Friday, May 28, 2010

Bryant Park, Manhattan

This is the closest New York gets to Paris' Luxembourg Gardens, albeit in miniature. The density of architectural marvels is spellbinding, with a green expanse of lawn nestled in a canyon-like setting. Of course, the massive architectural anchor is the NY Public Library. From the park side, the BP Grill and BP Cafe give a European flair, in fact, there is a lot of Eurobabble in the air. Looking up and over the library, the upper reaches of 500 Fifth Avenue are visible, a Saarinen influenced "styleless" skyscraper, built in 1931 (same year as Empire State). Facing south, one is drawn to the Gothic-style American Radiator Bldg (now the Bryant Park Hotel), which was arguably the first art-deco motif skyscraper in the world built in 1924. I got a great bird's-eye view of this architectural gem from the 27th floor of the HSBC Tower.

On the NW corner of the park is the new Bank of America Tower, completed in 2009, with a spectacular angled geometry. It is the second tallest building in NYC at 1200 ft. Environmentally friendly, it uses slag (blast furnace byproduct) as a 45% constituent of concrete (instead of 100% cement), saving greenhouse emissions be reducing cement manufacture. It also has a grey water system that captures rainwater for reuse. Here's the kicker, all the urinals are waterless !

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kantjil & de Tijger, Centrum, Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a floating city, or that is how it appears. It is also one of the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Amsterdam Centraal railway station, built in 1889, in a decision enforced by The Hague, is built along Amsterdam's waterfront, The IJ (the digraph "ij" is considered a single letter in Dutch), which means "Bay." This was a highly controversial decision in that it cut off Amsterdam from its own waterfront. It was designed by Pierre Cuypers, who also designed the famous Rijksmuseum.

The architecture in Amsterdam is a rich tableaux. Early architecture is of French influence, such as neo-gothic and later a more indigenous style called Jugendstil or Art Nouveau. Much of this wealth was fueled by Holland's colonies in modern day South Africa and Suriname as well as those under control of the Dutch East India Company, such as Indonesia. Which brings me to my favorite Indonesian restaurant, Kantjil & de Tijger. This is named after an Indonesian children's fable, the mouse deer and the tiger. The story unfolds below:

Mouse Deer or ‘Kantjil’ is Indonesia’s most famous animal hero and people have been telling stories about him for hundreds of years. ‘Kantjil’ is a tiny deer who has tiny tusks instead of horns, beautiful dark eyes and graceful and elegant movements. Despite his small size, Kantjil survives in forests full of ferocious wild animals because of his cunning. In this tale, Kantjil tricks a tiger three times.

One day Kantjil was resting quietly when he heard a tiger approaching. He feared for his life, so he quickly took up a large leaf and began to fan a pile of dung which happened to lie near. When the tiger came up and asked what he was doing, the mouse-deer replied, "This is food belongs to the King and I am guarding it." The tiger who was very hungry wanted to eat the royal food, but Kantjil refused for a long time, advising the Tiger not to touch it as it would be wrong to betray the King’s trust. At last, however, Kantjil agreed, as long as the Tiger would wait until Kantjil had gone far away before eating it so that Kantjil did not get the blame. When Kantjil had reached a safe distance, he called back to the Tiger, "You may begin now". The Tiger hungrily seized what he thought was a delicious morsel, only to be cruelly deceived. Furious at the trick played upon him by the little Kantjil, he hurried after the fugitive to get his revenge.

Kantjil meanwhile had found a very venomous snake, which lay coiled up asleep. Sitting by this, he awaited the Tiger's arrival, and when the latter came up raging in pursuit, Kantjil told him that he had only himself to blame, since he had been warned not to eat the food. "But," said Kantjil, "you must keep quiet, for I am guarding a precious belt belonging to the King. You must not come near it, because it is full of magic power." The Tiger was so curious that he demanded to try on the precious belt. Kantjil again agreed, but warned Tiger to be very careful and, as before, told the tiger to first let him get safely away, in order that no guilt might attach to him. When Kantjil had run off, the Tiger seized the supposed magic belt, only to be bitten by the snake, which he did not succeed in killing until after a severe struggle.

