31 January 2011

San Burrito

Greetings all from a gray Atlanta, where it is slightly cold but without a trace of the snow and ice nightmare ("Snowpocalypse '011") that had the city in its grips last week. A cat snoozes to my right, a dog snoozes to my left, and I'm eating Cheez-Its (mmm, TBHQ) to recover from a miserable hangover...ahh, I must be home.

The occasion of my visit is a trip to San Francisco I made in order to attend a conference and present our work. The conference was fine, but it was my first time in SF and I was really excited to look around, and fortunately I scheduled myself a couple of days to do so.

I was prepared for rotten weather, as I've heard it can be in the winter, but found a city enjoying sunny 21C/70F temperatures, nothing like the winter at all. I didn't anticipate wanting to be outside much during this trip, but SF was just begging to be explored.

I got in to the city in the early afternoon and checked into my hotel (after walking about 10 blocks in the wrong direction). Trans-global traveler as I now am, I've become accustomed to losing all sense of time and having to quickly adjust to avoid jetlag. The strategy is easy, just a one-step process:

1) stay awake.

This isn't easy when you're presented with a clean, empty bed, but once you think about that city waiting out there, it's a no-brainer. Get out and hit the streets! And so, a man on a mission, I headed for the Mission.

First thing I did when I got there was, patriotic American as I am, to enjoy our national dish:

Holy moly, look at that chow. That burrito was so damn good I might print the picture out and eat it. This was placed before me for the whopping price of US$6 (=AU$6!), world's finest macromicrobrew beer included! The place was Taqueria Pancho Villa on 16th St between Mission and Valencia, named as a joke, I was to learn: the owner is named Francisco Villa, just like the Mexican revolutionary. Unlike his namesake, though, Francisco doesn't earn the nickname "Pancho", which roughly translates as "Fatty". But the place was bedecked with images of El Comandante, including this unbelievable "bronze" bust:

Imagine having that in your house. Your north Mexican landowner dinner guests would shit their pants and run in fright back to their latifundias.

The Mission is also home to some famous graffiti walls:

Lovely stuff, especially when you're full on Mexican food, giddy about being in a Spanish-speaking country again, delirious from 20 hours of flying, and many dollars poorer after visiting MissionWorkshop (coming soon to Australia, they told me).

After browsing the rest of the things on offer in the Mission---826 Valencia, bookstores and coffee shops---I wound my way back to the Tenderloin, where I was staying, and managed to keep myself awake until a respectable 10PM.

The conference nominally started the next day---Saturday---but when I went down to the Convention Center (the Moscone Center, named after the SF Mayor that was killed with Harvey Milk) I realised that there wasn't much going on, so I picked up my conference materials and walked toward the Bay. Along Market St, I came across these excellent examples of public art outside an office building:

These fantastic, Tim Burton-esque pieces, called "Moonrise", are by Ugo Rondinone. Much more dramatic and competent photos of these pieces can be seen here.

My stroll took me out to the Ferry Terminal, a perfect spot to enjoy what was turning into a glorious morning. Looking east from the Terminal, the Bay Bridge was a delight to behold:

and, behind me, lay the Financial District, looking prim and proper:

A bunch of stereotypes with legs, the natives joined me en masse at the Ferry Terminal that morning for a farmer's market. There they were, wearing their fleece vests, sampling artisan cheeses and gasping at the sight of organic parsnips. I was truly in the thick of westcoastness. And yes, I made it out alive, sallying forth along the Embarcadero toward Fisherman's Wharf, where flocks of tourists are greeted by an overgrown, grown-over crab-friend---

---and then get to feast their eyes (and abuse their noses) on these guys:

These chunky customers have taken over Pier 39 and while away the days howling, barking, and sleeping in a real pile when they're not shoving each other off the platform. I missed videotaping that but here are some placid moments:

In the distance lay The Rock, القطرس*:

*Note: wanna get stuck into a mind-bending Wikipedia wormhole? Try doing the etymology on "Alcatraz" and "albatross".

