Sunday, 14 September 2008

Our First San Francisco Cultural Experiences and Other Activities

With a great rush of blood to the head (or perhaps the wallet?), Barry decided to book a series of cultural events in Berkeley and San Francisco. Operas, symphonies and plays are now arrayed before us like a string of pearls. Such are the wonders of on-line booking services and a debit card that it didn't take long at all to map out our cultural event future. This was before we had access to a car, so we decided to include a few matinee performances, which isn't a bad idea anyway as on Barry's non-teaching days we could have lunch or dinner in San Francisco , or maybe go shopping.

But before these musical or theatrical events began, we made sure to get into the SF museum of Modern Art to catch the Frida Kahlo exhibition. I am not sure if I blogged about the excellent Frida exhibition we saw at the Tate Modern Gallery (formerly Battersea Power station) a couple of years back, or the 100th anniversary exhibition that was held at El Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City at the start of my time there last year, or my frequent visits to the Casa Azul (the Blue House, formerly her home) in Coyoacán, close to where we lived while we were there, or this very exhibition which came to Philadelphia the week after we left in February this year (Barry gave a couple of talks on "Frida-mania" while we were there. He also wrote a piece on the historical background in Mexico for the Frida exhibition held in Canberra's National Gallery several years back, so has some form in the field.) We also picked up a DVD of the Salma Hayek Frida movie while in Mexico and watched it again shortly before leaving Melbourne: yet after all this exposure and the books and articles I have read, I still won't pass up a chance to see her paintings again. (Same goes for Diego Rivera's murals: there are a couple we want to see here in the San Francisco area - there was a small room in the exhibition devoted to their time in the Bay Area in the 1930's.)

I had heard from some SFMOMA members that the tickets to see the Frida exhibition were for a fixed time. We had tried to get into the museum a couple of weeks earlier in the mid-afternoon on a weekend, only to discover very long queues, so we booked a morning time slot, drove the car to a Bart station where we knew there was parking (only my second outing, but I am getting used to it now, as long as Barry does his job of navigating) and got to the museum just as it was opening. We had time to check out another gallery first, a special exhibition of photographs by Lee Miller, curated by her son. She had been a model, a muse, a fashion photographer, a war correspondent, and had a quite extraordinary life. She gave up her work after bouts with depression and booze, and her son only discovered a treasure trove of her original works years after her death. A very interesting exhibition and different enough to the Frida show not to overtax the same seeing muscles.

I find the audio tours that museums now put onto MP3 devices are usually worth hiring - there was a lot of extra material on Frida for example, with various artists and commentators talking about such things as the Mexican Revolution, Diego and Frida's political life and times, contemporary documentary footage, the ability to click on highlighted features of some of the works for more information on how critics have interpreted the symbolism, and so on. I thought it was a steal at $3. Timed admissions notwithstanding, the gallery was a bit too crowded to spend the time I would have liked contemplating the works. We also watched an hour-long PBS documentary which I thought was a pretty good addendum, and was not in the least bit boring or repetitive. Mind you, I had needed a salad and coffee from the cafe before tackling it.

After the museum, I opted for a little bit of shoe shopping, abandoning Barry to his fate while I found a pair of shoes to wear to Ben and Lissy’s wedding (unless I manage to locate something as comfortable and attractive with a slightly lower heel between now and January!)

Then last Thursday I met Barry at the Bart after my exercise class, and we went into San Francisco again to hear a matinee performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As ever, the work is very impressive. I forget how good the first 3 orchestral movements are, and the Choral movement packs a huge punch when seen live. We were in the second row so had an excellent view of the soloists, if we were a bit too close to see the whole orchestra and the Chorale very well. A short symphony by Ollie Knussen preceded it, pretty interesting music and it seems he is pretty tight with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), the orchestra director, who had a lot to say about the work and the composer before the performance.

