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Vamos a la playa [Apr. 9th, 2004|08:43 pm]
world traveller
This time tomorrow I will be drinking margaritas in Acapulco, then on to a friend's 3 day party in Oaxaca. You are spared from my posts for a week.
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What's Wrong with this Picture? [Apr. 7th, 2004|03:03 pm]
world traveller
[mood |amusedamused]

We all know that game from younger days: look at a picture and find the item that just doesn't belong. The surrealists took it to its extreme, with lobster claws sitting on telephones and other incongruities. At lunch today, What's Wrong with this Picture came to life at Lever House, an ultra-stylish new restaurant in the modernist icon Lever House building on Park Avenue. The building has been described as "A seminal work of Modernist architecture...Lever House redefined not only Park Avenue and corporate architecture, but also much of urban planning."

Modernism, urban planning - that's serious and sophisticated stuff. The lunchtime scene was full of serious, well-dressed businesspeople, with the occasional gorgeous model-type thrown in for visual stimulus, when in march The Olsen Twins (with entourage). Somehow all of New York City seems like it should be an Olsen Twin-free zone, but their presence in this restaurant seemed especially silly. The waifs looked very tired and grungy, as if they were test marketing heroin-chic as part of their attempt to keep their market share as their former fans get older. Their depressive ennui was constant, even as they examined the incoming messages on their Blackberrys. I wondered who might be e-mailing the Olsen Twins? Adoring fans? K-Mart executives? Their boyfriends? Do they have boyfriends? Are their boyfriends twins also? I could picture the Olsen Twins dating Hanson, can't you? Between sips of chardonnay, I tried to imagine how it feels to be a real person who is depicted as a cartoon character? So many questions, so few answers. The Olsen Twins: enigmas wrapped in a mystery.

My friend, who had pointed them out to me, seemed unable to stop looking over at their nearby table. He's visiting from Boston, where they apparently don't have stars of this caliber available for public viewing. The lunch itself was obscenely expensive ($600 for 5 people with 1 bottle of wine), but factoring in the rare experience of watching meaningless celebrity in action, it was fully worth the price.
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Necrophilia [Apr. 7th, 2004|08:35 am]
world traveller
[mood |contentcontent]
[music |The Smiths - Cemetery Gates]

I'm a pretty upbeat guy, maybe a bit jaded and ironic, but overall a glass half-full person. When I tell people I like to go for strolls in cemeteries, I often get strange looks. But where else can you find a true oasis of peace and quiet within a loud and hectic city? Unfortunately, Manhattan doesn't have much to offer in terms of resting-in-peace. The only real cemetery I can think of that is accessible to someone working in the city is at St. Paul's Church, across from the World Trade Center site. It's too small to offer real peace and quiet, being less than the size of a city block. But it's a good introduction to Americans who aren't familiar with the charms of cemeteries. It has a real sense of real lived history that few other places in the US have, with half sunken gravestones, some of which are completely unreadable, others written in true old fashioned English, with skulls and crossbones and other 18th century symbols of death.

After becoming acclimated with the idea of wandering through a historic cemetery, the true destination has to be Europe. Budapest, Vienna, East Berlin, all have huge and magnificent burial places filled with ornate memorials to the bourgeoisie of the 19th century, decorated with statues of weeping angels in all shapes and sizes. I remember walking in the snow through Budapest's central cemetery with no other living person to be seen in the place. Where else can you be in the middle of a major city and hear nothing but the sound of falling snowflakes? There are many others I can recommmend: Pere Lechaise in Paris; Highgate in London; Vienna's Zentralfriedhof; the small cemetery in Bonn, Germany where the composer Robert Schumann can be found; and the Imperial Tombs in the basement of a church in Vienna.