That self-same day, I managed to climb the hills to Lombard St, "The Steepest Street in America", then down again, then up again to the San Francisco Art Institute, where in 1931 Diego Rivera left a hell of a calling card:

This painting-within-a-painting features Diego and his artist friends, and several anonymous workers, painting and sculpting images of a giant worker/engineer, depicting him as the person on whom society depends. In those heady days of epic struggle, Rivera and his sympathisers had invested their hopes for a better world in the international working class and left this as a clear message: even our monuments should be seen as the outcome of a collaborative process of production.

The Art Institute (built around an old convent) features another spectacular attraction, the vista from its roof:

There, in the centre of the photo, you see Telegraph Hill, topped by the famous fire-nozzle of Coit Tower. It was my next destination:

Wasn't that quick? Actually, I stopped on the way to grab some famous focaccia from Liguria in North Beach and scarfed it when I reached the top of the hill.

The tower was commissioned at the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit (talk about your tongue-twister names) and built in 1933 to honour the city's firefighters. The New Deal Public Works of Art Project also commissioned fresco murals in the lobby of the tower from San Francisco artists. Deemed "communistic" at the time, the murals depict the daily life of toilers across the state, from fruit-pickers to slaughterhouse workers to city-dwellers, and address contemporary issues such as the stock market crash and increasing social polarisation. Two of the murals were actually considered too provocative to show to the public and so were destroyed before the Tower could be opened. Most of the murals are clearly in the style of Rivera, though some tend more toward romantic visions of the American countryside (and are therefore pretty boring). In one scene, people read newspapers in a library; the headlines spell financial crisis, industrial struggle, and dark news from Europe. In response, a man reaches for a tome:

And that was one of the murals that was saved from destruction! Overall the murals are amazing and worth the climb to the Tower. They really give you a sense of the city's radical history long before the 60s. The Tower itself was closed, unfortunately, so I couldn't go up. My camera also died at this point so I couldn't take more mural photos, but more can be found with a little Googling.

I wound my way back town the hill and through North Beach, stopping at City Lights bookstore for a stickybeak and Vesuvio for a pint. Walking out of the bar and turning the next corner, the scenery changed abruptly:

That's right, San Francisco has a Little Sydney!

Actually, they call it "Chinatown". All kidding aside, this might be the prototype Chinatown (with the exception of China itself, of course) and still claims to be the biggest one in the West. I'm not sure how these things are judged, because Sydney claims to have, I believe, the second biggest Chinatown in the West, but the Chinatown in New York seems bigger than the SF one to me in terms of area and population, so that would put Sydney at #3 at best. I also doubt that Sydney is even that high. Regardless, this one presented streets as bustling as any I'd seen in the city and the familiar sights and smells of Chinatowns everywhere.

I definitely took the opportunity to grab some steamed veg dumplings as a little pre-dinner snack and simply strode around, a gleeful smirk on my face, my feet aching from two massive days of rambling. My belly a veritable culinary UN, I sauntered off to my hotel, delighted to have a week of San Francisco's cosmopolitan offerings yet to come.

20 January 2011

Re-name Our Blog!!

Hey y'all--

A few years ago, back when we started this blog in 2008, we invited you, our dear readers to name our blog. You suggested titles for the blog, and we held a poll. You voted, and the winner has emblazoned the header of this blog for over two years now.

It's a great title. I have sincere love. But it's an Australia thing.

(For those of you who have still never asked me what the title of this blog means, here you are: when playing Risk: the Game of World Domination, if you control Australia, you get two extra armies each turn to defend it. Players try to get control of Australia early in the game, as it's the only continent that can be defended by fortifying only one country. In other words, in terms of world domination, Australia is far more important in the game of Risk than it is in real life.)

Given that I'm no longer in Australia, and the blog's writing team is now divided across the globe, we think a new title is in order.

Once again, we want you to name our blog! It's a chance to have your idea live on forever! Or at least until I move somewhere else!

Wonderboy and I will pick our top 5 favourites, and we'll do a poll in the next few months. Majority rules.

