Friday, September 30, 2011

Rudolph & Laurita, London, 1968

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a scrapbook that I inherited by happenstance from my Aunt Laurita. She and my Uncle Rudolph, who as my maternal grandmother's brother was really my great uncle, traveled through Europe in the spring of 1968. They took a three-week American Express "Priceless Connoisseur" tour through England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. Aunt Laurita kept photos, receipts and other souvenirs in the scrapbook -- like the photo above of their tour group, with the Houses of Parliament in the background.

Aunt Laurita and Uncle Rudolph are on the left side of the picture:

The other day I got out the scrapbook to read about their stay in London. I thought it might be fun to revisit some places they'd photographed. Unfortunately, most of their photos in the scrapbook show tourist destinations -- Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London. Comparing them "now and then" just wouldn't be very interesting.

If anything had changed in the past 43 years, I thought it might be their hotel. So I went to check it out yesterday.

They stayed at the St. James Hotel, which is now the Crowne Plaza St. James on Buckingham Gate. My aunt preserved a brochure from the hotel, noting that they'd had to wait in the lobby when they arrived because their rooms weren't yet ready. (Oops!)

She also praised the beauty of Hyde Park, where she liked listening to the gadflies at the Speaker's Corner -- "my favorite place!" -- and noted that elsewhere in London "some Germany bomb damage can still be seen." Here's my uncle in front of the hotel:

In every photo from this trip, he's wearing a suit.

Here's my aunt outside the Tower of London:

Anyway, here's what their hotel looks like today:

It's quite an edifice. (I think the fountain shown on the brochure is in the courtyard, which is accessed through that open arch in the lower photo.)

What's even funnier -- when I visited London in 2000 with a friend, we had a few drinks in a great bar called Zander that I have always remembered fondly. Turns out Zander is still in this very hotel. It was a coincidence I didn't realize at the time.

In her scrapbook, Aunt Laurita saved her ticket stub from "Robinson Crusoe" starring Engelbert Humperdinck. She declared it a "good stage production."

And she and my uncle kept Easter programs from services at both Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral, though I don't see any evidence that they actually attended the services. They were only in London for two days and their schedule was pretty well booked, so my guess is they just picked up the leaflets.

Aunt Laurita and Uncle Rudolph lived in Miami, where in the '60s they were probably seeing an influx of Cubans but not a lot of people from elsewhere in the world. In London, my aunt noted "many different nationalities in our hotel. Those from India wore their native dress, turban and all."

She also wrote, "We saw a massive protest march against the government taking over bus transportation, down Park Lane from Hyde Park toward Buckingham Palace." It probably had something to do with this.

I wish they'd gone somewhere really swingin', like Carnaby Street, but I suppose that wasn't quite their scene!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another Fox

More than a month ago I wrote about some fox stencils that cropped up in Northwest London.

Well, just last week someone removed a plywood wall that concealed a vacant storefront on Portobello Road, and what should be behind it -- another fox! Obviously not the same variety as the stencils, but we like him just the same.

Unfortunately that vacant shop is now under renovation, so who knows how much longer this fox will be hanging around!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


One of the things that Dave and I have found interesting about England is the marked absence of insects. At least during the two months that we've been here -- in summer, a time when you'd think bugs would be at their worst -- we've seen very few. A couple of houseflies here and there, some bees on our lavender, and no crawling critters at all.

(Not that this is a bad thing.)

Windows in London don't even have screens, which shows just how insignificant insects are. Coming from Florida, where screens are mandatory and the air is always chock-full of flying things, and New York and New Jersey, where roaches, mosquitoes and gnats are commonplace, I find it a peculiar relief to live without window screens.

In the last several days, though, we have seen a few of these guys (above). They're spidery-legged flying insects an inch or two long. They look like really huge mosquitoes, and after doing some internet research I've learned they're called craneflies. They don't bite, and they're hardly exclusive to England -- they're common all over the world, and in fact I'm sure I've seen similar species in Florida.

If you look closely just beneath its wings, you can see two small rudders. These are called halteres and they help orient the insect during flight. Pretty cool, huh? Evolution is amazing.

