February 20, 2007

Chicago Thaw


Looking over the bridge on LaSalle Street, 2/19/07

Despite the inauspicious beginning it was a lovely trip.

I saw the Saturday and Sunday matinées at the Joffrey. The long version will be in Ballet Review, the short version is it was worth the trip, and the alternate version lives here – Franklin, a fellow knitter and blogger was my companion on Sunday. He provided excellent company!

I saw several other good friends and got more sense of the city – what’s to get a sense of, it’s a grid, right? Yeah, and so are New York and San Francisco. Chicago’s grid has the added benefit of forcing you to memorize the early presidents in order.

Before going to Chicago, on David B’s recommendation I read Devil in the White City, a book that runs the parallel courses of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and Dr. H. H. Holmes one of the first serial killers who used the fair as a lure for victims. It bills itself as pure history; historians I know roll their eyes when that is said. There’s plenty of research in the book; there’s also plenty of conjecture. It’s You Are There history.

The author, Erik Larson, is better on the Fair and its architects than he is on Holmes. It’s probably a good thing, but he has an easier time making more comprehensible men such as Daniel Burnham and Frederick Olmstead come to life than a psychopath such as Holmes who is fascinating in a grisly way, but ultimately reads as a cardboard cutout villain.

That said, Larson does some great things in this ripping yarn. The conjunction of the two plot threads isn’t just historically correct; Larson teases out the opportunity and energy in both Chicago and fin de siècle America that fed both builders and madmen. It’s a portrait of a city and a country that rings true. Larson also pays special attention to architecture that opens your eyes. It could also be that my friends David B. in Chicago (whom I just visited) and David S. who just moved to Atlanta from San Francisco are an architect and a landscape architect respectively. I found myself noticing the lampposts on Madison Avenue as my bus moved uptown on the way to Boston, and staring upwards at cornices and molded decorations.

Larson’s book captures one of Chicago’s most vigorous architectural periods; a trip downtown will bring you face to face with some of the buildings described, except, alas, the World’s Fair itself. What remains of it is far to the south; David took me there on my first visit to Chicago. My hotel (the Club Quarters Central Loop – gotten again on Priceline for $68/night) is right next to the Rookery, which housed the firm of Burnham and Root. Go to see the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre and you are in Adler and Sullivan’s masterpiece. To cap it off, go up the stairs in the Art Institute of Chicago towards their phenomenal Impressionist collection. There is an exhibit of fragments of ironwork and moldings from buildings designed by these very architects. You really are there.

After lunch with David on Monday, as he said with satisfaction the first day above freezing in Chicago in more than a month, I had two hours to kill before heading to O’Hare, and they were profitably spent at the museum. With only that length of time, I decided to see only the Impressionist and American collections, but that means one sees Caillebotte’s amazing scene of Paris in a drizzle, Seurat’s La Grande Jatte and van Gogh’s haunting and claustrophobic picture of his room in Arles. The American collection has Hopper’s brilliant Nighthawks and the iconic American Gothic, a painting that's a good deal better than the image that resides in everyone's imaginations. It was an excellent farewell to a vigorous city.

And to make mischief . . . Franklin looks very hot in leather.

⟨skips merrily away&rang

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February 17, 2007

At some point I had to experience the delay from hell

Five hours. I left the office at 6pm. I got to my hotel in downtown Chicago at 4:15 am local time.

It wasn't weather or runway, but the lack of a flight crew.


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February 13, 2007


I’ve always found borders fascinating.

I grew up in Mamaroneck, 26 miles to the north of New York City. The boundaries were complicated. There was a town and village of Mamaroneck; we lived in the unincorporated zone of the village. Four houses up the street, our neighbor’s home had its front yard in the village of Mamaroneck and its back yard in the town of Rye.

In 1979, when I was 15 I went to Finland for the summer and I stayed about 60 km from the Russian border. The family I stayed with asked a man, I think it was someone in the Finnish army, to take me there as a favor so I could see it. I was staying in Taaveti, to the east of Lappeenranta; Nuijamaa was to the west. I don’t remember much about the trip, though for some reason I have a feeling we took it in a Lada, but I have a snapshot of the border in my head. A grassy zone, yellow signs, coniferous forest beyond and a watch tower. As we gazed down at it, the man cautioned me about the border zone; walk into it and you risked getting shot. We stayed a safe distance behind.

The border was in the middle of a forest with no distinguishing feature to mark it. Like much of the border the United States and Canada, it was arbitrary. At least there is a river to cross between here and Mexico.

Among the possessions I lost when a box didn’t get loaded on a van during a move from 50th Street to 56th Street were my coin collection from childhood, my cookbooks (the loss I felt the most) and a photo album of a trip I took with my friend Dale to the Gaspé in 1986. We circumnavigated the peninsula and on the way back, stopped in a little hamlet called Estcourt. There’s a picture Dale took of me, now lost. I’m smiling, wearing a new sweater I had bought at Holt Renfrew in Quebec City and straddling the earth. One of my feet is in the United States, the other in Canada. There’s no difference in the ground or the features in the space between my feet, but one is in one country and one in another.

The town itself was as curious. The majority of it was in Canada, a small corner of it where we stopped in the United States. This part contained about four or five houses; families slept in Canada and ate breakfast in the U.S.. There was also a gas station, a drive in movie theater and a post office, all used to advantage by the Canadian residents. Amusingly enough, there was also a customs office. The thing was, the road from the town into the United States led into the Deep North Woods reserve, then petered out to nowhere. It was in the U.S., but you couldn’t get to it from there. All the cheap American gas had to either come from Canada or be shipped through it.

I get a small thrill from border signs. They demarcate a road trip and fill one with anticipation. “Connecticut Welcomes You”, “Welcome to Massachusetts” and then Boston approaches. “Welcome to New York, The Empire State” on I-95 means the lights of Manhattan will be visible in about half an hour. Border signs in other languages are even more exciting, “Bienvenue à Canada” or “Croeso I Gymru.” The drive from Bristol to Wales has a potently tangible boundary; crossing the Severn over the huge span of a new bridge that takes several miles to traverse.

The summer of 1987 was my first year up at Burklyn Ballet. I was a counselor; one Sunday when we were off, I took two of my favorite students, Virginia Batson and Alison Roper on a pleasure drive. Northern Vermont is astonishingly beautiful in the summer; one of the great pleasures is to just get lost. We headed north, probably towards Enosburg about an hour’s drive over country roads away.

We headed to the border. It was the country on a beautiful summer’s day; it didn’t occur to me I was transporting two minors without identification across an international boundary. Even only a few years ago there was less fear of kidnapping or terrorism; we crossed without incident. I can’t recall whether we were leaving the U.S. or returning, but we stopped at the border to take a picture, much like the one Dale had taken of me in Estcourt, and then we piled in the car to cross the border.

I’ve never had a car searched quite so thoroughly before.

The main border crossing in Vermont is at the end of I-89; an efficient toll site that takes one towards Montreal. One day a few years later, my friend Amy and I crossed that border in an enormous 1983 Oldsmobile Delta 88. We were randomly stopped at the checkpoint and examined. The immigrations officer asked Amy if she seeking work in Canada. Amy, who was just shy of 18 and auditioning for ballet companies, answered innocently “No, but I’d like to someday.” They smiled and let it pass. A small Quebecoise woman asked to look at the car. “Can you open the hood?”


She looked at me quizzically.

“I really can’t.” I explained. “I don’t know how.” My father had given me the car right before I left. I was living in New York, and only used it in the summer and then when I left the city to work in small ballet companies. I filled it with gas and turned the key; I had no clue how the thing worked.

We did get the hood open and I stared at the enormous engine that I had never seen before in awe. I opened the trunk with alacrity; I was already embarrassed enough and at least that I knew how to open. The trunk was empty, a yawning cavern from a time when cars where huge. The inspector was short and lifted herself into the trunk to check for hidden items. She seemed to disappear into the trunk as Amy and I looked at each other, fighting giggles. Mischief always presents itself at the most inappropriate moment; it seemed way too easy to just close the trunk and drive off with an angry inspector inside.

The border from Vermont to Quebec is arbitrary at that point but the topography changes quickly, the horizon lengthens and flattens quickly once you enter Quebec. The excitement of a border is the excitement of change and transformation. It may not feel different when you cross from Connecticut to Massachusetts, but why does it when you cross from England to Wales, from Finland to Russia, from the United States to Canada?

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February 4, 2007

Four nice things about San Francisco

Tina LeBlanc – 42 year old mother of two. Danced the lead in Divertimento No. 15 on Friday, a lead in both The Dance House and Blue Rose on Saturday night and a lead in Artifact Suite on Sunday matinee. Looks fabulous. We hate her.

Artifact Suite – for someone as ambivalent about Forsythe as I am, these are strong words, but it’s the best ballet of the post-Balanchine/Ashton era. The first part is gimmicky with a fire curtain dropping with a clunk to the audience’s giggles, but the second part is an atomic age ballet blanc of extraordinary power. It’s on program one on Feb 8 and matinee and evening on the 10th. If you can see it, don’t miss it.

EOS Wine Bar
– My friend Don and I went to dinner there before Saturday evening’s performance so I didn’t drink, but the food there is marvelous. It’s “fusion” which is more gimmicky as a concept than a result. The food is delicious, roasted Brussels sprouts with sesame, winey dumplings stuffed with shiitake in mushrooms, sea bass and especially black pepper filet with eggplant.

Opal Hotel – A very solid hotel bargain. $44 a night on Priceline got me a room. The décor is uninspiring (mmm, tan!) but the rooms are clean and the bed is comfortable. The price includes in room wired access (bring a long Ethernet cable), a fitness center with only barbells but good Lifecycle cardio equipment, and a convenient if uninteresting breakfast. The staff is helpful even if the room I got was close to the elevator. For $44, I wasn’t complaining.

Of course, the nicest things about San Francisco are Peter, Mark, Randy, Jim, Don, Jenny, Rachel, Paul and Helene. The only thing missing is David.

Be back home tomorrow.

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January 14, 2007

$17 off a jetBlue flight one way, $34 off r/t

From Fatwallet via Flyertalk

From an Ad in Seventeen Magazine

Receive $17 off the purchase of one-way jetBlue air travel

800-jetblue or jetBlue website

Enter promo code SEVENTEEN between 1/13/07 & 2/14/07 and receive $17 off
all published one-way fares between above dates. Travel must be complete by 2/14/07.

Only available for new travel directly through jetBlue.

Ad States "limited availability".

I checked and it does take the $$ off both ways on a round trip. I am not sure if this is helpful for anyone, but if you need a quick trip from one of the locations jetBlue travels... hopefully this can save someone a few dollars.

This is an OK deal for a transcon, but a great deal for a less expensive short hop. JFK-Pittsburgh roundtrip is $45 with taxes, Chicago is $65.

Who can afford to stay home?

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January 3, 2007

Fare Glitch on CO - JFK/LGA to SFO for $158 + tax

This smells like a mistake; someone may have loaded a round trip fare for the one way cost.

LGA or JFK (not EWR) to SFO via IAH (translation for those who do not speak Airport Code - JFK or LaGuardia in NYC to San Francisco airport via Houston) is available for $158 roundtrip plus tax - a major sale. I grabbed it on Travelocity for $195 total, but it's now shown up on continental.com. I grabbed it for the first weekend in February to see San Francisco Ballet programs 1 and 2.

Dates available through March 9; my guess is it will be pulled very soon.

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December 22, 2006

NYC- Chicago fare sale

There are really good deals right now from all NYC airports to O'Hare. I believe jetBlue started with a promotion fare of $49 each way that the major carriers matched, then Airtran upped the ante to $39 and several carriers matched, including Continental and American, which has convenient non-stops and is discounting every day including weekends. I priced leaving 4/6-9 (out late Friday, back early Monday) $98.60 total. At that price, why stay home?

If you're a true miles whore, register for this AA promotion, take three round trips before February 28 and get 25,000 bonus miles. Note to balletomanes: The Joffrey is doing Destiny's Dances a triple bill of Les Presages, Apollo and The Green Table from Feb 14-25. It would be eminently worth traveling to see, but they are also doing almost the same program (Deuce Coupe instead of Les Presages) nearby at the Tilles Center on March 9 and 10 and SUNY Purchase on March 11. Alas, it's Les Presages that I want to see, so I just may be going to Chicago in February. American's flights at that time are about $148 total, but Continental has the $78 sale fare on 2/16-19.

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October 21, 2006

Portland: Coming and Leaving II

Bernie dropped me off at the hotel and I met my friend Joan Schrouder shortly after to go to Oregon Ballet Theatre. Joan is a knitting buddy. She teaches nationally; she and I met a decade ago at Stitches. After a quick Thai meal we walked to the Keller Auditorium. The crowd milling in front of the theater was more dressed up than I had anticipated; I forgot this was the opening night of the season.

When I invited Joan, I described the program as being “a great program for someone who doesn’t get to go to the ballet all the time.” This isn’t an insult; that’s 99% of OBT’s audience. We’re spoiled in the dance capitals. The company was bringing The Four Temperaments and The Concert to Portland for the first time. It was heartening to see the house very full. OBT danced 4Ts as I’ve seen other smaller regional companies do it – like a precious gift. It’s great to see it from a fresher perspective. Francia Russell, artistic director Christopher Stowell’s mother (and director emeritus at Pacific Northwest Ballet) set this version – which is slightly different than City Ballets (think pink lampshades instead of white ones). We know each other tangentially from the series of interviews I did with her in 1997 about Agon and Melissa Hayden’s coaching sessions at the Balanchine Foundation but we’ve talked more often than she’s seen me. I waved at her from my seat and she returned the greeting with the sickly look I recognized from the times I’ve had to warmly greet someone while I was racking my brains trying to figure out who they were.

