Autumn Lights

There is a huge, beautiful garden fronting Lake Merritt, next to Fairyland.  I didn’t know that until last night, but now I do, and so do you.

The gardens cover 7 relatively hidden acres, and have a bonsai garden, a succulent garden, Japanese garden, sensory garden, and more.  It appears to be 11 years old (but I may not understand it correctly), and seems to be an excellent community resource.

Autumn Lights is an annual fund raising event, combining the gardens, art, music and food into two lyrical evenings by the water.  Artists are recruited who work in light, all the garden pathways are lighted with luminaria, music abounds, food trucks cater and a horde of people descend for a magical evening.

Big crowds, lots of lights

Big crowds, lots of lights


People come in costume:

A walking flower

A walking flower

Some are wilder than others:

There were LED lights in that wig, too.

There were LED lights in that wig, too.


But it is the art that makes the evening:


Admission the garden is usually free, although you can spend a fin on the parking if you don’t want to walk in.  Autumn Lights is a fundraiser, and it will set you back $25, a couple of bucks cheaper if you do it online.

The show is over for this year; you should really plan to go next October.  Doors open at 6, but things aren’t very interesting until about 7:15 when the sun goes down and the lights take center stage.  Put it on your calendar.

Another way to decorate a house.

The redoubtable Jimmy Snidle among his art.

The redoubtable Jimmy Snidle surrounded by his art.

Another tour with the Oakland Museum Art Guild.  This one was a doozy.

We went to the home of James Snidle, a San Francisco artist, art appraiser and gallery owner.  His small San Francisco abode is crammed top to bottom with art, very very good art.  The spectacular views across the Bay are overwhelmed by the incredible interior of this 2 bedroom museum.

We have a considerable amount of art in our house.  Jimmy Snidle has more, and in half the space.  He has great art, by Robert Arneson, Clayton Bailey, Squeak Carnwath and dozens of others.  There are no unadorned spaces in this jewel box of a home.

Alongside the house is city property, which Jimmy and his partner have simply appropriated for a lush garden. The city doesn’t really mind if you want to take care of their land for them.  In the backyard they have a huge collection of immaculately tended bonsai.

I can’t describe this place, I can only show it to you.  And suggest that you join the Art Guild so you can go places you would never find by yourself.

They can’t all be winners

Some people plan every part of their life, some of us are as spontaneous as possible.  Fortunately, we have friends who live life as ad hoc as we do.  So when Keith and Jan Gunn called and asked if we wanted to go to lunch and see the Blue Angels today, we were ready in a flash.  We’re lucky enough to live in the Bay Area where the every year for Fleet Week we get a world class airshow over the beautiful bay.

Jan and Gail were ready for a sunny day:

The parasol will never go out of style.

The parasol will never go out of style.

We ate lunch at Murray Circle, a fancy-dancy joint that’s part of an upscale resort situated in Cavallo Point, at the very southern end of Marin County almost under the Golden Gate Bridge.  The idea was to have a fine lunch and then enjoy the Blue Angels.  One of those things happened.

We ate here once before, and liked it.  No such luck today.

The whole experience started strangely.  Our companions were Keith and Jan Gunn; Jan had called the restaurant twice trying to get a reservation and was told they were fully booked.  We thought we’d end up having a bite at the bar, but the restaurant was mostly empty and we got a table immediately.  Why couldn’t we get a reservation?  Only the Shadow knows.

The facility is warm and attractive, as you would expect from a former Officers Club.  Lots of wood and brass, windows everywhere, white tablecloths and heavy flatware make it a pleasant place to be.

The food, though, was a huge disappointment.

Biscuits and gravy, so they think.

Biscuits and gravy, so they think.


Biscuits and gravy may well be the quintessential American breakfast food, unknown everywhere else in the world.  Ordering a big hot gooey plate in an upscale eatery seemed like a slam dunk.  That was wrong.

