Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Heading in the right direction

Once is an aberration.

Twice is a trend.

Three times...?

It began in Florence Italy on our unscripted stroll through the Boboli gardens on a rainy October afternoon. We had been forewarned not to expect flowers (even if it weren't mid Autumn) but rather more of a botanical garden - ornamental grounds laid out for public enjoyment and recreation as my online dictionary defines it.

We had not been told about the sculptures. And definitely not about the giant head - fifteen to twenty feet tall and constructed of what appeared to be cracked, dry clay. It was situated against a green bushy background on one side of a football field sized lawn with paths along the outer edges.

There had been other statues and carvings mixed in amidst the vegetation - not one of which that I can actually recall at the moment nor do I seem to have photographed. This one apparently "spoke to me" (so to speak). Even though it really didn't say anything it was still a Zippy moment - like those dialogs with "Muffler Man" or other pop culture effigies that occur in that eponymous comic strip. And it was made even more Zippy by the playful mounting of the bust by a female blonde tourist and the subsequent photo-shoot by her photographer boyfriend.

I quietly took my own pictures of the sculpture and her. Then I stored my own mental impressions of the enormous half-baked head on my brain's memory card, and moved on to other parts of the gardens leaving the head behind. Or so I thought. A week or two later I saw a photograph of the same statue, sans the flaxen mannequin, in a picture frame at our local Restoration Hardware store. If I didn't already have a better shot I probably would have bought it and discarded the frame - as nice as it was.

Then this past Christmas in New Mexico we were snowed in for four extra days. As a result we unexpectedly found ourselves on New Year's Eve afternoon wandering the white-powdered grounds of the Albuquerque Art Museum, and trying to decipher what turned out to be a rolled-over, oversized head partially covered with snow.

This one was about two-thirds the size of the Florentine noggin, and because of its horizontal attitude and snow-altered appearance it wasn't until I looked through my camera's LCD monitor that I was able to recognize the physiognomy in front of me. And then no matter how hard I tried to get my eyes and mind to return to its pre-realistic view, I just couldn't not see the face in front of me. Sort of like when you finally see the Virgin Mary on the taco chip - a phenomenon that scientists say is caused by our mind's innate need to turn chaotic perceptions into familiar objects.

So when Mars and I went to Quebec City at the end of January the Florentine and Albuquerque colossal crania were, so to speak, still in the back of my head. On our drive up, when we experienced our first (albeit modest) taste of snow since that Southwest trip, the images moved up to a more conscious level in my mind. So, as the two of us set off on our first walk through that historic Canadian landmark, I jokingly told Mars that I was looking for another humongous head to add to my rapidly growing photo collection.

It was about ten feet tall, set on a pedestal twice that height - and located at the corner of an open area with its back turned to the busier, lower parts of town. This objet d'art was totally out of place with the eighteenth/nineteenth century European architecture and ambiance of the area, and in fact pretty much the entire city. But totally in line with what I was now beginning to expect on our forays to unfamiliar venues.

When I saw the New Mexico noggin I thought, "I guess two heads really are better than one." But now I began to wonder, "three?..."

So I have been looking around locally to see if, as I frequently do, I've been missing something obvious in midst of the too familiar. After all this is my head-quarters. And today, on my drive home from our Hartford-based health club, I think I may have seen what could be it - or at least as good as I'm probably going to see around here.

It was on a highway advertising board drawing attention to the "VIP Pleasure Warehouse". I have actually noticed this signage for months now with its billboard-sized female face, and have been not able to get clear in my mind what emotions her facial expression was trying to convey. (photo by Mars.)

It seemed odd, even to me, that an image that was so overtly designed to draw my (admittedly prurient) interest was instead disquieting me, whereas the three disembodied hydrocephalics were bringing me peace and comfort.

I could probably explain half of the equation by remembering a bookshelf-sized replica of an Easter Island Moai head that Mars and I purchased and displayed in our living room when we first got married. We named him Ralph because he just seemed like a nice, friendly kind of guy - even being bodiless and all. Maybe the happy memories of the beginning of our time together are merged in my unconscious with the image of that South Pacific icon - and by extension other similar statues.

Then an op-ed in our local paper calling for the removal of a twin to that Pleasure Warehouse billboard cleared up the other half.

"From its high perch, a Brobdingnagian brunette peers down, looking far more Satanic than erotic. You couldn't really blame an out-of-towner from turning around and hopping back on the bus."

I've heard that one of the purposes of travel is to take you out of your comfort zone so that you can learn new things about the world, and yourself. But occasionally it's the familiar that freaks you out, and the surrealistically strange that offers comfort.

At least for some of us headhunters.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

An Inconvenient Cold

Weather and weddings are changing - sometimes for the better.

We went to the desert southwest for a warmer, sunnier Christmas and got held over by the biggest snowstorm in the history of Albuquerque. Then we went to Quebec City Canada for a wedding during their Winter Carnival. It was "great" and "north" - but definitely not white.

