Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Yearly postcard from New York by Andrew Byrne April 2017.


Park Avenue in spring.

We have had a marvellous April in New York.  The city is a splendour in spring as the people start smiling again after 3 or 4 months of deep, dark winter.  And weekends show it best as people get out into the sunlight, parklands, kids and elderly alike to worship the season, blossoms, warmth and renewal.  Central Park needs no introduction and there is always something going on in addition to the natural world: Marathon Run; Trump Demonstration; Dog Show; acrobatics and buskers who are sometimes more proficient than the professionals.   
On our second day my niece Claudia Byrne was visiting on a school trip (St Andrew's Cathedral School) and we had a lovely couple of hours taking in the wonders of the American Museum of Natural History (I especially like the asteroids and gem stones) then a picnic lunch in Central Park afterwards.  A welcomed up-grade to first on Qantas A380 still did not stem jet lag for which one expects no sympathy.  The service was splendid and I had a medley of seafood from tartlet of pureed celeriac and caviar to Balmain bugs in smoked prawn butter (the best), lobster with XO sauce (a little rubbery) followed by baked blue eyed cod with almond romesco (I had to ask too – a Basque sauce using burnt capsicum).  My partner Allan had more traditional fare.  A colourful fruit salad by Neil Perry included B&W fruit cubes which were delicious and exotic (actually dragon fruit which we now enjoy at home).  The First Class lounge at Mascot provides a splendid breakfast ... and they were serving Verve Cliquot La Grande Dame 2006 'on tap' there as well as on the plane!  Eggs paramour Florentine with bubbles? 
We find that just by going out the door in New York one often experiences something unpredictable and extraordinary.  We witnessed our first ever robbery as a man bolted out of a designer clothing store on Broadway with some fur-lined garment.  It was all over in a second with the poor shop assistant shouting up the side-walk that there were cameras in the store (to no avail).  Gardens, flowers, buildings and produce are all many and varied.  And spring is the best time with cherry blossoms early this year, hyacinths, daffodils, blue bells and tulips aplenty.  Like the plant life, the weather has also been variable with one day up to 87 degrees (31C) and another 50 (9C).  One evening we ran into Cicely Tyson (aged ~90) in the supermarket.  We also saw ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg at Christie's Old Masters viewings at Rockefeller Center (some sold for $9 million).  On a hot afternoon I passed two beautiful young women parading down Broadway for all to see and admire – they were identical albino twins. 
We had pre-booked several operas and a concert via the internet so were surprised and delighted to also be given tickets to two dress rehearsals in good seating as well.  This has enabled us to see Aida, Rigoletto (set in a casino), Flying Dutchman and Eugene Onegin in just one week, Saturday to Saturday.  We know that seeing shows in the first few days under the influence of jet lag is pointless and frustrating so our first was a Saturday matinee of Aida on day 4.  It is easier to stay awake in the afternoon than the evening.  Jet lag does not get any easier with age. 
We saw Eugene Onegin matinee too ... Anna Netrebko as Tatiana but Dmitry Hvorotovsky is still off sick with a brain tumour, sad to say ... and a magnificent Flying Dutchman dress rehearsal on the Friday.  The well-named but rather ample Ms Amber Wagner sang Senta and is the dramatic soprano to watch - magnificent presence and penetrating huge voice with crystal top notes. 

On Wednesday Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja sang the Duke (aka "Mr Big") in the 'casino' Rigoletto which was both novel and enjoyable.  Mr Lucic as jester was great 'in parts' while Miss Peretyatko was wrongly cast despite her wonderful Met Puritani a couple of years back.  The up-dated Rigoletto used every trick imaginable in the gamblers' cabaret paradise including Playboy Bunny Girls, wheel-of-fortune, roulette, lap dancers, mobile cocktail bar, cards, poker machines and … just when you thought you had seen everything, some rehearsed dandies solemnly parade in an ornate Egyptian sarcophagus which, when opened, reveals a very alive stripper (female variety).   The intruders to the big party (Count Monterone and side-kicks in the original) were here turbaned Arabs, very annoyed about gambling and drinking going on next door to their harem (plus having the daughter raced off by the sleazy casino owner).  They got their comeuppance in the next act by being shot at point-blank range by in-house security. 