A group of PNB dancers (I recognized Benjamin Griffiths and Jordan Pacitti) were two rows behind me to cheer on their fellow dancers; sure enough, there was Peter.

“You again!” I pointed at him in mock accusation.

“You’re everywhere,” he said, bemused.

The best part of all was that Joan loved the evening. It’s such a joy to take someone to the ballet that doesn’t usually get to go.

Sunday morning I was scheduled to meet internet knitting buddies at Mabel’s, a yarn shop/café. Just as I was about to find the #4 bus Gary called and asked me if I wanted a ride in the rain. We drove through bohemian neighborhoods across the Willamette River. I met Duffy and Melissa there and we spent a relaxing morning knitting and gabbing. I worked primarily on the sleeve of Owen Robert’s Aran. Duffy was starting the toe of a sock; Melissa was working on afghan squares in a mauve ombre alpaca and Gary was making a very simple scarf but in the most tactile yarn – Jo Sharp Alpaca Georgette. Really tasty stuff; we were all copping a feel. I took a tour round the shop, but beyond the Blackberry scone (thank you, Gary!) and the almond hot chocolate; I remained on my yarn diet.

I met Bernie and his daughter Gwen at the matinee. Gwen is getting ready to go down to Miami City Ballet to study at the school. Unfortunately but understandably, the Keller auditorium was more sparsely populated than at the opening and the performance was slightly weaker. One of the big differences between a smaller company and a major one is the depth of the company in casting. That’s a direct function of size. OBT may double cast each ballet, but they don’t really have two casts.

After the performance we walked around the fountain directly opposite the theater and I took a picture reminiscent of the Japanese Gardens.


We then went out for the seafood I had been craving at Jake’s. When in Portland, go to Jake's (Yes, it's part of a chain. No, it doesn't taste that way at all.) Get the crab and shrimp cakes, and also the Dungeness Crab Leg cocktail. They go perfectly together. If you ask nicely, the waiters might do half orders (ours added a crab cake to the plate to make for even splitting). I placed myself in the amiably pushy waitress' hands (I like waitresses who tell you what’s particularly good on the menu) and she insisted I have the locally caught wild salmon and then the Chocolate Bag for dessert. The salmon was cedar plank roasted with slight woody tang and exactly as she promised, the chocolate bag containing white chocolate mousse and berries in raspberry sauce was lighter than the description made one suspect. It was an absolutely wonderful meal, as was the company.

On Monday morning the sky began a sodden gray, but as in Vermont, the weather in Portland changes rapidly because of the mountains. It brightened up about an hour later and I had just enough to have time for a walk along the river – the hotel was right next to it. There were flocks of geese, leaves turning colors, boats and joggers.


I bought a blueberry muffin from a shop on the walk and sat down on a bench to watch the river.



By the time I rode back to the airport on light rail it was overcast again, but the scenery was still lovely with grays, greens and yellows. Portland, like Seattle, is a city that prides itself on quality of life; clean public transit and free wifi in the airport. It seems almost quaint to a New Yorker, we don’t do “quality of life” here. But then again, we can’t.

On the walk back from the river just as I got back to the Four Points, I paused to admire a climbing rose on the side of the hotel. Most of the flowers were fading, but lower down one was still in full flower.


It was a lovely way to say goodbye to the City of Roses.

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October 20, 2006

Portland: Coming and Leaving I


In four weekends I will have crossed the country three times. You wouldn’t think anyone would do this for pleasure, would you? The oddest thing about this was the productivity of these trips. I get a lot done on the plane and because of the three hour earlier time difference, a lot done in the early morning – knitting, writing and reading.

My route to Portland was an American Airlines transcon to SFO, connecting from there to PDX. I’ve taken the JFK-SFO flight several times before, but this time as I landed I realized my SFO-PDX flight wasn’t on AA metal; it was a codeshare on Alaska Airlines. With a sense of foreboding, I asked the man next to me if American and Alaska were in the same terminal. Of course they’re not. I have just over an hour between flights and headwinds are making the plane 10-15 minutes late. The sprint wasn’t desperate, but it was brisk; I had to leave terminal 3 and walk to terminal 1. You have to leave the secure area, but the buildings are connected by an interior corridor. The route is odd because it passes through what seems like a deserted concourse; you’re convinced you’ve gone the wrong way, but if you press on, the Alaska concourse is there. I had to check in yet again at Alaska and the self serve machine didn’t work, so I needed to wait for the ticket agent. At this point it was 7:24 and the flight left at 8:03. I knew I would make it, but I wasn’t thrilled about having to (politely) get his attention and tell him that I really needed him to check me in. Now. At security – which had a grand total of ONE checkpoint until they took pity and opened a second I showed the guard my boarding pass and he let me jump ahead in line.

Alaska Airline’s flight to Portland isn’t much more than an hour (think NYC to Boston or DC) and getting from PDX to the hotel is simple; the city has comfortable direct light rail for $2. The ticket machines even take credit cards. It took between 30-45 minutes to get to the city center, and a few minutes to orient myself and find the Sheraton Four Points. It was about 11 pm or 2 am in my body. There was one person at check-in. Alas, in front of me were a group of ladies with hairdos. They wanted to know about the garage. They wanted to know about billing. They wanted to know about rollaway cots. I put my head on the counter and started sobbing.

Once the ladies with hairdos were dispatched (it was bloodless) I settled into my room and found a deli a block away. The Four Points is a typical of the brand; smaller rooms and fewer services than a full Sheraton and less public space, but acceptable if you don’t need the services. Both wired and wireless is free, but wireless is unreliable – the signal petered out a few rooms up the hall. Luckily, I keep a 14 foot Ethernet cable packed in my suitcase. The hotel staff is very polite and competent, but there are too few of them. My room didn’t get cleaned the next day until after 6 pm.

I walked around the next morning, and saw a sign for Todai, a seafood buffet that also has a branch in NYC. Mmm. Fish. The buffet was on the fourth floor of a mall, after the meal in my distraction from trying to reach people on my cell phone I went to the bottom floor of the escalator, not realizing it was below street level. I spent five minutes trying to figure my way out of the mall.

In New York City, though the seasons change and you know it from the light and the temperature, you don’t always connect with the change; my usual walk to work doesn’t take me past many trees. Portland was coming into high color in an almost New England manner – maples in scarlet and yellow – and it was my chance to connect with fall.

A friend from Ballet Talk, Bernie, met me in the afternoon for a driving tour of downtown. Portland’s downtown is clean, charming and manageable. It seems to be from two different fin-de-siècles. Yes, we went past Powell’s. Bernie noticed me glomming endlessly on the trees and took pity; we went to Washington Park.


and saw the Rose Garden breathe its last soft sighs before the winter as well as the beautiful Japanese Garden. I’d say the garden is stunning, but it’s too contemplative to describe it that way. It’s on a few terraced acres and has several different aspects.

There are two Zen gardens, one (pictured) of sand



and one of weathered stones. Portland skyscraper seen through Bonsai.


The views everywhere were beautiful. Like the Bonsai, the entire garden was nature forced into ideals; an entire garden rigorously planned, pruned and bound to look “natural”.


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October 14, 2006

New Yorkers are very rare and delicate creatures

As Andrew Holleran said in Dancer from the Dance about Sutherland, we're like sea urchins or other fragile underwater creatures. Remove us from our pressurized environment and we perish.

Greetings from Portland, Oregon. I just spent five minutes trying to figure out how to exit a mall.

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October 2, 2006



I sometimes wonder about my willingness to travel great distances for only a short period; it took as long to get here as to get to London. It was worth it; Seattle is quite pretty and it was a very productive weekend.

United Airlines flight 689 to Seattle involved a plane change at O’Hare but both planes operated with the same flight number. I packed lightly and dutifully put my toiletries in a Ziploc bag as part of our country’s ongoing War on Moisture. Security lines were slightly longer than I recalled but this was a peak time. At 3 pm on Friday it took about 20 minutes from arrival to the gate. I had requested to upgrade my fare with miles, but United had sent the wrong plane; an Airbus 320 that was part of their TED fleet instead of a Boeing 757. TED planes are all coach seating; I got no upgrade but what the hell, the fare was $141 roundtrip. I bet there were at least a few mildly ticked off elite passengers. A fellow in my row was bumped out of Economy Plus into a middle seat of . . .what’s the regular area called? Steerage? Economy Minus? Because of the late arrival of the incoming plane and runway delays at LaGuardia we were nearly an hour late into O’Hare; we arrived in B concourse and my connection to Seattle left from C17 in 33 minutes. I’m glad I packed light. I sprinted to C17 and said to the gate agent, “Hi, I just arrived from the New York leg of flight 689. Do I have time to pee?” Luckily, I did.

The ORD-SEA leg was on the proper aircraft (do they levy a fine for flying an Airbus into Sea-Tac airport, original home town of Boeing?). An hour into the flight I realized that the woman behind me was also knitting a sock, so that led to a very pleasant conversation that passed the hours until landing. We made up time on this leg so I only arrived in Seattle 30 minutes late and took the Kings County public bus into downtown. It’s the most inexpensive way to get downtown ($1.25) but there was quite a cast of characters on the bus; several inebriated vagrants, one of whom shouted “WOLVERINES!” when we hit Michigan Avenue, a pack of black girls jeering the vagrants and in the front several hapless tourists including me, all clutching our suitcases bemusedly. It wasn’t at all threatening. Just odd.

I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel at about 11:30 pm PDT. I left the office at around 1:45 pm EDT so it was more than half a day’s journey and my body thought it was 2:30 am. Though I arrived late, luck was on my side. The nice desk clerk gave me a corner room (perhaps a junior suite? It’s a living room and a small bedroom) on the 21st floor with views.






So they’re of the highway, what the heck. The large buff colored building down the highway at the right is the headquarters for Amazon.

The Renaissance a nice hotel, though about due for a renovation; the decor feels slightly stale. At the price I paid ($65/night), no complaints at all. Free wireless in the lobby; a fitness center on the 28th floor. The fitness center is not great, not merely because the treadmill attacked me without provocation. There’s one Universal weight machine and no bench so weight training is limited to impossible. If all you want to do is use a stair climber or treadmill, it should be fine. There is a pool and whirlpool as well.

My friend Sandi and I met the next day and we caught up and then played tourist. Lunch was at Maximilien in the public market; the food was good, the view of the sound lovely (Sandi obligingly pointed out the mad parasailors madly parasailing in the cold water). The service was fine until when Sandi requested the check and the waiter pointedly put it in front of me because I was the man. Dude, I know you’re French, but it’s Seattle.

We played tourist and walked through the Public Market. I got fresh doughnuts from one stand; Sandi went to her favorite bakery and got croissants; in between we went to a cheese maker. As Sandi noted, they eat well out here. I’ve been to Seattle for only three short visits, but it did seem to be a city that prides itself on lifestyle. After lunch, we did a drive along the water – several different waterfronts. Seattle’s surrounded by them. In the evening, we went to PNB together.

I haven’t seen Peter Boal since well before he left for Seattle; we spotted each other immediately as he came from backstage into the auditorium. It was a warm meeting, but we each were trying to be respectful of the fact that there was a professional conflict; I was reviewing his company. What the hell, at this point I’m used to it. I’ve written my review and honestly believe it’s not different than what I would have written had I not known him. It was not, however, the review I thought I would write. I took a different angle. I assumed I would spend most of the review on Carla Körbes – for a New York audience she’s the most newsworthy thing – but she only danced in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and did fine, but she’s not a natural choice for the role; she’s a little too soft. So the review became more general. The company looks fine; rather than coming in and overhauling, Peter has mostly continued the work Kent Stowell and Francia Russell started.

I saw the matinee the following day. Walking there I took Sandi’s doughnut suggestion and stopped off at Top Pot Doughnuts, considered Mecca for the doughnutophile. I had a maple dipped old fashioned and a Double Trouble (a chocolate glazed chocolate doughnut). They were cakey and moist, but I’m about as discerning with doughnuts as I am with wine. I liked the ones I had in the Public Market more because they were still warm.

In the Middle got an electric performance from the first cast. Patricia Barker is retiring at the end of the season (Peter announced her farewell performance, which will be put together by him and Barker – as June 10, 2007); her performance in In the Middle was a fine way to say farewell to the role. Carrie Imler sailed through Theme. No surprise, she’s another CPYB girl; I know of three in the company (Imler, Noelani Pantastico and Kara Zimmerman).

For dinner, I wandered to the waterfront because I had a fish craving. I tried Elliott’s Oyster House and spent good money on good fish; a Dungeness Crab cocktail to start and a more elaborate grilled Coho salmon dish. The quality of the both the crab and salmon was quite good, but I still have nostalgia for when there were simple fish dives you could get a plate of broiled fish (and the plate had a blue or red rim), a baked potato in silver foil and two side dishes. I bet Seattle has them; I just don’t know where they are.

I got a tremendous amount of writing finished on this trip; an article on knit care for Knit.1; two pieces revamped from this blog for the newsletter of the Dance Critic’s Association and the PNB review. I even got plenty of knitting done (progress on a pair of socks and a baby sweater – I’ll blog on both soon.) Put me in a clean hotel room with a handsome view and the possibilities are endless.

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September 30, 2006

Beware evil treadmills - or: I am such an idiot.

Greetings from Seattle.

More on the trip later, but I need to tell this story while I'm still laughing.

The fitness center at the Renaissance Hotel (Yay, Priceline! $65 a night and it's a junior suite with a view) doesn't have an elliptical trainer, just stepping machines and a bank of treadmills. I don't usually use a treadmill, but I opted for it.

It's chilly here, so I wore a long sleeve shirt over a t-shirt. I also forgot to grab a towel before I got on the treadmill. Note these mistakes well.

