Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Grand Park Pink

The new floralistic garden of Grand Park is yet another reason to take an urban hike down Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.  Although I had intended to photograph the flowers and plants which were chosen to represent the diverse cultures of the world that have come to define this mega-city, it was the pink lawn furniture that caught my camera's focus.  It was still fairly early in the morning, but people were out walking their dogs, rushing to work at nearby City Hall or just enjoying a cup of joe.

The area around Grand Avenue has something for everyone:  concert halls, art museums, Little Tokyo, Union Station and Olvera Street.  And now this beautiful new park.  You don't need glasses to see a rose-colored world here!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Angels Flight and Harry Bosch

He remembered riding on Angels Flight long before Bunker Hill had been reborn as a slick business center of glass and marble towers, classy condominiums and apartments, museums, and fountains referred to as water gardens.  Back then the hill had been a place of once-grand Victorian homes turned into tired-looking rooming houses.  Harry and his mother had taken Angels Flight up the hill to look for a place to live.

                                                      from Angels Flight by Michael Connelly

I've been on a Harry Bosch kick lately.  Over the last decade, I've read every one of the books in this detective series.  Because they are all set in Los Angeles, it has given this fascinating city another layer of meaning to me--a darker, more sinister one, but coated with nuance.   . . .Just like the Bradbury and Angels Flight.  Little pieces of grace were everywhere if you looked.

 I love Connelly's descriptions of the city.  I cannot drive through the various neighborhoods without remembering a scene from one of these books.   Early one morning  a few months ago I found myself walking around Bunker Hill and I came across this diminutive little railway.  If I hadn't read Angels Flight, it wouldn't have meant much to me.  For one thing, it was closed.  No one was around.  Los Angeles was quiet for once, very quiet.  The air was surprisingly crisp and cool, but cloudy.  And then, there he was . . .  Harry Bosch checking the inside of the wooden car named Olivet for clues of a murder.

Angels Flight is the world's shortest railway.  It has only two counterbalanced cars named Olivet and Sinai, which are controlled by cables.  These two little cars have ferried the people of Los Angeles up and down this steep slope since 1901.  Nearly one hundred million of them!  The original Angles Flight, however, was located a half block to the south.  It was actually dismantled in 1969 and stored for 27 years.  Happily, it was restored and reopened in 1996.  Unhappily, it keeps shutting down because of accidents or repairs.  When I returned that afternoon, I saw several people walking up the steps from the Fashion District below.

To the left of the archway was a concrete staircase for when the train wasn't running or for those who were afraid to ride the inclined railroad.  The stairs were also popular with weekend fitness enthusiasts, who ran up and down them.
I looked longingly at the car sitting on the track.  Was that Olivet?  The car where the civil rights attorney was murdered?   And will Angels Flight ever reopen?  I wanted to ride it like Harry Bosch.  See the city unfold before me.  Immediately the car jerked and began its descent.  And immediately Bosch again recalled riding the train as a kid.  The seat was just as uncomfortable as he remembered it.

I vowed then and there to read the entire series all over again, but this time in chronological order.  Angels Flight is Number Six out of 16 so far.  There are several other wonderful (but oh so flawed) characters that are woven throughout the books and which will bring even more pleasure to the reading the second time around.

So if you find yourself going to Los Angeles soon, grab a Harry Bosch mystery.  Say "hello" to him for me.  He's a good friend and an excellent tour guide!

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Tour of the Beauregard-Keyes House

My first introduction to New Orleans occurred nearly forty years ago when I picked up a novel from my parents' library--Dinner at Antoine's by Frances Parkinson Keyes.  Like anyone who has ever read this mystery with its Mardi Gras setting, it created a desire to go to this fascinating city and of course, have dinner at Antoine's.  I finally made it to New Orleans, but not to this famous restaurant.  There were just too many other choices!  (And besides, our concierge kind of dissed it!)

