Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Montreal = Too Much Fun

Every summer Montreal's St Catherine Street, which is lined with restaurants, gay clubs, bars and bathhouses and a variety of small shops, is closed to car traffic for the season. The restaurants and bars build temporary decks which reach into the middle of the street and evenings bring a wealth of people watching. We were unaware of this tradition and just happened to plan our visit during the last weekend of the street closure. Our hotel was 3 blocks away.

While we did avail ourselves of the excellent food and a certain amount of drunken revelry we discovered there is more to recommend Montreal than just this.

Charming old Montreal makes one feel as if they have been transported to provincial France. The city's financial district, with it's mix of modern highrises and late 19th century office buildings feels like Chicago's loop. The botanical gardens with their rich variety of themed plantings and excellent greenhouse displays is well worth the price of admission. There is also the view of the city from the summit of Mt. Royal.

As memorable and enjoyable as the trip turned out, things did not begin well. Due to a problem with my name my airline ticket was declared invalid. After several phone calls and much back and forth with a very disagreeable desk agent plus $150 in fees to correct the name on the ticket we were allowed to board our early morning flight.

The flight itself was uneventful. Even the sometimes chaotic procedure of getting on and off the plane and stowing and retrieving carry on bags went smoothly due to the small number of people traveling that morning. Upon landing we collected our luggage, purchased transit tickets and boarded the bus for the trip into the city. We got off the bus and after a very brief period of disorientation and confusion, found our way to our hotel.

That is where our next problem began. Due to past issues there was a flag placed on the credit card that had been used to reserve our room. After another fairly lengthy phone call (at roaming rates) this too was resolved. Our room wasn't ready so we stashed our luggage in a locker located in the basement of the hotel and headed out on foot, city map in hand, towards old Montreal, a pleasant 20 minute walk away.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why I Call Chicago Home

At the age of 27, I left San Francisco and moved to what I consider to be one of the great cities of the world. It is a metropolis, but, unlike some cities such as New York, Paris and London, a metropolis where a comfortable life is affordable. Our home is modest but entirely adequate for our needs. Most of our closest friends live nearby. In our neighborhood of streets shaded by massive overhanging trees, lined with vintage courtyard apartment buildings and victorian four square homes there is a sense of community. Friends and neighbors meet at the grocery store, bars and restaurants and on the street. Not only friends but strangers acknowledge and greet each other.

We are fortunate to live steps from a beach on lake Michigan in one of the midcentury highrise buildings that line the lakeshore like sentinels. A 30 minute bus ride carries me to a wealth of theatre world class museums and architecture and an occasional concert in Millennium Park. It's Frank Ghery designed bandshell resembles unspooling ribbons of steel. The state of the art sound system hung on a trellis above the lawn gives crystal clarity to every stroke of the piano keys and vibration of the strings played by the musicians within. The park's mirror like Cloudgate sculpture reflects the changing sky and cityscape as well as the crowds surrounding it.

There is the Lincoln Park Zoo which charms not by it's collection but it's lushly landscaped setting. At it's entrance, across an expanse of lawn, is the conservatory, a classical glass structure filled with a collection of plants that vary by the season. Ther is the Lily Pond behind the zoo, a quiet, secluded spot with Frank Loyd Wright inspired pavilions and natural landscaping. These venues are free and offer friends and family an opportunity to while away an afternoon sharing time with each other in the beauty of the park.

The city is known for it's restaurants and although we do not eat out often we have our favorite neighborhood places. The "burger joint" with the treefilled garden dining area or the tiny pizzaria with it's beautifully restored Art Deco interior.

All but one small portion of the Lake Michigan shoreline is public property. Beaches and rich green parkland dotted with playing fields, tennis courts, bird santuaries, fountains, statuary and winding jogging and biking paths all sharing views of our spectacular architecture form the eastern boundry of the city.

Michigan Avenue, the part of the city most familiar to tourists, holds a bounty of greenery, which again varies by the season, on either side of the street and in the median strip that runs down it's center. Jazz age skyscrapers, with influences ranging from gothic to art deco, abut more modern steel and glass highrises along it's broad airy expanse.

