Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

From Russia with Mom – Postscript

My 4-year-old grandson was admiring the scarf I bought for his father in Finland (lots of cute cartoon reindeer)  His comments:

“Grandma went all around the world on a boat!”

[Pause]

“She was paddling really fast!”

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Canada: The Alien Next Door – Day One (Continued) – Intro to Edmonton

Pyramids across the river from the hotel terrace mark the amphitheatre

Across the Saskatchewan River from the Hotel Macdonald

P1040844From the 1916   pseudo-Chateau Frontenac architecture of the old Hotel MacDonald, a former railroad hotel,  to the pseudo-Gehry architecture of the Alberta Art Museum, Edmonton’s buildings bring smiles of surprise.  One of the nicest:  the City Hall with its celebratory arcade of fountains (unabashedly used as a cool-off pool by Edmonton’s children).  The boxy outside façade is relieved by rhomboid windows;  the inside of polished yellow marble and sandstone is a grand civic space with a monumental staircase sweeping upward under an I.M. Pei – like glass pyramid.

Contemporary Art Center, Edmonton

Contemporary Art Center, Edmonton

Too bad the bride I spotted disappeared before I could fumble out my camera – she was a brunette beauty in an elegant structured sheath gown of white satin with a black sash, and with bridesmaids all in black – this used to be considered weird but now appears to be the height of bridal sophistication. (See my earlier post to contrast with Russian brides.)

Edmonton is a city on the build – from 100,000 people at the turn of the 21st century it has exploded to over one million residents today, immigrants from all over drawn by the oil boom.  (Alberta oil shale provides 10% of the US’s oil needs and the share is growing.)  They are trying to keep pace by expanding the infrastructure, most notably with an expanding light-rail.  The resultant ongoing road destruction is known locally as “the Black Hole”. Meanwhile, bus stops in the central area link to 20 or more bus lines, with dozens of folks waiting for their public wheels at the bus stops.

Fountain with frolickers

Fountain with frolickers

Some of the creative destruction is admirable.  What used to be a grungy warehouse district bordering the railroad and the river has been converted into green parks, an arboretum, and an Arts District which includes a city-block-sized theatre and opposite it a city-block-sized public library.  A Folk Music Festival was about to begin on the Friday of our arrival and the area was swarming with pop-up restaurants, craft booths, and picnickers on the grass. Statues honoring everyone from Ukrainian farm women to Winston Churchill are scattered in every plaza.

By evening  across the river the open-air amphitheatre was filled  with thousands of listeners (Arlo Guthrie and his daughter were scheduled to perform).  We sat on benches watching the crowd grow.  As dusk fell, the mosquitoes rose, and we conceded the field, went in to dinner with our tour group.  This was our first experience together as part of a tour since a one-day tour of Beijing more than a decade ago;  we were curious to find out what the vibe would be like.

Dinner:  Open wine and cocktail bar; soup, salad, steak, sorbet. Lots of alums of the college which organized the trip, and a surprising number of professors (Iowa State, Portland State, Dartmouth), also wo brothers with wife and partner respectively; one family group with parents, two married daughters and spouses;  one Korean mother-daughter. Many have been on more than 10 Alumni Association trips.  Laughter, well-lubricated by the open bar, flowed freely as the co-tourists introduced themselves.   I talked of our previous attempts to see the snow-capped peaks by rail (both on Amtrak, both derailed by Amtrak’s famously inept scheduling) , and our having snuck into the Banff Springs  swimming area multiple decades ago as part of a camping trip across the continent – pulled a nice laugh from the group.

We stepped outside after dinner hoping to hear a few echoes of the festival across the river, but Arlo was singing into the wind in the opposite direction. Tomorrow we begin our expedition.

Slacking off in the sunshine - Edmonton Civic Center

Slacking off in the sunshine – Edmonton Civic Center

Canada: the Alien Next Door – Day One – San Francisco -> Edmonton, Alberta

O CanadaCanada to me has been like one of those neighbors who lives quietly, keeps their yard neat and their picket fence painted, says “Hello” and “Good morning” when appropriate, but who has never invited me into their house.  This summer I got past the picket fence and at least caught a glimpse of the family room;  my husband and I went for a trip across the Canadian Rockies by bus and by rail.  In many ways we traveled in a bubble of luxury tourism;  still, even the part visible through the bubble was much more exotic than I had imagined.  There is a lot going on behind that picket fence.

Day One:   SFO-> Edmonton

Mt. Shasta rises above California's central valley

Mt. Shasta rises above California’s central valley

On a sparkling day we flew northeast from San Francisco, flying over Mt. Shasta – America’s Mt. Fuji – stark and snow crowned alone in the middle of the flat-for-miles-around north Central Valley.  Further north, the  Three Sisters  and lonely Mt. Bachelor edged the dry plain of eastern OregonI had never realized the extent of the mighty Columbia River – our route echoed the course of this huge waterway twining its way across Oregon and up into Canada, looking like a Great Lake in flow.

