Thursday, June 25, 2009

European Vacation, Day 7

Having neglected my ambitious museum program yesterday, I took a more Continental breakfast and set out to conquer as much of London as I could before heading to Berkshire to stay with my cousins. My first stop (after yet another unsuccessful attempt to pay for what I had bought at Christie’s—and, yes, Molly Ott Ambler, I am eating humble pie about that right now) was the Tate Modern, which I’d heard about for years but never visited. Not surprisingly, it’s not exactly my taste, although I think it’s very cool that they used an old power station to house the collection (although in that vein, I prefer the Musée d’Orsay for re-use of a space). There were two exhibitions at this time: Material Gestures and Poetry and Dream. The latter at least had some representational paintings in them, which I rather liked—the aesthetic was rather like that of a Cecil Beaton photograph. There were also several Surrealist paintings, which is a genre I have always liked, and one installation called “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” wherein the artist took multitudinous objects in silver—trombones, teapots, trays, forks, letter caddies, etc.—arranged them in a street, and then had a bulldozer run over them, then she suspended them about 6 inches off the floor. The idea was that these had probably been wedding, christening, presentation, or other gifts, and she found them all in junk shops, so the title evinces the betrayal of Christ by Judas in the way that the gift-givers had been betrayed by their recipients (or their heirs). It was interesting and thoughtful without seeming like the artist was trying too hard to impress you with her strident political polemics. I was also affected by a couple of enormous Matisse collages, wherein he was trying to get down to essentials (color more than shape) of art through these very simple, bold designs. Don’t get me wrong, I liked them. But what is all this about getting down to essentials? Is there an implied criticism that the preceding centuries (or perhaps millennia) of art produced were saddled with non-essential elements? Just because a Renaissance or Baroque painting has more “stuff” in it doesn’t necessarily mean that that stuff is not essential, does it? Whether it is a putto that is adding balance, or allegorical meaning, or just plain beauty to a painting, does that mean it’s non-essential? Remember in the movie Amadeus, when Salieri is describing Mozart’s compositions, and he says, “Displace one note, and there would be diminishment”? And then Emperor Joseph II later criticizes the premiere of Die Entführung aus dem Serail by claiming it has “too many notes”? Well, I’m the first to admit that some things have been overdone in the past (think ormolu-encrusted furniture, although it made sense within the aesthetic of the day), but that’s different than what (it seemed to me) Matisse was doing.

After a very British lunch of cottage pie and chips (OK, and a pint of Guinness) at the very Britishly-named The White Hart, I headed for the Museum of London, as recommended by Selene Morgan. Like the Cabinet War Rooms Museum, I didn’t realize how much time I had spent there. Very well done, ranging from prehistoric artifacts from the Thames River Valley, to the hunter-gatherer time, to an excellent look at life under the Romans, to the Great Fire in 1666. Again, absolutely worth a visit for anyone who’s a history buff and/or wants to learn more about that incredible city.

I hied myself hence to Waterloo to catch the train to Wokingham, home of Olive (my mother’s second cousin, and they were really more like sisters) and Andrew MacDonald. They live in a charming Tudor house (from 1490, and they have all the old deeds—super cool) on Rose Street. Having worked as a colonial agricultural officer in Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Mauritius, the house is filled with fascinating items gathered over the course of their travels all over Africa and the world. I was just in time for tea (well, sorta—they were nice enough to push it back for me), where we caught up on each other’s lives and I heard all about the latest big scandal in British politics, which is that the members of Parliament have not documented, nor properly used, allowances funded by the public that were, in everything but name, salary increases. There is a huge amount of outrage about this, at least in the Telegraph, and the issue has even appeared in the NYT, which has called for our Congress to learn from this incident and have full disclosure of its own expenses.