After about 7 minutes of brisk walking I started to work up a decent sweat and tried to take my shirt off. While still walking. This involved letting my headphones dangle dangerously down on the treadmill, pulling my shirt over my head while still trying to walk and. . .before I knew it I had been deposited off the back of the treadmill like an OK, Go video.

For some stupid reason I thought I could just jump back on. A moving treadmill. Yup, I pitched forward, did a facefirst pratfall on the machine and then got transported to the back and unceremoniously off the back again. My pride was skinned more than my knees.

The worst thing was the place of course had five or six other people exercising, and they saw it. I felt like my first cat, Winnie, who used to jump onto the back of my folding chairs, causing them to fold right up onto her. She would slink away embarrassed, "I meant to do that . . ."

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 2:36 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

September 21, 2006

Travel and Priceline Update

I apologize for not posting on this topic for a while, much of the interesting stuff happened in July when I had blog fatigue.

For a few hours on July 11, United Airlines had a fare burp. In trying to match Southwest Airline's sale prices, they inadvertently set round trip prices at the one way fare, so New York to Seattle was as little as $136 including taxes.

I tried to tell people at the time but found the fare was being yanked from united.com even as I was trying to purchase it. Selecting flights, the fare was $136; at the payment page it leaped to $372.

I nearly chalked it up to experience but something told me not to give up so easily. I headed over to Orbitz, then Travelocity. No love for me. Then Expedia. Jackpot. The fare was still there, and I impulsively purchased a weekend in Seattle to see their opening night gala and a flight to Oakland to spend my birthday in San Francisco.

About two hours later when I looked at the calendar and sheepishly realized that I picked the weekend I was to teach entrelac in Long Island to go to Seattle I called Expedia contritely. United allows cancellations without penalty within 24 hours but Expedia adds a $30 administrative fee that I chalked up to experience, and rescheduled for two weeks following.

So I’m traveling quite a bit in the next few weekends. All of it I can blame on either Flyertalk or Fare Compare, the best places to catch wind of short lived sales.

End of September – Seattle. The UA fare burp. "Ooo. I can see Pacific Northwest Ballet." Priceline gave me love as well; Seattle hotel rates dropped for the fall and I got the 3* Renaissance downtown for $65.

Mid October – Portland, Oregon. Caused by AA's mysterious $99 NYC-PDX r/t offered last March. "Ooo. I can see Oregon Ballet Theatre." Priceline is being recalcitrant about Portland. Usually the 3* Doubletree Lloyd Center comes in at below $45. Up until bids of $64/night I was getting straight rejections. Now I am getting “raise your bid by $17 and we’ll let you rebid” so I know I am coming into striking range.

Mid October – San Francisco. Again, the UA fare burp. I have no self control. "Ooo. SF Ballet isn't on. I'm going to San Francisco for my birthday anyway." The routing is odd (I’m going home via LAX), but I’m on United’s P.S. transcontinental service homeward bound, so I upgraded to business class for 15,000 miles as a birthday treat. Little did I realize that my birthday is the beginning of %#^$#% Oracle World, which vacuums up 7000 hotel rooms in the city. I got the Hilton Financial Center for the first two days of my stay for $70, but could get nothing for the last night going up to $115. I have backup reservations at two budget options, the King George Hotel ($119) and the Grant Plaza ($77) – so I will ask local friends to check them out if they go by. If you know anything about either, feel free to comment. An excellent place to make hotel reservations for San Francisco is at HotelRes.com – rates are very competitive and they allow cancellations without penalty.

Mid November – Toronto. Cross-border fares are comparatively expensive – NYC-YYZ is often more than NYC-SFO. American Airlines offers a reduced price award ticket in the winter month; short haul hops of under 750 miles are only 15,000; Canadian destinations (Montreal, Toronto and particularly Halifax) work out to a much better deal than domestic short hauls. “Ooo. I can see National Ballet of Canada's new home at the Four Seasons Opera House.” I stay with my friends John and Chris in Toronto so no Priceline bidding. (John, if you’re reading this entry, can I stay with you?)

Thanksgiving – London. It wasn't in the budget. But then there was the Delta sale inaugurating their JFK-Gatwick route. $304 with taxes included. "Ooo. I can see the Royal Ballet’s triple bill with The Four Temperaments, and new MacGregor and Wheeldon pieces AND see my brother for Thanksgiving." I am so WEAK. Continental matched Delta’s fare, and I was torn between which to take (CO’s flight times were marginally better, but JFK is slightly easier to get to for me than Newark). I had done everything at continental.com but the final purchase details when I realized that my seat assignments were not taking, and instead I was getting a message “seat assignment at gate”. Calling CO, they are not allowing seat assignments to England. I could care less about terrorism. Hijack my plane and blow me up, but blow me up when I am sitting in an aisle seat, preferably when I can bring a bottle of water and @$&^%$! shampoo as carry-on. I explained to the sales rep that I knew it was not her decision, but they had lost a sale because I would not take the risk of being in a middle seat for 7 hours and booked on Delta. I then corrupted the perennially stylish Eve Ng, who wanted to visit her daughter in London but was hesitating until she saw the price. I booked Eve’s hotel for her, the Copthorne Tara in Kensington where I stayed last October; $92/night – I got it last year for $69. Prices on Priceline fluctuate strongly according to demand but there is a trend up as occupancy has improved. I have not yet booked my hotel; I’ll do it after I figure out when I am going to see my family in Bristol.

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September 11, 2006

A Day in Boston

I made a grand fraternal gesture yesterday. My brother flew in from the UK for a conference in Boston. He didn’t know the city, nor knew anyone there and he had two days to kill before the conference began, so I took an early bus up to Boston to spend the day with him.

Though it meant getting up obscenely early (for me, at least) on a Sunday, I had a great time. The 9:00 am bus was only about 30% full and got to Boston half an hour before scheduled arrival at 1:20. My brother was staying at the Hyatt Financial Center gotten (of course) via Priceline. Boston tends to be a very tight hotel market; I did the last minute bidding for moving upwards from $85. I had seen previously accepted bids at $120, but I got to $120 only to be rejected. With only two bidding opportunities left after free rebidding and no time to wait for a clean slate to re-bid, I raised to $130 and got the room for him.

The hotel is only a few blocks from Chinatown; I dragged Harry on the inevitable pilgrimage to New Saigon Sandwich, where I got a chicken teriyaki banh mi. He got roasted chicken and noodles and summer rolls; we took it all to eat in the Public Gardens by the swan boats.


After our impromptu picnic, I took him on a mini-tour of Boston.


First stop, my favorite church in Boston, Trinity Church. On Sunday entrance requires a tour, so we did not take the time. I stopped for nostalgia’s sake at 669 Boylston Street. The top floor was Marie Paquet’s studio, where I studied ballet in 1983-4 before I moved back to New York City. As time goes on, Boston is more and more like a room that I recognize, but someone’s moved all the furniture around. The entry at 669 no longer leads to the rest of the building; it’s only for the Aveda salon downstairs. From there, across Exeter Street and down Commonwealth Avenue, across Hereford Street past Marlborough and Beacon Streets, then over to the Charles River. We walked up the banks of the river, watching sailboats race and a particularly aggressive flock of geese worry some fallen apples and each other.

We left the river at the Hatch bandshell and walked up Beacon Hill. I know Back Bay very well from my years in school and immediately after – I went into Marie’s studio daily – but almost never had a reason to go to Beacon Hill. At first I thought the lamps had been refitted to electricity but on closer inspection I think they are still gas.


Coming back to Beacon Street, we walked past the gold-domed state house, and found our way back to the hotel. After a brief shopping excursion (what anyone who lives in the UK does when they visit the US) we went for decent Thai food at Montien Thai – right around the corner from Saigon Sandwich on Kneeland Street.

From there, he accompanied me to the bus station (a walk of only a few blocks) and I got on the 8 p.m. bus. It was packed full – I didn’t expect anything less from the next-to-last bus on a Sunday night, but the traffic was even better; we were at the gate of the Port Authority by 11:30 pm. The bus ride was slightly longer than the visit – I spent just under eight hours on the road – but it was profitably spent. I managed to knit a cap in DK weight yarn in its entirety.

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June 9, 2006


While in Wales, we went on a walk in a bird sanctuary at Llyn Brianne, during which we did not see a single bird of interest besides what one of us termed “LBJ’s” – Little Brown Jobbies. What we did see was the woods carpeted in bluebells. It was as if we were walking in a purple-blue sea amidst the foliage.



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June 8, 2006

Actually Knitting to Relax

Usually I hate the question asked if someone sees me knitting, “That’s very relaxing isn’t it?” Yesterday, I knit to calm down for the first time in a while. When I came to check in at 1 pm at the Hilton London Euston, after a 2.5 hour bus ride from Bristol and schlepping my heavy bags from Victoria to Euston on the underground, the clerk first asked me umpteen questions only useful for marketing (you don’t need my phone number in the US, and you don’t need my email address. GIVE ME MY ROOM.) Then he tried to downsell me into a single room when I had paid for a double - something hotels occasionally try and do if you've gotten the room on Priceline. I don't care if I'm only one person, the terms of Priceline are double accommodation. Do not even try and give me a single room - I deliberately use Priceline in London to avoid single rooms the size of closets. Then he told me to come back at official check-in, 3 pm. I went to the plaza outside of Euston Station and knit several squares of Fair Isle entrelac to release the pressure from the steam building between my ears.

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June 7, 2006

What kind of animals does one see in Wales?

One sees


Sheep (this one moved to the side of the road after stopping our car)


Peacocks (this one lives in Cardiff Castle, where I spent the afternoon knitting with Emily and Brenda!)



Basset Hounds (this one lives at Carlton House, where we dined, and is named Alex)

We even saw them on Tuesday instead of Thursday. Take that, Tbogg!

Off to catch a bus back to London - will talk to you again when I find net access!

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 2:28 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 18, 2006

My hovercraft is full of eels . . .

I apologize for the recent blogging silence – I’m leaving for Russia next Wednesday (!) and I’ve been trying to clear stuff off my plate.

I guess I am about as ready as I will ever be: Did I finish any of the books I bought about St. Petersburg to read? Nope. I got about half way through Kchessinka’s memoir, and will probably bring that and Solomon Volkov's book with me, as well as the guides. Tonight, I watched Russian Ark with a friend. I have also been using the Pimsleur Basic tapes. I studied Russian for a year in college, so it’s resurrection rather than new learning. I find the method effective – these work with purely spoken language and have no written component, but it forces one to converse. Still, as I walk down the street saying
Что бы Вы хотели? I keep thinking of the Monty Python Sketch with the Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook: “My hovercraft is full of eels.

I found a walking tour to take the first day I am there; I will try to arrange something to Peterhof and the Hermitage as well. I recently spoke to Alexandra, she insisted that I go to the Yusupov Palace; she filmed a part of a documentary there. How could I refuse?

I redeemed 120,000 Goldpoints for the four nights at the Radisson, and amazingly that happened pretty much as I predicted. I’ll reconfirm reservations for everything including the Marriott and Radisson over the weekend, and see about airport transfers.

In the end, I used Priceline for my London hotels, in the Bloomsbury-Marble Arch zone rather than cheaper but more distant Kensington. I’m staying first at The Cumberland at Marble Arch, then the Hilton London Euston – opaque bidding in London especially is a grab bag. The Cumberland went for $102/night ($100 was not accepted) and the Hilton for $103. With taxes in both cases it’s about $125/night; a decent price in London for an acceptable hotel. In between those stays I go to Bristol to visit family with an afternoon in Cardiff to visit fellow knitters! Being cheap, I do that via bus for £1.

Now that I've finished scheming for this vacation I've exhausted my Asia Miles, Goldpoints and Marriott points. But I have not exhausted my scheming. Currently, I'm about to finish up accumulating enough TrueBlue points on jetBlue for a free flight. I earned half of them on the two trips to California; I figured I would apply for the jetBlue Amex so I could get the flight. I’m also collecting USAir miles via their co-branded Juniper card, as well as Starpoints and some Marriott points via a targeted double point offer.

So where do I want to go?

Here's the list:

Australia-New Zealand

to say nothing of return trips to Buenos Aires and Chicago as well as other repeat destinations (London, San Francisco, Paris, Toronto) .

Anybody feel like going?

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May 7, 2006

City of Big Showtunes III – A Chicago Journal

As with Saturday, I spent Sunday morning alternately writing and procrastinating. That’s why I get to write articles on project management! I took the Red Line uptown to Uptown – David’s neighborhood (he lives equidistant from the Lawrence and Argyle stops). I told him I would call him when I was approaching so that he could meet me at the station (the ride is 20-30 mins). “David, I’m at Addison, who are all these people in funny hats with “C”s on them and why are they all getting off the train?” I had timed my trip to coincide with the rush of Cubs fans heading for a game at Wrigley Field.

David met me at the station; I already had plans for lunch. When we had walked to Argyle the night before on the way to the Joffrey I saw that this was a neighborhood packed with Vietnamese and Thai restaurants and joy of double happinesses, there was a Vietnamese Bakery selling Banh Mi. I think I am making it a rule to try Banh Mi in every city I visit. The irony is I have never eaten one in New York. The bakery is called Ba Le and is mentioned on Chowhound and other online food sites, though I found it by serendipity. We split a Chao Tom – shrimp wrapped in sugar cane and a BBQ pork (thit nuong) Banh Mi. It falls well above those I have had in Toronto, but below those in Boston or San Francisco. The bread is baked on the premises, but heavier than in SF and Boston and the pork filling a bit less interesting. David also got a banana tapioca dessert that tastes suspiciously enough like vanilla yogurt that I think it is mislabeled. Sandwiches are $2.95 apiece; we spent about $8 with tax.