By contrast, our financial district is a grid of narrow streets made canyon like by the buildings that line them. I find myself, even after this many years, dicovering ornamentation and textures in these buildings I had not noticed before.

Our museums also have the ability to startle with new discovery. Wether you find yourself wandering through the galleries of the Art Institute, with it's amazing collection of impressionist masterworks, or the Field Museum, housing the world's largest collection of Native American artifacts, as well as the massive skeletal remains of a T-Rex affectionately named Sue.

The city boast an impressive colleciton of public art well. Our famous Picasso is a Chicago icon. There are also sculptures by Calder, Miro and Oldenburg, and a four sided mosaic by Chagall.

Ther are hidden, little know treasures. The Stained Glass Museum tucked into the back corridors of Navy Pier, many pieces rescued from homes, churches and public buildings. The world's largest Tiffiny Glass dome can be found in the Cultural Center, once Chicago's Public Library. There is also the Tiffany mosaic tile dome in Marshall Fields (now Macy's) landmark State Street store. At Christmas the 7th floor Christmas tree in Macy's is well worth a visit.
I feel both fortunate and grateful to make my home in a palce that constantly and consistently has the ablilty to surprise me, igniting my senses and replenishing my soul.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thanks to my Houston Hosts

I must thank my hosts. My time in Texas was enjoyable and will leave me with memories of places I had not had the opportunity to visit before now and the time I was privileged to have with you two. Thank you for your graciousness and generosity in sharing your home and a piece of your home state with me.

Lucky Traveler 57

Houston - Our Last Supper...And Lunch

We had lunch in the Melrose district at a restaurant which, again, makes excellent use of the vintage bungalows in the area. There are two neighboring houses. They are connected by a tented area between them holding additional dining space to that found inside. There is a deck in front of one of the houses and a garden in back for outdoor dining during temperate weather. July is not temperate....we ate inside.

For dinner that evening I had decided to treat my hosts to my homemade crab cakes, a recipe our friends insist could be award winning. A friend of theirs joined us. I discovered I was one can of crab short and their friend is a vegetarian so he and I decided to make a quick grocery run to the Walmart supermarket that was "just around the corner". After a 10 minute car journey, I began to realize that "just around the corner" has a somewhat different meaning in Houston than it does in Chicago. We enjoyed dinner, cocktails and conversation but called it an early night as their friend had to work the next morning and I was flying back home the next day. At the airport  I bid my hosts goodbye, thanking them for their generosity, and strolled into the air conditioned terminal to await my flight.

Houston - The Rothko Chapel and Menil Collection

The Rothko Chapel was on my "want to see" list during my Houston visit. There is a subtlety to his work that has always appealed and spoken to me.

We park in the shade of a tree lined street. There is a reflecting pool outside the chapel in which sits a weathered metal sculpture dedicated to Martin Luther King. The chapel inspires reverence and quiet reflection. It's Philip Johnson design contains no artificial light. The illumination, provided only by the large skylight in the middle of the room, in muted by the metal fixture suspended from it. Around it's edges and through the circular opening in it's center the sun's rays shine through. Large, typically dark works by Rothko hang on the four walls. As I stand in the center of the room, a cloud drifts overhead. The light in the room dims, then brightens again as the cloud passes on. We depart quietly, careful not to disturb the spell the room has the ability to cast.

Light is also important in the nearby structure houseing th Menil collection. A series of louvered ceiling panels shift to regulate the light that flows into the galleries. Before the building stand several crepe myrtles. The vibrant and beautiful colors of their flowers have become almost synonomus with Houston in my mind.

The collection rotates but on this day holds a wealth of works by Max Ernst, a full gallery of the brilliant surrealist Magritte as well as Warhol, Raushenberg and 3 works by Jasper Johns that I have previously viewed at a special exhibition at Chicago's Art Insititute. There are also several Rothkos, works he created as alternatives to those housed in the chapel. We are told that the founder of the collection, which is primarily her private one which she gifted to the city of Houston, had close relationships with several of these artists. My host notices that the works by Johns and Rausenberg are hung in the same gallery which he states is appropriate because they too had a"close relationship" with each other ....if you get my drift.