Once past the Coast Range and the semi-desert of eastern Oregon, we flew over the orderly square acres of Alberta.  The farm plots and roadways seemed to be marked off along the original homesteading lines, many with an irrigated green circle  tangentially inscribed percisely within the square of boundary roads.

Edmonton International Airport

The Edmonton Airport – vast and empty.  A young woman passed us on the moving sidewalk, asked us our business in Edmonton, envied our Rocky Mountain railroad trip, said “I’m just here for a funeral.”

“Well at least you must know the area.”

She shrugged and said dismissively, “ Edmonton is kind of like Sacramento.”  She moved past us at a more rapid clip.  I mulled over what she had said and thought: even if this is true,  that’s not such a bad thing.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the leafy parks and rose gardens of Sacramento, bicycling its river trails and enjoying its street scene – “Like Sacramento” is an ok thing for  a capital city of a thriving province to be.

I was to find out that Edmonton is not so much like Sacramento, despite having both leafy parks and rose gardens, as it is like Houston (see my earlier posts).  Something to do with oil wealth and explosive growth, neither of which I had known was a factor in Alberta.  My elementary school geography showed the map of Canada with its chief exports – Alberta featured a shock of wheat and a cow.   Now the province would be pictured with an oil derrick and a coal car – who knew?

Berkeley CA – From Hippie to Hip

We came to Berkely by BART – public transportation.  We each had a small suitcase and a shoulder pouch for water and a granola bar on BART.  We surfaced at Shattuck and Alford to the new Berkeley.

The formerly grubby BART plaza has been upgraded with brick paving and  ornamental iron lampposts. Brightly blooming flower baskets and brightly colored graphic banners swing from the lampposts.  Instead of a rush of pan-handlers, we are greeted by a bright-green and teal booth with a placard “Welcome to Berkeley” staffed by two beaming green-and-teal jacketed volunteers armed with  Downtown Berkeley maps and information brochures about where to Sleep, Dine, Shop, or take in Art and/or Theatre.  All seems to be happening within a few blocks of where we are standing.

Our hotel, the Shattuck Plaza Hotel, is less than a block from the BART plaza.  There are a couple of people selling beaded jewelry from a blanket on the plaza, a guy strumming a guitar and singing in a creaky voice, but it all seems quite tidy.

We enter the lobby of the hotel, past a new plaque proclaiming its historic past.  The interior is quirkily renovated:  the original arched windows still line the lobby, the high ceiling is still supported by Ionic and Doric columns, but the white marble floor has a huge peace symbol inlaid at the entrance, the décor is Victorian curliques executed in minimalist black and white with red accents in the Venetian glass chandeliers and wall sconces.

Suite at Shattuck Plaza

Suite at Shattuck Plaza

Oh happy day!  We are upgraded to a suite!  A long and twisting 5th-floor corridor leads us to two nicely furnished rooms in pastels and a fine view overlooking the bay, the San Francisco skyline, and the Golden Gate and Bay bridges.

We stroll over to the UC campus.  It is Big Game Weekend, and we can hear the strains of the Cal fight song coming from the band rallying on Sproul Plaza.  By the time we get there, the band is gone, but the booth selling GIVE US THE AXE! and STANFURD T-shirts is still there.  I confess my Stanford allegiance and the clean-cut student vendor actually apologizes to me.

Our dinner in the hotel restaurant, Five, is excellent.  We share a salad of late-season peaches with baby arugula and roasted nuts – like having dessert first! – followed by sustainably caught sea bass in a delicate curry sauce with roasted new potatoes, and an excellent cappuchino.  Then around the corner to Berkeley Rep for a top-flight presentation of a Broadway play featuring a mix of original cast and local performers – all excellent.  We stop off at the Walgreen’s on the corner for some late-night chocolate bars to finish off our evening – it takes us a good fifteen minutes to make our selection from the lavish display of gourmet flavors from Godiva, Lindt, Ghirardelli, and Dove.

The next morning we sit by the arched windows having our breakfast and watch the students of Berkeley High pass by on their way to school.  It is Homecoming Week, and the students are aglow with the school colors of red and gold. Thanks to the fog we are spared body paint and Speedos  The scene could be  the 1950’s (except that the skirts are a lot shorter . )

As we BARTed our way back to the bottom of the bay, I was thinking, it’s not the Berkeley I used to know, but it is definitely a Berkeley worth knowing.

retro Berkeley scene

retro Berkeley scene

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