I wouldn’t have done this in New York, but since I am in Chicago and not knowing when I will have an opportunity to try these restaurants again, I convince David that the Banh Mi was but an appetizer and drag him across the street to one of the pho restaurants; Pho Xe Tang, or “Tank Pho”. The logo is, unnervingly a military tank. The place is absolutely packed, which I take a good sign. We split summer rolls (Goi Cuon) and then both get gringo pho (I#43 on the menu, no tendon or tripe). David was a bit nonplussed by the size of the portion. As Mom said often when I was a kid, my eyes are bigger than my stomach so to his shock I finished the bowl – he made it through about one quarter and took the rest home. Right next to his house there is a community garden; David said that much of the produce grown there was grown by the Vietnamese and ended up in these restaurants. It seemed quite plausible; the bean sprout and herb plate that comes with pho contained some saw-toothed leaves that they don’t include in New York, and I bet were grown a few blocks away. The pho was quite good and the meal for two with tax and tip was $20.

I waddled back to David’s place where Gatsby was waiting. Gatsby is David’s marvelous pooch, a mix of Basenji, Sheltie and probably Shepherd since he is bigger than both the first two breeds. I tried to take some pictures of Gatsby, but sadly the batteries I bought on the trip crapped out after one bad photo (lesson learned – only use alkaline batteries in a digital camera). The most important thing to know about Gatsby is that he has a Kong. To non-dog-owners, this object is a mystery. Dog owners will know it well. I mentioned it to my neighbor Janet and her response was “Oh yes. Mozart [her border collie] has two.” “It’s a fetch toy and it looks like a butt plug,” David explained helpfully. Gatsby, still very active at 11, has a clearly defined Kong ritual, or at least we created one together.

Pace back and forth on the parquet flooring.

Click click click click
Click clickety click clicky.

When the human finally gives in and notices you, drop spittle-drenched Kong in his lap.

Human picks up Kong (gingerly).

Human moves it slowly. Prick up ears and be very attentive.

Human suddenly tosses Kong straight up in air. Leap and make spectacular mid-air catch.

Drop spittle drenched Kong in his lap.


David asked me if I wanted to go to the Art Institute or Oak Park to see more stuff by Frank Lloyd Wright but by this point (2:30 pm) it was too late and I was too lethargic from the meal. What I really wanted to do was take a nap, which I did on Gatsby’s sofa. This suited David, who used the time to potter around and do odd jobs. When I got up, we headed back two stops on the Red Line for my walking tour of Boystown. As we passed Addison on the train, we could see a blue flag hoisted above the stadium with an L. The Cubs lost.

Sidetrack is a Chicago institution. It’s now expanded over four storefronts (David called it “the bar that ate the North Side” and Sunday afternoons seem to be a particular institution. The theme on the video monitors is Showtunes. The gayest show tunes, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Funny Girl. To fully experience it, go to the darker middle bar rather than the airy glass roofed one. That’s where the Showtunes veterans are, and that’s where they shout the alternate lyrics. Think of it as an even gayer “Rocky Horror”. The best I heard was during Evita; the camera moved from Madonna singing to a shot of Antonio Banderas’ face in a crowd, and the regulars shouted, “THERE’S WALDO!” At the tumultuous end came a shower of cocktail napkins and the cheery but long suffering bar back with a broom and dustpan to sweep them up. It’s quite a phenomenon; someone even did a grad school paper on it – but then again, no topic is too arcane for a grad school paper.

Also in the bar I also met Adam, whom I knew from years back when we took ballet classes together. He stayed at the Joffrey and is now helping run the company. We had a long, funny and interesting conversation about the ups and downs of the company. It seems all of Chicago is there on a Sunday afternoon.

From there, David took me to his favorite hangout in Chicago, The Pepper Lounge. This was a perfect complement to Sidetrack; a small and mixed hangout that served good drinks and good food. It’s extremely friendly, but since David is a regular we got even warmer treatment, and a free mini shot of some delicious chocolately poison. David joked that he didn’t take dates there anymore because the proprietor was giving them thumbs up or thumbs down. We stayed at the bar and chatted with Rex, the bartender, who moved to Chicago from San Francisco. Yes, people do that. David felt that Chicago’s winters are exaggerated, but they were taking about days that you had to wear three scarves. To me, bitter is single digit Fahrenheit; they were talking -10°F. NYC definitely has winter, but that’s about 20 degrees colder than deep winter here; we have the ocean and the concrete to warm things up.

David had his signature martini, dirty with blue cheese stuffed olives. Are blue cheese olives a Midwestern thing? I have never seen them at a New York bar. I had some sort of pansy drink that was pink and peachy. I freely admit to being a pussy boy drinker who can't hold his liquor and prefers sissy drinks, preferably those that have umbrellas in them. Because of the enormous lunch, we only had appetizers but the portions were generous enough to serve as dinner. David had the tuna tartare, I had the beef medallions; both were delicious. Prices are not cheap (a drink and an appetizer came to $29 with a generous tip) but I felt they delivered for what they charged.

Fed and buzzed, I headed back on the El to my hotel and my 5:30 am wakeup call. My internal alarm clock didn’t trust the hotel’s and woke me up at 4:00 am anyway. I wrote a bit, checked out and headed to the airport, contemplating a jam-packed flight with an upgrade that did not clear. It took just about an hour again from hotel to gate; but part of that was luck. The security line was horrifyingly long, but the TSA employees started plucking out anyone whose flight was less than an hour ahead; mine was exactly at the cutoff time, so they took me to a concession screening area and I got through in five minutes.

The airport gods kept smiling on me. At the gate I approached the agent and said that I didn’t expect anything but could she check on if an upgrade was possible? “Are you Platinum?” she asked. I am Gold, having slipped from Platinum. She looked and said, “Believe it or not, you’re at the top of the upgrade list and I can clear you.” A mystery, but I have two theories. I made the upgrade request at the time I booked the ticket and I was Platinum at the time – AA seems to rank upgrades on your status at the time of the request, rather than at the time of the flight. Also, earliness of check-in matters, and web check in counts. I checked in online almost as soon as applicable. It was a bulkhead seat without any storage on the floor, but as I said before, it beats coach.

And then a few days later I even got miles for the meals at the Signature and Pepper Lounges!

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May 6, 2006

City of Big Showtunes II – A Chicago Journal

I picked a gray, drizzly weekend to visit Chicago. David took me on a driving tour that started on Lakeshore Drive heading south. As David said about the city “We have a spine” – that spine is Lakeshore Drive. It seemed most of our travel was north or south along it (or on the Red Line El) – in that way it reminded me of my trip to Palm Springs where I spent much of the day either going up or down Palm Canyon Drive. The flowering trees were in bloom in as well as tulips as we headed south.

My friend John lives in one of the other Great Lake Cities, Toronto. When I mentioned Chicago to him, his comment was “They did their waterfront right.” – which was truer than I thought on reflection. Toronto’s long east-west waterfront is little more than condominiums. Chicago made an ordinance that the east side of Lakeshore Drive was public land. The views are unspoiled and the public uses it. We started at the site of the Columbian Exposition. David recommended the book Devil in the White City that interweaves a series of murders concurrent to the exhibition – I’ve ordered the book so it can sit among the pile of books I have yet to read. He turned off at Jackson Park to show me the Golden Lady – the statue of Columbia that guarded the exposition.


It and the Palace of Fine Arts - now the Museum of Science and Industry are the only two original structures left. The building reminded me of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts; both were built for major exhibitions and both had similar caryatids.

We went as far south as the Chicago Cultural Center and then turned back to the campus of the University of Chicago, where I saw what I think is my first Frank Lloyd Wright house – the Robey House from 1907.


David thought the interior was comparatively disappointing, so we headed back to the center of the city and Millennium Park. (Follow the link - it's a great website.)

Millennium Park is the city’s newest showcase. The Harris Theater anchors the park with a bandshell designed by Frank Gehry. You can tell; it looks like a sea anemone made out of crumpled tinfoil. NYCB is coming there in October, much to the delight and anticipation of Chicago Balletomanes. The programs look wonderful, but Good Lord, the prices. Tickets start at $65. Chicago is going to have a great fall for ballet. Besides NYCB, they are getting the Kirov Ballet in Swan Lake at the beginning of November. At the beginning of October, the Joffrey is doing not any old Cinderella, but Ashton’s.

Behind the theater lies “The Bean” – a highly polished arch that has a real name "Cloud Gate", but everyone calls The Bean because of its shape. Walking underneath it and looking up gives the most astonishing optical illusion of being underneath a tower when the vault is only a few feet high. Alas, it doesn't really show in the photo.


Continuing on a bit is Crown Fountain, two towers of cascading water that add modern technology by projecting enormousfaces that pucker and then spew water. Kids love it; I thought it was a wee bit gross, but then, I have a dirty mind.

The Art Institute of Chicago is nearby, but that is enormous and will have to wait for another trip. We walked round the loop instead and looked at the river and the buildings along it. There are glass boxes as in New York, but the feel of Chicago’s skyline seems to come from the early Gothic revival skyscrapers that reminded me of the Woolworth Building here. The Marquette Building, right around the corner from my hotel, houses the MacArthur Foundation (of "Genius Grant" fame – it’s their building) and tiled lobby mosaics reminiscent of the Woolworth Building as well.

Walking back to David’s car, instead of documenting the architecture, I was taken aback by a wedding cake in a Chinese Bakery that was a veritable Habitrail of brides and grooms ascending and descending a multiple cake structure. I assumed it was a leftover from a Unification Church wedding.


That's me taking the picture. Before we got to the car, David’s cell phone rang. It was his friend, Evil Gay Lawyer, who had been stood up (or so he thought) . We headed north once again on Lakeshore Drive to pick him up and get a late lunch or early dinner. Per David Andersonville is where the Swedes were and the Lesbians are. If you’re a Swedish Lesbian, it must be paradise, but I saw neither. We were headed to Jin Ju for Korean Food, but it was not serving yet so went to Ladonna – an Italian restaurant with deliciously silken pumpkin ravioli. I took the waitress’ suggestion and tried the butter and sage sauce instead of the balsamic cream. I’d recommend it, the sage sets off the sweetness of the pumpkin. And Evil Gay Lawyer? Well, it’s only a single impression but I’d say he’s pretty much like his blog.

To simplify David’s life (we’d now headed up and down Chicago a few times) we took the El back downtown to see the Joffrey Ballet do the Cool Vibrations program at the Auditorium Theater. I’m reviewing the program for Ballet Review, so can only comment cursorily here. I was glad to see a full house; Chicago has a notoriously bad record of supporting their ballet companies. I wonder if the reason Joffrey has survived a decade is because they aren’t from Chicago, but rather moved there. The program was a revival of Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe, a new work (Motown Suite) by Donald Byrd and a revival of the first part of Billboards by Laura Dean. Of the three, I found the Tharp piece the most interesting.

It was a very full day. I walked David to the El and headed back to the hotel to transcribe notes and to write an article for Knit Simple for which I was about to blow the deadline. I got it in late, but not so late that anyone minded – the delicious irony was that the article was on how to get your knitting projects done on time.

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May 4, 2006

City of Big Showtunes – A Chicago Journal

In November of last year the airlines had a fare sale to Chicago. I’ve never seen the city, so found a weekend in the spring that the Joffrey Ballet was performing to kill two stones with one bird. I asked my pal David in Chicago about the city; it turned out he hasn’t been to NYC in two decades and the fare worked in both directions. So we decided upon a gay version of AFS. I went there last weekend, he’s coming here next and each gets to show off our city.

I traveled after work on a Friday and flew AA first class; I had upgrade points. Not bad for a $131 fare total. The flight to Chcago is about two and one half hours. On AA it’s on an MD-80, in first class it’s two by two seats with a 39 inch seat pitch and they served dinner. Someone had the brains to cater braised boneless short ribs; a dish that benefits from reheating. AA First Class not the Ritz, but that flight was booked solid and a seat in a full first class is infinitely preferable to a seat in a full coach section.

The El Blue Line runs directly into Chicago; it costs $2 and takes 40 minutes – in my case I was at my hotel a bit under one hour from arrival at the gate. The El runs on a fare card system – there are machines at the terminal; bring dollar bills (the cost is $2) or coins. As far as I could tell, there’s no volume discount on the card, so it doesn’t make sense to pay for several rides at a time except for convenience.

I stayed at the Club Quarters, Chicago Loop on West Adams (Priceline, 3* Loop, $70/night). The neighborhood feels like lower Manhattan in NYC, a business section that is vibrant during the daytime and clears out at night. The hotel itself was perfect for a single traveler; the rooms are compact with double beds, but not at all claustrophobic and well designed for work – but they only have showers rather than bathtubs. I was given a room with a double bed; though more than enough for me, it would have been close quarters for a couple. I didn’t use the fitness center or the lounge, but the lounge was pretty constantly occupied. Service was accommodating; there is free wireless but signal is of varying quality. I’d have no problem staying here again at all.

David picked me up at the hotel and drove north. He is an architect, so pointed out designs and landmarks along the way, although it would have to wait for daylight for me to understand more intuitively the lay of the land. We parked at his office and walked a few blocks to the Hancock Building. The Signature Lounge on the 96th Floor was David’s planned destination. In his opinion, it’s the most reasonably priced view of Chicago, and on the only clear night for the weekend it was quite magical.


The city spreads out for miles below in a rigorous grid and boy, does it seem flat and large. David pointed out sites and told me Chicago lore. We got drinks and mediocre sandwiches, either is about $10 per item. You’re eating and drinking the view.

It had been a long day so I headed back to the hotel afterwards for a full day of sightseeing the next day.