The collection of antiquities has pieces dating back 5000 years. I'm certain that today these treasures would not be allowed to leave their countries of origin.

The donation of these works to the city is an outstanding example of generosity to and love by Dominique de Menil for the city of Houston. I felt, during my visit, that her philanthropy is equally cherished by the people of the city.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


We depart in the afternoon for an overnight stay in Galveston. the outer bands of the tropical storm slow our travel somewhat as we encounter a driving rain. The shower is fierce but brief and as we near the city the rain ends. Although, when the rains come, they are hard, they are too short and scattered to provide relief for this drought stricken region. In Houston, underground aquifers have dried up causing the ground to shift and streets to crack and sink. In a final bit of irony, the shifting ground causes water mains to break. Streams flow down the streets into the sewer drains from the broken mains. As many as 500 breaks per day are reported.

As we cross the causeway that connects the island to the mainland, off in the distance the glass pyramids of the Moody Gardens come into view. The homes here are built high on stilts as protection from the fickle waters of the gulf and the floods that accompany the tropical storms.

I have come to Galveston for the architecture.  In this I will not be disappointed, even as I discover that the historic areas are much more spread out than I had expected.  Although hurricanes and storms have taken their toll over the years there are wooden frame houses, which, through surviving, prove not to be as fragile as they appear. We pass cemeteries with imposing monuments and burial plots raised above ground level to protect them from flooding. There are the massive stone houses of the wealthy and the impressive facades of the office and professional buildings in the Strand district. Iron balcony railings are reminiscent of New Orleans and I remind myself the Louisiana is a scant few miles away. Numerous markers provide detailed information on the history of the structures.

Due to the storm, the skies along the shoreline are gray and the surf high and rough. We have dinner in a building in the Strand district whose interior appears to have been re purposed several times over the years. Along one wall are cast iron columns with Beaux Arts style capitals. A brick wall, whose original use can only be guessed at, stands in the center of the space. Outside, a group of children play a makeshift game of hopscotch on a giant chessboard set in a plaza. Upon departing the restaurant we learn from the historical marker outside that the building had a mansard roof that had been lost in a storm which, at one time,  made It 7 stories tall.

My host tells me that , from what he can see, the gay nightlife on the island is a ghost of it's former self. It is 10 pm on a Friday night, however the few gay bars are nearly empty. Just for the bragging rights that I was once there, I suggest a drink at "Lafitte's" the oldest and best known gay bat on the island. It is, to put it kindly, a dive. An enormous drag queen approaches us. Between the noise and her thick southern accent it is difficult to understand what she is saying to us. I do manage to make out her query, "What's your favorite show tune?" A stereotypical gay  question if I ever heard one. ...I hate questions like this. After, trying, unsuccessfully , to evade the question I finally answer "I don't know, probably something by Stephen Sondheim" Her reply was so rambling, bizarre and nonsensical that I cannot even recall what is was. I do recall that is made me question both her sanity or sobriety. We quickly finished our drinks and depart into the hot Texas night.

The next morning the sky is bright and clear. All traces of the storm were gone. It had been a weak and fast moving system that broke apart upon nearing land. The morning and early afternoon are spent touring the island, occasionally stopping the car so I can hop out and snap a picture of particularly interesting buildings, My host rests on a bench under the shade of a balcony talking to a woman from Peru while I stroll the few blocks of the Strand taking pictures and doing some quick shopping. I purchase a Texas chili spice, t shirts and refrigerator magnets to add to our already overwhelming collection. Also token gifts for my staff and a family gift of Texas dip mix for my much loved cousin and her partner and child.

We head back to Houston stopping at NASA for t shirts for my partner and I and a toy for our cat to add to her already overwhelming collection. My host has been ill so when we return he goes to bed to get some much needed rest. His partner and I order Chinese food and call it an early night as we have plans to visit the Rothko Chapel and the Menil collection the next day.