European Vacation, Days 5 and 6

DAY 5

The farewell brunch provided some much-needed sustenance, and it was nice to see how well everyone had, overall, recovered from the last night’s revelry. One nice chap at my table was still in his tuxedo, which I loved. Something to shoot for next year! My new friend Jean very kindly offered to take me to the airport in his racing green Bentley; apparently he is a car nut, which was confirmed when he (paradoxically) filled his car with the wrong fuel and we had to abandon it at the gas station and head back and complete the journey in his brown Rolls. I mean, who lives like this? It was fun to interlope in that world for a little bit. Hopefully I can drop by his restaurant when I head to Tokyo next month for my cousin Hans’s wedding. (Yes, you read that right.)

After picking up some French goodies (Veuve and foie gras) for my Scottish relatives, I got on the plane for London, which is one of my favorite cities. I (stupidly) took a cab into Central London, and it cost over £80. Unless you must take one, or you have scads of scratch, I recommend finding another way of getting into town. I was staying at the Athenaeum Club, which is right on Pall Mall in St. James’s, or what my friend Chris Patz calls “Man’s London.” Jermyn Street alone would be enough to earn it that moniker, after all. Let’s be clear; the Athenaeum has an unbeatable location: walking distance to Piccadilly, the West End, Trafalgar Square, and so forth. The rooms, however, are pretty down at heel. But for £102 a night, you can’t beat the price in the most expensive city on Earth, and it’s all the more incentive to get out and do things rather than hang out in the room, say I. A very, and necessarily, recession-friendly strategy.

I spent the afternoon planning the rest of my stay in London, had a delicious dinner (who woulda thunk?) and got some rest.

DAY 6

Today I tried to cram as much as possible into it. The day started with a full English breakfast, which results in a total food coma. It took everything I had not to go back upstairs and lie down. Of course, reading the International Herald Tribune about the trials and tribulations in Iran helped. I am so hopeful that the miscarriage of process and justice that are the most recent elections, and the justified public outcry, will start to chip away at the oppressive policies of the regime and show up the powers-that-be for what they are. I wish Obama would be less wishy-washy in his response to the situation, though. Where is the outstretched hand that he referred to in his inaugural address (which was a powerful image that I loved)? What’s this business about “continuing to bear witness”? Anemic, very.
After an unsuccessful attempt (to be followed later by equally unsuccessful attempts—you can bet Visa is going to be hearing from me) to pay for one of my Russian glasses I had snapped up at auction at Christie’s, I went to the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum, which was also within walking distance. They do an amazing job with the museums in London. I barely realized I had spent over 2 hours there. The museum is a faithful recreation of the conditions under which Churchill and his cabinet ran the war in 1940 with an excellent and informative audio guide. You then detour into the museum devoted to Churchill the man, and in listening to excerpts of some of his speeches in the early days of the war (the fall of France, the miracle at Dunkirk, the RAF’s prevailing in the Battle of Britain), I defy anyone not to feel chills of admiration at the bravery and sacrifice of these incredible people; I’ll be honest, my eyes teared up. His speeches are incredibly stirring and pack a helluva punch; you get to see the drafting process, plus embark on a journey through various aspects of his life as a writer, journalist, up-and-coming politician, disgraced politician, neglected child, family man, painter, leader, and inspiration. While the overall tone is admiring, it is not sycophantic. If you are at all a student of history, you cannot miss this.

Next was a Patz-guided tour through Man’s London. Taylor’s for shaving cream, Trickers for awesome shoes, looking in the windows of Turnbull & Asser, Longmire for cuff links that, oh yes, one day will be mine (when I win the lottery). The Savoy is apparently closed for renovations, the Ritz is a ripoff (even if you can get a reservation), and so I tried the almost-as-venerable Brown’s Hotel for afternoon tea. (An interesting historical note is that Brown's was established by Lord Byron's butler and his wife, their maid.) They did an excellent job, and for about half the price as the Ritz, plus they were incredibly attentive, and there are bottomless scones and sandwiches. I definitely recommend it. (However, as an interesting side note, they gave me a little sample of tea to take home, which provoked comment—lucky for me, I got an inspector with a sense of humor—when going through security at Heathrow on the way home. “That’s not what I think it is, is it?” said the chap about the loose green leaves in the clear plastic bag. Just a word to the wise, people.)

