Lake Tahoe

It’s a three hour drive to Lake Tahoe; today we:

  • gazed at Lake Donner
  • rescued/annoyed shrimp on King Beach at Lake Tahoe
  • juggled jumbo-sized pine cones
  • took a short but nevertheless near-disastrous hike through hills and water
  • passed through the brilliantly-named Truckee three times on our way home

It’s nice to get out of the city once in a while, wet feet and all.

Lake Donner

King Beach

Hike to Nowhere

Golden Gate Walk

I’m staying near the Bay Bridge; it’s an awesome sight each morning but it doesn’t
compare with the true original: The Golden Gate. Symmetrical, immense, a colour-coordinated guardian to San Francisco Bay.

For some time I’ve been following a blog dedicated to the California High Speed Rail project, which would provide a two and a half hour link between downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco. Given the current economic climes, the author never misses an opportunity to point out that the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were both built at the height of the Great Depression, putting thousands to work and providing infrastructure for the subsequent recovery.

It’s not perfect; shamefully, its ability to carry trains (in addition to cars) has never been realised. Boarding a Sausalito-bound BART and traversing the Golden Gate would be so wonderful; think how much more exciting a view even than that from the red line T over the Charles River, bound for Boston. Nevertheless, to me, the Golden Gate is a potent reminder of what America can do when it can be bothered: when it put its massive resources to work and built nothing less than a symbol of the 20th century.

Today, in more interesting economic times, I mulled this and how things may or may not change in three weeks time as I merged with the never-ending stream of visitors and residents and walked its 2.8km span towards Sausalito before catching the ferry home.

Arrival in San Francisco

We’re flying 14km high in the sky at a speed of almost 900km per hour in a tin can containing hundreds of gallons of highly flammable liquid, passing over the Atlantic Ocean, Greenland and all of North America enroute to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco. It’s a morning flight, the sun is shining in a clear sky….and these people have the blinds down. I have an aisle seat so it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference where I’m sitting – apart from being stuck needlessly under artificial light for half the day – but this just irritates me a little. It’s as if the 8″ LCD showing of “Tomb Raider” (or whatever) in the headrest of the seat in front is actually a serious contender for the amazing spectacle unfolding all around us.

Anyway…I’m still impressed that we can walk up the steps in cold, wet Dublin and emerge just ten hours later on the far side of a different, sunnier, continent. Maybe I’m turning into a plane geek but, the deceptive immediacy of internets and video conferencing aside, this is really far away. 6000 miles! What if the planes all gave up tomorrow? It’d take weeks if not months to sail back to Ireland; not possessing those skills I could never do it myself…what if civilisation itself crumbles during the next five weeks (looking more likely every day!)? I’d never make it back!

Anyway, suffice to say I quite like being back in California. A few weeks of work in San Francisco followed by a couple of weeks of holiday somewhere nearby should be good for the soul. The flight, only two thirds full with plenty of spare room, was comfortable, “Once” on the laptop was a very pleasant diversion and curious reminder of home and now, having taken BART into the city, I find my new home almost directly underneath the approach to the Bay Bridge in the SOMA district near the centre of town.

The weather is fine and the city full of possibilities.

Impressions of Chicago

I’m been home from Chicago for over a week now. I’ll make some posts of the more interesting stuff that happened soon; although there were definitely one or two stand-out moments, it was a bit of a trying trip overall. Just home from a long stint in California, it really was a struggle to muster the enthusiasm to up sticks for yet another trip to the states. Had it not been for an opportunity to visit a new city, Chicago, I probably would have called the whole thing off.

Not to worry, however; I had some good times in the end and a chance to play in Chicago Symphony Hall (and to hear the Chicago Symphony themselves) was obviously not to be sniffed at.

Here, one week on, are the lingering moments and memories from Chicago:

  • The ribeye steak in Morton’s.
  • A guided segway tour.
  • The view of the city’s skyline from outside the planetarium.
  • Dinner and drinks at the top of the Hancock Tower.
  • The El and the loop.
  • The Chicago Art Institute and Seurat’s Grand Jetté.
  • The Tiffany glass domes in the cultural institute.
  • The “cliff” of tall buildings fronting Millennium Park.
  • Supping wine in the opulence of the Drake Hotel.
  • Flying to Boston, business class.
  • Attending the Chicago Symphony’s rehearsal.

Yes, not a bad trip at all…detailed posts and pictures to follow.

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Chicago Symphony Rehearsal

Well, it was quite a thing, it really was. Rarely has a perilously positioned brass neck’s pay-off been so great. I could have played tourist for the morning; I very nearly did. I had tickets bought and audio player rented for the Chicago Architectural Walking Tour. It meant an early morning but somehow I’d gotten my accoutrements together and carcass down to the ticket office and left time for breakfast.

To celebrate, I’d rewarded myself with breakfast (muffin tops, alá Seinfeld, from a local coffee chain). En route, I’d seen bodies entering and exiting Symphony Hall. It was early morning; my subconsciousness pondered the meaning of this whilst I feeded upon muffin tops.

Some context is required: although we had played in Chicago Symphony Hall and had several days to spend in the city, we had ourselves taken in no shows. Between arrival, concert, jetlag and general “getting our bearings”, we’d made no provision for entertainment as such except for noticing Chicago Symphony were playing Thursday, i.e. tonight. We, unfortunately, had another gig that clashed heart-breakingly with that of the CSO’s. This unfortunate fact had placed something of a damper upon the trip, to say the least. We were sojourned just five minutes down the road in the Hilton Hotel; it may as well have been a light year away.

Back to the moment: 10am, bodies entering the hall…no show scheduled…rehearsal? Could I be so lucky? Well, I declared in the safety of my own mind, it’s worth a try. Emboldened by the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “open rehearsal” in the NCH last year, I decided it was worth ago…

It was closed. Family and special guests of the orchestra only. Sorry son, not a hope. Come back November 9th. Well, with any luck I’d be back home by then. But, wait! I played here the other night! I’m one of you guys! Kiss me, I’m Irish! Well now, that’s a different story…I entered bearing proudly the moniker of “travelling musician”. Half right, at least.

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One very quick text later to my brass buddies ("omg, come down to the hall right now and listen to THIS") and I’m seated just in time for Sibelius’ violin concerto. Christoph von Dohnány is conducting, one Arabella Steinbacher performing the solo. Just like Pittsburgh’s, their rehearsal is essentially the concert: play the piece, play back a few random bars. A bit like Gordon Ramsey’s F Word – “bar 80, violins. bar 114, horns. Sibelius violin concerto…done.”

Following this, my trombone colleague arrives with supernaturally good timing for the highlight of the evening, (morning in our case) Bruckner’s 4 symphony. This is a treat from start to end. A delightful horn solo is rewarded with the orchestra’s foot stomping (tonight’s audience won’t get that!), the most perfect string section imaginable is counterbalanced with a most bombastic brass section putting in their oar for some demanding ff passages. Then, at the end, we got to hear the horn solo again! Magic.

Not much more to say. It was simply surreal: sitting down, savouring what is quite possibly the best orchestra on planet earth perform for me, my friend and just one other person. Now, if I never do anything else again, you can put that on my tombstone!

Napa Valley

A rare treat for a visitor to northern California: an opportunity to gatecrash a well-planned trip up to wine country, taking in some pretty fancy and hard-to-get-into wineries and finally live out all my “Sideways” fantasies for real (well, the wine tasting bits anyway).

So, we started at some ungodly never-before-heard-of hour on a Saturday morning in order to arrive in downtown San Francisco where a limo would pick us up and bring us to Napa. No designated driver for us!

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It was a glorious morning and after some introductions – there were eight of us travelling and there were six Indian names to somehow memorise, so it took a while – we headed off, traversing the Golden Gate before passing through Sausalito and onwards up to Napa. I felt a bit guilty about crashing in on the trip but nobody seemed to mind, especially when it was revealed I was Irish. As an aside, sometimes it feels like a license to do as you like over here – jaywalk, crash parties, you name it!

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Anyway, for future reference, here’s where we stopped:

  • We stopped first in V. Sattui and this was, to my mind, perhaps the most enjoyable stop: $10 yielded eight tastings from their menu, none of which – interestingly – are available outside of the winery. I loved their off-dry Johannisberg riesling, did not love their Rosato and very much enjoyed their Zinfandel. Having something of a sweet tooth, I liked their Madeira enough to buy an entire bottle and create yet another massive packing problem for myself.
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  • Cakebread Cellars was undoubtedly the highlight of the tour. Cakebread are a small volume winery (100,000 cases per year) with such reknown that tastings are strictly by appointment only and whose appointments are not subject to adustment. I’m enternally grateful for the locals who stood aside to let me take their place. I won’t forget it: their Chardonnay was amazing, their Merlot nothing like a Merlot (richer, somehow than their Cabernet) and their Cabernet just stunning. I felt compelled to purchase a Cabernet for a Bordeaux-loving friend back home and a Pinot for a special occasion.
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  • Our last stop, Mumm Napa, allowed us sample something new: sparkling Pinot. These were a bit mixed than previous wineries but at least one worked very very well.img_2897.JPG

All in all, a wonderful day. It’s fascinating to see how every winery is setup for visiting, with some (like Sattui) even limiting their sales to just their winery. It seems to be a pretty common weekend activity over here and one that’s slowly being adopted in Europe where, for one example, I’ve heard of Bordeaux tours. However, I guess it’s not as established a pastime back home. California may be a young wine-producing region but they’re producing some amazing wines and, in this climate and with this scenery I simply can’t think of a better way to spend your Saturday.

As an “international”, transport will be interesting: Sattui offered a cardboard and polystyrene wine-carrying contraption that’s guaranteed against breakages of the precious contents within. We’ll see in a week’s time if British Airways allow me check in two big pieces of luggage and, if so, if it survove Heathrow.

Coffee in Seattle

There’s an old philosophical thought experiment concerning the multiplication of bacteria. It goes something like this:

A cell can divide itself in two, producing a new cell, every five minutes. In effect, the number of cells doubles every five minutes: two, four, eight, sixteen, etc. After one day at this rate of growth you already have 2^288 bacteria (lots) and, in fact, it’s easy to calculate that pretty soon the entire universe is full. Or maybe it already is. So, why isn’t the universe full of bacteria?

Well, it just doesn’t happen in practise. Or so they thought: there is one actual recorded case, from international globalised economics, of such sustained exponential growth: the Starbucks coffee chain, whose branches filled the entire known universe in late 2003 (although they still only have two outlets in Dublin).

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Seattle is where it all began, way back when in 1971, in a little outlet – just like a hundred others – on the edge of Pike Market. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this particular branch eschews the normal green sans-serif livery in favour of what are presumably the branch’s original colours and slogans. It’s a tourist attraction of sorts, a landmark store whose queue is far too long to contemplate joining.

I’m glad the queue was too long: it gave me an excuse to wait for better, genuine coffee later in the day. In fact, I have great coffee karma in Seattle. Here are my finds for the two days, listed in the order in which I stumbled across them:

  • Seattle Coffee Works
    Situated between the market and the Seattle Art Museum, this coffee house boasts a veritable cornucopia of local roasts. Did I know there’s over 80 independent coffee roasters in Seattle? No, I did not! The friendly barista asks me a rare question: what sort of coffee do I want? I say espresso but that’s not what she means; do I like it light, dark, spicy? She quickly assembles a special concoction of her very own to my exact specification (“eh, dark – but light!”) and whose merits I’m instructed to report back. Best of all, if I’m not happy then she’ll “keep doing it until I like it”. What an offer!
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  • Zeitgeist
    The Smashing Pumpkins play across the road for this fine cup of coffee in the historic Pioneer Square district. In another city this would be something to write home about.
  • Vivace (off Broadway)
    There’s a long queue and it takes a long time to prepare but it’s the most amazing cup of coffee in the entire history of the world, ever. It’s deeply dark and unleashes upon the tongue that rarest of things, what I call the “coffee fruit hit”. This is my own term for a coffee taste that is so fresh and rich it goes far beyond bitter and almost into sweetness, as if someone had genetically engineered a coffee-flavoured banana and somehow mashed it into coffee-banana juice…no, paste.

The “coffee fruit hit” I first experienced with a clown-sized double espresso from Peaches in Dublin – never since, incidentally – and, in my innocence, momentarily mistook my angel espresso for a fruit drink and/or portal into another dimension. A very strange and rare delight indeed.

Not bad for one weekend.

Seattle Art Museum

Seattle’s premier museum – SAM – is located in the heart of downtown, just minutes walk from Pike Market. It houses (mostly) modern art from all round the world with particularly good exhibits from Native American, African Aboriginal artists.

So we get all the usual modern art weirdness, plus a few of those 19th century idealised western landscapes (I guess this is the north-west, which they supposedly depicted) and giant totem poles.

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