Let the Rains Begin!

As I sit writing, it appears the long awaited rain may have begun thanks to a tropical storm making it's way up the gulf. We have been tracking it's progress the last two days and speculating on whether or not it would bring some relief to the drought stricken area. Presently, it has me trapped under the tent which sits over the deck of the house. Even as it will make getting back into the house problematic, I will not complain as any amount of water, even that provided by a brief shower, is sorely needed and exceedingly welcomed by the residents in this are of Texas. I call home and hold up the phone to share the sound of the rain pounding the canvas shelter above me. Stepping into the house during a break in the shower, the news is reporting that similar storms should be expected during the rest of the day as the outer bands of the storm move over the thirsty city. The rain has diminished to a light mist and the sweet smell of damp earth envelopes me.

Houston Architecture & Dinner With a Friend

We get up and go for breakfast at a place renown for it's large variety of bagels made fresh on the premises. Even though it is small and nondescript in appearance and decor, it is Zagat rated and has been written up by a number of different people and publications.

We then begin a tour of Houston's historic areas and neighborhoods. They are a mixture of modest bungalows, grand, turret sporting Victorians and, due to Houston's lax zoning laws, new construction, at times completely out of scale with the homes on either side. In their defense, they generally appear to attempt to be sensitive to the architectural heritage of the area. One sees, however, a lack of craftsmanship and patina evident in the older structures,.

We prowl the galleries and shops of West 19th street in The Heights. I admire the Art Deco facade of The Heights Theatre. It was initially Moorish inspired prior to it's remodeling in the 1930's. After being gutted by fire, it's interior, now a gallery, has an open, loftlike feel.

We then drive through the West University neighborhood. In it's gated streets, the large, gracious professors homes hold court.

We cruise by beautifully renovated places in the Montrose district. Originally resettled by artists and bohemian gays, it is now turning upwardly mobile as the urban pioneers have moved on.

We return to my hosts home going though Meyerland. It's long, low midcentury homes are almost icons of their era.

This evening we meet with a friend from my spring cruise through the Caribbean. We have dinner in a charming restaurant fashioned from a 4 room bungalow. As we lose ourselves in conversation and champagne, the dinner goes on for close to 3 hours. There are smiles, hugs goodbye and a promise by me to exchange email addresses between my hosts ad friend. It's wonderful to see him again and reminisce about the good times we had on the cruise.

The evening winds down as my hosts and I share drinks at a local bar. We return to their home, I undress, and do not fall asleep this night so much as pass out!

Houston - The Drive Back

Returning to the country road we made our way to a gay campground. Although, it being midweek, the campground was empty, the owner, an acquaintance of  my host, gave us a tour. Trailers owned by the regular weekend guests were scattered about. Some were embellished by decks or tented outdoor pavilions. A small, tiered fountain stocked with goldfish burbled, it's sound giving us a feeling of some relief from the Texas heat.

We sat for a time chatting with one of the owners. He mentions how quiet and somewhat lonely the camp is during the week. Particularly when compared to the shenanigans that occur on the weekends when the camp is full.

On our drive back to the city, we pass a wildlife preserve along the road. There are goats and cattle housed there as well as an emu and a small herd of deer. In some pastures along the road we see the iconic Texas longhorn steer.At one point we spy roadkill in the form of an armadillo making me feel as if I am getting the full Lone Star State experience.

As we re approach the urban area we stop for dinner at a Texas barbecue joint. It is a fitting conclusion to my Texas hill country adventure.

A Simple Country Inn

Down a short road leading from the courthouse can be found the Fanthorp Inn. It is a long, white building 2 stories tall. It sits behind a picket fence and is shaded by a large old tree dripping with spanish moss. We are told, during rainy periods tree ferns also adorn it's branches. To one side of the inn stands a barn housing a stagecoach. A horse grazes in an adjacent pasture.

