Thursday, 2 December 2010

Thoughts on keeping busy and other things

In San Francisco I was less at ease than I had been any of the previous cities and on Thanksgiving I realised why when I looked in a tour operator’s window. The window showed a check list of things to do that was completely ticked off and I realised that was what I was doing here. I know so many people who have visited that I kept asking them what I should do there. In the other cities I just rolled up to the hostel and took it from there, doing whatever took my fancy and I ended up in some interesting places because of it. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate all the tips that people gave after all it was me who was constantly asking “what should I do?” and it did mean that I booked my ticket to Alcatraz early which is a must but it stressed me out trying to fit everything in. So I decided to stop being so rigid and go with the flow as apparently this is much more ‘me’ than sticking to a schedule, which really I should have known by now.

I didn’t do everything suggested in the end but I did have a great time and really that was what this trip was about. Exploring and discovering places for me and there have been some interesting discoveries along the way. I now know that I am far from the only person wandering round the globe with a small stuffed toy and that said toys can brighten up the dullest of photographs. Also it made people smile, not all people but most people on seeing me place Zack in preparation for his photo would smile and often make some kind comment, so in his own small way Zack has spread the happiness he brought me with others all round the USA.

I discovered a love of photography. As a child I loved taking photographs with my 35mm camera as most children do. I seem to remember I photographed our golden retriever a lot and my friends but as I reached adolescence I lost interest in the outside world and my main pursuit was reading and later writing. I did have a brief interest in my fathers more complex camera but I had neither the patience or true inclination to learn back then. In the last few months though thanks to the wonder of digital cameras I have learnt to love photography. My Panasonic Lumix took such good point and click photos that I ended up carrying it everywhere with me and I was genuinely upset when it got knocked and stopped working. I wanted to get it repaired but was told it would be cheaper to replace it thus I ended up with my Canon Powershot. It is also a point and click but it has a better zoom and in the last month I have fallen in love with it. I was fortunate that most of the people I met where happy to wait whilst I messed around with the iso, shutter speed and aperture settings. I still have no idea what I’m doing but I do know that if I mess with various settings then I can get this or that affect and it is fantastic fun. It was an inspired purchase.

I discovered that it is hard to keep telling people exactly how I ended up quitting my job and traveling but if I spend anytime with them it is easier to tell them than not. Previously I had only told other widders and before last month most of my new friends were in similar situations so telling non-widders was a little weird but people took it in their own ways and never made me feel bad for what I was. Some accepted it and moved on, some asked one or two questions before letting it go, a few hugged me and one interviewed me. So I got all ranges of responses and not one of them interfered with the friendships I made. Some would say it’s not their business but if I well, someone who puts her life in a blog for all the world to see is hardly going to shy away from it for long is she?

Did I find me? Not really. Like everyone else I’m a work in progress. Writing this blog makes me think. Knowing that I had an interested audience made me really look at the places I visited and photographing them showed me how I wanted others to see them. Sharing my random inner thought helps me work through them. I don’t pick a topic then write these posts I just type when the mood takes me and blurt out whatever is in my head, scary huh? Most of all it had been nice to know that people are interested, that they care and that I can repay that in some way with my words. So thank you for sharing my USA trip; it’s been nice having the company and I hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I have enjoyed writing about it.