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April 9, 2006

Caveat Emptor – Best Price Guarantees and Londontown.com

You may be familiar with Hotwire's “Double the Difference” guarantee or any of the price matching guarantees that many travel booking sites offer.

Londontown.com has one of the most extravagant of all of them, offering a full four times the difference in price if you find an identical booking for less.

Sounds too good to be true? That’s because it is.

I booked the Kingsway Hall Hotel on Londontown.com for £638 for four nights in a fully cancelable booking. Not only was it not the cheapest price; it wasn’t the cheapest by a longshot. Bookings.org had the same room for £396.

I checked the terms of the offer carefully before filing a claim. Exact same room type. Both rates included V.A.T. Both came without breakfast. Both were fully refundable and neither involved prepayment. So I sent my claim in and waited.

Londontown.com’s acknowledgement states they will get back to you within four working days; after four days I sent in a reminder and waited for a response.

It came a day later, here it is reprinted in full:

Dear Leigh

Money Back Guarantee

Thanks for your email to LondonTown.com and for drawing this cheaper rate to our attention.

In order to be eligible for our Best Price Guarantee your "cheaper rate" needs to meet the terms & conditions outlined on our site: These are the terms and conditions of the Best Price/No Quibble Guarantee offered by LondonTown.com to you in relation to hotel accommodation:

Our promise to you:

1. The website www.londontown.com (the "Website") is owned and managed by London Marketing.com Limited ("London Marketing"). London Marketing GUARANTEES to pay to you 4 times the difference in price if, within 48 hours of making a hotel booking through the Website, you find an "identical offer" not through the Website, which is lower in price than the price advertised on the Website at the time the "identical offer" is found (the "Guarantee").

2. An "identical offer" means an offer which, aside from price, is identical in all respects, such that it can be accessed and booked by the public for the same hotel, same room type, same number of guests, same currency, same applicable taxes, same dates, and the same terms of payment and cancellation.

Unfortunately the offer you located on www.booking.com has a 24 hour cancellation. The booking you made through www.LondonTown.com has a 2pm on the day of arrival cancellation policy.

As your lower rate does not identically match the rate booked through www.LondonTown.com I am afraid that your claim has been unsuccessful.

I hope you have a fantastic time in London.

Best wishes and thank you


Thanks for the good wishes, Nadine. My favorite part is the Orwellian humor of a “No Quibble” guarantee that denies a claim based on the fact that though both rates were fully cancelable, there was a less than 24 hour difference between the two cancellation policies. In short, though this should be no surprise, it would have cost them more than £900 to honor their guarantee. They were going to deny on absolutely anything.

They’re within their rights to do this; the claims were not identical down to the DNA, and as they say in their terms and conditions:

5.London Marketing at its sole discretion will decide whether you have a valid claim under the Guarantee and will, as soon as possible, inform you whether your claim under the Guarantee is valid.
What this translates to is it’s their decision and their choice. They will honor a rate it suits them to honor. I'm glad that I had a fully cancelable rate and I wouldn't have even tried this rate if it were not cancelable without a penalty. They’re not the only one to do this; most of the low-price guarantees aren’t worth the pixels they are printed on because of the identical booking clauses. Octopus Travel had a better rate at the Birmingham Hyatt in England than Hyatt.com. I called Hyatt and they refused to match the rate because the rate on Hyatt.com did not include breakfast and the rate on Octopus Travel did. It was cheaper and included more; therefore it could not be covered by their guarantee. Catch-22. Gary Leff mentioned to me that the same thing happen to him at Starwood. I have, however heard of several people successfully claiming the Double the Difference guarantee at Hotwire.

Looking at their site, Londontown.com had several rates that seemed advantageous but they quote without VAT, which raises the rates considerably. Do they have the lowest prices? Occasionally - I found a few rates that looked better than elsewhere. Will they actually guarantee you the lowest price? No. Does that guarantee mean you’ll get the lowest price? God, no. You’ll only get that the old-fashioned way, by comparison shopping. The guarantee’s purpose is to dupe you, not to protect you.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 10:57 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 6, 2006

Car Culture – Southern California and the desert, III

Lesson about the intersection of one interest group with another: There may be none.

At the Sunday Brunch, the Flyertalkers had a gift exchange. Suggested value was $10; I put in a few electronic gewgaws (wireless card, retracting cable) a wallet (the same kind as I use myself – I think it’s great) and one of the knitted hats I made. It was in a small anonymous red bag. I have no idea how it got picked first.

The geegaws didn’t seem to bother the poor fellow. The wallet confused him – apparently everyone assumed there must be more cash or a gift certificate inside, right? The he pulled out the hat and was utterly flummoxed. Knitters would have known that it was handmade, but this wasn’t a gathering of knitters. I apologized to him afterwards. Next time I’ll do what’s expected of me and slip in a few gift cards instead. It’s cheaper in a sense, and I’ll save my knitting for more appropriate occasions.

I had already checked out of the David Lynch Suites and had a few hours to kill, so two other fellows and I went on a drive suggested by Joe. “Go down 111 a few miles into Rancho Mirage until you hit Monterey or Highway 34 or 134. Turn right, towards the mountains. It’s beautiful up there.”

Monterey is a main intersection; the highway in question is route 174 towards Hemet and San Diego. Well, he didn’t say “you can’t miss it.” We didn’t have time to go too far, but the road wound mountains strewn with pebbles and boulders in a rocky landscape that was almost Biblical in imagery. A few miles up there is a turn off with a scenic view down into the valley.


The three of us drove back, one got dropped off at his hotel, a second drove to Ontario for his 7 pm flight and I went to Joe’s room so I that could change into a black t-shirt and jeans. That would have to pass for appropriate leather-bar drag. We all went to The Barracks.

Oh, the humanity.

I haven’t been to a bar that crowded in a while. I made it with the group about 10 feet on to the back patio, found a few square inches of room behind some sort of sign and slipped in there, having a pleasant conversation with “Dek” most of the time. I haven’t been to a leather bar in ages, either. As Mr. Semi-Fashionable, I must say: Bears are not my thing, though I have nothing against them, nor fur. I admit that I’ve never liked tattoos, but tattoos with hair growing out of them are the be-all and end-all of Yuck.

15 of us headed to dinner at the Red Tomato, a friendly and campy place with decent homey Italian food and Albanian lamb dishes. The Panzanela relish mentioned in the article is delicious; rather like gazpacho as a dip. One of the other guys recommended the lasagna, so I had it. Regarding camp – I forgot to mention it, but there was one waiter at Wang’s who took the prize – probably in his early 40s, dark skinned and a fading beauty who had something to say about everyone’s habits and orders and an ever so special way of pursing his lips. We ended up referring to him as “Bitter Waiter”.

I was taking the red eye that left Ontario at 12:30 am, so I left Palm Springs at 9:15. On the way home I finally figured out how the cruise control on the car worked and almost, just almost got the hang of driving so that I felt comfortable. Even late on a Sunday night with light traffic there was still one 15 minute delay right near I-15. I’m glad I left extra time. The Ontario airport isn’t crowded, but it also isn’t efficient; as I said earlier there are no check-in kiosks for jetBlue, so if you can use online check-in, do it. I slept almost all the flight home and arrived back sleep-deprived, but as with my last California weekend, having packed in a wonderful time.


One last random tip: Neutrogena sunblock is awfully good. I spent all day out in direct sunlight without burning or needing to reapply.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 7:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 5, 2006

Car Culture – Southern California and the desert, II

The jetlag caught up with me on Saturday morning and I woke up exhausted. The Comfort Suites includes breakfast in the price of the room. It’s a negligible affair; cereal, packaged pastry, bagels and toast and the ubiquitous Make Your Own Belgian Waffle machine that everyone (including me) likes to play with. As I was getting cereal an older gentleman in a black t-shirt knocked into me, apologizing profusely. The hotel had about 5-6 tables only in their breakfast area, so there was no where else to sit and I ended up eating with him, and what turned out to be his partner. Though this was not a gay hotel (there are a profusion of those in Palm Springs) it was pretty obvious quickly to all concerned that this was the queer table. It may have been when he started talking about walking down the streets in Amsterdam in full leather while traveling. Turns out he was a periodontist originally from Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. He was a very nice man, but the thought of a periodontist in full leather makes me think of the dentist from Little Shop of Horrors.

I was to meet Joe and the gang to go on the aerial tramway at 11 am. I had asked him how to get there the night before. “It’s about two miles north of town on 111, the main drag. It takes about half an hour to get there. You can’t miss it.”

Ah, but you can.

I ended up going all the way to I-10 not seeing a sign for a turn off to the tram. It also takes a bit more than half an hour from Cathedral City if one is going through town (and taking pictures of the mountains through your windshield).


Turning back from I-10, there is a small sign on 111 heading towards town that indicates that the tramway is half a mile ahead on the right. For the record, the turn (left if heading west, right if heading east) is on San Rafael.

The road to the tramway wends steeply up a mountain for 2.5 miles climbing to 2,000 feet in altitude. I got to the parking lot at 11:25, where a tram takes you to the base station. I made it there at 11:40, after the ticket lines I finally made it on the 12:00 noon tram.

Some people would find a cable car with enormous glass windows (some that open slightly) and a slowly rotating floor to be exhilarating. Some of us just want to lie on the slowly rotating floor and barf. I’m not frightened in an airplane, but this has the same feeling as a Ferris wheel to me; that of stupid danger. I can't help but mentally calculate the drop when one of those 9 lb per inch super sturdy cables malfunctions. The car sways as it passes over each tower. Everyone oohed and aahed. I just wanted to slug someone.


It was about 80 degrees in Palm Springs that day; it was 52 at the top of the tram but there was still snow on the ground. Children were running around making snow angels. Southern Californians think snow is charming. I like winter, but it's not unfamiliar to me, and it wasn’t what I had flown six hours and paid $21.50 to get up to the top of the mountain to see.


A couple from North Carolina, “stsebastian” and “Bluesincenew” (I know fellow Flyertalkers better by their screen names than their given names), were coming up the hillside at the upper station just as I was heading down to explore. They had taken a lightning fast tour; that didn’t inspire much ambition in me either. I walked around for about 15 minutes, came back up and met with a few people in the group and headed down again; staying closer to the center of the car this time.

The Renaissance Faire was what had brought Grace up to Palm Springs, and as she said, “How could you possibly miss the chance to see me in garb?”

As Grace explained, Faire is a little like a sci-fi convention, only in medieval garb. Some people strove for accuracy, many more to satisfy their own fantasies, including the guy with nice pecs and a sword strolling about bare-chested in leather chaps. When I saw him later with his girlfriend I wanted to take him aside and explain that his outfit was really, well . . . gay. But in a good way. And I should know.

Grace was dressed in peasant garb, eschewing the dark heavy fabrics and feathers of the nobles walking about. “Way too hot,” she explained with her usual practicality. We walked about; she was knitting a sock – her concession to period was using double pointed needles (I don’t think that’s a concession for her; I think she uses dpns for sock making. I use Addi 12” circular needles – not everyone likes them but they’re a lot faster for me). I recognized the yarn (Lang Jawoll cotton superwash) and even the color, because I made a pair for myself in that very yarn and color.

For me, the interesting thing about Faire was the sexuality of the subculture. Part of the fun of the dressing was to wear outfits with a codpiece or revealing cleavage. Leather workers sold floggers. We sat down on a bench to talk while Grace knit. A thin gentleman with a curly carrot-colored mane came to the stage behind us and started to busk for his act that would happen in a few minutes.

Grace flinched. “I don’t like him.” We talked for a few minutes more, then tried to leave unobtrusively. He caught us.

“Where are you going?” He shouted after us.

Not wishing to be heckled by someone Grace did not like, I said the one thing I knew he wouldn’t have a comeback for.

“I’m going to poop.” I said cheerily.

We left him sputtering.

Palm Springs and the desert cities (Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indio, et al.) are built on one long spine – Route 111. The weekend felt like endless trips back and forth on that road: to dinner in Palm Springs, then Back to Cathedral City for the martini party, then back to Palm Springs to the tram, then back to Cathedral City to rest, then back to Palm Springs for dinner . . . Everything seems to move on that main drag, and it does not move all that quickly.

Saturday night dinner is the apex of the Gayla and Joe worked like a dog to plan this one. It took place at Wang’s in the Desert, a Westernized "pan-Asian" place that most importantly had a back patio that we could commandeer. The food and drinks were just fine, but the entertainment made the meal. Tommi Rose, a grande dame of the Palm Beach drag scene, had helped Joe put together a brief but lovely evening. Tommi is of the sequined gown school of drag; she worked three separate costume changes including a turn as Mae West. She brought as her associates one tall skinny black queen in a brassiere and bananas who did a Josephine Baker number. It seemed to confuse the audience, but we learned later that was the point – as Joe said later, “to throw you off the scent” before the pièce de résistance of the evening.


We got two. Leo and Michelangelo. Cryptically, Leo seemed to spend more of his time with the women. We wondered why – it was reported later he said that he went to some of the men at first and they didn’t seem interested.

Go figure.

Michelangelo came out; a little fellow with a big chest in an ill-fitting pinstripe suit. The poor tailoring was soon forgiven; Michelangelo may not have been the best dressed gangster on the block, but he knew his trade very well. And in the words of Ren, “huuuuuge pectoral muscles”.

I’m not going to try and describe Michelangelo; I’ll let the pictures talk. What they don’t show is when he took one lucky man, upended him in front of all of us and all but impregnated him. The things some people will do for a buck. In a fit of singularly bad timing, I had visited another table right before the show began and couldn’t get back to my wallet to tip, so no pony rides for me.

From Wang’s, we were to embark on a bar crawl, led by “Olafman”. He suggested that we could go to a piano bar first, then the Hotel Zoso, then Hunter’s. After chatting for a while, three of us walked up the street to find the piano bar, needless to say without quite knowing its name. The search was fruitless, and after a few blocks of back and forth aimless walking we simply went to the Hotel Zoso.

