Riding to Rincon

 

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Chestnut Mandibled Toucan

I dunno, you spend hours tiptoeing through the jungle hoping against hope to see a toucan, binoculars scanning the canopy, and blow me if there isn’t one sitting on a garden fence at the minivan  station. And not just sitting there either, showing off like a Hollywood matinee idol whilst enjoying a shower from a garden hose.  “Toucans like it cool” Oscar had said – don’t they just. Forget binoculars, there he was, making sure his wing pits were thoroughly clean, improbable bill wiped dry back and forth, back and forth on the railings, then feathers tucked back in neatly for the admiring crowd that had gathered.  I got out my phone.

“Nils, it’s Granny… happy birthday.” What fabulous synchronicity to have the chance to impress this uber-naturalist, now 13 years old, boy.  “Guess what? I’m watching a toucan having a shower, and …oh my god… there goes a flock of green and red macaws. Are you having fun?”

“Yes Granny, thanks for the money, we’re all having tea now….”  Of course they were, they were 6 hours ahead in Machynlleth, and I was interrupting cake “I’ll take a picture for you” I said releasing him to get on with the important stuff.

Everything about the toucan is extraordinary.  Their giant bills, their huge size, their spectacular colouring – who wouldn’t want to use them to advertise a creamy glass of beer? They are jaw dropping. This one was a Chestnut Mandibled  ‘who likes to bathe in water-filled hollows high in trees’ says the bird guide.  9cm larger than the Keel-Billed which ‘makes harsh and monotonous croaking crick crick crrik, with a resonant wooden or mechanical quality like sound of winding an old clock’, in chorus, like a pond full of frogs’. Birders really go for it description-wise, like connoisseurs of fine wines, and I’d love to hear that and even more see it, as they apparently head-bang their great bills back and forth in all directions as they sound off.  Had it been less absorbed in its ablutions, the Chestnut Mandibled, on the other claw, makes ‘a shrill yelping KeeuREEK or yo-YIP a-yip, a-yip, and expresses aggression with a mechanical sounding rattle deeper than that of the Keel Billed’. No surprise that they dominate in the fruit trees, size matters in the bird world. Are you sensing a toucan obsession developing?

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Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan

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Keel-Billed or Rainbow Toucan

The ride to the minivan swap station had been a right old bone shaker, twisting round, up and down a roller coaster road, torment for Tessa and the little Russian boy whose parents seemed singularly unsympathetic to his toucan green face and gritted teeth.  I know that look well… the yawning that’s one step from an up-chuck. He gratefully chewed one of Tessa’s ginger sweets.   “Little boy sick” I called out to the driver, who immediately stopped for the poor kid to take a walk up and down and have a breather. His parents told him not to make such a fuss. I felt for the poor little chap.  I suffered terribly as a kid. For a while crisps stopped me being sick, then it was ice-creams.  Can you believe my parents bought that line?Image result for map of rincon de la vieja national park

It was good to shake off the journey with the Toucan show, and then be chivvied into a different van and set off due north west, almost to the Nicaraguan border, for another volcanic hot spot. Rincon de Veija is a volcanic area, not a pointy kind of volcano like Arenal, more a range of steaming, puffing ‘fumaroles’ that help to make Costa Rica the carbon neutral country it is, the steam cleverly piped and utilised.  It  has the added excitement of the possibility of firing off in any direction.

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Rincon de Vieja National Park

First the driver had to locate our accommodation and he’d not been there before.  When at last he saw a sign for Casa Aroma del Campo he dropped us off by some impressive iron gates with a drive leading to an imposing Spanish style house.  They were locked.  It didn’t seem right.  I rang the bell next to a key pad. Nothing happened.  I rattled the gates a little. Weren’t they expecting us?

“I can’t remember what Casa Aroma looks like, can you?” I said to Tessa.  “I don’t remember it looking like this.” I rang again. We stood there, somewhat forlorn, way out in the middle of the ‘campo’, suitcases at our feet, hot and dusty, contemplating the locked gate.  “Something’s wrong, stop the driver. Quick.”

A head popped out of an upstairs window.

“Casa Aroma? Up the track, over there” he waved us away, gesticulating at one of the roughest tracks I’d ever seen (though Gloucester County Council roads take some beating at the moment).

“Surely the minivan isn’t going to attempt to go up there?” Tessa said.

We bumped and swayed our way uphill, hoping to god that ‘Smell of the Countryside’ would be at the top. The driver was not happy; nor would I have been if it had been my vehicle.  In the kerfuffle of finally reaching the top and seeing a Casa Aroma del Campo sign and hauling our cases up the last few metres, I left my shade peak in the minivan. We watched the driver bump his way back down, ignoring our waves and shouts. Ok, it wasn’t the most fashionable object and my kids would die to be seen with me wearing it, but I’d found far more effective than sunglasses. It made taking a quick photo or raising binoculars far less faff.

We called out. Nobody came. We wandered around the hacienda style bungalow even more confused.  A bright green parrot, perched on top of its cage eyed us suspiciously.. A large black dog, seemingly completely harmless, thumped her tail a couple of times, setting up a cloud of dust from the concrete.

“Hola, hola…welcome, I am Eric, that is Liberty, and this is Coco…say ‘hola’ Coco.” Coco sidled away from him.

Eric showed us to the most orange room I’d ever seen “net is just for romantic” he explained when we noted only one of the beds had a mosquito net.  “Pool is down there, very natural. Liberty is friendly dog, Coco likes her neck tickled …come on Coco, Coco cop, Coco cop,” he  chivvied. Coco glared at us with her red eyes.  “Vegetarian, no problem” he said chalking up a seven course menu on the board. He checked us in and easily persuaded us to take up his offer of personally driving us to some hot springs “very natural, very nice, you can have mud, I only charge petrol.”  IMG_2840

Can I blame Christmas? Getting the decorations down and things prepped for my house sitter?  Woefully unprepared, Tessa and I realised we had miscalculated our cash stash, and hadn’t allowed for paying for evening meals. Everyone had been reluctant for us to pay for anything in colones and when we paid in US dollars, gave us change in colones.  Same old story.  I should have known. Now here we were, goodness only knows how many miles from a hole in the wall with mostly colones in the stash, and me with just $10. We really wanted to do the hot springs.  Would he accept colones? Eric sighed deeply, he shrugged OK.

With time to spare before the evening ride to the springs Tessa hooked up with her family on Skype, and wandered around with her tablet for an hour or so showing them all around.

“This is Liberty…we’d stroke her but she’s sticky with dust…and this is Coco the parrot…and this is our room, and that’s Mary reading in the hammock…”  I looked up from the New Yorker and waved at them.  There are times when the world shrinks beyond belief, and, seeing them all in Tessa’s Cotswold cottage sitting room was one of them.  Sometimes I look at the stars, an extraordinary thing that is a human being with eyes and fingers on hands, and my mind is blown. Really, who needs drugs?  Life is some weird trip. I wandered off to find the pool.

On the way to the springs Eric stopped for us to photograph a site that to me seemed to sum up Costa Rica. Why fell a tree when you can split the road around it? the hot springs at Rincon were much more like what I’d expected from my experience of hot springs in Thailand, though more contained.  There I’d just made my way up a hot stream, dammed from time to time to make pools, increasing in heat until it was so intense I’d had to clamber back down to where it was bearable.

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Over the road from the main springs were the ‘natural’ ones, so we thought we’d try them first. The stream trickled downhill through woodland, it was still and deserted. We  picked our way carefully along the paths till we found a shady pool we particularly liked.

“Ow, christ, ow, watch out” I shouted across to Tessa who was just picking her way in carefully.  I’d just swam right into the submerged branch of a fallen tree, and was having trouble escaping from more hidden branches.  No wonder it was so quiet. The natural pools were indeed natural, unkempt and set like traps for the unwary. Hightailing it back across the road to the main set up we were relieved to find a series of pools roughly fashioned out of concrete beside a larger stream with no overhanging branches.  They even had approximate temperatures chalked on boards next to each pool.  The place was heaving with people, chatting, taking selfies and generally having a ball shouting and splashing around.

“Come on lets get muddied” I said to Tessa and we joined the queue for an attendant to slather us all over with mud using a huge paintbrushes. We staggered away like zombies to wait for the mud to dry and absorb until we looked for all the world like a a row of  Gormley figures. Once we’d dried to pale grey and started to crack we slithered over to a row of cold showers set in the rocks. I found the ‘just perfect’ pool to wallow in, like Goldilocks porridge not too hot, not too cold, with only a smattering of other people. I floated on my back, eyes closed, thinking ‘this is the life.’ It seemed like I’d floated like that for an age when I had a very shocking awakening obliviously floating right into a bunch of young men sitting around the edge drinking beers. I spluttered my apologies and paddled away embarrassed. “Did you enjoy that” giggled Tessa, who had watched the whole incident unravel from a distance.

IMG_2856Eric diverted along a back road on the way back.  We were itching to see a puma, and he assured us they were regularly seen there, as the sign would indicate, but it was not to be. Truth to tell, puma’s don’t want to see people, and so well camouflaged are they that you could walk right past one and not know it. There are constant rumours of them living in my valley back home in the Cotswolds, carcasses of deer eaten from the hind quarters forwards found, but only rare sightings.

Back at Casa Aroma del Campo Eric’s seven course meal turned out to be the best we’d eaten so far in Costa Rica. Veggies fresh from the campo, bean soup, a kind of tasty scrambled egg with spring onions and herbs rounded off with a ‘flan coco’.  Paula’s description of Casa Aroma came back to me: ‘a little bit arty and funky’. “Perfect” I’d said.  And yes, we found it right up our unbeaten track,

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Still soporific from the spa, we both turned in early to read and for me to catch up on my journal. We marvelled at how soft our skin had become from the mud. There were curious night sounds I couldn’t identify, but it was a deep sleep nevertheless.

