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Reflections 2011
Series 30
December 29
Year-End Miscellanea


Once I’d established the name for this posting as Year-End Miscellanea, I looked back to find that I’d called the 2011/15 potpourri Midyear Miscellanea, so its structure will be the same, consisting of a series of unrelated articles instead of thematic topics that take over an entire posting (or more), which is what the format has developed into. In any case, the present Series covers:

 My Most Outrageous Border Crossing
“Rare Pleasures Return”
“Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway”
Holiday Happenings
2011 Travel Summary

My Most Outrageous Border Crossing   We’ve discussed border crossings lately between Canada and the US: thorough, though relatively fast, by car, more difficult and irritating by train. We’ve also spoken in detail (2008/16) about the 1985 Schengen Agreement, whereby there are no border checks whatsoever between 25 countries in Europe (in blue, plus two in green awaiting approval, Rumania and Bulgaria). Right after that writeup, even usually reluctant Switzerland joined. Imagine driving from Portugal to Estonia, across to Finland by ferry, then from Sweden to Denmark via bridge, and back to Portugal without a single border check or even taking your passport with you. A typical Schengen crossing, such as from Austria into Germany (Deutschland) has no control post whatsoever, just a European Union greeting sign. In the unlikely event that you don’t happen to spot the sign, you might not even know for a while that you’ve changed countries. It’s the same going from Portugal into Spain (España), and between any other Schengen countries. It is, of course, most startling when entering countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain.


At one point discussing the US/Canada border crossing situation I said I’ve crossed borders more easily in Eastern Europe (all by car), and that was, to be sure, during the time of the Iron Curtain. While driving into the Soviet Union was a bit more complex--you had to even list on the border form the rings on your fingers--but between the other countries in the East, the crossing usually wasn’t bad. Nevertheless, one crossing stands out as definitely the most outrageous border crossing experience I’ve ever had anywhere. I will tell it as the centerpiece of two other brushes with East European government on one drive in the summer of 1972.


It was the year of the sabbaticals from high-school teaching that Beverly and I both had at half pay, 1971-2. Over four months in 1971 we did a lot of European travel and study, including driving in a large loop through southeastern Europe. Then, over some four months in 1972, we drove through East Germany and Poland into Czechoslovakia, then crossed into Austria for Russian language study. We then crossed back into Czechoslovakia on the way to and through the Soviet Union and out through Finland. On this entire trip we were driving the light-blue Volkswagen Beetle we had just purchased at the factory in Wolfsburg (VOLFS.burg). We named it Wolf (VOLF), and was the only car of ours we ever named. After shipping it home from Europe, to our surprise, we ended owning it for twenty years, until 1992, in later years as a second car. While I remember all three incidents very clearly, I had to resort to our travel diaries to determine additional details, and I’ve just developed nicknames for each of the three events.


THE SPEED TRAP The first “brush with the law” involved a speed trap in what was then still Czechoslovakia and was merely bothersome. I just remember it happening on a pleasant wooded country road, but the diary specifies we were driving from Praha/Prague to Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad (spelled Carlsbad in English) on 16 June 1972. Beverly wrote in the diary that we’d spotted two earlier speed traps, but I only remember being caught in what was apparently the third, with me driving. As with all speed traps, it wasn’t really a matter of unsafe driving, but a police car pulled us to the side. You will have difficulty imaging the gall of the cops involved, and perhaps also of the outcome.


The cop that stopped us led us away from the road into a nearby clearing in the woods. Believe it or not, there was an official in uniform sitting at what seemed to be a card table on the grass, with a few other cops standing around. Probably because we were driving a car from the West--they might have been specializing in catching Westerners--he initiated the conversation not in Czech, which I don’t know, but in German, which I do.


Now in those years, I had a money clip I’d once gotten from my father that I used only for carrying foreign cash in when traveling (I still have it, but just as a momento). Not only did we generally travel on a tight budget in those years, it was particularly tight since we were on half salary and were doing so much travel. I may have been carrying in the clip perhaps $15-20 in Czech crowns. The official at the table made his little speech and told us we had to pay a cash fine ON THE SPOT, and quoted an amount in crowns of, I don’t know, about $50 perhaps.


To this day, I’m surprised at my reaction, but the inequity of a speed trap, the thought of our tight budget, the low amount of cash I was carrying, it all boiled up at once, and I EXPLODED. I took the clip with the crowns out of my pocket and SLAMMED it down on the card table in front of him so that everything else on the table bounced. I released a tirade in German that just bubbled out of me. The only words within the tirade that I said that I remember, since the rest was a blur even right afterwards, were that Das ist unser letztes Geld! (That’s the end of our money!). At the end of the tirade I paused to catch my breath. What do you suppose happened then?


He looked up at me with no further explanation, pushed the clip and money back at me, and said with a scowl--I remember his words verbatim: Beachten Sie unsere Vorschriften!, which literally is “Pay attention to our regulations!”, but is best translated as “Obey our rules!” As we walked back to the car to continue on to Karlovy Vary, Beverly asked how I got the nerve to pull that off. I told her then what is still the case, that it wasn’t nerve, just a spur of the moment thing of being fed up with unfair bureaucracy.


