Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Somewhere New: Sonoma, CA

The rolling hills of Sonoma Valley are golden in a more consistent way that I've previously experienced   wheat fields to be. From the car window the hills look incredibly soft. The tall grasses and wheats that shine in the evening light look like a downy blanket that could swallow you whole into a nestled nook. 
In reality of course we knew it would be stiff grass that, rather than caress us would thresh our skin and irritate our eyes. Somehow knowing the reality did not deaden the urge to stop the car and run out into the field. 
We traveled on a two lane highway passing small town after small town, each with its mysterious Spanish name and smattering of cute stores and homes.
We pulled into the condo complex that would be our home for three nights in Sonoma. Someone was parked in our designated spot under the shade so we pulled into a guest spot under the unrelenting California sun, grumbling about pretentious spot-stealing jerks.
A lockbox by our door held our key - only it didn't. The box was empty. 
"Are we in the wrong place?" Pang said, her eyes getting large and worried.
We heard movement from inside so we ventured a soft knock. 
More shuffling. The door was opened by a very large man. A mesh shirt was pulled tight over his round belly and his sweatpants seemed to sag under the pressure that sat on their band. Disheveled frosted blonde tips and puffy eyes sat atop his smile.
"Oh I wasn't sure if you were coming tonight or tomorrow, come on in! I'm Chi Chi."
Pang and I threw looks at each other of "WTF? Chi Chi? and followed him into the dark.
"Goodie is here too but he's sleeping in our room. I fell asleep on the couch. Oh girls, that couch is not a good place to fall asleep."
Chi Chi had receded into the dark folds of the couch. We had stopped just  inside the doorway, peering in.
"I'm sorry but who are you?" Pang managed to squeak out. 
Chi Chi laughed and a stirring from the bedroom produced Goodie who stretched and greeted us, a sleepy, lisping bear of a man.
So began our weekend sleepover in Sonoma. 

Downtown Sonoma is a giant square with squat buildings all facing in towards each other. An updated, posh, well hydrated version of what we think of as Old West towns.
Wine bars abound and oysters are quite popular as well, although this is no coastal village. Drive twenty minutes out and you're in the vineyards. It's strange that such a seemingly small town hosts such a world famous collection of grapes. 

 Before shooting Jesse and James' wedding (check out Pang's post for the wedding) we spent a little time poking around Sonoma. One of our favorite little spots was Cafe Scooteria - part vintage Vespa garage, part coffee joint. Of course Pang being a coffee snob (her words and maybe my words too) we had to try it out. One of the best chai lattes I had on this trip!

Pomegranate Tree in front of the Mission San Francisco Solano
Another interesting thing about California that you don't see on the East - missions. 
Mission San Francisco Solano sits on the east corner of the Sonoma square. While the historic unpleasantness of missions doesn't necessarily appeal to me the architecture and gardens always do. 

 After doing some location scouting around town we stopped at Sunflower Caffe and Garden for PBR and Blood Orange Sodas. Yum! While we didn't get a chance to have a glass of the local grapes we did eye up the cute little patio at Hawkes Vineyard and Winery. Maybe next time.

In the end none of the spots we scouted ended up being used - but it was kind of a fun way to spend the day. Plus we got to try out some "model faces" and peek into people's yards.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Where to Eat Vegan: Xolo Taqueria - Oakland, CA

After drinks at Cafe Van Kleef, Angie, Pang and I skipped over to Xolo for tacos. 

Two Hongos Tacos, after an expertly crafted greyhound, really hit the spot: crimini mushrooms, tomatillo-arbol salsa, pico de gallo, avocado and epazote in two soft tortillas with fresh lime - hold the cheese.

At first glance Xolo isn't the most vegan friendly taco joint but there are a few things on the menu that are vegan. Pozole made with vegan red chili broth, Ensalada de Tacubaya full of cabbage, avocado and roasted pumpkin seeds and the vegan staple - guacamole.

1916 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94612

Monday - Tuesday: 9am to 10pm
Wednesday - Thursday: 9am to 11pm
Friday - Saturday: 9am to midnight

Somewhere New: Muir Woods

Muir Woods is just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The road down to the park is a winding ride on the side of the hill. Twisting deeming into the valley with every turn, I was transported in my mind back to France.
Every year the Beaujolais Nouveau is celebrated with a weekend of festivals and wine. The Gamay grapes of the valley have been fermenting for only a few weeks, their juices still young and thin. But, on the third thursday of Novemeber the corks are pulled from the budding bottles and the drinking and all our merriment commences. 
In 2009 I traveled to Beaujolais Village with two other language assistants to sample the year's celebrant. France, much like California I've learned, does not seek to cinch its landscapes with belts of tight, straight roads. The roads curve and flop and sometimes shrink as the landscape demands. 
For hours we snaked through the mountains to get to the valley and I thought I would go cross-eyed with dizziness before we ever got anywhere. 
The wine. It was, as I said, young. It was….well, underwhelming.
The fame of French wine was not a strong enough placebo to mask the sour swill.