My Last USA Weekend

During my time in the USA I have been very fortunate weather-wise so I won’t complain that it on my last Saturday there that it rained, and it rained a lot! Of all the days for it to rain that was a good one for me but not for some of my friends who were visiting Alcatraz, I felt for them as I had been more fortunate with my weather. I decided to spend my day exploring two of San Francisco’s art museums. My first stop was the de Young museum where I was fortunate enough to see the post impressionist exhibition. The exhibition was from the the Musée d’Orsay’s permanent collection ans is making a rare tour due to the partial closure of the Musée d’Orsay’s for refurbishment. I purchased the audio tour which gave descriptions of the histories and techniques used of selected paintings as well as the histories of the artists lives and how their styles developed, I only wish I could remember at least half of it. My other issue was the space. I felt that the paintings were too crowded together. There were so many people crammed in to the small space that it was difficult to appreciate the art from afar; which made the works of Monet and Seurat particularly difficult to fully appreciate.  Despite the crowded conditions it was worth seeing and I went round a second time without the audio guide so I could see the paintings I had missed the first time and re-visit my favourites briefly before moving on. Outside of the exhibit the de Young has an extensive collection separated in to three main exhibitions. The first was African art which seemed to consist mostly of ceremonial masks and pottery such as jugs, incense burners and ceremonial statues. The Second exhibit was art from the Americas. This had ivory and glass work along with more pottery showcased the craftsmanship of different cultures and beliefs such as the Native American and Inuit from pre-Spanish settlement times. The final exhibition covered art from modern America including paintings, sculptures and furniture from the 1800’s onwards. Whilst wandering through these more modern exhibits I viewed a cathedral made of guns and ammunition to highlight the violence associated with organised religion which was impressive but once more it was the softer abstracts and impressionist landscapes that held my attention the longest.  There was an impressive variety of styles and types of art on show and it was worth the visit however I would make sure to eat well before I went the next time. Being me I was running late and to give myself the maximum time in the museum of modern art I decided to get a sandwich from the museum cafe so I could eat it on the way to the bus. $17 for a sandwich, juice and a cookie!!!! It was obvious there was no competition there. With the rain having stopped I ate my extraordinarily expensive sandwich in the gardens outside before heading to the next museum.

I had heard about the Exposed and Wine exhibits currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art but what I hadn’t realised was the extensiveness of their photography collection. This museum was one of the first museums to recognise photography as a fine art and it’s fair to say I was in heaven. During this trip I have discovered a real love of photography, the fact you can capture a scene and use the camera to show the world how you see it. I have no delusions (well when sober I don’t anyway); I know I am strictly a tourist photographer so to see the work of professionals who seem to know just how to convey how they see a scene was absolutely amazing. The Exposed exhibition was subtitled voyeurism, surveillance, and the camera since 1870and showed the evolution of photography as both an art form and media tool. Some of the images were disturbingly graphic but all of them were fascinating.  Anyway, it was really, really cool. Along with their many photographs they had a wine exhibit entitled “How Wine became Modern”. The exhibition showcased examples of glassware, information about the worldwide wine growing regions and how their soil affects the taste of the grapes grown and thus wine produced there and examples of the art work used to sell the wines. It was a fun exhibit. They also had some paintings and sculptures and really I could have spent a whole day there but the museum closed so I had to leave. Inspired by my day of art I stopped a few times on the way back to the hostel and take some ‘arty’ shots. As always they never look on the screen the way they do in my mind but it was still al lot of fun.

I’m afraid to report my cultured day ended on a more plebeian note. I had a quick and cheap pasta dinner before going on a pub crawl organised by the hostel. It was fun, lots of fun. The measures there were huge, after one drink I was tipsy, after two.... well at the third bar I cheated and had sprite! I had to or I would never have lasted the night out. Even though the club we finished the crawl at was not my usual style it turned out to be fun. It was crowded though so a few of headed back early but on the way found this lovely little bar called Fly which was the nicest bar I visited whilst in San Francisco. Time was moving on as it inevitably does so it really was one for the road then on to the diner across from hostel where I had not pizza but a chilli dog, perfect end-of-a-night-out food.

