Jeff in Boston & New York
 

14th March 2012


Leaving the house in plenty of time this morning I find the Northern Line out of action northbound due to a 'person under a train' at the Oval. Great. So I walk to Balham to try the overground and find hoards of people not being let onto platforms that are too crowded. So I walk back to Tooting to maybe get a bus to Clapham Junction to attempt getting the overground to Victoria there, but find that the Northern Line is now back working. I'm almost an hour late by now, but just about make it - finally getting to the gate with 5 minutes to spare. The flight goes fine. I get my veggie meal (before everyone else!) of mushroom pasta, and it ain't bad. There's a salad with it, and a lemon posset for afters, which was semi-edible, so I ate half of it.  And just before we get to Boston there was a hummus sandwich and the smallest box of raisins you've ever seen. I'm not used to 6 hour flights, this being only my second time outside Europe, but time passed, with music and a fine novel on the Kindle (Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo).
    Passport control took ages, what with everyone's fingerprints being taken electronically and faces being photographed. Still my guy was chummy, we even had a chat about when the clocks go forward in the UK. They just have here, much to the confusion of the crew on my flight. Finding the courtesy bus to the underground station was not simple, and the stop was deserted and the bus when it came oddly sparsely used, with maybe one other person with a suitcase. The underground journey went pretty smooth, with me amazed, as I had been in Nashville in 98, how public transport is used mostly by the poor and immigrants over here. In London it's far more egalitarian.
    My walk from the Back Bay station to my hotel - The Colonnade - took me past much road chaos, many generator lorries and over road junctions with gesturing policemen rather than traffic lights, which seemed sweet. But of course there had been a major power outage last night, following an explosion
. (It was a scary big one according to a woman I spoke to in the hotel lift later. She lived nearby but had just checked in for a shower and other electrical luxuries.) Anyway, my check-in went smoothly, but for the fact that the room I was given was in a state of unmadeup chaos. Sigh. I went back downstairs for profuse apologies and a new room. Which was fine, except for the pair of manic idiots shouting in the next room. Sigh. Restless, in both senses of the word, I went out for a walk, passing more thrumming generator lorries than I would've thought existed in the whole country.  I came back with a cream-cheese poppy-seed bagel and have sat and typed this, and I need my bed. It's 8.30 here now, but for me it's half past midnight. There's constant drilling nearby, which is maybe to do with the power thing. Good job I brought my earplugs. All in all a bit too much of a day, I have hopes for a calmer tomorrow, with the consolation of art.
 
 


Portrait of a power outage, from my hotel window.

15th March 2012



Having gotten off to sleep around 9.00 last night I expected to wake up at some godforsaken hour, which I did, around 4.30, but then I went back to sleep until just before 8.00 - that's 11 hours sleep! OK, I'll lay off the time difference stuff now. The sound of pneumatic drills (known locally as jack-hammers - I'm learning a lot from conversations in the hotel lift) opposite was replaced before my middle-of-the-night wakeup by the thrumming of three generator lorries, but there does seem to be some return to electrical normality with street lights and stuff.
    Funny hotel stuff - upon entering my room yesterday the bed had upon it four plump pillows, two (what look like) sofa cushions and two small cushions. They took up half of the (large) bed! I've stuffed most of this excessive cushionage into the wardrobe. More self-consciously wacky is the rubber duck in the bathroom - a feature of the hotel it seems. What isn't a feature of the hotel is breakfast, other than expensive room service. So, having availed myself of a bracing cup from the coffee machine in my room I went off out in search a life-giving morning pastries.
    But I'd reckoned without the ongoing effect of the outage. I walked around the big posh malls opposite my hotel, one of which even houses a Cheesecake Factory, a chain on my list of places to try. But nothing was open. On my walk I may have found the source of the problem (see right) but I was almost at the Museum of Fine Art, which is on the way to the Isabella Stewart Gardner palazzo I was heading for, before I found an Au Bon Pain open and serving coffee and (hooray) cinnamon buns.