Coco woke us at the crack with a hideous squawking.  It only stopped when the cook arrived from the village and slip-slopped over to her with a piece of toast.  That bird is spoiled. I tried to ingratiate myself with her like Eric suggested “Coco cop, Coco cop” I said inching my hand towards her to indicate a neck rub. She made to stab it with her vicious beak

“She only like men” called out the cook, well thanks Eric, pity you didn’t mention that.  I felt sorry for the bird, the cage was filthy, partly because she seemed to spend all her time standing on top of it, crapping and clutching at her clawful of toast, glaring. Were her wings clipped? I asked Eric when he re-appeared.

“No she flies free.  Goes away sometimes and comes back.” Well I hope she goes off for hot sex with a secret lover and has some fun in her life.

IMG_2869 (1)The next morning our guide Freddie picked us up early.  ‘Rincon is famous for its tall trees’ said Paula…she wasn’t kidding, but I have to say that by then I felt that if I had to endure hearing about the lifecycle of the ficus tree once more it’d go crazy.  I’d come to realise that when guides are a bit stuck for something to show visitors they resort to this patter. Freddie was well meaning, studying hard to upgrade from minivan driver to full time guide, but when you hear an unusual bird call and ask “What’s that?” “A bird” doesn’t really cut it. Bernie the driver, a trained guide was actually more knowledgeable.  Freddie redeemed himself when he pointed out an anteater way up high in a tree.  Did you know they did that?  My vision of an anteater is of an animal pottering along on the forest floor hoovering up ants with it’s long snout. To see one eating high up in the canopy was a revelation, as was the sandpaper tree. Yes it is very wise to keep your arms to yourself in the rainforest.

We smelt it before we saw it – sulphur. Then we heard it. Plop, hiss, plop.

“Oh my god, look at that” steam was rising up among the trees. We’d reached the active area, and there was the vent of a fumarole right in front of us.  Crusts of colourful chemicals surrounded the vent, boiling water in it.  Nearby was a large mudpot.  Plap, plop, plop.

“They should have films of this showing in dentists surgeries” said Tessa. “And at the post office” said I.

I feel a bit guilty being so excited by volcanoes, especially when people in Hawaii are fleeing for their lives from one at this very moment while I write. But it’s like looking at the stars.  I am amazed that we can survive on a round rock, with a furious furnace of molten rock in the centre, barely contained in places by a thin crust, sicking up lethal rivers of larva.  The sharp smell of sulphur caught in my nostrils.  How can this be? Existence was blowing my mind again.

Tessa filmed it on her phone.  I stared and stared at it, mesmerised so I jumped when Freddie reappeared from making a phone call right behind me.  I turned around. He looked at me closely.

“Are those real?” he asked.  He pointed.

“My eyes? You mean green? Yes, they are. Cowpat green.”

“Beautiful,” he said and walked away. Curiosity or a come on? You decide.

 

Hanging out in the Cloud Forest

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Hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest canopy

Rickshaw travel gave me a choice “you can take a zip wire over the canopy” said Paula “it’s really thrilling.”  For a moment I was hooked (in a kind of ‘poop poop’ Toad kind of a way) then I thought ‘I can do that in the Forest of Dean…in fact I have done it in the Forest of Dean accompanying my friend Lesley in a terrifying 60th birthday celebration at Go Ape.’  “You’re the only friend I thought would say yes” she said when she invited me. True, it was really thrilling, and more than a little challenging for someone whose knees go weak when anyone goes near a cliff edge, and I was excited by the zip wire bit  flying half a mile over the tree tops to skid along some wood chip and crash into buffers at the end. However, why would I want to speed over the rainforest when I could be in it, wandering about avoiding snakes and looking for sloths and monkeys?  I changed my mind and Paula booked me a hanging bridges hike instead.

It was clear on the day we went for the skywalk in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.  That’s unusual; most visitors walk through a bean souper.  It was also cold and a bit drippy.  Our guide Oscar wasted no time telling us “I knew a woman, tipped me big because I found her a bird that has 8 different songs.”  He found us that bird too, not so rare as it happens, and what birdwatchers call an LBJ (little brown job).  I don’t remember it’s name, he was too busy telling us about the size of another tip he’d had from another woman. After quite a lot of wandering and seeing nothing he found us a red kneed tarantula holed up in a bank.  Tessa was thrilled.  “Oo look… don’t you want to see it?” I peered into the hole reluctantly.  Couldn’t see a thing.  I tried again, without success.  Tessa loves spiders, and tells me I should leave them alone in my house.  I’ve had to train myself to remove them to the garden (gently in a hankie) but she will have none of it.  I can’t bear it when they plop heavily onto my bed and wake me up. I tried again, and, once I’d realised I needed to put my reading glasses on, got a faint glimpse of its hairy red knees. We walked on to our first hanging bridge.  I was fine on the ones like the one above, with opaque sides which gave me a false sense of security.

“Anyone afraid of heights?”asked Oscar. I took a deep breath walked carefully to the middle, avoiding looking down and the bounce that had begun as the others crossed ahead of me.

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We walked on to the next bridge the sides were just flimsy looking netting. Clear sided bridges are another thing altogether. Tessa stopped to take a picture down to the forest floor. What you see is the moment before she leaned over, phone in hand to get a better shot.  “Argh don’t do that” I shouted “you’ll drop your phone.” I felt a jolt in the base of my spine watching her. “I probably will now you’ve said that” she complained.  Of course what I was really afraid of was that she’d drop over the edge.

One of our party made the mistake of holding on to the rail supporting the netting. “Euww, what’s this gooey stuff?” he asked. We had just reached to the place where howler monkeys are known to hang out. People we’d passed earlier going in the opposite  direction said they’d watched howlers dancing about on the bridge for a full ten minutes.They were there alright, way up high in the canopy, making a wild rumpus in a face off with some capuchins.  Their ‘hoo hoo hoo’ resonated around the forest, a sound that is audible many miles away. I don’t think they appreciated the interruption of a good fight by a bunch of gawping tourists. We heard a loud SPLAT a few feet away, and another, and another. Our companion realised what he’d just put his hand on.

“Jeeze we’re under attack” I said “shit hurling howler monkeys.”

“Shall we move on?” said Oscar.

Whilst I have to admire a creature that can shit on demand, in its own hand when needs must, I was happy to move swiftly on.  I recalled a family story, oft recounted with mean sniggers by my brothers, of their visit to London zoo with their friend Giles Dymock.  They’d been admiring monkeys in a cage when one of them, seemingly sitting innocently on it’s hand, took aim and got Giles smack in the face.  I wonder if it was a howler? Giles grew up to be a stock broker, I bet he often had a shit day.

DSC01141We tipped Oscar reluctantly, it stuck in our craws tired of the dozen or more brazen hints he’d dropped for us to do so. Until then we had followed the Rickshaw advice and had been only too happy to acknowledge the guiding we received. 

It was soon forgotten when we noticed a coati pottering about in the car park, tail up like a happy cat, reminding us of its racoon cousins. It was rooting around in the scrubby margins looking for something to eat. Tessa said she thought I looked just like one rooting about in my backpack for a snack bar.

It had been a bit of a shoo-in to arrange a guided hike in Curi Cancha. I’d struck up a relationship with Darlene in Monteverde Travel over our emails. At first it seemed impossible, costing over £100 for an afternoon with a guide and then being told it couldn’t be arranged for just one person anyway. Then Tessa joined me on the trip and with good natured cooperation between Darlene, Paula and myself we juggled the timings and managed to fit it in.  Tessa and I would have our own guide for the whole afternoon and it would cost us just $46 each.  “Call in to the office and you can practice your Spanish” Darlene said in her last email.  I was saved the shame (come on Duolingo, 50%?) by the rush to get back to Cala Lodge in time for a quick turn-around for our ride to Curi Cancha.

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Davide met us at the visitor centre. Tall, skinny, 22 years old, with a stylish flat mohican, his face lit up when he saw our binoculars “you are birders?”

I explained “No, not really, but we like birds very much, bird appreciators I’d say, and plants and animals. I’d really love to see a Resplendent Quetzal.”

“Ah, difficult” he said sucking on his teeth “but I will try my best.” 

The thing about Curi Cancha is that being at a lower, warmer elevation there is a much better chance of seeing the abundant wildlife that lives there. It’s a small private reserve, with far fewer visitors than the Cloud Forest.  It wasn’t ideal to visit in the afternoon you always see more birds in the early mornings, but it was our only chance.

Davide reminded me of my grandson Nils, bursting with enthusiasm on all matters related to wildlife. I could picture Nils (with his hair recently styled just like Davide’s) being a guide himself one day.  Now 13, he has grown up without television but allowed to watch David Attenborough documentaries for a treat. He can name nearly every animal on the planet. (It was Nils who sat through my bird pictures with a loaned guide book helping me to identify them.)  A few years ago I wrote to Attenborough to thank him for the profound and beneficial influence he’d had on Nils and his sister Nina, and their cousins Indigo and Rubin…children all over the world in fact.  I’d got them to do him some drawings. Such is the graciousness of the man I had a hand written reply to them from Sir David.  I read it out  to them at our Christmas dinner. They blushed with delight. He thanked them for their drawings not in a ‘that’s nice dear’ kind of a way, but showing he’d taken a real interest in the details. I love that man.