(In truth there was a light coating of powder in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont where we spent the night on the way. And it did snow lightly in the morning as we drove to the border. But the precipitation stopped just as we crossed into Canada. Where, as in the Green Mountain State, there was a thin layer of white stuff on the ground - both along the side of the highways, and on the sidewalks and streets of Quebec.)

It was however damn cold.

We saw no thermometers anywhere during more than ten hours of walking through the European style streets of Vieux-Quebec and never read, heard or saw a local weather forecast. We were however told by several locals over several days that it was much, much, much colder than normal.

Thursday, our arrival day, was the warmest. After checking in at the Hotel Chateau Frontenac, the site of most of the wedding festivities, we set off around two p.m. to explore the immediate area. I had on a long sleeve tee shirt, corduroy pants, a Polartec sweater, a knee-length down coat, thick wool scarf, knit wool cap, gloves, wool hiking socks, and hiking boots. The sun was shining. The breeze was minimal. We were walking relatively quickly. In about twenty minutes I began to get cold. We continued on for about an hour more, mostly to get it to be late enough in the day to justify dinner, found a restaurant with soup thru dessert specials, and warmed ourselves up with wine, vegetable soup, Canadian Meat Pie (Mars) and Pheasant Legs with Baked Beans (moi), and Maple Syrup Pie.

The next day was colder and windy. Mars donned her wool turtleneck and I added another layer of Polartec. We walked across the old city to the ice sculpture exhibition, strolled around grounds of the Parliament Building, and watched the beginning of the snow sculpture competition and some kids' activities. Then we found a purveyor of onion soup for lunch.

Saturday, the wedding day and again less warm and more windy, we took the funicular down to the lower city and hiked the short winding streets and alleys until our desire for Canadian pea soup overcame our love of exercise and photography. We rode back to the upper level and found a restaurant that allowed us to accompany our soup with a shared liver pate.

Sunday was even colder and windier - but still sunny. We headed into the most commercial section of Quebec City and found a bookstore that wasn't open yet. So we wandered some more and found happily ourselves in a totally residential area, which we surveyed and photographed until our bare fingers could no longer stand even that brief exposure to the elements. We returned to the hotel for warmth then headed out again for a different pea soup at another cafe, and the bookshop that was now open. After some indoor hotel reading we returned to the same section of town and dined at a Moroccan eating establishment - our only non-gourmet/non-French Canadian meal of the trip.

We did get to see the Sunday ice canoe races from inside. Our hotel room overlooked the Saint Lawrence River and just down the hall were large windows with an even better view. The five man heavy wooden boats raced across the river and back. The ice, which looked impenetrable in spots, wasn't. And no one had to portage the boats, fall in the water, etc. Even with the body heat that the paddlers generated and the bragging rights and trophies that were at stake I suspect that the thought of a warm indoor bowl of hot chocolate or French Onion Soup had to be at the front of each of their minds.

Monday morning - we were told at the hotel after witnessing a ten-year-old boy street-screaming about his hurting eyes - was thirty-five degrees below zero. Ah, we hardy New Englanders said to each other, but that's just Celsius - the wimpy temperature scale that makes everything look so much worse than it really is.

Mars calculated Tf = (9/5)*Tc+32 (or something like that). "So that's about minus thirty eight Fahrenheit" (actually minus thirty one but close enough to feel the kid's and our own pain). We were now officially cold. So we spent most of the day at the Frontenac, although we did venture out after dinner (more onion soup and meat pie) to check out the international snow sculpture results at the carnival. We lasted about thirty minutes.

This was a "destination wedding", generally defined as when you travel to a special place for your nuptial event. Originally from Ohio and Connecticut respectively, and now living and working in New York City, Quebec City is a favorite getaway spot for Tanya and Steve. Mars and I had never been there so we decided to come early and stay late.

We had however been to other destination weddings. The son of other close friends was married overlooking the ocean at The Eisenhower House in Newport Rhode Island. And our own son had an al fresco wedding amid the hills of the "hunt country" at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia.

There were needless to say, no open-air nuptials on the windswept banks of the Saint Lawrence River.

There was however the Chateau Frontenac itself, described quite accurately by Fodor's as "opulent" and "elegantly furnished" and the planned wedding events that easily merited equivalent adjectives:

* a hot chocolate (and wine and cheese and pastries) wedding guest gathering at the Frontenac on Friday to reheat our bodies after several hours of urban hiking;
* an open-to-all-guests rehearsal dinner (with venison) on Friday evening at an establishment featured on the Today program as a top five romantic getaway;
* and a wedding morning pastry and fruit breakfast at the hotel to prepare us for several more hours of town trekking in the ever decreasing temperatures.

The wedding was held at the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (built in 1804 in the style of St. Martin-In-The-Fields in London) just around the corner from the Frontenac. And the gourmet multi-course reception was back up the hill at the hotel.

Monday morning we met Darlene and John, our close friends and parents of the groom, for breakfast and were pleasantly surprised by the arrival of Tanya and Steve for their final meal in the cold climate before honeymooning in Tahiti. They unsuccessfully tempted us with Poutine - a combination of French fries, gravy and cheese - the only local cuisine that we turned down. Even we have some standards - especially after what seemed to be over seventy-two hours of non-stop, top-notch eating.