 


   

 


 



 

    I went out for a walk in towards the centre and confirmed my increasing fondness for Boston. The city seem not to know what it is to build boringly. Even new housing seems to be imitating nice old, mostly redbrick, buildings. My walk took me along Commonwealth Avenue,* which is strung with said nice houses, to the Public Garden and down Charles Street, which is a bit 'heritage style', but very pretty. I looped back through tower blocks and finally found some junk food. The Burger King here does a veggie burger, and it's a tasty one! I dealt with some coin confusion here by mentioning the oddness of having dollar notes and dollar coins, but the serving person showed little interest in my fascinating observation about how UK five pound notes are famously falling to bits with use whereas over here there are still one dollar notes worth about an eighth of a fiver. Oh well. My faith in human interest in the important things was revived, however, by the young woman in the wood-panelled bakers I bought a coconut macaroon from. Not only did she share my note/coin amazement, but told me how the coins are not popular here and are only really used by the subway company as change from their ticket machines, which is where I'd got all mine! It turned out she'd stayed in Victoria in London last year, so we compared, until other customers came.
    Back at the hotel the road out front shows evidence that the electric company vans have been breeding this evening. You've never seen so many orange flashing lights in one place. And the road junction in my photo of yesterday which got its traffic lights back on earlier today, is now in darkness with emergency floodlighting again. Some electric workers are earning some hefty overtime tonight, as my old dad would've said.

*Click here, and then on any of the houses listed, to see what I mean.
 

 





    The Gardner Museum was the home of the woman who was mates with the likes of Sargent, Henry James, and Bernard Berenson, loved Venice, lived there, and brought back loads of very good art to fit out her own Venetian palazzo in Boston. And if you're thinking that that maybe sounds like a bit of a tacky thing to do then you're tapping into some small lingering doubts I had too. But how wrong could we be? Very. It turns out ISG knew her art and how to display it. My slight trepidation as to her smarts was mostly fuelled by the story of her getting the wrong balustrades, which she bought as the Ca d'Oro originals but which were later replacements which had themselves been replaced. But her house shows her to be a woman who knew her stuff, knew her mind, and knew some fascinating people. The decor is a mish-mash, but it works. It works like the Fortuny Museum in Venice and the John Soane Museum in London both wonderfully work. They come across as the eccentric but lovable creations of singular people. You can't help but want to live there.
    I had a good chat with one of the room attendants about a truly glorious and unusually glowing little work by Fra Angelico, and how yes it had recently been cleaned. Also the portrait by Massacio that was missing was gone to the renaissance portraits exhibition in New York, which I'm going to on Sunday. Regular readers will know of my whinging about pics I've travelled to see being off in exhibitions, so in this case I have no complaint. Especially as my man was telling me what a mighty fine exhibition it is, and how fine the Masaccio looks there. And then we talked about the outage. ISG bought some good stuff, I have to say. Early renaissance, Titian, Raphael, yes, but also some good and harmonious Spanish, Dutch and German paintings. The Dutch room has a Rembrandt, and also some empty frames from which works were stolen, including their Vermeer. The frames remain for when the paintings are returned. Hope springs.
    One of the major joys here is in the juxtapositions, of different artists from different countries, and furniture and fittings that fit with them. You really have to just come here to appreciate how it all just works. The rooms are often a bit dark, this is due to the fragility of much of the art, or course, but also ISG's will stating that everything has to stay where she put it, and she tended to put the best stuff by the windows. Of my personal faves the Bellini looked to me like a poor 'studio of...'  but there was a Catena (an associate of Giorgione who I've a soft spot for) that I wasn't expecting and which shone in the Titian room. I loved the place. And I've not even mentioned the lovely courtyard with its mass of Venetian windows and its specially-painted streaks of imitation Venetian grime. And I didn't visit the new modern wing at all.


   Having spotted a food store behind the coffee shop this morning I went there on the way back. I got a Vegetarian Delight made up - a chunk of baguette filled with cream and mozzarella cheeses, with tomato and lettuce and onion and thousand island dressing. Also a pot of bagel chips with hummus dip, a large can of mango drink and an orange and cranberry muffin. All except the chips and dip I have just eaten, and verily muchly enjoyed.
   As I'm typing this at 3.40 there are still masses on men and lorries opposite and there were just two very loud bangs and now there's brown smoke coming out of manholes, which can't be good. It's good of them to lay all this excitement on for me though.
    A little while later (4.30) some more cones have appeared around the cover, and some men are standing nearby with a large map. Also more hazard taping on the other side of the road. They seem to be settling in. And then a bit later still the whole road was blocked off to traffic, and a camera crew turned up.



