Saturday, March 31, 2012

Day 3: New York - Pittsburgh or "Thank you for your patience"

Is this really only day 3? I feel like being on the road for a long time already.

Anyway ... today there is not so much to tell because it was a travel day. We left our really nice hotel (Washington Jefferson) in New York at 9 am to head for the airport. That was early since our flight was only scheduled for 12.10 pm, but with all the bad luck we had already and the Manhattan traffic we would not want to risk anything.

The result was, that we were perfectly on time and even a bit early, but our flight was not. We heard "We need to wait another 10 to 20 min. Thank you for your patience" very, very often. I won't bore you with the full story, but in the end the air craft had a defect and had to be replaced. We were over 3 hours late and GONE was the first afternoon in Pittsburgh.

Never the less .... driving through Fort Pitt Tunnel - PRICELESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Driving down Penn Avenue looking at the Downtown skyline- PRICELESS!!!

Having dinner at Primanti's while watching Pens win - PRICELESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Damn, I'm happy to be here. 

Day 2: Part 3 - Rockin' around Bleecker & New Museum

Like I told you before our 2nd day was very busy and we made quite some use of the New York Subway to make it down South twice that day. The first time we headed for the New Museum at The Bowery and the 2nd time we picked up my friend after work at Washington Square.

Before I was the first time in New York (2001 in June - means WTC Towers were still there) I had the idea that the more you would go down South to the tip of Manhattan the higher the skyscrapers would be and the more it would look like a metropolis from a science fiction movie. In a way that is not even totally wrong because that this very much how the financial district looks like, but that is just a small piece of Downtown Manhattan and the much bigger part is filled with a very diverse mixture of residential neighborhoods.

It is definitely worth to spend a day or two just exploring the South of Manhattan, but we did not have time and so we were just walking a few blocks up and down, but got a fascinating impression of how many faces Manhattan alone has.
The Bowery is a street with a long and not so pleasant history of being a place with cheap rents, strange people and lots of crime. You can still see it although it changed a lot in the last 15 years. It's really work in progress - you have old rotten houses, freshly renovated buildings, Chinese 1$-shops and restaurants reaching out from the near by China town next to galleries and expansive boutiques with hip brands. You see the hipsters hanging out  that the coffee shops and the homeless guy with the pretty straight forward sign "Money for weed" is sitting just in front of it. The cute Little Italy holds hands the fancy Greenwich Village and clashes with the not so pretty East Houston Street. 

A big part of the change that happens at The Bowery is The New Museum of Contemporary Art that moved in 2007 into its new building. The museum was designed by the Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA. It looks like a staple of white boxes from the outside and very much as well from the inside. I get the concept of keeping it raw and very simple to have the focus 100% on the art displayed inside, but my personal opinion is that it is too simple inside. When I spend time with art, I want to take my time, sit down, think and for the building it means that I like it a bit more comfortable and warm and structured - just like the Museum Brandhorst in Munich for example. 

The exhibition that is displayed in the New Museum at the moment is called "THE UNGOVERNABLES". Like often with contemporary art some pieces did not talk to me at all and some were really, really fantastic. We'll put some images of our favorites into the picture section.
The one I loved most was a piece of installation art: a dark room with a hypnotizing oriental song blasting out. If you would walk in a projector threw a movie at the wall in the darkness showing two men dancing. It is hard to put in words, but - at least for me - it was very moving. The art work is called "Jewel" (and it is one) and was created by the Egyptian artist Hassan Khan

Again some of my impressions. Polaroids by Gabi will follow hopefully.  

Spring in Little Italy

Painted advertising for the Jewish Museum

Street Art near Bowery

The Bowery

The New Museum of Contemporary Art

Adrian Villar Rojas - A Person Loved Me

Amalia Pica - Eavesdropping

Julia Dault - Untitled

Hassan Kahn - Jewel

Day 2: Part 2 - Grand Central Terminal

Like so often the not planned things are THE BEST. When we got up from our rest at Bryant Park I was really not sure what to do next. Should we walk a few blocks to the Empire State Building and a few more for the Flatiron Building? Or should we more head for the Chrysler Building or just take the train to the New Museum that was on your schedule?

In the end Gabi decided that she wanted to get closer to the Chrysler Building and so we just kept walking on 42nd Street and soon passed by the Grand Central Terminal. Funny enough ... this is the third time in New York for me and for some reason I never before walked actually INTO the Grand Central Terminal. Time to change that.

I won't write much here and put the focus on the pictures, because it was just WOW. It is huge and it is absolutely beautiful. The related German Wikipedia article calls it a railroad cathedral and that really describes it well. The way the terminal looks now it was built in the early 20th century by the architects Warren & Wetmore und Reed & Stern in the neoclassical Beaux-Arts style.

