Monday, November 24, 2008

Le Jour de Merci Donnant and the Booze Cruise

No one can deny that the Jour de Merci Donnant is a grand fete
Art Buchwald

What do Americans in America do to get ready for Thanksgiving?

Start cooking we suppose. We don’t think they head for Canada or Mexico but over here in the UK, come November, we Americans head for France on a pre-Thanksgiving booze cruise. Wikipedia describes a booze cruise as “an English colloquial term for a brief trip from Britain to France … with the intent of taking advantage of lower prices, and buying personal supplies of (especially) alcohol or tobacco in bulk quantities.”

Now ordinarily, booze cruises are pretty straight forward affairs. You get on a ferry, shop-till-you-drop, eat a great lunch and go home. But, as we all know, these are not ordinary times. To begin with, our ferry company went bust which was a very bad beginning. Undaunted, we rebooked on Eurotunnel, which is still operating a reduced schedule following a truck fire in September. OK, shit happens but it’s still not comforting. Then the pound keeps falling against the Euro, wiping out lots of the savings. Then we remember that Monday is the wrong day to shop in France when the hypermarkets are packed and the cute little specialty stores are shut. But its too late to change the booking, and so, with nothing left to do but go on this ill-fated adventure, we headed for France.

The first piece of good news was that travelling to France via the tunnel was better than we remember. Years ago, we wrote off Eurotunnel as expensive and somewhat souless and stuck with the ferries. But the whole Eurotunnel experience is superior. Its faster (35 versus 75 minutes), smoother and the highway access and loading are much easier. At £27 each way for as many passengers as you can pack in your car, its also good value. As long as fares remain competitive, we see no need to ever get on a ferry again.

For our second piece of good news, despite the insanely crowded hypermarket, we hit pay dirt on the booze, finding a good inexpensive Cote du Rhone to serve at Thanksgiving from a vineyard we like that was 50% less than what the equivalent would cost in London. We also loaded up on good champagne for what you can pay for bad champagne in the UK and just for fun we threw into our cart some oysters, duck confit, unsalted butter, cheese, fancy salt and fois gras. Even with the exchange rate working against us, between the novelty, the quality and, in the case of the liquor, the savings, we more than felt our trip was justified.

After we finished our shopping, we had an inspiring lunch at the Restaurant Le Grand Bleu in Calais that on its own could have also justified a crossing. The chef, a young man who trained with Alain Ducasse, serves up sophisticated and beautifully presented seafood specialties, such as the scallops shown above, in a simple waterside restaurant for a fraction of the price you would pay in London or Paris. We can’t remember the last time we gasped in amazement at our food but such was the case when our ultra-finely shaved tuna, responding to the heat coming from below, began dancing and shimmying across the plate. The bottom line is that it is good for the soul to eat great food and for once not feel cheated when the bill arrives. We’ll be back.

Speaking of food, it is now the Monday before Thanksgiving, and time to corner the London market in sweet potatoes and pecan pies. As Art Buchwald put it in his 1953 Herald Tribune column where he explained Thanksgiving to the French:
"And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do."
Over here in London, thanks to the French and that great old tradition of the booze cruise, we expect our celebrations to be very grand indeed.
Le Grand Bleu
Quai de la Colonne
8, rue Jean-Pierre Avron
62100 Calais
Tel: 03 21 97 97 98

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Harvard Museum of Natural History

We have Boston on the brain.

Maybe it was Icelandair. They’re offering flights from London and three night in a Boston three star hotel for £384 and you can throw in an overnight stay in a four star hotel in poor, bankrupt Reykjavik for an extra £15. Maybe it was the thought that Barack Obama went to Harvard, which got us thinking about bumming around Cambridge which has the largest number of bookstores per capita in the world. Or maybe it was the fact that the Director of Communications and Marketing from the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with the memorable first name of ‘Blue’, sent us an email encouraging us to visit the museum on our next visit across the pond.

Blue makes the case that the Harvard Museum of Natural History is a No Crowds destination par excellence as the museum contains world class collections without world class crowds. Taking a look at the website, we have to agree with Blue.

For starters, we’re smitten with their cool looking zoological collection. They have amazing looking animals, fish and reptiles including dinosaurs and dodos and the world's only mounted Kronosaurus, a 42 foot long prehistoric marine reptile. They have a breathtakingly beautiful collection of more than 3,000 glass flower models (see the photo above) created by a father and son team over the course of five decades. The mineral and gem collection is also impressive with a huge 1,600 pound amethyst from Brazil and lots of meteors from outer space.