Not deterred by our hangovers and lack of sleep it was an early start for my friend and I as we took our travelling companions Piglet and Zack on a play date to the Exploratorium. The Exploratorium is a place for kids to experience science hands on but we were far from the only childless people playing there. There was a lot of funky exhibits and I was glad I had company, as not only were there a few exhibits requiring two people it was more fun messing about with a friend. Also, though I am perfectly happy in my own company and enjoy exploring places on my own this is one place where I think I would have felt conspicuous and out of place if I had gone on my own. I am happy to report that Piglet and Zack got on well and also had fun. We managed to make a bridge of metal filing between two magnets for Zack to sit on, get a motion stop photo of Piglet and a few photos of the two of them playing together on the exhibits. I am constantly impressed by how the museums here try to engage the children who visit but the Exploratorium was something else. Play time over we headed to Fishermans Wharf for a clam chowder bread bowl and a rest. A leisurely wander through Chinatown and I thought that I had managed the perfect end to my trip but there was more yet to come. Knowing that I had a long trip ahead of me even though I wasn’t particularly hungry I left my hostel for the last time as a guest and went to the Cheesecake Factory. Wow. I had an appetizer of crabcakes which were tasty enough but the cheesecake, wow. My lemon raspberry cream cheesecake  was light and fluffy and exactly what was looking for and the tastiest desert I have ever had until I tasted my friends chocolate raspberry truffle cheesecake. There are no words, it took me over a minute to finish my one bite as I didn’t want it to end. It was divine. I couldn’t have eaten a whole slice so I was glad I had chosen the one I did but, wow. It was that good.  Did I say wow yet?! To top the day off we had a fabulous view of Union Square at night with its Christmas tree lit up and skaters going round the outdoor rink. It really was a great end to an amazing trip and, yup you guessed it, I didn’t want to leave! Fast forward to 4am the next morning and I left the hostel and for the last time for my final journey and destination: home. San Francisco is a great city to visit, I would happily go there over and over and I am glad I decided to end my trip there. Now it’s home time and back to reality, I wonder where I left my winter clothes?

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wine Country

Friday was my winery tour day. The small bus picked me up at the hostel and seven other guests from nearby hotels, including two Scots! They were both living in the USA but they sounded like they had just arrived even though that wasn’t the case. The other five were Americans from Boston and Texas and the small group were friendly and easy to talk to. We started our tour in Sonoma and our first stop the Viansa winery which has beautiful grounds but I was underwhelmed once inside the winery. The tour had not been cheap and I questioned the value of it during the first tasting. At the bar I was pointed to a wine list much like you would find in any restaurant as opposed to the detailed descriptions I received at the vineyards in Virginia. The staff behind the bar were very pleasant and helpful to the American tasters but mush less so with myself. I felt that since I was unable to purchase repeated cases I was just a nuisance which, considering there was a while shop behind me with merchandise and that I was part of a tour was rather short sighted. I was slightly more impressed with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting they were also running, the staff there were more helpful and my sunnier mood of earlier quickly returned. I did contemplate purchasing some unusual oils but decided to wait and see what the other places had on offer. I will admit that the desert wine was one of the few I’ve tasted which I felt I could drink more of but the whites were too sweet and the reds had too much of a tannin aftertaste for my liking. The next winery was called Cline located across the road from our first stop. At Cline we had a private session where the basics of of wine tasting were explained to us and we were given 4 wines to taste initially then asked if there were any other on their menu that we particularly wanted to try. As each wine was poured we learned a little about it and our guide was helpful and friendly, nicely refreshing after my first experience. I was even able to take a photograph of my highland cow with my favourite wine from the tasting. Again I found the reds had that tannin aftertaste but they were a definite improvement on the first tasting and I was pleasantly intrigued by their red Zinfandel wines. However it was the Viognier that really appealed to me; if I ever moved to the states I would be sure to look it out and I will keep a lookout for it on any future travels. The Cline grounds were beautiful and this winery had the added attraction of housing models of each of the twenty one missions built along El Camino Real (The Royal Road) which starts in San Diego and ends in Sonoma where the town square now stands. Our morning tastings over we were taken to the home of the twenty first mission for lunch and a wander around the town square that it is now part of. It may be small but Sonoma has an interesting variety of shops so it was easy to fill in the time there after lunch before we headed to Napa Valley.

In Napa we only had one stop to make but what a stop. We were given a brief tour of the Domain Chandon winery and our guide explained how they make sparkling wines. The guide was pleasant and entertaining and after the tour he took us to a private area for some tasting. Well I say tasting but in reality we were given more than the usual tastes worth, the advantage of being in a small group I assume. I learnt amongst other things that champagne and sparkling wines are made using the same three varieties of grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier) and that in California only wines that at contain more than 70% of a grape are allowed to use the name of that grape on the bottle. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try their sparkling red wine during our tasting and I felt a little too tipsy to purchase a taste at their public tasting area. We were able to taste their Brut Classic, Blanc De Niors, Pinot Nior Brut and Extra-Dry Riche and surprised myself by enjoying the sweeter taste of the extra-dry riche having always preferred the brut classics in the past.