It's absolutely stunning and the flood of great details is amazing. You could write a decent book only about the lamps and the lightning or the painted ceiling with the starry sky or the decoration of the ticket sales windows.
But it is not all about architecture alone. The fact that makes it in my eyes really special is that it is alive. It is not like a museum where people mostly just come to look around, but a lively terminal for all kind of local train services where busy people quickly buzz around. It's living New York history and represents the special charm of this city where ultra modern and historical buildings stand side by side.

Just have a look at some of my pictures.
 Polaroids by Gabrijela will be added as soon as the technical problems are solved.

Day 2: Part 1 - The heart of Uptown Manhattan

When we were crashing totally exhausted last night we both had made dozens of pictures, walked dozens blocks and suffered from a real impression overkill. It was just too much for us and too much for one blog post.  So we decided to create more than one too make it easier for us and easier for you to follow. I hope you like it that way.

Before we jump in a short news flash:
My suitcase was delivered last night. I finally got my stuff and I am so happy about it. I really needed a fresh pair of socks, another jacket, different shoes - and just the feeling that all my favorite clothes and my Pens jersey are right here with me again.
Additionally I had to solve another problem yesterday. My credit card got blocked and I was standing like an idiot at the Baby GAP with a denied credit card (I had another one, but still ....). Thankfully Gabi had all bank emergency numbers with her and I could get this problem solved. I'm really all for safety but when I call my bank ahead and tell them to make sure that all my cards are unlocked for the US and give them even my travel dates, I do not understand my card gets blocked because I buy a 10$ New York Metro card. That was suspicious sale that blocked it the guy on the phone told me. And I was like "What the heck is suspicious when a frequent traveler like me, buys a Metro Card?"
SIGH ... in the end no big deal - all is working again, but it was very annoying and I need to get back to my bank. They called me a lot lately to check on my bookings like "Rental car with ADAC? Totally suspicious." or "Museum presale tickets in the same city the rental car was booked? Super suspicious because 'Fallingwater' sounds totally like an illegal purchase." Again - safety is good, but please keep it real folks. 

And ... being in New York without your luggage and with a blocked credit card feels REALLY shitty - even if it is a only for half an  hour.

But back to our really beautiful day. When we got out of the hotel at 8 am in the morning the weather was really nice but quite chilly. I had to borrow a long sleeve from Gabi, because my choice of clothes was still down to Steelers hoodie and t-shirt. We had little breakfast and then we were off to explore and I was excited to show Gabi one of my favorite places ever - Bryant Park (6th Avenue 42nd Street). 

First we passed Times Square again and took lots of pictures. It is amazing how crazy it is and how much it is changing its face over the span of the day. In the morning all is crisp and new and lots of people are working on stocking up shops and restaurants or fixing the giant advertising displays. In the middle of the day it is just flooded with tourists looking around and in the night it gets packed like crazy with thousand of people who are like hypnotized by all the flashing lights. I think it is in a very special and artificial way beautiful. Nevertheless especially in the evening I have more than enough after 10 minutes and need to escape and it was the same for Gabi.

We left Times Square and kept walking until - like always - the HBO Store sucked me in. Between the seasons "True Blood" is no big deal there anymore -  now it is all  "Game of Thrones" - especially with the season 2 premiere around the corner. The store was decorated with all the original costumes and other things from the set. Pretty cool. 

And then -just around the corner- we were there: Bryant Park .... in the spring sun, fresh green everywhere, flowers and  - the breathtaking skyline with the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and a lot of other iconic structures around. I think it is very safe to say Gabrijela liked it just like I do. It's simply the best place to let the fact sink in that you are really, really in New York.

We just sat in the sun, took pictures and enjoyed. Vacation at its best.

Due to some technical problems we will add more of the very cool Polaroids later and will go for now with some of my pictures. 

Men at work

Times Square Impressions Morning & Evening

Game of Thrones @ HBO

Bryant Park - The Heart of Uptown Manhattan

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 1: New York? New York!

Good morning! Okay ... for you it is not morning, but already lunch time. Here it's 6 am in the morning and thankfully the internet in the hotel is working much better now and I am positive to get this post out to you.

We are back to TRAVEL WRITING - YAY!
Like I did last year I will try to update the blog daily or at least every second day and tell you about my latest US adventures. This time I'm traveling with my friend Gabrijela - an architect and photographer - and she will be responsible for most of the visuals in the blog posts. Although she of course has some her equipment with her, we decided for the blog for quick and entertaining iPhone pictures with some twist - just scroll down and look.

