Friday, 22 August 2008

To Massachusetts for the weekend

In Melbourne we don't have a weekender. I find it hard to spend 6 months of the year somewhere other than home base even in one hit, as we are doing currently, let alone broken into small snatches of time, and when I am away I often miss something I left at home. Having two of everything might be one solution, and I suppose one gets used to the driving, but I think I must be more of a stay-at-home person, especially when there seems so much to do in Melbourne at the weekends and I don't really want to be away from friends and activities.

But I finally got to spend a weekend at Lissy’s parents’ cottage in the Berkshires, near Stockbridge and close to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The whole family, Barbara, Bernard and the kids, have been going up there since 1983. They love the house and the Beachwood community they are part of. It is quite a long drive from NJ, and for us it was an even longer trip, as Ben, Lissy and I met at Grand Central and got the train to Summit, NJ, where we met up with Lissy’s brother Drew and had dinner in a local Chinese/Japanese place. We stopped by the family home to collect Lissy’s mother’s car and pick up a few things – a really nice cheddar, which I particularly appreciated as it can be hard to come by tasty cheese in the US, some maple syrup, and a watermelon, before we embarked upon the 2 ¾ hour drive. At least the late start meant we encountered no traffic snarls on the way up.

We got in not much before midnight and spent a little time in front of a log fire with Bernard and Barbara, discussing the myriad places to see and cultural events available for such a short weekend. We even checked the weather forecast to judge when it would be safest to go to Tanglewood, the one Must Not Miss activity on the list, and how and when I could fit in some exercise. As we had arrived in the dead of night, the view from my bedroom window in the morning of the lake lapping right up to the edge of the garden was quite a surprise for me. Just a few water lilies were open, there were boats dotted about, and a few people were visible pottering about their little docks or gardens.

After breakfast Barbara dropped me at the main road so I could walk into Stockbridge without getting lost (those of you who have suffered my sense of direction will be aware how wise a move this was.) I took about an hour to get to the Stockbridge public library to meet up with Barbara again, walking the 5 km and stopping to take some photos. The lushness of the North East at this time of the year impresses me every time I get out amongst it: no brown plains here, but huge trees in every shade of green, lush fields of wildflowers, and working farms visible from the road with barns that look as if a young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney could stage a musical there.

The main street looks like a picture book US town, lots of touristy stores and an old inn, The Red Lion, that a local entrepreneurial curtain manufacturer saved from demolition and redevelopment, and is now a hotel with a really nice looking restaurant, the public areas stuffed full of local furniture and wooden items like this rocking horse and a carousel in the same style, and antiques including for some reason a very large collection of teapots (most Americans don’t have much use for teapots, really!) We then drove a little way to an arts and crafts fair in a garden setting: 90+ stalls selling mostly handmade stuff, lots of jewellery and pottery and hand knits and milk churns, honey products, plants, and many objets to decorate your country cottage. I didn't find anything I couldn't live without, but found it very interesting. A bit like St Kilda Esplanade market or the Bazaar Sabado in San Angel, Mexico City, some of the same stuff, some local specialties. Apparently it was a weekend without sales tax. In the US, unlike our GST, sales tax is added onto the purchase price of goods after you buy – you need to be sure you have 6-8.5% of funds in reserve, and when I first hit NYC 40 years ago, it came as a terrible shock to be charged more than I expected for everything. I've got used to it now but first time travellers to the US, beware!

A tax-free day is an incentive to shop, I guess, and there was a tent sale of jewellery in another close-by shopping area also taking advantage of the bonanza. Here we did a lot better, finding a pair of earrings I liked in silver and a reddish agate, and several pairs of earrings and rings for Barbara (who has daughters and granddaughters to consider also). Barbara generously bought mine for me as a memento of the occasion, and I wore them the next day (and have them on now as I type up this draft on the plane back to Berkeley).

It was coffee time and we stopped off at a chocolate company in the same area, where the coffee was fine and I managed to resist anything dangerous to the waistline. Whatever we think about Starbucks (and its recent decision to close most of its stores in Australia is something of a testament to the strength and persistence of our own pre-existing coffee culture), there is no doubt it introduced a decent cup of coffee to much of the USA, and one is far more likely to encounter something drinkable at most coffee places since its advent. Now we need someone to do the same for tea – you still often get a lukewarm cup of water with a wet teabag in the saucer and half-and-half in a little jug or a UHT container on the side! (I have been told by Berkeley locals that the people who founded Starbucks used to work for Peet's, a locally famous store that specialises in fine teas and coffee, and I have met lots of locals who also fail to appreciate the ubiquity of Starbucks. I haven't sampled their tea in any of their cafes, but have tried a variety of their loose teas and tea-bags left here by Sally and Monica, which have all been good.)

There were some errands to run in the nearby centres of Pittsville and Lee, and we took the scenic route, seeing the local theatres and the different styles of the towns. There used to be a very big GE plastics plant n Pittsville but with the decline of local manufacturing there is less employment – I think a bit of urban renewal is happening, but it looked a lot less prosperous than the other places we visited where there is a lot more tourism and cultural life apparent at street level. We were considering picking up something towards our evening meal but a call to Bernard revealed that he, Ben and Drew had had a successful fishing trip on the lake and we would be having fresh bluefin for dinner.