After a much-needed nap, I went to my fifth-choice theater performance. The Globe was already booked, as was The Cherry Orchard, so I went to Mamma Mia! I’d half-meant to see it for a while, and so here was my chance. The way in which the ABBA principals cobbled together a plot out of their songs is actually worthy of some admiration, and their business acumen is really worthy of admiration. The singing and acting by the women was pretty good, the men less so, but it was a helluva feel-good evening, aided by a generous Pimm’s Cup at intermission and the fact that they reprised a bunch of numbers and expected and got audience participation (clapping, singing, dancing in the aisles) at the end of the show. Good times.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

European Vacation, Day 4

After another recovery period, I headed down to the Miami Beach Club, which was supposed to be the locale for a pre-Bal beach party. Although I didn’t seem to locate the rest of the crew, I had a pleasant afternoon on the Mediterranean. They have oddly-shaped, but eventually comfortable, demi-chaises-longues scattered throughout the fine pebbles, and one can order table service right on the beach. It was fun to watch the tourists, families, and twenty-somethings on holiday. (Although I’m in general happy with my choices in life, I would have taken my twenties a little less seriously had I it to do over again.) The Med beckoned, and while a bit chilly at first, it was eventually very pleasant and rather astounding to turn back towards shore and look up at the precipitous cliffs and pastel-colored villas under the azure sky and realize how lucky I am.

I joined Brent, Adam, and Karim at the Café de Paris (not surprisingly, just across from the hotel) and we enjoyed some well-advised sustenance before the ball. The first group of rotating women that came by were what turned out to be three Bahraini sisters in rather preposterous hats and blood-red lipstick. They had little conversation, so it was a relief when they were replaced by a couple of other Bal-goers who told a hilarious story about having accepted a boat ride to Italy from some billionaire who may or may not work as a bartender and, in the need to escape his clutches, had to leave behind their shoes in the boat and hitch a ride in a pickup from some construction workers. They were thoughtful, interesting gals, and the talk turned—as it often does—to relationships. Brent shared his theory that the whole system of marriage is an out-of-date arrangement that made sense when the life expectancy was 35 but does no longer, and that being cleaved to one person is unnatural. I can see his logic, but I think I am rather more romantic than that and still hope to find someone, not who will complete me, but who will enhance me and make me a better man.

The hour was late, and my hoped-for disco nap was made an impossibility, so I threw on the tux and Gabrielle, Gray, and I planned to head out when we were diverted to the Hermitage for a pre-party overlooking the Mediterranean and I was called on for some sartorial assistance. The Bahraini sisters were there once again in hats that had gone from improbable to weird/dangerous. One had an enormous feather that, if one were at the wrong height, could easily result in a poked-out eye. Completing the getup was some sort of orange Navajo blanket. Karim was wearing a very darinig, custom-made tuxedo jacket of black-and-white paisley with white piping on the lapels; hats off, as I wouldn’t have had the cojones, but he wore it well.