The trip itself started yesterday pretty smoothly. Nobody slept in accidentally (and we had to get up at 4 am), no traffic jam was blocking our way. We had even time for breakfast at the airport and met a colleague and a friend also on the way to London.
Changing flights later in London wasn't an issue as well. We did have enough time and had no trouble at the security with our equipment (one of our biggest fears) or any other problems. 

The messy part started during the flight. I used to like British Airways mostly because  the staff is really, really nice usually, but they urgently need  to do something with the on flight entertainment systems. Last year on my way to San Francisco mine was totally broken and yesterday was not much better. The look into the flight magazine was very promising: "The Ides of March", "The Descendants" and "My Week with Marilyn" - great movies I wanted to watch anyway. BUT ... the movies were flickering, the screen was more broken than anything else AND there was no menu to navigate and start the movie on your own, but you need to CATCH it if you could from the ongoing program. Result ... I have seen - kind of - now the last scene of "The Ides of March" and "The Descendants" and it looks like they are as good as I thought, but I can't do more than guess.
The rest of the flight was boredom, cold feet and bad food.

Only entertainment factor:  We shared the recent "SPIEGEL" magazine and I found a mind blowing article about the man with the biggest record collection on the planet. Paul Mawhinney is 72 years old and collects for 51 years. He owns 1 MILLION (!) vinyl long players, 1.5 MILLION vinyl singles, 350 000 CD and  50 000 records for gramophones. 83% of his collections is not available on CD - lots of the music would be lost without him. Swing, Country, Beat, Skiffle, Jazz, Folk  - it's really, really amazing.
Since he is old and sick now he sold his collection to a collector who can keep up with is heritage. He kept just his favorites - a solid 250 000 pieces set of music. Paul Mahinney lives in Pittsburgh - and no ... I did not make that up.

But back to us: In New York we had to wait forever to make it through the border control because it was incredibly crowded and then .... no luggage.  SHIT!  Long story told short:  Gabrijela's suitcase was picked up by some stupid stranger while we were waiting at the border. He realized later that it wasn't his and brought it back to the airport. It was delivered last night to our hotel. Mine on the other hand was tracked wrongly and got stuck in London. It is supposed to arrive today - wish me luck. Lots of luck.

The luggage story was a huge bummer, but we tried not to get frustrated. The room in the hotel is nice and the sun was shining and Manhattan had put on a beautiful spring dress. So we went on a long first walk to Times Square, up 6th Avenue and down the 5th including some shopping for clean panties, a night dress, a fresh t-shirt for the next day and bathroom thingies.
It is amazing how pretty it all is when it has +15 C and the sun is shining compared to the -15 C and ice cold wind last year. Four weeks make a HUGE difference, I can tell you. 

Side note:  Due to the lost suitcase I walked Manhattan in my comfy Steelers hoodie I had on during the flight and I can tell you:  The Steelers are very, very popular in New York. Still strange to HI5 total strangers on 6th Avenue. I'm more used to to people not knowing what my shirt prints mean at all.
And the shopping assistant in NHL shop on 6th laughed hard, when I explained some hockey basics to Gabrijela like showing her a Flyers jersey with the words "Look, that's the evil one - flying crap." There is hockey everywhere anyway - you can tell New York is ready for the playoffs, too. 

All right ... time to get a shower and start day 2 - hopefully I have my stuff back by tonight. My Kris Letang jersey is in that suitcase for heaven's sake!

All picture are made by and belong to Gabrijela Obert:

Sloping to
New York .... (the dirty airplane had dirty windows - so sorry for the spots on the picture)

A Rothko in blue aka The Sky

New York? New York!

A German girl with a Pittsburgh Steelers hoodie, a Croatian (!) bottle of water (Jana) at Times Square, New York


Monday, March 26, 2012

Happy go lucky spring post with a twist

Finally, finally ... winter is officially over.  We just had light saving and last week we celebrated the first official day of spring. And good lord ... what a spring it is! The sun is shining, the birds are singing, light green can bee seen everywhere, flowers are blooming and ice cream starts to taste nice again (thanks to the pharma industry for lactase pills).

It's still a bit early for the big clean up of the porch to bring up the deckchair and the grill, but LOOK what I already released from the snow, salt and dirt save basement:

There is really nothing better than swinging the winter stiff / 14 hours a day in the office beaten body on the bike and pump some oxygen into the organism. The sun and the wind bring back the feeling of being alive and sharpen the senses for the miracle of re-birth that mother nature presents to us spring by spring

When my mom was fighting her cancer she was always very afraid of the winter. For her it was dark and scary. She was a passionate biker lady driving a black Yamaha Dragstar (just like this) and the end of the biking season brought the fear of not seeing the beginning of a new one anymore. Every spring the warmth, the sunshine and the roaring sound of the motorcycles on the street gave her some extra energy to gain enough physical strength to hit the road again. Spring meant life for her in its most essential way. 