And so ended my day of tasting (but not drinking) wine. On the way from San Francisco our bus driver had kept us entertained with some facts along the way but on the way home he was less of a guide and more chatty asking us all various questions including a fair few about various types of whiskey. I think he was vaguely amused with my idea of opening a Scottish whiskey shop in the middle of wine country.

Back at the hostel I decided to try the internet and found one of my new friends from the Thanksgiving meal already there. Our timing was superb as not long after I arrived so did a hostel employee with cheese and wine. I have just about sobered up but a wee glass of red soon had me happy again! We got chatting with another traveller who turned out to be my newest roommate and the three of us, along with my Canadian friend from Alcatraz, ended up going for pizza before trying out the Gold Dust lounge on the street parallel to our hostel. The music was pretty good and the melon ball cocktail very tasty but after a long day of wine drinking it was another fairly early night for me. Still, it was a good end to a fun and informative day; I have even more wines to add to my ever growing ‘preferred’ list.

Monday, 29 November 2010

So much to do, so little time

So much to do, so little time has been the recurring theme on my mini tour. There isn't one place I have been that wouldn't have been happy to spend 'just one more day' and that I wouldn't love to revisit and San Francisco was no different. 

On the Wednesady I visited Alcartraz and the “Crookedest street” as these were the top two things that came up in the suggestions by folks back home after my requests for things to do in San Francisco. Alcartraz was fabulous. I took the audio tour and it was really interesting to hear the inmates and wardens recollections as I wandered around the cell block. The views outside were stunning and I wish I would have loved to have taken the time to really play with my camera and capture them but I fear it was beyond both my camera and my own capabilities. I did get some great shots on the island though. The cell blocks were the perfect setting for some black and white shots and outside it was great to return to colour in an attempt to showcase the plant and animal sanctuary that the rock has become. Just to be different I stopped to view the introductory video at the end of our visit and so ended with a potted history of the island. I also made a new friend, a Canadian this time, on the ferry over so there are some photos of me on the Rock as well as Zack.

Back on the main land my Canadian friend and I headed to Pier 23 for some lunch at a diner that had been on the TV program he had see. My fresh monkfish served on ratatouille with sourdough bread in was very tasty, it was an excellent recommendation. We considered visiting the home of the Mythbusters but decided that as we were unlikely to actually see them and time was getting on to give it a miss, I am sure my Canadian friend will make the time during his visit to go see them though and I hope he finds them in. Instead we headed to Lombard Street to view the road the takes eight turns in one block. The road itself was at the top of a steep hill which we walked up having gotten on the lower cable car. I’m didn’t really get the attraction of the twisty street (sorry folks) but I did love the views and once more gave my camera a work out. I even managed to get a few of Zack before the upper cable car came along to take us back to the downtown area.

Now in the different cities I have visited I have bought art, jewellery, a book of play scripts, a cd and more so in San Francisco I of course went to Macy’s and bought jeans, and very reasonable they were to. Necessary shopping trip over it was on to Chinatown for a meal in the Cathy House which I am happy to say was much tastier than the local Cathy Cuisine restaurant back home. We took the time to enjoy a quick hot chocolate on our way back to our respective hotels but didn't linger long in Chinatown as my friend had an early start the next day. Back at the hostel I managed to stay online all evening and was happy to catch up with folks back home once more and less happy to start sorting through my many photos from the day, I really must learn some camera restraint.