 

16th March 2012

 

 

The wake up time this morning was a back-to-pattern 8.00 and the wake-up juice, bought yesterday, was Nantucket Nectars Red Plum. I figured out how to use the  TV yesterday - there's a full keyboard remote and an ordinary remote but to turn it on you, um, press the switch on the side. The minimalist shower tap defeated me though - I can get water but hotness seems impossible. But it might be a power outage thing, as I've heard dark mutterings in the lift about frozen heads, which now makes sense. This morning's outage bulletin - still more NSTAR trucks than you can count. I counted 26 when I got up, but there's fewer now. And lots of activity around yesterday's smoke-belching manhole.
    Today I made for the Museum of Fine Art, just stopping off for a coffee and a cinnamon bun on the way at the Panera Bread Cafe. The bun was the best so far and the man sitting behind me talking on his mobile, about the power outage, thought that swathe rhymed with moth.

 


   

    I popped into the Apple store near my hotel on my way back to the hotel, to buy myself one of the new iPads which went on sale today, as you do. No long queues, but a weird system for buying where you wait in a short line to tell a groovy guy what you want, he gets a piece of card out of his filing box relating to your colour and capacity choice, passes it to another groovy guy who tries to get you to buy accessories and insurance and then goes and gets what you want and swipes your credit card into a handheld gadget, which then tells him your card's been refused, so you try another, which works, thankfully. Then I had to write a signature on the screen of his gadget with my fingertip. Not the kind of fuss you need when you've yet to buy your lunch bagel - cream cheese and cucumber on poppy seed. It turned out I should have told my credit card company that I was having a holiday abroad. Pshaw!

 



The MFA is a big place and I knew that I'd have my work cut out doing it justice in one visit. I made for the European rooms first, thinking that if I got knackered before I could start on the American collection I'd have lunch in the museum. The best stuff is up on the first floor, known over here as the second floor. The European rooms were a treat for many reasons. There's some pretty good stuff, firstly, also the rooms are devoted to different periods but have pleasing mixtures of paintings (and furniture and fittings) from different countries, which makes for some nice and fruity juxtapositions. Also the paintings are often hung so that you can get nose-to-nose with them, often without glass, an especial and rare treat with the altarpieces. The captions are also very smart and detailed, and sometimes amusing. My favourite was one for this Turner oil painting  (described as one of his most famous but I didn't know it - what is it with Americans and the need for superlatives?) which we were told Mark Twain had described as resembling 'a tortoiseshell cat having a fit in a plate of tomatoes'. The European collection is solid and worthwhile if not scintillating, the American collection has more sparkle, I think. It certainly had more stuff new to me, much of it eye-openingly impressive. I was especially smitten by the turn of the (20th) Century portraits. And then there's the Sargents, including one of my faves of his, of San Stae in Venice, and the big and wonderful Daughters of Edward Darley Boit which is hung with the actual vases from the painting, one on each side. Have I said how big this place is, and easy to get totally lost in? I loved it, but it was by now after 1.00 and I decided I'd better not overdo it. I'd seen all the European and a whole lot of American and my shoulders were beginning to ache. A swift trip to the bookshop for another hefty catalogue and then I was out in the cold. But I'll be back.



 




 

   In the evening I went to the Amtrak station to make sure I'd know where I was going to get my train to New York in the morning. The Amtrak entrance  is a bit tucked away but I asked at an info window, got directed to the Amtrak window (duh!) and got my actual ticket printed out by the nice ladies scanning in the barcode on my printout and pointed towards the platform entrance. Good. Then a final walk around some Boston streets. I headed roughly towards the park as I can get my bearings from there. I found myself in what I later found out is Washington Street, which seemed a buzzy sort of mixed shopping street, closing up slowly. I spotted a MacDonald's and decided it was filet-o-fish time. Sitting down with my usual, plus a pineapple and mango smoothie, it became apparent that I was somewhat outside the Back Bay art gallery and heritage shopping milieu. There was the sign saying the restrooms were only for clients, the sign saying 'No loitering - 20 minutes maximum', the groups that looked a bit camped out and the guy with no food but about some mysterious business involving ... tobaccoey stuff and trips to the bins. I ate quite quickly (leaving most of the smoothie which was not nice and very icey) and headed towards the park. Further along Washington Street there were quite of lot of beggars and clutches of youth, but then it was suddenly all swanky hotels and big cars. Weirdly mixed area, or what? Also steaming manhole covers - I'd only ever seen them in photos and film, but they have them here in real life.
 