Again the tiger chased Kantjil, and this time found the mousedeer standing beside a great wasp's-nest. As before, the Kantjil warned the tiger not to disturb him, for he was guarding the king's drum which gave out a very wonderful tone when struck. The Tiger, of course, was wanted to strike the drum. Kantjil pretending to be reluctant at last agreed, stipulating, as before, that he be allowed to get out of the way. As soon as he had put a safe distance between himself and the tiger, he gave the signal, and the tiger struck the nest, only to be beset the next instant by a swarm of angry wasps. Kantjil was saved again!

Millennium Footbridge, River Thames, London

Briefly in London in April (25), stayed at Club Quarters St. Paul, had a few hours and explored the spectacular pedestrian-only footbridge, originally dubbed Wobbly Bridge because it was unstable as designed and constructed ! Open in June, 200, shut down after 3 days, took 2 more years to repair.

The bridge's movements were caused by a positive feedback phenomenon known as Synchronous Lateral Excitation, in which the natural sway of people walking caused small sideways oscillations, which in turn caused people to sway in step, increasing the amplitude of the oscillations.

The bridge alignment is such that a clear view of St. Paul's Cathedral south facade is presented from across the river.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Montmartre, Paris

We had a few hours in Paris en route to London taking the Eurostar through the Chunnel, so we left our cheap hotel near Gare du Nord and walked north several blocks to climb the steep hills of the Butte Montmartre, upon which the Sacre Coeur straddles, with magnificent views to the south of Paris. It was a sunny April (24) day without a cloud in the sky. The streets were teeming. The basilica cornerstone was laid in 1884 and the edifice was completed in 1914.

Great steak frites at the Hippopotamus Brasserie before grabbing the train. The Gare du Nord is the busiest train station in Europe with 180 million passengers in 2009 !

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nice, Côte d'Azur, France

Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano forced a cancellation on my conference in Nice, yet I had to get to Nice to catch my TGV train to Paris, so I had a few hours layover. Nice was still in a winter European weather pattern in late April, drizzly and then some, but as I beelined for the Promenade des Anglais, I could not imagine a more "azure"-colored Mediterranean Sea, grey sky notwithstanding. Heading north I pass through the Jardin d"Alsace Lorraine, with lovely views of art deco buildings surrounding.

Near the return to the train station is the onion-domed St. Nicholas Russian Cathedral, the largest one outside of Russia, built in 1912, due to the generous gift of Tsar Nicholas II. Interestingly, there is currently a dispute over ownership of the property, the current occupants claiming it as an inherited gift from tsarist Russia, yet the Russian government has dispatched attorneys to make a case to France that the Russian church has rights of ownership.

Fond Bayard, Haïti

Fond Bayard is a rural village up in the hills beyond the Riviere de la Grand'Anse. On the way along the coast we passed an old shipwreck in the surf on a sandless beach consisting of the smoothest stones imaginable. The nearest water is a 45 minute hike in the woods to the local spring. Huts are typical tin and sticks. Most of Haiti lives in this rural environment with no electricity or safe potable water.

Place Charmant, Jérémie, Haïti

We had the pleasure to stay at Place Charmant in Jeremie while working with the Haitian Health Foundation (HQ in Norwich, CT). Situated high up in the hills above town, we had sweeping views of the blue waters of the Golfe de la Gonave to the north. Local flora included soursop, which is called corisol in Creole, a key ingredient of a Haitian drink. The red flowers are Christmas poinsettia. The water jugs are authentic slave ship survivors.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dame-Marie, Haïti

In Haiti, traveling to the end of the line is really saying something. Dame-Marie is truly the end of the road, a long serpentine dirt one from Jeremie heading up into the hills along the Riviere Grand'Anse. Four hours of potholed red clay road. The guide book claims it is one of the few villages in Haiti with paved streets, all cobblestone.

The beach at Dame-Marie is the westernmost point of Haiti. Several dugout canoes could be spotted on the beach. That day, the seas were too rough for the fishermen to catch lobster. And all along the shore, the beaches were covered with spent conch shells, in some places were veritable conch dumps. At the center of town, a beautiful sparkling blue cathedral.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Market, Jérémie, Haïti

The produce market in downtown Jeremie was a sight to behold. Cinnamon, anise, cloves, pepper, rock salt and other spices in open bins, fish laid out, meat collecting thousands of flies, and a large Mahi Mahi riding a motorcycle....need I say more ? Everywhere, children mugging for the camera.