The Bal started with cocktails on the lawn outside the Sport Club, which afforded more interesting people-watching. One chap showed up in, I kid you not, a kilt, with a fake parrot attached to his right shoulder, and wearing a nametag—you know, in case you confused him with the other guy wearing a kilt and a parrot. On the whole, the crowd was probably 25-50 in age, although there was one rather distinguished older gentleman, but his female companion had a black skirt, a Soviet-era blouse, baggy hose, and orthopedic-looking shoes. It was like he had brought Colonel Rosa Klebb as his date. We were finally ushered into the Sport Club, which had been beautifully decorated and had a very high ceiling strewn with stars. Rudolf kindly had me at his table, and I had a very nice seat as well—he’s a marvelous host and brought together a nice bunch of people for the dinner. Somehow, the conversation was oddly disjointed, but those who wanted to participate (mainly in English and German) were able to find some common friends or interests. There was an entertainment portion of the evening that was—luckily, compared to last year, I’m told—quite brief, and then the dancing to a pretty good DJ began. Not as many of our tablemates were as up for dancing, but I made do; Lauralouise was especially good. After the required interlude at Jimmy’z, which was much better than the prior evenings, we ended the night at Adam’s suite at the Hermitage, hot tub and all, overlooking the Mediterranean. By that point in the evening—or rather, morning—I was so tired I can’t remember much of the interactions except that I was prevailed upon to put up or shut up on my claims to be an aspiring opera singer, so I managed as best I could to croak out some Don Giovanni, and the reception was overall positive. I stayed long enough to watch the sun rise over the sea, which was beautiful and fun to say and know I had done, and then I staggered home with promises on all sides to connect soon in New York or France or Japan or Estonia or Austria or wherever else.

European Vacation, Day 3

Now I know why the Hotel de Paris is able to offer an elaborate free breakfast in conjunction with the Bal de l’Été; I would be stunned if anyone got up in time to partake of it! Despite setting two wake-up calls, I was unable to get up before noon. I decided to take advantage of the SBM reciprocity and head over to the Monte Carlo Beach Club to catch some rays and enjoy the water. Unsurprisingly for Monaco, not only do you have to pay 5 euros to rent towels, but you have to choose: pool or beach. Not both. By total happenstance I was placed next to Gabrielle and Gray, so we spent the afternoon chatting amicably and uproariously about the characters we had encountered so far over the weekend (in addition to the mostly fantastic people): arrivistes, hangers-on, social climbers, and Casanovas in brocade suits. The saltwater pool had many diving platforms and was a welcome respite from the hot sun, and we had a very pleasant interlude.

I headed over to the aptly named (i.e., very Baroque and lovely) Hermitage Hotel to pick up my passes for the weekend (including, mercifully, some discount coupons for the infamous Jimmy’z). The suite that was headquarters looked like something out of a movie set in a WWII bunker or the War Rooms museum in London rather than the venue for international partygoers. After joining G and G for a very nice rosé and canapés in their suite, we miraculously grabbed a taxi to the pre-Bal cocktail party where we had spent the afternoon sunning ourselves. I finally had a chance to meet our hostess/organizer, Catherine. When I asked Heinrich, a very nice chap whom I’d met over the course of the weekend, how his first meeting with her (ours was sort of dismissive and frosty) went, he informed us that she had peremptorily told him “to wear a tie next time.” I would argue that a woman in some sort of Caribbean-slash-Pocahontas getup shouldn’t criticize other people’s sartorial choices, but maybe that’s just me. (Perhaps I am just prejudiced because our initially cordial e-mail correspondence soured when she told me that she found my additional donation to her cause “quite small in comparison with her other guests.”) Anyhow, the cocktail party was very nice. I had the pleasure of running into my good buddy Mark Baer, who is now living in London and who I hadn’t known was coming. Eventually I wound up with the charming couple of Anric and Lauralouise, who live in Oyster Bay, and we made many trips back to the excellent buffet supper and I had a very enjoyable conversation with Beth, an incoming NYU public health student—maybe I can get her to take my apartment next door?

Before the evening descended into the usual champagne-soaked, techno-imbued, well-dressed denouement at Jimmy’z, we went to a charming venue called the Sea Lounge. Right on the ocean, with sort of a tiki feel, it was a nice change. From there, it was kind of a nice walk along the sea, and it allowed us to get our bearings back a bit before you-know-where. More than anything, I have to say that the best part of the event is meeting so many people; they’re rather like how Nick Carraway describes the guests at a Great Gatsby party, where “their simplicity of heart was the only requirement of admission.” Or something like that.