17th March 2012


To New York today. I paid my Boston bill, had a last chat about the outage, got a plaster for my mysteriously bleeding finger, and a complementary Colonnade Hotel rubber duck, and made for the Back Bay station for the 9.45 to Washington. The platform was a bit dingy and indicator-free but the train turned up promptly and we were zipping through cute Connecticut towns in no time, and in New York in four hours. Negotiating the subway was a bit daunting, mainly due to my confusion at which way was uptown and which downtown. It was very crowded and I also soon encountered the smelliest tramp (street person?) I'd ever had the displeasure of getting my nose near, ever; and I used to work in a Hackney reference library. Still I got where I needed to go, through the green-clad St. Patrick's Day hoards, some of whom were even more confused than me, and a lot of whom seemed to be Latino. I found my hotel, The Mark, after some street- number confusion and polite enquiring. Check-in was smooth and friendly and I was in my room in no time. And flipping swish it is too. To illustrate - the palatial bath and shower room has a little remote on the marble-topped double sink, which puzzled me, and there's an odd dark square in the big mirror over the sink. Turns out there's a TV built into the mirror, of course. (I've put some more photos on the facebook page.) There's also a drawer over the minibar full of chocolate and sweets, but as this includes the $6 Kit-Kat I'll be resisting I think. I have the TV on while I'm typing this and flipping blasÚly through the many bland-o channels I just found a channel called Animal Planet, which has an all-new episode of Too Cute - Kittens tonight, in HD. Fluff-y!


 

 


 

 


   A late afternoon St Patrick's Day stroll saw your correspondent strolling down 5th Avenue eating falafel and watching the bands process. They were performing such traditional Irish favourites as New York New York and Eye of the Tiger, often with accompanying majorettes and sometimes some pseudo-ballet dancers. The band in the black uniforms with gold trimmings were very fetching too. I was making my way down to the Apple store, as my new toy bought yesterday wasn't playing well with hotel wi-fi networks during the setting-up procedure. The store is underground and accessed under a square glass box, like the Louvre's pyramid, only not a pyramid. I presented my problem to the first helpful looking person I saw and he suggested I stand out of the way (it was heaving down there) and turn my iPad on, and all would presently be well. While I was waiting for it to come on I realised I'd asked for help from the guy in charge of the lift. Still, he knew his stuff and coped with me and the lift, and soon I was all registered and happy and away. I wished my cheerful helper a calmer time soon, and he said it does tend to quieten down nearer midnight, the shop being open 24 hours a day. I strolled around a while, rubbernecking up at the many skyscrapers they have here (did you know?) and eventually cut across Central Park in the dusk, which was very pretty. I managed to come out of the park on 5th Avenue, just opposite 67th Street and so, as my hotel is in 77th Street, I walked along counting off. Neat.
    All in all, I have to say, a pretty darn good day.



 

