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Surviving Record-Breaking Heat Wave in AC-ed Comfort at Colloquium and Sensational Audra McDonald in the West End

Tuesday, June 21, 2017

London

After spending a virtually sleepless night (I stayed awake till 3.30am and then took a pill to lull me to sleep), I awoke at 7.30 am.  Having reviewed my presentation last night, I felt thoroughly wired for more than half the night and wondered how I could possibly make my presentation with no sleep.

Light Brekkie and Departure for Colloquium:

Shahnaz suggested I eat some yogurt before leaving and I crumbled up a granola bar into it, downed a cup of decaff coffee, dressed and left by 8. 15 am.  I needed to do some urgent work at a PC in the Faculty Lounge at NYU-London before the Colloquium began at 10.00 am. It took me less than ten minutes to walk from our hotel to campus. I got a lovely warm welcome from the porters (Dave and Mark) before I ran into Ruth who also gave me a hug. Her husband Joe was with her and it was great to see him again too.

Then I was down in the basement where the Faculty Lounge is located and where I found a PC. I managed to get my work done quickly enough (although it took me forever to figure out where the @ key is on a British keyboard—I had forgotten how to find it!).

By 9. 45, I was upstairs in the room where coffee and cookies were laid out. As conference participants came trickling in, we greeted each other and continued getting acquainted. By10.30 am, Welcome Remarks were made by our Dean and the panelists began making their presentations. From the get-go, each presentation was very absorbing indeed and I found myself fully engrossed in them.

We stopped for Lunch at 12. 30 (the platters of tiny finger sandwiches which is what lunches are all about in the UK at Faculty meeting have not changed), did some more socializing and discussing of the presentations we had heard and then returned for the afternoon session—which was when my panel was scheduled. My colleagues Kevin and Peter presented before I did—and then it was my turn and I was off and away. The focus of the colloquium was Politics and the Classroom—and indeed we have so much to talk about and think about in terms of this topic that there was no dearth of items to dissect. I have to say that I enjoyed presenting information on the tools and techniques I have used to balance discourse in the contentious classroom and going by the questions and feedback that followed, the entire panel was very well received. I was pleased to find out that a lot of my colleagues use role-playing as a technique in different ways and that it seems to work for all of them.

The final sessions of the afternoon followed after a break for tea and cake. Again, everything was deeply stimulating and participants got into the spirit of the colloquium with great enthusiasm.

Hottest Day in 34 Years in London:

As it turned out, today was the hottest day in 34 years and the United Kingdom was sweltering. People were wearing practically nothing and for the first time in my professional life, I made a presentation in a T-shirt and sandals as I had brought the wrong wardrobe altogether for this befuddling heat wave. One of my colleagues was telling me that this is the most informal outfit in which he has ever seen me. But almost everyone was dressed in like manner (so I was in good company).

Outside, on the street at Bedford Square, when I got out of our building at 4. 30 pm, it felt like walking into a sauna after spending the entire day in blessed air-conditioning. I walked towards my hotel at Holborn, stepped briefly into Sainsbury to buy a new Lebara SIM card and top up my phone, called my Dad in Bombay and then got to my room for a cup of tea and a biscuit and a good helping of Tiramisu which is one of my favorite things to buy from Sainsbury. I ate a huge helping of it and got rid of my craving in one go.

Off to Leicester Square:

Not too long after, I left the hotel, walked to Holborn Tube station that was mobbed as commuters tried to get into the tunnel during peak hour rush. The trains were so packed and so hot that it was like walking into an airing cupboard. In ten minutes, I was at the Wyndhams Theater at Leicester Square where Shahnaz was waiting for me. She had managed to get into the queue at 10.00 am to get us tickets to see Audra McDonald play Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill which transferred from Broadway to the West End only a few days ago. For 20 pounds, you could not go wrong and it was thrilling to be able to see this sold-out show in this city.

Both of us were too full to go out in search of a bite—so we decided to postpone it until after the show. And because it was so hot, we very gratefully escaped into the theater to cool off.

Watching the Inimitable Audra McDonald at the West End:

Shahnaz not only managed to get us day tickets, but they were actually on the stage itself as the set was a reproduction of Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philadelphia where Billy Holiday made her lasing reputation. I had no idea what to expect—but for the fact that one of America’s greatest live performers was the star of the show, Audra McDonald, I knew nothing about it. So I was delighted to discover that she would be playing the One and Only Billie Holiday. And was she phenomenal! The life of ‘Lady Day’ that she spelled out through her blues performance was so sad, so moving. McDonald was simply splendid in the role. That she is a sensational singer, I had taken for granted. But that she could act as well as she did simply took me by surprise.  I had no clue that for most of her shows, Lady Day was drunk as a skunk. And yet she charmed her audience night after night by the sheer power of her talent. And McDonald got it just right. There was not a false note—and I do not mean literally. I mean her emoting was just spot on—neither overplayed nor underplayed. It was just perfect. Her accompanists were a pianist, a drummer and a double bassist and between the three of them, they were a fantastic counterpoint to her monologue. What a great night at the theater!

Dinner at Busabu Ethai:

We walked past Leicester Square for dinner at Busabu Ethai—a chain I have been meaning to check out for a long while. So I was quite pleased that Shahnaz suggested it. We decided to split a bottle of Thai Change beer—with the weather being what it is, we could drown in chilled beer—and an order of Classic Pad Thai. This was probably the worst Pad Thai we had ever eaten. It was insipid and served cold—such a terrible disappointment! However, the beer was refreshing and as we went over our day, we decided that despite the let-down we suffered at dinner, each of us had a very satisfying day indeed. (Shahnaz spent most of her’s at the Victoria and Albert Museum where she studied Kalighat paintings in the South Asian section).

Until tomorrow, when the heat will, hopefully, wave goodbye, cheerio…

Messin’ About on the Thames

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Richmond, London

Messin’ About on the River.

Today was devoting to getting out of the city of London and messin’ about on the Thames.  All regular readers of this blog know that each time I am in London, I tick off one more aspect of it that I have yet to uncover.  The area around Richmond, on the banks of the Thames is known for the grand ‘country’ estates that were built in the 18th century by the nouveau riche. These are: Syon House, Osterley House (and Park), Ham House, Marble Hill House and Strawberry Hill House.  Each is more interesting that the other and every single one of them is different. Now, over the years, I have seen them all—except the last. So, this day was devoting to ticking that item off—viewing and visiting the Gothic Revival confection that was entirely the brainchild of Horace Walpole, son of Robert Walpole, once Prime Minister.

Awake and Off:

Shahnaz and I awoke at 7.45—this meant that I could not live up to my intention of attending the 8.00 am Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral—something I hope to do at least once while I am still based in Holborn ( and not jet lagged). We did not waste too much time. Quick coffees in our room followed by a hearty Indian breakfast of kheema parathas (made by Shahnaz’s cook and carried by her from Bombay to India), saw us out the door by 9.15 am and walking to Holborn Tube station—only to find that it was closed. We were advised to do the ten minute walk to Coven Garden and pick up the train from there. We rode it to Hammersmith from where we took Bus No. 33 that deposited us at a stop called Shepherd Vale which was just next door to the entrance to Strawberry Hill House. We reached there at exactly 11. 15—which meant we had taken exactly two hours to get there by public transport.

Exploring Strawberry Hill House:

As soon as you enter the premises, you are struck by the white-washed exterior of what looks like a Gothic castle.  Indeed, as Horace Walpole, designer and owner of the property wrote, in a letter in 1750, “I am going to build myself a little Gothic castle.” The Thames had not yet been ‘cannalized’ then. It was, therefore, much wider than it is today and its waters practically lapped the house. Not anymore. The river seems to have receded, a lot of Walpole’s adjoining acres of property has been sold and is now privately owned and much of his former acreage is built up. It is virtually impossible to gain even a slight glimpse of the Thames from the house today.

Entry to the house and gardens (which includes a self-guided tour and the services of voluntary docents in each room) is a steep 14 pounds. But it is, I believe, worth it—for you end up walking through the rooms of a one-of-a-kind house that is as idiosyncratic and gimmicky as can be imagined. We bought tickets and made our way into the ‘Discovery’ Room where a short video on the history of the house and its ongoing restoration was playing. Equipped with a little bit of knowledge, we began our tour.

What is Strawberry Hill All About?

Strawberry Hill House is pure indulgence: it is the fantasy of a very wealthy man who could afford to give in to his wildest whims. Using the services of the finest architects and artisans of the period, he set about creating a home that he filled with his collections of art and artifacts—from engravings and paintings to sculpture and ceramics. The rooms themselves were, in his time, striking for their use of magnificent decoration from plastered and papier mache ceilings to heavily patterned damask wall-coverings. The windows are filled with painted glass that he acquired from cathedrals and churches all over Europe. Furniture was either in keeping with 18th century tastes or a throwback from the Medieval past.

The highlights of the house are the Library with its knights on horseback painted on the ceiling and its bookcases designed with Gothic tracery–all painted white–and the Long Gallery where the fan vaulted ceiling is made entirely of papier mache and heavily gilded.  Fireplaces in the house are inspired by the burial monuments of royalty in cathedrals all over the country from Westminster Abbey to York Minster. One bedroom is remarkable for a heavily gilded picture frame that was carved by the great Grindling Gibbons (a favorite artisan of mine)—it is portrait of Horace’s father Robert and his mother. This room also contains a portrait of Horace Walpole—a reproduction of the original that is in the National Portrait Gallery—and another of his best friend, the poet Thomas Gray (who wrote the famous Odes including the one in the Country Churchyard).

As the docents in each room kept telling this, this is a ‘theatrical’ home—everything about it is so dramatic that it was meant to stop you in your tracks. It was also meant to be a place of illusions: what you think is plaster, is paper. What you think is marble is a compound. The only room designed by Robert Adams, for instance, has a fireplace inspired by Florentine pietra dura: white marble that is inlaid with what looks like semi-precious stones, but is, in fact, another compound. There is a room called the Tribune which was actually once a consecrated chapel—when Roman Catholics set up a monastery in the house. Indeed, the house has gone through several avatars: it was a residence, a printing press (Horace Walpole founded the Strawberry Hill Press here), it was a writing retreat (he wrote his novel The Castle of Otranto in this house), it was a monastery.

It takes a good two hours to see the house if you wish to linger in each room, read all curatorial notes and listen to every anecdote that docents are eager to share about the home and its eccentric owners. It is also a tiring two hours and by the time we were done, we were beat. We wished we could have wandered through the gardens that are in their summer glory at the moment—but we have arrived in London while the UK is going through a nasty heat wave. Although it was not quite as awful today as it was yesterday, we were still uncomfortable when we were moving. Nibbling on granola bars (as we were also very hungry by 1.30 pm), we found our way to the bus and got off at St. Margaret’s (just before we arrived on Richmond Bridge).