Despite the halteres, though, craneflies fly in a sort of wobbly way, and they're very easy to catch. So last night, after taking this picture, I caught this guy and a companion and put them outside. Dave laughed at me and kept yelling "Kill them!" But that seemed like a rather extreme thing to do to a bug that doesn't even bite.

I later read that putting him outside -- he's almost certainly a male, based on the shape of his abdomen -- won't extend his life by much. By the time craneflies reach adulthood, they only live long enough to mate and die. He's pretty much at the end of his life span, but maybe I gave him a few more amorous opportunities.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tate Modern

I felt like I needed a dose of culture yesterday, so I put on some nice clothes and went to the Tate Modern, the art museum in a converted power station on the south bank of the Thames. It's in a dramatic location, with the Millennium Bridge right outside the back door and an excellent view of St. Paul's Cathedral across the river.

I saw a lot of interesting art -- works by Picasso, Miro, Barnet Newman, Mark Rothko, Giorgio de Chirico and many others. I also saw some newer, more unusual pieces, like Jannis Kounellis' untitled piece featuring shot-through birds over a drawing of an industrial landscape on the wall. The birds "have been seen as symbolizing the death throes of imaginative freedom," according to the exhibit notes.

Do Ho Suh created an astonishing polyester-and-steel replica of the stairs in his New York apartment, right down to the power outlets and the turned newel posts on the upstairs railing.

And Ai Weiwei's work "Sunflower Seeds" just looks like a big heap of seeds, until you realize that each one was precisely handcrafted from porcelain. The artist, recently imprisoned in China, remembers sharing sunflower seeds as a compassionate gesture during the dark years of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution.

I had lunch at the Tate -- I tried a Pimm's, a popular light cocktail in Britain that I found way too sweet for my taste -- and then I walked across the bridge. I found some shiny spherical sculptures in a plaza that made a perfect reflective surface for a self-portrait with St. Paul's in the background.

Finally I wandered over to Covent Garden, where I got some coffee from Starbucks and listened to an opera singer named Seija Knight as she performed for the crowds. She was excellent, at least to my untrained ear, and I bought her CD. I really enjoyed her performance.

Then I made my way back home, arriving about 5 p.m., just before the skies opened in a pouring rainstorm. Good timing!

Monday, September 26, 2011


The shift in seasons was evident when Dave left for school this morning -- suddenly it seemed so dark at 6:45 in the morning. The mornings are much cooler and I've been taking my sweatshirt along when I go out walking. We're supposed to have a relatively warm week this week, but soon it will be time to put the shorts away for good.

The view I posted back in July is changing. Some of the trees in our courtyard are yellowing and already dropping leaves. I love autumn, but there is a sort of built-in melancholy that comes with it, as the days shorten and the flowers begin to go to seed -- particularly since I've never been through a London winter and I don't quite know what to expect.

Our dinner for the head of Dave's department and his wife went well on Saturday. Dave's cooking, as usual, was superb, and at Dave's suggestion I rigged up a slideshow of some of my photography that ran on the television in the background during the evening. Our guests seemed interested in the photos and even said they might like to buy some! I'll have to think about how to manage that.

Speaking of which, I do need to start looking more seriously into earning an income. Our finances are fine, but I don't feel like I'm contributing enough to our household. I honestly don't think I have it in me to write a book or make money on freelancing -- I'm not a good salesperson, and I think anyone with the real potential to write a novel would be bursting with ideas and enthusiastic about the opportunity. I have neither ideas nor, to be honest, enthusiasm -- I've written a few pieces since we moved here but nothing that seems book-worthy or particularly marketable.

I've done some very preliminary looking into part-time jobs at a few places. I need to update the ol' resume and start looking more seriously. I'm not sure how many opportunities there are, given the economy -- which is no picnic, even here -- but I suppose it's time to wear out some shoe leather and at least try.

On the other hand, with the dogs arriving in less than two weeks, I want to be here to get them settled in -- I don't want to ship off to work too early. (I should be so lucky!)

