the city beyond. And the Rock. (Insert favourite Nicholas Cage quotation here).

This is a cross-section of the main cable, that spans the length of the bridge. It's made up of 27,572 small cables!

We made our way back down to get on the bus, which took us to the entrance of the marina area. From there, we hopped on a trolley car to get us back to our neck of the woods. By this time our feet were pretty tired, but as I was standing in line in a kind of daze David said "so, do you want to sit down inside the car... or stand up, outside the car?" Well of course, it had to be outside! So, we rode back over all those hills, standing on the running board of the cable car. We can't believe this is legal... but it is SO fun. Some of the hills are steep enough that as you crest them and are about to go down, the view gives you that feeling of starting to descend on a roller coaster... except this is actual traffic, and you think "uh oh." Definitely a fun way to take your life into your own hands.

After that, always fans of pub food, we enjoyed a meal at The Chieftan Irish pub, just down the block from our hotel. It was really tasty – I had shepherd's pie that was served with real Irish soda bread made from scratch (mmmmm) and an Anchor Steam, a local SF beer. The name made me nostalgic for T.O's Steam Whistle. You knew you were in California though because David on the other hand enjoyed a curried vegetable wrap, which was equally delicious.

To round off the day we relaxed (read: conked out) in our swishy hotel room and caught "Gladiator" on our mondo flatscreen TV.

The next day was a long one of multiple plane transfers – however, it all went smoothly which was excellent. We rounded it all off with a ride home in style on the DART 539 with door-to-door service to Hawk Hall. Thanks, David, for planning us such an awesome trip!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bring on Obama!

In honour of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I offer this photograph taken on 37th Street in Austin. Woe is us, under the red Republican Party the economy has plummeted... wait, here comes blue Democrat Barack Obama to save us!

The Happiest Place on Earth

Our tour of public transportation in the state of California continued when in the evening we hopped back on the subway and got a GO-train-like commuter train to the Anaheim area. From there it was a short cab ride to – cue fanfare – Disneyland! Of course, it was the evening just before closing so we were not there to go into the park, but to get our tickets in anticipation of the next morning. By this point we felt as if our feet were about to fall off! We did a lot of walking that day, and we figured out we’d taken eight different forms of transportation!

We bought our tickets – two days’ worth of Disney for David, one for me. After that, we wandered over to our hotel, a short walk away. David had picked a great spot at a nice, clean Howard Johnson – sparing us the exorbitant Disney prices but still walkable to the park! We crashed in bed, David dreaming of all the magic to come in the morning... (ha ha)

For those who don’t know David that well, with him Disney is serious business. He loves it and knows how to plan a day there. His appreciation of Disney is not really about the movies and characters, but about the carefully planned and designed space with all things carefully fitted into an overall aesthetic plan. He’s read a lot about the parks in books and following online blogs, so he knows what rides fill up fast and how to cover a lot of ground in a day at the park.

True to this, we arrived at the gates about forty minutes before the park opened. We ended up at the front of the crowd waiting for the rope to be dropped at the end of Main Street. We enjoyed taking in the general Disney-ness of it all as we waited. Main Street is very pretty and quaint (per design) and there are even real gaslights lining the sidewalk.
In case there is any doubt that we truly were THE first in line that day!

Once they dropped the rope we hurried off to the Indiana Jones ride. It’s one of the most popular rides, and a great example of the all-pervasive design of Disney. Anticipating long wait times, the makers of the ride fashioned an entire themed passageway leading up to the cars that makes you feel like you are walking through the movie. It’s like the caves at the very beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, complete with eerie Polynesian looking masks, crumbling stone walls, pinholes in the walls where darts may shoot out at any second, and caches of 1930’s-looking safari supplies. It is awesome. However, we took it in at a gallop as there was almost no line at the time. The ride is a series of Jeeps that are also motion simulators on a track, so it is part roller coaster but more rumbly thrill ride. There are many awesome effects, such as air jets that make you feel like the wall darts are firing at you, creepy projections looking like thousands of bugs crawling on the wall, a bridge that shakes and threatens to collapse, and – of course – a near miss with a giant boulder. All this to the sound of the rousing Indy music. Awesome.

After that, we made short work of Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railway (twice), Roger Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh and the Jungle Cruise. Then, we buckled our swash at Pirates of the Caribbean. Since the movie franchise hit, they have added an animatronic Johnny Depp character into the ride, complete with characteristic swagger. Also awesome.

Big Thunder Mountain Railway.

It's a Small World. It was closed for maintenance, unfortch. Note the themed construction boards.

In line for the Alice ride.

Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin, where you can spin the car around crazily as it moves through the ride. I went easy on David.

On Big Thunder Mountain - still have drops of water on us from Splash Mountain.

We took a break from adventuring to have some lunch, and in the afternoon explored Toon Town. It’s adorable! It’s amazing how they’re able to build solid structures that look cartoonlike. It’s a zany place with random fanfares and sounds popping up all over. We wandered through Mickey’s house (I played his piano) and sat in front of the town fountain. They have a Toontown sign that looks like the Hollywood sign. Pretty funny to see – we went from Tinseltown to Toontown in less than 24 hours!

Mickey maintains a properties storeroom at his house. See the broom from The Sorcerer's Apprentice?

Fill 'er up.
I need to call Mickey and get his landscaper's number.