THE BEARD After visiting Czechoslovakia, that is, the part that today is the Czech Republic, we crossed into Austria and studied Russian at Unterweissenbach, a two-week program given in German by the Austrian government, in preparation for our drive into Russia. Since the Soviets (Inturist, their state tourist agency) had adjusted the plans we’d presented for a routing, we had a few days to kill before our allowed date of entry, so we then went to stay a few days in Vienna in the house of one of the instructors at Unterweissenbach, Frau Tomassi. We then proceeded once again into Czechoslovakia, but this time, into the part of it that is today Slovakia, and, as it turns out, right at Bratislava. We were then to drive the length of Slovakia to enter the Soviet Union at the Ukraine. This modern map shows today’s independent Slovakia, but at the time, everything on the map except Austria was behind the Iron Curtain. Also, as you read the following, keep in mind that today, Slovakia, Czechia (the Czech Republic), Poland, Austria, and Hungary are all Schengen countries and have no border controls whatsoever between them.


Bratislava, whose name in German used to be Pressburg, lies under an hour’s drive due east of the center of Vienna, by the shortest route some 66 km (41 mi). At the time it was just another Czechoslovakian city, now it’s the capital of Slovakia, and it’s odd having two capital cities so close to each other, each lying in the suburban zone of the other. We drove Wolf from Vienna and crossed the border at Bratislava.


Now I’m not one for beards or moustaches, mostly because they hide your face and get in the way of eating. But at this period when sideburns were popular, I’d decided to grow an under-chin connection of both sideburns. I now read that the name for this is a chinstrap beard (did that connect me to chinstrap penguins?), and it gave a very subdued appearance. It was sideburn-width, mostly inconspicuous under the jawline, and not even fingernail-deep.


Well, you can rest assured that there was a border crossing then. We parked Wolf in the lot and went into a small building. There was, once again, a uniformed man sitting behind what in my mind’s eye still appears as a card table. The diary says it was 7 July, which makes it three weeks to the day after the speed-trap incident. He looked at Beverly’s passport, and it was in order. He looked at mine: I could not enter the country. Why? I had a beard. The passport picture did not. He couldn’t be sure I was me. That was the end of it.


Now this would be awkward under any circumstances, but this was particularly difficult, as we had to enter Czechoslovakia to cross to the Soviet Union, given all the carefully-laid plans of that centerpiece of our trip. What would you have done?


No, there was no shouting here, no tirade, since you can’t fight stubborn, unreasonable bureaucracy. Actually, the answer was quite simple. In those years, I still used an electric razor, which still had a charge in its battery from Vienna. We went out into the parking lot, I got the razor, looked into Wolf’s rear-view mirror on the driver’s side, and shaved off the connection between sideburns on the spot. We went back inside, and lo and behold, I now looked like the person in the passport picture. Beverly referred to this incident in the diary as the “shaving crisis”. She also mentioned something I didn’t recall, that there were two other people with “hair problems”. I remember us being alone, so I ponder what their problems could have been. In any case, I simply had to ask (in German), what would have happened if the opposite were true. What if the passport picture had had a beard (even unobtrusive as mine was) and I did not? This is the point where the incident moves from being my ACTUAL most outrageous border-crossing experience to what could have been without a doubt the most outrageous border-crossing situation I COULD HAVE experienced. He said he would have suggested I return to Vienna for a few days, get a new passport picture taken, go to the American Embassy, have them issue a new passport, and then return to the border crossing.


Beardless, I then returned to the car and we drove on. Someday it would be fun to rent a car in Vienna and drive over the modern “borderless” Schengen border to commemorate the progress since that incident. What would it be like? Well, actually for this particular border it would be a historic déjà vu, since before WWI, both Austria and Slovakia (and many others) were all part of the same country, Austria-Hungary, and this would have been nothing more than an internal, domestic border anyway, so what goes around, comes around.


THE BULGE We then visited Slovakia while crossing it, entered the Soviet Union as mentioned earlier, and had many pleasant travel adventures, and a few not so pleasant, such as getting further involved with Inturist and the Soviet bureaucracy, while visiting the Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia itself. The final incident was a minor one, this time with Soviet officials on leaving the country.


Leaving what was then called Leningrad and is today once again Saint Petersburg, we drove up to the Finnish border--it was right ahead--and pulled into some sort of covered structure at the Soviet border station. At this point we had to get out, empty the car and trunk, and do final paperwork, including verifying that we still had the same rings on our fingers we’d declared on entering, as well as other jewelry and pocket cash, and could account for all the traveler’s checks (which we still used then) that we’d entered with. Meanwhile, the car was studied carefully, including rolling a mirror on small wheels underneath it to make sure there was nothing suspicious there. (!!!) There is nothing outrageous about any of this, since it was just standard Soviet bureaucratic thoroughness. All would have continued with neither incident nor verbal explosion on my part, except for the spark incited by The Bulge.