I got a plate that included 1 hard, cold, biscuit, split, topped with poached eggs and lightly napped (not drowned, as they should be) with an insipid, bland, sausage-less “gravy” that was cold.  Cold enough to chill the eggs underneath.  It was dreadful, tasteless and vile.  Every fourth rate greasy spoon sitting alongside a two lane highway bypassed by an Interstate can prepare a decent plate of biscuits and gravy.  Murray Circle can’t.

Edible huevos rancheros.

Edible huevos rancheros.

Gail and Keith had the huevos rancheros.  I asked her the food was, and she said “edible”.  For $18 I expect a hell of a lot more than edible.

Lettuce Chicken cups.

Lettuce Chicken cups.

I think Jan was the big winner, although she wasn’t very excited.  The food was fine, she just doesn’t enjoy building her own food with her hands in a restaurant.  Jan eats pizza with a knife and fork, this dish just isn’t a good fit for her.

After lunch, Jan and Keith strolled down to the waterfront to view the Blue Angels.



Lunch may have been a disaster, but the Blue Angels were a complete hit.  I took a couple of hundred photos, and got one winner.  That’s enough for me.  Any day you can see this is a good day:


This photo needs no caption

This photo needs no caption

The Most Important Person at ATT

Stephanie, the single most important person in the corporation.

Stephanie, the single most important person in the corporation.

Meet Stephanie, a customer service rep at the ATT store in downtown Walnut Creek.  She may not look like it to you, but she is the single most important person in the entire corporation.

That may surprise you.  It certainly surprised me.  I tell you how I found this out.

Tuesday, I went to her store to buy a couple of the new iPhones.  Stephanie and I spent 30 minutes filling out forms on her iPad, I declined to buy the insurance. She broke my heart when she offered an iPad mini for $199 but it was really $536 when I wanted one with a decent amount of storage. The process was reasonably swift if somewhat more bureaucratic than really necessary.

Wednesday, I got a confirmation email, and I noticed that both phones were ordered in black. That won’t do; Gail and I would spend half our lives deciding which phone was whose.  I want black, she wants white. So I picked up the phone to call them and correct this minor error.  Silly me.

After the usual hold time and interactive voice response hell, I got a person.  We went over the problem.  I gave her phone numbers, order numbers, social security numbers, my shoe size.  She found the problem. Then she said she could not fix the problem, I would have to schlepp back to the store and fix it in person.  Gee thanks, ATT.

Maybe, I thought, I can just call the store.  Not a good plan.  I called, went through the same hold and IVR stupidity, and got nothing.  Nobody answers the phone there.  I tried again, and again. And again.  Finally, I got through.  I thought.

The very nice young woman on the phone took a detailed message.  But she could not fix the issue, that had to wait for The Most Important Person in the Corporation, Stephanie.  Who wasn’t in until Thursday.  The very nice young woman promised to give Stephanie the message.  I had no faith.

Thursday, I went in to see TMIP Stephanie.  I felt honored to be in presence of the one person in the universe who can correct a minor error.  We are lucky to have her here in Walnut Creek.

Nothing is easy.  She had to cancel the previous order and make an entirely new one.  There was even more filling out of forms than there was the first time.  Lots of signing with my finger in the iPad.

The order is, theoretically, reset.  We’ll get one white and one black.  Perhaps.  I don’t have the greatest faith in the clunky, clumsy, bureaucratic, officious, inept system.  I’ll just have to wait and see what, if anything, is ever delivered.

ATT offers no apology for this fiasco.  They don’t care.  Stephanie is sorry for her error, but still thinks this is the best system, that nobody else in the world can correct a minor error but she.

I think ATT sucks, and they should be ashamed of themselves.  I keep them because we travel considerably, and I like being able to use my phone in Cambodia or Ethiopia or Budapest.  And hey!  I get to deal with The Most  Important Person in the entire corporation, the only single person who can correct a simple error.  Stephanie.

Finding the meaning

An interesting opening this afternoon at A New Leaf/Sculpturesite Gallery in Sonoma. The show was titled “Being a Woman”, featuring the work of 5 artists. We already have art from two of them, Jane Burton and Gale Hart.  After this show, there may be another headed our way.

What I’m here to talk about today is this piece, from Jane Burton:

36 different shapes on the wall.

36 different shapes on the wall.

There it was–36 different little shapes made of plaster and wax, attached to the wall and strongly side lit.  I looked at it, I walked around a bit, I looked so more, I had no bloody idea what it was about.

Fortunately, I saw this smiling face:

Jane Burton, artist and friend.

Jane Burton, artist and friend.


Jane lives in Walnut Creek, and we see her frequently. I’m kind of forward, so I just asked her, “what the heck is this all about?”

Now I know more about Jane’s reproductive organs than I ever thought I would.

It turns out that the forms of the sculpture are all IUD’s.  Jane had one one, specifically the Dalkon Shield, and is now infertile because of it.  She’s been hospitalized with PID (pelvic inflammatory disease) 5 times.  You might say she’d kind of cranky about it.

The reason for the lighting is to accentuate the shadows, not the forms. She’s concerned with the shadows of the IUD, the long term effects for women, the way the drug companies just sell IUD’s overseas when they are banned in the US.  The artwork is a very strong commentary on the issue.

Dalkon shield and its shadow.

Dalkon shield and its shadow.

The concept is great, and knowing the meaning made the artwork considerably more interesting. There may not be a way to put all of that on a title card next to the artwork, though. Maybe Jane could just stand in the gallery forever to enlighten the public.

It isn’t often you get the chance to talk directly to the artist to learn about a work of art, that’s just another reason to go to gallery openings.  The food was really good, too.

More Buda, less Pest

Okay, that may not be all true, but who can resist?

Buda is the rich side of the river, where the hills and castle, cathedral and money all reside.  Pest is the where the hoi polloi live, a broad flat plain that stretches hundreds of miles.

The ship comes into Budapest at night because all the big buildings are close to the water and brilliantly lit up.  Everyone goes up to the sun deck to watch the spectacle:

In the morning, the obligatory tour of the city, but they’re all starting to blend together.  I was impressed my Matthias Church, which has been both Catholic church and Moslem temple.  The interior is painted in an Arabic motif, with no representational art. The stained glass is from the Christian era, and the opposition is interesting.


The roof of this church is like the cathedral in Vienna:


Fascinating roof tile design

Fascinating roof tile design

In the afternoon we took an optional excursion to what was billed as a Hungarian Cowboy show.  There are a pair of very rich brothers who compete in coach driving–either two or four horses, obstacle courses, races, dressage, this is the big leagues of a rich man’s sport.  They cover some of their costs with this show at their gorgeous facility about 40 miles from the city.

When we got there we were offered a shot of some kind of liquor, which I found so undrinkable I reflexively spat it out.  Not polite, but fitting.

Then we saw the horse show–the early Hungarians were horsemen and fierce fighters.  There was a guy shooting arrows at a target while at full gallop, then throwing a spear.  A fellow with four ponies hitched up to a cart,  One man who is handling 5 galloping horses while standing on the backs of 2 of them.  A stunningly beautiful woman in a red silk gown riding dressage sidesaddle (this last in honor of a Princess Elizabeth who lived to ride).  A bunch of guys cracking whips annoyingly, but who had beautifully trained horses.  It wasn’t exactly Buffalo Bill Cody, but it was an interesting show.

There were a few animals to look at.  Gail liked the pigs, I liked the goats.  That may define our relationship.


That’s a good looking goat.

And that was really the end of the cruise.  One more dinner onboard, goodbyes to new friends we’ll never see again, and so to bed.  Jack and Carol had an early flight and had to leave the ship at 3:30 am.