(Photo: Doorknob in Finsbury, last week.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011


This is my favorite photo from my walk yesterday, which took me east from the Finsbury area to Bethnal Green. Street art really can depict anything.

Tonight we're hosting Dave's boss and his wife for dinner, so we went out this morning and blew a wad of cash at the grocery store. We're serving butternut squash soup, scallops with asparagus, braised lamb shank with mashed potatoes and crispy kale, and poached pears for dessert. Of course, I say "we," but I'm serving in name only -- Dave is doing all the preparation. (I clean up, though!)

Friday, September 23, 2011

'Exit Through the Gift Shop'

I finally, finally, finally had an opportunity to watch Banksy's film "Exit Through the Gift Shop" last night. It was ultimately far more interesting and critical of the world of street art, and art in general, than I expected.

I thought the film would be a documentary about Banksy. Instead it's a documentary about the entire street art movement, and ultimately an "artist" who goes by the name of MBW, or Mister Brainwash. MBW is the camera-happy cousin of another street artist, Space Invader, and through that connection he began meeting many artists and filming them at work. He met some of the most well-known image-makers on the streets, such as Swoon and Shepard Fairey.

Challenged by Banksy to make his own art, MBW puts a few pieces on the street, and eventually goes all-out and mounts a huge show in Los Angeles which sells nearly a million dollars worth of art. In documenting the evolution of this show, though, the movie questions MBW's artistic chops and the phenomenon of street art as a whole. Is MBW really making art, or just churning out some vague approximation and selling it to gullible suckers? Is art merely a cool image, no matter how derivative? Does it have to be important, or is it enough to be rebellious or fun? Does it have to be made by the artist himself, or is it sufficient for an artist to provide direction -- as MBW does -- to a team of printmakers?

The movie made me ponder the line between graphic and fine, or meaningful, art. (Or, indeed, whether such a line really exists.) Take Andy Warhol. To me, Andy Warhol was a brilliant graphic artist, but his artwork doesn't reach a higher plane -- particularly now, viewed in retrospect. And despite my love of street art, I think many street artists are similarly talented at creating images, but not necessarily images that push the boundaries of expression and viewer experience.

I like graffiti and street art because it's democratic. It's there for everyone, and it's part of a sociological conversation that occurs on the streets for all to see. While some of the art enriches the artists indirectly, by raising their profile, I don't think many make a living at it. (Banksy, whose work does transcend graphic art, is an exception.)

MBW is a lesser Andy Warhol, and even derives much of his imagery from Warhol. The movie left me feeling a bit taken for having merely photographed his work. But on the other hand, it's on the street, it's part of the dialogue, so why not?

Top: Banksy, New York, October 2008
Bottom: MBW, New York, October 2009

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I am having one of those technologically challenging days, when nothing computer-related seems to want to work right. I tried to update my iTunes and my iPod by neatly classifying all my music into genre-based playlists, so I no longer had the jarring experience of switching directly from Pink Floyd to Handel while playing my iPod. But now I'm having trouble shuffling songs within the playlists -- my iPod seems to want to shuffle everything, in all the playlists, or nothing at all. Very perplexing.

I was entertained while working on my classifying, though, because iTunes already puts music in certain categories -- and they can be very bewildering. For example, Percy Faith's "Theme from 'A Summer Place' " (which I do have on my iPod, and I quite like, thank you very much) is listed as "New Age," a genre that hadn't even been invented when that record came out. KD Lang is automatically labeled "Country," no matter what she's singing. Sometimes The Beatles are "Pop," and sometimes they're "Rock." And the soundtrack from the Shirley MacLaine movie "Sweet Charity," from 1970, is classical.


Flickr is also misbehaving, requiring me to upload photos one at a time for some mysterious reason. And I had some trouble backing up some music and videos to CDs and DVDs. Hmmm...

So let's all just take a moment to smile, shall we? If you need a prompt, how about this photo? You gotta love someone who bothers to draw a smiley face on a squashed piece of gum on the sidewalk.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

War Ration Book

While going through some old paperwork, I came across the World War II ration books belonging to my grandparents, mother and uncle. This is my grandfather's book. It includes some unused stamps for items including bread and produce.