Wandering around some more, we passed an animal pen with a single turkey in it. This turned out to be the turkey who was “pardoned” by the president in an old American tradition at Thanksgiving. There is a very funny episode of the West Wing in which Martin Sheen delegates the choosing of the turkey to Alison Janney, who then can’t deal with choosing one turkey over the other and makes him pardon both. Ha ha. Anyways, this turkey has been spared being roasted with potatoes and eaten with cranberry sauce, and is therefore considered the happiest turkey on earth... and is now living in the Happiest Place on Earth. Get it? He looked pretty satisfied... though we asked him what it was like meeting President Bush and he definitely gave us an unimpressed look.

Not too impressed with Dubya. The next turkey will be pardoned by Obama!!

We recharged a bit in the afternoon and returned in the evening to catch a few rides that had had very long waits in the busy afternoon. (However, in general this was a great, low time of year to be there. It was also neat to see the Christmas decorations still up here and there; note that one panel of "snow" has already been taken down from the roof of the castle in my first photo.) We waited a while for the very popular Finding Nemo ride, which is a really cool one in a submarine that uses ingenious projections to bring the characters to life under water. After that, we sprinted over to the Indy ride five minutes before closing to catch one more ride – we made it! A great end to a fun day.

The next day, David went back to the park and also went over to Disney’s California Adventure, the (as David says) more boring park across from Disneyland. He also spent a good part of the day taking pictures. David is in charge of the artsy shots on our trip, while I take care of the more touristy “take my picture with Mickey!” pics. Not that we did get a picture with Mickey – you had to line up and it felt a little too pilgrimage-y to the both of us. I spent the morning shopping around “Downtown Disney,” which is Disney’s attempt to sanitize a downtown shopping experience. It actually is a very nice place, and I ended up getting a new school bag at Fossil – weee!

I spent the rest of the day relaxing in our nice hotel room and David Disneyed ‘til he dropped. All in all, a great couple of days.

As we left the park at night on the first day, the buildings were all lit up with beautiful Christmas lights. Main Street especially looked very festive. As all the patrons filed out of the entrance, the engineer of the real steam locomotive that runs on an elevated track stopped the train right over the entrance. He made the engine whistle and waved to us with a big smile as we departed. Not gonna lie - it was magical.

Next stop, San Francisco!

(P.S. – consider that, all this time, we have been in a state in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is Governor. Just putting it out there.)

Me and my Disney fan!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

“Hollywood... dah dah dah dah dah dah dah Hollywood...”

David and I spent the beginning of 2009 on a wonderful trip to California! It was a packed-full week and we had an amazing time. David did a lot of research and planning ahead of time to help us get all over California without the aid of a car – ha ha. The trip ended up also being a bit of a tour of public transportation and shuttle services around the state. It all worked great!
We started off by flying into LAX and spending the afternoon in Hollywood! It was surreal to be in such a familiar place. California has a different look to it than anywhere else I’ve been. The palm trees are a notable part of that! (Instantly, the movies "Speed" and "Die Hard" made more sense.) The weather was beautiful and not too cold, and we didn’t have any rain on our trip (lucky!)

And before I go on, I would like to note that while we were on the Metro heading for Hollywood Boulevard, some local young people asked us if we knew which stop was closest to the Kodak Theatre. David helpfully informed them, correctly, which stop they wanted to get off at. At which point we had been in California for all of forty-five minutes. I love it.

We spent the afternoon wandering around Hollywood, taking in the atmosphere and staring at the Hollywood sign on the hills. It’s so strange to have seen images of it thousands of times in my life, and then to be there – whenever I see famous things like that (the Mona Lisa and the Statue of David come to mind) I sort of have to take a second and tell myself that this is the real thing.

We spent a lot of time looking down at the ground, taking in the names on the Walk of Fame. I was laughing to think that, since there are storefronts all along the walk, usually with their fronts open with the nice weather, the people who work there would always hear this one name being said out loud by people who pass by. “Leonard Nemoy!” “Hey, there’s Leonard Nemoy.” “Hey, here’s the star for Leonard Nemoy...”

We ate lunch at an institution – Mel’s Drive-In. The original location, in San Francisco, was used for the shoot of American Graffiti. That location was torn down shortly after the movie was filmed, but this one definitely pays homage to the movie with many framed photos of Ron Howard, a super-young Harrison Ford and Milner’s (ahem) bliss-yellow coupe. Most importantly, the diner served the real kind of milkshake where you get the silver cup with the extra. Aaaw David, too bad you can’t have dairy... wait, stop drinking my extra...

After that, as we walked along we explored the Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards (ooh, aah). It was so neat to stand on the sidewalk and think about how many famous, glitzy people have walked there. Not to mention Joan Rivers.

Who are you wearing???

Next, we wandered around the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and had a look at the many cement handprints and signatures. Here and on the Walk of Fame we took special note of the different CanCon additions such as Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and uh... William Shatner. I was particularly excited to note that my hand fit right inside Meryl Streep’s handprint. Clearly we are soulmates.

We popped into a drug store because David’s hair gel had been confiscated by security at the airport! That was the biggest glitch in our travels, though, so we really can’t complain. We popped into the Disney store to see about buying our tickets there, but decided to wait and get them in Anaheim. After that it was time to hop back on the subway and take a commuter train to our hotel in OC. Next stop – the happiest place on earth!

And now for some CanCon:

Last, but not least: