Salem

Way before we drove into Salem, part of the hyphenated metropolis of Winston-Salem, my mind had travelled before my body. It had daydreamed about The Salem of the witch trials. The prospect of chancing upon stories of witchcraft, swirled in my thoughts, of the detail being in the devil just as in the case of the Pendle Hill witches of Lancaster. Could the famed Lancastrian occultists have given their Salem counterparts a run for their money, who knows (it’s such tosh anyway).

In Salem the absence of the bad girls were notable. Where were they? Adi shrugged, saying: “I was hardly interested in the history of any place before you came into life, was I?” Yeah Watson, we should have headed to New England.You might be an an ace at the memory game, but my mind is a sieve, dear reader. On an important aside, there are 26 Salems in the US.

Salem of North Carolina did not have the witches of its Massachusetts namesake, but it had the Moravians. Good old people of the faith with a solid moral compass, whose single men and women lived in the Single Brothers House and the Single Sisters House, respectively. The staid nature of their lives must have been challenged by the wilderness of North Carolina in which they found themselves when they arrived here in 1766, all the way from Pennsylvania. I think of them as adventurers who built a town from nothing, because there was no Winston then. It was just Salem.

After we had left behind the tall official buildings in Winston and its modern high street along with its brick town hall, it was as if we crossed an invisible wall into another time. Old clapboard houses, brick and dark timber-framed houses turned up along a leafy street, signs of tradesmen hanging from the eaves of some.

All of this linked to an event from the early 1400s. Years before Martin Luther, there was Jan Hus in Bohemia who daring to challenge the practices of the Roman Catholic Church was naturally burnt at the stake. His followers, who called themselves the Unity of Brethren, left the land and travelled to Saxony (Germany). Some took off to England. The rest of the Moravians, as they were called in England, moved to the New World.

Now the pity is that we had to vamoose. Our end game was a secluded cabin up in the Great Smoky Mountains. Tennessee was a four-hour drive from Winston-Salem, including stops. More if you slept in a McDonald’s car park after the torpor induced by a locally brewed ale from Salem (we are hard-pressed to pass up on liquid gold). As a result, we did not have time to wander into the living history museum of Old Salem, where they have tradesmen going about their various trades, for the sake of the curious visitor. Bakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, gunsmiths, carpenters operate within the walls of Old Salem, in a bid to forget the modern world.

What we had instead was a gander at the charming architecture around us, thinking that this was the kind of town we should have seen bathed in the warm glow of gas lamps. Met a woman sauntering down the road in her old Germanic dress of embroidered bodice and waistcoat, long skirt and pinafore, her hair masked in a white cap. Somewhere from afar the clip-clop clip-clop sounds of a horse carriage reaching our ears in the tranquility of the night.

However, it was not too bad, what we ended up with. Actually no, it was nothing less than an esoteric triumph. Pumpkin muffins (oh yes, I have had my headstart on autumn) slathered (a touch too) greedily with honey butter, and a scrummy pecan pie, following Adi’s un-Moravian meal of beef burger and mine of a traditional chicken pie smothered in a thick broth. All ravished at a historic tavern where George Washington had dined during his tour of the Southern states in the spring of 1791.

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DC En Couleur

The need to craft words about the city falls away, for once you walk its wide open boulevards, there is no escaping the aura of power that envelopes it. Tangibly at that. Classic row houses lined up on broad, leafy avenues, impressive buildings of embassies and trade unions, grand hotels and saloons, followed by resplendent federal buildings and museums with their decided partiality for classical architecture, the many Ionic column, the mythological figures carved upon the facades… oh, but our senses were awash with these visions of grandeur. And all this, the conception of a Frenchman who in the late 1700s came upon a rolling landscape of hills and plantations, forests and marshes, at the confluence of two rivers. Together with the first president of the United States, Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out an architectural groundwork for the city, imparting it with unequivocal majesty, but died without receiving payment and recognition.

It’s been a long-drawn-out two hundred years and more, Monsieur L’Enfant, but maybe, just maybe, you would strut its streets with pleasure, pronouncing it Ç’est Magnifique, even as you cock an eyebrow at the girl who walks past you with her mane of flaming brilliance and air of nonchalance.

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Again, in colour. Do you prefer the monochromatic version of it more?
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Colour, in DC

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The Commissary
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Samuel Hahnemann Monument. In memory of the German physician who founded the branch of alternative medicine called Homeopathy. 
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The Omani cultural center in DC
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Old Catholic churches

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The White House
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Trump and his admirers. Seen outside The White House.

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High-wheel bicycle for men. The Columbia Light Roadster, 1886. Spotted at The National Museum of American History.
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Apple Macintosh. The first box that arrived with flair in 1984 for the sum of $2,500. What a long way we have come!

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First Lady Caroline Harrison’s modest velvet-satin evening gown in burgundy and grey
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A New York dressmaker fashioned this gold damask and cream satin gown for Lucy Hayes, the first First Lady to boast of a college degree.
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First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s state dinner dress by Oleg Cassini in yellow silk, with an overlay of crepe chiffon, and her costume pearl necklace.
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Another Oleg Cassini grey brocade silk ensemble for Jackie Kennedy

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Curious stranger

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Us 
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Capitol Hill

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Library of Congress

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Shots from within the Library

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Minerva at the Library of Congress
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Feeling fizzy at Fiola Mare
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Lusciously grilled octopus, branzino, langoustine and lobster
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Raviolo Carbonara with black truffles and Beech mushrooms
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The National Monument
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Granite and marble come together in this imperial memorial to Thomas Jefferson

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National Monument through the columns of Jefferson Memorial

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Twilight on the Potomac

One Sizzling Day in Washington DC

If only there were two Tuesdays in a week, I would have been here more often banging on about my thoughts. But we steal what moments we can from life, and here I am,  words fuelled by the mellow gorgeousness of a red wine spreading itself slowly but surely through my senses (written last night). Enough has happened in the last few weeks. In reverse, my in-laws left yesterday, we did a random day trip or two into the American countryside, walked around the city with our noses in the air, primed for the scent of good food, earned myself a second-degree burn while baking eggs (I mean the ignominy of it, it was not even a big beautiful cake), ran almost everyday in the early hours of the morning, met new people at dinners and lunches (more than we usually do, recluses that we are), played hours and hours of poker with the in-laws, lost more than I should have.

Then, we were in Washington DC for a scant day and a half. Adi’s parents were staying at his maternal uncle’s, so we sneaked in a day at a neat hotel downtown, The Darcy, which we booked using our stash of hotel points.

Now it was hot. So hot. Our faces started melting as soon as we finished breakfast in a large coffeehouse-cum-bar called The Commissary and headed towards The White House, a few minutes away from the hotel. Trump loitered with a large black umbrella outside The White House, and there were people standing outside with placards about his immigration policies. But it was rather underwhelming. The famous official residence of the president. At least, going by our experiences of just swinging by it. You need to book ahead for a tour.

We inched towards the Washington Monument instead, passing by grand buildings with plenty of classical colonnades and carvings of gods and goddesses. All along we were struck by this niggling sense of déjà vu. A summer’s day of moving desultorily about Vienna two summers ago, walking across the vast grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace which seemed to reflect heat, and subsequently dissolving into a stupor back in the delicious air conditioning of the hotel room.

In the shadow of the tall obelisk, the sun beating down mercilessly above our heads, we scuttled to a museum where we sniggered at modern inventions such as the first Macintosh 128K. It looked the part of an antiquated box. There were the costumes of the  first ladies to arrest the attention too. You will see photos of them by and by.

Outside in the sultry embrace of the sun, we gawped at the Smithsonian Castle. An elaborate concoction with its towers and turrets of red sandstone, wondering at the incongruity of it all. The nationality of the man who had founded it. John Smithson was a British subject. But most importantly, he was a great traveller, chemist and mineralogist. He studied studied everything that incited his curiosity. Count in the dynamics behind the nature of electricity,  a lady’s tear, volcanoes, better ways of brewing coffee, and the discovery of a mineral that was named Smithsonite for him. But what percolated to this traveller as she drank of the fountains of knowledge installed through this man’s vast donations to a place he had never visited, is the legacy of his philosophy. Smithson believed that knowledge has the power to bring man greatness and happiness.

When we could take take the heat no more, we dragged ourselves to Capitol Hill, and then the Library of Congress, gawped more at its lavish interiors of frieze, murals and high dome; in between, realising that my newly acquired watch had slipped off my wrists at some point during our walks about the city. Yet exhaustion had done a bang-up number on us. All we could think of was the hotel room, where we proceeded to collapse on the bed in an unsightly heap.

Such were our experiences in DC, but it was redeemed by a whirl through it during the evening when its lit-up beauty did us in. The reflection of the obelisk in the Potomac as a man fished in the river and the statuesque memorial to Mr. Jefferson. Ah, it was one of those moments during our travels when everything acquired a shimmering aura, as of the liquid mercury I swirled with fascination during Chemistry lab classes in high school.

It was an oddly satisfying day, even though we had missed most of the museums and to-do things on my list. We knew the city needed time and this knowledge set us free to mark the finale with an exorbitant but sumptuous seafood repast at an Italian restaurant on the Potomac. It was a strange evening that, at Fiola Mare. We tend to gravitate towards intimate places where people don’t carry the mantle of pretension. Inside this fine-dining restaurant’s darkly lit bar, I found women with smoky black eyes and men with silver hair and craggy faces cast flinty stares around them. It was almost as if they wore masks. It might as well have been the reflections of an evening of sparkling wine. Who knows, but we culled a few stories of the rich and famous who are patrons of Fiola Mare. The Ukrainian girl who served us was chatty. She talked about many things. About life in a city far, far away from her small hometown near Kiev, the difficulty of her mother ever visiting her because of visa restrictions, the professional highs of serving Michelle Obama ‘just the other day’, the busy charm of NYC, and the like. Conversations — randomly chanced upon — are often the best souvenirs of any holiday.

So from this briefest of city explorations, I present to you D.C. in its black and white avataar. There will be another post with more photos as well — since you know I am not a woman of few words or photos.

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Four men at a bus stop. In the humidity of that August Saturday, the sight of the old man with his shock of chalk-white hair, suited up for the day, made me smile.
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The Commissary

 

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One hungry soul at The Commissary
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The Nat Geo Museum
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Nineteenth-century Greek Revival Episcopal churches in Lafayette Square. St. John’s Episcopal Church.
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The White House. In the forefront is the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the first bronze statue cast in the country.
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Museums along the National Mall
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National Museum of African American History and Culture
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National Museum of American History
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The Star-Spangled Banner inside the National Museum of American History
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Classically sculpted George Washington as a leader during war and peace, at the National Museum of American History.
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National Museum of Natural History

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Capitol Hill
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It’s not too bad, eh?
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Because I like different angles on a place

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The Library of Congress
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Minerva

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Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress
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Modish Fiola Mare, in Georgetown.
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Platter of gorgeously grilled seafood
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An evening by the Potomac

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Jefferson Memorial

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Jefferson Memorial
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Thomas Jefferson

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The Strange Appeal of Disused Railroads

What is it that draws us to old places that have been abandoned? It could be about the vastly different era they have been a part of, the stories they quietly harbour, or just plain old nostalgia for the past. Nostalgia is after all a sort of release into a utopian world for most of us. I suppose one cannot lay a finger upon the nub of the matter but I can tell you with conviction that railroads are lonely, lonely places. On this particular afternoon after a gander through the town of Phoenicia, and before we set out on the trail of covered bridges, we stopped at a tiny town called Arkville.

The sight of a few old houses, a distillery, a fire station, and train engines rolling by the car window, woke me out of the stupor of that summer noon. I insisted we turn back and Adi remarked it was fortuitous enough. He was aiming for a power nap. Our friend meanwhile seemed intent on training his DSLR on the landscape around for some time, so I skipped away on my own.

Rusted metal, cracked wooden sleepers, grassy growths thrown up in clumps through the bed of gravel, on and around the tracks, and then a line-up of old railcars languishing on the tracks, with no destination in mind.

The last of the people at the ticket office (they do organise joyrides here) wound up early that weekend and went off to celebrate a new car. Random snatches of overheard conversations spontaneously adding spice to my wanderings. Not a soul was to be seen as I walked down the tracks. Through a clearing in the foliage alongside, I came upon the main road where I walked for some time to realise that there was nothing much to be had except the wrath of the sun and an empty road. I turned back and started upon the railroad from where it began, peeping into silent engines and cabins.

In its heyday, which was right into the World War I period, the Ulster and Delaware Railroad covered a distance of 107 miles between two places in the Upstate New York, Kingston and Oneonta. I pictured myself in one of the old dining cars, sipping on tea and finger sandwiches as we chugged through the green green valleys of the majestic Catskills, up mean inclines, skirting babbling brooks and charming villages. Possibly a bear on its hind legs waving at me from deep in the woods. If it’s only a daydream, let us tailor it as we see fit, non?

The people of Arkville, just like residents of other villages and hamlets in the Catskill mountains, would have sworn that it would never fade out, the Up and Down. It was their lifeline during the mid-1800s, connecting the village folk to the world, and important in the scheme of things in that it was part of their livelihood. The U&D carried milk from the mountain villages to the world beyond.

The tourists too would have never imagined that it could be rendered useless. For during long hot summers, upper-crust New Yorkers took the trains into the countryside where it was all about the winding roads and the luxuriant greenery, a sight for sore city eyes. Ridiculously lavish hotels catered to their needs. Let’s say it was the Hamptons of the yesteryears. You can see the appeal reflected in a few old ads I came upon. They are portals to another era. Most of them flaunt the good ol’ adventurer, Rip Van Winkle, as their mascot. For you do know that Rip wandered into the Catskills and napped there for a solid 20 years, right?

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But fade the railroad did. There is no reprieve from the passage of time or the seduction of new developments. The 1920s arrived with automobiles and trucks snatching the reigns from the railroad, paving the way for disenchantment with it, till the railroad was left to its own devices in the latter part of the century.

I wandered amongst the cabooses and dining cars till I came upon a beautiful rust-red Ulster & Delaware railcar. The driver’s seat looked forlorn. The stairs corroded. I thought about taking a quick look inside the car. And then, I have no idea why, but something flipped in me. I am ashamed to say that I took off like the wind even though I did not feel light on my feet that day. My heart beat as loud as the tooting of an engine, I fancy. It could have been the utter silence around me, the stillness in the air, or the thought that someone was watching me from behind the dark windows. It was possibly a blend of all three, but here’s the anti-climax, all I could do was run back to Adi on winged heels.

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Arkville is positioned alongside the exceptionally green belt of the Catskill Park Blue Line
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Arkville

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Rip Van Winkle Flyer dinner train

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Cross-section of a caboose

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An old steam locomotive
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Rusted axles and dusty locomotives

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The New York Central Dining Car, lending itself to an old dream of luxury. 

Phoenicia in the Catskills

The day we drove into the Catskills, the freshness of the foliage was a balm to the senses. It is the kind of lushness that you see as summer sets in, a vibrant shade of green that makes you hum with barely contained joy, when the sun might beat down upon you with all its strength, but humidity is still at bay, so you slap on some sunscreen and shades, and gaze upon the world with benevolence. A world that is ripe with possibilities because you are off to explore parts of it that you have not seen before. And you know the kind of thrill I am talking about, for you’ve been there. It’s just this feeling called travel.

My mind was a blank slate, and I let it be. By which I mean that I did not go ballistic googling up places to see. I am guilty of doing that often. At times, I let go. Last month I was not feeling too well, maybe this lethargy was a result of it. Yet as we got closer and closer to the bucolic surroundings, all discomfort fell away like a load of unwanted baggage.

The clouds were curdling away gently above our happy heads to make way for buttermilk patterns that stretched and stretched before disappearing behind rows of trees framing the roads. We passed by rolling hills and pastures, silos and barns with peeling paint, country houses and porches, till via Route 28 we arrived in Phoenicia. I had fixated upon this strange name after reading about it in an NYT travel piece because well, who wouldn’t be curious about its Greek origins, redolent of faded civilisations and mythic birds. I wonder why the founders named it Phoenicia, this town that was thrown up on the traveller’s route thanks to the Ulster and Delaware Railroad. In the early 20th century, it was the only rail route to the Catskills, the name of which is said to be derived from the Dutch ‘Kaaterskill’, meaning Wildcat Creek, and probably a reference to the resident bobcats.

These mountains of southeastern New York represented a gentile way of life for city folk who sought a quick getaway for fresh air and good food. The Catskills were the summer place to be, especially for Jewish immigrants who were turned away from popular holiday resorts.

Phoenicia turned out to be a hamlet on the Esopus Creek, down the mossy green waters of which girls and boys floated lazily on tubes while fly anglers fished for trout. The Town Tinker Tube Rental, operating out of a rust red barn, was the first post of business that registered in my mind as we walked into town beneath its leafy bowers. And the first scene, that of clusters of teenagers in swimsuits, holding onto ginormous black tubes. The tube rental’s repurposed old school buses were eye-catching. Painted white, they roamed the streets of Phoenicia, providing rides to tube enthusiasts.

There is one main street in this small town that is said to have remained quite unchanged since the 1850s when it was laid out. On this thoroughfare, you find everyone. They would either be lounging around in the cantina on a sultry noon, tinkering around its country store, or walking their single-eyed, slobbery Great Danes about town. And all around are the lush hills. The Catskills.

Towards the other end of town — to get to which we walked past a parish church in grey stone with red pipings and an old rectory — stood a few ramshackle trailers and houses worse for the wear. The creek gurgled alongside. Here there were no kids, just an old man fly fishing. It was a place drowsy with slumber. Wisps of cottonwood floating around us in the quiet of the noon beneath tall trees, acquiring an ethereal air in dappled sunshine. Wisps that clung together in batches of white fluff as they reached the ground. It was a moment of intense beauty that made time stand still. And I thought to myself, you can really ‘hold Infinity in the palm of your hand’.

My craziness scaled new heights when I found myself outside a rambling house. It was awfully dilapidated. Broken window panes, shards of glass, busts and figurines matted with dust and cobwebs in a dark shed, a trench in the grounds covered by grass as if to create a kind of a trap for the snoop who fancies a peep into its interiors. Just as I had finished playing the self-appointed prole of Ms. Meddle, and crossed the lane to get back to Adi and our friend who were by the creek, a window on the upper floor, translucent with grime, was thrown open.

Out of it emerged a head. A bespectacled man with a remarkably white head of hair and a bushy, long white beard. In an overtly bright yellow sweatshirt. We squinted at each other.

In a few minutes, the three of us were retracing our steps to the modest hubbub of the hamlet, leaving the house behind. I turned around a few times (curiosity always gets the better of me) for I could not fathom anyone living in that battered house. And every time I looked back, I caught the man pop back furtively. This happened more than a few times till an exasperated Adi asked me to put a lid on this strange obsession. That’s how we left Phoenicia behind, me wondering aloud if we had indeed sighted the last of the Great American Hobos in the heart of the Catskills.

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World’s largest kaleidoscope at Mt. Tremper on Route 28
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At Emerson Spa
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Now, you are in Phoenicia

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Black Bear Campground

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Esopus Creek
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Husky in the hood

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Phoenicia’s main street

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Catholic parish church of Phoenicia
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Our Lady of La Salette (an apparition seen by two children in a small village of La Salette in the Alps in the 1800s)
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Old Rectory
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Meanwhile at the other end of town…
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…are contented campers
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And abandoned barns
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Trailers and cottonwood

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Esopus Creek
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Abandoned or not?

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Fly fishing in the creek
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Seeking trout
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Phoenicia, where the Esopus runs through in a shimmer of silver

In Downtown Seattle

Every time you see a feature on this city named after Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe, it is led with a shot of the famous Pike Place. It is as obligatory as say ladyfingers laced with coffee are to the noble tiramisu. So just to be obtuse, I decided on this giant man with his slow-mo release of a hammer, as mine. Perverse pleasures.

But let me not get ambitious here, for Pike Place is the throbbing heart of Seattle. Did I just contradict myself? I often do. And I end up quoting Mr. Whitman: ‘Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes)’.

The old public market was the first place in Downtown Seattle that I laid my eyes on  three years ago when I first visited the sister-in-law and fam. It was a pleasant evening after a smokin’ hot day in June, and it must have been late, because the row of stalls had been emptied of their wares. No traces of fishmongers, flower sellers and vendors who throng it during the day. It made me want to see it during the day, for ’tis the buzz of humanity after all that makes a place special. Even though I do carp about the crowds — how they singe your scalp with indignation in a location like Charles Bridge, Prague — but in Pike, ah, it is another matter. Here the crowds are part of a carnivalesque atmosphere. This includes the fish throwing event that takes place at the Pike Place Fish Co. Now I have written a post previously about the FISH philosophy, so I shall not bother repeating myself and content myself with the observation that it is bloody marvellous how effortlessly the fishmongers catch and throw monster fish. For all the world, they could be hurling soft toys at each other.