Veteran tenor Roberto Alagna did the most magnificent Cyrano portrayal.  It must be one of the great feats for the tenor (as it is for the actor).  And Alagna is no spring chicken either. 
In cheap seats purchased on the day we attended 'Hello Dolly' with Bette Midler at the Shubert Theatre ... it was action-packed, hot and sexy with dancing and a great Dame of the stage coming back at the age of 71 to prove she could still do it ... and she DID!   "The Divine Miss M".  The musical's routines were fabulous, settings gorgeous, audience rapturous and intimate scenes moving and pertinent.  And we managed to get back-row last minute seats at the theatre for $59 each. 
As we were hosting two young Aussie students there were some opportunities to do some touristy things like walking Mulberry Street Little Italy and Chinatown, regretting somewhat that I did not do it 25 years ago when I first went to New York.  There was food of all varieties, produce and specialty stores aplenty.  And the lovely ethnic entertainment is for free.  But some of my favourite food is at the Sechuan Wu Liang Ye in 48th Street between 5th and 6th. 
There are two ‘Perfect Crimes’ in New York, one a rather ordinary but long running play on Broadway.  The other is renowned Katz's Deli on Houston Street (just near the corner of 1st Avenue and 1st Street).  The latter lays claim to be a Jewish Deli but is really just an expensive tourist trap to my mind (and I have spent ten years as a fellow-traveller with a Sydney Jewish congregation).  A nice but ordinary and not over-sized pastrami sandwich sells for over A$30!!  And you have to queue up yourself for the sandwich, again if you want a meagre bowl of (quite ordinary) matzo ball soup and yet again if you want a drink (their own Katz's beer on tap is a fine dark ale).  There was not a frum Jew in the joint as far as I could see and the ambiance totally the opposite of Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side where I normally get my gefilte fish and corned beef.  And I now regret walking past nearby "Russ and Daughters" deli which would have to have pleased more than Katz's gonif's balagan. 
More next April should I live so long.  Andrew Byrne ..
Our friend Terry Kobel showing her 'entree' at Jean-Georges Nougatine restaurant ($38 3 courses).
Katz's twenty dollar sandwich!

School excursion to American Museum of Natural History.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Some choice eateries in the Southern Highlands

December 2016.   Three splendid meals in the Highlands – Biota & Bundanoon Guest House … plus a Chinese connection.
At the risk of being accused of spruiking I bring this to the attention of friends and relations at the same time as wishing all a happy and restful holiday period ahead. 
Biota in Bowral is almost my ‘local’.  The formal restaurant is beyond my normal budget so I usually eat in their front-of-house tapas bar where a new menu is most impressive, now including some full meal choices.  The onion rings were the best I have ever eaten.  Top-notch ‘chips’ are really baked potatoes with creamy sauce.  Dory roe with home-made crisps (generous serving of both); fried chicken wedges and pickles. All simply scrumptious. Other dishes included pasta, raw king fish, leeks, kale and a cheese Mac with chips.  “Somm” Ben Shephard knows his wines, local and exotic (prices modest to mostest).  He also does bespoke non-alcoholic beverages using botanicals.  Chef James Viles continues to win prizes for innovative food and exotic produce, some home grown on the premises and nearby.  The $64 question: can vegetarians eat caviar? 
Another noted Highlands chef Eon Waugh, late of Josh’s Café and the Exeter Studio Restaurant has now taken over the dining room at the Bundanoon Guest House.  And their first week has been a busy one with many of his signature dishes in evidence – as well as some new ones.  Double cooked gruyere soufflé, butter chicken curry, mandarin duck and pate all exemplary.  Even the bread and butter are special.  A delayed alcohol licence might be considered a benefit (so ring to see if you can bring your own).  And enjoy in moderation (or excess but rarely). 
The Hong Kong Restaurant in Moss Vale is producing authentic Cantonese cuisine seven days per week and is great value.  Try their pork mince and green beans; roast duck and sour vegetables; black bean chilli beef; fried dumplings … all excellent to my taste. 
Kind regards, Andrew Byrne .. Burradoo via Redfern