As you know, VW Beetles have their trunk up front, under the curved beak of a hood. The trunk had a metal floor, the same blue color of the outside. But in the back of the compact trunk, against the vertical part, there was a fat bulge, taller than wide, fully molded into, and a part of, the framework of the trunk. Why? Who knows. It could have possibly had something to do with the air vent leading into the car’s dashboard, but who cared? We always just packed around it.


Well, apparently the Soviet Union cared, or was at least curious. There were two young twenty-something soldiers in uniform, each with a rifle over his shoulder, who peered into the empty trunk. One of them pointed at The Bulge, turned to me, and asked: Что это? / Chto eto?, or “What’s this?”


It was 30 July, which was 44 days, or just over six weeks, after the Speed Trap incident in Czechoslovakia, to say nothing of the Beard incident after that. Was it the rutted, potholed roads in the Soviet Union, the periodic checks at police booths along the highway, dealing with bureaucratic Inturist, the tallying of pocket contents at the borders entering and leaving? It was just the very trivial, but very wrong question to ask, and I once again exploded.


Now I don’t really speak Russian. I can fake my way about, but only after thinking carefully what I want to say. So how can I explode in Russian? Well, I’m actually proud of how it came out. Admittedly, it was a little more garbled than this, but phrased correctly, I said:

 Я не знаю!!! Я не механик!!!
Ya nye znayu!!! Ya nye mekhanik!!!
I don’t know!!! I’m not a mechanic!!!

Anyway, it did the trick, and, shrugging without comment, they wandered off. Letting off steam was a refreshing way to leave the bureaucracy behind the Iron Curtain.


But, driving into Finland, Beverly had an Interpretation B. While I had jumped to the conclusion of Interpretation A, that they were asking a trivial question in the belief we might be trying to smuggle out the Treasures of the Hermitage in that small bulge in our trunk, she postulated that the soldiers were just kids, kids that liked cars and who didn’t too often get to see a car from the West, albeit a humble VW Beetle, and they were just simply honestly curious as to what the bulge was. Her interpretation did give me pause. Perhaps it was a little bit of both.


“Rare Pleasures Return”   The New York Times has a weekly page called “Itineraries”, on which columnist Joe Sharkey writes a column called “On the Road”, discussing planes, routes, luggage, hotels, and the like. Both the page and the column tend to cater to business travelers in a hurry, perhaps to vacationers, but not particularly to serious travelers who primarily want to both leisurely explore a destination for its own sake and also leisurely enjoy the trip getting there.


This is why his December 13 column startled me, where Sharkey starts out:

 I traveled from Tampa, Fla. to Manhattan over the weekend. What a pleasure! Nobody hollered at me to sit down or turn off my electronic devices. Nobody warned me to obey all instructions from crew members. “I didn’t get treated like a terrorist”, a man sipping a beer told me en route. “Nobody patted me down”, added a woman, who joined the conversation.

At this point, Sharkey yields that, well, the trip did take 26 hours because it was by train rather than two hours by air, but the crux of his thinking is shown in the title: “On a Long Train Trip, Rare Pleasures Return”. Still, he was wondering, would he do it again as a business traveler? He agrees that the train makes sense on a short-haul trip, such as in the Northeast Corridor, and rationalized the longer trip saying that he had to sleep anyway, and arriving in Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan rather than in an outlying airport was a great convenience.


He did take a single sleeper, which included four meals in the dining car and a New York Times in the morning that had been picked up on the way, although he could have flown that week for 52-62% of the train fare. He traveled on the Silver Star, whose passenger load last year increased 6% over the previous year. He had been skeptical about the trip, but then admits that the trip was more civilized than air travel and worth it, at least this one time. He liked the menus and food in the dining car, and the communal dining with strangers, and calls it a nice change from “the general social alienation of air travel”. He then spends much of the article discussing the bad news about the recent cancellation of high-speed rail projects in the US, so it doesn’t look promising that, in the near future, the US will follow the lead of Europe and Asia.


He recognizes that there are a lot of passionate supporters of high-speed rail (ahem!), but then points out that “I don’t know whether I’d call myself passionate, but I was certainly a happy customer, given that I was in no rush”. This is, of course, where he’s straddling the line between a business traveler and a serious leisure traveler. He did appreciate the pleasant service in the lounge car as a small group of passengers returned to their compartments for the night. He concludes:

 I slept well in my bunk with the gentle sway of the car. My ear never heard the mournful wail that the sad ballads claim for a train whistle. Instead, I heard soft chords that reminded me more of Duke Ellington’s rhythms as the Silver Star sped up the coast through the dark.

“Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway”   In 2010/8, when writing about Australian celebrities suddenly visible around the world, I mentioned my admiration for Hugh Jackman as an entertainer with charisma and personality, and regretted that I’d never seen A Boy from Oz before it closed on Broadway, in which he channels fellow Australian Peter Allen. The most I’d seen of that performance was the bit he did at the 2004 Tonys in Radio City Music Hall where Jackman simply became Allen, in gold lamé pants, a leopard-skin shirt, glib talk, and swivel hips. What a characterization. If you don’t remember it, the Tonys clip is still available in 2010/8. He won the 2004 Tony as Best Actor in a Musical, and other awards.