Thursday was Thanksgiving. I had a lazy morning then invited myself to travel to the hostels thanksgiving lunch with some fellow backpackers as it was being held at a sister hostel and they seemed to know where they were going and how to get there. The food was actually rather tasty and I can safely say I approve of Happy Turkey Day. I ate far more that I should have and had one and a half deserts including a very cinnamony pumpkin pie. Stuffed full it was time to catch a cable car back to the hostel and go our separate ways for a while to recover from our turkey feast. In the evening we met up and for a few drinks in an Irish bar across the street from our hostel. The drinks we ok and the bar was crowded but for me it was worth the visit as the fries they served were actually ‘proper’ chips and cooked to perfection. Not overly impressed with the bar itself we decided to pick up a few drinks and head back to the hostel to end our evening with random chat and in my case some Californian wine and yet more picture taking. My evening ended with me finally posting on facebook something I was thankful for: my pink toothbrush as given to me by my LA friend to replace the one I had to throw out in New Orleans. Which goes to prove you can have Happy Turkey Day and enjoy it no matter what nationality you are.


Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Why Does It Always Rain On Me?

Maybe it’s because I am Scottish, it might be because we’re approaching a holiday over here or it could just be that it’s November whatever the reason I woke up to rain this morning. Not gentle refreshing light raindrops but bouncing off the pavement soaks you in a heartbeat rain. Thankfully it soon eased off and I was able to head out with my trusty umbrella (as if I would travel without one) in search of an internet cafe. Yup folks once again the hostel internet had let me down. I suppose though I should back up a bit as by this time I had been in the city for over 12 hours.

I arrived after a quicker than expected Grayhound ride due to being moved to the express bus as mine was full which sounds good until you learn that it left LA two and a half hours later than my original bus. I got in to San Francisco a whole 20 minutes earlier than expected. The journey itself was much the same as previous trips though it was nice to not have to change buses and I was kept entertained by a slightly off the wall American who thought the fact I was Scottish was cool, yes he did ask about haggis because they always do. For the first time had to call a cab to get me to the hostel, well it was 8:20pm so that was expected at least. On arrival I was impressed with the hostel. It’s in a cool old hotel building, the location is excellent, the rooms are clean and I have no hesitation about using the bedding provided. My room sleeps four and there were two other people there when I booked in. The lady who was in the bunk below me was very nice and I never the met the girl in the other bunk and she had left by the time I returned this evening.  Having made my bed and introduced myself I went in search of food and found a funky diner close by where I could get some pretty simple but tasty food. It was once I arrived back at the hostel that I found I was unable to log on to the internet. I hate not being able to get online when I get to a new place it makes me feel all lost and disconnected but technology will misbehave no matter where we are or what we do. Which leads me nicely back to my first morning.

Still offline in the hostel there was nothing for it but to search out a local internet cafe, before I could get online though I stumbled upon tourist information. Here I found out where the hop on hop off tours boarded and got a seven day passport for the public transport system and wonders of wonders a map, yay! On my way to the tour bus stop I had a midmorning snack at Starbucks and I was able to send my e-mails back home in an attempt to arrange my social life for December, one has to think ahead you know. By now the rain had stopped and by the time the bus arrived the seats upstairs were dry enough to sit on for those of use brave (i.e. stupid) enough to risk the weather. During the tour I was able to take some photos though I fear they will not be up to my usual standard due to the fact my hands were freezing and the camera was a bit more shaky than usual: note to self remember gloves tomorrow. It was interesting to hear some of the history and I got some great view but it was so cold that when we pulled up at the California Academy of Sciences I decided to visit it to get some warmth and I am glad I did. At first I thought it was just another museum but I soon realised it was much more. Inside they had a rainforest habitat, a planetarium, an aquarium and some other cool exhibits including an innovative living roof; my only complaint was the number of children there. I have been spoilt in other cities by visiting at quiet times but I guess with Thanksgiving coming up the schools are all treating the kids to educational days out. After a couple of hours of dodging kids I headed back to the bus and on the Golden Gate Bridge. Here is a handy tip for you: Do Not ride over the bridge on the top of an open top tour bus in November. It was rather windy and I have no idea what the commentary was saying. I have resolved to do the complete loop tomorrow afternoon after my visit to Alcatraz so I can hear it all from the comfort of the enclosed lower level of the bus. Having seen and been on the bridge we headed to Fishermans Wharf where I headed straight to Boudin’s for a rather tasty club sandwich accompanied by some Californian wine, well it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? After a quick look at the nearby shops it was back on the bus which handily stops just down from my hostel.