The most eventful thing about Hotel Zoso, besides drinks that were as expensive as in New York City, was the sudden appearance of Kevin Nealon and a very pregnant Brooke Shields. Shields was wearing an Empire waisted gown and Elvira Mistress of the Dark hair. One hopes that Tom Cruise was not anywhere around.

is the sort of big catch-all gay bar that doesn’t exist in Manhattan because land costs too much. I saw two rooms; a main bar area and a discotheque and had a great time dancing with several Flyertalkers. “Fanoftravel” is simply adorable when he dances; he’s all club kid except that he’s from Des Moines and as wholesome as fresh milk. The most interesting thing about the time at Hunter’s was a long conversation with “Missydarlin”, who had been president of the Talkboard, the governing body of Flyertalkers. If that sounds like a silly or overblown job, keep in mind there are 80,000 people on Flyertalk. The dynamics of the group are fascinating to me because of all the years I helped to run Ballet Talk.

The Gaylas and the GLBT forum presents its own series of problems for Flyertalk. The most complicated is splintering. When the forum was formed (before I joined Flyertalk) the worry of the Talkboard was that it would drain off conversation and exchange from the community at large. It could be argued that has in fact happened and it was interesting to hear Missy’s point of view on this (she’s a “friend of” rather than GLBT). Because I got to Flyertalk after several special interest forums had been established, I regarded them as a valuable feature in a forum too large and unwieldy to view as a whole. 80,000 members is a lot of talk and information. I only read five of the forums (there are probably over 50, devoted mostly to different airlines or destinations). To me, splintering into smaller groups is a by-product of the success of the community, and the only way to keep it together is to give the smaller sub-cultures some autonomy. Weirdly enough, besides the GLBT forum, one of the most vibrant groups at Flyertalk is one devoted to a single airline – the British Airways forum.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 1, 2006

Car Culture – Southern California and the desert

Two things brought me to the desert; someplace I’d ordinarily never go. The first was FlyerTalk’s GLBT Traveler’s forum. Much of what I’ve learned about miles and points I learned at Flyertalk. The GLBT group has sponsored get-togethers – “Gaylas” before; I went to one in Philadelphia in September ’04. Joe has organized three gatherings in Palm Springs so far; I met him in NYC around the holidays in ‘04 when he came up to NYC, along with another FT’er we all went to the Trocks together.

Joe asked me to come this year, but what clinched it was when my friend Grace told me she would be there at the same time. That, along with a JetBlue sale, was a sign from above. Flights directly into Palm Springs cost at least $150 more; I could have earned miles on another carrier but JetBlue’s direct flight to Ontario, 70 miles from Palm Springs, and redeye service meant I was getting the most vacation for my money. The ticket was bought, hotel arrangements were made and off I went Thursday night.

JetBlue’s flights are perfectly fine and uneventful, but on four flights so far (roundtrips to Oakland and Ontario, CA) I haven’t been on one with less than a full load. Assume you will have no room to spread out. The JFK terminal has free wireless, which is appreciated. The ONT terminal does not have check-in kiosks, so try and check in online if you have access to a printer. One more tip, the JFK terminal has two security checkpoints, one obvious one close to the escalator to the second floor and a second one across the terminal - walk across the floor past the snack shops and newsstands. That one has a shorter line.

JetBlue flight 89 left JFK at 8:30 EDT and arrived about 11:30 pm PDT at ONT. It was 2:30 am in my body, time to get to bed. I had made arrangements to stay at the Marriott at the airport instead of trying to drive to Palm Springs. The hotel, a perfectly decent Marriott with large rooms and a very large health club, went for $40 on Priceline.


Wired hi-speed access is another $10.

National Car Rental had no compact cars when I arrived, so I was given a choice between a mid sized sedan or a Chevrolet Monte Carlo for the same cost. The Monte Carlo looked comparatively swoopy so I opted for style over practicality. Perhaps not the best choice.

Car culture is alien to me. I’ve walked to work almost every day since 1985. With a few exceptions, I walked to work in Boise and in Lexington, Kentucky when I danced there. It freaked the dancers out at Ballet Pacifica, because I walked the 20 minute walk to the studio in Irvine even in the intense sun and with sidewalks that stopped randomly. I drive when I see Mom, but that’s about it. I was careful to check for a few things when picking up the car but somehow I manage to treat a car like software – I’ll learn features on a need-to-know basis.

This is a bad idea.

On the way out of the parking lot I hear inexplicable clicking and dialing. “Hi, this is Michelle. What is the emergency?”

I asked the only logical question. “Who are you and why are you talking to me?”

“Did you just adjust your mirror?”

I thought about denying it, but I admitted it. I had accidentally tripped the dickety-doo phone in alarm. Off I headed to the freeway interchange.

I was a few miles down I-10 when I wanted to switch lanes. I duly signaled, checked traffic in my mirror, turned my head and realized my view to the back was almost completely blocked by the headrest. Frantic beatings behind my head to slam the damned thing down had no effect. I had pretty much made up my mind to stay in the same lane for the next 70 miles to Palm Springs when there was a rest station and I cautiously made my way to it, resolving to figure out how the damned car worked. It took about three minutes to figure out the headrest and how to move the seat forward – I kept looking for a manual lever and it was an electrical control under the seat. The rest of the drive was mercifully uneventful. I did remind myself not to get over-confident that I was getting the hang of driving.

The Comfort Suites in Cathedral City looked to me like something out of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, older, dark and yellowed, but with a certain cheery sinisterness. Calling the room a suite was a bit grandiose a description. It was a simple bedroom with a queen bed and a kitchenette that took up too much room.


Grace arrived in Palm Springs almost at the same time that I did – we met at the hotel and I gave her a few gifts – a box in the shape of a cat and a hand knit shawl, to be described on the next entry. To her bemusement, she found that not only was I determined to go hiking in the desert, I was monomaniacally obsessed with the idea.

When I visited Grace in San Diego two years ago, she sheepishly asked if I might want to hike in the desert with her one day. “I’d never do it otherwise. Take me!” We hiked to a palm canyon in Anza Borrego and I found it fascinating; now I associate her with outdoor adventures. I would have liked to go to Joshua Tree National Park; but that is more of a drive from Palm Springs than it seems. Checking on Tripadvisor, I found the Indian Canyons that are right on the edge of town and they seemed to be exactly the thing.

We chose Palm Canyon, Grace joking that I just wanted to do the exact same thing again. Before heading down we stopped at the trading post for a snack and were both pleasantly surprised at the fair prices. A good turkey sandwich was $2.50; Grace looked at contemporary Indian pottery that was about $25 for a small piece.

Looking out over the canyon, I was surprised at the color of it; not brown or sandy, but a pale, sage green from the scrubby bushes covering the hills.


My cell phone rang.


“Guess what I had for lunch!”

“Mom, I’m not where you think I am. . .”

Mom was calling to brag that she had eaten the yu choy from our last shopping adventure. I explained that I was not looking out my office window, but looking out over the desert. She was a bit surprised. The miracles of cell phone technology.

We hiked the first mile of a 15 mile trail. It was delightful. Besides stands of palms with magnificent dried-leaf skirts that in some cases looked suspiciously manicured.


There seemed to be a national lizard convention in the canyon. It was filled with the little fellows darting out from rocks and crevices and sunning themselves. For an easterner, the most interesting thing is that “The Living Desert” is no misnomer. The place was filled with life, though probably 100 yards from the stream bed is a completely different ecosystem. We saw one jackrabbit, but the most common mammal on view were ground squirrels. They look like a mangy and sandy version of an eastern gray squirrel.

We sat on a log in the shade after a mile where the trail forked. I had drunk the better part of a quart of water but was surprised that I wasn’t uncomfortable from the heat; I usually don’t take it well. It was in the 90s, but so dry that the sweat evaporated quickly. Weirdly, snow was covering the high distant peaks.


There were a few forks in the trail. Two led up a hill and into the sun; the third said “Palm Canyon Trail”. The last thing we needed to do was go up a hill and into the sun, so we chose the canyon trail. We crossed a stream bed and followed it, then went about 200 yards and . . .

Up another hill and into the baking sun. We probably went another 300 yards navigating a crevasse before we realized it was more of the same for what we could see, had enough and turned around.

Back at the trading post, an information stand was lined with hummingbird feeders and the hummingbirds were buzzing about. There were at least ten of them, at one time there were four at one feeder. I tried to get a picture of one hovering but a digital camera just doesn’t move fast enough.


The most interesting wildlife spotting came as we were driving out. Sunning itself in the road was a good sized rattlesnake. As we drove by it coiled itself. I was quite glad to view it from the safety of a car.

The canyons are at the end of South Palm Canyon Drive; Moorten Botanical Garden is at the intersection with East Palm Canyon Drive. The gardens are about four acres of exhibits and nursery of the most serendipitous collection of succulent plants. Huge agaves, tiny cacti and everything in between. The garden is private, so everything about it had a homemade kitschy feel that fit in with the David Lynch vibe of the day. The Cactarium was a Quonset hut filled with cacti spilling out of their pots, some even suspended and growing down from the bottom of the pot. If only some of them had been carnivorous. The nursery sold several varieties cacti including a few only a mother could love with swollen green bulbs and a few wispy flowers. A tiny little plant in a two inch pot was poking a few water-swollen leaves out from gravel. “It’s about seven years old. It’s a very slow grower” the attendant explained sheepishly.

After dinner, (passable Mexican at the Blue Coyote Grill, but I’ve had so much better in San Diego and San Francisco – the company was better than the food) I said good bye to Grace and headed to meet Joe and gang at The Villa. Flyertalk gatherings seem to involve a cocktail party on Friday, dinner on Saturday and brunch on Sunday. Joe was fussing good naturedly and everyone settled in to meet one another. It seemed about half the gathering was from Southern California and half from farther. I hadn’t traveled the farthest; Glenn had also come from the NYC area and Dale came from Portland, Maine. I don’t think anyone traveled internationally. I found Joe in his casita – the little cabins that make up The Villa. Though both The Villa and the Hotel Zoso were offering rates of $129/night (relatively low for Palm Springs) for our stay, I wanted to stick to budget and opted to save about $100 total by staying at the Comfort Suites. Next time, if I have it, I’ll spend the extra $100. The Villa was $50 a night nicer, bright and airy with a big rock placed mysteriously in the bathroom. I wanted to give Joe one of the hats I knitted as a thank you for all his effort. He picked the one I had just finished (and not yet photographed), a striped blue beanie. I didn’t drink at the party (I was paranoid the entire weekend being a bad enough driver sober) but I’m not much of a drinker anyway. I came back to the David Lynch Suites overtired enough that I had trouble getting to sleep, and finally passed out.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:31 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 26, 2006

I'm here


It's a different point of view.

Be back Monday. Will report more fully.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 8, 2006

The perils of dithering

I had decided to splurge on the Kingsway Hall Hotel after asking about it; I admit I was leaning that way even as I wrote the query - writing the question helped me know what I wanted. But I waited until Tuesday, when I had completed ticket arrangements at Covent Garden before going back to Lastminute.com to purchase the room.


With no trace.

And a few weeks earlier, when the Waldorf Hilton (another place that was exactly what I wanted) was coming up at $109 on Hotwire, I waited as well for my credit card statement to end. It was gone before then.

The lesson, which I may never learn but I'll say it anyway is:

If you're shopping with some clue of what you're doing and you see what you want at a price that you think is fair, don't wait forever to buy it.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 6:53 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 5, 2006

Trip Progress, London Dithering

Here's where we are on the St. Petersburg - London trip:

Airfare: Ticketed. Business class on BA via Asiamiles JFK-LED-LHR-JFK. Cost was taxes - $306 and 60,000 Asiamiles (exactly what I had, what a coincidence!)

St. Petersburg Hotels: Renaissance St. Petersburg. Two nights redeemed. This was very dicey. Between the time I had reserved the reward and the time when I came to redeem the points needed for it a few days ago, the hotel raised categories from a Reward Category 4 to 5. For the part paid with Marriott points, this is no problem; Marriott honors the rate at the time the reservation was made. The problem was that one night is to be paid for with a VISA promotional certificate good only up to category 4. At first, the rewards desk told me it was no longer good. Speaking to a supervisor there got an offer of 7,000 points, which was useless. Calling the customer service department, however, got the problem entirely solved. They will honor the certificate and it is documented in my reservation. I will call the hotel directly before leaving, however. I'm not going to find out this did not work when I am in St. Petersburg. I should note that even though this took a few calls to unscramble both the rewards desk and customer service at Marriott are unfailingly polite and make every attempt to be helpful. Total cost will be the taxes, $50/night upgrade fee to a suite, the certificate (which I earned for applying for the VISA) and 20,000 Marriott points (it would have been 25,000, but they honored the earlier rate). I had 18,000 points total and Marriott allows you to buy 10% of a reward in 1000 point increments at $10/1000 points, so I bought 2,000 points for $20 rather than having to charge $2,000.

Radisson Baltic St. Petersburg. We're still earning points. I'm at 37,500 so far. I've converted 25,000 Continental OnePass Miles to 25,000 Amtrak Points to 25,000 Midwest Miles (It's all done via Amtrak Guest Rewards). When the miles land at Midway, I will convert them via points.com to Goldpoints. It should be about 25-26,000. I've got about 1250 Goldpoints pending from online purchases and about 4000 from purchases. My guess is I will have around 70-75000 of the 120,000 points I need, and the rest will be converted from AA miles via points.com

Got that?

I still have to apply for my Russian visa. I have the documents assembled, I just need to get a photo, and the fee in a money order.