I was then delighted that this fall Jackman was appearing in a one-man show called “Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway”, in a tour-de-force performance where he is surely the wizard of Oz. The limited engagement, which previously ran in San Francisco and Toronto, ends New Year’s Day, and it’s a very hot ticket. Show ticket prices on Broadway have become astronomical, and the top musical is now charging in the middle $150’s. Still, as a Times article explained, the producers of the Jackman show knew they could get $20 more because of his popularity, and are charging a stratospheric $176.50. Yet when I went online before Thanksgiving, the show seemed to be sold out to the end. Fortunately, the next day I tried again, and a single ticket, way back in row Q, appeared for the day after Thanksgiving. I grabbed it, since it might very well have been the very last regular, non-premium ticket available for the entire run.


I thoroughly enjoyed the show. He had an 18-piece orchestra behind him on the stage, and six female dancers to back him up on occasion. He opened by singing--offstage, and then entering into view--the opening lines to Oh, What a Beautiful Morning from Oklahoma!, his appearance in the London version of which had given his career a big boost, and which was the first thing I ever heard him sing, when PBS broadcast that show. The expected repertoire showed off his talents as a song-and-dance man. But it was his personality and charisma that won him over to everyone so quickly. He asked if there were any Aussies in the audience, and a huge shout went up around the theater. He teased a woman in a front row for arriving after his first number, thanking her for “joining us”. He kept on kidding around with the orchestra, dancers, and audience throughout, which was a part of the charm.


The show was not all razzle-dazzle, as much fun as that was. A more serious note was struck when the theater got quiet, and then some Aboriginal music was introduced. Jackman said how much he enjoyed the Outback, and wanted to present some of its music. Four figures then started walking down the aisles performing traditional music, a male and female vocalist, and two male didgeridoo players. The woman was Olive Knight, a highly respected indigenous spokesperson and vocalist. On stage, she translated some of the words from her native Wangkatjunka language (in Western Australia) into English. While their music performed in the show was quite traditional, her performance in WA on this YouTube clip is instead a blues/gospel version of a traditional hunting song. In any case, even though I never heard of the language before, this website is an appropriate place to listen to just a bit of Wankatjunka. It can be a website first.


The didgeradoo is a traditional indigenous wooden wind instrument, averaging 1.2 m (4 ft) in length. They are most frequently made of eucalyptus wood, although bamboo can also be used. For use as an instrument, a trunk or substantial branch that has been naturally hollowed through termite action is chosen. They can be plain, or highly decorated. (The central one is bamboo, the other two traditional eucalyptus.) The only time I heard one before was when walking on Circular Quay in Sydney, and since this picture is available on Wikipedia, that must be rather common. The sound of the didgeridoo is rather unique--very unique, and apparently takes quite a bit of getting used to--so I’ve chosen a very short clip.


It was the opening of the second act where I found what I was looking for, and quite spectacularly. While the orchestra waited on a rather dark stage, a spotlight suddenly appeared flooding the left front box with light, revealing Hugh Jackman in gold lamé as Peter Allen, throwing his arms skyward with a greeting of “Hellooooo, New York!!!!!” It’s amazing how he can shift from macho to delightfully swishy. He made a few quips while standing, and then continued as he sat down across the laps of both the man and woman sitting in the box. When he got up, he looked back down at the man’s lap and advised him with raised eyebrow that “if that doesn’t go away in four hours, you’d better call a doctor!”, which brought down the house. Then he commented: “It’s all OK! We’re LEGAL now in New York!” referring to the Marriage Equality Act New York State passed last summer, which brought cheers.


I discussed Peter Allen’s song Tenterfield Saddler extensively in 2010/8, dealing with three generations of his family. Back on stage performing it, Jackman pointed out how “it’s an anthem back home”. Here’s a bit of it, along with the closing number. He really does the quadruple arm-swing and leap at the end.


But in the holiday season, the end really isn’t the end. All Broadway shows at this time of the year collect for the charity Broadway Cares, which fights AIDS. After the curtain call, actors make speeches saying there will be cast members holding buckets at the exits, which is as far as it usually goes. But not here. He opened his white shirt and showed his sweat-soaked T-shirt underneath and said he was going to auction it off to the highest bidder, and he was starting the bid at $1000. If you think that’s high, let me add that he kept pointed out to people who were making bids progressively up to $9,000, and finally $10,000. At that point he pulled out from behind the piano a plastic bag containing another T-shirt, and said that, if the person who bid $9,000 would raise it to $10,000, which they did, then they would each get a shirt. In this manner he collected $20,000, and I read in the times he’s gotten as much as $23,000. It didn’t end there. He said he wanted to take a shower first, but then any one wishing to contribute a couple of thousand dollars could come backstage, meet him, and get a signed autograph. Given his charisma, I’m sure there must have been plenty of takers.