This really shows how the war affected everyone and their consumption of even the most basic goods. It's hard to imagine being rationed bread or potatoes.

I posted this on Facebook and I think some of my friends thought I was trying to make a political point, or contrast between then and now. Honestly, I just thought it was interesting from a historical perspective. I guess it does show how everyone was united in the war effort back then, unlike our subsequent wars, which have been more divisive and less clearly defined. But agriculture and manufacturing are so different now -- I'm not sure you could make a meaningful comparison with what was going on in the 1940s.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


So whatever happened to all that zen stuff, anyway? I wrote a lot about my practice in the early days of this blog, but in the last year or two it's taken a back seat to all the other adjustments in my life.

Well, I'd like to think it's still with me, though to be honest my practice has been pretty slack for the past year or so. I've meditated occasionally, but I haven't returned to practicing with a group since I left the Zendo and Manhattan in late 2009. I made some half-hearted attempts to find a group in New Jersey but never actually went. If "everything is practice," as they say, you could argue that I never stopped, but I don't feel like my day-to-day life held much awareness of the Dharma.

Now, in London, I'm starting to sit again, though so far only at home. I'd like to return to more active, conscientious practice, but I have mixed feelings about rejoining a Zendo. I sort of like reading and sitting on my own. Maybe that's because it doesn't challenge me to leave my comfort zone and do things I'd rather not, like take up a service position or go on a weeklong silent retreat in the heat of August. Maybe I'm just a Buddhist lightweight. Or maybe, to be less judgmental about it, this is merely more my style.

In any case, now that life is settling down, I hope to once again practice more actively. In addition to sitting, I've been trying to incorporate some Dharma study into my days as well. I've been rereading a few books on the fundamentals, like Robert Aitken's "Mind of Clover," and I've been scouting out some Zen blogs on the Web.

My photography has helped by keeping my eye fresh, helping me appreciate the newness of my environment and society. The street art isn't as great a component of my photography here -- perhaps because there's just not as much of it as there is in New York. That's been a nice change too. I'm seeing a greater variety of subjects, like the sun-seekers in this churchyard near Russell Square yesterday.

I shot the scene from a couple of angles, and these are my two favorites. I like the bottom photo because the guy in back isn't blocked by one of the guys in front -- but I like the straight-on cleanliness of the top photo, too.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Quiet Weekend

This is my favorite photo from my walking tour around Brick Lane last week. I like it even more than the Goat of the Empire.

Not much happening today. I spent this morning reading and cleaning, and this afternoon I walked around King's Cross and down into Clerkenwell and Holborn. Got some photos that might be nice.

We spent the weekend mostly holed up inside, watching movies. We finally got the proper cable to hook our computer to our TV, so we can watch DVDs on the large screen. (As opposed to the computer.) We watched "The Fugitive," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," always a favorite for me.

I also inflicted on Dave the episode of "That Girl" in which Ethel Merman comes to dinner and cooks stuffed cabbage. Don't these sorts of things happen in real life?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Wine Zoo

Animals, animals, animals...I really am on a roll here.

So what about animals on wine labels? I'm a sucker for interesting wine labels. These are all examples of wines we've recently bought. My favorite was the Chat-en-Oeuf, a dry rose that sells for only about £5 at the supermarket.

These others were good, too.

Flaxbourne, from New Zealand (Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is always reliable)

Porcupine Ridge, from South Africa (with art by South African wildlife artist Zakkie Eloff)

Southern Right, also from South Africa

Friday, September 16, 2011

An Architectural Ode to Cats

Here's a peculiar building I came across last week. It's called Greater London House, and it's a brightly-accented Art Deco behemoth decorated with, of all things, cats.

Two cats flank the front door:

And up near the roof, medallions feature black cats peering out at the street:

Turns out this is the former Carreras Cigarette Factory, built in 1926-28 in a style known as Egyptian Revival. (Hence the cats, although those black cat medallions look less like Egyptian felines and more like my childhood cat, which I tried to name Midnight but my family insisted on calling Black Kitty.)