We've been friends with Darlene and John for forty years - they were our across-the-hall neighbors in the apartment house we moved into when we got married and are our son's Godparents - so we actually knew Steve before he was born. However, as such things go, we've had very little personal contact with him over the years, especially after he went off to college (upper New York), graduate school (Chicago) and work (Ecuador among other places).

But some weddings, especially destination ones, actually let you get to know the participants.
A part of the weekend activities for the male wedding party members were the pickup ice hockey games at an outdoor rink near the Carnival's ice sculpture site. At which we found Steve, his brothers, and a friend on our Friday morning walkabout. Apparently for these guys skates, sticks, and pucks are just as much a part of their travel gear as shaving kits, crisply ironed dress shirts, and well-tailored suits.

All of the wedding party and their friends/partners seemed to be in the business and finance industries with graduate degrees and burgeoning successful careers. I would guess that the combined earning potential of all the people on that altar (excluding Wally the officiant) is somewhat North of the Gross National Product of most small countries - with the dollar amount equally balanced across both sides of the church.

Throughout the weekend, in the firm handshakes, casual conversations, ceremonial toasts and celebratory speeches, I could feel the confidence, ambition, and testosterone - both male and (in the very best sense) female. The bridesmaids walked down the aisle in their aubergine gowns with the self-assurance of a Board of Directors member who knows she has the goods to get the votes. Within Tanya and Steve and their friends there was obvious feeling of comfort and familiarity with each other, and with the affluent ambience of the entire weekend.

At the post-wedding reception Steve said that this was most likely the only opportunity in their lives to have everyone that was important to them in one room at the same time. And to do it in one of their favorite places was even more special.

As for the overabundance of snow in the southwest desert and the lack thereof and excessive cold in Quebec - they'd probably tell you to blame Al Gore for that. In any event they did get to Tahiti before the temperature dropped and the water rose there.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Optimize for warmth, not fashion

"Beautiful Quebec City is close to home, yet offers all the charm of Europe-and a winter blanket of white to rival the best of the Alps! " Quebec City Tourism

I learned in Florence Italy this past October that
the art of a city...
is not just on the walls of its museums...
but also in the style of its citizens

So it seemed perfectly reasonable to further investigate this aesthetic principle when Mars and I visited the Vieux-Quebec to attend the wedding of the son of two close friends. In order to make this study as scientific and unbiased as possible I decided to look for this expressive elegance in the same places that I found it in the city on the Arno - on the feet of the natives and tourists strolling the cobblestones and bricks of this historic Canadian entry on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Unfortunately the actual sidewalks and streets were largely invisible due to a constant coat of packed-down snow and ice maintained by a nightly dusting of frozen white flakes - not enough to generate any real depth but enough to prevent any direct contact (either visual or pedal) with the pavers themselves. And definitely sufficient when combined with the arctic temperatures (as low as minus thirty five degrees Celsius) to initially cause this aficionado of Florentine open-toed, stiletto-heeled Ferragamo fashions to sulkily shut off my downward pointing digital and stuff it into the oversized pocket on my knee-length down coat.

The pre-wedding information packet sent out by Tanya and Steve (the couple) told us "...optimize for warmth, not fashion...It is very common for people in Quebec to wear winter boots and change into dress shoes at their destination...Don't feel silly about your choice of footwear unless of course, you choose to walk through the city streets in your three-inch strappy sandals..." Bummer!

Vieux-Quebec while Canadian in geography and climate is strongly, in some cases aggressively, French - and much more European in architecture, atmosphere and attitude than the rest of that country and their continent. Although it's pretty hard to recognize this when you are tenuously trundling down ice-coated sidewalk hills with cold winds whipping painfully against the uncovered parts of your body, the layouts and sizes of the streets are, as in Europe, narrow, intertwining, and by design quite walkable. The entire old city of Quebec is in fact much more accessible on foot than on wheels - "A five minute walk or a fifteen minute drive" as John, the father of the groom, expressed it.

The housing, as we also saw in Italy and Spain, is comprised of apartments located in distinct, abutting two to four story buildings - each one colored and surfaced differently. These living quarters are frequently placed above shops or restaurants, again as in Europe.

Cuisine, such as Pea Soup, Onion Soup and Meat Pie is continental in origin and hearty by necessity and design.

As I looked more closely at my fellow street-walkers I realized that while the North American climate prohibited even a minor replication of the Haute Couture shoe-look of their European cousins, there was a definite style to the Quebecquers' foot-covering which, like that of the Florentine femmes, expressed and amplified the aesthetic oeuvre of this frozen village on banks of the Saint Lawrence river. And it was photogenic - although at least to this paparazzi lacking in the frisson of the Florentine subject matter.

Some fascinations require warmth in order to flourish. On this north-of-the-border visit the only fetishes visible were those specifically suited for Quebec's cold weather conditions - the stone figurines in animal, human, and supernatural shapes also known as "storytellers" carved by Inuit Indians that were displayed in the shelves and windows of the local art galleries.

At which I and, I'm certain, many other hiking-boot clad visitors, looked longingly.