But touring the house that the author lovingly restored and where she wrote her novels one after the other, well . . . that was worth it!  Frances Parkinson Keyes was incredibly prolific, writing close to 50 books during her lifetime.  Among her best were The River Road, Madame Castel's Lodger, The Chess Players and Joy Street.    I confess, by today's standards, they are cumbersome and old-fashioned.  Even offensive in their racist depiction.  I read The Explorer recently and had a hard time with it.  Even so, for the historian in me, it gave me an accurate picture of life in the South during the first part of the 20th century (at least from a privileged white woman's point of view.)
This old classic revival home has a story all its own.  It was built in 1826 and was immediately considered one of the most architecturally beautiful houses in the city.  The consul of Switzerland moved here in 1833 and added lovely formal gardens in the back and sides of the home.  Thereafter, it changed hands many times and slowly deteriorated.  It was scheduled for demolition in 1925.  However, a group of patriotic ladies in New Orleans, having learned that Confederate General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard (What a name!) actually rented out the home for 18 months after the Civil War was over, bought the house in the 1930's and rented it to Keyes.  They sold it to her only if she agreed to restore it to its formal glory.  She kept her word.  She created a foundation and moved into the cottage behind the house to write her books.
Our tour guide walked us through the home, entertaining us with history and gossip from that brief period of time when the Beauregards lived here.  If you like antiques, especially Jacobean furniture, the examples here are stellar.  It is the little cottage in the back, though, that I found even more interesting.  Keyes wrote all her manuscripts out by hand and there is one on display in her studio.  She was also an avid collector of dolls and porcelain veilleuses, teapots that sit on top of votive candle holders.  All of these are scattered throughout the big house and the cottage.
Frances Parkinson Keyes was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1885 and died here in New Orleans in 1970.  She was married to a Republican U.S. Senator and had three sons.  Although many of her books are set in the South, many of them also take place among Washington D.C. society.  Her studio is filled with photographs of herself standing next to celebrities.  She certainly had a charming and wonderful life.  That her books are no longer read . . . well, that's a sign of the times.  Our guide had set out several of her books on a table and told us all to take one.  I did, but many in the group didn't bother.  He couldn't even give them away!

She seems to be known and admired for the restoration of this beautiful home, rather than for her books.  The guide, who also lives behind the big house, told us he remained even during Katrina.  Although friends and family urged him to leave, he refused.  He told us that neither the house nor the French Quarter was flooded,  but the water, nevertheless, came in "from above."  He stayed behind to make sure all the carpets and antiques remained safe and dry.

"Have you ever eaten at Antoine's" I asked him.

 I swear he turned a little pink with embarrassment.  "No, I never have," he said.

I nodded.  Only tourists go to Antoine's.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Voodoo Museum

Offbeat Museums

For such a tiny museum (only two rooms), I left with a monumental amount of information and ample food for thought.  Lately, our modern culture has been obsessed ad nauseam with the world of voodoo and zombies.  This little museum in New Orleans even had a term for it:  Fakelore.  They attempted to set the record straight and my travel buddy, who is a huge fan of The Walking Dead, was thoroughly spellbound.

As for me, I found the merging of Voodoo and Catholicism in this part of the country a curious, but pragmatic indulgence.  Voodoo was brought to Louisiana by the slaves in the early 1700's and adopted by the Creole settlers.  Why I should be so surprised was a question I've since addressed.  After all, the church adopted hundreds of pagan rituals over the span of time in order to lure people into its fold.  This was just one more example. Religion and superstition are one and the same.

In Voodoo, God is detached from the mundane everyday life of humans.  He used to live on Earth, but left, leaving behind a slew of voodoo spirits--Catholic saints among them.  Pray to God and your requests go unanswered.  Leave a bottle of rum, however, at the altar of one of his emissaries, and your luck just might change.  The museum had several examples of such altars and they were great fun to dissect.  The Mami Waters altar was piled with make-up, jewelry, candy bars, tampons and peanuts.  She was worshiped as the protector of mothers and children throughout Central Africa.  So human!  I loved it!
There was an emphasis on affaires d'amour, rather than evil.  Many of the Voodoo Queens like Marie Laveau were called upon to help people fall in love or stay in love.  They specialized in love potions, charms and spells to make these things happen.  Many famous people called upon their services such as Andrew Jackson, the Marquis de Lafayette and even Queen Victoria.

It's not to say that evil was not addressed here.  Every religion has created monsters to keep the brethren on the straight and narrow.  The Rougarou, a cross between a werewolf, a vampire and a zombie, was absolutely terrifying!  The skeletons, voodoo dolls and zombies paled in comparison.

Besides the fascinating exhibits, the jazz music playing in the background will make you start dancing in the narrow hallway, I guarantee it!

  Far from scary, this little museum is a place of joy and a testimony to the eternal optimism of the human spirit.  Every single one of us turn to the gods when sorrow and despair wrench our souls.  I don't know if we'll ever let go of superstition.  It seems to help when the chips are down.  And if prayers go unanswered or the charms in those gris-gris bags don't work, well . . . only then do we shrug our shoulders and sigh.  God works in mysterious ways.  It is what it is.  Time to move on.  We're all stronger than we think.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve

I didn't think it was going to happen this year.  I had been monitoring the wildflower reports since February and the forecasts were dire--because of California's severe drought, it looked like it was going to be a dud.  But then(!) it rained in March.  And it rained again.  And lo and behold, that's all it took.  The poppy fields erupted with orange and yellow blooms.  Thousands upon thousands of them.  Whole rivers of them.  So off my travel buddy and I went last weekend to bathe in the miracle of Spring.
The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve is located outside Lancaster, California.  From Santa Barbara, it's a two-hour drive.  There are seven miles of easy trails throughout the 1800 acre reserve.  Besides poppies, of course, there are yellow daisies and purple lupine.  A brochure is given to you upon entrance, which outlines the flowers, mammals, birds and reptiles you might see during your visit.  There is also an interpretive center and gift shop on site, but no food is available so bring your own.  Picnic tables are scattered around the parking lot.  On the day we visited, the wind was fierce and the sun was hot.  Bring lots of water and wear sunscreen.  I can't stress this enough.  Also, to beat the Los Angeles crowds, come early on a weekday.  Otherwise, you may find yourself waiting in line to get in (like we did).

But OH so worth it!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eating My Way Across New Orleans

In order to travel as much as I do, something has to go and this "something" has usually been food.  I don't write about food a lot (like most travel writers) because I'm happy with a loaf of bread and a bag of fruit.  I'll give up a meal in order to buy those ever sky-rocketing tickets to museums or  . . .okay, I admit it, that vintage lace nightgown from France!   But let me tell you, New Orleans was different.  For one thing, every conversation you have with every single person you meet will eventually focus on food.  Everyone had an opinion--taxi drivers, hotel workers, bartenders, other tourists, waiters (they weren't afraid to talk about restaurants other than their own!).  By the time our five days were up, we had a two-page list of "must go to" restaurants.  It was impossible, of course, to go to all of them, but after my very first taste of gumbo, I was determined to try!
Oysters.  And more oysters.  I could not get enough oysters.  I had them crispy fried at SoBou, char-broiled at the French Market and on the half-shell everywhere else.  And then there was shrimp, crab and scallops.  My scallops floating on a sea of sweet potato puree at Emeril's was to die for!  My crab and asparagus salad at Louis' was light, fresh and well . . .perfect!

My travel buddy liked the sausage dishes and the heavier jambalaya.  At Kingfish, however, he ordered a local fish and it was brought to our table still sizzling on a red hot brick of Himalayan salt.  We were absolutely dumbfounded and had a long conversation with the waiter about food.  He was a California transplant.  "My first year in New Orleans, I gained thirty-five pounds," he said.

It seems we were eating all day long.  Sometimes we had lunch at 3 p.m.  Sometimes dinner wasn't until 11.  Even the bar food was good.  I can still taste those little pork sliders at the bistro next to the Ambassador Hotel.  "It's impossible to have a bad meal in New Orleans," one taxi driver told us.  "Even the hole-in-the-wall places are good."

I haven't been so enraptured by  food since Paris or San Francisco.  This is a foodie's destination, for sure.  Our last day we still had not tried beignets so we hoofed it over to Cafe du Monde where we were ushered to a table immediately.  (Go on a Monday afternoon!)  After all the seafood I had, the sugar-dusted pastries and deep roasted coffee was a nice change.  We sat under the green and white awnings and soaked in the food, the happy tourists, the beauty of the French Quarter, and simply sighed with pleasure.  We did not want it to end.

It was nice to realize that we are far from jaded--that we can still be surprised and I mean really surprised.  "You know, this has been one of the best trips we've ever had," I said.  My travel buddy's mustache was coated with white sugar.  "I know.  I can't believe it.  We've got to come back."

"Yeah, we didn't get to Mother's and get a Muffaletta sandwich."

"Or try the fried alligator."

"I've got to come back for more of those cheddar sausage biscuits.  And Oysters Rockefeller."

And gumbo.  Catfish.  Rosemary grits.  Red gravy.  Boudin with pickled peppers.  Sazeracs!   Crawfish.  Po'boys.  Chicory coffee.  Crepes.  Barbecue shrimp.  Pralines.  Sweet potato pie.  

Okay.  I'll stop now.