Scouring Thrift Stores for more DVDs:

St. Margaret’s is one of those upscale Thames-side villages that have an elite population that make superb contributions to their local charity shops. It is a good place to shop for all sorts of goodies and today, I hit the jackpot when I found a pure silk, genuine Cartier scarf that retails for no less than $350 in a thrift store for 8 pounds! I also found so many really great European TV series such as The Killing (the entire First Season for a pound) and Friday Night Dinner. As we drifted from one store to the next, Shahnaz too found all sorts of trinkets to carry back to Bombay. Had I the space and the need for one, I would have grabbed a beautiful Italian leather designer bag for just 45 pounds! But this is the sort of thing that I have to sadly let pass.

Lunch in Richmond at Wagamama:

Crossing Richmond Bridge on foot (the oldest bridge on the Thames and a prototype for so many stone bridges across the country), we arrived at Richmond Town Center. But not before we took pictures of the beautiful Embankment with its lovely waterfront buildings and its steps leading to the banks. Once on The Quadrant, the high street with all the shops, we arrived at Wagamama and Shahnaz decided we would have lunch there.

Nothing was more welcome on the blistering day (although, thankfully, there was a breeze playing) than the large bottle of Asahi beer that she suggested we order: we split it and drank deeply of its cooling contents. We then scoured the menu for something else we could share and found the new Pad Thai Salad. This had no resemblance at all to traditional Thai Pad Thai (which we both love), but it was hearty (studded liberally with chicken and prawns) and it was absolutely delicious with its sweet sour dressing and sprinkling of friend shallots and peanuts.

Climbing Richmond Hill:

Fortified with our delightful lunch, we marched ahead towards the next item on our agenda: the climb up towards Richmond Hill to see the famous View of the Thames from the peak. It is a very gentle slope which did not make for a very strenuous climb. At the top, we looked out over Petersham Meadows to the tranquil spot where the Thames forms a sort of horse-shoe as it curves around a small island. Many painters including Turner and Constable were inspired to paint this view in different seasons. We took many pictures from this vantage point and gratefully sank down on one of the benches overlooking the meadows and the river.

Had we more time and had the heat not been quite so enervating, we would have carried on walking towards Richmond Park with its famous herds of deer. Instead, Shahnaz suggested we start back: I had to get off at Knightsbridge to pick up my phone from Chelsea and then had the dinner to attend which would kick off our Colloquium activities tomorrow.

Journey Homewards:

Going downhill was, of course, much easier on our feet and lungs and in no time, we were back on The Quadrant waiting to board a bus to Hammersmith. It came in no time and off we went. From buzzing Hammersmith, the Piccadilly train line took us eastwards into the city. I got off at Knightsbridge, easily got a hold of my phone from Jimmy the Porter, at my friends’ building in Chelsea and took the Tube back to Holborn.

In less than an hour, I was back in my hotel room, getting my clothing ready and taking a shower.  I left the hotel half an hour later and arrived in time for the dinner.

Dinner with NYU Colleagues at Hubbard and Bell:

The venue chosen for our dinner that would kick off our London Colloquium was Hubbard and Bell, a lovely restaurant near the Holborn Tube Station end of High Holborn where we were assigned a large private ‘apartment’—read Private Party Room. There were a few people already present when I arrived and within minutes, I found a gin and tonic in my hand—tinkling with ice and spiked with a twist of lemon. Nothing could be more refreshing in the heat. After much socializing and meeting with a lot of my colleagues from New York and a number of new faces (colleagues from other NYU satellite sites such as Florence, Paris, Washington DC, Berlin, Accra and Buenos Aires), we settled down at long tables to partake of a wonderful meal.

Large communal platters of starters including crab crostini, crisps with hummus and pesto and a green salad. Mains included cod in a lemon sauce, roasted broccoli jazzed with chilli flakes, bavette steak with potato gnocchi and more salad. Dessert was pistachio profiteroles, a chocolate and passion fruit roulade and a cheese board with fruit.  How absolutely charming! Wine did generous rounds as we had a fruitful first exchange with old friends and new ones. It truly could not have been a more congenial gathering.

And so ended another exciting day in London. Back in my room, I reviewed my presentation for tomorrow and sat down to scribble this blog.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

Back in Blighty! Yes, Again!

Back in Blighty! Yes! Again!

Monday, June 18, 2017

It was a painless departure from home—practically speaking, I mean—not emotionally. I dearly wish I could have had Llew accompanying me…but it was painless in the sense that the Prime Time shuttle driver picked me up very easily at 1. 30 pm on Sunday afternoon (Father’s Day) on schedule and by 3. 30 pm (also on schedule) we were at the American Airlines Terminal at Kennedy airport.  Flight was on time, check in and security were a breeze with my Pre TSA status and I was at the gate in good time to board. I had a window seat, but taxi-ing for takeoff took forever as we were twenty in line. Our flight left the gate on time at 6.15 it was 7.30 pm before we got off the ground—and this time I mean literally! This brought us about 15 minutes late into Heathrow, but Immigration took only 20 minutes—by far the fastest it has ever gone.

The worst part of my journey was getting to my hotel.  I got into line at the airport for London’s traditional black cabs, entered one within seconds, but from there on, it was all downhill. The journey into Central London took us about two hours. I boarded the cab at 8.15 am and I reached my hotel in Holborn at 9.50 am! We took the most convoluted journey I have known—from Heathrow to Chiswick to Hammersmith and Fulham and then to Kensington and then to Paddington! Why we did not take the Westway Highway to get us to Edgeware and from there to Marylebon Road, I have no idea. But from Paddington, we eventually reached Edgeware. I was dozing through most of the ride as I had slept fitfully on the flight. I think the cab driver took me for a royal ride just to enhance his fare. It was only when I questioned him at Paddington that he realized I know my way around London really well. And from the time I questioned him, we took a straight enough route and finally, I was there.

In the Hotel at Holborn:

This is not so much a hotel as a building converted into serviced apartments—it is right on High Holborn, just a few steps from Holborn Tube Station and, if you can believe it, just a few meters from the building in which I had lived for a year, not too long ago. So, in other words, I am back in my former stomping ground and I feel as happy as a pig in a….well, you get the idea! This neighborhood is like my second home and after I unpacked, had a quick coffee from the complimentary machine down in the lobby, I was off.

London is sweltering. These guys are melting in the heat as they are so unaccustomed to these temps and have no air-conditioning except in their offices. I changed from shoes to sandals, put on my sunglasses and baseball cap and was out the door at 11.30 am. And I did not get back to my room until 6.30 pm—already having walked a little too much today!

Exploring Seven Dials and Beyond:

I began my gadabout today with a walk along High Holborn towards Shaftesbury Avenue as I followed some interesting location in my Key London Red Book. First spot was Monmouth Coffee Co. which, apparently, has the best coffee in London. I did not put this claim to the test as I had just finished a coffee in the hotel. Not too far away was the Donmar Warehouse which does really off-beat theater. I have never attended a performance here, but I decided to check out the premises. Right now Lenny Henry (of Chef fame) is in a show here, but I did not feel any desire to see it. I passed by the theater showing the world’s longest-running play—Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap, and walked ahead past Cambridge Theater (showing Mathila) to a theater right near Leicester Square where the big attraction is Audra McDonald, one of Broadway’s biggest stars, in a show called ‘Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill’. I found out that 20 pound daily tickets are available at 10.00 am daily from Tuesday-Saturday. I shall try to get my friend Shahnaz to get to the theater by 9. 45 am to pick up tickets for the two of us on Wednesday when I will be at my seminar at NYU. Tomorrow is out as I have dinner with my NYU colleagues at Hubbard and Bell near Holborn.

Still walking and using my Red Key Book Map, I arrived at the Church of Our Lady of Notre Dame of France on Leicester Place. It turned out that Mass was just about to begin and, naturally, I stayed for it. It is a very small, rather hidden church with a sculpture of Our Lady at the entrance and a lovely mosaic on the main altar of Our Lady amidst a garden of flowers. There were about two dozen people inside and as a French priest said the Mass, there was a lot of Parisian charm to the entire service. It was over by 12. 45 pm which left me just enough time to make it to the next item on my agenda—a free musical recital at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square. By this time, I was feeling rather peckish as a very light brekkie and coffee in the hotel was all I had consumed; but there was no time to waste.

Recital by Students of the Purcell School of Music:

One of my favorite things to do in London is attending the free concerts at the gorgeous Anglican churches that hold them several times a week at 1.00pm. St. Martin’s is beautifully located and attracts loads of visitors as they carve the time for the event in-between nipping in and out of the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery or before catching a matinee somewhere in the theater district.

So, there I was—in a seat right at the front and sitting parallel to the piano keyboard. It was a delightful concert with students who astonished with their virtuosity. About 18 years old, they have the potential to be stars—no doubt. What was wonderful was the variety they offered: Gayatri Nair was a vocalist of Indian parentage who was marvelous. The cellist who played ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’ was awesome and the piano sonata by Chopin played on the piano was outstanding. Not that the saxophonist and the violinist were any less. They were all simply astounding. Only in London can one breeze into an 18th century church filled with attractive stained glass and rococo plastered gilding and be stunned by a musical performance for which you would pay a handsome price in a concert hall. Little wonder that such a show is always on the cards for my visits to London.

Highlights Tour at the National Gallery:

Of course, I cannot be close to the National Gallery and not pop in for a Highlights Tour. These are given at 11.30 am and 2. 30 pm daily and I never fail to catch one—this too is entire for free! I used the 40 minute break to sit in the Sainsbury Wing to eat a granola bar and an apple and to take a look at the special 12th century tempera paintings on wood by the Italian artist Giovanni de Rimini which is the featured painting of the moment. Then I raced back for the start of the tour that was given by a guide named Lauren Bauman.

It was a very good tour but for me the most disappointing part is that too much time is spent on each painting—as much as 25 minutes in one case—so that, the viewers see no more than 4 canvasses—we ended up seeing the following and getting a mini-dissertation on each of them:

  1. The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan Van Eyck.
  2. Allegory of Venus and Cupid by Bronzino.
  3. The Toilette of Venus (or the Rokeby Venus) by Diego Velasquez.

And that was it!!! I seriously wish we could have seen at least six of them. But there was a lot we learned and I enjoyed the tour (except for the fact that occasionally I dozed off as I seriously needed to catch up on my sleep). However, I wasn’t about to stake a break.

