Friday, 7 November 2008

Family Visit to Berkeley

Last weekend Ben and Lissy and her parents, Barbara and Bernard, came to visit us in Berkeley. Barbara and Bernard arrived on Thursday at lunchtime, and the kids arrived on Friday night, and they all left at various times on Sunday, so we enjoyed a very short but very sweet visit.

The really annoying thing was that the weather turned ugly. Since we arrived in Berkeley in early August, we have had blue skies and really warm weather, with barely a drop of rain or even a cloud on the horizon. But on Thursday the clouds rolled in, our wonderful views vanished, and rain set in. You'd think this was my own home and my own city - I so love the environment here that I feel positively proprietorial towards it, and felt personally affronted by the weather, which meant I couldn't show "my" house and neighbourhood off at their best. It would have been pretty stupid to propose long walks to look at the gorgeous views from my favourite vantage points, my favourite gardens and houses in the 'hood while it was pouring rain and the views were obscured by rain and fog. Also not great for photos! But we did do some walking about - after lunch at home on Thursday we went down to the Berkeley Marina and looked at the boats and the waterfront, though of course this would have been far nicer had the sun been shining. And on the way home we realized it was Thursday so stopped at the organic Farmers' Market which is held at the corner of Shattuck Ave and Rose Street on Thursday afternoons. It showcases local produce, and we couldn't resist some heavenly strawberries whose perfume was obvious even in the pouring rain from 2 stalls away, some really good olive bread to have with our supper, and from all the cheeses we sampled, we selected a hard goat cheese with black peppercorns which was absolutely delicious. I always mean to go to this local market and never quite get there, but as my choir practice is just a block away at the JCC, and the market closes half an hour before practice begins, I could easily go early and catch it every week if I were better organised.

That evening I went off to choir practice as usual, and left Barry to entertain Barbara and Bernard. I have enjoyed much more time with them than he has, at times when he has been at work in Australia, Mexico or here in Berkeley. I have spent several Jewish Holidays at their house in Summit, NJ, and also recently stayed at their cottage in Massachusetts (see the earlier blog post about Tanglewood). So it was particularly good that they had some time to get to know each other a lot better on this trip.

On Friday Barry had his class to teach, and I went with Barbara and Bernard to the Berkeley Art Museum just on the edge of campus. The whole gallery was given over to an exhibition of contemporary art from China called Mahjong, arranged thematically. During the Cultural Revolution, artists were encouraged to emulate the heroic revolutionary style of Soviet Art, and once the genie of these influences was out of the bottle, all manner of Western Art traditions infiltrated the previously strictly traditional approaches to art and calligraphy. Some of the pieces I liked best used porcelain figures in extremely subversive ways. There was one rather horrible piece which was a stainless steel workstation equipped with all manner of torture implements making explicit the tyranny of the modern office environment on human freedom...and many pieces which conveyed the alienation of the urban one child family from the traditional family- and village-based Chinese society. See this link for more information and reproductions of some of the works.

It rained only intermittently and we were able to have a bit of a wander around the edges of the campus and along Telegraph Avenue - many of the usual characters and the street stalls were not about, I guess due to the inclement weather, but it did give a bit of a sense of the place. As the date was October 31, and this was mid afternoon, we saw a few interesting Halloween costumes on the passers-by to compensate for the lack of the usual characters. After our day's activities we returned home to change, and had time to enjoy the views from the window seat in the kitchen , have cups of tea and coffee, and hang about until we picked Barry up after his seminar and drove into San Francisco. These photos were taken the next day but give an idea of how we managed to find time to relax together. People always say Bernard looks like Woody Allen - what do you think?

We were invited to join Barbara and Bernard for Shabbat dinner at the home of Leron and Brent, friends of their family now living in San Francisco (Leron was a college friend of their middle daughter Amanda, who had also worked with Barbara on some Holocaust-related projects, and she was very excited to be able to return some of the hospitality she has enjoyed over years on the East Coast). I have not had much experience with GPS devices before, though I have become dependent on Google Maps to tell me how to get places. I really liked hearing the GPS voice (Tracy, though Barry thought Clytemnestra would be a better name) telling us where and when to turn, and I am definitely a person who needs one, given my non-existent sense of direction and propensity to get lost. I guess it is time to start researching brands and services, and whether to get a device for the car or get a service on my next cell phone. I don't even know whether one buys the device and it already knows the geography of one country, or whether one has to load up data for whatever country one will be travelling through. Given our life style, the more universal the better. Anyone who has any recommendations please email me!