The building now houses offices, and although it was stripped of its original Egyptian detailing in the early 1960s, the ornamentation was restored in a renovation slightly more than ten years ago. For details about the architecture, here's the Wikipedia page for Greater London House.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Elephant & Castle

To continue our recent zoological theme -- we've had posts about goats, cats and fish -- let's move on to elephants.

The end of the Bakerloo Line, one of the tube lines in London, is a stop called Elephant & Castle. When I visited London as a tourist I used to stay at a hotel near a Bakerloo stop, so I often rode that train and heard Elephant & Castle announced as its ultimate destination. It became a sort of mythical place in my mind. What does it look like? Are there elephants? Are there castles?

Yesterday I decided to solve the mystery. So I rode the Bakerloo line to its southern terminus, and was surprised to find there are, in fact, a few elephants hanging around.

The tube stop is near a downtrodden mall called the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre -- that's its sign up above. There's also a large new building nearby called Strata, topped by three wind turbines and justifiably nicknamed The Electric Razor. The development company leasing out this building uses an elephant as its insignia:

And then there are the arches over the tube entrances -- which here say "subway," a word I rarely see in London:

The Wikipedia entry about Elephant & Castle includes some theories about the source of the name, which apparently dates to the 1700s. The area was a trade center for knife-making, and the knife-makers, or cutlers, used an image of an elephant and castle because elephant ivory was used for handles. The castle might actually be a howdah, a carriage mounted on the back of elephants in India.

There's also a suggestion the phrase is a corruption of "La Infanta de Castilla," which could refer to any of several Spanish princesses connected to English royalty. If true, I'm sure they wouldn't appreciate that over time they've gone from being infantas to elephants.

After checking out the scene, I decided to walk toward home. I wound up walking all six miles back to Notting Hill (map above), running a few errands along the way. It was beautiful weather and I had a great day!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I couldn't resist a few more photos of the Goat of the Empire at the Spitalfields Market. (That's my name for it. The statue's real name is "I Goat," by Kenny Hunter. Kind of like "I, Claudius," I suppose?)

You may remember that I first posted him at the end of July, just after we moved into our new place. But when I went back to Spitalfields this week I was struck by the way the light illuminated just his head -- like a spotlight for the noble star that he is. Later in the afternoon, when the light had changed, his reflection seemed equally impressive.

I dig this statue.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wabi & Sabi

Allow me to introduce Wabi and Sabi.

As I walked home on Portobello Road on Friday after one of my photography excursions, I browsed through the detritus at the outdoor flea market. I wasn't looking for anything; I was just killing time and seeing what was available.

However, Dave and I had been bothered by a blank spot in our living room, next to the fireplace. We want to avoid clutter, but at the same time, that area was just too white, too bare. We wanted a fairly tall object for the shape of the space. When I saw these two cats for sale at the flea market -- the largest about 2 1/2 feet tall -- I immediately thought, "They're perfect!"

I paid £10 for them -- about $15 -- and brought them home.

I really thought Dave might hate them. But to my surprise, he approved enthusiastically. We both like their weathered imperfections. I think they may have been decor in some public establishment, like a restaurant, based on the amount of damage they've sustained. It's entirely possible the flea market guy got them out of the trash somewhere.

Dave wanted to name them. We tossed around a couple of options, but when I said I liked their wabi-sabi type of beauty, Dave said, "That's it!" So now we have Wabi and Sabi.

Wabi-sabi, as you may know, is a Japanese aesthetic concept that relates to an object's imperfection and transience. It's seeing beauty in the wear and tear inflicted by everyday life. Or, as Wikipedia puts it: "Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs."

I can't think of better names!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fish Pedicure

And now for something completely different, as the guys in Monty Python used to say.

Dave and I went to see a movie ("The Inbetweeners") on Saturday afternoon. We walked over to a shopping center on Queensway called Whiteleys, which isn't far from our apartment, and once there we had a little time to kill. So we walked around the mall and came across a curious kiosk called "X Feet," which consisted of benches set up above several aquariums full of fish.

Turns out, these fish actually eat the dead skin off your feet. For about £1 per minute, you sit on the bench with your feet in the aquarium, and those little suckers eagerly swarm all over them. We had to try it!

Here's Dave giving it a go:

And here's my experience:

The fish, called Garra rufa, are apparently from Turkey, where they're used in this treatment. (The attendant at the booth said there's even a full-body option offered in Turkey, but I think I'll pass on that.) It was amazing how the fish zeroed in on our feet. They were not swimming lazily about. They were hungry.

It felt kind of good, but mostly just weird. Kind of tingly, like my feet had fallen asleep and were just regaining circulation. I can't imagine those tiny fish had any real effect on my skin, at least not in the 10 minutes I paid for, but it was an interesting experience and oddly relaxing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mourning a Neighbor

Almost immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, this flier appeared on walls in my neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side. While lower Manhattan was virtually wallpapered with fliers of the missing after that horrible day, very few people bothered to post fliers uptown. So this one stood out, especially with its headline, "Missing neighbor."

I didn't know Gregory James Trost, who was 26 when he died. As far as I know I never saw him on the sidewalk or in the grocery store. But the flier brought home the seemingly obvious fact that people who lived next door to me, or down the street, or who went to my dry cleaner or gym, were among the dead of 9/11. My neighbors.

Trost worked as an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, an investment firm on the 89th floor of the South Tower -- just above the floors hit by United Airlines flight 175.

He became a sort of totem for me, a way to mourn, to have a connection. Having read so many peculiarly intimate details of his life on the poster -- his size 11 shoes, his scarred leg, his black onyx ring -- I even felt like he'd become something of an acquaintance. I was 34 when 9/11 occurred, and it seemed incredible that someone eight years younger than me could have died.

The New York Times wrote brief profiles of each 9/11 victim and ran them during the following year. Trost's profile called him a "human jukebox" who knew the words to a wide range of songs and performed silly dances at parties.

"He had a sense of humor that set the gauge for everyone else," Jeanne Trost, his younger sister, told the paper. "What he found funny, it somehow always became funny."

I see now that Trost's family has organized a golf outing and reception to raise money for a scholarship in his name at the New York high school he attended. The web site for the event includes a profile of Trost here.

As for me, whenever I pass a 9/11 memorial, I'll continue to take a minute to find the name of Gregory James Trost, my forever-missing neighbor.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

WTC 1997

I've already written about my experience of 9/11 on this blog -- but I haven't gone back even further, to a visit I made to the World Trade Center in 1997.

There's not much to the story. At the time, I was living in Florida, and visiting New York with a friend. We went to the WTC and took photos on the plaza, looking up at the twin monoliths and Fritz Koenig's sculpture "The Sphere" in the center of the plaza's fountain.

A lot of people griped about the World Trade Center's architecture when the buildings were first erected -- that they were too big and too boxy. The most elegant element of their design, I think, was the way they were offset against each other on that open plaza -- not parallel or at a right angle, but just slightly askew. I also liked the arches formed by the building's converging lines on the lower floors.

We went into the lobby so we could go up to the viewing deck on the top of the building, but the line was really long. So we decided to skip it. Even after I moved to New York in 2000 I never went up in the World Trade Center, and after 9/11 I regretted not visiting it more thoroughly.

We did go to the underground shopping mall beneath the WTC. In fact, the only pertinent comment in my journal about that trip is: "We didn't go into the Trade Center, but we did stop at Structure, where I got a great shirt!"

My friend and I did go up in the Empire State Building, though, and I shot this photo of lower Manhattan from that vantage point. Manhattan never looked right to me after 9/11. The twin towers, as monolithic and boxy as they were, helped balance the skyline -- as if you could put the whole city on a teeter-totter with its fulcrum in Chelsea, and it would stay level. Now Midtown looks overly heavy.

On Labor Day weekend 2001, I walked beneath the World Trade Center with my stepmother and her mother, both visiting. We didn't go up in the building then, either, and certainly could never have imagined what would happen just a week later.