The tour ended in exactly and hour. At 2. 30 pm, I hurried out to a city that had become blistering. If you stood on the verandah of the National Gallery and looked towards Whitehall past the sculpture of Nelson on his pedestal, you would be amazed at how empty it looked! Everyone was indoors. People had wimped out. There was no way they were braving that dreadful heat. This meant that the streets were almost deserted as I made my way to the bus stop opposite Trafalgar Studios with the intention of taking the No. 11 bus for a joy ride through the main tourist venues.

A Bus Ride to Chelsea:   

This is yet another favorite thing to do in London—for me, that is. I board the No. 11 bus which is the cheapest tour you can get of the city of London. Of course, I go upstairs and take a seat up front and center and allow my inner kid to kick in as I settle down to watch London go by. I sailed down the military sculptures of Whitehall and the guards at the Parade Grounds, I passed by 10 Downing Street (poor beleaguered Teresa—you cannot help but feel sorry for her right now!), viewed Charles Barry’s beautiful Houses of Parliament from a height, saw Westminster Abbey and Cathedral along Victoria Road and arrived at Victoria. These roads too were almost entirely empty as people stayed put in their air-conditioned offices.

Scouring the Thrift Stores (read Charity Shops) for argains:

I jumped off my bus on the King’s Road at Chelsea and got into the next item on my agenda: scouring the charity for DVDs (as I have steadily been building a collection of British films and TV shows) and the thrift shops are the best places to find these. I have my favorite places in Chelsea, Fulham, Kensington and Richmond and I delved to them with a plan! Little wonder that after looking at 5 such shops, I found 4 DVDs—a far bigger haul than I expected. I also nipped into Marks and Sparks to buy some of the goodies to which I have become addicted—chocolate eclairs filled with real whipped cream (not the custard you find in the US).

When I reached the end of the King’s Road, I took a bus to Sloan Street with the idea of picking up my London phone from my friends Michael and Cynthia who are on a cruise right now. They made arrangements for their porter to hand it over to me but when I got there, he was out.

Having walked already for what seemed like miles, I made it briskly to Knightsbridge Tube station and suffered through the sauna that was the Tube! Twenty minutes later, I was in my air-conditioned room and awaiting the arrival of my friend Shahnaz as she was due to land at Heathrow from Bombay at 6.00 pm local time.

Awaiting Shahnaz’s Arrival:

While awaiting Shahnaz’s arrival, I sorted through my shopping, put things away, had a cup of coffee, took a lovely refreshing shower and sat to write this blog. Shahnaz arrived at 8.45 pm. And after spending about an hour just gabbing away (we were meeting after six months), we decided to get a bite to eat.

A Drink and Dinner on our First Night:

By the time we left our hotel to get a bite, it was about 9.30 pm.  We were headed to My Old Dutch, a pancake house in Holborn that I have wanted to try forever.  Never having company, I never ended up eating there. To make things really enticing today, the chain has an offer they call Monday Madness—where a variety of pancakes—crepes really—with the most delicious fillings are half price. We were headed there with enthusiasm, when we spied the Princess Louise pub right across the road and decided to head there for a drink. Two swift half pints later, we were in great spirits and ready to attack a Dutch dinner. And what a fab dinner it was too! We chose the Smoked Salmon Pancake stuffed with a mushroom sauce for our savory course and a pear and cinnamon pancake for dessert.  The place closed at 10. 30 pm and we walked in at 10.25pm—but the staff were kind enough to seat us and serve us at top speed. An hour later, we had tucked into an enormous meal and had taken pictures to mark the ticking of another item from my To-Do List.

And so it was that my first day in London came to a close. I had to pinch myself a couple of times while on the bus to believe that I was back again so soon—in fact, it seems as if I have never left. It is now 12.30 pm and I am now still full of beans. Hopefully, I will fall asleep just as soon as I hit the pillow.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

Homeward Bound After a Capital Week in Washington DC.

Sunday, Mar 19, 2017: Washington-Southport, CT.

Homeward Bound:

Early the next morning, as we wanted to beat the traffic and because a Sunday dawn is the best time to hit the road, Llew and I got into the car while the rest of the Britto family slept. They had insisted we stay for a very special breakfast of halva-puri that they were going to enjoy with local friends—but we declined. We really did want to get home by lunch-time and were keen to get started.

It was drizzling when we set out but, fortunately, there was no snow or flurries and within five and a half hours, with just one stop to pick up breakfast at a Hi-Hop place in Delaware, we were home.

Conclusion:

Washington DC had been a true revelation! Little did we expect, when we had started out on our trip, a week ago, that we’d have so many exciting experiences, so many lovely reunions with fond friends and relatives and so many notable first-time sights to see. But for the weather, which was lousy except on the last day—luckily, our outdoor day—we had the time of our lives. Were there places we still wish we’d covered? Of course! We hadn’t set foot into Georgetown, the Kennedy Center or the Pentagon (which also requires three-week advance planning).

But we are sure there will be a next time—and soon! The capital is much too accessible and our contacts in the area too numerous for us to wait for another 25 years before we return there as tourists.

Thanks for following us on this journey. The writing of this blog is always worthwhile because I know that I have a handful of faithful followers who read my posts.

Until the road rises up to greet us again…bye-bye.

 

A Day for Memorial Monuments in Washington DC–And a Slap-Up Tapas Dinner

Saturday, Mar 18, 2017: Washington

A Day for Memorials:

As it turned out, the weather improved considerably today. The deep freeze, in which we seemed to have been stuck, lifted, much to our relief, for we had ear-marked this day to explore the outdoor memorial monuments scattered around the Mall and the Reflecting Pool. It would involve a great deal of walking and, indeed, by the end of the day, we had walked 7.5 miles. Yes, I do have a pedometer app called Moves attached to my phone and that is how I know exactly how much I walk each day. (My daily average is 4 miles while my record is 25 miles on a single day.)

Marian set us off on a way with a substantial breakfast that included bagels and croissants with butter and preserves as well as good coffee. She dropped us off at the metro station from where we boarded a train to the Smithsonian stop. We emerged on the Mall itself. It was the first time we were setting foot on this broad green expanse which was recently so much in the news as the debates raged on regarding the real crowd size for Trump’s inauguration which took place on it.

Viewing the Washington Monument:

We took a series of pictures of the Capitol in the background on one side and the tall obelisk of the Washington Monument on the other. It is no longer possible to climb up to the top of it—security restrictions are rife. Across the street we saw the Museum of African-American History and Culture, the newest addition on the Mall. Unfortunately, it is so impossible to get tickets to enter it as demand is overwhelming. Despite the fact that we awoke at 6.30 am on two consecutive days to get tickets online, we were unsuccessful. We have simply decided to wait for another occasion.

The Jefferson Memorial:

From the Washington Monument, we walked for quite a distance until we arrived on the banks of the Tidal Basin across which is my favorite monument in the city—the Jefferson Memorial. This Neo-Classical Rotunda, modelled entirely on the architectural drawings of Italy’s Andrea Palladio, is a recreation of Jefferson’s beloved home, Monticello (which we visited a few years ago). Since both Llew and I have been inside this lovely place, we avoided the long walk to actually get inside it and instead skirted the Tidal Basin. In doing so, we walked under the famed cherry trees for which Washington is renowned and which give the city a spectacular appearance in the spring. Hundreds of cherry trees were gifted to the United States by Japan as a symbol of friendship—ironically just before the onset of World War II. We had arrived in the city just shy of the blooming weekend—for the arrival of the blossoms is greeted in Washington, just as it is in Kyoto, Japan, with exhilaration. We arrived at the spot where the first two trees were planted (marked by a plaque and a Japanese stone lantern) and too pictures.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Monument:

Our next monument of discovery was the Dr. Marin Luther King Memorial which is a new addition to the cityscape, having been installed long after we were last in the capital as tourists. It is an immensely interesting piece of work: A towering sculpture of a very stern-looking Dr. King emerging out of a massive piece of granite. The bottom quarter of the sculpture is left unfinished. The piece of marble containing the sculpture seems to have detached itself from a larger stone block at the back—indeed, Dr. King’s portion of the sculpture seems to have stepped forward to dominate the spot. He stands solemnly with his hands folded on his chest. The following words are engraved on the side: “Out of the Mountain of Despair, A Stone of Hope.”  I thought that the entire conception of this monument was ingenious. All around the location, there are quotes from the various speeches of Dr. King. They evoke quite vividly the huge struggle for civil rights in this country through the turbulence of the 1960s.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Monument:

On foot we continued as we made our way to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Monument on another side of the Reflecting Pool. I was especially keen to get there as we had seen Lawrence Halperin’s designs for the venue at the National Building Museum, a couple of days ago. What we found was a vast plot of land devoted to recounting the achievements of four Presidential terms in office enjoyed by this one individual. (There has since been an amendment to the Constitution that permits no more than two terms). As you walk through each term represented by an individual ‘room’ created by delineating rocks, you are presented with a sculpture denoting the salient historical feature of that period. There are the long bread lines of the Great Depression, for instance. There is also a sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt, his loyal companion, who played one of the most effective roles of First Lady in the 20th century. As you move through each ‘room’, you are completely impressed by the glorious achievements of this man.

At the very end of the monument, you come upon a massive bronze sculpture that has weathered to a green verdigris patina. FDR is seated in a chair wearing a vast cape around him to hide his wheelchair. A few feet away sits his dog, a Scots terrier. As was well-known, FDR was physically handicapped (having suffered from polio which made it impossible for him to walk). He was, therefore, always confined to a wheel chair. The disabled in America were deeply offended by the fact that the sculpture hid his disability and they insisted on the installation of a second sculpture that would portray him on the wheelchair he designed himself. Hence, while the original sculpture is to be found at the end of the monument in front of cascades of cooling water, the one in which he is depicted on his wheel chair is right at the beginning of the monument. Inside, in the gift shop, the visitor can see one of the actual wheelchairs that FDR used and which he designed and fashioned himself using a wooden kitchen chair. We found the entire visit deeply moving for we have visited FDR’s home at Hyde Park on the Hudson and were quite familiar with his stupendous achievements during World War II, his New Deal that give us Medicare and Social Security payments during our retirement and his Fireside Chats.

Lunch at a Local Kiosk:

Being that our day was steeped in Americana, it was about time we stopped and filled our bellies with the typical great American meal: cheese-chilli dogs with fries and sodas. And that was exactly what we found in one of the kiosks run by the National Park Service on the Mall. We found ourselves seats in the sun and took a much-needed rest as we enjoyed our very tasty but very casual meal. Lunch done, in the shadow of the Neo-Classical Lincoln Memorial, we got up and continued our exploration.