On to planning for London:

Given my tendency to overstrategize travel to the point where the hourly cost of my dithering is astronomical, I thought I'd ask you all what you thought.

I've stayed in Kensington most of my trips to London but there's almost nothing in Kensington I do. When I go to London, I live at Covent Garden. At this point I'm getting kind of tired of spending an hour a day on the tube or not being able to get back to the hotel room for a break. So I was trying on Priceline for a room in the Mayfair-Soho or at least within walking distance of Covent Garden. (I'm a good walker)

Lastminute.com has the Kingsway Hall Hotel as a "top secret" special (I'm positive about the ID) for £79 per night - that would be $139/night and VAT is included but there is a credit card fee and currency conversion to be considered. It is *exactly* what I want. 1/4 mile from Covent Garden, Free Wireless in the Lobby, Fitness Center. To beat that on Priceline, I would have to get a Mayfair hotel for under $115 per night with fees thrown in and it may not have those amenities. The Waldorf Hilton was coming up on Hotwire for those days for $109 (that would add up to about the same with taxes and fees - around $138), but I waited too long; now it's $338.

Some cities regularly show "counteroffers" on Priceline. These are very useful markers on about how much you will need to bid - it will (except in circumstances I have not yet encountered) be less than the counteroffer. In London, if you have the time, you can get a lay of the land by lowballing several zones one at a time and seeing what the counteroffers are. BE SURE TO REALLY LOWBALL. If your bid is accepted, you're stuck. In zones I didn't really want to stay in, I was bidding around $50 for a 4*, which I have never seen accepted in London (though I have seen a few dollars more get accepted recently - so check recent bids on Bidding For Travel or Better Bidding)

This is what came up:

Mayfair 4* No counteroffer for bid up to $85
3* $110 Counteroffer on bid of $60. My guess is this is the Thistle Trafalgar, which is a mediocre hotel with a good location and no facilities.

Bloomsbury 4* $101 Counteroffer on bid of $50 - My guess is the Thistle Marble Arch. This is a long walk, but possible.

Westminster 4* $85 Counteroffer on bid of $50 - My guess is the Jolly St. Ermins. This is within (a long) walking distance, also no facilities.

City 4* $76 Counteroffer on bid of $48 - not sure what this is; if it is the Tower Hotel it is not in walking distance.

Kensington 4* $68 Counteroffer on bid of $50 - not sure what this is; if it is Holiday Inn Kensington Forum (which is coming up again on winning bids) I like the place and it has all the facilities I want, but it means a 20-25 minute subway ride.

What would you do? Bidding on a Kensington hotel is a savings of about $65/day - or double. The first four nights hotel on Priceline at $63/night comes to $306.35 - the total for the Kingsway Hall on Lastminute.com will be about $570 with currency and credit card fees but it is also exactly what I want. However, over 7 days that is a very healthy sum.

Help me stop dithering!

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 9:08 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 28, 2006

I left my cell phone . . . in San Francisco . . .

Everybody sing along!

It started to rain on Sunday, making it a good day to leave but there was plenty to do before.

The burrito pilgrimage was to El Tonayense, a taqueria in the Mission district on 24th & Shotwell. We found it on a walk two years ago, and we’ve gone together on every visit I’ve made since. Peter gets the super carne asado burrito, affirming my Jewishness I get the super al pastor with grilled pork. Being adventurous and gluttonous, for the first time we ordered something else in addition – a chicken super quesadilla – just so we could explore the menu. The quesadilla was heavenly and unlike those I have had in NYC – this was closer to a burrito without rice. Mexican food in California puts the slop served in New York City to shame. Cal-Mex is a cuisine; NYC Mexican restaurants serve stuff only good as an excuse to soak up the alcohol in a margarita.

Balmy Alley is a few blocks from El Tonayense on 24th; an alleyway lined with murals including this one.


Oh happy womb!

Peter and I walked off our gluttony through the Mission District before I headed to the ballet. Alas, Peter’s back was bothering him and he wasn’t up to sitting through the ballet, so I gave his ticket to an usher who needed a seat. The program was the same as Friday night’s with some cast changes – Katita Waldo instead of Muriel Maffre in Magrittomania, Kristin Long and Matthew Stewart for Rory Hohenstein in Rodeo. Alas, Damian Smith, a dancer I like very much, is replaced in his roles. Magrittomania holds up on a second viewing, though Waldo is not as extreme as Maffre. Spring Rounds looks negligible; as a friend said who saw it in Paris, paint-by-numbers Taylor. Long and Stewart do great work in Rodeo.

It was drizzling before the ballet but as we leave it is raining heavily. I take the short walk to the hotel to pick up my suitcase and then head to BART. The station is immediately next to the hotel – another good thing about the Ramada. I head across the bay to Berkeley to have dinner with my friend Paul.

Paul is one of the most beautiful thinkers I know. Every conversation is tinged with poetry. He’s from the Deep South, which has something to do with it. Very good Thai Beef Salad and Chicken and Coconut soup at Racha Café wash down the conversation on Brokeback Mountain, Mark Morris, Frederick Ashton and aging parents. It’s no use to try and explain what is so special about the way he thinks, just read his review of the programs I saw at SFB (but on different nights with different casts)

Paul drove me to Oakland Airport; when I got there I learned that the same headwinds that had made my outbound flight so long delayed this plane and projected departure was an hour late. I passed through security and headed for the gate. Searching around, I finally found a quiet place with an outlet, took out my charger to charge my phone – and realized I had no phone to charge. After ripping apart my bag, a kind soul let me borrow her phone and I left a message for Paul. He doesn’t have a cell phone, so there was nothing more to be done.

The headwinds worked in our favor on the flight back; it was slightly more than four hours and I slept most of the way. Even with losing my cell phone it was a marvelous trip. I called my phone when I got home, and there was one mysterious message – no voices, just ambient noise. From that, I guessed that it had fallen out of my bag and opened, but did it happen on BART (I made a call to Paul to let him know I was arriving) or in Paul’s car?

Right before I was about to order a new phone I got an email from Paul. My phone was under the passenger’s seat. It beeped at him; it must have been lonely. I’ll see it quite soon.

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February 26, 2006

A whole lotta eatin' and drinkin' goin’ on.

Day two in San Francisco was as good as day one.

I haven’t seen my college suitemate Don for several years. We met in the lobby of my hotel; with the exception of a few gray hairs he looked much the same as in college. “You didn’t think I was going to get fat and bald?” he asked. “I’m glad we’re both vain.” I answered. He had bicycled to the hotel, probably the reason why he looks much the same. He had made a reservation at Absinthe, I laughed and he apologized, not knowing I had eaten there last night. No matter, it was just as good for breakfast. I had the blueberry pancakes, he had eggs and bacon and both were as good as their premium price would demand.

After brunch, we went to the plaza of the Civic Center to talk and catch up. He told me about his wife and children, we both exchanged news about our parents and siblings. It was slightly colder than the day before but clear and sunny; there was some sort of demonstration of various leftist causes in the plaza.

My hotel is only 2-3 blocks away from City Hall; David met me there at 2:30. He also had not gone to seed; he looked thinner and even more like Clark Kent than the last time I had seen him six years ago. Welcome to the era of the Internet where you have close friends you speak to all the time, but don’t see for years on end.

We went to the exhibit of Kyoto artists at the Museum of Asian Art. His favorite paintings were of two waterfalls; I liked those very much but favored the one of a monkey by Rosetsu that is on the linked page.

Dinner followed the Japanese theme; we went to Yum Yum Fish, which is near his apartment about a 20-5 minute MUNI ride from the hotel. The place is a dive (three tables in what looks like a fish market) with top quality sushi for dirt cheap. Six pieces of nigiri sushi (salmon, yellowtail, eel) and a huge plate of rolls (“Dynamite” roll – spicy tuna, BBQ Eel, California roll with real Dungeness Crab, and Salmon belly roll) set us back $22.50 and the fish is fresher than I recall even at the best sushi places in NYC.

We hustled back to the Opera House for Program 2. The highlight is Gonzalo Garcia’s performance in Apollo, which is as good as I recalled it, only the production around him has gotten even more taut. Besides my friends, that was the thing worth flying across the country to see.

I took David out for dinner and gave him an knitted watch cap I made for him in his favorite color - orange of all things. Happy Birthday, Chuckles! David took me out for a drink at the Orbit Room and the cocktails were interesting enough that we both decided to have one instead of our usual safer drinks. I am an alcohol sissy; I usually get a vermouth and soda so I don’t become incapacitated but I went for a Venus Lemonade and he chose a Mojito. We toasted his boyfriend Duane, away on business in New Orleans, but who sent David $10 to buy me my drink. Thank you kindly, Duane.

I stumbled home in a happy state of exhausted mild inebriation. Now, I'm off to shower, pack and vacate the room, then see Peter for a burrito pilgrimage in the Mission District and the matinee at SFB, then dinner with Paul. On the red eye and back in NYC at 5 am. I’m having a delightful weekend.

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February 25, 2006

Mood Swings - A visit to San Francisco

Thursday 2:00 pm EST Mood: Frazzled. Preparation for a trip is usually last minute for me. Two things usually happen; I can be relied upon to not pack to the size of suitcase I had hoped to – (aimed for carry on, had to go one size up and check it) and forget one tricial item. This time, it was my belt, which I discovered as I absentmindedly hitched up my pants. I had to go to the post office anyway, I went to Daffy’s bought one.

Thursday 5:00 pm EST Mood: Panicked. When I plugged my computer into a power supply at the terminal, no power came through and I figured the outlet was defective. My computer had been working this morning, after all. When I plugged it in a second time at a different part of the terminal with the same result, angst set it. I have an old computer and had two batteries, which would have had an hour of computing time at most between them. How to make that last over three days? I had my PDA and a folding keyboard with me that would suit for writing, but even that got recharged via the USB port by the computer. On the plane, I called my friend Peter for magic words. “Maybe I’ve already said them, Darling. So if the computer starts working in the hotel, I will take credit.” “And I will be happy to give it to you, darling.”

In Flight to OAK Mood: Irritated. This was my first time in JetBlue. It’s a completely acceptable economy product, but nothing special. If the plane as packed, as this one was, all economy is cramped and irritating even with a 34 inch seat pitch. I do like the cookies. Flying into OAK instead of SF was not appreciably more difficult except that it involves about a 15 minute bus transfer ($2 exact change) from the airport to the BART station. It probably took an hour from de-planing to get to my hotel.

I alternately worked on an article for Ballet Review and a lace shawl I keep as a portable travel project. I saw the battery indicator on my PDA drop from full to ¾ and my mood blackened.

Thursday 11:30 pm PST Mood: Relieved. Check in to the Ramada Hotel on Market Street is fast and friendly and the hotel is an insane bargain ($45/night on Priceline). Amusingly enough, they gave me the exact same room, room 443 with a single queen bed that I had the last time.


In 2004, when they gave me this room the desk clerk announced that he had “a non-smoking queen for me.” It was all I could do not to break into my Paul Lynde voice and say “Well, heh heh send him on up.”

I plugged in the computer, pulled out the plug, finagled with the power supply, reconnected the pieces, plugged it in again. I’ve never been so happy to see a little green light. It’s a bit sobering to realize how dependent I am on my computer and the Internet. The hotel has wireless service that isn’t stunningly reliable, but it’s free.

Friday 7:40 am Mood: Satisfied. The fitness center at the hotel isn’t great – no elliptical trainer, but two treadmills, two bikes, a stair climber and creaky Universal weight system but it will do.

9:30 am Mood: Elated. I knew that Saigon Sandwich, was only a few blocks from my hotel, but no one told me that so was an entire Vietnamese neighborhood. I bought two heavenly Banh Mi, one roast pork and the other roast chicken and had a breakfast picnic under a flowering bush in a playground near the museum of Asian Art.


There is a show here of 18th Century painters from Kyoto, I am going to see it today.

11 am Mood: Confused. I’m supposed to meet my friend Rachel for lunch, but I only know her email and she hasn’t returned my correspondence. Where is she and how can I get her phone number? I call one friend to get the number of another friend who might have her number and work on other writing in my hotel.

1:30 pm Mood: Resigned. No word from Rachel so I set off for Artfibers, one of the most well-known yarn stores in the city. The walk up Market Street is full of Beaux-Arts buildings and street freaks.

2:15 pm Mood: Covetous. I wasn’t going to buy anything at Artfibers, but I want a souvenir of my stay here. I decide on two skeins of Shibori, a hand-dyed silk/kid mohair in forest colors.


Though it’s expensive, it has excellent yardage and 2 skeins should make a beautiful scarf to remind me of here. The staff is friendly and helpful and they keep sample balls and needles available for swatching as well as a comfortable place to knit. It ain’t cheap here, but it’s worth looking into.

2:45 pm Mood: Bemused. Poor Rachel called me full of contrition. She’s not even in town, her husband and she went to Santa Barbara at the last moment. I’m sorry to miss her, but I’m having a great day anyway, so I do my best to absolve her.

5:45 pm Mood: Hungry. After picking up tonight’s tickets I meet my friends Mark and Christopher and Christopher’s ballet buddy Patricia for dinner at Absinthe. The restaurant is popular and expensive, but the food is commensurate with the price. After a cheese appetizer, we all chose the grilled sturgeon, rightfully recommended by our waitress. I split an excellent tarte tatin with Mark. Dinner with wine was $60 per person. More than I’d usually spend, but meals like that are great fun when shared with others.

8:00 pm Mood: Attentive. San Francisco Ballet Program 3. The most interesting dilemma is to figure out how to compress this into 500 words. I have 5 pages of notes already and two more performances to see. The Taylor piece is formulaic, Magrittomania is fascinating even if I don’t love it and I have a soft spot in my heart for Rodeo. Muriel Maffre, who does the lead in Magrittomania with Tiit Helimets is the world’s greatest Weird Ballerina. She does one wildly extended and arched tendu with a prehensile foot and you see she’s a magnificent freak.