Monday, October 3, 2016

Hawaii revisited – September/October 2016

Our second visit to Honolulu, Oahu, has been supplemented by a side trip to the ‘big island’ of Hawaii where everything is indeed BIG!  But more about that later. 
On arrival at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel our first of many ‘gob-smack’ vistas was not in any of the guide books.  Floating off Waikiki Beach and well out to sea was an enormous pillared structure topped by a giant white ‘golf ball’.  We had to do a double take to make sure we were not seeing things or suffering vapours or jet lag ... but numerous photographs and a Google search soon determined that this was a part of the star wars defense system for America, originated under Ronald Reagan in 1983.  Within and below the spherical colossus is some of the world's most advanced radar and computer technology whose aim is to rapidly detect the speed and trajectory of an approaching intercontinental missile and then predict the exact re-entry location so it can be intercepted and vaporised.  As the concept was carried through, and over two billion dollars spent on the recycled Norwegian oil platform … yet the concept has been plagued by problems and the machine is under repair here in Hawaii more often than being deployed near or facing Russia, North Korea or other potentially hostile parties.  A local air hostess told me that she sees it in the Pearl Harbor area frequently.  As it was on the horizon from our hotel room window one estimate is that it would have been 11km away. 
Star wars radar afloat off Waikiki Beach 

During our trip there were numerous 'firsts' for me including seeing my own sign of the zodiac, Capricorn.  Even from country Australia the Sea Goat is very hard to see, yet in the tropics at this time of year the constellation is high in the sky as a distinct triangle of multiple stars.  Likewise, adjacent Pisces and Aquarius are hard to see, neither having even one prominent star.  At least Virgo has Spica, a bright sentinel star, while most of the other stars of The Maiden are very dim.  Our star gazing was a part of a guided sunset tour to the summit of Mauna Kea where the famous Keck Telescope is located, along with numerous other observatories.  Happily for our better viewing it was near new moon which is therefore the first of the month in Jewish. Islamic and other lunar calendars and purely coincidentally this year the New Year for both Semitic religions as well!).   While the North Polar Star and 'Little dipper' were new to me, I was able to point out a few southern constellations for our Northern colleagues (German, Dutch and  Portuguese).  These included Pisces Austranis and the Eye of the Fish (Fomalhaut) along with Grus the crane. 
Milky Way atop Mauna Kea (from NYT)
 Summit Mt Mauna Kea - sacred trail to spot where man meets the Gods. Note most clouds are below us.
This entire island archipelago was formed by under-sea volcanoes, evidence of which is to be found everywhere.  Dotting the landscape are craters new and old, lava beds and flows, lava tubes, peaks, gulches, ridges and more.  Some volcanic features are new and obvious while others are in partial states of weathering or in advanced decay, like the huge crater walls on the east of Oahu.  Some active regions seem to have a long constant grade or slope which may go on for many kilometres.  Mauna Loa means ‘long mountain’ in Polynesian, for the vast slopes it has created.  I recall some similarities with the wonderful Kintamani / Mt Batur volcano in Bali, happily long extinct.  The Bali road goes through town after town, each rising up in altitude until reaching the rim or the giant crater at the top, some now creating an inland sea of sorts. 
Eastern vent of Kilauea which has been erupting since 1983

Lava meets seawater.

Mauna Kea from Saddle Road.
We have been afforded the luxury of seeing many of the most dramatic features of these incredible islands in a user-friendly, pain free and economical fashion.  One learns about volcanoes, lava and telescopes ... yet nothing could have prepared us for many of the sights, experiences and vistas from this trip.  Apart from palms, the islands were tree-less when Polynesians first arrived over 1000 years ago.  Banyan fig trees introduced from India in the 1800s grew in some high rainfall areas to become some of the largest on earth.  Likewise, the Monkey pod tree or Saman has a unique habitus, being like a giant umbrella with pink spidery flowers on its high extremities.  The Royal Hawaiian Hotel has grand examples in its gardens which are a focus of attention for many private and public events in Honolulu since its opening in 1927 (the first was the Moana adjacent, built in 1901).  We attended the awards ceremony for the Islands' best restaurant and 15 entrants provided samplers of their signature dish.  Quite a treat for our arrival. 
Banyan in downtown Waikiki (INSIDE) and shopping centre!