We had another day until our ill-fated trip home.  I hired a car and drive to take us around for a half day to see some more of the sights.  We always like to just drive around where the rich people live and look at the nice houses.  We got a driver who had too much coffee and was talking a mile a minute in an extraordinarily loud voice in a small Mercedes.  After the second time I told her to stop shouting things got better and we enjoyed our time with her.

Beth, the Travel Goddess, had arranged a room for us at Le Meridien Hotel.  We dropped the luggage off and then our driver took us to the Museum of Modern Art on Hero Square before saying goodbye.  Which was a nice idea, but the museum is in the middle of an exhibition change and is closed except for one single piece of conceptual art.  At least it was free.

So we walked across the square to the Museum of Fine Art. The have lots of classical art, which doesn’t greatly interest us, but there is a sculpture room on the second floor we thought we’d check out, and some 20th century art in the basement.

The building had some interesting features.

The building had some interesting features.

We took the audio guides, as always.  Then wandered through the ground floor to the rear, where there was an elevator.  That turned out to be a tiny affair, and although it was just a normal elevator, you had to go with a staff person to push the buttons.  This museum has lots of staff people doing nothing.

My audio guide didn’t work.  I wasn’t surprised.  The sculpture was all medieval and religious.

Went back down stairs (same elevator operator).  Traded my guide in for a new one.  Took a different elevator down to the basement (no operator).  Watched a fascinating video about the installation of a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit–it was an ad for a new Samsung 4K television, but the most interesting thing in the joint.

The twentieth century art exhibit was very strange–nobody you would recognize, all eastern European knockoffs of western modern art.

A taxi brought us back to the Meridien, and the adventure got much more interesting.

The view from our window. Photo by Gail

The view from our window. Photo by Gail

I don’t know who Beth, the Travel Goddess, had to kill or sleep with to arrange this hotel stay, but it was worth it.  The upgraded us to a junior suite, which was the size of a small battleship.  The bathroom, with both tub and separate shower, was larger than many of the cabins on the cruise ship.  Internet included.  In the morning I called for a pot of coffee (those foreign coffeemakers are too confusing to operate) and they brought a huge, hot pot in 5 minutes, no charge.  Breakfast buffet included. Complimentary bottle of wine.  €85 credit in the restaurant or room service.  Starwoods points for all of it.  Cool enough hotel that it was often crawling with security for the political big shots staying there before speaking at Parliament.

Lunching in the hotel,  Gail had perhaps the best hamburger I’ve ever tasted.  Room service for dinner, excellent.  Breakfast buffet was a disaster–eggs benedict ice cold, tepid tea, poor service.  Two out of three ain’t bad, and I politely let them know about the third.

Our entire trip was great.  Viking Cruises are an expert operation running as smoothly as Disneyland.  We saw wonderful places and had guides that made it all accessible.  I couldn’t recommend it any more highly.

Then we got to the airport on the way home………………………………………….



Hard to believe we're in a well developed continent.

Hard to believe we’re in a well developed continent.


After we left Bratislava, we motored down the Danube towards Budapest.  Our group was playing cards in the lounge and I had the view forward.  Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and had to go up on the sundeck to just sit and watch the world float past.  It got me to thinking about the illusions of river travel.

The illusion that we were all alone.  Most of the time I could see no buildings, no piers, no jetties, no other boats.  It was easy to picture myself as an explorer in Africa 200 years ago, seeing what no European had ever seen.

The water was very still and quiet

The water was very still and quiet


The illusion of time stretching out infinitely. It’s easy to just get lost in time, cruising on a slow boat down a quiet river.  Were you watching for 20 minutes or 2 hours?  It doesn’t matter.  Will the cruise last another day or another month?  I forget.  We lead very busy and full lives, sitting and watching and not thinking is a luxury we can’t often afford or obtain.

Like being all alone in the world

Like being all alone in the world

The illusion of immortality.  The river never changes, or so it seems.  Why should I?  Why can’t I just be here forever?  But I can’t.  The day will end, the trip will end, eventually I will end.  But not, I think, today. Today, I will enjoy the privilege of being here, being truly in the now, experiencing my life in the present rather than the past or the future.  Perhaps I can learn to do that all the time, which may be the greatest gift of travel after all.

The other end of the car spectrum

 A very lovely example of the station wagon

A very lovely example of the station wagon


One of the nice things about Europe is looking at cars you don’t see in the States.  I wrote about that vey cool looking Marcos, now we have the bottom of the barrel, the East German Trabant.

No frills transportation.

No frills transportation.

Always first or second on lists of the worst car ever made, this odd heap had a mostly plastic body and a 600 cc (37 cu in), two cylinder, two stroke engine that could power it right up to 100 kph (62 mph).

The only way to keep on running, I guess.

The only way to keep on running, I guess.

East Germans could order one, but it might take years to arrive.  After the fall of the nation, people drove them to the border and just left them–they were worth less than the fuel it would take to fill them. You literally could not give them away.

Plastic body parts don't rust.  Not pretty, but effective.

Plastic body parts don’t rust. Not pretty, but effective.

The Trabant was completely stripped down transportation, without a shred of luxury.  Early models did not have a gas gauge, they used a dipstick.  There was no fuel pump, the tank had to be mounted higher than the carburetor so gravity could feed it.

Not a plush interior

Not a plush interior

Remaining Trabants are collected as oddities; you wouldn’t want to use this beast every day.  With the two-stroke engine, you have to add oil to the fuel at every fill-up, because there is no automatic system.  The brakes aren’t very good, but you can’t go very fast.

It isn't any prettier from this side.

It isn’t any prettier from this side.

The design grew out of plans for a 3 wheel motorcycle to provide an East German car for the people.  In German, that would be “volkswagen”, but that name seems to have been taken.

How not to end a vacation

This is supposed to be the wrap up post about Budapest and sage observations about the trip in general.  I’ll get to that, probably.

For now I have to talk about the dumbest thing I’ve done ages.

I was all proud of myself.  It took me months of incessant calling to American Airlines to get a decent flight home, but I had finally succeeded.  So yesterday, I opened the AA app on my phone and there it was: 12:15 LHR.  We even got to sleep in and get to the airport about 10 for our flight.

But when we got to the terminal, there was no flight listed at 12:15.  Uh oh.

It took a while, but I finally got it through my head that what I had seen was our flight FROM Heathrow, not the flight TO Heathrow.  And we most certainly were not going to be in London at departure time.

This was not good.  Not good at all.

Still, I had to do something.  We had to get home, couldn’t just decide to live in Budapest for the rest of our lives. (Although Gail would have been happy to leave me there.)

First things first, I got us on the next flight to London. This entailed wandering around the airport trying to find a British Airways office, which doesn’t exist.  Finally, somebody pointed me to an office that represented them, and I got some help.

Then I called American, who said it would be 20 to 30 minutes on hold (at international rates) or they would call me back.  Indeed they did call me back, and after some very smooth talking I got us on a flight to New York today, and a flight home in the morning.  A message to Beth, the Travel Goddess, and we had a room at the Hampton Inn–overpriced, but that’s New York.

At Heathrow, we made our connection with seconds to spare, and that’s only because I stopped a guy with an electric cart and got him to drive us to our gate.  We invariably get the very last gate, and I think we would still be walking if he hadn’t come along.

Arriving at JFK, Global Entry got us through immigration in a trice, then the baggage was, as you might well imagine, the last to come off the carousel.  There are many signs and constant announcements that you may not use your phone or camera in the customs area–and virtually every person I saw was on the phone.  They probably ought to re-think their position on that.

I know that I’m a cheapskate, but the luggage carts that are free in Dallas and San Francisco and Paris are SIX DOLLARS at JFK.  That’s outrageous, so we looked like the Joad family trudging our luggage out to the taxi. That may not have been my best decision of the day, Mrs. Joad was not amused.