18th March 2012


To the MET today, and if a person would be hard pressed to do the MFA in Boston justice in one day then this place is just, well, you'd have to, well it's very very big, OK? (I got to the museum before I could find breakfast, so got a cinnamon and raisin pretzel from a van outside. I didn't know such things existed, but now I do I'm very glad.) I was here today as it was the last day of the Renaissance Portraits exhibition. I'd paid online so I had to get my printed-out barcode scanned in to get my ticket, which is actually a tin badge, then I checked in my bag and coat and went to get my audioguide which I'd also paid for in advance so I had to get another print-out scanned in, except it was the same print-our I'd just had scanned in which the woman had returned to me, so the print-out for the audioguide was still in my bag. Sigh. back to the  cloakroom and then back to the audioguide desk, and up to the exhibition. Trying my audioguide I find the headphone connect is faulty so the helpful man's voice is whizzing around inside my head. I go get another one - the same machine does for special exhibitions and the permanent collection, which is neat.
    The exhibition was a treat. It's in the combinations, mostly. Pairs of works depicting the same person and/or painted by the same artist are hung together most fruitfully. It's divided into Florence, then the princedoms and then Venice. The men were mostly painted outdoors and the women indoors and the transition from silhouettes to more face-on representations signals the move from commemorative to personal works. There were usually at least two famous works in each room and all the big names were featured.
    I then made a start on the European rooms. I managed the renaissance to Vermeer without too much wilting. Highlights of the renaissance included a huge removed fresco of St Christopher by Ghirlandaio and a Venus and Cupid by Lotto, with Cupid grinning smugly as he manages to pee perfectly through a circular wreath. They have five Vermeers here, which is a lot out of the thirty-four there are, and there's three at the Frick, which I'm planning for Tuesday. But today, by the time I'd reached the 18th Century I was drooping. I wandered accidentally into the American r0om settings, created to evoke different periods, oozing classical, nouveau and deco goodness and became truly smitten with the lovely woody Frank Lloyd Wright room. But I'd had enough.



  

 

 



  Today's falafel in pitta was eaten on the low wall of the Guggenheim, with a pretzel. And on my way back to the hotel I picked up a slice of pound cake, whatever the heck that is. Actually, typing this later I can now reveal that it was a moist sponge cake with lemony flavouring and icing. I liked.
    So, street food sellers - there are a lot here, hence my falafel intake, courtesy of stalls all called something like The Halal Boys. A lot of the more common food stalls say Army Veteran on the side, and today I saw one which also said 'killed in action'. And what's a knish? In Boston there was a cupcake van and one called The Chubby Chickpea.  On my walk tonight I saw one of those honey-roast peanut stalls, with coconut listed. Assuming it was coconut flavoured peanuts I got some, and found out it was actual honey-roasted chunks of coconut. Very nice. And after a shower, as you lounge around watching The Simpsons in your complementary bathrobe, nothing goes down nicer than a Nantucket Nectars orange juice drink. Even if it does cost $6 from the minibar.


 

19th March 2012


Today I'm off to the Museum of Modern Art, not to see modern art, of course, but an exhibition of photographs by Atget, a big fave of mine. My choices are limited as all the museums here seem to close on Monday, and the Whitney, which has lots of Edward Hoppers (and I DO like him) is closed Monday and Tuesday. And I've just discovered that it's very near my hotel.
    Anyway, the MOMA. Another big place, and very popular, it seems - the joint was sure busy. I made straight for the Atget exhibition. It was one biggish room, with smallish numbers of people. Not tons of photos, but enough to be a treat, and there was a joy in the (that word again) juxtaposition. The photos had been arranged thematically so that, for instance, all the courtyards went along one wall. The courtyards are amongst my most favourites, and it was good to see (I had wondered) that there is at least one with cats in it. The MOMA, through the agency of Bernice Abbott, has, like all the Atgets there is, so to come here and not see some would've been bonkers, but more would've been even better.
    I went and looked at some of the other art, and even liked some of it. I was especially chuffed to go see Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World which I've had a warm spot for since having to concoct a story about it in an 'O' level school exam. I also liked one by Martin Wong, an Edward Hopper and even Braque's Bach. Also good to see a couple of Frida Carlo's in the flesh. Considering that this place is Atget central the lack of books about him and postcards (only two and both boring) in the shop was disappointing; made criminally so by the number of books about Banksy. So I bought a snazzy MOMA contact lens case and left.
   I found a deli, ordered two cream cheese and cucumber bagels, and was duly impressed. I walked down to Times Square after, just so I could say I'd been, and was somewhat overwhelmed. The place is just a senses-bashing overload of hoardings and huge screens and hawkers and I stood it for about five minutes. Even more stunning was spotting, just before I got back to Central Park, a branch of Grom - Venice in New York! So I found myself sauntering back to my hotel through Central Park with a pear sorbet and cinnamon cornet. And I should add that having had to wear a coat and a scarf, and still feel cold, last week in Boston it's weird that it's now short-sleeved shirt weather here in New York.