It seemed to take hours to wind down to Muir Woods. My mind kept dancing between memory and the narrow road I was piloting. When the road finally flattened we were at the park entrance. The lot was full so we drove down to the next. Also full. We wound further out rolling the long stretch of cars parked along the road. Suffice it to say the Woods are well known and well visited here.

But the quiet you experience as you step into the shade of their trunks, the giant redwoods, strikes you. The redwoods we saw are babies compared to the famed redwoods of the North. But unlike that French letdown of a baby wine, we were not underwhelmed. 

We were so whelmed actually that we decided to take one of the trails and hike it to the "view" at the top. An hour into the hike we wondered if we should turn back. We hemmed and hawed and decided to push on. 

Finally we broke through the trees to the top. Things looked strangely familiar and strangely un-vista like. Is this it? We walked all this way and what do we get? A crumby top of the trees vista?

Another dirt path lead up to a road. We climbed. We cried. The "view" we had hiked to was the exact same view we had stopped the car to photograph on our way down the winding road into the valley. We had pretty much just hiked back to where our car could have been. Feeling betrayed by Muir Woods we took our snapshots and then stomped back down the way we came, bursting the bubble of a family who asked "Is it much further to the view?" Their two impatient children looked past the point of humoring their parents. 

Sometimes misadventures are the best kind of adventures and even though we felt silly for falling for the "Ocean View" trail's tricks we ultimately felt grateful to have spent so many hours in Muir Woods. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Where to Eat Vegan: Pepples Donut Farm - Oakland, CA

The next morning we headed to Pepples Donut Farm. There's an obscure white sign hanging out front that says "Donut Farm" in what looks like black marker or slapdash black paint. A pink neon sign that reads "vegan" glows in the tinted window. 
Luckily the interior is nothing like the exterior. Brightly painted walls slat and vintage diner chairs bedeck this food stylist's dream space. The windows that, from the outside, look untrustworthy and unapproachable let in a gently filtered light. 
All this would be nothing of course without the main event - sickly, sweetly glazed donuts. The flavors ranged from Kefir Lime to Earl Grey to Coconut and everyones old favorite, Cinnamon Sugar. 
We ordered a box of donuts and some sandwiches to take on the road and puttering around the store. While deciding on our flavors a voice interjected into our process from behind.
"Oh you gotta try the coconut."
We turned to see a slimmed Missy Elliot look-alike. Her hair hung in long braids under a roomy, velvet newsboy cap. 
As we waited for our purchases I set up shots with the donuts, moving closer and further away, shifting things in and pushing things out of the frame methodically. 
"Put the green one on top. Yeah, like that," 
Missy smiled at me and I realized she'd been studying me as she sipped her coffee.
Pang lowered her camera and came over to eagerly insert herself into the developing exchange. We slid into chairs across from Missy. 
"My name is Heather," Missy said. 
"You girls partners?" Heather asked after Pang had explained our mission in California. In the moment that we found ourselves nodding and thinking "yep, we're business partners I suppose you could say," it seemed to dawn on us both that we had misinterpreted the question.
"Uh friends," Pang sheepishly corrected. 
Heather seemed unfazed by our momentary panic. "Oakland is where us girls can feel at home. They call this the town and San Francisco the city. About thirty years ago all us lesbians got kinda kicked out of the city so we came to the town."
A conversation from the night before came to mind: "You'd think San Francisco would be just generally queer friendly," Angie told us, "But actually the lesbians and gays don't seem to get along well. San Francisco is for the men."
Heather asked about our interest in vegan donuts and assured us that she was a well known regular in the shop. As we got up to leave, Pang snapped a quick portrait and almost as quickly as we met her we were walking out of her life. 
The brevity of happenstance friendships while traveling has always attracted me. The generosity of strangers to let other strangers into their lives, if only for a few minutes, is one of the those reaffirming life moments. 

A fresh box of donuts is a wonderful thing. Especially for a vegan who has given up many of those nostalgic foods.

Pepples definitely hit the spot but beware - if you don't eat sweets often getting a whole box for yourself is a dangerous move. While I found each flavor to be well rounded and delightful, ultimately it was too much sugar for me to eat all at once. 

Pang and I did balance our sweet with savory though and got iced coffee and sandwiches to go, which I would recommend!