For now – start sending in your ideas! Email 'em in, or leave 'em in the comments. All suggesters get a free place to stay in their choice of beautiful locations (either Manchester or Sydney), and probably some booze and food thrown in, too. Also, really excellent hosts. I'll even take you out to my favourite Thai restaurant in MCR. Winner gets something better. Don't know what yet. But it will be good.

So, come on! Get thinking and NAME OUR BLOG!

And onto the post proper

Like any good Westerner's celebration of the holidays, Christmastime for me was filled with exciting material things I didn't need, but now excitedly own!

When we got back from Mallorca, I almost immediately hit the Christmas Markets. Manchester is famous for these markets; they've won all kinds of tourism awards. What's surprising is that they are actually wonderful.

(In the interest of being even-handed, I should mention that my friends Michael and Bernadette are completely unimpressed by the Christmas Markets, but I reckon it's because they've been spoiled by living in a city that puts them on every year. So, ok, I'm not really that even-handed, but hey, this blog doesn't really have that much journalistic integrity, now does it?)

The city puts up fairy lights all over town, and little wooden house-shaped market stalls sell mulled wine, hot chocolate, hot food, candy, fudge, candles, gifts and all sorts of other lovely things. The delightful holiday-time ambiance is free. Just walking around the markets in the crisp cold dark of night is a little magical.

Town Hall's Market:

Ok, so the giant Santa's enormous black eyes are a little scary. But apart from that, I can't even tell you how much fun the markets are; it's rare to walk around a city at night and find it vibrant, full of life. Rare to see people socialising outdoors. And we had already had snow by this point, so it was definitely cold, but it didn't stop people coming out and enjoying their lit-up town. We may not get much sun round these parts (night falls around 4.30pm lately), but MCR makes its own cheer. Mostly in the form of mulled wine with shots of brandy. Delicious, warming, and woozy-ing. I don't even care if that's a word or not, it should be.

The markets take over Manchester's city centre: Town Hall's market is mostly German stuff, St. Ann's is mostly French, etc. Manchester City Council had a stall, too, where I found my favourite Manchester souvenir so far: Manchester In A Bag.

It features a mini version of Town Hall, the Central Library, Urbis, Carver's Warehouse, Central Station (formerly GMex, and Central Station again before that), two little trams, and Beetham Tower. Click the names to see pictures of the actual buildings.

Beetham Tower is Manchester's sole skyscraper; that's why it doesn't fit in the picture, next to all of Manchester's squat little buildings. It's a very controversial tower. Some hate it, some love it. I think I like it. It's not a love, but I feel a tender sadness for Beetham Tower. Such a lonely skyscraper.

As soon as I got the set home, I totally geeked out. I spaced out all the buildings against a map and put them in their geographical order. I couldn't do it to scale, or they wouldn't have fit in the picture. But this is, essentially, mini MCR, featuring a full shot of Beetham Tower!

Later that week, some friends from my residence hall got together for Christmas dinner. I had already eaten, but I decided to join them for the company. They had already broken their Christmas crackers.

For the Yanks reading this, Christmas crackers are these things you can buy that look like giant Tootsie Rolls covered in gift-wrap. You're meant to hold one end, and someone else holds the other. You both pull, and the roll pops loudly (hence, "cracker), and whoever gets the bigger part wins whatever's inside. Usually, it's all junk no one wants inside the cracker, but for some reason, everyone still hates losing. Proper junk, too, like a paper crown, a bad joke, and crappy plastic toy that's not even fun. The jokes are seriously awful. For example: what kind of disease can a Christmas tree catch? Tinselitis. Collective groan.

More info on Christmas crackers at wikipedia, of course.

So, they'd already broken their crackers, and the toys were sitting around on the table. I took a seat next to a Canadian-British guy who lives in Geneva (yes, his accent is super-weird).
"Can I play with that?" I asked, pointing at a bunch of neon plastic geometrical shapes.

"Yeah, sure," he said, "They're meant to make a square."
"Cool!" I replied, eyes glued to the shiny neon.