Monkey pod tree (Saman) in a cemetery north of Hilo.
Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Oahu.
We have been struck by the number of world records, especially on the big Island of Hawaii which consists of 5 volcanoes in various states of activity.  Kilauea is the most southerly mountain.  After many years of inactivity it erupted in 1983 and has been spewing lava, smoke and ash ever since.  Even today the central bubbling ‘caldera’ and surrounding enormous volcanic crater are partly off-limits at certain times, especially the south side since the prevailing winds are usually from the north and the fumes contain sulphur and can be very dangerous.  The sight of this 3x4km chasm is awesome indeed, and it is a comfortable 45 minute drive from Hilo. 
Making up the bulk of the island are Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both just over 4000m high.  The latter has been estimated to contain 75,000 cubic kilometres and is said to be the most massive mountain on earth, so much so that it dents our planet’s mantle.  Mauna Kea would be even taller than Mt Everest if one counts from its base in the Pacific Ocean.  Mauna Loa erupted several times in the 20th century while Mauna Kea has seen no eruptions since ~2400BC, the Egyptian pyramid age (and maybe no coincidence!).  It seemed like a safer bet to place astronomical observatories on Mauna Kea, at least for the moment.  The island is free of heavy industry, there is little light pollution, it lies near the equator for viewing of both northern and southern skies ... furthermore, the elevation is usually above the cloud line where the air is much thinner, making images far clearer than from sea level telescopes. 

The summit is a sacred site for locals and there is a current dispute about the new 30 metre telescope which hopefully will be resolved soon (perhaps with the removal or resiting of other facilities). 
Andrew in front of Kilauea 'caldera'.
A guided tour up Mauna Kea is recommended although private vehicles are permitted on the access road, as long as they have four wheel drive.  At sunset the observatories can be seen to be opening but they are not open to the general public without prior academic introductions.  The tour starts from either coastal towns of Kona on the dry west side of the island or Hilo on the east.  The latter boasts amongst the highest rainfalls in the US at 180 inches yearly.  Both towns have regular flights to Honolulu and occasional flights direct to the West Coast of the United Stages. 
The climate changes from humid tropical to arid alpine in less than 2 hours.   The summit is almost completely devoid of life and is so like a lunar landscape that this is where NASA tests some of its equipment including the Apollo and Martian rovers. 
Hawaii is an incredible foment of our angry earth, much of it still visible and active.  On our last full day on the big island we drove to Waimea in the north followed by a loop back across the 'saddle' road between the two enormous mountains Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.  For the first time near Waimea we had an uninterrupted view of Mauna Kea which is rather rare as it is usually shrouded in clouds ... and we could even see several of the observatories right on the pinnacle we had been standing on ourselves just one day earlier! 
Andrew and Allan at 700 year old 'fish pond' on Oahu.
Lava fields, steam vents and 'new' road partially destroyed. This is the newest land on earth.
 Land where eastern vent of Kilauea continues to pour lava towards the sea.
In some areas the forest was spared with lava going on each side. 
A private botanical garden just north of Hilo afforded a viewing of hundreds of orchids, antheriums, palms, spathophyllums, impatience, ginger flowers and much more besides. 




Gecko lizard camouflaged.

Blow-hole calm

 Blow-hole 'blowing'

Some excellent food was sampled on both Oahu and Hawaii islands.  We had the privilege of attending the annual "Hale 'aina" awards held in the lush gardens of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  15 categories of food allowed 15 stalls for restaurants to provide samples of their signature dish for the (paying) guests.  We also ate well at our 'local' near our guest house in Hilo: The Moon and Turtle Café/Restaurant.  They had a small but adventurous menu including this fried 'akule' fish (a type of mackerel or 'big-eye scad). 
Type of local mackerel at Moon and Turtle care in Hilo - highly recommended.  

Andrew and Allan at the Azure restaurant, beach-side at Royal Hawaiian.

Crimson snapper with sprouts and snake beans.
Panacotta with basil puree, strawberry, sago and meringue pieces.
See red hot lava on right above Pacific Ocean creating huge steam cloud.
We had the good fortune to be invited on a Polynesian tour of the island of Oahu.   Our host Kawika from Done Tours (pronounced Dunn Tours) drove us away from Honolulu through a secluded and pristine valley which unfortunately had become the entry of one of the three cross-island tunnels.  What we saw all around us as we emerged on the other side was the ruined half of a giant crater tens of kilometres across with craggy high walls above us in the unmistakeable circular shape, albeit truncated by eons of weathering.  