A gentleman approaches us to offer a tour of the property. As the inn was initially a stagecoach stop we begin with the reproduction coach in the barn. The coach is suspended on top of the wheel base by thick leather straps. When I mention that I have heard stagecoach rides were uncomfortable our guide opens the door and invites me to step inside. He steps to the front of the coach and bounces it simulating the motion of horses. Bumpy does not begin to describe the experience. Add to it the crowded conditions inside the coach, the rough, undeveloped roads of the time and I begin to wonder if nausea bags were provided for the riders of the day. As I stagger out of the coach, my host asks about the frequency of robberies during the time. The guide says that in Texas there were only 5 or 6 robberies. I mention that in the history of the area of California I lived in as as teen, there was a famous stagecoach robber named Black Bart. It is at this point my respect for the guides knowledge grows tenfold. He says, "Do you know how they caught him?". When I reply that I do not, he relates the following tale.

Black Bart was a schoolteacher. His name came from the mask he wore to protect his identity. As a man of habit, he always had his clothes cleaned at the same Chinese laundry. During one robbery, he lost an item of clothing bearing the name of the laundry, thereby giving the law the information they needed to form a sting operation.

Talk about your trivia experts!

He leads us across the dry lawn to the inn. Originally the man that built it would travel the countryside buying up corn crops and storing the corn in a crib which still stands behind the inn. When winter came, he would sell the corn for feed back to the same farmers he had bought it from. He lived outdoors using his wagon for shelter.

When he met his wife, who was 20 years younger than he, she accepted his proposal but insisted she would not live under a wagon or in a corn crib. He built 2 rooms, a parlor and bedroom on either side of a breezeway for her.As he became aware of  the stagecoach traffic passing his door, he saw a second opportunity to make a buck and began expanding the 2 room structure to accommodate the travelers. Over the years the structure continued to grow.

A second floor was added expanding the number rooms as well as providing the family with separate, private quarters. The family quarters are currently under renovation. We are taken to the guest quarters on the upper floor. There is a dormitory room for men and several smaller private rooms. All the rooms have been restored to their appearance in the 1850's, down to the shared toothbrush resting on the washstand in the central hallway at the top of the stairs. Apparently, dental hygiene was somewhat primitive at this time. Returning to the ground floor we are shown the foundations of the kitchen.They are located in a yard a short distance for the main structure. This reduced the hazards of fire and kept the heat of cooking from exacerbating the already sometimes torrid conditions inside the main building. In the dining room banners hang above the table operated by a rope pulley system. The were used to keep the flies at bay. The guide also tells us of the spices and seasonings utilized to cover the taste of rancid meat. Due to the lack of refrigeration and the Texas heat, food did not keep fresh for long. We are led back to the covered. front porch.

As we sign the guest book I notice a notation by one name. This visitor had worked on the early restoration of the inn as a college student in the 1970's. Our guide tells us of his own personal history with the inn. He and his wife had lived there during the beginning stages of the restoration. They used a small camp stove for cooking and filled a tub by hand for bathing. In the cold winter months, the tub was filled twice. Once to heat the tub and a second time of the bathing water. He tells us the experience was somewhat eerie due to the history of the structure and the solitude of the surroundings. The generations of the family that followed the original owners seldom got rid of any of the furnishings or documents that had accumulated over the years. This provided the restoration team with a great deal of written information about the history of the inn and the surrounding area. After deciding on the time period of 1850, the furnishings from earlier and latter periods were distributed to other historical sites throughout the state.

The history of the inn includes stays by Sam Houston as well as the death there of Anderson, the last vice president of the Republic of Texas. His remains are interred in the family cemetery across the road from the inn.

After bidding farewell to our guide we drive off, as a cloud of Texas dust rises from the roadway behind us.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Texas Hill Country

I awake and prepare for a day in the Texas hill country. Prior to coming, I commented that this sounds like the locale in a slasher movie where a group of teenagers travel  on spring break from which they never return. I am relied to discover that it is not like that at all. As we journey away from the center of town the city seems to break up and splinter. Tract homes and strip malls transition into ranches set in rolling hills sprinkled with old, towering trees. Steel gates emblazoned with the name of the ranch mark the entrance to each. Hawks float over head searching for prey as cattle graze and cool themselves in retention ponds.