More Memorials to Peruse:

The Korean War Memorial:

The Korean War Memorial was very close to the lunch kiosk and it was there that we went next. In a most interesting composition, a couple of dozen Americans are seen knee-deep in tall vegetation, draped in the long, loose rain ponchos that they wore while in Korea fighting the least-known of the American wars. They are seen trooping towards the American flag in a curving single file. The entire vignette is deeply engaging. Alongside them, there is a black granite wall that has been engraved with the faces of Americans who served in Korea. Since it was a coalition war, fought with the assistance of UN troops, the names of the many countries that participated in this war, are also engraved on low stone markers. Overall, a most moving portrayal of courage in the face of danger.

The Lincoln Memorial Monument:

Right across the street stood the marble edifice of the Lincoln Memorial—so that was our next stop. It sits high on a hill overlooking, in arresting symmetry, the Reflecting Pool that stretches in front with the Washington Monument at the other end of it. This time, we did climb the stairs to enter the monument and to take in Daniel Chester French’s magnificent sculpture of the seated Lincoln (a Marquette is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) as well as the engraving of the entire Gettysburg Address. The interior of the monument was simply swarming with people–indeed, it was the most crowded of the memorial monuments. It was also about 2.30 pm by the time we arrived there. The day had warmed considerably and it was very pleasant to be out in the sunshine that seemed to have sneaked into the city after a particularly frigid week. Needless to say, we took a number of pictures before we carried on.

The Vietnam War Memorial:

The next memorial we saw was the Vietnam War Memorial—both of us had seen this before on previous visits to the city. The rather stark monument was designed by a young architecture student, then at Yale, named Maya Lin. She won the competition for a monument that would comprise a black granite wall that would be engraved with the names of the thousands of Americans who perished in that most notorious of recent wars. On past occasions, we have found mementoes of the visits made by war veterans in honor of their lost comrades. This time, there was not much to be seen. But again, there were hordes of people everywhere. Not far away, is a newer monument that recalls the role played by women in the Vietnam War—non-combative in those days, but nevertheless, deeply significant.

 

The World War II Memorial Monument:

And finally, we arrived after a nice walk alongside the Reflecting Pool, at the new World War II Memorial Monument that is the newest addition to the Mall. It is composed around another pool with fountains that play constantly. Tall granite columns rise up, each representing one of the American states. They are crowned by wreaths and carry the name of the state. There is also a Wall of Gold stars, one star for each thousand soldiers that died. There are friezes designed and created by Ray Kelsey that encircle one side of the monument (we had seen the Marquettes of these at the National Building Museum). Overall, we were left feeling deeply subdued by the amount of American blood that has been spilled through the dreadful wars that checker the country’s very short history.

And by this time in our rambles, it was just past 4.00 pm. We had been almost entirely on our feet since 10.00 am and had already walked about 7 miles. We were more than ready to return to McLean and when we received a text from Marian telling us that she was headed for the 5.00 pm Mass at her church, we decided to try and get there in time to join her as we would be on the road, the following (Sunday) morning and would probably not be able to get to Mass.

Mass in McLean:

Marian’s church is one of those modern amphitheatrical affairs with the altar in the center of a pit that offers views from every part. It was quite packed for a Saturday evening and the congregation was composed mainly of Filipinos and South Asians. It is these communities that seem to keep Roman Catholicism alive and worshipping around the world! It was a good mass with a very traditional bent—far more formal that our masses in Connecticut.

As soon as it was done, Marian drove us home to her house. We stayed long enough to enjoy bowls of tasty ice-cream provided by her daughter Anjali who works for Coldstone Creamery and who is entitled to a tub of ice-cream every so often. It was our last chance to chat with Marian and Anjali before we said goodbye to them, piled our overnighters into our own car and made our way to our next port of call—Reston, Virginia—for we were switching home again for the last night of our visit.

Arrival at Reston:

Reston is the residence of my cousin’s daughter Carol, her husband Ajit and their kids, Nick and Dia. We had spent two nights with them quite recently en route to and back from Charlotte, North Carolina, and since they thought our time with them was too brief, they insisted we return. However, this entire week they were busy with a professional move—Ajit is an orthodontic surgeon and Carol is his Office Manager. The moving of the premises of their own family-run business (with Ajit’s sister Mala, who is also an orthodontist) had consumed their week, but they were keen that we spend at least our last night in the area with them. We were delighted to do so as we really do enjoy their company tremendously.

We arrived in Reston at 7.00 pm to an uproarious welcome from their dog, Duke, who is the friendliest fellow you ever did see! He greeted us like old friends and it was only after he had calmed down and we had a chance to chinwag for a while that the Brittos suggested dinner outside. We were ravenous and quite ready to leave in two cars. We would follow them as they took us back into downtown Washington DC for they had made a reservation at Jaleo’s, a very high-end restaurant whose chef Jose Andres, has developed a sterling reputation as one of America’s most note-worthy, at the moment.

Dinner at Jaleo’s on our Last Night in Washington DC:

Ajit and Carol are foodies—so we found eager partners in crime as we sat ourselves down to enjoy the very interesting tapas-based menu on offer. But first, drinks. At Ajit’s suggestion, we ordered a pitcher of sangria for the table. It was surprisingly bracing and refreshing at the same time with citrus fruit floating in it.

As for the meal, in a word, wow! Going slow and pausing between orders, we had a variety of tapas items that went down a treat—from chorizo sausage with mashed potato and cider sauce to salmon, from bacon-rapped dates to Spanish omlette, from a Brussels sprouts salad to garlic shrimp (which was awesome)—between the six of us, we tasted about nine of the tapas dishes and each one was better than the other. For dessert, we chose to share the Basque cake which was served with cinnamon ice-cream—a real palate-cleanser, after what had been an astounding meal. It was the most unexpected and truly ritzy end to our meal for the space was huge, the décor modern, the service impeccable and the company exuberant (just as we expected). It was a fantastic way to catch up with the Brittos and their kids and we had a truly grand evening: the crowning glory to what had been an incredibly exciting week in Washington. We thanked out relatives profusely for their generosity for they insisted on treating us and made us promise that we would return again soon to partake of a meal at the famed Little Inn in Washington, which all of us had wanted to try at some time or the other.

Until tomorrow, see ya…

Bibliophilia and Art Mania in the Capital–Grand Day for Libraries and Galleries

Friday, Mar 17, 2017: Washington

A Day for Bibliophilia:

Museums, yes. Art galleries, of course. Famous buildings and private residences, certainly. But libraries? Since when do folks put the visiting of libraries on their tourist itineraries? Well, they do so if they are the Almeidas. Because books are our passion, touring spaces devoted exclusively to them and getting into the minds of fellow-bibliophiles, is something we have done for years. Among the many gems we have uncovered through our travels: The Long Library at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland; The Coimbra University Library in Portugal; The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. And on this trip, it would be the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress we would peruse. Boy, were we excited!

Breakfast at Marian’s:

But first….it was to be a breakfast to remember at our friend Marian’s place. Married to a South Indian named Anand, Marian has grown into something on an expert on the making of idlis—soft rice cakes eaten with a lentil stew called sambar.  For us, it is a rare treat, eaten perhaps once a year on a trip to India. So, imagine our delight on awaking to find that Marian had steamed the rice cakes for us, heated up the sambhar and laid the table in her kitchen for our eating pleasure. Washed down with good coffee, it was a great start to our day. A quick shower later, we were piling into her car and she was dropping us off to her metro station so that we could start our exploration of the day.

At the Folger Shakespeare Library:

It was a bitterly cold morning. In fact, Llew and I laughed at the irony of the fact that we had wished to escape the cold of Connecticut by taking a trip “someplace warmer” during my Spring Break, only to land ourselves in a place six hours south of us that was colder than our home base of Southport. Oh well…as they say, you can change many things, but never the weather. Indeed, it had been a freezing week overall. Thankfully, the capital had some of the best indoor attractions in the world and we were kept toasty on our travels.

The metro dropped us off on Capitol Hill (Capital South) and a short walk later, we found ourselves facing the marble-clad building of the Folger Shakespeare Library which, on the outside, resembles any one of the Neo-Classical buildings that Pierre L’Enfant envisioned when he designed Washington DC. We made our way up the short flight of stairs to the main entrance and then, lo and behold, we were whisked back to Tudor England! Can you imagine my delight???

Once we cleared security, we were at the Main information Desk where we were informed that guided tours were given a few times a day. There was one starting in just ten minutes, so off we went. A volunteer docent gave a handful of visitors an introduction to the collection. How did the library come into being? What does it represent? It would be easiest for me to quote directly from the library’s website to make sure I get all the facts right. Here they are:

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s founders, Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger, established the Folger in 1932 as a gift to the American people. Emily Folger later wrote of Henry Folger’s belief that “the poet is one of our best sources, one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.” This belief in the deep connection between Shakespeare and America is the reason the Folger is located in the nation’s capital. Throughout a long career in the oil industry, Henry Folger, with his wife’s assistance, built the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. Together, Henry and Emily Folger then planned the library that would house their collection.
After it opened in 1932, the Folger steadily expanded its holdings to become a world-class research center on the early modern age in the West, while remaining the premier center for Shakespeare studies and resources outside of England. Its public outreach programs, beginning in the library’s early decades with exhibitions, lectures, and publications, have also grown over time.

The Folger collection began in 1889 with Henry Folger’s first purchase of a rare book. Already fascinated by Shakespeare, he paid $107.50 for a copy of the 1685 Fourth Folio of the plays. Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger spent decades gathering the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, broadly defined to include Shakespeare’s era as well.

As Henry continued to work full-time as an oil company executive, Emily tracked the growing collection and flagged possible purchases. When the complete collection was transported to the Folger Shakespeare Library before the library’s 1932 opening, it came to an astonishing 200,000 items in 2,109 packing cases.

In 1938, the library gained a new strength in English printed books with the purchase of most of the private library of the late Sir Leicester Harmsworth, which came to about 10,000 books, including small, later purchases from the estate. After the war, from 1948 to 1968, Folger Director Louis B. Wright added substantial materials from the Renaissance in Europe, acquiring 22,000 continental books and 19,000 more English books. That growth continues to this day, with new acquisitions which build on the collection’s existing strengths.

The guide took us first to the Tudor Main Hall. Believe me, you could have been in any one of the grand Elizabethan manors in England such as Hatfield House or Knole House—it was that authentic. Paneled in dark-wood with a huge brick fireplace as its focal point and a vast library (Reading) table surroudned by chairs in the center, the room is grand in its proportions. Since light comes from small stained-glass window, the room is on the darker side, but no matter. This aspect adds to the ambience. She began by giving us a brief history of the building. Once again, I shall quote from the library’s website in order to get my facts straight:

When one thinks of the treasures of the Folger Shakespeare Library, books and manuscripts and artwork immediately come to mind. But for many, the library’s national landmark building—designed by Paul Philippe Cret (1876–1945)—is a high point.