11:00 pm Mood: Flirtatious. We all head to Mecca, a lounge close to the Castro. Randy, whom I’ve known in correspondence for as long as I’ve known Mark but we’ve never gotten to meet in person, comes with his big hunky boyfriend Jim. Jim and I, well . . . hit it off pretty quickly. It went no farther than a flirtation and Randy didn’t seem to mind one bit. It’s confusing, but amusing. Where is Leticia Baldridge to advise on such things?

In any case, it was close to a perfect day. I headed back to the hotel at 1:00 am exhausted and satisfied.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 2:14 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 6, 2006


I love spending the night in a hotel. It’s a treat for me to be in an uncluttered room. I got the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown on 12th and Market for $47 on Priceline + taxes and fees. The room was lovely, it was at most a ten minute walk from the ballet and I even had a view of City Hall from my room. There is also a very large fitness center including a pool and at least ten treadmills.

Connie and I had planned to go to Singapore, our favorite Chinese vegetarian restaurant to commune with the heavenly orange non-beef. My friend Dale had also decided to go down to see the performances and we were surprised by a friend from Los Angeles who had flown in for the day to see the performance! So we all headed to the restaurant and even Dale, as confirmed a carnivore as me, agreed that the orange non-beef was celestial.

The one drawback to the Marriott was that at 6:46 am, someone pulled a fire alarm, starting off a very Orwellian loudspeaker alarm. Waking up to noises and flashing lights, it took me about half a minute to realize where I was. It was a false alarm, but I noticed the view out the window of City Hall and Philadelphia’s mirrored skyscrapers, now against a background of the most beautiful lapis sky. I would have missed it if the alarm hadn’t have gone off. I admired it for a few minutes before going back to bed. You never know when a bad situation is going to turn itself inside-out to become an opportunity.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 9:46 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 26, 2006

Hello, Delhi

American Airlines is having a sale to Delhi - JFK-DEL is $769, or about $840 including taxes. Other departing cities also available, but they only fly ORD-DEL. I think an even better deal would be to upgrade the fare ($500 rt + 50000 miles) so you get business class to Delhi for $1340 rt + 50000 miles, and you earn back 14,600 miles on the flight (more if you have status). Admittedly AA business class is not palatial, but for the price it's a decent deal.

Purchase your tickets on AA.com by February 11, 2006 for outbound travel from April 1 through May 15, 2006. Return travel must be complete by May 31, 2006.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 6:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 17, 2006

Really cheap fares to Osaka on United

New York to Osaka for $486 roundtrip including taxes. Other cities as well. Book by January 24, travel outbound by March 31, seven day advance purchase, six nights minimum stay. Travel by January 31 and get 5,000 bonus miles.

I'm not even going to pretend this year that I have time to do this myself, but if anyone goes, send me a postcard from Kyoto!

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 7:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 10, 2006

In training

My reading and viewing list in preparation for Saint Petersburg:

This is my first HTML table for the blog, so please be kind.




Prima Ballerina Assoluta

I'm starting with Solomon Volkov's book (he also wrote the wonderful Balanchine's Tchaikovsky). I haven't yet gotten Russian Ark or Natasha's Dance yet. If you've got something else to recommend, please do.

And about all the Amazon.com linkage - please don't feel any need to use it, but if you decide you want one of these books and you get it via Amazon - it's appreciated!

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November 28, 2005

Airport Transit for the Cheap - LaGuardia and Pearson

You can get to both LaGuardia Airport in NYC and Pearson Airport in Toronto via public transit for the standard fare; $2 for LGA and $2.50 at YYZ.

Midtown Manhattan to LGA takes between 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on traffic. Leave for the airport at least 2.5 hours in advance of your flight.



To Pearson Airport, take the subway out to Kipling, the westernmost stop on the Bloor/Danforth line. Go upstairs to the bus level then walk to the back of the station (towards Toronto the way you came). Bus 192 to the airport leaves from the last door on the left. The bus goes directly to the airport, stopping at terminal 3 first. It usually takes slightly over an hour from the east side of Toronto to Pearson, but could take longer depending on connections.

Public transit in both cities involves some stairs. Don't do it if you have more luggage than you can maneuver with ease or that is extremely bulky. Bus 192 in Toronto has some limited accomodation for luggage and more floor space; the NYC buses are standard cramped MTA buses. In both cases you will need exact change in local currency or a Metrocard in NYC or a TTC token in Toronto. In both cities there's no place I know of at the airport to get bus fare. I buy one or two extra tokens before I leave Toronto for the next trip.

MTA service to airport information
TTC service to airport information

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November 24, 2005


Greetings from Toronto.


Happy un-Thanksgiving.


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November 13, 2005

Miscellaneous things that make a plane ride easier

My flight to London was probably the last out of JFK at night (11:30 pm). It's a fast flight; the winds were on our side and it was just six hours, so it's bearable under most circumstances, but there were a few things I did this time that made it even easier.

Because I have elite status on AA I can book an exit row, but as the flight was relatively light (that flight often is, I believe) I changed it before leaving for the airport for an empty middle row. It remained empty and I was able to sleep lying down. Most airlines have seat maps on their website where you can check for empty seating. Another essential site is Seat Guru, which has seating diagrams for many planes and airlines along with advice on which seats to choose and avoid.

I wore a T-shirt on travelling days even though it was cool weather. With luggage in tow, even with wheels, I'm always overheated. When I got to the airport I folded up the nylon coat I always take on trips and packed it in the roll bag I was checking (I bring a rolling garment bag and a light roll bag that loops over the handle - that gets packed with light items) and took out a hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants. Once on the plane I changed into sweatpants in the lavatory, and back to regular pants close to landing. I also tucked a second T-shirt into my carry on in case I felt the need to change that as well.

Before I got on the plane, I had a drink so I could get some sleep. Your mileage may vary on this, but because I'm not a drinker it doesn't take much alcohol to get me drowsy. I didn't get more than 3.5 hours sleep - with takeoff, meal services and landing it would have been hard to get much more, but it helped.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:55 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 5, 2005

NYC-Chicago or vice versa $131 tax included

Every now and again an airline will have an unannounced sale for reasons only known to them, but usually in response to a comptetitor lowering prices. Right now, ATA is offering NYC-Chicago Midway for $98 r/t ($103 on Travelocity including their fee) and American and Northwest are offering NYC-O'Hare (LGA-ORD) for $112.50. With taxes it comes to $131.40. Occasionally AA will have a weekend special for $139 not including taxes, but this allowed advance planning and leaving any date. The dates on AA are wide open and go through next October, so I picked a late April weekend next year to visit Chicago for the first time. Act fast, these sales often only last a day or so. When they pop up, grab them.

One way to find these sales is at Travelocity Dream Maps. You can customize the URL as follows: http://dps1.travelocity.com/dreamMap.ctl?dep_arp_name=NYC&maxFare=150 - change the NYC to your desired airport code and the 150 to the desired fare cost.

And Dad, if you're reading, not to worry. I picked the dates (out late Friday back early Monday) so I don't miss any work!

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 2:57 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 3, 2005

Are you in Birmingham, AL or New York, NY? A simple quiz:

If you answered "yes" to these questions, look around you. You are not in New York City. You are in Birmingham.

I have answered "no" to all these questions today; I'm already home. It was a very short business visit.

Birmingham was not in the path of Katrina's full fury; it's well inland to the north, due west of Atlanta. I was told that trees had fallen in surrounding environs and power was out for a bit, but by the time I visited on Wednesday night I saw no traces of the storm. I only got to see the city briefly in transit, it reminded me a bit of Lexington, Kentucky, where I danced in 1990-91. The most difficult aspect was the plane ride; two five-hour flights in two days was not great for my back. I'm resting it today. For the first time in a long time I needed to eat in the airport - Northwest only serves snack boxes and I got to the airport 3pm CDT and landed in NYC at 10pm EDT. It was Memphis, I got Barbecue. I tried to be good and get the Barbecue salad instead of more starch. It was a heap of pig on top of iceberg lettuce with BBQ sauce on the side. And no fork. I had already traveled far away from the BBQ stall, so I raced around the concourse desperately with my luggage and found a friendly Starbucks just as my connecting flight was boarding.

I also had the pleasure on my final leg from Memphis to La Guardia of sitting next to the stereotypical young Italian couple from Hell. Marcello and Sophia, or whatever their names were, went through this process: Chatter. Fight. Make Up. Suck Face. Chatter. Fight. Make Up. Suck Face. Repeat, at top volume (yes, even the face-sucking), ad nauseam. I must be getting misanthropic as I get older. I like having a pleasant conversation with my seatmate on a plane, but barring that, I just want to be left alone. They got on the M60 bus into Manhattan as well. I admit it gave me guilty pleasure to watch them wander off the bus in the middle of nowhere on 125th Street. Enjoy the Harlem tour, Marcello!

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 3:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 29, 2005

An end to wanderings

My life for the last four months has been constant travel. In order: Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Phildelphia, Toronto, London, Bristol, Birmingham, Washington DC. Another day, another plane, train or bus. There's a good side to constant travel. I certainly can't complain about the destinations, the journey was never boring, and the concentrated dance viewing that has been the purpose of my travel has been a source of knowledge. A lot of the year has been a concerted effort to come to terms with Ashton. My take on him may be very individual and very American, but I feel like I've accomplished something.

The down side of travel is that my life now feels measured by suitcases. I've spent the past four months either leading up to or coming back from a voyage and nothing else has gotten accomplished. It feels as if I've been running from my own future. I have no more trips planned, and hope to keep it that way for a while. I'm tired of being a moving target.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 5:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 26, 2005

The Princess Packs

I generally describe my packing skills as being like a princess on the Titanic, though I enjoy almost as much another description from the same thread - "Joan Collins on safari".

I'm in Washington DC right now seeing Suzanne Farrell's revival of Don Q - on duty for Dance International. I've been good, honest. I only brought my smallest 18 inch carry-on, my laptop and my usual knapsack. It still amazes me that for one weekend I somehow managed to convince myself I needed three pairs of shoes and get them packed.

And I did wear all of them.

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May 15, 2005

Dining in Toronto

Being partial to Asian food (and being cheap) I tend to seek out that out wherever I travel. I had good luck in Toronto this trip finding reasonably priced good meals.

You may already know I am a sucker for Banh Mi. Rose's Cafe on Broadview at Gerrard does not have New Saigon Sandwich in Boston beat for quality, but they blow them away on price. A sandwich is $1.50 CDN. Several varieties are available, but with understandably cheaper meats and cold cuts than in Boston. The ""BBQ Pork" is actually sliced pork sausage, but no matter, it's still tasty.

Chris is vegetarian, so when John, Chris and I went out to eat, I wanted to go somewhere we could all enjoy. Although all the Southern Indian restaurants on the strip of Gerrard are less inviting than the more familiar northern Indian ones, I gently insisted we try Southern Indian because of its unfamiliarity.

Udupi Palace is quite a ways farther east on Gerrard in Little India (near Cogswell). Udupi Palace is the largest of the places, right next to the Saree Emporium. It's not much of a palace; it's rather a large bare dining hall. The food is another matter, though. Southern Indian cooking leans towards vegetarian and the main delicacies are dosas and uttapam, both crepes of mixed rice and lentil flour. An uttapam is open faced, a dosa is enormous, spilling over the plate to be filled (or not) and eaten with coconut chutney and sambar, a dal and lentil stew.

We began with a mixed appetizer plate. This is and idli (a steamed cake of the same flour mix) - a vada - similar base, now fried - it's amazing how different rice and lentils can taste in their endless guises - and a few fritters. Beware the long thin ones. They contain a whole hot chile within.

John and Chris both had dosas, I had the Southern Indian Thali which was a large portion of rice, a roti and a papad wafer surrounded by several vegetable dishes on a large metal thal or plate. It was filling and interesting - several of the dishes, sambar and rasam, a thinner lentil-tomato broth are not familiar from northern Indian cuisine. None of it is painfully hot. Total for three people including tip was about $43 CDN.

Spring Rolls is on Front and Jarvis, and a good place to get a pre-ballet meal. It's a bright, modern noodle house, but bowing to the low-carb craze there are other options. Wanting a light lunch, I had the chicken satay and mango salad, which was very good. We spent $11 CDN per person including tip for lunch.

On the non Asian front, I went for brunch with my friends Desirée and Peter to Batifole. Batifole is also on Gerrard, in East Chinatown a few blocks from Rose's Cafe, but tucked amidst the Chinese groceries (where I again bought Pocky!) it is an upscale French cafe. We all shared rillettes de lapin , then Peter had scrambled eggs with lamb sausage (they looked like chic merguez). I had the omelet of the day (mushroom and brie) and Des had clams and mussels and then a cinnamon waffle with stewed fruit that ended up bein a communal dessert. The atmosphere is laid back (think Brooklyn Heights instead of Manhattan) and the prices within bounds - about $25 CDN per person ordering liberally.

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March 18, 2005

You can't see me but I am here

In San Francisco, at the St. Francis


Not a bad slice of history for $73/night on Priceline but I have to say check-in was handled poorly.

Going to see San Francisco Ballet tonight.

Wish you were here.

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February 19, 2005

Reason Prevailed

My travel schedule so far:

Weekend trips to Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco in March

A week in Argentina in April

A weekend in Toronto in May

Two weeks in England in June

A weekend in Washington DC also in June.

I do not need to go to Japan at the end of April. I might like to see what New York City looks like instead.

Next year. But I swear next year is St. Petersburg. . .

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 1:09 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack