Thursday, October 22, 2015


On our way in on Monday from Figueres - home of the Dali museum, but that's for another day - we stopped at a newish bakery in Laroque des Alberes,where we'd spend the next week. It was next to an auto repair shop.  We didn't get one of these impressive sweets, but a very appealing tart, as well as a standard French baguette for dinner proper. We got our first cultural orientation from our hostess; one doesn't enter a shop and start looking at stuff, but immediately meets the eyes of an employee with a greeting, "Bonjour!" - or perhaps a more measured, low key version of the word, emulating in pitch contrast perhaps the American Gen-X'ers "right on".

Then, on to the heart of the village a bit away. Immediately comes the sense of compression, just a little unpleasant, too little room for even the smaller cars than those of the American burbs side-by-side, narrow habitations on steep streets, a sort of scaled-down version of a San Francisco neighborhood in a way.
Where we'll stay is just down the hill from the 12th C. castle tower that defines the town, in a building on the left pictured here, itself older than the United States government. It is fairly typical for the oldish part of town in this region, apparently, two or three levels, each level with a couple hundred square feet. In our layout, the ground floor has a W.C., very like a closet, next to a sink-and-shower room, separated by a wall, in a configuration we had seen in Italy sometimes, and a small bedroom. The first floor (here I have to remember a European mode)  above it has an undivided kitchen-dining-living area. And above that, another small bedroom and terrace looking out at the Mediterranean, a few miles distant, and the tower. This, quickly observed, time to walk around a little, see the tower, the wine bar, the park, the edge of the gardens which appear to yield abundantly, grapes, tomatoes, aubergines, haricots verts, and there are even chestnut trees in full fruit every so often.

That will be it for my explorations for a couple of days, as it turns out. The sniffling I didn't think much about accelerated into a serious cold overnight. So I wallow in self-pity while host/hostess/wife explore the region and seek wine and vegetables and clothing and whatever other obsessions drive their peregrinations.

But I would at become familiar with Laroque church bell, with an external clapper and a clock below. It tolled once on the half-hour and the appropriate number of times on the hour. So far, so good - but then, a couple of minutes after the hour, it would again toll the hour, hmm... Now I see a mention of this phenomenon that explains that it was a "missed it the first time" assurance of accuracy of counting, whether you're washing clothes at the river, escaping your duties at the bar, or whatever. You can definitely get confused between 12:30 and 13:30, and in our jet-lagged state, we seemed never to miss any of that sequence.

But Thursday we have a Carcassonne res, guiding light which provides momentum enough to push me into wimpy-tourist mode. En route, we see what probably is a French peculiarity, roadside prostitution in the rurales, women sitting on 5-euro laquer chairs at turnouts, awaiting trade. At one turnout, a long-haul truck and an empty chair. Then we reach an appropriately favored major tourist highlight, the castle at Carcassonne, and get a favored parking spot inside the perimeter, guided by a gorgeous and stylish lot attendant who probably works more in the hotel lobby. Then we are shuttled - a bit self-consciously in my case - in a van barely narrow enough to make turns in the ancient streets, pushing through the tourist clumps like a drover through sheep.

And then, the seriously old stuff. With modern hotels just embroidered into it.

Yeah, well, I'm not 100% myself.

And a former drawbridge turned fixed, no less:

The scope of this restoration is truly staggering.

They say Mme. Carcasse threw a food-stuffed pig over the battlements to convince the besiegers that there was no want of food within.

She does look like a tough cookie.

And we're not quite ready to storm the walls.

There's a phenomenal dinner awaiting us, and if we've got to close the place down, we'd better get going.

Next morning, mine hostess and la esposa consider the bridge to town before we depart. (The latter was on notice that the country was a "fleece-free zone", may actually have been in conformance here.)

Seen from a distance, the place has a definite fairytale look.

More church ruins near Luc-sur-Aude, plenty more where that came from...

In fact, dining alfresco makes total sense where the Cathars' resistance failed yet again in the Château de Puilaurens. Mine host and hostess show again that they know what they are about, and la esposa is the clear benefactress.

One defenders-eye-view: They had perfect positioning, but ultimately weren't ready for a siege. They had a significant communication network, here's a line-of sight battlement a couple of ridges away:

These run down to, and beyond, the Spanish border, and even played a role in the Spanish Civil War and its refugee movements seven centuries later. And ultimately all the hubbub was down to: one God or two?

And still more of the same history a short ways down the road at Peyrepertuse...
Remarkable defense location, but...

And down the road again to check out the Picasso Fountain and the perfectly autumnal market at Céret.

 home again, jiggedy-jig, we're hungry.

It's worth noting a tenet of mine hostess, which is that generally restaurants, at least in France, which display photographs of food are not going to offer a good quality meal, partly because they are catering to less discriminating tourists who can't make sense of the menu.

So next day, not far from Ceret, we indulge in a cafe which does not conform to the "no food pictures" criteria, yet is perfectly serviceable...
But then we must gird up our loins for a hair-raising trip through the forest, over the passes, to Prades..
.. and ultimately to Villefranche-de-Conflent, time for no more hairpins, lots more wine, even if your truly is profligate in spilling his glass in sight of seriously old piles.
I've demurely isolated myself here to the lower left, of course. Here again are 12th C. vestiges of the fear and bellicoseness of the time:
.. and cart-designed streets...
..reflecting a wine-centricity of the region:

Back to the coast: time for the much-painted, picturesque Med-coast town of Collioure, bustling market
grand old church
and all
(mine hostess and la esposa wave from center right.) A frame on the sidewalk allows you to select Achille Lauge's viewpoint:

A residential street.
And lest we forget, yes, a castle, with commanding views from shooting slots.

What can you contrive to follow all this? Well, for us, it was a dinner at home base with a visiting Svenska, and a hike the next day to the land of the endless aquifer

- which rema
rkably turns out to be in the neigborhood, out the front door. Less than 8 inches of rain in 2015, and they somehow have a continuous year-round flow in a broad network of ditches and canals, with informal weirs scattered throughout for irrigating gardens.

This concluded the French phase of the exploration, for the next day we were off to Figueres again, but this time with a stop at the famed Dalí museum, where the "car courtyard" is not the least striking:

The surreal Mae West installation, the car and its creepy inhabitants,
the spurting penises, the crazy sculpture,
the inescapable hordes of
selfie-stick-toting tourists and schoolchildren, all eventually made it a relief to leave our hosts to the rest of their day and make our way to Barcelona (with seconds to spare, this has to happen at least once in these circumstances.)

I've noticed in comparing my Alicante trip and this one, that Spaniards seem to like black and white rooms:
This one
was certainly comfortable.

We wanted to get our first Gaudí fix that day, so we checked out the exterior of the Sagrada Familia at dusk, just a walk away in the drizzle..
found something to eat somewhere in the land of midnight dinner, and planned our next day's outing before crashing.

We made it back fairly early next day for the interior of arguably the most famous modern Spanish structure. But it's yet to be defined, really; they have yet to complete the largest central spire and quite a bit more, but that said, it's phenomenal whether in construction details
 or finished elements,
and both are uniquely presented via viewing slots in the spires,
accessible by a helical stairway
 which could give acrophobes pause (and I suspect it's not where you
want to be in hot weather.) The light is magical,
 and the basement museum with its models and historical photos are
terrific - if you went to Barcelona, had any interest in art or architecture, and didn't see it, I sympathize.
We did a lot of walking as the day progressed, making our way to the oldest part of the city, approaching the harbor. Las Ramblas 
 is the area most tourists end up in sooner or later, I guess because it's crowded and has lots of tchotchkes to adorn houses and thrift shops - but really it is picturesque in the way all these places older than America are, at least to Americans. We ate eventually at a place which offered rice dishes common to at least the Catalan regions, perhaps suspiciously modern, but with friendliness and tasty fare.
Next day was again a Gaudí Day, this time focusing on Parc Guell, his famous (eventual) public park commission. It is among other things a masterwork of coarse symmetry,
suggesting nature in a less stylized way than the Sagrada, both in fired
and unfired clay, glazed or unglazed.
 Here too the selfie sticks fly off the vendors'
sheets, the pan pipes players congregate, but really the art and the views compel. We looked out at one of the neighborhoods
 which served as the settings for Shadow of the Wind, topped by an amusement park. This was a
day which was increasingly pleasantly cool, and we were hungry to take in a lot.

