Friday, February 29, 2008

Monterey Guidebook Photo

Schmap wanted my Monterey photo, too. That makes two guidebooks in about a week that I’ve been published in. Life is strange sometimes.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Glad That’s Over With

West Oakland has a bad rap. Part of this stems from the very real crime problem in this part of town, and while I’ve never felt unsafe during daylight hours, people are right to be a little wary.

The other, far more unfair impression that a lot of people have of West Oakland is that it reeks. This is because if you drive over the Bay Bridge, on your way to IKEA, say, or Berkeley, as soon as you arrive in the East Bay you drive right past a sewage treatment plant.

This is not the nicest welcome the city could provide. It’s especially unfortunate because as I think I’ve said before, West Oakland has several large bakeries and a lot of that side of town actually smells really great.

Still, there’s no denying that the wastewater plant stinks. I knew I would have to deal with it someday, and today was the day. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it really only smelled bad on one side of the plant. The other sides were perfectly pleasant, but walking there felt pretty desolate. The plant is on a patch of land that is just north of West Grand Avenue, on the very last street you can turn on before getting on the freeway. Miss the turn and you’re going to San Francisco.

There were plant employees around, and a lot of cars coming and going, but oddly enough, very few other people were out strolling around the sewage treatment plant today. Even though it was a beautiful spring-like day.

There was one other person of leisure out. He pulled his car over to the wrong side of the road, parked, and started rummaging through his trunk. I was afraid he might drag out a corpse or something, but instead, he pulled out an ancient golf driver--I think it really was made of wood—and headed toward a large empty lot near some railroad tracks. There’s more than enough empty space to do a little driving practice. He didn’t have any golf balls, though. I think he may have been planning on hitting rocks from around the tracks. It’s the kind of no-man’s land where you can do weird things like that and nobody minds, or even notices.

It wasn’t a bad walk, but I’m glad it’s over with. My next neighborhood is going to have to smell better.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Schmap Again

Schmap has come knocking again! Now they’re considering a Monterey photo that I took. This photo, too, was originally taken for a Philippine Airlines in-flight magazine article. As with the Tahoe photo, it isn’t the most impressive one I took that day, but they must have a need for a photograph of this particular hotel.

The photo hasn’t made the final cut yet. I’ll know in a few days if they want it for sure or not.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Not a Paid Gig

No, Schmap isn’t paying. But given the fact that I never thought the Tahoe photos would see the light of day beyond Flickr, I don’t mind.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Rare Photo Credit

Here’s a curiosity: A photograph of mine is being used in an online guidebook.

This is a photo of Vikingsholm Castle that I originally took for an article about Lake Tahoe that I wrote for an in-flight magazine. I was slightly disappointed that the magazine didn’t use any of my Tahoe photos, but I understood. I’ve never pretended to be a professional photographer, and it’s rare for a magazine to accept photos and text from the same person anyway.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that the online guidebook company Schmap wanted to use one of my Tahoe images. The really surprising thing was that they found me. I had posted a number of Tahoe photos on the Flickr web site, and someone at Schmap noticed them.

I took a lot of photos that day that I think were better than the one they’re using, but this one must have filled a hole in the guide. The carving in the picture is not an easy thing to photograph because it’s in a dark room and you’re not allowed to use a flash or a tripod. I waited for everyone else on the tour to get out of the way, braced the camera against a banister, and hoped for the best with a 15th of a second shutter speed. Maybe no one else on Flickr had that kind of patience.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bataan Afternoon Stroll

Lately I’ve been walking in a place I’m not entirely certain I’m supposed to be in: the old Oakland Army Base.

This area hasn’t been a working Army base since 1999. When it was open, it was a military cargo terminal. Now it seems to be devoted to civilian cargo. There’s not much to it anymore, just some warehouses and a lot of truck traffic. There are some no trespassing signs, but I think they date from the army base days. The few remaining roads seem to be open to the public; it’s just that not many people take advantage of this fact.

There are people around, but they’re working, not walking. Truckers come and go constantly, and customs officials cruise around a lot. There are several taco trucks in the area, a drug-testing facility, a container business, and one lone convenience store that feels like the packie at the end of the world.

My most recent Oakland map lists several streets on the base that don’t seem to exist anymore. In particular, there is an enormous empty lot at the southern end of the base that is supposed to be crisscrossed with streets, but they’ve disappeared completely. At least one other road is behind a gate labeled private property. All this makes walking every street a little bit of an adventure, and I’m not sure how to proceed.

The streets that do exist have great names, like Africa Street, Tulagi, Petroleum Street, and Bataan Avenue. Overall, this part of town couldn’t feel more different from the rest of West Oakland, where most of the streets are named after trees.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Not Strictly Related, But….

…Eclipses are pretty cool.

I got a good view of yesterday’s lunar eclipse when I was driving from Oakland to San Francisco for a class. Unfortunately, by the time I got to San Francisco the sky had become overcast and the eclipse was hard to see. (And even harder to photograph.)