It was on returning to the hostel and its working internet I realised that maybe a not working internet is a good thing. I have now booked myself tickets to an art exhibition at the de Young museum on Saturday at midday and a comedy night at the Purple Onion on Saturday night. Well I figured it beat sitting around the hostel fighting with the internet. Add these to my visit to Alcatraz tomorrow followed by my bus tour and my Napa wine tour on Friday and it’s shaping up to be another busy city.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Westwood to Hollywood

Well technically Calderwood to Washington to Charlottesville to Nashville to New Orleans to LA to Hollywood but that doesn’t sound quiet so snappy. My first day in LA was lovely and relaxing. We had lunch at a 50’s style diner where we were served by a friend of my friend and it was at this point I discovered that there are an awful lot of English people here! It must be the weather. In the afternoon I caught up online having been denied reliable internet for over a week. In the evening I went with my friend to her work in Malibu. She looks after two lovely kids, a quiet little boy and a very chatty little girl who decided asking me lots of questions was an excellent way to avoid her homework. Whilst there I booked some tickets for us to see the Getty Villa in Malibu on Friday and a ticket for myself to see Alcatraz the following week.

Friday was a much busier day, in the morning I had to do some laundry but despite that we were soon on our way out. We headed straight to Hollywood Boulevard to have a quick look at some of the stars on the walk of fame and the Grauman's Chinese Theatre to see the celebrity handprints, footprints, and autographs. My travelling cowpanion Zack enjoyed having his photo taken on some of the stars and slabs until someone selling tours stepped on him! He survived the experience but we soon decided to head to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. Once there it was a different experience for Zack as he was introduced to our waiter who shook his paw which made Zack feel much better, especially after being stepped on. Lunch was very tasty and it was fun to look at the celebrity memorabilia. After lunch it was back to the car so we could head to the hills. After a long and twisty drive upwards we found an excellent view point overlooking Hollywood and under the Hollywood sign. Many photographs later and we headed back down the hill to Rodeo Drive, a place where every shop was out of my league but ever so pretty to look at. Our day of playing tourist successfully completed it was back home for a wee rest before heading out to Wokcano in Santa Monica for their happy hour, cheap but tasty Japanese bites and a nice glass of chardonnay. With my body still two hours ahead we didn’t stay long but my friend was kind enough to stop on the way home so we could get some frozen yogurt, I will miss the frozen yogurt when I go home!

Saturday was a lazy morning including a late breakfast at a local cafe where I had some lovely French toast and fruit. After a quick trip to the local post office it was on to the Getty Villa for some art. The villa itself was actually pretty impressive. J.P. Getty wanted the artefacts he acquired to be shown in the setting they were designed for. The artefacts themselves were interesting enough but there are only so many jugs and statues of gods that I can look at as they really aren’t my thing. The villa and the gardens were good though and I am glad we went as it was interesting to hear the story behind the collection. I also realised how attached I have become to my camera. I forgot it and borrowed my friend’s which was pretty good but I missed my own which I have spent the last three weeks getting to know. Thankfully when we returned home her extremely cute dog provided me with some excellent opportunities to play with my own camera once more. Our evening ended with some pizza, wine and a sing-a-long with Grease on the TV, who says widows don’t know how to have fun?!

Sunday we went to Universal Studios, it was awesome fun. We went on all the rides, saw Shrek in 4-D and some of the animal actors in their own stage show and took a studio tour. Even on the tour we weren’t safe as it seemed at every turn they were shooting water at us from somewhere! It was quite simply a day of fun and I think all Mallrats fans will appreciate my humour at seeing Jaws pop out of the water during the tour. It was pretty neat to see the outdoor facades which are used in films and series such as CSI, NCIS and Quantum Leap and some famous vehicles, including one of the crafts used in my favourite film Serenity. I even managed to get my photo taken with Sponge Bob and the Doc from the Back to the Future.  It was an action packed day and a fabulous end to my LA visit.

I really enjoy travelling on my own and meeting random people but it has been great fun to spend a few days with a friend doing some tourist things during the day and chilling out at night with good company in front of the TV.