We were given a detailed run-down on the Polynesian cultures, each unique but all also related from an origin in Asia more than 2000 years ago.  Recent evidence has disposed of the only alternative theory of South American origins via Easter Island.  Language, myths, food-stuffs, navigation and many other features connect the Maori, Hawaiian, Tongan, Fijian, New Caledonian and many other smaller cultures in the mid-Pacific.  We were told about the five vowels and about a dozen consonants, including the inverted apostrophe in their phonetics.  The Hawaiian language has made a resurgence in recent decades after being discouraged during most of the 20th century.  The ubiquitous accompaniments of the Polynesian people include the yam, chickens, pigs and more.  Hula dancing is taken very seriously although we leaned that the Ukulele was a Portuguese introduction (and means 'dancing fleas' in Hawaiian!).  Debates continue about whether the original people originated in Taiwan where Aboriginal people still use a language related to the Polynesian.  The alternative recent theory is of spread from New Guinea through the Solomon Islands and beyond.  DNA evidence is likely to resolve the issue as has recently been used (with some scepticism) for African Americans to determine their much more recent origins. 

Our guide had lived and worked on the North Shore of Oahu which is home to the best surf in the world, yet very little development has occurred.  There is one large resort called Turtle Beach at Kahuku and a large Mormon settlement with school and sports center.  High above an ancient seaside town, Waimea Bay was  the last site of Royal human sacrifices.  It was said that King Kamehameha I used this site for both sacrifice and warning of war on the last major island which he had not conquered, Kauai.  We were told that one young child was groomed for the purpose and at the right time to appease the gods a sharp wooden knife to the heart would cause instant death.  In addition, the large rectangular site would be heaped with fuel and set alight so that the light could be seen from across the sea and a return fire would indicate the start of a war (which history tells us Kamehameha never prosecuted, guns traded for sandalwood and a treaty agreed with the rules with Kauai’s leader's son being held hostage in Oahu). 

We were then driven to the coast to inspect an ancient ‘fish pond’ but this was no ordinary fish pond.  It was indeed serious ancient aquaculture and probably about 700 years old.  To enable flow of tidal water the wall had to be constructed of rounded river stones and therefore brought from some considerable distance.  Similarly, the stones for the large walled sacrificial space on the top of the mountain were all volcanic rocks brought up from the seaside by the priests who were the only ones allowed to be involved in such sensitive work.  These were both huge undertakings, one very utilitarian in the provision of a regular supply of fish, the other a religious purpose, like the construction of a cathedral in Europe.  I read about the use of these fish ponds remnants of which are found all over the islands.  There is always a balance of fresh water running in from adjacent streams and tidal sea water and a delicate balance allows the growth of particular seaweeds for the numerous species of herbivorous fish popular with Polynesian chefs. 

Driving back across the middle of the island we passed some defunct sugar and pineapple plantations while macadamias are so common that some locals believe that they are indigenous (they are native to northern Australia).  We were told about the enormous numbers of workers who were brought to work the old plantations, from Philippines, Korea, Japan and elsewhere so that now there are many mixed race people and hardly any full blood Polynesians just as full-blood Maoris are hard to find in New Zealand.  We met numerous people who had Japanese, Vietnamese, African American and European mixed with the native Polynesian stock.  And some still speak a Pidgin language developed in the fields. 


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Post-card from New York ... some medical matters too.