But also just hungry, and a catalan rice dish would do the trick... but afterwards in the plaza, what could pass for a Spanish flavor of a happening:

And not too far away, the fanciful Gaudi lampposts...

And what's becoming a somewhat Olympic walking day with underground train segments takes us to the Miro museum above the Olympic Park

and shortly later a look at that grand scale vision applied to the Olympics site:

But then all we had left was a visit to an all-too-touristy pizza place with all-too-familiar American sorority girls giggling about - what? A trip to Starbucks, what is rocket, some chance boy encounter, onerous parental limitations. I guess it signals that the adventure of going home is nigh.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

City Now and Then

  Everyone knows it's going to hurt 
  But at least we'll get hurt trying
 - Regina Spektor, "Firewood" 

We started out in Golden Gate Park where the bands were playing. Really strange, all juicers with some grass and barbs, but even with the grass smokers everyone was just out to mess up their heads... we came back to the apartment and started playing records... even Dylan [seemed] happier before [Nashville Skyline] ... after I cried awhile [we visited some unhappily married friends.] 
 - a friend living in "The City", June 1969 
By October of 1967, the hippies who resided in Haight‐Ashbury were fed up, and chose to proclaim “the death of the hippie.” In a report to The Washington Post, one reporter describes the march that occurred on October 6, 1967, with the intentions behind the event described by Digger Arthur Lisch. The residents of Haight‐Ashbury waved flags and incense in the air and marched down the street, declaring “Hippie is dead. Now we are free.”
 - Brett Ruffenach, remembering a Panhandle Park event  
We got there and right away she decided I needed to have sex... Then ... she ... got out her stuff to shoot up drugs... I could not stand needles and... told her if she was going to do that I was leaving. 
"Shit man I helped you do your thing why won’t you stay with me while I do my thing?!"
- Country Joe, remembering an encounter just before Woodstock  

I suppose it was inevitable that I would have the Regina Spektor lyric looping in my brain on my ramble through San Francisco a couple of days ago,
45 years or so after a memorable month spent in an apartment across Fell Street from Panhandle Park. That was the same month that the Woodstock Music and Art Fair made part of counterculture history, and two years after the putative "Summer of Love" whose public watchwords the "Hippie is Dead" event sought to dismantle, even as it tried to redeem some of the initial idealism. But I'm not quite sure that I've nailed down what her lyric might mean to me yet. Did that hurt, against all odds, purchase something worthwhile?

I had four destinations in mind over the days before that ramble: Buena Vista Park, a Haight denizen view destination; the  building where I spent most of August 1969; Mandalay; and the Presidio overlook paths.   And I definitely did not want to plan the route, though I would start near the center of the S.F. thumb. I had a phone that would show me maps, so even directional ineptitude would be readily recoverable, so I was determined to just follow my nose from the garage near Sutro Tower  and only correct when I was certain I was heading toward downtown or someplace else too far off-route, then consult the phone to get back on track. I could eat when hungry, rest when tired, and see what I found.

My first view from the walkway down from the garage exit seemed to make it clear that the hill was first.
One night during my stay on Fell Street, I was restless and warm, and went walking as usual with little sense of orientation. I was 18, not very smart in many ways, but typically eager for discovery, as well as firmly oriented towards outdoors and altitudes. So I meandered toward what I later found out was called Buena Vista Park, and continued taking upward branches at each choice, until I reached a flat area partially surrounded by trees, the city lights spread out a couple hundred feet below. I saw a young black man sitting on a battered bench next to a kind of jungle gym, playing a flute, and engaged him in conversation.

In 1969, I considered myself to be inducted into a fairly amorphous group which nevertheless appeared to have a distinct identity from the society which existed in the decades before. Particularly if you were on the young and credulous side, the sort of dog whistle of words like "freak" and "head" provided leading indicators of membership. But the humor of the rapidly decaying social landscape of the subculture was almost more diagnostic; some of us had a standing joke as we discussed or pointed out wannabes or possible narcs, and it went, "Far out, Harvey Krishna, what's your sign?"