That brings me back to my (motor-less) bike and the glorious feeling of criss-crossing the city in these early spring days and gives me the chance to point your attention to some other biking people who take that sport significantly more serious than I do - and that for a good cause:

One of my favorite ambassadors of Pittsburgh awesomeness, actor David Conrad, prepares with his brother Jamie and cousin Lawrence for America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride around Lake Tahoe in early June. That's a century bike ride (means - 100 miles!) they do in honor of David's and Jamie's brother Phil who died last year of a lymphoma. The ride is a Team in Training event that benefits The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The LLS supports patients and their families and invests into finding cure for blood cancers like leukemia or myeloma (the cancer type that finally killed my mom).

Jamie set up a website about  the ride, the cause and the possibility to donate. The donation goal was set to very modest $ 5000 and was reached already a while ago - the actual status is $ 7880. It is just ... if you have ever seen a medication bill of a lymphoma patient (I hope you never have to, but I did) than you would know that $ 5000 is really not more than the proverbial finger in the dike - especially when regular chemo failed and orphan or experimental drugs are the last chance to possibly survive. It's also a very scary sneak peak into how expansive it is to search for cure and develop new and more effective medication. 

This is why I think it would be EXTREMELY nice to send the three backed up with the nice sum of $ 10,000 on the road around Lake Tahoe. Means: If you have a spare buck - that would be a very good way to spend it.
Please donate here

Thank you and enjoy this wonderful spring as much as you can.

UPDATE: I still see lots of people coming to this post via Google search and so I use this chance to give a little update. The bike ride is done and lots of donations came in. In fact it was so much money that Jamie decided to keep on cycling and do another century ride in September which will also benefit the LLS. That also means you can read all about it and keep donating here. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

My book in February 2012

Kevin Clash - My Life as a Furry Red Monster


I practically see you staring at the picture wondering about THIS book review, but hey ... I like to be unpredictable and today that means we do not talk Nobel Prizes but ... red fur.

The story
starts more than ten years ago. At that time I used to hang out - virtually - at a message board with my international sisterhood of girl friends. It was online life before Facebook and Twitter were even invented. Internet stone age. At that board we used to goof around and created a category called "hunk of the week" sharing pics of handsome gentlemen just for fun. And I remember that one week, when we just could not think about somebody new, we shared a pic of Elmo and said "Look who is cute - it's this furry red monster."  I loved it a lot, everybody loved it and Elmo (Elmo pics and little comics) became a vivid part of the fun we had together.

Then came the day our mom got sick. As you can imagine it was a very, very difficult time and I was sad, confused and struggling. My sister and I had already lost our dad in a terrible cancer battle and facing it again was very hard. 

One day I surprisingly got a parcel - from the USA! I had no idea what that could be. I opened it and found a letter of one of my internet friends. She told me that this was a gift of her and her little daughter. They had talked about me and how sad and scared I was because my mom was so sick. Her daughter had searched her toys for a gift for me and when she heard how much I like Elmo she decided to give me hers. And there he was ... an obviously used (what makes him even more beautiful), red, furry Tickle-Me-Elmo. I cannot tell you how much I loved this gift. I was practically speechless and cried my eyes out hugging my Elmo

I have to admit, that I removed the Tickle-Me thingy from his tummy because I like him soft and silent ;), but other than that I love him so much - still. It's hard to explain but Elmo has magic powers that make you feel loved and supported. The furry little friend, that came to me from as far as Seattle, accompanied me already on many trips (Elmo LOVES Sarajevo!) although I am so NOT the Peter Pan type of adult who keeps a stuffed animal collection or collects dolls (BRRRR - CREEPY!). And when I am really, really down and feel lonely and sad then there is always a little red furry hand to hold - and it HELPS

As you can imagine now I got really excited a when I heard a while a ago that there was a book and a documentary by the puppeteer who is Elmo and  - surprisingly enough - a tall, middle aged, Afro-American with a deep male voice. His name is Kevin Clash and he indeed wrote about his and Elmo's story. I wanted to read this book, but it was not available and at a certain point I stopped looking, ... but my sister didn't! She managed to get her hands on the book and I found it last Christmas wrapped as my surprise gift under the Christmas tree. What a GREAT gift ... again given with love. 