10 seconds later:

He was a little miffed, because it had taken him longer to put the square together. But I was addicted.
"Can you do it another way?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said.
10 seconds later:

He was definitely annoyed now. But I couldn't stop myself. I pulled it apart again:

This is the best Christmas cracker toy ever. The guy said he didn't want to look at it anymore. I could keep it! Sweet!
I also picked up another lovely Christmas-time thing in Mallorca, but it has some back story. A few years ago, Craig and I went to Barcelona over the holidays, and there we learned about a delightfully bizarre Catalan tradition.

You see, most nativity scenes in the Christian world have Mary, Joseph, the baby, some sheep and a donkey. Maybe a few other barnyard animals. A manger. You see what I'm getting at.

But in Catalunyan nativity scenes, just outside the manger, there is another character. The Caganer, which translates as "The Shitter" It's a man or a boy, wearing a traditional red Catalunyan fedora. Doing a poo.

 I am not even joking.

Catalans apparently believe this character represents the essential straight-forwardness of the Catalan spirit. Sure, the Messiah might be crowning. Nature occasionally calls during earth-shattering religious moments. There's just nothing else to be done.

I love the Mallorcan one. He's holding a bit of loo roll, and his face is hilarious.

Back in 2004, Craig and I bought a Caganer from Barcelona (the pink-shirted one). Now I have a collection!! I couldn't be more thrilled. Aren't they great?

I showed them to my buddy Ryan when I got back. He asked, "Did you get one for me?"
I looked down. "No..." I said, slowly.
He was clearly disappointed.
I said, "Don't feel bad about it, though, Ryan. I just realised I didn't even get one for Craig either."
He laughed. "Nice."
"Yeah," I said, "I can be pretty crappy girlfriend sometimes."

And do you know what the amazing thing about Craig is? Reader, when I told him I had literally not even thought about buying him one, he wasn't upset at all. He didn't let a trace of disappointment cross his face. Wonderboy.


Also, my flat is getting cosier by the day. Last month, I noticed Despoina lives in room D, and I suggested she take advantage of her first initial and embellish her door with "espoina." She asked what I would put on my door, given that I live in room C. I suggested "rap," as a joke, but she didn't seem to like that idea very much.

A few weeks later, I came home to see that Des had taken the idea to a whole new level.
Kemal lives in room A, next to Arata, who lives in room B.

And room B is between my room and Kemal's room.

Des is across the hall from us – she uses an Anglicised spelling of her name, while I, for some unknown reason, insist on using the Greek spelling.

The kitchen is simply the kitchen:
But room C, my room, got a very special treatment. I'm so lucky to live with her. What a lovely flatmate and friend. I can't be thankful enough.

Next time: Nija heads deep into the bowels of Salford, and walks through the skeleton of a Frankenstein not quite activated yet: Media City UK. And, also she sees the LOWRY!

17 January 2011

Wherein Nija shows her photography and modelling skills, and a seaside town is occasionally seen behind her.

Happy New Year, dear reader, and I hope your holidays were lovely. I have been under a massive pile of celebration and assessment-driven guilt, which has prevented me from writing to you, but I am done with that shit, and I have a lot to say, so no more dilly-dallying, let's get on with it!

Way back in 2010 (yes, reader, it's been over a month since you've heard from me, I know the separation has been difficult), I went on a short weekend trip to Mallorca with some new friends: Despoina (my killer flatmate), Adrian (who's actually becoming quite a pal), and some guy named Matt. I think he's Adrian's friend.

We got a cheap flight and cheap hotel rooms, and we spent the weekend seeing what Palma de Mallorca has to offer. Which in wintertime, we learned, is really not all that much. But it was quiet and warmer than Manchester, so we were happy with walking along the beach.

Wherein Adrian shows his own modelling skills:

And English words that don't really seem applicable to the occasion are wrought upon the shore:

Wherein Despoina, a grown woman studying her doctorate in Finance, looks beautiful and ironic wearing a hippie necklace:

Mallorca has the same bizarre taste in graffiti that I loved so much in Barcelona, but that should be no surprise: they're both Catalan-speaking parts of Spain. Though, most people there also speak Castellano, and because it's such a huge German tourist destination, a lot of people also speak German. I loved dragging my old broken high-school level Castilian Spanish out of my brain-garage, taking it for a spin. I could literally feel my Spanish getting better each day I was there. The best part was that of the four of us, I knew the most Spanish, so I got to do a lot of talking. I miss speaking in not-English.