Monday, June 15, 2009

European Vacation Part 2, Day Two

After a sumptuous breakfast in the aforementioned terrace/garden restaurant, I figured (rightly, as it turns out) that this would be my best and only chance to do some sight-seeing. So I set off into the beautiful sunshine to explore the postage-stamp-sized principality. The Hotel de Paris is located more easterly, while the old town of Monaco is located in a more westerly direction. The bus was an excellent way to get there and only cost 1 euro (taxis are wickedly expensive). I wandered around the palace/cathedral area while waiting for the changing of the guard at 11:55. The cathedral is lovely and comparatively small, and of course was where the wedding of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly took place. The cult of Princess Grace is alive and well: her grave has many floral tributes, and everywhere throughout the principality there are sandwich boards with “Parcours de Princesse Grace” on them, displaying pictures of her (my God, she really was lovely) at ceremonial functions during her reign. After the changing of the guard, which was really not such a big deal, I toured the public rooms of the royal palace. The audio guide is excellent, although it has the typical breathless narrative about family history and damask wallpaper. The rooms are quite beautifully decorated in various French styles, but again the scale is vastly different in its smallness—I know that is rather unfelicitously phrased—from all the other palaces one sees in Europe. I found myself wondering if Grace Kelly found it pretty small potatoes, in some way, after Hollywood.

After a delicious lunch (where the earthy and delightful waitress was very complimentary of my French) of tagliatelle carbonara, I checked out the collection (which is not to say museum) of the classic cars of the Princes of Monaco. It’s a clever setup, because I suspect that they can take them out of the building whenever they want and yet are able to charge a few euros for you to see them, which helps maintain them. Although I’m not a car nut, I enjoy a good automobile as much as the next guy, so it was fun to see all the beautiful old Jaguars, Rolly Royces, Citroëns, and Fords. My ramble then took me to one of the marinas where some incredibly beautiful, sleek yachts were berthed. Not a bad life for those folks! The area beyond the marina was not worth the wander, although I happened upon the (you guessed it) Princesse Grace rose garden, which was a pretty and fragrant place to relax for a little bit. Overall, Monaco is lovely, charming, and highly manicured—rather like Palm Beach in some ways. Blades of grass are not allowed to be out of place.

Went down to pool to try and get some color for the ball, but instead ran into Brent and Adam so we chatted for a good while before taking a dip in the salt water swimming pool of the Société des Bains de Mer (which is the umbrella organization for the Hotel de Paris and its sister hotels). There was just enough time for a short nap and a change of clothes before meeting in the bar for drinks, where I had the good fortune to run into Gabrielle and Grayson, two folks I had known slightly in New York and had met at the Morgan Library Christmas party. They were to join us and several others for a dinner at Mandarin organized by Prince Rudolf Kniase Melikoff, whom I had met about 3 years ago at the opening of the opera in San Francisco and who is a veteran of the ball. The German Casanova was there as well in a, shall we say, gutsy sartorial choice of a black brocade suit. I asked him where he got it, and was astonished when he said Prada because he’s an even bigger guy than I am, although apparently in Germany they make things on bigger lines. On the walk to the restaurant, I started chatting with Sarah, an attractive and charming woman who had lived in many of the same places I had. Completely platonic. However, it seems Herr Brocade is one of those guys who views interaction between the sexes as a zero-sum game: as soon as we got to the restaurant, he took her hand and stage whispered, “I want you to set next to me.” God bless, buddy. He then proceeded to put the moves on Gabrielle who had done nothing more than be her warm and gracious self, but that he took as a come-on. My dinner partner was Robin, a charming gal from Australia; our end of the table was definitely the lively one. Despite that, though, the crazy schedule and travel began to catch up with me and I was starting to fall asleep during the conversation. Note to self: must train for the ball if I ever go again. More sleep. Maybe an exercise regimen so I have more energy. After a delicious, if pricey, dinner, we moved on to Velos, which was a decidedly marginal venue. The waitress was surly at best, and once again I started to fall asleep—yikes.