603 San Pablo Avenue
Oakland, CA 94608

Tuesday - Friday 7:30am to 3pm for coffee and donuts
lunch from 10am-2pm
Saturday - Sunday 9am to 3pm for brunch

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Somewhere New: Berkley and Oakland California

Oakland reminds me of so many towns and then no other place at the same time. The sun-dreanched streets and the corner coffee joints with floor to ceiling windows remind me of my favorite southern beach towns. The cacti and succulents that dot the front yards remind me of Arizona. The wooden houses with unexpected colors and angles remind me of Lake Linganore. And the blocks of partly boarded up shops, partly converted and newly vibrant artist spaces remind me of Richmond. Then there are the buildings downtown that were built in the 20's that look straight out of the Great Gatsby that don't remind me of anywhere but Oakland. 
After gorging at Saturn Cafe and spending an hour in a bookstore in Berkeley nose deep in love-worn pages we headed towards Angie's house and settled at a coffee shop called the Nomad with a smattering of locals glued to their screens and a curated combination of Coasta Rican coffee and Vietnamese Bahn Mi. 
A new book and a coffee shop have become something of a ritual in my travels. 
We found Angie later in the day. She's unchanged save for the slight vibe she puts out that maybe she's softened a little bit. Her warm smile even more grounded than before.
Overgrown and almost unrecognizable artichokes dominate her front yard as well as a the thoughtfully placed fig trees and kohlrabi. Inside the walls are painted an ochre brown and the doorways are arched. The arches themselves look carved out of clay, making you feel for a moment you might be in New Mexico. 
Much of the Bay Area vibes this: terra cotta roofs and Spanish churches with taco and burritos joints in no shortage. I'm reminded of Saint Augustine, the first of the Spanish settlements in what would become the United States. But now, as in St. Augustine, the strongest connection to the founding culture is in its architecture and in the food of the people.
I can't help but find it strange that when the people of a founding culture are gone, what is it about their architecture that entices the new inhabitants to continue to build in the same style rather than their own?
Humans can be so destructive, possessive and proud. They will bully, threaten and even sometimes unknowingly push out and jeopardize whole communities.  But in the remaining trapping of those cultures we see an almost pointed acceptance if not admiration of them.  
It's not just Spanish terra cotta that speaks of the past though. In a place that itself is synonymous with progress, it puzzles me that the West Coast gravitates so heavily towards the antique. I'm pleasantly puzzled of course, but from someone who was born on the East Coast, the eurocentric epicenter of United States history, the West can often feel artificial because of its relative youth. 
But everywhere you look in San Francisco and its outlying cities people are embracing classic styles of architecture and design. It's comforting really to see such blatant nods to the past from such famously forward thinking people. The Bay area feels durable and grounded for it. Approachable. 

Angie took us into downtown Oakland in the evening where we walked under Mario Chiodo's towering Monument - Remember Them: Champions For Humanity. The giant head of Ghandi and life sized death-mask-esque heads on plaques slept quietly in the square. We shuffled into Cafe Van Kleef (check out this cool video about the bar) and huddled up at the bar with fresh pressed greyhounds and talked about our relationships and how for the first time in, well ever, we all felt pretty darn healthy in them. Our night with Angie was brief but it was strangely comforting to see someone I knew from Shepherdstown so far away from that little blip. It made the world feel a little more cozy actually. 
Treats at Saturn

Eucalyptus Grove on campus

A gem at Half Price Books in Berkeley

The next morning we made one last stop in Oakland then headed across the Golden Gate Bridge and on our way north. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

What to do in Pittsburgh: Phipps Conservatory

Back in July Phil and I visited the Phipps Conservatory. Here are some pictures and a little sketch of an interaction we had there. 

"Students?" he asked as he traced his finger over each of our tickets to verify our purchase. 
"Where do you go to school?"
Phil and I looked at each other sheepishly. Both of us had graduated years past but Shepherd's unwise decision to issue student cards without dates on them had made for years of opportunistic but fraudulent student discounts. 
"Shepherd University," I offered. "It's in West Virginia," I said, beating him to the expected second question.
"Oh yes, I've been there. In Shepherdstown," he smiled a sooty toothed smile. His blackened, jagged teeth clung to his gums like coal in a West Virginia mountain. 
"A long time ago now, but yes, I've been there." 
He wrote the words Shepherdstown, WV down on a small pad of paper next to Madison, WI and several other scrawled cities and states. 
"I just like to ask where everyone's from. You know, keep track of where our visitors travel from. It's interesting you know."

His teeth had taken me aback, they had jumped out so suddenly from such a pleasant grandfatherly face. I struggled to recover as he moved on to the next question.

"So you must be photographers," he looked down at our loaded chests. "Well I'll tell you what you simply cannot miss. See this area here on the map where you go outside to the Children's Garden? Right well you can't leave the garden without seeing the hibiscus in the corner here. If you see nothing else today you have to see this. As big as dinner plates. Really!"

He walked us through the map, insisting we stay on the trail so as not to miss any gems, and then with one last coal mine smile he waved us in.