Current special exhibitions include “The Language of Color” through September 6, 2009 which looks at the use and meaning of color in animals, “Looking at Leaves” through February 8, 2009 containing black and white photographs by New York photographer, Amanda Means and “Sea Creatures in Glass” through March 1, 2009 by the same father/son team who created the Glass Flowers.

As I combed through the website, I kept asking myself how it was that I had studied in Boston, taken my children there many times and missed this fabulous place. Thanks to Icelandair, I may be fixing the problem shortly. If you are headed to Boston, don’t make the same mistake.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History
26 Oxford Street (just pat Harvard Yard)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tel: 617 495 3045

Open 9 am to 5 pm, seven days a week
Except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day and New Years

General Admission
$9 for adults
$7 for students ( Harvard students are free) and seniors
$6 for children

Admission also gets you into the adjacent Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Photo credit: Hillel Burger via the Harvard Museum of Natural History Flickr pool

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Library of Congress - Politics with No Crowds

"All is Politics in this Capitol"
Thomas Jefferson

As much as we love the Smithsonian museums and the Phillips Collection, we feel visitors to Washington DC would be missing a trick if they came to town and did not pay a visit to the Capitol, a working legislative body and one of the most recognized monuments in the world. Here’s the problem with that idea. Tickets. According to the U.S. Capitol Guide Service website:

“Tickets are distributed each morning beginning at 9:00 AM … Tickets are required for all tours of the Capitol. … personnel distribute the tickets on a first come, first serve basis … Tickets … are for the same day admission only …During the busy months of Spring and Summer, the line for tickets forms quite early in the morning, so please plan accordingly.”

When NoCrowds reads something like that, we run for the hills but we are happy to report that on our last visit to Washington, we did find in the Library of Congress an easier way to get the Capitol Hill experience without a ticket and with far fewer crowds.

The Library of Congress, housed in three buildings directly east of the Capitol, serves as the research arm of Congress. It is America’s oldest cultural institution and with 138 million objects stored on 650 miles of shelves, it is the largest library in the world. Being a research library, most of the books and objects are kept secure in closed stacks but are available to anyone over the age of 18 who wishes to conduct research.

All the action for visitors to the Library can be found in the glitzy, spectacular Jefferson Building which has more gold, marble, mosaics and statues than any government building we’ve ever seen. During our visit, we were able to wander through several exhibitions including “Creating the United States” which looks at the ideas, collaboration and compromise involved in drafting America’s founding documents and “Exploring the Early Americas” about encounters between native Americans and Europeans. There is an inspiring exhibition on Thomas Jefferson and a recreation of the Library he sold to Congress in 1815. Popular culture is well represented in the Bob Hope exhibition on American entertainment. A lot of effort has gone into making these exhibitions interactive, so they are ideal for younger audiences.

Free guided tours lasting about 45 minutes and requiring no advance reservations are offered at 10:30, 11:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 (but no 3:30 tour on Saturdays). If tours aren’t your thing you can take yourself around the building. There is Discovery Guide for children and a gift shop for the “If you behave yourself, I’ll buy you a treat” routine.

So what’s the verdict on the Library of Congress? A visit is an excellent way to get a Washington political fix without getting on a tourist hamster wheel. The pomp and circumstance of the Library speaks volumes about political life in the nation’s capitol. The exhibits do a good job of presenting America’s view of itself and the world. You can pop in or linger as you like. If you are like us, you will leave thinking that regardless of one's view of the US government, it sure does know how to organise a great library.

The Library of Congress
Jefferson Building – The Library of Congress Experience
1st Street SE (between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street)
Tel: 202 707 8000

Hours – Monday through Saturday 10 am to 5pm
Closed Sunday and federal holidays
Photography by Carol M. Highsmith from the Library of Congress website

Monday, November 10, 2008

Goodbye Speedferries

Bummer! Our favourite discount English Channel ferry service, Speedferries, falls victim to the economic crisis.

According to Speedferries’ website, on November 7, the port of Boulogne impounded the company’s only vessel, a former Royal Australian Navy catamaran, for non-payment of port dues and taxes. The company states that “it is unable to inform its customers, employees or business partners, of a firm date for the resumption of service.”

We reckon Speedferries will never, ever get their boat back, and if they do, who would use them? NoCrowds mourns the loss of this fast, cheap and reliable service. We’ll miss Boulogne – Europe’s largest fishing port with its one star restaurant, La Matelote, the fine chateau Hotel Clery and the terrific French national sea experience Nausicaa. As the Editor said wistfully while quickly rebooking our next crossing with Eurotunnel, “it was just too good to be true”.