Holiday Happenings   We all are busier during the holiday season with various events. Even my calendar, which is rather quiet when I’m not traveling, fills up. There was a quiet Mensa weekend party in Greenwich Village; a pleasant dinner with two gentlemen friends at Alfama, my favorite Portuguese restaurant now relocated from Greenwich Village to East Midtown, to celebrate their recent wedding after their being together for some 38 years; the lobby party in my building, the Regatta, which I had to skip last year because of a conflict with the Middlebury reception. Actually, it was a conflict again, with the Merchants House Museum party, but this time, the Regatta party won out. You may recall my having bought a kilt, called a Utilikilt, in Seattle a few years ago (2008/21). I have worn it a few times around New York, and also with friends in Tampa, but the black kilt with black knee stockings has become an annual fixture for me at the annual holiday lobby party here at the Regatta. Many are used to seeing it, but it also serves as an icebreaker for conversations. I occasionally have to point out that lack of a Scottish background has nothing to do with it, especially since it isn’t plaid anyway. It’s just a fashion statement. In addition, two other holiday happenings are worth more complete reports.


21 Club We discussed the 21 Club, (or just “21”), extensively in Midyear Miscellanea in 2011/15, and now it’s in the Year-End Miscellanea as well. I’d enjoyed my visit so much when I was invited to one of its upstairs private dining rooms at that time for a private luncheon that I invited nephew Greg and his wife Rosemary to dinner in the main restaurant, called the Bar Room, during the holiday season. I can only say that I enjoyed this regular visit as much if not more, and it’s now “21” is one of my favorite venues in New York.


We discussed its interesting history earlier, but I’ll just repeat the picture of the exterior to explain the layout of the three-buildings-in-one. It’s on 52nd Street, immediately west of Fifth Avenue, so during the holiday season there’s plenty of activity, with Fifth Avenue at the corner, the tree on display at Rockefeller Center on Fifth at 50th, and Times Square not far, either, over on Seventh, reaching up to 50th. “21” occupies three former highly-remodeled townhouses, as seen in the picture. Its address is 21 West 52nd, and that is the townhouse on the left, which has the current entryway and large set of upstairs windows. To its right, closer to Fifth Avenue, is number 19, with the next set of windows. The third townhouse, number 17, has been so totally remodeled so that it projects forward to the sidewalk on the right, so that it doesn’t even have its front yard anymore. I’m sure many people don’t even realize it’s also part of “21”.


The two buildings that have been somewhat less radically remodeled outside still show they were townhouses by the unusual levels of the floors. For this we should look at a picture at another location of typical New York townhouses (click to enlarge to admire the architectural beauty), many of them brownstones, like these, that show New York’s signature staircases called stoops. Most townhouses, which are most frequently brownstones, were built in the late 19C to early 20C in many Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods, and always had a stoop. The stoop is necessary because the buildings were purposely built below grade. It’s usually 3-4 steps down to the ground floor (where there IS an entrance underneath the stoop), but it’s the floor above that is the main entrance, directly into the parlor level. The stoop consists of number of steps ending on a small entry platform, which in turn can even include columns, a roof, and benches, making it into a small porch. Now go back to the picture of “21”, and you’ll see that in the remodeling, all three stoops have been removed and a great deal of filigree iron work added to numbers 21 and 19, but the unusual below-grade level of the floors in those buildings is now accounted for.


[Aside: it’s hard to find a more traditionally New York word than stoop, since it derives from the Dutch heritage of New York and the Hudson Valley. (The word has spread in the entire US Northeast, and reportedly into Canada; its reach is apparently still expanding.) Even though all these townhouses in question are from later centuries, the 17C Dutch in Nieuw Amsterdam used the word, pronounced exactly the same, but spelled stoep. Look at stoop/stoep carefully and what will you see but the English word “step”, and both words are directly related (as is German Stufe). All these words refer to a step, including a doorstep, which gives us some interesting insight. Everyone uses the word “stoop” today, as I did above, to refer primarily to the staircase, the small platform at the top hardly being thought about, but evidently that small platform at the top, which is essentially the doorstep to the front door, is what the original primary reference was to, while the steps leading up to it were merely secondary.]


The cellars, which we visited again, connect under all three buildings. Under 21 is a working corridor, under 19 is the first secret room with wine storage, and under 17 is the large secret dining room (see the video in the earlier discussion). All of 17, and the upper floors of the others, is taken over by ten private dining rooms, (there’s also a second restaurant called Upstairs at ‘21’), which means that, the main public area covers merely the ground-floor levels of 21 and 19. Upon entry, a wide lounge with bar (see floor plan at bottom) fills the front of the ground floor of both buildings. It’s all richly paneled and full of charm. Further inward, the restaurant proper, named the Bar Room (plan at bottom), with the eccentric “toy collection” ceiling decorations (model planes and trucks, football helmets) shown in the upper picture along with the bar proper, runs across the ground-floor levels of 21 and 19. Now go back to that picture caption where you can choose Photo or 360° Panorama, and click on the latter. Click on Fullscreen (use Esc to return), and then drag the picture left or right (or use left or right arrows) to review the entire room. We sat at the first round table to the right of the bar. (Only now do I notice that behind my head was a street sign for Unter den Linden in Berlin.)