In the case of the flute player in the park, it was obvious from the first sentence that he was a fellow inductee. I don't recall anything of the conversation, only that it was typically desultory, enthusiastic, and despairing as we talked about the City, the War, music, people we knew and their affairs - I can say with pretty good confidence that these were topics, since it seemed like they were _always_ topics. You might say, "Nixon - can you believe it?", or "Did you see Santana, aren't they intense?"

The people enjoying the view earlier this week weren't speaking English, but were clearly relishing their conversation. And someone even had a ukelele.

I was ready for the next obvious stop, the Fell Street building where I stayed, no phone guidance needed there. Ours was the top apartment, with a pleasant view of the Panhandle, and I slept on cushions behind that top right window.
My hosts knew there was no great expense or effort required for furnishings, as I did - you could get Indian print bedspreads from Cost Plus (often also the source of those enameled tin mugs for tea which provided no heat insulation) which could then be sewn into a large pouch, then filled with equally inexpensive shredded foam - instant couch, instant bed. Poor longevity, but hey...

The Haight seemed about the same, at least visually, fairly worn, only intermittently gentrified, with nods to back-in-the-day like a clothes shop a couple of blocks from the famous corner.
Of course, Zillow corrects that impression somewhat; the building is almost certainly worth more than a million, and the four or five units probably generate over ten thousand monthly in rent. But discarded clothing and some pages lost from a dictionary (an immigrant learning English?)
show the neighborhood to retain the kind of neglected character I remember from the sixties.

I made my way to the Presidio, where the massive efforts by the city were on display, including the Anza Path and others encirling from west and north, lots of signage and well-designed streets. I did not make it to the Promenade on the north side, but the overlooks on the west side are alone well worth the visit even on a foggy day.
I had to reflect that, in the dozens of miles I covered that August exploring the city, I never went here, nor considered it - the military association was plenty to keep me away.

I was really ready for Mandalay, my first visit. Dry pan fried string bean with seafood, elusive to description, kind of like BBQ, kind of like blackened fish, nicely spiced.
Though it wasn't particulary expensive, I couldn't afford it in 1969 even in adjusted dollars - or rather, it would not have been a priority relative to about the same amount of money for a visit to the Fillmore to see Santana, my big splurge.

The hurt of 1969 is kind of like the hurt thinking about it in 2015. It's very abstract rather than any specific set of personal mischances that you could point to - and only very trivially negative things happened to me during that month, it took a long time to get a ride or whatever - and goes in multiple directions. Why did "straight" people react so ruthlessly? How could we have baited them so cluelessly? What did we really think was going to happen? Was this really just idealistic foolishness, like Communism or Sun Myung Moon or Merry Pranksters? Did it make the phases of sexual revolution (and hey, should the Mazda 626 be re-released to commemorate the latest?), the later labor movements, women's rights and all the rest more inevitable, or more delayed?

And I kind of think the trying, sixties style, was somehow inbred. And it does seem like progress. Particularly on the heels of that Burmese treat.

- Spencer

Sunday, June 7, 2015


Note: Please see previous post before reading this one.

DiPierro, Self Portrait
“[Your Eno post] reminded me [that] in 1988 he was also an artist-in-residence with me [at The Exploratorium in The Palace of Fine Arts], and Brian did an amazing ambient installation [called Latest Flames] in one of the dark hidden columns outside of the Palace.  He built frosted plexiglass boxes around TV monitors and had color bands move on the screens inside, making the boxes look like glowing alien fireplaces in the dark room…as the glowing video light changed.  His beautiful composed ambient pieces of music played, and you got to sit on big stuffed couches in the dark for as long as you liked.  Very meditative.”  Daniel DiPierro, ex-Exploratorium employee 

So maybe it wasn’t exactly as I had remembered, but it WAS at the Palace and it WAS extraordinary!  Thank you Danny.

Friday, June 5, 2015


“I can tell that he's kind of smiling.
But what does he know?
What does he know?
We're always one step behind him, 
He's Brian Eno”
MGMT, “Brian Eno”

“Oh, but it's all right
Once you get past the pain
You'll learn to find your love again
So keep your heart open”
Pablo Cruise, “Love Will Find a Way”

Donna and I were staying in San Francisco about two blocks from Fort Mason.  She needed a nap, so I decided to take a walk along the Marina and then check out the Fort.  A former military base, it is now known as the “first urban national park”, and evidently there were a multitude of fascinating sights to explore, both cultural and scenic.  On the west side of the park are three oblong buildings (former barracks?), and supposedly there were all manner of shops and businesses to explore.  I had just finished a five mile hike, but had enough energy to at least check out the SF Zen Center operated vegetarian Greens Restaurant for a possible future meal.  But right before the restaurant was a bar, a place called The Interval, so I decided to check it out.

I walked in to a medium sized open room, and the first thing you see is a huge orrery, depicting our solar system.  It is an impressive sight, must be seven feet tall, the planets and sun at the top, but all manner of shiny metal gears and pieces supporting the structure.  Directly behind it, on the second level, was a wall of bookcases, and some had books in them, all kinds, not theme that I could see.  Across the room, past a sort of metal sculpture rectangular table, was the bar, with the usual array of liquor, and an interesting piece of art in the center of the bottles, a large colorful square upright on one corner, resembling a diamond.  There weren’t too many people there, and I was tempted to stay, but the fatigue was settling in and I decided I better get back to my cousin’s apartment, where we were staying.

A couple days later, Donna and I decided to walk to the Palace of Fine Arts, about a mile from the apartment.  What a magnificent place!  For years, my most cherished memory of The Palace was seeing an amazing music/sculpture exhibition by Brian Eno there.  The sculptures were three dimensional geometric “boxes” that slowly changed patterns and colors as ambient music playing.  I had been gob smacked in the extreme, especially considering my fan boy obsession with Eno, whose music I have admired since Roxy Music.  At any rate, we zig zagged around tourists snapping pictures on the Palace grounds, and then entered the main building, where the Exploratorium used to call home before moving to Pier 15.  We were greeted by an affable gentleman whose open nature made it obvious he would be willing to field any and all questions or concerns.  After a few minutes, he told us he had worked many years for the Exploratorium before it moved, so of course we asked him if he knew our dear friend Daniel DiPierro, and in fact he said that he, too, was DD’s dear friend!  At this point, we asked who he was and he pointed to his name tag: Pablo Cruz.  

So of course now I asked him about the Eno exhibition.  He went online and began looking for info about the exhibition, but found nothing - no mention of it whatsoever, like in fact it never happened there at all.  I couldn’t believe it; was I mistaken?  But he did find something else: evidently Eno and a dozen others had formed a foundation in San Francisco in 1996 called The Long Now, and one year ago this month they had opened a public space for gatherings, a bar in Fort Mason called The Interval!  Yes, the very bar I had stumbled upon a few days earlier.  Now I knew we had to return to this place and actually experience what was going on there.  Such an amazing musical serendipity must have been guided in some mysterious way by DiPierro; I cannot think of any other reason for it unfolding as it did.

So when we were finished at The Palace, which took awhile as this year is the 100th anniversary of its opening, and there were many sights to behold, we walked along the Marina to The Interval.  Through the front door, past the orrery and mechanical table, and right up to the bar we strode.  We were greeted by a fairly friendly bartender, though Donna detected some hoitin’ and toitin’ that escaped me, maybe due to my glee at being there.  Right behind our server was the art I had noticed the first time there, but now I saw the “sign” underneath: art by Brian Eno, and now I realized that this art was slowly, like a clock, changing, new patterns being created as colors morphed from one to another, the piece never repeating itself.  This was exactly like the exhibition I remembered so many years ago, but of course smaller and one dimensional.  I asked if anyone knew of this ancient exhibition, but no, it wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and I was coming to the conclusion that I had somehow got the venue wrong.  (Subsequent research has come up with an Eno exhibition in the early 80s in Berkeley; maybe that was it?  Maybe someone reading this will know?)

And so it goes.  We had a drink, we took some pictures, we found out more about the Long Now.  Time to move on.  I can only hope my future memory of this experience will place it at the correct time and place.  Or maybe it doesn’t matter?