This time they did a token throw for the few who had accumulated around the stall. We wandered around, taking in the familiar sights of the bronze pig, a favourite with most for sitting astride it and claiming insta-happy photos, of the flower seller who is almost rendered invisible, burrowed inside her world of flowers.

We tasted chilli-coated chocolate beans and wondered aloud about the idea of carting mushroom growing pods back home, stared at fish with their gaping mouths and dead eyes that see no more, watched whey being swirled in vats inside humid cabins of the Beecher’s flagship store (it sells one of the best cow’s milk cheeses I have had — its the Beercher’s Flagship Cheese), saw a queue form outside what is said to be the Original Starbucks store, but what is not, because the first one was actually started by three men a few blocks north of the present location.

At a fresh produce stall, black truffles were pegged at heart-stopping and credible prices. One of the grocers came forward and insisted we try  some jumbo-sized purple asparagus. It was delicious raw. A fat bundle of it was bought for my mother-in-law’s birthday dinner, to be rustled up that evening at home. The fellow gathered momentum with all his green talk. He held forth about about the art of foraging, and he pointed out thin stalks of sea beans culled from salt marshes and mushrooms sourced from the forests nearby. After some violent nudging (which was resolutely ignored by me), Adi vamoosed with his sister. The brother-in-law and I stood and listened to the guy gab, because how do you leave such passion unappreciated?

Pike Place, you realise, is a live theatre of sorts. It is what I love most about marketplaces. Be it the rows of vegetable stalls in Calcutta where I turned up at with my father as a child almost every day; or the ancient market square in Northampton where the butchers hawked their meats the old way, where the produce made my senses hum with their freshness; Borough Market in London where you could browse and taste gourmet foods before squirreling them away in cloth bags, to be savoured later at home; or the Mercado de San Miguel of Madrid where I went barmy at the range of pinchos, cheeses and meats on display, not to mention the delightful wine bars and cakes. It is a fascination, which I suppose can be put down to the old-world charm of a market, for it fosters the need for community, conversations and a wonderful feeling of bonhomie.

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Of Dandelions, But Mostly Tulips

Just a few days ago, the greens were dotted with so many tiny yellow wildflowers, you know the ones that stick close to the ground and look relentlessly cheerful. Dandelions. Today as I ran by the Hudson on this decidedly cool Sunday, millions of minute grey ripples dissolving into the stones of the breakwater, I noted that the dandelions have transitioned into balls of white puff. So now there are carpets of white blooms waiting to be blown away by the wind.

The joys of the season are unlimited, aren’t they? Just a few weeks ago, I was staring at rows of tulips which seemed to nod under the bright blue skies that hung over the Skagit Valley in Washington. Even before we made it to the tulip fields, I was enchanted by the traditional barns that stood upon open green fields and pastures, the horses, the startling blue of the Pacific in the distance. There were fields of crops everywhere we looked. For miles it was flat countryside with the Cascades on the horizon and it was the trappings of the rural life that you saw in the Skagit.

If the Skagit grows enough potatoes, kale and cabbage to feed the entire country, it has enough tulips every spring to satiate the senses. The first tulip bulbs travelled to the Skagit from the Netherlands in 1906, courtesy a woman called Mary Brown Stewart.

We ended up at acres of tulips at Roozengarde, a tulip garden started by William Roozen from Heemstede in Holland. He left behind his 200-year-old bulb family business back home in the wake of German troops withdrawing from Holland after WWII. With his wife, Roozen arrived in the Skagit Valley. It had captured his heart during an earlier visit. He worked with bulb farmers and then bought over the Washington Bulb Company that is said to be the largest producer of tulips, irises and daffodils in the country.

In the Roozengarde with its small windmill and fields of tulips, I was overwhelmed. Never had I seen so many beautiful blooms in so many different colours. Neither could I stop exclaiming at the size of the bulbs. Adi had to stay back to work but the in-laws and I feasted our eyes upon this cornucopia of bulbs on a sunny day and wound up at a Snow Goose Produce where the ice creams were as massive as a sumo wrestler’s fist. As I walked with my overladen waffle cone, topped up with creamy dollops of maple and coffee flavours, towards a bench, a woman laughed and wondered aloud if I could indeed finish this not-so-modest treat. No pressure, of course. So I sat with my mother-in-law, father-in-law and sister-in-law with our respective booties, stared at the snowy cone of Mount Baker in the distance, and let my nose too have a fair share of the wonderful ice cream before we left with sticky hands and happy faces.