Located a block from the US Capitol, the Folger Shakespeare Library is an Elizabethan monument with a neoclassical exterior. On the outside, its white marble harmonizes with nearby buildings, such as the Library of Congress, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court. Inside, the design evokes Tudor England, with oak paneling, ornamental floor tile, and high plaster ceilings. The Folger building is best known for the Shakespeare bas-reliefs along its north façade.

The building is extensively ornamented with inscriptions of quotations by and about Shakespeare. Quotations were often used to adorn English great houses of Shakespeare’s day, and are an essential part of the Folger’s architecture. Henry Folger personally selected the inscriptions that may be found throughout the interior, the exterior, and the grounds. It was his wish that any texts taken from the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare should be spelled as they appear there, rather than in the modern style.
The chief architect for the Folger Shakespeare Library was Paul Philippe Cret, a well-known Philadelphia architect and French emigré who had trained in the Beaux Arts tradition in Paris. Some of his previous projects included the Pan American Union in Washington and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Washington architect Alexander Trowbridge was the consulting architect for the project.
The Folger Shakespeare Library was dedicated in 1932 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Tudor Hall had two Tudor paintings on the wall—one of Queen Elizabeth I in her younger days (although the white-painted face is in evidence) and another of an Elizabethan worthy whose name I did not catch. The walls are surrounded by glass cases in which a huge collection of ceramic Shakespearean busts and statues abound together with ceramic portraiture of the many characters the Bard created. In the center of the main table, there was a facsimile copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623 and in a glass case, taking pride of place in the room was the real thing—a Fourth Folio, Henry Folger’s proudest acquisition.  There were many questions asked by visitors which included a grad student, a high school teacher of English and a professor (moi)—which left me wondering whether most of the traffic that this building sees are those involved in education.

After spending quite a long time in the Tudor Main Hall (which set the tone quite beautifully for the rest of our visit), we trooped into what looked like a Long Gallery (a frequent feature of Elizabethan aristocratic homes in England or Scotland). This was filled with valuable works from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, that included a Greek Bible, splendid illuminated manuscripts from the medieval period and other landmark publications from the Renaissance. Founded exactly five hundred years ago in 1517, the College quickly acquired a significant collection under the leadership of its founder, Richard Fox. Llew and I spent a while browsing through some of the main works and eventually were permitted a peak into the Main Reading Room as this room is out of bounds to visitors. It is a long and very ornate room constructed in two tiers and lined everywhere the eye descends, by books. We saw several scholars working on their research materials. Readership is select and scholars are meant to apply for scholarships which grant them residence reader rights for short or long terms. It was all very impressive indeed.

Viewing the Folger Shakespeare Theater:

However, much as the Tudor rooms were fascinating, it was the Theater that was the piece de resistance of our tour—understandably, it was kept for last. This time we could go inside and take our seats on the very chairs that the audience would occupy during one of the many performances that are presented year-round. These include Shakespearean works as well as those by his contemporaries and by modern-day playwrights who have taken their inspiration from the Bard. We enjoyed feasting our eyes on the wooden-clad theater that is based entirely on the design of the Globe Theater in London. There are three gallery levels that look down upon a wooden stage which is exactly as you would have seen it in Shakespeare’s day except that it is not open to the sky. We were enchanted. Furthermore, the guide told us that the Folger Shakespeare Library is the venue of the Pen/Faulker Award—judges meet here and the award ceremony takes place here. It was especially significant for Llew whose personal collection of hard bound first editions (often signed by their authors) includes each year’s winners of the Pen-Faulkner Award.

After what had been a thrilling tour in many respects, we left the library and crossed the street to find ourselves in the magnificent Library of Congress.

Touring the Library of Congress:

The Library of Congress Building is quite plainly the most glorious building in the Capital. Both inside and out, it dazzles. Clad in Neo-Classical marble, it had wide steps that give main entry into the building. Once security in cleared, you find yourself in a space that is simply spectacular. Words cannot convey the initial impression that the interior décor makes on the viewer. It truly has to be seen to be believed. Suffice it to say that we joined a guided tour which had masses of people in attendance, were treated to a brief film in the Visitors’ Room that introduced us to the library and its collection and then were walked through the Main Hall and taken into the sanctum sanctorum, the actual Reading Room itself.

So here is a brief account of this library from its website:

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with millions of books, recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts in its collections. The Library is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office. The Library preserves and provides access to a rich, diverse and enduring source of knowledge to inform, inspire and engage you in your intellectual and creative endeavors.

As in the case of the Bodleian and Fitzwilliam libraries in Oxford and Cambridge Universities in  England respectively that receive one copy of every book ever published in the UK, so too, the Library of Congress receives a copy of every book every published in the USA. This means, of course, that my book on The Politics of Mourning is at the Library of Congress and when I looked up their Search Catalog, I did find that they have two copies of it, much to my delight! My other book on Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age is also in the Library! Of course, every book published in the USA also receives a catalog number from the Library of Congress.

I took a lot of pictures during our tour as I simply could not get enough of the opulence of this building. It has everything you can imagine in Baroque interior design: pillars, cupolas, domes, marble staircases, stained glass windows, wrought-iron ornamentation, thick carvings in wood and stone…indeed, the décor beggars description.

The guide took us around to the most important elements of the collection from the Gutenburg Bible to the Main Reading Room which we could view from several stories up. Anyone can get a Reader’s Card for the Library of Congress provided you can submit two pieces of identity. It is a handy Washington DC souvenir—although we were discouraged unless we really meant business—and business, in this case, involves doing research in-house as it is not a lending library—merely one from which one can temporarily borrow materials for reading on the premises. The Library is also a record-keeper for the nation and people come there to do all sorts of archival research relating to family histories, land rights, etc.

Our view of the Main Reading Room was simply astounding. I had thought, a few months ago, while doing research in the Radcliff Camera of the Bodleian Library in Oxford that it would be impossible for me to focus on my reading when I was surrounded by so much grandeur. But the Radcliff Camera, despite its extraordinary Baroque interior pales in comparison to the Library of Congress with its vast number of bronze sculptures of writers and scholars that ring the Rotunda and the magnificence of its dome—for like all the great domes of the world (St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, for instance) this is simply arresting. Grecian architectural elements combine with Renaissance Baroque ornamentation to create a space that must be overwhelmingly thrilling to the scholar fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study here.

When the tour ended, we made our way to two exhibits that we were told not to miss: one was a map of the world in the time of Amerigo Vespucci who named America soon after its ‘discovery’ by Columbus. This huge engraving sits in two vast show cases and occupies an entire section of the building. It is accompanied by other contemporary documents such as a printed version of the journal of Christopher Columbus (in Italian) that he penned as he made his crossing of the Atlantic for the first time in 1492. (I had seen the original—the actual journal itself– in the Columbus Museum in Barcelona, Spain). I took a lot of pictures.

Finally, we ended our tour of the Library of Congress by taking in the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, President of the US, after whom this building of the library is named. Here, from the website, is information pertaining to how Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of books came to be in the Library of Congress:

Throughout his life, books were vital to Thomas Jefferson’s education and well-being. When his family home Shadwell burned in 1770 Jefferson most lamented the loss of his books. In the midst of the American Revolution and while United States minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. Jefferson’s library went through several stages, but it was always critically important to him. Books provided the little traveled Jefferson with a broader knowledge of the contemporary and ancient worlds than most contemporaries of broader personal experience. By 1814 when the British burned the nation’s Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. Congress purchased Jefferson’s library for $23,950 in 1815. A second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851, destroyed nearly two thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.

Through a generous grant from Jerry and Gene Jones, the Library of Congress is attempting to reassemble Jefferson’s library as it was sold to Congress. Although the broad scope of Jefferson’s library was a cause for criticism of the purchase, Jefferson extolled the virtue of its broad sweep and established the principle of acquisition for the Library of Congress: “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Proclaiming that “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson began a second collection of several thousand books, which was sold at auction in 1829 to help satisfy his creditors.

What remains of Jefferson’s Library looks small, but it is beautifully displayed in a semi-circle made up of glass cases. Color-coded bookmarks let you know if the book was an original from his library or whether it was a later replacement copy of a book he originally possessed. Occasionally you will find dummy cardboard boxes with the names of books printed on them. These signify books that were in the original collection but which have yet to be found and added to it. It was all quite fascinating indeed and we had a grand time. We found every second fully rewarding.

Lunch at Eastern Market:

We could have stayed at the Library of Congress forever; but then, there is only a small limit to our stamina. Our tummies beckoned and we decided to go to ‘Eastern Market’ which every guide book suggests in a Must-See venue in Washington. It happens to be a covered market (similar to the one outside Faneuil Hall in Boston) with vendors selling mainly food products: fresh produce, deli meats, etc. There is a butcher, a spice dealer—that sort of thing. On the weekends, the market comes into its own with a flea market developing outside on the sidewalk. Tourists flock there to buy everything from cheap souvenir trinkets  to hearty breakfast sandwiches.

We were looking out for lunch and, to our delight, we found the perfect place at the end of the market, in a stall that offered seats to appease our hunger. Since we were in Maryland and had not yet partaken of its best-known dish—Maryland Crab Cakes–we selected those. Placed within burger buns, they made the most perfect sandwich lunch you can imagine. Tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato filled our burger and proved to be the best accompaniments to the most succulent crab cakes I can recall eating. Although there was nothing to rave about in terms of ambience or atmosphere, we had seen the famed Eastern Market and had ourselves one of the more memorable lunches of our visit.

An Afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art:

On reading through our guide books, I discovered the existence of the National Portrait Gallery. Knowing the National Portrait Gallery in London almost like the back of my hands, I felt slightly ashamed that I had never been to the same institution in my own country! Hence, a visit to this venue was definitely on the cards for us.

Lunch done, we took the metro and made our way to the National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a grand Greek Revival building, away from the Mall where most of the Smithsonian’s museums are located, it is one of the oldest structures in the city. Once we were inside the building, we discovered that it is, in fact, two museums—for it houses the National Portrait Collection as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. Joining the two separate ‘wings’ of the museum with its two separate collections is the handiwork of the contemporary British architecture, Norman Foster, who designed the undulating, wavy, glass ceiling that, at first glance, reminds you of the Great Courtyard of the British Museum in London. And indeed, you would not be mistaken for Foster designed that as well. Known as the Kogod Courtyard, it provides an all-weather canopy from the elements for visitors to the museum and a fine meetings place for a drink or a bite. We crossed the courtyard as we took in the highlights of the collection (easily accessible for visitors with paucity of time) through a handy leaflet that enumerates the must-see items.