Postcard from New York – week two.  
Dear Patient Reader,
This was the week of my major medical visits, three Met operas (one we went back to a second time it was THAT good) as well as having two of my three wonderful sisters visit the city.  This meant returning to some traditional tourist things like the Staten Island Ferry, Irish holocaust memorial, WTC site, Frick Museum, Neue Museum, Rockefeller Center, Macys, Bloomingdales and the ubiquitous “Century 21”. 
Roberto Devereux at the Met saw American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sing Elizabeth I, the third Donizetti queen (after Anne Boleyn and Maria Stuarda earlier in the season).  The performance sent tingles up the spine, goose-bumps elsewhere and was altogether a return to the golden age of opera.  Sold out houses, electricity in the air and applause more like at the football than the opera.  It’s on Cinema HD in Australia in July so Aussie who like that sort of thing should line up.  The opera’s finale rivals the ‘mad scene’ from Lucia with Sutherland.  And that is saying something! 
Food in New York can be disappointing, like the coffee.  But with a bit of research both can rise to the best of palates.  One sister had discovered an excellent Italian restaurant called Lupa just off Houston Street while we went back to old haunts in JoJo’s and Jean Georges (Nougatine, Columbus Circle).  Another staple is Wu Liang Ye across from the Rockefeller Center in 48th Street – great Sichuan food, huge helpings and friendly staff (try the pork dumplings, beans and egg plant).  
Jean Georges has been a treat for us every year for 19 years.  And they continue to innovate and keep up the standard as well as being good value for prix-fixe luncheon in the Nougatine.  One often sees people of note there.  We learned that Robert De Niro, Sting and Bruce Willis had been there in recent days.  Jean-Georges Vongeritchten himself was there on two of the occasions we dined there. 
Walking in Central Park is a pleasure at any time of year … but in early spring with a colour parade of flowers, bulbs and buds one has to be impressed.  And the central fountain was just re-commissioned for the year, spraying water from its bronze sculpted centre into the enormous round walled pond surrounding.  The cherry trees were just coming into full bloom by the end of the week, making a marvelous display. 
Other matters in brief: Air travel has up sides and down sides … drunk passenger at JFK causes delay as his luggage is off-loaded (‘happens quite often’, says hostess) … sick passenger with possible kidney stone … special precautions about aviation medicine … stethoscope cannot hear, need to do radial pulse blood pressure measurement … no blood urine test strips available … food variable … A380 versus 747 outdated … Aussie versus o/s airlines (no comparison) …

        Columbia University student picnic day. Magnificent campus near end of term.
I had an interesting interaction with senior medical colleagues at Columbia University Drugs and Society Seminar.  I spoke on Managed Alcohol Programs (MAP) in which hostels for the homeless, many of whom are alcoholics, allow or even serve limited amounts of alcohol each evening.  Published evidence shows dramatic reductions in medical and social consequences when this is introduced.  Most important are lower mortality and lower overall alcohol consumption.  Yet I still had some nay-sayers in the audience who believe in abstinence like a deity not to be questioned, in spite of quite solid if still limited evidence of the benefits of MAP in our society where homelessness is becoming more common. 
I also had appointments at Rockefeller University, Beth Israel and Bellevue Hospitals before my return to Sydney. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

Saturday, April 30, 2016

New York Postcard April 2016 (first part)

New York Postcard – Week 1, April 2016
We had a great first week in the big apple although not at the pace we once did.  No museums yet although Christie’s auctions of great masters and antiquities was far better than most galleries … about 400 lots of unbelievably stunning works (http://www.christies.com/salelanding/index.aspx?intSaleID=25989 ) .  There were paintings by Fragonard, Boucher, Corot, Bellini, Gandolfi, El Greco, Daddi, Botticelli, Mantegna, Rubens, Van Cleve, Vermeyen, Breughel (I and II), Buonisegna, Guardi, Cimaroli and many, many others whose names are less familiar to me.  There was every style of European art imaginable, portraits, religious art, still life, scientific, landscapes, agricultural scene, archaeological subjects, etc, etc.  I went back three times to gander at the offerings and was even tempted to make a bid (a futile one, it turned out). 
The first evening in town we stopped for a peek in the windows.  But we realized that 49th Street was closed off with pedestrians ushered across the road as a very fancy car was painstakingly backed out of the showroom across the side-walk.  Somebody said it was the original Batmobile but in fact it had been the launch of Bugatti’s new sports car in partnership with Christie’s.  We were told that they are only making 400 models, each costing over 2 million dollars!  What are the poor people driving?  [I learned that the original 1955 Batmobile was actually auctioned for 4.6 million dollars and is now in Arizona]