Let's talk about the book

Kevin Clash tells his and Elmo's story not in a chronological order but following a couple of themes like love, joy, creativity, tolerance, courage, friendship, cooperation, learning and optimism.
This gives the book in some parts more the character of a psychological self-help or parental advise book and that's what I in general do not like so much, but there is still a lot of Elmo magic and very interesting background stories that I enjoyed a lot. 

At several points in the book Kevin Clash tells about his roots - his childhood in Turner Station by Baltimore and his parent's house in the New Pittsburgh Road (and NO, I did not make the name of the street up!). He describes how he was from the very beginning fascinated by puppets, started already as a school kid to create his own furry friends and began performing for his first audiences - his mom's daycare kids, kids at schools and kindergartens in the area and finally on local TV.
He makes very clear how important the love and support of his family and especially his parents was and is for his success. The Clashs always encouraged their son to go his way although skipping college and becoming a puppeteer is not exactly a so called "normal" career.

In addition to his family a couple of teachers and mentors were important influences in Kevin Clash's life like the puppeteer and creator of Big Bird and many more Sesame Street characters, Kermit Love (who's name is 1) real and no artist name 2) was not name giver for Kermit the Frog) and of course master mind Jim Henson himself, who's incredible creativity influenced the childhood of all of us and is still influencing new generations (my niece LOVES Sesame Street).
Kevin's story is one of those "Believe in your dreams and make them happen" stories I like when they are real and not made up - and Kevin & Elmo are both very real. 

I also especially loved to learn more about how Sesame Street is produced. It's amazing how much work goes into the world wide production (there are many local versions from the German one we know to the South African one) as well from a technical point of view as from the educational. I was very impressed how carefully the curriculum is put together or how they try to deal with events and situations that influence the life of the kids. Kevin Clash for example describes how the South African team developed an AIDS infected character - something that is daily reality for the kids there. They were also looking for ways to help the kids to deal with the anxiety that followed the events of 9/11, which was not easy for the Manhattan based team. 

My niece & Elmo -
They love to sing together
And  then there is of course Elmo. He was born  because Sesame Street was missing a red monster. Sometimes the greatest things in life are that simple. When Kevin Clash caught the cute little red bundle of fur he had no idea yet how much that would change his life and what a big star Elmo would become, but he immediately started to have fun with him and soon developed Elmo's signature laugh. Working on Elmo's story the Sesame Street team decided that Elmo would be a 3.5-year-old monster and see the world with the eyes of a little kid. 
Sesame Street was initially made for preschool and elementary school kids, but the latest studies brought the result that much younger kids had become a regular part of the audience and the program with Elmo should be made especially for the youngest Sesame Street fans. The concept was and is a big success. The kids love Elmo and Elmo loves the kids. 
Just like the kids his age Elmo is curious, wants to explore, learn new things and loves to play and sing and spend time with his friends. He is full of faith and the special kind of unconditional love that only comes from kids. He just loves to hug and kiss and when he says "Elmo loves you" he means it in the innocent way a child means it. 

My absolute favorite part of Kevin Clash's book is, when he describes Elmo's interaction with people - from baby to adult. You can see in his lines that even Kevin in the end cannot really explain how Elmo's magic works, but very much that it DOES work. Often he wondered himself how the kids would react, when they would meet Elmo live. The big difference is that other than on TV the tall man playing Elmo as a hand puppet is clearly visible and you should think that the kids would be disappointed by finding out that an adult plays Elmo, but that is not the fact. The kids ignore Kevin. They only see Elmo and talk to him like they would talk to any other kid their age, they hug him, kiss him, laugh and play with him. Tough kids and shy kids, rich kids and poor kids, healthy kids and sick kids - they all react the same way. Their imagination is stronger than what they might see (Kevin) or hear (Kevin's real voice when being introduced). They make Elmo real.

And sometimes, sometimes even adults let loose, push the heavy reality of being a grown up away and just put their hand in a little, furry red one for a hug, a kiss and a song - and love it. That's Elmo's magic!

If you search youtube for Elmo videos you get so easily lost spending hours and hours watching  the little dude do awesome things. 

Here are some of my favorites:

Kevin & Elmo

Robert de Niro teaches Elmo about imagination and acting

Elmo and Colin Farrell explain "investigate" - the "And you are tall and handsome" line cracks me up!

An especially wonderful version of the ABC Song with Elmo and India Arie

Or this one .... a great song, FEIST singing (LOVE), cute monsters, some chickens and PENGUINS. Counting to 4 can be so much fun and sound so good. 

And the favorite of my niece in German - Elmo and The Grouch explain the word "neben" (next)