The accompanying photo is more impressive if you keep in mind that the moon was full last night. I took this picture through the fog about half way toward totality.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Change of Plans

Actually, we did not end up at Tamarindo. They don’t take reservations, and by the time we got there, we were told the wait would be more than an hour. We’re glad to see a downtown Oakland restaurant become that popular, but we decided to go elsewhere. We ended up at Breads of India for an excellent dinner, marred only by my learning that chicken tikka masala is not an authentically Indian dish—it’s a colonial English invention. This was disappointing news, but it didn’t stop me from having it anyway.

Indian food might seem like a strange choice for Valentine’s Day, especially this Valentine’s Day, but I’m happy to report that no violence broke out.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. I hope you all have a nice day, no matter who you are—or aren’t—spending it with.

Pipi and I are going to a Mexican restaurant in downtown Oakland called Tamarindo. It’s fancier than it sounds. They serve Mexican small plates. I’ve liked everything I’ve ever had there, but what I remember most is the dulce de leche crepe for dessert. It’s indecently good.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Park at the End of the World

Last week I walked so far west in Oakland that I passed a customs station. And then I walked a little further.

I didn’t really get to another country, of course. I was just following Seventh Street to its very end at the Port of Oakland.

Seventh Street here is very industrial. At its western end it dead-ends at loading docks open only to trucks. But it also skirts my very favorite park in Oakland, Middle Harbor Shoreline Park. Middle Harbor is a very new, very green little park that feels like it’s smack in the middle of an industrial wasteland. On one side it’s surrounded by water and on two sides it’s flanked by enormous cranes. You can see container ships up close, and you get an interesting view of the Bay Bridge, which isn’t the Bay’s prettiest, but in context, it is nice to look at in a WPA, “lets-get-it-done” American kind of way. The view of the Bay itself is beautiful.

To get to the park you have to follow Seventh Street under interstate 880, which always used to feel like Oakland’s western border to me. Then you pass between a former army base and a huge rail yard. If you’re on foot, 18-wheelers pass you every minute, but you’ll hardly see any passenger vehicles. You’ll probably be the only pedestrian, although recently I did see a group of about spry 25 senior citizens dressed in floppy hats and nylon pants leaving the park at a serious hiking pace. I can’t imagine where they were going, but they probably wondered what I was up to, too.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My Mind Plays Tricks on Me

Normally I think I have a pretty good memory. This isn’t surprising. I come from a line of people with super-human powers of recall. Last year, for example, I overheard my parents reminiscing about what exactly they’d once been served for dinner at a friend’s house. They talked about it as if it had happened a few months before, but actually, this dinner party took place before I was born.

Another example: This past Christmas, my grandmother gave my father a picture of himself taken when my father was about three years old. Even my dad wasn’t sure where it was shot, but my grandmother remembered not only the location (suburban Virginia), but also what my father was looking at when the picture was snapped (a toy boat in the water).

So it always comes as a shock to me when I discover that I’ve remembered something wrong. A few days ago I realized that I’d done it again. Last week I blogged about my memories of the living room of an apartment in France I’d stayed in one summer. I clearly remembered a light gray carpet. But a photo I have shows that the carpet isn’t gray at all.

It’s a minor detail, of course, an insignificant part of a place I was a long time ago. What bothers me is the fact that I was so sure I did know. I had what seemed like a crystal-clear memory of the room, but it turns out I made some of it up. That’s a little alarming.

How often does this happen? It’s hard to know. My friend Sarah remembers a time when we were in China together and I did bicycle tricks for an appreciative audience of gawking locals, reasoning that they were going to stare anyway, so I might as well give them something to look at.

I remember the bike sideshow, too, but in my memory, Sarah’s the one doing tricks.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I would be disturbed to discover that I’d made up not just an image, but also an entire scene and sold myself on it. On the other hand, I love Sarah’s version, because it makes me sound so much more hammy and brave than I really am.

There are no photographs from that day (although the locals may still be talking about it), so we’ll never know who’s the brave one and who’s the imaginative one.

I guess that’s why writers keep notebooks.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tea Time

My tea came. I’ve got tea as far as I can see. Thé for days. The Internet really is an amazing thing.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Hyper Chouette (Very Cool)

As cool as French kids may have thought I was, I thought they were 10 times cooler.

For one thing, they spoke French effortlessly. I arrived having studied the language for several years, and I certainly got better as the summer went on. But it was obvious early on that my accent, grammar, and textbook-prim vocabulary were always going to set me apart. Marks of fluency like the subjunctive and verlan, the rapid-fire deliberate inversion of syllables popular with teenagers, would remain beyond me.

French kids also got to do things American kids didn’t, at least not at that age. Some of them smoked openly. I didn’t want to join them, but I was secretly impressed by their fearless adoption of an activity that in my town was restricted to the darkest corners of doughnut shops and video arcades. French teenagers could also legally drink, but bafflingly, didn’t. They in fact seemed to think that being visibly drunk was a little déclassé. Kids who could reject as uncool something that was considered the holy grail of teen experience where I came from were obviously operating on an entirely different and unattainable plane of cool.