Our last stop was the famous Jimmy’z, which Jennifer—another of our dinner companions—insisted she knew how to get to. Not so much, as our meanderings took us at one point to a car park. Industrial lighting and exposed ductwork is probably not consonant with a glitzy nightclub. Inside I didn’t think Jimmy’z was all that, frankly. Lots of Euro-techno; one song in particular had a lyric that was “Yes I am your punching bag.” Huh? We did at least get a table. It came my turn to buy a “round,” which was magnums of champagne. I followed suit and got one of Mumm’s that could be had for the bargain price of…540 euros. Mumm’s, people. Mumm’s!!!! The taste of the champagne was not quite enough to overpower the bile. We ended the night over (frankly delicious) pizza and lasagna at Tip Top. The walk home was lovely in the indigo pre-dawn, and at 5:30 it was definitely time for bed.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

European Vacation Part 2, Day One

OK, so getting to Monaco was not easy. A couple tips for all you travelers out there:

1) If you are flying Air France out of JFK (and maybe other airports), you might have to check in at Delta. I don't give a rat's ass if you guys are codeshare partners, United doesn't make you do something as silly and pointless as that.

2) If you run into a situation like (1) above, THAT'S when you need to get to the airport 2 hours early for an international flight. I literally went up to Delta representatives BEGGING them to help me not miss my flight. Not so much, it would seem. Surly and incompetent, to a person--they're gonna get a "Charlie letter."

So I had to buy a last-minute ticket to Monaco and back through London on British Airways. Yeah, that was all kinds of cheap. The flight was pretty empty, and so I hoped I could stretch out on a row of seats. There were 3 in a row, but the whole front row was open, so I went up there and a couple grabbed the 3 seats I had my eye on. Turns out you can't lift the arms between the seats in the front row. Then I got my drink, and someone knocked into my elbow, so I spilled it on myself. Then some random old guy took a seat at the other end of the front row and proceeded--on an overnight flight, mind you--to read the Talmud the whole flight, with the reading light shining on me. I got to Monaco in not the best mood ever.

BUT...once I had, everything was duck soup from then on. My room at the lovely Hotel de Paris was ready right away, and it was comfortable and cool. Famished, I took lunch at the garden hotel in the restaurant. The Mediterranean was in the distance, and the air was redolent of jasmine. The staff was attentive, pleasant, and sunny, and it was the perfect antidote to the hell that had preceded it, as was the massage that followed. At one point, I ate a delicious meringue dessert that reminded me of something Mom used to make, and my eyes stung with the beautiful memory and the dazzling Mediterranean sunshine.

After a much-needed nap, I gussied up and went down to the Bar Americain for a pre-Bal de l'Ete cocktail party hosted by Adam Schran and Brent Smith, two very affable chaps who know a good many folks at the Bal. (Oddly, "Bal" is pronounced not with a long "a," as one would expect, but instead with a short "a," like when Bertie Wooster refers to one of his imbroglios in a Wodehouse novel as "bally.") There was a charming international crowd of Austrians, Dutch, Germans, French, Romanians, and Americans, all of whom speak excellent English and most of whom keep a couple of residences. I have to give a shout out here to Mme. Stephens and Mlle. Sikora, because I got an unending flow of compliments on my French--great job, ladies! Thanks for teaching me so well.

After hurling 24 Euros at a Pimm's Cup and similar sums at flutes of champagne, I and the other folks still standing headed out to a place called, I kid you not, Sass. At some point during my sojourn there, I texted the following to Chris Patz: "I think I may have become Eurotrash." He responded: "Spiking your hair, overdoing cologne, wearing too many pastel colors? I think not." Brilliant. And by that definition, to be fair, the Sass crowd was not Eurotrash either. I ended the night "early" at 3:30 AM. I think it's going to be a fun weekend!