Though it does seem my inadvertant flirting is drastically amplified in broken Spanish; I think I single-handedly turned the Hotel Java's almost entirely meat- and fish-based dinner buffet to a 75% vegetarian buffet, just by telling the guy who set the food out what I do and don't eat. A Punjabi pizza-maker asked me where I'm from. Seriously, sometimes it feels like "Where are you from?" (when used as a conversation-opener) is a specific equivalent of "How you doin'?" which is only to be used on brown women. Next time I plan to visit, I'll have to learn how to say "Not your flippin' business, mate" in Spanish. And then they'll say something back, and I'll be in way over my head. No result.

Wherein Nija stops ranting about the joys and sorrows of making her way in the Spanish-speaking world, and gets back to the far more interesting photo essay, which really was going so well before. I don't know what she was on about. Right, then. Full stop. Breath. Bizarre graffiti:

Oh, Catalunya, how I missed you. It was exciting to see all the Catalunyan holiday stuff again, the fairy lights spelling out "Bones Festes," which of course means "Bone the Festes." Or, ahem, or it means "Happy Holidays."

My Top Model audition shots will not be denied!! I'm fierce, Tyra. FIERCE.

Actually, is that show still on? It's been about five years since I saw it. Wow, my references are nearly as old as my niece. Time to stop listening to physics podcasts and watch some television, Nij. I'll get right on that.

A Palma sunset, during which we should have been drinking wine and enjoying some crisps:

But my wine and crisps idea lost out early in the day to Matt's harebrained idea of renting bikes and riding approximately 35k into the city, past the city to the castle, and back. We actually rented two normal bikes and (wait for it) one (wait for it) tandem bike. Foo-doo-fa-fa, indeed. The only reason I'm not posting a picture of Des and Matt on the tandem is because it actually didn't look nearly as funny as the television shows make it look. They must use special Hollywood-style tandems on TV.

Yes, I did ride on the back of the tandem, as well, and yes, reader, the lack of control was frightening. Especially as Matt dragged the stupid tandem up a ridiculous mountain upon which the Arab once-rulers of Mallorca were silly enough to plant an absurd castle. Ok, so maybe the mountain and the castle aren't the preposterous bits of this story. Probably it was actually us.

So if they had a King of Fools, then we would wear that crown for riding bikes, especially a flipping tandem, up that mountain. I will not wear it proudly. In fact, I'll mostly make Matt wear it, as the whole thing was his idea. Nutter.

Hmm. Wherein we must have been at an art museum, but I think I had enjoyed a few beers with lunch earlier in the day, dear reader, so I don't really know too much about this picture. Except Des looks nice, and she asked me to take the picture, which is clearly an homage to Velazquez, that Prince of Genius.

Beware her cute, finance-y, hippie, art-friendly look, dear reader-- Despoina is actually a werewolf for dance. When the dance music rises in the night sky, she is transformed, and she will not rest until you wear your dancing shoes, and then until you wear them out. All of us, including Adrian, who claims to have more left feet than one would think possible on a human of relatively normal formation, found ourselves dancing in public two (count 'em!) TWO nights in a row at our Hotel, the Hotel Java. Which, apart from the four young, attractive people mentioned on this blog, was entirely filled with older, retired married couples.

That's right. It was just us and Mundosenior - Viajes y Servicios para Personas Mayores

(My broken Spanish translation: WorldElderly - Travel and Services for Older People)

The night was still young. Matt, Adrian and I needed a few more G-and-T's before we were getting out on the floor. Some of the old people were already rocking it, though, which I guess makes sense, as they seemed to go to bed around 11.30pm.

Des's dancing fangs were out, she was sniffing for rhythm. Finally, she said the unsayable:

"I'm going to pull a grandpa. I'm going to pull that one," she said, pointing at her potential victim. "He's a rock star. He wants to dance, I can tell. He's dancing already, in his seat. He's dying for it."