The younger generation had been playing tennis and were running the few kms home when we got back. I know Ben finds it hard to fit in enough exercise while working long hours in Manhattan, so he gets very outdoorsy and active in the country. Lissy had also fitted in a quick trip to the local outlet for some essential purchases – living in NYC without a car, one misses the Mall experience. We had a late light lunch and did some lazing about, chatting and reading before dinner – Bernard (aided by the other anglers) had cleaned, filleted and prepared most of the fish (he left a couple whole on the bone, you can see them on the platter in the photo in case you want to know what a bluefin looks like). We polished them off for supper with lots of salads and headed out to Tanglewood with desserts packed for a picnic on the rolling lawns which surround the “shed”, the roofed area which seats 5,000. The kids took me for a bit of a roam through the main areas, some Frisbee tossing happened and as the sun set we returned to the picnic set up, with our low chairs, a large candle in a can (the lawn was beautifully lit by everyone’s candles, and by the rising full moon). We had ice cream and berry pie before the programme began.

It was an all Russian program, Glinka, Katchachurian and Prokofiev. I wondered if the crowd on the night would have been bigger if not for the recent trouble in Georgia with the Russians. I could only imagine how the place would look with a crowd of 30,000 as there was on July 4, when Ben and Lissy had celebrated Ben's birthday at a tribute concert for James Taylor. Reading through the Tanglewood programme, I am again reminded of the population of this part of the US and how much is available. There is too much on even in Melbourne to do it all, with our 3.5 million people, but the music, film, art dance and theatre around here, in easy reach of NYC and Boston and the many smaller population centres around, is quite breathtaking. Google Tanglewood and eat your hearts out, music lovers everywhere else!

The concert itself was excellent. The soloist in the piano concert, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, had the most beautiful touch. There are huge screens which give an excellent view from the lawn - we could see close-ups of the soloist who was wearing a rather peculiar shirt and jacket, of AndrĂ© Previn who was conducting and has aged a lot from the beautiful young pianist who was married to Mia Farrow, and of the orchestra. The sound seemed excellent too, but Drew, who wandered into the shed for a while, told us how much better the sound was in there. It got a little chilly later in the evening, but I had borrowed a heavier jumper than I had with me and was comfortable in that At the end of the concert, people cleaned up their areas meticulously – I didn't see a single piece of rubbish anywhere on the lawns, what a pleasure to behold. Maybe music hath charms to soothe the troubled breast that leads to littering!

Sunday was forecast to be a sunny day, and we had all managed to dodge Saturday’s thunderstorms, so we were pretty lucky with the weather. After breakfast, Bernard took me out on the inflatable boat and we putt-putted slowly right around the lake. It is quite large, and their house backs directly onto it. It has silted up a lot in the time they have been there and there is a bit of a weed problem, so that one really can’t swim directly from the garden and navigating through some areas is a bit tricky as the weeds foul the propeller. There is a summer camp on one side of the lake with its own beach, and many very large houses which have grown over the years although in the Beachwood community, you may build up but not out, so they can’t increase the footprint of the houses. Tanglewood has its own beach and the estate also backs onto the lake. There is a little island where Canada geese nest and it was absolutely gorgeous to be out there on the water in the sun (with hat and sunscreen, of course!) enjoying the lovely scenery and greenery. I shot some video but my technique is appalling and I won't impose the results on you!

I guess living where we do in Kew we have water and trees and hills all around, but Ben says living in a small apartment in the city with not much greenery outside of Central Park, he really appreciates getting out of the city, needs it in fact. I guess his years in Bondi made him more of an outdoorsy person than he was in Melbourne. Before lunch, Ben and I walked around to the town beach for a swim. As on Joan’s lake beach, there is a dock made of decking, but this also has a sandy (presumably constructed) beach with an area in front of the buoy-enclosed swimming space which seemed popular with parents of very young kids for some safe water play. There were boats of various sizes moored nearby, useful for keeping me swimming straight. As a lap swimmer used to an indoor pool, I wish there were lines in the sky to keep my backstroke straight, but apart from Ben, who hopped out and read his book long before I finished, there was no-one else swimming to bump into. The water temperature was lovely but the weeds were a bit of a worry, especially when tendrils wrapped themselves around my goggles and followed me everywhere. I found a relatively clear space and really enjoyed the exercise, and worked up an appetite for the delicious lunch (see photo of part of it).

It is a long way from Borough Park to Washington Heights, but only one change of subway, and quite a short connection so that once I got on the F train just across from Dougie’s it only took a bit more than an hour to get home. Joan says of the A train that it’s a reading train, and it is true that the journey goes a lot faster with a book or the newspaper. They were giving away promotional copies of the Daily News (I’d never buy it, Rupert Murdoch doesn't need my money) but it was an interesting read, so right wing and with such a different slant from the NY Times. They had an easy Su Doku (their spelling) as well as a difficult one: I did the easy one in no time at all but 10 at night after a very long day is no time to tackle a hard one!

I seem to be specializing in getting locked out on this trip (I locked myself on out on the terrace in Berkeley - I added this to my email notifying you of a previous post.) This morning at Joan’s I went to do the laundry in the room which is at the far end of the complex, and when I returned I couldn’t get back into the apartment whatever I did with my key. Off to the maintenance office (all the way back beside the laundry) and after several debates, to-ing and fro-ing, it emerged that maintenance staff had come into the apartment to check the progress of the leak (which I believe has stopped) and enlarge the hole in the ceiling for whatever reason. On exit the security guard had locked the top deadlock, for which I did not have a key, rather than just the lock I have been using. So he had to go back to the office and get that key to unlock the door and let me in. I was outside for about 20 minutes, not in the sun this time, and in the company of two bags of clean laundry. Fortunately I still had 1 ½ hours before the airport shuttle was due, so was able to get packed up and leave things shipshape before I left...

I have been writing this as a draft on Virgin America, where there is a power point for every seat, so I have been able to run the computer beyond its battery span. Amazing how much faster the flight, like the subway ride, goes when you are occupied, but at this point I will either go back to my Australian novel, Love like Water, which I am loving like chocolate, or maybe a brief nap: we land at SFO in an hour and a half.

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