We were amazed at the list of sponsors and donors in the programme: there is so much money about here, it certainly shows up the poverty of the arts organisations at home! Even the categories of donors blows the mind: $15M and above ( only one person in this category), but for instance in the $1M to $2.5M category there are 27 individuals, families or foundations. There are different support societies to belong to and pages and pages of named supporters listed within their donation categories. Very few of the "Anon"s which seem to be quite prevalent in the much tinier lists of supporters of, say, the Australian Opera.

The demographic profile of the matinee was overwhelmingly over 65 and female: we felt young and fresh-faced (if poorly dressed!) Not surprising, I guess, as this must be the target audience, but there were few school groups and precious few young people at all. I used to take my mother to the odd matinee performance of the Opera or a Symphony, but I was so busy getting her into and out of car or taxi and ushering her to a seat, finding the lifts or escalators rather than the stairs and getting programmes etc. that I didn't much notice who else was attending. I haven't been to a matinee at home for years, so don't know how the audiences would compare, but I suspect there might be more students.

For entertainment on a more mundane level, we just joined Netflix. Not sure if it exists in Australia, googling shows Quickfix as a kind of clone (for a subscription fee they mail you DVD's from a list you generate, and you return them in the same pre-paid envelope at your leisure. Beats wandering about in Blockbuster and getting fined because you forget to return them on time.) We don't have a TV in this house, but do have a large flat screen to watch DVDs good for the evenings (when I am not busy blogging, that is, or studying my Spanish or the music for my choir). We have had our first three already, fourth is due today - they keep you posted by email - wondering whether we will continue to make the time to watch them - I never get around to watching half the things I tape at home!

I have found a social group to speak Spanish with. Their fluency level exceeds mine for the most part, but I can keep up. They are mostly people who work professionally with the Latino communities here, and/or live in Mexico for part of the years, and/or have travelled extensively in Latin America. They have a tertulia with a pot luck dinner (= bring a plate, for those Australians who are not familiar with the term) and discuss a short story or other piece of reading, on a couple of Tuesday evenings per month, with a North Berkeley offshoot (El Grupito del Norte) which meets without major food on non-tertulia Tuesdays. We discuss anything at all in Spanish - at our first meeting this included the art work of the host of the meeting, the Frida exhibition and another at the De Young Museum in SF of works by Dale Chihuly, (who I had never heard of, but whose exhibition I'd now like to see), a recent increase in the level of local crime, the Republican Convention which was on that night, Obama's campaign, people's experiences enrolling voters around the country, travellers' tales from Latin America...If it were native speakers, the conversation would be too fast and too sophisticated for me to participate, but with this group I can extend myself without being totally flummoxed. The photo shows some of the flowers in the garden: I have been picking them for the house, especially when we have guests.

We had our first people over for dinner on the weekend , and I had a meeting of El Grupito del Norte here last night (Tuesday) . So I have been shopping and cooking as well as picking flowers. We visited the Monterey market (an outdoor F&V plus indoor specialty groceries, wine, bread etc) on a strip where there is also a specialty butcher, fishmonger, cheese store etc to get stuff. I find the supermarket produce here is of variable quality, if cheaper - oddly, at home fresh market produce is generally a lot cheaper than supermarket, though you have to choose carefully and build your relationship with the store holders.

I have also been swimming twice a week at one of the campus pools, reasonably early on Tuesdays but later on Fridays, as the pools are only open for lap swimmers at hours they are not in use for water polo or other activities such as aqua aerobics. I am not wild about the hours but didn't realise they were so restricted when I joined up. I seem to be able to cope by having a yogurt 2 hours before, so I am neither too desperately hungry nor feeling sick due to swimming on a full stomach, but I need to take a sandwich because I am ravenous when I get out of the pool at 12 or 1 PM after a 2km swim preceded by a 2-3 km walk with no serious breakfast. Several people have recommended the YMCA in Downtown Berkeley as a better choice, but I have paid for my membership and a locker so I can leave my flippers, pull buoy, shampoo etc there with no need to cart the stuff up and down hill with me every time.