Last week I got to visit one other site which isn't a cemetery, but which does let one stand over the last resting places of major historical figures and ponder the meaning of one's own life: Westminster Abbey. Of all the various monuments and markers, the one that moved me the most was Handel's. Music from the Messiah, which I have performed in several choirs, came into my head, as if Handel was speaking to me from the great beyond. That is about as close to immortality as a person can get, and at that moment I envied Handel. Performing a work like The Messiah together with dozens of other singers and musicians all in synch with each other was one of the most uplifting and transcendental experiences I have ever had, and I was not only envious of Handel but also grateful to him for the music he left us with.
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The World's Greatest City [Apr. 1st, 2004|05:29 pm]
world traveller
[mood |Analytic]
[music |The Beatles - Paperback Writer]

Sometimes, self-proclaimed greatness is true (Mohammed Ali); more often, such claims are not (Donald Trump, Michael Jackson). The same applies to cities. Cities of course cannot speak for themselves, so they tend to have boosters pointing out their superlatives. New York City was regularly described as the "world’s greatest city" by then-Mayor Giuliani. London’s voice of hyperbole isn’t an actual person, it’s a magazine: Time Out London. The cover of this week’s issue of TOL yet again proclaims London to be “the greatest city in the world”, as virtually every single Time Out publication on London repeatedly does. This bragging raises the question whether any city can be called the greatest, and if so, what criteria can be used to bestow this title. It also raises the question whether a city that is really the greatest would need to keep proclaiming it all the time. Sounds like an inferiority complex masquerading as a superiority complex to me.

Claimants to greatness generally have to combine a ridiculous excess of everything that makes up a great city: size and diversity of population, business and finance, politics, culture, educational institutions, cuisine, fashion, nightlife, media, etc. To be the world’s greatest city, it is essential to have a dominant influence over the trends that ultimately make their way around the world. Based on all of these factors, I can think of four cities that possibly meet these standards: New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. Paris gets disqualified due to its unimportance as a global business and financial center, and the limited global reach of its French-language media. Tokyo may currently be the world’s hippest major city, but it doesn’t win as the world’s greatest city because of the limited population diversity and the fact that virtually no one outside of Japan speaks Japanese. So that leaves New York and London as contenders.

I have lived and worked in both cities during the past decade and think that I’m a good judge of their respective merits. I wasn’t born in either place, so I don’t have a native’s biases. I’ve spent time in both as a relatively poor student, and spent even more time in both as a relatively successful business dude, so I've seen them from all sides. I’ve spent the past week in London and will return soon to NYC. So I think I have the credentials to determine which of these really is the world’s greatest city. Here are some of my initial thoughts; more to come:

Cuisine: It’s not true that the food stinks in London. It only stinks if you’re not filthy rich or on expenses. That rules out 95% of the people in London, for whom the food does stink, with a few exceptions:
1. If you like to eat sandwiches for lunch every day, London is awesome.
2. If you like to eat Indian food for dinner every night, London is nirvana.
3. If you, like most Brits I know, skip dinner every night because you go from work to the pub, drink too much and eat a couple of bags of chips (crisps to the Brits), then London’s food is just fine.
4. If you manage to track down and get a seat in one of London’s several gastropubs, you just may have a well-prepared meal that doesn’t cost and arm and a leg.
Everyone else is bound to be disappointed. On the other hand, anyone who has spent any time in New York knows how amazing the food is there, at every price level, from street food up to five star restaurants, so I won’t bore you with the details. New York wins the food category.

Nightlife: For me, nightlife takes place at night. Night usually starts when it gets dark and ends when it gets light. Assuming it gets dark on average at 6pm, the peak of nightlife should occur around midnight. Unfortunately, at midnight in London the pubs have already been closed for an hour, all the bars and clubs that are still open have horrendous lines ("queues") in front, and the tube is about to close down for the night. Granted, the places that are open after 11pm are pretty cool, but there are just too many obstacles to overcome, they're just not accessible enough. So New York wins this category too (smokers may disagree).

Culture: This is where London is a real contender. I think London’s contemporary music scene is more diverse than New York’s. The Brits discover happening US bands before the US does, and the Brits are so passionate about contemporary music. London has an amazing classical music scene, great museums, excellent opera (except when they’re firing overweight sopranos). London's National Theatre is a treasure and is excellent enough on its own to beat New York when it comes to theatre. London is weak on modern dance and especially jazz as compared to New York. London seems to have more cinemas showing artsy or classic films. So I’d give London a slight edge on culture. However, one cultural product that is terrible in London is paperback books. They cost the same as in the US, especially given the current exchange rate, but they are printed on deeply inferior acidic paper that turns yellow within a year or two. Dear sir or madam, if you plan on building a lasting paperback library, don’t buy the books in the UK.