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Napping Agouti photobombed by a bird

We knew we were on a winner with Davide when he led us off on the hike making bird calls.  He took us to a meadow and showed us a coati waking from it’s nap in the fork of a tree branch and made a video for us with his scope.  Walking past a coffee hedge on the outskirts of the tended garden we were startled when an agouti raced past chased by a coati, then settled under a tree for a nap. Like giant terrier size rats on long legs they would be really spooky if those legs were shorter and they had a long tail.  But I think I know now what the ‘giant rats’ were that were caged with a bored, gum chewing woman in a green sparkly bikini in a kind of glass box at Gloucester Fair when I was a child.

Padding silently around the trails, we only passed half a dozen other people.  Davide led us to an area where tall avocado trees were in fruit – a favourite of the Quetzal.  We stood near him for a half hour or more waiting. Davide wandered around making their soft call from time to time, we stayed still and silent.  Nothing. I tried not to be too disappointed.  The problem was we were just a bit too early in the season and the fruit was not yet ripe.  The bird that had entertained me for two years or more as my ringtone with it’s crazy alarm call would have to remain a future wish of mine.

Hot and thirsty we rested a while in the ‘hummingbird garden’ under a lemon/tangerine type of citrus tree watching the birds work the blossom on the cat-tail hedge and quenched our thirst with the sour fruits. “What’s that bird up in that tree over there?” I asked Davide.

“Oh my god, oh my god, you found me my favourite bird…oh look at that, it’s a squirrel cuckoo.”  My chest puffed up, I’d just found a real birdwatcher his favourite bird, and if anyone deserved it it was the extremely knowledgeable Davide. If any place in the world was going to make me a birdwatcher proper it was Costa Rica. And if you do go to Curi Cancha I’m going to bet you won’t do better than to ask for Davide.  I wish you well young man, you have a great future ahead of you, and if I ever find your business card I will send you the promised picture of a badger in my garden.

The Resplendent Quetzal, left and Squirrel Cuckoo Centre Right

Journey to the steaming bit in the middle

A fiery love affair

Not everyone followed advice on dressing appropriately for a jungle. As we sped away from Tortuguero, churning up the canal, a delightful Argentine woman, clearly comfortable in her own skin and very little else, had chosen what looked like baby-doll nightie (remember those?) and bikini ensemble.

 

“Spider monkeys” called out Oliver and the captain slowed the boat and turned it sideways and back, like a pointing bee, so everyone could get a view.  I watched them closely, grateful for my ex-husband (a retired nature reserve warden) advising on which binoculars to buy.  Binoculars, which by then were practically welded to my chest, because at any moment, who knows, I might see a tapir, or a toucan? The spider monkeys reminded me of a sticky stretchy thing the kids had when they were little that would slowly climb down the walls (leaving greasy slicks that never came out).

The drive to La Fortuna, where I could continue my love affair with volcanoes, rewarded us with glorious views of little houses painted in a pallet rarely dared in the UK.  Tessa spent the journey snapping away, consequently making herself thoroughly sick.  She offered me a ginger sweet and I learnt that she is best left to close her eyes and get through it without me fussing over her. We arrived at La Fortuna around lunch time, and were dropped off at Montechiari Lodges, tucked on the outskirts of town.

“Oh my God, she’s done it again,” we exclaimed “look what Paula’s found us and it’s hot. The view of the Arenal Volcano, one of the only 5 active perfectly pointy ones in the world, was framed by the lodges. We rushed to shed our stuff and take pictures – completely unaware at the time how lucky we were. Some people, we discovered, visit La Fortuna and need to be convinced there is actually a volcano there.

This was the place to go shopping our friend Amanda had said, and where I discovered we both like to shop. With gifts to buy, we quickly hung out our socks, umbrellas and shirts (on Tessa’s part who had exchanged trying to dry clothes in a soggy climate for a lighter suitcase). Our toes welcomed the relief from entrapment in walking boots into flip flops. La Fortuna is a pretty little town arranged around a square with restaurants, gift shops and upmarket chocolatier.  We baulked at paying $8 for a slim bar and opted for one small coffee chocolate each.  we bought real dried bananas in the health food shop, the like of which hasn’t appeared in the UK for a few years now since a hurricane.  Quite unlike the crispy banana discs you find in muesli and trail mix, these were about 6 inches long, slim and gooey. A treat in my lunch boxes as a child, along with honey and ground hazelnut sandwiches, they marked me out at school in the 1950s as a totally weird vegetarian. I didn’t care, I loved them. My own children loved them too, though I suspect they were often swapped for crisps.

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Tessa in pizza cafe La Fortuna

Encouraged by an American woman, a regular visitor to Arenal with groups of students, we had supper that night in the local pizza restaurant.

“If you like birds” she said “get up at dawn.  They feed them near the restaurant, it’s amazing. Go watch.”

The pizza was, well, a pizza. Conversation was drowned out however by her students, off the leash from home and away from teach, and football on an overhead screen.

At 6am I quickly dressed and tiptoed out so as not to disturb Tessa.  Taking my place, by the bird tables I waited, aware that I was not the only one: the bushes stirred.  Just after 6 the bananas arrived and slowly at first, then in a rainbow flurry, the birds began to arrive led by chattering orange chinned parakeets.  A mere 4 or 5 feet distant I watched as they were joined by a yellow crowned euphonia, scarlet thighed dancnis and scarlet rumped tanager. It must be what tripping is like. I shared a picture with my cat sitter back home in Gloucestershire. She returned a picture of mine with a squirrel on it.

“Look” said Tessa “that tree is covered in iguanas.” We tried to get pictures, but they were too high up for anything really satisfactory.  We crossed over to the office to wait for the mini van for our next expedition, dressed in swimming costumes, shorts and skirt ready for a trip to the hot springs.

“Oh my god, look behind you, don’t move.”

Right beside the bench, keeping a close eye on us, but also not moving except for a that following eye, sat an iguana, more than a meter long head to tale, with claws you really wouldn’t want to mess with. What a poser.

We thought we were just going to the hot springs. Once again though, through lack of properly checking, we had failed to realise there was a scheduled hike up the volcano first.

“We are going to the dark side’ said Gabriel our guide, “the one where the lava flowed down, not the one you see now.  The last eruption was in 1968, 120 people died, mainly women and children who were at home on the slopes; the men were out at work. It erupted from the top, keeping its perfect cone shape. Most people died from the gas, like Pompeii, slowly, hiding in their houses.  Only 87 bodies were found.  The rest were probably buried under huge lava bombs the size of our minivan.”

“Will we go to the top?” I asked, ever keen to see a bubbling cauldron waiting to blow.

“Too dangerous” said Gabriel “tourists not allowed.”

“Do toucans live up here?” I asked Gabriel.

“Yes, they do, I think I hear one” we scanned the trees “but maybe not see one. Toucans like cool weather. This is a bit hot for them.”

We cursed that we were in sweaty bathers, unprepared for a hike. We passed a lake covered in green algae, and watched a wattled jacana pick its way carefully over the scum with those huge blue feet. As we crunched up the solidified lava flow, now regenerated with trees and bushes,  I was constantly aware of this fact, that in we were trespassing on a graveyard, that some of the bigger clods of lava were grave boulders on top of the  missing.  I wondered how people can live so close to volcanos?  How do they sleep at night?  I remembered the rumbles of Mount Merape in Java, the massive ejections of lava from the top the size of my house, every 10-15 minutes. The noise they made of cracking and banging as they cooled and solidified tumbling down the cinder slopes. We were thoughtful as we picked our way carefully down, and delighted and grateful by the sight that met us when we rejoined our driver.

“For you” he beamed.

“But for you too” we insisted.

 

Ecotherminales was our next surprise – quite unlike the hot springs I’d enjoyed in Thailand which were what you could call truly natural and rustic.  Ecotherminales was more like a smart spa, subtly lit, with a series of very posh springs, with graded pools from comfortably bearable to ‘would you really want to do that to yourself?’

Men with Kindles held aloft lounged reading in the comfortably warm lowest pool.  We lolled about and swam around for a bit, lay on our backs and watched the stars come out, swam to the waterfall and gave our shoulders a thumping massage.  There was a surprise for us in the next pool, the cocktail bar pool ,filled with American students intent on getting wrecked.  I indulged in a cocktail. This is the life, I was thinking…when I saw two familiar faces.

“Hi ” I said “remember us?”  The Argentine woman and her husband floated past. The woman looked puzzled…but then with wet hair only she could look distinctive.

“The boat,” I said “Tortuguero?”

It went on like this for a bit and Tessa and I floated off to another corner. Then “Ah si,”pura vida” said her husband saying something to his wife in Spanish. Her face lit up.

“I’ll try my Spanish” I said to Tessa.  My understanding is definitely better than speaking. I learnt that she was a belly dance and salsa teacher (of course she was, what else?).

“Tessa and I met at belly dance classes” I attempted in Spanish, already out of my depth, but gestures help a lot.  Then, and I still don’t know why I said it, but maybe it was because he said he was a vet and they had 6 dogs and would understand the pain of losing a pet, I launched into what I thought was “my cat died just before we left, it was a shock.”  Actually I don’t know what I said but surely morte is dead?  And gatto is cat?  But as I was duel learning Spanish and Italian at the beginning I may have got in a bit of a muddle.  I tried again. They still looked blank.

“At least you tried” said Tessa “and you understood what they said.  Well done.

We showered and dressed in the changing rooms to the accompaniment of one of the American girls kneeling on the floor of one of the loos vomiting loudly. The friend who’d been holding back her hair said “it’s time to go in to dinner, do you want any?” What was she thinking?

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The Curious Incident with a Man on the Floor of the Guggenheim

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Waiting for the half naked man I paced about reception in MOMA.  I went to the loo again.  Sat and flicked through the guide book.  How would I recognise him clothed?  Without the hairy chest on his Facebook profile I had nothing to go on.  Now, had I taken a closer look at his website I could have been a lot better informed.  Although I might not have been there waiting had I paid more attention and scrolled through his photos of street scenes in Madison Avenue to his David Hodgson biographical selfies, particularly the one with the tape measure.