I did arrive in France holding what I believed to be one very cool card—I had a driver’s license. The French can’t take their driving test until 18, or at least that was the rule then, and apparently everyone fails the first few times anyway. So hardly anyone I met could legally drive a car. But since no grown-up was going to let me drive his or hers, and because many French teens zipped around on impossibly cool scooters anyway, no one was too impressed.

What I found most intoxicating about French youth was the degree of autonomy they seemed to be granted. The family I stayed with had a daughter my age named Manu. The two of us were chaperoned on a trip to Paris, but towards the end of the summer, the two of us were put on a train by ourselves and sent off to the Riviera, where we stayed in someone’s temporarily unoccupied apartment with two family friends who were not much older than we were. Predictably, the only one of us who got in any kind of trouble was me; I thought I was too cool for sunscreen the first day at the beach and peeled like a reptile for the rest of the week.

After the Riviera, Manu and I somehow made our way to the city of Toulouse, where we stayed with her aunt and cousins. I honestly don’t remember how we got there. Looking at a map, I can see that the distance between the towns is about 200 miles, and it surprises me a little bit now that as 16-year-olds we were trusted to make this journey. We must have taken a train but how did we get to the station? How did we find out what time the train left?

I don’t remember how we did it, but we did. The fact that I don’t remember the details suggests that the trip, as remarkable as it was for me, must have been uneventful. Though I can see that it might not have been the best idea in practice to let my teenaged self loose in Europe with a rail pass, it obviously worked out. And I’m glad. This was the first time I really traveled in any way that could be described as independent, and I must have taken to it. I’m really glad nothing went wrong, or who knows what I’d be doing now. Working at a golf club, maybe. That’s what I did the next summer, but for some reason, that experience didn’t seem to resonate with me quite so strongly.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Good Old Acid-Washed Days

1987 was a really long time ago. We wore our pants high and our bangs low. Pop music jangled, telephones made real ringing noises, and no one had ever heard of the World Wide Web. (Or digital cameras, as you may have guessed.)

One other difference was that European people liked us. At least in my experience, the French did. French teenagers thought I was cool simply by virtue of being from the country that brought them MTV and Don Johnson. Adults seemed happy enough to have us around, too. I think they found the United States a little amateurish in everything from our embarrassing willingness to eat with our hands to our weirdly colorless politicians, but they appreciated the fact that the United States was willing to stand up for smaller countries, and that we too thought the English could be a little silly.

I don’t mean to imply that they hate us now in France. I don’t think they’re renaming their food or anything like that. (“Would you like Swiss Cheese or Freedom Cheese on your sandwich, Madame?”) But I think that on both sides of the Atlantic, we’ve all lost our wide-eyed appreciation for each other. I guess it’s inevitable that international relations, like all relationships, will change and mature. But I miss the salade days when we were all a little easier on each other.

I really hope my tea comes soon.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

In Search of Lost Tea

The Internet is a remarkable thing. You can do research, keep in touch with people thousands of miles away, watch music clips, see videos of cats doing funny things, and of course, buy things.

Recently, it occurred to me that the Internet might be able to reconnect me with a particular kind of tea that liked one summer when I lived with a French family. You can probably get a similar blend in the United States, but only this one brand has the Proustian effect I’m looking for. (It’s a word; I looked it up.) Only this one makes me, for a moment, 16 years old, sitting on a cool gray living room carpet, wearing chinos with the cuffs folded and rolled up short, watching reruns of Miami Vice absurdly dubbed into French.

Now I have a batch of French tea winging its way to my doorstep, thanks to the Internet. They tried to drop it off yesterday, but we were out. The UPS guy left a delivery attempt notice, and noted that the sender was “France,” as if the country itself had sent me a package. Which is kind of what it feels like. I should be home all evening, and I can’t wait until they deliver my little box of Savoie, circa 1987.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sweet West Oakland

There’s a new restaurant in West Oakland called the Brown Sugar Kitchen, and it’s fantastic. It’s on the Mandela Parkway, in a neighborhood the owner calls “Sweet West Oakland.” I don’t know the origin of the name, but it makes literal sense to me. West Oakland has a number of bakeries and a lot of it really does smell really sweet. This place is no exception. They serve cinnamon rolls that look amazing. The gumbo was great, and so was the macaroni and cheese. I didn’t get to try nearly everything I wanted to, so I’ll have to go back soon. I hope the restaurant does well. It’s kind of out of the way, but it was pretty crowded the day I was there, so clearly people are hearing about it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Back on Track

It’s sunny this morning! I can finally get some vitamin D.

Later I’m going for a real walk, but just now I warmed up with a stroll to the mailbox. Whenever I have something to mail (today it was the rent check) I like to walk to a particular mailbox that is a fairly long but flat walk from my apartment.

Using my pedometer, I found that the far mailbox is a 3,133-step, 1.38-mile roundtrip. That’s a good start, but I don’t know how anyone gets to 10,000 steps on a regular basis.