Monday, 14 December 2009

Maguie comes to visit

Maguie Pallares is Barry's oldest friend in Mexico. They met when he was doing his PhD research in 1968, at a venue called Casa Jones where Mexican girls got to meet foreign boys, as far as I could tell, view matrimony in many cases. In her long career at Nestle, she ended up as Secretary/PA to the CEO, and still has many friends from the company - wherever we go with Maguie, people are always stopping us to say hello to her and catch up on news. Maguie has many brothers and sisters and a very large extended family. Barry has met them all, including the ones who live in Europe, and I have met most of them, including the family from Monterey and Queretaro. Maguie has always invited us to celebrate with them on Noche Buena (Xmas Eve) if we are in Mexico at the time (I am writing up this post so late that I can report we did so again in 2009!) We have spent several New Year's Eves with them also, and had many visits including a stay at Maguie's cottage in Queretaro (see in a post from 2007) . In 2005, the first time we ever rented the apartment we love in Coyoacan, I had enough space and a decent kitchen so I was able to invite a lot of the family for lunch one day - I think 14 of them came!

Maguie's 90 year old mother Romy, who lived with her, passed away in July, while we were still in Melbourne. When I heard, I knew how much Maguie would be missing her , and I suggested that a little later in the year if she felt she needed a bit of a break, she might like to come to Berkeley and visit us for a while. Maguie always looks after us so well when we are in Mexico that we were delighted when she accepted our invitation, as we loved having an opportunity to return a little of the hospitality she has showered on us over the years. And I think she was feeling a bit down, so the change got her out of her environment and we hope lifted her mood quite a bit.

Her flight came in on a Saturday morning in October. We had tickets for a matinee performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio that afternoon in San Francisco, and we managed to reserve an extra ticket as we know she is an opera fan (in fact I posted in 2007 about a performance of Turandot we saw together in Mexico City). Barry and I drove to SFO airport (with the assistance of the GPS, only getting one turn wrong) and picked Maguie up. I had done some research on parking lots near the Opera House, as with her luggage in the car it seemed unwise to leave the car on the street, and we navigated to the Performing Arts Garage shortly after it opened. (Getting anywhere by car using freeways in an American city I don't know still feels like a small triumph to me, directionally challenged as I am.)

This left us with a short while to explore the Arts precinct near Civic Centre and the UN Plaza, where the Opera House, the Symphony Hall, City Hall, the Public Library, the Asian Art Museum and assorted other grand public edifices line wide streets , just a few short blocks away from the Tenderloin, where homeless people, often mentally ill, line the streets and frequent shelters and places to get a cheap hot meal once a day. It was an uncharacteristically beautiful day for San Francisco, blue skies, no fog - October is reckoned to be the best month to visit.

Above, some of the public buildings in the general area of the Opera House: further above , City Hall, a couple of blocks away.

So we had a bit of a wander, noted a demonstration in favour of health care reform in the Plaza area, an old-fashioned kind of a demo which I found very encouraging, then had a light lunch at a cafe just a block from the Opera House. We made it to the opera in time to hear the lecture beforehand, where you often get some insights into the history of the opera, what is special about it, and get clued up on the best arias and other highlights to listen out for. You can read a synopsis and hear and see excerpts here:

It was a lot of fun: Peter Rose, the English bass, played Osmin, hamming it up very enjoyably and with a great stage presence. The dialogue was in English while the singing was in German, and we all really liked the production. But as Maguie had started her day in Mexico very early , we decided to go home rather than stay in San Francisco for dinner. Here are Barry and I at the table we set up to create a dining room, as the kitchen table really can't cope with 3 people at a time:

On Sunday we drove to Oakland to catch the ferry into San Francisco. There is a great Farmer's Market at Jack London Square near the Ferry terminal and we had about 15 minutes to wander about admiring the produce before getting onto the ferry for the ride into San Francisco. See the photo below for the brussels sprouts still on the stalk - I have seen them growing in a garden like this, but never on sale in this form in Melbourne. In the photo alongside we are approaching the Bay Bridge - I highly recommend the ferry ride. It is quite short and on a nice day very lovely. The West Oakland cargo port with all its heavy cranes and huge volumes of containers is a very impressive backdrop as you set out, then you cross the beautiful Bay itself, with the San Francisco skyline approaching, the excitement of going under the huge bridge, and the first stop, the wonderfully renovated and repurposed Ferry Building, is such an interesting destination. (It also goes on to Pier 41, adjacent to the tourist Mecca of Pier 39 and the start of the Fisherman's Wharf precinct.) We went to my favourite coffee shop in the Ferry Building, after sampling a variety of breads, cheeses, chocolates, olive oils etc., and oohed and aahed over the produce again (I probably have posted here before about the produce displays at the Ferry Building, showcasing local produce and offering samples of local olive oils, chocolates etc.) The outdoor craft market across the Embarcadero always has lovely stuff, and we wandered through these stalls, then along Market Street and up into Chinatown by a rather circuitous route - Barry had seen a photo at the craft market of an interesting building and had a fixed idea of where it was (he was completely wrong - we did in fact see the very building later, after having gone about 10 blocks out of our way). We walked into Chinatown and took it all in, then had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant as Maguie had never eaten Vietnamese food before (it was OK but not wonderful. Apart from Yum Cha, we haven't had a really excellent meal in SF Chinatown yet - I guess we should do more research rather than choosing restaurants more or less at random.) After more time in Chinatown we walked down to Union Square, where Maguie and I had a brief look in Macy's to see if there was anything we couldn't live without. Maguie chose some very cute baby clothes for presents, while Barry spent this 45 minutes in a book shop. It was just about to start raining - we saw a really spectacular pink convertible from the 1950's stop and put up his roof right in front of us. But the rain stopped and we walked down to the BART station and took the train back to downtown Oakland. There we took another ramble through Oakland's Chinatown this time, where we bought some Asian herbs and vegetables for stir frying and some wasabi peas for snacking , then walked back to the car in the parking lot at Jack London Square and drove back to Berkeley.

On Monday, on my way to my exercise class at the Albany YMCA, I dropped Maguie at the top of Solano Avenue so she could wander down looking at the really interesting shops and maybe have a coffee before meeting me down at the Albany end, where the Y is located. The weather had looked a bit threatening but luckily she had encountered only a few drops of rain, which held off till after we had been to the supermarket (where she got some Halloween treats to take back to Mexico for some of the kids in her family) . I drove up to Santa Barbara Road, intending to show her the wonderful views and streetscapes up in the hills where we had lived for 6 months last year, but by then the heavens had truly opened and we could hardly see a thing - let alone go for a walk and admire all the 3-bridge views. So we did a little circuit of some of the old neighbourhood and returned home for a late lunch.

Tuesday is a day Barry has no teaching so we all walked the 15 minutes to UC Berkeley campus together, I went for my usual Tuesday swim and he took Maguie on a university tour. It is a beautiful campus and it was a gorgeous day again (what a pleasure swimming in the outdoor pool on such a day!) , and we all met for lunch at Adagia, a resturant I've eaten at before but which Barry has enjoyed several more times, across the road and up the hill a bit from the Rec Centre. Lovely food - they do excellent salads, Maguie had one of their specialty burgers and I've forgotten what Barry had, but it might have been fish and chips. Coffee and biscotti finished us off and we walked back via some of the bookshops on Shattuck Avenue so Maguie could find some English language children's books for some small friends who are learning English.