We spent a lovely evening enjoying the meal, the company and the small children, then as soon as we heard from Lissy that she and Ben had arrived at Oakland airport (somewhat earlier than scheduled) we left and with Tracy's assistance made our way there to collect them at Jet Blue. We returned to Berkeley and caught up with each other over a cup of herbal tea, thought about activities for the next day, then inflated the airbed we had borrowed from Janet and Tom next door (Barbara and Bernard were using the convertible in Barry's study, and we had enough pillows and bedding to accommodate everybody). Apparently it was comfortable enough that Ben felt fit enough in the morning to go for a run (I equipped him with our "Berkeley's Pathways" map so he could locate the interesting staircase shortcuts and maybe avoid the overly steep gradients along Marin Avenue). He found his way back OK, if somewhat damp from his encounters with overhanging foliage.

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast together, featuring figs from our tree and lots of fruit, bagels, lox, herring, cheeses, etc., and headed off for a brief campus tour in the pouring rain. We made our way via the Free Speech Movement Cafe adjacent to one of the libraries to the Campanile (the bell tower, donated by Jane Sather, housing a carillon of bells which has grown from her original donation to something like 98 bells based on an additional donation from the Berkeley Class of '28), where we were lucky enough to catch a recital on the carillon. A web-site says "carillion" is a mis-spelling, common amongst Australians who pronounce the term "car-ill-yon" vs. the standard US pronunciation "care-ill-on". It means the group of bells, not the tower in which they are housed, apparently another common misuse. Suitably corrected on spelling, I am proceeding to attach photos of Ben and Lissy in rain gear looking up at the bells, one corner of the carillon, and a little video I recorded through the least-rained-upon window on the booth the player occupied. It was loud but not mostly deafening, and as the views from the Campanile were somewhat truncated by the rain , it gave us an aural in addition to a visual focus. The photo of the Campanile above is one I took a couple of weeks ago, when I went up there one lovely sunny Tuesday after my swim and really enjoyed the 360 degree views.

It was a Game Day - there was a football game in the stadium on campus, and we could see streams of people in ponchos heading for the stadium -I didn't even try to take photos of the distant views but couldn't resist taking one of the crowds coming in from the Oxford Street entrance. I guess the definition isn't too great, maybe enlarge it to see them better (it all looked very clear, including the view beyond campus to the Bay,on the full screen version of the original ). Ben and Lissy had arranged to meet a friend from San Francisco for lunch, and she was to pick them up where we had parked the car, so with about 45 minutes to spare and the rain a little lighter, we continued our ramble through campus, via the deserted Sproul Plaza,which on (sunny) weekdays is jam packed with students and stalls touting every imaginable student activity, political line, club and affiliation, past the Cesar Chavez Student Centre and out to Bancroft Avenue, then on down Telegraph. Today people were scalping tickets to the game on every corner, and there were fewer outlandish costumes than we had seen on the previous day. We made our way back to the car via the side streets lined with student-housing, churches and campus-related institutions, ending up sheltering from the rain at a conveniently-sited Ben and Jerry's till their friend arrived.

The rest of us had a little bit of lunch at home and we sat around reading or resting. Later that afternoon, after Ben and Lissy returned, we spent some time singing nonsense songs from Ben's childhood. At the International Co-op Nursery School he attended for a few months while we were in San Diego 25 years ago, they had used a lot of songs from the "Wee Sing" songbooks, and I had taken the little song books and the cassette tapes home to Melbourne with us. Ben still seems to remember all of the words, and to my amazement I remembered many of them too - and Lissy had the same tape as a kid, so it was a real hoot! Laughing at this kind of stupid thing with great company would have to be one of my favourite activities. Unfortunately our tape was played so often it eventually broke, but the lyrics were firmly embedded by then. And ah, the joys of Google - any words we forgot Ben looked up on his laptop. I wonder if he will be ordering new copies from Amazon? Bernard and I managed a bit of a duet, with Ben's assistance, of Judy Collins' version of the Marat/Sade song, which I apparently played a lot and which had also impressed itself firmly in Ben's memory. A completely unexpected form of entertainment which I absolutely loved! Here are some lines from "Risseldy Rosseldy" that Ben thought were the funniest in the universe when he was 4:

She churned her butter in Dad's old boot,
Risseldy, rosseldy, mow, mow, mow.
And for a dasher used her foot,

Risseldy, rosseldy, hey bambassity,
Nickety, nackety, retrecal quality,
Willowby, wallowby, mow, mow, mow.

The butter came out a grizzly gray,
Risseldy, rosseldy, mow, mow, mow.
The cheese took legs and ran away,

Risseldy, rosseldy, hey bambassity,
Nickety, nackety, retrecal quality,
Willowby, wallowby, mow, mow, mow.

At Lissy's request we managed to fit in a quick rain-soaked trip to the funky shopping strip on College Avenue just before the stores closed, and as we were leaving we heard rather than witnessed a pedestrian being hit by a car at an intersection. He seemed more shocked than injured, fortunately. Ben joined the crowd of people rendering assistance, extending his umbrella, but in very short order a police car and two fire trucks arrived and there was not really anything further we could do so we came home and shortly thereafter went out to our much-anticipated dinner date at the Upstairs Cafe at Chez Panisse. There was a very strange system of paying for parking at the Bank of America lot across the street - it is reserved for customers during the day but they have a system where you put $5 in one tiny slot in a bank of slots identified by the number of the space you park in. It was dark and pouring rain, and the instructions were a little obscure - you had to fold the notes just so to fit in the slot and I apparently did it wrong so my wet $5 bill got stuck halfway , and when I tried to pull it out it tore in two. So I just stuffed the second piece (folded correctly!) after the piece that was already inside, using their special little metal device to push it in. Not my finest hour as a master of technology!

The ambiance and the service at this famous restaurant were really good, the bread, olives and wines were excellent, and of course the company and the conversation were scintillating, but I was a tiny bit disappointed by the food - probably a function of inflated expectations. Between us we tried all the 5 main courses on offer that night. You can check out their website and see the current menu, which features very local and seasonal produce (as does the menu at my house! figs, lemons and tomatoes, anyone?) at

Follow the links to the Cafe Menu - I noted , checking today's menu, that a few similar items are still on the menu, but most of it changes daily. As is so often the case, the starters were all excellent - we had various salads and their signature wood-fired pizzettes, one with eggplant and the other with rocket salad. I had a fish and seafood soup as my main: the broth was beautifully perfumed by saffron (I would describe it as having the taste of honey without any of the sweetness), but it was lukewarm and although there was enough to eat it was less varied than I'd have preferred: mostly one piece of some not very fishy white fish, a few clams in the shell, and a tiny amount of baby octopus or calamari. There were two vegetarian mains (tortellini , and portobello mushrooms with polenta) and the other two mains involved pork and rabbit, not great meat choices for Jews with traditional tastes. We passed around three desserts, which were all very good, and Barry and Ben shared the cheese platter which seemed particularly overpriced for the small quantity offered. And one of the 3 cheeses was not very distinguished. We live only 5 minutes from the restaurant by car (barely half an hour's walk from here to all of the Gourmet Ghetto, with Chez Panisse right in the middle of the strip) but in such inclement weather we weren't inclined to walk off the meal so were home with plenty of time to have a bit of a chat about tomorrow's activities and to curl up on the bay window seat with a book and a cozy throw (see Lissy and her Dad).

On Sunday we headed into San Francisco to have brunch and check out the Ferry Building. The sun was out for some of the time, so it was warm enough to eat outside and Barry took a few pictures. More emphasis on local produce and regional specialties - we had coffees and cake from various places after brunch, and I found a very Italian-oriented place whose coffee I really like. Daylight Saving ended overnight, but the clock at the place Bernard parked the van seemed not to have registered it yet, so the time stamp on the ticket seemed to indicate we'd get an extra hour for our money.

Barbara and Bernard were flying out of SFO airport and headed off around midday, leaving the four of us to wander about the city till the guided walking tour we had chosen (Gold Rush City) started at 2. One highlight was a park in Chinatown where crowds of people, mostly men, were gathering around seated pairs of men gambling (there were a couple of female groups on the periphery of the park). There was a small election rally for a local Chinese candidate who was right there singing in Chinese (we don't know if it was in support of her candidacy or just a popular song) with a band right there in the park. I guess we have Peter Garrett at home, but I don't think he sang at his neighbourhood political meetings!

This day's tour had a bit less walking and rather more talking than some of the others we have done. It was interesting seeing how the shoreline had changed. Our starting point was the landmark Transamerica Pyramid on Montgomery street, which was formerly the waterfront, but is now several blocks away courtesy of the 1906 earthquake and landfill. The tour guide had lots of contemporary pictures of ships moored or scuttled in the harbour in early Gold Rush Days, which would have been visible from the corner where we now stood, and many tales of the waves of immigrants (including Chinese, Australians and Chileans), the traces left of their settlements, the anti-immigrant sentiment and riots, and the foundation of churches and newspapers,. We saw some brick or stone buildings which had survived the many devastating fires and the quake, even if the street level has changed a lot since then, notably those that were located on natural rock rather than the shifting sands of landfill.

The area, formerly brothels, theatres and lodging houses where the immigrants were preyed upon and even shanghai'd or press ganged into a life at sea, now houses lots of design studios, architects' and decorators' storefronts, and specialty wine shops. The guide did his best to illustrate the problems of communication during the Gold Rush, how traders tried to get around these and how they tried to make money on commodities like much-prized tea shipped from various distant places like China to be sent to the hungry and thirsty miners. He explained how the semaphore on Telegraph Hill, now home to the Coit Tower but always a highly visible point, was used to indicate shipping types and movements in the Harbour. The inevitable bust following the Gold Rush boom was followed by the silver boom, with another round of fortunes made and lost; the transcontinental railroad came west to San Francisco in 1869, the first cable cars opened up the hills to new development by 1873. The fire that followed the 1906 earthquake was the seventh to devastate San Francisco.. Archaeological work is done on building sites when excavation turns up something interesting, like the remains of the Niantic, the ship which was used as the base of a building which in turn burnt down to its keel in the 1850's. This was unearthed in Clay Street more than a century later but had to be excavated very fast so as to minimise the delay (and therefore the cost) to the new building. Apparently many volunteers rushed to assist in this fascinating discovery - wouldn't that have been fun.

After the tour and a bit more wandering about, we tried a Chinese Restaurant called House of Nanking recommended by a friend of Lissy's. The food was very unusual, and the waiter suggested we leave our selection up to him. As a result nearly everything was fried (which I usually try to avoid) and rather too many of the dishes featured sweet potato, which I love but you can have too much of a good thing. There was a really good eggplant dish, however. We walked back from Chinatown to the BART station and caught the train back to Berkeley, and a taxi home from the station. We sat around shmoozing and I packed some food for the plane. The Internet informed us that their red-eye flight was a little delayed, and we drove them to Oakland Airport around 8.30 without incident, though I did get slightly bamboozled on the way home (despite pretty much retracing the route we had taken two night before in Bernard's car with Tracy's assistance. I was in the wrong lane for the turn off and then misread a road sign and turned too soon, but had Barrry's navigational skills to get us back on track.)

Over the last two weeks, we have been blessed by mostly gorgeous weather again, at least in the afternoons - today I am finishing off this post in a very sunny dining room, with the terrace door open to the pleasant breeze as the house had got too hot in the afternoon sun. I have got out of the habit of pulling down the blinds in the bay window during very sunny afternoons, and today, when my desktop weather report says it is 26, is a day when I should have thought of it! I came home by bus after my fabulous swim in the outdoor pool to be here in time for the cleaners, and have been nipping downstairs to put stuff in the washer and dryer, popped out to the garden to pick the last few tomatoes and some figs (with the profligate eating habits of the birds and the squirrels, there are a lot of part-eaten and a few extremely mouldy fig carcases on the tree, but I still collected at least a couple of dozen ripe and perfect figs. I have taken to slicing them in salads: they seem to go very well with rocket and spinach and cos lettuce, as well as capsicums and cucumbers and mushrooms, and they are serving as a kind of auxiliary tomato. Had just such a salad for lunch). But now an end to procrastination - it's time for final proof read and to publish!

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