Bugatti’s new model American launch.
The sale was highly successful but all accounts and our painting of Mount Vesuvius, estimated at $8000 actually sold for $23,000 - I kid you not!!  And the beautiful Egyptian hieroglyphic stela which I would love to own and was estimated at 25k went for $161,000 !!¡¡!!  I blame deep Chinese pockets competing with the rest and pushing prices over the lunar crazy level.  I had distantly thought that such a HUGE auction might see people running out of money before the end.  But not so!   This IS the Big Apple after all.
In other respects, New York is New York.  It was very cold, even below zero some nights.  Always busy and not yet spring time people still have that stern look, hoping for a break in the weather which came the next week, along with blossoms, flowers and blue skies.  I am still amazed at the animation and diversity of people in the city.  Almost every subway car has someone who could be in the record books: tall, short, fat, thin, hairy, ugly, gorgeous, noisy, etc.  There are also those who travel one station and sing, recite poetry, give a life story, etc and then ask for money. 
I used to read (and occasionally write to) Opera-L list-server and found it stimulatingly if sometimes slightly irritating.  Now, however, I find serious discussion of opera seems subsidiary to goss and floss which is very disappointing for a once lively forum.  We saw two operas at the Met (Butterfly, Elisir d’Amore) and a NY Philharmonic concert.  I could have thirteen pages on the wonderful experiences (including an elderly man's walker going missing during the intermission at the Met causing minor pandemonium).  One of the most staggering stage performances I have seen since Sutherland days was happening yet days went by with nothing on Opera-L.  It seemed to have contributors buzzing with the crucial issue of the hairlines of tenors - as if baritones and mezzos don't matter! – but one might add that Sondra Radvenovsky rips off her entire hair-piece in the finale of Roberto Devereux with devastating dramatic effect.  But more about that magic opera later. And more later about our second of three weeks in the city. 
Written by Andrew Byrne ..

Monday, April 27, 2015

Second Postcard from New York City April 26 2015

More than elsewhere, in New York many things stay exactly the same year after year … but this time a few things have changed. 

After many years of decline, stagnation and recession finally there are numerous interesting and important building projects either underway or completed (see some photos below).  The new Renzo Piano designed Whitney Museum just opened and is another added reason to visit the ‘High Line’ garden walk (see below).  The Freedom Tower is now officially called World Trade Center One … but it remains to be seen if the name will stick. 

For only the second time since 9/11 the skyline has changed dramatically with the completion of a 96 storey square white residential building on 57th Street and Park Avenue.  It looks very out of place in up-town shopping region where the only other comparable building was part of the Carnegie Hall 100 year restoration project on 57th Street and 7th Avenue.  And the apartments are selling from 7 to 30 million!  It even makes Sydney real estate prices look low!  The building can be readily seen from the air as well as from the roads around JFK airport and well before the usual Manhattan skyline comes into view.  In fact it needed Federal Aviation approval it is so tall!  At 425 metres high and ignoring the spires, "432 Park Avenue" is taller than the Empire State Building (380m) or the Freedom Tower (417m).  And to my mind it does not have the architectural merit of many other towers in New York and elsewhere.  See photos below and media story about the construction: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/real-estate/high-life-432-park-ave-article-1.1304955 

An impressive piece of modern architecture is the new faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on West 59th Street.  The building comprises a huge stepped atrium and rooftop grass like our Parliament House.  These all connect along 59th Street with the older buildings which front 10th Avenue near the Hudson River.  There is also a feeling that the new fits in with the adjacent buildings, both new and old. 

The "High Line" is a project to re-use an old elevated goods railway as an urban garden and walkway - and has been enormously successful against the odds.  See my description and some photos for those interested: http://ajbtravels.blogspot.com/2015/04/high-line-new-york-reclaimed-goods.html

Pecan pies seem like a favourite staple food in New York and we have done a tasting, preferring the Fairways to the Zabars this year (last year it was contrary-wise).

One hears Australian accents frequently, especially at tourist destinations.  In my experience Americans are invariably pleasant, welcoming and inquisitive when meeting Aussies.  I hope we don't blot our copy book or out-stay our welcome!  The Metropolitan Opera House has put on some wonderful works during April: see http://andrewsopera.blogspot.com.au/

The most common blooming tree in New York streets is probably the Bradford Pear with masses of fluffy white blossom currently, portent of the warmer weather which is starting.  After the magnolias, forsythia, daffodils and tulips come the last major spring glory the Japanese Kwanzan pink double cherry blossom for which Brooklyn Botanical Gardens are rightly famous (see time-lapse video on: http://www.bbg.org/discover/cherries half way down their web page). 