Highlights of the Collection:

We went on to see paintings from Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, a portrait of Pocahontas in Elizabethan garb, of an Indian named Sequoia, a sculpture called The Vine, landscapes by Asher Durand of the Hudson River School and Albert Bierstadt of the prairie landscape and a portrait of four of our current female sitting justices of the Supreme Court. On the top floor, in the Grand Hall (itself a fabulous architectural achievement), we saw magnificent contemporary portraits of Michael Jackson, Toni Morrison, Bill and Melissa Gates, dozens of sporting figures such as Mohammed Ali, Babe Ruth, etc.

For Llew and me, however, the piece de resistance was a portrait of Katherine Hepburn that was placed on a wall just behind a glass case that contains all four of her Best-Actress Award Oscar trophies—for Hepburn is still the record-holder with the most number of Oscars in the Best Actress category (yes, even more than Meryl Streep!)! That was the closest Llew had ever come to an Oscar and he was thrilled. I had seen an Oscar for the first time, eight years ago, in a maritime museum called the Kon-Tiki Museum in Bygdoy in Norway, right outside Oslo, where the Oscar for the Best Documentary based on a film that recounted the trans-Atlantic voyage of Thor Heyerdahl on a raft (if you can believe it!) sits in a similar glass case—also donated to the museum by the film’s director. Naturally, we took a picture of Hepburn’s Oscars and then continued on our perusal. There was also a very interesting take on the iconic painting called “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emmanuel Leutze which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Well, the Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura has created a revision of this painting with a marvelous canvas that presents himself in the guise of George Washington. He titles his painting “An American Knock-Off”. I thought it was all quite astonishing indeed. Seriously, it is difficult for me to put into words the amount of sterling art we saw in these two museums including Gilbert Stewart’s portrait of George Washington.

Dinner in McLean:

But with the museum closing and darkness soon to fall upon Washington—and our stamina levels running pretty low—we decided to call a halt to our sightseeing and take the metro back to McLean. A text to Marian brought her to the metro station where she picked us up and took us back to her home. Well settled with drinks, we nattered on until she got dinner organized for us. In fact, Marian took loads of trouble putting on an Indian feast before us: it was to be an evening of Indian chaat which is North Indian street food. She made ragda pattice (a potato patty smothered with a spicy stew of chickpeas and onions) and bhel puri (a mixture of puffed rice, onions, potatoes, a spicy snack called sev and a variety of hot chilli and sweet date chutneys that makes the entire concoction tongue-tingling). Marian also served us delicious paneer or Indian cottage cheese. Since it was a Friday in Lent, both Llew and I were off meat—hence, it helped to have found crab cakes and a wonderful Indian vegetarian meal at Marian’s for dinner. Best of all, we enjoyed quality time with Marian as we reminisced about old times in Bombay (where we were both born and raised) and in New York (where we both arrived at the same time as new immigrants almost thirty years ago). It was a sheer delight to look back on our lives and although we missed Anand, her husband, who was in India, Marian was the perfect hostess.

We fell asleep deep fulfilled about the thrilling variety that the day had offered.

 

Until tomorrow, see ya…

More Americana in the US Capital: National Building Museum and Supreme Court

Wednesday, Mar 15, 2017: Washington

(A Day for More Americana)

            Breakfast at Heather’s place was far more elaborate this morning. In addition to toast with butter and jam, she had a spicy coconut-coriander chutney as well as cold cuts such as ham and turkey. She encouraged us to make ourselves sandwiches as she prepared her son, Jeremy, for school. As soon as we showered and dressed, we were leaving to drop Jeremy off at school before climbing back into Heather’s car to ride back to Washington DC with her and Maria. As they did yesterday, today too, they dropped us at Farragut West metro station. We rode the train to a stop called the Judiciary from where the National Building Museum was right opposite. This was a place neither one of us had seen before but the description in the guide books was rather enticing and since architecture is an art form for which I have developed a grand passion, I was keen to explore this museum.

Exploring the National Building Museum:

This museum is not part of the Smithsonian—which is the umbrella organization that runs the main museums on The Mall. Hence, there is an entry fee for this museum ($10) which includes a guided tour which is given twice a day. We decided to take the one beginning at 11.30 am. Meanwhile, with about an hour to kill, we roamed through the exhibits on the ground floor and were fully enchanted.

A word about the building: Built in the 1880s as the Pension Building, the National Building Museum might be familiar to Americana buffs as it is the venue of the Presidential Inauguration Ball that takes place every four years when a new President is sworn in.  You can, therefore, imagine that it offers space for a grand ballroom. What you might not expect to find is that the towering heights of the ceiling for the building rise to five floors that are held up by massively-thick Neo-Classical pillars that are faux-painted to resemble marble (but are actually entirely brick-clad on the inside).

We started out on our own taking a look at some of the marquettes for the national sculpture that is dotted all around the capital. I was particularly struck by a large bronze lion that watches carefully over a pair of cubs that are curled up on the other side of a small walkway. On reading the plaque, I discovered that the actual full-size sculpture is to be found across the street at the metro station. I, therefore, resolved to go out in search of it at the end of our tour.

Also amazingly, the ground floor of this building contains a most unique exhibition of model paper buildings that represent some of the world’s best-known structures. As Llew and I walked around in deep fascination, we realized that we have seen so many of these buildings in real life: from the Vatican to Fenway Ball Park in Chicago, from the Blue Mosque in Istanbul to the Burj Khalifa Building in Dubai, from the Al-Hambra in Granada to Buckingham Palace in London, from Schloss Neuschwanstein near Munich to the Cathedral of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. These little paper models were so exquisitely detailed and done so perfectly to scale that I had to take pictures of almost every one of them.

Next, we moved to an exhibit on the work of Ray Kelsey, a master sculptor who designed the various sculptural vignettes that encircle the World War II Memorial near the Reflecting Pool in front of the Washington Monument. We were able to look at the photographs he took of real male and female models who donned period costume. From the photographs, he made sketches of the sculptures and those in turn were cast in plaster and then in bronze to create the real thing.

Also quite astonishing is an exhibition on the work of Lawrence Halperin, an American architect, whose work is sprinkled all over the US and other parts of the world. He is solely responsible for the design and creation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial off the Reflecting Pool behind the Mall. We were able to look at the detailed drawings and landscape paintings he produced as part of his design portfolio when bidding for the commissions that he was granted. I was delighted to discover that the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz, where I have had the pleasure of spending a few weeks during past summers, was designed by Halperin. I could not wait to see the FDR Monument which we would be doing tomorrow.

Taking a Guided Tour of the National Building Museum:

The guided tour began at 11.30 am and had attracted quite a fan following. The guide was excellent. After giving us an introduction to the original use for which the building was intended—to govern pension distribution—he moved on to talk about the plaster frieze that encircles the exterior of the building. This is rather a striking feature when one enters the building and the observant visitor cannot help but notice it. We discovered that the building was the work of a late 19th century architect called Thomas Meigs who was completely inspired by a famous Italian palazzo in Rome called the Palazzo Farnese. Hence, the arched floors of the building are entirely inspired by the Palazzo Farnese, but there are some significant changes that were carried out to make the Pension Building more functional.

As we climbed higher and higher up the building, we were quite taken by the brick work in the stair wells that were pointed out to us as well as the Neo-Classical elements such as the Corinthian columns that were finished off with huge gilded plaster acanthus leaves at the top. I was also struck by scores of white plaster busts in the highest niches at the very roof line—these were modelled in the early 20th century after the original 19th century ones had disappeared. No one seems to know where they might be found. It is only on a guided tour that you can get to the highest floor from where you are parallel to the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian columns.

There was a goldmine of information that was offered quite expertly indeed to us and although it was an hour-long tour and I started wilting at the end of it, I have to admit that I learned an enormous amount and found it deeply stirring. I would most heartily recommend this museum to anyone who is looking to do something off the beaten path when visiting the capital.

Finally, on exiting the building, we made it a point to examine carefully the frieze about which we had learned so much on the tour. Also, much to our delight, I discovered that the lovely lion and lion cubs marquette that we had seen inside the museum was exposed in all its bronze glory, larger than life-size, just across the main entrance. It certainly made my day.

Lunch at Union Station:

Union Station in Washington DC is the equivalent of Grand Central Station in New York—it is the hub from which trains radiate across the length and breadth of America. Since it has, in recent years, evolved into more than just a train station, we decided to go there and take a look at its Neo-Classical architecture as well as the recent refurbishment that has turned one level into a Food Court. It would be a good place for us to get a bite to eat as we had started to feel quite ravenous.

Union Station’s interior is indeed quite astounding. The arched ceiling is divided into square blocks that are ornamented with full-blown carved flowers. I realized, in fact, that all of the underground metro stations are modelled upon this pattern—so that a uniformity of structure exists in the capital’s transportation network.

We climbed one floor up and arrived at the Food Court where we did the rounds of the entire place to decide what we would eat. Eventually, we chose a food chain that has not yet made its New York debut—called Roti, it presents Mediterranean cuisine in a cafetaria-like concept where patrons choose a base of either white or brown rice or salad greens, then choose their meat (chicken, lamb, meatballs or salmon) and finally select a variety of accompaniments or toppings such as humus, tahini, feta cheese, tabbouleh, salads made with bases of couscous and bulgar wheat, etc. and end with a salad dressing from a nice variety. The end result in a large and very substantial combination of Middle Eastern ingredients made up quite cleverly into a ‘bowl’ of food. Both Llew and I found our choices delectable. Well fortified for the next part of our day, we walked towards the US Supreme Court which we hoped to tour.

A Lecture in the US Supreme Court:

Neither Llew nor I had ever been inside the Supreme Court. On previous visits to Washington DC, we had skirted by car the grand Neo-Classical buildings that give the official part of the city—Capitol Hill–a distinctly Greco-Roman appearance. This time, we not only hoped to enter the building but to take a conducted tour that would enable us to get access to the actual Court Room in which the nine justices who comprise the Supreme Court meet and give decisions on some of the most important aspects of American policy.

It was a fifteen minute walk to the Supreme Court from Union Station and we got there at a time when most visitors have had their fill of sightseeing for the day. We entered through the Visitors Entrance, went by all the screening devices that make these buildings feel worse than airports and arrived at the ground level which is filled with glass cases holding items relating to the history of the Supreme Court. There are also detailed cases on the design and construction of the building, the choice of characters from history (that played the role of law-makers including the Prophet Mohammed whom I have seen depicted in art for the first time) as well as a large numbers of oil portraits of Supreme Court justices who have left their mark upon American legal history.

We were informed that there are no guided tours of the buildings. What visitors can participate in is a lecture that is given in the Court Room itself. As the next one was supposed to begin at 3. 30 pm, we joined it. While we waited, I perused the glass cases on the ground floor and found myself quite fascinated by all I saw. At 3. 30, we joined the line that made its way into the Court Room.