Over the next few days while Barry was at work, Maguie and I explored various Berkeley neighbourhoods, including Fourth Street, the Marina (see the photos - click to enlarge them, the top one shows the view looking back from the pier towards the Berkeley hills , the next one shows the view towards San Francisco - look carefully and you can see the Golden Gate Bridge from the far end of the pier- and the bottom obe shows some boats in the Marina), and College Avenue. I know the Rockridge area at the far end of College Avenue, which is in Oakland, as my hairdresser is there. I have wandered about the very interesting clothing (new and recycled), shoe and homewares /bric-a-brac stores and had coffee in several places, and have often bought cheeses and fresh fish at the rather expensive Market place (which a few weeks ago had a special on Australian cheeses, featuring such thing as Roaring 40's blue and Timboon cheddar) and usually pick up something at the Trader Joe's store near the BART station. But in another section of College Avenue, the Elmwood district, still in Berkeley, there are some wonderful food places which I have driven or taken the bus through but hardly ever walked around, including a fabulous Italian produce and deli store (A. G. Ferrari, check out their website at the link below for their food menu and some very Italian recipes. It reminded me of some of the specialised Italian supermarkets in places like Auburn Road or Station Street Fairfield in Melbourne. I picked up some arborio rice and some grana padano after tasting several varieties).

At one of the funky clothing shops in the same stretch, we took advantage of the sales to buy a T-shirt each - I found one in an unusual shade of bottle green that I really like on me, so was very pleased with myself, and as the day had turned very sunny I put it on in place of the long-sleeved top I had started out with.

We checked out the ice-cream store Gail had read and emailed about called Ici, where you could see the staff making the ice cream and mixing in all kinds of good stuff in the back. Unfortunately there was no large display of flavours (they change every day) or pictures, and the ones I tried to take through the glass had too much reflection. I had a pistachio and praline kind of flavour, and Maguie had a ginger and pear, I think, but they were pretty expensive. Now make your mouth water - look at their web site!

On the other hand, on Shattuck Avenue there is John's. which sells a single scoop of many perfectly acceptable flavours in ice-creams and sorbets for $1 a scoop. I don't think Ici's at 3 times the price are actually 3 times as good. On nice days the queue is understandably very long. Here you can see Barry and Maguie enjoying theirs on another day we were walking back from wherever we had been. Other Berkeley stuff we did included looking at the very fancy interior design shops, kitchenware places, a few clothing stores and some antique kimonos in a store along Fourth Street, and having a Mexican lunch at a very nice cafe, and coffee at another very nice place a few doors away after our wander though the shops. It was much easier to park during a weekday afternoon than on weekends, which is the only other time we have been there.
On Thursday morning Maguie came to my exercise class at the JCC - I had checked this would be OK with the instructor Naomi, who said certainly. I think she enjoyed the class, though from my experience, doing a totally new exercise class is always a bit bewildering - and that is in my native language!

On Saturday we packed in a lot. Barry and I were invited to brunch by a colleague of his from the History Department who lives just a couple of blocks away, and Maguie did a bit of independent exploring of the neighbourhood while we were out. Then we headed into SF by BART, and queued up at the turntable to take the obligatory cable car ride all the way to the far end of Fisherman's wharf. It was a lovely day again and quite worth the wait, especially as the buskers entertaining the crowd were very good. The two photos in this section are from Maguie, as I don't think I had my camera that day. You can see what a gorgeous day it was from this shot of the cable cars waiting up Powell Street, taken while were waiting in the queue. There was a crew change half way through our ride and we enjoyed a lot of jolly banter from the operators and some other passengers, and in the wonderful sunny afternoon, the sweeping views of the Bay and the city were magnificent, though I have none to post here.

At the end of the ride, we took some photos against a backdrop of the Bay Bridge, and then walked down from the Ghirardelli Square area to the Hyde Street Pier, where there are restored ships of various types and from many eras that used to ply the seas to and from this port - paddle steamers, tug boats, barges, sailing ships - we didn't do any of the tours or even go on board any of these floating museums, but absorbed the flavour. Although the area is totally thronged with tourists, it is still very charming and the seafood lunch we enjoyed at one of the tourist trap restaurants was very good and value for money. People-watching from your cozy table while enjoying seafood chowder is such fun.

We walked from the Wharf into North Beach, had a great coffee and some cake at Cafe Greco, then continued on to the BART station as we needed to be home by 6.30 at the latest. Maguie and I wanted to go to a concert that Anne Shapiro was giving just a few blocks from home that evening. I met Anne through my JCC exercise class last year, and she introduced me to the Tertulias I like to attend to practise my Spanish with other non-native speakers. Maguie had met her on Thursday at the JCC and was interested to hear her concert. She sang songs in Spanish and German, accompanied on piano, and a guitarist and a cellist completed the programme - with supper at the end with some wonderful cheeses and bread as well as fresh figs and other local fruit, crackers, cakes, wine etc. , which we hadn't really expected.

The hinge on Barry's Mac Book Air had broken late in the week, and many cables pass through the channel at the back affected by the break - apparently this is a design fault in the early models, which Apple only acknowledged and agreed to fix under warranty fairly recently. There is a non-official Apple store on Shattuck Avenue where they specialise in diagnosing problems, so we took it in there a few hours after it happened, and the very helpful techie looked up Barry's machine and ascertained it was still under Warranty, and told us we'd need to take it into an Apple Store and see a Genius (for which one needs to make an appointment). He advised us to go to the downtown SF store which is across the road from the Powell St BART station rather than drive to the Emeryville one, where access and parking is notoriously difficult. So we made an appointment then and there using his computer (as of course Barry's was not working properly) for the following Sunday. We timed it for a couple of hours before we would be going into SF anyway to see our next opera, and they booked it in for repair and said they'd notify Barry when it was fixed.

This production of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment was absolutely delightful, excellent sets and very spirited performances. You can look and listen here, including to the famous Aria with ts nine High C's which showcases the young tenor star Juan Diego Florez, though I was more impressed by the soprano Diana Damrau. If you look closely you will see that the sets are made of maps of the terrain, very interesting I thought. In the pre-opera talk, the lecturer played at least 4 different tenors singing the same aria and asked the audience to identify them - which many people did (the only one I recognized was Pavarotti) .

So after this bit of fun, we went on to seek out some dinner. I got a bit creeped out walking through the somewhat scary neighbourhoods on the way there, as darkness was descending and I didn't feel safe on the streets, though we were not hassled at all. Coming from the Opera, with expensive cameras and electronic toys in our bags, I just felt a bit provocative and exposed. We were not exactly sure where we were going - Barry likes this, I hate it. We had been looking for somewhere Indian, I thought, but as soon as we found this likely looking Chinese place in the vicinity of Union Square I voted to stay and eat there rather than wander further afield. We mainly ordered yum cha (called dim sum here), which again Maguie had not experienced before. Since we first tasted dry-fried string beans in New York's Chinatown about 30 years ago, Barry and I almost always order them if we see something which sounds like it might be a similar dish, with crisp, squeak-when-you-bite-them vivid green beans with garlic, a little chili, maybe some Chinese sausage or pork tossed in the wok with them. We routinely rate the dishes we try against that first experience, which we remember as a perfect 10. We found some on the menu here, and they rated maybe a 6.5-7.

We came back to Berkeley by BART again, and got ourselves ready for Maguie's last day in Berkeley, when she and I visited College Avenue. We then picked Barry up after his teaching and office hours were done and went right back to have a very early dinner at the Rockridge end of the street, then Barry decided to accompany her to the airport by BART rather than brave the Bridge traffic at that hour. We really enjoyed her stay and we hope the change of environment cheered her up a bit and re-energised her for her return home to Mexico City.

Apologies for spelling errors in this post: I am writing up this final part in Mexico on Herzonia's LAN, and I believe there are some settings so that the spell checker thinks I am writing in Spanish. So just about everything shows up as a spelling error , disguising the real ones!

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