The subway transport system is a miracle a century old but still going strong.  While invented in London, the slick Manhattan version uses four tracks for each line, one being express, stopping every 10 to 20 streets and the other ‘via local’ stops every 7 to 10 streets (there are 20 streets to the old mile).  However, the old rolling stock needs attention and breakdowns are common with doors, lighting and even motors breaking down at times causing delays.  Nonetheless, it means that despite surface traffic, snow and other impediments, the subway can usually take one from point to point with efficiency and at modest cost ($2.75 per ride regardless of distance travelled). 

Australians who have not travelled overseas may not know that we are one of the few countries where pedestrians walk on the left.  Even in England people tend to keep to the right.  And revolving doors and escalators usually go in the opposite direction from us.  Another unnerving thing is that doors on most public buildings open outwards in America due to changes in building codes after a disastrous fire in a Boston nightclub in 1942 killing almost 500 people.  Older Sydney-siders may recall the Rembrandt Hotel fire which also caused a tightening of fire laws.  So this is just another thing one has to get used to when in America – apart from the language (don’t use ‘queue’, ‘fortnight’, 'footpath', ‘bookings’ or ‘zed’). 

Manhattan streets (but not avenues) unfold an extraordinary daily parking ritual to facilitate street cleaning.  One side is cleaned on alternate days.   The street needs to be clear when the council sweeper passes by, yet with nowhere else to park and others keen to take any vacated spaces a ‘parking dance’ goes on.  To guard their proprietary rights, drivers will sit in their cars from a certain time waiting for the street sweeping machine to come.  Then in succession they pull out at 45 degrees, blocking off the street but permitting the council vehicle to pass behind them, cleaning the gutter (imperfectly in many cases I have seen).  Then in sequence the drivers reverse their cars back into their original space (or they try to).  These unique Manhattan provisions are ‘suspended’ on religious and legal holidays, which is also very ‘New York’!  [some religions ban driving on certain days - but don't be surprised - it used to be illegal to hang out washing on Sundays in Australia!]

My medical contacts have taken me to the origin of methadone treatment at Rockefeller University as well as to the Columbia University Faculty House on Morningside Park, Bellevue Hospital Opiate Clinic, West Midtown Medical Group (methadone, buprenorphine and general practice), Drug Policy Alliance, New School University where I attended the NY State Psychological Society conference on the addictions and harm reduction interventions.  I have been in touch with Ethan Nadelmann, Ernest Drucker, Herbert Kleber, Mary Jeanne Kreek and many other key players in our field of drug and alcohol treatment, research and policy. 

Heroin overdose is the major problem in the US presently, reaching crisis proportion according to some figures.  The present stimulant epidemic in Australia was experienced in the US ten years ago and opinion seems to favour a multifactorial cause for the observed behavioural disturbances.  One lesson which has (or has not) been learned is that cracking down on one drug with legal sanctions often paradoxically causes increased harms, such as by encouraging the use of other more dangerous drugs (eg. so-called 'synthetic cannabis'). 

While I am grateful for the welcome I receive, it is somewhat discomforting to come to a place where profoundly poor people are not given the most basic of needs and also where there is a substantial underclass of people who are not citizens (‘illegals’ or economic refugees).  I would feel better if I could contribute in a meaningful way to help such folk.  The exodus across the Mediterranean is equally shocking, thousands taking great risks while fleeing war-torn Africa and the Middle East.  One feels that the entire western hemisphere has failed our fellow human beings in the third world.  And worse, some actions of our governments over a century have led to instability due to propping up artificial regimes favouring the west rather than their own people.  Now we have instability in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine … and American drones just about everywhere with a murky rationale for their extra-judicial killings (as long as the victims are not American citizens).  I will give a little more (or a lot more if I am able) to Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Red Cross/Crescent. 

From Andrew Byrne ..

Some examples of new buildings going up next to old ones.

31st Street, lower floors complete, upper still covered in orange plastic.
432 Park Street between 57th and 56th Streets.
 Amsterdam Avenue long abandoned building project now completed.  Next door is the new Lincoln Square Synagogue near 68th Street.
 Old Sony Building 56th St and Madison Ave.
New construction on 34th St near Empire State Building and ?Lexington Ave.
Bradford Pears in flower in Broadway
Demonstration on 71st St about inadequate minimum wage in America