The lecture, half an hour long, was given by a competent docent who explained the workings of the Supreme Court. We were told that nine judges work under the leadership of the Chief Justice (currently Justice John Roberts who was recently watched around the world as he administered the oath of office to new President Trump). They allot no more than half an hour for each case that they hear in what is essentially an appellate court. An attorney representing each side is given no more than five minutes to state the case. Questions are asked that pertain to the case. Papers regarding the case would have been submitted months in advance so that each judge would have had sufficient time to mull over the case. However, none of them discuss any aspect of it in advance of its appearance on the board for that day. Thus, none of the judges has any idea what a colleague on the bench thinks about it. This allows them to deliberate afresh after the initial arguments are made and then take independent decisions. The guide also explained to us the quiet and subdued décor of the room and the various motifs that make it so solemn. I found the entire experience absolutely stirring. It was awesome to me to actually be in the very court room in which some of the most significant decisions in US history (such as Roe VS Wade) have been made.

By the time the tour ended, it was about 4.00 pm and we were just in time to make our way on the metro back to Farragut West where we were to meet Heather and Maria who would be driving us back to Silver Spring.

Thai Dinner at Heather’s:

As Heather had ordered so much Thai take-out food yesterday, she urged us to return to her place and to help her finish some of it. Since we love Thai food so much, we did not need to have our arms twisted too much. Indeed, we enjoyed the delicious dishes of the previous evening which we washed down with beer and wine.

But we did not linger too long as we were ‘moving house’ again, We would be spending the next two nights with another friend in McLean, Virginia, and it was to her place that we headed as we said goodbye to Heather and thanked her, Chrys and Jeremy for a very hospitable and comfortable stay.

About an hour later, we arrived in McLean and found the sprawling home of our friend Marian Kumar who graduated from the same high school in Bombay as I did. She welcomed us in very warmly indeed and since we had already eaten dinner, she offered us drinks which we accepted as we settled down for a long chinwag as we were seeing Marian after a very long time. When we were quite done catching up, she showed us to our en suite room in her three-story home and we settled down for the night feeling quite delighted by what had been another very exciting day in Washington DC.

 

Until tomorrow, see ya….

A Day for Americana in the US Capital: Museum of National History and National Archives

Wednesday, Mar 15, 2017: Washington

(A Day for Americana)

We devoted this day to Americana. Awaking in Heather’s home, we were delighted at the prospect of getting a ride into the city with her as she and Maria had planned to drive to work. But first breakfast: Heather had toast with jam and butter ready for us and with some coffee, we felt ready to face the day. She and Maria dropped us off at the entrance to the Metro at Farragut West from where we rode to the Smithsonian Metro stop. Our first port of call was the Museum of National History on The Mall. Because we entered it from the Constitution Avenue side, we did not see the Mall. The day was still cold and very grey—it made sense to spend it in a museum and thankfully, the capital has some excellent ones.

Exploring the Museum of National History:

The museum opened at 10.00 am and we were there just after at about 10.15, when there was already a crowd and a line outside the main entrance. Security clearance always takes ages in these buildings–a big hassle and a real mood-spoiler. Still, better safe, I suppose, than sorry.

When we did get into the museum, we found that there was a highlights tour at 11. 30 am. Llew and I decided to join it. That would leave us an hour to wander about on our own. Using the museum brochure and the guide books we had carried, we made our way to the top floor first and thought of finding our way downstairs to the most important items. In total, on our own and in the company of the tour guide, this is what we saw:

  1. The Gunboat Philadelphia which went down in the Revolutionary War after being struck by a cannon ball. You can see the entire boat (pulled out of Lake Champlain in Vermont) with the cannon ball still stuck in its side.
  2. Lincoln’s Top Hat (worn on the evening he was killed at Ford’s Theater).
  3. Jefferson’s lap writing desk (a precursor of the laptop!).
  4. Archie Bunker (and Edith’s) armchairs and coffee table from the 1980s hit TV show, All In The Family.
  5. Mohammed Ali’s boxing gloves.
  6. Original puppets Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.
  7. Julia Child’s entire kitchen from her last home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  8. The original lunch counter from Woolworth’s in Greenboro, North Carolina, where the lunch-time sit-ins had continued for three whole months during the Civil Rights Movement.
  9. Inauguration Ball Gowns of every American First Lady from Mary Todd Lincoln to Michelle Obama. (Melania Trump has yet to submit hers for inclusion). I particularly loved Hilary Clinton’s.
  10. Porcelain china dinner sets designed for the White House by every First Lady in America.
  11. A ship’s surgical set from the 1800s that contain a real saw with which limbs were amputated (without anesthesia).
  12. Clinton’s saxophone.
  13. A portion of the original Berlin Wall.
  14. Dorothy’s Ruby Red Shoes from the film The Wizard of Oz.
  15. A most unusual seated sculpture of George Washington wearing a Greek toga.
  16. The Biggest highlight of them all (and we saved the best for last), the original Star-Spangled Banner.

The last item requires a bit more commentary. It is the original flag that flew over Fort McKinley during the war of 1812 when the American Revolutionaries received a thrashing at the hands of British troops. Expecting the American ‘stars and stripes’ to be lowered by the morning, the poet Francis Scott Keys awoke to find (through his eye-glass) “that our flag was still there”. His joy resulted in the penning of a poem which eventually developed into the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. This original flag, mammoth in its dimensions, is now placed in a specially-constructed, climate-controlled room under very dim lighting (to ensure that the colors do not fade) and left open to the public with the words of the entire national anthem projected on a screen at the back. Bits from it that were cut off and given away as souvenirs, are missing and attempts are still being made to find them. Meanwhile, the person who sewed the flag, Mary Pickerling, with her two daughters and daughter-in-law, are revered by history and accounts of their lives and the sewing of the flag are available in the same room (where photography is strictly prohibited). We thought that this museum was superb for any history buff, for anyone who wishes to know something more about our country and for anyone who wishes to see how carefully we preserve those items that speak to our past with all its flaws and its failings.

Needless to say, we were starving by 1. 00 pm and decided to go in search of lunch.

Lunch at Paul’s:

I have always been a huge fan of the Belgian patisserie chain called Paul’s to which I had become endeared when I lived in London. In particular, I adore their hot chocolate and their almond croissants (which I have consumed by the hundreds during my European travels). I have always wondered why Paul has no American presence and when they will consider crossing the pond to open a shop in the US. So, imagine my delight when I discovered that Paul is alive and baking in the capital! Of course, I had to get my croissant and hot chocolate and with Llew as my partner in crime, off we went to the shop (a short ten minute walk away) and there we found it! Eureka!!!

Sadly, Paul in the US does not sell hot chocolate! What???? I was heartbroken. Even worse, their last almond croissant had just sold off—all they had was a chocolate almond croissant which we grabbed and shared. We also bought a slice of quiche each and ordered coffees instead of cocoa. It was small compensation for the kind of meal of which I had dreamed all morning! Still, at least it was a genuine European meal and I polished off every crumb from my plate.  Fortified, we decided to move on to the second item on our agenda on our day devoted to Americana.

A Tour of the National Archives:

Continuing with our determination to see places neither one of us had seen before, we crossed the street for, most conveniently, the National Archives building stood right there in front of us. Again, getting in proved odious, for we had to wait for a while as only a limited number of people are allowed into the building at any given time. After what seemed forever, we made our way through a side entrance of a handsome Neo-Classical, marble-clad building into the interior, where we joined another queue.

The greatest treasures of the National Archives are just three items: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights. Can you imagine building an entire structure to house just three bits of paper??? Well, there you have it. In a grand building with a huge main hall constructed in a Rotunda (thanks Andrea Palladio for giving us the concept of the Rotunda that is so ubiquitous in Washington DC), we stood in line to see these three most seminal of democratic documents. There is strict security at every turn and strict rules prohibiting photography. This is what the guard on duty told us: “There are three rules here regarding cameras—No Photography, No Photography, No Photography. And for those who do not understand, no pictures can be taken at all, of anything!” Wow!

Well, the documents are faded, to say the least. Everyone looks long and hard for John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence and it is a good job he wrote such a huge one because it seems to be the only one that has survived the test of time. Even that has suffered fading, but the grand old J at the beginning of his first name is unmistakable. The rest are well…barely discernible at all. We moved from one glass case to the next, braving several heads in front of us, until we saw them all—it took us no more than ten minutes really to see the three.

And then, we were out of there. We found some good exhibitions in other halls which also had some wonderful documents that are part and parcel of our history—but we did not have the time or the energy to see any of them. I was particularly fascinated to see The Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 that set all slaves free. But there were many important letters and edicts pertaining to Civil Rights, to Womens’ Rights, etc. that are indeed a gold mine for any buff of American History. Llew and I loved every moment of it all and sincerely wish we had more time to peruse them with the attention they deserve.

We then took the metro back to Farragut West where we to met Heather and Maria who drove us back home to Heather’s place in Silver Spring—but not before we stopped en route at a Thai restaurant to pick up a ton of food.

Dinner was sorted as Heather put out the take-out containers of Chilli Beef, Thai Green curries, flat rice noodles with shrimp and Thai Fried Rice. Everything was finger-licking good and we were pleased that we were able to eat so much Thai food (one of our favorite cuisines) on this trip. Not long after, we decided to call it a night.

 

Until tomorrow, see ya…

A Capital Day for Art and Artists: At the National Gallery of Art in Washington

Tuesday, Mar 14, 2017: Washington

A Day for Art and Artists

The day dawned white, quiet and still—the sort of morning that accompanies dire news of an impending snowstorm. With dread, I raised the blinds up in our room to survey the outside and found, to my deepest shock, that we had a mere sprinkle! What an anti-climax! Indeed, the area had no more than two inches in the worst-affected parts. It was not at all what we’d expected. Over breakfast of hot cereal and buttered toast with coffee, we decided to go ahead with our plans. Schools in the area were shut, many government offices would stay closed but public transportation was available and go we would.

Off to the National Gallery of Art:

Our plan for the day was to explore the National Gallery of Art, one of the world’s premier collections and one we have had the pleasures of perusal on multiple occasions. Still, it is always a joy to say Hello to old favorites and it was with enthusiasm that we took to the Metro after Corinne dropped us off to the station. We bought ourselves SmartTickets (which look like London’s Oyster Cards) and with Top Up As You Go options, we filled ten dollars in each of our cards and were off and away. Metro service was pretty sporadic as the snow had scared personnel away—they were, therefore, running a skeletal service which made it a bit uncomfortable as we had to wait a long time for our train on a freezing platform with no winter shelters. But finally, we were aboard and heading into the capital, getting off at the station and making our way to the museum.