We got a taxi driver who had never heard of the Hampton Inn, couldn’t use his GPS, didn’t speak English well and had a car so poorly maintained that I kept asking if he had his headlights on.  A question he didn’t quite understand: he turned on the overhead light in the car.  I navigated us there with my phone.

But we’re here.  For 10 hours or so, then an 8 am flight home.

Gail will speak to me again someday, I hope.

And that’s what I did on my summer vacation.


And a nation emerges

The next to last stop on the trip is Bratislava, Slovakia.  It’s only 40 miles from Vienna, but some 40 miles-es are longer than others.

Slovakia doesn’t have much recent history as a free country; it’s still coming out from decades of communist control.  They’re growing and improving, but there is still a ways to go.

You justr don't see this in other European countries.

You just don’t see this in other European countries.

To start with, there is graffiti.  Lots of it.  Yes, it’s illegal, but that isn’t stopping anybody.  After 2 weeks of hyper-clean Holland, Germany and Austria it’s a shock to see the writing on the walls and the cigarette butts all over the streets.

Reconstruction and modernization are taking place, but Bratislava is still a work in progress:

Coming up to the city gate.

Coming up to the city gate.

There are some interesting things, to be sure. This building is just 5 feet wide.  I can’t imagine how many years it has been here, surely since long before building codes existed.

Literally not enough room to swing a cat.

Literally not enough room to swing a cat.

It’s actually a very attractive city. From the ramparts of the castle you can see three countries–Slovakia, Austria and Hungary.  Our bus tour seemed made it seem like a larger place than it is until I realized how much we were going in circles and never traveled more than a mile from where we started.  Maybe a mile and a half, but that’s generous.

Slovakia is definitely doing well economically–they have assembly plants for BMW, Mercedes and Kia.  The downtown is full of cafes and pubs, as well as a full assortment of all the standard stores.

Table decorations in place as the city wakes up.

Table decorations in place as the city wakes up.

Here’s something strange–McDonalds is under pressure to change it’s signature colors in European cities to be less garish against the backdrop of medieval architecture.  The golden arches remain, but their background has changed from bright red to more of a forest green.

Micky D's bows to civic pressure.

Micky D’s bows to civic pressure.


Bratislava has a bit of street sculpture, too.  This is the most popular–an odd creep peeking up skirts.  Everybody seems to love him, there’s even a street sign so you don’t trip.

Not exactly "working", is he?

Not exactly “working”, is he?

Maybe this not working too hard thing is endemic here–I saw a couple of street musicians, who played some decent jazz, but I’ve never seen street hustlers sitting down before:

Working, but not working hard.

Working, but not working hard.

It’s probably significant that the accordion player has his leg through the strap of his case so it won’t be stolen.

Dropping a couple of bucks in the hat, I noticed that they had a CD that they were just giving away, so I took one.  Hard to get rich that way, I should think.  The music business is tough.


There is only one grocery store in the old town area, because there aren’t many residents.  I stopped on the way back to the ship to grab some Diet Coke, and noticed a few things:

Hellmann's/Best Foods is everywhere.

Hellmann’s/Best Foods is everywhere.


Notice the plastic gloves you can put on before pawing through the breads for just the right roll.  Notice that the rolls are 6 Euro cents apiece–less than 8¢ US.

Plastic gloves for hygeine

Plastic gloves for hygiene

There is much more smoking here than in California.  That doesn’t stop them from appropriating our symbols for their advertising:

I doubt that they pay royalties on the name or image of the bridge.

I doubt that they pay royalties on the name or image of the bridge.


That’s about it for me as regards Bratislava.  We had a pretty enjoyable morning there, then hit the trail for Budapest.  The plan is to arrive about 10 at night when the building along the Danube are all lit up.  I’ll let you know how that works out.


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