My using Zagat guides extensively for restaurants has taught me to consider not one, but three factors, atmosphere and service alongside food. There is no doubt that the just-described atmosphere of “21” is exciting and superb, so that leaves food and service. Rosemary and I each ordered crab-stuffed portobello mushroom caps for starters (Greg went for octopus--he liked it; no comment from me). Greg and I ordered a very nicely seasoned beef tartare; Rosemary felt she had to try the well-known hamburger, which she liked. I saw a Muscadet on the wine list, a Loire Valley wine I like; the sommelier had a better Muscadet, which Greg and I split. For dessert Greg and I had soufflés, and an ice wine. Outstanding.


Somehow, still, it was the service that I remember best. I arrived first, and the maitre d’ was very accommodating in getting me set up and started. It’s indicative of how well we got along with the very personable servers that I remember all three of their names. Kyle was our tuxedoed waiter. He pointed out--although now I’m convinced he was pulling our leg--that we were not only sitting at Groucho Marx’s favorite table, but the soup of the day was Duck Soup. The reason we believed him is that there IS a chart on their website of past and present celebrities’ favorite tables. Point at some and see who likes to sit where. The problem is that our table 18 seems to be favored by Ricky Gervais, while the Marx Brothers liked table 12 nearby. Although we saw no celebrities, if you’re interested as to who’s been to “21” lately, look at this list, as shown on their website. Then also click the arrows below the picture.


Kyle’s assistant was Tracey, who was also very personable as we chatted with her. Then Greg noticed that a woman over at the next table (the real Marx table) had a medium-sized price tag hanging down in the back from the collar of her blouse. We sniggered about it, but Tracy felt it her duty to go over to the woman and whisper in her ear, at which point the woman in panic shot an arm behind her neck to retrieve the offending price tag. This reminds me of a similar waitstaff story that has nothing to do at all with “21”, but is too good a story to let pass by:

 In a very snooty restaurant, a buxom woman in a low-cut dress stretched forward, and one breast fell out of her dress. To make the best of a bad situation, her waiter leaned down and slipped the breast back into place. But afterward, the waiter was surprised to be admonished by his superior: “In THIS establishment we use two warmed tablespoons!”

We had fun chatting with Phil, the sommelier (so.mel.YAY), or wine steward, as we ordered the Muscadet. He was dressed in the traditional sommelier manner, with an apron and a tastevin hanging from a chain around his neck. “Tastevin” is pronounced tas.te.VÆ[NG], with “tas” rhyming with “poss(um)”, “te” as in “tequila”, and “vin” like English “van”, but nasalized. It is, as the name implies, a cup to “taste wine”. In traditional, dark wine cellars, when wine from a vat needed to be taste-tested, a bit would be poured into the saucer-like tastevin, whose silver color and faceted irregular surface would reflect the minimal candlelight so that the clarity and color of the wine could be ascertained. The center of the tastevin is usually convex, to reflect even more candlelight. But alas, in the modern world, either in a wine cellar or in a restaurant, the tastevin is mere decoration and no longer serves any practical use.


But I suppose you’d better not tell Phil. We were surprised when, after decorking our Muscadet, he first poured a couple of drops into his tastevin to taste it, then poured from the bottle a bit into our glasses for tasting. When we commented that it was the first time we’d ever seen a tastevin actually being used, Phil joked “What do you think this is, bling?”


A bit more information: “21” is the oldest NYC restaurant named for its address. It’s been featured in more NYC movies than any other restaurant. It was never a private club (although it looks like one, particularly the lounge), but started as a speakeasy. Every US president since FDR has visited “21” with the sole exception of George W Bush. (?!!) Finally, as reported on the “21” website, a pair of quotes involving the entryway pertaining to two Algonquin Round Table immortals (2006/10):

 On entering “21” one rainy night, Robert Benchley wisecracked “Get me out of this wet coat and into a dry martini.”

Legend has it that, as Claire Booth Luce and Dorothy Parker were both about to walk through the front door of “21”, Luce stepped aside and said to Parker “Age before beauty”. Parker then turned and quipped back “Pearls before swine.” [Priceless.]

Middlebury Reception Over the years, the holiday reception that Middlebury College gives in New York (also in Boston, this year at the Boston Public Library) has in my mind moved from just a pleasant collegiate alumni experience to a spectacular highlight of the holiday season for me. As the receptions have expanded in magnitude they’ve become experiences for me unequalled during the year in New York.


I was speaking to a well-placed source at the college who summarized how things have gone over the years. They used to be smaller and at posh rather than artsy venues. I remember going at various times to the Union League Club, the University Club on Fifth Avenue, the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park, with perhaps 200-300 participants. Then more people signed up to attend, and the venues shifted to arts institutions: the Museum of Modern Art entry hall; the Natural History Museum entry hall; then again at the Natural History Museum, but “under the whale”. Last year we filled Astor Hall, the entry hall to the New York Public Library. I mean “filled” rather literally, since it was shoulder-to-shoulder. This year, as President Ron Liebowitz had told me last summer in his office in Middlebury, it would be at Alice Tully Hall at the Juilliard School, opposite Lincoln Center. Typical of the last few years, some 800 people ended up showing up.