As for the ice cream, it remained an unfinished business, but we shall keep it for another day at Snow Goose when I have fasted for a week at the least.

For what is this life if not for lofty aspirations?

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Courtesy: My Dream Canvas

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And a dandelion for the day.

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Spring in Seattle

It is May already and I wonder what it shall bring, but in the last sunny week of April, we were whirling around Seattle. It was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday and the family had decided to get together at my sister-in-law’s who lives in a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of the city. It was a merry gang of 8 and there was enough feasting to last us a month. I have to confess that Adi and I have returned home with food tucked into our waistlines. The sister-in-law is a great cook just like her mother and it was a pleasure to do justice to her efforts in the kitchen. Plus there was all the wonderful eating out.

We gorged on juicy chicken wings at Wing Dome which does a bang-up job including smothering its 7 Alarm Wings in heavy-duty sauce. There’s enough of it. So much so that the wings are incidental to the sauce.

Now the 7 alarm is a serious challenge. Worthy individuals have admitted defeat. That would include Adam Richman of Man Vs. Food. Imagine the hottest dish you have had and triple it — and you have this shattering sauce that sets your nerves on fire. The crackling in this affair is that they refuse you tissues to dab your runny nose nose or burning lips. Who said it was pretty? Then there is no beverage to accompany this challenge of stripping meat off 7 wings within 7 minutes, if you are up for fame upon its Wall of Flame.

The Wing Dome is kind though. It advises you to order a recovery kit before you start on this path of intense adventure. Expect two glasses of ice-cold milk and an ice cream sandwich to feel anywhere near human again.

Three years ago, we had visited Seattle from the UK. A time when I had short hair and the ability to handle nerve-wracking hot food. The niece had insisted that we take part in the 7 Alarm challenge. With no time at hand, we had to relegate it to our next trip. What broke me on that particular trip was a certain sauce in Leavenworth. Naturally, I am a cautious creature today.

This time, Adi, his sister and I, each ordered one 7 Alarm wing. The brother-in-law refused to be party to this brand of gastronomic self-flagellation. I threw up my hands halfway through that one wing and was tearing up, hyperventilating, while Adi and his sister finished it. And then began their tears.

The rest of the holiday was spent mooching around decor boutiques and antique shops in Snohomish which were exquisite and we had to garner all the self-control we could to not lay our greedy hands on just about everything; celebrating the mother-in-law’s birthday at a beautiful restaurant on the Puget Sound, along with an early barbecue supper; laying her hands on some exquisite Beecher’s handmade cheese; catching up with old friends and listening to smoky jazz in charming eateries; ooh-ing and aah-ing over cakes and mousses from Taiwanese bakeries (and making a mental note to never scoff again at the likes of them); and stalking neighbouring dogs.

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The family catching up at the sister-in-law’s tastefully done-up home

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Pink azaleas and us

 

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Violet azaleas
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Spring glory on the roads
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And some cherry blossoms, please
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Noshing at The Pink Door in an alley off Pike Place Market 
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Browsing stores in Snohomish

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This beauty of a lamp now graces my sister-in-law’s home
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A caramel coffee brûlée that had me heart and soul at 85°C, the Taiwanese bakery 
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Chocolate bomb at the Taiwanese bakery
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Shaky shot at Wing Dome. Blame the 7 Alarm Wings!
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Oden the Mighty

 

 

 

The Darling Buds of March

They are here. The tiny buds with their fuzzy pale pink pouts. And I can feel the familiar itch again, on this first day of spring. The itch to travel. To catch the breeze as I set my eyes upon places old and new, meet people, listen to their stories, climb hills, cuddle a bear or two (if the old boys are up for it), and make new memories.

What’s on your list this spring?

Portraits from Pest

In the flat plains of Pest, which the Hungarian calls Peshth, we took over the city on foot. It drove our friend Vee up the wall, those long evening walks by the Danube when the fingers ached with a strange intensity, startled by the piercing cold of the night when even breathing seemed like a bad idea. Lights twinkled through the fog that sat thick upon Gellért Hill high above us as we crossed the Liberty Bridge, the bridge that looks like it was fashioned out of turquoise metal and ebullience. The kind of ebullience that comes with freedom, freedom from the Nazis. But then the smothering of that very freedom by the Soviet for at least five decades.

A saint stood high above that hill holding aloft a cross, a man who was stashed into a barrel and rolled down the hill by irate Magyars when he attempted to convert them to Christianity. For all his sins, Gellért Sagredo had the hills named after him, the very hills down which he was tumbled to his death. And a hotel too. Hotel Gellért of the splendid Art Nouveau façade and iconic thermal baths, a reprieve from the harshness of a winter’s evening. The baths of Budapest are like grand flourishes of the city’s past. There are said to be 120 warm springs simmering beneath the surface of the city which the Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires lost no time in tapping, leaving behind a legacy that the city is quite so proud of.

The intense cold drove us back into the arms of Pest’s hipster heart – District VII. It helped that we had chosen to stay in a chic little apartment a stone’s throw from a sprinkling of Christmas markets, classical cafés and restaurants, strung with fairy lights most becomingly on frigid nights. The kávéház, the legendary cafés like Café Gerbeaud where you gave into a long-standing tradition bequeathed by the Austro-Hungarian empire and found yourself transported to the grand old cafés of Vienna. The glutton in you was hard pressed not to pleasure the gut at every stop. And oh, those vintage clothes boutiques where it was difficult not to sigh over the warmth and prices of sable coats, pieces of decadence that demanded deep pockets.

We sought warmth in local bars, the kinds where old men sit and drown their loneliness in glasses of whisky and we revived ourselves in shot bars where a pretty bartender handed out tulip-shaped glasses of aged pálinka, feeling the burn of it soothe the cold away with a dab hand, murmuring ‘come child come’. And then we wandered around District VII, letting its intriguing personality seep into us. The Jewish quarter secreted away into the district’s inner parts, the synagogues with their onion domes and Moorish exteriors making the jaws drop. Derelict buildings flanked a warren of cobbled streets that seemed to be a repository of rundown structures, often crumbling away beneath layers of gigantic murals which are infused with the spirit of the city and that of the artists inevitably.

Some of those ramshackle buildings that have been slipping into gradual disrepair since WWII have been converted into pubs. Ruin pubs. Hubs of underground culture. The oldest of the lot is Szimpla Kert. Set up in a disused stove factory, it is a place for the youth to hang out with cheap drinks, watch outdoor movies, buy fresh produce from farmers on Sundays… The layout was fluid. A sprawling space filled with themed rooms, one leading into the other, distressed furniture, winding stairs leading to more rooms, psychedelic lighting that kind of makes it seem right that a bicycle should hang over your head, that you should slide into a clawfoot tub to sit in cosy comfort with your lover and that there should be a disused Trabant car (East German commie car for the hoi polloi) standing in the garden, a remnant of grim times.

In that ruin pub, we sat on a swinging party night with a bottle of wine and took in our eclectic surroundings when there was a discordant note struck by carrots. Not a product of my imagination, no sir, though that would be a possibility given the heady wafts of weed in the air. A girl circulated around us with a basket of carrots. Did we want to buy some? Now how do you say no to carrots? It was a strange night that, wrapped up in the apple smoke of the hookah. It made me dream of Berlin and it also made me think that the more you travel, the more you see this underlying thread of similitude (this innate urge to break free) that seems to bring people and places together.

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Boscolo Hotel, a 120-year-old building
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New York Café, the traditional kávéház in Boscolo Hotel 
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New York Café 
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Shot Bars in District VII
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Because Pálinka will be your saviour
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Evenings along the Danube
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Liberty Bridge, the shortest one to connect Buda with Pest
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 Gellért Hill
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My two favourite photographs are this and the next
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A walk that shattered us
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Hotel Gellért
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District VII
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Architecture inherited from the Austro-Hungarian empire

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Carl Lutz memorial in the old ghetto dedicated to Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz who had saved the lives of over 60,000 Jews during WWII.
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Szimpla Kert

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Theme rooms at the ruin pub
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The Trabant that stands in the garden

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