“Mary?  David.  How are you?”  I guess he’d seen plenty of pictures of me on Facebook.  He was wearing a suit, which surprised me a little, but then it was a long time since we were allegedly at our free spirited school together.  How was I?  I smiled.

“Great, fine, so good of you to come and meet me here.”

He walked me out of the lobby and into the sunshine.”You probably remember my older brother, Bill?”

Of course, Bill.  I remembered Bill Hodgson.  I was definitely at school with him.  He was a year, or maybe two years above me.  I believe I last saw him at the 40 year school reunion.  At 16, and often kissed, my girlfriends and I paid little attention to  the younger boys.   Although come to think of it I do remember a  fling with someone who David told me is pretty big in banking in New York. Lucas Van Praag, (described in the Guardian newspaper on the 3rd March 2010 as the ‘canny, sharp-tongued and invincibly shrewd face of Goldman Sachs PR department)  was  charged with defending the bank’s public image.  I guess you’d have to be a bit teflon for that job.  He became a cult figure on Wall Street, with ‘a reputation for firing cerebral, elegantly worded nuggets of scorn at anybody who dares to attack the financial institution’.  OMG and I kissed him?  I don’t remember his tongue being particularly sharp, but he ranked quite high in the kissing stakes despite being set upon by a 16 year old cougar.   I wonder if he still keeps a toy vampire squid on his desk?  Do get in touch Lucas and let me know.

Back to David Hodgson, who turned out to be an amiable, arty, leftwingy kind of person, with a healthy dose of cynicism, much like the other  guys I’m still in touch with from school. The thing about our progressive co-ed boarding school was that we came out of it feeling we owed the world something, not that it owed us.  Which is more than I can say for most of the Eton educated cabinet in parliament.

“I thought I could walk you up to the Guggenheim, we can grab a bite on the way?  How would that suit you?”

At Starbucks he pricked his finger to check his levels as we queued, and ordered as “Voldemort” (no-one so much as raised a brow).  We chose a spot mid-pavement perched on the edge of a fountain between by lunching office workers.

“Did you get that you walk on the right of a pavement to go with the flow?” His sentence matched his perfect English public school boy accent ( Americans, read ‘private’ school) without a trace of American twang.  His sidewalk advice should be given to all tourists in New York.  From having lived near Cambridge and Oxford in the past, I know how intensely annoying gawking tourists can be. Give it long enough and feel like bashing them out of the way rudely.  I’d expected to be bashed out of the way myself by go-getting power walkers in New York, but had naturally blended with the flow and found it a breeze.  Only the stupid cell phone conversations get in the way.

After lunch we walked up Madison Avenue towards the Guggenheim.  Me taking out my embarrassing little Canon pocket camera, David his sexy, proper camera.  It turned out he’s a shit hot photographer (hence the half-naked, arty selfie) with a history of having worked with some of the top photographers in New York, like for Vogue and stuff like that.  He did wonder if Lucas might find some work for him once, but didn’t get a reply.  Was the downside of being a progressive school not benefitting from the so called ‘old-school ethic?So the downside of being such a progressive school meant there didn’t seem to be the benefit of the  ‘old-school ethic’ ?

We were struck by this window displaying mini-me children’s clothes.

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Now, honestly, what on earth do parents who buy this sort of stuff for their kids expect?  Not dirty knees, or dribbled ice-cream for sure.  Manners, I suppose.  I hope – really hope – they were just party clothes, or wedding dress?  Please, please tell me that New Yorkers don’t dress them up like this for normal life?

“Here, move over here, you won’t get reflections?” said David.  I looked at his posture, which had a slight lift of the chin, making me wonder if that’s what happens when you live in New York and don’t  lose the wonderment of the skyscrapers?  David turned out to be generous too, offering more than just lunch.

“Look, next time you come to New York you must stay with us – save you a bit of money.”  His wife sounded lovely, and his dog.  I felt foolish for worrying.  It’s always reassuring when married men mention their wives, especially when it’s not in the ‘she doesn’t understand me’ kind of way.  I was so glad that I’d trusted my curiosity and decided to meet him.  We stopped to enjoy a moving window display.  If you look closely you can see the model move, jerkily, but yes she moves.  It was so cool.

  If you click on the arrow it should play.

And in case it doesn’t here are a few more samples of the incredible windows on Madison Avenue.

At the Guggenheim David bid his goodbyes, and left me to my own devices.  I took a few pictures and went into the giant snail shell.

“I’m sorry Ma’am the permanent collection is closed today.”

“What? WHAT?  But I’ve come all the way from England to see it.”

“We have a very nice James Turrell light show and exhibition”

“Who’s he?”

“You could call him a light artist? A sculptor in light.”

“But I wanted…”

“I think you’ll really enjoy it.  We only have about five Kandinsky’s on show at the moment.  Turrell’s show has taken over the whole space.”

“And you’re charging the same price?”  It stung.  I was baffled.  How could they do this to me?  What’s a few Kandiskys when they’ve stripped out everything else.  What timing.  What a bitter, miserable, disappointment.  With bad grace I bought an $18 concessionary ticket.

“Well I guess I might as well look since I’m here.”

She called after me as I slunk off grumbling.  “Enjoy.”

And then I entered wonderland!

James Turrel light installation at the Guggeneim

James Turrel light installation at the Guggenheim

Not the Wonderland of the diseased dance hall near Boston, REAL wonderland.  Stunning, sensational wonderland.  The void in the centre of the snailing staircase so distinctive of the Guggenheim was filled with coloured light and prone people.  Some leaning on the walls staring upwards, and some lying on the floor on a large circular mat in the centre (which must have been provided after the video below was made).

http://www.guggenheim.org/turrell

Turrell had stretched fine muslin  or gauze-like material in stacking cone shapes in the space.  Looking up into the layers of gauze gave the effect of clean, egg shapes with varying tones and depths of coloured light projected onto it, fading to natural daylight  at the very top.

For a moment I contemplated joining the people propped up against the wall around the edges of the space but what I really wanted was to get on that mat, and it was packed full, radiating with people glowing in the peach coloured light.  I waited and spied my chance.  A handsome bearded man, a similar certain age to me was arguing with his wife.  He was already settled on the mat.

“I’m not getting down there, I’ll never get up again.”

He couldn’t persuade her down.  I saw the narrow gap, about six inches wide.  The minute she stepped back I dropped down and wriggled myself cuckoo-style into the space.  It was kind of intimate.  I breathed a sigh of relief, my knees and burning blisters grateful as I relaxed. The air conditioning cooled me against his warm body. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all that the permanent collection was closed.  I stared up at the ceiling.

“Oh wow!  WOW.  Oh my god.”  The colours changed softly from purple to magenta.

“I hope this is what it’s like when I die.  Do you think it’ll look like this when we die? “I turned to  look at the man.

“Oh look, it’s changing, oh I love that green, it’s like being grass, every cell turning green…oh look at the orange….”  I didn’t take LSD in the 60s and 70s, I was too scared of losing control and far too responsible a mother.  This was better wasn’t it?  A light show without the drugs and psychosis.  My companion (for now it was to all intents and purposes just me and him) chatted and marvelled away at the colours and shapes.  He seemed equally mesmerised and I believe a bit infected by my enthusiasm.  Either that or it was my accent.  English accents can do that I’ve noticed, but it can go either way. In New Mexico,  a friend of my ex-sister in law took against me misinterpreting me as a posh snob and was incredibly rude, alternatively an American girl thought a bloke from Wigan had the coolest accent.  Wigan?  (As Bill Bryson would say ‘somebody has to come from there.’)

“This is definitely going in my blog” I said “and there was me, so disappointed that the gallery was closed.”   I remembered the dome in London.  My daughter and I lay on the floor of a giant igloo installation looking at a light show projected on the ceiling.  We only came-to when a guard stood over us and said “ahem, excuse me ladies we’re closing.”  We hadn’t noticed everyone else had left.  We were asleep.

Handsome man asked about my trip, “No way.  Marblehead?  We live just up the coast from there in Rockport.”

Over an hour passed, maybe more, bathed in colour and happily whispering through an oft repeating orgasm of light.  It was a while before we noticed the sequence had started again, that we’d seen the whole show through at least once.  Before we peeled ourselves off the mat he said “I’d like to read your blog.  What’s it called?”  He took out his diary and wrote down the link.   We smiled,  shook hands and stiffly got to our feet.

“Enjoy the blog”  I said, and went in search of the Kandinsky’s.

Coming back from the loo I walked up the stairwell to look for the paintings and I saw my handsome friend.  He was with his wife.  She’d watched the whole thing from the  stairwell.  She glared at me. He tried to introduce me, but her handshake was frosty and her lips tight.

So, handsome man, are you following me out there in Rockport?  Did she forgive you when you explained? I’m sorry, I forgot to ask your name.

 

Waiting for the half naked Facebook friend in MOMA

 

 

David Hodgson

View from my room

View from my room

 

My second day in New York the sun came out.   I pulled on the little white dress and ‘Bowie flash’ earrings that I thought appropriate to meet a man profiled on Facebook half naked, who was either arty or somewhat dodgy, and says he was at school with me.

Was he though?  I didn’t recognise his torso (his eyes were hidden by his arm and boys at school weren’t that hairy).  I hadn’t admitted that when he contacted me on Facebook and said “I live in New York, shall we meet?”; it didn’t seem polite.  However his name did seem a bit familiar, and I was curious, and even though time was short I called him up and we agreed to meet at the MOMA entrance.  We’d eat somewhere else to avoid a superfluous $20 entrance fee for him.  From that I deduced he was busy the rest of the day, which might be a good thing in the circumstances.  8 flights down, and less than a hundred yards around the corner and I realised I had completely blown the dress code when the wind sliced past my shoulders and reminded me it was September. I puffed back up the 8 flights and changed, annoyed at myself for wasting precious time.

Map in hand I made my way uptown towards Macy’s.  You have to shop when you’re in New York don’t you?  Especially when you are 5ft 2ish and this is a country full of small latinos with narrow feet who have whole floors of department stores devoted to them.  Only I couldn’t shop.  It was overwhelming.  So much choice, and actually, if I thought about it, so little need, or enthusiasm.  I searched my way out of Macy’s (Mazey’s?)  and back out into the streets.

The soundtrack of New York is shouting policemen, sirens and traffic honking.  It’s mad on those streets; wonderfully mad.  And down at the bases of all the pointy, shiny buildings the people are ants, and look particularly mad.  Every other person appeared to be talking to themselves, gesticulating wildly.  Not quietly either.  They weren’t, of course, they were on ‘hands free’.

Backtracking, having overshot, I headed south.  I soon worked out that there was no point in hurrying, the traffic lights are set to average walking speed.  Speed up and you only get bossed ‘DONT WALK’ over and over again. I’ve crossed the road in Guangzhou and survived, it makes me pretty nifty, but it didn’t make a lot of difference here.  (Is this a subversive way to get people to slow down, help them to chill a little?  Or is the universe trying to tell me something)  I marvelled at the skyscrapers, the impossibility of them, the sheer brazenness, the confidence of architects that could design buildings like that.  From my small experience in a sandpit, I can’t understand how they stay up.  I loved the way remnants of a past-life New York intermingled, the deco touches, the reflections shimmering.  It wasn’t dark and claustrophobic at all.  Sky and sunshine were everywhere.  (In a good way I hoped, not like that new skyscraper in London that set light to the carpets in the building opposite and melted people’s cars.)

Getting a peep at the Empire State building I formed a plan to go up it at sunset.  I’d once made the mistake of queuing for hours to shuffle up to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, only to look at the view from the top and think ‘OK. It’s Paris.’  Now everyone flies, views from the top of tall buildings need more than just height to excite. I like to watch London as the sun sets from the giant wheel on the embankment.  It’s pure magic as the lights gradually come on over town as the wheel slowly turns.  You can even get a sneak peak of Buck Palace’s enormous gardens.

When I eventually arrived at MOMA, neck-aching,  I went straight upstairs to lust over my favourite artists: Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe.  Edward Hopper was, I think, a bit of a peeping tom.  Just look at this picture.

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Edward Hopper

 

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Edward Hopper

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Hopper again

 

 

I can empathise. There is something quite thrilling about looking into people’s homes when they are not aware.  The top deck of London buses at twilight, before people remember to close their curtains, is a particularly good for this.  (We British build hedges around our front gardens for privacy, unlike Americans, and then we make buses that can peep over. Don’t you just love that?)   Hopper’s models stare dreamily into the distance. It gives me food for their thoughts, as does his silent presence in the room painting away.

Pressure built though as I looked around the galleries.  So little time.  Two and a half days?  Was I crazy?  It wasn’t long before I was to meet the mysterious David Hodgkin and there were floors of the gallery left to explore.  I should have logged all the artists to inform you, but oh well….  However, I’ll share some of my favourites, and hope it inspires you to visit and find out who did them:

That last one reminds me of the excruciating pain I get when I suffer from iritis.  I could get a knock-off of the Mattisse dancers in a local furniture shop in Nailsworth (painted in China for the indiscriminate British shopper) but I think I’d rather gaze at the original in MOMA.  At some point I managed to let go of the enormous pressure of having such a brief time to enjoy New York.  I would come back.  Of course I would.  New York was under my skin.  They might not have adopted me (what happened to that proposal I sent to the New Yorker eh?) but I had adopted them.

I went in search of another favourite, Andrew Wyeth.  His painting “Christina’s World” is iconic.  I had mistakenly thought it was painted by Hopper for some reason.  But no, it was a painting Wyeth did of his neighbour Christina, sadly afflicted by polio and only able to crawl.  She hardly ever left her house.  And here she is, on the grass, looking back at her home, and possibly wondering how long it will take her to crawl back there.  I didn’t know this at the time, I thought it was a lovely picture of a girl in a sunny field, who had just woken up, been called from the house perhaps?  It was only when I came home to the UK I saw a documentary on Wyeth that revealed his extraordinary life controlled first by his father then his wife Betsy.  He was very close to Christina. I wonder if he felt similarly hobbled?

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Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth painted in 1948, the year I was born

 

I gazed long at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abstraction in Blue.  Fabulous sensuous, breath-holding, vaginal work. Looking at her flower paintings I swear she used to transform into a bee and wriggle into their folds and have sex with them.IMG_5552

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction in Blue

 

There was no time to linger longer.  It was time to meet David Hodgson.  I hurried down to the entrance lobby to wait, and have to admit – with some nervousness.  Who would he be?

 

 

Lost and found in New York

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You can’t help enacting a cliché when you hail a cab in New York, except no one barged me out of the way rudely.  Maybe I looked as desperate as I felt?

 Making myself understood was another thing.

“Gene’s, please, 73 West 11th Street, between 5th and 6th?”  Even saying the address seemed impossibly exotic, unlike  73 Cats Brain Quarry, Bunting Hill, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the kind of thing you get around here.

“Jims?”

“No, Gene’s?”  I added the American inflection, in  case that helped – I’ve often wondered? Is that a sign of insecurity?  Even Obama does it?

“Ah, Djinns”  (I made that one up.)

“Yes, yes, Jinn’s, I know Jinns.”  We got there in the end.

It was a pleasant surprise to find the cab didn’t cost me a month’s pension.  In fact we arrived so quickly I realised I could have walked.  Finding a seat in the corner of the bar, with a good view of the door I breathed again and smeared on a  bit of lippy; the best I could do to smarten myself up. I didn’t risk ordering a drink, the night was yet young.  Instead I employed that mainstay of single travellers and got out a book and planned the next day – the day of the the BIG ART FEST.  I’d only been anticipating cruising the New York art galleries for about 20 or 30 years. It would be a knickerbocker glory of art: MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, piled in layers and the big blob of cream on the top the Witney, where I hoped to find one of my favourite American artists, Edward Hopper. My friend Janet said not to bother with Central Park (“It’s just a park”) but I hoped to combine it with walking to and from galleries.

Was Bernt caught up in traffic?  I scrutinised  everyone who came in.  These people didn’t look like they’d risk buying green bananas.  I only had a vague idea of what Bernt looked like, from a slightly blurred image in Nick and Jane’s wedding photos, but I did know he was a few years older than Nick, so he must be mid-late 50s.  It was a bit like internet dating but without the risk, or the deceptively youthful picture.   As he was probably expecting a Miss Marple lookalike I thought it was probably up to me to make the connection although Nick might have shared that he calls me ‘Cool Aunty’.

Gene’s was born in 1919 and didn’t look as if it, or it’s clientele, had changed much over the years. That seemed to be part of it’s charm.  I was definitely in the world of elastic waisted trousers (or in this case pants) but it was exactly what I wanted – ‘old’ New York, authentic Italian, and considering I had not had time to slip into a trendy little dress and posh up a bit – somewhere I could feel completely relaxed.

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When Bernt arrived it could be no one else.  I’d been told how charming he was.  Full of apologies for the traffic, he was immediately recognised by the maitre d’ who led us to a well placed table decorated with a single red rose.  The waiters buzzed around us and brought an hors d’oeuvre of fresh vegetables to dip. Bernt entertained me with tales of New York through a delicious meal of my favourite – Aubergine Parmegano – or, as someone called it in one of the reviews: ‘Eggplant Parm’.  While we’re on the topic of reviewers what was that whining diner on about saying the place smelt of ammonia, the chicken was bland, his wife’s mussels were chewy, the oreganato (?) mushy and the bread fishy.  Some people are just too fussy.  I say that not because I found it all delightful, but because nearly all the other reviewers gave the place top marks.  My guess is he didn’t find it ‘on trend’ enough and had been eating far too many smears of food on a plate drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar and garnished with pea tendrils. (I know they are tasty, but does anyone else find them scratchy to eat?)

The stories kept on coming, and Bernt, like everyone who lives in New York, had his sad tales to tell of 9/11, yet what I picked up most was an old worldly charm, a dash being cut, and an unmistakable air of the 1920s or 40s. Bernt’s crinkle cut hair and choice of tie could place him easily in that era.  I asked what kind of music he liked and was completely unsurprised to find he loved Swing.  OK, now I’m going to get weird…I pick up a sense of people’s past lives.  I got a strong impression one day off my friend Rosi, who makes me look tall (I’m 5ft 2½ on a good day) and who has tiny feet with exceptionally high arches, that cause her a great deal of pain.  On some level I knew that they had once-upon-a-lifetime been bound.   If only I’d had more time, I’d have loved to go Lindy Hopping with Bernt in New York.   Sometimes you meet a new person and it’s just easy.  Relaxed and humorous.  We laughed out way through the meal until the bottle was empty and a working man needed to get home.

The trouble with being someone who doesn’t drink much, is that when you share a bottle of wine over a meal, it’s much.  Not that I was embarrassing, or incapable of walking without a wobble, (though it’s a good thing I didn’t wear those heels) I just had to be a bit careful not to trip over a walking stick or two on the way to the door.  Luckily Bernt offered to drive me back to the apartment.

” I think it’s round this corner.  Oh, sorry, I thought it was.  Maybe the next block?  Oh dear, I’m sure it was this one – it was definitely red brick.”  Very helpful when most of New York, that isn’t high rise, is red brick.  “There.  There it is!”

Bernt looked relieved at this point, I said my goodnights, effusive thank you’s (he wouldn’t let me pay for a thing) and noted the slight freeze that said ‘for gods sake don’t kiss me’.   Once I’d worked out how to get the key into the lock and trailed up 8 flights, and managed the door into the apartment, I found someone was still up.  There was Tom,  whose wholesome, genial picture led me to book the room, sitting in his boxers drinking beer and watching South Park on the TV.  He barely looked up, though he did say ‘Hi’ between mouthfuls of cereal.  I grabbed my suitcase from the corner of the room, bumped down the dark corridor to find the door at the end.  The room seemed much smaller than it looked on the website.  There was a bed and a small table by it with a lamp. No chair, but a wardrobe of sorts where I could hang my clothes.  I slithered into the silky brown sheets, turned the pillow cover inside-out to avoid the pilling, and noticed the picture on the wall by the bed – the Flatiron.  It felt like a good omen.  I fell quickly asleep to the sound of city noises instead of owls and foxes.

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Mushrooms in Manhattan

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Market in Greenwich Village

How cool is Greenwich Village really?  I’ve often fantasised mingling with the people who hang out there “Oh me, I’m a British writer, well since you ask, yes I have been, a couple actually…”  (writing for the New Yorker in my dreams; worshiping Nora).  ‘What would Nora do?’ I asked myself as I strode south from the Flatiron ?

Nora Ephron has been my hero ever since my friend Francis said “YOU HAVEN’T READ NORA EPHRON?” in much the same tone his girlfriend Suzie once said ‘You haven’t seen CITIZEN KANE?’ That’s the trouble with coming from the sticks; I lack a sophisticated education.  He gave me a copy of I’m worried about my neck.  What’s not to like about a woman who has also spent most of her life searching for the perfect bag, and who worries about her neck?  (Big bag? Small bag? Backpack?  A recent solution is to have a large bag, the mothership, and a small bag in it, but I’m not sure my osteopath would approve.) Nora wrote When Harry met Sally and You’ve Got Mail, two of my favourite films.  I was devastated when I found she’d recently died…now I won’t be able to meet her.  This trip is partly to walk in her shoes.   One hopes a bit of the genius rubs off.  I sat on Hemmingway’s bar stool in Cuba, and Dylan Thomas’s fireside arm chair in his seaside home in Laugharne when the curator was out of the room.

Greenwich Village seemed completely familiar when I got there.  A bit of a blend between the backstreets of Nailsworth, Stroud, and Soho in London – little independent shops and cafes hanging on in there against all the recessionary odds.  It didn’t feel edgy to me (but then one of my brothers recently said how weird he found the people in Stroud.  There’s  a Facebook page NUFS (Not Unusual for Stroud) that kind-of confirms his point of view.  I was charmed by the little country market in the village square – heritage tomatoes piled in rainbows, and farm fresh looking vegetables, just like our award winning Stroud Market.   “I could live here”  I thought.  (I spend a lot of time speculating how city dwellers get their vegetables, the sheer mechanics of feeding a big city with fresh and not local overwhelms me often.)

In Washington Square the pressure on the shared loo at the AirBnB caught up with me and I made the mistake of opening the doors to one of the portaloos. I tried the other one.  I can report that these were the filthiest loos ever.  Worse than Glastonbury, worse than that shower room in Madrid where someone mistook the drain hole for…more gross even than that place in the Gilli Islands where I had to agree with the graffiti in my room ‘This is the worst shit hole in the whole world‘: I heaved and banged the door shut.  All praise be to my sphincter but I wandered on faster than I would have wished, annoyed that it meant I had to miss an accomplished musician drumming on paint cans.

Before I started this trip, you may remember my hesitation about visiting New York…how would it compare to my life in a sodden valley, where the wildlife invites itself in without knocking.   As I write, horses graze in the field opposite and I can tell which way the wind is blowing by the direction of their heads.  Pigeons are getting fat on the food I’ve put out for the little birds.  It may be almost drowning at the moment but it’s a landscape I understand.  Unconsciously I found myself trying to interpret Manhattan from that perspective.  So imagine my delight, in Soho,  to see a reddish  mushroom, suspiciously like the rare and delicious beefsteak, growing on the base of a tree trunk.   Do these chichi little restaurants know they have gourmet food growing on their  doorstep? But maybe don’t take my word for it.

Numbered streets are very useful, especially to a stranger, but I come from a place where Butcher’s Lane, Plumber’s Hill, The Ladder and Cossack Square hint at history.  So I found Soho with its Spring Street and Wooster, Thompson and Prince homely.   Did I make it up that there’s a Silk Stocking District somewhere in New York?  I’d have liked to have had more time to visit it just to send postcards from there.  My priory was changing into an increasingly urgent need to find a ‘bathroom’, which fortunately coincided with hunger.  The Olive Tree Cafe in MacDougal Street fitted the bill perfectly with its dark-toned interior, arty feel, and solo table where I could sit and observe everyone without feeling like a sadass loner with a problem.

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I  highly recommend their middle eastern platter, the equal to the best that Hazel my belly-dance teacher produces.

Feeling the burn of a blister in the making, I consulted my map.  I figured that it wouldn’t take that long to walk down to Wall Street (shake a fist at the bastards there), and visit Ground Zero.  I didn’t want to go to the official visitors site and see the memorial exhibition, I just wanted to go and pay my respects on my own.  Like everyone everywhere, I remember what I was doing when the first plane hit.  Numb from the dentist in Gloucester, but wincing from the pain of the cost of replacing a crown, I put the car radio on and drove home.  As I pulled into my drive I heard the news, ran into the house, put on the TV and saw the second plane hit.

Here in the UK we are used to terror in our cities; it has been on our doorsteps for many years. There was no doubt in my mind that it was an attack even before the second plane.  The horror unfolded like a hideous disaster movie, and gripped me for days, months, years.  Look again closely at the snow globe, it has a special poignancy now.

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A shiver passed through me at Ground Zero, despite its being barricaded from the non-payers.  I saw ghost people running, covered in ash, imagined it soft yet needled with glass, around their ankles.  I could  taste it and feel it dry in my mouth.  I heard the cries of disbelief, choking, glass smashing …did I smell the acrid occur of fire?  I pictured the slow glide of the jumpers.

The streets are clean.  Where did all the ash go?  Wouldn’t it be full of remains of those poor people who didn’t make it out?  My heart felt weighted with the sorrow of it all, the angry, deluded young men, the forever-changed world.  Fear.  I gazed at the building works through the fence and up at the biggest ‘FUCK-OFF’ tower America could build, stabbing into the sky, defiant.  I didn’t want to be a gawping tourist but I needed to connect and pay my respects.  To understand how it has discombobulated New Yorkers, changed their expectations.  It was all too tragic to buy a badge and wear the tee shirt.  I craved a small quiet park where I could sit and remember.

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Wall Street? What was that to me in comparison?  A street.  A big bronze bull shining behind road work barriers.  A street of ticker-tape celebrations, or a street of cheats and messed up values?  It seemed small.  Insignificant.  I didn’t stay long.  But it was there that I met a person who could have shown me New York. If you haven’t heard of them before, I recommend the Greeters.  A kindly woman, of a certain age, dressed all in green, was advising an  Australian couple where to go next and struggling to find them a subway map.  I hovered around them when I heard the word ‘subway’.  (Be warned, download a map before you go because these are no-where to be found)

“You doing this on your own?” she asked, “well bully for you, fantastic.”

She did this once or twice a month out of the goodness of her heart.  She’d chosen who to guide that day –  that’s how it works.  If only I’d known about this option before I left!  All that angst, the fear and confusion…I could have had a local guide to help me figure it out.  Greeters operate all over the world.  I could set myself up as one in Nailsworth.  It wouldn’t take long, half and hour would get them around the main landmarks, the fountain,  the award winning bakers, the best ironmonger in the west.    Look up in Nailsworth and you’ll see a giant bronze kettle outside the opticians, here she pointed out elegant art deco statues decorating the City Hall.

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I asked her about the Statue of Liberty, which I’d failed to realise I would have had to book months previously to go inside to the top. Once again I pay the penalty of not being a ‘prepare before you go, research, kind of a person, so I am thrilled when she says “Take the Staten Island Ferry”, cheapest way to see it, its free. Get the next one back from the island, nothing to see there.”   This seemed like a very good way to finish the afternoon’s wanderings, especially as I hadn’t heard from Bernt, my nephew’s friend who I hoped would ring to arrange escorting me  for the evening.  Perhaps he had cold feet about shepherding a mystery aunt from the backwaters of an English village?  Maybe be expected me to wear a Miss Marple style card and a hat?  I bought a New York cheese cake and boarded.

New York reflections: ‘Wherever you go – there you are’ (Brazilian saying)

IMG_5482Monday morning and the red-eye rumbled out of Boston with the deliciously familiar ‘woo-woo’.  I grew up with trains at the bottom of my garden, but English trains can only toot.  Whilst my fellow, scant, passengers settled down to sleep, I got out my New York guide books to make a plan for the next three days.

Why do so many of the galleries close on a Monday?  Can’t the city that never sleeps sort this one?  Travel half way across the world to see art, two and a half days to do it in…and they close for one of them?  It seemed bizarre in the extreme, until I noticed from references in one of the books that it was years out of date.  Out of the window the coastline unfurled like a map.  Marshes, beaches, inlets, harbours, boats and herons flicked my eyes.  I wanted to read but I didn’t want to miss a single thing.  It was as if every hair on my skin had super-radar, no way could I sleep despite a night fizzing with anticipation,  sore eyes staring at the ceiling.

By the time we approached the outskirts of the city I had a plan.  Always one to make the best of a bad situation, I realised it wasn’t just art I wanted to see.  I wanted to drink in all the sights, but would content myself with a few gems.    That is what I’d do this first day, Monday.    The helpful HopStop app that had shrunk the city with walking times had inspired me: Walk/Don’tWalk ? Walk of course.  Get a flavour of Manhattan. (When I travel anywhere I am like a homing pigeon circling my space,  learning about where I’ve landed, clocking landmarks.)

I was nervous about the Airbnb.   Not just the bathroom situation; would I be able to find the apartment?  What if the host wasn’t there to let me in?  Why were there two mobile numbers for me to call?  Memories of being stuck in a receptionless, skuzzy hotel lobby in Ilfracombe, locked in the building, yet out of my room, promised key-holder absent, mobile out of range, fuelled my anxiety.

Look at the woman on the right…does she look streetwise?

Look at the woman on the right…does she look streetwise?

Penn Station is huge.  There is a main exit, but it has more exits than the badger sett in my garden.  I re-checked the map for the hundredth time.   I strode out of one with a ‘I know this city, I just happen to be trailing a suitcase because I’ve been away for the weekend’ walk . Out on the street it looked just like it did on Google Earth.  Everyone in England says New York looks familiar when you get there, it’s all the films we’ve watched.  This bit didn’t, except for the above, but it wasn’t a particularly salubrious area.  It wasn’t down at heel enough for an edgy boy movie with lots of gunfire, or smart enough for a Woody.  I would say it is a typical ‘railway station’ kind of area.  (Who would willingly live next to a train station other than a train spotter?)  Nevertheless  I was reminded of the Brazilian saying: ‘Wherever you go – there you are.’  No matter how much you get knotted up about going to a strange place, once you are there, it’s where you are.  Different climate, soil, birdsong or whatever – when you’re there you’re here.

I strode on muttering to myself, ‘9th and 23rd, 9th and 23rd.  Or was it 24th?’  I checked my map again.  I don’t like doing this in a strange place.  I might as well wear a sign saying TOURIST.  Compared to Britain where roads were built to go anywhere but straight, and are wide enough to  accommodate a  horse and cart, this should have been a breeze.  Failing to see the sun, my usual standby,  I asked a stranger,  and found I was walking north, not south.    (Memo to fellow New York explorers: take a compass, it’ll save you walking a block or two to check.)

IMG_5447In no time I found the building I was after, but not the smart apartment lobby I expected.  I called one of the numbers.  “I’ll come down and help with your case”, he said.   I soon learned the meaning of a walk-up.  I can’t say I wasn’t warned,  I’d checked out that it would be doable with a newly fixed knee. Relieved of  my small case it was still a challenge, especially behind a sprite young man, barefoot in teeshirt and boxers, who does this regularly.  Two flights for every floor, eight floors up.  I wanted the authentic New York experience: I was getting it.  It wasn’t quite what it said on the tin… The stairwell had dun coloured walls, with dark brown scuffed doors, repaired in places with metal sheets.  The carpet was threadbare and stained, but the apartment door needed a good push to open it and a kick to close it (just like home).

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“No spare keys, don’t lose them” said Adam, leading me into the corridor where I nearly tripped over a skateboard.  Monosyllabic to the point of rudeness, he led me into a sitting room (which looked smaller a lot of stuff had been photoshopped out of the ad). “Room’s not ready, won’t be ready till  2 0’clock.”  I’d not entertained that possibility, and forgotten it was only 10.30 in the morning.

” Can I leave my case somewhere safe?”

“Over there?”  he pointed to the corner of the room.

“Nowhere I can lock it away?” I asked acutely aware there are potentially 7 other guests.

“Never been a problem before, none of the rooms lock”.  I hadn’t wanted to carry my iPad around with me, but decided I probably should.

“Oh well, I’m out for the day anyway, I might be back late, can you show me where my room is?”

“Down there.”  He pointed down the corridor that ran at right angles – and sloped off to his room muttering.  “Just knock if you need anything” and that was it.

I knocked.  “Loo?  I mean, bathroom?”  “Over there.”  As he angled his shoulder out of the room  to point I saw a bed filling the room, piled chest high with stuff, and small computer table.  It had all the charms of a student flat, and he had the social skills of a 14 year old.  Far from the ‘meet the friendly locals, stay in a real home’ ‘Friends‘ kind of environment that I was expecting I found that, yes indeed, I was truly going to do New York on my own. Or possibly, not quite.  My nephew had deputed an old friend of his to spend the evening with this ageing English Aunt.  I didn’t know Bernt, but he sounded like he’d be fun, and I would at least have a native to show me the ropes on my first evening in New York.  I’d planned to go to a cocktail bar that had live jazz, I’d also heard that the Duplex Club in Greenwich Village (where  performers off Broadway go to unwind) was a wild place to spend the night.  Much as I thought I ought to give it a go, the thought of going there on my own didn’t really appeal.  My friend Tori said that it’s different in New York, strangers would talk to me – but considering my experience with the duplicitous Mr Prong in Bangkok I don’t have a very good track record.   And what about bedtime?  I’m not a three o’clock in the morning kind of person and my next two days would be packed.  10 o’clock and a hot water bottle is more like me.  I’d wait and see if Bernt called.

There was another contact.  Someone from my old school had seen my blog and said ‘hey, I live in New York City, are you going to come and see me?’  I was intrigued.  His picture on Facebook was a black and white picture of a hairyish man, naked to the waist and hiding his face with his arm in an arty kind of a way.  It didn’t give me a lot to go on.  I’d asked for a better picture, but still his face didn’t ring a bell.  I gave him a call.  I didn’t recognise the voice either, though the English public school accent fitted.  I described my tight schedule and arranged to meet the next day outside MOMA.  We’d have lunch together.

Out on the street, the sun didn’t shine, but I told myself that’s sometimes better for taking photographs.  If I understood my map correctly I could start my day with a visit to the wonderful Highline, a mile long linear park developed on a section of the former West Side Line railroad spur.  It was just around the corner. Inspired by the Parisian Promenade Plantéé it seemed to me to be the best use of an urban railroad track ever.  I wondered what it was like living next to nosy people like me getting a peek into your flat.  I bet Hopper would have loved it.  More of him later.

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I could have spent longer walking the Highline, admiring the subtle planting, but conscious that it was just one of the many things I wanted to see had to drag myself away from the breeze swishing the grasses and busy bees working the flowers.  I took a horizontal street, to make my way to the Flatiron. This impossibly svelte high rise, shaped like a Dairylee cheese wedge, is snuck into the pointy triangle between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. How it stays up is a mystery to me. No one in their right minds would design a building like this, but Daniel Burnham did, in the 1920s.  When it was finished it was the tallest building in the world and it started a trend.  I loved it.  I loved the pictures I’d seen of it.  I loved the story that when it first went up men used to hang around the outside waiting for  the winds it created to lift the girls’, skirts and show them a bit of ankle.  (My how times have changed.)

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Seeing it in the stone, unwavering, made me fall in love with it even more.IMG_5461Then I saw that the first room in the pointy bit at the base had been set up to advertise a special exhibition of Edward Hopper’s drawings at the Witney.  Two of my favourite things melded into one.  How cool was that?

The Diner by Hopper in the Flatiron

The Diner by Hopper in the Flatiron

Now I had arrived.  I was well and truly ‘here’.

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Hunting witches in Marblehead and Salem: turkey on the lawn alas.

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I have a confession.  I have a witchy past (despite my parent’s best efforts with the Order of the Cross).  Ok, so it was only skirting around the shadows of witchcraft, playing Abigail in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, and a few spells in the chicken house with girlfriends, but boy did I relish the part. Having had my first 14 years imposed on by that repressive religion gave me a particular enthusiasm for the part.  At one point, Abigail (with a bunch of her teenage friends),  is accused of dancing with the devil in the woods, supposedly encouraged by Tituba the slave. (No ill-disguised racism there eh?)  It is a moment of high tension in the play.  For many seconds there is silence.  Then Abigail lets rip with a liver-curdling scream, pretending to be in a trance seeing birds in the rafters.  I gave it my all, slicing the silence with that  ear splitting pitch only young girls can achieve.  It was rather successful, startling the audience, and particularly my parents, and indirectly making my life take on a different course.

One of the parents in the audience was John Mortimer, the playwright.  I was in the same dorm at his daughter Sally at Frensham Heights boarding school.  She had been very helpful impersonating me sleeping soundly in my bed, only the top of her head showing, while I sneaked out to meet my boyfriend Chezzy in the woods. (We’d speed across the Hog’s Back to Guildford on his Lambretta to watch Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds at the RickyTick club.)  After the play Sally’s Dad came to congratulate me and said to my parents “she must go on the stage”.  Not ‘should’ you note.  Previously my parents put their feet down on any theatrical ambitions of mine.  “You’ll have to sleep with the directors” argued my mother.  ‘So?’ I thought.  But John Mortimer?  He was God.  He was Rumpole of the Bailey.

It was tantalizing knowing Salem was only about half an hour away from Nick and Jane’s in Marblehead.  I dropped lots of hints about going there, but Jane kept insisting there really was nothing to do there.  The witch museum was rubbish, and the only other point of interest there was the House of Seven Gables.  She could give me a lift, she works there, but what would I do with the rest of the day?  Still I couldn’t let go of the idea.

You would not believe how complicated it is to arrange public transport to Salem from Marblehead.  Wasn’t this a tourist area, even if the native’s didn’t want to bus it?  I  considered walking, but that’s not possible in America the way it is here in the UK.

I remember once suggesting to my ex that I walk from his father’s house in Woodside north to San Francisco.

“You want to WALK?  WALK to San Francisco?”

“Sure, why not?  It’s only 30 miles.”

“You can’t.  There’s no trail.  You’d have to walk on the highway.”

I was pretty unnerved by their 12 lane highways when I first

saw them and this argument figured with me.  I was always amazed that car hire firms would hand over the keys to a 13 hour jet-lagged Brit, and say ‘have a nice day mam’.   No, in America land is property.  It’s not like here where you can wander almost freely on footpaths, which are all over the place, and the owners have to put up with it.  They might plough up a few paths to deter you, but most people, should you get lost and wander on to their property, just point you back in the right direction.  It’s not like you’d get shot.

Nick and I had a walk around Redd’s pond that evening.

Redds Pond

Wilmot Redd, or ‘Mammy Redd’ as she came to be known, was, as far as I can tell, a ‘crabbit old woman’.  She had lived in a small house on the South East corner of the pond in Marblehead in the 1600s.  Her husband, Samuel Redd, was a fisherman.  She put the local women’s back up, it seems, just by being a bit cranky.  Her fate was sealed when she was accused during the Salem Witch Trials of “detestible acts called Witchcraft and Sorceries, wickedly, mallitiously and ffelloniously (sic) used, practised and exercised at the towne of Salem”.  So far, so Daily Mail.  She denied it, but was sentenced to be “hung by the neck until she is dead”.  On the 22nd September 1692 she and seven other women were hung on Gallows Hill, Salem.

Nick must have noticed my disappointment, because next day we went to Salem.  As we passed the witchcraft museum,  Nick and Jane repeated “It’s crap, you really don’t want to go there.”   But I was delighted to see this sign on the grass nearby:

Sign in Salem park

How wonderful that they are educating witches in Salem.  I wonder what the Tea Party thinks about that?

We went instead to the House of Seven Gables.  This is a pretty interesting house, I suspect.  ‘I suspect’ because we met the worst guide ever there.  Maybe it was her first day?

“Was William  Hathorn (the original owner of the house) married?”

“Good question.  Ha.  Yes, that’s a really good question.  I really don’t know.  Probably.”

Downstairs there was a table full of fascinating old things from the colonial period – probably.

“Would that be a wax candle maker?” I asked.

“Wow.  I never really noticed that before.  Good question, no-one’s ever asked that question before.”

Her other tactic, other than praising our questions, but not actually answering them, was “I’m going to answer that question in the next room”.  Needless to say, she never did.  Or she’d say “I know, it’s confusing”.  Spot on there.

We shuffled out none the wiser.  It was a nice house.  Lovely garden.  If you have time to spare in Salem I’d recommend a visit, but if I were you I’d mug up on the history before you go.  Apparently the book The House of Seven Gables written by Nathaniel Hawthorne (b. July 4th 1804), a relative of the first owner who fictionalised those times, is very informative, and groundbreaking.   Nathaniel added a ‘W’ to his name to distinguish himself from Colonel John Hathorne, another rellie.  John Hathorne was a JP who who presided over the Salem Witch Trials.  Despite being one of the first pilgrims, who had escaped religious persecution, he had a thing about Quakers.  He used to regularly beat them up, or rather, have them beaten up.  No wonder Nathaniel wanted that ‘W’.

The garden of the House of seven Gables, Salem

The garden of the House of seven Gables, Salem

The House of Seven Gables colonial mansion, built 1668, Salem

The House of Seven Gables colonial mansion, built 1668, Salem

The rest of the afternoon we spent at a pumpkin and farm with extensive apple orchards, a classic Halloween thing to do.  The apples were big and crisp and even.  Perfect for display – but flavour-wise give me a good old English Coxes Orange Pippin.

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Essex Radio Station

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The journey home was not uneventful.  First we passed Essex Radio Station, obviously a happening place with its finger on the pulse, and then, to my absolute delight, we saw a turkey strolling about, without so much as a by-your-leave, on someone’s front lawn.  It’s hard to convey the size of the thing from the picture, but I would say it might intimidate a labrador.   I hope it knows where to hide in December.

Turkey on the lawn, alas

Turkey on the lawn, alas

In Boston the Buddhas smile, but were Hippies really that chic?

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Lost on the Boston Harbour Walk

Blissfully aware that it was Friday the 13th and that this was, in ancient times, a power day for women (was it guys, d’you think that spread the rumour of bad luck?) , I selected my route to the Museum of Fine Arts from Aquarium via the Boston harbour walk.  It was my second day in town, and I was thirsting for art.  I’d managed to shake off the bad taste left by the girl in Urban Outfitters the day before:  “CLOSE THE DOOR.”  I did an about turn and, morphing into a snotty Englishwoman snapped “the phrase is PLEASE close the door.”  I guess the heat got to us both.

The harbour walk is intriguing; who owns these fancy boats?  Do they fret over never finding enough time to spend on them like people with holiday homes?  Or is it just one way to splash out their zillions so it doesn’t pile up too much.  Do they wake thinking ‘there’s nothing I really need or want today’ or do they wonder what happiness-trinket they can buy?  There aren’t so many Bill and Melinda’s, I fear.  Boats like these must cost a packet just to park up.  Then there’s the staff, the gold taps, scrubbing brushes for the decks, bikini clad lovelies etc let alone the cost of actually going somewhere.   Still, it’s better than hoarding your pee in jars , or leaving your toenails unclipped and curling like a goat’s Howard.  IMG_5326

I got lost.  I always do.  Some people plan their journeys scrupulously.  I wing it.  Somehow I managed to turn “no problem getting to MoFA, just follow the Harbour Walk and there you are” to a hot and bothered realization that if that were true I should have found it an hour ago.  Sometimes you want to climb up a hill to see where you are, especially among the skyscrapers.  It’s amazing how many Bostonians don’t have a clue where their best asset is.  When I did finally arrive, and saw the size of the museum I immediately regretted my strategy.  I didn’t need a day, I needed a week.  More organised people would have catalogued the art they saw in a little notebook, and be far more informative.  I have to apologise.  All I can do is show you pictures of some of my favourite pieces of art, and hope it inspires you to go to this aptly named museum.

My appetite had been whetted by adverts all around town for the ‘Hippy Chic ‘exhibition currently showing.  I have hippy credentials, but you know how they say ‘if you remember the 60s you obviously weren’t there?’ That doesn’t really apply to me.  I remember them well.  I did my best to conform with the non-conformity, I even inhaled, but only socially, like I might share a bottle of wine with friends now.  It wasn’t a lifestyle choice to live in a fug  of marijuana and procrastination.  I had too many nappies (diapers) to change.  I had my first baby when I was 23, and like to think I was a responsible mother.  I breastfed, but only till they were about 6 months old, not until they could toddle up and ask for it before they went to school.  I thought at one time it would be interesting to try LSD, but only if a responsible person would mind the children for 4 days.  I couldn’t find one.  Then I looked up the effects of LSD in one of my father’s medical books and found it produced a so-called ‘pink spot’ in urine just like they find in schizophrenics. That was enough to put me off.  I don’t suppose a real hippy would have been.  However, it does mean any comments I make about the exhibition are from someone who had a clear perception at the time.  Now, honestly, did any of the people you know look like this?

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IMG_5341See the bag she’s holding?  That’s Biba.  I still have my Biba dress, it’s somewhere in the attic in the grandchildren’s dressing up box.  It was a floor length purple sleeveless vest (that’s an English vest, not American) and it came from the original  shop round the back of High Street Kensington (someone’s front room fitted out with old fashioned wooden hat stands).  It cost eighteen shillings, which at the time was just under a pound.  I wore it bra-less, though I only just fitted the criteria we used then: if you can hold a pencil under your breast without it falling down you are not pert enough to go bra-less.  This dress is very lovely, but it wasn’t on the streets of Gloucester at the time, or even the London  I remember.

Look at the hair on these guys.  All the models in the exhibition had white hair.  Maybe they were appealing to those of us who were hippies at the time, and like me are snow white now – but it wasn’t what we looked like then and the image jars.  Hippies had natural coloured hair or hennaed hair.  Even the bleaching was from hanging out in the sun in parks or the first free festivals getting stoned.  Hair dyes weren’t available like they are now.

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Well, almost unavailable.  Old ladies went in for purple or pink rinses on their  permed grey hair in those days.  Most didn’t even wash their own hair.  They would go for a shampoo and a set to the hairdressers once a week.  (What happy days those must have been for hairdressers.) It would be set like concrete, stiff with spray, just like a pan cleaner with a faint hint of mauve or pink.  Hippies let it all hang out.  We didn’t use hairdressers.  A few went in for frizzy afros, but the rest of us just grew it.  However, I went through a phase of mixing undiluted purple and pink rinse and achieving a maroon streak in my tangle of sun bleached mousey hair.  Being at a ballet school, with access to stage make up I also went in for green eyebrows and lashes.  I used a tin of Caron D’Ash pastel crayons to improvise wild eyeshadow.  Come to think of it, I was way ahead of my time.  I dyed  Aunty Mamie’s old silk stockings magenta and green.  In winter I wore a long white crochet version of an Afgan coat (all the rage) and a tiny shetland jumper that just covered my breasts and left my midriff bare to my low slung loons even when it was way below freezing.  Hippies I knew improvised, but maybe I just mixed in the wrong circles.   I don’t remember smart hippies like these.

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These were some of my favourite paintings and sculptures

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Someone having a very bad dayIMG_5349

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Probably Paul Revere

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