The alumni receptions used to be without charge, and the college absorbed the entire expense, to maintain goodwill (i.e., sources of donations) and to maintain a presence in two nearby US cities where many alumni were concentrated. Then, after a year was skipped for financial reasons, the receptions started again but with the request of a registration fee, now up to $30. I asked the source how much per person that fee actually covered, given the multiple open bars, constantly circulating hors d’oeuvres, and spectacular (and surely, pricey) venues. I was really quite shocked to find out that Middlebury spends perhaps $150 per person, less the current registration fee offset, and that for 800 attendees. Do the math, while I enjoy the party.


Alice Tully was a wealthy (Corning Glass) US singer, music promoter, and philanthropist. She donated much of her income to arts institutions, and her cousin, who was a founder of Lincoln Center, suggested she donate money for a chamber music concert hall there, which was eventually named after her. It continues to be used for chamber and other music, and is also the venue for the New York Film Festival. Before continuing about the reception, the rather unique, newly extended location of Tully Hall is worth mentioning.


Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is located on the west side of Lincoln Square, after which it is named. Lincoln Square is formed by the intersection of Broadway, cutting diagonally to the northwest across the Manhattan street grid, and Columbus Avenue (= 9th Avenue). This intersection occurs at West 65th Street.


Running three blocks south from 65th Street to 62nd Street is the main campus of buildings around Lincoln Plaza, with the Metropolitan Opera on the far (west) side.


Running one block north from 65th Street to 66th Street (with its subway stop) is the Juilliard School with Alice Tully Hall. Since 65th Street bisects the two parts, it is now being touted as “Street of the Arts”. This is just as well, since Lincoln Center notoriously does not take full advantage of the potential of its frontage on major avenues, Columbus Avenue (mostly) and Broadway (partially). Standing on Broadway, much of the main campus, Lincoln Plaza, just seems set back too far and distant, cut off from the city.


On the north side of 65th Street, the Juilliard Building, containing the Juilliard School and Alice Tully Hall, opened in 1969. The original joint footprint was a square, perpendicular to the side streets, which left a triangular plaza along the diagonal Broadway frontage. Similar to the main campus, the building and the main entrances to the School and Hall seemed hidden away from public view on a side street, which was further darkened by a wide bridge crossing the street connecting the buildings north and south areas. The entire Juilliard Building complex seemed detached from the city.


[Aside: Juilliard, founded in 1905 and of world renown, now teaches not only music, but also dance and dramatic arts. It’s named after a French-American philanthropist and patron of the arts, Augustus Juilliard, of Huguenot origin. Although the name is French, it’s never pronounced as a French name (zhüi.YAR), but is always Anglicized as though it were written Juliard (JU.li.ard).]


We now get to the reason for this explanation, that the Juilliard Building, comprising the Juilliard School and Tully Hall both, recently (2009) underwent a major renovation and expansion. The bridge was removed and light returned to 65th Street. In addition, the building was extended to fill, not only its original mid-block square footprint, but that triangular plaza, giving it a spectacular visual connection to the activity on Broadway. This is the architect’s plan of the change. To the left it looks west over the main plaza; 65th Street is in orange. The renovated area in light green shows both where the bridge was removed and the older part of the Juilliard Building. The dark green areas are new construction giving a spectacular appearance to the building that now extends to Broadway, where a “ship’s prow” corner angle of about 60° juts out at the 65th Street corner. In this picture, Broadway on the right looks uptown, and 65th Street looks west to the left. The extension of Juilliard is on the cantilevered upper projection including that row of square windows. The projection tilts upward at 16°; it includes a dance studio, visible in the picture, punching through the wall to face Broadway. Alice Tully Hall is below, with the spectacular three-story all-glass lobby visually connecting it to the street, a significant change. The entrance to Tully Hall is at the sunken plaza (click to enlarge). This extension and reconstruction has been characterized as “projecting a newly visible public identity to Broadway”; as abandoning the former reclusive feeling and engaging more actively with the life of the Lincoln Square area; as adding transparency to the Hall and making it feel like an extension of the Broadway sidewalk, as part of the streetscape.


To illustrate the proximity of the Juilliard Building to the rest of the complex, note here the main plaza with the Metropolitan Opera on the left. Through the columns of Avery Fisher Hall on the right, home of the New York Philharmonic, can be seen the row of square windows on the Juilliard Building. And on this view south on Broadway, (click to enlarge) if you look beyond the subway stop outside Tully Hall you can see the columns of the back of Avery Fisher Hall across the street. Tully Hall is now “on Broadway”, and part of its street life.


Now when I say the Middlebury reception took place in the newly remodeled Alice Tully Hall, you’ll know what the significance of that venue is. Note again the presence on Broadway, and click to enlarge to peek into the dance studio. This is the sunken entrance at the corner. Click to enlarge to see the public café inside, and how it blends with the outside, just separated by glass. The reception took place there partially, but primarily in the Grand Foyer running along 65th Street. Both are 11.7 m (38.5 ft) high and together are double in size to the former lobby.


I left the Regatta a little early for the subway ride uptown to Tully Hall. It was good I had extra time, since outside my building, on the corner, was the annual Battery Park City Holiday Party. (I later complained to building management that this should be announced in advance, and not left to chance.) It was as nice as ever, with a local choir singing holiday music, hot chocolate and hot cider, and cookies. I enjoyed a few minutes of one unexpected party on the way to another, but had to leave before Santa arrived in a BPC vehicle. Anyway, it set the mood for the evening.


The reception filled the entire Grand Foyer along 65th Street shoulder-to-shoulder while the café area along Broadway was more roomy. The architecture served its planned purpose, since street activity was separated just by the glass walls from the reception. There were 2-3 open bars and the canapés flowed freely passed around by waitstaff. I particularly remember a chicken cube and pineapple cube on a skewer, to be dipped in a nicely spiced sauce. I wouldn’t mind having one right now.


The reception attracts a young crowd. Most attendees probably graduated within the last 10-15 years, and there’s always a good-sized middle-age group. Those of us who first attended 52 years ago in 1959 are in the distinct minority. In addition, by FAR the attendees were undergraduate alumni who had attended four full years. Graduate students in the language schools may have attended a summer or two, or a little more in the case of getting a degree. That probably isn’t enough for many graduate students to feel a collegiate connection and to attend. But with my graduate connections being what they are (2011/23), involving nine summers in 2 ½ language schools plus one year in Germany and two degrees, I feel I belong as much as anyone, if not more. Still, conversations are what you make of them among the alumni. I did join for a while a table with three white-haired ladies I remember from last year, but I really do try to mix with all ages. I was very pleased, however, when a young man named Jeff sat down next to me at the table and started talking as though we knew each other. It turned out he had just graduated within the year, but felt he wanted to meet older alumni. I thought that was charming of him. Some people are just brought up right. Then, to my surprise, I found among the alumni Adrian Benepe, New York City’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation. I’d heard him speak at a preservation meeting a couple of years ago and had spoken to him then, so I said hello, pointing out I’d never known he was a Middlebury alumnus.


Still, as usual, most of my conversations were with the three administrators I know who usually attend. President Ron Liebowitz, as ever, was always busy talking to someone, but when I got his ear, I reminded him he’d told me when I visited the campus the reception would be in Alice Tully Hall this year. His first comment to me was that he liked the polar bear articles, which pleased me. I found Michael Geisler, whose lengthy title is Vice President for Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and Graduate Programs; he is also the CV Starr Professor of Linguistics and Languages, and a Professor of German. We had a pleasant chat, and he wanted to make sure website postings continued forthcoming. I spoke most with Daniel Breen, who is the Director of Development, Graduate, and Special Programs (don’t be put off by the titles; these guys are fun to talk with). I told Dan about my visit to the “home turf” of Middlebury this summer and my adventure with Hugh Marlowe driving me up from Amtrak Rutland and giving me that large book. Dan also referred to Hugh as “Mr Middlebury” and Dan was amazed. “He gave you the Bain book?!” Dan called others over to tell about my adventure with Hugh. Then, although Hugh says he never comes to the New York reception, it turns out he was there after all, and Dan found him and we had a small reunion. Dan also encouraged more website postings, which means I made a trifecta of compliments among Middlebury administrators.


After an enjoyable time, going home on the subway I saw two different people get on at two different times, each carrying a very small (one meter/yard tall) live Christmas tree in netting, just as though they were carrying any old package. It struck me: taking trees home on the subway--only in New York.


2011 Travel Summary   There was a lot of travel this year. I’ve never summarized a year’s travel before, but some nice memories came back to me:

 Spring Coral Gables; sailing on the Regatta; Team Trivia friends; the Amazon; Manaus Opera House; Manaus zoo; Rain Forest; Meeting of the Waters

Summer Catamaran Ferry on Long Island Sound; Martha’s Vineyard, particularly Oak Bluffs; Nantucket; LIRR to Boston; Salem’s 17C houses and harbor; Saugus Iron Works; Concord, particularly walking the route to Old North Bridge; Lexington; the Wayside Inn, particularly walking in the building alone in the late evening; Middlebury town and college; North Hatley; Rangeley; Derby Line and the border crossings

Fall The lengthy Amtrak/VIA train ride; arriving in Toronto in the dark drizzle; arriving in Winnipeg and walking the Forks in the sunny morning chill; walking the town in Churchill; the coziness of the Lazy Bear Lodge; the tundra buggy rides; the history and culture tour; getting on the train in Churchill in the early evening darkness; German conversations with Georg; back in Winnipeg, the prehistoric “underwater” display and the Nonsuch at the Manitoba Museum; back in Toronto, visiting Casa Loma, and seeing the historic view from Davenport Ridge.

Nice travel year. On to 2012.

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