23 NOVEMBER 2009 :: YOU'RE A NATIVE NEW YORKER
The mark of a good bartender is their ability to make a martini. Christopher at The Algonquin Hotel knows a thing or two about making martini’s. It’s been their signature drink since Dorothy Parker and friends started The Algonquin Roundtable in 1919. A superb martini in this New York landmark, and our home for the next 4 nights, was just the start of our indulgence.
Not content to spend every night sipping Martini’s and discussing The Roundtable (though, with martinis this good, it could easily be done) we eventually made our way downtown.
Prohibition style “speakeasy’s” are making a huge comeback in New York. A fair bit of research and a handful of polite (ok, pleading) emails prior to arriving in NYC and we had our name down for one of the more secret venues. For the sake of the venue, and the game itself (the whole point is keeping it secret!) I’ll not name the location. On a seedier street of downtown Manhattan, next to a Chinese Laundry, there is an unassuming door to a long deserted shop front. Stepping through this door gets you to, another door, followed by a black curtain. If you hold your nerve and resist turning back from the niggling feeling you could have this very wrong indeed, you’ve found a cocktail bar like few others.
Emerging through the curtain we’re greeted by a smiling waitress in a vintage dress, she quickly shows us to some well worn but comfortable leather chairs. A jazz soundtrack softly washes over the room, even softer is the candle light, there is not a single electric bulb in the place. There are no menu’s (It’s a speakeasy, you’re served whatever was smuggled in that day) but our waitress is happy to get some martini’s mixed up for us. Unfortunately the bartender fails the martini test. It’s drowning in vermouth. However, the music, lighting and atmosphere all urge me to stay and give the bartender another shot. A whisky collins, this time the cocktail hits the spot. It’s strong and tasty, without being overpowering.
One bar remains on our list, The Russian Tea Room. Milling around outside are a group immaculately dressed, wafer thin teenagers. The girls don’t look old enough to be awake at this time of night, never mind leaving a bar. I hear glimpses of slurred conversation in Russian as we walk past them and reminisce about my own teenage life in a stylish city.
Inside, we’re greeted by yet another smiling hostess. The standard of service in this city really is amazing. She offers us a seat at the bar, but what we’ve really come to see is the bear bar. Apparently it’s only available for hire and special events. The look of disappointment on our faces must be obvious as our hostess immediately offers to show us around the bear bar. Once we’re escorted up in the elevator, the bar itself is one of the kitchest places I’ve ever set foot in.
A towering artificial tree stands at one end of the room. Branches drooping under the weight of, wait for it... Faberge eggs! Tens of them, dangling from each branch! Not to be overshadowed, at the other end of the room stood the bear. Standing atop a rotating plinth is a six foot tall glass bear, originally designed to house sturgeon as a caviar farm. I kid you not. Now home to some very chubby looking goldfish. I was at a loss for words, our hostess explained we could have our own bear aquarium made for just $300,000. Maybe next year.
Oh the shopping. My wallet still hurts, I’ve completely given up on checking at my credit card bill. I can’t say for sure where it began, or where it ended. Some of the details I recall: Jackets, shirts, boots, bags, handbags, books, jeans, cookware, hats, stockings, more boots, t-shirts, home ware, sports ware... I could go on but my wallet is begging me to stop making it relive the experience! Uptown, downtown, cross town, not to mention upscale, downscale, dressing up, dressing down, undressing... Phew! Of course, you know as well as I do, I’d do it all again tomorrow given half a chance.
All that shopping and indulgence needs to be countered with something a little more refined. My favourite source of culture while visiting New York is Madison Square Garden, and New York Rangers hockey. While this was done, how could it not be? It’s not the culture I want to share with you.
Manhattans upper east side is home to most of the cities well heeled, well educated and well to do socialites. We were fortunate enough to get tickets to a piano recital in this part of town. An Armenian performer, Nareh Arghamanyan was playing at The Frick (a small but historic art gallery) and it’s something I’d been looking forward to for many months.
Two things will stand out in my mind for a long time. The first, and most memorable was the performer. Nareh Arghamanyan was mindblowing. Well beyond spectacular, she is a prodigy. It feels like an honour to have been able to hear her play.
Not so spectacular was the crowd. It seems money and influence still can’t buy manners. The ambient background noise throughout the performance was around that of a basketball game. Shoes squeaking on the floor, tapping, banging, murmuring, talking.... Simply disgusting.
However, Nareh seemed to be able to ignore it all and continued in her own beautiful, elegant style. This elegance was coupled with a youthful joy and pure love of music as she returned for three, count em, three encores! Each time managing to best the previous encore and climaxing with “Flight of the bumblebee” which Nareh absolutely ripped through! All this, despite the lack of appreciation from a crowd of simpletons, who even managed an audible groan when they realised she was sitting down for the third encore and they would not be able to leave just yet.
It’s a sad thought that some people can’t sit still long enough to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, and realise there is beauty all around them.
14 NOVEMBER 2009 :: I AM A BEAR - WE ARE CAL
Warm autumn sunshine bathes fans of all ages as they make their way across campus at the University of California, Berkeley. Past empty lecture halls, through redwood groves, slowly and steadily converging on Memorial Stadium. Blue and gold painted students emerge from fraternity houses, the sense of anticipation growing with each step. This is bear territory, Golden Bear territory.
Arriving at Memorial Stadium is like stepping into a bygone era. The marching band weaves across the field and you can’t help but feel a sense of community spirit. While seats are assigned, it’s in the loosest possible fashion. Seats don’t actually exist, just row after row of old fashioned wooden bleachers. For the most part, people sit where they want, chasing the sun, the action, or the cheerleaders around the stadium.
The stadium is filled with a relaxed and effortless energy, unequalled by other sporting events. No fights, no drunken louts, no riot police and not a single fence to segregate fans. The game itself, is just one of the attractions; the band, mascots, fans, cheerleaders and atmosphere all come together for an incredible afternoon.
I’ve been fortunate enough to watch from the student section twice now. It’s the university experience I never had ;-) 75,000 chanting fans, the band swinging into life, crowd surfing students and the Cal Bears marching the ball down field.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.