So far it’s 2-1 in favor of New York. More to come.
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Pret a Manger [Mar. 31st, 2004|06:16 am]
world traveller
[mood |annoyedannoyed]
[music |Scissor Sisters - Comfortably Numb]

Does anyone out there ever eat at Pret a Manger in NYC? I'm wondering how well British sandwiches are doing with New Yorkers. I'm in London right now and the first thing I eat every time I get here is a Coronation Chicken sandwich from Pret a Manger (part owned by McDonald's in case you didn't know). And yet I would never think of eating a Pret sandwich for lunch in NYC, given all the choices. But here in London you are in big trouble if you want lunch and don't like sandwiches. It's amazing how little choice there is for lunch in London (I lived and worked here for 2 years so I unfortunately know). You can have a sandwich from Pret, or a sandwich from EAT, or a sandwich from Costa, or a sandwich from Starbucks, or a sandwich from Marks & Spencer, or from Sainsbury's, or about 20 other chain places I could name. They all look pretty much the same and while I find Pret sandwiches taste the best, after a couple of days here you can't even eat another one of those. You're pretty much out of luck if you work in London and want something warm and cheap and take-outable for lunch besides McDonalds. No pizza slices, no falafel and kebab carts, no Ho-Yip's, no burrito places, no Teriyaki Boy, no pick-your-own salads like at Cafe Metro, not even warm sandwiches like you'd get at 'wichcraft or 'ino. At least not in the City of London, Fleet Street area, or any of the other places where people work in offices. You get my point. London is a great city in so many ways but someone has to overthrow the dictatorship of the sandwich here. New Yorkers, be thankful for all of the food diversity we have.
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Hangovers [Mar. 30th, 2004|05:42 am]
world traveller
[mood |groggygroggy]
[music |Oliver Nelson - Blues O'Mighty]

Anyone out there have a good hangover cure? I was tempted to get one of those bacon club sandwiches that they sell everywhere here in London (Pret a Manger, EAT, Sainsbury Local, Marks & Spencer, the list of sandwich emporia is endless in this town). However, the thought of all that mayo made the hangover worse. It must have been that Hungarian Tokaji dessert wine...
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7 Deadly Sins [Mar. 29th, 2004|10:02 am]
world traveller
[mood |Jet Lagged]
[music |Marvin Gaye - The World is Rated X]

Lust. Anger. Gluttony. Sloth. Envy. Pride. Greed.

There's a new series of books that cover each of these, one sin per book. All the books are about the same size, even though some of these sins are obviously more readable than the others. The word sin has a biblical connotation that I, as a non-believer in the old and new testaments, reject. Does that mean I grant myself a license to engage in all of them? There are some I try harder to control than others. I have a favorite sin (lust) and a least favorite (envy) and I try hard to avoid the latter but not the former. I hate myself whenever I feel the slightest tinge of envy for anyone, because it grants them victory. For the past week I've been full of gluttony, thinking about and seeking out all of the tremendous food in NYC. Maybe it's the spring weather that makes it more inviting to walk around ogling food. But I'm never really slothful. So here's my ranking of the sins in order of frequency I experience them: Gluttony. Lust. Anger. Pride. Greed. Envy. Sloth.

Hey everyone out there, describe your favorite deadly sin.

At this moment, sitting in the 2 square foot space allotted me by Continental Airlines on my way to London, I don't really feel any of these sins. Is it perhaps because I just woke up after 3 hours of cramped sleep? How much unbridled desire can one feel in this situation? I'm not guttonous for the soggy croissant they just served, I'm not lustful for the dude sitting next to me. Maybe I'm greedy for more legroom, but I wouldn't call that a sin. In fact, sitting in a tight space on a plane can be very liberating. There's a minimum of distractions. A book which I'm too tired to read, an MP3 player, that's it. No work, no internet, no tv, no cell phone, no obligations to anyone for 7 or 8 hours. Just a seat, a window and clouds. How often do we have that freedom?
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Love/Hate [Mar. 27th, 2004|08:30 am]
world traveller
[mood |relaxedrelaxed]
[music |Charlie Hunter Quartet - Lively Up Yourself]

What I hate: Forced exposure to broadcast chatter and commercials. The constant background noise of CNN Airport Network. Sitting in a taxi while the driver cranks up the windbags of talk radio. TV screens in elevators and supermarkets. Commercials squeezed between the trailers in movie theaters. I even once bought gas at a station in St. Louis that had tv screens built into the gas pumps showing nothing but commercials. Is there no refuge from the noise pollution of screens talking at us? Monitors and messages and manipulative chatter pouring from more and more outlets, drowning out our conversations, thoughts and peace of mind. Orwellian, no?

What I love: Grand Central Station. Its vibrancy and beauty. Grand Central Station is bustling and hectic, and around rush hour it is maddening to make your way through all the crowds. And yet all the sounds of all the people merge into a beautifully soothing white noise echoing off of the shiny marble walls and the star-studded ceiling. That's the music of real life, not the noise of media conglomerates force-feeding you their messages. Grand Central is a very democratic, open space - admission is free, you can come and go as you please, you don't have to buy anything, you can sit in the food hall for as long as you want. But it is also an aesthetic pleasure, beautiful to look at and listen to, to gaze at the constellations on the ceiling.

There was a time when public spaces were built to inspire and be used by all, before privately-owned enclosed malls became the main meeting place for Americans. Grand Central Station, Central Park, Union Square: these are the types of public spaces and meeting places that we need throughout this country, where we can interact with real live people instead of passively watching and hearing fabricated representations of "real" people on screens.
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Christo comes to Central Park [Mar. 26th, 2004|04:24 pm]
world traveller
[mood |creative]
[music |Miles Davis Quintet - Workin']

Of the billions of people living on this planet, probably only several thousand make their living as artists. And of those several thousand, only a handful really make a lasting mark and gain widespread fame. And even those famous few often have to struggle with bureaucracy, ignorance and resistance to change when trying to obtain approval for a large-scale public work. But the persistence of visionary artists is amazing and inspiring. One example is the many years it took architect Frank Gehry to overcome all of the hurdles he faced in his adopted city of Los Angeles and finally complete the Disney Concert Hall, which is now widely acclaimed as a masterpiece. The artist Christo needed almost 25 years to get approval for his project for New York's Central Park, The Gates. But thanks to Mayor Bloomberg (who otherwise has been very disappointing), Saturday, February 12, 2005 has now been set as the start date and I for one can't wait. Several years ago Christo "wrapped" the Reichstag building in Berlin and friends of mine who saw the result were amazed by how the building as well as the people in Berlin were magically transformed during those weeks.

A masterpiece is something that, once you've seen it, you can never imagine the world having existed without it. The Gates will only be up for 16 days, so start making your travel plans now!

Here's a description from Christo's website:
"The 7500 Gates, 16 feet (4.87 meters) high with a width varying from 6 to 18 feet (1,82 m to 5,48 meters) will follow the edges of the walkways and will be perpendicular to the selected 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park. Free hanging saffron colored fabric panels suspended from the horizontal top part of the gates will come down to approximately 7 feet ( 2,13 meters) above the ground. The gates will be spaced at 10 to 15 foot (3 to 4.5 meter) intervals allowing the synthetic woven panels to wave horizontally towards the next gate and be seen from far away through the leafless branches of the trees. The temporary work of art The Gates is scheduled for February 2005, to remain for 16 days, then the 7,500 Gates shall be removed and the materials will be recycled."
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Bread [Mar. 24th, 2004|10:00 pm]
world traveller
[mood |fullfull]
[music |Medeski Martin & Wood - Uninvisible]

Spring Street between Broadway and Bowery has to have the greatest concentration of flour-based eating in the world. The bread at Balthazar, the pastries (especially almond croissants) at Ceci-Cela, the pizza at Lombardi's, the panini at Bread. It's a high-carb paradise. I ate the mozzarella, basil and tomato on ciabatta at Bread today and I think it's the best sandwich I've ever had in my life.
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