I know. She could almost be a homewrecker, but her intentions are so purely dance-centric.

Rockstar Grandpa's wife appeared, and Mr. and Mrs. Rockstar Grandparents got on the dance floor. Des was right. They were really good.

She could wait no longer. She grabbed Adrian; he couldn't resist. You know how it is, when you look a werewolf in the eyes-- you're hypnotised. Or is that vampires? Crap, if it's vampires, I'm going have to revise this whole anecdote to match the metaphor. Screw it. I'm going with hypnotism by werewolf. Go with it, reader. This is why we love metaphor, right? We never know where it's going to take us. It's a flipping adventure, ok? I'm driving the metaphor, and I'm not stopping to check my facts or to make sure I haven't accidentally put oil in the vinegar tank. Yes, metaphors run on vinegar. So go with it.

She happily strides onto the dance floor, Adrian trails behind her, dazed. They try to blatantly copy Mr. and Mrs. Rockstar, and the Rockstars... well, they notice they're being stalked.

And here's where things get weird. Because the Rockstars split up, to teach Des and Adrian their moves.

She pulled a Grandpa. That one. The werewolf's power is mysterious, readers.

Ok, I'm pulling over. My metaphor seems to be emitting an acrid black smoke. Maybe it's actually meant to run on oil? I don't do metavehicles. You can get out now. Seriously, this is where the metaphor stops, get out. Now. No, I can't drop you at your house. Get. Out.


Wherein an old olive tree mottles my skin:

Palma's beautiful cathedral:

Wherein my talent for capturing amazing shots of a built environment is categorically affirmed:

These are of the right laughable castle, Castell Bellver, on the top of the hilarious mountain. But still: my talent affirmed!

Wherein sundials are distorted for visual effect:

An alleyway, for your enjoyment:

From the castle balcony, looking down upon the common peons below. Feeling rather lonely up here, actually, and considering abolishing this whole aristocracy thing anyway.

We also visited the Palma cathedral, which is apparently incredibly famous, because Antoni Gaudí designed the central nave and canopy. I say apparently because even though Gaudí is probably hands-down my favouritest architect/designer ever, I'd never heard about this. Still it's quirky and amazing and bizarre, just like the Gaudí we know and love.

Though loved by the rich, jetsetting Barcelonan tastemakers, Gaudí was a controversial artist in his day, and well, hey, he's still not everyone's idea of brilliant. Which is why it is so appropriate that Palma's Cathedral features Mallorcan artist Miguel Barceló's take on the loaves and the fishes.

His version of the stained glass you expect to see in a cathdral is windows that look blacked out by spraypainting vandals. His idea of sacred religious sculpture is three-dimensional fish-heads swimming out of the wall, mouths open, toward the faithful (or, the faithless, in my case).

I thought it was one of the most calming spiritual places I've ever been to, but I overheard plenty of people who didn't like it, who didn't think it would last. And that felt just about right. I'm sure in 1877, a lot of people thought a mansion sculpted to look like it was a pile of bones under a slain dragon, topped with a cross planted in a giant bulb of garlic wouldn't last.

Wherein the arts triumph over their contemporary naysayers: Gaudí's Casa Battló.

The marina and shoreline from ludicrous castle:

And on our last morning, we stopped by a Sunday morning Christmas market. I thought we'd seen old people dancing at the Hotel Java. I know I've seen old people dance: my father can do the trademark "Dad's Special Side-to-Side Shuffle" like you wouldn't believe, unless you've seen it, and if you're reading this, well then, you might have. I've seen my cousins' grandmother jump around in a sari so long we got past thinking it was cute and worried for her safety. I've seen it, dear reader. I have seen there and seen that.

I thought there couldn't possibly be another aspect of old people dancing that would surprise me.

Wherein approximately 30 Mallorcan women wearing black pants, red sweaters, white scarves and Santa hats perform synchronized line dances to songs that have absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. Wherein it strikes your beloved writer: This is why I'm studying Anthropology.

More tomorrow, dear readers, and hopefully I will have dropped this whole "wherein" bizzo by then.