Exploring the Collection at the National Gallery of Art:

The capital’s collection is so huge that it is contained in two buildings: the West Building is the older, marble-clad one that contains works from the Renaissance to the 19th century. The East Building, the newer one, designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, contains Modern Art from the 19th century to contemporary times. We decided to arm ourselves with audio guides which we obtained from the visually-stunning central hall or Rotunda. This is focused around a sculpture of Hermes (Mercury) that was completely surrounded by spring blooms: azaleas in the softest tones of pink, peach and mauve were amassed around the fountain and it was inevitable that we would pause there to take pictures.

Our exploration of the collection began with the Portrait called Ginevra de Benci—a 15th century Florentine aristocrat whose face (probably an engagement portrait) was painted in oil on wood by Leonardo da Vinci—it is the only Da Vinci work in North America. The back of the panel is equally interesting as it features the family crest with significant motifs.  Using our audio guide, we walked ourselves around the work and then paused to take in the other significant Renaissance works in the same or nearby galleries: works by Sandro Botticelli, Fra Lippo Lippi, etc. For the next three hours, we lost ourselves in the wealth of magnificent art as the museum filled with more patrons. Among the many canvasses we saw, here are a few:

  1. Madonna by Giotto
  2. Wonderful busts and wreaths from Lucia della Robbia on whom there was a special exhibit.
  3. The Alba Madonna by Raphael
  4. St. George Killing the Dragon by Raphael
  5. Portrait of Saskia by Rembrandt
  6. The Old Man by Rembrandt
  7. Lady with a Red Hat by Vermeer
  8. Delft Courtyard by Pieter de Hooch (my favorite Flemish painter)
  9. Self Portrait by Rembrandt
  10. The Mill by Rembrandt
  11. Daniel in the Lion’s Den by Peter Paul Rubens (the most arresting of the lot)
  12. A Woman and Child by Renoir

 

Feeling quite peckish by 1.00 pm, we stopped and walked along the psychedelic lit walkway towards the East Building to get to the Museum café for lunch. In a cafetaria style setting, we chose the NPG Burger which consisted of a patty with grilled onions, blue cheese and other fixings. We also picked up sweet potato fries and a soda and found ourselves a comfortable table where, surrounded by printed art works from the collection and the company of a few souls who had braved the elements to appreciate art, we had a substantial lunch.

After lunch, we set off towards the East Building, pausing to appreciate the genius of Pei who has created a building that has distinct similarities to the Louvre, not just in the creation of the glass triangles but also in the wide open spaces that form the café and the gift shop. Here are the items we paused to appreciate in the Modern collection:

  1. The Couple by Gustav Klimt
  2. The massive Mobile by Alexander Calder in the main lobby
  3. Harlequin Family by Picasso (the first important group portrait of the 20th century)
  4. The Artist’s Garden in Vetheuil by Claude Monet
  5. The Japanese Bridge in his Garden in Giverny by Monet
  6. Portrait of a Little Girl by Renoir
  7. Madame Monet with a Parasol (and her Daughter) by Monet
  8. Children on a Beach by Mary Cassat
  9. Portrait of a Man by Cezanne
  10. Still Life with Oranges by Cezanne
  11. Self Portrait by Van Gogh
  12. Roses by Van Gogh
  13. Dancers at the Bar by Degas
  14. A Mound of Butter with Eggs by Vollot
  15. At the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec
  16. Views of Rouen Cathedral by Monet
  17. Reclining Gypsy by Cezanne
  18. On the River Stour by Constable

Of course, there were hundreds of paintings that we saw and at which we paused, based on the Director’s Tour that was part of our exploration with our audio guide. But by 4.00pm, we were physically exhausted and ready to call a halt. We had seen the best that the museum had to offer and felt deeply edified by the experience. It was time to go out and enjoy a quiet evening in another venue.

We took the metro back to Lorton, Corinne met us as the station and drove us home and after a quick cup of tea and a nibble at her place, we said our goodbyes and thank-yous and made the drive to Silver Spring, Maryland, as we would be spending the next two nights at the home of my cousin Laura’s daughter, Heather, her husband Chrys and their little boy, Jeremy. The drive took about 45 minutes. All highways had been cleared and since many people had stayed at home, traffic was rather light.

We arrived at Heather’s place and had a lovely reunion with her and her family. She lives in a large apartment complex in a two-bedroom apartment but is in the midst of a move as she has just bought a home and will be leaving it shortly. Heather plied us with wine and nibbles and then served us a home-cooked dinner of roast pork which was very comforting on the cold evening. We also made the acquaintance of her next door neighbor Maria who is a work colleague and who was interesting company. Soon Maria’s son and daughter joined us too—making for a very companionable evening overall.

It was not long before we said goodnight and took a well-deserved rest.

Until tomorrow, see ya…

Worming Around the Luray Caverns in Virginia

Monday, Mar 13, 2017: Washington-Luray,Virginia-Washington

Worming Around the Luray Caverns of Virginia

We spent the next day in Washington by getting far away from it! In fact, since the blizzard was expected to be quite immense, we thought it best to stay local through the worst of it. It made sense then to go off into the wilds of Virginia on a beautiful day when the sun shone brightly and there was a less vicious nip in the air.

Our aim was to get to the Shenandoah Valley National Park to see the Luray Caverns. Less than a month ago, whilst on our way back from North Carolina where we had been for the Memorial Service of Llew’s brother, we had seen signs pointing to these caverns. About six months ago, when Chriselle had joined me in London, the two of us had taken a ten-day trip to Eastern Europe and had visited the Postjona Caves in Slovenia—one of Europe’s biggest attractions. Since Llew had not been with us then and we had been completely bowled over by the sights within these caves, I persuaded them to drive with me to the Luray Caverns for a similar experience. And thus it was that we found ourselves heading out of the nation’s capital and into the beautiful mountains of Virginia in which these caves are concealed.

In the Heart of the Luray Caverns:

The Luray Caverns are so-called because they are located in the small Virginian town of Luray. This sleepy hamlet would have remained unknown to the rest of the world were it not for the caves that were discovered quite by chance by three young men who were cavorting aimlessly in the area in the late 1880s. When they discovered cool air emanating from a hole in the ground, they suspected that there were hollows to be found beneath. They started digging and lo and behold, the caves revealed their hidden secret: miles of dark caverns had developed over the millennia through the action of water (a river ran close by) over rock. Over a long period of time, the drippings that carry mineral deposits develop into the stalagmites (rooted to the ground) and the stalactites (hanging from the ceiling) that give the caves’ interiors such an eerie aspect. After thousands of years, these calcified deposits join together to form pillars (of which we saw many grand examples).

We bought tickets to enter for $28 per head and joined a guided tour which begins every twenty minutes to a half hour depending on the crowds. We were quite surprised to find that at least twenty people joined our tour. You descend deep down into the caves through stairs hewn into the rock and find yourself in a dimly-lit space surrounded by towering natural forms. For the next thirty minutes, we were led on a walking tour through man-made walking paved paths that passed by all sorts of interesting rock formations from rocks that hung like sheets of bacon to those that resembled eggs fried sunny side up! We passed the Fish Market where rocks seems to hang like slimy fish and underground grottos carved by arched rock bridges. Everywhere we turned, there were opportunities to take pictures. Often times we were in spaces so vast that they seemed like cathedrals. No wonder a musician has set up a pipe organ in the caves which is capable of making music when the organ’s hammers hit different parts of the rocks. Gives a whoel new meaning to the term ‘rock music’, eh? Everything was quite fascinating and we were enthralled through it all.

It was about 1. 30 pm by the time we re-surfaced from the depths of the earth to re-emerge on its surface. We were rather hungry by that point and decided to go out in search of food. Just a five minutes ride away were a few fast food places and it was in McDonald’s that we found hamburgers that sustained us (as there was not much else by way of choice). With burgers, fries and sodas, we felt ready to embark on the next part of our sightseeing—a peak into the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum that was just next-door.

The Car and Carriage Caravan Museum:

If we were bowled over by the Luray Caverns, we were completely stunned by this amazing museum. In what looked like a warehouse space, we were whisked away to the late 1800s and to the age of the pioneer wagons that crossed the American frontier. We walked along pathways that were lined by the most wonderful collection of ancient wagons, caravans and carriages and then when technology arrived, into the age of the automobile–cars. Standing alongside these cars were models of human beings dressed suitably in Victorian or Edwardian garb. Among the more unusual items we saw were baby prams (perambulators) and carriages, covered milk vans that went delivering milk from door to door in rural Virginia as well as a host of plush cars from around the globe, many with vintage pedigrees. There were Model T Fords, of course, America’s great contribution to the Industrial Age as well as spiffy Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. We found it incredible that so valuable a collection of antique and vintage cars could be assembled here in the midst of nowhere–the collection of one man, H.T.N. Graves, the President of Luray Caverns–who set out, with his staff, to assemble the most impressive collection of vehicles from a historical standpoint. The end result is this marvelous cornucopia of treasures—some of it deeply glamorous (there is the vintage vehicle of Rudolph Valentino) and some of it genuinely rustic. Overall, it was a great pleasure to peruse these babies and we had a grand time.

Inside the Luray Museum:

Our next port of call was the Luray Museum which is located right across the street and which offered some more striking insights into life in this sleepy region of the world. It is still incredible to me how much vintage memorabilia of yesteryear has been collected by this museum and then carefully curated in order to take a visitor on a tour of the region through past times. It would take an entire day to see the collection properly. As it was, Llew and I simply skimmed through the contents but were impressed at every turn. We saw the region’s history of mining, agriculture, metal-working, etc. we learned about the quiet daily life of a hard-working mountain and valley people who took enough pride in their work as to preserve so many aspects of their mundane lives. In going through room after room of what was essentially a log-cabin, we derived a composite idea of the Luray region and were deeply gratified by our discovery.

By 3.30 pm, we were back in our car making our way to Washington for a last quiet evening with Corinne as we would be moving out of her home the next day.    

         Until tomorrow, see ya….

Vietnamese Dinner at Corinne’s:

Corinne chose to treat us to a Vietnamese dinner at her home as she had picked up large bowls of pho (Vietnamese broth) filled with thin rice noodles, vegetables and bits of steak and meatballs floating in them. It made a very hearty supper indeed as we retold Corinne our discoveries of the day. It was not long before we cleared up and called it a night.

We drifted off to bed with some dread as TV reports were riufe with awful news of the incoming blizzard—the area was expected to be engulfed with snow and we had little idea of whether or not we’d be marooned for the next couple of days in Corinne’s home while putting paid to the rest of our sightseeing plans.

Little did we know how wrong we’d be…