Thursday, January 01, 2015

Chaotic Travel

My friend E will turn sixty this year. I have known her about ten years now making me a sixth of her life. We were invited to spend time at her home in California during J's winter break. I am living chaos for the last few months trying to keep what balance I can so J can have a protective bubble that nothing can touch. So much like giving birth to her. The physical womb protected her (or so I hope) from the upheaval that was my life then. I am trying to give her a figurative womb now - and some days the task is too daunting for me. There is only so much I can harbor in my arms, in my heart and hope to save her. 

We both love to people watch so airport layovers are not always the purest form of torture - specially when we are traveling together. So much to see, observe and learn. And we compare notes after. J and I take away completely different things that we observed together. I have to ask J about her impressions because mine were cloudy from lack of focus.Thoughts run in the background like so many black and white movies playing back to back. The cast of characters are mostly the same, the settings and stories change over time. Some times I imagine alternate endings, imagine what if I did this or the other where would I be today and twenty years out. Mostly it is the events of the past and that play on endlessly. 

J calls me a wall-hugger because I travel with multiple devices and am always running out of power from the one I need the most at that time. She tells me life is passing me by as I go hug the nearest wall and she is right. This was not a full on vacation for me - I was working most days and had to stay connected atleast some parts of the day. Take calls while squealing babies chased after pigeons or nearly missed the announcement to board our connection

But even with the chaos and distraction that marked my trip, I found a fairly random Italian restaurant near our gate, while waiting for our connection, to be exceptional. The best I have had in a long time. Very uncomplicated and absolutely fulfilling. Maybe there was a deep need there for comfort food and it arrived right on time. I am most certainly not a foodie. I enjoy cooking as a creative outlet and for the joy it may bring to those who eat what I cook.

Meeting E was an interesting experience. When you part from your friends for a while and meet again you at where their dreams meets reality. In E's case, the dreams were relatively simple and yet reality has taken her in unexpected (but largely positive) directions. The dark days are mostly behind her and the clouds are giving way to sunshine slowly. That was a positive sign I did need to see - I like to see my friends get closer to living their dream as they get older. It becomes my source of strength.

The next morning, she took us to an olive grove near her house where she walks her dog. J experienced the joys of olive picking for the first time. The sight of a fruit laden tree is a very nostalgic experience for me - we had many in the garden of the house I grew up in. Later in the afternoon, we cooked in her kitchen. E loves to see me create things on the fly - and reminds me of my much younger friend T who used to say watching me work in the kitchen is a treat. What we start with could be surprisingly far from what is served at the table.

Many herbs in E's kitchen have a story. They are gifts from friends who grow them in their gardens or from her travels. As I used them to cook, I thought about the coming together of friends, strangers, different places and times all in one dish shared with those who are are not connected to these stories. 

In E's kitchen I was closer to her reality than dreams. The chaos that has been her life for the last two decades manifests itself here. Things are impossible to find, I have to make do with an odd assortment of pots and pans, make detours as spices that are supposed to be there cannot be found when I need them. We decide her dog is Buddhist. He is always near the chopping board waiting for bits of vegetables to land on the floor. He loves fruit and vegetables much more than he does his own food. I find that it is not so hard to get along with a friendly dog.

Watching a musical in a small theater was not that different from anything I may experience in my neck of the woods. The average audience is over seventy years old. Some grand-kids were in attendance but a large slice of the population completely absent. Made me wonder about how small theater companies may survive over time. 

We had been to a show in San Francisco a few days before coming over to E's. This was a much larger and professional production and did attract people of all age groups. J found herself seated next to a child actor who had acted on this stage for the last several years. The conversation had an interesting flow - the kid was highly extroverted and could not stop talking about himself. J was trying to engage him but the one-sided nature of the exchange was clearly wearing her out. By trying too hard to impress her with his resume he lost her attention and then moved on to a young boy seated on the other side.

It is interesting to watch J absorb a new place and experiences. Our hotel was in Union Square and in a few hours she grew comfortable navigating the grid of streets. The art galleries, the coffee shops, the aggressive pigeons, the Egyptian restaurant that we could not have enough of. J enjoys feeling like she can blend in with the locals - belonging to the place rather than just visiting. That is also a sign of her liking the place. She is not terribly excited about points of interest and museums but cares about absorbing the ambiance. A flapping pigeon waiting for crumbs from her croissant is just as fascinating to her as the play of light on the geometry of a high rise or the view of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the early morning fog. 

I thought about my own response to museums. Some that I have seen have been an exceptional experience but the sensory overload gets to me quickly. I can take in only a couple of hours at a time before fatigue sets in. At that point it feels like I am going on a gourmet food binge. Our local art museum is hardly the best in the country but has a very respectable collection. J and I have been there more times than we can count. We have developed strong relationships with specific paintings and art installations over the years and like going back to see our favorites. As collections change and new art arrives, we form new friendships. This is how we would really like to experience a museum or even a library or an old bookstore. The relationship is stable but evolving. 

Checking out a top class museum within a few hours in a city that I will rarely if ever return to feels a lot like speed dating with similar outcomes. In an ideal world we would live where our favorite museum does and take years to bond with it. J and I enjoy the small art galleries more - smaller, manageable collections and usually with a specific aesthetic sensibility. Those are much easier to absorb quickly. So while the de Young Museum came highly recommended by E, we chose to skip it given how little time we would have and the size of the collection.

J noted that most science museums are designed for very young kids and there is nothing for older ones (like herself) who have actually studied a few things in school and may want to understand more complex topics,  concepts applied in real life and get to see innovation in action. She was deeply disappointed by the California Academy of Sciences. Having gone with the expectation of being blown away by science and technology in San Francisco, reality fell considerably short. The lunch at the cafe we both agreed was excellent (all things considered) and the high point of our visit there. We discussed how museums such as this one made money and why the model they used made good business sense. 

We walked a lot the three days we were in San Francisco. Wandering into streets that had no designated points of interest. Instead of using our phones for direction, I encouraged J to use the paper map we got at our hotel and if really lost ask someone that looked local for directions. Our primitive methods served us quite well though J was not entirely on board with my plans at first. Using public transport after many years was a crash course experience for me. It has been over ten years since I used it every day. That would be about seventy internet years. Shockingly enough, nothing has changed in the how public transit interacts with customers. Progress in technology has made no discernable impact. The million opportunities to automate and simplify glare you in the eye as you find your way around.

The olives we picked at the grove were pickled with fresh basil from E's patio. I was able to bring it home intact and have a memory from my trip on my kitchen counter-top. It is a time capsule of sorts. The memory of the day when we walked around in slushy grass picking olives, our boots caked in mud, the days that the olives sat in her kitchen while we traveled around, met E's friends for dinner and a fun game of charades, the hours of catching up in her kitchen and finally the night we got around to pickling them celebrating the upcoming New Year with lemontini shots.  

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