We come to the small town of Navasota. Time and urban development seem to have passed it by. Late 19th century storefronts line it's main street. As we begin to walk and read the historical markers we find that many of the structures are built of stone rubble. After a fire destroyed the original wood frame buildings a mandate was passed requiring future construction be fireproof. Some of the stores along the street now sell antiques and country crafts to day trippers since a local Walmart serves the needs of the local population. Some buildings sit empty, sun faded for rent of for sale signs in their windows or tacked to the front of them. This is a scene played out in any number of small towns in America.

We have lunch at a small cafe where everyone seems to know every one else, also the case in many small towns. As we prepared to leave, the proprietor tells us of a tropical storm forming which could possibly be heading towards the Houston area over the next few days. We begin to watch it's progress to see how it might affect the rest of  our plans for the week.

We continue down country roads to the county seat of Anderson. The town was named for the last vice president of the Republic of Texas after his passing at the nearby Fanthrop Inn. The imposing structure of the brick courthouse can be seen from some distance away. It sits in the center of the town's forlorn main street. A historical marker outside informs the visitor that a member of Clyde Barrows gang was once tried here. Inside, along a central gallery with a pressed tin ceiling high above, there are photos of county officials dating back to the late 19th century. there is also a plaque memorializing the town's namesake.

As we exit a man ambles by who seems to be a caricature of the country Texan. He sports a straw ten gallon hat and cowboy boots. His lean legs and hips are encased in tight jeans and a huge belt buckle glints in the sun under a belly which makes it appear that he has swallowed a beach ball whole. He stops to chat with two other men whose faces are creased and withered by age and exposure to the fierce Texas sun.

A Houston How Do You Do

There is a severe drought in the Houston area and while I did expect it to be dry, I did not expect it to be this dry. Houston, at first impression, reminds me a great deal of Phoenix. Although there are areas of towers giving portions of the city a metropolitan feel, the majority of it seems to be low and sprawling.

If there is a trademark of Houston highrise architecture, it is the use of reflective glass used to help keep at bay the harsh, hot, glaring, Texas sun. The tallest building in the city is an impressive black pillar with setbacks near it's pinnacle and grooved sides which make the building appear to morph as the sun and shadows play off of it's ebony glass facade.

After settling in and catching up, my hosts and I go to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. As Texas has a large Mexican population and a long historical relationship, both friendly and unfriendly, with Mexico,the food is excellent. I have my first experience with a spinach burrito. We also share a shrimp cocktail with avocado, tomato and cilantro which I will attempt to recreate when I get back home.

We return to the house with a close friend of my hosts and relax and converse in their beautifully appointed screened porch. It is a comfortable space of deep cushioned rattan chairs and is accented with African animal print pillows and fabrics. It's walls are composed of screened panels and salvaged windows and shutters.  Large tropical plants rest under plexiglass ceiling panels that line the outer edge of the room allowing light to enter and giving you the feeling that you are outdoors even though there is a roof over your head. The light evening breeze flows through the screens as we enjoy champagne garnished with chambord  before retiring for the night.

Houston 2011 Getting There

It is July and I find myself on a flight to Houston. The close confines of the modest American Eagle plane inspires cooperation among the passengers and I begin what turns into a 2 hour long conversation with the gentleman next to me. He is extremely tall and extremely  Texan. I also hold asides with the man in front of me. He corrects my pronunciation of Meyerland and later a joke passes between the 3 of us.

The tall Texan seated beside me assures me of the friendly and genteel nature of his fellow statesmen. He also begins to inform me of where the nightlife can be found. I soon realize from my scant knowledge of Houston that he is discussing heterosexual nightlife.This, in turn, makes me realize that he has no idea "which team I play for". I decide it's best not to enlighten him. Once we land, I bid my fellow travelers adieu and meet up with my hosts.