Ah, but it was fun while it lasted.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Day After the Election

The business of NoCrowds is travel. But not today. On the day after the election, we stop for a moment, to reflect on what just happened.

The phone rings. It’s 6 am Wednesday morning in London. I answer because it might be one of the children in trouble. It is one of the children. He is screaming. “Mom, Mom can you hear me.” In the background, everyone is screaming. “I’m in front of the White House. The cops have shut down Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s CRAZY.”

I turn on the television and there they are. Thousands of jubilant college kids, celebrating. I am happy for my son. “Remember this moment, I shout down the line, and write it down.” Don’t worry Mom, I’ll send you something.” I know he won’t.

The rest of the day feels like a party. I am congratulated by everyone who hears my American accent. An English friend drops off some cupcakes (fairy cakes in the UK) with American flags on top. I think about Corrine, an African-American woman who did not live to see, as Thomas Friedman put it, that “on November 4, 2008 shortly after 11 pm Eastern time, the American Civil War ended.” I send an email to a political activist in the Green Party in southern California asking him how things look in Orange County.

His response comes back, and he clearly wants me to post it on NoCrowds. I don’t know what to do with it. The first time I read it, it seems awfully long. And yet, it is an American story about a dream for a better American future and so, on this day of all days, inspired by the notion that we can build a more perfect union, NoCrowds publishes the unedited (because I wouldn’t know where to begin):

My Day as a Green American
by Sandy Stiassni

As one who spent last week in a mostly awakened, alert posture, abbreviated by quick catnaps and momentary non-political diversions, I greeted the day after Election Day with profound relief, intermingled with wistfulness and hopeful expectation. As a politically active Green, my own perceptions differ in substance and kind from those of my elated Democrat and chastened Republican brethren.

We Greens believe in bottom-up grassroots democracy and community-based economics, which place us in a political jurisdiction even more remote than the most distant NoCrowds destination. Recitation of my past twenty-four hours in Orange County, California may offer your European and American NoCrowds readers a glimpse into the world of a newly-minted Green, and allow them to be transported to political Greenland; a quiet, undisturbed isle, truly distant from the madding crowd!

An intriguing, enigmatic, misunderstood part of Americans are the often naive, uninformed conformity with which we present ourselves to the world, which masks a rich diversity of ideologies, perceptions, purposes.

Election Day began in my own my two-car garage. My home’s one of hundreds of official Orange County polling places. I was greeted at 645am by a smiling team of volunteer poll workers, who allow me to cast the first vote. I worked my way through a plethora of national, state, local voting choices, press the electronic "Cast Vote" key, and proudly place my "I've Voted" sticker on my lapel. Today there's an amazingly long line of neighbors eager to cast their votes; this, in one of the top ten wealthiest precincts in Orange County.

My next Election Day job was an email to another Southern California Green. Like me, Santa Monica-based Mike Feinstein wants to grow Greens from a tiny fringe clique of semi-dysfunctional, aging, white, hippy males, to a robust, diverse, politically frothing caldron of forward-thinking, environmentally convicted, new-age activists. In a state with 15 million voters, Greens have but 160,000 registrants scattered across a majestic sovereign realm one-sixth the size of the entire 27 state European Union:

Good Morning Mike,

It's SHOW TIME! November 4, 2008!

It's a somewhat hollow performance for we Southern California Greens, with only three (3) local Green races; Tom Lash in 46th Congressional District, the erstwhile Jack Lindblad in 39th California Assembly District, and Linda Piera-Avila in Santa Monica City Council race. This, in an seemingly never-ending metropolis, which includes over 5 million voters, encompasses one of the largest urban fabrics in the world, and spans a humungous, staggering, environmentally significant, culturally diverse land mass.

But it's all good!

The small lessons we've learned in each of these small political campaigns, we'll refine and endlessly duplicate! I've particularly enjoyed watching Linda P-A's blossoming, who exhibits many of your clever, quiet political embellishments. The Greens are an interesting bunch! Everyone in Green circles seems to have an opinion about me, which runs the gamut from "Sandy's an articulate, Churchillian war-monger, probably a CIA plant." to, "Sandy, like Mahatma Gandhi, needs to work on his wardrobe!" In terms of my efforts to galvanize our miniscule political particle, it's more like herding cats. Sunday, I organized an outreach phone banking session to Orange County registered Greens to ask them to vote Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney and Tom Lash. There was much resentment and controversy over my cold-calling scripts, with several OC Greens mounting a silent protest by angrily staring at the rest of us making calls. I had to bring in 'scabs'--Progressive Democrats who love Cynthia--to 'break' the so-called strike!

Together, Mike, we'll permanently change the direction of this political party from an endless cycle of indifference, inaction, unproductive internal squabbling, to a perennially repetitive pattern of localized party recruitment, commitment and discipline, home-gown leaders poised for appointed, elected offices, and constant, community-based campaigns! Together we WILL make it happen!

Mike, maybe you can dial me into California Green Party Campaigns & Candidates Working Group meeting this January in The Bay Area.

Let's get together. Soon!


Sandy Stiassni

P.S. You'll just love Green prospective council candidate, Viviana Franko in Hawthorne. She even has Green eyes!

Having dispatched this message of hope and change, I move to my next Election Day assignment; to spice up a radio spot promoting our Green Party Presidential candidate. As we almost exclusively learn about U.S. elections from corporate-controlled American media--more focused to sell soap, sex, Hollywood celebrities than offer authentic news--truths about candidates, campaigns and political issues are an often an untold story. Six-term former Democrat Congresswoman, staunch back-bench Bush protestor, and the first women of color elected to Washington from the deep Southern state of Georgia, Green Party Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney is one such hidden news item.

Other than Senators McCain and Biden, Ms. McKinney has more national legislative experience than all other Presidential candidates combined! Yet, in true NoCrowds style, scarcely a mention of this charismatic, knowledgeable, Tufts-educated International Relations expert can be found in American media, other than an infamous, highly publicized incident, where Congresswoman McKinney was reported to have angrily slugged a Capitol Hill police officer who mistakenly (not!) confused her for a charwoman!

Today's broadest venue is KPFK 90.7, a small oasis of public radio on the left end of the FM dial, which stands out as one of a handful of LA public stations not peppered with incessant corporate sponsorship promos, a trend which undercuts the original idea of public radio being financed primarily by the public. Reduced contributions and listeners have whittled this station down to maybe 150,000 loyal, politically aware, influential Angelinos.

At noontime, comedian and Green party convert Roseanne Barr co-hosts a call-in Election Day show. It's been arranged for Cynthia McKinney to be introduced as a 'special radio guest'. After twenty-five dials into the radio phone line, I reach senior producer Christine Blosdale. "Are we all good, Christine?" I inquire, "Oh yeah," opines the overworked, underpaid producer, currently juggling a full panel of expectant call-ins. "We got Cynthia waiting in the wings. I'll bring you into the conversation only if Cynthia doesn't go on." I'm the back-up, the also-ran, the voice of last resort, to communicate the otherwise unheard Green message to Election Day listeners.

The Roseanne-Cynthia connection comes together as naturally as peas ‘n’ corn. Conversation seems as spontaneous and unrehearsed as girlfriends meeting at Nordstrom gushing over a Prada sale! Instead of promoting a consumerist agenda, though, the two discuss deepening troubles of American working people, the bleak economic forecast, and empty promises made by the two Big political parties. "A Green vote for Cynthia McKinney is what I'm gonna do," says Roseanne, "How about you, listeners?"

Another Election Day responsibility is GOTV, Get Out The Vote. As the fastest-growing, least experienced and often most interfered-with Orange County voters, Green Party members like me work hard to make sure Latinos, as a group, vote early and often. I meet with young political activist, Jeanette Vazquez, who grew up in Fullerton's barrio, and currently is the elected President of the 10,000 member Cypress College Associated Students.

Jeanette and I pick Knepp Avenue, composed of neat, post-war stucco bungalows and small apartment complexes, and go door-to-door to ensure residents Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200, but go to nearby Richman School polling place and re-elect Sharon Quirk Fullerton's Mayor, a dynamic Latina, and Jeanette's former 4th Grade teacher. People are cordial and receptive, even when Jeanette wags her finger at them and says, ¡Usted debe votar, o sea!

Another job is at Registrar of Voters as a Green Party Election Day observer. A fringe party like the Greens must define 'winning' on its own terms. Cynthia McKinney's Presidential goal is 5% of the national popular vote, which automatically places Greens on all 50 state ballots, offers Secret Service protection, and renders Greens a more potent force with which the other Big Parties must deal

In a rush to quickly certify the looming election outcome, sometimes Green votes are lost, unaccounted for, or occasionally suppressed by overzealous Registrars throughout the U.S. In our case, OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley is a sincere, though colorless functionary who blandly assures ALL votes will be counted, and encourages me to walk freely throughout the cavernous factory which collects, tabulates and issues Election Day results on the hundreds of races voted on by hundreds of thousands of Orange County voters. Color-coded workers quickly shuffle incoming paper votes and voting machines though an endless maze of chain-gangs, code-scanners and fast moving conveyers. I note high-decibel Hip-Hop tunes are the exact same music played by Guantanamo Bay interrogators to break down suspected terrorists.

The waning hours of my busy day as a Green activist raise another important question; do I gloat on our paltry outcomes with other Greens, or build bridges with progressives of other political stripes? If I decide to remain separately, defiantly Green, one choice is to attend a large virtual party by Bay-Area Green activist, Marnie Glickman, Executive Director of Green Change, Says Marnie, “Green Change is a community of people with Green values and a website to help people to create together, to solve problems, and to build a culture based on Green values. We provide information and articles to learn more about what it is to be Green, live Green, act Green, build new Green communities, and help one another."

I choose instead the beautiful villa of Kim and Brad Sanders, Democrat Party loyalists and strong fellow Sharon Quirk for City Council supporters. Nestled high upon a verdant Fullerton hillside, we politically elite activists casually sip white wines and nibble at finger foods with Sharon Quirk. Promptly at 930pm every evening, a beautiful fireworks canopy display from Disneyland explodes on the vista around us, located about 7 miles away. You know, I say to myself, life in the OC ain't so bad, at least not for me! Shortly afterward, Barack Obama’s declared Presidential winner and delivers a somber but moving Yes We Can tribute to his supporters.

America's Election Night 2008 showcased a nation unified by acclamation of Barack Obama, its first African American President. A short concession by a tired, aging Senator John McCain, was marked by conspicuous absence of innuendo, depth, rancor. Tears, emotional intoxication, adulation by millions of American voters are what we saw. It was far more encouraging, tho' less inspirational, than the blood, toil, tears and sweat offered the free world by Winston Churchill two generations ago.

As I drive home, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I reflect upon the amazing events I've witnessed, and the simple yet profound moments I experienced. I think back to A.A, Milne's "In the Dark", and its pertinence to my fledging efforts to become a true Green:

I’ve had my supper
And had my supper
And HAD my supper and all;
I’ve heard the story
Of Cinderella,
And how she went to the ball;
I’ve cleaned my teeth,
And I’ve said my prayers,
And I’ve cleaned them and said them right;
They’ve all of them
And kissed me lots,
They’ve all of them said “Goodnight.”

So - here I am in the dark alone,
There’s nobody here to see;
I think to myself, I play to myself;
Here I am in the dark alone;
What is it going to be?

I’m talking to a rabbit…
I’m talking to the sun…
I think I am a hundred…
I’m one.
I’m lying in a forest…
I’m lying in a cave…
I’m talking to a Dragon…

I’ll play a lot tomorrow…

I’ll think a lot tomorrow,,,

I’ll laugh…
A lot…

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Phillips Collection: Washington's Other Museum

For visitors to Washington DC, there is an art collection just off Dupont Circle that is miles away from the Smithsonian museum complex in both scale and temperament. In a town of state institutions and memorials, the Phillips Collection is all about a private individual and an intimate space. Reminding NoCrowds of the Wallace Collection in London and the Jacquemart-Andre Museum in Paris, at the heart of the Phillips Collection is a romantic story involving a visionary collector and a grand house. In this case, the visionary collector was Duncan Phillips, the grand house was his Georgian Revival home and the story involves his appreciation of then little known artists who went on to become the masters of 20th century art.

Dashing into the museum between meetings, we were able to view works from the permanent collection, including the iconic Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir and lots of wonderful European and American impressionists and post impressionists. We also visited the special exhibition Christo and Jean-Claude: Over the River, a Work in Progress. Ever since these two artists transformed New York’s Central Park with “The Gates” installation, we’ve wondered how they ever got such a project off the ground. The Over the River exhibition provided lots of interesting information about how Christo and Jean-Claude conceive and bring about one of their installations.

We didn’t have lots of time for our visit to the Phillips Collection but it still sticks in our mind. We like the fact that in a town full of huge state-supported institutions, there is also room for a premier private initiative. Being a private institution, there is a somewhat complicated charging system for admission on the weekend and for the special exhibitions, but admission to the permanent collection during the week is free and all the time for under 18s. In any event, we feel the bottom line is that the setting, the house, the art and the story are first class. We enjoyed the scale and lack of crowds. By all means, visit the museums on the Mall but save some time and energy for the Phillips Collection, Washington’s other museum.

The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009

Opening Hours:
Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm
Thursday – until 8:30pm
Sunday – 11am – 6pm

Admission to Christo and Jean Claude: Over the River and to the permanent collection on the weekend is $12
Photo 0f Marjorie and Duncan Phillips by Naomi Savage in front of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party from the Phillips Collection website