 


 


 

 


   My evening walk was East, towards some water, which may have been the East River. I then turned North along the park-like path until I got to Carl Schurz Park. Plenty of joggers, and loads of people walking dogs, many of them small and yappy. Another thing New York has lots and lots of is drugstores. I know they fulfil cornershop duties as well as the chemist-y stuff, but there are so many branches of Duane Reade, more than Starbucks even. Pizza tonight, and when I got back my evening room-servicing had been done - a bottle of water and a choccy by the bed, the bed turned down, slippers ready on the little mat by the bed, smooth jazz playing on the TV and my toilet-roll refolded to a point. I could get used to this, maybe when I get home...

20th March 2012


To the Frick this morning, which may sound like a polite swear-word, but which has more Vermeers than you can shake a fricking stick at. But breakfast first, and so it's coffee and a pistachio and cardamom muffinette in a place called Joe. The mini muffin was verily a flavour sensation.
    The Frick Collection was put together by a self-made coke baron from Pennsylvania, who had to leave his home town after his use of bully boys to violently break up a major strike made him oddly unpopular. Still, using your millions to buy major art to be made into a museum after your death...he can't have been all bad I suppose. The key word here, yet again, is juxtaposition - the rooms are gleefully fine mixes of periods and artists. One room has Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell glaring at each other either side of the fireplace, with Bellini's wonderful St. Francis in the Desert on the wall opposite, itself hung between two artfully contrasting portraits by Titian, one of a comely young man and the other of a crusty-looking Aretino in rust-coloured robes. The rooms are mostly a bit more themed, and overall we're talking a tendency towards 18th Century fluffiness - Gainsborough, Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard, Greuze ... you get the picture? But there's much more than this, including some fine bits of early renaissance altarpieces bought by his daughter. Frick's will dictates that nothing bought during his lifetime can be loaned, which is why the three paintings by Vermeer here were not in the big Vermeer show in The Hague a few years back. These are displayed almost casually in two places, but are three of his best. If the eccentricity of the Isabella Stewart Gardner made it America's Sir John Soane Museum, the French-influenced decor and major works make this the Wallace Collection of New York. A good, and free, audio guide too.
   I left and crossed the road into Central Park with lunch on my mind and was accosted by an ex-reader at the library where I used to work, who knew my name and was mates with one of my library colleagues' wife. Blimey! Two cream-cheese bagels bought, plus an apple and cinnamon muffin, it was back to the hotel for some resting.


 

 


 

A walk through Central Park after the time of resting, Very Springy. I later found a superior burger place which surprisingly also did a very superior veggie burger. Home tomorrow.
 

21st March 2012


At a bit of a loose end this morning as I hadn't planned anything due to having forgotten how late my flight was (7.35pm) and the resulting time available. Needing to vacate my room by midday (or pay an extra half of the day rate if I wanted to stay in the room until 3.00!) I vacated and left my bag at the hotel and went for a last walk. After a coffee and a cinnamon doughnut I decided on a semi-shopping walk down to Grand Central Station and then across to the United Nations building, and back. I say semi-shopping because my case was already so full of gallery catalogues any weighty purchases were out of the question. So having not been able to check in online and being of the worrying tendency I ended up heading to JFK on the subway far too early, but had a good long read in the lounge, to say the least. The flight went fine - aisle seat, empty seat between me and the other person, some good sitcoms to watch, and quite tasty veggie meals. The weird thing was because I'd stipulated veggie I got my breakfast before everyone else (like the proper meal just after we took off) and mine was orange juice, a fruit salad and a mini banana bread. I was wondering what sort of meat-based breakfast the carnivores were gonna get, but they just got a lemon and orange muffin! Take that, merciless munchers of defenceless fluffy animals! All the other stuff and the tube home went fine. A bit of disorientation on coming out of Tooting Bec tube - all the buildings seemed too low and there was too much sky. Most odd. As I type this I've had no sleep for 20-odd hours and am feeling more than a bit zonked.
    And why is it days when you feel like this and just want to go to Tesco's for some bread and coffee, and come back and have some lunch and sleep, are the days you get stopped coming up the street to your house and told you've got to stand around and wait while a police dog sniffs around the road.
   


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