I have found a Jewish choir, singing in Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish - first rehearsal last Thursday night and found it daunting as I don't read music and don't know most of the works, but will give it a try for the time I am here. We meet at the JCC (Jewish Community Centre, where I do my over 55 exercise class), so I'm on familiar territory, as it's only about 2 km from home. I attended a couple of sessions of a Spanish conversation class at the North Berkeley Seniors' Centre, but dropped out as it was too elementary, but someone in the class recommended the choir to me, just as someone I invited to join me for a coffee after the exercise class recommended El Grupito and at El Grupito they recommended the tertulia. Moral of the story - if you actively pursue opportunities, they will show up - now several people have recommended Spanish choirs, but I think I will stick to the Jewish one for a change.

I had my first pot-luck dinner last Tuesday with the Spanish-speaking group - there was a very short story to read which I studied but I didn't have anything much to say about it even in English let alone Spanish! The food was good and a great deal of it was vegetarian. I made a variant on a Mary Fisher salad of sliced tomatoes, thinly sliced oranges and red onion, with basil , with a last minute slurp of extra virgin olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar. I used three colours of the heirloom varieties from the garden, yellow ones which are at their peak, green zebra which are spectacular but nearly finished, and several types of red ones which are pretty but not as flavoursome, but way better than store-bought. A grind of sea salt, some freshly ground black pepper and a tiny sprinkle of sugar on each layer of tomatoes really enhanced the flavour.

As you can see, I am still a slave to the bounteous produce from the garden here. It seems criminal to let it go to waste. Have been stuffing vegetables and making the sauce from the tomatoes, and I haven't used a bottled pasta sauce or can of Italian tomatoes yet! Made a pasta sauce for dinner the other night from the ripest, splitting tomatoes, both cherry (2 colours) and yellow and green varieties from the garden, baby eggplants, capsicums and a few sliced button squash. Also chucked in a couple of what the Mexicans call tomates (in Mexico City, where they call our tomatoes jitomates), or tomatillos elsewhere. These have a papery skin round the fuit, and in this case are purple, though green is more common. I have also used them for making really good salsa as they have quite a complex flavour, more intense and sharp/sweet than a tomato) - plus heaps of fresh parsley, basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary -there doesn't seem to be any sage in the garden. I only added store-ought onions and garlic. The very top photo in this post is a bowl of these purple tomatillos on the windowsill, looking out over the view from the kitchen and some of the garden (not the veggie garden, that is behind the deer-proof fence just off to the left of the photo. You can see the fence in the photo this paragraph is wrapped around, along with a photo of a small pink flower in the garden which is garlic-flavoured and adds a pretty touch and a nice taste to a tossed salad, but I don't think it'd survive cooking. In the photo their pinkness is very understated. Above is a shot of some of the cocktail (cherry) tomatoes and larger ones still on the vines.

The weather has turned more normal for the season; after more than a week of 30+ (C) it was low 20's today, but that made it easier to walk home from my exploratory trip to the Monterey Market. Walking downhill is never too bad, especially if I use the pedestrian staircase/ path rather than some of the steepest streets, but it is the steep uphill hike with shopping that hurts! The hot weather has been divine, not at all humid and gloriously sunny, though I have been finding it too hot to walk home up the hill in the late afternoons when it has been well over 30! It is unusual for Berkeley to be this warm and sunny, apparently, though it is more likely in September than any other time. Mind you it drops to only 13 overnight so you definitely need a jumper if you are going to stay out till dusk.

We now have the use of a car that our landladies left us, preferably for local journeys only, for a small mileage fee, and have taken it out a couple of times. I need to go off to the DMV and take a test to get a California Driver's Licence, after mugging up on the Highway code and making a appointment on line. I will try to do it within a fortnight - a local licence is necessary to hire a car from some suppliers, and it makes the insurance cheaper.

I have booked flights and a train trip for Cleveland, Baltimore and NYC over Yomtov, and generally time is flying by. And now off to practice my Shlomo Carlebach medley and/or mug up on the Highway Code. Shana Tovah and G'mar Chatimah Tovah to my Jewish readers, and Happy Jewish New Year to everyone.

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